Compassion/pity/sympathy papers @RSA 2015

The Renaissance Association of America’s 2015 conference at Berlin is brimming with papers on compassion, pity and sympathy. RSA’s unfeeling scheduling algorithm has sorted quite a few of them together in the same time slot, at 8.30 on Friday morning.




  • The Compassionate Renaissance: Fellow-Feeling in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Session)
    Sat, March 28, 3:45 to 5:15pm, Kommode, Bebelplatz 1, First Floor, 140/2

    1. Conscience, Consciousness, Sympathy: Sharing Experience in the Renaissance, Giulio Pertile
    2. “Ope thine ear . . . Dost thou attend me?”: Shakespeare’s Tender-Minded Subjects, Eric Langley
    3. “Bended Knees and Hands Held Up”: Compassion and Gesture, Leah Wittington
    4. Poor Naked Kings: Tragic Subjects and Compassionable Objects in King Lear, Oliver M. Arnold

CFP: Compassion in early modern culture 1550-1700

Compassion in early modern culture 1550-1700

VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 18-19 September 2015

This two-day international conference aims to bring together literary scholars, art historians, musicologists, and cultural historians to explore thinking about the experience as well as the social and political impact of compassion in early modern European culture. It seeks to combine two current approaches to the early modern passions: historical phenomenology on the one hand and the analysis of the role of compassion in the public sphere on the other. Sir Philip Sidney famously claimed political impact for the experience of compassion when he wrote that that the feelings of pity and fear aroused by tragedy could mollify the hearts of tyrants. Participants are invited to discuss which views on the experience of compassion existed in early modern Europe, and how the arousal of compassion in literature, theatres, art, sermons,  music, and elsewhere was thought to impact – or did impact – the public sphere.

Keynote speakers:

Katherine Ibbett (University College London) and Bruce R. Smith (University of Southern California)

Proposals are invited for 20-minute papers that explore questions such as:

  • What did it feel like to experience compassion in the early modern period?
  • What is the relation between passion and reason, body and mind, body and self in the experience of compassion?
  • What is the relation between compassion and other passions in early modern culture?
  • Which techniques existed for rousing compassion in art, sermons, or everyday encounters?
  • How was the experience of compassion thought to impact the public sphere?
  • Which historical sources can we use to explore the social roles of compassion?
  • How did the terms used to refer to compassion shift in the early modern period, and how do these shifts relate to changes in the historical phenomenology and/or the social roles of compassion?
  • How did compassion function to shape communities through shared suffering in different European countries?
  • Where can we see early modern limits of compassion: who or which groups were (on the verge of being) excluded from compassion?
  • How was the experience and practice of compassion impacted by cultural-historical faultlines such as the Reformation, and how did these changes affect the social roles of compassion?
  • How do early modern ideas on the experience and role of compassion contribute to a critical assessment of current theories of empathy, compassion and social emotions?

Please submit an abstract (c. 300 words) and a brief bio to the conference organizer, Kristine Steenbergh, k.steenbergh[at], before 1 May 2015.

One of the aims of the seminar is to submit a proposal for a volume on compassion in early modern culture with Palgrave’s book series Studies in the History of Emotions.

The seminar is part of a research project on early modern compassion funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and is co-hosted by ACCESS, the Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies and the Faculty of Humanities of VU University, Amsterdam.

Download a PDF version of this call for papers.

CFP: Shakespeare and European Communities of Emotion

Part of the 2015 European Shakespeare Research Association conference at the University of Worcester (29 June-2 July), this seminar focuses on the importance of emotion in Shakespeare’s plays and poems and their significance within various European contexts. Acknowledging that emotion can be both culturally and historically contingent, as well as something shared across different cultures and communities, this seminar is interested in searching out the fault-lines of Shakespeare’s emotional registers and understanding their power to transcend different kinds of European boundaries, as well as reinforce them.

