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  Written by
  Jack Katz, JD'69

  Imaging by
  Allen Carroll

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  FEATURES
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  > > The stuff of tears
  > > Native Chicago


Crying, our parents tell us early on, is childish. "Use words," our preschool teachers exhort. But adults still cry.

image: "The stuff of tears" headlineSociologist Jack Katz, JD'69, studies "emotional outbursts"--from anger and shame to laughter and crying--to untangle the complex interactions of emotions, body, and language. We cry, Katz says, when words are not enough.


image: Two eyes crying (Allen Carroll)Crying is not just a "feeling" nor just a series of effects; it is a subtle range of corporeal doings, such as balking at speaking, resonant markings of pauses between utterances, and a manner of depicting the body as too light or too heavy a vehicle to bear or to hold on to language. If we want to understand what crying is, we must address, as directly as possible, its distinctive ways of doing battle with speech.

The dynamic tension between language and crying gives us an important clue to a necessary condition of crying, whether or not talking is involved. In order to make crying a compellingly sensible thing to do, adults must in effect explain why they can't express themselves in language. This necessity for warranting crying holds whether or not anyone else will observe the person crying.

One cries on the understanding that the situation requires a personally embodied form of expression that transcends what language can do.

People cry in response to music, to pictorial art, to sunsets, and to eclipses. These cryings honor experiences that in their nature go beyond words. When words are present, they risk detracting from the provocative experience. It is not what the tour guide says about the cathedral, not what is written on the placard under the painting, not the phrases that appear on the screen over the opera stage that bring tears; it is something unspeakable, something responsive to the "different keys" in which art communicates. Attending too much to words that purport to describe an experience can stand in the way of a resonant experience.

Where social customs demand a respectfully silent and stationary watching, tears often emerge as the only outlet for an irresistibly responsive grasping of the happenings. Crying is a predictable response by respectfully frozen guests at funerals, children's school recitals, award shows, weddings, and patriotic ceremonies.

Events that mark status passages, like weddings, or that mark status elevations, like awards ceremonies, are common places for crying by the adults who are at the center of collective attentions. A speech act that otherwise is so simple and unproblematic as to pass execution without any serious attention (uttering the little words "I do," recalling the names of people one works with every day) for once carries transcendent implications. The crying body represents an understanding for which the commonplace words seem inadequate.

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