‘What is Emotional Health?’ workshop launches Living with Feeling project at Queen Mary

Evelien Lemmens is a PhD candidate on the ‘Living with Feeling’ project, starting at Queen Mary University of London in September 2016. Her research will focus on the relationship between diet, digestion and emotional health in Britain and the Netherlands between 1850 and 1950.


Mental and emotional health are increasingly prominent topics in our media and public debate. The list is endless: the vigorous interest in stress and Mindfulness; a call for emotional education in schools; a surge in healthy eating and the gut as ‘the second brain’.

The workshop was attended by academics and senior practitioners from a range of disciplines from history to neuro-gastroentology, who were asked to present three words associated with ’emotional health’. Reflective of personal and professional interests, the replies varied. Some were optimistic (joy, laughter, life), some neutral (resilience, self-control, balance), others scientific (vagus nerve, ghrelin), and others pessimistic (the state, control, the media, anger). ‘Emotional health’ is clearly open to interpretation.

The ‘What is Emotional Health?’ workshop marked the start of Queen Mary’s ‘Living with Feeling’ project, which will conduct interdisciplinary research into the history of emotional health from 1600 to present. The research will hone in on three overlapping meanings of ‘emotional health’: the emotional dimensions of the medical encounter; the emotional factors influencing physical and mental health; and emotional flourishing.

 The first approach considers the emotional dimensions of the medical encounter between patients and doctors, including the roles of empathy and compassion.

Medicine – as embodied by white-coated doctors and disinfected hospital wards – is often presented as a haven of rationality, promising cleanliness not just in its physical spaces but also in its approach and diagnosis. The presumed result is an unbiased – and indeed unemotional – diagnosis.

In contrast, the Emotional Health workshop highlighted the emotions in medicine, especially the emotional wellbeing of doctors and patients. Oncologist Sam Guglani, in a column entitled ‘Feeling’, posits that caring for others, “fellow-feeling”, is at the core of doctors’ morality. Is it this heightened emotional sensitivity that draws them to medicine in the first place? He argues that the demand on doctors to respect – at times unclear – professional and emotional boundaries between themselves and their patients results in a vacillating between “emotional silence” (resilience) and “high displays of sentiment” (compassion), neither ideal nor emotionally fulfilling.

Image credit: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/03/19/doctor-photo-grieving-dead-patient_n_6905290.html

Image credit: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/03/19/doctor-photo-grieving-dead-patient_n_6905290.html

The photo to the left, which went viral in March 2015, captures the growing attention for the emotional demands on doctors and their coping strategies. This distraught EMT privately grieving the death of a 19-year-old patient prompted an outpouring of empathy online. The Internet praised his professionalism, for ‘holding his head high’ afterwards, perhaps showing that while empathy is welcome, emotional self-control remains a must.

The question remains: how much emotion should a ‘good’ doctor feel (felt aspect) and show (performative aspect)? This social construction of the ‘ideal’ doctor is historically contingent and subject to historical research, such as that by Alison Moulds, which focuses on the construction of the doctor-patient relationship and the formation of a professional identity in the nineteenth century.


Aside from doctors’ emotional health, the patient’s medical experience – from symptoms to diagnosis and treatment – is also heavily laden with emotion, as is clear from work undertaken at the Health Experiences Research Group at the University of Oxford. This project has traced individuals’ personal and emotional experiences during 94 illnesses to date, from adolescent skin conditions to chronic pain, and cancer.

Medicine – as an interaction between doctors, patients, symptoms, diagnosis and so on – is a hotbed of emotion. Even in dealing with physical illnesses (as opposed to mental illnesses, though the dichotomy is flawed), feelings of anger, fear, joy, and gratitude satiate the air of hospitals.

The second approach focuses on the emotional factors influencing physical and mental health, focusing on emotions as contributory factors to both illness and wellness.

In scientific, philosophical, literary, didactic, and colloquial source material, historians can trace an established relationship between emotions and the body – both external, in physiognomy for example, and internal. The exact understanding of the impacts of emotional states on the heart, stomach, bowels and so on have evolved.

Contributions from modern neuroscience prove crucial into understanding emotional states, underlining the role of hormonal and biochemical processes. Take adrenaline in anger and cortisol in stress: the production of both is a biophysical reaction to a specific situation. However, different historical spaces – geographically, chronically, and societally – have been characterised by unique socially-constructed emotional standards. This reveals a key premise on which the history of emotions is based: emotions and emotional experiences have both a biological element and a socially-conditioned element.

Image credit: Wellcome Library

Image credit: Wellcome Library

In terms of specific emotional states, much of the discussion focused on ‘anger’, Thomas Dixon’s latest research project. By positioning Darwin’s ‘animal anger’ against Aristotle’s ‘moral anger’, it is clear that this emotion can be interpreted either as a primitive, animalistic reaction or as a justified and morally-correct response. There is indeed a self-righteousness to anger – the individual’s notion that they are morally superior in a situation and therefore have the right to be angry. At what point is the internal feeling of anger allowed to be translated into external aggression, and is keeping emotions pent up inside actually worse for the individual’s health?


The third aspect focuses on ‘Emotional flourishing’, understood as a state of healthy balance in an individual’s emotions.

‘Emotional flourishing’ proved to be a term both helpful and problematic. Is emotional wellbeing something that some people have, and others do not? And what should we feel to be emotionally at our best?

Jules Evans’ research focuses on the role of ecstasy in our society, where an ecstatic experience is understood as a moment where you go beyond your ego-consciousness to feel a connection with something bigger. In The Art of Losing Control he observes a modern societal obsession with the Ecstatic: from travelling the globe in search of ecstatic experiences to the ecstasy experienced around weekends and sporting competitions, we have become obsessed with the Ecstatic. In contrast to his initial hypothesis that we needed more ecstasy, the opposite is true: society needs a better balance; a happy medium instead of long troughs of the mundane followed by short-lived peaks in our emotional lives.

This echoes with a recent call for “emodiversity”, which encourages individuals to experience a wide range of emotions, rather than focusing solely on the traditional Western “pursuit of happiness.” A healthy “emotional ecosystem” is one thriving with diversity.

Stefan Priebe emphasised the social nature of emotion, arguing “life is about emotion in a social context.” It is difficult to understand certain emotions without a social context: love, gratitude, disappointment and envy are feelings instigated by the actions of a second individual. There is a need for further research into the effect of emotions on the quality of social networks, as well as a need for vigilance when studying inherently social emotions with only an analysis of the individual.

Imitation and emotional contagion were widely discussed on the day, a topic that Tiffany Watt Smith will research the development of, from 1800 to present. The nineteenth century was marked by an “Early-Victorian disgust of imitation,” argues Tiffany, when it was believed individuals were taught to suppress the primitive instinct to imitate others that they were born with. However, research such as that by developmental psychologist Caspar Addyman has further demonstrated the absence of imitation in babies aged 0-2, arguing that imitation is a learned response.

Image credit: 3.The Daily Telegraph, 9 July 2016, p.21.

Image credit: 3. The Daily Telegraph, 9 July 2016, p.21.


 This is where the perceived importance of education, both historically and today, deserves a mention. During discussions neuro-gastroentologist Qasim Aziz pinpointed that though there is a serotonin transporter gene that can be inherited and shows links with depression and neuroticism, education and upbringing are a crucial factor in emotional wellness. This is not a new argument: “A very considerable preservative against both bodily, and mental Ills, is without doubt a good Education,” wrote Charles Collignon in 1794.[1]

As scientific understanding of the body and emotions permeates the walls of academia into the public sphere, public engagement becomes ever more interesting and crucial. In June 2016 the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions organised the Carnival of Lost Emotions, which encouraged the public to engage on topics of emotional talismans, historically-specific (and today obsolete) emotional states, and emotional facial expressions. The next public engagement project lined up is ‘The Museum of the Normal’, to be held in November 2016. As the name suggests, the project will tackle the public’s hopes and fears around “being normal”, both historically and present-day.

Find out more about the ‘Living with Feeling’ project on our website.

[1] Charles Collignon, An Enquiry into the Structure of the Human Body, Relative to its Supposed Influence on the Morals of Mankind (Cambridge: J. Bentham, 1764).

Which three words mean ’emotional health’ to you?

The 4 July 2016 saw the first main event of the ‘Living with Feeling’ grant, a workshop titled ‘What is Emotional Health?‘. The workshop brought together core project team members with named collaborators on the grant and the PhD students we’ve appointed to start in the next academic year. In the first session we asked attendees to introduce themselves and offer three words they associated with emotional health. The results are revealing! We’ll be posting a few updates about the workshop over the next few weeks but to get us started here’s a word cloud representing some of the choices made in that first session.

