On Liminality, Emotions, and Political Affects
Text by Estefanía Pinzón Kranz (Freie Universität Berlin)
May 6, 2021, started just like any other day: I woke up, got myself coffee and breakfast, and sat down in front of my computer to find out if the world was still standing in the most millennial way I knew – surfing on social media. Afterall, one of the main lessons the 2020s has taught us is to expect the unexpected, which was precisely what I found after a few scrolls.
It started with a video recorded by Cerosetenta (@cesetenta), an independent journalism project that was covering the progress of the civil unrest in Colombia. This particular video had a powerful awe-inspiring effect: in it, a young woman was directing a group of young orchestra musicians that had gathered at the Parque de Los Deseos (which as a sort of poetic coincidence translates to ‘park of the wishes’) to participate in the national strike that had started on April 28, 2021. As the orchestra was playing, musicians and the mass of protesters chanted loudly and in unison “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” – the people united will never be defeated. A few scrolls after, a second video from another profile (@cristal96.9) crossed my way. Contrary to the first one, this ominous video had nothing to do with hope and poetics. Instead, it had everything to do with horror, helplessness, and fear. A small group of alleged urban paramilitaries determined to put an end to the protests were shooting at protesters in Pereira. Lucas Villa’s murder had happened in front of his friends and other protesters and was now taking over my screen with such a disturbing rawness as I had personally never experienced before. I was left both moved and shaken by what I had just seen, and, as an anthropologist, I felt an unbridled need to understand what was happening back home and why. By the end of the strike, Villa along with over forty other young men and women had been killed by either police or armed civilians (Temblores ONG, 2021). The murder of these people would become one of the main symbolic driving forces of the civil unrest in Colombia.
Sadly, this was not the first time people had taken the streets protesting a seemingly apathetic government towards people’s pleads, nor the first time police had resorted to disproportioned violence during a national strike. Not even the first time civilians had armed up and taken things into their own hands. After all, the country has a long history of violence and social unrest and only a year ago, various social sectors had been massively demonstrating against the same government only to be stopped by the SARS-COV2 pandemic. Still, some things seemed different about this strike, one of them being how viscerally and vastly collective sentiments were put on display publicly and later amplified through social networks.
Emotions, even political ones, have long been a hot topic of discussion. When it comes to the study of emotions in social and cultural anthropology, scholars have long struggled to provide a definition of what emotions are. They are ever-present and obvious enough to be seriously theorised, yet fluid enough to make it difficult to organise them into clear categories (Beatty 2019, 6). There is also the issue of translation, or as Andrew Beatty puts it, our understanding of the nature and significance of emotions is often clouded by our own emotive relationship to them (Beatty 2019, 8). How is it then possible for us to study emotions when we ourselves are emotional beings and, as such, deeply involved in and with them?
I believe it is true that as researchers, how we discuss emotions reveals more about how we ourselves value and act upon them, than about the others, and their emotions. Personally, for instance, I find it curious how, me being Colombian as well as an anthropologist-in-the-making, writing this essay feels simultaneously therapeutic and yet somehow confining. The process has certainly been cathartic, but how can I provide an unbiassed reflection when I am myself emotionally compromised? Will I be standing by the same arguments once the internal turmoil has passed? Here, Beatty brings up another interesting point when reminding us that, as other scholars have shown, emotions have a certain flow to them, and that their coherence is always emergent (Barrett 2017; Clore & Ortony 2008 in Beatty 2019, 18). According to Beatty, this special characteristic results in two methodological consequences for anthropological research. On the one hand, it provides anthropologists with a particular vantage point to write about emotions as they “live the life, share the joys and sorrows” (Beatty 2019, 10). On the other hand, it allows them to deeply examine what he calls “emotional episodes” (Beatty 2019, 17) and the (competing) narratives around them. This last term is a very interesting one as it implies that emotions are not only anchored to specific events but are, therefore, timebound and change every time we revisit them. This means that an emotion, whatever it may be, reaches a threshold, a peak before it gets exhausted and morphs into another. Indeed, if we take Beatty’s propositions to the extreme, perhaps the writer Elif Shafak was not so wrong in arguing during her famous talk that, just as people do, nations too might have their own emotional tipping points (Shafak 2017). Her personification of nations as a sort of emotional beings is an interesting point in and of itself, and it would certainly provide the expression dolor de patria (homeland sorrow), heard throughout the Colombian history, with a whole new meaning. However, I would like to focus on something slightly different.
