The secret history of emotion

In an earlier post I wrote about (and disagreed with) Neil Forsyth’s view of revenge as a universal human emotion. I think that, although the urge to retaliate may be found in many cultures, and reciprocity is seen as the basis of our social organization by sociobiologists like Matt Ridley, ways of thinking about revenge, the rhetoric and images of revenge, reasons for taking and ways of executing revenge are so much culturally and historically specific, that vindictiveness just cannot be seen as a universal emotion, because emotions are so culturally specific. I will write a longer post on this issue sometime, but I just found an ally in Daniel M. Gross’s The Secret History of Emotion (2006), a book in which early modern conceptions of the passions play a central role in the argument for cultural specificity rather than universality of the emotions.

The Secret History of Emotion pits itself against an essential biological (psycho-physiological) interpretation of the emotions by presenting a fascinating rhetorical history. One of Daniel Gross’s recurrent sparring partners in the book is Antonio Damasio, a neurobiologist and author of several best-selling books on emotions and the mind. His main objection to scientific analysis of the emotions is that it often reduces or neglects social phenomena in order to be able to conduct the experiment. A case in point is one of Damasio’s experiments with people who lost the function of their amygdala, an almond-shaped brain structure that is believed to play an important role in guiding emotion-related behaviours. These people were asked to look at a hundred human faces. Damasio writes that they “looked at faces that you or I would consider trustworthy and classified them, quite correctly, as faces that one might approach in case of need. But when they looked at faces of which you or I would be suspicious, faces of persons that we would try to avoid, they judged them as equally trustworthy” (30-31). Gross comments dryly that “you don’t have to be a classical humanist or a critical race theorist to find all this a bit unsettling.”

Rather than this scientific approach, which in his view runs from Descartes to Damasio, Gross advocates an approach that focuses on the rhetoric and politics of emotion. He finds the framework for this approach in early modern thinking on the political function of the passions. A wonderful case in point is his chapter on “Virtues of Passivity in the English Civil War.”

Gross argues that the early modern notion of political ‘passivism’ as a revolutionary force was obscured (and represented as feminine) by a late modern fixation on masculine political agency. He reveals how in the thinking and writing of revolutionary reformers in the Civil War period, passivity is encouraged, while activity is discouraged: “rather than worrying about nature’s fragility, reforming Christians from Luther and Calvin to the English Nonconformists exploit fragility as a precondition to grace” (101). In an argument that reminded me of Mary Beth Rose’s Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature, Gross argues that this revaluation of passivity brings with it a revaluation of gender terms as well: feminine passivity is valued over masculine activity. Whereas feminist history of science often focuses on the notion of the active, masculine scientist who explores passive, feminine nature that originated with Bacon’s empirical science, the revolutionary discourse of these reformers presents a different view. Gross also comments on the notion of rhetoric in these two discourses, and suggests that in the Reformers’ view, rhetoric is a way to knowledge, whereas for Bacon, it stands in the way of knowledge. There is too much in this chapter, let alone in the book, to do justice to here – every page is packed with insights.

To close, and to sidetrack from the discussion of the universality/cultural specificity of the emotions, I would just like to cite in full a passage on the use of gender in this book, because I agree with it fully. Here is what Gross says about gender:

By no means were gender positions thereby set in stone. Masculinity and femininity, I wish to emphasize, are invertible discursive positions that constitute rather than express radically different subject positions: obedient to the king, for instance, and suspicious of Parliament […], rebellious toward the king and obedient to God (Milton’s ambivalent identification with the virgin mother), passive toward the self and active in the community (the Calvinist hermaphrodite), prideful and vainglorious, or abject and humiliated. It is, moreover, this very fluidity that makes gender an indispensable trope when political subjectivity is itself in flux (105).

I think it is similar to the way Diane Purkiss uses the concept in her Literature, Gender and Politics During the English Civil War , and also (though I wouldn’t want to compare myself to these two authors) to the way I used gender in my PhD thesis on the dynamics of gender and revenge in early modern drama, where I based myself in part on Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” The key thing in my view, and perhaps this is no news to you, but I want to stress it anyway, is that gender should not always be read as related to the categories of man and woman. Gender functions as a key instrument in signifying and constituting relations of power – relations that need not be those between men and women. If there are points of conflicts (between ideas, discourses), then gender is often used to mark one thought against another, and that is why notions of masculinity and femininity are so fluid (it is a binary opposition that can be used strategically in all kinds of ways), but that is also why it is such a useful tool in cultural historical analysis: gendered images often point not merely to cultural connotations with the male and female sex, but signal much broader conflicts and anxieties in a text or culture.


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