What should we do with our feelings? They’ve become so intemperate lately. A Pandora’s box of furies has opened up and no one knows how to put them back. In such a climate, you’d be forgiven for thinking badly of feelings. When swept up in a feeling, we won’t listen and we won’t be told. We reject expert opinions because they’re ‘unfeeling’ and elitist, preferring to derive our convictions from our intuitions. And our intuitions may sometimes serve us well, but they can equally lead towards historical revisionism, fake news and alternative facts: the mad maladies of our age. So it’s easy to see why some wish feelings evacuated from civil discourse. Too much attention to subjective states can destroy common sense, leaving us in a world so fiercely divided that people on opposing sides are not only unable to agree on a solution to a given problem, they’re unable to agree on what our problems even are.
Yet, troubling though they may be, feelings also tell us something about power and its limitations. The fact that repressing feelings so often makes them return more aggressively, for instance, suggests that to feel at all is always to be in some sense out of control, or even possessed. Feelings summon those parts of ourselves that seem strange, dubious – foreign. As such, whenever we pronounce certain people too emotional to participate in politics, we should consider who historically has been labelled thus: ethnic minorities, for example, or women. So if being emotionally overwhelmed intimates that one’s power to act has been curtailed in some way, our feelings could well be our bodies protesting by endeavouring to move us.
In this special issue we begin palpably, therefore, with the literal feeling of feeling. In a stunningly original account of how the sense of touch in China has been transformed as the country has itself transformed into a market economy, Poppy Sebag-Montefiore traces the intimate relation between our personal and political bodies to reveal how profoundly immersed our physical capacity for feeling is within history, geography and the political cultures we inhabit. Politics likewise coalesces in extreme bodily affects in Margie Orford’s visceral rendering of how South Africa’s histories of racial and sexual oppression are materially rooted – in the flesh. Disclosing the ‘shame’ that’s been her lifelong companion, Orford contrasts that feeling’s embodiment to its verbalisation by white South Africans who wield the word like a nervous tic to refer to almost anything other than the shameful reality itself.
Words appear similarly unhinged in David Baddiel’s deep dive into the vortex of the head-spinning feedback loops of online reactivity, here around anti-Semitism. While participants of online conversations get no closer to understanding one another, they do get readily triggered into evermore solipsistic denials and enragements. Burrowing down with him into just one of these rabbit holes, you laugh because otherwise you’d cry. Whereas in William Davies’s trenchant analysis of the role sense of humour plays in the politics of populism, we note how joking, especially online, can equally function as a signalling system for groups seeking to conserve their privileges by shutting out those earnestly seeking representation.
A sense of exclusion may lie behind a great deal of the hysteria coursing through our times. But for all its shriller expressions, mightn’t this sense of exclusion admit of another more muted feeling? In Hisham Matar’s extraordinary meditation on the threads connecting two great writers in exile, Edward Said and Joseph Conrad, he suggests that these towering authorities in English literature were both afflicted by a sense of their own untranslatability: a feeling of perpetual estrangement and non-belonging, sustained even when one becomes a master of the very language that yet leaves one feeling forever a guest, never altogether at home. So who feels at home? In Olga Tokarczuk’s enigmatic story ‘Borderland’, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, we enter a zone whose rites and laws are intended to shore up national identities through the exclusion or appropriation of outsiders. It’s because they’re so permeable that borderlands can arouse such fanatical self-certainty, though here it seems that even the greatest proselytisers find themselves prone to estrangement.
While Tokarczuk offers a boldly imagined vision of life at the edges, in Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s ‘Distilling Existence’ we meet the reality: a devastating portrait of life lived in extremis in Kenya’s Mathare Valley – ‘what Middle-earth would have become if Lord Sauron had won’ – seen too in Bernd Hartung’s accompanying photographs. And yet as Fabián Martínez Siccardi’s moving memoir of his Patagonian childhood, ‘Feeling Southern’, reminds us‚ zones of exclusion aren’t always that visible: one’s own story of oppression may itself be an overwriting of other, untranslated stories.
