Rhetorics of Affect: Notes on the Political Theory of the Passions

 Originally Appeared in: The Oxford Handbook of Rhetoric and Political Theory, ed. Dilip Gaonkar and Keith Topper Published: August, 2022

Abstract: The place of rhetoric in political theory is inseparable from the philosophy of the passions. Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric first catalogued the emotions, analyzing them in relation to the structure of feeling in Athenian society on which political persuasion depended. Hobbes and Rousseau placed fear at the joint between the state of nature and society, on the side of nature for Hobbes and society for Rousseau. Aristotle and Rousseau anticipated the problem of ungroundedness explored in twentieth-century thought. Since feelings and polity alike are ungrounded and since feelings are an essential dimension of politics, it falls to rhetoric to forge the link between them. The numerous pitfalls in specifying the affective dynamics of rhetoric in the political realm can be seen in the work of such influential theorists as Albert O. Hirschman, George Kateb, Brian Massumi, and Corey Robin. Moreover, political community itself is volatilized by questions of identity and belonging. The polis, as François Jullien emphasized, entails exclusions even as the principle of inclusion itself is ungrounded and contingent in the sense that the we of political community does not derive from reason or from nature. Unease, what Heidegger called Angst, is at the core of modern political experience. Peter Sloterdijk’s provocative approach to the modern polity’s collective energies and affects foregrounds rage and the symbolic, institutional, and discursive means by which the inchoate dissatisfactions of modern social life are stored, organized, and mobilized as political forces.

I start from three interlocking premises. First, affective states and passions are an inherent dimension of politics and the political realm. Second, among the “ineluctable means” of politics, in addition to violence and deception as identified by Max Weber, is the power of rhetoric to arouse and dampen emotions, rhetoric in the double sense of the art of persuasion and the art of figuration. And, third, passions and affects do not exist independent of “discourse,” specifically rhetoric, in the sense that rhetoric does not simply convey or express passions and affects but in some sense forms them.

The place of rhetoric in political theory is, therefore, inextricably bound up with the philosophy of the passions. Passions traverse the entire political realm. And emotion, affect, and mood have no political manifestation or valence except through rhetoric. Such fundamental phenomena as allegiance, alliance, loyalty, solidarity, mobilization, rivalry, and patriotism hinge on rhetorico-affective processes. Aristotle first characterized the emotions in The Art of Rhetoric and identified them in terms of human beings’ civil relations with one another; replete with political potential are envy, jealousy, indignation, shame, fear, pity, confidence, hostility, and hatred. The most fundamental need of the political realm itself is legitimation, and the willingness of citizens or subjects to accept the form of rule in which they find themselves requires complex symbolico-affective bonds that range from tribal-familial loyalties to civic pride or patriotic love or social solidarity to nationalistic fervor fueled by ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and racism. Since Nietzsche, ressentiment figures as a political passion and a storehouse for potential destructive or self- destructive outbursts of rage, vengefulness, and scapegoating. Political movements sometimes evoke feelings of humiliation in appeals for retribution or reparation. In other contexts, those who have defected from the political consensus and likemindedness of the group to which they belong are accused of self- loathing. Across the vast landscape, then, of the political realm, political mobilization, and political decision and action, is to be found the linkage of affect and rhetoric.

The relative clarity of the procedures for analyzing rhetoric and the extraordinary fuzziness of all notions of feeling, affect, passion, and emotion give this topic its peculiar élan and its conceptual viscosity. In what follows I will try to elucidate the bearing of the problematic of rhetoric and affect on political theory from five angles, without making any claim to systematicity.

Hobbes and Rousseau: Fear, the Joint Between Nature and Society

Fear is an emotion that plays a decisive role in modern political theory. More accurately, it enjoys varied and contradictory roles. It has foundational significance in Hobbes and Rousseau, who place fear along the divide between the state of nature and civil society but on opposite sides of that divide. The Hobbesian state of nature is pervaded by fear as the “condition of Warre of every one against every one” (Hobbes 1968, 189). Each individual lives in fear of violence at the hands of every other. In De Cive, Hobbes’s thesis “that the origin of large and lasting societies lay not in mutual human benevolence but in men’s mutual fear” was grounded on the notion that “every pleasure of the mind is either glory (or a good opinion of oneself), or ultimately relates to glory,” and that sensual pleasures “can all be comprised under the name of advantages” (1997, 23–24). Glory and advantage: society is thus “a product of love of self, not of love of friends” (24).

