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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.

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