Workshop at UCL on Martha Nussbaum’s book Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Harvard University Press, 2013), 31 March 2014. A video of the event is available here.

Nussbaum began by saying that her account relied on the correct principles of justice, which she had developed earlier with Amartya Sen (‘Capabilities approach’). She sees this larger project as an expansion of Rawls’ concept of justice. However, as she conceded, this model can be difficult to put into practice. One of the reasons for these difficulties, she argued, was reason itself: while reason may be useful to found institutions, it is emotions that sustain them.

Some emotions are productive for shaping political communities, while others are destructive. Emotions need to be channelled in an appropriate way so that good things happen. In the talk, she did not distinguish between lasting emotions, spontaneous affects.

She argued that all good emotions are based on love, whereas many bad emotions come from disgust. The latter, Nussbaum claims, based on targeted reading of work about other animals, is unique to humans. A special kind of love, defined as altruistic play, is also linked to human nature in her account.

Crown Fountain

The Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park

She sees her work as aiming principally at the task of a new ‘civic religion’, which is to enable people to experience each other’s humanity through this kind of love. Her key example is fostering mutual recognition through public architecture and art. Two key examples are a fountain in Chicago’s Millennium park, where ‘people of different races are paddling in the same water’ in front of projections of faces of people of different races with funny waterfalls coming out of them.

The Bean

‘The Bean’ by Anish Kapoor (2004-06)

According to Nussbaum, the effect is achieved through overcoming disgust by ‘sharing fluids’. A second public artwork that is central to her argument is Anish Kapoor’s work, colloquially called The Bean (also the cover of her book), which is a distorting mirror in which people look at themselves and laugh at themselves.

She then asserted that she is aware of some complications about earlier projects of instituting public feelings, notably Rousseau’s and Comte’s.

But she focused mostly on the good examples of models for civic religion, which she identifies in the work of Mill, Tagore, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mozart.

The destructive emotions are fear, envy, and disgust (the subject of another book of hers).

In conclusion, she discussed that the best form for generating or evoking emotions which ‘do political work for us’ is by evoking ‘tragic feelings’ in us – meaning, feelings of compassion with heroes of a drama whose plot and outcome is not their fault

In the response sessions, Amia Srinivasan drew attention to the corrupt sense of the American project in which a superficial sense of ‘interracial’ mixing gives a good conscience to the liberal spectators of ‘tragedy’. Instead, she suggested we should look at witnessing inequality as a form of complicity or being implicated, which calls for much more than just compassion with the victims.

George Letsas gave another critical response, drawing attention to the role of Nussbaum’s ‘destructive’ emotions (fear, envy) in shaping political communities – an objection she responded to by saying that in some cases conjuring up such emotions does indeed lead to productive results. John Tasioulas and Sarah Fine emphasised the limited scope of Nussbaum’s expertise concerning animal psychology and behaviour, and questioned the applicability of her model to Britain. Tasioulas was sceptical about the public art section of the book. Sarah’s paper attempted to get the audience to sing ‘God save the Queen’, which drew about three people. At the first mention of the fact that Britain is still a constitutional monarchy, at least 30 people in the audience started laughing.

People from the audience also made interesting points about the concept of ‘tragic spectatorship’.

© Dina Gusejnova, 2015

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