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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?