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University of Minnesota Press

Chapter Title: Conclusion

Book Title: Political Affect

Book Subtitle: Connecting the Social and the Somatic
Book Author(s): John Protevi
Published by: University of Minnesota Press. (2009)
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I S T H E R E A P O L I T I C A L P H I L O S O P H Y implied in my theoretical work

and in my treatment of the case studies? In its nominal content, we find lib-
eral republicanism balancing individual rights and the common good, the
two extremes we investigated in the Schiavo and Katrina cases, respectively.
My claim to originality would be grounding those concepts in terms of af-
fective cognition as the sense-making of bodies politic rather than in a ra-
tional cognitive subject as the political subject. Following up on our theory
of political physiology, there is no single political subject, no single concep-
tual ground of politics. Rather, there is a naturalized politics in which gov-
ernment as the organized expression of the means to achieve the common
good is grounded in empathic solidarity, and individual rights are grounded
in singular affect.
Political physiology can also help us with a third element of political the-
ory, after those of individual rights and the common good: sovereignty. It
bears repeating that the ability of the “forces of order” to kill in a planned,
systematic manner is the key to sovereignty conceived as the monopoly
on the legitimate use of violence in a territory. The violence that forms an
essential part of political practice must be thought of in its relation to de-
subjectivizing practices that enable the controlled and targeted triggering
of hunting agents or the implantation of reflexes or quasi-reflexive time-
pressured decisions. In other words, we have to consider the techniques by
which protoempathic identification and its inhibition on violence are over-
come, as chapter 6 attempts to show. In this regard, we can also note that
the ancient and modern social and corporeal techniques that manipulate
the political physiology of the act of killing—colloquially speaking, the
ways people psych themselves up for violence—cannot be contained in tra-
ditional military structures. In order, then, to understand terrorism as free-


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186 Conclusion

lance political violence, we must have a clear understanding of the inter-

section of political rhetoric, affective neuroscience, and the act of killing.
Such rethinking of political theory in terms of affective cognition in a
social context allows us to consider some of the direct political applications
of our study. The intersection of politics and affect occurs every day: dra-
matically, in terror alerts and moral panics, and prosaically, when Ameri-
can electoral campaigns use functional MRI technology to produce brain
scans for the study of cognitive and affective responses to political adver-
tising (Tierney 2004; Cacioppo and Visser 2003; Raichle 2003). A philo-
sophical study examining the intersection of politics and affect is thus an
important addition to civic literacy, as a citizenry that is unaware of the
way political rhetoric uses unconscious emotional valuing processes deeply
rooted in brain and body risks validating the ancient antidemocratic canard
about the emotional instability of “the people.”
Whatever its political applications, this is ultimately a philosophy book.
Turning to the current philosophical landscape, we should note that
although emotion has become a topic of some interest to philosophers lately,
almost all of that philosophical interest has shown an individualist orienta-
tion (with the exception of Griffiths and Scarantino 2009), so the recourse
of political physiology to the concepts of emergence and complexity theory
lets us think of collective emotions. We should note here that Griffiths and
Scarantino are ontologically modest when it comes to collective emotion,
while Deleuze and Guattari are more ontologically bold in their notion of
haecceity, which includes affect in a singular temporal-spatial-social event
(Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 260–65). On the other hand, all the work in
political science that uses computer programming to model social interac-
tion (“cellular automata” [Sawyer 2001]) uses rationalist presuppositions
about human behavior, so we need affective neuroscience to let us think
of collective emotions. In other words, what we need is a way to think of
humans as collective and emotional as well as individual and rational. This
is what I have done in Political Affect.
The study of political physiology benefits both political philosophy and
cognitive science by placing affective neuroscience, which deals with com-
ponent processes below the level of the subject, in a fully developed political
context that eschews individualism by recognizing emergent social groups
above the subject and heterogeneous assemblages that are alongside the
subject. Political philosophy benefits from rethinking the social context of
affect, since social commands, symbols, slogans, and images result in the
conditioning of conscious subjective actions through unconscious valuing,

