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Sarah Ahmed - The Cultural Politics of Emotion

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Mikaela Malsin

on 18 April 2014

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Transcript of Sarah Ahmed - The Cultural Politics of Emotion

Sarah Ahmed's
The Cultural Politics of Emotion

Introduction: Emotions & Objects
In contrast to theories of emotion as primarily physical or cognitive, Ahmed's theory of emotion is *relational*. Emotions "involve (re)actions or relations of 'towardness' or 'awayness' in relation to such objects....affective forms of reorientation" (8).
Ahmed offers "an analysis of affective economies, where feelings do not reside in subjects or objects, but are produced as effects of circulation" (8).
Introduction: Inside Out & Outside In
Ahmed pushes back against models that theorize emotions either as moving from the inside out (psychological) or originate outside and move within (sociological).
Instead, "emotions are not simply something ‘I’ or ‘we’ have. Rather, it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the ‘I’ and ‘we’ are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others… Emotions ... produce the very surfaces and boundaries that allow the individual and the social to be delineated as if they are objects.” (10)
This book is concerned with the question of “what sticks?” in terms of social transformation. How do we become invested in social norms?
Introduction: The Emotionality of Texts
• Naming or performing emotions make feelings “real” as effects, shaping actions and orientations. These speech acts also depend on past histories (13). Different emotion-words do different things, because they involve particular orientations toward their objects. (Remember Lutz?)
• Ahmed chooses 3 cases: reconciliation in Australia (pain and shame), responses to international terrorism (fear and disgust), asylum and immigration in the UK (hate and love). She is reflexive about her archive, the book’s organization, and her own investments.
Conclusion: Just Emotions
Considers the relation between emotions and (in)justice in order to rethink what emotions do. Conversion of "bad" feelings to "good" feelings does not mark justice. Rather, "challenging social norms involves having a different affective relation to those norms" (196).
Ahmed views emotions as operating exactly where we do not register their effects, in the determination of the relation between signs (194). Language works as a form of power in which emotions align some bodies with others.
Restorative justice as demonstrating some of the possibilities and risks involved in re-thinking the work that emotions do in justice/injustice
Metaphor of the scar
Introduction: "Feel Your Way"
Ahmed examines "how emotions work to shape the ‘surfaces’ of individual and collective bodies… by reading texts that circulate in the public domain, which work by aligning subjects with collectives by attributing ‘others’ as the ‘source’ of our feelings” (1).
Ahmed wants to consider how emotions operate to make and shape bodies in action, involving orientations toward others: She asks, "‘What do emotions do?’…I will track how emotions circulate between bodies, examining how they ‘stick’ as well as move” (4)
The introduction situates her work within a partial account of the history of thinking on emotions and their recurring role as a “sticking point” across disciplines
Chapter 1:
The Contingency of Pain
• Evocation of pain in public discourse demands response. It operates through signs, "which convey histories that involve injuries to bodies, at the same time as they conceal the presence or ‘work’ of other bodies” (20-21).
• Stories/narratives of pain always involve power relations, e.g. Western over-representation of “others’” pain.

This chapter discusses intensification and its role in the way that pain creates the impression of a bodily surface, creating the world as bodies. Analyzes how stories of pain circulate in the public domain.

Pain Surfaces
• “The affectivity of pain is crucial to the forming of the body as a material and lived entity” (24). Experiences like pain give us the sense of our skin as a bodily surface separating us from (as well as connecting us to) others and mediating the inside/outside of our bodies. Pain, then, is about how we inhabit the world in relation to surfaces/bodies/objects. Ahmed's question is “what does pain do” (27).
The Sociality of Pain
• Ahmed’s model of pain is contingent, attaching us to others through the process of intensification
• Solitary nature of pain requires us to disclose it to others
• “An ethics of responding to pain involves being open to being affected by that which one cannot know or feel” (30)

