Politics is Visceral? (always has been) | A response to Tsakiris’ Aeon Article

Manos Tsakiris’ credentials ensure most readers of his recent Aeon article, “Politics is visceral”, have a sense that his arguments will be competently put together. In the past, one would argue that such an accomplished academic has surely done their research too, maybe go as far as to say we should be accepting of any possible appeals to authority… However, as much as this article succeeds at highlighting what may be perhaps some of the missing pieces of contemporary political quagmire, his failure to reference some of the modern research and theory (some of it actually fairly old now) reveals this work to be at best, a shallow attempt at connecting psychology and political theory, and at worst, an ignorant advert for his own research (or even worse, himself).

Tsakiris starts his article with a fair background- basically, the world is kinda going to shit and it’s making everyone nervous. Fair enough, if you’re going to appeal to the likely mostly liberal audience (it’s Aeon and conservatives can’t read (kidding but this mentality of liberal superiority is ubiquitous and ironically leads to their current demise- check out this great Vox article from 2016 on this)), you need to open with “look, I’m one of you so you should listen to me”. Okay, fair enough, that’s just the climate and doesn’t necessarily reflect on Tsakiris, but what follows is the first red-flag.

“[T]hese phenomena create feelings of vulnerability that are, quite literally, visceral. They’re visceral in the sense that emotional experience arises from how our physiological organs […] respond to an everchanging world. They’re also political, in that our feelings affect and are affected by political decisions and behaviour.”

Paragraph 1

Now, I’m no psychologist but I had my fair share of undergrad level of psychology while studying for my social sciences degree and one of the first things we learn about emotions is that we still aren’t certain what they are and where they come from. Although emotions are indeed strongly associated with physiological responses, we can’t always be sure whether emotions are a mental reaction to our body states, or that our bodily states are a reaction to emotions. Taking this further, we might agree with Tsakiris that our emotions are political since emotion is related to cognition (and then also behaviour which makes the triad of what psychologists call social cognition- cognition, emotion and behaviour).

Funnily enough, as the article develops, Tsakiris does contradict his own point here about how emotional experience arises from physiological response and brings in examples related to how thoughts impact our social cognition in such a way that shows physiological response may arise from emotional experience, unlike this first claim. But first, let’s continue the article.

Next red-flag is Tsakiris’ claim that how political language “has become saturated with emotion” (paragraph 2) (do we really need to reference history to show that even the claiming of this being a new claim is nothing new?), is “hard to square with Aristotle’s claim that human beings are ‘naturally rational’ creatures – ‘political animals’”. Tsakiris never really expands upon this point or looks into whether such a basic understanding of Aristotle is missing nuance that perhaps he would have gone into, and follows after implying Aristotle is wrong, that politics is about organising life for its own sake. But of course, we are doing it wrong says the psychologist naive as a first year political science student- and Tsakiris has the amazing solution which no one has thought of before!

“The answer from what I call ‘visceral politics’ emerges out of a historically novel scientific understanding of the human being, not so much as a rational creature, but as a primarily embodied and affective one.”

Paragraph 3

I’m surprised someone with such supposed stature in the academic world would be so bold as to claim the scientific (yeah science! Shout out to my enlightened friends that believe science is the only way to truly grasp Truth and reality) understanding of the human being as embodied and affective as historically novel. Perhaps if they are going as far back and wide as to include the foundations of modern philosophy (Descartes onwards) we could agree with such a claim but it seems to me to be written in such a way as to claim Tsakiris is the first to notice, as we’ll later see, thanks to his research and him connecting the dots he has found. (Although even then, many philosophers have since argued we aren’t really modern anymore (or even never were) but that’s way beyond the scope of this piece).

The confounding evidence against this claim is too long to list but Tsakiris fashionably in the subsequent paragraph admits “[n]one of this means that visceral politics is new; in some sense, politics has always been visceral.”. He goes on to lay out his basic understanding of Hobbes’ political theory of the state but then poorly reveals his lack of knowledge of modern political theory, before quickly returning to talk about what he actually does know.

“The Hobbesian idea that government exists in order to keep citizens safe from their own worst impulses, for example, can be read as a response to the extremes of how humans express their emotions. But while feelings are key drivers of human behaviour, democratic political theory has focused on reason and rationality as means of taming emotions.”