Feel like something is missing? Why not tweet us your third words associated with emotional health? You can find us on twitter @emotionshistory . Hashtag your tweets #livingwithfeeling and #emohealth. Or you can leave a comment below.

What is Emotional Health wordcloud

History of Emotions Blog Round-Up: January to July 2016

It’s been a busy year on the history of emotions blog, and readers might have struggled (as I have), to keep up with every post. So here’s a round-up of 2016 so far – about 30 new blog posts – hopefully something for everyone who wants to think and read a bit about emotions over the coming months. Happy Reading! These are listed in chronological order by month of publication:


Jules Evans on ‘Literature and Mental Health’ – an interview with Paula Byrne

Jules Evans, ‘Bowie’s genius versus Eno’s scenius’


Sally Holloway and Jane Mackelworth, ‘Reading Emotions Book Group: Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, or The Moor (1806)’

Louis C. Charland, Why Science Needs ‘Passion’

Lucy Allen, ‘Jesus Wept: On Umberto Eco and John Donne’

Una McIlvenna, Review Essay: ‘Shakespeare’s emotional turn’

Jules Evans, ‘Religion and the arts as collective improvisation’ – an interview with Pippa Evans


Anny Gaul, ‘Egypt, Laughter and the History of Emotions’

Jules Evans, Review of Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body by Jo Marchant.

Jules Evans, ‘A 10-day Vipassana retreat taught me the meaning of pain’


Alison Moulds, ‘Representing emotion in the doctor-patient encounter in Victorian medical writing’


Thomas Dixon, ‘Emotions in the wild’ – a conversation with Charles Foster

Jules Evans, ‘Connecting NHS mental health with Islamic ruqyah healing in East London

Chris Millard, “Parity of Esteem for Mental Health”: why we need a critical history

Jules Evans, ‘Why I sing the blues: Emotional healing and Southern ecstasy’

Aleksondra Hultquist, ‘The Literary Form of Emotion’


Ross MacFarlane, ‘Edward Lovett: An emotional collector?’

Sarah Chaney, ‘Emotional talismans: Safety in objects’

Fay Bound Alberti, ‘Bodies, emotions, and Hamlet: Or, why I wrote This Mortal Coil

Sarah Chaney, ‘The Paradox of Objectivity: New Perspectives in Mental Health History’

PODCAST: Geoff Dyer on peak expriences – interview by Jules Evans

Romantic Voices:

  1. Sarah Comyn, Political Economy and the Language of Feeling: Rereading Jane Marcet
  2. Merrilees Roberts, ‘Shame, Affect, and the Literary Self’
  3. Emelia Quinn, ‘The Monstrous Vegan’
  4. Erin Lafford, ‘John Clare’s Address to Health’


VIDEO: Victorian Emotions: BAVS Talks 2016

Sneja Gunew, ‘Decolonising Theories of the Emotions’

Thomas Dixon, ‘What is anger? 1. Martha Nussbaum’

Brexit and emotions:

  1. Markus Wagner and Sofia Vasilopoulou, ‘Emotions and Brexit: How did they affect the result?
  2. Thomas Dixon, ‘Let grief convert to anger’: Bremotional politics 2016
  3. Julie Gottlieb, ‘Post-Referendum Depression’

What is anger? 1. Martha Nussbaum

Lebrun Colere

‘La Colère’ by Charles Le Brun

Thomas Dixon is Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. His new research – part of the Living With Feeling project – explores the history, philosophy, and experience of anger.  In this, the first in an occasional series asking ‘What is anger?’, Thomas discusses the answer to that question offered by the classicist, philosopher and political theorist Martha Nussbaum in her most recent book. 

Before I get on with the main business of this blog post – namely explaining and discussing Martha Nussbaum’s ideas about anger – I want to ask you, dear sage-like reader, to think about the last time you got angry. If you are a calm and stoical sort who rarely loses their temper, then you might have to think back a long way. But if you are like me you’ll be able to think of several examples just from the last twenty-four hours. Whichever it is, try to conjure up in your mind that experience of getting angry – remember the thoughts, feelings, physiological changes, attitudes, and behaviours that it involved for you.

Now, hopefully that exercise already will illustrate for you how complex the experience of getting angry can be. We can get angry with inanimate objects, with other human beings, or with the world in general. Sometimes it’s a relatively calm moral indignation, sometimes a blind animalistic rage. Personally, I think that my paradigm experience of anger – the kind that gets me tense, pumped up, physically agitated and, shall we say, prone to behaviours and vocalisations of various kinds – is a quite impersonal sense of being thwarted by the world – often by some quite random inanimate thing (a slow internet connection, a broken glass) which happens to have provoked me at the end of a long string of frustrating events. I guess it’s a pretty infantile kind of rage…but enough about me.

Photography by Jeff Brown for The New Yorker.

Martha Nussbaum in 2016. Photograph  by Jeff Brown for The New Yorker.

Martha Nussbaum has been one of the world’s leading philosophers of emotions for the last thirty years. You can learn more about her extraordinarily original, prolific and influential writings and career in a fascinating profile of her by Rachel Aviv published in The New Yorker magazine this month, and an interview with her for this blog conducted by Jules Evans in 2012.

Nussbaum’s contributions to understanding human emotions have been many and various. At the heart of her approach is a revival of the ancient Stoic idea that emotions are forms of judgement or belief about the world (often, but not always, mistaken judgements). In other words, when we find ourselves gripped by an emotion, it is not merely a physiological thing, but it is our mind cognitively construing the world a certain way. So, disgust, fear, and envy, for instance, are forms of belief, construing their objects as dirty, dangerous, or desirable, respectively.

In her more recent works, Nussbaum has taken these ideas about emotion from classical philosophy and literature and applied them to political thought in articulating a liberal vision of the ideal place of emotions in a flourishing polity and society. That was her approach in Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2013) and also in her new book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice (2016).

So, for Martha Nussbaum, what is anger? She has written about anger several times before, notably in The Therapy of Desire (1994) and Upheavals of Thought (2001). In this blog post, however, I will concentrate on the account of anger at the heart of her new book, stating the essentials of her own position as succinctly as I can, and then setting out the conceptual and historical questions it raised for me.

Nussbaum angerAnger and Forgiveness is based on the Locke Lectures Martha Nussbaum delivered in Oxford in 2014.  As in all Nussbaum’s work, this book focuses mainly on the cognitive aspect of emotions. Although Nussbaum acknowledges that anger is ‘typically accompanied by a wide range of bodily changes and subjective feeling-states’ (p. 16), these changes and feelings do not figure prominently in her analysis. Indeed, since she rightly includes ‘the thoughts involved in anger’ as bodily changes themselves (on the grounds that thoughts are neuro-chemical changes in the brain), then there seems to be no particular kind of felt, visceral, physiological, or behavioural change that is required for a state to qualify as anger on Nussbaum’s account. It’s all about the thoughts.

Nussbaum’s starting point, and the theory she adopts herself with minor modifications, is the description of the passion of orgē set out by Aristotle in the Rhetoric (Book II), a description offered in that case for the benefit of orators wanting to arouse such a passion in their hearers. The ancient Greek term orgē is standardly translated as ‘anger’ in modern English, and Nussbaum follows in this tradition. The three key components of orgē-anger are as follows (this is my own summary of Nussbaum’s version of Aristotle’s theory):

  1. The belief that I, or someone in my ‘circle of concern’, have been injured or wronged (often including being ‘down-ranked’ in terms of status).
  2. A painful feeling accompanying this belief.
  3. A desire for the perpetrator of the wrong to suffer as punishment or ‘payback’.

While Aristotle believes that orgē always includes the belief one has been slighted (or ‘down-ranked’, in Nussbaum’s language), Nussbaum suggests that anger only sometimes, rather than always, involves a belief about harm to one’s social status. Nussbaum correctly notes that one of the surprising things about ancient accounts of orgē, as we find them in Aristotle and the Stoics, is that this passion is normally defined not, as one might expect, as a feeling directed towards a present or past wrong (i.e. the slight or injury committed), but rather as a state that ‘looks forward to a future good’, namely the pleasure that will arise from the taking of revenge on the perpetrator of the injury (p. 21).

