Can you Feel it?
Once upon a time, Cultural Studies was basically about looking at everything as if it were a language: fashion, advertising, music and journalism were understood as different ways in which people ‘make meanings’. A lot of cultural studies still is like that – it’s a very useful and productive way of looking at things. But what about those aspects of our lives which are not easy to translate into ‘meanings’? What about feelings? What about the sounds of music, the colours of paintings, the physical thrill of watching a movie? These issues aren’t just important for thinking about art and music – they’re also crucial to understanding what motivates people politically and socially. We’ll explore these issues and try to get inside one of the most difficult but rewarding bodies of 20th century theory: the ‘schizoanalysis’ of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
I’m going to stick my neck out and say that if there’s one pair of thinkers from the past hundred years who offer uniquely insightful ways of thinking about all of these issues, about the nature of power and the nature of change, and about the very question of what it means to be alive, then I think it’s Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Deleuze was arguably the most influential French philosopher of the late 20th century. Guattari was a militant psychotherapist, an early advocate of ‘queer’ politics’, a key figure in the run-up to the events of May 1968, a widely innovative thinker who ended up running as a Green candidate in regional elections shortly before his death in the early 90s.
D&Gs work is very difficult to read for the uninitiated because it draws on an obscure and idiosyncratic set of sources, and it has become normal in both the French and English-speaking worlds for it to become largely the preserve of academics and aesthetes.
This is a shame, because once you get past the unique terminology (or rather, start to become accustomed to it), this really is one of the most powerful bodies of thought around for thinking about politics on every scale – the result of one of the most ambitious attempts to date to think about the relationships between psychic, the social, the physical and the political aspects of human (and non-human) experience.
In particular D&G have been taken up in various areas of the humanities and social sciences in recent years as theorists of ‘affect’ – of the emotional and bodily aspects of communication and social relationships. Again – this is a really important issue when thinking about all forms of political communication. When focus groups in Nuneaton say that they don’t like Corbyn because he just sort of looks and sounds wrong, they are not primarily responding to the things that he says, but in the way that he says them, in the tone of his voice and the way he seems to carry himself. This is all a question of ‘affect’ as much as it is a question of ‘framing’ or ‘meaning’. So…a lot to think about!