Ty Solomon: Emotions in politics, the affective turn in IR, and the success of Brexit & Trump (part 1)

Ty Solomon: Emotions in politics, the affective turn in IR, and the success of Brexit & Trump (part 1)

Ty Solomon, new member of New Perspectives’ Editorial Board, speaks to NP’s deputy editor-in-chief Jakub Eberle. The interview was conducted on the occasion of Ty’s lecture on ‘Affect and the Arab Spring’ at the Institute of International Relations, Prague. 

Jakub Eberle: We are meeting two days after Donald Trump’s election, which seems to mark a watershed. You have been working with the idea of resonance, for example with respect to neo-conservativism. This notion suggests that at some point certain ideas seem to catch with the audience and at other points in time they do not. Do you already have a preliminary analysis as to why Trump’s ideas resonated at this particular time?

Ty Solomon: The first thing that strikes me from looking at Trump’s campaign and the election itself is how affective the entire enterprise was. It probably is an obvious point, but it is worth reiterating as it shows some of the weaknesses of our traditional ways of looking at elections in politics and political science. The usual model of the voter in American political science, I suppose, is that voters weigh candidates according to issues and most often they rationally calculate which candidate they are closest to and will bring them the most benefit. This election seems to have been marked by an affective wave that pushed Trump over the edge. The night before the election most of the polls had Hillary winning, but Trump obviously came out on top, so he was able to build up an affective or emotional momentum that Hillary was not able to. I think also that the discrepancy between things Trump wants to do and the actual reality of whether he will be able to implement those shows how little rational calculation was going on in this election. He was speaking to his core constituencies in particular American nationalistic terms, which resonated with them for all sort of class and racial reasons. Things like the practicalities of building a 2000 mile wall along the Mexican border, which is probably not going to happen, did not really matter. It’s a huge problem to build it, but no one seems to have taken that into account when voting for him.  It sounded good, and the narrative in which it was embedded sounded good, so I think this was much more of an affective result than we normally give credit for in elections, at least in political science.

Jakub Eberle: This directly relates to some of your earlier work, particularly on Lacanian psychoanalysis, as well as your current preoccupation with ontological security. Some of the arguments you have been making are that politics is primarily about a sense of identity, which we acquire by identifying with particular slogans or catchwords. Can you see some of this language in the Trump campaign?

Ty Solomon: Yes, definitely. I will draw a parallel between the Brexit vote in Britain and Trump’s slogans that he was using in the American campaign. One way to look at how one might take a Lacanian approach would be to look at master signifiers. These are the dominant words we attach ourselves to. The kinds of language that the Brexiters were using, people like Farage for example, were basically ‘Take Our Country Back.’ It was a phrase which meant lots of things to lots of different constituencies that voted for Brexit. But it did not mean one thing, so it was broad enough and ambiguous enough to soak up lots of different meanings that allow lots of different kinds of people to identify with it and be affected by it. Just the same as in the US how Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ was similarly ambiguous enough that lots of different kinds of people identified with it and affectively attached themselves to it. In itself it means almost nothing, it is very vague, but there is just enough of a narrative there for you to put into it what you will and that is, in my view, how many people get emotionally tied into the narrative. So I think there are affective parallels between Brexit and Trump’s success in the American election.

Ty Solomon, Lecturer in International Relations, University of Glasgow.

Jakub Eberle: This paints a somewhat pessimistic picture of politics as an enterprise in which communities and identities are constructed through arousal and circulations of affects around particular signifiers, slogans, and even chants. If it is so, how do we resist such populist appeals, e.g. of the Eurosceptics or of Trump?

Ty Solomon: First of all, I think there is always room for resistance. Even though we usually look at the power of dominant discourses, there is always room for and are always going to be people who don’t buy into them. Those people might be prominent in the society; however, more often they at the margin of what seems to be the main public discourse. There are always going to be people contesting it. The fact that language is never fixed and no discourse can ever exhaust all possible meanings means that there is room for struggle over the meaning of our master signifiers. Whether they be ‘Hope and Change’ with Obama, four or eight years ago, there is always room for contestation. And with things like ‘Take our Country back,’ ‘Hope and Change’ and ‘Make America Great Again’, the slipperiness and ambiguity of language allows for this contestation.

