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Monday, 15 June 2009

some thoughts on thinkers thinking about emotion pt2

A few weeks ago I ran a series of interviews with three academics, (Prof Barbara Rosenwein, Prof Keith Oatley, and Dr Thomas Dixon) talking in broad terms about the history of emotions, with a brief commentary here.

Picking up on that commentary, I wanted to consider their other answers and thoughts.

It's both cheering and intimidating that all of them consider that virtually anything can be a useful historical resource when it comes to understanding how emotions were felt and affected the lives of people throughout history. The optimism comes from a potential wealth of sources, the fear from wondering how each will be recognised and sorted appropriately to give useful information. As Dr Dixon suggests, we may suffer from an excess of sources for today...

For example, what can the architecture of the past tell us about the emotional lives of the societies that built it? It may not be directly obvious, but there may be clues there for the skilled mind to uncover. The same goes for any potential source that does not directly reference something we might recognise in the present as an emotion.

It comes as no surprise that Prof Oatley specifically references fictional literature as being particularly useful - this is his field of expertise after all - and it will almost certainly be one of the richest and clearest seams that we can mine for useful information on the emotional lives of our ancestors. However, as Prof Rosenwein points out about the ecstatic writings of mystics, if one relies over heavily on such writings one might have a very skewed picture of life at the time of writing.

There is no suggestion though that Prof Oatley is over relying on the value of fictional literature here though.

All I think would agree though that any documentation from the relevant period may provide useful information, as would any art and music from the period. One could certainly do a good study of the emotional life of various cultures and subcultures through popular music in the last forty years, so the same should stand for earlier periods.

Prof Rosenwein referenced Dr Sarah Tarlow's essay 'Emotion in Archaeology'. As the subject expands, I think that one of the big challenges will be to see how we can cope with non written sources and archaeology will be key. What will a bejewelled corpse, perhaps preserved in a bog, contorted and with a variety of wounds, say about the emotional live of the society that the corpse came from?

I was heartened by Dr Dixon's suggestion of analysing the emotional lives of the cave painters of Lascaux - I look forward to his analysis!

There is one question which i will write further on in another post - that is the thought about a grand narrative, or a big story to our emotional development in history. It's something I've written about here. It's one of the most challenging questions for anyone interested in the History of Emotions and one which drew an interesting range of answers which deserve a post of their own.

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