Sipping water or blowing your nose it’s hard not to realise the extent to which our emotions are sustained by commercial products. Kleenex tissues, in a campaign masterminded by J. Walter Thompson, claim to make possible “the cleansing of the soul”. As they explain, “Emotional releases help ease the load. Laugh out loud, sing from the top of your lungs or have a good cry. When people let go, they feel relieved. We all carry a lot of emotional weight inside us. Its high time to let it out™”
In a similar vein, Cool Ridge bottled water urges its drinkers to “Express yourself and keep things flowing”. “It is”, they maintain, “good to get things out of your system. Drinking plenty of water is part of it. Letting your emotions out is important too. It is much better than bottling them up. We are a straight talking Aussie water so telling it like it is comes naturally.”
As is often the case, the ideas of advertisers and PR men are in advance of the latest thinking of historians. Historians of emotions have not been good at thinking about the relationship between changing patterns of feeling and concomitant changes in material culture. We still lack detailed studies of how changes in the world of goods might make possible changes in the affective world of the psyche, although certain theorists have begun to explore this relationship.
The French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler has recently argued that humanity is distinguished from animal life by its reliance upon technology. Echoing earlier claims by Julian Huxley and Louis Mumford, Steigler insists that changes in material organisation bring about changes in the organisation of consciousness and experience. Such changes mark the development of a new stage in evolution – that of ‘epiphylogenesis’ – in which humans overcome their genetic heritage and develop new ways of being through technological innovation.
If the claims of Kleenex, Cool Ridge and Stiegler are correct then it does suggest that emotions are in the last analysis, historical. Their inception and expression is not simply a matter of triggering preordained biological affect circuits laid down in the evolutionary past, rather their existence and communication is dependent upon a network of objects – tissues, bottles, yoghurts etc. – that extend far beyond the human nervous system. It is a vision of affective life which firmly locates the history of emotions back within the field of social and economic history.