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.

Cross-disciplinary study of the emotions

At VU University Amsterdam, we have recently opened a new centre for the cross-disciplinary study of the emotions and senses, ACCESS for short. The centre is the initiative of cultural historians (myself included) and an anthropologist. We hope to bring together academics from many more disciplines to exchange ideas on the study of the emotions and senses. The interdisciplinary symposium on the Transmission of Emotions that I am organizing on 10 February is one of the ways in which we aspire to stimulate cross-disciplinary activities, such as applications for funding of interdisciplinary projects.

The ACCESS ‘mission statement’ reads:

The Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies provides a platform for cooperation between scholars from the humanities, the social sciences, and the life sciences.

Recently the scholarly interest in the emotions and the senses has gained momentum through the ‘affective turn’ informing many new studies in different disciplines. ACCESS aims to enhance this momentum, creating an interdisciplinary platform between historians, cultural anthropologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers and other scholars interested in the cultural production and expression of the emotions and the operations of the senses.

Our research rests on the presumption that both the experience and expression of the emotions and the senses are culturally informed. Different communities shape different sensory and emotional ‘regimes’. To quote Oliver Sacks: ‘culture tunes our neurons’.

 More information on ACCESS and its upcoming activities is to be found on the ACCESS website.


Conference: Cultural history of Dutch Emotions

Cool, Calm and Collected
The Dutch and their Emotions in Pre-Modern Times

Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag
4 November 2011

Registration by way of an e-mail to: info[at]knhg[dot]nl, or by telephone: +31 (0)70 3140363

The conference ‘Cool, Calm and Collected’ aims to enhance the burgeoning history of emotions in the Netherlands. Speakers at the conference will present their current research, integrating the study of emotional standards in advice literature with the study of actual emotional practices in ego documents, chronicles or archival sources. The fields covered will range from politics, philosophy and the urban feud to religion, the stage and the visual arts. The conference will not only be of interest to specialists in the history of emotions but also to the greater historical community.

Although the history of emotions was already suggested as an interesting topic by Lucien Febvre and Johan Huizinga it has been taken up seriously as a subject of historical study only fairly recently. Initially, historians limited themselves largely to the study of documents that prescribed emotional ideals and standards. Researchers are now going beyond such texts. They are currently identifying transformations in emotional ‘communities’ and ‘styles’ on the basis of letters, autobiographies and memoirs, as well as a variety of narrative, archival and visual sources. Historians are also emphasising performativity, what emotions actually do. At the institutional level, in Europe two important research centres have been started: in London the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions (Thomas Dixon, director); in Berlin the ‘Forschungsbereich Geschichte der Gefühle’ (Ute Frevert, director). This conference seeks to establish a more solid footing for the history of emotions in the Netherlands and join in with these international trends.

The speakers at the conference will discuss the emotional styles of the Modern Devouts and the cult of pugnacity in Late Medieval feuds. Focusing on the seventeenth century, they will reconsider the performativity accorded to the emotions in painting, the theater, and pietist religious movements. For the eighteenth century, speakers will analyse the Dutch ‘cult of sensibility’, the contemporary appreciation and navigation of the sentiments. The day will be closed with a lecture by Dorothee Sturkenboom. She is a pioneer in the study of emotions in the Netherlands and will relate the emotional history of the Dutch to contemporary and more recent views on their ‘national character’.

The conference’s keynote lecturer, the well-known English historian Thomas Dixon, will discuss the latest developments in the field.

The organisers: Wessel Krul, Herman Roodenburg, and Catrien Santing.

The conference will take place in the National Library of the Netherlands (KB) in The Hague.

The conference fee is € 30,- (€ 25,- for members of the KNHG and € 15,- for students and PhD students) and includes lunch. The conference fee should be transferred to account number 6934391 of Nederlands Historisch Genootschap in The Hague.

Registration by way of an e-mail to:, or by telephone: +31 (0)70 3140363.