The examples Nussbaum uses to illustrate her theory tend to be responses to complex moral and political situations (rather than the more brutish kind of day-to-day experience of frustration I alluded to at the outset). For instance, she describes an imagined case of a woman, Angela, whose friend Rebecca has been raped by an offender, labelled ‘O.’ Nussbaum works through a series of examples of Angela’s possible reactions to this rape of her friend, teasing out which of these responses contain the elements required to qualify as anger (in her orgē sense of the word). In the first case, Angela feels pain for Rebecca, and compassion and concern but does not think much about O. In the second case, Angela feels pain and concern, and thinks about O, but only in as much as she thinks about what social measures might prevent similar future crimes by O. and others like him. Nussbuam does not detect anger in either of these cases, but then moves on to the third case, in which anger does arise:

Case 3. Angela feels pain, etc., as in Cases 1 and 2. As in Case 2, she focuses on the wrongfulness of O’s act, and she may campaign for general measures to prevent that sort of damage in future. But she also focuses, this time, on O. She seeks to mend the damage by making the offender suffer. Because her circle of concern is damaged, she wants something to happen to O (whether through legal or extralegal means). Here we finally seem to have arrived at anger, as the philosophical tradition understands it: a retaliatory and hopeful outward movement that seeks the pain of the offender because of and as a way of assuaging or compensating for one’s own pain.’ (p. 24).

So, for Nussbaum, the presence of anger is something to be determined primarily by conceptual analysis. If the mental state has the logical structure set out here – the three key components of perceived injury, pain, and desire for revenge – then it is a state of ‘anger’, and otherwise not, regardless of whether the person thinks they are angry or not, and regardless of whether they behave angrily or not.

Vending machine

Image: www.memecentre.com

Obviously Nussbaum is very well aware of cases that many of us would label ‘anger’ that seem not to fit this pattern, and she discusses them, including anger directed at loved ones, especially children, where one might hope or believe the desire for revenge was absent, or rages directed at inanimate objects, as in the example she discusses of ‘vending machine rage’. The latter phenomenon, Nussbaum records, was the subject of a study published in 1988 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which reported on fifteen injuries, three of them fatal, caused by angry men kicking or rocking vending machines that had taken their money and failed to dispense any goods (p. 18). Vending machine rage, Nussbaum argues, still fits her Aristotelian model, as these angry men were behaving as if the machine were a person who had failed to treat them with respect, and were seeking their revenge. They had been dissed by the vending machine.

This last example illustrates another general feature of Nussbaum’s account, namely her characterisation of anger– more Stoic than Aristotelian – as an irrational and counter-productive kind of ‘magical thinking’ that clouds the judgement and stains the character of the person who is subject to it (p. 24). It is the desire for payback that is the main focus of Nussbaum’s critique of anger, since, in almost all cases, she suggests, harsh punishment of the offender will do nothing objectively to repair the damage or improve the sufferer’s situation. And although Nussbaum can see some actual potential benefit to a status-obsessed person in achieving a kind of payback that lowers the offender’s status relative to theirs, she disapproves of such an attachment to status. Summarising the normative part of her account of anger, then, Nussbaum writes:

I am saying something very radical: that in a sane and not excessively anxious and status-focused person, anger’s idea of retribution or payback is a brief dream or cloud, soon dispelled by saner thoughts of personal and social welfare. So anger (if we understand it to involve, internally, a wish for retributive suffering) quickly puts itself out of business, in that even the residual focus on punishing the offender is soon seen as part of a set of projects for improving both offenders and society – and the emotion that has this goal is not so easy to see as anger. It looks more like compassionate hope (pp. 30-31).

This line of thought leads Nussbaum to introduce the term ‘Transition-Anger’ to refer to this kind of acceptable and healthy anger – a future-directed and rational emotion directed towards achieving change and social welfare, but free of irrational thoughts of payback. As ever, Nussbaum anticipates potential criticisms of her idea – in this case the obvious thought that this calm and rational reformist sentiment doesn’t sound much like anger. Here is her response:

Is Transition-Anger a species of anger? I really don’t care how we answer this question. Such borderline cases are rarely handled well by conceptual analysis. It’s certainly an emotion: the person really is upset. And it appears distinct, though subtly, from compassionate hope, since the focus is on outrage. The person says, ‘How outrageous,” not “How sad,” and entertains forward-looking projects focused on diminishing or preventing wrongful acts. (p. 36)

Ethically and politically I share Nussbaum’s wish to live in a society in which angry desires for vengeance are transmuted into a zeal for social reform. I am not so sure, however, that her account, either of garden-variety anger or of ‘Transition-Anger’, picks out or describes successfully what I (and I believe some other English-speakers) mean when they talk about experiencing ‘anger’.

Take the case of Angela who is said to be in a state of anger by virtue of wishing to see her friend’s rapist suffer. Although Nussbaum describes Angela’s state as one of emotional pain, the ascription of the term ‘anger’ seems to have been made on primarily logical grounds, without any requirement that Angela be agitated or upset, that she have any kind of bodily arousal (general or specific), nor that she behave in any kind of angrily emotional way (e.g. shouting, arguing, fighting, swearing, or knocking over a vending machine).

Nussbaum’s favoured state of ‘Transition-Anger’ (which she admits may not even be a kind of anger as it is usually conceived) seems to be an even cooler state of mind, expressing itself in acts of political advocacy and social reform rather than, say, throwing a plate across the room or starting a riot.

As ever (for me, at least) this comes back both to language and history. First there is the question of whether Nussbaum’s uses of the terms ‘anger’ and ‘emotion’ refer to the same things in the world as you or I imagine they do. This is ultimately a philosophical question about language and metaphysics as well as conceptual analysis, and in my own future research I want to look much more carefully at the semantic and historical relationships between the Greek term orgē, the Latin ira, and modern terms in English and other languages. I want to do as much as I can to look for evidence that these terms do not share a stable referent, and that there is no corresponding universal emotion that is picked out by any of them.

But to keep it simple, less ambitious, and relatively superficial, let me end by reiterating some thoughts about what counts as ‘anger’ with reference to the body and to politics.  As I have said, I can easily imagine a person who fulfils all Nussbaum’s criteria for someone experiencing anger (i.e. who feels pain about an injury and wants revenge) but who is not really upset or emotional about it. This applies also to ‘Transition-Anger’, in which the sense of injury is harnessed not to vengefulness but a hopeful spirit of reform. So, for instance, when Nick Clegg wrote after the Brexit vote about all the people he was angry with (in an article I discussed briefly in a previous post), I think he was wishing to apportion blame for a perceived injury to himself, his concerns, and his country, and he would have said the ‘Leave’ campaign was outrageous, but he could very well have thought and believed all those things without being in an emotional state of ‘anger’ (at least as psychologists would define it).

Perhaps the tension I am drawing attention to here arises from some basic differences in worldview between ancient philosophy and modern psychology. Nussbaum’s account of orgē-anger clashes to some extent with my own post-Darwinian assumptions about the nature of anger and emotion. For Aristotle and most other classical writers on the passions, the main focus was on adult humans as they operated in social and, especially, political life. Nussbaum follows these thinkers in acknowledging that infants and non-human animals cannot have fully-fledged emotions such as anger, since such states depend on making relatively articulate moral judgements.

Snarling dog

A snarling dog, illustrating the expression of anger in animals, in Darwin’s 1872 book on expression.

If, like me, your core sense of what it is to be angry includes states participated in by animals and infants too, then perhaps you, like me, have been influenced by Charles Darwin and William James. Darwin wrote, in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, that most of our emotions ‘are so closely connected with their expression, that they hardly exist if the body remains passive’, adding that a man may hate someone else but ‘until his bodily frame is affected he cannot be said to be enraged’ (p. 74). Darwin had worked out a similar view in his early notebooks decades earlier, scribbling to himself, ‘without slight flush, acceleration of pulse, or rigidity of muscles – man cannot be said to be angry – he may have pain or pleasure but these are sensations.’ William James, in his famous 1884 article ‘What is an emotion?’ asked rhetorically:

Can one fancy the state of rage and picture no ebullition of it in the chest, no flushing of the face, no dilatation of the nostrils, no clenching of the teeth, no impulse to vigorous action, but in their stead limp muscles, calm breathing, and a placid face? The present writer, for one, certainly cannot. The rage is as completely evaporated as the sensation of its so-called manifestations, and the only thing that can possibly be supposed to take its place is some cold-blooded and dispassionate judicial sentence, confined entirely to the intellectual realm, to the effect that a certain person or persons merit chastisement for their sins.

There is not much flushing of the face or dilation of the nostrils in Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness, but it is a sparkling, passionate, stimulating work. I’ve only written here about a few of the ideas in one chapter of the book, and my own initial response to them. I thoroughly recommend interested readers to get hold of a copy of the book themselves. And do please use the comments field at the bottom of this post to add your own thoughts and responses (and feel free to drop me an email to let me know of other things you think I should be reading or thinking about on this topic). This is just the beginning of my thinking about anger and I am looking forward to reading and learning very much more.

Follow Thomas Dixon on Twitter: @ThomasDixon2016

Learn more about the Living With Feeling project

Read more:

The New Yorker profile of Martha Nussbaum

Jules Evans’s Interview with Martha Nussbaum

Jules Evans on what the neo-Stoic theory of emotions leaves out

Reflections on Brexit and emotions on the History of Emotions Blog

“Let grief convert to anger”: Bremotional Politics 2016

PassionsThomas Dixon is Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. His books include From Passions to Emotions (2003) and Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (2015).

