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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.”


Shaun said...

I'm bemused by Elias' view of things. However different and much harsher the world was during the Middle Ages, everyone still had emotions! Question is though Scot, how will you go about researching such a project?

scot in exile said...

Elias wasn't saying we stopped feeling emotions, more that they started to shift away from untrammeled expression to more restrained expressions. That said it was all rather too neat of him even if it was very useful in terms of stimulating debate about understanding the history of emotional expression.

In terms of researching things, in the best traditions of my journalism, I hope to ask as many of the best experts in this field as i can as a starting point...

Linda S. Socha said...

Hello Friend.

I would like for you to stop over at Psyche Connections and pick up your much deserved award. I so appreciate your writings....and the appreciation continues to grow

I do not know if you do or do not post awards but I want you to have it in Spirit and to know how much I feel you deserve it regardless of you choice of posting