For Love of the Prophet“Affect” and “Public Sphere” theorists share little affection, tending to engage with each other’s work at the level of summary dismissal. Nor should we blithely feign shock at this—these two have traditionally had much in the way of an easy rapport. On the one hand, public sphere theory holds that the “public” ideally operates as a zone of universally accessible public reason separated from both private biases and the coercive state. Strong displays of emotion, when they appear, are excesses of private exuberance or mass media and elite tendencies to manipulate private citizens toward detrimental and uncivil identity politics.1 On the other hand (often a clenched fist), affect theorists have criticized public sphere theory’s claim that such publics—even ideally constituted—operate freely from the politics of domination and subjectivation that prefigure such discursive engagements. This is in large part a consequence of a disembodied and cognitive understanding of political subjects which elides the embodied, lived dimensions of experience that their investigations into emotion and affect challenge. As the new champions of the “affective turn” see it, attention to affect and the neurological, somatic dimensions of politics alerts us to precisely all that goes below and beyond public discourse, opening up a potentially more vital realm of resistance to coercive state logics and exclusionary formulations of public civility.

An odd consensus emerges for both: affect constitutes a problem for the “public sphere” as an excess (whether construed as a “good” or “bad” excess) outside of normal processes of disciplined discourse and state logics. I’ve always harbored a creeping suspicion of such characterizations, likely as have others who are critical of “public sphere” theory yet equally wary of the “affective turn.” Surely we can decenter discursive rationality’s hold on public sphere theory without lionizing affect as an ontological escape? And what if affects are not a site of immanent overcoming but deeply entrenched within a long lineage of various technologies of governance (colonial, liberal, neoliberal)? And, how would we need to re-think the “public” and “affect” in order to understand the state’s role in both? Noah Salomon’s For Love of the Prophet provides a timely intervention for those interested in such questions.

Salomon began his foray into Sudan intent on studying the Sudanese Islamic state “in action.” On his own admission, he failed. That is, the “State” field sites he chose, ranging from bureaucratic ministries to education sites, were largely under international guardianship and there existed little to no evidence of sustained Islamic “nation-building.” At least, certainly not the sort that could be marshaled as evidence against Sudan’s persistent spot atop the Fragile (interestingly, no longer “Failed”) State Index. The Islamic state Salomon expected to find was, as it turned out, MIA. Lest we forget the precarious position of most young scholars, we might pardon that he (again, on his own admission), totally panicked. But then something clicked into place. Traveling from site to site across the urban soundscape, he encountered Sudan’s Islamic state where he least expected: permeating media advertisements, architectural projects, public discourse, and private dissent—the latter elements bound within a disciplinary project markedly oriented toward an “affective citizen-making.”

The people of Sudan love you, oh Messenger of God.
All of Sudan holds you dear, oh of great position.
We are the people who love you the most…
Your love is a national resource.”

Madih broadcast on Al-Kawthar radio

The Sudanese Islamic state’s institutions may have been coopted by international governance according to liberal logics, but sovereignty and legitimacy were reinvested into the project to make “an Islamic state built on a nation in love with the Prophet” with the ultimate goal of “reforming the citizenry to create a national public ‘in love’ with the Prophet, so as to define Sudan in Islamic tones at a time when rival definitions to its character (secular, multicultural, African) proliferated” (emphasis added). This project involved producing new religious soundscapes (ritual performance to popular media), shifting the aesthetics of moral geographies (rural to urban), and appealing to and the cultivation of affective capacities (individual love to national love for the Prophet). Of course “new” comes with a grain of salt: What occurred were creative re-appropriations of extant aesthetic and affective dispositions formed into public circulations mediated by state production, then remediated through a variety of (sometimes paradoxical) alternative embodiments such as the rogue poet al-Bura’i, the seceding and non-Islamic South Sudan, and ISIL. My point: Sudan’s Inqadh state grounded and reproduced claims to its sovereign legitimacy and moral superiority precisely through targeting affective capacities and performances of “Love” as a technology through which processes of subjectivation oriented toward “public” embodiments were enabled, in ways that reproduced and challenged the regime’s foothold on the political imaginaries swirling around its publics.

Such public affects, especially those regarding aesthetics, often take a secondary position to institutional-legal norms as sites of “governance” by scholars. Part of this tendency stems from Michel Foucault’s own neglect of the affective and emotional in his considerations of governmentality as the “conduct of conduct” through the nexus of practical rationalities that govern through reflexive self-management. While the centrality of the somatic “body” as a site of governance looms large, nonetheless, the notion of the body as a “surface” of power’s circulation is uncomfortably at odds with affect literature’s characterization of affect as a sui generis non-rational, non-intentional, pre-subjective locus that undergirds processes of inscription and semiotic signification.2 Equally culpable is the political philosophical tradition’s tendency, from Immanuel Kant to (late) Foucault to even that curmudgeon Theodor Adorno, to place “aesthetics” at the foreground as a site for potential practices of freedom (as opposed to discipline). Strengths of Salomon’s are that he does not succumb to the tendency to subsume his ethnographic insights to either theoretical camp and his modesty in not presuming to completely disprove either. But this modesty comes at a cost.

