By Tibebu Taye Gulilat
This analyses will examine in more detail the politicization and monetization of excessive affect that has made us susceptible to the worst political subjectivities marked by affective disorders, including cruel optimism and anticipatory obedience. To keep our conversation on solid ground, I offer a brief explanations on the meaning of affect, particularly focusing on its importance in politics. I then emphasize on how Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, has used affective energies to achieve his political aspirations as a charming dictator. While this may have helped Abiy to get away with the current social and political turmoils, declining trust and confidence in government institutions, and dire economic conditions in the country, arguably, the trends have led Ethiopia further towards ethnonationalism or other extreme forms of tribalism.
Before I dive into my ideas, I’d like to begin by sharing some general reflections as a slight twitch that has influenced my thinking.
I believe that in a society whose socio-cultural dissections serve as main dividing lines and where the majority of the populace falls under the category of the uncritical mass, the production and consumption of affect (energy that binds us to something or somebody) would be the indisputable, vital, and effective subset of political maneuverings for authoritarian regimes; and a successful political maneuvering (whether at times of peace or war) will be heavily dogged by the unceasing production of affect. And the parallel ability to modulate those affective energies (such as optimism or despondent) of the political mass. But, this assertion doesn’t come without a pretence. Here, the political mass is the obvious pretence, and it represents the affective pole of the population that is idealized by particular social/political virtues and/or ethics (either productive, or what else?).
Affect, its essence!
According to a leading a leading Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza, Affect is the capacity to affect or be affected. In psychology and neuroscience, the term “affect” refers to the experience of feeling or emotion, including both positive and negative states such as happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and excitement. Affect is a fundamental aspect of human experience and plays a critical role in shaping perception, cognition, behavior, and social interactions.
Affect is the energy that binds us to something or somebody. It creates possibilities of attachments to something such as a place that we call it home (ለምሳሌ፣ እትብቴ የተቀበረበት አገሬ) or homophilic attachment to fellow tribesmen that we call them friends or relatives (መወለድ ቋንቋ ነው). Affect is also about movements such that affective experiences involve a movement (of energy), creating a surface of attachment between bodies, because expressed affect (emotions) are either sympathized for or disparaged forever.
Thus, in our everyday life, we consume a lot of affect, wittingly or otherwise. It is also this power/capacity/energy that we are talking about whose production and modulation plays a significant role in the success of any political wars, be it a war of political maneuverings or positioning, Dr Dagnachew Assefa, who is known for his political analyses and critique from Addis Ababa University, explicates Granschi’s theory in the current case of Ethiopia. Political affect can also be manipulated by political actors through the use of affective appeals in political messaging and advertising. For example, political ads may use emotional appeals to evoke fear, anger, or hope, in an attempt to shape people’s affective responses to a particular issue or candidate.
Embodying affective energies
One of the ideal places people often experience the vitality of their affective life is inside churches at times of holy communiships or in a classroom during a complex mathematical exams. Perhaps, the former one can more likely be associated with spiritual optimism, which according to Scarry may have “an aura of the spiritual, to signal some capacity for self-transcendence or form of consciousness different from physical events” (Read more on the book of Anderson, B., 2017). As an example, if you just ask me why Eyu Chufa, who is commonly called a ‘Prophet’ and owner and leader of Christ Army Church in Ethiopia, amassed such a sizable number of followers in his church, I will most likely respond that it was due to affect, particularly affect that is connected to objects of spiritual optimism. Ask yourself why you would prefer “Toyota” branded cars over other brands if I were to give you an example of other instances of affective operations in your life. If you have ever wondered what the analogy of the church and the classroom may have got to do with politics, I invite you to explore theories of affective politics. However, if we stick around on the role of people like Eyu Chufa in the context of politics, we need to check a snap shot of the meaning and roles of affective laborers- who produce and manipulate affective energies in politics.
Affective laborers and their roles in political economy
According american political philosopher and literary theorist Michael Hardt, affective laboring refers to work that involves managing, expressing, or regulating emotions as part of the job. This type of work often requires employees to interact with others, such as in customer service or healthcare roles, and requires them to display a certain demeanor or attitude. Affective labor can also involve managing one’s own emotions, such as in jobs that require workers to maintain a positive attitude despite stressful or challenging circumstances. Have you ever considered the friendly and welcoming greetings you receive from the members of the cabin crew when you board on Ethiopian Airlines?
In the political sphere, affective laboring is more closely linked to agnotologic capitalism that depends on the creation of culturally-conditioned ignorance and capitalizes the disconnections it creates between the reality of capitalist economy and the alienation it produces. Likewise, politicians and cadres can literally be taken as affective laborers who strategically navigate the realm of affect to shape public opinion and gain control over the political mass by disconnecting them from the actual realities. This political mass, in turn, tends to align themselves with particularly expressed emotions that resonate with their socio-political beliefs, which may sometimes be extreme, but not necessarily negative. Academics in the field contend that when people are affectively gathered, they all have a common sensation that unites them, creating a condition of conviviality, like a well-articulated love for one’s country or tribe may create a feeling of nationalism or tribalism (የሀገር ፍቅር ወይንም ለጎሳችን የምናሳየው ታማኝነት).
Tibebu is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Warwick (UK). He received his MPhil in Globalization, Transnationalism, and Culture from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Norway (NTNU).
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