We first feel changes in the weather at our extremities, but the sensations that begin at our nerve endings will soon be felt by the rest of our body. The same would seem true of the political body whose extremes are increasingly affecting the mainstream. Zones of exclusion may be less exclusive than supposed. Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘Normalnost’ explores how what once appeared the exclusive culture of post-Soviet Russia – the denial and distortion of facts and their replacement by fantasy and feelings – turns out to have been at the vanguard of a politics now mirrored by the West – a West whose ability to sustain its own ideological mythos without the bolstering opposition of its Cold War foe has simultaneously collapsed.
Alongside the changing political weather are changes in the actual weather: two climates that can no longer be logically separated. In Diana Matar’s bewitching photoessay, ‘American Orchard’, she disports a take on the pastoral vision that, as Max Houghton’s introduction recalls, has long since captivated American writers, artists and dreamers. Through Matar’s lens, however, we see that the remaining traces of that idyll are at risk of vanishing, the meteorological and political weathers together creating a climate that is destroying that land, and with it those dreams, taking us into a future of desertification both literal and felt. So how did we get here? If ‘American Orchard’ depicts the consequences of a culture so derelict in its duty that it has ceased to care for the people and places over which it’s charged, in Josh Cohen’s ‘Lazy Boy’ we consider that Trump’s appeal may consist precisely in his showy disregard of all feeling for others – i really don’t care. do u? Such dissoluteness, when mirrored in the heart of the anguished liberal, then turns to creeping apathy: a crushing sense that resistance is futile.
Among the myriad insights to be gleaned from our extended interview with Adam Phillips, there’s the speculation that when a fascistic wave feels so energetic as to seem invincible, that must be how it works: by making a persuasive show of its own libidinousness. Resistance, then, is critically a challenge for the imagination. Now is the time to imagine new ways of getting together and being political. To do so we must relinquish some of our lazy-boy presuppositions about who it is we are by admitting more of our own ambivalence and complexity, as indeed our feelings themselves invite. If we’re feeling ‘Beside ourselves’, as Alissa Quart writes in ‘In Ballard’, we’re ‘upset but also / outside our “I” ’. And we sense this too in Anouchka Grose’s hilariously honest account of how hatred and murderous rivalry for her sibling animated her transformation into a goody-two-shoes Social Justice Warrior. Such subtle attention to the unsentimental within sentiments can likewise be discerned in Benjamin Markovits’s fictional rendering of the micropolitics underpinning relationships both romantic and familial. One could deem cynical the recognition of how a kind of unwilled calculus may be inscribing the logic of power and negotiation into even our most intimate feelings, but it’s by means of such self-reckonings that we can engage with not only who we are, but who we might come to be as well. We could, for instance, discover that we’re less cynical than supposed. Thus, as Joff Winterhart graphically portrays, while ready-made social projections can provoke instant fear, fury and outrage, such certainties can just as easily give way to wordless confusion when our fantasies are tested by the reality of actually meeting those about whom we’ve only fantasised – in one of the ever-dwindling public places where such encounters remain possible.
Imagining new forms of sociability is what teenagers have always done best, usually by ignoring the warnings of elders to cross borders and meet different people in alternative spaces – and particularly nightclubs, to soundtracks attesting that if this is an experiment in politics then it’s one full of feeling. Such feelings have lingered for Chloe Aridjis whose Mexican adolescence she beautifully evokes in an essay recalling one particular night that, though already infused with the baroque lawlessness that has gone on to engulf her country, also contains the passionate hopefulness of young people coming together to protest a world of walls and barriers out of a desire that dwarfs even fear – the desire to meet each other, dance with each other, touch each other. The inspiration for making changes both personal and political is, for Hanif Kureishi too, related to the recovery of the powerful feelings aroused by music. Sharing his own past efforts to overcome a state of depression associated with the isolating effects of a political and economic system built on competition, he credits music, specifically musical improvisation, as both the resistance and the cure.
Sensitive creatures that we are, we’re wont to react to each other, mirror each other and catch each other’s feelings like a contagion. But we could experiment more with our responses. In this special issue, facing down the furies means, in the first place, reimagining them. Or surprising them. As Nick Laird has it in ‘The Politics of Feeling’:
If someone despises
you, the work is still to do nothing despicable, to be oppositional but
patient and cheerful as your own mother – if she wasn’t pretending –
For however fanatically certain or dizzyingly uncertain they may make us, our feelings needn’t only be a problem for politics – they can equally be a resource, and maybe even a solution.