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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.


Selchie said...

Another interesting discussion. I agree with what you're saying that we have become infantile somehow and irresponsible, I wonder going back to my earlier point how much this has to do with taking responsibility from individuals and treating them like children. For example the mass of claims that are around for any accidents, as if the term in itself isnt implicit in the action. Emotionally... I dont know if we are so much different I mean we watch bombing on the news, is this any different to gladiators.

Thanks, I enjoyed your piece. Look forward to more....)

scot in exile said...

I think that bombing is different from gladiatorial contests in that it adds distance which gives rise to hypocrisy. Not so much of a big step forward!

That said I do think our emotional sensitivity has changed to some degree over the ages and in some ways at least has improved.

I would not want to own a slave, and am glad we stop short of crucifiction as a state sanctioned penalty!

But you are right, take responsibility away from people and they will behave irresponsibly.

Linda S. Socha said...

Relating to this post on many levels....I like to think there has been a maturational process and if so it would seem that process might be individuation.....I do hear words supporting the transformation of a higher group mind...In any event, I deeply respect your writing and the questions you present

scot in exile said...

i'm not sure if i'd equate maturinational with individuation, as in many ways it has encouraged the opposite in an obsession with self that overwhelms compassion for others in our social relationships.

but always glad you enjoy the writing!