The Bond of Belief

This short essay copied below was commissioned and published by the magazine Bang and translated into Swedish by Ulrika Dhal in 2012. A shorter version will be published in the magazine Bildpunkt  and translated into German by  Sophia Schasiepen later this year. So I thought I would post the original in English here!

The Bond of Belief:

From Nervous to Happy Nations

 

How do we bond through beliefs?  In my 2004 book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, I explored how the language of fascism is written in the language of love. Love is made into the primary quality of attachment, what motivates individuals into fascism: “we hate foreigners because we love our country.”  We have in recent times witnessed a proliferation of fascisms in which love remains sticky, like glue, a bind, a bond; love articulated as a struggle for national survival against what is often narrated as the “death threat” of Islam. Many of these new groups (such as the English Defense League) transform love into a defense system: as if to say, “we must defend our people, our jobs, our future (our women, our gays, our children), that is, defend what and who we love, or appear to love, against that which endangers them, those who endanger them.” Love has an enormous political utility: transforming fascist subjects not only into heroic subjects, but also into potential or actual victims of crime as well as those who “alone” are willing to fight crime. Fascist subjects become freedom fighters, willing to stand against the “swamp” or “tide” of the incoming others, who themselves are narrated as hateful: as being not only worthy of our hate, but as full of hate for what we are and have.

If love is what binds, then it also involves what I have called an “affective economy.” An affective subject of love is created, as various figures circulate, from bogus asylum seekers, to “Islamic terrorists,” as objects of hate, accumulating negative value. The proximity between these figures creates a sliding impression that converts swiftly into narrative: such that the “bogus asylum seeker,” becomes (like) the “Islamic terrorist,” the one who threatens the nation from without. Or the very proximity between words (“Islamic” and “terrorist” or “bogus” and “asylum seeker”) creates an equivalence between these words (Islamic = terrorist, asylum seeker = bogus) without an explicit argument ever having to be made, or even as a way of countering an explicit argument (a speech can claim that Islam does not equal terrorism, whilst repeatedly using the expression “Islamic terrorist” as if these terms belong together: I have called this rhetorical strategy “problematic proximities”).

One of my key arguments in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) is that multiculturalism operates as a form of national love. Multiculturalism becomes an injunction that the “would-be” or “could-be” citizens love the nation and its values (law, liberty, tolerance, democracy, modernity, diversity and equality — all these terms are presented as if they are attributes of the national body). Multicultural love allows a national body to cohere, whilst obscuring the effects of this coherence. This idea that the national body acquires coherence through a systems of belief only appears to separate the nation from race. For these beliefs become “ours” and even if this “ours” seems open (to others who might share our beliefs) it is only possible as a gift, as what we already have and “they” must acquire, often through force or compulsion.  The national body can then appear to be in love with its diversity at the very same time as requiring those who embody diversity give their allegiance to its body (where allegiance remains predicated on giving up other kinds of allegiances that cannot be incorporated into this body – hence a nation can love diversity whilst demanding that Muslim women unveil).

Today this idea of loving multiculturalism seems far removed from political vocabularies regularly exercised across Europe. Multiculturalism has itself been sentenced to death: as if the act of welcoming diverse others has endangered the security and well-being of the nation. When the British Prime-Minister David Cameron called for a “muscular liberalism” in 2011, echoing and echoed by other political leaders, we could witness a narrowing of the gap between mainstream and fascist uses of political love. It is out of love, according to Cameron, that we must exercise our muscles; that we must stand up against those who have stopped us from standing up, those forms of political correctness, that have prevented us from defending our values and beliefs.[1] And here Cameron re-attaches beliefs quite explicitly to race: “So, when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them.  But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious frankly – frankly, even fearful – to stand up to them.”  Racism becomes understood as something that is “rightly” condemned. But the immediate implication is that the tendency to condemn racism in white people is the same tendency as the one that does not object to what is unacceptable in “someone who isn’t white.”

The speech carefully creates the impression that racism in white culture is not acceptable (thus obscuring the very ordinary nature of acceptable racism) whilst implying again that “our tolerance” of others has stopped those others from being more tolerable, more acceptable in terms of their beliefs. This nervous white subject who is unable to stand up to the non-white others becomes a national subject: “A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone.  It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.  Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.  It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.  Now, each of us in our own countries, I believe, must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.” Note the repetition of belief: to belong is to believe in what I/we believe, I believe. A muscular liberalism is the one who is hard about belief: who demands that other believe as we do. And we note the nervous slide between the individual and collective subject: it is the nervousness that creates a bond, implying that the national subject is the white subject, the one who must regains its nerves, must not lose his nerve, by becoming more “hard-nosed” about others. I opened my book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) with an interrogation of the metaphor of the “soft touch nation,” a metaphor that allows the nation to be imagined and felt as a body that is easily bruised by incoming others. Softness and nervousness become what the nation has suffered from; what they must give up. That this is a rewriting of the history of British race and national politics is obvious: this is a fantasy that is being used to justify belief itself as a security project; belief as becoming “hard about belief.”

