Roundtable reflection: Politics (in Times) of Anxiety – Forgetting the object?

by Emmy Eklundh

On Wednesday October 2nd, the Poststructural and Critical Thought Cluster launched its new project, Politics in Times of Anxiety. We are, naturally, very proud to have received Faculty funds for realising this project of reintroducing the concept of anxiety into the political sphere.

The launch started out with a mingling and poster session, with posters constructed on the current PhD projects within the cluster, portraying the connections with anxiety. Within the posters, we could notice themes about rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo; migration and uncertainty issues at the UK border; the transformation of practices in relation to cyber defence policy; the question of whether prostitutes are considered human; violence and uncertainty under the Brazilian dictatorship; as well as anxiety, emotions and protest in the Spanish Indignados movement.

During this session, Professor Michael Hoelzl said a few words about what anxiety actually means pointing out an important distinction between fear and anxiety. Fear, he said, is different since it can take an object, you are afraid of something, whereas anxiety, stemming from the German word Angst, rather refers to a general feeling of discomfort, which need not be directed at any special object. This struck me as an especially interesting conjecture, which I will discuss further below.

Later on, at the roundtable discussion, we were fortunate enough to have Professor Eric Swyngedouw step in at last minute, which proved to be an excellent addition to the panel which otherwise consisted of Professor Ian Parker, Dr. Aoileann Ni Mhurchu, and Dr. Stuart Shields. A few points raised in the discussion caught my special attention.

Erik Swyngedouw mentioned how there are two different natures to anxiety. First of all, there can be a play on anxiety used by different actors, for instant with the immanent doom caused by global warming, caused by the financial crisis, or any other disturbance to the order that we are used to. Second, there are attempt to managing this anxiety, for instance saying that the government efforts to fight this immanent threat are the right type of solution, and, furthermore, that it is the only solution. Here Erik touched upon an issue brought up by several of the speakers, namely the danger of depoliticisation. In attempts of managing anxiety, in trying to eradicate the source of our angst, the government, the market, or whatever actor we could imagine, tries to portray their solution to the problem as the sole path forward, eliminating competing discourses or alternatives. This nestles well with our common understandings of poststructuralist theory, and is one of the strands of thought within this project’s ambitions.

Later on, during the Q&A session, Stuart Shields raised some concerns about anxiety itself. He said he was feeling anxious (sic) about the very concept itself; how can it be studied, and how can we make use of anxiety? If we are indeed aiming at a form of emancipatory politics, how can we break the hegemonic understandings of solutions to anxiety, proposing alternative solutions? One of the suggestions put forward was to envision a progressive form of anxiety, and indeed, of populist politics. Perhaps the sensation of anxiety could transform into political engagement, producing anger about current state of affairs, and thus being an integral part of politics.

While this is a commendable position, and much welcomed due to its support of a more inclusive perspective on political action, this perspective holds several implications. When distinguishing between anxiety and fear, we said, in agreement with Heidegger, that anxiety lacks an object. This is a particular characteristic of anxiety, which is exciting, but simultaneously makes it difficult to translate into politics.  When thinking about the politics of anxiety, how can we consider a sensation being political if it has no specific object?

We might ask why we would like to study politics without an object. In my understanding, there is an incentive to do so for several reasons. In the very process of translating the sensation of anxiety into a different emotion, be that anger, fear, joy, which all indicate having a relation with something, being directed at something, we are pressing our mind into a rationalisation of anxiety. In the moment where we need to articulate this sensation, we are also channelling it in a specific direction, a direction which is inevitably exclusionary of other directions not taken. As such, the practice of directing your anxiety at an object (be that ecological destruction or financial collapse) unavoidably becomes an exclusionary, and potentially hegemonic, exercise. In this instance, we have committed the same error as we wanted to avoid, namely depoliticising anxiety, giving it a name.

This problematique will probably not be solved in the near future, but for now, with the launch of our project, I believe it sufficient to say that we need to acknowledge politics without direction. Does anxiety have to be directed at something, or can we merely be anxious? And, more importantly, how is this political?

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