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Monday, 28 December 2009


As fine an image as i've seen of one my favourite places, Glenfinnan, from Grant Glendinning at

Sunday, 27 December 2009

a feeling for the future...?

A thought has been buzzing around my head for the last few days, as I lay fat on the sofa full of Christmas fowl.

Every so often the issue of global population and its impact on the world pops up in the media, indeed recently there was a documentary by Sir David Attenborough on the subject. And the terrible consequences of more immediate pressures such as water and food shortages notwithstanding, I wondered if this might also have an effect on our emotions. Could it have the impact of such explosions as language, fire, cooking, agriculture or even industrialisation?

It's a grand question obviously and the problem with grand questions is the answers are rarely as simple as their progenitors. So, first the caveats:
Cultures have different emotional responses to similar stimuli - so why would we all react the same way?
Different groups within cultures have different responses too similar stimuli - so again, why would we all react the same way?
Population growth will not be uniform - so why might the pressures be felt by all anyway?

Is there any way through these huge influences on the question and any potential answer? One thought comes from an American researcher on emotions, David Matsumoto. He is the Founder and Director of SFSU’s Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory. The laboratory focuses on studies involving culture, emotion, social interaction and communication.

Matsumoto has a recent paper (Sequential dynamics and culturally-moderated facial expressions of emotion)
which talks about the emotional responses of judo athletes at the Olympics to see if they could spot the difference between innate and cultural reactions and then see what cultures have more facially expressive responses. One interesting offshoot of this was that more urbanised cultures had more individualised responses. Even taking into account Oriental cultures with their propensity for appearing less emotionally expressive (as opposed to actually being emotional), there was a strong correlation between urbanised societies being affluent and individualised societies which meant they registered the more expressive emotions.

So what does this mean for an ever growing world population? Possibly nothing in the face of other influencing factors, but perhaps it may mean an increasingly urbanised population becoming more individualised and even overwhelming local cultural norms. And our global population is becoming increasingly urbanised.

If affluence and urbanisation clearly lead to a greater sense of individualism then where will that take the world when collective actions and norms are needed to solve global issues like climate change?

I have to be honest I'm not sure if thread of argument has convinced me never mind any dear readers. But it nags away...

Friday, 11 December 2009

How cooking made us feel

The history of emotions is ultimately a journey onto the ocean of inquiry that asks, 'what makes us human?'

Therefore, despite the obvious and enormous difficulties in ascertaining with confidence, one cannot help but suspect a link between those crucial moments in human history such as walking upright, controlling fire and mastering language, and our emotional development. Just exactly what that link is may well be much harder if not impossible to do full justice to, but a link seems clear undeniable.

and so every often a book comes along that suggests some interesting ideas which may well have an enormous resonance for our development as humans and therefore, necessarily, the development of our emotions.

A few months back Richard Wrangham wrote a book called 'Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human'. He makes a case for cooking as one of the key ingredients in human development. he makes a fine case for showing how the improvements that cooking gave to our diet in increased calories, more protein etc, not just meant we ate better but that it changed our physical makeup and consequently our mental make up. the improved diet helped us literally think better. And this thinking better opened up whole new evolutionary possibilities.

As Dwight Garner of the New York Times puts it:
"The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer."

I wrote briefly recently about the links between animal reactions/emotions and human emotions and irrespective of current gap between primate emotions and their human counterparts there must be a growth from theirs to ours following our evolutionary curve.We too have made a journey from simpler primate style emotions such as fearfulness or anger to more sophisticated (with no moral judgement on the virtues of them) emotions like despair or contempt.

The question then must be asked, what role then did cooking have on our emotions. All that spare thinking time, what did it mean for our ability to come to judgements about our situation and what feelings arose from it. Wrangham suggests cooking around the fire made us calmer as it imposed socialisation upon us. That may well be the case.

One other less cheery spin off was that cooking created the first signs of gender domination as a consequence from the need to guard the cooking pot. What emotions may have been created by that unfortunate possibility?

Ultimately it would be quite a job to say with absolute authority that cooking created a specific set of more sophisticated emotions that hitherto had not existed before. One certainly has no direct evidence to say which emotions that set would consist of. But the possibility remains that cooking may have done more than many other moments in humanity's history to define our emotional capabilities. Cooking may have done more than make us feel good and full, it may well have helped us feel...

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Burying the emotions

It is a source of wonder how long humanity has been burying its dead. The oldest undisputed burials are in the Qafzeh and Skhul caves in Israel, between 90,000-120,000 years ago.

What happened that we needed to bury our loved ones, where once we had let them be once they had died? (i don't think I'd go back to bodies in the street he hastens to add). Was this a change in environmental circumstances or a change in our nature, or both? What is interesting is that clearly the practice spread across different geographic environments which suggests something beyond environmental pressure. This certainly seems the case when one discovers early grave sites with embellishments like medicinal herbs.

There is one place which i find particularly impressive, that of the 28,000 year old site at Sungir in Russia. There were three bodies, according to the archaeologist Randall White, a 60 year old man, a small boy and a girl. Their bodies were wearing thousands of beads, which would have take several years to have made. This suggests more than just decoration given the time taken to produce such things. Is there already social stratification going on? There may be well religious significance to the beads, the corpses and their graves. Which makes one ask where religion came from and what did it involve?

What, though, has all this to do with a history of emotions? Such massive shifts in consciousness in burial and in the astonishing beadwork of Sungir suggest great emotional depth at work to drive a person or community to such actions. The grief in death, the reverence, fear and awe are hinted at in the Sungir burials.

And was there envy in a society that could produce such complicated ornamentation as the beads? Surely there wasn't enough beads to go round all? What drove a community to display so many beads on some of the corpses but not all?

Our earliest ancestors were maybe not so different and even in death we are not always so equal.

In the heart of the West Highlands

a wonderful panorama looking over Loch Quoich in the west Highlands, north of Fort William. this one is found here at "A Scottish Climber's view" which is a fine wee site.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Underground and proud

A bizarre yet thoroughly entertaining evening. Sitting in a shed last Saturday discussing the history of emotions and other things as part of the Underground Restaurant run by the estimable MsMarmiteLover. the setting was very stylish, the company more so and the food delicious. You will forgive me if i pass on the compliment of guru! i can't answer any question but the bluffing skills seemed to be enough...

But thank you to all those who kindly kept me company down in the smoky shed i enjoyed our blethering very much.

To those that have never been, if you ever get the chance, go, eat, drink and talk and meet people you might not have met otherwise.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Primal Fear?

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear." H.P. Lovecraft

When one tries to look back far into the past at our pre-literate ancestors it becomes extremely difficult to consider their emotional lives with great confidence. the paucity of evidence allied to nature of those tiny clues means one must tread warily.

And yet it surprises me when writers suggest that our eldest emotion is fear. As Stuart Walton states in his book, 'Humanity: An Emotional History':
"If it were possible, as some evolutionary psychologists maintain, to decide which of humanity's emotions is the oldest, then fear would surely enter the strongest claim."

As much as I am a fan of Walton's writing, I am not so sure of this. He goes on to speak of our early ancestors walking across the African savannah in terror of the travails that faced them. Did did they really go in fear all or even most of the time? Was it really so terrifying?

It is interesting to note the behaviour of our evolutionary ancestors when considering such a notion. Do any of the great apes feel emotions, and if so how much does something resembling fear act upon them in ordinary existence? Emotions in animals is still very much a developing science but there is a view that it is valid to talk of such things without making animal emotions anthropomorphised. the renowned primate expert Jane Goodall did much to change our perception of what primates are capable of.

So if one accepts that our evolutionary cousins and ancestors were capable of some form of emotions would something recognisable as fear be one of the dominant modes of their behaviour? Do they live in terror of their predators and environment? Whilst some animals have learned caution and reticence relating to human contact, it would appear not. Nor do they exhibit anything approaching constant terror in general activity.

If nothing else it may not make evolutionary sense to have fear play so dominant a role as Walton suggests. Prolonged exposure to fear or stress induces massive stress upon the human body to deleterious effect. The same goes for animals. Whilst fear is essential for honing reflexes in traumatic situations it does not serve us so well over longer periods of time.