At the time of the speech the security minister Baroness Neville-Jones said to the Today radio programme on BBC 1: “There’s a widespread feeling in the country that we’re less united behind values than we need to be.” Speeches like Cameron’s are affective because they pick up on feelings, and give them form. In giving them form, they direct those feelings in specific ways. Feelings of nervousness or anxiety might be prevalent, that might even be widespread (we are living in times which make such feelings make sense). Political discourse transforms feeling by giving that feeling an object or target. We could call this projection: negative feelings are projected onto outsiders, who then appear to threaten from without, what is felt as precariously within. But projection is not quite the right word insofar as it implies an inside going out. I think these feelings are already out and about. They circulate at least in part through being understood as in circulation. The speech act which says the nation feels x does something; it becomes an injunction to feel x such that fulfillment of an injunction becomes a confirmation (that the nation feels x).

Let’s take a social situation. How often we experience that situation through or as atmosphere. It can be tense. But in naming or describing that atmosphere, whether to ourselves or others, we give it form. If there is tension we might search for an explanation: someone or something becomes the cause of tension.  When attributions “take hold” they become shared explanations for an event or situation. We might agree with that cause. Once someone or something becomes the cause of tension, then shared feelings are directed towards that cause. Something “out there” which is sensed and real, but also intangible, is made tangible. In “finding” a cause feelings become forceful. Political discourse is powerful as it can turn intangible feelings that are shared into tangible things that you can do things with. If we feel nervous, then we can do something by eliminating what is agreed to be the cause of our nerves. I think the Marxist model of commodity fetishism helps us to describe these mechanisms: feelings come to reside in objects, as if magically, but only by cutting those objects off from a wider economy of labour and production. It is then as if fear originates with the arrival of others whose bodies become containers of our fear.

When a feeling becomes an instrument or a technique it is not that something is created from nothing. But something is being created from something: a wavering impression of nervousness can strengthen and straighten its hold when we are given a face to be nervous about. To track how feelings cohere as or in bodies, we need to pay attention to the conversion points between good and bad feelings. As I have suggested a politics that directs hatred towards others (that creates others as objects to be hated as well as feared) often presents itself as a politics of love. But there are many other kinds of conversion points. It was noteworthy in the UK that when anger about cuts to public spending (justified under the affective language of austerity – of shared peril) moved people to march onto the streets, the government responded by calling for a happiness index.[2] Is happiness here a technique of distraction, a way of covering the nation with a warm blanket?

And then there was announcement of a Royal Wedding. It might be that this announcement was from the point of view of government just good timing. But however we can understand the “co-incidence” of the announcement of the wedding with the widening of protest it was explicitly framed as a national treat. The Prime Minister said immediately “everyone would want to put on record the happy news that was announced yesterday” and opened for public debate whether there should be a national holiday.[3]  Happiness became a gift to the nation, one that was given as a counter-gift, a way of countering a sense of national exhaustion and misery (and note even the idea of a tired miserable nation was a way of pacifying the potency of the signs of rage).[4] Those who did not participate in this national happiness were certainly positioned as killjoys or what I called in The Promise of Happiness (2010) “affect aliens,” alienated from the nation by virtue of not being affected in the right way.[5]

Like all weddings, this one was always meant to be a happy occasion; a celebration of this straight couple and the bond of their love (this is a love we can believe in, a love we are happy to love). And not just any couple of course: an especially shiny white couple. In anticipation of the event one commentator noted: “They will help form our collective imagination. They are now part of what we are as a nation, how we define ourselves as individuals, and how we are seen by foreigners.” The love for the couple becomes a form of national membership resting quite explicitly on a self-consciousness about how we appear to those deemed “foreigners.” To love the couple is want their appearance. The same writer concludes his article with a flourish: “But the monarchy is also about magic. It sets Britain apart. It reminds us that this is a very antique nation, with a history and an identity which goes back for thousands of years. Just as a royal funeral is a moment of collective national sadness and mourning, a royal wedding is a moment of overwhelming joy and renewal. We all share in it. When the marriage itself takes place on an as-yet-unspecified date next year, the nation will take to the streets, rejoicing.” [6] An institution that has been reproduced over time becomes magic: cut off from the labour of its own reproduction. And note as well how description (this is a happy occasion) becomes evaluation (this is good for the nation) and command (be happy, rejoice!). To share in the body of the nation requires that you place your happiness in the right things.

The wedding in 2011 was followed this year by the Royal Jubilee: and the flags came out again. In both national events, the cause for celebration took us back to history, to class as heritage, to class as continuity, to class as solidarity rather than antagonism. Commentators again claimed in advance that the event would be a day of national happiness: “It will be marked by great national happiness – and hopefully by good weather.[7] If good weather can only be hoped for (in the UK, much happiness is gained by moaning about weather), great national happiness is given the safety and wisdom of prediction. And this happiness is tied directly to the singularity of a Royal body, a body who has survived the comings and goings, the ups and downs, of national democratic time: “The jubilee is an opportunity to have a party amid hard times, but it should also be an opportunity to debate the institution more thoughtfully – because it defines this country and it will have to change after Elizabeth II’s reign is over. Yet it would be churlish not to acknowledge that the principal public feeling this weekend is respect for a woman who has done her strange, anachronistic and undemocratic job with tact and judgment for far longer than most of the rest of us could ever contemplate doing ours.” The singular body becomes an object of shared feeling, a way the national body can cohere in recognition of the longevity of a history it can call its own.

