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.


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.

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.

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.

Why researchers blog

The online journal First Monday in its August edition features an article about researchers’ motivations for blogging. Since I just decided to make my return as a ‘hard bloggin’ scientist‘, I read the article with interest.The reasons for blogging mentioned by the researchers from Sweden, Denmark and The Netherlands interviewed for the study conducted by Sara Kjellberg are not very surprising. They include dissemination of content;  interaction with other researchers, expressing opinions, keeping up-to-date with work in your field, and trying out bits of your argument in small pieces of writing.

After my year-long blogging hiatus, the things I really miss about Serendipities are its function as a research support tool, its possibilities for interaction with other researchers, and the subtle pressure a blog always exercises to keep up with recent developments in your field of research. I could really identify with a comment in the Kjellberg article that while a lot of people think blogging steals time from your research, in fact it is a writing/research support tool.

What I have noticed in the past months is how often I returned to Serendipities to look things up, even if I never wrote anything new here. For example, I was writing an article on The Spanish Tragedy which discussed the soliloquy in which Hieronimo enters with a book of Seneca’s tragedies in his hand and cites bits and pieces from it, and I suddenly thought of Kevin Sharpe’s Reading Revolutions. Using the search function on the blog, I found my review of the book very quickly and remembered the ideas I had at the time – the blog entry even contained a very useful quotation from the book. This kind of function as a research journal also figures in Kjellberg’s article. One researcher calls it a “personal thinking space” in which she collects and sorts material for her research, which is then accessible from any computer linked to the internet.

For me, one of the great things of Serendipities is the people I’ve connected with just because of the blog, and whom I might otherwise not have met at all. Kjellberg’s article has something interesting to say about this kind of interaction on academic blogs. Usually, reader’s reactions and ‘crowdsourcing’ are mentioned as one of the main advantages of blogging. But only a few of the academic blogs I know (such as Mercurius Policitus or The Long Eighteenth) has a relatively large number of comments on their posts. This is also what one of the interviewed researchers remarks upon:

the interaction in blogs is exaggerated and […] blogging is more of one–way communication than a dialogue. […] [Kjellberg counters that:] the interaction does not necessarily show up in the blog. There is certainly communication taking place, where readers contact the blogger not only by using the commenting function in the blog, but also through direct e–mail messages and, in rare cases, by using the phone or through face–to–face contacts, for example when meeting at a conference. Interaction can thus happen outside the blog.

In this view, the blog is more a means to keep others up to date of your ideas and work, and let them know that you are out there. Of course, that means a normal website would do as well, so I hope to be posting things that trigger responses in the coming years!

Research agenda

I have five years of research time ahead of me. I still cannot believe it, but it is true. The first year is a gift from the Board of my university (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) to help promising young researchers improve their track record in publishing. I am going to use it to finally publish a rigorously rewritten version of my PhD thesis. So expect posts about revenge once more, but also about the Inns of Court, the common law, and the do’s and don’ts of writing a book proposal.

I am now working on an essay on ‘Cognition and Affect’ for the section on Shakespeare criticism in the Cambridge World Shakespeare Encyclopedia, edited by Bruce R. Smith and Katherine Rowe (Cambridge University Press). I really enjoy reading and writing for this essay, not only because it might become part of such a wonderful publication which is also an innovative digital resource, but also because the topic is precisely what my new research project (2011-2015) focuses on.

My project “Moving Scenes: Theatre, Passions and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England” has its own blog where I will post abstracts and conference papers. This is how the ‘About’ page describes the project:

‘Moving Scenes’ examines the role of the theatre in thinking about the transmission of emotion in the context of the emerging public sphere in early modern England. Although Jürgen Habermas situated the origins of the public sphere in the eighteenth century, recent research has traced its roots to the sixteenth and seven teenth centuries. The transition from a feudal to a proto-capitalist society in which persuasion and rhetoric became central tools, contributed to the emergence of an early public sphere. The print controversies of the period are also seen as central in this process, as well as the religious debate caused by the English Reformation (see (Halasz 1997; Zaret 2000; and Staines 2004).

These changes in society evoked pervasive questions about the role of the emotions in this emerging public sphere. The relation­ship between sense experience, emotion and reason constitutes a major ‘faultline’ in early modern English culture (Sinfield 1992; see also Smith 2009). Not only was the stage a key focus for debates about the effects of passion in perception and judge ment, it was also one of the important locations in which this debate was carried out. With spec tators from across the social spectrum, the theatre was one of the major cultural laboratories in early modern English culture.

With its specific focus on the role of the theatre in debates about the place of conveyed emotions in the public sphere, Moving Scenes shows that a study of theatrical representations of the effects of passion can do more than shed light on issues of identity and selfhood. The research project provides insight into the politics of passions in early modern English culture.

“Moving Scenes” is funded by a ‘Veni’-grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

Works cited

  • Halasz, Alexandra. The Marketplace of Print: Pamphlets and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Smith, Bruce. The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Staines, John. “Compassion in the Public Sphere of Milton and King Charles” in: Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion. Eds. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe and Mary Floyd-Wilson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 89-110.
  • Zaret, David. Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Early Modern Literature and Bodily Experience

contreblason-du-ventreTogether with a friend and colleague from Leiden University who works on perceptions of pain in early modern English poetry, I am trying to put together a panel on Early Modern Literature and bodily experience for the Venice conference of the Renaissance Society of America in 2010. Do send me an email if you are interested, or leave a comment of course!

CFP – Early Modern Literature and Bodily Experience

Panel at the Renaissance Society of America Annual Conference, Venice, April 2010

This session invites papers on the relations between early modern literature and bodily experience, with a focus on two related questions:

How did early modern literary texts represent embodiment?
How did early modern culture conceive of the bodily effects of reading literature and watching plays, and of writing literature and acting?

In investigating these questions, participants are invited to look specifically at early modern conceptions of sensory perception, the physiology of the emotions, physical health, illness and suffering, and at the different political, religious and social contexts in which these topics took shape.

Please submit an abstract in English before 1 May 2009 to both co-chairs:

Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen (J[dot]van[dot]Dijkhuizen[at]hum[dot]leidenuniv[dot]nl)
and Kristine Steenbergh (k[dot]steenbergh[at]let[dot]vu[dot]nl).


The image above is taken from a site I just discovered – the Renaissance Body Project at Stanford University, with an archive of renaissance images of the body.

Reading the emotions

A Scot in Exile has been corresponding with Keith Oatley, the author of Emotions: A Brief History, and posted a reading list of books on the history of emotions recommended by Oatley (part 1 and part 2). It’s a motley crew of books from a wide range of academic disciplines, but such, as he puts it, “is the nature of this nascent field.”