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Conference on Emotions History: some thoughts about the field

Conference on Emotions History: some thoughts about the field

We have just emerged from a conference on the history of emotions at George Mason University that Susan Matt and I organized and that drew participation from about 70 people. It was, to our knowledge, the first extensive conference on the subject in North America, though participants came not only from Canada and the US but various European countries, Australia and a few other places. I think all who joined agreed it was an intense experience. It also prompted, for me at least, several reactions applicable to the field more generally.

First and by far the most important: though work on the history of emotions is a fairly new endeavor still, it is generating tremendous interest, great enthusiasm, and a variety of intriguing findings. The conference showed progress in many areas: on the history of cheerfulness, on Japanese love, on definitions of emotional obligations among immigrants, on ambition, and the list goes on. We are making advances, if still inadequate, in some areas that have needed work: the extension of emotions history to regions beyond the West; the development of methods to deal with the subject in earlier time periods; explorations of emotional experience in various groups outside culturally dominant social classes. We are also making some progress on periodization, as in discussions about early modern Europe or the relationship between medieval and Renaissance. Here too the list can be amplified.

And beyond this: there’s an excitement among participants in this endeavor that is noteworthy in itself. People were really eager to meet each other, to put faces to names. This aspect recalled for me the heady early days of Anglo-American social history, when simply being in the group and trying to advance the cause provided deep motivation.

Second: predictably enough, we are engaged in a variety of tasks quite apart from different time period and regional specializations. At times, and without intending any straitjackets, I thought it might be useful to clarify how a given presentation fits a wider typology, in part to facilitate identification of the emotions components. We certainly continue to explore the history of the study of emotion (for example, the rise of attention to empathy) as well as efforts to get at emotion more directly (the targets are usually related but not identical). We deal with larger developments in intellectual history and try to see their emotional application. An important subsection works on literary history, with varying interest in connections with other facets. Another group is preoccupied with building an evidentiary base, particularly among early societies, for discussing emotion in the first place. There is also some distinction (perhaps particularly in more modern periods) between historians directly interested in emotion (in whatever specific aspect) and those pursuing other topics, like political protest, in which emotional factors (like fear, anger or anxiety) played some role.

All of which means that some wider discussions about relationships among varied approaches must clearly be part of an ongoing agenda. Opportunities to do more with periodization, with comparison, with causation may help bridge some divides without pretending that the field needs complete coherence.

Third: concern about the relationship with other disciplines that study emotion, particularly beyond the humanities, remains palpable. It was great to have a few sympathetic psychologists and psychoanalysts among us, but we clearly need greater efforts to define effective interactions (and, as some noted, to earn more than condescending attention). I was impressed also by the opportunity to develop more links with sociologists of emotion, whose approaches we may have downplayed in recent years. And it was appropriately pointed out that even when we achieve some shared acknowledgement of the “constructedness” of emotion, we need to be aware of the structural factors involved and avoid shallow self-help formulas.

But again, the enthusiasm and shared desire to move the field forward deserve the greatest emphasis. The conference was the result of many individual commitments of time and resources – creating a range of participation far greater than Susan Matt and I envisaged when we first broached the idea. A variety of scholars, from young to well-established, clearly believe that emotions history offers new vantage points on the past and new ways to use history to explore the human condition. The enthusiasm for some loose organization of emotions historians in North America (North American Chapter on the History of Emotion, or NACHE), linked to other groups including the Society for the History of Emotion, and the agreement on another conference in two years’ time, captured the mood and set some basis for further interaction. We can look forward to the next steps.

And additional comments and reactions now will be welcome as well.