Papers in this seminar might take a historical approach, considering, for instance, how Shakespeare’s works participated in scholastic debates about the relationship between emotion and the body, the rhetoric of emotion, the role of emotion in politics and governance, or the ethics of emotion. They might in turn consider how religious change across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries shaped Shakespeare’s representation of emotion and its place within spiritual devotion, personal piety, and holy ritual.

Other participants may choose to take a different approach, using literary readings or performance-based analyses to consider how emotion in Shakespeare has been interpreted more recently by European readers, philosophers, directors, actors, and audiences. Such papers might focus, for instance, on the role emotion has played in the acting and movement techniques developed by famous practitioners such as Stanislavski, Brecht, or Laban, and the subsequent effect this has had on Shakespearean performance, or on how particular emotions have been generated within the context of European national theatres, Shakespeare festivals, and other performance venues.
Whatever their preferred approach, participants in the seminar are invited to consider the extent to which emotion is a hallmark of Shakespeare’s literary and dramatic craft, and whether or not it is a constant, or at least translatable, feature across different European cultures and communities. To what extent does emotion in Shakespeare bring European readers, performers, and audiences together, and to what extent does it push them apart?

If you’re interested please submit an abstract (200-300 words) and a brief biography (150 words) by 1 December 2014 to the seminar organizers, Dr Erin Sullivan ( and Dr Kristine Steenbergh ( All participants will be notified about the acceptance of their proposals by 1 March 2015, and the deadline for submitting the completed seminar papers (3,000 words) will be 1 May 2015.

PDF version of the call.

Literature and emotions at RSA 2014

There are quite a few proposed panels on emotions/passions/feelings and literature at the RSA in New York, March 2014. Most deadlines are tomorrow or this weekend, so you read this just in time to write an abstract.

CFP Reading and health in early modern Europe

Symposium on Reading and Health in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800

Medieval and Early Modern Research Group, Newcastle University

5-6thJuly 2013

This symposium will explore how early modern texts engage with the regulation of the body and mind through reading. It will investigate the connections between reading and health and consider how reading was understood as an embodied practice in the period with profound implications for both personal well being and conception of the healthy body politic.

We invite proposals that address the relationship between health and reading in any genre in print or manuscript in any European language. The genres might include medical, scientific, literary, religious, or pedagogical and rhetorical writings. We encourage proposals that recover diverse reading communities and practices and readers/hearers. We also welcome papers that consider problems of evidence: e.g. manuscript marginalia; print paratexts (and directions to readers); visual representations; non-material evidence (voice; gesture; touch).

Topics might include, but are not restricted to:

Reading as therapeutic (devotional; recreational etc.)

  • Reading medical writing
  • The physiology of reading
  • Reading and well-being
  • Reading and disability
  • Health and the senses
  • Health as a literary theme
  • Reading and the healthy body politic (censorship; free speech; reading communities etc.)

300-word abstracts for 20-minute papers from individuals and panels (3 speakers) to be sent to the conference organisers.

The deadline for abstracts is Thursday, January 31st, 2013.

View the conference website at Newcastle University.

The uses of a history of emotions

In Australia, the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions came under fire this week. In an article in The Australianthe  shadow minister for Finance of the centre-right Coalition claimed that the current government is wasting money on academic research that he considers to be “of limited value,” “unjustifiable” and not “genuinely meaningful.” [1] The government should fund only studies that support innovation, produce growth and productivity or lead to “genuine medical and scientific advances.”

In the article, the director of the Centre, professor Philippa Maddern, responded by stressing the relevance of historical research into the emotions. The centre contributes to better political and social decisions, she said, as well as to “modern-day wellbeing”:

A study of the reasons for suicide and community reactions during this [historical] period helped fill gaps in understanding for psychiatrists today. “We need that information so that we can better prevent suicide today.”

At The Conversation Rebecca McNamara, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the centre, yesterday defended the research project on similar grounds. She argues that there are “continuities in the ways that humans deal with struggle and change” and that the history of the emotions is therefore relevant to the wellbeing of people living in Australia today.

