Fetishizing memories: emotional objects in literature

Paolo Gervasi is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, working on a project that analyses as emotional symptoms the presence of caricatures and deformations in literary texts. This is the text of the talk he gave on November 20th at the Royal College of Nursing in London for the event Emotional Objects: From Lost Amulets to Found Photos, organised by the Centre for the History of Emotions of Queen Mary University as part of the Being Human Festival 2017. The post is reposted with his permission from Paolo’s own blog


With this talk, I hope I can suggest a standpoint on the literary work of the Italian contemporary writer Michele Mari by showing how his writing is consistently focused on the relation between memories and objects. In his last book, Leggenda privata, an autobiography disguised as a horror story (but also the other way round: a horror story disguised as an autobiography), published a few months ago, he writes: ‘All my books are about the soul entrusted to things’.

Before going into Mari’s emotional fetishism, though, I want to introduce another outstanding fetishist, Marcel Proust.

I assume few people in the world, even among literary scholars, have read the thousands of pages of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927) entirely. But I’m pretty sure a fairly larger number of people know the most famous scene of the novel, whose main character is a traditional shell-shaped French cake, the madeleine.

Tasting the madeleine soaked in a cup of tea Marcel, the first person narrator, feels an unaccountable and deeply physical sensation of joy, which is associated with a stream of memories from his childhood. Places, objects, and feelings emanate from the cup of tea to be vividly projected before Marcel as in a theatre. Marcel realises he used to have the same cake when he was a child and comments:

The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. 

Hence, the madeleine has become one of the most popular emotional objects in literary history. The Museum of Illiers-Combray, the village where Proust spent his boyhood and which inspired part of the novel, reconstructed the rooms of Proust’s family house, and there for a long time displayed the actual cake.

Eventually, to prevent the deterioration of the cake, the Museum decided to create madeleine made of plastic. Far beyond Proust’s intention, the plastic madeleine strengthens the reification of emotions; it solidifies what for Proust was a fleeting sensation spreading not from the objects in itself, but from the relation with it.

Mari tells the story of the plastic madeleine in the foreword of his book Tutto il ferro della torre Eiffel (2002), a fanta-historical novel whose characters are among the most important intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century (philosophers, writers, artists, publishers, entrepreneurs), all of them obsessed by objects, and connected to each other through the exchange of objects. In the age of the triumph of commodities, for the fictional avatars of these thinkers, things become magic talismans that enable the vision of an alternative reality.

The magical power of “stuff” embodies the paradox of emotional objects: the human mind projects emotions into things; things absorb an emotional energy which increasingly detaches from human control. Objects seemingly assume an independent emotional life that we don’t fully recognise as ours. As for the plastic madeleine: did we really create such a thing? Or, in Mari’s terms: is this cheap and kitsch solidification the destiny of our imaginations?

On this mechanism of reification is grounded the creation of fetishes, which is anthropologically related to the origin of cults and religions. The Oxford Dictionary defines the fetish as ‘an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit’. Fetishes are objects whose emotional value is overcharged to the point of disrupting hierarchies between what is animate and what is inanimate, of reversing the relation of ownership. The fetish owns its owner.

Across time, several interpretations gathered around the concept of fetish. Famously, Sigmund Freud stated that we (and by “we” Freud generally means “men”) create fetishes insofar as we look for objects that can substitute our penis in case of castration. Or, we create fetishes as substitutions of the absent female penis. Karl Marx explained that capitalism forces us to attribute an emotional value to commodities because affection toward objects makes us more efficient and compulsive consumers. Walter Benjamin, not by chance the main character of Mari’s Tutto il ferro della torre Eiffel, overturned this idea and conceived fetishism as a liberation of the object from its functions, as a freely creative use of things.

Literature recursively explored the idea that when we interact with objects, we transfer to them some of our living substance. After its involvement in human activities, something alive inhabits the object, a portion of human vitality pulsates within it. In his collection Shorts, the poet W.H. Auden wrote:

Our tables and chairs and sofas

know things about us

our lovers can’t.

Sharing this belief, in 2015 Michele Mari conceived together with the photographer Francesco Pernigo what he called an autobiography by fetishes, titled Asterusher. A book composed of photographs of his most meaningful objects, conserved in his houses. Each image is commented by captions the author wrote specifically or passages from his previous books. Comments connect objects to key life experiences, according to the idea that, as he wrote, ‘our memories are themselves fetishes’.

The title of the book merges two tales: The House of Asterion by Jorge Luis Borges and The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe. In both tales, the house is conceived as a living organism and a sort of material extension of the owner’s body and mind. Inspired by these tales, Mari places side by side his experience of the house and the experience of the ghost he imagined in his book Fantasmagonia (2012). For both of them, inhabiting a house means ‘breathing the molecules of which the house is made’, and thus ‘becoming part of the house itself’. For the ghost, as for the writer, contemplating a particular spot or object of the house is ‘to gaze from within a precise point of his own mind’.

The mind of the author is displaced in the spaces he inhabits. Hence the tight entanglement he establishes between his familiar things and emotional and psychological conditions.

In another of the tales published in Fantasmagonia, titled Ballata triste di una tromba, Mari imagines a character who collects things as material equivalents of his memories, objects embodying feelings connected to specific life experiences:

This oak branch is our father; every time I miss him, or when I can’t remember his smile, I hold tight the branch and I’m again together with him. This violet quartz is the revolution: when I can’t figure out anymore what we wanted, I brush its crystals and remember. This crown cap it’s my childhood: to handle it is really dangerous. […] This marble is someone who once betrayed me. This ring is a dog. This spoon, a house.

Objects create, as Mari writes, ‘a perfect correspondence of images and emotions’. In objects, he embodies his fears, traumas, and psychic distresses. With the idea that once emotions are reified, are made solid, they can be handled. Once emotions are outside us, can be observed, questioned, and even understood.

Dangerous presumption. In fact, objects turned into fetishes have supernatural powers. They can’t bear to be dominated. They are dominant. They have their own agency; they impose their agenda, which is slightly different from the owner’s.

Emotional objects can eerily start to question us back. They can become scary, as children know very well. The child lives in an enchanted world where objects hide presences, where spirits and monsters do exist and disguise themselves underneath the appearances of everyday life. As in this passage from Asterusher:

Who lifts the cloth and the piano’s lid, by night? Who brushes the keys with pale fingers? Since I was a child I knew that was the dark woman of the painting, who would follow me with her gaze while I moved; and at whose eyes it was better – it is better – not to look too much.

Most of Mari’s emotional objects are vestiges of childhood. In one of the tales of the book Tu, sanguinosa infanzia (1997), he writes that the comic books he used to read as a kid are ‘documents, fossils […] little corpses that refuse to die […] monstrous clots, superhuman concentrate of melancholy, monuments to my solitude, sacred things!’.

The early and consuming passion of the young writer for reading triggers fetishization. Mari doesn’t simply read books; he physically merges with books. In Leggenda privata he writes:

When I was a child, I started to transfer particles of my soul in the books I read, until the full displacement. This way I could circulate the world as an insensitive golem without suffering too many damages, and when I wanted to recover a bit of my soul, I would have gone and look for it where I concealed it, in books.

Similarly, in one of the tales of Euridice aveva un cane (1993) Mari imagines an autobiographical young boy who in the library can hide from the threats of the outside world, and escape the precariousness and uncertainty of life, contrasted by the stability of objects:

It was precisely to look at the world around me as little as possible that in the last years I almost didn’t exit the library, where at least everything was as it used to be, the time-yellowed books and the damp stains on the wall.

But once again, what is supposed to be a shelter undergoes an eerie twist. The shelter becomes a prison: Mari finds himself literally trapped in books. And the evil wizard who provokes the entrapment is his father.

Enzo Mari, Michele’s father, is a renowned designer. He is also a pretty tough, unemotional, dogmatic man. The father-son relationship has always been troubled by Enzo’s rages, silences, and strict educational beliefs. In Leggenda privata Mari writes that the temper of his father ‘is situated at the junction of Moses with John Huston’, a popular actor in gangster movies. And he adds: ‘the specific quality of my attitude toward him is ADMIRED TERROR’, with capital letters.

In 1966 Enzo Mari was asked to design the cover of the Italian edition of a book by the child psychologist Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World. To realise the cover, Enzo uses the multiplied image of his son Michele, the future writer. Whose comment in Asterusher is: ‘prisoner of one book, prisoner of the books’.

Forever imprisoned, and forever a child. The father established the material, physical bond between Michele and books as objects. But also, the father has stuck the son within the child’s conception of the world, as for the title of the book.

In the tale Il giro del mondo, Mari imagines a dialogue in which his mother tells him: you’re not anymore the baby you used to be, that baby died. His answer is:

No! This is the point; I still have the same fears, I’m still there, as the baby of the talcum powder’s jar, laying in the nurse’s lap surrounded by those liberty flourishes.

The never-ending childhood has his major witness in the teddy-bear, which appears in the tale L’uomo che uccise Liberty Valance:

… the love of all loves, the teddy-bear, which I called with the tender name orsino, my bear made of grey ripped yellowed cloth, stained, blinded, peed-on, crushed.

In this tale, the father is the “guardian” of the teddy-bear, the one who returns it to the adult son to remind him that, despite being ruined by time, the toy is stubbornly alive and present, as much as the memories it conveys. The father is the master of toys because he is the master of emotions and also, as a designer, the master of objects. He doesn’t play with his son, but he designs worldwide popular toys, as mentioned in Asterusher:

My father’s Sixteen Animals, now exhibited in museums all over the world, had a prototype: this. In the first years of my life, I continuously played with them, lodging and dislodging pieces, moving and combining them in always new stories, throwing them, colouring them, carving them.

