The Power of Affects in Democratic Politics
Manuel Puig's 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' and the affective turn in democratic theory
The so-called “affective turn” in political theory has recently propelled several scholars to cast aspersions on the deliberative model of democracy. [i] By affirming that democracy should be conceived solely as an exchange of arguments between “reasonable” persons guided by the ideal of “impartiality,” deliberative theorists such as Habermas and Rawls, it is argued, proclaim that democracy should be immured from passions. [ii] They thus obliterate something that Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña epitomizes remarkably well: the constitutive power that passions and affects have in the formation of political opinions and identities. In what follows, I argue that Puig’s novel can be read as a literary exemplar of the recent affective turn in political theory.
Puig’s novel takes place in 1975 and tells the story of two prisoners who share a cell in Buenos Aires: Luis Molina, a thirty-seven year old “effeminate gay” who is in jail for “illicit sexual behavior,” and Valentín Arregui, a political activist in his twenties who is part of a revolutionary group trying to overthrow the government. The two men are very different, and the beauty of Puig’s narrative lies precisely in the self-transformation process that both inmates undergo as they live side by side. Given Molina and Valentín’s brief liaison at the end of the story, scholars usually stress the issue of sexuality (Alós, 2017). That Valentín had never slept with a man before living with Molina doubtless proves that the proximity with the latter has changed the former’s sexuality.
Another difference that ensues from their cohabitation is observed in the metamorphosis of Molina’s political identity throughout the novel. In the beginning of the story, Valentín discloses his political ideas to Molina:
-Wait a minute, Molina, if we’re going to discuss things let’s have some ground rules, because if we don’t stick to the point it’s just kid stuff […].
– I’m sticking to the point.
– Great, then let me state my position first, so you’ll have some idea of it.
– I’m listening.
– […] My life is dedicated to political struggle, or, you know, political action, let’s call it. Follow me? I can put up with everything in here, which is quite a lot . . . but it’s nothing if you think about torture . . . because you have no idea what that’s like . . .
– But I can imagine.
– No, you can’t imagine . . . Anyway, I put up with all of it . . . because there’s a purpose behind it. Social revolution, that’s what’s important […] The great pleasure […] is knowing I’ve put myself in the service of what’s truly noble, I mean . . . well . . . all my ideas . . .
– What do you mean, your ideas?
– My ideals . . . Marxism, if you want me to spell it out in only one word. And I can get that pleasure anywhere, right here in this cell, and even in torture. And that’s my real strength […] Do you understand what I just explained to you?
– Mmm-hmm . . .
– You don’t sound too convinced, Molina.
– No, don’t pay any attention to me. And now I think I’ll just get some sleep (Puig, 1994, pp. 22-3). [iii]
Molina claims to understand Valentín’s political ideals, yet he is not convinced by them. To be sure, Molina reveals the next day he sees himself as a “bourgeois lady” (Puig, 1994, p. 34). He is ensorcelled by the glamour of wealthy people and no matter how much Valentín lectures about the necessity of creating a more egalitarian society, Marxist ideals are distasteful to him. He can understand the reason behind Marxism, but cannot find them pleasant. The agonistic conception of public life underlying revolutionary Marxism makes Valentín find pleasure in political struggle. Yet for the Molina at the beginning of the story, who emphasizes time and again his frailty and cowardice, nothing could be less appealing than conflict. The affective disposition that undergirds Valentín’s political views is absent in Molina.
Valentín and Molina’s discussions bring to the fore the crucial role of affects in politics. Political deliberation is not an exchange of reasons that is carried out between dispassionate subjects, and neither is political persuasion simply a matter of rational understanding. Political subjects are embodied beings and thus are inevitably affective. Our minds and feelings, as Valentín remarks, are deeply connected: “Funny how you can’t live without becoming attached to something . . . It’s . . . as if the mind had to secrete affection” (Puig, 1994, p. 32). Valentín is aware that the political opinions we carry within our mind possess an affective resonance. He knows that convincing someone to embrace a certain political view requires mobilizing their affects and passions. Near the end of the story, when he seeks to persuade Molina to jettison bourgeois individualism and join the collective struggle against authoritarianism, Valentín reveals he is aware of the great power that affects play in political persuasion:
– Anyway, there’s a lot of different types of groups for political action. And if you find one that appeals to you, join it, even if it’s a group that just does a lot of talking.
– I don’t know anything about that stuff . . . […]
– Now listen to me, because there must be something I can help you with. It’s just a matter of discussing it a little. First of all, you have to think about getting into some group, and not be alone all the time. That certainly will help you.
– Get into what group? I tell you I don’t understand any of those things, and I don’t believe in them either.
– Then you have no right to complain.
– Let’s just . . . stop talking . . .
– Come on . . . don’t be that way . . . Molina.
– No . . . please don’t touch me . . . (Puig, 1994, pp. 148-9).