The point is though that there is nothing about fear, though obviously important, that says it is necessarily older or more dominant than other emotions.

I fear (if one may excuse the pun) this notion may be rooted in a hint of projection of modern man's helplessness in the face of nature without the aid of technology. Early Man knew how to live in its environments just as our primate cousins do. Whilst capable of feeling fear when needed they need not have been overwhelmed by it.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Towards a new history of Western emotions

A quick flyer for an interesting evening which I am deeply hoping to get to, work permitting.

5 October 2009. 6-8pm Arts Lecture Theatre. Queen Mary, Mile End Campus.

Professor Barbara Rosenwein
‘Towards a New History of Western Emotions’

With a response by
Professor Miri Rubin

Professor Rosenwein’s lecture – ‘Towards a New History of Western Emotions’ – takes up the question of why we need a new history of Western emotions, that is, a new general narrative. Much of the lecture will be concerned with surveying the general narratives that currently exist. The lecture will then sketch what a new narrative history might look like.

Miri Rubin is Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London. Her two most recent books are Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures (2009) and Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (2009).

The lecture, response, and discussion will be followed by a wine reception.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

a kiss and a cuddle...

I came across this, by George Weber, recently about the Andamanese in the 1850's. They are a tribal society in the south eastern Indian Ocean:
"The Andamanese did not and still do not lightly show their social emotions. There were no special words for ordinary greetings like the English "hello" or "how-do-you-do." When two Andamanese met who had not seen each other for a while, they first stared wordlessly at each other for minutes. So long could this initial silent staring last that some outside observers who saw the beginning of the ceremony but not its continuation came away with the impression that the Andamanese had no speech."

Can one imagine? i know some socially awkward people but it runs gloriously counter to our sense of constant chatter.

"The deadlock was broken when the younger of the two made a casual remark. This opened the doors to an excited exchange of news and gossip. If the two were related, the older would sit down and the younger sit on his lap, then the two would cuddle and huddle while weeping profusely. If they had not seen each other for a long time, the weeping could go on for hours. In the eyes of outside observers, the embracing and caressing could seem amorous but in fact the ceremony had no erotic significance whatsoever. Kisses were not part of the repertoire of caresses; only children received kisses as a sign of affection."

From the gentle tactility of men to the lack of erotic kissing, how different!

"Greater Andamanese greeting ceremonies were loudly demonstrative, their weeping often turning into howls that could be heard, as was intended, far and wide. The Onge were less exuberant and were satisfied with the of a few quiet tears and with caressing each other. If there were many people, greeting returning hunters that had been absent longer than expected or meeting unusual visitors, etiquette required that the large mass of people should not cry until several hours after the arrival. When the howling started, it could go on all night. When more than a few people met, the initial staring was dispensed with. "

Sunday, 6 September 2009

assynt again

Assynt is a place that looms large in my imagination for a range of reasons. Once again Colin Prior does the place justice with a wonderful photograph.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Emotional event

Something I received from Dr Thomas Dixon from Queen Mary University, London. It looks pretty interesting... Would that I had a day off to go down.

Towards a Historical Semantics of Emotions
Special Panel at the 12th Annual Conference of the History of Political and Social Concepts Group
London, September 18th 2009
At the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, 16 Taviston Street

Emotions are shaped in multiple ways by different cultures and languages. Rather than innate and universal, they are socially constructed to a large extent, embedded in their political and historical contexts and learnt by the individual. This panel will deal with concepts of emotions as objects of a new direction of study in the History of Concepts to which the conference is dedicated.

Semantic and conceptual history is an approach to the study of key concepts of culture not as fixed and timeless entities, but rather, as molded by the political and social contexts in which they are created and applied, and within which they change. It investigates the ways in which language functions, is employed, transferred and transformed in cultural, political, social, historical and geographic contexts, and the ways that concepts structure and constitute the extra-linguistic experience and reality to which they refer.

The papers in this panel will apply semantic history to concepts of emotions as they are used, appear in, and disappear from, different languages and discourses over time, place, context and cultures.

Monday, 31 August 2009

to live in fear

What was it like in those early houses, those first settlements when man gave up the nomadic life and staked his future on agriculture? Was it easy, and without stress, or fraught with fear from crops failing and threats from others.

Whilst thinking about Dr Susan Tarlow's very good essay, "Emotions in Archaeology", where she outlines some of the challenges for archaeology in trying to consider the emotional lives of people who have left no written record, I came across an interesting diagram in Michael Cook's 'A Brief History of the Human Race.'
The picture is that of a settlement dated back to the 7th Millennium BC in Anatolia, or modern day Turkey. A quick glance reveals no streets and even more strikingly, no doors, the only entrance was through a hole in the roof.

The point Michael Cook made was that this was a claustrophobic and cramped place to live, not least if one's people had recently been hunter gatherers. It does however, as he continues, show a blank wall to the outside world which may have give some kind of rudimentary defence.

I think it does suggest an enormous amount of fear. Why else would one make entrance to one's property so hard and so camouflaged? And to live in such close confines? This is not about materials and architectural skills limiting the design. This is about living in fear of someone attacking one's home and killing. There is no room for much storage and any common storage area could be attacked or defended, but this is about people's houses and a fear of personal attack.

Not quite a golden age of agricultural idyll...

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

that conversational thing

is on tonight and i'm rather nervous. all these half baked ideas i trot out here may be held to serious scrutiny...

facing up to emotion

Some interesting news on the BBC at the end of last week, which i think lends credence towards theories of emotions being rooted in culture and group dynamics as well as an internal physiological reaction.

A study by Glasgow University suggests that facial expressions of emotion are not global - whilst we may all feel emotions like fear or surprise, we express them in different ways. The study emphasises the difference in interpretations by Western case studies and East Asian ones. Essentially both look for different things in an expression, with East Asians apparently focusing more on the eyes and Westerns more on the the whole face in order to read a reaction from someone.

If something as apparently innate as a supposedly involuntary facial reaction can be different across cultures, what then does it say for the other ways we display and act upon our emotions? I am not saying at the drop of a hat we can all change our emotional responses, but if an involuntary response turns out not to be global and innate, it is subject to change and framing by a culture. And if a culture moves to frame an emotional response in a different way, it shows how we can move to change our responses in ways which might be more beneficial to our culture.

In the littlest differences, glimmers of hope for improving our emotional lives can be shown as they offer the possibility of cultures learning new behaviours that improve all our well being.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

talking about emotion

You don't see a post for ages and then two come along at once...

A very lovely though rather surprising email came my way yesterday inviting me to contribute to a conversation. The Conversational is an attempt to inspire conversation to those things we might often wish, but too often let it languish around idle chatter.

So on August 18th I shall be the guest at their next event - Emotion v Reason. As Michelle from group writes:

"Emotion, Reason, Reason, Emotion – what do they mean and what dictates whether we’ll respond with one or the other in a particular situation? Can one undermine the other? Can logic be used to show that certain emotions are badly founded and therefore not a useful part of any argument? Or do reason and emotion actually co-exist?"

Regular readers will know my opinions on the nature of the emotion/reason dualism and hopefully it may be a chance to speak with other interested people on how to get beyond it, and what examples from elsewhere in time and place can provide useful insight into our current understanding of such things.

The idea of a salon has always appealed though a friend tried to start one at uni and it deeply alienated some folk who weren't invited. And i always wanted to set up a Scots in exile one in London, but as with so much in my life, i never got round to it. But credit to the good people at the conversational for daring and doing.

By the way, if you're in London and fancy it then email the organisers and it would be lovely to see anyone who may read this...

if music be the food of stone age love

Apologies for being away, i didn't intend to... oh well!

Anyway, before i stopped posting i had meant to post something about this. It's a story about the world's oldest musical instrument being found in Germany. At 35,000 years old it's well before agriculture came about (about 10,000 years ago) and so a wonderful insight into our nomadic past.

The sound is quite rough, but still clear enough for distinct notes and tunes are possible. I rather liked it. The suggestions as to when it might be used ranged from the sacred, or social situations and that it was key in aiding social dynamics. In others words, much like we use an instrument today.