How were people’s emotions in the past understood to lead to these self-destructive situations, and how did family, community, and the state respond to their suicides? Though the cultural settings, geography, and time period are different, we are asking the same questions now in Australia.

She emphasizes that she liaises with medical practitioners and counsellors, and shares her outcomes with the public in the hope that her research will help prevent suicide by raising awareness (an aim that Andrew Robb would most likely support).

Both Maddern and McNamara, then, respond to Andrew Robb’s article on his own terms. They stress that the Centre’s research does contribute to medical advances and is therefore relevant to Australia today.

Of course the Humanities should respond to characterizations such as Andrew Robb’s. Scholars in the humanities are sometimes quite defensive about the work they are doing and seem to assume that each and every research project in the exact sciences contributes directly to the cure for cancer rather than to a better understanding of, say, evolutionary forces shaping sexual attraction in noctuid moths.

The question is, should we accept the (neoliberal) framework that shapes arguments such as these, or should we look at the relevance of humanities research from a broader perspective? Is research only valuable when it produces an immediate profit in terms of economic growth or medical advances? Such an approach not only threatens the humanities, but fundamental research in the exact sciences as well. If only those research projects were funded that led to such directly useful outcomes, a lot of discoveries would not have been made. Research needs a broad base of a wide variety of projects, questions, methodologies in order to reach results.

Indeed, the interesting thing is that whereas in politics this distinction between useful and “unjustifiable” research is a current vogue, at the same time the divide between the exact sciences and the humanities is being breached: we are creating consilience. Whereas Robb’s remarks seem to assume that humanities research is far removed from “scientific advances,” certain areas in science are beginning to turn to culture.

Cultural neuroscience, for example, is interested in the question “how cultural traits (e.g., values, beliefs, practices) shape neurobiology (e.g., genetic and neural processes) and behavior” [Wikipedia]. With regard to the emotions, Margaret Wetherell in her cross-disciplinary overview of recent research shows how neurology, anthropology, cultural history and the social sciences can fruitfully compare and contrast their frameworks to come to a working approach to emotion research (see my review).

Another example is economic theory, which is abandoning the model of the homo economicus and rational choice and is now looking at the role of the emotions in stock markets and financial crises. An affective turn has also taken place in sociology and political sciences:

The return of emotion is, in part, an attempt to counter the growing salience of rational choice and formal economic models in both political science and sociology; and is, in part, fueled by real-world problems such as ethnic cleansing, addiction, greed, and (a theoretical problem but welcome in the real world) altruism. Theories that exclude the affective dimension of social life have difficulty explaining individual or collective behaviors that rationality does not appear to govern. [Mabel Berezin]

Since the emotions are in part shaped by cultural practice, a history as well as anthropology of the emotions are essential fields of research necessary to gain insight into this affective dimension of social, economic, political – well, human life, really.[2]

Finally, I think we need to keep an eye on the ideological framework from which such questions originate. The kind of innovation that Andrew Robb looks for is the kind that delivers economic growth, not the kind that questions whether economic growth and increased productivity are the best way forward. One of the other examples of unjustifiable research that he provides is “a study into the emotion and morality of climate change at the University of Queensland.” The denial of the relevance of this kind of research to me seems precisely the problem that a study like this addresses: how is it possible that we are so slow to react to the effects our economic growth and productivity have on the environment? Robb seems interested neither in the past of human experience, nor in the future of our planet.


[1] The Australian asks you to buy a day pass to read the article. Andrew Robb reproduced the article on his website.

[2] On the question ‘Why study the history of emotions?’ see also “What is the History of Emotions?” Parts I, II, and III at the History of Emotions blog.

Academic Writing Month

I just caught on to the fact that November is Academic Writing Month! The hashtag #AcWriMo had crossed my radar a few times on Twitter this week, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I found out what it is all about. I wrote you a brief introduction to the concept if, like me, you hadn’t yet realized this month is special for academic writers.

