“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

Thursday, June 25, 2009

note on the the calendar as a prison

There’s a certain magical attachment in history to years. A year serves not only as an organizing principle, but also as a spell – it gathers around itself a host of connotations, and soon comes to stand for those connotations. Yet, what would history be like if you knocked out the years, days, weeks, centuries? How would we show, for instance, change? In one sense, philosophical history does just that – it rejects the mathematical symbols of chronology as accidents of historical structure. These are the crutches of the historian, according to the philosophical historian. Instead, a philosophical history will find its before-after structure in the actual substance of history. In the case of the most famous philosophical history, Hegel’s, a before and after, a movement, is only given by the conceptual figures that arise and interact in themselves. To introduce a date, here, is to introduce a limit on the movement of the absolute. A limit which, moreover, from the side of the absolute, seems to be merely a superstition, the result of a ceremony of labeling founded on the arbitrary.

On the other hand, perhaps, under the mask of the arbitrary, there lurks the new, a moment of some kind that breaks absolutely with the absolute.

Now, in the case of understanding the history of the social meanings given to the passions, there are two opposite, guiding assumptions you can make. You can either assume that what is felt –affection, the feeling-mood, the emotion, whatever we are going to call this difficult feeling – is always the same - that is, there are no new emotions – and that what one is dealing with in the before-after framework is simply new codes or forms into which the emotions are coaxed. Or you can assume that an emotion can be new. The latter, you might think, is ruled out by neurology. I’d argue, however, that neurology can merely rely on mapping the brain according to the subject’s own interpretations of activity, and, in general, the emotional labels at hand for the neurologist. Here is where the term “mapping” is misleading – the mapmaker can easily map a new river or mountain or island – but the neurologist doesn’t have enough information to know what would be “new” about some neurological event. The neurologist can induce brain activity that he or she has never observed before, but whether this new activity is simply the way the brain has always operated, and is being observed now for the first time, or whether this is really new activity – we do not have enough of a concrete sense about the relationship between these brain activities and their cognitive or affective outputs to say. On the ordinary level, we are inclined to think that people can have new thoughts, but not new feelings. I can discover a truth about energy, but I can’t discover a new feeling that is a little like love and a little like sadness. Rather, I am just mixing together my primary emotions. Why should this be so, though?

In a history of the sentiments, or, rather, in most histories of the sentiments, what is at stake is not new emotions, or the extinction of old ones. Rather, it is on the level of the intersubjective, the level of the expression of emotion, that we find our changes, our before and afters. However, it is easy to shift from the intersubjective to the subjective – to speak, for instance, of love being “invented”. After all, the codes and forms in which emotion is expressed should have an influence on the persons who fall under these codes and forms.

By this route – by looking at how codes and forms gain the upper hand – we can return to chronology, we can snap together dates and doings. But it is always approximate, always relative to the domination, within a society, of codes and forms. And how those codes and forms displace others is not an easy story to tell, nor is it easy to confirm that these things are happening.

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