While being a substantially undemonstrative, uncaring parent, Enzo puts all his creative energy and passion in designing meaningful objects, in shaping useful things. As a consequence, his son, the writer, is obsessed with objects and entrusts things with an overwhelming emotional energy. Objects are literally alive for him because they are inhabited by substitute feelings, the feelings he can’t exchange with his father. Fetishes are simultaneously the embodiment of his psychological traumas, and the antidote to them, particularly when elaborated in writing.

Indeed, the emotional intercourse with objects also influences Mari’s mind as a writer. In these two heads his father showed him when he was a kid, Mari could foresee the recurring themes of his writing, his literary obsessions:

The first is the head of the man I used to call “the sir”: the second, which I always felt not just as opposed and antithetical but also as complementary, is the head of the “monster”. This sneering monster, before anyone told me the story of Jekyll and Hide, has always been to me the deformation of the “sir”, his tension and his destiny: if not his permanent truth. Hence the conclusion: the reassuring face was the face of deception, and the monstrous face was the face of sincerity.

The duplicity of human nature, the cohabitation of bestial and sublime drives, monstrosity and beauty, heavenly and earthly aspirations, is consistently represented in Mari’s major literary works, and particularly in his most complex novel, Di bestia in bestia (1989 and, in a deeply revised version, 2013).

Reflecting on his literary rendering of objects, in Leggenda privata Mari also states: ‘We are exactly this: our writing and our things’. But for him, the writing and the things end up coinciding. He fetishizes the material tools of writing, preserving the pens and pencils he actually used, as the materialization of his commitment, as the testimony of his strict self-discipline and loyalty to the past.

Judging from his attitude toward manic preservation, can Mari be described as a hoarder? Is his collecting comparable to what is referred to as hoarding disorder, that is, the pathological compulsive accumulation of things and a suggestive “metaphor” of our age on the verge of post-humanism?

I think the answer is no and this is important to understand what a fetish is. Despite his inclination to obsessive collecting, Mari’s emotional bond with objects is substantially different from indistinctive accumulation. Indeed, Mari conceives fetishism as opposed to hoarding: the fetish is about quality, it is the surrender to the unique and unrepeatable emotional energy of a single object; hoarding is about quantity, it is the surrender to the anxiety provoked by the overwhelming siege of things. Or, as proposed by Jane Bennett in her claim for a “new materialism”, hoarding is a way to listen to the ‘voice of things’, and the attempt to establish a new alliance between human vitality and the living energy of matter.

Though, the power of the hoard diverges from the vitality of fetishism. This becomes more evident when Mari’s rendering of emotional objects is compared to other examples of object-oriented narratives in post-modern literature. In Safran Foer’s celebrated novel Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close, for instance, characters accumulate objects while engaged in life-repairing researches. But their accumulation is a clearly misleading way to fight insignificance. The object’s supposed meanings are deceitful. Safran Foer’s characters are close to the hoarding disorder; they look for quantity because they can’t find quality. As the hoarder, they can’t find meaning in a single object; oneness is untrustworthy, no object is special.

For Mari, instead, the meanings embodied in objects are truthful. Objects are conserved, described, worshipped because of their absolute and unmistakable emotional quality. And they are trustworthy to the point that they are expected to overcome time and death. Such as these creepy embalmed pieces of food:

Arbitrarily abstracted by my father from time (and more matter-of-factly from our ingestion), these pasta and legumes became immortal, as insects in amber, as dead languages, far more alive after their death.

The disturbing suspect that objects can outlive us is also expressed by Franz Kafka in his tale The Cares of a Family Man, whose fundamental character is the Odradek, a mysterious creature, as the narrating voice calls it, a living thing which inscrutably intersects human life and unclearly interact with it.

Odradek is a star-shaped spool for thread, with broken-off bits of thread wound upon-it. Thanks to two wooden crossbars, he (Kafka refers to Odradek as he) can stand upright as if on two legs. He appears in several places of the house, garrets, stairways, lobbies, entrance halls. Then disappears for months, but he always comes faithfully back. Sometimes he speaks and utters his strange name, sometimes ‘he stays mute for a long time, as wooden as his appearance’.

Odradek embodies the paradox of emotional objects I mentioned earlier, which implies their eeriness and ambiguity. Objects seem to absorb humanity and almost learn human-like agencies, just to acquire a stubborn independence from humans. As confirmed by the final question of the tale:

Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.

In this contradiction lies the mystery of emotional objects: we simultaneously fear and hope that the living spark we put in them is going to survive us.


Emotional Objects was the Centre for the History of the Emotions’ contribution to the 2017 Being Human festival. This drop-in festival-style event explored emotions and how they are shaped by the objects around them.

Can psychedelics make you a better person?

Back in the 1960s, many people thought psychedelics would save the world. Professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now called Ram Dass) of Harvard University had a graph on their office wall, showing how long they thought it would take the entire human race to take LSD and become enlightened.

Psychedelics, it was believed, would save humanity – particularly Western civilization – from its spiritual emptiness, its ignorance of the inner life, its ego-grasping, and its relentless consumerism, conflict and environmental devastation.  Terrence McKenna declared, in the 1990s: ‘suppression of shamanic gnosis, with its reliance and insistence on ecstatic dissolution of the ego, has robbed us of life’s meaning and made us enemies of the planet, of ourselves, and of our grandchildren. We are killing the planet in order to keep intact the wrong-headed assumptions of the ego-dominator cultural style’.

There is a strong claim here that has never been tested: can psychedelics make you a better person? Can they raise humanity’s consciousness and improve society?

There have been studies suggesting psychedelics make people more open-minded, which is ‘good’ in some circumstances, less so in others. Several studies have shown psychedelics can help people overcome addiction. Other studies suggest psychedelics help people heal from depression, by releasing them from rumination and opening their attention up to the world and relationships with others. Some studies suggest psychedelics give us a deeper sense of connection to one another and to nature. And psychedelics seem to reliably trigger mystical-type experiences in Westerners, where they feel connected to God, Universal Consciousness or something, and this makes them less anxious and more open. 

All of these could arguably be presented as moral improvements – depending on your moral philosophy. You could argue that if a change in one’s personality is caused by a chemical interacting with your subconscious, that’s not really a moral improvement, because it’s beyond your conscious will or choice (one could say the same of God’s grace). But with both types of mystical experience, they are usually not enough on their own. As Ram Dass says, we probably have to put in some hard work after the vision to turn the altered state into altered traits.

Still, no study, as far as I’m aware, has tried to ascertain if psychedelics can help make someone a better person. It’s difficult to define and measure such a broad, holistic concept. Research into mindfulness faces the same problem. As philosopher Owen Flanagan explored in his book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain, there’s a lot of confusion about what exactly contemplative science has ‘proved’. Research suggests that certain meditative practices may improve mood and alter the brain in some ways. But that’s a long way from proving what the Buddha claimed – that following the dharma would make you a better person and ultimately liberate you from the illusion of the self.

How could one scientifically test whether someone has morally improved?  The Dalai Lama said: ‘To know what’s in a person’s heart you need clairvoyance. Or you need to spy on them closely for, say, a year, to see how they behave.’ That’s doable in a monastery, harder in an academic research lab. You can at least ask participants whether they feel meditation (or psychedelics) has improved their moral behaviour, and then ask their friends if they agree. But of course, they and their friends might have a different definition of ‘moral’ to you.

What I’m going to do in this brief essay is examine this question from the perspective of cultural history, and look at whether cultures which used psychedelic rituals believed they improved moral character. I will look at the Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greece, and at contemporary Amazon shamanic cultures.

The Eleusinian Mysteries

The most sacred festival in ancient Greece was the Eleusinian Mysteries, which took place at Eleusis outside Athens every September. They were celebrated for around 2000 years, until 392 AD, when the Christian emperor Theodosius closed them down, thereby depriving the west of psychedelic therapy for 1600 years. As Carl Jung lamented: ‘what a lack of psychic hygiene characterizes our culture, which no longer knows the kind of wholesome experience afforded by the Eleusinian Mysteries’.

A mural showing a scene from the Mysteries

The Mysteries were extremely secret, so we don’t know precisely what occurred. But we do know the Mysteries worshipped Demeter, goddess of corn, and told the story of the abduction of her daughter Prosperpine by Hades. This abduction made Demeter withdraw in grief and anger, and the world withered into a wasteland. The Mysteries were thought of as a way of placating Demeter and reconnecting humans to nature, and to each other. They also gave initiates the ‘hope of a blessed afterlife’, long before Jesus freed us from death. 

What do we know of the initiation process? First, there was a moral preparation – initiates underwent a fast (no beans or birds), and a pilgrimage to Eleusis. They washed themselves and put on white robes. In contemporary terms, they set their intention. This moral preparation was absolutely key, according to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

The benefit of the Mysteries depends on proper place and time: one must approach with sacrifice and prayer, with body purified and mind ready and disposed to approach holy rites and ancient sanctities. Only so do the Mysteries bring benefit, only so do we arrive at the belief that all these things were established by those of old for our education and the amendment of our life.

When they arrived at Eleusis, the initiates drank a potion called a kykeon. Some academics (Albert Hoffman and Gordon Wasson) have speculated this potion contained ergot, a fungus that grows on corn and which contains a form of LSD. Then the initiates embarked on a terrifying descent to the underworld, where they suffered various ordeals, and finally emerged into light. They witnessed some sort of sacred marriage, and the birth of a divine child. And they came away with faith that they would return to this divine realm when they died.