Following on from a post by Markus Wagner and Sofia Vasilopoulou about the role of emotions in determining the result of the EU referendum, here Thomas tries to keep up with some of the emotional responses the result has produced from voters, politicians, and journalists.

“…let grief Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it.”
Macbeth (4.3.228-9)

tears-of-joy-emojiFor a historian of emotions interested in how social, linguistic, and emotional changes happen in tandem, the last few months have been fascinating. The scene had been set for me back in November 2015 when Oxford Dictionaries announced that their Word of the Year was not a word at all, but a crying-face emoji. This pictograph had been chosen ahead of the rest of a shortlist which included the term ‘Brexit’. Our technology, our language, our politics, and our feelings were already evolving together. In the last few weeks this process has accelerated to a frantic pace. I started writing this post on political emotions many times, but found myself repeatedly outpaced by the speed of the Brexit melodrama.

So, to start with there was all that new language to think about – Brexit and Bremain had already become staples of political discussion – but now people were getting carried away and prefixing pretty much anything with ‘Br-‘. We were all on the edge of a Brexistential crisis, and I was happy to get into the spirit of things on the morning of the vote:

I wasn’t feeling so cheery the next day, having watched with horror as the results came in, and seen Nigel Farage proclaiming victory for Leave. An opinion poll trying to get ‘Inside the mind of the voter’ found that many Remain voters had been reduced to tears by the result and were feeling emotions of sadness, frustration, and anger. It was all getting very Bremotional. On social media, several people compared their feelings of loss with the famous five stages set out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, based on interviews with dying patients.

Another popular version of this idea was a slightly more elaborate seven-stage model:

Of all of these emotional responses, anger – or should I say ‘Branger’? – was especially prominent in the hours and days after the result was announced. The Green Party tried to recruit new members by harnessing their emotions of ‘disappointment and anger’:

When leading figures from the arts were asked by the Guardian to respond to the referendum result, many mentioned anger, alongside emotions of shame, revulsion, and confusion. The playwright Lucy Prebble declared ‘I feel nothing but rage’, and went on to list Cameron, Farage and Leave voters as the targets of her fury. Nick Clegg wrote an article for the Financial Times, which was an outpouring of anger – directed not at Leave voters – but at the Prime Minister who had agreed to the referendum and the Leave campaigners who had won voters round:

I am angry that my children’s future has been put at risk by a needless referendum. Angry at the brazen mendacity of a Leave campaign which has no idea what happens next. Angry at the careless elitism of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Steve Hilton and other leading Brexiters, parading themselves as tribunes of the people from their gilded worlds in Westminster, North London and California.

It was still only Friday 24th June and I already had far too many opening paragraphs for this blog post. A whole post about the nature of anger now seemed like the best idea, and I started to think about this while also writing a couple of short talks about my new work on anger for the ‘Living With Feeling’ project. I was also intrigued to learn from the research of Markus Wagner and Sofia Vasilopoulou that voters who were angry about the EU were more likely to vote Leave than those who were fearful. What are politicians doing, I asked myself, when they invoke this anger? Why were some commentators impressed by the apparently genuine anger shown by David Cameron when he exasperatedly demanded that Jeremy Corbyn should resign, during Prime Minister’s questions? Is there a significant difference between the anger of a Liberal Democrat and the anger that drives a UKIP voter (discussed here by Nick Robinson in 2014)? Is political anger something physiological, or moral, or both? What is the relationship between grief and anger? Can one be converted to the other, as suggested in the quotation from Macbeth in the title of this post? Or was Malcom X right that it was only anger, and not tears, that could bring political change?

But my answers to these questions would have to wait a bit longer, as now my old research theme of tears and emotions was making a comeback. For a few days after the announcement of the EU referendum result, it seemed as though the feelings of, and about, Boris Johnson would be at the heart of the Brexit story. In Johnson’s column in the Telegraph published on 27th June, he wrote about the need to reach out to those Remain voters who had feelings of ‘dismay, and of loss, and confusion’ – those 16 million voters who, he noted, did ‘what they passionately believe was right’.  OK, I thought, that’s interesting that Johnson is now so interested in political feelings and passions – that will be a good starting point for my blog post, especially since he used to be so down on emotions. As I noted in Weeping Britannia, Johnson has long associated tears with foreigners of various kinds:

From Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia (2015), p. 304.

But three days later Johnson had been stabbed in the back by his erstwhile sidekick Michael Gove and was no doubt having some pretty strong feelings of dismay, and loss, and confusion of his own. He was no longer the emotional focus of Brexit. The melodrama had moved on, leaving Johnson fuming about the atmosphere of ‘hysteria’ in the country. The ‘contagious mourning’ was giving him unwelcome flashbacks to that emotional Diana moment nearly two decades ago. Not for the first time, it was as though he had gone to sleep in Islington and woken up in Buenos Aires or, perhaps even worse, at the dawn of Blair’s Britain.

Having given up on Boris Johnson, and after another hectic week had passed, I thought Andrea Leadsom was going to be the protagonist to focus on. She gave an interview to The Times in which she seemed to claim that being a mother gave her an electoral edge over the childless Theresa May in the contest to succeed David Cameron. Leadsom herself was one of the first to react to the article on Twitter – with very strong emotion:

But soon the emotional  and angry Andrea Leadsom – reportedly reduced to tears by the hostile response that interview provoked – had gone the same way as all the other potential rivals to the notably restrained Theresa May. So Leadsom’s feelings are no longer the story either and the focus has switched not only to the new Prime Minister Theresa May but also to the woman who would like to lead the opposition to her government, Angela Eagle.

When she announced her resignation from Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, Eagle gave several interviews in which she often seemed on the verge of tears – as in the last few moments of this one for the BBC. Then this morning – that’s the morning of Tuesday 12th July for those trying to keep up – just as I was yet again trying to find a way to tie all this emotion together, I turned on the radio at precisely this moment on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, as John Humphrys asked Angela Eagle whether a potential leader should be susceptible to tears:

Do we really want a leader, Humphrys asked, who might have to face up to someone like Vladimir Putin, but could be reduced to weeping by the pressure of doing so? Never mind the fact that Putin himself seems less averse to tears than John Humphrys might think (or indeed than John Humphrys seems to be himself), Eagle responded that she thought it perfectly appropriate for politicians to be in touch with their emotions. Humphrys still wasn’t satisfied. He put it to Eagle that he couldn’t imagine Theresa May shedding tears, and that politicians should be able to control their emotions even when under stress. As I listened with my usual mixture of disbelief and resignation to Humphrys’s line of questioning, Eagle responded firmly – possibly angrily – ‘Well, look, I’m not crying now, am I?’

crying-osborne_2538948b (1)John Humphrys has form on this subject, and was another one of those I wrote about in Weeping BritanniaWhen George Osborne shed a tear at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, he too was grilled by Humphrys on The Today Programme, about whether he was generally the ‘sort of person’ who wept, rather than being too ‘macho’ to show his feelings.

So, despite my attempts to move on from tears to anger, from the Diana effect to Brexit rage, politicians and commentators keep dragging me back, kicking and weeping, to my previous research project. So, I thought it would be appropriate to end this chaotically emotional post with a paragraph that I cut from the final text of Weeping Britannia, but which is now particularly apt, given Theresa May’s installation as Prime Minister, and John Humphrys’s assertion that he couldn’t imagine her crying.

I wrote the following paragraph in 2014, having read an interview with Theresa May in Total Politics in 2012. It had made me think about the way politicians historically have deployed tears, and especially how Margaret Thatcher had done so to try to soften her image in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, for instance, Thatcher had given an interview to Woman’s World in which she confessed to sometimes crying after a stressful day. This was pounced upon by the tabloid press with headlines like this one in the Express:Maggie

So, back in 2014, I was thinking about all of this, and the need for Theresa May to reconsider her own emotional style, when I wrote as follows:

The only woman currently considered a likely candidate to succeed David Cameron, and who would face comparisons if she did so with the Conservatives’ first and only female leader to date, is Theresa May. In an interview in 2012, Theresa May, like Margaret Thatcher before her, was asked to reveal her ‘softer side’. In response she spoke about her love of shoes, cookery, and walking. ‘Ask what makes her cry, though’, the interviewer complained, ‘and the defences go up again. “I’m not somebody who often tears up in public,” she says.’ Politicians each have their own emotional style, and Tony Blair proved that emoting need not be accompanied by tears, but Theresa May will need to do better than this if she wishes to satisfy the post-Thatcher appetite for public displays of private emotion. David Cameron should monitor his Home Secretary’s future interview performances carefully. If one appears under the headline, ‘Why I Cry by Theresa’, he will know that her ambitions have reached a new level.

