Thoughts on the Emotions of Change

-by Matthias Allinger, Institute for Advanced Studies & Critical Automobility Studies Lab, Vienna

While the Coronavirus animates us to pay attention to the topic of biopolitics (may it be following Foucault or Agamben), I want to focus on another perspective: The politics of emotions. Following the premises of Affective Studies, I perceive emotions and rationality not as opposites, but as constitutive for another (Baier et al. 2014: 14). Intellectualization and Rationalization in psychology remind us of this connectedness just as much as political actors fostering and instrumentalizing emotions for their agendas. In context of the current situation, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Engin F. Isin’s Neurotic Citizen lately, as looking back to the last years, we do indeed see ourselves confronted with the prevalence of severe, anxiety-inducing societal challenges: Banking crisis, financial crisis, refugee crisis, ecological crisis, corona crisis – one might only wonder which crisis comes next, instead of realistically imagining this age of crisis coming to a foreseeable end.

Anxieties played a huge role in all of these crises, related not only to physical health, but also regarding mental well-being, individual and societal prosperity, crime, culture, as well as concerning the agency to ‘take control’ and the possibilities to ‘make a change’. The concrete measures taken – both on individual and on societal levels – may be diverse, contradictory or sometimes even appear completely meaningless, but they all aim for (sustaining or achieving) some sort of normality, stability, and safety – animated by a (felt) loss of control and the envisioned impending doom to come. And in light of these challenges, it’s often times old or new authorities who are hailed to rescue the darkened world.

Interestingly enough, Isin published his Neurotic Citizen already way back in 2004. He anticipated the emergence of a new form of governance: neuroliberalism, which ‘addresses an anxious and affective subject whose freedom is released in response to insecurities it faces within the requirements of tranquil, serene and secure species-bodies’ (Isin 2004: 232). This subject is the Neurotic Citizen, ‘who governs itself through responses to anxieties and uncertainties’ (Isin 2004: 223). The most striking assessment of Isin is the following normalization of anxiety within societies, as ‘the neurotic subject is one whose anxieties and insecurities are objects of government not in order to cure or eliminate such states but to manage them’ (Isin 2004: 225). And while these anxieties must not be ignored, we must at the same time be wary that anxieties and our preparations for any disasters to come do not only shape our present, but also our imaginable futures (Neocleous: 195).

‘So, what’s the point?’, you might rightfully ask. The point is that when we conceive every crisis as an opportunity, we must take into account that emotions play a non-negligible part in envisioning and seizing these opportunities. We all rely on our imaginative potential to create change and if we want to have a meaningful impact, we are in dire need to reach out and capture the collective imagination that indeed, another world is possible. Of course, this will pose new potential risks to be taken, but also new opportunities to be had – maybe even a world in which we can strive for collectively freeing ourselves from some of our anxieties instead of developing the resilience to endure them.


Baier, Angelika; Binswanger, Christa; Häberlein, Jana; Nay, Yv Eveline; Zimmermann, Andrea (2014): Affekt und Geschlecht: Eine Einleitung in Affekt-Theorien aus einer feministischen, queeren und post/kolonialen Perspektive. In: Baier et al. (Hg.): Affekt und Geschlecht. Eine einführende Anthropologie. Wien: Zaglossus, p. 11-29, p. 42-54.

Isin, Engin F. (2004): The Neurotic Citizen. In: Citizenship Studies. Vol. 8(3), p. 217-235.

Neocleous, Mark (2012): „Don’t Be Scared, Be Prepared“: Trauma-Anxiety-Resilience. In: Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. Vol. 37(3), p. 188-198.

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