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.

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The Transmission of Emotions

An Interdisciplinary Symposium

The Transmission of Emotions
An Interdisciplinary Symposium

Friday 10 February 2012, 12.30-17.30 hrs
VU University Amsterdam, Aurorazaal

‘The business of understanding the transmission of affect has barely begun’
– Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (2004)

How and why do we sense and share the emotions of others? The question of how we are moved by the feelings of others has long remained largely unexplored in psychology, neurology, and language research. It is only recently that various disciplines have begun to unravel the mechanisms of empathy, emotional contagion, and the operations of affect in watching a film or reading a novel.

This interdisciplinary symposium brings together three scientists who explore the transmission of emotions from different disciplinary perspectives: neurology, social psychology and psycholinguistics. Their lectures will introduce current knowledge of the transmission of emotion in these three fields. The symposium seeks to encourage interdisciplinary exchange on this broad-ranging topic so fundamental to understanding human interaction.

The speakers:

  • Christian Keysers (neurology): The emphatic brain
  • Agneta Fischer (social psychology): The regulation of social relations through emotional mimicry
  • Jos van Berkum (psycholinguistics): So what about emotion in language?

Click here to register (before 25 January 2012)

For more information, please see the ACCESS website or contact Kristine Steenbergh (k[dot]steenbergh[at]vu[dot]nl).

This event is organized by the Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies, sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and the Faculty of Arts, VU University.

Illustration by Camilla Engman (camillaengman.com)