Jakub Eberle: This brings us to your main interest, which is, broadly speaking, about the issues of affect and emotions in international politics. Can you just briefly summarise what your research agenda is? How do you see this current gap in the IR literature that you are speaking to? What approaches do you build upon?

Ty Solomon: I wrote my PhD dissertation on trying to develop a new form of doing discourse analysis in International Relations. I tried to bring in what still is a new interest, namely the problems of emotions and affect. I was really interested in social construction, constructivism, identities and norms and I was really persuaded by that literature given what it said about the shortcomings of rational actor models of approaching politics. But the more I read of the constructivist literature the more dissatisfied I got because it did not seem to quite get at the visceral and passionate aspects of lived experiences. I came to the conclusion that constructivism as an approach to International Relations did not really get at feelings and emotions that led to how people invested themselves in certain ideas and certain social constructs. I tried to pull together insights from both Jacques Lacan and Ernesto Laclau and tried to figure out a way to speak about how dominant ideas are sustained and supported by investments of affect. So if a narrative such as the War on Terror, for example, becomes dominant, my hunch was that not only people in power were articulating this discourse from a particular position that helped them get the message out. But it also resonated on an everyday level for a lot of people because of some sort of emotional ties people had with it.

I took Lacan’s model of the subject and tried to merge it with Laclau’s understanding of hegemonic politics. What I find really interesting about Lacan’s psychoanalytic approach to identity is that he focused not only on the ambiguities of language which post-structuralists have talked about, but also how desire and affect are key components of identity or subject formation. For him, it is not the mere fact that we keep narrating stories about ourselves, but what really matters for Lacan is this aspect of desire that we invest in the narratives we tell about ourselves. So what I tried to do in the book is to bring these ideas together to develop a new way to supplement and enrich discourse analysis. I tried to get to these aspects of desire and ontological security and these feelings that go along with identifying with something broader than yourself, with broader narratives that the self invests in.

Jakub Eberle: In your current work, you are moving towards a different take on psychoanalysis than Lacan’s, one adopted from the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. What is at stake in this shift?

Ty Solomon: I have not moved away from Lacan and Lacanian analysis, because I still think that he is useful for lots of different questions we tackle in IR. But the last year or two I have been focused not strictly on subject formation, which is Lacan’s focus, but more on how affect and emotions become contagious and therefore political. I have recently been reading a lot of work across philosophy, sociology and human geography, asking how other fields tackle this question on collective affect and how collective affect comes to matter politically. A lot of these people use Deleuze’s work on affect and I also think that he is useful, insofar he does talk about affect as something intrinsically relational.

For Deleuze, we can’t talk about affect if you are not talking about more than one body. So Deleuze politicises the body, he politicises affect, which is very useful for talking about some of the things we are interested in in IR. For example, earlier this year I published a piece with Brent Steele in the European Journal of International Relations, where we advocate a micro-political approach to International Relations. We follow people like Christine Sylvester and other gender and feminist theorists who say that we need to pay more attention to the everyday in International Relations. Brent and I agree that the focus on the everyday is something that IR needs to pay more attention to and in some ways, this is the flipside to what I was doing in the previous book (The Politics of Subjectivity in American Foreign Policy Discourses, 2015). The book was very elite-discourse oriented and it was very top-down in that sense. In a way, my more recent work has been more bottom-up and I am trying to fill the gaps in my own research agenda with this new work.

Ty Solomon is Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow. His research is concerned with the overlapping influences of language and identity in the politics of security and foreign policy. His recent book, The Politics of Subjectivity in American Foreign Policy Discourses (University of Michigan Press, 2015), analyses how foreign policy narratives emotionally appeal to audiences. He has published in journals such as International Studies Quarterly, European Journal of International Relations, Review of International Studies, Cooperation and Conflict, Millennium, and New Political Science.  

The second part of the interview, which focuses on the prospects of critical scholarship in IR, differences between American and European academia, and how to succeed as a young scholar, will be published next week.