6 Bodies 6 Bodies

Political feelings

No action ever takes place without a feeling!

Christiane Ensslin, in Geert Mak, In Europe, 2004

At the meeting point 800 comrades lined up in rows of four quickly and disciplined and waited for the march to start. I carried my flag – black, white and red with an Iron Cross – proudly through the former capital of the Reich… Then we entered the Straße des 17. Juni, and then something happened that has been unique in postwar German history. For the first time ever nationalists were allowed to march through the Brandenburger Tor with flags flying, mind you. The sentiments that came up I had experienced twice before; the first time when I fled from East Germany to the West … and the second time when Germany was reunited. Now, the dream of every nationalist became true. I had the feeling of the Reich and felt as if taken back to the past.

Lübscher Aufklärer, 2000, cit Fabian Virchow, ‘Performance, emotion and ideology’, 2007


It sounds terrifying, was there another side to it… was it exhilarating?

Totally… I was just so angry, I was angry going in but now I was still angrier, and even more determined that we were just gonna make more trouble, just to show them. It, it was thrilling.

Tessa DeCarlo, remembering Columbia 1968, ‘Counterculture and protest’, 2018

Anger has been described as ‘an indispensable political emotion’. Aristotle defined it in his Rhetoric as ‘an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one’s friends’. Its significance here is related to a sense of the importance of conflict in social and political life (Aristotle’s ‘slight’, ‘revenge’, ‘friends’ and, presumably, enemies and others). While we might want to think of politics as a domain of reason and reasonableness, one of logic rather than emotion, anger problematises this distinction. Emotions have a logic, and anger, grief and joy are reasonable, too.

Anger is not inevitably emancipatory but ambivalent because it is part of a politics of struggle that takes place in/between and through space/time and bodies. Anger involves continued tendencies over time (eg an often angry person), situated actions related to others (eg expressing or repressing anger due to specifically located power relations), discursive aspects (discussing anger), somatic dimensions, and cognitive processes. Like politics, anger is always in movement.

Mary Holmes, ‘Emotion and anger in feminist politics’, 2004

It seems vital, writes Deborah Gould, introducing her study of the direct action advocacy group ACTUP, ‘to think about the ways in which feelings are produced; the ways in which power relationships are exercised through and reproduced in our feelings; the ways in which a society’s or social group’s emotional habitus disciplines us; and how our feelings, as well as a given emotional habitus, shape our views of what is politically possible, desirable, and necessary’.

What immediately struck me as I pored over all of these primary sources was the emotionally saturated nature of lesbian and gay discourses about AIDS. The feelings expressed or evoked varied, especially across different periods – sometimes what was most pronounced was fear, other times gay shame and pride; sometimes grief, alternating with desperation and anger; sometimes fury, and then hope; sometimes despair; often, all of the above.

Deborah Gould, Moving Politics, 2009

In doing this thinking, she distinguishes between emotion and affect. Affect is physical, bodily and visceral, a not yet cognitive registering of a stimulus in our environment. In this sense, our bodies ‘define the situation’ before we do. But ‘Where affect is unfixed, unstructured, noncoherent, and nonlinguistic, an emotion is one’s personal expression of what one is feeling in a given moment, an expression that is structured by social convention, by culture’. And in the passage from one to the other, ‘(A) transformation occurs, a reduction of an unstructured and unrepresentable affective state with all of its potential into an emotion or emotions whose qualities are conventionally known and fixed’. Emotion, then, is a named and normed affect.

The difficulty – theoretical, cognitive, practical – lies in grasping the nature and potential of affect, of feelings unrecognized, undisciplined and simply felt, feelings which, as Raymond Williams has it, exist ‘at the very edge of semantic availability’. Social movements, Gould notes, are sites ‘where inchoately felt affective states get translated into named emotions, guiding the indeterminate potential of bodily intensities in directions that tend to align with the movement’s goals’.

