Bonfires of sentiments

The emotions that drive revolutions are usually consumed in the act, obliterating all trace of their existence. Consider the ‘cult of sensibility’ or ‘sentimentalism’ and the French Revolution.

‘Sensibility’ was a way of understanding and expressing emotions prevalent among the elite in Europe, during the late 17th and 18th centuries, especially in France. Sentiments or sensibility are best understood in the light of Reddy’s ’emotives’. How do I know what I feel for you until I hear what I say to you? It was a way of accessing inner feelings or sensations, believed to be innate, natural things, beyond conscious understanding. Sentiments are moral sensations, natural feelings. It was like tapping in to a well of virtue.

We see traces of sentimentalism in private (especially, love) letters of the day. Indeed, is this not the entire point of all love letters? The more intense the sentiment in the letter, the better the chance its recipient will conclude that it is natural and good and respond in kind. As letters are exchanged, emotives intertwine in an upward spiral of intensity.

We find traces of sentimentalism in novels too. The best selling English novel of the 18th century was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded. To continue its full title: ‘In a series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Young Damsel, to her Parents’. ‘Letters’, that is, containing sentimental emotives. The Marquis de Sade’s wickedly perceptive Justine (or the Misfortune of Virtue) and Juliette (or Enlightenment and Morality) can be read as parodies of Richardson’s trade in ‘goodness’. Sade’s threat to ‘public morality’ is just one reason he spent the best years of his life in prison on the order of Louis XV, where, of course, he continued to write.

It is this same sentimentalism that Jane Austen chronicled in Sense and Sensibility (1811). (In today’s terms, we might call it Reason and Emotion.) One’s social success depended on one’s skill in knowing a person’s real sentiments from false displays. But one example:

But Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve ; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to common- place and mistaken notions. 

In France, more so than in England, sentimentalism was a potent force in political thinking. Dressed up as ‘virtue’, it was the emotional energy of the breakdown of the Old Regime and the first years of the Revolution. As Reddy explains, this period began with gestures of benevolence and ended in terror. Breaking down in tears under the intensity of one’s virtue was common. Mere friendships could bring on a fainting spell. The nearer the end came, the more intense the effusion of feelings, the better to impress with their sincerity. Those who failed died.

Pity and benevolence towards the downtrodden, gratitude for what one had and love for who knows what, were much in favour. August 4, 1789, the night the new National Assembly voted to dismantle the system of privileges that constituted the Old Regime, was a bonfire of sentiments. The rioting peasants (the ‘Great Fear’) concentrated their attention.  

The procedure followed during the session was to favor reform proposals that came from a delegate who enjoyed the very privileges he proposed to abolish. Nobles offered to give up their tax exemptions, clergy their tithes, provincial delegates the privileges of their provinces, and so on. The night’s work was widely described as a kind of sentimental cascade of reforms. (Reddy)

It was, as they say, a ‘patriotic delirium’.

Sentimentalism was consumed during the Revolution itself and confined to the private, feminine sphere of the household (to which President Hollande now retreats). Henceforth, the Revolution was known as a product of Reason (a largely male preserve) and we like to think that reason, through public deliberation, debate and voting, continues to rule us all.

And yet ’emotives’ suggests that every society has its own style of experiencing emotions. We know about ‘sentimentalism’, but what of our own way of experiencing emotions?


William M. Reddy. The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions, 2001.

Featured image: a firefighter and a fire, one of many in Paris, during the riots of November, 2005.

“Kill Your Rapist”

This graffiti appeared in my neighbourhood recently. Here I simply note and draw your attention to it.

There’s a connection between this graffiti and D.A. Clarke’s classic short essay which I included in this post in January: HOW TO STOP RAPE: ‘JUSTICE IS A WOMAN WITH A SWORD’ While she doesn’t advocate killing your rapist she certainly contemplates women fighting back. It’s a powerful and salutary essay.

