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  • Fear, Helplessness, and Political Bodies as Circuits of AffectFreud on Social Emancipation
  • Vladimir Safatle (bio)

Fear and I were born twins together.

—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Normally, we believe that a theory of affects doesn’t contribute for clarifying the nature of the impasses of sociopolitical ties. We accept that the dimension of affects concerns the individual’s life, while understanding the problems connected with social bonds would require a different perspective, capable of describing the structural functioning of society and its values. Affects would refer to individual systems of fantasies and beliefs, which would preclude the understanding of social life as a system of rules and norms.1 Such a distinction would be not only a reality but a necessity, for when affections enter the political scene they could only imply the impossibility of guiding the behavior upon rational judgments, universalist judgments based on the search for the best argument.2

However, one of the richest points of Sigmund Freud’s intellectual experience was to insist on the possibility of overcoming such a dichotomy. Freud does not fail to show us how fundamental is a reflection on affects, a systematic consideration of the way in which social life and political experience produce and mobilize affects that will serve as the basis of general support for social cohesion. It is a way of remembering the need to develop a social reflection that departs from the perspective of individuals, [End Page 67] accepting neither the accusation of “psychologism” nor systemic-functional descriptions of social life. What could not be different for someone who insisted that even sociology, which deals with the behavior of men in society, can be nothing more than applied psychology? For Freud, ultimately, there are only two sciences: psychology, pure and applied, and the science of nature. But instead of viewing subjects as utility-maximizing agents or as a mere calculating expression of rational deliberations, Freud prefers to understand the way in which individuals produce beliefs, desires, and interests from certain circuits of affect when they justify the necessity to conform themselves to social norms, adopting some types of behaviors and refusing others.

The Freudian perspective, however, is not merely the expression of a desire to describe social phenomena from the intellection of their affects. Freud also wants to understand how affects are produced and mobilized to block what we would normally call “emancipatory expectations.” For the psychic life we know, with its modes of conflict, suffering, and desires, is a production of circuits of affect. On the other hand, the very notion of “affect” is inseparable from a dynamics of imbrication that describes the change produced by something that seems to come from outside and which is not always constituted as an object of the representational consciousness. Hence, it is the basis for understanding both the forms of the sensible constitution of psychic life and the social nature of such constitution. This shows us how, from the origin, “the socius is thus in the ego.”3 To be affected is to instill psychic life through the most elementary form of sociability, this sociability that passes through aesthesis and which, in its most important dimension, builds unconscious bonds.

Such constitutive capacity of affects has greater political consequences, for both the overcoming of psychic conflicts and the possibility of political experiences of emancipation call for the consolidation of an impulse toward the mutation of affects, an impulse toward the capacity to be affected otherwise. Our subjection is affectively built; it is affectively perpetuated and can only be overcome affectively, from the production of another aesthesis. [End Page 68] This leads us to say that politics is, in its essential determination, a mode of production of circuits of affect, in the same way that the clinic, especially in its Freudian matrix, seeks to be a device to deactivate modes of affection that sustain the perpetuation of certain configurations of social bonds. In this sense, Freud’s interest in social theory isn’t the result of a desire to construct highly speculative theories on anthropogenesis, on religion, on the social origin of moral sentiments, and on violence. Indeed, Freud is moved in his own way by a questioning of the psychic...


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