We live in bodies that feel increasingly unsafe. Pandemics, climate change, sexual assault, systemic racism, the pressures of gig-economy jobs, the crisis of liberal democracy – these 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 – from our guts and lungs to our hearts and hormonal systems – respond to an everchanging world. They’re also political, in that our feelings affect and are affected by political decisions and behaviour.
It’s not surprising, then, that political language has become saturated with emotion. Whether one calls the present era a time of anxiety, fear or anger, visceral states and feelings appear at the forefront of the political conversation. This is hard to square with Aristotle’s claim that human beings are ‘naturally rational’ creatures – ‘political animals’ who could flourish only within a political community or ‘polis’. The polis, as Aristotle wrote in Politics, ‘comes to be for the sake of life, and exists for the sake of the good life’. The different ways of organising the polis to promote the good life, and disagreements about the best way to do so, create the concept of politics as we know it. So, in the 21st century of ‘emo-cratic’ politics, what does it mean to be a ‘political animal’, and what counts as a ‘good life’?
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. Visceral politics lies at the intersection of the body’s physiology and political behaviour. It’s informed by aligning the life sciences, social sciences and humanities to provide insights into how human emotions are created and experienced. It takes on board the visceral underpinnings of human nature, their importance for our physical and mental wellbeing, and the interdependence between the individual and society. It also captures the ways in which our emotions shape our needs and decisions and, in turn, how sociopolitical forces recruit or exploit physiology to influence behaviour. [Continue reading…]