For those who do not have time to read it in full, I quote from it here:

If the risk involved in attacking a woman were greater, there might be fewer attacks. If women defended themselves violently, the amount of damage they were willing to do to would-be assailants would be the measure of their seriousness about the limits beyond which they would not be pushed. If more women killed husbands and boyfriends who abused them or their children, perhaps there would be less abuse. A large number of women refusing to be pushed any further would erode, however slowly, the myth of the masochistic female which threatens all our lives. Violent resistance to attack has its advantages all round….

It’s interesting–amusing in a bitter kind of way–maybe even liberating–to envision a slightly different world. The man limps into the emergency room with one ear half-torn off and multiple bruises. As he gasps out his story, the doctor shakes his head: “You mean you grabbed at her breasts and tried to pull her into your car? Well I mean, dummy, what did you expect?” And he gets no sympathy, not a shred, from anyone.

She concludes:

I am not here to lay out a list of easy answers, but a tangle of difficult questions.

Violence may be a tool and a tactic that feminists should use; certainly we ought to be putting some serious thought into it. If we refuse it, it should not be because it offends against our romantic notion of morally superior Womanhood, but for some better and more thoughtful reason. If we accept it, we had better figure out how to avoid becoming corrupted by it.

Finally, another form of fighting back—parody, a lampooning of patriarchal explanations of rape in India.

Emotions vs. Interests in Egypt


A sure sign that there has been no revolution in Egypt is that the Obama Administration, echoed by Western news media, tells us that there has.

A revolution in Egypt would cause panic in Washington, Tel Aviv and the capitals of Europe. Instead there is just a cooing concern lest this baby democracy should stumble. No one dare state the obvious, that that was a coup d’état on July 3. It would ruin the revolution narrative.

So what is going on? At issue is the nature of power.

That millions of Egyptians took to the streets, for and against those in control of the State, in itself is a healthy sign, a magnificent spectacle. They need no lectures on democracy from Western products of brand marketing. They may, however, be interested in some reminders on the importance of revolutionary leadership.

A revolutionary crowd is not just a collection of individuals. It is an independent social being, with a life and mind of its own. Individuals become anonymous. The power of combination makes them feel invincible. Moral restraints are loosened. They do things, good and bad, they would not otherwise do. This collective social being is governed by emotions, not reason. Passions sweep through them by contagion; intense, but fleeting; capable of changing direction as quickly as a forest fire driven by the wind.

To get that many people on the streets takes a lot of anger. Anger that Mubarak was in power. Anger that he was removed. Anger that Morsi was in power. Anger that he was removed. Mubarak and Morsi were targets of this anger, but its root cause lies among the grinding difficulty of daily living in Egypt. Removing the target of anger does not remove its cause. That would required changing the conditions of life, a social transformation—a revolution in fact.

Nation states, however, are governed by interests and cool political calculation. The interests of the Egyptian State are tied to those of the United States and Israel. They know that this emotional power of the masses can be stalled to slowly deflate, burst like a balloon by just the right action. To stop a revolutionary crowd in its tracks tell them it’s won. If you are U.S. Secretary of State, tell them: “To see where this revolution happened and all that it has meant to the world is extraordinary for me.” (Hilary Clinton, March 2011).

Revolutionary power can also be hijacked or appropriated for entirely different ends. This is exactly what has happened in Egypt. Twice.

In February 2011, Mubarak was deposed by a military coup.

In July 2013, Morsi was deposed by a military coup, led by General Sisi, Mubarak’s Head of Military Intelligence with close ties to the U.S. and Israel. It was only after extensive consultation with his U.S. counterpart, Charles Hagel, that Sisi ordered Morsi’s arrest.

True, in each case there were throngs of revolutionary Egyptians on the streets, but the motive behind each military intervention was to pre-empt revolutionary change, not to advance it.

The millions who took to the streets between November 2012 and July 2013 to protest against Morsi were used as cover by the Egyptian military in its power struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood. For now, the military is in control of the entire political process in Egypt. The old guard is back in charge. This is somehow regarded as part of the revolution, not a counter-revolutionary coup d’état.