And you think Love is
To pray
But I’m sorry
I don’t pray that way

-Soft Cell

Salomon begins his work with the provocative statement that the “state may have failed according to the criteria of Foreign Policy’s index, yet by producing and sustaining novel publics, it has in fact endured,” but ends with “the Islamic public sphere [the state] had enabled was turning out phenomena they could not control.” Namely, the Islamic state’s project towards public hegemony paradoxically engendered its rejection embodied by the secular secessionist movement in South Sudan and ISIL’s rejection of the Islamic nation-state model based on sovereignty. Perhaps this should not surprise us; the “public sphere,” as shown by Salomon, is at once a panoptic space of discipline and a site for practices of freedom. But I’m left wondering how specifically these non-discursive, non-didactic, somatic and affective circulations in the “public” played any special role in these ruptures. Is Salomon simply left agreeing with Wael Hallaq that the Islamic nation-state is an “Impossible State” due to incommensurable modes of (now insert: “affective”) disciplinary subjectification and moral governance?

My inclination is that Salomon wants to resist these sorts of conclusions, and that he is emphatically throwing a stake in the sand against such moves to reduce the “Islamic” state to a foregone conclusion based on metaphysical ideals or institutional-functional incompatibilities. The affective and aesthetic are where he finds a breath of fresh air from such determinism, through recourse to vague terminologies of mobile, affect-imbued “imaginaries” and “political aspirations.” Granted, Salomon’s project was not to put forward a new theory of public affects, but the work invites serious inquiry on such themes. Filling in the blanks, how did affect and aesthetics matter?

This question does not have a one-size fits all answer, but in reading Salomon’s work against the background of my own thoughts on the topic several propositions come to mind. Perhaps affect and aesthetics matter because Sudan’s Islamic state rhetorically deployed extant aesthetic forms within legitimizing narratives that mobilized affective reactions along moral identities, which reinforced the regimes claim to be the embodiment of sovereign will and moral progress.3 This linking of identity to aspiration intensified the magnetism of this “felt” legitimacy, but precisely when the clean narrative fails its constituent parts became disentangled (secular state, Islamic governance), galvanizing the cathartic reinvestment of affective attachment onto alternative available aspirations. But that might be too Freudian. Perhaps, following Andrew Ross, we would say that “circulations of affect” go beyond strings of identification to the brain’s neural processes of unconscious and conscious social (not necessarily linguistic) transmissions that imbue public affects with an intrinsic creative instability. That is, even as the Sudanese Islamic state sustained hegemony over available public norms, identities, values, or semiotic systems of meaning, the affective site of this governmentality held a neuro-dynamic excess that at once sustained and destabilized it. But this may too closely reproduce the troubling scientism that grounds affect’s ontological status, as Ruth Leys has persuasively argued.

But Salomon’s work does not end with easy answers, and I won’t despair at not finding one. That said, understanding affects and publics as sites of governance necessitates a larger decentering than merely imbuing affect within public theory and vice-versa. New insights are yet to be won by decentering the study of affect off what I term the “representational-biological axis,” insofar as most affect theory follows an either representational or explicitly pre-representational model (therefore denoting an end relation to a representational paradigm) that assumes that emotional or affective display holds a correspondence to some inner somatic or cognitive process based on insights stemming from the biological sciences. Instead we might ask more phenomenological questions: How are structures of appearance and recognition geared to apprehend legible subjects as “affect-able”? How do regimes of governance produce technologies of emotional recognition tied to temperamental categories of judgment, and what are the effects these modes of appraisal have in relation to the everyday complexities that cannot be reduced to the merely “affective”? When do speech and action appear to others as circulations of affects necessitating recognition and governance, and what metrics of seeing are developed to systematize such categorizations? On a more reflective level: When does the contemporary “affective turn” itself produce these sites of governance?

Perhaps Salomon would find one of these proposals more in line with his project than others; perhaps he or readers would reject all and come up with something different. Either way, I commend this work for being able to raise such questions, and I have a strong feeling it will provoke many more.


  1. For an interesting deconstruction of these moves, see Patchen Markell, “Making Affect Safe for Democracy?: On ‘Constitutional Patriotism,'” Political Theory 28.1 (2000): 38-63.

  2. This is not to say that broaching affect as intimately related to certain forms of governmentality has not been attempted. For example, see the 2014 special issue of Global Societies, Patricia Clough’s work on biopolitical affects, the engagement of affect theorists within the Foucauldian critical tradition more generally.

  3. Though she focuses on a specifically American, liberal context, see Elisabeth R. Anker, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom (Duke University Press: 2014).