While proposed outside the academia, Shafak’s reflection points to some of the ideas presented by the political scientist Deborah B. Gould (2013 & 2014) in her study on emotions and social movements. As Gould indicates, the words emotion and movement (here understood as protest) are etymologically related (Gould 2013, 1). She consequently advocates for an approach that “takes serious the motion in emotion” (Gould 2014, 640) and makes the case for social researchers to bring the relational aspect of emotions to the fore to fully comprehend what they are. In Gould’s words, given that emotions are the driving forces of motion, they imply contact and, therefore, sociality, even in a wider non-human-centric way (ibid.). That is, emotions produce and reconfigure relationships precisely because they incite movement. This in turn brings us to an ongoing cycle of “affecting and being affected by, and of becoming in and through those relations” (Gould 2014, 640-41) of which emotions are a central part. Citing Donna Haraway (2007), Gould reminds us that relations are the most elementary units of being and, thus, urges scholars shift their focus from what she calls the “metaphysics of individualism” (Gould 2014, 641) where emotions appear as “properties of individual persons” (ibid.) to the realm of relationships to understand emotions’ matter and their faculties.
Gould’s proposition above might explain how nations, understood as a composite of feeling individuals that relate to and affect one another within the limits of the nation-state, may also be described as having emotions. However, it still does not quite provide a clear answer as to why diverse groups might come together to materialise in the form of protest the emotional tipping point discussed before and sustain it over time. Afterall, as others have pointed out, nation-states are a paradigmatic example of a symbol that gathers an imagined community around it, while at the same time acting as the underlying infrastructure that administers the conditions and affects by which people converge (von Scheve 2019, 270). In the Colombian case, the idea of a 'Colombian nation' is particularly interesting in its intricacy. In the words of the literary and cultural theorist Gregory J. Lobo, the multicultural turn that was brought about by the latest national constitution renounced “the very idea of nation, for which wars of independence and revolution were fought, an idea that was compelling insofar it offered identity, unity and community, in place of difference, fragmentation, alienation and anomie” (Lobo 2017, 80). Consequently, the enforcement of differential policies and the proliferation of cultural identities have resulted in numerous conflicts and tensions across different scenarios. (cf. Bocarejo 2012 and Duarte 2015). This shows how, as the anthropologist Rita Laura Segato argues, the distinctive ways in which difference is created are necessarily tied to a nation’s historical process of identity construction, hence proving that the nation-state is still a relevant framework through which these kinds of processes are to be understood (Segato 2007). This sociological nuance locates the nation-state in a place that transcends its institutions and physical presence (or lack thereof), to disclose it as a sort of arena where the (historical) dynamics of sociality and the affects they imply are configured and reshaped. Yet, if this is the case, how are we to make sense of the protracted duration of the protest in Colombia despite all the historical differences and violence witnessed?
Here, Gould takes her argument a step further and discusses two fundamental complementary qualities of activist contexts. First, as sites of world-making, protests have the capacity to generate feelings in such a way as to not only bring people together, but also sustain their participation over time (Gould 2013, 3). Second, as sites of meaning production, they become a sort of pedagogic tool that provides people with a language they can use to name the all too often amorphous and incoherent affective states they find themselves in, while simultaneously acting as a guideline for dealing with and acting upon them (ibid.). In other words, rather than being filled with irrational chaos, protests are organising forces that provide an emotional framework through which people can collectively make sense of their situation and act upon it together (Jasper 1998) – or as that fierce chorus reminded us: El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.
I believe that in this case, the threshold Colombia has arrived at seems to go beyond a mere collective feeling of anger, tiredness and fear towards injustice and inequality. Similar to what we have witnessed in other parts of the world during the last couple of years, what is happening in the country is the clash between competing outlooks on the future of the nation. I would even go so far as to say that what is at stake here is a generational turnover that has come with a new vision for the future and a new form of world-making. Better yet, a new vision and form of nation-making. This cathartic generational ‘handing on the torch’ seems to have come with a tremendous emotional backlash, that might explain (but never justify) the country’s polarisation and the massive outburst of violence, like the one portrayed in Villa’s video. The mass of protesters in Colombia has been turned into a paradoxical symbol that represents simultaneously fear and hope. This is a dangerous crossroads, and it seems to have been effectively exploited by those who understand the power of discourse to divide people into ideological tribes and discourage dialogue and change. Yet it is precisely the overall ambivalent imaginaries around the multitude, fluctuating between it being the cornerstone of democracy or its potential downfall that have made it a central feature of discussions around what scholars have called affective citizenship (Ayata 2019).