The Politics of Pain
• Pain does not affect bodies equally or produce a group of bodies together in pain. Ahmed agrees with Wendy Brown that the transformation of the wound into an identity is problematic, because it fetishizes and cuts the wound off from history. Critique must also account for differential power structures: access to public resources for mobilizing narratives of injury. Australia’s Stolen Generation example – reconciliation becomes appropriation.
• “The call of such pain, as a pain that cannot be shared through empathy, is a call not just for an attentive hearing, but for a different kind of inhabitance. It is a call for action, and a demand for collective politics, as a politics based not on the possibility that we might be reconciled, but on learning that we live with and beside each other, and yet we are not as one” (39).
Chapter 2: The Organisation of Hate
• Narratives of hate “work by generating a subject that is endangered by imagined others whose proximity threatens not only to take something away from the subject (jobs, security, wealth), but to take the place of the subject” (43)
• “Hate does not reside in a given subject or object. Hate is economic; it circulates between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement” (44)

This chapter draws on psychoanalysis and Freud to analyze how feelings of injury get converted into hatred for others, who become read as causing injury. Hate circulates through signs, sticking "figures of hate" together and transforming them into a common threat.
Affective Economies
• Ahmed theorizes emotion as economy, “involving relationships of difference and displacement without positive value. That is, emotions work as a form of capital: affect does not reside positively in the sign or commodity, but is produced as an effect of its circulation” (45). Affective economies are social, material, and psychic.
• “Bodies surface by ‘feeling’ the presence of others as the cause of injury or as a form of intrusion. The signs of hate surface by evoking a sense of threat and risk, but one that cannot simply be located or found…It is the failure of hate to be located in a given object or figure, which allows it to generate the effects that it does” (48-49).

Hated Bodies
• Hate is an investment "involved in the very negotiation of boundaries between selves and others, and between communities, where ‘others’ are brought into the sphere of my or our existence as a threat” (51).
• “The alignment of some bodies with some others and against others take place in the physicality of movement; bodies are disorganised and re-organised as they face others who are already recognized as ‘the hated’… The skin comes to be felt as a border through the violence of the impression of one surface upon another… It is through how others impress upon us that the skin of the collective begins to take shape” (54)

Hate Crime
• Hate crime is a means of identify fixing that demonstrates "that violence against others involves forms of power that are visceral and bodily, as well as social and structural” (56). Circulation of signs of hate involves movement and fixity.
• Ahmed wants to ask, "How do certain signs of hate produce affective responses? Or why are some signs of hate repeated? Is it because such signs are over-determined; is it because they keep open a history which is already open insofar as it is affective?” (59) (Rhetoric)

Chapter 3: The Affective Politics of Fear
• Fear “re-establishes distance between bodies whose difference is read off the surface, as a reading which produces the surface (shivering, recolouring). Fear involves relationships of proximity, which are crucial to establishing the ‘apartness’ of white bodies” (63).
• Like hatred, fear works as an affective economy that circulates among signs and bodies

• This chapter discusses discourses of fear, which concern the threat to one’s existence as separate from others

Fear and Anxiety
• Fear operates through displacement between objects, which links those objects together. “The sideways movement between objects, which works to stick objects together as signs of threat, is shaped by multiple histories” (66). That movement also allows us to attribute emotional value (fearsomeness) to others.
• “The economy of fear works to contain the bodies of others, a containment whose ‘success’ relies on its failure, as it must keep open the very grounds of fear” (67). Fear creates borders.

Bodies that Fear
• The differential organization of fear involves space and mobility. Emotions "work to align bodily space with social space" (69) as some bodies are mobile at the expense of others.
• “Fear of ‘the world’ as the scene of a future injury works as a form of violence in the present, which shrinks bodies in a state of afraidness” (70). Feelings of vulnerability/fear are not inherent characteristics but rather shape bodies and their relationships to space.

Global Economies of Fear

• “I want to suggest that the language of fear involves the intensification of ‘threats,’ which works to create a distinction between those who are ‘under threat’ and those who threaten… Through the generation of ‘the threat,’ fear works to align bodies with and against others” (72).
• The “threat” of terror was mobilized for the expansion of the powers of detention, limiting the mobility of (possible) terrorists. Of course, this affects bodies differentially, and “the sliding between signs’ involves associations between those who “look Muslim” and bodies who “could be” terrorists (76). Fear does not reside positively in any one body (79).

