Moods as Forms of Political Meaning

It is tempting to dismiss moods as being simply too casual and fleeting to be of any social or political significance; too lacking in decipherable meaning to be of any explanatory value. After all, being ‘in a mood’ possesses neither the status of an intellectual position nor the romance of a deep feeling. It is to be struck viscerally by an ineffable aspect of being in the world, commonly registered as ‘as disturbance, tension, blockage, emotional trouble’ (Williams, 1977:68). Comprising more or less than words can say, moods are easily minimised as mere sensations of the over-wrought body. The neglect of mood by political scholars can be traced to a long-standing rationalist suspicion of the unruly body; a preference for abstraction as ‘an epistemological process through which the rational mind, facilitated by the terms of the Cartesian mind–body split, withdraws itself from the lively, chaotic and unpredictable energies of the sensate world in order to better understand this world  from a distance’ (McCormack, 2014:165–6).

Resisting the lure of such disembodying abstraction, I propose to set out three distinctive features of mood and its relationship to political meaning. The first refers to the ways in which subjective agency becomes enmeshed in affective landscapes where people come to feel that they are ‘not in control of what seems most intensely subjective about a situation’ (Altieri, 2003:58). Mood occupies an interstitial space between the intimacy of personal experience and the arcane influences of the exter-nal environment. Leaving people unsure whether they are being swept forward by the swell or driven by the force of their own agency, moods confound volition. To speak of the mood of a social situation is to acknowledge this ambiguous juncture between subjective determination and objective constraint. It is to throw agency into a state of disorientation.

The second feature refers to the sense in which moods are responses to diffuse effects that lack legible causes. Unlike discrete emotions, which are about some-thing in particular, moods tend to be about everything and nothing. One might be emotionally angry at a friend who has acted in bad faith, but one responds in a mood of irritability towards a world in which no-one can be trusted. Anxiety about par-ticipating in a socially significant event might be an emotional response, but feeling anxious about the capriciousness of events per se constitutes a mood. If emotion is a manifestation of object-related energy, mood is more like a surrender to a sweeping gust.

The third feature refers to the sense in which moods ‘linger, tarry, settle in, accu-mulate and stick around’ (Felski & Fraiman, 2012:v). As cumulative sensations rather than temporally containable events, moods force us to encounter the sensorial forms through which historical forces become available to experience, soon or long after they have transpired. For example, in her moodiest of novels, Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925/1992:19) describes how a grand motor car with its blinds drawn, pos-sibly containing the monarch or Prime Minister, had passed through a central London street and induced a mood:

The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street. For thirty seconds all heads were inclined the same way … something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematic instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional … For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound.

Each of these three features of mood has implications for the meaning of politics. While political behaviour is traditionally understood as a response to already formed objects, such as wars, rates of inflation, government strategies or public opinion data, political mood responds to phenomena that are objectively opaque, causally untraceable and temporally unstable. Evading the terms of empirically objective description or explanation, such sensory impressions only achieve form through the blur of intuition. In a mood, our attention is caught between waves of historical affect and subjective sensation.

In their brilliant analysis of how markets, as arguably the most ubiquitous and potent objects of neoliberal attention, emerge out of aggregates of dispersed subjec-tive mood, Cetina and Brueggers’ (2000) demonstrate the extent to which political forms emanate from engagement with ‘processes and projections rather than defini-tive things’ (149). For traders, economists, policy-makers and consumers, markets do not exist as a structured combination of defined properties, but are conceived ‘as a lifeform that they cannot control, even though they are part of it and may influence prices at times’ (155). All that is left to market actors is to intuit the mood of this social imaginary that only exists as an outcome of countless anonymous projections.

Much of what passes for ‘economic science’ involves subjective floundering and conjecture with a view to deciphering scattered mood signals in the hope that they will provide clues to future market fluctuation (MacKenzie, 2008). Given that investments and their outcomes depend upon levels of confidence, nervousness, hes-itancy and enthusiasm of unknown others, rational economic agents are forced to act upon reasonable readings of ultimately unfathomable moods. Prechter and Parker’s (2007) famous law of patterned herding, which states that ‘Social systems compris-ing homogeneous agents uncertain about other agents’ valuations that are critical to survival and success provide a context in which an endogenously regulated aggrega-tion of unconscious herding impulses constitutes a pattern of social mood, which in turn motivates social actions’, is a complex formulation of the rudimentary process that most of us engage in when we encounter a crowd of strangers on a dark street at night. In recent years, scores of economic sentiment analysts have trawled Twitter in the hope of discovering predictive mood clues to market movements (Oliveira et al., 2017).

These projective accounts of market mood offer a vivid illustration of how moods generate form. To be immersed in the market is to be radically vulnerable to mood dynamics that reduce agency to a set of affective hunches and exuberant gambles. Characterised by a degree of agentic disorientation whereby nobody can ever be clear who specifically is responsible for anything that happens, economic actors and commentators often speak of ‘the markets’ acting as agents in their own right or pos-sessing feelings describable in terms of aggregate separation from identifiable sub-jects. Secondly, markets are affectively diffuse, manifesting everywhere and nowhere and depending upon ripples; the source of which are untraceable and uncontrollable. The mood of the market cannot be reduced to an affective aura emanating from a pre-given object, but is a constitutive force which spawns and animates market rela-tions. To be an actor within the market is to be enmeshed in an infinite domino game in which spatially and temporally distant moves can result in massive consequences. This sense of ambient non-specificity turns experience of the market — or of being caught in a marketized relationship — into a feeling of being consumed by intangi-ble currents from which there is no obvious escape. Thirdly, markets are historical accumulations of practices, procedures and ploys, encoded over long periods of time and disseminated across vast spatial distances. Markets are affectively reverbarative, both generating and encompassing feelings at the same time.

The working of the market can be represented in descriptive terms, but beyond such empirical representation lies an affective ‘horizon that … can never come into view as such’ (Pfau, 2005:10). The latter comprises the mood-inflected sense of the field and relational dynamics that constitute the relationships between economic actors. This fundamental latency of mood poses a major challenge, for if moods are both central to the creation of the meaning of objects of political attachment, while resisting discernment as non-representational enigmas, how can they be studied empirically? If the determining elements of political tonality remain stubbornly neb-ulous, what sort of methodological strategies might be employed to capture them?

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