Paragraph 4

It’s a fair reading of Hobbes on the face of it assuming Hobbes’ Cartesian splitting of the idea of humans as having an animal nature that we must overcome with our reason. This thinking has roots back in the Ancient Greeks, from Plato’s chariot allegory, and continues all the way to now with Nietzsche’s “man is a rope, tied between beast and Overman”. The irony here really is that as much as Tsakiris tries to claim that theory hasn’t focused on feelings, by speaking of reason and its connection to emotion, even if claiming them as antithetical, theory always necessarily has.

And so, after his ignorance is revealed, Tsakiris goes on to explain the concepts of homeostasis (equilibrium), allostasis (adjustments towards homeostasis), and interoception. The last concept of which is most related to Tsakiris’ own research and led to his new and profound idea of connecting our ability to understand and regulate our own bodies and emotions with the socio-political world (has anyone ever thought about world hunger and connected it to politics? Fascinating!).

A key ingredient of Tsakiris’ article is waffle, and the next few paragraphs are absolutely filled with it, so I’ll just give you the gist:

Humans are biological creatures and to stay alive, we self-regulate via allostasis towards homeostasis using various processes that also require some form of self-knowledge via sensory mechanisms, such as interoception. Interoception is the fancy science name for feeling things going on inside you (rather than things like touch or awareness of where your body parts are in relation to each other). We have knowledge about the future of our bodies, inside and out, so make plans so that we can continue to be in homeostasis and survive, and emotions also help with this by providing mental representations of bodily states. Finally, society is important to us because babies are useless without care-givers but even later on we all need to survive with each other (bit of a jump here but I’m not going to expand on this either so I forgive you Manos), and emotions also help us with dealing with our social lives. (Paraphrasing paragraphs 5-9)

To add some flavour to that waffle, towards the end of paragraph 9, Tsakiris states “[O]n an even more radical view, the brain evolved not just to keep our body safely ‘within budget’, but primarily in order to regulate it within a social context.”, further showing not only his ignorance of modern social/political theory’s willingness to take an interdisciplinary approach. Arguably a foundational text of modern anarchism, “Mutual Aid” by Kropotkin is all about how we’ve evolved to work together, not that Darwin didn’t mention this too to the surprise of the moronic “social Darwinists” that unbelievably still exist.

Continuing, Tsakiris goes on to write we could look at the last century as a way of enabling us all to stay in homeostasis, almost thinking about the body politic as a human body, where institutions and norms regulate human behaviour. Thinking in this way, in terms of policy at least, was partly a consequence of the First World War and the new conceptualisation of public health led to the development of welfare states. However, as much as advances like socialised medicine improved modern life, we are at risk of going backwards now!

Slowly heading back towards Tsakiris’ central claim about how politics needs to consider how humans regulate their bodies, he then writes about declining life expectancy and increases in deaths from despair in the most important countries of the world (the mostly White, English-speaking ones). In true condescending liberal fashion, Tsakiris, in one of my favourite of his kowtowing flourishes, dips into identity politics and claims without citations “increased prevalence of hypertension among African Americans compared with other Americans can’t be accounted for by genetic differences; instead, they reflect the sociopolitical tensions that such groups experience.” (End of paragraph 13). Now I haven’t seen very recent studies related to increases in hypertension among various groups (it’s going up for everyone though) but it seems immediately confounded by the fact that obesity has increased massively, obesity is linked to lower socio-economic status, and African Americans being more likely to be both lower socio-economic class in the US and having an actual genetic predisposition to hypertension, lead me to imagine that this would be more of a multi-variate problem than this simple claim implies. All that would be needed to correct this is an “only”, and I doubt any serious thinker would be so stupid as to claim such things are “just a matter of genetics”.

Continuing the article, Tsakiris also mentions the link between sleep, another important need for us to survive, is linked to political behaviours such as voting and signing petitions. Further, “several empirical studies” (which Tsakiris doesn’t reference) show how our likelihood of getting diseases is even linked to individual preferences about authoritarian governance! In the modern world, we are constantly stressed out about healthcare and finances, we suffer from informational uncertainty, and it all leads back, finally, to Tsakiris’ claim about how politics has gotten so full of emotion…

I don’t wish to spend all the time I could take with bringing up theories and theorists working on thinking about these problems and possible solutions or how all this is done on purpose (and it’s not just Trump, power is as power does!) so let’s just continue the article…

It’s time for more waffle again!