To organize those angry Egyptians into a revolution will take disciplined leadership—and this is rather more than communicating via Twitter and Facebook. A revolution isn’t a garden party

Mahmoud Badr and Tammarod? We know what they are against (Morsi) but what are they for?

We are about to find out.

Mahmoud Badr (center), founder of the opposition Tamarod campaign, attends a press conference in Cairo on June 29, 2013. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty)

Mahmoud Badr (center), founder of the opposition Tamarod campaign, attends a press conference in Cairo on June 29, 2013. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty)

The Politics of Fear

Edward Snowden blows the whistle on widespread surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency and its UK equivalent on American citizens, those of other countries and on friendly European governments—and no country will offer him sanctuary.

Are we to conclude that all are afraid of the United States or compromised by it?

Without Edward Snowden we would not know that America’s most senior intelligence official, James Clapper, lied under oath before Congress when he testified in March that the National Security Agency did not collect the telephone records of millions of Americans.

This is what emotional deception or lying looks like:

Snowden spoke the truth and is a fugitive. Clapper lied and faces no consequences.

In the meantime millions of Egyptians—who believe a revolution took place in 2011—took to the streets to demonstrate for and against President Morsi and all await the deadline imposed by …. the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Morsi and the armed forces are advised on a regular basis by the very people now intimidating the world. He is their man.

A bit of an exaggeration but it makes the point.

A bit of an exaggeration but it makes the point.

The moral here is that real change requires real people on the streets organizing themselves into an emotional, moral power. (Staring at a screen doesn’t cut it.) Politicians, bureaucrats and generals fear that more than tanks. Witness events in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil right now.

The politicians in those European countries which bend the knee so readily to American behests on ‘security’ and ‘intelligence’, while their citizens’ lives are surveilled in minute detail, would be well advised to watch their backs.

Much of Europe is a human wasteland. An entire generation faces a life of workless poverty. Most of these, I wager, identify with Edward Snowden, not their political masters. They’ve taken to the streets in most countries, without achieving much. But that can quickly change. Emotions are contagious. A spark from a forest fire can travel miles on the wind to start another. The emotional energy in Egypt, Turkey and even Brazil is quite capable of igniting the passions of those at the wrong end of austerity in Europe.  That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of people to watch—and that’s why they’re being watched so closely by their Anglo-American friends.

Should that happen the ruling class of Europe—’the innocent have nothing to fear’—is going to have to decide what it fears most: America or their own people.

Either way, they are not innocent and they have a lot to fear.

Manifestantes tocam fogo na Porta da Assembléia Legislativa do Rio de Janeiro 17/06/2013. – YouTube

via Manifestantes tocam fogo na Porta da Assembléia Legislativa do Rio de Janeiro 17/06/2013. – YouTube.

The belief that emotions are primarily individual, not collective, phenomena, is a recent invention. Its original meaning was

‘Political agitation, civil unrest; a public commotion or uprising. Obs.’ (Oxford English Dictionary, above)

The Obs. means ‘obsolete’. Not any longer it isn’t. The meaning is being revived in front of our very eyes.

Slavoj Žižek and ‘The Coming Insurrection’ Compared

Slavoj Žižek is certainly entertaining, as you will see in the first video.

But the really serious philosophers and social theorists tend to end up in prison. This was the case with the authors of The Coming Insurrection, the subject of the second video. So I’m spending more time on them.

Police swoop on the village of Tarnac, France, to arrest the alleged authors of The Coming Insurrection.

Police swoop on the village of Tarnac, France, to arrest the alleged authors of The Coming Insurrection.

The Coming Insurrection is a short booklet written by ‘The Invisible Committee’ (four men and five women, aged 22 to 34) . It can be found and downloaded on the web  here. The MIT Press has also published it. The video is a sop to those with a crippled attention span. To feel the full force of the message, read it. It’s powerful writing.