But in the newly hyper-emotional world of post-Brexit Britain, perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps it is Theresa May’s very unemotional demeanour that has marked her out as the best possible leader in a time of crisis – someone who, unlike more or less all her rivals and opponents, has not succumbed to the Bremotional turmoil of the last two weeks.

As for me, I’m hoping to get round to writing about the history, science, and politics of anger one day soon…😂

Follow Thomas Dixon on Twitter: @ThomasDixon2016

Read more about the ‘Living With Feeling Project’

Victorian Emotions: BAVS Talks 2016 (VIDEO)

BAVS logoOn 10 May 2016, the British Association of Victorian Studies (BAVS) hosted and filmed four short talks by Victorianists.

All four talks are now available to watch on YouTube (and below) and all of them hold potential interest for historians of emotion. 

Visit the BAVS website to find out more about their forthcoming activities and events.

Thomas Dixon, ‘Dickens, Wilde and the History of Emotions’

Holly Furneaux, ‘Victorian Military Masculinity’

Bethan Stevens, ‘Medium and the Archive (Victorian Wood Engravings, for example)’

Ian Gregory, ‘Digital Approaches to Understanding Lake District Literature’

Decolonising Theories of the Emotions

This post by Professor Sneja Gunew is a slightly modified version of a guest editorial first published in a special issue of the journal Samyukta: A Journal of Gender and Culture brought out from Kerala, India, in January 2016. It is republished here with the kind permission of Dr. G. S. Jayasree and Dr. Sreedevi K. Nair, the editors of Samyukta, and the whole special issue is now available, open access, online. We are very grateful to Samyukta and to Professor Gunew for agreeing to this republication, allowing readers of the History of Emotions Blog access to this important work. 

Researchers and scholars interested in potential future collaborations and events in this area are invited to contact Professor Gunew by email with responses and ideas: sneja.gunew@ubc.ca

Sneja GunewSneja Gunew (FRSC) B.A. (Melbourne), M.A. (Toronto), Ph.D. (Newcastle, NSW) has taught in England, Australia and Canada. She has published widely on multicultural, postcolonial and feminist critical theory and is Professor Emerita of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada. She was Director of the Centre for Research in Women’s and Gender Studies (2002-7) and North American editor of Feminist Theory (Sage) 2006-10. She was Associate Principal of the College for Interdisciplinary Studies, UBC, 2008-11.

Her books include Framing Marginality: Multicultural Literary Studies (1994) and Haunted Nations: The Colonial Dimensions of Multiculturalisms (Routledge 2004). Based in Canada since 1993, her current work is on comparative multiculturalisms and diasporic literatures and their intersections with national and global cultural formations. Her forthcoming book is provisionally entitled: The World at Home: Post-Multicultural Writers as Cosmopolitan Mediators

In November 2015, an international seminar on ‘Decolonising Theories of the Emotions’ was convened in Thiruvananthapuram under the auspices of the feminist journal Samyukta and the University of Kerala. This blog post is a version of the editorial for the special issue that attempts to give a sense of these rich and complex papers as well as the event that triggered them. But first a quick word about where and how the concept for the seminar arose.

This project began for me in 2006 when I convened a workshop, and finally conference, titled “Decolonizing Affect Theory”. Our loosely defined group was made up of colleagues and graduate students across the disciplines at the University of British Columbia. It led to a paper in the journal Concentric (Gunew 2009) based on these workshops.  Over the years this essay has attracted quite a lot of comment and the theme and questions have continued to preoccupy me so that I suggested the topic of “Decolonizing Theories of the Emotions” to Professors Jayasree and Sreedevi Nair when they asked me to guest-edit a special issue of Samyukta. In the earlier workshop our group had examined contemporary traditions of Affect Theory and found them indebted to clinical psychology as well as psychoanalysis and more recently to the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze which introduced a new fluidity into conceptual apparatuses.  However, because of the input of colleagues from cultural anthropology, for example, we also looked for alternative taxonomies to those deriving from European traditions and were particularly influenced by traditions emanating from India. I’ve been intrigued ever since to find out more about those different Indian approaches.

In preparation for this seminar I reached for a favourite text titled Vishnu on Freud’s Desk published by Oxford India in 1999. In it there was an essay by Jeffrey Masson compellingly titled “Sex and Yoga: Psychoanalysis and the Indian Religious Experience” which speaks to his disillusionment with much of institutional psychoanalysis. Masson was briefly the Director of the Freud Archives until he famously turned on psychoanalysis in his book Assault on Truth (1984). Masson was also a Sanskrit scholar and one wonders to what degree his Sanskrit studies were linked to his rejection, ultimately, of the psychoanalytic universe. (He did retain his respect for Freud as this essay demonstrates). The animating question for the initial workshop had been: To what extent can we think meaningfully about affect outside the concepts and terms of European psychoanalysis? We met over several months sharing our work and thoughts and finally held a two-day colloquium in which we came together with researchers from Australia, USA, and the U.K.[1] But the questions continued to resonate and the recent seminar was a way to engage once again with those same interrogations and while we retained an interest in the “affect debates” we also wanted to speak more broadly about what was entailed in conceptualising and historicizing the emotions more globally.

In my own ruminations over many years of attempting to understand ‘rasa’[2] I was often reminded of what Jean-Luc Nancy has called the problem of the ‘singular-plural’ (Nancy 2000) and this tension possibly also informs Homi Bhabha’s statement that adding to does not mean adding up (his distinction between the performative and pedagogical nation to be found in his last chapter of The Location of Culture (Bhabha 1994). The challenge lies in trying to keep these two contradictory concepts in balance without absorbing the one in the other. In relation to rasa, it isn’t really a matter of encountering aesthetic forms (theatre or books or music etc.) in order simply to be reminded of or put in touch with one’s own emotions and associated memories –that is only the first step. As I understand it after our seminar, it also involves having those emotions/affective states be de-personalised— the next step. In the western system we were taught that the catharsis we experienced in the theatre, for example, was supposed to ‘purge us of pity and terror’. There may be affinities with rasa in this respect but these would need to be disentangled with further scholarship and discussion. As Sanil argues concerning the theatre spectator, “He identifies with the emotion but not as its bearer. To make this possible he has to leave behind his personal and worldly concerns as he steps into the theatre.” Vikram Chandra’s recent Geek Sublime (a book ostensibly on computer coding) contains a wonderful description of how the process from bhava to rasa work, “So rasa––the word literally means ‘taste’ or ‘juice’ –– is not emotion (bhava); it is the aestheticized satisfaction or ‘sentiment’ of tasting artificially induced emotions (112).” Unlike contemporary western notions of empathy, it is not about stepping inside the shoes of another, nor of being reminded of one’s own emotions (as in mourning). In fact experiencing personal affect or emotion gets in the way of attaining rasa. “One might say that a certain psychical distance is necessary for rasa to be experienced. Rasa is sublime” (113). Finally Chandra maintains that the pleasure of rasa consists in enjoying consciousness itself (151). Rasa might also be associated with western notions of the sublime—a concept difficult to pin down and to keep separate from the domain of the religious, the latter being an element that Govind analyses as possibly constituting a premature foreclosure. There is a sense in which that heightened state can be perceived as religious (and that is the implication in B. Hariharan’s paper as well as V. S. Sharma’s and Srinivasa Murthy’s) but it can also be seen in light of the concepts of dhvani (indirect meaning) and ‘ataraxy’ (a state of serene calmness possibly deriving from the Epicurean philosophers) as discussed in Govind’s paper.

V. S. Sharma set out for us the traditional approach to the two thousand year history of Indian aesthetics. His account and that of Srinivasa Murthy provided robust reference points for the other papers that entered into conversation with this tradition. Equally, Vilashini Cooppan provided an inspiring history of affect as constructed by the ‘psy’ disciplines in Western discussions while Carolyn Pedwell honed in on the specific emotion of ‘empathy’ taking us through the ideological investments (certainly not all benign) in cultivating empathy. Sangeetha Menon brought together western and non-western theories in her overview of consciousness studies and the neurosciences and Sanil also looked at both western (Damasio) and Indian (Abhinavagupta) traditions in demonstrating that ‘negative’ emotions (humiliation) facilitate the formation of political ethics.[3] The questions Menon raises in her paper could generate a productive year of seminars:

How and why does brain activity generate emotions? Or does it? Are emotions evolutionary vestiges or enhancers of experience? Are feelings and emotions different, and do they have differing roles to play? Are there feelings that are not necessarily dependent on sensations? Can we have perceptions without feelings? Are feelings emergent properties of experience or are they discrete cognitive events? … Can feelings be considered as discrete cognitive events and understood within the framework of neuroscience? … How do emotions influence our cognitive capacities and rational processes?

