“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, January 06, 2008

happiness so far

I need to take a breather and survey the progress of my happiness thesis so far. Since starting on this project last June, I’ve floated certain approaches, had that feeling of brio about certain ideas that crashed and burned, and have had to chisel here and chisel there. And I’ve driven down many dead ends – the deadliest of which has been trying to make sense of the various psychologies of the emotions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Down these mean streets others have walked before me, each ending up with the distinct feeling of being separated from the main, lost among fathomless assumptions and philosophical anthropologies. William James, in the Principles of Psychology, wrote:

“The result of all this flux is that the merely descriptive literature of the emotions is one of the most tedious parts of psychology. And not only is it tedious, but you feel that its subdivisions are to a great extent either fictitious or unimportant, and that its pretences to accuracy are a sham. But unfortunately there is little psychological writing about the emotions which is not merely descriptive. As emotions are described in novels, they interest us, for we are made to share them. We have grown acquainted with the concrete objects and emergencies which call them forth, and any knowing touch of introspection which may grace the page meets with a quick and feeling response. Confessedly literary works of aphoristic philosophy also flash lights into our emotional life, and give us a fitful delight. But as far as "scientific psychology" of the emotions goes, I may have been surfeited by too much reading of classic works on the subject, but I should as lief read verbal descriptions of the shapes of the rocks on a New Hampshire farm as toil through them again. They give one nowhere a central point of view, or a deductive or generative principle. They distinguish and refine and specify in infinitum without ever getting on to another logical level. Whereas the beauty of all truly scientific work [p. 449] is to get to ever deeper levels. Is there no way out from this level of individual description in the case of the emotions?”

James is right about the lack of a central point of view. It is striking: there’s no central organizing principle from which a taxonomy could be deduced. A science that has not advanced to the point of taxonomical agreement is, indeed, a desert.

Twentieth century psychology has advance by, as it were, imposing a taxonomy from the outside in. Instead of a central point of view, there is something like a social contract among psychologists, who have produced their categories by committee. The result is a discipline that has found, at one time or another, almost every human behavior sick, or not sick; that has agreed to certain lawlike regularities – for instance, the ‘law’ that all human beings seek to maximize pleasure – compounded ad hoc out of amalgams of skewed cases; that employs mathematical seeming terms, like ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ to describe the ‘valence’ of emotions, which really derive from the conjunction of old folk psychology of sympathetic magic and the romantic science of trances, animal magnetism, analogies and universal fluids current at the turn of the nineteenth century, which have proved to be truly useless for putting emotions into a natural kinds ordering. In the twentieth century, without a doubt, success has come most often from chemistry and neurology. We might not understand why the chemistry of the brain produces the effects it does, but we often set up pretty reliable correspondences between effects and chemistry. That this is not a deep explanation, a causal one, is not necessarily a disbarring thing – Newton, after all, explicitly warned his readers against thinking that he was providing an explanation of gravity, he was simply describing its laws. For an explanation, all he could do was refer us to God.

Well, poking through psychology has shown me how much we still live in a shaman ruled society, in which ritual words are taken for wonders. Otherwise, my problem on this front is still to come up with a good explanation of how psychology, in the period of the Great Transformation, succeeded in spreading new emotional customs.

A happier path has been opened up through the reading of novels, essays, diaries and the like. There is an objection to this method: these writings, it is said, reflect the elite culture. The self interpretations of the peasant farmer or a Parisian seamstress are simply not going to emerge in a text-based research project about the emotions. To put it another way: the writers give us a false totality.

Now, I’m not in agreement with the dippy post-Marxist historians who think we can safely junk the class concept. But the compulsion to fit the writers into a reflection metaphoric, to see them functioning solely as apologists for a given system of privileges of class, race, gender, etc., simply ignores the historic reality of how the intellectual system operated. There’s a certain social science dumbness about the intellectual imagination – about the trajectory of the the writer, philosophe, poet, diary writer, doctor, alchemist, etc in the class structured system, even in the early modern era. These people often fall in the intermediate group – in a group defined by transactions between different classes, ethnicities, and genders. While it is true that the high bourgeoisie and the aristocrats are well represented among the writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the interesting thing is how many of these writers don’t come from an elite background. And often, when they do, they come slightly damaged – like Samuel Johnson’s friend, Richard Savage. This intermediate group formed one of the channels between all groups – this flashes out best when in stories of scandal, as for instance in the famous ‘Affair of Poisons’, when various noblemen and women in Louis XIV’s court got caught up in a police dragnet that came in the wake of the Marquise de Brinvilliers trial – the Marquise was convicted of poisoning her father, her brothers, and assorted others who got in her way. The police records of the subsequent investigation, which have been exhaustively combed by social scientists, reveal extensive if limited literacy among artisans and working class Parisians. Literacy is perhaps too small a word – I mean, lifestyles that are inflected by reading. The third life (the life after that of sleeping and waking) was already present at the grassroots in 1680.