Obviously there's a strong connection between music and emotion, especially as it's a non-verbal one. But the possibilities of an extremely rich emotional past to stone age man comes so much closer to us through knowing they had music.

What joys were expressed, what sadnessness, what sense of wonder came out of a little bone flute so long ago?

Monday, 15 June 2009

some thoughts on thinkers thinking about emotion pt2

A few weeks ago I ran a series of interviews with three academics, (Prof Barbara Rosenwein, Prof Keith Oatley, and Dr Thomas Dixon) talking in broad terms about the history of emotions, with a brief commentary here.

Picking up on that commentary, I wanted to consider their other answers and thoughts.

It's both cheering and intimidating that all of them consider that virtually anything can be a useful historical resource when it comes to understanding how emotions were felt and affected the lives of people throughout history. The optimism comes from a potential wealth of sources, the fear from wondering how each will be recognised and sorted appropriately to give useful information. As Dr Dixon suggests, we may suffer from an excess of sources for today...

For example, what can the architecture of the past tell us about the emotional lives of the societies that built it? It may not be directly obvious, but there may be clues there for the skilled mind to uncover. The same goes for any potential source that does not directly reference something we might recognise in the present as an emotion.

It comes as no surprise that Prof Oatley specifically references fictional literature as being particularly useful - this is his field of expertise after all - and it will almost certainly be one of the richest and clearest seams that we can mine for useful information on the emotional lives of our ancestors. However, as Prof Rosenwein points out about the ecstatic writings of mystics, if one relies over heavily on such writings one might have a very skewed picture of life at the time of writing.

There is no suggestion though that Prof Oatley is over relying on the value of fictional literature here though.

All I think would agree though that any documentation from the relevant period may provide useful information, as would any art and music from the period. One could certainly do a good study of the emotional life of various cultures and subcultures through popular music in the last forty years, so the same should stand for earlier periods.

Prof Rosenwein referenced Dr Sarah Tarlow's essay 'Emotion in Archaeology'. As the subject expands, I think that one of the big challenges will be to see how we can cope with non written sources and archaeology will be key. What will a bejewelled corpse, perhaps preserved in a bog, contorted and with a variety of wounds, say about the emotional live of the society that the corpse came from?

I was heartened by Dr Dixon's suggestion of analysing the emotional lives of the cave painters of Lascaux - I look forward to his analysis!

There is one question which i will write further on in another post - that is the thought about a grand narrative, or a big story to our emotional development in history. It's something I've written about here. It's one of the most challenging questions for anyone interested in the History of Emotions and one which drew an interesting range of answers which deserve a post of their own.

A treeless forest

This is the view from Sgurr nan Ceannaichean to Glenuaig Lodge and Gleann Fhiodhaig, entitled Glenuaig Forest from Steven Russell. The Victorian hunting lodge there is spectacularly remote...

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The calm of happiness in Taiwan

The importance of understanding our emotions in their social and historical context is brought home by an interesting little feature in Stanford magazine on Taiwanese-American psychologist Jeanne Tsai.

In her Culture and Emotion Lab at Stanford University, she has been working on how different cultures perceive emotions and how their definitions may be different. In essence, what I perceive as happiness may not be the same as what someone from a different culture perceives as happiness. In my highly individuated culture happiness commonly contains large doses of excitement and ecstasy. A more collectivised culture such as the Taiwanese see happiness as a more calm sensation.

How can this be ascertained in a corroborated way? Tsai did studies showing two different smiley faces, one with a small calm grin and one with an excited open mouthed grin. She showed them to Taiwanese children, American Children and also Taiwanese- American children. The question posed was which of these two faces is happier?

The results of this deceptively simple test are curious but the implications are enormous.

The Taiwanese children consistently cite the calm grin as being the happier of the two, the American children cite the open mouthed grin and the Taiwanese-American children lay somewhere in the middle.

Where do these children learn about happiness that makes it so different for them?

They learn about happiness from everywhere from storybooks to magazines, to self help books and religious texts. And yet all work with a surprising cultural unity within each culture.

What is the impact of happiness being associated with calm in some cultures and with being excited in others?
One obvious riposte to this is mentioned in the article on Tsai - that of the mental health profession. If drugs like lithium and or anti-depressants flatten out the moods of bipolar and manic depressive patients - is this the most appropriate way to treat those mood swings in certain societies? Do health professionals and their pharmaceutical colleagues have to tailor their treatments and medicines to appropriate cultures?

Or will investors and marketers call it wrong if their understanding of a culture's emotions mean they pitch a product or service without taking such things into account?

Will a politician or international organisation get it wrong if they try to achieve something that is out of step with a society's emotional values? That may sound odd, but focus groups all the way back to US President Franklin D Roosevelt's use of advertising guru Edward Bernays in gauging public emotions shows how politician rely upon public emotion as much as policy arguments. Call it right and power can be yours.

Such is the importance of understanding how a culture describes its emotions and how different cultures do it all so differently. the same goes for understanding how events in history shape a nation or a culture's emotions. Fortune, fame and power can await those who do. Or maybe even just wisdom!

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

some thoughts on thinkers thinking on emotion

Over the last few weeks I've had three experts talking about some of the basic questions that face anyone curious about the History of Emotions. It's been interesting to see the differences and similarities in the answers, and get some learned perspectives in a simplified form.

First some clarity - what is an emotion? As I've spoken about before, I think it's noteable that all three writers agree that whatever an emotion is (as a concept it is extremely vague and laden with cultural association) it does require an element of judgement. It is not some kind of pure instinct that the person emoting has no control over.

I think we in the West fail to recognise this at our peril and allow ourselves to dodge responsibility for our actions by 'blaming' our emotions overwhelming us.

So which ones are more dominant in the West? This again is obviously a question with a massive value judgement -what is the West? At the risk of avoiding an enormous debate on that subject I was meaning largely the English speaking world with an element of Western European thrown in.

The answers are fascinating -
For Dr Dixon, desire and terror.
For Prof. Keith Oatley, contempt and romantic love.
For Prof. Rosenwein, anger and grief.

Prof. Rosenwein also points out something which I may write more about in future - that happiness is a relatively modern concept and does not figure so largely in what we can understand about the emotional lives of our ancestors.

I think this is something we as a society have to consider in very great detail on a range of levels. The American Constitution famously describes the 'pursuit of happiness' as a fundamental right and yet are we in danger of making ourselves unhappy by selling ourselves the illusion of happiness as a right? Our expectation of it as a right and not a fleeting gift to be cherished in its presenceand respected in its departure and absence may make us more unhappy than it will ever make us happy. Not least when that right for happiness is packaged into consumer desire and sold on an industrial level to the ruin of ourselves and our planet.

The other obvious thought from our experts views on the dominant emotions of the West is how negative the choices are. I mean no disrespect to the experts in those choices, indeed I think this is a fair reflection of a society that has triumphed globally through channeling these emotions into conquest within those societies and over others. Prof. Oatley's suggestion of contempt for the 'other' groups is particularly resonant here.

Personally I was a little surprised that Dr Dixon and Prof Rosenwein did not join Prof. Oatley in suggesting Romantic Love. Perhaps this is a reflection of Prof Oatley's professional immersion in literature, perhaps the other two may change their mind and include it another time. I think I would put it up there as a dominant emotion, but then my opinion is much less learned!

I could go on for a lot more though I think this is enough for one post. Some more thoughts on the Q&A's soon...

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

A Question of Emotion pt3: Dr Thomas Dixon

My thanks this time go to Dr Thomas Dixon, Director of the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions. I like his description of an emotion as a felt judgement. Despite the potential ambiguity of using the word 'felt' i think it's a good simple way to effectively describe emotions if clear terms that won't terrify a lay reader.

I also very much love the idea of gauging the emotional lives of the ancient cave painters of lascaux, though that sounds like a tough task!

I'll write a piece on the contributions of my three very generous interviewees soon, not least as there's some interesting similarities and contrasts to bring out.

