Emotion, Affect and the Body

The role of emotion, and the related notion of affect, in social and political life is a growing and highly interdisciplinary field of study. Yet, as Hutchinson (2016, p.1) states, “few phenomena in world politics are as central yet as under-explored as are trauma and emotions”. This research hopes to contribute towards filling this gap in the literature.

Once, politics was regarded as something like a logical “game of chess” undertaken by calculating, strategically-motivated elites (Moïsi, 2009, p4). Likewise, for many years the dominant paradigm in economics relied on rational choice theory, in which self-interested actors made rational decisions about their economic interests (Ariely, 2009). Today however, the rationality of political and economic actors is widely questioned. Since the 1970’s, psychologists such as Kahneman (2011) have gradually unpicked the notion of rationality, delineating how emotion and cognitive biases play an enormous role in human decision-making, and describing the implications for economics (Kahneman, 2011). Likewise, work by anthropologists such as Whitehouse has helped to show how shared emotional experiences can help bond social and political groups, such as gangs, military units and non-state armed groups, through a process of ‘identity fusion’ (Whitehouse, et al, 2017). It is now a well-established position to argue that emotions play an important role in shaping our economic decisions and our sense of socio-political identity and group belonging. Some thinkers have gone further. Political scientist Moïsi (2009) has suggested that even at the level of international geopolitics, our socio-political world is shaped by collective emotions, arguing that cultures in America and Europe have come to be dominated by fear, while the Muslim and Arab world is heavily influenced by experiences of humiliation, and Asia has come to embody feelings of hope in recent times. While Moïsi’s ideas seem to rely on a large dose of generalisation, lumping diverse cultural contexts together under a single emotional label, he does join the ranks of many thinkers now considering this understudied area and drawing attention to the role of emotion in politics.Indeed, this shift from the rational and linguistic components of social life, towards the emotional and beyond, is part of a wider movement in the social sciences, sometimes called the ‘affective turn’ (Clough, 2007, p.). Affect, in this sense, refers to something broader than emotion – it is often understood as a broad ability to both affect and be affected by the world around us (ibid). As such, it incorporates both what we might commonly think of as emotion, but also thought or cognition, and crucially, the actions of the body (ibid). This ‘affective turn’ is often portrayed as a break with the structuralist and post- structuralist concern with discourse, language and representation, towards those elements of experience which are in some sense beyond language and representation – a shift of focus towards what Wetherell (2012) calls “psychosocial texture”, the specific social processes, forces, actions, encounters and subjective experiences which make up daily life, and away from the grand over-arching structures or discursive formations.IMG_7241

Most contemporary literature on affect can trace its philosophical origins to the work of Baruch Spinoza, particularly as developed in Part 3 of his ‘Ethics’, where he turns his attention to ‘the origin and nature of the emotions’ (Spinoza, 1677). It is here that Spinoza locates emotion in both the body and the mind, stating that “by emotion (affectus) I understand the modifications of the body by which the power of the body is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time the ideas of these modifications” (Quoted in Scruton, 1998). For Spinoza then, affectus is both a bodily state and the idea of that state, thus including both physiological and cognitive components, and is also closely tied to changing levels of activity and passivity in the mind and body (ibid). Similar notions of the relationship between body and mind were later developed by Henri Bergson, who saw body and mind as aspects of a single metaphysical reality, which are experienced as an integrated whole (Gutting, 2001). The body for Bergson is both a “centre of action” and a receptor of “vibrations” or perceptions from the external world – in other words, it both actively affects and is passively affected by the world around it (ibid). The concept of affect also draws upon the ideas of philosophers such as William James, Alfred North Whitehead and Gilbert Simonden (Massumi, 2015), and perhaps most influentially, Gilles Deleuze, whose work has influenced many to see affect as a kind of paradigm change in the social sciences (Wetherell, 2012). Following a Deleuzean understanding, emphasis is not placed upon slowly evolving or immutable socio-political categories such as social structure, institutions, human nature or discourse, but rather upon the multiple, shifting, diverse and subjective perspectives and impressions that comprise our experience of the world. Central to this way of thinking is the notion of desire – a productive force or energy, the flow of which constitutes all human experience. For Deleuze, “what something is is its flow of desire, and such forces produce diverging and multiple relations” (Colebrook, 2002). Tentatively, we might think of this desire as something like flowing water, forming streams and rivers which constitute the identifiable phenomena of human experience – our emotions, perceptions, sensations, ideas, thoughts, and so on. It is movement, the very flow itself, ebbing and surging, which gives form to these phenomena. If we accept the simile as appropriate, then affect might be understood as the diverse and changing actions of flowing water (desire) upon its surroundings, and conversely, the many influences the surroundings exert upon flow of the water. Another way to state this is to say that, by considering affect, the focus of theory moves from states of ‘being’ to processes of ‘becoming’ (Holland, 2013), in which the human being is constantly affecting and affected by the world around them via means a vast diversity of different experiences. To continue with the same image of flowing water, a focus on ‘being’ might attempt to define what a river is, to capture the universal essence of all rivers as an abstract and static concept independently of their flow of water; while a focus on ‘becoming’ might try to understand how this specific river emerges from the movement and flux of water in relation to its surroundings. Broadly then, affect refers to these processes of transformation, these encounters, these moments when a human being, in body and/or mind, is affected, or acts to affect another.

