From Visual Politics to Visceral Politics
The path to the Centre for the Politics of Feelings
From 2016 to 2020, my team developed the interdisciplinary ‘Body & Image in Arts & Science’ (BIAS) project at the Warburg Institute, School of Advanced Study, University of London, funded by the NOMIS Foundation. The overarching question of BIAS was to ask how do we (bodily) relate & respond to others in a culture powered by images. Our aim was twofold. First to approach this question through the lens of interdisciplinary research, in line with Aby Warburg’s vision about interdisciplinarity. Second, to apply our approach to different timely questions relating to visual culture, from considering our embodiment in our responses to art and aesthetic experience, but also to how we present and represent images of the self, and how our relations to images shape our social understanding of the world and their sociopolitical power.
Equipped with insights from humanities and arts, methods from psychology and neuroscience, we set up our lab at the Warburg Institute in November 2016 and we were excited that we were given the opportunity to re-instate cross-disciplinary dialogues at the Institute. As it happened, the onset of the BIAS project coincided with major social and political events in Western democracies, such as the rise of 'alternative facts' and fake news and increased polarization. Inevitably the project took on a more societal dimension as the BIAS team felt compelled to study the role of embodiment and affect for understanding ‘visual politics’ (1). The term ‘visual politics’ denotes the need to think about and research the political culture of the images that surround us; their unprecedented volume and power (2), not simply in terms of what images communicate, but more so in terms of how they come to shape how we experience ourselves, other human beings, the social, economic and political realms, and eventually become political forces in themselves. The two examples outlined below exemplify our approach:
The first project investigated how different types of ‘visual framing’ (e.g. large vs small groups, at a border or crossing the sea) of social groups (e.g. refugees) as they appear in news images influence our attitudes (e.g. dehumanization) and political behaviour (e.g. political leader selection). Across 10 studies, we substantiate, for the first time with robust quantitative measures, the presence of such effects of images, mediated by the emotions they elicit, on socio-political behaviour (3, see also the preprint here).
The second project investigated how bodily and affective responses to news images influence our cognitive judgments about the realness of such visual material, linking our research with long-standing debates on the photography of suffering and more recent attempts to understand ‘fake news’ and the performative power of images. Our empirical findings highlight, for the first time, the crucial role that ‘feeling in seeing’ plays in determining our beliefs about realness in a political culture powered by images (see also the preprint here) .
Taken together, our research on ‘visual politics’ empirically showed the centrality of affect and emotion in understanding the performative and political power of images. These insights led me to consider more broadly the role of affect and emotion for the understanding of our short-term political weather and longer-term political climates. In 2018, I joined the steering committee that oversaw the development of Enlightenment 2.0, a flagship report initiated by the Joint Research Council of the European Commission. Its scope was to explore which factors, other than rational thought, are key drivers of political decision-making and behaviour, with a particular focus on affect, emotion, identity and cognitive biases. The report ‘Understanding Our Political Nature: How to put knowledge and reason at the heart of political decision-making’ (4) is used to inform EU policy-makers on how information about citizens' emotions and greater emotional literacy could improve policymaking.
When considering the research findings of the BIAS project in the context of the current socio-political climate of populism, environmental devastation, and cultural wars that stoke fear, anger, sadness, hatred, indignation, resentment, and more, we suggest that affect and emotion are at the very core of how the reciprocal relations between citizens and politics are shaped. I called this intersection between the body’s physiology, the experienced emotion and political behaviour ‘Visceral Politics’. The term highlights the ways in which the physiological, emotive nature of our engagement with the social world influences how we make decisions, and in turn how socio-political forces recruit physiology and emotions to influence our behaviour. The time is ripe to explore the complex byways of these processes, and to situate this empirically-driven scientific account within an innovative and interdisciplinary theoretical framework. This will be the aim of the Centre for the Politics of Feelings.
1. R. Bleiker, Visual Global Politics (Routledge, New York, 2018).
2. D. Freedberg, The Power of Images, Studies in the History and Theory of Response (The University of Chicago, Press Books, 1991).
3. R. T. Azevedo, S. De Beukelaer, I. Jones, L. Safra, M. Tsakiris, When the lens is too wide : the visual dehumanization of refugees and its political consequences. PsyArXiv, 1–30 (2019).
4. R. Mair, D., Smillie, L., La Placa, G., Schwendinger, F., Raykovska, M., Pasztor, Z. and Van Bavel, “Understanding our Political Nature: How to put knowledge and reason at the heart of political decision-making” (Luxembourg, 2019), , doi:10.2760/374191.