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Sideways Looks #10: Should we say 'Whaargh' more often? Also, Elton John

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Good morning,

With all the emotions flying around England today, here’s a brief introduction to something social scientists call ‘Affect’ – put simply, the vague sensations that swirl around and become emotion. Also fun facts about goggles and a lost Elton John album.

Thanks for responses to the ongoing poll of things you want to see more of in Sideways Looks. You wanted to see more social scientific explainers, and sure enough this week you get one. So please do keep asking for things in the poll.

💉 Recommendation that’s important enough to put up top – if you’re trying to get a second Covid jab in the UK, here’s a useful reddit community which is helping people find walk-in centres with doses available. Well done, internet.

Have a great Sunday, whether or not it’s coming home ⚽


Thought for the Week: What Happens Before Emotion

Balham, an area of South London, is dominated by two things. The first is families with young children; like salmon swimming upstream, it seems to be the place where middle-class Londoners go to spawn. The second is nice cafés. During the heatwave of 2017 I was sitting outside one of the cafés when one of the young families arrived, featuring (I guess) a five year old boy and three year old girl.

The boy sat down. The girl instantly burst into tears. ‘I WANTED TO SIT THERE’ she wailed. The boy, very nicely, moved to a different seat. ‘I’ll get you some water’ one of the parents said. ‘I DON’T WANT WATER’ she wailed again. And so it continued.

What everyone (apart from her) knew was that she didn’t really want these things. She was hot, and uncomfortable, and using these things as a conduit for expressing that. Even as adults we can find it hard to distinguish between background feelings and the conduit for them – whether we actually want to sit in that particular chair, or whether we’re really expressing something else.

Social scientists call those formless internal sensations, which turn into emotions and prompt actions, ‘Affect’. What I find most fascinating about affect is how it eludes words. On some accounts* of affect, once you notice it and label it – e.g. ‘I feel excited’ – it becomes a more specific emotion. So it’s permanently elusive, as describing it changes it.

Part of the joy of language is when it captures a feeling in unusual ways. Words like ‘buzzing’ or ‘spiralling’ capture familiar sensations, even if we’re not literally buzzing or spiralling . Great writing, music, and visual arts do that particularly well. Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys describes how:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you … And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

(That’s a particularly interesting example, in that it’s capturing the feeling of capturing a feeling).

✍️ But how to write about affect if it’s so vague? Social scientific texts on the topic can be extremely convoluted, even by the usual standards of academic writing (an interesting topic in its own right). They often attempt to capture its diffuseness in a poetic style - e.g. as “an inventory of shimmers” which I enjoy though it doesn’t help my understanding. A lot of the time, it feels to me, authors end up describing something that makes sense to them but has no real hook for the reader.

There’s also important implications for mainstream writing, particularly about politics. Politics is driven by affect; most importantly, the affects that impel us to vote a particular way. But analysing the links between words of politicians and affects of voters is hard. Did ‘Get Brexit Done’ capture anti-EU views, or even anti-Parliament views? Or was it general fed-up-ness with constant news about this ‘Brexit’ thing not getting done? Was the key word ‘Brexit’, or ‘Done’?

Good political pundits and strategists know this, of course. There’s some creative research techniques – like asking focus groups to describe associate a politician with an animal – which aim to reveal the feelings voters might not be putting into words.

But I still hear a lot of commentators saying things like ‘obviously normal people don’t care about [arcane political debate], but they don’t like [more general political position]’ - where the ‘political position’ often supports the pundit’s own views. Even at times that the pundit is vaguely right, the political position might just be just the most available conduit for a deeper feeling that eludes clear description. And on another day, a different position might have served just as well.

🤔 Such limits of language might mean important parts of politics are off-limit to analysis. Maybe people are just, fundamentally, internal shapeshifters, ready to be stirred by all sorts of wildly varying messages. As the apparently inconsistent but extremely popular Boris Johnson (amongst others) has shown, the affective can be more effective than analysis at winning support. For me, as someone who spends a lot of time analysing things in words, the idea that much of politics might just be beyond words is quite a worrying thought.

(I’ve discussed similar ideas in relation to technology here).

Maybe, like The Day Today's Crisis Correspondent Spartacus Mills, we should just describe politics in terms like 'WHHAARGH'. But maybe not. Maybe one day someone will work out how to describe the apparently inexpressible more usefully. Maybe they’ve already been born; and they’re ready to get to work. Just as soon as they’ve finished crying about not getting the chair they wanted 👶

* I noted I'm relying on one particular way of thinking about 'Affect'. As with any popular social scientific concept, there’s multiple accounts and definitions. I’m not particularly keen on trying to nail down the ‘one best’ definition of ideas, for reasons summarised brilliantly in the xkcd comic. I’m more interested in how ideas can prompt new thoughts and discussions, even if that means definitions end up diverging a bit. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Fun Fact About: Goggles 🤿

Obviously I should be doing a football-related fact here (or tennis), but I genuinely think they’ve all been exhausted over the last few weeks. So instead, a friend much keener on sport than me has provided a great fact about swimming.

If you look at graphs of 100m freestyle time records, you notice two big drops in the 1950s and the 1970s. The first was due to the use of tumble turns; the second was when swimmers started using googles. If you want to see the difference in action, someone’s had the good idea of playing a video of the 100m swim at the 1932 Olympics alongside the 2016 version.

Watching this video also reminds me of that great idea, attributed to comedy actor Simon Pegg, that all Olympic sports should have a normal person competing alongside the athletes for reference.


Podcast about Charity: Previously I've talked about trying to discover things I wouldn't normally read/listen/watch. One good past example for me - though sadly I can't remember how I discovered it - has been the Third Sector podcast. It’s about charities and not-for-profit organisations, and is always interesting and often entertaining. Also every episode ends with a ‘care package’ of good news stories, which is lovely. The latest episode was about how charities deal with reputation crises, with many themes of interest to those of us who have worked in communications.

Book about Uber: I’ve almost finished Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, which many jaw-dropping and rage-inducing revelations about dubious activities behind the Uber empire. Raises familiar and depressing questions about why such creating valuable services seems so often to go hand-in-hand with unpleasant treatment of humans; and how ethical questions only get raised after the empire has been built (see also Amazon). The book is also a real page-turner.

UK/EU Regulation: For anyone interested in the weeds of UK/EU regulation (I know some of you are), two treats. Firstly, some great work digging into the proposed EU Artificial Intelligence Regulation (short version: there’s lots of issues). Secondly an Institute for Government webinar on future UK regulating, with all sorts of good discussions, including how the UK and the EU could both try and mix-and-match the best approaches from different legal systems and how regulation can be ‘exported’ to other countries.

Finally, some music. Last month Elton John released his “long lost” album which he made in 1968 but did not release, Regimental Sgt Zippo. It’s an early collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin, with whom he would later become extremely famous. Reviews have generally described it as fun but not as good as his later stuff, and psychedelic in a very Beatles-esque way (as suggested by the title if nothing else). I heard one interesting ‘what-if’, suggesting that if he had released it he could have been pigeonholed into psychedelia genre, and maybe would have had less space to become the Elton John we know today. Personally I just really like Elton John’s music, so I’ve just enjoyed having some more to listen to.

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