All the feels

This poster drew my attention while I was working in the library of Cambridge University a couple of weeks ago:



For a while now, I have been fascinated with the way in which the language of emotions, or affect, has penetrated public discourse. People ‘love’ all sorts of things: the way a film uses interior light, the icing on a cake, their friend’s new hairstyle. They ‘hate’ Donald Trump, the weather, next door neighbours’ music. More often than not, conversations involving emotions would not be complete without mentioning online expressions of affect, such as ‘likes’ or ‘loves’ on Facebook or on Twitter.

Of course, the presence of emotions in human communication is nothing new. Even ‘ordinary’ statements – such as, for instance, “it’s going to rain tomorrow” – frequently entail an affective dimension (most people would tend to get at least slightly disappointed at the announcement). Yet, what I find peculiar is that the language of affect is becoming increasingly present not only in non-human-mediated communication, but also in relation to non-human entities. Can you really ‘love’ a library? Or be ‘friends’ with your local coffee place?

This isn’t to in any way concede ground to techno-pessimists who blame social media for ‘declining’ standards in human communication, nor even to express concern over the ways in which affective ‘reaction’ buttons allow tracking online behaviour (privacy is always a problem, and ‘unmediated’ communication largely a fiction). Even if face-to-face is qualitatively different from online interaction, there is nothing to support the claim that makes it inherently more valuable, or, indeed, ‘real’ (see: “IRL fetish[i]). It is the social and cultural framing of these emotions, and, especially, the way social sciences think about it – the social theory of affect, if you wish – that concerns me here.

Fetishism and feeling

So what is different about ‘loving’ your library as opposed to, say, ‘loving’ another human being? One possible way of going about this is to interpret expressions of emotion directed at or through non-human entities as ‘shorthand’ for those aimed at other human beings. The kernel of this idea is contained in Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism: emotion, or affect, directed at an object obscures the all-too-human (in his case, capital) relationship behind it. In this sense, ‘liking’ your local coffee place would be an expression of appreciation for the people who work there, for the way they make double macchiato, or just for the times you spent there with friends or other significant others. In human-to-human communication, things would be even more straightforward: generally speaking, ‘liking’ someone’s status updates, photos, or Tweets would signify appreciation of/for the person, agreement with, or general interest in, what they’re saying.

But what if it is actually the inverse? What if, in ‘liking’ something on Facebook or on Twitter, the human-to-human relationship is, in fact, epiphenomenal to the act? The prime currency of online communication is thus the expenditure of (emotional) energy, not the relationship that it may (or may not) establish or signify. In this sense, it is entirely irrelevant whether one is liking an inanimate object (or concept), or a person. Likes or other forms of affective engagement do not constitute any sort of human relationship; the only thing they ‘feed’ is the network itself. The network, at the same time, is not an expression, reflection, or (even) simulation of human relationships: it is the primary structure of feeling.

All hail…

Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book, Homo Deus, puts the issue of emotions at the centre of the discussion of the relationship between human and AI. In a review in The Guardian, David Runciman writes:

“Human nature will be transformed in the 21st century because intelligence is uncoupling from consciousness. We are not going to build machines any time soon that have feelings like we have feelings: that’s consciousness. Robots won’t be falling in love with each other (which doesn’t mean we are incapable of falling in love with robots). But we have already built machines – vast data-processing networks – that can know our feelings better than we know them ourselves: that’s intelligence. Google – the search engine, not the company – doesn’t have beliefs and desires of its own. It doesn’t care what we search for and it won’t feel hurt by our behaviour. But it can process our behaviour to know what we want before we know it ourselves. That fact has the potential to change what it means to be human.”

On the surface level, this makes sense. Algorithms can measure our ‘likes’ and other emotional reactions and combine them into ‘meaningful’ patterns – e.g., correlate them with specific background data (age, gender, location), time of day, etc., and, on the basis of this, predict how you will act (click, shop) in specific situations. However, does this amount to ‘knowledge’? In other words, if machines cannot have feelings – and Harari seems adamant that they cannot – how can they actually ‘know’ them?

Frege on Facebook

This comes close to a philosophical problem I’ve  been trying to get a grip on recently: the Frege-Geach (alternatively, the embedding, or Frege-Geach-Searle) problem. It is comprised of two steps. The first is to claim that there is a qualitative difference between moral and descriptive statements – for instance, between saying “It is wrong to kill” and “It is raining”. Most humans, I believe, would agree with this. The second is to observe that there is no basis for claiming this sort of difference based on sentence structure alone, which then leads to the problem of explaining its source – how do we know there is one? In other words, how it could be that moral and descriptive terms have exactly the same sort of semantic properties in complex sentences, even though they have different kinds of meaning? Where does this difference stem from?

