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emotion among the moderns: note to self

I'm warnin ya/
Style waits for no bitch – Kimberly Jones

Last night I was coming out of Whole Foods, stocked with beer and fish, and ran into a reader and friend of this site, and his wife. We all shot the shop shit for a while as a nice Austin day dwindled into nighttime tv all over the hillsides and through every home and street of the burbs. And this reader warned me against featuring posts with the redoubtable Wundt, since you could stick a warning on such posts – terminal boredom ahead.

But I defended myself and did my rap about the abuse of happiness essay that is growing in my head. And I figure I should get that rap down, cause, as Lil Kim says, I don’t want a flaw in my flow.

The rap goes something like this. Before the early modern period, the aspirational structure for most people had to do not with acquiring goods or changing positions, but with growing older. That structure for the feudal world developed complex roles, or what I’d call myths, appropriate to that aging process. Accordingly, the social sense of the passions was tied to the possibilities presented by this age specific, gender specific, position specific world. But in the early modern period, that aspirational structure began to come apart as the feudal system began to come apart. That you could aspire to rise or to change your position created an aspirational drift, so to speak. It was no longer the case that one or one’s family would remain in a natural position – and after the terrible famines that struck in the middle of the eighteenth century, it even became the case that people on the bottom (save for the Irish) in the developed countries would probably not starve. As the old structures became unstuck, one sees two synchronic effects: on the one hand, the old notions about the passions give way to a new way of thinking about feelings. The importance I’m giving to volupte in the seventeenth century is that it operated as an entering wedge to de-structure the ways in which the passions were socially experienced – which means socially controlled, socially interpreted, socially ordered. At the same time, the roles or mythical figures of aging were shaken up. One of the oddly unstudied effects of the creation of a manufacturing and marketing system – a production system that underlies our economies today, and underlay all developed economies, communist or capitalist, in the twentieth century – is that the older forms of age segmentation, that is, the making sense of youth, of the middle of life, of old age, according to an agreed set of tropes, roles and stories began to dissolve. This dissolution speeded up after 1870 – that is, with the beginning of the consumer culture phase of capitalism.

So, what I am doing is trying to describe dimensions of a multi-dimensional event – in particular, the symbiosis between two things: the making of happiness into a keystone emotion, a norm, and the making of youth into a keystone age segment, into a secular virtue along almost the entire length of the lifespan. Very odd things.

Looking at how the vocabulary of negative and positive emotions emerged from psychology to pursue an astonishing career in folk psychology is simply one entrance to this Castle.


Anonymous said…
I think that my response is variously on and off the hinge, though I suspect that’s how you like it, as do I at the moment. I think that I've historically suffered from an ideology of happiness, and the more that I think about that fundamental idea the more that I like it. Rather than try to add to your specific points, I though I'd provide my superficial response to your fundamental problem based on my own interest in psychoanalysis. A kind of psycho-analytic gift, so to speak.

I’m sorry if you’ve already discussed this somewhere, but I think that there might be a relationship between your analysis of different intensities of unhappiness and the Lacanian differentiation between shame and guilt. This theory recognises the negative emotions associated with shame, but argues that in shame you’re allowed to take an immanent relation to whatever it is that wounds you, whereas in guilt you respond to the wound by doing what you can to avoid it.

For example, according to this theory, crying is a technically hysterical response that’s also a type of shame. I think that one of the differences between crying and anger is that in crying you’re allowed to psychologically find the thing that hurts you, whereas anger is an attempt to avoid it. If in anger you attempt to destroy the thing that’s hurt you, then in those actions you see your wound in a representative that’s external to yourself, thereby displacing the real problem at hand.

Of course, the point here isn’t to blame the victim by saying that he should accept that it’s his fault that he’s been wounded. Rather the point is that if the victim ever wants to traverse that wound he must take an immanent relation to it through a process of shame. I think that this ambiguity of the potential in feeling ashamed is expressed in the English language through the terms ‘shameful’ and ‘shameless’, because though grammatically they’re opposed semantically they’re very similar.

Though I think this might be relevant to your theme, I’m skeptical of a doctrine that places too much emphasis on the traversal of the Lacanian wound through shame, which would be a kind of hysterical therapeutic doctrine. I think this is illustrated through an exception to the Lacanian guilt-shame problematic in schizophrenia, because the schizo is at once shameless, in that he seems to uncontrollably generate his desires, at the same time as he experiences many of the effects of guilt.

I think that a Lacanian would respond to this by saying that though the schizo is shameless/shameful in refusing to feel guilty, ultimately he doesn’t feel shame for the right things. This is reflected in the psychoanalytic metaphor of the ‘fundamental fantasy’ which represents the ‘heart of the problem’, or the real object that all of the other fractal desires ultimately refer to. The psychoanalytic goal would be to ‘traverse’ that fantasy by finding a way to feel its proper shame.

