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.
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’.
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’.
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.
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’.
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.
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’.
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.
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.’
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:
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’.
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
‘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
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, 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