Chapter 4: The Performativity of Disgust

• Disgust is “mediated by ideas that are already implicated in the very impressions we make of others and the way those impressions surface as bodies,” and “deeply ambivalent, involving desire for, or an attraction towards, the very objects that are felt to be repellent” (83, 84)

This chapter, then, reads the work of disgust.
Disgust and Abjection
• “Disgust binds objects together in the very moment that objects become attributed with bad feeling, as ‘being’ sickening. The slide between disgust and other emotions is crucial to the binding: the subject may experience hate towards the object, as well as fear of the object” (88)
• Disgust is crucial to power relations: “Disgust at ‘that which is below’ functions to maintain the power relations between above and below, through which ‘aboveness’ and ‘belowness’ become properties of particular bodies, objects and spaces” (89)

On Stickiness
• Stickiness associated with disgust when it affects the skin. Stickiness is an effect of surfacing, “an effect of the histories of contact between bodies, objects, and signs” (90)
• How do signs become “sticky?” As an effect of histories of articulation in which signs accumulate value and furthermore conceal associations that become ‘intrinsic’ over time.

Speaking Disgust
• Disgust works performatively as a speech act that "can generate effects by ‘binding’ signs to bodies as a binding that ‘blocks’ new meanings” (92). To name something 'disgusting' relies on norms and conventions of speech, generating the object that it names and aligning the individual with the collective as it produces both.
• The disgust reaction involves expelling words that stand for and slide into the expulsion of others' bodies... "Such an expulsion will never be over given the possibility that other others ‘could be’ the cause of our disgust” (98).
• Economy of ‘disgust’ also involves dissent, or the reactions to reactions of disgust, and so on: “What gets stuck can always get restuck and can even engender new and more adhesive form of sticking” (100).

Chapter 5: Shame Before Others
• Declarations of shame can work as a form of nation building in the promise of reconciliation
• In this chapter, Ahmed wants to think about what shame does to bodies and what it means for nations or the international community to give shame an ‘official reality’ in acts of speech

Lived Experiences of Shame
• “The individuation of shame – the way it turns the self against and towards the self – can be linked precisely to the inter-corporeality and sociality of shame experiences” (105).
• Shame requires a witness with whom the self identifies, and furthermore means that we have failed an ideal.
• Shame is bound up with community, because the failed ideals are the ones that “stick” people together.

National Shame
• National shame works through narrative reproduction
• National shame as a mechanism for reconciliation and identity formation: “By witnessing what is shameful about the past, the nation can ‘live up to’ the ideals that secure its identity or being in the present. In other words, our shame means that we mean well, and can work to reproduce the nation as an ideal” (109).
• Sorry Books in Australia: in the process of reconciliation, these are messages creating an account of national shame and demands for official apology.

Shame and Speech Acts
• Apologies are performative speech acts (J.L. Austin) addressed to an other who has to judge whether the utterance is readable as apology – thus, conditional performatives that can never be “finished.”
• Expressing "regret" rather than apologizing for injustices cuts the present off from the past, deferring responsibility.

Chapter 6: In the Name of Love
• Love “is crucial to how individuals become aligned with collectives through their identification with an ideal, an alignment that relies on the existence of others who have failed that ideal” (124).

This chapter examines how love becomes a way of bonding with others in relation to an ideal, which then takes shape as an effect of such bonding (124).
Identification and Idealisation
• Love is linked to the anxiety of boundary formation
• Idealizing the loved object allows the subject to “be itself in or through what it has…idealization may also work as the ‘creation’ or ‘making’ of likeness: the lover and the object approximate an ideal, an approximation which binds them together” (128). Heterosexual love involves investment in the reproduction of sameness.

The National Ideal

• The ideal image of the nation “accrues value through its exchange, an exchange that is determined by the capacity of some bodies to inhabit the national body… but other bodies, those that cannot be recognized in the abstraction of the unmarked, cannot accrue value, and become blockages in the economy” (133). Importantly, the return on the investment of love for the nation is always deferred into the future.

Multicultural Love
• Multiculturalism, as an imperative to love difference, works to construct a national ideal that others fail and also to conceal the investment in reproduction (133).
• The real problem is idealization, rather than love as such.
Chapter 7: Queer Feelings
• The “narrative of coupling as a condition for the reproduction of life, culture and value explains the slide in racist narratives between the fear of strangers and immigrants (xenophobia), the fear of queers (homophobia) and the fear of miscegenation (as well as other illegitimate couplings)” (144-145).

This chapter explores "queer feelings" and their affective potential, considering the relationship between norms and affects, the role of grief in queer politics, and the role of pleasure in queer lifestyles, then discusses the political possibilities of that enjoyment.