Refuting something that Molina suggested early in the story, Valentín tries to show that being a “fa*got [puto]” does not mean Molina cannot overcome isolation and selfishness (Puig, 1994, p. 148). Valentín’s wish is to make Molina challenge the demeaning image that both society and the government have portrayed of him. In order to resist arbitrary power, people need to have an affective attachment to themselves; they need to have some self-esteem (Camus, 1951, pp. 25-6). In Molina’s case, that requires overcoming self-hatred. The natural response to oppression, we expect, is indignation. However, when the oppressed believe that the inferior status society has ascribed to them is correct, indignation does not emerge. When the oppressed lack the means to interpret their situation as unjust, they bury the passions necessary for the commencement of resistance – such as anger and indignation – and end up blaming themselves for their predicament. Lacking self-esteem, they accept oppression and discrimination and do not resist.[iv] As Albert Camus (1951, p. 32) put it, under every act of resistance, there is a “passionate affirmation” of the self. The fight against political oppression cannot happen without an affective engagement of the self.
Valentín insists that Molina can find a group that is appealing to him and somehow contribute to the demise of the arbitrary regime that oppresses him. Although he still does not believe in Valentín’s political ideals, it is clear that Molina is very close to changing sides in the highly polarized political milieu that characterized Argentina in the 1970s. The possibility of being persuaded by Valentín about the necessity of joining resistance is deeply disconcerting for him because, as the reader learns in the middle of the novel, Molina is actually a spy that was sent to Valentín’s cell to befriend him and extract information about his organization. In other words, Molina was on the side of the arbitrary regime and, at least in the beginning of the story, his main wish was to inform on the whereabouts of Valentín’s peers to the authorities so he could then be released from prison.
The affective, bodily proximity with Valentín, however, was changing the way Molina situated himself politically. The use of the continuous tense here is meant to indicate the processual nature of Molina’s political transition. Accepting the view of a political adversary is more like a religious conversion than a mathematical argumentation because it is a highly idiosyncratic process. The same argument can teach mathematical formulas to very different people. The same does not happen in political affairs because, unlike mathematical formulas, political views are affectively charged and are a crucial component of people’s identity. Political arguments should be crafted in a contingent and contextual manner because, in order to make people grasp and comprehend the perspective of somebody who belongs to a different political group, one must take into account their passions, habits, and tastes. To persuade others to enlarge their political perspective and thus to modify their identity, one’s argument needs somehow to touch them.
“Please don’t touch me,” Molina begs Valentín when he realizes that the latter’s affective proximity is about to change his political identity. Puig’s vocabulary is highly suggestive in this case because in Spanish, as in English, the verb “touch” can convey not only physical contact but also being involved and affected by someone’s speech. When we say, for instance, that a woman’s speech has touched us, what we seek to express is that we have been moved by what she said. Likewise, when we say that a certain issue touches us all, what we mean is that it affects and concerns all of us. Molina’s sentence is at one and the same time a request for not being physically touched and a plea for remaining with his old political views; he does not want to be affected by Valentín’s political views because that would come at a price.
As the continuation of the dialogue makes clear, being physically touched by Valentín and switching political sides constitute one single, indivisible act. When, after kissing and having intercourse with Valentín, Molina agrees to engage in resistance, the reader is not surprised, for he or she saw that coming in the affective debates between both inmates. Molina asks for secret information not because he wants to inform on Valentín, but because now he sincerely wants to overthrow the authoritarian regime that has locked him up.
The two main characters of Puig’s novel challenge the traditional reason vs. passion dichotomy, according to which reason corresponds to the higher part of the self that must overcome its lower, affective part. In the long conversations that Valentín and Molina carry on in the darkness of their cell, Puig shows that reason alone is incapable of producing convictions:
– It’s a question of learning to accept things as they come, and to appreciate the good that happens to you, even if it doesn’t last. Because nothing is forever.
– Yes, that’s easy to say. But feeling it is something else.
– But you have to reason it out then, and convince yourself.
– Yes, but there are reasons of the heart that reason doesn’t encompass (Puig, 1994, p. 180).
Puig’s expression “reasons of the heart” underscores the entwinement of reason and passion and points out that, without engaging the heart, purely rational arguments cannot persuade people to do or believe in something. His novel thus reinforces one of the most famous theses that, more than two hundred years earlier, David Hume put forward in A Treatise of Human Nature:
Nothing is more usual in philosophy, and even in common life, than to talk of the combat of passion and reason, to give the preference to reason, and assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to its dictates. Every rational creature, ’tis said, is oblig’d to regulate his actions by reason; and if any other motive or principle challenge the direction of his conduct, he ought to oppose it, till it be entirely subdu’d, or at least brought to a conformity with that superior principle. On this method of thinking the greatest part of moral philosophy, antient and modern, seems to be founded; nor is there an ampler field, as well for metaphysical arguments, as popular declamations, than this suppos’d preminence of reason above passion. The eternity, invariableness, and divine origin of the former have been display’d to the best advantage: The blindness, unconstancy, and deceitfulness of the latter have been as strongly insisted on. In order to show the fallacy of all this philosophy, I shall endeavour to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will (Hume, 2007, p. 265).
