The spirit of the eighteenth-century public sphere animates Abigail Williams’ BBC Radio 4 series I Feel Therefore I Am. Williams brings the intellectual history of the subjective turn out of the academe and into the coffee house – albeit a metaphorical one. In doing so, she offers the listening public a genealogy of contemporary political controversies.
Emblematic of these controversies is the notion of “my truth”, famously invoked by Oprah Winfrey in her interview with Harry and Meghan: “How do you feel about the palace hearing you speak your truth today?” However Oprah may have intended it, the notion that truth can be subjective speaks not only to the importance of lived experience but also to conspiracism and to declining public faith in experts. “My truth,” as I Feel Therefore I Am indicates throughout its three episodes, is bipartisan, providing the background from which popular movements on both the left and right articulate their views.
Each episode of the series links different facets of the current zeitgeist with intellectual history. In the first episode, Williams discusses the relationship between facts, feelings, and narcissism. “Is feeling a form of connection with others or is it just enabling you to broadcast louder about yourself?”, Williams asks Professor Thomas Dixon. His answer is that historically it has been both. While the eighteenth-century notion of moral sentiments may be outward facing, Dixon comments, from Romanticism we inherit the idea that “one of the most important things about an individual is their inner emotion and their ability to be articulate about that emotion.” The episode also outlines the salient features of the cult of sensibility, linking the posturing of the man of feeling with modern day virtue signaling. In a manner characteristic of the series’ desire to connect contemporary culture with the history of ideas, the next topic of discussion is the popular Disney film Inside Out. Dixon praises the film, but nevertheless notes that it portrays a human mind that lacks will and conscience: Inside Out presents us as entirely ruled by our emotions.
The second episode, ‘Who Owns the Truth?’, focuses on the populist revolt against experts, featuring discussion of both Donald Trump and Michael Gove. Williams notes that, in campaigning for Brexit, Gove famously claimed that people had had enough of experts. Later, he reframed his stance. What he was really trying to do, Gove stated in a Newsnight interview, was to question the authority of established institutions in a manner not dissimilar to the Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church. The episode goes on to detail the Puritan rejection of institutional authority in favour of personal interpretations of the bible. In doing so, they celebrated a personalised notion of truth. The same was the case, in a certain sense, for twentieth-century feminists who recognised the role of patriarchal institutions in the construction of knowledge. On Audre Lorde, Professor Akwugo Emejulu comments “Trying to use the dominant constructions for organising our world… will never truly help us to get to liberation, because they were never addressed and designed for women’s liberation…” In this vein, Williams explores the ways in which lived experience constitutes a valuable, albeit problematic, form of evidence.
In the final episode, Williams discusses relativism. She interviews some highly articulate sixth-form students on the topic. Somewhat unsurprisingly, none of them believe in objective truth. The episode explores the limits of this view, discussing, among other things, climate-change denial and contemporary spirituality. Oprah gets another mention. Winfrey is a devotee, we are told, of Ronda Burne and her notion of “manifesting”. Beyond the self-help championed by Oprah, Burne went further. She argued that people are in control of their own reality and that, if they manifest their truth, they can bring that reality into being. It is notable that Trump believes something similar, though his inspiration was the evangelical self-help guru Norman Vincent Peale: “Picturize, prayerize, actualize”.
The series features interviews with a host of prominent figures from the worlds of academia and journalism. Alongside the names already mentioned, Jennifer Judge, Matthew Said, Hugo Rifkind, Seamus Perry, and Lisa Appignanesi all make appearances, as do others. Multiple film, TV, and music clips are interspersed with these interviews and with Williams’ narration, formally enhancing the impression of cultural and intellectual, past and present interconnection. This blending of literature with popular culture, of historical knowledge with contemporary commentary makes for a fascinating hour-and-a-half of listening.
Williams is, throughout the series, descriptive rather than prescriptive. I Feel Therefore I Am aims to elucidate the unacknowledged assumptions that shape fractious political debates. This seems an appropriate way to proceed, since, surely, the only way out of emotional solipsism is to learn to reflect upon, and, in doing so, take some distance from, our feelings. In the words of Carl Jung, quoted in episode two, “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate”.