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.


Gender, history & blogging

Historiann this week features two great guest posts by Ruth Mazo Karras, one of the editors of Gender and History, in which she gives an inside view of academic publishing in journals. The first post walks the reader through the process of publishing an article (including a very useful practical timeline of the whole process), the second post answers questions from readers of the first post – also on the question whether you should publish an article on gender history in Gender and History or in a  journal that specializes in in your historical period.

I also found this Call for Papers in my mailbox, via kenau and the History of Feminism Network:

Call for Papers: Feminism, Blogging, and the Historical Profession
Journal of Women’s History

The Journal of Women’s History invites submissions for a roundtable on the emergence of blogging as a location for critical thought among women in the historical profession; historians of women, gender, and sexuality; and feminist scholars who may, or may not be, historians. Participants may wish to address one or more of the following questions in an abstract of no more than 250 words:

  • What role does self-publishing on the internet play in a profession where merit is defined by scholarly review and a rigorouseditorial process?
  • What are the intellectual benefits, and/or costs, of blogging?
  • What are the ethics and consequences of blogging under a pseudonym?
  • What kinds of electronic acknowledgement already correlate with established scholarly practices; which can be discarded; and which need to be attended to, perhaps more rigorously than in printed publications?
  • If many scholarly publications and organizations have alreadyadopted blogs as a way of spreading news and inviting conversation, is blogging itself developing rules and practices that will inevitably produce intellectual and scholarly hierarchies similar to those that blogging seeks to dismantle?
  • Does feminist blogging offer particular opportunities for enhanced conversation about race, sexuality, class, and national paradigms, or does it tend to reproduce existing scholarly paradigms and silences within feminist scholarship?
  • Finally, are new forms of colleagueship and scholarship emerging in the blogosphere?

The roundtable will consist of a short introduction, several essays of 2,000 to 3,000 words, and a concluding comment/response. Abstracts should arrive no later than July 15, 2009, and can be submitted electronically to Claire Potter at tenured[dot]radical[at]gmail[dot]com.

Final submissions are due October 1, 2009. Pseudonymous bloggers may publish under their pseudonyms, but must be willing to reveal their identities to the editor of the roundtable and the commenter. Bloggers based outside the United States are particularly encouraged to contribute.

Reading sensations

Reading Sensations - front cover

Embodied books on the cover

“Glosing wordes tickle and stirre vp the affections to be conceited of some fond passion” [1]

Henry Crosse, Vertues Commonwealth (1603)

It took me a while after this first post, but this summer I did finally buy Katherine Craik‘s Reading Sensations in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). This is a book I wish I had written. Its subject matter is utterly fascinating and Craik writes in a beautifully crisp style. 

The book posits that reading in early modern England was a bodily, material experience. In its pages, readers can be found licking the sweet juice of stinking books, being tickled with sugared rhetoric, softened or sharpened by words, pricked or pierced by sermons, or stirred and inflamed by poetry. Indeed, words themselves are material; they have weight and texture, while books have humoral properties that interact with the physiology of their reader, conveying the humoral state of its author to the reader’s body.

The topic resonates with recent interest in the body and embodiment in early modern culture (see also this bibliography). It picks up on Gail Kern Paster’s exploration of the porousness of the body and its exchanges with its environment. Craik studies the exchanges between the word and the flesh – “the relationship between literary texts and the bodies of English gentlemen.” Continue reading

Women and early modern ecologies

“In this book I am retelling, as best I can, some of the old ecological stories; they are well worth remembering as we tell our new stories and begin to theorize the potential and power of narrative to intervene in politics and culture.”

Sylvia Bowerbank’s Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England (2005) is en example of ecological feminism. This is a particular kind of ecocriticism concerned with the question “how to theorize the difficult interconnections between women, nature, and language, and how to manifest in our daily lives a just and appropriate politics of nature”(2). Bowerbank realizes that this is a risky combination. When women speak for nature, do they not rehearse the stereotypes that associate women with nature, men with culture? Her book is therefore not a straightforward celebration of women’s writing about nature, but examines early modern women’s ideas about nature from a critical distance.

