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REVIEW POLITICAL 10.1177/0090591703258609 Martel / REVIEW THEOR ESSA Y /Y February 2004

THE ROLE OF EMOTION IN POLITICAL LIFE THE SENTIMENTAL CITIZEN: EMOTION IN DEMOCRATIC POLITICS by George Marcus. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. 171 pp. $19.95 (paper). FEMINISM AND EMOTION: READINGS IN MORAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY by Susan Mendus. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. 197 pp. $65.00 (cloth). As citizens of a democracy, must we fear our passions? Two recent books by George Marcus and Susan Mendus argue that we need a better appreciation of the relationship between emotion, reason, and politics. Romantic reactions aside, these authors argue that emotion has often been seen as opposed and even dangerous to reason, which is itself held up as the model for politics and citizenship. Both books would like to revisit this understanding by arguing that emotion is necessary for reason, with important implications, both for moral philosophy and for notions of citizenship and democracy. In The Sentimental Citizen, George Marcus argues that reason and the conscious mind are only one part of the overall structure of human motivation. Turning to neuroscience for his evidence, Marcus distinguishes between the mind (our consciousness) and the brain (the larger system that structures our responses to the world). Marcus tells us that we have several “emotional” systems that, unbidden—and often unwanted—serve as the grounds upon which our conscious minds operate, the most important being the disposition and surveillance systems. The disposition system simplifies and routinizes complicated tasks. Were it not for this system, Marcus argues, the simplest acts—such as catching a marble rolling down a slope—would become hellishly difficult. Our conscious mind, which can handle only a relatively small amount of data, would be overwhelmed without the disposition system’s attendance to the basic details of life, leaving the conscious mind to do what it does best: focus on a particular question. When we go along with our dispositions or habits, we POLITICAL THEORY, Vol. 32 No. 1, February 2004 116-120 DOI: 10.1177/0090591703258609 © 2004 Sage Publications

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feel a sense of enthusiasm. When we go against them, we may feel despair. These emotions are thus not exactly “our own” in the sense that they are the product of our conscious mind, but rather they are a kind of communication with our brain. These emotional states structure and enable reason to operate within their guidelines. The surveillance system monitors our external world for signs of threat or change. When all is well, the surveillance system is silent and we feel calm. When something strange is happening, we feel anxiety. Anxiety, Marcus tells us, is underappreciated because it performs the important task of informing our mind that something is wrong and that we may need to change the way we do things. With anxiety, we can either be reconfirmed in our beliefs or we can change them. Without anxiety, we are stuck with our dispositions and reason is powerless to do anything about it. At times this book suggests an almost Nietzschean decentering of self. That is probably not the author’s intention, but the entire relationship between mind and brain is a fascinating complication of human agency. The author’s announced intention is more modest, however: to alter the way we understand the role of emotion in reason and politics and convince us that we are better citizens (therefore) than we might think. Marcus’s point is that we berate ourselves for being too passionate in our political lives (by responding to negative ads and the like) when we are in fact, in our enthusiasm, despair and anxiety, actually being extremely reasonable—when we understand “reasonable” to include these emotional states that precede, structure, and sustain reason itself. Although this book sets itself up as a critique of our practices, it turns out that the way we are doing business is not as bad as it seems. The author just argues that some awareness of the way emotions work would make us even more reasonable, that is to say, more in keeping with our emotional states and what they do to, and ask of, us. Perhaps inevitably, Marcus has set up some straw men in his quest to redeem emotion. What Marcus calls “the dream of independent reason” (p. 143), that is, the source of our bias against emotion, is exemplified for him by thinkers like Kant and especially Descartes. But even Kant saw the need for emotions (albeit mainly ones he preferred, like respect and awe) and cautioned that “reason should not flap its wings impotently . . . and thereby lose itself among mere phantoms of the brain.”1 And Descartes—author of the quintessential text of doubt—seems to exemplify precisely the kind of anxiety that Marcus applauds. This last point may serve to illuminate one of the greatest strengths of this book, namely, that The Sentimental Citizen offers us a powerful—indeed nearly irresistible—metaphor for who and what we are. For in seeking to extend the findings of neuroscience about “human nature” to political questions, Marcus is using an extensive, and indeed emotional,

