extinction beyond the zero - in the realm of the frozen erection

Three such chief directions may be distinguished; we will call them the direction of pleasurable and unpleasurable feelings, that of arousing and subduing (exciting and depressing) feelings, and finally that of feelings of strain and relaxation. Any concrete feeling may belong to all of these directions or only two or even only one of them. The last mentioned possibility is all that makes it possible to distinguish the different directions. The combination of different affective directions which ordinarily takes place, and ... influences which are due to the overlapping of feelings arising from various causes, all go to explain why we are perhaps never in a state entirely free from feeling, although the general nature of the feelings demands an indifference-zone. – Wundt, Outlines of Psychology.

In truth, the problem treated by them [the ‘psycho-physicists] is a special aspect of the problem, not its totality; they are inquiring whether, in the ‘transformation’ of pleasure into pain, and vice versa, there is, in the passage from one contrary to the other, a point of neutrality or indifference. Wundt graphically represents the phenomena by a curve: the portion of this curve above the line of the abscissa has a positive value, and corresponds to the development of pleasure; the portion below corresponds to the development of pain, and has a negative value…” Ribot, The Psychology of the Emotions.

In the beginning, the emotions were neither positive nor negative. So where did the classification come from, how did it spread, and how has it become so popular? Why are we supposed to think that there is a straight continuum not only between pleasure and pain, but between ‘positive emotions’ – happiness, serenity, love – and ‘negative emotions’ – anger, boredom, unhappiness? Couldn’t we just as easily evoke a continuum between anger and boredom? Which one would then be the positive one? Which the negative? And what does continuum mean?

When Wundt graphed a ‘feeling space’ in order to develop his three dimensional model of emotions in the 1890s, he was operating under the same influence that affected Jevons, which was to the field theory of Maxwell and Faraday. Philip Mirowski’s series of books on this topic, as well as Silja Graupe’s Basho of Economics, exhibit in a critical light the price to be paid for adapting economic theory to parameters analogous to those used to discuss energy – with utility being the analogue to energy, or being a ‘field of vector potentials.” Similarly, Wundt was concerned with the ‘direction’ of feeling – not its qualitative, or phenomenological side. In 1879, Wundt founded a psychological laboratory at the University of Leipzig in order to study and measure feeling. There had already been some use of scientific instruments to evoke and register feeling. The mad Dr. Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne had used electric shock, applied to certain muscles of the face and neck, to provoke fearful grimaces in subjects. He had a certain Adrien Tournachon photograph these descendents of the medieval gargoyles. But the correlation between an expression and a mood – a way of making the mood come to the surface of the body, so to speak – was not what Wundt’s laboratory was about, in particular. Also, Wundt didn’t have a peculiar theory of the divine teleology of the facial muscles. What Wundt did have, by the 1890s, was a three dimensional model of feeling that, in contemporary psychology, has been reduced to two dimensions – valence and intensity.

You will notice that valence is an odd word, a word from chemistry. Psychology has a beggar's habit of borrowing scientific jargon to dress up commonplace notions, much as French writers used to insert a ‘du” or “de” in their name, to imply nobility.

However, Wundt’s work was not exactly on everybody’s lips. The story of how negative and positive emotions got their valance is the story of how psychology blended into the fabric of modern industrial society – whether capitalist or communist. There is some truth to the way this issue is handled in standard books on emotions, as for instance in Carroll Izard’s Human Emotions (Izard is a very influential psychologist):

“Scientists as well as laymen agree that there are both positive and negative emotions. While this very broad classification of emotions is generally correct and useful, the concepts of positiveness and negativeness as applied to the emotions require some qualification…”

Indeed. To bring out this history – which is to tell the story of how happiness became the triumphant, the keystone feeling – is to feel, deep inside the multiplex of modernity, the throb of several superimposed currents, tides, the locked routines of control and command, the layout of office spaces, the psychology of incentives, advertising, and weaponry, the never before achieved trick of getting populations to shell out good money to build the tools for their own extinction, a silent extinction beyond the zero indeed, all the while becoming happier and happier.

“Now ordinarily, according to tradition in these matters, the little sucker would have de-conditioned. Jamf would have, in Pavlovian terms, “extinguished” the hardon reflex he’d built up, before he let the baby go. Most likely he did. But as Ivan Petrovich himself said, not only must we speak of partial or of complete extinction of a conditioned reflex, but we must also realize that extinction can proceed beyond the point of reducing a reflex to zero. We cannot therefore judge the degree of extinction only by the magnitude of the reflex or its absence, since there can still be a silent extinction beyond the zero. Italics are Mr. Pointsman’s. – Gravity’s Rainbow

And that requires looking at the career of Kurt Lewin, among others. Which we will look at in our next post on this subject.

PS: Alan and I continue to debate happiness issues at his post here