On ‘Gut Feelings’ and Embodied Politics – by Jacob Bustad

While we might disagree on the nature and potential meanings of the concept, the idea of “gut feelings” – those intuitive and often subconsciously enacted beliefs and opinions which enable us to make sense of the larger world – is undoubtedly an element of our lived realities. It might seem strange to discuss what some might see as a psychological feature of the human brain, or others might see as simple “common sense,” in the context of a blog primarily focused on elements of physical activity and the body-in-movement. Yet it seems that to avoid such a banal aspect of our everyday interactions risks missing the importance of the messy details of daily life, the likes of which are central to the cumulative formation of Raymond Williams “whole way of life” (i.e., culture).

That we act on our “gut feelings” is a common proposition; indeed we seem to often hear of an individual’s actions as emotionally rationalized within the moment, both in sporting contexts and beyond. Thus on one hand, we see this discourse of feelings appear in the rather mundane circumstances of organized sport – for example, NBA player J.J. Redick described his decision to sign a free agency contract as a process in which his “gut feeling changed about seven times” prior to his signing, sports columnists explain that placing the PED-using Mark McGwire in the Baseball Hall of Fame goes against a “gut feeling,” and Maryland men’s basketball coach Gary Williams states that he has a “gut feeling” that the new athletic director for the University will be great to work with. But this same discourse of emotions and a type of embodied “knowing” that serves to legitimate actions – or rationalize them afterward – is frequently apparent in more serious, ‘political’, even life-and-death conditions. Thus the statement by Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff, in July 2007, that despite a lack of actual evidence, he had a “gut feeling” that another terrorist attack was imminent, and the threat of death-by-terrorist was “very alive” (ironic, I know).

Yet in both sporting contexts as well as those in other moments of our lives, the discourse of gut feelings often operates to dichotomize the relationship between the emotional and the political. That is, when we invoke our “gut feelings,” we speak of certain personal and contextual truths – as sociologist Dawne Moon asserts, “emotions have come to represent their own special kind of truth.” That this type of truth is framed as originating within the body frequently serves to posit it as natural, in opposition to the contested “truth” of social interactions involving conflict and contestation, or in other words, politics. In her work God, Sex and Politics, Moon explains that this dichotomization has particular implications for the ways in which individuals and groups negotiate differences in identity. Within her focus on the issue of homosexuality within religious discourses, Moon recognizes that as people seek to avoid the conflicts and contradictions inherent within politics, they invoke their emotions – their “gut feelings” – when positioning themselves in relation to homosexuality as a sexual identity. Thus on different sides of this particular debate, Moon sees emotional feelings serving as an “incontestable form of knowledge,” a knowledge that is seemingly ‘apolitical.’ Yet such knowledges serve to legitimize some social positions and identities and delegitimize others, and to naturalize this legitimation/delegitimation – that is, they are caught up in the forces of power relations, in which (following Foucault) knowledges are categorized and heirarchized, paralleling the categorization and heirarchization of numerous subjectivities. This means that despite claims to the contrary, “gut feelings” are indeed political, and are not external to power – as Moon explains, “using languages of emotion this way can further obscure an already obscure fact, that emotions themselves, even “gut feelings,” are products of social interactions.”

Thus I would suggest that within the various spheres that PCS research might engage, we might take care to pay heed to the ways in which naturalized emotions – the “gut feelings” involved in processes of everyday life – are employed discursively, and the material basis and implications of these emotions. It seems to me that as sport, physical activity and physical culture writ large is inarguably an emotional experience (whether playing, coaching, or spectating), there is ample space for analysis that seeks to examine the relationship of and between languages of emotion and relations of power. We might even begin by asking ourselves about our own “gut feelings,” and what implications these might have – indeed, some cultural commentators have already begun this process, sometimes in rather explicit “political” contexts:

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