Science is returning to look at emotions. We’ve rediscovered emotion is linked to bodily sensation, experience and knowledge. However, counter to Tsakiris’ earlier claim that emotional experiences arise from physiological responses, Tsakiris remembers that undergrad lecture on misattribution of arousal and excitation transfer. Emotions aren’t just the result of changes in physiology, but they have a cognitive element, such as a label- therein eventually we can get back round to the article’s main point. (Paraphrasing paragraphs 15-18)

Tsakiris’ thesis here about how misattribution effects being real could lead to media manipulating political attitudes. People really are bad at recognising their own feelings, bad interoceptive awareness Tsakiris calls this, and goes on to hypothesise that our tendency to misrecognise our own affective states is a result of our being constantly stressed. In an earlier example, Tsakiris talks about people getting “hangry” as a result of misattribution when there is also research that suggests when we are hungry, we are quicker to anger due to not having the cognitive resources (simply, our brains are running low on energy) which would usually inhibit anger and enable us to think more rationally about some problem. It’s not as simple as we confuse hunger with anger- especially considering those who get hangry aren’t angry for no reason (even if it’s unreasonable), but quicker to anger.

This last point about misattribution is important because although Tsakiris is on to something, although it’s not as novel an insight, nor as naively researched as Tsakiris implies (has he considered that perhaps there are plenty of intelligent researchers who would love to study such things that are massively limited by resources and the ethical and PR implications of such research?), his next claim is weakened by our deepened understanding of misattribution effects. Tsakiris claims that emotive prescriptions and language influence our reactions, and that we are more susceptible to this because we are stressed. This in turn, leads to different political outlooks as anxiety or anger, fed by these instances of interpreting world events tinged with various emotions, lead to different political outlooks.

Sometimes emotions are not the result of misattribution or some sneaky priming effect, but influenced by predispositions gained from our social upbringing. As Tsakiris does mention, lower socio-economic status is associated with increased emotional dysregulation and misrecognition- at the moment it’s still a question of the chicken or the egg in terms of origins but the solution seems an obvious mix of policy to lift people from poverty materially, and including self-knowledge as part of our standard education. If kids can’t eat, then they aren’t going to be as good at emotional regulation, aren’t going to do as well at school, and the cycle continues.

After a bit more waffling and name-dropping, repeating the same stuff that basically amounts to applying some sort of pseudo-Maslowian hierarchy on to the body politic (take care of our basic needs at the bottom and as we go up, we have culture and self-actualisation, etc.), Tsakiris looks to the future as grim. Finally he concludes the article by writing:

“Politics is visceral in at least two ways. It is visceral in the sense that our unsafe bodies drive our politics. The rise of visceral politics of this kind might reflect the failure of our socioeconomic system to take care of our brittle bodies, and its failure to enable us to accurately infer our physiological states and how the world makes us feel. But there is also another way in which we can think of visceral politics. They are visceral in the sense that our politics should make our bodies feel safe, and empower us to tolerate and explore the inherent uncertainty of the human condition. We witness the dominance of the former, but we should strive for the rise of the latter.”

Final paragraph

I’d accuse Tsakiris of having done a poor rehash with more scientific sounding terms of Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” but I doubt he’s read it. Berlin develops the concepts of positive and negative liberty, freedom to do things and freedom from things respectively. Tsakiris’ idea of taking care of our brittle bodies seems like a key part of our negative liberty- only can we be free if we feel safe. The striving for the latter, “empowering us to tolerate and explore the inherent uncertainty of the human condition”, is a large part of the debates of modern political theory that falls on the side of positive liberty. For example, Tsakiris is surely aware of arguments about how to balance security with privacy is an argument about our negative liberty (from the harm of terrorism for example) being balanced with our positive liberty (our freedom of speech and right to privacy). Does he not see these most evocative and still unconcluded debates as parallel to his point? Or perhaps he purposefully ignores the debates in order to give his own writing and self a bit more renown- not only is this expert in psychology such, he can do political theory now too!

Perhaps I’m being harsh here as I am certainly not adverse, in fact rather I happily encourage, interdisciplinary contributions to all of this intersection of politics, psychology, social/political theory but this writing has so many errors, including insulting researchers he feels are being naive without explaining why, I thought it needed more than a little response. There is so much more depth I could add to this article while still keeping it much shorter than Tsakiris long-winded piece but for brevity’s sake I will conclude here. Thanks for reading and if you would like me to expand upon any points, don’t hesitate to ask!

And here is a popular meme of this article for anyone who wants to visit recently made /r/CriticalTheoryTV on reddit, a forum for discussing critical theory that’s a lot less serious than usual philosophy forums!

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