The argument can be extended to feelings: how do we know that there is a qualitative difference between statements such as “I love you” and “I eat apples”? Or loving someone and ‘liking’ an online status? From a formal (syntactic) perspective, there isn’t. More interestingly, however, there is no reason why machines should not be capable of such a form of expression. In this sense, there is no way to reliably establish that likes coming from a ‘real’ person and, say, a Twitterbot, are qualitatively different. As humans, of course, we would claim to know the difference, or at least be able to spot it. But machines cannot. There is nothing inherent in the expression of online affect that would allow algorithms to distinguish between, say, the act of ‘loving’ the library and the act of loving a person. Knowledge of emotions, in other words, is not reducible to counting, even if counting takes increasingly sophisticated forms.

How do you know what you do not know?

The problem, however, is that humans do not have superior knowledge of emotions, their own or other people’s. I am not referring to situations in which people are unsure or ‘confused’ about how they feel [ii], but rather to the limited language – forms of expression – available to us. The documentary “One More Time With Feeling”, which I saw last week, engages with this issue in a way I found incredibly resonant. Reflecting on the loss of his son, Nick Cave relates how the words that he or people around him could use to describe the emotions seemed equally misplaced, maladjusted and superfluous (until the film comes back into circulation, Amanda Palmer’s review which addresses a similar question is  here) – not because they couldn’t reflect it accurately, but because there was no necessary link between them and the structure of feeling at all.

Clearly, the idea that language does not reflect, but rather constructs  – and thus also constrains – human reality is hardly new: Wittgenstein, Lacan, and Rorty (to name but a few) have offered different interpretations of how and why this is the case. What I found particularly poignant about the way Cave frames it in the film is that it questions the whole ontology of emotional expression. It’s not just that language acts as a ‘barrier’ to the expression of grief; it is the idea of the continuity of the ‘self’ supposed to ‘have’ those feelings that’s shattered as well.

Love’s labour’s lost (?): between practice and theory

This brings back some of my fieldwork experiences from 2007 and 2008, when I was doing a PhD in anthropology, writing on the concept of romantic relationships. Whereas most of my ‘informants’ – research participants – could engage in lengthy elaboration of the criteria they use in choosing (‘romantic’) partners (as well as, frequently, the reasons why they wouldn’t designate someone as a partner), when it came to emotions their narratives could frequently be reduced to one word: love (it wasn’t for lack of expressive skills: most were highly educated). It was framed as a binary phenomenon: either there or not there. At the time, I was more interested in the way their (elaborated) narratives reflected or coded markers of social inequality – for instance, class or status. Recently, however, I have been going back more to their inability (or unwillingness) to elaborate on the emotion that supposedly underpins, or at least buttresses, those choices.

Theoretical language is not immune to these limitations. For instance, whereas social sciences have made significant steps in deconstructing notions such as ‘man’, ‘woman, ‘happiness’, ‘family’, we are still miles away from seriously examining concepts such as ‘love’, ‘hate’, or ‘fear’. Moira Weigel’s and Eva Illouz’ work are welcome exceptions to the rule: Weigel uses the feminist concept of emotional labour to show how the responsibility for maintaining relationships tends to be unequally distributed between men and women, and Illouz demonstrates how modern notions of dating come to define subjectivity and agency of persons in ways conducive to the reproduction of capitalism. Yet, while both do a great job in highlighting social aspects of love, they avoid engaging with its ontological basis. This leaves the back door open for an old-school dualism that either assumes there is an (a- or pre-social?) ‘basis’ to human emotions, which can  be exploited or ‘harvested’ through relationships of power; or, conversely, that all emotional expression is defined by language, and thus its social construction the only thing worth studying. It’s almost as if ‘love’ is the last construct left standing, and we’re all too afraid to disenchant it.

