Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. “Introduction: Feel Your Way”

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York London, Routledge, 2015.

To remember:

  • Bodies take the shape of the very contact they have with objects and others … texts that circulate in public domain … work by aligning with collectives by attributing “others” as the source of our feelings … those who are ‘not us’, and who, not being us, endanger what is ours (1).
  • These short sentences depend on longer histories of articulation (1).
  • The use of metaphors of ‘softness’ and ‘hardness’ shows us how emotions become attributes of collectives, which get constructed as ‘being’ through ‘feeling.’ Such attributes are of course gendered: the soft national body is a feminised body, which is ‘penetrated’ or ‘invaded’ by others (2).
  • It is significant that the word ‘passion’ and the word ‘passive’ share the same root in the Latin word for ‘suffering’ (passio) … The association between passion and passivity is instructive. It works as a reminder of how ’emotion’ has been viewed as ‘beneath’ the faculties of thought and reason. To be emotional is to have one’s judgement affected; it is to be reactive rather than active, dependent rather than autonomous (3).
  • emotions become attributes of bodies as a way of transforming what is ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ into bodily traits (4).
  • ‘being emotional’ comes to be seen as a characteristic of some bodies and not others … we need to consider how emotions operate to ‘make’ and ‘shape’ bodies as forms of action, which also involve orientations towards others … the reading of others as bogus is a reaction to the presence of others … Hardness is not the absence of an emotion, but a different emotional orientation towards others … In Spinoza’s terms, emotions shape what bodies can do, as ‘the modifications of the body by which the power of action on the body is increased or diminished’ (4)
  • It is important to indicate here that even if emotions have been subordinated to other faculties, they have still remained at the centre of intellectual history (4).
  • what is relegated to the margins is often … right at the centre of thought itself (4).


  • One could characterise a significant ‘split’ in theories of [the relation between bodily sensation and cognition and] emotion in terms of whether emotions are tied primarily to bodily sensations or to cognition … [former: Decartes, David Hume, William James] Emotion is the feeling of bodily change. The immediacy of the ‘is’ suggests that emotions do not involve processes of thought, attribution or evaluation: we feel fear, for example, because our heart is racing, our skin is sweating … [latter: Aristotle, Nussbaum, Sartre, Spelman, Solomon] emotions involve appraisals, judgements, attitudes or a ‘specific manner of apprehending the world’ (Sartre) which are irreducible to bodily sensations … when emotions are theorised as beign about cognition as well as sensation, then these still tend to be presented as different aspects of emotion (Alison M. Jaggar) (5).
  • [Descartes] we don’t have feelings for objects because of the nature of objects. Feelings instead take the ‘shape’ of the contact we have with objects (5).
  • whether something feels good or bad already involves a process of reading, in the very attribution of significance (6).
  • If the contact with an object generates feeling, then emotion and sensation cannot be easily separated … To form an impression might involve acts of perception and cognition as well as an emotion … We need to remember the ‘press’ in impression (6).
  • Emotions are intentional in the sense that they are ‘about’ something: they involve a direction or orientation towards an object (Parkinson). The ‘aboutness’ of emotions means they involve a stance on the world, or a way of apprehending the world (7)
  • Emotions are relational: they involve (re)actions or relations of ‘towardness’ or ‘awayness’ in relation to such objects (8).
  • affective economies [are] where feelings do not reside in subjects or objects, but are produced as effects of circulation (8).


  • the everyday language of emotion is based on the presumption of interiority (8).
  • emotions should not be regarded as psychological states, but as social and cultural practices (9).
  • An outside in model might suggest that feelings of grief existed in the crowd [following Diana’s death], and only then got taken on by the individuals, a reading which has led to accusations that such grief was inauthentic, a sign of being ‘taken in’ (9).
  • the surfaces of bodies ‘surface’ as an effect of the impressions left by others … the surfaces of the collective as well as individual bodies take shape through such impressions … emotions are crucial to the very constitution of the psychic and social as objects, a process which suggests that the ‘objectivity’ of the psychic and social is an effect rather than a cause (10).
  • Emotions in their very intensity involve miscommunication, such that even when we feel we have the same feeling, we don’t necessarily have the same relationship to that feeling (10).