This is how it works, in brief:

• Decide on a goal that’s word, time or task based (and stretches you)

• Publicly declare said goal (this gives you a push from the start)

• Draft a strategy (planning in advance will focus you)

• Openly discuss your problems and progress

• Don’t slack off

• Declare your results at the end

The longer version by Charlotte Frost, the woman behind Academic Writing Month, can be found on PhD2Published.

The idea of setting a goal and drafting a strategy is something I do regularly (as a GTD disciple). What appeals to me in this project is especially the fourth bullet point: talking about your writing practice with other writers, exchanging experiences and advice. As Tarrant puts it: “Social media platforms offer a great hybrid space – somewhere between the formal institution we’re affiliated to and the comfort of our own homes – where we can think out loud, ask for advice, build a support network, write and research collaboratively.”

Declare your goals on the AcWriMo Facebook page or use the Accountability Spreadheet on Google Docs, and share your experiences using the #AcWriMo hashtag.

For inspiration, see also my page with Writing Tools.

New guide to the field of emotion studies

Margaret Wetherell, Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (London: Sage, 2012)

Research into the emotions is rapidly expanding and deepening in all kinds of disciplines. Cultural historians, psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists, biologists, researchers in cultural studies and political science – everyone is turning to affect as an essential topic of research. This makes for a  lively and exuberant field of research, but it can also sometimes give me the overwhelming feeling that I will never be able to read up on everything that is going on. My research focuses on early modern drama and I am taking in current thinking on the emotions in cultural history and cultural studies, but how am I to relate to new insights in the relation between emotion and cognition, mirror neurones, or the transmission of affect?

Margaret Wetherell’s Affect and Emotion is a pragmatic and down-to-earth guide to what is currently happening in the landscape of emotion studies. A professor in social sciences and social psychology, Wetherell conducted what she calls a ‘reading marathon’ across all these disciplines to see what they had to offer. “With some navigating,” she writes, “it did seem possible to put together integrated readings of the somatic, discursive, situated, historical, social, psychological and cultural bases of affective activity” (4). The model that she puts together is based on the flexible concept of “affective practice.”  She develops a working model for empirical social science, but the book certainly has its uses for the cultural historian as well.

Wetherell pits her model against three views of affect that she considers to be wrong turns in emotion research. The first, not surprisingly for a sociologist (or a cultural historian) is the idea of basic, universal human emotions pioneered by Paul Ekman. The second approach that Wetherell considers to be leading us in the wrong direction is the separation of affect from discourse in cultural studies (Clough; Massumi) and human geography (Thrift). She stresses that current research in neuroscience shows that body, brain and mind are all dynamically connected and involved in affective practice, and it would therefore be a mistake to separate affect from speech, text, cognition and interpretation:

I agree with Massumi, Thrift and Steward that it is time to take the effervescent, the mobile, the concrete, and ordinary social action seriously. But, I think one can’t do this without sustained attention to discourse. What is needed is an eclectic approach that investigates how the organisation of discursive formations or ‘big discourse’ intertwines with the patterning of everyday, dynamic and immediate discursive practice. (56)

[Note: Tony D. Sampson disagrees with her view on affective contagion in his review of the book (series of 5 blog posts)]

The third approach that Wetherell considers less useful is the view of the transmission of affect as something ‘uncanny’ in much recent work that employs terms such as ‘contagion’ or ‘group minds’ to describe the way passion moves from body to body. Examples she gives of this approach are Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect and the field of social psychoanalysis, which works with an outdated model of the self.

Another key figure in emotion research whom Wetherell disagrees with is Antonio Damasio, “social scientists’ current, number one, favourite neuroscientist” (28). Basing her critique on psychobiological research, neuroscience, anthropology and social sociology as well as genetics (she could have added cultural history to the list), she takes Damasio to task for still adhering to the basic emotions model and for distinguishing between affect and emotion. Drawing on the work of Klaus Scherer, she emphasizes that emotion processing is distributed in different brain circuits, and that cognition is not sealed off from affect in neurobiology.

