Search This Blog

Friday, 25 June 2010


A curious tale from the BBC. Archaeological remains in England show a mass grave of around 97 new-born infants from a Roman building, believed to be a brothel. To modern ears a heartbreaking tale is heard, where lacking contraception Roman prostitutes practised infanticide on a widespread scale.

"Archaeological records suggest infants were not considered to be "full" human beings until about the age of two, said Dr Eyers [of Chiltern Archaeology].

Children any younger than that age were not buried in cemeteries. As a result, infant burials tended to be at domestic sites in the Roman era."

There is a brutal and tragic logic to this, painful as it is to comprehend. Indeed in many subsistence societies through history, infanticide is considered a necessary practice where deformities occur - a small community may not be able to provide adequate care without destroying the group itself.

Is the horror in modern emotions rooted in luxury and development rather than any sense of eternal morality? I would not go back to such dark practices but it takes a dispassionate eye to learn from the past.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Emotional Freedom

Ok so I'm only doing this about 2 months later than intended. Sigh...

It is not enough for historians of emotion to merely document the emotional lives of those who have come before us. Questions must be asked that require judgement. For example, what system of government creates the best emotional balance in its individuals?

One of those questions which occupies historians is which societies have given us the most emotional freedom? And is that emotional freedom inherently a good thing?

Recently, a reader of the blog very kindly sent me a trio of interviews of three very prominent and respected historians of emotion, Professors William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns. The reader, Jan Plamper, had conducted the interviews himself - he's a research scientist at the Max Planck Centre for Human Development in Berlin and an expert in Russian History.

Prof. Reddy suggested that perhaps the best way of judging that is by considering which kinds of society gave rise to the least 'emotional suffering'. This seems a useful tool to measure a society's emotional welfare. After all, it may be harder to judge happiness and well being than to see the impact of that kind of suffering.

"I would say that it remains to be seen how best to ensure that each person’s capacity for emotional suffering is treated with equal dignity. If some Western democratic regimes have come closer to this ideal than earlier European monarchies or concurrent centralized socialist regimes, it has been at least in part by accident. There is quite a bit of emotional suffering involved in conforming to the norms of the rational, self-interested individual that these regimes, in principle, have set out to “liberate” as if such “individuals” were given in nature. The amount of suffering varies enormously by socioeconomic status; by racial, ethnic, and gender identity; by the economic conjoncture;and in accord with a variety of other circumstances. There are over a hundred thousand schizophrenics who live as homeless persons on the streets of the U.S. today, without medication or care—just to take one example."

Whilst a tyranny would not necessarily deny all emotional freedom, Reddy goes on to point out the more a society tries to impose an emotional system on people the more likely it is to be unstable.

What society has given us the most emotional freedom and why? Is there a tipping point where the looseness of the emotional system contributes towards the breakdown of the society. Will contrasting and contradictory emotional regimes lives side by side in one society or must we have enough shared emotional responses to maintain a critical coherency?

And will one's own view of politics colour the opinion of a successful emotional society?

ps excerpts ©2010 Wesleyan University. Excerpts reprinted, with permission, from Jan Plamper, "The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,"
History and Theory 49, no. 2 (May 2010), 237-265.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

A question for historians of emotion

A hypothetical one - the reality would of course be impossible.

Imagine in the future, historians come to look back upon our world. If they had no primary texts, no primary written sources of any kind, what if anything could they say about the emotional lives of this Western society?

Would they see the plethora of shops, the malls and supermarkets and conclude that western society was in no small way organised through consumerism and a freudian view of the self which creates an economy based on desire and not need? How else without texts might they view those modern day temples?

Might they play old movies and discover our narratives obsessing over sex, violence and revenge? What would they make of them without writings to contextualise it all?

Who from the other disciplines would they speak to? The historians of music and art? The archaeologists? The comparative mythologists? The scientists of neurology and forensic anthropology?

So many conversations to be had for historians of emotion.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Torridon in the Spring

Another cracker from Steve Carter to soothe the toubled soul.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

sniffing the tobacco swahili style

An expression of affection that astonishes this Scottish mind. However, I make no moral judgement, because I don't think it's appropriate for me to do so.

It's a great little example from Diane Ackerman's 'A Natural History of Love'. She herself quotes 'In The Customs of the Swahili People' (1903), edited by J. W. T. Allen.

"When his grandmother or his aunt or another woman comes, a child one or two years old is told to show his love for his aunt, and he goes to her. Then she tells him to kiss her, and he does so. Then he is told by his mother to show his aunt his tobacco, and he lifts his clothes and shows her his penis. She tweaks the penis and sniffs and sneezes and says: "O, very strong tobacco." Then she says, "Hide your tobacco." If there are four or five women, they all sniff and are pleased and laugh a lot."

Does it still go on? It would surprise to find such things still going on, but again perhaps that's my western mind imagining these things to appear a little inappropriately sexualised (I'm not saying it is inappropriate, just that by western Christian and even secular morals it might seem that way) and that that influence might have affected the Swahili women in a way that has made them stop doing it.

Personally I think it's harmless, especially when one considers the other taboos Allen describes which show the Swahili being acutely conscious of sexual behaviour. Amongst other things they frown upon fathers and brothers kissing daughters and sisters after a certain age. That social taboo which I think could also be described as an 'emotional regime', and one that seems quite strict in keeping potentially inappropriate feelings restricted, even to the point of inhibiting demonstrations of feeling that we might consider perfectly normal.

One positive thing that may come out of the 'tobacco tweak' (my phrase, forgive me) is that it appears to demonstrate an non-threatening way for women to discuss male genitalia and by extension male sexuality. Having a familiarity with such a thing, especially through humour, can potentially help cut through any mystique surrounding sex and sexuality and empower the women involved. This can help positively influence the emotional regimes revolving around sexuality for heterosexual women.

Consider middle class Victorian women trapped in ignorance of their partners' bodies and the corseted emotions that sprang forth from such repression without any positive channels of social knowledge or emotional script to guide them. Would such a thing have happened if they had had more familiarity with their partners' anatomies?

One assumes the young boys are too young to consider such gentle teasing as emotionally scarring!