This is the account of Plutarch, who besides being a philosopher and historian was also a priest at Eleusis:

At first there are wanderings, and toilsome running about in circles and journeys through the dark over uncertain roads and culs de sac; then, just before the end, there are all kinds of terrors, with shivering, trembling, sweating, and utter amazement. After this, a strange and wonderful light meets the wanderer; he is admitted into clean and verdant meadows, where he discerns gentle voices, and dances, and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions. Here the now fully initiated is free, and walks at liberty…he is the companion of pure and holy men, and looks down upon the uninitiated and unpurified crowd below in the mud and fog, trampling itself down and crowded together, still sunk in the evils of death, unable to believe in the blessings that lie beyond. 

It’s worth briefly comparing this to the account of a participant in a 2014 trial that gave LSD to people with life-threatening cancer:

It was just really black…I was afraid, shaking…It was total exhaustion…like an endless marathon…Suddenly a phase of relaxation came…It became bright. Everything was light…It was really gorgeous…The key experience is when you get from dark to light.

The initiates’ near-death experience may have influenced Greek philosophy, particularly Plato’s description of the soul’s journey through multiple lives in order to learn moral lessons. But their psychedelic faith in the afterlife could just be delusion. And does this faith actually make one a better person here on Earth, or just a smug git?

There are some classical accounts that suggest the Mysteries were thought to improve moral behaviour. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century BC, wrote:

The claim is also made that men who have taken part in the Mysteries become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before. And this is the reason, we are told, why the most famous of the ancient heroes and the demi-gods were eagerly desirous of taking part in the initiatory rite; and in fact Jason and the Dioscuri, and Heracles and Orpheus as well, after their initiation attained success in all the campaigns they undertook, because these gods appeared to them.

So the Mysteries supposedly made one more pious and better fighters – you believe the Gods are on your side and immortality awaits. Well, you could say the same of Jihadis or Viking Berserkers.

We should point out that many of the great moral philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome were initiates at Eleusis – including Socrates, Plato, Plutarch, Cicero and the emperor Marcus Aurelius – and seemed to think highly of the experience. Cicero wrote:

Among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth…none is better than the Mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called ‘initiations’, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.

Praise indeed – the Mysteries helped civilize humanity and give us the power to live happily and die with a better hope. Do psychedelics make us better people? Cicero clearly thought the Mysteries did.

Aristotle writes rather little about the Mysteries, but he does say that he thought ecstatic cults have an important role to play in a healthy society because, like theatre, they offer people a form of catharsis, which can be translated as ‘purgation’. Ecstatic cults help people in civilized societies purge themselves of their inner angst, restlessness, fear and grief. In Jungian terms, you could say that ecstatic cults like the Mysteries help civilized people take off their masks and confront their shadow – all the wild and painful emotions they repress in the name of civility.  Aristotle seems to see the Mysteries as a form of emotional therapy – a fragment suggests he said that initiates did not so much learn as suffer. The Mysteries were not a rational lecture, but a full-bodied immersive emotional experience. Others emphasize the emotional journey of the initiation – Aristeides writes: ‘the mystics were made to experience the most blood-curdling sensations of horror and the most enthusiastic ecstasy of joy’.

So you could say that the Mysteries, like some contemporary psychedelic experiences, guided people on an emotional journey, which taught them certain moral-emotional attitudes: courage, steadfastness, acceptance and surrender, and above all, humility, wonder and piety. The individual ego is dissolved and one’s awareness stands in awe before the divine. This is Plutarch again:

persons who are being initiated into the Mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting, and jostle one another, but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence.

Initiates then emerge feeling joyfully re-connected to nature, to the gods, and to one another. They call each other brother and sister, and are filled with eunoia, good will, the opposite of paranoia. I think this joyful and direct experience of interconnectedness may have informed Greek philosophy, particularly the Stoic idea of the Logos, the divine intelligence which connects all things in the universe together.  Certain passages of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations seem to me psychedelic insights – some academics suggest they may have been opium dreams, but they sound a lot more psychedelic to me. He writes:

Frequently consider the connection of all things in the Universe. … all things that come to pass, exist simultaneously in the one and entire unity, which we call the Universe. … We should not say ‘I am an Athenian’ or ‘I am a Roman’ but ‘I am a Citizen of the Universe’.

Or again:

The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. How everything is absorbed into this one consciousness, how a single impulse governs all its actions, and how everything helps produce everything else – spun and woven together .

Or again:

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. None of its parts are disconnected. They are arranged in their proper place. There is one orderly, graceful disposition of the whole. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth. There is a sort of perfection to all beings, who are of the same nature, who share the same logos 

Such passages will strike a chord with anyone who has undergone a mystical experience on magic mushrooms, LSD or ayahuasca. Is it so far-fetched to suggest this transcendent vision of cosmic interconnectedness was the result of Marcus’ own psychedelic initiations?

And these visions weren’t just a ‘trip’ – they deeply informed Stoic ethics, and the idea of accepting the will of the Logos (he writes: ‘Nature gives and nature takes away. Anyone with sense and humility will tell her, ‘Give and take as you please’) , serving the spark of the Logos within one with right thought and action, and honouring the Logos in everyone else by treating them with dignity. A psychedelic vision of interconnectedness is joined to a practical ethics. Indeed, in Plutarch and Pythagoras’ case, the ethics of interconnectedness extends as far as being vegetarian and treating animals with care, which was very unusual in the classical world.

We can conclude, then, that several Greek and Roman moral philosophers had a high opinion of the Mysteries, which I believe centred around a psychedelic experience. They seemed to think the Mysteries helped people become more moral, by guiding them on an immersive emotional journey which taught them piety, steadfastness, courage, wonder, reverence, eunoia or friendliness, and a sense of the interconnectedness of all things. What we don’t know is, firstly, if the Mysteries really did reliably do this, and secondly, whether this was the result of the psychedelic drug by itself, or the cultural conditions around the drug.

Ayahuasca cults in the Upper Amazon

I’m now going to discuss the taking of ayahuasca among mestizo tribes in the Upper Amazon, and whether ayahuasca is thought to make one a better person. I will keep it brief, as I don’t yet know much about this. 

The first thing I want to say is there is a big difference in the cultural and moral expectations that Westerners bring to ayahuasca, and the cultural and moral expectations that mestizo Indians apparently bring (according to my reading). We really live in completely different moral and cosmological worlds, and its naive to think that ayahuasca somehow takes us to their world, teaches us their moral wisdom, or connects us to some transcendent realm beyond our culture. Rather, ayahuasca reflects your own expectations, intentions and values back to you.

The centres where westerners go to take ayahuasca tend to sell them a western-friendly version of what ayahuasca does. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby writes that Amazonian shamans ‘are psychologically perceptive and many have adapted intelligently to their new customers. Mimicry is second nature to them. Just as Amazonian hunters learn to sing the melodies of the birds they hunt, Amazonian shamans learn to speak the language that their Western clients understand and want to hear’.

In October, I went to The Temple of the Way of Light in Peru, which is owned by Westerners and employs Shipibo Indian shamans. It sells ayahuasca in very Western terms. In a preparation document which all participants were sent before the ceremony, one reads:

Ayahuasca is a powerful cleansing and purifying medicine that can rid the body of physical impurities, the mind and body of emotional blockages and self-limiting fear-filled patterns that have accumulated over a lifetime, as well as retrieve fragmented aspects of one’s soul due to past traumatic events. The medicine is also a teacher who initiates or accelerates us into a lifelong journey of continual self-discovery, deep personal transformation and remembrance of the divine within us all.

This is clearly presented as a moral journey – we will learn the values of Western New Age spirituality:

The Temple’s ayahuasca retreats are an opportunity to rebalance, cleanse and learn about your true self. You will need personal integrity and courage as you will face the whole of your self, including ‘shadow aspects’…We are deeply committed to providing a safe and caring environment to support you in anything that might arise. During and after the process, perseverance, courage, a strong will, and patience all significantly facilitate the healing journey. The results are highly beneficial with the end goal to come back into alignment with our true nature, find balance between our heart and mind, balance between our sub-conscious, conscious and super-conscious selves, and to reawaken self-respect, self-worth and ultimately, self-love.

Like the initiates of Eleusis, we were told to prepare our moral intention by fasting for at least two weeks before the retreat – no pork, booze, sex, drugs, TV and so on. We were encouraged to meditate as much as possible, to practice the mindfulness, steadfastness, self-acceptance and compassion we’d need on the psychedelic journey. And we were told to prepare ourselves to purge out our emotional problems through vomiting and so forth – it’s very similar to Aristotelian catharsis, in that respect.

Now, even though the Temple employs Shipibo shamans, even though they are revered as the main guides and sources of wisdom, we were told very little about how they understand ayahuasca. We had one talk from a Shibipo shaman on the first day, who kept it very vague, telling us the medicine is a poet, who speaks in metaphors, and who works on our head and our heart. That was it. Everything else they communicated to us was through the beautiful songs they sang during the ceremonies.

The Western participants made sense of our experiences ourselves, somewhat guided by the Western facilitators (although they never imposed their own dogma). We had discussions about what exactly we were encountering – plant spirits, aliens, ancestors, God, our higher self? The general vibe was this was a journey of love, light and healing.