The book provides a very lucid and useful overview of recent developments in emotion research. Wetherell is one of those people who can digest an awful lot of information and report on it in detail (even neuroscientific detail), but never lets you lose sight of the bigger picture. She is very clear on the reasons why she considers certain approaches less useful. But the book does not only guide you through the wrong turns of emotion research. Based on her magisterial overview of state-of-the art research in various disciplines, Wetherell also puts forward a new model for social scientific research. In her model, affect is a flowing activity, but with ‘affective ruts’ (14) formed by interweaving patterns resembling Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling, but more flexible: “something that comes into shape and continues to change and refigure as it flows on.” Thirdly, power works through affect and affect emerges in power. She deftly weaves together elements of the theories and models she surveys to form her own. In Wetherell’s view, affective practice is always situated, material, embodied, and contextual. One of the very useful examples she gives of how affect can be read, is that of conversation analysis, in which the exchanges between people are meticulously written down. The nitty-gritty level of a transcribed conversation soon confronts the researcher with all the specific contexts that need to be taken into account when analysing affect. In Wetherell’s words: “The concept of affective practice, then, encompasses the movement of signs but it aso tries to explain how affect is embodied, is situated and operates psychologically.” (159)

Wetherell’s style is pragmatic and no-nonsense; she takes you by the hand and guides you through the “deeply murky territory” of affective meaning-making (51), or through psychobiologists’ descriptions of emotion that read “rather like weather reports” (49). She is open about her own reading experience and the obstacles she ran into, and it can sometimes feel as if you are having coffee with her during a break in her reading marathon. She reports, for example: “When quoting Massumi it is almost impossible to stop. His words are so evocative and dizzying. What he is suggesting is so vague, breathless and escaping.” This sounds a tad dismissive of cultural theory as a whole, but that is not the case – Wetherell quotes Lauren Berlant approvingly throughout, and Sara Ahmed’s work on affective economies figures prominently in her model.

How is this book useful to the cultural historian? To begin with, cultural history is part of the framework in the book. Wetherell discusses the work of William Reddy most prominently, but also draws on Barbara Rosenwein and Thomas Dixon. Also, I think the model that Wetherell proposes, although most suited for empirical social science research, is food for thought for cultural historians – especially in its emphasis on the need for attention to the material situatedness and the embodiedness of emotions.

Emotions in History – Lost and Found

At the Umeå conference on the cultural history of emotions in pre-modernity in 2008, one of the frequently recurring themes was the desire for a new grand narrative of the history of emotions. After historians’ criticism of Norbert Elias’ influential model of the civilizing process, a new framework for the explanation of the historical change of emotions was called for. In her keynote lecture, Barbara Rosenwein hinted that she was working on a new book that would paint such a broad historical overview based on the rising and falling influence of emotional communities. Ute Frevert’s new book on modern (18th-century and later) emotions offers the kind of broad historical narrative of change that we looked forward to at the conference.

Emotions in History – Lost and Found is the publication of the Natalie Zemon Davis annual lecture of 2009, held by Ute Frevert at the Central European University in Budapest. Frevert is director of the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Her broad reading and in-depth knowledge of the cultural history of emotions found their way into this engaging series of lectures on the rise and fall of historical emotions.