As I stated in my summary at the end of the seminar, for me there were several distinct themes in the discussion:

  1. Codification

This is an issue that underpinned much of the discussion since our work speaks from and is informed by varieties of systems and theories which we have worked hard to acquire and which we hold dear. It is a question not so much of seeking for authenticity as of exploring the affective investments we have in such systems which sustain the whole edifice of scholarly enterprise (an issue address in Nikhil Govind’s paper). Indeed, as I was reading and editing the papers I kept thinking about “academic affect” and the ways in which this is an under-researched field. Academic affect played out across the seminar proceedings in various ways and permeated the papers in a different register. For example, the opening remarks in Vilashini Cooppan’s paper and her question as to whether a sari is “for thinking” made me recall as well Nigel Thrift’s comment that “affect is understood as a form of thinking” (Thrift, 60). To my knowledge Melissa Gregg’s study of affect in cultural studies is the closest we have to a study of academic affect (Gregg 2006).[4] Clearly further work in how affect structures our own scholarship would constitute a rich field for further investigation, another opening out of the topic.

It is clear that as scholars we are highly invested in generating taxonomies to provide a scaffolding for rational categorisation of what might generally be termed the non-rational or, perhaps more productively, what exceeds the rational. T R S Sharma’s paper deals with the contradictions involved in trying to conceptualise the non-rationality of emotions within a rational framework. And those taxonomies are often anchored in  universalist assumptions. For example, V. S. Sharma’s eloquent summary of Indian aesthetic categories that opened the proceedings included several slides of a dancer displaying certain facial emotions. His comment was that these required no further explanation and for many members of the audience this may well have been true.

Image courtesy of Samyukta : A Journal of Gender & Culture

However for those of us outside a familiarity with those traditions the meanings were not clear at all. Listening to V. Sanil, Srinivasa Murthy, and B. Hariharan it seems as though there is a need to hold onto universals and yet this is difficult for many of the postcolonial theorists in the room since the notion of the universal has invariably been linked with the pernicious spread of European colonialism’s “civilising mission”. But as Sanil argues compellingly, “Universalisation is a process of desubjectivisation”. So one of the questions going forward is whether it is useful to hold onto some form of the universal within our parsing of the aesthetic?

  1. Corporealities

The referencing of the body was a constant refrain in all the discussions. The presence of corporeality, the materiality of actual bodies, was most directly registered in the various performances we were fortunate to have included in the seminar. On the first evening there was (to cite V. Priya) ‘Sitara Balakrishnan’s unforgettable staging of Radha’s heart-wrenching complaint in “Yaahi madhava” drawn from the Gitagovinda.’

Image courtesy of Samyukta : A Journal of Gender & Culture


On the second evening we had a Kudiyattam performance of Act 2 of Sakthibhadra’s Ascharyachoodamani: Surprpanakhankam where the drama, in B. Hariharan’s words, “focuses on the Pandavas’ confrontation, deforming of the rakshasi (demoness) Simhika and killing of her brother Kirmira”.  (Unfortunately there were no photos of the fabulous demoness and her Madonnasque prosthetic breasts).

Image courtesy of Samyukta : A Journal of Gender & Culture

On the third evening we had the Kathakali performance of Usha Chitralekha enthusiastically mediated by B. Hariharan’s account in his paper emphasised the detailed training the actor undergoes. In this instance, the role of the unworldly young woman being instructed by her experienced servant are both played by men.

Image courtesy of Samyukta : A Journal of Gender & Culture

i. Performative

Theories of the performative (which in Western theory, most notably the work of Judith Butler based on J. L. Austin’s speech act theory, are often seen as the enactment or installation of the normative) may function as a site for change including change to theoretical frameworks. Traditions of disciplining bodies (including the bodies of the spectator as well as the performer, an issue addressed in B. Hariharan’s paper and by V. Priya) are often deeply conservative but it would be informative to untangle the affective investments they contain. How does the performative translate across different genres: dance, music, theatre, film and, literature? What might it mean to take into account the testimony and the scholarship of practitioners (such as women) who had hitherto been excluded from these aesthetic tradition? This was addressed movingly in V. Priya’s ‘Afterword’ to the essays.  While much discussion ensued concerning the performance traditions relevant to the Keralam context within which the discussions were taking place the performative was also present in literary analyses presented in the papers. What might it mean to consider the body of the violated Gunew 6Dalit woman in terms other than always–already signifying caste violence, (K. Keshavamurthy’s paper)?
How might the invocation of empathy in texts by Jamaica Kincaid or Aminatta Forna, as discussed in Pedwell’s paper, evoke a complex set of emotional responses in specific readers? This was something that also came into play in Sanil’s reference to a negative emotion, humiliation, in his discussion of the contemporary film Fandry.

ii. Trauma.

Indeed the idea of negative emotions came up quite a lot in the discussions ranging from Carolyn Pedwell’s analysis of the ways in which empathy could reinforce negative colonial stereotypes of prematurely knowing the colonized ‘other’ to Sanil’s complex analysis of ‘humiliation’ as an example of the ways in which emotions need to be de-personalised, de-subjectivised, in order for us to understand their role in the political. Vilashini Cooppan summarises some of the debates in western discussions of trauma while Dina Al-Kassim’s paper on Genet and Darwish deals specifically with the ongoing Palestinian trauma but contemplates not so much a negative emotion as dwelling on the concept of revolutionary joy. Al-Kassim invokes a theory of affect that creates solidarity through what she terms a ‘recognition’ created through affinities and modes of attunement that transcend the personal. K. Keshavamurthy’s paper on the Dalit writer P. Sivakamy focused on the inter-caste violence to which Dalits are regularly exposed but also pointed to the question concerning the dubious political expediency of repeatedly subsuming sexual violence into inter-caste violence. The Dalit protagonist of P. Sivakamy’ first novel cannot, it seems, be construed as being violated as a sexual being rather than (as well as?) a caste being. Trauma is differently conceived in Margery Fee’s provocative paper on extinction affect—an affective domain that proliferates in the growing field of eco-criticism—that argues for the need to pay attention to the discrete structures of Indigenous knowledges that should not simply be appropriated by dominant knowledge systems.

  1. Translation

At the seminar itself there was considerable poignancy (and frustration) in listening to Dr. Usha Nangiar’s lecture in Malayalam on the Kudiyattam tradition.

As someone who was not born into the English language and have spent many decades making a virtue of forging an unhomely or provisional home within it I was very aware of the affective saturation experienced by the majority of the participants at the seminar in two and a half days of functioning in a foreign language. The juxtapositioning of several language systems was a palpable and welcome presence in the seminar. That was another of the ways in which the corporeal was a consistent theme in the seminar.

What kind of translation models were presented to us? Carolyn Pedwell suggested translations that should ideally retain a sense of the foreign, to attain the state of (following Venuti) ‘dissident translation’. Vilashini Cooppan demonstrated how Amitav Ghosh’s text The Hungry Tide incorporated a multilingualism within its English monolingualism. A model for me is Chantal Wright’s translation into English of the German Japanese writer Yoko Tawada’s story “Portrait of a Tongue” produced in two columns on the page. On the left is the ‘standard’ translation and on the right Wright both comments on and interrogates her own choices and Tawada’s initial choices in the German (Tawada 2013). There was also the question of translations between disciplines— Sangeetha Menon’s paper concerning the uneasy conversations between the neurosciences and the humanities (or cultural studies) in relation to theories of the emotions was an important reminder of this growing collaborative field.

There is also the theme of what I termed ‘ecologies of language’—where we pay particular attention to the cognitive dimensions of metaphor or figurative language in general. How do we represent ‘silence’ or ‘ataraxy’ (for example in Govind’s paper)—as desolation or as serenity and accommodation? As well, what does one do with the bewildering textual excesses and over-determinations described in many of the papers that suggest a representational (and possibly ideological) system in crisis? Metaphors create parallel hermeneutic systems—the rhizomatic network (Cooppan); the surprisingly resilient flowers of revolutionary joy (Al-Kassim); the hunt as a site that brings together a variety of approaches to theories of the emotions (Sanil); the Indigenous dissolution of ‘Nature’ as a sphere separate from the human: Inuit and other Indigenous knowledge systems alluded to by Fee where “an epistemological shift from an anthropocentric worldview to a non-anthropocentric one, similar to those widespread among Indigenous cultures world-wide”, help us comprehend the ways in which emotions and affect are a form of thinking –– one that we need to learn to trust as a valid form of knowledge.