I had very much the sort of experience one would expect a Western, educated, spiritual seeker to have. I encountered my shadow, faced my fears, gained insights into my identity and interpersonal relationships. The medicine fitted well with my existing spiritual practice – the trips taught me the value of Buddhist spiritual tools like staying in the moment, staying conscious of one’s body, practicing compassion, and reminding oneself that all things pass. The medicine reflected back to me the intention and values I brought, and helped me to embody them. It’s only been two months, but I hope it’s helped change me in the way I wanted to change. 

When I returned to the UK, I was naturally curious to know how the tribes of the Upper Amazon themselves understood ayahuasca. I read, for example, The Ayahuasca Experience: A Sourcebook on the Sacred Vine of Spiritsedited by Ralph Metzner. But this book focuses almost entirely on Westerners’ experience of ayahuasca. And again, it’s obvious that the medicine brings people what they expect – a Buddhist has a very Buddhist trip, a Jewish man feels re-connected to his Jewish heritage. I wanted to know how mestizo tribes understood ayahuasca. They’ve been taking it for centuries, after all. Do they think it makes us better people? If so, how?

I finally came across a book which I’ve been reading this week, called Singing to Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, by Stephan Beyer, a scholar who lived among mestizo Indian tribes and was initiated by two shamans. Religious studies scholar Erik Davis calls it ‘the best book on ayahuasca’, and it’s certainly the best I’ve read on how mestizo Amazons make sense of it.

The main thing I learned is this: the mestizos of the Upper Amazon think almost all illnesses, accidents and deaths are caused by sorcery. Ayahuasca is a medicine to cure people from magical attacks, and a weapon to assist attacks (including love-spells). These are the two main things ayahuasca is used for, according to mestizo Indians.

This is so different to the Western understanding of ‘Mama Ayahuasca’ as this cosmic universal healer showing us our ‘true self’, guiding us like a loving Jungian therapist to the blockages in our subconscious, helping us realize we’re actually a super-talented artist or botanist or what-have-you. No. For mestizo Indians, ayahuasca helps you realize which of your neighbours has cursed you, and it helps you get revenge.

The culture of Upper Amazon mestizos, Beyer tells us, is riddled with envidia, or envy. People don’t have much money or resources, they live very closely to one another, they gossip a lot, and they are quick to envy those who have more or do better than them. The principle motive for magical attacks is envidia. When something bad happens to you, you go to a shaman to find out who is behind the attack, to cure yourself, and perhaps to get revenge. Shamans are also constantly attacking each other, out of envy. Sorcery is a form of redress for the powerless, in a culture which prefers to avoid direct confrontation.

Does ayahuasca make you a better person? It can do, according to mestizo Indians. Shamans call it a teacher, a guide, which can show them where someone is hurt, where they have been attacked, what they need to get better. But the spirit of ayahuasca is not necessarily and essentially ‘good’. It depends what intention you bring to it. There are curanderas (healers) who study with the plant to help cure people. But there are also brujos (sorcerers), who study to learn how to seduce, get rich, dominate, harm and kill. The path to becoming a sorcerer is apparently quicker and easier than the path to become a healer.

Jeremy Narby notes:

Westerners often approach drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon knowing little about its cultural context. If we take seriously what indigenous Amazonians say, it has a dark side, which they call sorcery or witchcraft. Much of the work that shamans do in their communities involves countering bewitchment. It is striking that when ayahuasca is imported into Western countries, there is no mention of witchcraft and everything seems to be about light and healing.

Indeed, the Temple of the Way of Light mentions nothing about ayahuasca sorcery in its preparatory literature (the tourists would run a mile!) Beyer’s book is noticeably absent from its list of recommended reading. In a discussion before our first ceremony, I asked the western facilitators about the possibility of attack by bad spirits – after all, 50% of ayahuasca-takers in the global ayahuasca survey said that at some point they felt under spiritual attack. I was told, don’t worry, that’s all taken care of by the shamans, they will protect you.

One facilitator did say to me at lunch one day: ‘The medicine can feed your ego. It gives you what you want. You can see which maestros are full of ego. Some shamans want power, sex, status, control, glory. You can get into black magic that way.’ I felt that one of the members in our group was there to acquire power, and was in danger of going down that black road. Should there be a health warning for ayahuasca – beware the dark path?

The shamanic path in Beyer’s description sounds rather like the path of the ring-bearer in Lord of the Rings – the bearer of power is beset by an ever-stronger temptation to use that power to dominate and harm others. Beyer writes:

There is a theme woven through the shamanisms of the Upper Amazon – that human beings in general, and shamans in particular, have powerful urges to harm other humans. The difference between a healer and a sorcerer is that the former is able to bring these urges under control, while the latter either cannot or does not want to…The spirits of the plants may offer the apprentice great powers and gifts that can cause harm. If the apprentice is weak and accepts them, he will become a sorcerer.

Apparently the ‘magic darts’ a shaman acquires can possess a will of their own, a desire to harm and kill.

Do mestizo Indians of the Upper Amazon think ayahuasca makes you more moral? No. They think it makes you more powerful. The shaman is not considered a more moral figure  – they’re a morally ambiguous, suspicious, dangerous figure, who can heal from magical attacks, but who can also kill. They play a role in a culture that, judging by Beyer’s book, sounds quite unhealthy to me, at least in so far as almost all illnesses and deaths are interpreted as magical attacks by secret envious enemies. This interpretation leads to an endless cycle of attacks and reprisals, and constant paranoia. No wonder Pablo Amaringo, the famous ayahuasca artist-shaman, got sick of this culture (after being attacked by an envious shaman) and abandoned shamanism. No wonder some tribes say ‘we have no trouble here, so we don’t need a shaman’.

An advert for a Peruvian brujo, offering spells for love, revenge and ‘caprice’

 

Now I’m not saying ayahuasca can’t be a powerful healer, or a powerful moral guide. It seems particularly good at what Beyar calls ‘emplotment‘ – helping people construct a story or myth of their illness and return to health: ‘I was depressed, then I went to the jungle and took ayahuasca, now I’m re-born’.  ‘The medicine is a poet’, as one of our shaman said, helping us find symbols, metaphors and a narrative arc. 

What I am saying is that ayahuasca reflects back to you the intentions, values and culture that you bring to it. If you bring New Age Jungian spirituality to it, that’s what you’ll find. If you bring a culture of envy and magical attacks, that’s what you’ll find. Ayahuasca is a consciousness-amplifier.

To conclude, I don’t think we can say that psychedelics make you a better person. Better according to what philosophy? But they can be a tool that helps you reach your cultural goals. If your goal is to become a powerful sorcerer, they can help you. If you want to become a cult leader and serial killer, like Charles Manson, they can help you. If your goal is to unlock toxic emotional patterns to discover the ‘real you’, they can help you. If your goal is to become a better Buddhist meditator or a kinder person, they can help you.

That’s why it’s very important to think about the intention we bring and the cultural context in which we take psychedelics. As they become more widely used, there is a danger of individuals or groups getting lost in dark power trips, and causing harm to themselves and other people. I actually think there is something to be said for taking ayahuasca in contexts that fuse shamanic practices with Buddhist or Christian beliefs, and with the firm intention to practice for the good of all beings, to focus on love, forgiveness and healing, not power, status, money, and revenge.

The occasional use of psychedelics can, I think, help us on the path of light and love, by teaching us concentration, self-acceptance, compassion, courage, self-awareness, humility, surrender, awe and love. But there is nothing essential in psychedelics that necessarily leads to these things. And for God’s sake, research your shaman before you place your soul in their hands. 

For more on this topic, check out Brian Earp’s article on psychedelics as moral enhancement; as well as the anthology of essays on psychedelics and meditation, Zig Zag Zen. Also follow the work of Lindsay Jordan, a philosopher at UAL researching this topic in her upcoming PhD. 

From Self-Help to CBT: Regulating Emotion in a (Neo)Liberal World

Åsa Jansson is a Junior Research Fellow at Durham University’s Centre for Medical Humanities. Her current research explores the history of hallucinations and delusions in modern medicine, and is carried out in conjunction with Durham’s interdisciplinary project Hearing the Voice.

 


 

As Nikolas Rose[1] and others have shown, our unprecedented ability to map, codify, record, and modify human biology – what Rose calls ‘life itself’ – is both directed by, and contested within, the political sphere. And if we dig a little deeper we can also start to see how we as subjects, consumers, patients, and citizens internalise the ethos of the prevailing economic system – free market capitalism – and the neoliberal ideology that underpins it.

In other words, neoliberalism operates not only at the level of government, business, or finance, but permeates our everyday lives and shapes our selfhood. Its value system informs our perception of health and illness: what it means to be healthy, who and what is constituted as pathological, and how we should prevent and address pathology. This is particularly evident in regard to current models of mental illness.

At present, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders are primarily seen as internal and individual problems to be solved at the individual level. Morbid emotionality is a maladaptive response by the individual to their environment, meaning that the management of distress becomes an individual responsibility, rather than a social one. Thus, an individualised, neurobiological model of psychological distress sits comfortably within a political framework that emphasises individual responsibility and choice over social support.

In this context, the favoured treatment for affective disorders is antidepressants (SSRIs) or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), or a combination of the two – treatments which are comparatively cost-effective and which focus on the individual brain and mind as the site of pathology.

A key strategy of CBT and its sister-treatment Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is ‘emotion regulation’. The idea is that through persistent practice, we can learn to intervene in and successfully regulate disproportionate, distressing, and irrational emotions.[2] The concept of emotion regulation is premised on a model of emotion as automated and involuntary, but nevertheless an event, or process, that can be regulated.