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Conclusion 187

as when we respond to social situations with decisions mediated by fear,

anger, anxiety, and sadness. But at other times, the presence of socially con-
stituted commands, symbols, slogans, and images can trigger behavior that
eludes conscious control, as in de-subjectivizing panics and rages, where
the conscious subject is bypassed in favor of an immediate link between a
social trigger and a somatic mechanism (Grossman 1996; Griffiths 1997;
LeDoux 1996; Niehoff 1999; Panksepp 1998). Since the negative affects
of panic and rage—and the milder forms of fear, anger, anxiety, and sad-
ness—are among the emotions most susceptible to political manipulation,
the need for political philosophy to study political affect is evident. Not all
affects are negative, however; therefore, we need to rethink political philos-
ophy’s focus on the rational subject not just in panic and rage but also in
love and empathy, what Aristotle would call philia.
Just as political philosophy benefits from rethinking the positive as well
as the negative affects, cognitive science must appreciate negative affects
as well as the positive cognitive aspects of culture. Not all cultural forms
empower subjects by storing heuristics for cognition; depending on the
developmental path laid down for those in a particular social group (for
example, one’s race and gender), culture can be inhibiting or downright
damaging, for it can engender negative affective patterns, thresholds, and
triggers just as it denies or awards access to heuristic resources. The study
of political physiology, by incorporating the results of affective neurosci-
ence in a political framework, renews political philosophy by removing
its exclusive focus on the rational cognitive subject, just as it helps cogni-
tive science by removing the naively positive view of culture entailed by its
A further benefit of our study of political physiology is its being based
in a conceptual field in which naturalizing includes room for a collective
politics while difference becomes naturalized. Here, once again, the work of
Deleuze is important. In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari propose
that natural processes tend toward two poles of emergent systems: either
stratification (centralized, hierarchical systems of homogeneous parts) or
networking (heterogeneous components working together in de-centered
networks). They thus provide a political physics (Protevi 2001) that, via the
notions of stratification and networking, naturalizes the notions of servi-
tude and freedom.
The move to a political physics that grounds the freedom of democratic
collectivity in a natural process of networking is an important one; while
some naturalizers like myself seek to naturalize social cooperation by

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188 Conclusion

showing how it is engendered and reproduced in the reciprocal causality

of emergent social groups, others are apolitical, and still others propose
an individualist (or at best family-based) politics. The most extreme rely on
reductionist ultra-Darwinist presuppositions; they posit “selfish genes” or
“replicators” inhabiting organisms or “vehicles” and undertaking repro-
ductive strategies to increase their share in a population gene frequency
market (Dawkins 2006). When coupled with the worst excesses of evo-
lutionary psychology (which reduces complex social phenomena to such
genetic maneuvering), the result is almost always an authoritarian/sexist
politics tending toward the political affect of servitude grounded in a politi-
cal physics of stratification (Arnhart 1994a, 1994b).
On the other hand, some philosophers reject political physics altogether
because of their commitment to an antirealist epistemology (Braver 2007).
They would diagnose political commitments in scientific discourse, but they
would restrict this to the level of images and metaphors, denying the possi-
bility of an ontology that could show social cooperation to be grounded in
a real natural process of networking (concretized as philia, as political soli-
darity). While they acknowledge the differential aspect of networking, they
restrict this to sign networks, which sociolinguistically construct reality for
us. Thus, the best they can do is unravel the way in which, for them, some
signifier chains pretend to capture scientifically the reality of the natural
process of networking—even when they are sympathetic to the democratic
collective politics grounded therein.
If we are to escape such “signifier enthusiasm” (Deleuze and Guattari
1987, 66) and maintain a naturalist orientation, we will have to engage
the question of human nature. What does political physiology say about
human nature? First, that there is one. For many years, a large part of the
left adopted social constructivism to fight the good fight against racist and
sexist constructions of human nature. But they threw the baby out with
the bathwater by banning any discussion of human nature. We cannot
escape a new serious and important discussion on human nature, and we
better join it with our eyes peeled for racist and sexist assumptions, hence
with an appropriately high barrier to admitting human nature discourse
(Selinger forthcoming). Second, we should join the discussion not simply
on the defensive, but welcoming it as a good thing. While many leftists have
dallied with social constructivism, the right has continued to put forth its
version of human nature: the individualist, competitive, utility-maximiz-
ing rational agent. In doing so, they often deny they have a metaphysics:
they accuse the left of metaphysics in promoting collectivism, but they