How would you describe an emotion?
An emotion is a felt judgement. It is your body’s way of telling you, quickly, that the world is or is not how you want it to be. Any general description of emotions must capture both feeling and cognition. A cool and detached mental state cannot count as an emotion. There must be a sweaty palm, a lurching stomach, a thumping heart, a tingle, at least a momentary shiver. However there is more to an emotion than mere sensation. Nausea is not an emotion if it is caused by food poisoning, but it can be if it is caused by a sudden conviction of the meaninglessness of life.

Are some emotions more dominant in western culture?
Yes. Western culture is currently dominated by emotions of terror and desire, both verging constantly on hysteria. These emotions are sustained by the mass communication of ideas and images on television and online. If one were looking for a more positive emotion, then romantic love has long been the predominant theme of all forms of popular culture.

Has that changed historically?
Yes. In traditional Christian thought there was a distinction between bodily appetites and worldly passions, which were to be avoided, and higher affections of love and sympathy which were to be cultivated and were shared with God and the angels. Even before Darwin, however, it was quite obvious that most of us are more ape than angel, and western philosophy, art and literature are full of discussions of how to master anger and lust and cultivate joy and affection.

The overarching categories we use have changed historically. The ‘emotions’ are a very recent invention as a psychological category. Before the nineteenth century people thought instead in terms of appetites, passions, affections and sentiments. The ‘feelings’ are also related but distinguishable from the ‘emotions’. Understandings of the relationship of mind and body have changed. The ways we express our feelings through our faces and bodies have changed. And all these things continue to change.

Of particular interest to the historian of emotion are the different social rules governing which emotions should be felt in which circumstances, and how they should be expressed. These rules have changed considerably across time and place. I have recently, for instance, been researching Victorian attitudes to the manifestation of feelings in the courtroom (and on the scaffold). The comments of lawyers, judges and journalists suggest that either excessive emotion or cool indifference could both be interpreted as evidence of guilt.

What are the best resources for understanding this history?
Almost any historical document or artefact can offer evidence of the regimes of feeling and expression that obtained in a particular time and place. The visual arts are very valuable sources for the history of expression. Scientific and medical treatises tell us how the passions were understood theoretically. Novels, poetry and drama provide us with especially good evidence of the emotional tenor of a period.

Other perhaps less obvious sources, such as trial records, news reporting, didactic sermons, conduct manuals, government statistics, or school textbooks can also be immensely revealing of those tacit emotional rules that really define a particular culture.

Keeping in mind that emotions are felt judgements about the world, the history of emotions is always also the history of attitudes. So, resources that might seem only to offer evidence of abstract beliefs can often hold the key to past emotions too. To ask, for example, why the predominant emotional response to homosexuality in Victorian Britain was disgust, is to ask simultaneously about a feeling and about a belief. People felt disgust about homosexuality because they believed it to be something rotten, corrupt and unhealthy.

How far back into the past can the history of emotions reasonably go?
Any period that has left any trace of human activity can reasonably be studied from the point of view of the emotions. For instance, we can imagine trying to reconstruct the emotional lives of the prehistoric inhabitants of Lascaux on the basis of their cave paintings.

For the modern period the problem is generally an excess rather than a dearth of evidence. The challenge then is to resist the temptation to assume that we know what people were feeling. As with our own friends and colleagues, so with the subjects of our historical research, it is probably best not to assume too readily that we know what unseen emotions lie behind their words and actions.

Is there a big story, or grand narrative to our emotional history?
One interest of mine is in the history of resistance to the emotions. Feelings, passions, and emotions have been variously thought of as enemies, rebels, monsters, and demons. Over the centuries, they have been resisted through prayer, persuasion, psychiatry and imprisonment. I think any grand narrative should include an understanding of the historical urge to pathologise and penalise the passions, as well as an explanation of the recent tendency to celebrate such things as ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘emotional literacy’. Perhaps the whole history of emotions could be conceived of as an eternal cycle of expression and control.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Enduring love and the curious gift of Eleanor of Aquitaine

I was looking at a course William Reddy teaches on the History of Romantic Love at Duke University in North Carolina.

This caught the eye:

"Before the twelfth century, in Europe, love between men and women was not regarded as heroic; it was instead considered a sign of weakness, the preoccupation of a person without character. Why this change? Since the twelfth century, lovers have been consistently considered heroic in Western countries. The plot of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere written about 1170 and the plot of the famous movie Casablanca (1942)--perhaps the most admired Hollywood film of all time--are virtually the same."

It should be noted that the romantic love of the twelfth century mostly revolved around the unconsumated love of a man and a married woman and is somewhat different to our modern notion of Romantic love but the relationship is clear. However, it did appear a genuine innovation in European thought and idea that two souls united in physical and emotional union could be an elevated form of existence.

Though it may have evolved since those courtly days, Romantic love has been an enduring feature both in its celebration and its supression in the intervening centuries. This obviously begs a few questions, not least:

Why it should have been then and not before that such a feeling arose, given its hold upon Western society suggests that it speaks to (or perhaps created) a very powerful need within us?

Why has it had such a powerful grip on Western imagination and identity?

Why has this not appeared with such force in other cultures?

For those that didn't know - there are roots to the ideas and songs of those troubadours wandering round southern France who entertained Eleanor of Aquitaine and gave birth to Romantic love. From the Greeks philosophers like Socrates and Plato, Roman writers such as Ovid to Islamic lyric poetry (many strands of which also contained some homosexual elements) was the notion born.

So why did it arise then and not before? Perhaps part of the answer lied in the Christian notion that divine love was the primary form of expression of love and that sexuality, especially female sexuality which was associated with paganism was not to be celebrated. Christ took no bride according to the orthodox account and those considered most religious were celibate monks, priests and nuns, the latter of whom were and in some ways still are considered brides of Christ. That does not create a climate conducive to encouraging a taboo breaking spritually blessed union between man and woman.

Why then did it not arise before Christianity? The axial sages and prophets (Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tse, the Judaic prophets) had already forced much of the world to recognise that compassion and individual morality were crucial to our relationship with the world and those around us, and even the teachings of Jesus and Mohammed were developments upon these themes rather than entirely new ideas. In other words we had the mental, emotional and philosphical potential to create Romantic love before. We just didn't.

This makes me wonder, and it is only speculation upon my part - more learned readers feel free to correct - that the social fabrics of those societies was enough to either not feel the need or actively prohibit its development.

Was it only the gap left by lords, knights and others fighting in the Crusades that gave the space for their ladies to encourage such ideas instead of the more usual litanies of battle and male valour. Did this space (perhaps not unlike the political strides made by women during the two World Wars) allow women to encourage the troubadours in their creation of something to the benefit of men and women?

As strange as it may seem, could it not be down to the curious fortune of Eleanor of Aquitaine's encouragement of such tales when she was mistress of the household without a father or husband to do the medieval equivalent of hogging the remote control that night? And having done so, to persuade the returned Duke, William IX, that he too might enjoy their equivalent of a rom-com instead of a war film?

Why has Romantic love held such a grip on the Western imagination? A tricky one this and so again I am forced to speculate. (a familiar problem as regular readers know)

Our concept of the soul (and the ego?) is unusual in global mythology and perhaps romantic love tapped into those notions to create an unusually powerful attraction between the individuals of the time and the concept of Romantic love, when perhaps other societies had stronger notions of social bonds that were less dynamic and therefore less receptive to such a potentially disruptive influence such as a love that breaks marital bonds and involves individual choice over group benefit and stability.

Perhaps as I mentioned above, the social dislocation caused by wars such as the Crusades allowed a freedom to innovate that might not otherwise have been possible, and that once this had been done, men recognised the benefit of this to themselves, speaking as it did to their ego.

And held fast it has upon the imagination and identity of the West. Like the American Dream, of a better material life being yours for the taking if you are prepared to strive for it, so it is with romantic love. A better life for one's soul if one falls in love. It is, if one excuses the pun, a seductive notion.

I am very conscious these ideas reflect the rise of romantic love within a certain class of people in medieval times and not the ordinary peasant folk who lived then too, so all thoughts on their conceptions of love at such times most welcome. I wrote about some of those from a later time here.