There is a subtle tension that arises from this model, one between the biologised mind as morally neutral, and social conduct as an extension of the biological mind, conduct that possesses an unequivocal moral quality – in short, between the internal (biological) production of emotion and its external (social) manifestation. In order to understand this tension and the work it does in relation to the neoliberal ethos, we must trace our current modern models of affect and conduct to their roots in nineteenth-century science and medicine.

For the Victorians, the biological mind co-existed quite comfortably with a Christian doctrine of morality centred upon respectability, responsibility, and self-help, values that were infused with the logic of industrial capitalism and liberal rationality. The idea that emotion is an automated physiological process that can nevertheless be regulated and (more or less) permanently modified over time, arose as Victorian medical scientists attempted to restore a notion of free will, which they were unwilling to dispense with for moral and political reasons, within an epistemological system that held all mental activity to be physiological and potentially reflexive, or automated.

In the early nineteenth century, increasingly advanced technology equipped medical scientist with new ways of seeing the brain. Psychiatric autopsies appeared to hold the promise of postmortem diagnoses applied with far more accuracy than medical judgment based only on observation of and communication with living patients.[3] But some types of mental disease consistently failed to turn up lesions visible even under a new generation of microscopes – these were primarily different types of ‘affective (or emotional) insanity’ where the intellect was largely unaffected.

This did not sit well with an emerging medical speciality that was intent on demonstrating its scientific credentials. Thus, in order to explain the unseen operations of the mind, including these elusive forms of insanity, in scientific language, Victorian alienists (psychiatrists) borrowed concepts from experimental physiology.

At the time, physiologists were carrying out pathbreaking (and, for the living animals on whom they experimented, brutal) research into reflex action – the physiological process whereby stimuli applied to nerves triggers automated muscle activity. Most scientists argued that this type of reaction didn’t involve the ‘higher’ realm of the brain, which was responsible for conscious thoughts and exercising of the will.

Diagrammatic representation of reflex action, from Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard’s Course of Lectures on the Physiology and Pathology of the Central Nervous System (1860). Credit: Wellcome Library, London

However, in the 1840s, British physician Thomas Laycock and German psychiatrist Wilhelm Griesinger both argued that the kind of reflexive action applied to sensory-motor activity also applied to the realm of thoughts, emotions, and volition (the will).[4] They both suggested that there was a form of psychological reflex action which was analogous to the physical (muscle) reflex, and which could be triggered not just by external stimuli, but also by thoughts and abstract sensations. This argument had vast repercussions for the sciences of mind and brain, and formed the basis for the modern concept ‘disordered emotion’.

Many British alienists drew on these ideas in order to explain how mental disease emerged and progressed. However, the new physiological model of mental activity called into question the power of agency, particularly for medical scientists who perceived all mental activity as reflexive physiological reactions.

For instance, prominent alienist Henry Maudsley argued that involuntary psychological reflex action could take place both with or without conscious awareness, and that insanity could compromise a person’s ability to exercise their will, even in cases of emotional insanity where sufferers were still capable of rational thought.

While he rejected the possibility of free will on physiological grounds, Maudsley was unwilling to let go of it entirely, as this would suggest that ‘Man’ was incapable of self-control, for Maudsley a morally untenable position. In order to revive a notion of independent will linked to moral conduct, he turned to the idea of habit. Drawing on the work of psychologist Herbert Spencer and others, he argued that not only actions, but also ideas, emotions, and general character could be habitually developed. For instance

A passionate person who has by patient watchfulness over himself and by a course of steady perseverance and practice accustomed himself to wear an outward air of calmness and to speak in quiet, measured language when he is inwardly in a towering passion, making thus a clever art of his natural defect – as it is the part of wisdom to do with all natural defects – succeeds in making that regulated discharge of energy the habit of his life, and in the end does it quite easily.[5]

Importantly, the development of mental habits was, for Maudsley, a physiological process, whereby habit became a psychological reflex – in other words, when emotional regulation, or control, was practiced to perfection, it would become automated, reflexive.

Henry Maudsley. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In this way, a physiological conception of mental activity didn’t erase moral responsibility and conduct, it reinforced them. This was also true in terms of mental disease. While Maudsley believed that people who became insane generally had a hereditary predisposition, he argued that each individual could act to prevent themselves from deteriorating in this way. Similarly, the ability to exercise the will played a key role in recovery from mental disease, which was in the first instance marked by ‘a revival of the power of will’. This was particularly true in the case of affective insanity, where only the emotions were disordered.[6]

These ideas became increasingly popular toward the end of the century, as scientific writers tried to navigate and mediate between the deterministic view of human nature espoused by degeneration narratives, and a belief in human betterment and individual responsibility.

Maudsley’s work reflected contemporary cultural views on character, respectability, and moral agency, illustrated by the popular doctrine of ‘self-help’ most famously espoused in Samuel Smiles’ book of the same name. Self-Help was a Victorian bestseller and a libertarian manifesto that rallied against ‘over-guidance and over-government’ and argued that the way to generate positive social reform was ‘by better habits, rather than by greater rights’.[7]

The way to improve one’s character was, Smiles argued, through the development of ‘good habits’, which required constant ‘watchfulness’ and ‘regulation’ of thoughts and actions, but once fully formed, ‘habit acts involuntarily and without effort.’ According to Smiles, there was no virtue or state of mind that could not be deliberately formed through significant and persistent effort. Thus, in a turn of phrase that resonates with twenty-first century lifestyle philosophies, he concluded that ‘even happiness itself may become habitual.’[8]

Smiles also argued that ‘self-regulation’ played an important role in strengthening the nation state and the economy, as it promoted industriousness. The language around self-regulation exemplifies how the new sciences interacted with contemporary language around industrial capitalism. Roger Cooter has explored the close relationship between physiology and capitalist economics in the early nineteenth century, arguing that despite its inability to offer prescriptive health advice, physiology appealed to a popular audience, and that its value lay in providing a set of ‘laws of life’ which explained liberal-capitalist society and its consequences as natural and self-regulating.[9]

That is, it presented an image of society in which individual prosperity and a better life came about through habitual self-regulation, in the same way as an economy that was allowed to self-regulate would prosper and grow. In other words, it promoted an agenda fundamentally opposed to radical social intervention, in people’s lives as well as the economy.

Self-regulation – of both the market and of the mind – has made a forceful comeback in contemporary Western society. But, much like in the nineteenth century, a process conceptualised as ‘natural’ nevertheless warrants intervention at times of malfunction, in order to restore its natural flow and functions. Within a twenty-first century model of the biologised mind as an internal, self-regulating system, the behavioural therapies can be conceived of as the intervention that is sometimes necessary in order to restore healthy function. An important consequence of this is that the psychological distress that behavioural therapies are perceived to treat through cognitive and emotional regulation are detached from the social and economic events that, according to a different narrative, could be plausibly posited as the cause of mental distress.

Joanna Moncrieff has noted how the biochemical model that underpins the rationale for antidepressants chimes with ‘the neoliberal values of competitiveness and consumerism’.[10] In a similar way, ‘emotion regulation’ is tied to ideas about individual responsibility and self-help, and offer an equally – if not more – powerful justification for neoliberal ideology, reflecting as it does nineteenth-century ideas of psycho-physiological ‘habit’ and restoring agency – or, if you like, self-help – as the main bulwark against and treatment for psychiatric illness.

My critique is not, however, aimed at the behavioural theories themselves. What I have tried to do in this post is to bring into focus their present relationship to a specific political and moral framework, a relationship that is not inevitable but the consequence of the fusion of certain ideologies and value systems with a particular model of mental activity in the nineteenth century, a situation that results from Victorian scientists’ attempt to reconcile their scientific materialism with society’s prevailing moral codes.  It follows that in a different kind of society, we might imagine that these – incredibly useful – therapeutic strategies could be underpinned by a recognition of the socio-economic roots of much psychological distress and work in conjunction with interventions that seek to reduce stress related to work or unemployment and poverty, as well as distress resulting from racism, sexism and so on.

However, by locating psychological distress solely within the individual, and focusing on teaching individuals to regulate their emotions and thus learn to adapt to a triggering environment, without sufficient attention to that environment as a site of pathology, our current framework for explaining and treating mental distress obscures its socio-economic context. This ensures that questions about collective responsibility for psychological well-being that link the latter to socio-economic factors and social justice are foreclosed, marginalising alternative treatment models as well as arguments for radical economic and social reform as the best way to prevent or redress human suffering.


This blog post is based on a paper presented at the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research Inaugural Congress, held at Durham University on September 14-15, 2017. I explore the relationship between neoliberalism and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy in an article on DBT in Swedish psychiatry, which is a forthcoming in a special issue of the History of the Human Sciences on the history of psychotherapy in Europe.


[1] Rose N (2007) The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power and Subjectivity in the Twenty-first century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[2] Gross JJ (1998) ‘The Emerging Field of Emotion Regulation: An Integrative Review’, Review of General Psychology, 3(2) 271-299; Papa A, M Boland , and MT Sewell (2012) ‘Emotion regulation and CBT’, in Fisher JE and O’Donohue WT (eds) Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Core Principles for Practice. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

[3] For a comprehensive discussion of psychiatric autopsies in nineteenth-century British asylums, see Andrews J (2012), ‘Death and the Dead-House in the Victorian Asylum: Necroscopy versus Mourning at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, c. 1832-1901’, History of Psychiatry, 23: 6-26.

