John Protevi


On his book Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic

Cover Interview of February 16, 2010

In a nutshell

In Political Affect I address human nature as bio-cultural.  Each one of us is a “body politic” that connects the social and the somatic.  I avoid the extremes of social constructivism and genetic determinism by claiming we inherit a minimal human nature that gets fine-tuned by culture.  In a formula, our human nature has evolved to be so open to our nurture that it becomes second nature.

I get to my notion of human nature as “body politic” by putting the “embodied mind” school of cognitive science together with the post-structuralist French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.  What attracted me to the embodied mind school (e.g., Hubert Dreyfus, Evan Thompson, Alva Noë, and the late Francisco Varela) is the critique of the standard computer metaphor of cognition as information processing and its alternate vision of cognition as an organism directing itself in its environment.  Such embodied cognition is inescapably affective; the old division of reason and emotion needs to be rethought as “affective cognition.”

What Deleuze brings to the table is a wide-ranging materialist ontology, so that we can use the same basic concepts of self-organizing systems in both natural and social registers.  This enables me to couple the “politic” to the “body,” to connect the social and the somatic.  Basically, Deleuze lets us go “above” and “below” the subject; “above” to politics, and “below” to biology.  We live at the crossroads: singular subjects arise from a “crystallization” or “resolution” of a distributed network of natural processes and social practices.

Political Affect starts by laying out the theory of politically inflected affective cognition, bringing Deleuze together with dynamical systems theory (a.k.a. “complexity theory,” or the theory of self-organizing material systems), and a number of positions in the affective, cognitive, and biological sciences, including “developmental systems theory,” a biological perspective that emphasizes epigenetic (cellular, organic, and even extra-somatic) factors as well as genetic factors in inheritance and development.

I then compare Aristotle, Kant, and Deleuze on the interchange of theology, biology and politics that has always haunted the philosophical treatment of the organism.  Finally, I provide three case studies where the social-somatic connection that constitutes human nature results in the bypassing or at least the attenuation of consciousness.  That is, I investigate instances where biologically inherited basic emotions, which have received in cultural experience different triggers and thresholds, result in, if not outright “takeovers” of behavior, at least strong unconscious biases.  The three case studies are the Terri Schiavo case (empathy), the Columbine High School massacre (rage), and Hurricane Katrina (fear).