Focusing on the affective dimension of citizenship allows us to better decipher how emotions and affects are employed within mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion and thus used to configure and manage (group) relationships (Ayata 2019, 330). As the anthropologist Bilgin Ayata (2019) has put it, this concept delves into all those governance practices that regulate the (re)configuration of conflicting groups and the feelings towards an imagined us and an imagined other. According to Ayata these practices cannot be reduced to those of the state as they not only impact the relationship between a state and its subject, but also the relationship among subjects and different groups of people (Ayata 2019, 334). Hence why the ‘mob’, this shapeless mass of synchronised bodies, terrifies, as Spinoza (1670) once said, all those looking at it from the outside owing to its transforming force. Its members, discursively reduced to terrorists and vandals, have been transformed by those who still hold on to old ideals in Colombia into the new enemy, the new others, while their bodies at la primera línea(the front line) are suffering the consequences. So, what is next? When a country is so divided, what can possibly be the way forward?
I would like to go back to social media, where this reflection started, and bring one last video into play – this time by the Social Science Faculty of Los Andes University (@ciencias_sociales_uniandes) featuring the Colombian anthropologist, Alhena Caicedo. When discussing the role of anthropology and the academia, Caicedo emphasises the need to distance ourselves from our comfortable place of privilege to respond to the demands this historical moment is asking of us. The academia, she argues, should commit to help make possible or even conceivable a new outlook on the future. I believe we find ourselves at a time where a truly engaged anthropology is more required than ever before. We need a kind of anthropology that is not only in the field, but with the field. One that – as anthropologists have always prided themselves for – can bring different worlds together, but this time not only in words but now also around concrete actions.
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Cerocetenta (@cerosetenta). 2021. “Con esta fuerza comenzó la movilización del 5M en Medellín, Antioquia”. Instagram video, May 05, 2021.
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Facultad de Ciensas Sociales Universidad de Los Andes (@ciencias_sociales_uniandes). 2021. “Alhena Caicedo, profesora del departamento de Antropología de la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales @uniandes reflexiona alrededor se la situación actual de #Colombia”. Instagram video, May 04, 2021. https://www.instagram.com/p/COd0v08JsrB/
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Radio Cristal 96.9 (@cristal96.9). “¡Él es Lucas Villa Jóven baleado en Pereira!”. Instagram video, May 06, 2021. https://www.instagram.com/p/COihdxOn4QT/
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Temblores ONG. 2021. Comunicado a la opinión pública y a la comunidad internacional por los hechos de violencia cometidos por la Fuerza Pública de Colombia en el marco de las movilizaciones del Paro Nacional. Press release. Last Modified June 28, 2021. https://www.temblores.org/comunicados
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Notes  This phrase belongs to a protest song by the Chilean band Quilapayún and Sergio Ortega Alvarado, released in the 1970s. The song's famous refrain was supposedly inspired by a public speech of Colombian political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán during the 1940s and would become a slogan for leftist movements in Chile and different countries in Latin America.
 Here I refer to the national strike and demonstrations that took place between November 2021 and February 2020.
 For this essay, I use the concept "nation" as presented by Michael Taussig. He understands this concept as a socially created image that is produced and reproduced on the day-by-day on different scales and in different forms (whether tangible or intangible) (Taussig 1992, 511). In this sense, Taussig identifies five essential foundations over which the idea of a nation is build: (1) land as a sacred territory; (2) a people inhabiting that sacred territory united under a biological race; (3) a magical origin shared by both the territory and its people, which represents a specific moment in history; (4) a primitive component (based on a european idea of ‘primitive’); and, (5) the coexistence of all the elements above within an erotic scheme from where the idea of a nation draws its force (ibid.)
 The original version of the famous phrase by the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza goes “The mob is terrifying, if unafraid”.
 The primera lína is a group initially formed during the protest of 2019 in several cities of Colombia to counter the attacks of the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD for its acronym in Spanish).