It also begs the question are we the better for romantic love, and that i think is another rich vein for another post.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Harris, the Outer Hebrides

Harris beaches are secret joys of quietness and beauty. Thanks as ever to Steve Carter.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

A Question of Emotion pt2: Q&A with Prof Keith Oatley

As promised, Prof Keith Oatley, author of 'Emotions: A brief history' very kindly agreed to a blog Q&A for me and here is his response. It's a good read, and I find it interesting that he feels there are different dominant emotions in the West to Barbara Rosewein. This is not to say either is wrong, but i wonder what does it say about the West that neither argue the case for happiness being a dominant theme?

Anyway, on with the Q&A:

How would you describe an emotion?
An emotion, I think, has a personal and an inter-personal aspect; research on emotions has tended to concentrate on the former, and a good way of describing an emotion from this point of view follows Aristotle. An emotion is a kind of judgement, an evaluation of an event in relation to a concern. As Nico Frijda says, it sets up a priority as a readiness to act in a particular kind of way. I think of emotions as communications to ourselves and others: so an emotion communicates to ourselves that something significant has happened to us. Whereas an emotion is a change in readiness, a mood draws on the same processes and is a maintained state.

More importantly, emotions are interpersonal; they set up particular kinds of relationships with other people. Happiness sets up a relation of cooperation, sadness involves, typically, withdrawal from something or someone lost, and also elicits others' sympathy, anger sets up a relationship of conflict, fear tends to spread socially, and engender in others a wariness of danger, and so on.

I think of an interpersonal emotion as something like the inverse of a script that actors use in the theatre. An actor learns the words of a script and has to supply a depiction of the emotions and relationships with other characters. By comparison, in ordinary life, an emotion sets up a relationship, and the individual supplies the words.

Are some emotions more dominant in Western culture?
I think this is very hard to say. Over the last thousand years, contempt for others who are members of out-groups seems to have been rather dominant in Western culture. This history, for instance, includes the Crusades against Islamic peoples, the Spanish obliteration of the culture of native Americans, European colonial exploitation worldwide, the European and American slave trade, the Stalinist purges in Russia, the legalized setting up of the Nazis in Germany and the Holocaust, the wholesale aerial bombing and burning by America of the small country of Vietnam, and most recently the illegal tortures carried out by the Bush government. As Karl Popper said, the history we learn in school is largely the history of international crime.

On the other hand romantic love has become also rather important in Western culture, deriving from courtly love in medieval times, and coming to full exemplification in Dante's love for Beatrice. It has distinctive Western features that include sudden onset on meeting a stranger, worshipping the other as almost divine, strong altruism towards the other, transformation of the self towards becoming a better person.

This is not to say that contempt and erotic love do not occur in non-Western cultures, but a case can be made I think that in the West they have taken on a certain dominance and distinctiveness.

Has that changed historically?
Yes, both contempt and love have changed historically in the West. Contempt, has in the last century started to be moderated by the women's movement and the civil rights movement, as well as by media coverage of wars that tends to prompt empathy for victimized people. As to Romantic love, there is a clear arc from medieval times to Hollywood movies.

What are the best resources for understanding this history?
I think we have to rely on all the usual historical and archaeological sources. I think, however, that in the case of the history of emotions, fictional literature is especially important because it tends to concentrate on emotional issues. In relation to Romantic love, for instance, Dante's Vita nuova is an essential source.

Is there a big story, or grand narrative to our emotional history?
In my 2004 book Emotions: A brief history, I proposed that there are three grand narratives that are superimposed on each other. First there is the narrative of the evolutionary history of emotions, that was begun by Darwin, and is discovered from biology and archaeology. This narrative, for human beings, is of the movement from being purely biological beings to becoming social and cultural beings.. Second is the cultural history of emotions that we discover mainly from written documents and, as I mentioned above, especially from fiction. I think the narrative here is of a gradual growth of consciousness, from the earliest surviving written stories such as The epic of Gilgamesh to last year's favourite novel in English, Netherland. The grand narrative here overlays the evolutionary narrative, and is about the cultural growth of consciousness of selves and the emotions of selves in relation to others. The third grand narrative is the history of each person's individual life, growing up in a historically derived culture, again a story of emerging from unconsciousness, becoming aware of others, coming to understand them in relation to oneself, coming perhaps to educate one's emotions in a process of self-improvement. Thus, for instance, one might hope that the current top news story in the UK, of the anger of the public and shame of Members of Parliament discovered to be fiddling their expenses, i.e. stealing from the taxpayer, when so many in Britain have almost nothing to live on, would prompt an emotional change in Members of Parliament towards greater responsibility in relation to the people whom they represent.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

A few changes...

As people who've been here before will swiftly realise, things look a little different. Comments and suggestions from a few people plus my own thoughts on the scheme of things, and of course the title have been coming under reconsideration of late.

When I started this blog I wasn't entirely sure which direction i wanted it to go. Over time it has been clear that I want to focus on the history of emotions for this blog, though i will keep some pics of the Highlands of Scotland in there.

thoughts welcome obviously, it's a work in progress...

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

A Question of Emotion part 1: Q&A with Professor Barbara Rosenwein

At last some journalism! I am extremely pleased to introduce a Q&A with Professor Barbara Rosenwein, from Loyola University, Chicago.

Prof. Rosenwein specialises in Medieval History and has written a range of books, including Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages. I first came across her work at the end of last year, reading a brilliant essay entitled 'Worrying about Emotions in History', which I have written about a couple of times here.

What i have done in this exercise is to ask a simple set of questions to several authors and academics (the questions may be simple, the answers not!). I've used the same questions as I want to compare answers. I hope to come back to those people and others with more questions but given the time taken, it's a bit much to ask them all at once!

So without further ado...

how would you describe an emotion?

There are many definitions of emotion, and most of them make good sense if you take them in the context of the theoretical orientation of the writer. For me, one of the most useful definitions comes from cognitivist psychology. It postulates that an emotion is the result of a certain kind of assessment--an instantaneous judgment that something or someone affects my wellbeing in some way. If I see a lion and judge that it is brown and furry, I am not making an emotional assessment. But if I see a lion and judge that it is not good for my wellbeing, and I quickly climb a tree, I am indeed making an emotional assessment, and the emotion (in this instance) is fear.
What I like about this definition is that it allows for cultural conditioning or “social construction.” For example, in the case of the lion, if I were a Masai warrior of the 19th c. and I had my spear with me, the lion might very well be the occasion for joy, because I would assess it as a challenge to my manhood that I could meet. I would, in short, judge it as “good” for my wellbeing.
This definition helps to account for the “affective” aspect of emotion, the “feeling” that we have. But it does not immediately explain another aspect of emotion: its social function. Emotions play a role in just about every social interaction, even those with strangers. They signal attitudes, they may inspire compassion (a sort of mirroring response), and they are sometimes contagious.
But the cognitivist definition implies this social aspect, too, as long as you realize that your assessments both depend on the society you live in and signal to others what those assessments are.

are some emotions more dominant in western culture?

We need to realize that the words that today come under the rubric “emotions” did not always do so and have changed over time. Some “emotions” that we have today are new, and others are old, and many have changed their meaning and significance. Further, Western culture didn’t always speak English (that’s true even today).
We also need to keep in mind that Western culture isn’t the only culture; histories of the emotions in other cultures also need to be written.
That said, there is a long tradition of the idea of emotions in Western culture (e.g. the Greeks had pathé, the Romans had perturbationes), and the words that came under those rubrics roughly track the words that we think of as “emotions” today.
In my view, people live now (and lived in the past) in “emotional communities.” These are usually social groups; more generally, these are groups in which people share values and interests. Each emotional community privileges certain emotions and downgrades others, and each has its own standards for expressing emotions--some vehemently, others not at all. These emotional communities co-exist alongside one another, and/or they may intersect at certain points. They may also change over time.
What I have found in my historical studies is that these groups are extremely various. Like musical notes, there are only so many emotions, but they can combine in quite infinite patterns.
Even so, certain emotions keep coming up throughout western history as important. Anger and grief, for example, have been on lists of emotions since the time of Aristotle. Happiness, however, seems to be quite modern.

has that changed historically?
See above.

what are the best resources for understanding this history?