So I would defend the scope of the testimony of the imagination. Since it is part of my thesis that the changes wrought in the positional market by the transformation from a feudal to a mercantile/capitalist system globally impacted our emotional norms, I rather need that testimony to have scope.

If we grant a class structure in which the classes were not opaque one to another, then I think what we have, from the writer’s position, is this: three themes of resistance to the oncoming happiness culture can be spotted in the 19th century. There was the resistance of the pessimists, which located itself, at least by sympathy, in the aristocratic sphere, and wove the aristocratic ideology while the class itself was dying; there was the resistance from the revolutionary writers, who, again at least by sympathy, located themselves in the popular level; and there was the resistance on the margins of bourgeois life, even by those who were the great ideologists of liberalism, like Mill and Tocqueville. I think this latter form of resistance flows into psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century.

I am still at the hunch level on another aspect of this project: the idea of the hedonic fallacy. The hedonic fallacy projects an affectual state onto a subject that can’t “feel” it - be it a social arrangement or material circumstances. If one of Pavlov’s dogs could speak, he would probably define a bell as a thing that salivates when it makes a certain noise. This projection is very much tied to the utilitarian justification for capitalism – although it is important to remember that utilitarianism of a kind also migrated into socialist thought, and has played a decisive role there, for instance in the productivist regime instituted by Stalin.

So this is where I stand so far. Any suggestions at this point would be helpful!

Meanwhile, Dr. Jeep plays on...

22 comments:

roger said...

Damn, I meant to put in a bit about the writer as an attractor - not a mirror, or a representative. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

There is an objection to this method: these writings, it is said, reflect the elite culture. The self interpretations of the peasant farmer or a Parisian seamstress are simply not going to emerge in a text-based research project about the emotions....The police records of the subsequent investigation, which have been exhaustively combed by social scientists, reveal extensive if limited literacy among artisans and working class Parisians. Literacy is perhaps too small a word – I mean, lifestyles that are inflected by reading.

Isn't there also some sub-speciality/tendency within current social history to recover and examine documents produced by those outside of the socio-economic or cultural elite? I admit all I'm going on here is the memory of a class on the role of women in US history taken more than fifteen years ago (and which, to be honest, I failed) where the prof. mentioned that examination of recovered diaries of immigrant women in 19th century New York City showed a striking attitude towards prostitution: many who toiled in the ordinary, "overground" economy (an unfortunate word I had to make up, but I think/hope you know what I mean) also were part-time prostitutes. I don't recall what else she mentioned, but even if one stipulates that these women plied their part-time prostitution in isolation, secrecy, and "shame," it seems this would indicate the content of "shame" was different then from what it is now.

Of course, somebody with a quantitative stick up their butt will object that what we have here is a sample with no control group, and therefore nothing can be made of it. If you want to know about the incidence of prostitution at a certain point in time in 19th century NYC, sure, but if you want to talk about attitudes towards sex, work, etc., and the emotional content of those attitudes, I say it's relevant data.

I know this doesn't touch your central question/need for a credible taxonomy of the emotions. Good old Turbulent Velvet mentioned Silvan Tomkins and his affect theory in blog comments and emails back in the day, but for some reason, I never even got to buying a work of his to put on my to-be-read-someday pile. Maybe you're already familiar with his stuff and find it wanting.

Two final things:

1. Ever since I learned that Capital, V.3 ends with an unfinished chapter on class, and that said chapter starts with a discussion of the difficulties of constructing a simple method for class identification and then breaks off (call me silly, but there's something to that that smacks of the incomplete final fugue in Bach's Art of Fugue, where the manuscript ends just as Bach introduces his name as a theme), I've thought that labor-power vs. capital is a simplifying schema, like V.1's assumption that price = value—which, of course, leads to the transformation problem and all the headaches that come with it. I agree that you can't just chuck it, and that using it to view certain situations—hell, most situations—brings what's at state into clear focus. On the other hand, since this basic taxonomy was never fully articulated, there are cases where deploying it would be an obstacle to understanding what's going on, and I think you're right to say that it doesn't help understand the inner workings of the intellectual segment of the population. Fully catechized Marxoids disagree with me, of course, but then they also disagree with each other, and usually don't even understand what commodity fetishism really meant...<sigh />