If you don’t understand its relevance, you’re not paying attention to what’s happening on the streets of Europe and North America. So, wake up!

Certainly, if it’s good enough for Glenn Beck to attack, it’s good enough for this blog. American news media like only bogus or ineffectual revolutions in distant lands, certainly not an insurrection as close to American interests as that which is ‘coming’.

The Coming Insurrection begins:

From whatever angle you approach it, the present offers no way out. This is not the least of its virtues. From those who seek hope above all, it tears away every firm ground. Those who claim to have solutions are contradicted almost immediately. Everyone agrees that things can only get worse. “The future has no future” is the wisdom of an age that, for all its appearance of perfect normalcy, has reached the level of consciousness of the first punks.

In these circumstances, does Slavoj Žižek have a future?

Interview with Julien Coupat (whose image is in the header)

Commandante Chavez and the Emotions of Revolution

I was last in Caracas 4-5 years ago. I was a member of a delegation that had arranged to visit the various Missions of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and see for ourselves what was happening.

Hotel rooms were scarce. At the hotel desk I agreed to something I would never ordinarily do—share a room with a stranger. I opened the door and laid back on the bed was this fit-looking black guy with dreadlocks, appraising me.

He was a cop from Chicago, from the ‘bad’ part of Chicago. His name was Jeff. He had two grown up sons, both in prison for murder, and a baby girl with a younger woman. He showed me a photograph of her. Real proud.

He was checking out Venezuela as a place to live. He knew what was about to come and he wanted out of the States. Anywhere really, but preferably somewhere cheap.

We had nothing in common but a certain experience of power, but that was enough and by the end of the week we were like blood-brothers.

He had a disconcerting habit of walking up to cops in the street and introducing himself as a brother from Chicago. He was a friendly, open guy.

It was good to have a cop for company in Caracas. Never saw any violence, but lots of signs of people getting ready for violence. Entrances to apartment buildings were guarded by young men with guns. Doors to apartments that I saw were armour plated with multiple locks.

Remnants of the old order deeply resented ‘what had been done to our country’. They lay behind the failed (US backed) coup against Chávez in 2002. They never forgave him for surviving that. But my impression was of massive support for Chávez and the revolution, especially from among the poor (and that’s most of them).

The revolution is not something they supported—as if it were a mere government policy—the mass of the people were and are the revolution. The main connection between the people and the government are the various ‘Missions’, in education, housing, health care, literacy, in every area of social life. The Missions are made up of practical measures for people to improve their lives and their communities. With this control over their lives comes dignity and this human need drives most revolutions.

2277422477_602e69967e_oThe woman in the photograph here is but one example. (I forget her name.) She had dropped out of high school because she had to work to support her family. One of the Missions organized such people and gave them the means to go back to school and finish their education. This she did in her 80s. Here she is, sharp as a tack, telling her story, part of a group of such people of all ages and backgrounds. What they all had in common was enormous pride at their belated achievement.

But all of this is common knowledge to anyone who cares to look beyond the West’s demonization of Chávez and his ‘dictatorship’.

Here I want to draw attention to the Bolivarian revolution as an emotional phenomenon. Indeed, all revolutions, I suspect, are driven primarily by emotions. (I will write about the emotions of the French revolution another time).

We see this in the enormous grief at Chávez’s death. He was loved and respected by millions of people like the woman in red above.

Many of us in the West live like battery hens, withdrawn into ourselves, in emotional isolation, but clucking and cooing at each other, and occasionally pecking. (I will be writing, by request, about the emotional lives of hens before too long. But not, I must add, revolutionary hens. Too controversial).

But revolutionary people are a different kind of bird. They take flight, twisting and turning and breathing as one. Like this:

And like this:

Chávez opened the emotional cages and no one is going to stuff the people back into them again. Although some will try.

Chávez is dead but this collective emotional being—revolutionary democracy—lives on.

Useful link

Venezuelan Analysis