Date of Degree
Rosalind P. Petchesky
Carol C. Gould
Political Science | Political Theory | Women's Studies
affect theory, Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, Simone de Beauvoir, Marxist feminism, political theory
What conceptual and methodological resources would it take for political theory to be able to more deeply analyze the emotional and affective dimensions of political life? In this dissertation, I articulate interdisciplinary work on affect and emotion into political theory in order to realize four linked objectives: first, to develop a method of reading and interpreting political theory capable of tracing the theoretical work done by affect and emotion in works of political thought; second, to reassess the boundaries of the political theory canon in terms of the thinkers that ‘count’ as part of that canon as well as the conceptual concerns that ‘count’; third, to provide specific re-readings and re-imaginings of four particular theorists or theoretical movements: Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, Marxist feminism, and Simone de Beauvoir; and fourth, to contribute to theories of embodied political ethics emerging from this kind of reading by centering the interactive, material body in ways attuned to emotion and affect. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that ‘the political’ is always emotional and affective.
Building on contemporary work in political theory on materialism and embodiment (e.g. Connolly 1999; Bennett 2001; Connolly 2002; Tambornino 2002; Frost 2008; Protevi 2009; Bennett 2010; Coole and Frost 2010; Washick et al. 2015), I construct and practice a method for doing affective political theory. I make an interdisciplinary move by constructing a relay between political theory and the transdisciplinary project of affect theory (e.g. Deleuze 1988; Massumi 2002; Ahmed 2004; Clough 2007; Clough 2010). My approach becomes a method of reading, theorizing, affecting, and being affected by political theoretical texts and concepts, one potentially useful for thinkers and issues beyond those of this project.
The main chapters of the dissertation explore what this looks like for each member of my constellation. The first chapter reads Thomas Hobbes as a precursor to affect theory in his attention to the politics of the body; an encounter between affect and Hobbes’s materialism enables a reinterpretation of the state of nature. Chapter two reinterprets Karl Marx to argue that a critique of capitalist affect is central to his account of capital: on the one hand, capitalism amplifies the potential affective capacity of bodies through its development and organization of productive forces; on the other, it captures this increase in affective capacity to enrich the bourgeoisie, immiserate the proletariat, and reproduce capitalist relations. The third chapter engages in an affective reading of Marxist feminists to construct a theory of social reproduction that focuses on the reproduction of affective capacity within patriarchal and capitalist forces, and to analyze four specific Marxist feminist thinkers and concepts, exploring how affect theory can productively extend and rearticulate the project of Marxist feminism. Chapter 4, in which I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex alongside Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion, investigates the emotional valences of phenomenology, subjectivity, gender oppression, power, and social transformation. The conclusion assembles the work of the main chapters to contribute to accounts of embodied political ethics, arguing that ethical considerations emanate from the center of ‘the political’ and that my method can theorize resources for affectively analyzing this intersection of ethics and politics. The conclusion also explores the limitations of affective reading and of the thinkers I examine, including recurring occlusion of racial and colonial violences, the potential emptiness of affective ethical categories, the status of collectivity and democratic practice, among others.
This project develops the conceptual and methodological resources necessary to think through the ways politics is materially felt and experienced by embodied subjects. Ultimately, it analyzes the political forces that shape, channel, assemble, appropriate, redirect, dampen, and amplify the material, emotional, and affective powers of the political body in motion.
McMahon, John, "Feeling Political: Affect, Emotion, and Ethics in Western Political Theory" (2016). CUNY Academic Works.