9. 45 – 10.00                          Welcome Catrien Santing (Groningen University), chair

10.00 – 10.15                       Introduction Herman Roodenburg (Meertens Institute)

10.15 – 11.00                        Keynote lecture Thomas Dixon (Queen Mary, London)

                                                 History in British Tears: Some Reflections on the Anatomy of Modern Emotions

 11.00 – 11.15                        Coffee/tea

11.15 – 11.45                        Mathilde van Dijk (Groningen University),

                                                 ‘Just some silly Beguine’: being pious and showing it in the Devotio Moderna

11.45 – 12.15                        Matthijs Gerrits ( Leiden University )

                                                Anger and Feuding in the Late Medieval Northern Low Countries

12.15 – 13.30                        Lunch

13.00-13.30                          Annual Meeting Koninklijk Nederlands Historisch Genootschap

13.30 – 14.00                        Kristine Steenbergh (VU University)

                                                  Vondel and the Role of Emotions in the Public Sphere

14.00 – 14.30                        Fred van Lieburg (VU University)

                                                  The Use of Emotions by the Hotter Sort of Protestant

14.30 – 15.00                        Eric Jan Sluyter (Amsterdam University)

                                                  The Changing Representation of the Passions in History Paintings by Rembrandt and his Amsterdam Colleagues


15.00 – 15.15                        Coffee and tea

15.15 – 15.45                        Wessel Krul (Groningen University )

                                                 Phlegmatic Excitement. The Dutch and the Discovery of the Emotions in the 18th Century

15.45 – 16.15                        Edwina Hagen (VU University)

                                                 The Passionate Politics of Rutger Jan and Catharina Schimmelpenninck: Dialogue between the Head and the Heart.

16.15 – 16.45                        Dorothée Sturkenboom (independent scholar)

                                                The Dutch Temperament: An Enigma to be Explained…

16.45 – 17.30                       Reflections by Dixon, Roodenburg and Santing, followed by Plenary Discussion

17.30-18.00                         Drinks

Live conference blog


I am in Istanbul at the second conference on the Cultural History of Emotions in Pre-Modernity (the first was in Umeå, Sweden, in 2008). A very broad range of historians of science and medicine, literary, legal, cultural historians and anthropologists have met here to discuss the cultural history of emotions up to and including the nineteenth century. I took along my iPad to do a bit of conference blogging.

Because the historical periods and cultures discussed range from classical antiquity via medieval China to eighteenth-century Copenhagen and the emotions under scrutiny are just as varied, it is hard to sketch out general ideas or conclusions reached at the conference. The theoretical frameworks from which the cultural history of emotions is approached are also different. The most often referred to is Barbara Rosenwein’s concept of emotional communities and their specific words. What all contributors do agree on, is that at least part of what we now call an emotion is culturally determined and therefore different across space and time.

In his keynote paper “Beyond Emotion,” William Reddy (author of the seminal book The Navigation of Feeling) started from this idea. He remarked that although emotional vocabularies are complex and culturally specific, we usually can find ways to translate specific emotion terms. As an example, he compared Stoic ira with Ilongot liget. Even though these two cultural concepts of anger are poles apart, Reddy argued that we are able to see that they have a shared core. (I wonder if this applies to all emotion terms – there are of course the oft-quoted examples of emotions specific to one culture only, such as Japanese Fureai.)

What is the cause of this overlap in meanings, this shared core of two culturally different interpretations of an emotion?

Continue reading

Statistical Panic

Kathleen Woodward, Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009).

Some time ago, I switched our car insurance over to a different company. After a week, the new company mistakenly and quite spontaneously cancelled my policy. I called them to ask what happened, and was told that I had requested the cancellation by phone myself. When I expressed my surprise and told them I most certainly requested no such thing, the woman on the other end of the line very politely told me to keep my temper.

I was relieved to find that there is a term for the way I felt during and after this phone call. It is an example of what Kathleen Woodward calls “bureaucratic feeling,” a phenomenon increasingly common in our everyday lives.

Bureaucratic feeling, like statistical panic or compassion for cyborgs, Woodward argues, is a ‘structure of feeling.’ In  Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams introduced this concept to describe the interpenetration of personal feeling and social structures. Woodward uses the concept to think about the relation between such a seemingly personal emotion as the desperation of anger caused by a call to your insurance company’s help desk, and larger social structures. In the first half of her book, she analyses the connection between affective experience and identity politics (gender, race, age). It is especially in the second part of her book that Williams’s concept comes to the fore, as Woodward explores ‘new feelings’ created  by emerging social structures. In fact, she argues that the experience of an emotion can lead to insight into these larger structures. The example she uses to explain this process is the moment in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when she finds herself doodling a nasty sketch of a male professor, realizes she drew it in anger, and then analyses her own feelings:

A very elementary exercise in psychology, not to be dignified by the name of psychoanalysis, showed me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger. Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. But what was anger doing there? Interest, confusion, amusement, boredom — all these emotions I could trace and name as they succeeded each other throughout the morning. Had anger, the black snake, been lurking among them? Yes, said the sketch, anger had. It referred me unmistakably to the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women. My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with anger. [Online source]

In Woodward’s view, emotions are neither purely interior, nor purely social: the psychological phenomenon of anger is here caused by the social oppression of women: a social structure shapes an inward feeling. In the second part of her book, Woodward shows how bureaucracy and the ubiquitous use of statistics shape postmodern feelings of anger and panic.

