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By Maíra Magalhães Lopes

For many of us, talking about emotions is hard because it can be hard to understand what we are feeling. We often do not pay attention to our feelings and emotions; and even when we do pay attention to them, it can be hard to recognize exactly how or what we are feeling. Emotions can be messy. Sometimes it is almost as many of our emotions do not fit in our lives. We are encouraged to express our thoughts, but not so much our emotions. Emotions can seem ‘out of place’ in daily life, as the norm seems to be rational. For example, ‘feeling emotional’ often evokes a negative sense, in contrast to ‘being rational’, which often evokes a positive sense. This implicit negative connotation of ‘feeling emotional’ indicates how emotions are often seen as a disruption of the social norm.

Throughout our lives, we learn to follow social norms. We learn – or at least, try to learn – to manage our emotions. We learn that some emotions are more acceptable than others. For example, we learn that anger is a bad feeling and that we should not cry or scream when we are angry. Thus, we learn how to control our emotions. Emotional states often evoke a certain loss of control. Someone who is emotional and often ‘loses control’ of their emotions can be perceived as problematic. Should we then be rational? After all, rationality seems to be the social norm. Rationality is one of the ideals of modernity, along with individuality and stability. Not by accident, there is one body more associated with rationality, stability, and individuality: the body of the white Western man. Such characteristics – rationality, individuality, and stability – became ideal characteristics in the conceptualization of the human subject in modernity. In contrast, being moved by emotions has often been considered to be a ‘less-than-human’ condition, it has often been associated with primitive behavior.

Academic debates have more often than not reinforced such notion that the normal human subject would be the one able to resist such primitive condition and exercise certain psychological capacities, such as will and inhibition, that could resist social influence and thus keep their mind intact. For example, for a long time in Western medicine, hysteria was a medical diagnosis associated with uncontrollable emotional excess. It was also a diagnosis considered to be common and chronic among women. Similarly, in the emergence of the social sciences, debates on crowds were central and scholars would often perceive people joining the crowds as more primitive and prone to criminal behavior. For many crowd scholars, women and ‘other people’ were more prone to join the crowds. As Blackman recalls, ‘the person swayed by the crowd was to become a prototypical being who embodied the attributes which connected the human with the animal. (…) The working classes, colonial subjects, women, and children became the bearers of this fear of the primitive and its potential irruption into the smooth running of the social order’. In many crowd debates of the turn of the 20th century, which were central in the emergence of the social sciences, ‘the others’ (who are not ‘strong-willed thinking’ minds) have often been associated with emotional-instability and should be avoided. The predominance of rationality over emotionality has then also been an academic endeavor. Many academic fields have been focused on understanding the social through rational behavior (e.g., decision-making processes as rational choices in economics and criminology). Mainstream academic debates have played a pivotal role in reinforcing such conceptions and legitimizing the rational/cognition and emotional/body dichotomy.

Since the mid-1990s, many scholars have started to question how our social relations can go beyond cognition and language (e.g., Brian MassumiEve Sedgwick and Adam FrankNigel Thrift). Many of these scholars have turned their attention to the body and palpable experiences that ‘do not operate through the structures of language, discourse and meaning’. To be more precise, they have started to focus on how bodies affect and are affected. They have turned to affect, as an intensity that marks what we count as bodies and space between bodies. As Wetherell explains, the focus shifted from the cognitive and discursive to ‘the presumed direct hit of events on bodies and on what is sensed rather than known’. Hemmings complements that such shift ‘evidences a dissatisfaction with poststructuralist approaches to power, framed as hegemonic in their negativity and insistence of social structures rather than interpersonal relationships as formative of the subject’.

The affective turn then covers a focus on the body, visceral responses, and corporeal intensities. Yet, the affective turn is not a homogeneous turn. Scholars have different positioning on the relation of affect and body. For some scholars of the affective turn, it became important to differentiate affect from emotions and feelings. For example, for Shouse, feelings are personal and biographical – ‘a feeling is a sensation that has been checked against previous experiences and labelled’, emotions are social –  socialized expressions of affect – and  affect is a ‘non-conscious experience of intensity; it is a moment of unformed and unstructured potential. Such distinctions aimed to expand our notions of the body. For example, some affect scholars have explored how humans and non-humans (e.g., technology) affect one another, foregrounding agencies of materiality and challenging what we take bodily forms of life to be.

