“At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.”
- George Orwell
What are emotions?
Are they a set of reactions to circumstance; are they conscious or semi-conscious? Are they a mechanism to guide an organism towards or away from stimulus? Do they fit within some innate biological categories or ur-reactions? Can they not also be trained? Are they communal? Are they essentially group motivations? Judgments? Appraisals? Performances? Are they a form of internal calculus between belief and desire? Do they modulate or are they modulated by attention? Are they to some extent rational?
These are (more or less) some of the leading questions under investigation in theories of emotion, a rich field of study interweaving philosophical, psychological, and neuro-scientific lines.
But rather than to answer any of these questions or even pick apart a strand or two, what I would like to do in this essay is historically situate some points of consensus in what emotions are or are believed to be. This, I hope, will in turn reveal some specifically modern conceptions or representations of emotion and emotional control that interrelate with our current picture of the human.
In so doing, is it possible to come to a critique of our ongoing idea of the emotional world, and to investigate or question some of our commitments to a measurable, treatment-centric, and above all attun-able model for moods and feelings?
Modern Theories of Emotion
“We don’t have too much intellect and too little soul, but too little intellect in matters of the soul.”
- Robert Musil
The complex grounds that form motivated theories of emotions, broadly speaking, have in mind emotions as a form or layer of perception on top of the world. Though not universally supported, emotions, understood as evaluations or appraisals of objects, are therefore complex states, with many layers of potential meaning geared towards guiding a person towards their goals or away from threats in an environment. On top of this, an agent may also harbor their very own framework for analyzing their feelings. In recent research, this feedback-loop has led emotions theory increasingly to taking seriously how agents in fact control or modulate their feelings and moods according to specific evaluations and communal expectations.
Therefore, if emotions are both motivations towards and evaluations of stimulus, then they form traditions of cultural appraisal. This reveals, in turn, the not so simple grounds for identity and class belonging, by which conceptions like class are not simply materially binding, but in fact also “an experience” of communal “interests” (Gay, Peter, quoted in Boddice, 2012).
In recent emotions theory, feelings can thus be understood as externalized performances along communal guidelines. There are some proposals that then entirely integrate feelings with the valuable communicative effect that they have. In this way of looking, certain emotions, like anger, can be displays of both the salience of information (how angry one is at a son’s failure) and the continuity of traditional performances (the father is permitted his anger; he has just cause). This gives emotions and mood states back their original outwardness – the e, or motion away from – that may be part of their original formulation.
Part of this strand in the history of emotions, therefore, deals with the specificity of emotional performances within historical time. Some emotional classicists, for instance, argue that pre-modern sentiments, like shame or rage or love, are radically different displays from modern conceptions of those feelings or moments, and have to be understood as belonging within fundamentally different human relations, or are in fact precisely revealing of them. And so let us turn now to one of these ideas of pre-modern emotion, and see what it may have to offer us.
“Escape from heaven-sent madness is none”
- Sophocles, Aias (Act 1, Line 197)
In The Little Iliad (part of the lost epic cycle surrounding the end of the Trojan War and The Iliad), there is a dispute between Aias and Odysseus, surrounding who will be given Achilles’ armor. Silver-tongued Odysseus, with the help of Athena, wins the argument. And recounted simply in that text, Aias “becomes mad and destroys the herd of the Achaens and kills himself” (Hesiod & Homer, 2008).
In Sophocles’ Aias, by contrast, we have a full version of his passions. In the play, which takes place the day after Athena has deluded Aias, under a “maniac throe,” into killing the herd of Achaen cattle, which he believed to be the Greek Kings, we see his reaction to the very moment of madness. Some time after the act, he awakens, covered in blood, and asks for his young son Tecuer to be brought to him by his concubine Tecmessa. This is what he tells him:
Yet even now might I envy thee herein,
That of these woes thou hast no sense at all.
For the life that is unconscious is most sweet-
Until we learn what joy and sorrow are.
(Act 1, Line 552)
It then follows, out of his intense dishonor and shame, that Aias goes to the shore, and alone, kills himself by driving a sword into his chest.
Centuries later, in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Ajax (his now romanized name) is said “not to stand against his own passion” with regards to his anger at the Greek kings, and so “drove the lethal weapon to its full extent into his chest”. Afterwards, according to Ovid, the “bloodstained ground bore a pruple flower” from which, in the centre of the petals, letters are inscribed, one petal reading “ΑΙΑΣ” and the other “AI AI”, a “cry of woe”.
So how are we to understand or contextualize this story? What can it teach us about emotions, like woe, or madness, or shame, or guilt, in a pre-modern point of view? Or rather, what does it mean when emotions are given place within the divine; when they represent the potential of passions to rupture our entire sense of selves?
In fact, a historian of emotion’s issue in dealing with historical accounts like Aias is precisely the literary quality of the tale itself. There is of course a mythical status to the figure of Ajax and the fact that his emotions already belong to a work of drama, a play. So is it not possible that these passions are categorically different, even in antiquity, from what we call emotions? Are they uniquely intense, being god-sent? And so do our modern categories therefore fail?
All the same, what we can glean is a long, dynamic relationship between emotions as something undestood to be both under our conscious control and something which threatens our very ‘well-being’ or temperament.
This should give us some idea that emotional agents, in time, have found good use for their own conceptions of an emotional life, and that these ways of understanding in turn have also modulated their performance and their expectations of others’ displays of feeling as well. As such it is the stuff of historical, emotional communities and expectations, which continue to today.
“We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control!”
