From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").
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The phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings”, originally attributed to the American conservative commentator and podcaster Ben Shapiro, became a rallying cry on the US Right over the course of 2016, culminating in the election victory of Donald Trump in November of that year. The slogan now adorns t-shirts, bumper stickers and coffee mugs, as a rebuke to its supposed target: the liberal “snowflake” for whom every personal slight is a form of injury or injustice. The sarcastic use of the term “triggered” by the Right to mock the emotional reactions of their opponents is an implicit reference to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a diagnosable condition in which stressful experiences can “trigger” physiological responses.
Despite this rhetoric, feeling was clearly integral to Trump’s victory, as it has been to so many other nationalist leaders and campaigns over the past two hundred years. Trump’s rhetoric focused on feelings of imminent danger (“build a wall!”) and revenge (“lock her up!”), while a dominant explanation for how he won traditionally Democratic states such as Michigan was that the white working class felt aggrieved with the offshoring of industrial jobs and the steady loss of their racial advantages. Political campaigning has always traded in simple slogans and imagery, but the escalating use of social media platforms such as Facebook has deepened the opportunity to use emotionally-persuasive messaging to target particular voters. When the Facebook adverts used by the Vote Leave campaign in Britain’s 2016 referendum were made public two years later, it transpired that they included copious images of animals (including polar bears) that the EU was alleged to be endangering.
The rise of nationalism, populism, and viral content over the 2010s led to a growing appreciation of how significant feeling has become, not only to politics, but to our economy, society, and culture. But what is feeling, and what distinguishes it from other ways of encountering the world? Feeling may not provide us with objective knowledge of the world, but clearly it often tells us something valuable about ourselves, our desires, environment and other people. To abstain from or renounce feeling is scarcely an impressive quality, and may even become an unhealthy deficit, as captured in the concept of “disaffection”. On the other hand, feelings that endure regardless of experience (such as chronic depression) or become excessive (such as crippling anxiety) may invite a diagnosis.
One place to start is by reflecting on the basic truth in Shapiro’s obnoxious catchphrase: feelings are not the same thing as facts. A “fact”, as Mary Poovey details in her History of the Modern Fact, is a distinctive means of representing nature or society, in which events become deliberately detached from the person who experiences them, and parcelled up in such a way that they can be published, shared and relied upon by other people altogether. To say that it is a “fact” that “GDP has risen by 1.2%” or that “the Minister was elsewhere on the night in question” is to say that the frailties of human senses and memory have been deliberately overcome, through measurement devices, witness statements, and a whole armoury of techniques for testing and disciplining subjective experience, to the point where it can be considered “objective” instead.
Feeling, on the other hand, has an immediacy to it that can’t be so easily lifted out of the realm of first-hand experience, without being converted into something else altogether. In no way does this imply an absence of reality to feeling, nor does it disable language. As Ludwig Wittgenstein explored in his famous argument against the existence of “private languages”, we have plenty of ways of speaking about our feelings which – until they are messed up by philosophers – do an adequate job of communicating them to others, and avoiding the problem of doubt. When we say that we are “in pain”, neither we nor the listener has any reason to doubt or check the reality of the pain, but nor could such a claim be taken as a statement of “fact” either. This is why modern medicine (which privileges the “objective” view of the clinician) has long struggled to know what to make of pain.
Feeling also provides us with essential information, which we use to orient ourselves socially, politically and morally. Feelings of hunger or fear clearly play a crucial role in our survival, and there are good reasons to believe they have evolved in ways that adapt us to our environment. But in a similar way, we all get “good” or “bad” feelings about people, ideas, products and so on. Feeling, as the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has written, is a clue: it is a starting point, from where we get to understand what we want, value, believe. To be “in touch with our feelings” does not mean introversion or narcissism (as hostile critiques of “therapy culture” might have it), but simply to use all the data that is available to us when deciding and acting on things.
Feeling is a challenge to the dominant forms of representation and knowledge that modern societies have privileged for hundreds of years.
The distinguishing aspect of feeling is not that it is “fake”, dubious or incommunicable, but that it challenges dominant techniques of representation that have been integral to the development of the natural and social sciences in modern societies, dating back to the early seventeenth century. Unlike, say, my height or date of birth (both facts about me), my feelings can’t be easily separated from me other than through my own powers of expression (though that hasn’t stopped various companies, social scientists, and surveillance technicians from trying to do so). Feeling is therefore a challenge to the dominant forms of representation and knowledge that modern societies have privileged for hundreds of years. For the same reason, a range of twentieth-century philosophers (including phenomenologists, existentialists, feminists and post-structuralists) have seen feeling – or its neighbouring concepts of “mood” and “affect” – as a way to break out of the constraints of the disembodied, rationalist modern self, and to encounter the world differently, as something more than a set of scientific facts.
This challenge to the supremacy of the modern fact has at least two important implications for how we conceive of society. The first concerns time. Once we accept that feeling is both an important means of encountering the world, but also resistant to being captured via orthodox techniques of representation, this means that feeling has a privileged position in the constitution of the present. Above all else, feeling conveys how things are now, and how things are now becomes manifest in feeling. As the theorist Lauren Berlant (one of the founders of the Chicago “Feel Tank”, aimed as a challenge to political think tanks) wrote in Cruel Optimism, “the present is perceived, first, affectively.”