Every source is potential fodder for understanding the history of emotions. The history of emotions should not be just about what people “got emotional” about. It should be about the role of emotions in their lives. Some emotional communities (like the 7th century Neustrian court that I studied in my book Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages) recognized very few emotions and were very wary of somatic expressions of emotion. Others, like many late medieval mystics, could hardly stop speaking of their feelings--especially ecstatic love--and often expressed these in tears, groans, and even bodily writhing.
If we read only the ecstatic writings, we’d have a very skewed view of the emotional life of the Middle Ages.
What I suggest to the scholar interested in the history of emotion is to decide on the community he or she wants to study and then gather a dossier of its documents and writings of every sort. Visual materials may be added to the mix, and musicologists will know how to assess the music.

How far back into the past can the history of emotions reasonably go?

Sarah Tarlow has written an article, “Emotion in Archaeology,” in which she argues that the history of emotions can go back even to pre-literate societies. She makes a very cogent case. And she does not get bogged down in the (to me unhelpful) arguments of some evolutionary psychologists who think that our emotions were determined in the Paleolithic period and that they have remained essentially the same since then.

is there a big story, or grand narrative to our emotional history? (a familiar one for you!)

There is a grand narrative, and, although it was written in the 1930s, it remains dominant today: Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process. In this book Elias argues that the emotional life of Western mankind was impulsive and violent until the 16th century, when, under the restraints of modern society and, above all, the modern, absolutist state, emotions had to be held in check, the “super-ego” was born, and the history of emotions--subtle, refined, and sublimated--could begin.

This is a very inadequate big story. It depends on a hydraulic, rather than cognitivist, view of the emotions: they are either “on” (as in the Middle Ages) or “off” (after the 16th century). It dismisses much of Western history, except as the training ground for the modern period. It is also teleological--leading from impulse to civilization.

I am now in the process of writing a book that will tell the big story by using the notion of “emotional communities” to drive the narrative. It will use the cognitivist view of emotions; it will not write off the Middle Ages; and it will not claim any teleology. I am tentatively calling it “A New History of Western Emotions.”

Monday, 4 May 2009

the emotional revolution of eridu

Apologies for the lack of posting - the day jobs have been taking up a lot of time of late. This also means there's less conclusions and more questions in this post. Ok, no conclusions...

In the last post I wondered about the change in human emotions indirectly rooted in the development of the rectangular house, and about what (if anything) the history of emotions may be able to explore from early human development.

Some more thoughts on that theme, also stemming from Peter Watson's excellent 'Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud'.

The first city is generally believed to be Eridu in southern Iraq, founded around 5400BCE. It was believed to have had a population of around 27,500-55,000 and was around 41 hectares. It shold be noted that cities did not generally get much bigger for many thousands of years. Rome for example was only twice as large as another Sumerian city, Uruk, five thousand years later. In other words this fundamental change from rural to urban remained fairly static for thousands of years and so many common dynamics of human interaction would remain constant as empires, kingdoms and city states rose and fell.

What happened here? The cities of Sumeria gave us inventions that are amongst the most truly profound of all humanity and are worth considering here for a moment. They gave us writing, the wheel, the first schools, the first clocks, the first libraries and legal codes, the first arch that is so crucial to all architecture and shapes the buildings that shape our lives. The list goes on and is astonishing in its profoundity.

If one considers the thoughts of Prof David Edgerton of Imperial College, London, and his work 'The Shock of the Old: Technology in Global History Since 1900', then one realises the scale of such achievements that are still so crucial to our everyday lives today. (I wrote about this briefly here.)

These are the inventions which not just affect our lives but actually permeate our consciousness.

What has this to do with emotions and their history? Those most eminent emotionologists, Carol and Peter Stearns wrote about the impact of the novel on the emotions of western men and women two hundred and fifty years ago (i wrote about this a wee while ago). What then was the impact of writing itself? We know that mankind was already wrestling with so many emotional dilemmas through its myths and histories, but also through such wonderful insights as the ancient Egyptian text 'The dispute between a man and his soul.'

The impact of writing upon our emotional history has to be staggering, with impacts ranging beyond the effects of the words and idea written to the very mirror of our selves that writing is. Who can doubt the impact of a mirror on our mood when we see ourselves in it, and relate this to our sights of others. So it surely must be with writing. Add to that the technological revolutions spawned by the written word that changed our lives and their emotional impact.

If writing is the most profound of these wondrous inventions on our emotional history, the wheel's impact may seem odd, and yet perhaps deserves a place. A wheel that allows massive material changes from food production to building and warfare (through it's use in the chariot) changed the nature and speed of human life creating a whole different dynamic to our lives, from the range of influences of increased trade and its corollary opening up of ideas to the pressures and liberation and living in greater numbers.

And this last point I think is another crucial one that needs attention. How does living in such numbers and so close together affect our emotional selves? Does every city has common emotional dynamics to contend with? Do they share solutions, or in what ways does our diversity mean myriad solutions to common problems?

As our demographic shifts in the West and we move towards more individualised lives with greater personal space and the world as a whole becomes more urban what, if anything, can those first cities teach us about how we can cope with their concomitant emotional pressures?

Monday, 20 April 2009

greed and the rectangular house

The history of emotions is in many ways bound intimately to the history of the written word. Whilst other forms like music or art can communicate our emotional states with depth and elegance, writing has given a specificity that is in many ways unrivalled in its communicative power.

That all said I have been wondering recently whether there is much that can be said in emotional terms of those many tens of thousands of years we existed as a species but had not yet quite settled down to invent all those curious wonders of civilisation.

Did all our emotions exist back in those days? Did we feel jealousy and loneliness in the same way, or was love a force in our nomadic hunter gathering lives?

It is now generally agreed by most archaeologists that we began settling down and building houses about 12,000 years ago and that agriculture began around 9-10,000 years ago in the fertile crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates. And sometime around then in Syria we started doing something curious. We went from building round houses partially below ground to building rectangular ones on the ground.

The reason this fascinates me is because i wonder if this period was the beginning of that most pernicious of emotions, greed.

In a nomadic hunter gathering society that had not yet invented metal or domesticated animals, objects would have little value if a person could not take them with them. Accumulation would make no sense to someone on the move and gluttony impossible if food storage is unknown and fitness and mobility essential for survival.

From this came the development of accomodation into a form that allowed the easier partition and expansion of space

It is here that life begins to involve the acquisition of objects from animals to tools. And was it here that we began to hoard, in fear of scarcity, and a fear that grew into greed.

The rectangular house did not cause greed, obviously. But was it a marker along our emotional road, and a rather dark one at that if greed was born there...

Friday, 17 April 2009

Q&A with Prof Keith Oatley

coming soon:

Prof Keith Oatley, author of 'Emotions: A brief history' has very kindly agreed to a blog Q&A for me over a series of emails to be posted up soon... watch this space.

Monday, 13 April 2009

An Teallach, North West Highlands

This one is from Michael Aird and his transformedbylight landscapes. I was walking round here and the Ffisherfield forest (somewhat lacking in trees as a forest but a wonderful place) a few years ago and it's a stunning place.

(These photographs are a welcome breather from thinking up posting ideas... )

Monday, 6 April 2009

oscillating emotions

The history of emotion is not a history of conquering and restraining emotions, though sometimes it may appear like that. Recent work by experts such as Barbara Rosenwein and others put paid to such tempting ideas. We do like our lives to be going somewhere, in a line, as part of a grander journey. We may be part of something grander, but whatever it is, it certainly isn't going in a straight line!

And yet mankind's emotional history has been a story filled with change, from how we perceive our emotions to how react emotionally to various situations.

The industrialisation of of slaughter of the holocaust or the carnage by remote control of modern warfare does not mean we have become more civilised or become the compassionate beacons our religions hoped we might (though in many ways we have become more compassionate).

So how can we characterise the grand sweep of the history of emotion?

