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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ekman addendum

“I did not know the Fore language, but with the help of a few boys who had learned Pidgin from a missionary school, I could go from English to Pidgin to Fore and back again.” – Paul Ekman

There was some ... strenuousity ... about LI’s big post yesterday. I re-wrote the damn thing several times to make it clearer My point is not that there are no emotional universals. I expect that there might be – although the universals might well be of form, the way emotions are assembled, rather than content. But one can be neutral about the universality of the emotions and still find the method by which these universals were ‘discovered’ in the 1960s a very curious, and yet very familiar, concoction. We have seen experts discovering ‘homosexuality’ in the face before. We have seen experts pondering the meaning of drawn or photographed faces before, too. In fact, there was a physiognomic literature in Babylon.

What is curious is that, in spite of using Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson as his (imaginary) interlocutors – his version of Descartes demon - Paul Ekman seems to have never questioned why the emotional universals were best expressed in Western languages and customs. He never seems, even, to have been puzzled by the fact that among scientists themselves, there have been and there continues to be strong disagreement about what emotions even are. If the rather small social cohort of psychologists are divided, even, on such basic questions as the origin of emotion – do emotions begin as a physiological stance and result in a feeling, or is the line of causation just the opposite? – then it would seem a very bold step indeed to simply ignore questions of affective sense making among the population one is taking photos of and questioning.

Anna Wierzbicka, in Emotions Across Languages and Cultures, makes a nice remark here:

“Until recently many scholars refused to believe that the categorization of ‘emotions’ can differ from language to language and insisted that at leas tsome ‘emotions’ must be linguistically recognized in all languages. There can no longer be any dobut, however, that this is not the case. Although much more is know about this diversity now then twenty or thirty years ago, the basic fact that in principle “emotion words” don’t match was known at that time too. Even an extreme ‘universalist” like Paul Ekman, who has claimed for decades that the same “basic emotions” (i.e. happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and surprise, cf Ekman 1973 219-220; see also Ekman 1993, 1994a and b) are recognized in all cultures, acknowledged more than twenty years ago that the Dani people of the New Guinea Highlands, whose faces and “emotions” he had studied in the field, “don’t even have words for the six emotions” (Ekman 1975: 39)

There is a certain deep ... smugness about this whole enterprise. Why are we to think that the cut and fit of the English affective vocabulary turns out to exactly match universal emotions? What if it had had turned out that, say, the Ifaluk vocabulary was a better match for the emotional universals? That we would have to carve out, as our universal, a little bit of greed and a little bit of anger to express the universal emotion x, say. Or that a bit of anger, a bit of fear, a bit of surprise – something like awe – is the real universal emotion y. But no, English by a great stroke of luck has carved out exactly the universal emotions we as human beings are all equipped with. Congratulations, you Anglo Saxons and Norman invaders! Excellent job. We are all so proud.

One should note that surprise isn’t universally accepted among psychologists as an emotion at all. Jerome Kagan, for one, rejects it as an emotion. It is included by Ekman, however, because surprise does have a distinct facial expression. That facial expressions express emotion, for Ekman, means that emotion can be defined by way of facial expression – and thus, if there is a surprise face, there is a surprise emotion.

Well, I’m going to leave Ekman for a bit and return to physiognomy.


northanger said...

good morning mr li! did you know there are asteroids named #9265 Ekman & #3603 Gajdusek?

northanger said...

the idea i got from your last post (More Ekman: from facial expression to emotion), was "emotional hegemony". there's this bit here:

…Navajo songs are intended to "change reality", a poetic theory decidedly different than what most white readers are accustomed to. Looking at white poets, we see a great variety of theories: Poe, for instance, regarded poetry's primary virtue as its musicality, while Longfellow, the moral guidance it provided. Indeed, in the poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" W.H. Auden writes "Poetry makes nothing happen", insinutating that poetry doesn't really accomplish anything tangible at all (743). While there is a great variety of poetic theories in white tradition, however, they all share one basic concept: that poetry exists outside the physical world, and that if it changes anything at all, it is the nature of man (through enlightenment or revelation) and not the physical composition of the natural world. The Navajo poetic theory is completely antithetical to this view - poetry is EVERYTHING - it creates the world and shapes our future. By reciting poetry, the Dine hoped to influence their surroundings.