In a note on his conception of “men’s mutual fear,” he clarified that what he understands by fearing is “any anticipation of future evil. In my view, not only flight, but also distrust, suspicion, precaution and provision against fear are all characteristics of men who are afraid” (25). Fear unfolds in various affective nuances (distrust, suspicion, precaution) because fearfulness entails anticipated and not just immediately impending harm. Fear entails imagination. A wide spectrum of philosophical reflections in fact gives imagination a constitutive role in the passions. Descartes remarked in The Passions of the Soul that one cannot will passion except “indirectly through the representation of things which are usually joined with” it. “For example, in order to arouse boldness and suppress fear in ourselves, it is not suicient to have the volition to do so. We must apply ourselves to consider the reasons, objects, or precedents that persuade us that the danger is not great; that there is always more security in defense than in flight; that we shall gain glory and joy if we conquer, whereas we can expect nothing but regret and shame if we flee” (1985, 345 [emphasis added]). The arousal or dampening of a passion requires representation, associations, and persuasion, which are three fundamental aspects of the art of rhetoric itself.

The entwinement of the passions and rhetoric is a crux in Rousseau’s endeavor in his Discourse on The Origin and the Foundations of Inequality among Men (the Second Discourse) to demarcate the boundary between nature and culture, and state of nature and state of society. Before the transition from the natural to the social state, language amounts to little more than spontaneous cries. It precedes any need to persuade: “Man’s first language, the most universal, the most energetic and the only language he needed before it was necessary to persuade assembled men, is the cry of Nature” (1997, 146). Such prepersuasive language, along with spontaneous gesturing, was a not-yet-social expressiveness that at some point, Rousseau reasoned, had to have been “substituted for” by “articulations of the voice” via “instituted signs: a substitution which can only have been made by common consent.” Hence the puzzle posed by language: “speech seems to have been necessary in order to establish the use of speech” (147). The dilemma implies another puzzle: “which is the more necessary, an already united Society for the institution of Languages, or already invented Languages for the establishment of Society?” Rousseau transmuted the conundrum into his strongest thesis. The fact that speech presupposes speech and that the origin of both society and language presupposes the other leads to two conclusions. On the one hand, exactly how “languages could have arisen by purely human means” cannot be decisively demonstrated, while on the other hand there is no basis for supposing that the natural condition of humankind led to social existence: “Whatever may be the case with these origins, it is at least clear how little Nature, given the slight care it took to bring Men together through mutual needs and to facilitate their use of speech, prepared their Sociability, and how little of its own it contributed to all that men have done to establish bonds” (149 [translation amended]).

These reflections on language, society, and nature led Rousseau straight to his objection to Hobbes. First, Hobbes is wrong to postulate that man in the natural state is miserable, a term “which merely signifies a painful privation and suffering of Body or soul: Now I should very much like to have it explained to me what kind of misery there can be in a free being, whose heart is at peace and body in health. I ask, which of the two, Civil life or natural life, is more liable to become intolerable to those who enjoy it?” (Rousseau 1997, 150). He cited despair and suicide as phenomena of civilized not natural existence. Second, and more decisively, even as Hobbes grasps the essence of natural right in self-preservation he is wrong, Rousseau asserted, to claim that the natural state pushed humankind into the social state, for the ills that Hobbes attributes to the state of nature—violence motivated by glory, honor, advantage, possession—are purely a product of the state of society: “he improperly included in Savage man’s care for his preservation the need to satisfy a multitude of passions that are a product of Society and have made Law necessary.” By contrast, “the state of Nature is the state in which the care of our own preservation is least prejudicial to the self- preservation of others” (151).

Just as language’s persuasive power presupposes “assembled men,” so language’s figurative powers are linked not to inherent needs but to the passions arising from “civil life.” Language as persuasion and language as trope, that is, language in its twofold manifestation as rhetoric, established for Rousseau the solution to the problem of origin left unanswered in the Second Discourse. The inseparability of trope and passion is at the core of the famous fable of the giant in Essay on the Origin of Language. His double thesis remains an inexhaustible marvel of speculative fabulation: (1) language was invented not from need but from passion; (2) language was figurative before it was literal….

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