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.

New journal: Passions in Context

I just discovered a new online journal on the history and theory of the emotions called Passions in Context. It is a peer-reviewed journal that presents contributions from a variety of disciplines in English and German, and which was first published in the spring of 2010.

Th[e] growing interest in the history and theory of emotions is now both interdisciplinary and international. In particular in the English speaking world and in Germany are developing special centers for the research in the history and theory of emotions. Until now this interest has lacked a forum where contributions with such a wide orientation can be published. Passions in Context will be such a forum.

The first issue “Writing Emotions” featured an opening contribution by Barbara Rosenwein (via whose website I found the journal) on problems and methods in the writing of the history of emotions, as well as articles on staged feelings; emotions in collective viewing; pathos and atrophy. The second issue is called “Atrocities – Emotions – Self” and features the edited papers from the “Atrocities, Emotion, Self” conference that took place at the Center for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, in 2009. If I understand the timeline correctly, a new issue should be forthcoming this spring.


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.