For a relational ontology

A relational ontology of human emotions could, in principle, aspire to de-throne this nominalist (or, possibly worse, truth-proceduralist) notion of love in favour of one that sees it as a by-product of relationality. This isn’t claiming that ‘love’ is epiphenomenal: to the degree to which it is framed as a motivating force, it becomes part and parcel of the relationship itself. However, not seeing it as central to this inquiry would hopefully allow us to work on the diversification of the language of emotions. Instead of using a single marker (even as polysemic as ‘love’) for the relationship with one’s library and one’s significant other, we could start thinking about ways in which they are (or are not) the same thing. This isn’t, of course, to sanctify ‘live’ human-to-human emotion: I am certain that people can feel ‘love’ for pets, places, or deceased ones. Yet, calling it all ‘love’ and leaving it at that is a pretty shoddy way of going about feelings.

Furthermore, a relational ontology of human emotions would mean treating all relationships as unique. This isn’t, to be clear, a pseudoanarchist attempt to deny standards of or responsibility for (inter)personal decency; and even less a default glorification of long-lasting relationships. Most relationships change over time (as do people inside them), and this frequently means they can no longer exist; some relationships cannot coexist with other relationships; some relationships are detrimental to those involved in them, which hopefully means they cease to exist. Equally, some relationships are superficial, trivial, or barely worth a mention. However, this does not make them, analytically speaking, any less special.

This also means they cannot be reduced to the same standard, nor measured against each other. This, of course, runs against one of capitalism’s dearly-held assumptions: that all humans are comparable and, thus, mutually replaceable. This assumption is vital not only for the reproduction of labour power, but also, for instance, for the practice of dating [iii], whether online or offline. Moving towards a relational concept of emotions would allow us to challenge this notion. In this sense, ‘loving’ a library is problematic not because the library is not a human being, but because ‘love’, just like other human concepts, is a relatively bad proxy. Contrary to what pop songs would have us believe, it’s never an answer, and, quite possibly, neither the question.

Some Twitter wisdom for the end….


[i] Thanks go to Mark Carrigan who sent this to me.

[ii] While I am very interested in the question of self-knowledge (or self-ignorance), for some reason, I never found this particular aspect of the question analytically or personally intriguing.

[iii] Over the past couple of years, I’ve had numerous discussions on the topic of dating with friends, colleagues, but also acquaintances and (almost) strangers (the combination of having a theoretical interest in the topic and not being in a relationship seem to be particularly conducive to becoming involved in such conversations, regardless of whether one wants it or not). I feel compelled to say that my critique of dating (and the concomitant refusal to engage in it, at least as far as its dominant social forms go) does not, in any way, imply a criticism of people who do. There is quite a long list of people whom I should thank for helping me clarify this, but instead I promise to write another longer post on the topic, as well as, finally, develop that app  :).

Out of place? On Pokémon, foxes, and critical cultural political economy

Isle of Wight, August 2016

Last week, I attended the Second international conference in Cultural political economy organized by the Centre for globalization, education and social futures at the University of Bristol. It was through working with Susan Robertson and other folk at the Graduate School of Education, where I had spent parts of 2014 and 2015 as a research fellow, that I first got introduced to cultural political economy.

The inaugural conference last year took place in Lancaster, so it was a great opportunity to both meet other people working within this paradigm and do a bit of hiking in the Lake District. This year, I was particularly glad to be in Bristol – the city that, to a great degree, comes closest to ‘home’, and where – having spent the majority of those two years not really living anywhere – I felt I kind of belonged. The conference’s theme – “Putting culture in its place” – held, for me, in this sense, a double meaning: it was both about critically assessing the concept of culture in cultural political economy, and about being in a particular place from which to engage in doing just that.

 Cultural political economy (CPE) unifies (or hybridises) approaches from cultural studies and those from (Marxist) political economy, in order to address the challenges of growing complexity (and possible incommensurability, or what Jessop refers to as in/compossibility) of elements of global capitalism. Of course, as Andrew Sayer pointed out, the ‘cultural’ streak in political economy can be traced all the way to Marx, if not downright to Aristotle. Developing it as a distinct approach, then, needs to be understood both genealogically – as a way to reconcile two strong traditions in British sociology – and politically, inasmuch as it aspires to make up for what some authors have described as cultural studies’ earlier disregard of the economic, without, at the same time, reverting to the old dichotomies of base/superstructure.