What was certainly clear from the seminar is that there is no clear-cut divide between ‘Western’ and ‘Indian’ theories of the emotions since many of the papers referred to overlapping theories and theorists. As Sanil cautioned us,

The contemporary revivalist tendencies in Indian theory demand extreme vigilance from western decolonisers and their Indian comrades. For example, the rasa theory of Abhinavaguta is an obvious choice for those who look towards Indian ideas on emotion to decolonize western theories of emotion. However, we now hear that Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) the Hindu nationalist organization, has decided to celebrate Abhinavagupta as part of its cultural and political maneuvering in Kashmir (Pathak). RSS glorifies the brahminical image of the past and legitimizes caste. Should we here appeal to the western binary between thought and its context and isolate the thought of Abhinavagupta from its political appropriations? How do we respond to the humiliation of the Dalits that may be worsened by the brahminical appropriation and denigration of their emotional universe?’

And as Govind suggested:

it is all the more imperative to read the Sanskritic tradition as incomplete, as textually open, rather than as a fixed list of rasas. The minutiae of reading is not merely an example of a pre-formulated theoreticism, but rather the desire to keep open the ever more minute phenomenology of reading (where the experience of reading stands metonymically for the richness of a perceptual world), where one does seek both transcendence and immersion.

And as V. Priya reminds us, “If the past is to be thought of as no longer a singular monochromatic entity and heritage itself a matter of selection, articulation and repetition, how does one make space for a political reactivation of the archive now attempted in order to decolonize western theories of emotions?” What one can say, in general terms, is that Western scholars need to become more informed about and to engage with traditions in Indian philosophy and aesthetics and the hope is that this special issue will facilitate that project. As I was finishing the editorial work on the special issue, fortuitously, the latest issue of the PMLA arrived. It was a special issue on the ‘Emotions’ and included a contribution by Vinay Dharwadker, “Emotion in Motion: The Natyashastra, Darwin, and Affect Theory” (Dharwadker). Clearly our seminar had tapped into the Zeitgeist and such comparative work is beginning to gather pace—we certainly hope this is the case.

Heartfelt thanks to Professors Jayasree and Sreedevi, to the Centre for Women’s Studies and Samyukta at the University of Kerala. Particular thanks and appreciation as well to the two moderators: Dr. S. Divya and Ms Farah Zachariah and to V. Priya who provided an elegant and eloquent ‘Afterword’ to the special issue at very short notice.

Researchers and scholars interested in potential future collaborations and events in this area are invited to contact Professor Gunew by email with responses and ideas: sneja.gunew@ubc.ca


[1] The workshop and symposium were captured in a DVD titled Feeling Multicultural: Decolonizing Affect Theory Colloquium, 2007, Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies, University of British Columbia (now the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice: GRSJ).

[2] I am indebted here to my colleague at the University of British Columbia, the Sanskrit scholar, Professor Emerita Mandakranta Bose whose list of rasa/bhava categories forms the appendix to Gunew 2009. See also Bose and Bose, 2013.

[3] After his compelling account many of us sought out the film Fandry (dir. Nagraj Manjule, 2013 ) as I did via Netflix.

[4] Gregg went on to co-edit the highly influential Affect Theory Reader (Gregg and Seigworth 2010).


Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Bose, M. and Bose, S. P. (2013) A Woman’s Ramayana. Translated with an Introduction and Notes. London: Routledge.

Chandra, V. (2013) Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software. London: Faber.

Dharwadker, V. (2015) “The Natyashastra, Darwin, and Affect Theory.” PMLA Vol. 130, no. 5, Oct.: 1381-1404.

Gregg, M. (2006) Cultural Studies’ Affective Voices. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gregg, M. and Seigworth, G. J. (2010) (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

Gunew, S. (2009) “Subaltern Empathy: Beyond European Categories in Affect Theory.” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, 35.1, March: 11-30.

Masson, J. M. (1985) Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Penguin Books.

——. (1999) “Sex and Yoga: Psychoanalysis and the Indian Religious Experience.” In T. G. Vaidyanathan & J. J. Kripal (eds.) Vishnu on Freud’s Desk: A Reader In Psychoanalysis and Hinduism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, India. 235-249.

Nancy, J-L. (2000) Being Singular Plural. Trans.  R. D.  Richardson & A. E.  O’Byrne.  Stanford: Stanford UP.

Tawada, Y. (2013) Portrait of a Tongue: An Experimental Translation. Trans.  Chantal Wright. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Thrift, N. “Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect.” Geografiska Annaler 86B.1 (2004): 57-78.

Emotions and Brexit: How did they affect the result?

This is a guest post by Markus Wagner and Sofia Vasilopoulou. Markus is an associate professor in quantitative methods at the University of Vienna. Sofia is a lecturer in politics at the University of York.


It is striking how prominent emotions were in popular reactions to Brexit. Those who supported Leave were understandably happy and enthusiastic about the result. Those who supported Remain – and in particular EU citizens in Britain – reported feeling sad, angry and afraid. According to a survey carried out by a project at the LSE, almost half of voters aged 18 to 24 ‘cried or felt like crying’ after the result. In interviews, EU nationals reported being ‘disgusted’ with the result, while others said they felt angry at racist incidents or sad that their future place in the UK was in doubt. Rarely do political events lead to such outpourings of emotions.

People reacted emotionally to the result, but were emotions also important for how they voted in the first place? Our research shows that people did report feeling different emotions when thinking about the EU before the referendum: being a member of the EU made people angry, anxious, uneasy or hopeful.

For those convinced that the European Union was holding Britain back, the fact that Britain was still a member made them angry. This was reflected in how the media reported on the referendum. For instance, following Cameron’s draft EU deal negotiation in early February, the Daily Mail talked about ‘a great delusion’ and ‘selling the country’, and the Sun asked ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Cameron?’. The other dominant emotion before the referendum was anxiety, epitomized by the so-called ‘Project Fear’. In truth, there was anxiety on both sides of the debate: for Leave voters, there was the fear created by economic stagnation, migration and globalisation, while Remain voters were wary of the uncertainty and risks that would result from leaving the EU. Finally, many would argue that the Remain camp did not manage to instil hope and enthusiasm about the European ideal.

graph 1 wagner

Note: Respondents were asked to choose up to four emotions from a list of nine: two for anger( angry, disgusted), two for anxiety (afraid, uneasy), four for enthusiasm (happy, confident, proud, hopeful) and indifferent.

We asked voters about their emotions surrounding the EU in a survey carried out online in April 2015 by Research Now among 3000 citizens chosen to be representative of the British population. Specifically, we asked respondents how they felt about Britain’s membership of the European Union. Negative emotions predominated: 51 per cent said they felt uneasy or afraid, and 23 per cent even said that they were angry or disgusted. In contrast, just over 30 per cent chose an enthusiastic emotion such as hopeful, proud, confident or happy. Only 25 per cent stated that they were indifferent when thinking about the EU.

Broken down by party affiliation, Conservative party supporters were the exception in that anxiety was their defining emotion, much more so than anger and enthusiasm. While UKIP supporters also had high levels of anxiety, they were perhaps unsurprisingly also by far the angriest set of voters. Predictably, Liberal Democrat supporters tended to feel most enthusiastic about Britain’s EU membership and reported very low scores on anger. Labour voters were the next most positive group and strikingly similar to Lib Dem voters in their emotional profile.

Note: Respondents assigned to a party based on whether they consider themselves to be ‘close’ to the party.

Note: Respondents assigned to a party based on whether they consider themselves to be ‘close’ to the party.

Is it a bad thing that emotions entered the Brexit debate? It is sometimes argued that mixing emotions and politics is to be avoided, and that it would be best if we could just form opinions neutrally, building on a fact-based cost-benefit analysis. However, pursuing such an emotionless state is probably an illusion: emotions are always part of how we think and feel, and psychologists such as Antonio Damasio even argue that they enable us to take good decisions. If emotions are an unavoidable part of people’s decision-making processes, then we need to understand how emotions shape debates and decisions, including in the upcoming referendum.

Our survey also shows how these emotions affect how Britons felt about the prospect of Brexit. To simplify, anger makes us want to approach threats and remove them, while fear makes us risk-averse, cautious and open to compromise, and enthusiasm leads us to favour the status quo. Applied to Brexit, voters angry about the EU were more likely than fearful voters to want Britain to leave the EU, with enthusiastic voters unsurprisingly the most likely to want to stay in the Union. However, we also asked about renegotiation, and those results show that fearful voters were more in favour of renegotiating the terms of EU membership than angry and enthusiastic voters. As expected, fearful voters are most cautious and open to compromise.

Note: Respondents were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement ‘Irrespective of renegotiation, the UK should leave the EU’.

Note: Respondents were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement ‘Irrespective of renegotiation, the UK should leave the EU’.