Recently I corresponded with Prof William Reddy, of Duke University, whose work 'The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions' i have quoted before, asking him this very question.

His belief was that our emotional history have a back and forth movement where we either trusted or distrusted our emotions and tried to master them. One can think of many examplesfrom history and fiction) of people who's emotions led them to more virtuous places (Reddy cited Lancelot and Jean Jacques Rousseau to those who chose to master their emotions and become in their own way heroic (and here Reddy cited Marcus Aurelius and Churchill).

However, Reddy pointed out this is not just a two dimensional pendulum swing. Roman mastery of emotion will not correspond to the 20th century English variant. This is because people are acting in the emotional context of their time - for example Roman concepts of compassion still allowed for the gladiatorial games and slavery and their religious codes did not have the concept of shame and guilt so heavily etched upon them.

As those emotional contexts change over time, so must a person's and a people's response to their emotions change also. As we develop our sense of individualism though philosphical developments, financial emancipation, and consumerism (amongst other things) the notion of repressing our individual emotions for social good becomes less appealing.

And even within our greater range of emotional expression in the West one can see flaws and limitations in the manner in which it is being done. Emotions are being used to justify infantile selfishness and the less individual emotional need is perceived as being connected to the wider social whole, the more the risk of alienation and selfishness that conflicts with the needs of the whole.

At the risk of sounding rather doom-laden, a society and culture that allows a more selfish expression of certain emotions at a time when group action and values are needed, runs a risk of doing itself and others a great deal of harm.

Monday, 30 March 2009

when the headhunting stops

Sometimes i think i like the anthropology of emotions more than the history of emotions. Perhaps this is just because within anthropology it is possibly easier to come across examples of exotic emotions, of responses that challenge perceptions and provide a thrill of the possibilities that we humans are capable of.

One such example comes from 'The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions', by William M. Reddy though in this case he is describing the work of an anthropologist.

Michelle Rosaldo wrote of the Ilongot people of the Philippines, formerly a tribe of headhunters (the headhunting was only done by the men) whose emotional lives prized the concept of liget which is a sense of anger, heat, energy and envy. This liget provided the motivation to do things like hunt, garden or protect the tribe from attack.

It also was central to young men becoming possessed of the desire to headhunt. This was then harnessed by the elders (also men) and they all went on raiding parties. If successful, the whole tribe (men and women) would break out in joyful celebration, not least in seeing liget fulfilled.

However when Rosaldo went back to the tribe for more fieldwork several years later, she discovered the headhunting had stopped, through a crackdown by the Philippino authorities. In that time, many of the tribe had converted to Christianity and the tribe's emotional norms were becoming much more placid in the absence of liget which could no longer be expressed or fulfilled. Ultimately they hoped the new religion would take away the pain of unrealised liget.

On the surface the tribe had made this massive emotional shift away from one of their core emotional states in a very short period of years. However, when she played a recording back to them of their celebrations of liget (at their request), the tribe became utterly disconsolate and asked her to stop as it grieved them too painfully to hear the joy of their old way of life.

In another incident, Rosaldo spoke of a group of Ilongot Christians playing volleyball during a child's funeral, saying they had no reason to feel grief.

As Reddy points out, the activity of the build up and release of liget was not just a ritual, it was something the Ilongot were fully emotionally engaged in.

These people were not monsters, but they genuinely felt decapitating neighbouring tribespeople's heads was a good thing. they felt good when that liget was fulfilled and released. And yet this was the same feeling they got when they tended their gardens.

That Christianity had helped them move on from headhunting which is a good thing but the loss of their liget had clearly left them bereft.

In their Christian states, they felt no grief, and yet nothing in Christianity tells them not to feel grief. And was their lack of grief unnatural? How could it be, it was what they felt.

But think of the reactions we have to an apparent lack of grief, for example with the Queen's apparent aloofness after the death of Princess Diana.

I am not arguing that Christianity or the authorities did wrong in moving the Ilongot away from headhunting, or that they should have been denied the choice to engage with aspects of the outside world to keep them in some prelapsarian noble savage role for us to study.

Truly the well of human emotions is deep and diverse, and sometimes sits rather uncomfortably beside our notions of morality.

I do think it is worth remembering that our emotions are not always good and true guides in formulating any moral code, as they are capable of making the moral equivalent of black,white and white, black.

Thursday, 12 March 2009


Two of Assynt in the far northwest today, courtesy of Colin Prior, who runs holiday tours teaching people how to make photographs like these.

Monday, 9 March 2009

the loneliness of the long distance writer....

"All the lonely people
Where do they all come from ?"
The Beatles, Eleanor Rigby

It's not often I quote approvingly from the Daily Mail, but there was an interesting article on loneliness here.

The writer, Lorna Martin, spoke of loneliness as a taboo made all the more poignant by the endemic nature of the condition of Western women. Whilst I would disagree with her overly feminine characterisation of the emotion - it was however an article written for the femail section of the paper so that should come as no surprise - it contained several elements which were pertinent for women and men.

This isn't to deny or denigrate her descriptions of its effect on women, merely to highlight that men have their own issues relating to loneliness that may differ slightly in causes in some cases but are largely similar in outcome.

I sympathise with her, having felt that unbearably intense sense of loneliness of many occasions throughout my life, and noted that they increased massively when I was either working from home or not working at all. Such are the travails of being a freelancer in the world we live in.

Martin points out rightly that we are ill equipped to deal with loneliness. This was something I mentioned in my first post on this blog when speaking about the old Indian tradition (quoted by Theodore Zeldin) of sending young men on retreat for 3 months to cope with a deadened form on loneliness that helps them face up to the condition.

As she notes, it is associated with failure and weakness. However, she stops short of asking why our society seems so talented at creating so many lonely people. It does not take a socialist to recognise that a system that requires values like individualism, mobility over community, and consumption as a signifier of success, is a system that will create endemic loneliness.

The dark side of individualism is the sense of isolation it breeds as we see ourselves as entirely distinct, with distinct needs from the group. I am not arguing for a return to some kind of prelapsarian community, merely an acknowledgement of the true cost of our philosophical stance in the world.

It is a terrible irony that Norman Tebbit who once exhorted Britain to get on its bike, later lamented the loss of community and family values that once bound together these Isles. The very mobility of modern society and employment that he helped to herald will inherently diminish familial and community bonds. I am not arguing for a return to some kind of Empire capitalism, merely an acknowledgement of the true cost of our economic stance in the world.

And at the root of these things is consumption. We produce and consume goods and services to trade in a global system. And in order to maintain this we much constantly strive for greater efficiency and competitiveness, making us work longer hours, committing more sacrifices on the altar of consumption.

And this is a system that the Daily Mail promotes, despite making noises in favour of family values and so on. But it does not recognise that the capitalism that it suggests its readers vote for at elections, that it promotes in its choice of news, features and its business pages pushes us further towards the treadmill of consumption and it's consequent ailments.

Martin notes the health problems that loneliness generates, both physical and psychological, and she is right to do so. She quotes psychologist James Lynch in his book 'Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences Of Loneliness', and how dialogue is key to escaping the vicious spiral of loneliness.

Not to undermine the value of Lynch or Martin's suggestions I fear it will take an awful lot more to deal with the endemic state of our societies. Communication will play a part, rituals to bind and bond us will too. And I think if we are prepared to be truly honest, we may have to change the way we do business with the world and the way the world does business...

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

the value of anger

I have written a few times before on the value of anger, so was interested to come across a recent piece in the Guardian by the philospher Julian Baggini in the Guardian which examined the role the emotion plays in our western psyches.

In it he noted the value of anger in communicating the importance of an issue and the dangers in repression of feeling to the self and the community.

To my mind he hit the nail of the head when he said the emotion was not bad in itself but that it was the appropriateness of the emotion to the situation that mattered. Not all anger expressed is wise, nor is bottling it all up. The wisdom lies is when and how it's expressed.

We have a danger of only thinking of anger in perjorative terms because it is not seen or described in our vocabulary as a positive emotion... Of course it is neither positive or negative!

