Shona Hunter’s Power, Politics and the Emotions: Impossible Governance? offers a complex critique of policy process, governance and governing practices to insist upon a hopeful but realistic vision for racial and social justice, founded on ambivalence and unromantic, as opposed to heroic, loss. It is informed by psychosocial, psychoanalysis, critical gender and critical race theory, and poststructuralism, as well as specific theoretical devices such as for psychodynamic theory, melancholia, critical whiteness studies and the psychic life of power. It is difficult to do justice to the book’s insights given the depth and range of Hunter's theoretical framework, but it is possible to track some key arguments and contributions.
The book’s starting point is governmental failure. Why is it that in spite of efforts to generate social change via mechanisms such as policies on equality and diversity, some people still occupy positions of included/excluded? Why does failure happen in the face of apparently ‘positive’ aspirations such as for equality? What is the ‘pendulum swing’ of governmental success and failure about, as hope is invested in administrative change, and then seemingly dashed over time? Responses to these questions examine how failure in governing practices can be rethought of as central to governmental renewal via the study of human experience, agency, subjectivity and emotion.
Loss is central to Hunter’s cultural approach to governance. This is because of how loss is potentially generative; necessary and central to human experience and subject forming. Loss means that under certain conditions and in certain contexts the state remains uncertain and potentially open to and for agentic and emancipatory change, albeit that such change needs to be understood in ambivalent and uncertain terms. Power, Politics and the Emotions is committed to demonstrating what these losses are, how they may lead on to change, and the conditions and contexts that both enable and delimit these, through the empirical and theoretical study of governing subjects; welfare workers involved in NHS health practice and professionals delivering equalities training.
The relationships that Hunter draws between the state and human subjectivity are possible because Power, Politics and the Emotions theorises the state as enacted by and through subjects. Drawing on psychoanalysis, psychodynamic theory and unconscious emotion, Hunter’s relational, performative and affective critique of what the state is, is fundamental to the book’s argument. The state is relational, symbolic, affective and social; it is both material and imagined. Rather than being ‘out there’, and outside of ourselves, it is constitutive of and through, institutional space (state and civil society, community and family) and human subjects in their worlds, and crucially, as enacted through social difference by various subjects and objects, their actions, investments and practices. The state does not exist as a thing in itself (Hunter 2015, 5). This argument rests upon a constant working against any collapse into the binary through a sustained commitment to interdependencies and relationality. It is developed through a series of original concepts such as relational politics, relational choreography, relational hinterland and neoliberal suicide.
Hunter argues that the state comes into being through ‘relational politics’; everyday processes of relational contestation and conflict. Hunter explains what these look and sound like, and their effects, through extensive, nuanced and detailed empirical examination of policy documents (chapter 7), governing subjects/welfare professionals (chapters 5 and 6), and at one point, the author’s own self-reflexive engagement with these phenomena through involvement in researching and creating equalities documents in an institutional context (chapter 7). The emotions are central to understanding the relationship between human agency, subjectivity and experiences, contestation and conflict, and state enactments, because emotions and power are intimately connected in governance.
For Hunter, the state is typically seen as something that manages emotions as opposed to something that is itself emotional. But emotions work as “connecting devices, bringing together multiple actors and objects into the reasonably temporarily coherent form we think of as the state” (Hunter 2015, 22). Thinking about emotions (e.g., pride, shame) as a type of ‘connective medium’ enables Hunter to build power into the book’s theoretical framework because they are identified as integral to the state’s gendered and raced orderings and its enactment of gendered and raced power. Relational politics thinks about the emotions as central to the space ‘in-between’ the individual and the social order. This is an ethical and negotiating space where politics happens insofar as it is a space where contestations (over social differences) get lived out, managed, resignified and resisted via distribution of emotions, and through relational and intersubjective feeling work.
It is an ethical and political space because of how feeling work coheres subjects and objects, manifesting in refusals to surface multiplicities, and enabling an enactment of the socially and culturally good and bad. This enactment of good and bad works to cover over, to simplify, cohere and make singular the complicated dynamics of conscious/unconscious human subjectivity, positionings and, crucially, the multiplicities that are at play for all of the governing subjects in the book. It works to conceal the social orderings that are the effects of contestation over social difference. This is always an ethical and political set of processes because of how concealments are constituted by, and constituted through, power and inequalities. Thus, one of the key conclusions to the book is the value of keeping this space open as a ‘holding’ space, and the potential for neoliberal suicide should this space become collapsed through the denial of collective responsibility and desire for (racialised) blame, in ways that connect to intensified emotions and impulses associated with (neo) liberal whiteness, and desires to see the state as a thing outside of ourselves.
In order to develop this argument, Hunter’s critical feminist, psychosocial, psychoanalytic (especially dynamic unconscious) and poststructural conceptualisation of human subjectivity is paramount. Human subjectivity is ontological, categorical, subjective and relational, constituted through past and present personal histories, biographies, structural tendencies and cultural orderings, and constantly shifting. Human agency is situated through, but not determined by the social relations of power, and takes place relationally through human interactions rather than in any individualised, rationalist and only conscious sense.