- - -

Where does man obtain this power to change reality? Navajo mythology describes how holy beings (Diyin Dine) still live inside the earth. Recitation of ceremonial poetry draws on the power of these beings and creates specific effects dictated by the poetry. For instance, in the Blessingway, the effect is to bless something - an article (such as a saddle) or a person. Generally speaking, the effect of the poetry is to "allow Earth people to control the holy beings and thereby gain their powers of immunity to danger, destruction, death etc" (Witherspoon, 35). In describing this idea, Witherspoon makes an insightful comparison to Einstein's theory of relativity and its associated equation (E=MC2); the Navajos base their physics on the equation C=MI2 (Control=Mass x Intelligence2). According to this equation, control over the world, ie, our ability to affect matter, is equal to the land resources at our disposal (ie, the gods latent in the earth) multiplied by the square of our intelligence regarding ritual procedure (Witherspoon, 77).

roger said...

Ah, North, I rely on you for all my outer space news! As you know, I'm a psychonaut, so it is dangerous for me to take off my helmet and look up at the sky. Actually, it is dangerous for me to assume the waking state at all!

jcd said...

LI, it might be worthwhile to compare this sort of emotional universalism to the functionalist stance in philosophy of mind. I dunno.

The whole thing seems pretty bogus to me: the emotions reified by (the likes of) Ekman out of his 'scientific' engagement with the (Western) world can, of course, be applied to other cultures. That's part of the project, identifying certain tropes and calling these analogies by proper names (Surprise! Happiness! etc), and then identifying them elsewhere. But in uncritically carrying this out--that is, in not looking at the conditions through which these broad tropes were made, as things, as historical universals--Ekman makes his misstep.

It's not surprising that the Western set of emotion were taken as the natural shape of universal emotional possibilities, then, since it is simply received as such. I see it: it's there: it must be so.

We could identify certain broad similarities across 'universals' if we operated critically (I warrant), perhaps something more 'formal' rather than 'contentful', but that'd take a bit more reflection.

roger said...

jcd, the empire of universals does seem to fit in too neatly with other imperial impulses that emanate from America. But the funny thing is, English speakers in my experience are not really that satisfied with our affective vocabulary. I have never met Particulary the affective vocabulary around sex and love seems perennially difficult and confusing for English speakers.

And, of course, if emotion involves, as most psychologists think it does, appraisal - then the conceptual schemas, the social attitudes, simply can't be bracketed. Yet, in the literature, Ekman is, as one paper I read put it, pervasive. And odd situation.

JCD said...

Odd indeed. I wonder if Ekman was the dude I read about in the NYTimes, maybe 5 years ago, trying to prove the universality of the Smile.

Chuckie K said...

Pardon me, if I go all technical here on the problem of 'categorizing emotion.' And do not take the time to clarify what I want to say.

'Looking at pictures.' First, are emotions punctual and capable of meaningful representation and momentary recognition like this? were extended processes? Movies, or something. Second, correlatively, and more in accord with your point, what are the ways in which emotions are recognized? Momentary glances? Label? Words?

The distinction between categorizing through labels and throughs is the point I really want to make. for your purposes, Wierzbicka makes an important point. But she gives us only a half. The 'native' taxonomies of any domain can be an important part of the cultural organization of that domain. Obviously here, Ekman naively relies on his own 'native' taxonomy in arriving at the categories for photographic representation. But the range of varieties, even leaving aside the questions of innovation and creation, exceeds taxonomic categories. When we are angry, we don't say "I am angry." We holler, scream and curse. We grit our teeth and say nothing. No one-to-one correspondence between label and performance genres. Nor between means of expression and genres.

And if we begin to ask about emotions as means to ends ....