[4] Griesinger, W (1843) ‘Ueber psychische Reflexactionen: Mit einem Blick auf das Wesen der psychischen Krankheiten’, reprinted in Gesammelte Abhandlungen, Ersters Band: Psychiatrische Abhandlungen. Amsterdam & Berlin: E.J. Bonset, 1968; Laycock, T (1845) ‘On the Reflex Function of the Brain’, British and Foreign Medical Review, 19: 298-311.

[5] Maudsley H (1884) Body and Will. New York: D. Appleton & Co, p, 93.

[6] Maudsley H (1874) Responsibility in Mental Disease. London: Henry S. King, pp. 270-271.

[7] Smiles S (1876) Self-Help, with Illustrations of Conduct and Perseverance (2nd ed). London: John Murray, p. 2.

[8] Smiles S (1859) Self-Help, with Illustrations of Character and Conduct. London: John Murray, p. 2., pp. 319-322.

[9] Cooter R (1979) ‘The Power of the Body’, in B Barnes and S Shapin, eds., Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture. London: Sage Publications.

[10] Moncrieff J (2006) ‘Psychiatric drug promotion and the politics of neoliberalism’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 188: 301-302.

Am I Normal?: A series of three podcasts exploring the ideas and history of “normal’.

This is a guest post by Natalie Steed who is a freelance audio producer. You can follow her on Twitter and read more about her work on her website. Natalie has produced three podcasts for the Centre inspired by the Being Human event ‘The Museum of the Normal’. The Centre’s 2017 free-at-attend contribution to Being Human is called ‘Emotional Objects: From Lost Amulets to Found Photos’ and you can register online.


How do you measure up?

Where are you on the scale?

And what about your children?

One late Autumn night, on the third floor of Barts Pathology Museum, amongst the specimens pickled in their glass jars – the tight-lacer’s liver and the bound Chinese foot – researchers from the Living With Feeling project gathered together an exhibition of living exhibits

If you’d ascended the staircase, you’d have found yourself screened for anomalies, your scalp considered by phrenologists and your lapel sporting a badge proclaiming your abnormality, before you’d even set foot through the door of the of the Museum of the Normal.

Once inside, you might have taken part in a life drawing class where the models had modified their bodies, had your measurements mapped against Francis Galton’s databanks and refreshed your sense of disgust with mealworms washed down with a cocktail based on the four humours.

These three podcasts arise out of that evening, which was a kind of carnival of stalls and talks and experiences, curated by Sarah Chaney, Helen Stark and Emma Sutton, designed to challenge and change ideas of what “normal” might be.

I recorded interviews at the event with visitors who were keen to talk about their own perspectives and abnormalities, and followed up with more in depth interviews with some of the Living With Feeling researchers presenting their work at the event. You can read more about the visitor’s responses here.

In the podcast The Museum of the Normal, these encounters and interviews interlaced with conversations with parents of young children, a group least likely, perhaps, to attend such an event but who are encouraged to consider, week by week, month by month, milestone by milestone, what is “normal” for their children.

“Stop Thinking about Death… and Stop Shouting at People”

David Saunders  invited people to take part in a restaging of a “revolutionary” therapeutic exercise called Psychic Driving. In the 1950’s the increasingly alarming experiments of Dr Donald Ewan Cameron attracted both interest and finance from the CIA.

That evening, more than seventy people stepped into David’s booth to tell their hopes, fears and the things they wanted to change about themselves to a tape recorder. He used these recordings to create a kind of group self-help tape and in the first podcast you can hear the results and an interview with David about Psychic Driving and its continuing tantalising offer.

“Death to all daft and emotional neurotypicals who love soap operas!”

One of the things that visitors wanted to speak to me about most was Bonnie Evan’s talk about the history of the idea of autism and the emerging terms “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” used within the autistic community to challenge the idea of their own “abnormality”.

Paul and Elizabeth Wady both have an autism diagnosis.

In his book, Guerilla Aspies, and show of the same name, Paul Wady offers a conversion course for neurotypicals, inviting them to join the “new normal”.

In this podcast, they talked to me about autism and emotion, neurotypicals and neurodivergents, Blade Runner, religion and the tyranny of the normal.


Register for this year’s event online and read more about the Museum of the Normal.

Meet our PhD students: Ed Brooker

Ed Brooker began his PhD on the Living with Feeling project in October 2017.  He completed his BA in History at the University of Cambridge, and holds master’s degrees from both Durham University and Birkbeck, University of London.  His work examines the relationship between conceptions of happiness, emotional well-being, and the urban ideal in the context of late Victorian London.


As any rush hour commuter knows, metropolitan life is seldom without its stresses and strains.  For most of us, withstanding these pressures involves the ability to cling to a fundamental belief that, for all that the city might at times infuriate, impoverish, exhaust or threaten us, it offers us none-the-less the prospect of happiness.  Yet a clear definition of how that happiness should be attained –and indeed the very possibility of its attainment– is an ever-elusive thing.

Should that self-same commuter glance down at the evening press, they will undoubtedly find themselves assailed by jeremiads lamenting the pressures and anxieties of city living.   Yet the turn of the page will bring them face to face with those visions of the good life through which we might seek emotional release and contentment.  Hedonistic pleasure, consumption, the pursuit of meaning and virtue, or escape to the comforts of hearth and home – all are proffered in some form as possible solutions to our dilemmas.  And all of this at a time when government pledges to promote not only our material prosperity, but also our broader quality of life; when London’s boroughs are frequently ranked according to the latest well-being index; and when the shelves of our local bookshop groan with tomes on mindfulness, healthy eating, or the latest Scandinavian or Japanese models of contentment.

Happiness is surely one of the obsessions of our age – never more so than when it seems furthest from realisation.  Yet, as I discovered in my previous master’s work examining the diaries and journals of ordinary nineteenth-century Londoner’s, these paradoxes and preoccupations are far from new.  The idea of the city both as a machine for the production of happiness and, simultaneously, as a blight upon every human joy, are deeply rooted in nineteenth century debates regarding the urban ideal.

On the one hand, my work seeks to trace the development of these debates by placing them within the context of late Victorian and Edwardian London.  The decades between 1870 and 1914 were a crucial turning point in this regard, marked as they were by a sense of cultural, social and political upheaval which served to undermine an earlier, more naive faith in urban civilisation as a mechanism for perpetual progress.  From this crisis emerged new visions of the nature of the subjective well-being of individual Londoners, and of the metropole itself.  Yet the exact relationship between these conceptions both of happiness, and of the ideal city to which they attached, remains poorly understood.   What meanings then were given to happiness in this period?  What consequences did this have for the shape of the city and, more broadly, urban modernity itself?  And, ultimately perhaps, what legacy have these debates bequeathed to the London of the twenty-first century?

At the same time, I also hope to understand how these debates manifested themselves within everyday life.  How did individual Londoner’s seek happiness for themselves?  Did they conform to mainstream narratives, or did this search differ across individuals and communities?  In what ways were conceptions of happiness contested and given differing form?  And what lessons might the struggles of our Victorian and Edwardian forebears teach us in regard to our own search for contentment?

New publications April-August 17

A round-up of publications on the history of emotions from April – August 2017.

If you would like your publication to be featured in the next quarterly round-up, please send the details (including a link to more information or the full article) to emotions@qmul.ac.uk before January 31.

An additional list of publications is also published monthly on H-emotions: https://networks.h-net.org/categories/new-publications

BOOKS.

EDITED VOLUMES.

  • Emotions in the History of Witchcraft, ed. by Laura Kounine and Michael Ostling (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)
  • Emotion, Ritual and Power in Europe, 1200–1920, ed. by Merridee Bailey and Katie Barclay, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)
  • Greek Laughter and Tears: Antiquity and After, ed. by M. Alexiou and D. Cairns (Edinburgh University Press, 2017)
  • Historicizing Emotions: Practices and Objects in India, China and Japan, edited by Barbara Schuler (Brill, 2017)
  • The hurt(ful) body: Performing and beholding pain, 1600-1800, edited by Tomas Macsotay, Cornelis van der Haven, Karel Vanhaesebrouck (Manchester University Press, 2017)

BOOK CHAPTERS.

  • Leah Astbury,  ‘Ordering the infant’: caring for newborns in early modern England’, in Conserving health in early modern culture: Bodies and environments in Italy and England, eds. Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey (Manchester University Press: Manchester, July 2017), (pp.80-103).
  • Douglas Cairns, ‘The Tripartite Soul as Metaphor’, in Plato and the Power of Images, ed. by P. Destrée and R. G. Edmonds (Brill, 2017), 219–38
  • Caroline Castiglione, ‘What to expect when you’re always expecting’; frequent childbirth and female health in early modern Italy’, in Conserving health in early modern culture: Bodies and environments in Italy and England, eds. Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey (Manchester University Press: Manchester, July 2017), pp. 55-79
  • Hannah Newton ‘She sleeps well and eats an egg’; convalescent care in early modern England’, in Conserving health in early modern culture: Bodies and environments in Italy and England, eds. Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey (Manchester University Press: Manchester, July 2017) (pp.104-132)
  • Charles Zika, ‘The Cruelty of Witchcraft: The Drawings of Jacques de Gheyn the Younger’, in Laura Kounine and Michael Ostling, eds, Emotions in the History of Witchcraft, pp. 37–56, London: Palgrave Macmillan (2017)
  • Charles Zika, ‘The Transformation of Sabbath Rituals by Jean Crépy and Laurent Bordelon: Redirecting Emotion through Ridicule’, in Merridee Bailey & Katie Barclay, eds, Emotion, Ritual and Power in Europe, 1200–1920, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 261–284 (2017).