Because of this approach to human subjectivity, agency, experience and the emotions, social actors are ambivalently positioned in their social worlds by themselves and institutional and personal/professional others, e.g., past/present organisations, colleagues, clients, family members. These multiplicities mean that human actors may occupy a range of positions at any one time. It is this multiplicity of subject positions and relations that may afford capacities for resistance and social change in a range of places and contexts. Drawing on Gail Lewis’s (2000) seminal study of Black women social workers specifically, Hunter demonstrates the capacities that we all have to occupy resistant, dominant and subordinate roles at any one time, as it relates to the various and shifting aspects of our identifications, subjectifications and positionings as enacted by and through institutional space.
As a result, Hunter rejects the potential for resistance to the state and possibilities for social change on the back of straightforward and fixed categorical identifications and/or conscious articulations of resistances to oppressive practices such as for racism and neoliberalism. This is because these approaches privilege conscious action and binary imaginings of social reality and human subjectivity: sameness-difference, for-against, inside-outside the state. Rather, Hunter’s empirical examination of governing subjects shows how they are never either ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ of the state, co-opted only for or against ‘neoliberalising’ tendencies, in positions of domination or oppression. Rather, they are multiply positioned within and through the state, negotiating a range of inevitable personal losses, as well as potential gains, via processes of contestation and reconfiguration, which are always ongoing and incomplete.
For Hunter, this grants welfare professionals a “much fuller personhood, more responsibility and innocence than they are often accorded when they are viewed solely, or even primarily as ‘agents of the state’” (Hunter 2015, 15–16). It identifies governing subjects as at one and the same time dominant and subordinate, at organisational and personal levels, in different ways and at different times and in different and multiple relations, and it prioritises lived and shifting organisational relations (individual actors’ self-perceptions and interactions) alongside other structural and cultural dimensions of social life (the material and cultural categories through which they recognise themselves socially) as well as discursive positionings (Hunter 2015, 27). In Power, Politics and the Emotions governing subjects are engaged in constant negotiations and ongoing (re)configurations, which may in turn constitute resistances under particular conditions and contexts.
For Hunter, the task at hand is to trace these negotiations and reconfigurations as they take place through governance processes and governing practices, from the pulling together of policy documents to the practice realities of welfare work, because it is these negotiations themselves that bring entities like the state into being. Power, Politics and the Emotions is therefore not just a theoretical treatise, it is a methodological argument, which explores the ruptures and interdependencies of governing subjects’ relational identifications and relational choreographies via detailed empirical analyses. This approach offers a way to understand how agentic social change and resistance are possible even in the most unlikely of people, places and times, but always at the same time, in the same moment, and at the risk of reproducing oppressive practices.
The book’s explorations depart from ‘mainstream’ critiques of the state, governance and policy processes by refusing the sorts of binary and substantialist analyses that are typical of anti-state and anti-neoliberal sentiments and scholarship. While Hunter is sympathetic to aspects of these works, she is also suspicious of representations of governmental practices and governing subjects as coherent and certain, and something already known and knowable. This is because sureties associated with self-proclaimed ‘anti’ tendencies (anti-state, anti-neoliberalism, anti-racism), and with identifications associated with categorical sameness (even in intersectional analyses), do the work of concealing over and foreclosing the multiplicities, ambivalences and complexities associated with the sorts of human experiences, identifications, subjectivities and positionings that are central to Hunter’s understanding of state practices and enactments as having both resistant and oppressive potential.
Moreover, sureties (as found in political decision making and categorical alignments, for example) do the work of hiding how what ‘comes to be’ is constituted through conceptions of social difference, the struggles and conflicts that these produce and their exclusionary effects, and the ways that power is central to these processes. Hunter understands this power as relating to, and as enacted through, investments in liberal and neo-liberal whiteness, observable through particular mythologies (e.g., fantasies of sameness) and technical instruments and governmentalities (e.g., forms of governing like New Public Management, policy interventions like equalities work).
The ‘impossible’ component of Hunter’s work lies in the series of investments that we all make in different ways in conditions and contexts of power, and the intractable challenges associated with confronting these. Power, Politics and the Emotions is committed to paradox and complexity because for Hunter, the fight for racial justice is only possible through fulsome engagement with ambivalent multiplicities, of taking the time to sit with difference and rest with the intractable entanglements these seem to produce. Attempts to bypass these ‘even’ by the knowing self-reflexive subject, will always risk reproducing oppressive tendencies and social orderings. However, ‘surfacing’ the realities of social policy and welfare work that are frequently closed off from intellectual and normative critiques of social policy and welfare are seen by Hunter as crucial for any attempts for a more equal, nourishing and socially just world. This is because they expose the everyday interactions that are a means of organising the lived relations of difference and complexity that are fundamental to state enactments. The book’s conclusion is perhaps more hopeful and visionary than the sustained critique of ambivalence and impossibility might suggest. This is achieved through explanation of the potential of uncertainty, of not knowing in a world desirous of knowing and at speed, and the possibilities for social change that may arise from collective responsibility in state formations that are as yet unrealised.