Some affective scholars, in contrast, believe such distinctions might be counterproductive. Sara Ahmed is one of them. For her, by distinguishing affects and emotions, scholars might disregard the messiness of our social lives, because ‘the world we are describing is messy – if we have clear distinctions, we’re actually losing our connection to that world’. For her, what makes us cry, what makes us cringe, what makes us laugh should not be understood ‘outside meaning’. This way, the ‘gut feeling’ is not devoid of meaning as no body – human or non-human – is inherently disgusting or fearful. Emotion (as affect) is not inside or outside the body; it is in-between and has surfacing effects.

For Ahmed, through emotions, the surface of me, you, us, and them are felt. Through the surfacing effect of emotions (as affects), we can trace the multiple cultural-political processes that work shaping bodies – as me, us, you, and them. Thus, the surfacing effect of affect happens in relation to signs already in circulation and accumulation. Throughout our lives, we learn to read signs in bodies. We learn that signs are attached to them. We learn to create distances from bodies that can harm us, as we learn to approach bodies that can protect us. We move towards some bodies and we are moved against other bodies. For Ahmed, our orientations matter and we can understand what moves us, how we are moved by some in opposition to others – through emotions. She explains that:

“the word ‘emotion’ comes from the Latin, emovere, referring to ‘to move, to move out’. Of course, emotions are not only about movement, they are also about attachments or about what connects us to this or that. The relationship between movement and attachment is instructive. What moves us, what makes us feel, is also that which holds us in place, or gives us a dwelling place”.

Emotions then mark our connections and disconnections. In other words, they mark who we feel as us and who we feel as them. Through emotions, we can understand our connections and disconnections – in relation to signs, rather than outside meaning. After all, bodies and our relation to bodies depend on signs already in circulation and accumulation (e.g., black bodies have been associated with multiple ‘signs of badness’ through colonialism). Emotions are messy precisely because they mark our multiple connections and disconnections, and how they are related to multiple signs in circulation and accumulation. They embrace the complexity and the messiness of becoming ‘us’ in the world.

In the last years, it has become clear that it is urgent to re-think who ‘we’ are in this planet. For example, the pandemic as the environmental crisis have shown us that “‘we’ are in this together, but we are not one and the same”. Our connections as well our disconnections to ourselves and the world need to be profoundly revised, reorganized. Emotions can help us in such processes. To change our connections and disconnections, we should understand and explore our emotions. We can then start finding other possibilities, other configurations that go beyond reproducing the same old patterns of life. That is, through emotions, we might start understanding the old configurations as well as explore new ones. We might explore new ways of becoming ‘us’.

Actually, the recent rise of populist parties in many countries, from both right and left-wing positions, might be an indicator that the configurations are shifting. To be more precise, it might be a symptom that the continuous process of becoming ‘us’ – in relation to ‘them’ – has become more intense and divergent. The configurations of connections and disconnections are shifting more intensively and with divergent orientations. Like emotions, populism is often associated with something ‘out of place’ – as the marking of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are not ‘in place’ any longer. But, have they actually been ‘in place’? Or have they just become normalized?

For a world with more social justice, we need to change many configurations and de-normalize some apparently fixed positions; emotions can help us in that process. We need to start tracing how becoming ‘us’ is always in the making, rather than accepting it as based in fixed notions. Through emotions (as well as affects and feelings), we can explore and understand the multiple processes of becoming ‘us’. We can understand the cultural-political processes of marking who is in and who is out when we think of a ‘we’ (i.e., with whom we connect and disconnect). We might also learn multiple forms to connect with one another – without following one normalized model of human subject. We might even learn multiple forms of becoming ‘us’. We need to reformulate ‘us’ into a more inclusive and multiple ‘us’. Yet, who is in and who is out of the multiples ‘us’ remain open. It is about ‘becoming us’ after all.

Maíra Magalhãs Lopes is postdoctoral researcher at CES in the project ‘UNPOP – UNpacking POPulism: Comparing the formation of emotion narratives and their effects on political behaviour‘. She earned her PhD in 2018 at Stockholm Business School, Stockholm University with a thesis about ‘The Making of Us: How affects shape collective bodies resisting gentrification’. Her research interests cover emotions and affects, postcolonial theories and approaches, as well as the politics of consumption and consumer culture.