on the emotional frontier

Robert I. Levy, in an essay entitled Emotions, Knowing and Culture [1984], proposed two axes for analyzing emotions on the sense making level – that is, not as private experiences, but as experiences that enter into the public domain. On the one hand, he speaks of hyercognition – “Hypercognition involves a kind of shaping, simplifying, selecting, and standardizing, a familiar function of cultural symbols and forms. It involves a kind of making “ordinary” of private understandings.” In contrast to that stands hypocognition – “Hypocognition forces the (first order) understanding into some private mode.” Citing his own work on “sadness” among Tahitians (Levy claims that, while there are words for severe grief and lamentation, there are “no unambiguous terms that represent the concepts of sadness, longing, or loneliness… People would name their condition, where I supposed that [the body signs and] the context called for “sadness” or “depression”, as “feeling troubled” pe’ape’a, the generic term for disturbances, either internal or external;…”) Levy writes that these are some “underschematized emotional domains”, and that these are hypocognized. “One of the consequences of hypocognition is that the felt disturbance, the “troubled feelings,” can be interpreted both by the one who experiences them and by others around him as something other than ‘emotion’. Thus, the troubled feelings that persist too long after the death of a loved one or those that occur after some loss that Tahitian ideology holds to be trivial and easily replaceable are in the village often interpreted as illness or as the harmful effects of a spirit.”

Levy’s idea has not, unfortunately, been taken up by intellectual historians. Perhaps this is because one thinks, still, of emotion as being a very intimate and incommunicable state of feeling, which, though perhaps aroused by an external incident, is wholly enveloped within the individual self, much as a tooth ache is felt by the possessor of the tooth and not by the dentist who pulls it. But the affections are not spontaneously invented within us, even if they are, of course, neurologically guided. In fact, one would expect that the kind of epistemic and social ruptures that are thought to constitute the great transformation within the Occident – defined as capitalism, or the industrial or scientific revolution, or the emergence of new encompassing institutions – should present situations that evoke feelings that are ‘underschematized’.

It is an oddity of the work of Foucault, and of his followers, that though Foucault was very clear about the kind of epistemic rupture that he dates, approximately, to the late 18th and early 19th century, the rupture is not witnessed. On his account, it happens in a sense without any contemporary realizing it. I call this odd in that Foucault thought that he, on the contrary, could very well recognize the ‘end of man’ and the shifts that signaled another epistemic rupture. If we suppose that such things could be witnessed, perhaps the witnesses would struggle with hypo-cognition – perhaps they would not be able to interpret their feelings about what they witnessed, about the new thoughts they thought. Suppose, suppose. We are not, I think, looking for total witnesses, but instead searching for partial testimonies. Testimonies of those who were something like affective pioneers. Among whom I would put Rousseau.

Perhaps the enormous influence of Rousseau in the French revolution and in the late Enlightenment owes something to the obscure sense that Rousseau was not only a 'thinker', but he was a sort of witness to what had grown up within the old order as it began to fail affectually - he articulated a certain collective problematic of articulation, in which a connected system of new ways of living sought a schema in which to feel. The feeling about things is not a given: nor are the people of Europe or the "West" magically equipped with an all embracing set of affective categories that they can wrap around the world. The total social fact of collective feeling is not an unchanging universal, although the form in which it works is to make it feel like a universal.