Paul Ekman, in an interview here, traces the path that led him to his famous tabulation of emotions articulated in a universal “language” of facial expressions. It was a path composed of two parts. One was Cold War circumstance: like many a human sciences researcher in the fifties and the sixties, Ekman was able to pretty easily squeeze money out of the Defense Department for his project, which was to go to “an isolated area of New Guinea” and film ‘stone age’ people. The point of the filming – and this is the intellectual path – was to settle a dispute between the Boasians – Margaret Meade and Gregory Bateson – and the Darwinians – which were represented by Silvan Tomkins. Tomkins claimed that emotional expression on the face was innate, so that smiling, for instance, meant the same thing across humankind. Tomkins theory was a bit more complicated than is allowed by the term “expression”, since, in a gesture to the James-Lange hypothesis, he believed that the face fedback emotion – smiling not only is a universal expression of happiness, but a happiness-maker. In Ekman’s essay on Sylvan Tomkins in Exploring Effect, he repeats the claim that, as far as he knew, Tomkins was unique in his empirical research about the face, although he concedes that other researchers had tried and failed in using photos of expression to evoke, in random, unconnected observers, responses that read the expression. What is odd, here, is that, of course, there was a whole science, or pseudo-science, that made very strong claims about the face: physiognomy.
Of course, there is a reason for that: physiognomy was associated, in the sixties, with racial science. With the measuring of noses, foreheads and ears by Nazi doctors. Although behind those Nazi doctors was the revival of physiognomy in the Weimar era – as the Sinngebung der Sinnlose, as Theodore Lessing put it – that was pursued not just on the right, but on the left as well. Lessing, like his friend Ludwig Klages, was fascinated by physiology, but unlike Klages, he leaned left, being a well known socialist and fellow traveler of the Marxists. Rudolf Kassner had his own philosophical mystical physiognomik. All were influenced by the romantics. But all differed in that they rid themselves of the demon of analogy that insisted on macrocosmic meanings in the microsphere. Physiognomy assumed an atomic emotional base, but its main goal was to read temperament from the face. How that temperament is imprinted on the face is the question.
It is worth reproducing Ekman’s list of the points the Tomkins facial theory, since my next post is going to be about Ekman:
· The face is central to emotion and has priority over visceral changes because of its speed, visibility and precision.
· The face informs the self, not just others. Feedback of the facial response is the experience of the affect.
· Emotion is guided by innate inherited programs.
· We learn the language of the face partly through correspondence between what a face looks like and what it feels like.
· Every face has a predominant expression which shines through poses and spontaneous expressions
· Individual differences in the interpretation of facial expression reflect the personality of the perceiver, which resulted in the idea of examining affect sensitivity contours.
· Particular emotions are commonly confused because of shared neurophysiology, shared situational contexts, response overlap and the likelihood of occurring together.”
We are gonna do a couple of posts about this.