He also sounded a very interesting note:

"Indeed, without emotion it seems unlikely we can even have morality. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume argued in the 18th century, intellect alone is insufficient to motivate any caring for ourselves and others. As he colourfully put it, "Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." Cold-hearted ethics is an oxymoron."

I think it is true to a point but again it is a concept of morality that is trapped in the idea that emotion is a passion which contains no reason and that both are needed. But emotion already has reason in it. Cognitive scientists have shown emotion contains judgement and reason, so whilst the categories he starts with are in a sense wrong, his conclusion is right.

Our emotions are key to our morality, though the emotions themselves cannot be described as morally good or bad.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Torridon sentinels

Another gem from Steve Carter, this time of the Torridon Hills. Is it just me or is there a Mt Rushmore thing going on here...?

the history emotion in the history of emotions

The history of emotions is a field that spans several disciplines, not least the psychology, anthropology and history. However only a fool would begrudge a poet and writer space to offer insight.

And so it is here. Re-reading Alistair Moffat's "the Sea Kingdoms', a rich evocation of Celtic Britain and Ireland where the history flows from the sea and not from the land, gives an interesting understanding of a history that deserves a wider telling.

Thoughts loomed on my mind like icebergs in a fog. What is it about the oceans, and their emotional pull, the quasi mystic sense of emotion generated by the wine dark sea... how has it influenced us throughout history?

These thoughts took me to the poet in question and the title of this piece. Alan Gould is a London born Australian who has written keenly of the sea. In this case he wrote a thought provoking essay called 'Bolero and the sea' which raises the idea of a history emotion. Gould was writing about a character from the story, Sarah, who felt compelled to search out more about an old seafaring ancestor so captivated was she by the past, the sea, and the connection to her present.

For Gould this sense of history as an emotion was given a deeper tinge with his character's love of the sea being the love of an immense object that is indifferent in return. Perhaps this too could be said of the history emotion. Indeed he suggests this feeling also has a pathological tendency with the desire to search and find answers leaving Sarah blind to feelings in the present.

Could this sense of history be a distinct emotion? Is it not perhaps an alluring mixture of yearning and curiousity? Certainly in the absence of being able to prove irrefutably and objectively (which is often a misnomer when it comes to emotions) that it is a distinct sensation, I would fall back on the notion that cultures can often have emotional states that other cultures do not. This certainly means it is not impossible to have such a thing.

I am drawn to the notion, not least as I think it opens up new forms of expression and understanding of our complex selves in ways allow the poetic into our existence in a way that we all can understand.

As Gould writes:
"I locate the pathos and necessity of Sarah’s character in her recognition that, as humans, we will continue to recover lost lives, lost time, because to do so makes our own living more complete.
That is the force of ‘the History Emotion’ and the sea and history come together in this, for both make us aware of being in one place beside an immensity that is around us and, in the end, entire."

This to me sounds distinct to yearning and curiousity, though I am open to argument (indeed would relish any thoughts on it from others).

One final thought - what other emotions might we miss by leaving them nameless? Is our current palette of emotions an almost Orwellian limiter of feeling when we are in fact capable of seeing the emotional equivalent of colours beyond the rainbow?


Friday, 13 February 2009

The novel is a mirror to my heart.

“Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursel's as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion”

Robert Burns, 'To a Louse'

To you precious few who care to read, and care, i apologise for taking so long to write.

Watching a BBC4 documentary the other day has set me thinking. The piece was called 'How reading made us modern' and laid claim to the idea that the liberalisation of printing through the ending of the Licensing Act in 1695 created the foundation for mass literacy and a mass social transformation both public and private. Within a few years Britain went from having but a handful of books available and only at Royal discretion, to a cacophony of script, from book to journal to journalism and newspaper.

From the literary torrent came a rising tide of literacy and a new form of literature that spoke to a people keen to listen. The novel gained prominence as a style, and helped create a whole new wider group of readers, particularly in women.

Presenter John Mullan noted the link between the novel and the rise of the female 'bluestocking' salon (with examples like Elizabeth Montague), and its role in finding a voice for women - through the empowerment of literacy and the opportunity to meet and discuss the themes contained within the stories.

It also made me wonder about the role of the novel in our emotional development.

Peter and Carol Stearns amongst others have already highlighted how angry and unrestrained emotions were in the UK and Britain around this time. They also showed how during the 18th and 19th century these feelings began to become more controlled and 'civilised'.

Of course I couldn't claim the novel was the sole key to this, not least as the Stearns have shown plenty of other factors.

However, as Mullan pointed out the novel told people about themselves by writing about others. It held a mirror up to society and allowed it to see itself as others saw it. And in seeing themselves might not it have given them an empathy previously lacking, bestowed some greater compassion that recognised the impact of those brute emotions and realised the need for more control in various public and private spheres?

If the novel is accepted as transforming our private intellectual life, it cannot fail to have done something similar to our emotional life.

Is the novel still that same transformer, a redeemer to reflect our current iniquities? if the novel withers, or grows stale, what then shall take its place?

Surely not blogs?

Monday, 26 January 2009

Five sisters

On the south Kintail ridge, a panorama from the east shoulder of Creag Mhaim (947m). from the left, Loch Cluanie, mist filled Glen Loyne then to the snow covered Glen Quoich hills; Spidean Mialach (996m), Creag Coire na Fiar Bhealaich (1006m) and Gleouraich (1035m). This is the Glasgow Uni medical faculty's mountaineering page.

Expressions of love

You'd think I'd be posting more whilst not working but it's amazing how everything slows down. Anyway...

The mainstream of emotion history suggests that in the pre-industrial period life was much more angry, with less love in everyday relationships, despite some wonderful art describing passion in many different amorous flowers. Rarely though is affection described for one's husband or wife and often violence seemed ubiquitous throughout Western European and American society.

However perhaps there was more love out there in the medieval air than early studies suggest. John Gillis has written eloquently on the subject in an essay entitled from 'Ritual to Romance: Toward an Alternative History of Love'. (from the book 'Emotion: Toward a New Psychohistory', edited by Carol and Peter Stearns).

His point is that love as it's defined now is about love as internal feeling and intimacy, when this is something from the beginnings of the 19th century. Francesca Cancian described it as the 'feminisation' of love, where emotion became to be associated with women in the domestic sphere and men lacked such things in their quest for rationality in the world of work and power.

It is a standard that exists today and is still recognisable though Gillis feels it inappropriate for judging emotions before the 19th Century. He suggests that love had many definitions and forms across cultures, classes and time we find a range of expressions of love that can surprise us.

In a sense it should come as no surprise. Psychologists viewed emotion as a private, internal matter and historians sought out historical examples of expressions of this through diaries and letters and the like. Yet anthropologists have for decades been studying emotion as a social construct designed to deal with the relationship between group and individual behaviour. Whilst both yield insight and have weaknesses, it is only recently that viewing emotion in the latter form has been applied to our own Western History.

The visible behaviours tell us much about love back then. For example kissing was not so private as it is now, and kissing as an expression of love was apparently more public, and more painful with a likelihood of blood being drawn. These were public marks and intended as such, as declarations of emotion felt. Bodily fluids were also key to this, as the body was not just expressing emotion but was the emotion.

Two examples, both astonishing to the modern heart and mind:

"In Wales, a young man proved his love to a girl by urinating on her dress, a practice known locally as rhythu." (p92)

And even in the 19th Century, courting in the French countryside was a violent affair.
"First they exchange glances, then casual remarks, then heavy witticisms. The young man shoves at the girl, thumps her hard on the back, takes her hand and squeezes it in a bone cracking grip. She responds to this tender gesture by punching him in the back." (p92)

As a physical and not psychic condition, love was treated to the same controls as other physical urges and love magic became immensely popular despite its pagan roots. And the major rituals of love were far more public affairs than they are now. These days we give lovers privacy to nurture private feeling. Then, love through courtship, betrothal and marriage was a far more social experience that the whole community engaged in and this was necessary to establish legitimacy in the absence of written contracts. Indeed the couple themselves were at the centre of a virtual festival of action that centred on them only partly.

Perhaps our assumption that certain things are constant and unchanging is the only constant in a world that has changed so much...