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Monday, May 12, 2008

Theory Theory Theory

Robert I. Levy, in a very useful 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.” [219]

When speaking of a shift in the emotional customs that occurred in Europe in the time of the ‘social revolution’ marked, ultimately, by the rise of the industrial and market system, I am often at a loss for the terms to denote shifts that are a matter, so to speak, of keying one’s feelings and their meanings to social reality. It is not, of course, that happiness was unknown in Europe, or that voluptas was not experienced before the 17th century. However, new affective standards and expectations did arise, a new vocabulary and science displaced the vocabulary of the passions and the characterologies that corresponded to the passional system. In that sense, volupté, which expresses an ethical and affective mix around the sensation of pleasure, hypercognized a set of feelings that were hypocognized – that is, that were seen as moral failings, or were considered dishonorable, or wicked. That could even be seen as diabolical.

It is for this reason that I find it interesting to compare Quevedo’s comic account of interviewing a ‘catchpole’ – a tax gatherer – who was possessed by the devil with Theophile de Viau’s much cooler account, which has connotations of the sort of seigniorial disbelief which eventually flows into the romantic image of the great sinner – the Byronic atheist. I will translate that in my next post.

Here, I want to contemplate something else – the way in which these hypocognized emotions are caught in the narrative of adventure. Levy cites a Freudian psychologist, Ernst Schachtel, who claimed that childhood amnesia has to do with an acculturation process in which the child’s conceptual schemata for understanding his or her feelings is systematically starved, and a new schemata is put in its place. In a sense, the language of childhood is lost. Levy claims that the devastating encounter with European cultures has had an analogous effect on many indigeneous peoples. “The “starved schemata” are left as a basis for creativity, dreams, humor and transcultural understanding.” This negotiation between dominant and repressed schemata, I think, occurs in that dimension of culture I’m calling the third life – the life of reading. The transformed ethical and affective modalities are forged, in part, in adventure stories. These play a really critical role in the early modern context – they present a sustained critique of older forms of imitatio. The burlesque conflict between the ancients and the moderns is one aspect of this struggle.

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