2. IIRC, you don't care for Adorno, but his essay "On Subject and Object" takes an approach to these terms that might be helpful to you in the absence of a credible taxonomy of the emotions. He notes how equivocal these terms are, how they depend upon each other, how they have been used in different ways by different thinkers over time—and then proceeds to discuss them "as the history of philosophy has given them to us," if memory serves. What I'm getting at is that given the qualifications at the start of the essay, the reader (or at least this reader) could follow the discussion, aware that the sense of the terms were shifting as it progressed, and that at several points different, even opposed senses of the terms could apply. So maybe—just maybe, perhaps you already went down this path and found it unworkable—it would be sufficient if only for developing the project to survey that "merely descriptive literature of the emotions," tease out what preliminary historical senses you can, and proceed.

I hope this second doesn't come across as cheeky; I'm not the scholar or reader you are, and don't pretend to be. On the other hand, telling someone who knows more than you do how they should go about their business usually brings down a torrent of well-informed reasons as to why you're wrong, giving you the opportunity to learn all sorts of things you wouldn't otherwise know.

et alia

roger said...

EA, great comment. Giant comment. Huh, let me just say this about the adorno part - I like old Teddy! But I'm avoiding a temptation to go all Benjaminian Adornoian here, to track in their paths, partly because I think, for those guys, there really was an absolute division between an ideal socialism and the capitalist system. For me, there isn't. I am stuck with calling the market-industrial system capitalism, and so be it, but I think that system is about embedding the social in the economic in a way that is accepted as natural by the socialists. In other word, what is created is a template that is big enough to contain Lenin and Milton Friedman.

However, it is interesting that you bring up subject and object, as I have a review coming out next week in the Austin Statesman of a book on Objectivity - called Objectivity! - by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison on the ubercool Zone label (supposedly, Britney Spears herself has given Zone books a two thumbs up - I never go out drunk driving with my kids unless I have some old copies of Semiotexte handy, I think she was quoted as saying) which has a nice little history of how objectivity and subjectivity - which change literal meanings in the hands of Kant - defined a regime of seeing in the sciences. Ah, it is a complicated story and my review tells it better. But in any case, I don't want to treat the social with such holism that everything dissolves into mud, but I don't believe the segmented nature of society is best represented by idealizing and hardening class divisions. Thus, my idea, which I didn't put into the post because I'm an idiot and had written it down on another page in my little notebook, of the writer/intellectual as an attractor. I do think I'm going to work the notion of the third life into this essay, just cause I rather like it. And because it is that life which squeels the most about happiness in the triumphant stage.

I love your story about the diaries of these working class women! I'm gonna have to look at that.

roger said...

ps - I'm sorry about the snarky comment about Brit. Really, I am for her in this, her time of trouble, but I think she is deepening herself as an artist, getting in touch with the ghosts of hard partyin' women of the past. Bessie Smith's spirit has perched on her shoulder.

northanger said...

AZ 80 = ART AND PROVOCATION (The philosopher buffoon is not, after all, simply a hero, but a literary figure which, like all literary figures, finds unpredictable niches in the epigenetic media landscape. Shit, did I just write that? Well, leave it, and let somebody else figure out what that means) = METHARME OF CYPRUS = THE METHARME EFFECT (Richard Field, "The Self-fulfilling Prophecy Leader: Achieving the Metharme Effect," Journal of Management Studies, 26(2): 153-175 [March 1989]).

Scruggs said...

Roger, I have no idea if this will be at all helpful, but. .

Rural Rides

roger said...

Mr. Scruggs, I happen to own a copy of Rural Rides! Cobbett was a truly cantankerous old cuss, but he is a great example of an attractor - a man who goes from Tory to Radical, too.

North, so this Metharme chick was the mother of Adonis? Daughter of Pygmalion too - so there was statue in her blood, on Galatea's side. Well, but I don't get why she has an effect named after her.

roger said...

ps - Also, I want an effect named after me! The LI effect.

northanger said...

:) What a system it must be to make people wretched in a country like this! Could he be heaven-born that invented such a system?

AZ 62 = THE LI ATTRACTOR = AGALMATOPHILIA.

Anonymous said...

Roger, I've been thinking recently that it might be helpful for you're readership to gather all of the links to your posts on the happiness theme somewhere on your site - perhaps in chronological order. The problem with the blog form is that it tends to scatter ones thought even if it allows one to pursue curious prey.
HVH

Phillip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

P.S. I'm looking forward to the continuation of the post on contrarianism. hvh

roger said...