The book has three chapters: a chapter on emotions and social groups that cultivate and drop them, one on gender and emotional styles and regimes, and the final chapter on the emotion of empathy and its rise to prominence from the 18th century onwards. The subtitle “lost and found” to me initially suggested a notion of cyclicality – the idea that emotions could lose prominence in certain historical periods, only to resurface again in others. This is not, however, the tenet of the book. Rather, Frevert focuses on honour as a “lost” emotion and empathy as a “found” emotion in the modern period. What is more, she argues that even if seemingly similar emotions can be encountered across history, these are not in fact the same:

So, the central argument is the following: Even if there are signs of acedia, melancholia or depression that resemble each other, the labelling, framing and contextualising of those signs are vastly different. Relating the symptoms to diverse systems of reference (magic, religion, arts and sciences, neurobiology) affects the value attributed to them. This in turn affects the appraisal and experience of those states. Seen from this perspective, acedia and melancholia are indeed “lost emotions,” lost in translation to a new emotional state called depression. (36)

Frevert opens her book with the example of president Sarkozy  who in 2010 reacted to criticism from Brussels on French campaigns against Roma camps by angrily declaring that he would not allow his country to be insulted. He considered the remarks “outrageous,” “disgusting” and “shameful” (3). The French president’s reliance on such a concept of national honour was met with “widespread bewilderment,” also in France (85). Frevert traces the trajectory of the emotion of honour in modern Western Europe, and suggests that it may be on its way to becoming a “lost emotion.” Honour serves to strengthen a group’s internal cohesion, and therefore becomes less important when boundaries between groups are less defined. She suggests that the European Union is an environment where national boundaries have become less prominent, and where the emotion of honour will become “obsolete” as a political concept and emotional disposition. (85) This teleology evokes the spectre of Elias’ civilizing process, and I should add that the suggestion is voiced in a section entitled “The decline of honour, or its return?”.  Frevert in the same section also asks how we should account for honour killings in European cities, for Zinédine Zidane’s headbutt in answer to slandering remarks about his mother and sister on the soccer pitch, or to the concept of national honour in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.

The second chapter, “Gendering emotions” looks at the ways in which emotions and their related practices have been related to ideas about men and women since the eighteenth century. Whereas in early modern societies the display of affect was ordered primarily on the basis of social rank and estate, and secondly on the basis of gender, in modern societies it was the other way around. The new social equality did not extend to the emotional differences between men and women, which were seen as based in nature. (100) “With the emergence of modern civil society, affects became not only closely observed and regulated, but also deeply and uniformly gendered.” (142) That process of modernization and increasingly gendered affect extends to emotional labour in today’s workplace — Frevert offers The Argus’ “Service with a smile” as an illustration — but at the same time capitalist consumer culture, with its endorsement of emotional intelligence in both men and women, makes gender differences less explicit and far-reaching.

The book focuses on what in the theoretical framework of the history of emotions would be called ’emotionology’: the study of the the ways in which emotional norms are shaped and reproduced by social institutions, practices and media. At the same time, Frevert acknowledges the possibility of individual or collective agency challenging these norms. In the third chapter on empathy, for example, she considers the ways in which the emotion was shaped in the late-eighteenth century by social groups who felt excluded by the notion of the “rights of man” – women and slaves. Throughout the lectures, Frevert emphasizes the heterogeneity of subcultures or immigrant communities, and thereby also rubs shoulders with Rosenwein’s concept of “emotional communities.”

As an early modernist, I did sometimes feel a little uncomfortable with the boundary that the book establishes between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century. The use of terms such as pre-modern and modern gives rise to a figure of thought so common in historical periodization in which you see certain phenomena as originating precisely in the period of your specialization. Although Frevert emphasizes that she does not deny a vibrant early modern history of the emotions (and has read widely on this earlier period as well), she does occasionally resort to rather sharp contrasts between the two periods. She characterizes the early modern period, for example, as a time without self-help manuals and scientific treatises on the passions (18) – a statement that is open to debate depending also on how strictly you define these genres, as is the idea that before 1661, in “teachings on affects and passions, the gender issue had been conspicuously absent” (99).

This is a minor quibble, however, because I very much enjoyed this engaging book that comprehensively covers a broad historical period, offers a clear perspective on the social and cultural character of emotions, and very convincingly shows the relevance of the cultural history of the emotions for the problems that we are faced with today.