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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.