During ACT UP’s heyday, we only had had space for anger, for a sense of urgency, for action. Often when discussions in ACT UP meetings became long and sometimes tedious, someone would yell out, angrily, ‘People are dying!’ – a reminder of the pressing need to act. I am not critical of ACT UP’s elevation of anger above all other feelings – there was every reason to be furious – but the intensity and persistence of our anger over many years prompts the question of what we did with our grief. It evidently was channeled toward anger and confrontational action, but by what mechanism, and to what extent did such transformations in feelings ‘work’?

Deborah Gould, Moving Politics, 2009

Emotional states

Its specific nature… develops the more perfectly the bureaucracy is ‘dehumanised’, the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation.

Max Weber, ‘Bureaucracy’, Economy and Society, 1922

Sometimes, the political process seems to do the equal and opposite work of converting emotion to reason and procedure, transforming ‘political pressures into technical arguments’. In Simone Abram’s study, an angry resident confronted a local public official at a consultation meeting over a planned housing estate in a Buckinghamshire village.

‘I know it won’t make a blind bit of difference what I think about this. You’re going to do it anyway, aren’t you? What can I do about it?’

‘Here’s what you can do: you can take one of these forms that we have brought with us today, and you can write there exactly what you think about the plans, and you can return the form to my office at the end of the consultation period. That is what you can do to have your say, and the council have a statutory duty to consider whatever you say’.

Simone Abram, ‘Working with pressure groups and local authorities’, 2001

The administrative neutrality constructed and put to work in the form is a physical performance as well as an ethical and professional principle. Marc Geddes witnessed it whenever a parliamentary clerk was in the presence of an MP: in meetings with a chair, for instance, political assessments were often met with polite smiles or neutral looks, which some clerks referred to as their ‘poker face’.

On one occasion, a clerk described to me how, after briefing a new member of a committee, she sat through the MP giving her political opinions on a range of matters about which she couldn’t do anything but nod politely.

Marc Geddes, Dramas at Westminster, 2020

Douglas, a civil servant, presented the Scottish Government’s position at a meeting which included community activists and grassroots volunteers. He asked that they be more specific in what they meant by ‘community’ when making claims for more funding. This made some of those present angry, which one woman expressed in a lengthy account of her personal experience which included, with some finger-jabbing, accusing Douglas of being cruel and inhuman.

It’s almost like there are rules drawn up around these things, patterns of behaviour, which [we] have learned, whether it be business which is you know about controlling yourself and trying to get people to listen to you or whether it be… I can’t answer those questions [about someone’s personal life] because they’re individual experiences. I need to respond as an individual but I’m not there as an individual.

Douglas, Scottish Government, in Rosie Anderson, ‘Activists’

Douglas remained ‘curiously absent’ throughout, rarely making eye contact with others, his voice a monotone, has face frozen and expressionless. It mattered very much for him to be there, nevertheless: ‘otherwise you don’t really get a sense of what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it’.

After the Brexit referendum of June 2016, Britain’s European Commissioner Lord Hill went back to Brussels, and resigned: ‘People often tend to think of Brussels as being the home of faceless, soulless bureaucrats and machine politicians, and actually it’s a much more emotional and sentimental place than that, and so it was a strangely emotional time, there were lots of tears in meetings… I mean genuine sadness.’

