Political emotions and a night at the opera

In this article I outline Martha Nussbaum’s concept of Political emotions and give a hint on what you can do on a Friday night in Kiev.

After a long day with discussions and presentations at the Mohyla Academy and the German embassy, a group of culture enthusiasts decided to finish our second day in Kiev with a visit to Kiev opera. Unaware of what to expect, we bought tickets for W.A. Mozart’s last opus Requiem (Mozart died in the age of 35 before he could finish his work). From trust-worthy internet sources I learned that a requiem is a mass for the dead in the Catholic church mainly practised on funerals. Of course, that doesn’t sound like the most elevating frame for the start of a late-summer night. However, an opera can be a very emotional thing and the topic of emotions, on the other hand, seems to me as complex as an opera.

Therefore our visit to the opera inspired me to use it as a reference for writing a brief outline on the concept of Politicial Emotions, a topic that will guides us during our journey through the emotional landscape of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict.

Emotions as judgements

Speaking in the words of American philosopher and Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, Martha Nussbaum, we can define emotions as judgements about things that are important to us and to which we ascribe intrinsic value[1]. By distinguishing emotions from other phenomena which are part of the human Gefühlswelt, like drives or moods, she challenges the widespread assumption that emotions are irrational. Nussbaum rather suggests to view them as expressions of a complex set of beliefs, moral sentiments, experiences, life goals and needs that form our subjective but however eudaimonic rather than egoistic view of the world.

The concept of eudaimonia that is fundamental for Nussbaum’s theory of emotions is rooted in neo-stoic, mainly Aristotelian thinking about what defines a good and full human life. I´m not a philosopher and so I avoid to dive deep into the centuries-old philosophical discourse on eudaimonia. However, we can observe a revival of research interest on this concept in recent years not only in the field of philosophy but also in the field of psychology, suggesting, similar to Nussbaum, that there is an innate human tendency, or even need, to give our lives meaning and fulfillment. Psychological theories of human motivation argue further that eudaimonia is rooted in a sense of self-determination that derives from the existence of fundamental human needs for autonomy, belonging, and competence which motivates us to pursue meaningful life goals and to engage in virtuous actions.[2]

It seems that there is a strong link between emotion and motivation that explains why emotions can lead us to action.

The intelligence of Political emotions

Nussbaum’s theory of emotions belongs to the cognitive emotion theories that postulate, to put it simply, that an emotion is the result of an appraisal process. And this process requires a salient object – something that bears importance and situational relevance for us. And these objects can be concrete, like a family member, or rather abstract, like a nation state. But what is important to understand here is that the objects Nussbaum is speaking about, are felt to be needed: with the emotions „we recognize our own neediness and incompleteness towards parts of the world we cannot fully control.“ (Nussbaum 2001: 19). That means the objects we value as important have an impact on our psychological well-being and are related to basic needs. And as this needs are a, at least partly, unattainable part of our mental world the emotions bare content that can often not be articulated and is often expressed in other ways – physically, e.g. in form of mimic and gestures, or artistically and symbolic, e.g. in the arts.

In her book Political Emotions[3] Nussbaum elaborates her concept further linking it to the sphere of society and politics. She suggests that every democratic political principle requires emotional attachment of citizens towards political objects, the nation state in particular, in order to be sustainable. And this emotional attachment can be created by a healthy and inclusive form of patriotism. A form that is based on compassion and love and controls the destructive power of negative feelings like fear, envy, and shame. Here again Nussbaum refers to preconditions that need to be taken into account in order to understand her conception of patriotism and that goes far beyond the mere acknowledgement of emotions. She rather claims for the development of a political psychology that takes critical thinking and emotional experience into account.

Thus, labelling emotions as irrational or for methodical reasons irrelevant ignores the innate intelligence and emancipatory but also destructive potential of emotions. In situations of social and political change „the New“ is felt and urges us to action even before it’s thought through.

Emotions as an inner opera

It’s not by accident that I think about Nussbaum’s concepts of Political emotions while sitting in this emotionally inspiring place and while I wait for the performance to begin. Nussbaum emphazises heavily that arts and culture, political symbols and rhetoric are means to foster positive emotional attachment towards an „aspiring society“ and shouldn’t be ignored by democratic forces for the sake of political neutrality. Otherwise, she argues, the emotional world would be determined and instrumentalized by anti-democratic and anti-liberal forces.

As said, neither am I a philosopher nor am I a composer but if I would be asked to put Nussbaum’s definition in simple words I described emotions as an inner opera – a complex and often ambiguous play, juggling between drama and comedy, between two poles of positivity and negativity. And this is maybe the reason why, from a researchers perspective, emotions are so difficult to deal with. They are volatile, prone to change their character if the underlying plot is changing, new actors appear on the stage, or when we simply change the setting. And doesn’t the appeal of an opera and life derive exactly from this ambiguity?

Thus, while we can analyse an argument based on logics and facts, emotions convey a meaning that goes beyond a researcher’s understanding. That doesn’t mean that emotions aren’t necessarily right or wrong. But they reflect a complex story about what we feel is right or wrong. The American sociologist Arlie Hochschild recently called this deep stories – a „feels-as-if-account“ on political events and life experiences.[4]

Maybe as every composer needs to train his or her ability to listen before he or she is able to translate music into symbols, we need to be empathic and try to understand what kind of subjective conceptions of a good life and intrinsic motivations are lying behind an emotion, also in the political sphere.

Let’s have a look behind the curtain!

A final word needs to be said about our night in Kiev: Inspired and revitalized by an hour of classical music we continued our night in Kiev in a fully contemplative state, discovering a pianist playing in the streets. He was surrounded by a group of people who just listened to him and for a moment it felt as if we all were a part of a suddenly created wholeness. We reflected our day and experiences in a traditional restaurant with wine, beer, Abba, and borsch. But this is another story.

[1] Nussbaum, Martha C. (2003): Upheavals of Thought. The Intelligence of Emotions, Cambridge, New York.

[2] Ryan, Richard M., Huta, Veronika, Deci, Edward L. (2008): Living well: a self-determination theory perspective on eudaemonia, in: Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol. 9, Issue 1, S. 139-170.

[3] Nussbaum, Martha C. (2013): Political Emotions: why love matters for justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[4] Arlie Hochschild (2017): The American Right: Its Deep Story, in: Global Dialogue. Magazine of the International Socialogical Association, Vol. 7, Iss. 3 (September 2017),  http://isa-global-dialogue.net/the-american-right-its-deep-story/


2 Gedanken zu “Political emotions and a night at the opera

  1. Pingback: Zwei Gesichter des Patriotismus – ein kritisches Fazit | viadrina goes ukraine. Exkursion 2017

  2. Pingback: Kiev – a visual recap of our journey 2017 | viadrina goes ukraine. Exkursion 2017

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