These effects hold if we account for voters’ many other views about the EU, so it is not that emotions simply reflect general attitudes: they have an independent influence on how we want our relationship with the EU to be, and their impact on our opinions appears to be at least as strong as, say, supporting UKIP or not.

Intriguingly, our results also show that ‘Project Fear’ might have worked: citizens’ emotional evaluations of the EU also affected how receptive they were to utilitarian, cost-benefit arguments about Brexit. Anxious citizens a more likely to think carefully about their decision and are generally more open to cost-benefit considerations. In contrast, the decisions of angry and enthusiastic citizens are quicker and more influenced by deep-seated convictions.

Note: Respondents were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement ‘The UK has greatly benefited from being a member of the EU’

Note: Respondents were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement ‘The UK has greatly benefited from being a member of the EU’

This can be seen in our final Figure, which shows support for leaving the EU, again on a 1 to 7 scale. However, this time we create two groups, based on whether respondents perceived many or few benefits to EU membership. Those who thought membership had few benefits were more likely to support leaving, irrespective of their emotional reactions. But at 3 points, the effect of doubting any benefits to membership is much larger for anxious citizens than for angry or enthusiastic citizens. For these voters, low perceived benefits only had a 2-point effect on wanting to leave. In other words: the effect of cost-benefit considerations was 50 per cent bigger for anxious than for angry or enthusiastic voters.

What does this tell us about the role played by emotions in the referendum result? Any ‘enthusiasm gap’ will have been important: since few people felt positive about the EU, this clearly damaged the prospects of the Remain campaign. Indeed, there may have been more enthusiasm and hope surrounding Leave than Remain: think of Boris Johnson’s call to celebrate ‘Independence Day’.

Turning to negative emotions, anger about the EU was an emotion that will have helped those campaigning for Leave. And most importantly, perhaps the Remain campaign was right to highlight the risks and uncertainty created by leaving the EU. The emotions elicited by such arguments will have helped the campaign if we accept that the balance of objective arguments supported the Remain camp. However, perhaps the Leave campaign found an effective counter-strategy by clearly labelling this strategy as ‘Project Fear’. Emotions are important in campaigns and can even improve the quality of voters’ decisions, but they are not an easy and straightforward tool to use, and politicians employ them at their peril.

Post-Referendum Depression

Guilty womenDr Julie V. Gottlieb is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield, and the author of ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy, and Appeasement in Inter-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 

In this post, originally published on the University of Sheffield’s ‘History Matters’ blog, Julie reflects on some of the emotional dimensions of Brexit, suggesting parallels with the Munich crisis of 1938. 

The terms whirling around this referendum campaign have been that voting for Brexit is an act of immense self-harm and suicide. David Cameron himself had warned that leaving the EU would be an act of “economic self-harm”, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also said that Britain would be committing an act of “self-harm” if it voted out. Christopher Scheuermann wrote from London in Speigel that “Brexit is an act of deliberate self-mutilation”.


Earlier in June Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was said to have written the “second longest suicide note in history” by throwing his weight behind the Stronger in Europe campaign, while the PM David Cameron fell on his sword after the results were announced. Distinguished historian Simon Schama has diagnosed the results as “an unnecessary act of self-harm”.

Churchill’s famous aphorism is being quoted in this context too: ‘The trouble with committing political suicide is that you live to regret it.’ This is a national crisis that has triggered a global one, but it has also caused many internal, emotional and psychic impasses.

Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich, 1938.

One day someone will have to write the emotional history of this Brexit crisis, and it may be helpful then to consider some illuminating comparisons. These past days I couldn’t help but being struck by the parallels between our present circumstances and the Munich Crisis of September 1938, an international crisis that had serious ramifications on the home front. Then as now national crisis was internalised. Then too a suicidal instinct, a death wish projected onto the nation as a whole, was seen to be driving national policy.

What seems abundantly clear is that immediate responses are far more emotional than rational. The current political usage of an expansive emotional vocabulary is not something we should be ashamed of. Metro reported that David Cameron wept after his resignation speech on Friday, aides revealed

It was very emotional. Everyone was crying—men and women, even the civil servants. And then David started crying.  [i]

The stiff upper lip (discussed elsewhere on the History of Emotions blog) is no longer, it would seem, an accurate hallmark of British national identity. How different Cameron is from so many of his predecessors at No.10 who exercised personal restraint and ‘emotional economy’. Yet it is worth taking a moment to consider that, relatively speaking, these public displays of emotion are signs of the time. There is not only a high level of tolerance but even an expectation of affective expression and performance, from men as well women in public life.

No doubt this is partly because the medium has changed and highly charged the message. From the early hours of 24 June, my own Facebook feed was inundated with visceral confessions – including my own – and the public airing of feelings and helpless desperation. So many of my Facebook friends were ‘depressed’, ‘gutted’, ‘in shock’, ‘devastated’, ‘feeling sick’, anxious or left numb by what Remainers could well come to call the ‘referenDUMB’. Most had been at best armchair activists during the campaign, but this was nonetheless a blow, a psychic trauma.

Is the British nation suffering from post-referendum depression? At least this is a plausible diagnosis for what many Remain voters are going through, as well as the vocal minority of ‘Brexit regretniks’.

While few of the demonised ‘experts’ seem to have predicted this result, historians and commentators could easily have predicted the historical analogies now being churned up: of appeasement, in the form of the Munich and Suez Crises; of humiliating miscalculation and backsliding at the highest ranks in government, citing Ramsay MacDonald, Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden as examples; of stab-in-the-back politics, the pandering to populism and the poisonous potential of referenda, such as the popularity of plebiscites in Nazi Germany. Charting these analogies is at once fascinating and frightening.

The Munich Agreement has been evoked time and time again as an object lesson in how negotiations with dictators should not be conducted. The reference to ‘Munich’ never portends well, and it has been used as a shorthand to charge unsteady leaders with vacillation or gullibility – or both – during the Suez Crisis, the Vietnam War, Blair’s wars, and most recently crises in Syria, the Crimea, and the international campaign against Daesh.

But what has been largely forgotten is that the Munich Crisis was also a ‘People’s Crisis’. At the grass roots, the high pitch of emotions felt as a consequence of these world events were expressed in 20,000 plus letters and telegrams sent to the Prime Minister – the Twitter feed of their day. Mass-Observation recorded the way the Crisis was experienced by the man and woman on the street. The public hysteria displayed by the many who held Neville Chamberlain up as a ‘Man of Peace’ and a saviour was counterbalanced by a politics of regret and deep shame (often experienced as physical and mental illness) at the betrayal of the Czechs and collusion with the Nazi regime.

Then as now, it felt like the nation was committing political suicide. And, somewhat inadvertently, the newspapers narrated how private individuals internalised these very public events by reporting a large number of suicides triggeerd by the political crisis and the war fear. Thus a railwayman’s suicide was “blamed on the European crisis”;a 61 year-old Bournemouth doctor killed himself as he had “been depressed since the crisis” and “his mind had been unbalanced owing to the possibility of war”; while a Cheltenham woman’s suicide was attributed to her “worry over the international situation”. The Munich Crisis even provided a new method for madness, and a number of suicides were committed with government-issued gas masks. [ii]

The Munich Crisis was the opening battle in the ‘war of nerves’, those long months of suspense and apprehension that proved to be the prelude to the Second World War. The ubiquitous sense of peril, or imminent catastrophe, was quite similar to what I have observed and felt myself over the last days.

Crisis, that overused word that we should really reserve for moments like this, is something that happens out there but also inside. Over the days and weeks to come there will be deep and distinct psychological and personal ramifications as this political, economic, and national identity crisis is internalised. So far the most visible symptoms of ‘post-partition depression’ are bewilderment and powerlessness, a strange state of affairs given that the voice of the people is thought to have spoken on 23 June, 2016.

Read more about Brexit on the History of Emotions blog.

Follow Julie on Twitter: @JulieVGottlieb.


[i] ‘PM’s tears and anger after emotional speech’, Metro, Monday 27 June, 2016.

[ii] ‘Worried Over Crisis? Bath Railwayman’s Suicide’, Bath Chronicle, 8 October, 1938;’Doctor’s Crisis Worries: Suicide Verdict at Inquest’, Gloucestershire Echo, 7 February, 1939; ‘Suicide in Lake’, Gloucestershire Echo, 21 April, 1939; ‘Jockey Found Dead with Gas Mask’, The Times, 20 December, 1938.

Geoff Dyer on peak experiences

Here’s the first episode of our new Living with Feeling podcast – an interview with my favourite living writer, Geoff Dyer, about the theme of peak experiences in his writing. Dyer is the author of two novels and several non-fiction books on everything from DH Lawrence to the history of the Somme to jazz to a study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The podcast will hopefully eventually be listed on iTunes podcast page – watch this space!