Toward an Affect-Theory of Political Action: Arendt, Butler, and the Apparitions of Emotion Open Access

Howard, Katherine (Summer 2019)

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Even among nonspecialized audiences, the idea that emotion plays an important role in politics is widely assumed, but not well understood. This project explores the relationship in philosophy between emotion and politics, focusing on the question of action. How and why does action happen? Bringing together a set of resources at the intersections of politics, philosophy, and feminism, the dissertation uses affect theory to explore how feeling with others motivates collective forms of action (e.g., protest) when issues of common concern are at stake.

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt's action-theory of politics serves as the anchor for the project’s theoretical orientation, while the feminist inheritance of that theory, especially in the work of Judith Butler, raises the ethical questions that propel it. Of primary concern is Butler’s ethical theory of agency and the difficulty that it poses for traditional accounts of free will and action. While Butler focuses on the ethical import of action as a responsibility to respond to the demands of others, I am particularly concerned with how that moral responsibility is felt and embodied. The dissertation argues that shame is the emotion that corresponds with feelings of moral responsibility and that therefore, shame plays an important mediating role between subjective ethical agency and performative political action. Changing attitudes toward shame in psychological and philosophical literature indicate that shame is not a wholly negative emotion. While shame often stalls and debilitates action, it can also spur it, motivating personal and political transformation. The ambivalence of shame experiences demonstrates how emotion and action are co-implicated. The resulting account of political action contributes to pressing questions about the capacity for contemporary political subjects to act together in ethically and politically meaningful ways, as well as the affective conditions for encouraging or diminishing that capacity.

Table of Contents

Introduction p.1

a. Affect and emotion p.5

b. Outline of chapters p.8

Chapter One: The “Miracle” of Action p.16

Introduction p.16

I.     The Sorcerer’s Apprentice p.23

II.   Action-theory and the problem of enactment p.44

a.    Courage p.44

b.    The Will p.51

c.    Bearing and Suffering p.55

III.      Action and the crisis of agency p.61

Chapter Two: Affect and Embodied Action p.66

Introduction p.67

I.     How emotion matters for political action p.70

II.   Approaches in philosophy of emotion and contemporary affect studies p.87

III.      Emotional Baggage: Emotion and necessity in Arendt’s On Revolution p.96

IV.      Separation Anxieties: Arendt’s feminist critics p.113

Chapter Three: “What acts when I act?” Judith Butler’s Ethico-Political Account of Agency p.125

Introduction p.125

I.     Ethics of Responsibility p.132

II.   “Dispossession”: Or, “acting from precarity” p.141

III.      "Being moved" to act: From ethical solicitation to political action p.147

IV.      The feeling of responsibility p.153

Chapter Four: Shame and Performative Action p.166

Introduction p.166

I.     Shame p.170

II.   The feeling of responsibility, revisited p.193

III.      Apparitions of emotion p.198

IV.      Toward a performative affect-theory p.209

Conclusion: Shame and Social Justice p.221

Bibliography p.226

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