Some of Deleuze’s most famous work on affect was written in collaboration with Félix Guattari, a psychoanalyst who studied with Jacques Lacan (Holland, 2013). This collaboration highlights the role that psychoanalysis and psychology have had in developing notions of affect, particularly since the mid- twentieth century. Indeed, arguably no contemporary account of emotion would be complete if it chose to ignore the findings of psychology and increasingly, neuroscience. The research proposed here will need to explore this literature, including key writers such as: psychologist Silvan Tomkins (Tomkins Institute, 2017), who posited an influential theory of “innate, biologically-based affects” which underpin human motivation and development; neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (2006), whose work with brain-injured patients has led him to argue that cognition is profoundly linked to emotion, feeling and biological regulation; philosophers Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou (Johnston & Malabou, 2013) whose work examines the interface between the scientific disciplines of biology and neuroscience, with philosophy and psychoanalysis; and the psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk (2014) whose work examines the role of the body in trauma and its healing.More generally, the literature on affect has burgeoned across the social sciences, and a number of thinkers from diverse disciplines have engaged with the topic, including: Emma Hutchinson’s work (2016) on the emergence of ‘affective communities’ from shared traumatic experiences; geographer Nigel Thrift (2008) who examines affect in relation to non-representational theory; social psychologist Margaret Wetherell (2012), whose book ‘Affect and Emotion’ hopes to bring greater pragmatism to our understandings of affect and emotion, allowing these concepts to be more effectively deployed in social research; sociologist Patricia Clough (2007) who argues the ‘affective turn’ represents a kind of intellectual bravery, creativity and vigour in confronting social phenomena which can only ever be partially theorised; anthropologist Katherine Stewart, whose work ‘Ordinary Affects’ (2007) is an oft-cited ethnographic study of the role of affect in everyday life; social theorist and philosopher Brian Massumi (2015), whose interdisciplinary work has taken affect as a key theme; Gregg and Seigworth, who have assembled an influential edited collection entitled ‘The Affect Theory Reader’ (2010); Lisa Blackman, who examines the relationship between affect and the body in her book ‘Immaterial Bodies’ (2012); Sara Ahmed, who examines the ‘Cultural Politics of Emotion’ in her book of the same name (2015); and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (2003), whose work ‘Touching Feeling’ links affect with performativity and critical theory. In particular, these last three works highlight the crucial role of theories of the body, as well as feminist and queer theory scholarship, in shaping our understanding of affect. The research proposed here will need to engage closely with much of this literature, as well as seeking to distinguish emotion from affect. However, since the research asks whether experiences of violence, trauma and grief shape people’s perspectives on their environment, it is likely that both emotion and affect will be relevant to those experiences. Indeed, in its focus on the body, and the mundane ‘every-day’, affect is likely to be a key theoretical concept.

As we have seen from this brief overview, a concern with ‘affect’ highlights the role of the body, and this research will draw on the broad range of literature which has been produced on this topic, largely written since the 1970s (Howson, 2013). The role of the body in forming the social self and the notion of embodiment as emphasising the interaction of the physical, biological body with society (ibid) will be key to this research for three reasons. First, because emotion and affect demand an account of embodied experience – without the body, there can be no convincing theory of affect and emotion. Second, our relationship to the environment is largely mediated through the body and our experiences of space, place, landscape, terrain and climate are in large part physical and physiological in character. The body is the instrument through which we experience and navigate our environment, and through which the environment exerts its effect on our health and wellbeing. Third, experiences of violence, trauma and grief are often physical experiences – violence is very often inflicted on the body, trauma is often physical in nature, and intense grief is often described, expressed or performed as a visceral experience, located in the body as much as the mind (Holst-Warhaft, 2000). In all of these cases, the physical experience is at least as important as the cognitive or emotional feeling that goes along with it. As such, an embodied account of human beings in their relationship to the environment is important, and the literature on the body will be significant to the conceptual grounding of this research.