(Dis)comfort and Norms

• “Heteronormativity functions as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape” (148).
• Normative culture “involves the differentiation between legitimate and illegitimate ways of living whereby the preservation of what is legitimate ‘life as we know it’ is assumed to be necessary for the well-being of the next generation. Heteronormativity involves the reproduction or transmission of culture through how one lives one’s life in relation to others” (149).
• “Queer lives shape what gets reproduced: in the very failure to reproduce the norms through how they inhabit them, queer lives produce different effects. For example, the care work of lesbian parents…” (152). It is in "not fitting" heteronormative models that queers can do transformative work.
Feminist Attachments
• “The cultural politics of emotion is deeply bound up with gendered histories of imperialism and capitalism, in which violence against the bodies of subaltern women is both granted and taken for granted in the making of worlds” (170).
• "Emotions may be crucial to showing us why transformations are so difficult…but also how they are possible” (172).

This chapter considers how feminist attachments relate to attachments in the "everyday world," including those that reproduce the forms of power contested by feminism.

Queer Grief
• “A queer politics of grief needs to allow others, those whose losses are not recognized by the nation, to have the space and time to grieve, rather than grieving for those others, or even asking ‘the nation’ to grieve for them. In such a politics, recognition does still matter, not of the other’s grief, but of the other as a griever, as the subject rather than the object of grief, a subject that is not alone in its grief” (161).

Examples: AIDS, queer responses to 9/11.

Queer Pleasures
• Queer pleasures can “work to challenge social norms, as forms of investment” (164).
• “For queers, to display pleasure through what we do with our bodies to make the comforts of heterosexuality less comfortable… When bodies touch and give pleasure to bodies that have been barred from contact, then those bodies are reshaped. The hope of queer is that the reshaping of bodies through the enjoyment of what or who has been barred can ‘impress’ differently upon the surfaces of social space” (165).

Feminism and Anger
• Feminism’s task should be “to remember how embodied subjects come to be wounded in the first place, which requires that we learn to read that pain, as well as recognize how the pain is already read in the intensity of how it surfaces” (173).
• Feminism “moves from anger into an interpretation of that which one is against, whereby associations or connections are made between the object of anger and broader patterns or structures…Anger is creative; it works to create a language with which to respond to that which one is against, whereby ‘the what’ is renamed, an brought into a feminist world” (176).

Feminism and Wonder
Wonder involves seeing "as if for the first time," transforming the ordinary to the extraordinary. It is corporeal and keeps historicity alive by revealing the world "as made," demonstrating that it could be different.
Emotion as crucial to feminist politics and pedagogy. Nothing can be taken for granted, including our own mo(ve)ment
Feminism and Hope
Hope is obvi necessary to political activism
Hope involves reading the openness of bodies to being affected and the attendant possibilities of joy (185)
Rather than an endlessly deferred investment, Ahmed suggests hope for a world that is still unimaginable: "Placing hope in feminism is not simply about the future; it is also about recognising the persistence of the past in the present" (187).
The Politics of Pain
Uptakes & Critique
Much praise for challenging assumptions and offering a (sort of) methodology for assessing emotions in cultural life (Gorton, Sapegno, Riedner, Lipman)
Riedner: "Moving beyond a critique of emotion,
Cultural Politics
helps us think through emotions that can be expanded to include different affects as an active means of making the world" (706). Explicitly thinks through politics/activism.
Many people have chosen to extend her case studies.

Lipman: In attempting to circumvent binaries like interior/exterior, Ahmed "perhaps overplays the importance of surfaces and plays down the complexity and singularity of our biographies and biologies... people continue to have, and to be shaped by, private experiences, or by events or affects to which they ascribe personal meanings; and, as most writers concede, the way these are accumulated, expressed and described through a lifetime" (622)
Walby & Spencer: Ahmed does not provide empirical evidence that emotions are being experienced in the way she describes at the group level
Why these particular emotions? Ahmed seems especially focused on negatively-valenced emotions and emotions that do work that is ultimately destructive. She furthermore seems to emphasize extreme emotions; what about the mundane?
If not a multicultural ideal, what do we strive for in national politics of heterogeneity?
What are Ahmed's major differences from Brennan?
Spalding: What does Ahmed's account give us that Lundberg's does not?
Full transcript