The book contains a rich store of ecological stories and intelligent analyses. I was intrigued by the chapter “Nature as Trickster: The Philosophical Laughter of Margaret Cavendish” (pp. 52-79), especially by the section that discusses Cavendish’s relation and reactions to seventeenth-century science.

The early modern period is pivotal in ecocriticism, since it is retrospectively seen as the time in which the medieval paradigm of nature was overthrown by the paradigm of modern science. Robert Boyle, for example, in his A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (1685-86) debunked the idea of nature as a wise, independent being requiring respect and restraint. Instead, Boyle tried to establish a competing concept of nature as governed by a providential system of laws, the secrets of which could be discovered by humanity.

In her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666, 1668), Cavendish laughs at the pretensions of Baconian scientists.

I do not understand, first, what they mean by our power over Natural causes and effects … for Man is but a small part, and his powers are but particular actions of Nature, and therefore he cannot have a supream and absolute power. (67)

For Cavendish, to understand nature truly requires taking pleasure in her amazing agency. “Stimulating nature’s sly and strange generosity, [her poems are] swarming with odd ideas and fresh questions. According to Cavendish, new knowledge is more likely to be discovered by bold imagining than by repeatable experiments,” Bowerbank writes (69). While natural philosophers set rational man apart from nature, Cavendish rehabilitated the very idea of resemblances, correspondences and connections in nature (an idea that Gabriel Egan also rehabilitates from Tillyard in his Green Shakespeare).

The separation of man from nature permitted scientists to suspend moral judgement in their dealings with nature. Bowerbank describes contemporary reactions to Robert Boyle’s experiments involving small animals and a vacuum pump (see illustration), and shows how purely empirical observation was mingled with empathy — often gendered feminine — with the animal.

Bowerbank offers one of Cavendish’s observations of butterflies as a counter experiment to empirical research. Whereas the experiments conducted, among others, by Boyle interfere dramatically (and often deadly) in animal life, Cavendish found a cocoon and simply left it on her windowsill.

One morning I spi’d two Butter-flies playing about it; which knowing the window had been close shut all the while, and finding the Insect all empty, and only like a bare shell or skin, I supposed had been bred out of it; […] And it is observable, that two Butterflies were produced out of one shell, which I supposed to be male and female. But this latter I will not certainly affirm, for I could not discern them with my eyes, except I had had some microscope, but a thousand to one I might have been also deceived by it: and had I opened this Insect, or shell, at first; it might perhaps have given those Butterflies an untimely death, or rather hinder’d their production. This is all I have observed of Butterflies. (71)

Cavendish does not desire to cut open the cocoon or observe the butterflies under a microscope, because the new knowledge that she would gain by so doing would interfere in the lives of the butterflies themselves. As Bowerbank puts it, Cavendish’s “style of natural philosophy is to ridicule such efforts and to imitate [in her texts] the wily ways of nature, in her shifts, her doublings, her tricks and contradictions” (73).

Bowerbank does not merely contrast Cavendish’s view of nature to the empirical view that survived into our time. She is also critical of her work, and is sometimes less pleased with Cavendish’s notion of  natural life. She signals that it lacks reflection on the consequences of using up nature’s bounty as (an aristocratic) consumer. When, in The Convent of Pleasure, nature’s gifts are figured as luxury goods such as Turkish rugs and perfume (“Wee’l Cloth our selves with softest Silk | And Linnen fine as white as milk,” I.ii), Bowerbank asks critically: Is this Cavendish’s notion of natural life? “It is assumed that the pleasures, reserved for happy ladies, will be within nature’s capacity to deliver.” This trust in nature’s bounty, from a modern perspective, is perhaps naive. Cavendish, although critical of empirical science, just did not think to ask how nature should be preserved and shared evenly.

I was sad to learn that Sylvia Bowerbank died of cancer in August 2005, a year after this book was published. Her analyses of these ‘old ecological stories’ live on, as critical and inspiring food for thought for the ecological movement.