SPECIAL ISSUES OF JOURNALS

Note that the new journal Emotions: History, Culture, and Society published its first volume in July 2017.

  • Seneca’s Tragic Passions: Philosophical and Literary Perspectives, D Cairns and D. Nelis, Maia 69.2, 2017

JOURNAL ARTICLES

EXHIBITION CATALOGUES

  • Angela Hesson, Matthew Martin and Charles Zika, eds, Love: Art of Emotion 1400–1800, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2017. 290mm x 240mm, portrait, 256 pages, Fully illustrated in colour. ISBN: 9781925432239 (hardback) $49.95, 9781925432312 (paper). $29.95.

REFERENCE

  • Douglas Cairns, ‘Emotions’, Encyclopaedia of Ancient History (online, June 2017)

Meet our PhD students: Catherine Maguire

Catherine took her BA in Modern and Medieval Languages from Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, and her MPhil with distinction in Medieval and Early Modern European Literature from Clare College, University of Cambridge. She is originally from Northern Ireland and her academic interests lie in motherhood, female religious experience and medicine in the medieval and early modern periods. Her project explores the physical and emotional inflections of motherhood in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain.


Contemporary health and social care practitioners situate maternal processes of within both a physical and emotional framework. In addition to adopting lifestyle patterns that are conducive to good physical health, pre- and post-natal emotional wellbeing is increasingly being identified as a key factor in predicting outcomes for mothers and young children. More broadly, the emotive elements of pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing are also conditioned by the psychological stimuli of mass media, social mores and religious customs. If it is tempting to consider that the emotional upheaval of maternity is a modern construct, my thesis is concerned with the emotional dimensions of motherhood in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain. I shall examine how the holistic experience of motherhood – that is, from gestation to childbirth through the experience of parenting – was articulated as an emotionally significant experience and consider the importance of emotional factors in the construction of the maternal subject.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain reveals a sustained preoccupation with how emotional and physical factors intersect in the construction of the maternal subject. The backdrop of the Counter-Reformation was underpinned by a renewed insistence and vigour for affective Marian veneration; in particular, insofar as her status as mother of Heaven and Earth was concerned. There existed a proliferation of didactic literature which sought to appeal to the emotional sensibilities of its readership and a general interest in medical scholarship which attempted to codify maternal medicine and situate it within a physical, emotional and social framework.

Significantly, there has been no attempt to disentangle and reconnect the emotional dimensions of motherhood with the pragmatic concerns of pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain.  There is a pressing ethical need to develop a holistic understanding of motherhood which acknowledges the affective political, social, economic and religious inflections of maternal matters. To do so will be to offer an embodied view of mental and emotional health with a view to understanding how emotional concerns shape our experience of physical (well)being. The interdisciplinary framework of my thesis will encompass life writing, gender theory, embodiment and theological considerations. This thesis will thus raise questions that resonate beyond the remit of Hispanic Studies and early modern literature.

Flourishing University seminar: audio and slides

QMUL’s Centre for the History of the Emotions hosted a half-day seminar on the Flourishing University, exploring well-being and wisdom in higher education, for students, PhDs, staff and the wider society, from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Below is the schedule of speakers along with the link to a Soundcloud audio of the sessions (two talks weren’t recorded). You can download the audio on iTunes here.

You can also download the slides below.

Session One: Introduction

Jules Evans, research fellow at Centre for the History of the Emotions: Why we need an interdisciplinary approach to flourishing in higher education

Rachel Piper, Student Minds head of policy: Co-creating a whole university approach to well-being

Dr Daniel Eisenberg, Healthy Minds Network: What universities can measure in student mental health and well-being

Edward Pinkney, Hong Kong University: Technology as a help and hindrance to student flourishing (audio not available)

Jules Evans slides; Rachel Piper slides; Daniel Eisenberg slides; Edward Pinkney slides

Audio for session 1:

Session 2: Interventions and curricula for undergrads

Dr Michael Pluess, QMUL head of psychology: Teaching well-being / character through Positive Psychology (audio not available).

Dr Oliver Robinson, University of Greenwich psychology lecturer: The transitions of higher education

Professor Nigel Tubbs, programme leader of Modern Liberal Arts at University of WInchester: Liberal arts and flourishing

Dr Karen Scott, senior lecturer in political science at University of Exeter, and Kieran Cutting, political science graduate: Teaching the good life

Dr Siobhan Lynch, researcher in mindfulness at Southampton University: Mindfulness for students

Oliver Robinson ; Teaching The Good Life slides;  Michael Pluess slidesSiobhan Lynch slides

Audio for session 2:

Session 3: The Flourishing University – Phds, staff well-being, engaging with society

Dr Amber Davis: The Happy PhD – PhD student mental health and well-being

Sally Rose, psychotherapist at Leeds University: Staff well-being in higher education

Danny Angel-Payne, public health undergraduate at QMUL: Open Minds and student volunteering in the local community

Amber Davis slidesSally Rose slides

Audio for session 3:

For more interviews and articles from the Flourishing University project, check out our blog.

History of Emotions Blog Round-Up February – August 17

Missed a post? Read our round-up covering February – August 17 (you can read previous round-ups too). Post are listed chronologically by month of publication.

February

Medical Humanities in India: a field ripe for development by Jules Evans

Sadness on the Big Screen: London SadFest March 3-5 by Åsa Jansson

Mental illness: challenging the stigma around India’s big secret by Jules Evans

Meet Our PhD Students: Jane Mackelworth by Jane Mackelworth

No love lost: Antipathy, antagonism and anger in Single magazine, 1977-1982 by Zoe Strimpel

March

Colonial Anxiety and Vulnerability in British India by Mark Condos

The ecstatic experience economy by Jules Evans

How to Keep Calm in Kolkata by Jules Evans

The Museum of the Normal – What You Said by Sarah Chaney and Helen Stark

Faces that matter: history, emotion, transplantation by Fay Bound Alberti

Emotional Experience as a Site of Agency by Jeremy C. Young

April

Autism, Neurodiversity and the ‘Neurotypicals’ by Bonnie Evans

Translating Therapy by Jules Evans

Addressing domestic abuse in general practice: The emotional labour of being a GP by Anna Dowrick

Why getting out of our heads is good for us by Jules Evans

UFOs and the Historians by Greg Eghigian

Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural: The Concealed Revealed Project by Owen Davies and Ceri Houlbrook

New Publications January – March 2017 by Sarah Chaney

May

99.9% of humans are mentally unwell by Jules Evans

Your Emotional Life in Objects by Sarah Chaney

Gut Feelings Blog Take Over: Gut Feelings Week

Gut Feelings Blog Take Over: Diet and Brain Work in Nineteenth-Century France by Manon Mathias

Gut Feelings Week: Neurasthenia – a disorder of the gut? by Kristine Lillestøl 

Gut Feelings Week: The Bitter Taste of Rationing by Kristen Ann Ehrenberger

Gut Feelings Week: Dyspepsia and Navigating Nineteenth-Century Health by Evelien Lemmens

“Ava’s Sigh” Prelude to Mood Shifts: A Sonic Repertoire by Mary Cappello

June

BadFeelings Week:

Negative Emotions: the good, the bad and the ugly by Mary Carman and Tristram Oliver-Skuse

Life’s Anxieties: Good or Bad? by Charlie Kurth

The rational value of political anger by Mary Carman

Itchy Feet: The Value of Boredom by Tristram Oliver-Skuse

Regrets, hot and cold by Carolyn Price

Why pain is not a natural kind by Jennifer Corns

Turning Jealousy into Compersion by Ronald de Sousa

Universities should try and teach wisdom, not just knowledge by Jules Evans

Fears and Angers: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives Take Over: Fears and Angers Week

What do you about anger? Pragmatism and passionate disagreement by Mara-Daria Cojocaru

Requiem for a Bad Dream: Fear of the Night, the Devil and the Nightmare in Early Modern England by Charlotte-Rose Millar

‘Silence that Dreadful Bell!’: Hearing Fear in Shakespeare’s Othello by Kibrina Davey

At the Abyss: The Phenomenon of Self-Reflexive Anxiety by Ruth Rebecca Tietjen

On Positive Psychology and the Positive University by Jules Evans

July

What UK universities can learn from the US about promoting well-being by Jules Evans

August

Anthony Seldon: Universities should promote the flourishing of students and staff by Jules Evans

Jan Plamper On the History of Emotions

This interview with Jan Plamper was originally published in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 18, no. 3 (2017): 453–60 and is posted here with their permission. You can read the original on Kritika’s website


Jan Plamper, Professor of History at Goldsmiths, University of London, was among the first scholars in Soviet and Russian history to engage the burgeoning field of the history of emotions.