Mark Mardell, Brexit: A Love Story?, 2018

The last day was a turning point, because we thought we had failed. We were getting ready to leave Camp David in failure, and go back to Washington and announce that we had not been successful. And Prime Minister Begin asked me if I would sign a photograph for his eight grandchildren, of me and Begin and Sadat, and I agreed to do it, and my secretary, whose name was Susan Clough, got the names of Begin’s eight grandchildren from Israel, she called over there and got their names, so instead of saying ‘Best wishes, Jimmy Carter’, I said ‘With love and best wishes to -‘ and I put down his grandchild’s name, and I signed it, and I took it over to his cabin to tell him ‘Goodbye’ and when he opened the door he was very angry with me, and he said ‘Good Afternoon, Mr President’, he was always very proper, and I said ‘Good Afternoon, Mr Prime Minister, I’m sorry we haven’t been successful. I’ve brought the photographs you asked for’, and I gave the photographs to him. And he turned around and said ‘Thank you, sir’ and then he looked down at the photographs, and he read out loud ‘Love and best wishes to -‘ and said – he read his grandchild’s name – and he, uh, put that one to the back and he read the next one’s name, and he read a third one’s name, and his chin began to quiver, and tears ran down his cheeks, and mine, too, and, uh, he said in effect ‘Why don’t we try one more time?’

US President Jimmy Carter, Dictators on the Couch, 2017


I leave the barracks with a poster. We made the poster together. It’s a collage. Anarchy, Munch’s Scream, swastikas, lightning, graves. We wrote ‘IK-2’ at the top, the name of our colony… The girls like our poster. They laugh. I look at Anya and think: this is what protest should be – desperate, sudden, and joyous.

Maria Alyokhina, Riot Days, 2017

It’s difficult to imagine so many people would spend so much time doing politics if there weren’t some pleasure to be had in it, some kind of thrill or excitement. It may be there’s something intrinsically joyful about taking political action, about doing politics. Arendt has a sense of this, or at least some of her core precepts seem to point this way. First, there’s something about acting together that feels good. And doing something new, creating change and possibility seems to be exciting, too. And there’s a thrill to doing it all in public, walking if not rushing the stage, becoming, even if only for a moment and for a few, the focus of attention. ‘Acting is fun’, Arendt said in an interview, referring to the student protests of 1968.

If I consider what (apart from goals, opinions, doctrines) really distinguishes this generation in all countries from earlier generations, then the first thing that strikes me is its determination to act, its joy in action, the assurance of being able to change things by one’s own efforts…

As I see it, for the first time in a very long while a spontaneous political movement arose which not only did not simply carry on propaganda but acted, and moreover acted almost exclusively from moral motives. Thereby an experience new for our time entered into the game of politics. To wit, it turned out that acting is fun; this generation discovered what the eighteenth century had called ‘public happiness’, which means that when man takes part in public life he opens up for himself a dimension of human experience that otherwise remains closed to him and that in some way constitutes a part of complete ‘happiness’.

Hannah Arendt, ‘Thoughts on politics and revolution’, 1970

As an organiser for the March on Washington, Rachelle Horowitz arranged transport to the capital from all parts of the country. ‘It was very exciting and frenetic… It ran on adrenaline and excitement with everybody working from early in the morning till late into the night. It was very collegial, very primitive, and very egalitarian’.

Jill Grieve helped to organise the Countryside March which brought 400 000 protestors to London in September 2002: ‘The day of the march was just wonderful. I remember standing on the corner of Trafalgar Square with the hairs on the back of my neck standing up and this wall of people moving along in front of me’.

George McLeery formed the Had Enough party in Penicuik, near Edinburgh, and ran for election to the Scottish Parliament in May 2007. Why? ‘Oh, we had brilliant fun’.

Rachelle Horowitz, in Gary Younge, The Speech, 2013; Jill Grieve and George McLeery in Bibi van der Zee, The Protestor’s Handbook, 2010

Recalling the Neues Forum experience in East Berlin in 1989-1990, Steffen Böhm writes that ‘Many hoped for something else, a different world, and that hope produced an enjoyment that is hard to describe. This enjoyment was not simply an individual experience; it was a shared and communal experience.’

When I first attended a social forum – the first European Social Forum in Florence (Italy) in November 2002 – I was just overwhelmed by joy… This enjoyment is absolutely key, in my view, for any social movement. Enjoyment creates new bonds between people, bonds which haven’t necessarily existed before… At the most fundamental and most basic level, forums are a bodily and collective response to the individualism and economism of dominant hegemonies… Only if enjoyment can be sustained beyond a temporary, ephemeral moment an event of politics has taken place, an event that can make a different world possible.

