Manos Tsakiris: Politics is visceral

September 18, 2020

NOMIS Awardee Manos Tsakiris has published an essay in Aeon addressing visceral politics.

In an age thick with anger and fear, we might dream of a purely rational politics but it would be a denial of our humanity.

Manos Tsakiris

We live in bodies that feel increasingly unsafe. Pandemics, climate change, sexual assault, systemic racism, the pressures of gig-economy jobs, the crisis of liberal democracy – these phenomena create feelings of vulnerability that are, quite literally, visceral. They’re visceral in the sense that emotional experience arises from how our physiological organs – from our guts and lungs to our hearts and hormonal systems – respond to an everchanging world. They’re also political, in that our feelings affect and are affected by political decisions and behaviour.

It’s not surprising, then, that political language has become saturated with emotion. Whether one calls the present era a time of anxiety, fear or anger, visceral states and feelings appear at the forefront of the political conversation. This is hard to square with Aristotle’s claim that human beings are ‘naturally rational’ creatures – ‘political animals’ who could flourish only within a political community or ‘polis’. The polis, as Aristotle wrote in Politics, ‘comes to be for the sake of life, and exists for the sake of the good life’. The different ways of organising the polis to promote the good life, and disagreements about the best way to do so, create the concept of politics as we know it. So, in the 21st century of ‘emo-cratic’ politics, what does it mean to be a ‘political animal’, and what counts as a ‘good life’?

Activists clash with police on 1 March 2020 in Kolkata during a protest against India’s new citizenship law and following sectarian riots in New Delhi. Photo by Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty

The answer from what I call ‘visceral politics’ emerges out of a historically novel scientific understanding of the human being, not so much as a rational creature, but as a primarily embodied and affective one. Visceral politics lies at the intersection of the body’s physiology and political behaviour. It’s informed by aligning the life sciences, social sciences and humanities to provide insights into how human emotions are created and experienced. It takes on board the visceral underpinnings of human nature, their importance for our physical and mental wellbeing, and the interdependence between the individual and society. It also captures the ways in which our emotions shape our needs and decisions and, in turn, how sociopolitical forces recruit or exploit physiology to influence behaviour.

None of this means that visceral politics is new; in some sense, politics has always been visceral. Our bodily states and the way we regulate them explain much about why political and social structures look the way they do. The Hobbesian idea that government exists in order to keep citizens safe from their own worst impulses, for example, can be read as a response to the extremes of how humans express their emotions. But while feelings are key drivers of human behaviour, democratic political theory has focused on reason and rationality as means of taming emotions. The present conditions therefore offer new possibilities for understanding the sociopolitical significance of visceral states, and showing how emotions and their physiological origins are as essential to decision-making as logical reasoning. Looking at the specific ways in which human physiology interacts with contemporary politics might help to account for why the world now feels the way it does.