According to Hume, reason on its own cannot make us act upon something because the only thing that propels us to action is the prospect of pain or pleasure. It is by affecting us in a pleasant manner that a rational argument can stir us to action. In this sense, reason can be said to be “the slave of the passions,” for its dictates are only effective due to their affective resonance (Hume, 2007, p. 266). Therefore, if one wants to push a man to political action, the best strategy is to work upon his passions (Hume, 2007, p. 269). Hume notices that this feature of human nature is well-known by politicians, who more often than not mobilize citizens’ affects in order to make them act in a certain way. That is why successful politicians tend to be great orators (Hume, 2007, p. 273). Politicians are aware that reason can hardly ever oppose passion in the direction of the will. Thus they appeal to eloquence because they know that only by engaging the passions can they change citizens’ will and beliefs. They know that affects, and not reason, are what ultimately propel citizens into action. That is not to say, of course, that reason plays no role in human behavior. Indeed, neither Puig nor Hume deny the rational component of our conduct. What they seek to elucidate is that rational beings are also passionate beings. Puig and Hume can be considered early proponents of what today is called “the affective turn” in political theory because they both pose reason and passions “together on a continuum” and argue that “the ethical and political project involves a constant effort to transform passions into actions” (Hardt, 2007, p. x). Citizens who reason in the political sphere are embodied beings, thus inevitably subjected to the vicissitudes of affects. Reason alone is insufficient to change the direction of the will; only an affect can counteract another affect.
Puig’s novel reveals that political identities are, in their most fundamental level, a cluster of affects. Each political identity relies on specific affects and its maintenance and repetition depend upon them. In Puig, the association between politics and affects is inextricably bound up with a non-essentialist and performative conception of the subject (Alós, 2017, pp. 405ff). Instead of being a static and pre-given entity, political identity varies according to the affective bonds that citizens forge among themselves. That means people who support an autocratic president or even a full-fledged despotic regime can have their political identity transformed and switch to the side of democracy. Yet it is not only with rational arguments that that can be done. Indeed, one of the great messages that El beso de la mujer arañadelivers to the reader is that the mobilization of affects can change people’s political identity for the better.
One could thus say that Puig’s novel converges with the recent philosophical project of Chantal Mouffe and Vladimir Safatle. Both writers criticize the deliberative approach and aver that, instead of trying to eliminate passions from politics, we should mobilize passions in favor of democracy. An exclusive emphasis on reason is unlikely to ward off the recent surge of autocratic leaders that democracies around the world are currently facing. The answer to the right-wing populism that has grown in many countries in the past few years, as Mouffe (2004, p. 192) argues, lies in “the mobilization of passions and affects for the benefit of democracy.” The furtherance of democratic freedom, as Safatle (2016, p. 38) explains, “claims for . . . the metamorphosis of affects, a drive towards the capacity of being affected in a different way.” When citizens’ affects have been appropriated by autocratic politicians for deleterious and undemocratic purposes, the only way to push back is by soliciting the creation of new affects that can rival the current affective disposition that supports the powers that be.
Gustavo Hessmann Dalaqua is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at the University of São Paulo and a research fellow at São Paulo Research Foundation.
Alós, Anselmo Peres. 2017. El beso de la mujer araña: Gênero, sexualidade e subversão. Estudos de. Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea 50: 399-423.
Camus, Albert. 1951. L’homme révolté. Paris: Gallimard.
Hardt, Michael. 2007. Foreword: What affects are good for. In Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley (eds.), The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Hume, David. 2007. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Krause, Sharon. 2008. Civil Passions: Moral Sentiments and Democratic Deliberation. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Mouffe, Chantal. 2004. Le politique et la dynamique des passions. Rue Descartes 45-46: 179-192.
Puig, Manuel. 1994. El beso de la mujer araña. New York: Vintage Español.
Safatle, Vladimir. 2016. O circuito dos afetos: Corpos politicos, desamparo e o fim do indivíduo . Belo Horizonte: Autêntica Editora.
Tóibín, Colm. 1996. The Story of the Night. New York: Scribner.
[i] See Chantal Mouffe (2004) and Vladimir Safatle (2016). Following Mouffe and Safatle, I shall make no distinction between affects and passions.
[ii] For a detailed analysis of Habermas’ and Rawls’ views on passions and politics, see Sharon Krause (2008, ch. 1).
[iii] Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.
[iv] For another poignant account of how self-hatred led gay men in 1970s Argentina to retreat from public life and accept the oppression perpetuated by the government, see Colm Tóibín (1996).