 Whereas it would be equal parts wrong, pretentious, and not particularly useful to speak of “the” way of doing cultural political economy – in fact, one of its strongest points, in my view, is that it has so far successfully eschewed theoretical and institutional ossification that seems to be an inevitable corollary of having (or building) ‘disciples’ (in both senses: as students, and as followers of a particular disciplinary approach) – what it emphasises is the interrelationship between the ‘cultural’ (as identities, materialities, civilisations, or, in Jessop and Sum’s – to date the most elaborate – view, processes of meaning-making), the political, and the economic, whilst avoiding reducing them one onto another. Studying how these interact over time, then, can help understand how specific configurations (or ‘imaginaries’) of capitalism – for instance, competitiveness and the knowledge-based economy – come into being.

My relationship to CPE is somewhat ambiguous. CPE is grounded in the ontology of critical realism, which, ceteris paribus, comes closest to my own views of reality [*]. Furthermore, having spent a good portion of the past ten years researching knowledge production in a variety of regional and historical contexts, the observation that factors we call ‘cultural’ play a role in each makes sense to me, both intuitively and analytically. On the other hand, being trained in anthropology means I am highly suspicious of the reifying and exclusionary potential of concepts such as ‘culture’ and, especially, ‘civilisation’ (in ways which, I would like to think, go beyond the (self-)righteousness immanent in many of their critiques on the Left). Last, but not least, despite a strong sense of solidarity with a number of identity-based causes, my experience in working in post-conflict environments has led me to believe that politics of identity, almost inevitably, fails to be progressive.[†]

For these reasons, the presentation I did at the conference was aimed at clarifying the different uses of the concept of ‘culture’ (and, to a lesser degree, ‘civilisation’) in cultural political economy, and discussing their political implications. To begin with, it might make sense to put culture through the 5W1H of journalistic inquiry. What is culture (or, what is its ontology)? Who is it – in other words, when we say that ‘culture does things’, how do we define agency? Where is it – in other words, how does it extend in space, and how do we know where its boundaries are? When is it – or what is its temporal dimension, and why does it seem easiest to define when it has either already passed, or is at least ‘in decline’, the label that seems particularly given to application to the Western civilisation? How is it (applied as an analytical concept)? This last bit is particularly relevant, as ‘culture’ sometimes appears in social research as a cause, sometimes as a mediating force (in positivist terms, ‘intervening variable’), and sometimes as an outcome, or consequence. Of course, the standard response is that it is, in fact, all of these, but instead of foreclosing the debate, this just opens up the question of WHY: if culture is indeed everything (or can be everything), what is its value as an analytical term?

A useful metaphor to think about different meanings of ‘culture’ could be the game of Pokémon Go. It figures equally as an entity (in the case of Pokémon, entities are largely fictional, but this is of lesser importance – many entities we identify as culturally significant, for instance deities, are); as a system of rules and relationships (for instance, those governing the game, as well as online and offline relationships between players); as a cause of behaviour (in positivist terms, an independent variable); and as an indicator (for instance, Pokémon Go is taken as a sign of globalization, alienation, revolution [in gaming], etc.). The photos in the presentation reflect some of these uses, and they are from Bristol: the first is a Pikachu caught in Castle Park (no, not mine :)); the other is from an event in July, when the Bristol Zoo was forced to close because too many people turned up for a Pokémon lure party. This brings in the political economy of the game; however, just like in CPE, the ‘lifeworld’ of Pokémon Go cannot be reduced to it, despite the fact it would not exist without it. So, when we go ‘hunting’ for culture, where should we look?

Clarifying the epistemic uses of the concept of culture serves not only to prevent treating culture as what Archer has referred to as ‘epiphenomenal’, or what Rojek & Urry have (in a brilliantly scathing review) characterised as ‘decorative’, but primarily to avoid what Woolgar & Pawluch dubbed ‘ontological gerrymandering’. Ontological gerrymandering refers to conceptual sliding in social problems definitions, and consists of “making problematic the truth status of certain states of affairs selected for analysis and explanation, while backgrounding or minimizing the possibility that the same problems apply to assumptions upon which the analysis depends. (…) Some areas are portrayed as ripe for ontological doubt and others portrayed as (at least temporarily) immune to doubt”[‡].

In the worst of cases, ‘culture’ lends itself to this sort of use – one moment almost an ‘afterthought’ of the more foundational processes related to politics and economy; the other foundational, at the very root of the transformations we see in everyday life; and yet, at other moments, mediating, as if a ‘lens’ that refracts reality. Of course, different concepts and uses of the term have been dissected and discussed at length in social theory; however, in research, just like in practice, ‘culture’ frequently resurfaces as a blackbox that can be conveniently proffered to explain elements not attributable (or reducible) to other factors.