- Pink Floyd, The Wall
What is contemporary emotionality, then? And what might we feel about feeling, from our ongoing point of view, when emotions are set to specific, well-attested, and semi-rational motivations? What do we do by insisting on the modality or in fact, usefulness, of attuning our moods?
Part of our expectations for a coming of age in children (in fact, it could be said to be the major work early schooling) is indeed the ability to modulate, temper, and situationally display emotions where necessary. In a more negative framework, it can also be said that the process of education is the disciplining of any outside or un-tempered expressions of emotion. However, this quasi-Foucaldian way of looking diminishes the import of emotions as both useful and in fact associative to forming communities.
More so than we have seen, the current self-ascription of feeling – which includes recognizing one’s own developing anxieties, ill moods, or indeed, mental illness – is part and parcel of the entire educative process. It is understood to be a crucial activity for children in schools today. As such, the process of reckoning with one’s outsider or ‘difficult’ feelings and tempering them accordingly becomes more and more essential to ‘achievement’ and ‘self-development’.
To this extent, there is nothing new about such a process – especially with regards to discipline and schooling. However, outside the school, the extent to which our inscription in this tempering of emotions involves the self is striking.
Today, we self-diagnose, self-treat, self-help, self-heal, etc., but nowhere in this calculus does there seem to be a mind towards the potential contingency or in fact unknowabilty about acts of feeling. There is also apparently little potential for feeling to act like a rupture emerging from outside of the self.
The rupture that Aias’ woe produces is a “passion” too great for him to stifle. And in due course, this feeling drives him to an act of honor at the sacrifice of his very self. In a history of emotions, is it not possible that this “honor” could be understood as an emotion? And that it could therefore be felt? And if so, what would “honor” feel like as a contemporary emotion? Or could it even be?
Today, the promise of mental health and mood disorder treatment is the promise of ‘health’ broadly – the belief in a measurable quantity and balance of weights. There is understood to be no absolute qualities for this balance, but rather a practice that relies on an increasing attunement to one’s own emotional balance. Self-report, therefore, still remains the primary diagnostic tool for the treatment of mental illness.
This is not merely because there is some glaring limitation to data when it comes to the content of emotions, but because we are in point of fact committed to a deep self–ascription of our feeling. But in opposition to the materialist hope of late 20th century neuroscience, no measure (whether in secretion of hormones, activation levels or any representation via fMRI) would seem to answer this problem, not least if attention and evaluation already modulate feeling. The content of feeling may have to be a measurement in and of itself.
Of course it’s silly to set limits for a future science; nevertheless, the contingency of our emotions and their relation to expectation seem to make it clear how difficult it is to speak about feelings in any perfectly knowable or even universalist way (i.e. without reference to the self-report of the person). And yet, this contemporary, absolutist view of feelings persists.
That is not to say, however, that we don’t actually use other means to talk about how we feel. Instead, for the most part, in ordinary settings, we give recourse to how we felt this morning, or last year, last month, last week, in reference to how we are feeling now. And then these models and pictures of feeling pass through time and expectation, becoming useful or perhaps less useful to us. Some of these metaphors may, in fact, be words themselves. And to these, we remain painfully committed.
The Marketplace of Emotions
“Emotions can’t quit, genius!”
- Pixar’s Inside Out
There is a strange paradox at work in contemporary feeling. On the one hand, there is an intense expectation for one’s individual emotional control – to have our hands on the console of emotions, and all the self-knowledge that this demands. And yet, on the other, there is also the supposed uniqueness of one’s own personal experience. This uniqueness is then a belief used to sell experience in a marketplace of emotions. This marketplace has a few ideological commitments which in turn reinforce the first element.
One of this marketplace’s primary commitments, of course, is that we have a clear definition or sense for positive emotional experiences, and how each positive feeling is effective or useful or valuable. It is similarly committed to the consummability of those experiences – to having emotions on tap.
The promised transaction of feeling, for communal purposes, like any late-capitalist marketplace is said to have no end. You can go on feeling forever; have another mood, have another mind-state. And yet, it is clear that the impulse of emotions (like the impulse of organic life) does have an end. And worse, if it is taken to have no end, then stimulation becomes merely stimulation; emotion produces no salient information, but rather noise – noise ‘to be responded to’, or acknowledge, or feel for, within an endless marketplace of feeling.
In this way of looking, it is not true that people living online, contra some prescriptions should engage with some ‘real’ world of feeling, but rather that they should instead feel the possibility of closing their feeling altogether.
For there is something violently boring about being out in nature, or in places that do not respond to you. And to permit the closure of feeling – from lack of response or lack of meaning – this, in turn is what makes it possible to feel or “close” feeling altogether (Han, 2017). And it is in this context that prescriptive ideas about the Other and the unknowable quality of experience might be given continued light.
Boddice, R. (2018). The History of Emotions. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Docter, P., et al. (2015). Inside Out. Pixar Studios.
Gay, Peter. (1985). Freud for Historians. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Han, Byung-Chul. ed. Badiou, A. & Butler, E. (2017). The Agony of Eros. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hesiod & Homer. (2008). Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Ed. Hugh G. Evelyn-White. EBook. Accessed Fall, 2020: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm#chap77
Musil, Robert. Pike, B. & Luft, D. (1990). Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ovid. (2000). Metamorphosis. trans. A.S. Kline. EBook. Accessed Fall, 2020: https://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph13.htm
Geldof, B., Waters, R., Parker, A., & Pink Floyd. (1999). Pink Floyd The Wall: The Movie. New York: Columbia Music Video.
Sophocles. (1919). The Ajax of Sophocles. trans. , R.C. Trevelyan. London: George Allen & Unwin. EBook. Accessed Fall, 2020: http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/ajax.html