This emphasis on contemporaneity is also manifest in Raymond Williams’ influential idea of the “structure of feeling”, as a sensed and lived way of doing things that resists abstraction or simple representation, but which is nevertheless palpable to those who share it at a given time. Unlike a society’s stated rules, ideologies or formal structures (which can be discovered through orthodox methods of social, political and historical science), its “structure of feeling” can only be discerned through sensitive attention to its culture and everyday practices. For Williams, this kind of cultural studies was eminently possible, but it began from a recognition that the truth of any society lies partly in how it is experienced by its members at the time, and not by virtue of historical or expert distance.
If the language of feeling has become more potent and ubiquitous, this may be partly because we now inhabit societies that are increasingly woven together by the “real-time media” of platforms and screens. While Williams believed that “structures of feeling” could be excavated from careful reading of novels, and historians of emotion pay close attention to diaries and other intimate records, today our emotions frequently leave instant records, and our reports are often emotional: emojis, facial expressions, “I’m literally crying!”, “HAHAHAHA”, and so on now offer a digital vernacular through which we narrate our feelings, as we are having them. The human face, and in particular its instinctive reactions, has acquired a central semiotic role in the digital media-sphere. If “facts” are always in the rear-view mirror (things to be established after they have occurred), “feelings” exist in “real-time”, lending themselves to media designed for sensitivity, rather than for objectivity.
Feeling messes with the distinction between mind and body that is so foundational to modern concepts of the self.
Secondly, feeling messes with the distinction between mind and body that is so foundational to modern concepts of the self, from René Descartes through to cognitive psychology. The verb “to feel” is typically used to refer to bodily sensation, but when we speak of “feeling sad” or say “I feel that this is the right thing to do”, we are more likely referring to our inner psychological selves than to any part of our bodies. On the other hand, as the neurosciences have advanced since the 1990s, penetrating popular thinking and vernacular as they’ve done so, precisely which feelings we attribute to our “minds” and which to our “bodies” has become less clear. The medicalisation of mental health problems that has expanded rapidly since the 1970s (greatly to the benefit of the pharmaceutical industry) means that ever widening arrays of mental feelings are assumed to have neurochemical underpinnings.
Rather than try to work out precisely what belongs to the mind and what to the body, philosophers of affect and emotion have tended to see these concepts as dissolving the boundary between the two. In a famous article from 1884, “What is an emotion?”, the philosopher and psychologist William James argued that our modern assumptions about agency residing in the mind break down once we consider the nature of emotions. Our emotions possess and move us, starting from our bodies. “We feel sorry because we cry,” he argued, “angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble”.
The psycho-somatic self has become increasingly credible since the 1960s, thanks partly to advances in neurosciences and psychiatry, but also as an effect of an increasingly hedonistic, therapeutic culture, which adopts a more holistic view of personal flourishing, as manifest today in “wellness” culture. One result of this is that, away from the strictures of modern expertise or the domain of facts, physical emotion – crying, eye movement, body language – often becomes a mark of authenticity and truthfulness. Our society’s growing emphasis on facial expressions and instinctive reactions by public figures is a sign that we often see the body as a more reliable means of accessing someone’s thoughts or intentions than what they say. As the surveillance scholar Mark Andrejvic has written, this “crisis of semiotic efficiency” produces a new fantasy, of the wholly transparent self, whose real feelings can be detected by the camera.
There are also economic reasons why the feeling self has risen in profile since the 1960s. With the decline of industrial work and bureaucratic hierarchy, feelings of passion, enthusiasm, and care have become integral to contemporary work, while advertising has grown ever more attuned to feelings of desire and anxiety. Theorists of “post-Fordist” capitalism have noted how the value of work and of consumer goods has grown increasingly “affective” in nature, rooted not in the material needs and demands they satisfy, but in how they exploit and impact on feelings. But this too produces problems of objective representation: how to measure economic value, once value has become subjective in nature?
These various trends open up different political possibilities. One over-arching tendency at work in societies today is the development of an ever-widening infrastructure of emotional surveillance, aimed at detecting our feelings via our bodies, tones of voice, words, and personal behaviour. Home “digital assistants”, “smart” technology, and other digital interfaces are all opportunities to overcome the problem of representation by converting feelings into facts. The relational, communicative, intimate nature of feeling is suppressed, and instead there is a science of emotion, understood as sheerly objective behaviour. The “truth” of feelings is found by silencing the person who experiences them.
The alternative, more hopeful, political possibility is one founded in the foregrounding of voice. If feeling is something that challenges modern ideals of representation and evades the forms of abstraction common to orthodox social and natural science, that means that the feeling person must speak for themselves. That doesn’t mean that feeling somehow trumps facts (as Shapiro and his followers accuse the Left of arguing), but it does mean, building on the overlapping traditions of psychoanalysis, participatory democracy, and ethnographic method, that what people say and how they say it must be considered a central feature of what they’re doing and why.
William Davies is Professor of Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of The Limits of Neoliberalism (2014), The Happiness Industry (2015), and Nervous States (2018). He writes regularly for the Guardian, London Review of Books, and the New York Times. Website: williamdavies.blog
From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").
We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.