The investment in national happiness has much to teach us about the emotional politics of citizenship. Citizenship becomes a requirement to be sympathetic: as an agreement with feeling. To be a sympathetic part is to agree with your heart. After all, who could fail to be touched by the endlessly repeated images of the young queen coming to the throne after the death of her father? Who could fail to be touched by the memory of the young prince following the coffin of his dead mother? Here being touched into citizenship is to be touched by the trauma of a past and the prospect of its conversion.  Not to feel happiness in reaching these points is to become not only unsympathetic but also hostile, as your unfeeling masks a disbelief in the very good of the nation.  To be part of the nation is to remember these histories of national trauma: to recall them on the route to national pride. To be part of the nation, to participate in the national body, was to right a wrong, to feel right having felt wronged. National feeling was predicated not only on happiness but on the happiness of this conversion.

A bond of belief still turns upon a body, one that can concretize or “hold” that belief and convert it into memory. A national belief system became belief in a Royal Family, such that their bodies come to represent most perfectly our own. Belief has become a primary bond. Belief has become the thing we can say we love, a way of performing and masking “the we” that we love: we love the nation because of its beliefs; we love “the we” who believes in the nation. Beliefs have become a polite or masked form of racism: a way of loving what appears as open (the other can become acceptable by believing in our beliefs). Openness has itself become a quality assumed to reside in some more than others, a way of making some loveable, and not others. To be involved in anti-racist politics requires becoming unlovable. You have to lose sympathy. But it is risky. It can be dangerous.


[1] For the written copy of Cameron’s 2011 Speech see: http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/pms-speech-at-munich-security-conference/

[4] The pacification of the potency of rage has been an important part of the media and political response to the protests. The “anger” was typically projected onto militant outsiders, those who were intent on destroying the march for others, rather than being understood as what compelled people to march in the first place. It is almost as if the media “willed” the marches to be of tired rather than angry feet.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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5 Responses to The Bond of Belief

  1. Otrazhenie says:

    Very good essay. Enjoyed reading it. Totally agree with you. Feel so lucky to live in a more multicultural society than I ever experienced in Europe.Though even here every now and then racism and intolerance pops up but gets quickly squashed by tolerant multicultural majority.

  2. Michael says:

    “I think these feelings are already out and about. They circulate at least in part through being understood as in circulation. The speech act which says the nation feels x does something; it becomes an injunction to feel x such that fulfillment of an injunction becomes a confirmation (that the nation feels x).”

    Energy, they say, can’t be created, nor destroyed. I’d like to follow this vein and think about emotion as a form of energy (which you did, severally up there somewhere). At some point someone has to point out how this energy is being transferred and what it is being used to do. Thank you for helping with this.

    In other, related, news I may have found a new favourite blog. Please continue being a killjoy.

  3. I am sure I will: its a life long project! I think its helpful to explore how energy gets transferred (and blocked). I am currently working on a paper on mood, as it happens, as well as a new introduction to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion so it is a good time to be thinking about the different ways we can think about emotions!. I am kinda fascinated by how moods become movements (the etymology of the word ’emotion’ is from the Latin emovere to move out), but also how moods can be ‘directed’ and ‘redirected’ by being given shape, in the form of objects or words (a face, a figure), which does create something, I suspect, but not from nothing. In my work on social will, I have been looking at how feelings can circulate amongst bodies that are proximate, but also how feelings can be ‘turned’ in the way a crowd can be turned or directed (by such materialities as the layout of the street). Right now for instance I am looking at how the constant declaration that ‘the public mood has hardened against immigration’ can be a technique for turning; it can participate in the hardening of national borders by justifying that hardening as an expression of mood. Thanks for your comments!

    • Michael says:

      I completely get that. Here(Kenya- just realised we’re not in the same room, the internets are global) there is a general “accept and move on” mantra in the aftermath of out elections. It is interesting to see how the national fear of violence as an emotions was channelled to create an opposition to dissent. It’s crazy how the people in power tapped into the national pool of emotion and picked an emotion then used that emotion to get a required result from the people. It was so, mechanical, like a button, and the response was scarily accurate. And the worst thing is how these feelings that are being turned are so intimate with the individuals. On a collective level it is just a blanket emotion. However, on the individual level the passion that burns in people’s eyes as they (we) defend how we arrived at that point via independent thought.

      ‘the public mood has hardened against immigration’ – following the whole “they come over here, and take our jobs” line? A friend reminded me that Australia, currently undergoing the whole immigrant debate is a country of immigrants. There’s a certain irony to a country of outsiders trying to lock people out. It is like playing king of the castle as children where only just ‘winning’ the castle, you must strive to make sure no one else can get it.

  4. Pingback: CURRENT AFFAIRS | FOR SOSO, A TAURUS – The Pillow Book of Etima Ette-Umoh

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