The style of writing, by the way, reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s because of its personal tone. Woodward makes a plea for telling stories in literary criticism and appeals to us to abandon the argumentative style she describes as “professional cool.” The recent emotional turn in literary and cultural criticism might even have been caused by the feeling of emptiness generated by the expository argument, she thinks. In Woodward’s own case, her turn to the emotions was caused by an experience of great personal grief and the subsequent realization that very little had been written about this feeling from an academic perspective.

I read her book with great pleasure, especially the theoretical introduction which contained sheaves of useful references to look into (Alison Jaggard is top of my list), the chapter on liberal and conservative compassion, and the section on new structures of feeling. I want to use this concept in my research project, in my case to look at very old structures of feeling emerging in the seventeenth century.

Because of my project, I was curious to see how Kathleen Woodward — a professor in English literature — conceived of the role of literature in structures of feeling. Raymond Williams accorded a special status to literature as an archive of feelings: its rhythms, imagery and tone capture forms of feeling and preserve them for the historian to find. To me, this has always seemed a very interesting, but rather passive conception of the work of literature. In the chapter on bureaucratic feelings, Woodward explicitly asks after the role of literature (in this chapter specifically autobiographical memoirs on illness):

What can we say is the cultural work being done by books such as these? I suspect that the real emotional and bodily pain to which these books bear witness draws people, many of whom face similar experiences, into transitory reading communities, imaginary and actual self-help groups that are constituted by the autobiographical act. […] The singular experience of the intensity of an enraged anger is, hopefully, yielding to the productive emotion of outrage. Individuals are coming to understand the structural injustices that are in place. (189 and 190)

Her answer, or hope, is that literature can serve to make readers aware that their anger is not personal, but political: the experience of anger at the bureaucracy and injustice of the American health care system leads to the desire to read about similar experiences, which in turns leads to the realization that a structural wrong is at the root of the emotion.”[T]he challenge,” writes Woodward, “is to understand that feeling – or structure of feeling – in the context of a broader framework of the emotions, by owning that intensity and converting it to something else or finding a way to narrate it differently.” (138)

Woodward also mentions the more traditional view of literature as generating empathy. In the chapter on bureaucratic feeling in health care, she writes that it is her hope that the memoirs she presents to us “will encourage us to be receptive to the suffering of people today with sickness that go unnamed or are largely unfamiliar to us” (192). This may seem a little trite, but it is a point that Woodward returns to in the chapter on the postmodern society of the statistic: a society characterized by a historically-specific discourse of numbers and percentages that generates an anxiety about the future. The final lines of this chapter quote the author of a book on depression, who suggests that a literary description of illness can evoke a feeling of empathy that counters the pervasive impersonal, statistical approach.

In short, though – or perhaps because – I am not entirely sure her analysis of  the role of literature in theses new structures of feeling is exhaustive, I will certainly be returning to Woodward’s ideas in the coming years, because it has sparked all kinds of ideas on changing social structures and the experience of emotion.

The humanities under fire (2)

In my previous post, I wondered whether we should we defend the humanities in terms of their value — even non-economic value, or whether we would then be adjusting ourselves to the neo-liberal view of academia that has become prevalent.

I turned to the ideas of Stefan Collini, historian at Cambridge Universitybecause of a quotation in Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit. That quotation read: “Academics in the humanities must insist, he argues, that their research is ‘a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity,’ and is valuable for this reason” (130). It is important to note that the word “valuable” here is Nussbaum’s and not Collini’s: what interests me in his writing is that he does not argue for value, whether economic, social or otherwise.

In the TLS of November 2009 Collini wrote a piece in response to the new “Research Excellence Framework” then introduced, which measures 25% of “research excellence” in terms of the research’s “impact” outside academia – an impact which is mainly formulated in economic terms in the new framework. Collini worried about the lack of objections against this redefinition of research funding in the humanities. Continue reading