This is important not only for theoretical but also, and possibly more, for political reasons. Culture is often seen as a space of freedom, for expression and experimentation. The line from which I borrow the title of my talk – “When I hear the word culture” – is an example of a right-wing reaction to exactly that sort of concept. Variously misattributed to Goering, Gebels, or even Hitler, the line actually comes from Schlageter, a play by Hanns Johst, written in Germany in 1933, which celebrates Nazi ideology. At some point, one of the characters breaks into a longish rant on why he hates the concept of culture – he sees it as ‘lofty’, ‘idealistic’, and in many ways distant from what he perceives to be ‘real struggles’, guns and ammo – which is why it crescendoes in the famous “When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning”. This idea of ‘culture’ as fundamentally opposed to the vagaries of material existence has informed many anti-intellectualist movements, but, equally importantly, it has also penetrated the reaction to them, resulting in the often unreflexive glorification of ‘folk’ poetry, drama, or art, as almost instantaneously effective expressions of resistance to anti-intellectualism.

Yet, in contemporary political discourse, the concept of culture has been equally appropriated by the left and the right: witness the ‘culture wars’ in the US, or the more recent use of the term to describe social divisions in the UK. Rather than disappearing, political struggles, I believe, will be increasingly framed in terms of culture. The ‘burkini ban’ in France is one case. Some societies deal with cultural diversity differently, at least on the face of it. New Zealand, where I did a part of my research, is a bicultural society. Its universities are founded on the explicit recognition of the concept of mātauranga Māori, which implies the existence of fundamentally culturally different epistemologies. This, of course, raises a number of other interesting issues; but those issues are not something we shouldn’t be prepared to face.

 As we are becoming better at dealing with culture and with the economy, it still remains a challenge to translate these insights to the political. An obvious case where we’re failing at this is knowledge production itself – cultural political economy is very well suited for analysing the transformation of universities in neoliberalism, yet none the wiser – or more efficient – in tackling these challenges in ways that provide a lasting political alternative.


Later that evening, I go see two of my closest friends from Bristol. Walking back to the flat where I’m staying – right between Clifton and Stokes Croft – I run across a fox. Foxes are not particularly exceptional in Bristol, but I still remember my first encounter with one, as I was walking across Cotham side in 2014: I thought it was a large cat at first, and it was only the tail that gave it away. Having grown up in a highly urbanised environment, I cannot help but see encounters with wildlife as somewhat magical. They are, to me, visitors from another world, creatures temporarily inhabiting the same plane of existence, but subject to different motivations and rules of behaviour: in other words, completely alien. This particular night, this particular fox crosses the road and goes through the gates of Cotham School, which I find so patently symbolic that I am reluctant to share it for fear of being accused of peddling clichés.

And this, of course, marks the return of culture en pleine force. As a concept, it is constructed in opposition to ‘nature’; as a practice, its primary role is to draw boundaries – between the sacred and the profane, between the living and the dead, the civilised and the wild. I know – from my training in anthropology, if nothing else – that fascination with this particular encounter stems from the feeling of it being ‘out of place’: foxes in Bristol are magical because they transgress boundaries – in this case, between ‘cultured’, human worlds, and ‘nature’, the outer world.

I walk on, and right around St. Matthew’s church, there is another one. This one stops, actually, and looks at me. “Hey”, I say, “Hello, fox”. It waits for about six seconds, and then slowly turns around and disappears through the hedge.

I wish I could say that there was sense in that stare, or that I was able to attribute it purpose. There was none, and this is what made it so poignant. The ultimate indecipherability of its gaze made me realise I was as much out of place as the fox was. From its point of view, I was as immaterial and as transgressive as it was from mine: creature from another realm, temporarily inhabiting the same plane, but ultimately of no interest. And there it was, condensed in one moment: what it means to be human, what it means to be somewhere, what it means to belong – and the fragility, precariousness, and eternal incertitude it comes with.

[*] In truth, I’m still planning to write a book that hybridises magical realism with critical realism, but this is not the place to elaborate on that particular project.

[†] I’ve written a bit on the particular intersection of class- and identity-based projects in From Class to Identity; the rich literature on liberalism, multiculturalism, and politics of recognition is impossible to summarise here, but the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a decent summary overview under the entry “Identity Politics”.

[‡] I am grateful to Federico Brandmayr who initially drew my attention to this article.