You probably know all of this already, but my point is that I wonder what it means to speak of an ‘intensity of unhappiness’ in this debate. For example, to me the Lacanian idea of the fundamental fantasy speaks of the different levels of intensity in fantasy, and we could draw some connections between the Lacanian fundamental fantasy and its intensity to the way in which the ideology of happiness operates to expropriate our capacity to find that heart of the matter.

That is, if we understand the nature of our unhappiness as the inverse of the nature of our happiness, then the intense thing that’s at the heart of both must be found by understanding what they commonly attempt to exclude. Furthermore, if an ideology of happiness produces forms of discipline and governance that expropriate our capacity to discover its necessary relations to our unhappiness, then it would be a surreptitious means of expropriating our relation to that common object.

You could project this schema onto a type of class analysis, in terms of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ as analogous to the happiness and unhappiness terms, and the Badiouian figure of the singularity as the common object that’s excluded from the propriety of happiness and how this governance expropriates their capacity to feel the shame of their fate. This could lead to the argument that the real reason for not being allowed to do so is that it would be necessary to the Badiouian political event.

That is, you could say that a critique of the ideology of happiness would be one small but necessary means of contributing to such a political event. I’m interested in what you think of this. I’m not a big advocate of theory as advocate of the revolutionary event, so I think there could be a kind of aporia here in my train of thought; but I’m interested in how you understand the possible cultural place of your critique of the ideology of happiness in a larger system. Do you have any posts on this?
Roger Gathmann said…
L & T, your comment is large and - at least in the section about shame, guilt and the lacanian analysis thereof - contains matter I have to think a little bit more about.

So let me go to this:
if we understand the nature of our unhappiness as the inverse of the nature of our happiness, then the intense thing that’s at the heart of both must be found by understanding what they commonly attempt to exclude. Furthermore, if an ideology of happiness produces forms of discipline and governance that expropriate our capacity to discover its necessary relations to our unhappiness, then it would be a surreptitious means of expropriating our relation to that common object.

My critical take on the emergence of happiness as the keystone emotion - both the goal and the norm of human existence as a passionate existence - has to do both with the way that ideology came about and with my sense that it is at some distance from the way emotions/feelings/passions work.

Thus, I don't think unhappiness is the inverse of happiness. I've been avoiding Freudian terms in working this out so far, but I think that Freud's radical idea, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, is to face this fact. In the game of fort/da, Mommie coming home and mommie going doesn't operate like an on/off switch - now I'm happy, now I'm unhappy, now I'm full, now I'm empty. The path to this in Freud's work begins with the essay on wartime trauma, when he begins to consider repetition not simply in terms of pleasure, but in terms of control. Thus, the repetition of anxiety is about controlling trauma - but the 'force' so to speak behind the repetition isn't the pleasure principle. By the time of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud has a name for it - the Death drive.

All of which impinges on the psychological model in this way: the models that derive from Wundt and from other late nineteenth century psychologists postulate a feeling 'space' - what Lewin eventually calls a field - which is like the force field space of mechanics. And just as particles in the later are defined - until the twenties - as having a position, a velocity and a degree of freedom, the psychologists wanted these feelings to align dynamically in the feeling space with regard to one another, to have a direction, and to be distinct one from another on various continua. Yet why should we believe this model really captures what emotions are like? Even if we grant the idea of a feeling space, why are happiness and unhappiness aligned symmetrically one against the other? It is part of the logic of the model that, say, happiness would cancel out misery - but is this really part of our experience? My contention is that we can't predict that at all. Nor do the continuums seem to respond to the real structure of feelings and its variations among individuals and cultures.

This is my positive assertion. My critical assertion is that the work of psychologists on emotions points us to one of those total social phenomena Mauss writes about in The Gift. That is, the language and modeling of emotions is not only about the true nature of the emotions, but the true nature of our social positioning in the network of positions constituted by the modern system of production, and the aspirations defining the sense we make of 'roles' - what I would call myths - in the network. Here I'm interested particularly in the de-structuring of an older aspirational construct, in which aspiration is specifically linked to aging. To aspire to get older sounds like a minimal aspiration in an age in which starvation is a news story about something happening in Ethiopia, but of course that wasn't true for the majority of people in the world before 1900, and for the majority of the people in the developed world before 1800. That older system, then, put a positive value on getting old, and found roles, or myths, that signified for a person who was growing old. It is now no longer viewed as something extraordinary or a work of cunning, and the aspirational conventions have so collapsed that we aspire to stay young as we grow old - or I should say there are very powerful social mechanisms that broadcast the dominance of the youth role or myth. Cunning is now evidenced by staying young, not surviving youth. This has a strong effect on the variety of happiness - happiness triumphant - that infuses the modern ethos.