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Conclusion 189

deny their own individualist metaphysics as well as their own actions in

creating the set of social conditions that make people act as if they were
individual utility maximizers. We need to insist on the political economy
of consciousness, for much of sociopolitical practice tries to render irrel-
evant the effects of subjective agency by rendering behavior predictable,
either in mass—by neoliberal economic practices that seek to produce the
conditions that will, in turn, produce “rational” (predictable) behavior—or
by discipline for individuals and small groups (Schwartz, Schuldenfrei, and
Lacey 1979; Satz and Frerejohn 1994; Murphy 1996; Bonta and Protevi
2004; Klein 2007).
Two lines of attack present themselves. First, the metaphysics of ratio-
nal agency is bad, a substantialist/essentialist line of thought. We do not
have a nature; we develop one, predictably and reliably, from multiple
developmental factors (there is no gene-centrism in political physiology).
Second, the exclusive focus on the individualist/competitive content of the
right-wing view of human nature is false: human nature is equally—nay,
perhaps predominantly—prosocial. There are sociopaths, of course, but
this only defeats the claim that human nature includes a widespread pro-
social tendency if you have an essentialist view of nature: as if, in identify-
ing human nature, we were isolating a finite set of necessary and sufficient
characteristics for belonging to the human species and claiming that pro-
sociality belongs on that list. The counterexample of sociopaths would
defeat such a claim—if it were advanced in an essentialist manner. But we
have to see nature as statistical, as the dominant cluster of the distribu-
tion of traits in a population, as we are taught by Darwin and population
thinking. We might even think of nature as that which occurs “for the most
part,” as Aristotle puts it (Physics 2.8.198b35), if we can remove the tele-
ology and just retain the truth of the observation: at any one time, species
traits clump together.
We have to insist on the following: the prosocial character of human
nature is revealed by the widespread capacity for protoempathic identifi-
cation. There is now a large contemporary literature on empathy, some
of which we discussed in chapter 1. Based in mother-child primate rela-
tions, protoempathic identification has been extended in human evolution
to kin and then to in-group and finally to all other humans and, often, to
other animals. We see here an occasion for the rehabilitation of the theory
of moral sentiments proposed by Adam Smith and David Hume (de Waal
2006), not to mention the need to recognize the role of cooperation in
nature (Kropotkin 2007; Gould 1988). The primate basis of prosociality,

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190 Conclusion

Frans de Waal argues, is extended to include a sense of fairness, reciprocity,

and harmonizing: “In stressing kindness, our moral systems are enforcing
what is already part of our heritage. They are not turning human behav-
ior around, only underlining preexisting capacities” (2006, 181). The
challenge we face is to extend the range of prosocial impulses from the in-
group, protect them from the negative emotions, and build on them to gen-
uine altruism, that is, acting for the sake of the other, not just feeling what
the other feels (Joyce 2007). All this is not to deny the selfish nature of the
basic emotions of rage and fear. The key to a fruitful left approach to politi-
cal physiology is studying how such selfish, negative emotions are manipu-
lated or, more positively, how a social order is constructed to minimize them
and to maximize positive affects (Singer 1999; Gatens and Lloyd 1999).
As good Deleuzians, we cannot rest with moral language for that is too
close to the application of fixed standards (“the judgment of God”). In
response to the proposal that we model our moral sense on a Chomskyan
language acquisition module (Hauser 2006), we have to take up Deleuze
and Guattari’s critique of Chomsky. In other words, we have to see the rela-
tion of the virtual and the actual as the continuous variation of variables
(Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 92–110). This means that problems are fluid
and complex: our moves change the conditions for future moves, often in
ways we cannot predict. The interactivity of moves and problems means
that no one solution exhausts a problematic field; thus, we cannot bracket
pragmatics or the study of concrete action and its relation to the conditions
of future action.
The upshot of a Deleuzian pragmatics approach to living through
problems is that in perceiving what is right about a situation, we have to
rely upon our radicalization of Noë’s virtuality of perception, as we have
sketched it in chapter 2. Thus, as much as any natural environment (much
more so, in fact), the social field is virtual, and moral perception is the reso-
lution of a dynamic field of potentials for practical action. That is why we
cannot be content with posing moral questions, as with the famous trolley
problems, for morality is not about arriving at a set of answers, or even
studying the process by which answers to set questions are arrived at, but
about moving from the concrete situations we find ourselves in and posing
a virtual problem with a range of solutions, the actualization of which will
change the conditions for future actualizations (Williams 2005, 129–51).
We have to recall that a problem in the Deleuzian sense means a tempo-
rarily linked set of heterogeneous Ideas or multiplicities, a constellation in

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Conclusion 191

which some stand out from background, though in principle all multiplici-
ties are connected.
This is why case studies have to be part of our methodological tool kit
in studying political physiology: in them we see the coming together of a
problematic field linking all multiplicities from a certain perspective, which
makes some stand out. With case studies we come to realize that facing the
concrete situation individuates while depersonalizing; we lose our habits to
gain our singularity. And it is only in living our singularities, in feeling at
the intense turning points of our lives the multiplicities crossing between
us and linking us, that we can feel the empathy, the love and solidarity, the
eros and philia, by which we best live as imbrications of the social and the

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