Steffen Böhm, ‘Ground Zero of the Forum’, 2005

But the best part of campaign events are the crowds, because you see, hear, and even feel what these people care about. Watching college students scream in excitement over Mr. Sanders, a 74-year-old senator from Vermont, is slightly surreal, especially when it is phrases like ‘Glass-Steagall’ – an 82-year-old bank regulation law – that send them to the heights of ecstasy. The mostly white men and women at Mr. Trump’s rallies roar when he gets tough on other groups of people. Older women turn giddy at the sight of Mrs. Clinton, and evangelical Christians appreciate the chance to pray with Mr. Cruz.

Experiencing the Presidential Campaign: A Virtual Reality Film, 2016


Man appropriates his comprehensive essence in a comprehensive manner, that is to say, as a whole man. Each of his human relations to the world – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving – in short, all the organs of his individual being, like those organs which are directly social in their form, are in their objective orientation, or in their orientation to the object, the appropriation of the object, the appropriation of human reality.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Matthew Mahler picks up Aristotle’s idea of man as ‘by nature a political animal’, using it to explore not just the nature of politics, but what might be ‘animal’ about political activity. He adds Marx’s understanding of the centrality of the senses to human being, as well as Weber’s sense of politics as a vocation, as something the politician must feel ‘with heart and soul’. And he wonders to what extent we might think of politics as a passion, not simply in the colloquial sense of being driven by strong and powerful emotion, but in religious terms, as suffering.

His case study is Lyndon Johnson:

For example, several assistants who had worked with Johnson during his career in politics commented that ‘they had never seen [him] so ‘high’ [as] ‘when he got in a crowd of people [during a campaign]’. Another aide remembering Johnson during the 1948 campaign added, ‘He was energized, he was really charged up… When he was shaking hands, that was when he got most charged up… It was like he was plugged into electricity’.

Matthew Mahler, ‘A sensualist understanding of political engagement’, 2006

How do we account for this buzz, this euphoria, this seeming need to do politics? In part, it’s because public confrontation – this confrontation in public – provides a testing and reinforcement of self. It offers affirmation, of the kind to be had in war and sport, both of which frequently serve as analogies of politics. In Goffman’s words, it’s simply ‘where the action is’: in ‘character contests’, in which ‘border disputes are sought out and indulged in (often with glee) as a means of establishing where one’s boundaries are’. It’s the ‘agonal spirit’ Arendt refers to, ‘the passionate drive to show one’s self in measuring up against others that underlies the concept of politics prevalent in the [Greek] city-states’.

In restructuring relatively routine activities and interactions into zero-sum games to be won or lost, politicos deftly create the possibility for ‘action’ in their lives, and it is this taking of chances, this pressing of limits, that allows them to construct uniquely compelling selves. Whether the contest is geared towards convincing someone to support them by showcasing their ‘character,’ ‘vision,’ or ’empathy,’ or whether it is geared towards ‘beating’ another opponent by employing cunning and strategy, politicos are engaged in a project of struggling to construct transcendent selves.

Matthew Mahler, ‘A sensualist understanding of political engagement’, 2006

At the same time, however, political action of this kind entails an equal and opposite loss of self, a giving up of the self on behalf of the group, in order to represent or stand for it, a separation from other individuals in order to become somehow all individuals, a search for transcendence. The politician is not only elected but ‘elect’, an individual set above and apart in order to carry the needs and aspirations of the group.


