The reason of fear: Political emotions, emotional subjectivations and „epistemological gateways” in climate activism

Donnerstag (21. September 2023), 11:00–12:30
HZ 10
Jan Winkler (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg)
The paper examines political emotions in climate activism, focusing mainly on the Extinction Rebellion. It shows how within climate activism, reconfigurations of understanding, but also of feeling/sensing take place, and how a cultivation of emotions constitutes climate political (self-)conduct.
Emotionen, Affekte, Klimaaktivismus, Subjektivierung, Macht


In the paper, I examine political emotions and subjectivations in current environmental and climate activism, focusing mainly on the Extinction Rebellion (XR). I show how within these forms of political engagement, specific reconfigurations of understanding, but also of feeling and sensing socio-environmental problematics and one’s own subjectivity take place. Here, the emotional modalities of fear and worry prove to be of particular significance, but intertwined with hope, confidence and empathy in complex ways. To approach the emotional dynamics within current climate activism, I explore intersections between Foucauldian Governmentality and theories of emotion/affect that lead me into an analysis of what Elaine Campbell (2010) has termed “emotionalities of rule”. This notion helps to understand how practices of conduct and self-conduct become operative within specific “affective economies” (Ahmed 2004) and “structures of feeling” (Anderson 2014). In the case of Extinction Rebellion, such a perspective makes it possible to analyse how embodied techniques of channeling own’s own emotions and the emotions of others are brought into play, framing certain emotionalities as particular productive. In XR, the cultivation of emotions – and of fear, especially - serves not only as a political strategy, but simultaneously as a subjectivizing technology that brings in the epistemological confidence of experiencing feelings (fear) as ‘true emotions’. The ‘fearful subject’ becomes the one who is conducting her-/himself appropriately, while fear is enacted as the ‘most reasonable’ mode of being/feeling in the climate crisis. Indeed, I argue that the “emotional governmentalities” (Bargetz/Sauer 2010) of environmental activism are articulating emotions as ‘epistemological gateways’, that is, as powerful bodily modalities enabling more direct connections to ecological relations (and making climate change tangible). In Extinction Rebellion, this is linked to an explicit and politicized attempt to break down the emotion/rationality divide and to re-establish emotions as political and moral sensors. At this point, I also raise the question of the extent to which emotional climate activism may be seen as a crystallization of broader tendencies towards a “re-enchantment” of subject-society-nature relations (Woodyer/Geoghegan 2012). However, the emotional practice of climate activism does not come without fractions. Not only is the hegemonic dichotomy between emotionality and rationality constantly working on activists’ subjectivities, but there are also operations of counter-emotionality. Some individuals were drawn into activist groups by emotional dynamics (e.g., because those groups offered spaces for expressing worry), but were also pulled out of that groups again by other feelings (e.g., because they saw too little space for affirmative vision and hope). Thus, a “feeling differently” (Gammerl et. al 2017) is always part of the topologies of political emotions.