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metaphor in which internal emotions are related to collective, political passions. Marcus himself tells us that “a rhetoric that attempts to be sterile so that emotion is excluded cannot [gain our attention or win our hearts]” (p. 147). This statement surely also applies to Marcus’s own book. Indeed Marcus’s book can be seen as engaging in some elegant rhetorical maneuvers: it is not only a straightforward statement of a neuroscientific thesis; its action upon the reader illustrates the author’s own proposition. That is, the reader becomes, like the mind described in the book, a helpless witness to the emotional systems that surround him or her. We are, by definition, unable to know if these systems are “true,” because our self is only a small part of the very systems we are trying to discern. Thus, we are left with our dispositions and anxieties, exactly as Marcus describes us. Susan Mendus’s book, a series of interrelated essays, approaches the question of emotion quite differently. Mendus draws less on science and more on moral and political philosophy (although both authors have a nice penchant for using literary figures to exemplify their points). Mendus may begin with the same straw men as Marcus (at least in respect to Kant), but she argues even those denigrators of emotion can often be shown to appreciate the value of what they claim (or are claimed) to dislike. For example, she rescues Kant from a perceived coldness and antiemotionalism by showing that Kant can be shown to allow for emotions, as long as they are not indulged at the expense of reason itself. She argues that, for Kant, the duty to “love our neighbor” is not incommensurate with our inclination to love our neighbor (p. 48). Indeed, she suggests that emotional love is “a necessary precondition of being able to recognize moral duty at all” (p. 52). In other words, although the idea might not appeal to him, Kant accepts the necessity and uses of emotion after all. Better still for Mendus is John Rawls, who, in his own engagement with Kant, reveals himself to be even more keen on the value and need for emotion as a basis for reason (strangely, to make this argument, Mendus more or less abandons her own reconstitution of Kant, returning him to straw man status). Mendus suggests that Kant cannot bear the slings and arrows of love and fortune and seeks to protect us from the world by a retreat to the cold isolation of reason and respect (p. 169). Rawls, however, accepts the moral hazards of life and sees love as a necessary way to engage with the world. He sees love (as Mendus does) as something risky but transformative, which gets us to care about something besides ourselves, hence awakening us to the very moral world that Kant seeks but fails to find because of his concern for self-protection (which amounts to preserving the isolated self). Mendus repeatedly returns to this argument that emotions are not antagonistic to reason and justice, that they enable us to survive and even thrive in a

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world characterized by chance and unfairness. Despite her allegiance to a figure like Rawls (at least her version of Rawls), Mendus is very critical of liberalism itself. In her view, liberalism seeks, like Kant, to render us immune to chance. This informs Mendus’s approach to feminism as well; she resists both a hyper-Kantian identity for women that denies the chance and vagaries of gender as well as an identity that fetishizes those vagaries as being itself constitutive of a female self. Mendus describes a peculiarly modern form of tragedy, namely, our inability to accept its inevitability. Like Willie Loman, (in her beautifully drawn reading of him), we believe in the possibility of something called “justice” and, when we fail to have it (as we must), we believe that we have not only failed life, but also have failed to deserve the justice that was denied to us. A greater appreciation for emotion, Mendus argues, allows us to accept tragedy and therefore serves as the bedrock for any possibility of real moral agency. By forbearing to make claims about “human nature,” Mendus may avoid some of the baggage that comes with Marcus’ project. Then again, without that baggage, we are left wondering what these emotions are and where they come from. Like Marcus, albeit in a very different way, Mendus suggests, in her attack on reason’s primacy, a decentering of human subjectivity. Her discussion of love as “constitutive and transformative of our ends” (p. 179) suggests as much. But like Marcus, she seems to shy away from pushing this decentering too far. After all, the point of both books is to return us to “us,” where that “us” is both tragically configured and imbued with a new respect for emotions we’ve always had but didn’t value. Their vastly different approaches notwithstanding, these authors share a set of fundamental assumptions that might help explain why they ultimately come to almost exactly the same conclusions and why their books may have similar limitations. While Marcus’s turn to science and Mendus’s turn to canonical texts and moral theory both have their virtues, the project of “redeeming” emotion might better be served by probing the very basis for the emotion/reason binarism that these authors accept without question. Each author calls for a fundamental rethinking of reason’s primacy, and Mendus acknowledges (and critiques) the gendered readings of emotion and reason, yet both authors end up reinscribing this basic relationship, even while challenging its articulation. We might ask instead how we have come to see ourselves as being organized along these particular lines, what this arrangement serves, how it reifies us as political actors, and how an unquestioning belief in this arrangement leads us down certain paths, making others utterly invisible to us. By not asking such questions, we may risk naturalizing (like Marcus) or at least failing to contest (like Mendus) an arrangement that, by these authors’

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own admission, has a very unhappy and unsatisfying history and that needs periodic rescuing by books (however worthy) such as these.

NOTE 1. Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981), 61.

—James Martel San Francisco State University

James Martel teaches at San Francisco State University in the Department of Political Science. Prior to this, he taught in the Rhetoric Department at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Amherst College. He is the author of Love Is a Sweet Chain: Desire Autonomy and Friendship in Liberal Political Theory (2001).

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REVIEW Martel / REVIEW ESSAFebruary 2004 POLITICAL  

FEMINISM AND EMOTION: READINGS IN MORAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY by Susan Mendus. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. 197 pp. $65.00 (cloth)...

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