‘At the meeting point…’ is another excerpt from Fabian Virchow, op cit, p 158

Christiane Ensslin is the sister of Gudrun Ensslin, founder member of the Red Army Fraction; she was interviewed by Geert Mak in 1984, and cited in his In Europe, op cit, p 650

It’s Peter Lyman who put it this way, in his ‘The domestication of anger. The use and abuse of anger in politics’, European Journal of Social Theory 7 (2) 133-147 (2004), p 133; see also Lyman, P (1981) ‘The politics of anger – on silence, ressentiment, and political speech’, Socialist Review 57 55-74

The relevant passage in Aristotle can be found here

Tessa DeCarlo remembered being just so angry on Counterculture and Protest, op cit

‘Anger is not inevitably emancipatory…’: Mary Holmes (2004) ‘Feeling beyond rules. Politicizing the sociology of emotion and anger in feminist politics’, European Journal of Social Theory 7 (2) 209-227, pp 211-2

‘To think about the ways feelings are produced…’: Deborah Gould, Moving Politics, op cit, p 46; ‘Where affect is unfixed…’ is p 21 and ‘where inchoately felt affective states…’ p 29, ‘What immediately struck me…’ p 12 and ‘During ACT UP’s heyday p 9.  ACTUP is here

Raymond Williams’s ‘at the very edge of semantic availability’ is in his ‘Structures of feeling’, op cit, p 134

The conversion of political pressures into technical arguments is from Simone Abram (2001) ”Among professionals’: working with pressure groups and local authorities’, in Gellner, D and Hirsch, E (eds) Inside Organisations: anthropologists at work, Oxford: Berg, p 191; ‘I know it won’t make a blind bit of difference…’ is p 195

‘Its specific nature…’ is Max Weber, op cit [page]

‘On one occasion…’: Marc Geddes, Dramas at Westminster, op cit, p 87

Douglas’s story is told by Rosie Anderson (2014) ‘Playing the fool: activists’ performances of emotion in policy making spaces’, Emotion, Space and Society 13 16-23; he is quoted p 20

Lord Hill was speaking on Mark Mardell’s Brexit: a love story?, episode 13, An Island Nation, BBCR4, 20 September 2018, 17:05-17:35, and President Carter on Daniel Pick’s Dictators on the Couch, BBCR4, 10 June 2017, 31:06-32:45

I learned about Arendt and joy in reading Oliver Marchart’s ‘Dancing politics’, op cit; see also his ”Acting Is Fun’. Aktualität und Ambivalenz im Werk Hannah Arendts”, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, Sonderband 16 (2007): Hannah Arendt: Verborgene Tradition – Unzeitgemäße Aktualität? 349–358.  Arendt’s interview was originally conducted by Adalbert Reif in 1970, and was translated as ‘Thoughts on politics and revolution’ for the New York Review of Books, 22 April 1971

Böhm, S (2005) ‘Ground Zero of the Forum: notes on a personal journey’, ephemera 5 (2) 134-145; the quotations appear pp 134, 136

Rachelle Horowitz, in Younge, op cit, p 69; Jill Grieve and George McLeery in Bibi v d Zee, op cit, pp 36 and 126

‘But the best part of campaign events…’ is promotional blurb for the New York Times’s Experiencing the Presidential Campaign: A Virtual Reality Film

Mahler, M (2006) ‘Politics as a vocation: notes toward a sensualist understanding of political engagement’, Qualitative Sociology 29 281-300

‘Man appropriates his comprehensive essence…’: Karl Marx, ‘Private Property and Communism’, para 4; Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and cit Mahler, op cit, p 282; Weber’s ‘with heart and soul’ is from ‘Politics as a vocation’, in Gerth and Wright Mills (eds), From Max Weber. Essays in Sociology, p 127 and Mahler, p 284

‘For example, several assistants…’ is Mahler, p 286: he is citing Robert Caro, The Means to Ascent, New York: Vintage Books, 1990

Goffman’s ‘character contests’ and ‘border disputes’ are from ‘Where the action is’, op cit, pp 239ff, the quotation is p 241 and Mahler, op cit, pp 296-7; Arendt’s ‘passionate drive’ is from The Human Condition, op cit, p 173