Hmm, anonymous, that's a good idea. I wonder how I'd do it? Maybe next week I'll put up a link to my geocities site, and put the happiness posts up there. I could put that in my sidebar. Damn, the more I think of it, the more I think that would be a good idea. Thanks!

roger said...

North, I don't have a fetish for robots or mannequins! My sexual fetish is for the tremor of intent. Now, what kind of -philia is that?

Anonymous said...

Something close might be mellomenonophila, from the participle &muελλομενον of the verb &muελλω in the sense of definition A.II, being about to do something. I realize that misses the "tremor" business, but I have no idea what that might be. Maybe somebody else can chip in?

et alia

P.S. Maybe having the participle be the prefix is wrong. Maybe even I formed the participle incorrectly? It's been a long time. Sorry.

P.P.S. I didn't quite follow what you were saying about Adorno and Benjamin. I'm not contesting what you wrote about the content of their positions; I was only suggesting that the "method" (ugh, I hate that word, and I'm sure Adorno would in this context as well) used in the essay "On Subject and Object" might be useful for preliminary development. Or was your point that if you're in for a penny with the method, then you're in for a giant-sized senior pound-denominated debenture with the position? I know Adorno would say you couldn't/shouldn't separate form from content, but...well, he's dead. Raid his tomb!

Anonymous said...

Oh, foo. That's the middle participle, not the active...although the middle might be what you want since the "being about to" is about / serves the interest of the subject.

Anyway, the active (neuter) nominative participle would be &muελλον, giving the much less of a mouthful mellonophilia.

—e.a.

roger said...

E.A. - we live in the age of Hustler, man! I can't tell people I'm a melonsophiliac!

Sorry about being so confusing re Adorno and Benjamin. All I'm really saying is that they are powerful people, strong attractors, and maybe a bit too powerful for me to fall under the sway of at this point in my project, even though you are absolutely right that Adorno is someone I could and should use.
Here's the thing: I edit way way too many papers which suddenly become all Benjamin-y in the middle, and you can tell its that love at first sight with the Selected Works. I have actually been using Benjamin, looking up writers he refers to, since he definitely wrote the codex to the 19th century.

northanger said...

MELLO–MENONO–PHILA

AZ 69 = MELLONOPHILIA = THE STORY OF VÖLSI.
AZ 70 = MELONSOPHILIAC = HAPPINESS THESIS.
AZ 80 = MELLOMENONOPHILA = ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT.
AZ 89 = MELLOMENONOPHILIA = ODDLY COLORFUL CLIMAX.

AZ 76 = MENO {2}, MENON, MENONO = STOOD THE TEST OF TIME.

AZ 64 = ROSE OF MENONO (Baldwin, Bruce. "The Sexuality of Splitting the Atom: A Psycho-Sexual Interpretation of Recent Paintings By Pamela Sienna, 1995 M.F.A. Exhibition in the University Art Gallery", The Stony Brook Press, Stony Brook, New York, Vol. 16, No. 9, Feb. 6, 1995, p.13) = ROGER GATHMAN.

northanger said...

AZ 105 = THE PHILADELPHIA STORY = AMERICAN PSYCHO SOUNDTRACK = HEARTLAND ROCK CREDENTIALS = MYTH OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE (According to Jung, the myth of the golden fleece epitomizes the conquering of what the consciousness considers impossible; The myth of the golden fleece therefore stands for a quest not only for a material value but also for the spiritual one, much worthy. This myth relates thus with the quest for the Graal, with the quest the medieval knight makes in order to confirm and win his excellency; AZ-48 THEMIS AUREA) = NAVSEA WARFARE CENTER - CRANE = OAK GROVE OF THE PRINCE = ONE SWEETBREAD FOR THE LOCK = PETRIFIED THUNDERBOLT = PUNCH ANDREWS' PALLADIUM LABEL = SCHOMBURGKIA HUMBOLDTII (Orchid species) = THE GOLDEN FLEECE ORDER = TYPO IS A POWERFUL GODDESS.

Anonymous said...

LI, publishers should be lining up - nay - tripping over themselves for your happiness text. If they are dilly dallying, they should realize you have readers in France in high places. Just the other day, M. Le President appointed not one but two Nobel laureate economists - Robert Stiglitz and Amartya Sen - to look into the matter of ...you guessed it...happiness.

Amie

Anonymous said...

forgot the link, sorry
http://www.liberation.fr/actualite/politiques/302887.FR.php

Amie

roger said...

Wow. Amie, Sarkozy never ceases to amaze me - the mind of Angelina Jolie in the body of the Hunchback of Notre Dame (after the cosmetic surgery). Quite a package!

Although maybe I shouldn't be slandering poor A.J.