  • the model of ’emotional contagion’ riskes transforming emotion into a property, as something that one has, and can then pass on, as if what passes on is the same thing (10).
  • ’emotion’ comes from the Latin, emovere, referring to ‘to move or move out’ … emotions are not only about movement, they are also about attachments, or about what connects us to this or that (11).
  • the subject does not always know how she feels: the subject is not self-present and the emotions are an effect of this splitting of experience (11).
  • emotions can attach us to the very conditions of our subordination … social forms … are effects of repetition (12).
  • Attention to emotions allows us to address the questions of how subjects become invested in particular structures such that their demise is felt as a kind of living death (12).


  • ‘figures of speech’ are crucial to the emotionality of texts … different ‘figures’ get stuck together … sicking is dependent on past histories of association that often ‘work’ through concealment. The emotionality of texts is one way to describe how texts are ‘moving’ or how they generate effects (13).
  • ‘the nation mourns’ (13).
  • The feeling does not simply exist before the utterance, but becomes real as an effect, shaping different kinds of actions and orientations … emotions are performative … and they involve speech acts … which depend on past histories, at the same time as they generate effects (13).
  • When we talk about the displacement between objects of emotion, we also need to consider the circulation of words for emotion … The emotion does its work by ‘reading’ the object: for example, others might get read as the ‘reason’ for the loss of an object of love, a reading which easily converts feelings of grief into feelings of hate (13).
  • The different words for emotion do different things precisely because they involve specific orientations towards the objects that are identified as their cause … I suggest that the work of emotion involves the ‘sticking’ of signs to bodies: for example, when others become ‘hateful’, then the actions of ‘hate’ are directed against them …words for feeling, and objects of feeling, circulate and generate effects: … they move, stick, and slide. We move, stick and slide with them (13-14).
  • model of the archive … as a ‘contact zone’. An archive is the effect of multiple forms of contact, including institutional forms of contact … as well as everyday forms of contact (14).
  • even feelings that are immediate, and which may involve ‘damage’ on the skin surface, are not simply feelings that one has, but feelings that open bodies to others … hate works by sticking ‘figures of hate’ together, transforming them into a common threat (15).
  • fear, disgust, shame and love work as different kinds of orientations towards objects and others, which shape individual as well as collective bodies (15).
  • shame is deeply ambivalent: the exposure of past wounds can be a crucial part of what shame can do (16).
  • the objects of emotions can be ‘ideals’, and the way in which bodies, including bodies of nations, can take shape through how they appropriate such ideals (16).
  • The focus on attachments as crucial to queer and feminist politics is itself a sign that transformation is not about transcendence: emotions are ‘sticky’, and even when we challenge our investments, we might get stuck. There is hope, of course, as things can get unstuck (16).

To consume:

  • Lutz, Catherine & Lila Abu-Lughod 1990 Language and the Politics of Emotion
  • White, Geoffrey.”Emotions Inside Out: The Anthropology of Affect”
  • Rosaldo, Michelle. “Toward an Anthropology of Self and Feeling”
  • Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling
  • Kemper, Theodore. A Social Interactional Theory of Emotions
  • Katz, Jack. How Emotions Work
  • Williams, Simon. Emotion and Social Theory: Corporeal Reflections on the (Ir)rational
  • Collins, Randall. “Stratification, Emotional Energy, and the Transient Emotions”
  • Durkheim, Emile. The Rules of Sociological Method
  • Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection
  • Berlant, Lauren, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship
  • Brown, Wendy. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity 1995
  • Jaggar, Alison. “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology” in A.Garry and M Pearsall (eds), Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy


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