Trained in history at Brandeis University and the University of California, Berkeley, Plamper is perhaps best known for The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power (2012), a book that grew out of his PhD dissertation.[1] His first forays into the history of emotions began around 2003, with a project, still ongoing, about fear among soldiers in World War I. In those years, Plamper helped organize a series of conferences and conference panels dedicated to the history of emotions, resulting in three collective publication ventures: a special issue of Slavic Review and two co-edited volumes, Rossiiskaia imperiia chuvstv: Podkhody k kul´turnoi istorii emotsii (In the Realm of Russian Feelings: Approaches to the Cultural History of Emotions) and Fear: Across the Disciplines.[2] Plamper also organized and participated in two printed round tables with leading participants in the emotions field: Peter Stearns, Barbara Rosenwein, William Reddy, Nicole Eustace, Eugenia Lean, and Julie Livingston.[3]

As early as 2009, Plamper could point to a large set of imperial Russian and Soviet historians who made active use of emotions as a historical category in print: Mark D. Steinberg, Catriona Kelly, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Árpád von Klimó, Malte Rolf, Ronald Grigor Suny, Glennys Young, and Alexander Martin.[4] Since then, the field has expanded considerably, with historians continuing to find use in interdisciplinary approaches, drawing from anthropology, sociology, psychology (including neuroscience), and philosophy.[5] Yet no Russian or Soviet historian has gone farther in investigating the history of emotions—and the history of the history of emotions—than Plamper himself, whose German-language monograph was translated into English as The History of Emotions: An Introduction.[6]

Plamper’s leading role in developing the history of emotions in the Russian/Soviet context and his personal experience as an interlocutor among the academic cultures of four countries—the United States, Russia, Germany, and Britain—make him a perfect person to discuss these issues. Alongside his current work on fear in World War I, Plamper is writing a popular history of migration to West and East Germany after World War II. The book concentrates on the life stories of individuals to capture the experiences of various groups and generations of immigrants, ultimately aiming to furnish a “usable past” for the new Germany emerging from the Syrian refugee crisis.

* * *

Though the phrase “history of emotions” has become dominant in designating a new scholarly field in Anglophone literature, historians have also used various other terms to designate their topics: most notably, feeling and affect. Does the choice of term matter, or are we playing with words?

“Emotions” is the best choice, because it includes dimensions of appraisal, signification, object-directedness, and consciousness—what these dimensions mean will become clear in a moment. “Emotions” can be replaced by “feelings,” terms that are synonymous in current English. By contrast “affects,” especially in affect theory—a cross-disciplinary field in cultural, literary, visual, and so on studies—have come to designate nonconscious, nonsignified, inchoate states that are neither directed at an object (fear of what?) nor subject to volition or evaluation.[7] In the classroom I demonstrate the difference between emotion/feeling and affect by suddenly clapping my hands. The milliseconds it takes my students to evaluate the audial stimulus of my clapping hands and to determine that it does not pose a threat to their survival are the time in which affect is operative: their bodies are on high alert, their pupils dilate, their hearts race; they cannot yet think, let alone articulate verbally what their bodies are doing, what they are feeling. Or to use the classic example of the encounter with a snake in the woods, in affect theory the snake is a stimulus per se, constituting a threat to my life because it posed a threat in the distant past. It is an evolutionary vestige. It activates the amygdala in the old, limbic part of my brain. It is nonsignifying; it is not connected to a sexual-biographical episode in my own life, as Freudians might have it (representing, for instance, the penis with which my uncle raped me when I was a ten-year-old). Nor does my appraisal or attention play any role—the fact that I have been a snake lover since visiting the terrarium at the Boston Zoo as a seven-year-old.

Now, as you say, the question is, whether the choice of terms matters for historians. Do we need to define emotion? Can we not just use “perturbations of the soul,” “passions,” “affections,” whichever metaterminology people in the past used to talk about their feelings? The gut reaction you will encounter among a lot of historians—let’s call them vulgar social constructionists—is, “oh well, let us use the terms historical actors used, we do not need a metadefinition.” But how, then, can we do history, how can we designate something that is stable and study its changes across time? How can we track—for instance, in a lexical conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte)—the shift in meaning of the word boiazn´ in Slovar´ russkogo iazyka XVIII veka and strakh in the third edition of Bol´shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia without assuming a core commonality between these terms?[8] Without that commonality we cannot trace any “shifts” or “changes”: these presuppose the existence of a single metaconcept. We can only speak of two radically disparate words that refer to radically different things.

In short, with history as currently practiced—I word this carefully because I am not making an absolute claim, only a claim about the current conventions of history, which may well change in the future—we need a referent outside language. Consider Carla Hesse here: “realism, as a philosophical stance, is a necessary foundation for any empirical claim to be able to reconstruct facts from evidence and to claim that language (and more broadly any system of signification—visual, textual or aural) has a denotative as well as a connotative function. That language is at some level referential (that it refers to something outside itself, albeit contingently) is critical, moreover, if one is to be able to make sustainable general claims—about culture, or about any other aspect of human existence.”[9] So we are back at the old issue of nominalism: history, as practiced today, is antinominalist. And so yes, we are playing with words, but all play is serious business.

In the introduction to your co-edited volume Fear: Across the Disciplines, you appear to call into question whether indeed a feeling or experience such as fear can be “understood as a stable, enduring experience across time” (10). Does it make sense for historians to write the history of states of mind such as fear, anger, or shame across decades or centuries? Or can we at best hope to study their influence or cultural valence at specific points in time?

The question is, with due respect, mal posée, and this criticism applies to Ben and myself when we wrote what you cite in our Fear volume. This is a good opportunity to show with concrete examples what I mean by antinomalism in my response to the first question. The problem is with “at best”—we here have a dichotomy of experience (states of mind) and expression (influence or cultural valence), a dichotomy that usually goes along with adjectives like “real” on the experience side, localizations “deep inside” the body, and the idea that this is pure, true subjectivity, where I am truly “I” (you don’t know my feelings!) and dissimulation, “display rules,” “mere” social norms, and the like on the other side. Ultimately it goes back to the nature vs. culture dichotomy that emerged in the 18th century. As so many have shown, this dichotomy is obsolete, the two are not separate (and were not separate before the 18th century), and its intellectual bequest is toxic. Recovering its holistic roots and assailing it with certain strands of philosophy or Bill Reddy’s emotive (which holds that emotional utterances are both constative and performative, that they both describe and change the world: when I say “I am happy” I describe a state and exact a change on this state) allows us to move beyond the dichotomy.[10] Cultural valences have feedback loop effects on “states of mind”; the two are inextricably intertwined.

You began research on the history of the emotions over a decade ago, around 2003, and have been active in drawing scholarly attention to the history of emotions ever since. What prompted your original interest in this field?

A couple of things came together. I was living in Germany, and this was an area where German scholars were for once part of the international historiographical avant-garde—with Begriffsgeschichte and Alltagsgeschichte being the other two major conceptual contributions to a discipline conceptually dominated since 1945 by Anglo-American, French, Italian (microhistory), Indian (postcolonial, subaltern), and a few more debates. I was struggling with all kinds of estrangement and adaptation effects (after 11 years outside Germany), and it seemed attractive to join a conversation that extended beyond the subdisciplinary confines of Osteuropäische Geschichte. Second, I started working on war, and fear plainly stood out. Third, I was at a phase in my life (call it a crisis, perhaps a midlife crisis) where few things titillated me and I was drawn to the visceral, as sick as this may sound. (Today I am horrified when reading the soldier first-person accounts, one of the reasons why I keep escaping from my book project.) Connected with that was the promise of the history of emotions: a less discursive gateway to the past, a more “real” access. That promise, by the way, is also the promise of the history of the senses. The promise is elusive, I have come to believe—not in the sense that we will not attain it but in the sense that the dichotomy that underpins it is falsely constructed: discourse/language/mediation vs. raw experience, emotional expression vs. emotional experience, the former exterior to the body, the latter situated within the body (deep inside she felt …). I believe for the history of emotions to be not another fad, yet another “turn,” it must not just deliver empirically, show how it is actually “applied,” but also hammer home the futility of this dichotomy and develop holistic conceptual language that leaves it behind. More generally speaking, there seems to be too much to do, especially in our “post-truth” age of “felt” and “alternative facts.” There is a real need for serious analysis of the emotional dimension of current politics.

When I entered the history of emotions field, it fascinated me that you could come up with a concept and see it cited almost instantly. That was very different from established, saturated fields. I think this partly explains why nobody ever found it strange that a historian of Russia wrote a general book on the new history of emotions. Incidentally, it would be worth considering in greater depth in Kritika the historians who have Russianist backgrounds and came to lead non-Russian fields: David Christian’s Big History comes to mind.[11]

In your The History of Emotions you offer a history of the history of the emotions, a critique of current historical literature on emotions, and a history of scientific writing on emotions. One of your criticisms of recent historical investigations of emotions is of the way in which historians use and have used science, particularly neuroscience. You note that some historians, like Dror Wahrman, readily admit to lacking a background that would allow them to draw on this literature responsibly: “ ‘A more serious obstacle is the fact that historians lack the critical tools for the evaluation of biological and medical discoveries. I myself, for example, am unable to tell whether what I have written here about the findings of neuro-physiological research is correct, controversial or total nonsense.’” [12] Is it appropriate for historians to make use of findings in neuroscience? Where do the limits of productive interdisciplinarity lie?

I believe there is indeed potential for productive cross-pollination, but the danger is—or was, the neurohype seems past its peak—that humanities scholars would latch on to scientific findings that turn out to be false. And by “false” I mean false. Saying that scientific findings are also culturally constructed does not help, because humanities scholars are looking for universal, robust truths from the sciences in the first place, and if the scientific findings turn out to be wrong, entire edifices built on them crumble. So it will take becoming truly conversant with science—experimental designs; sample sizes; internal, external, and ecological validity, and so on (meta-analyses are always the best place to start; a meta-analysis is a survey of more specialized studies). It took me about three years to gain some literacy with regard to major hypotheses in affective neuroscience: mirror neurons, Joseph LeDoux’s two roads to fear, Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, all three of which are now considered pretty much defunct. By the way, hypotheses are just that, nothing more and nothing less (they are tested over and over, and if they do not furnish the same results under the same experimental conditions, they are wrong, something that happens all the time in the sciences and over which scientists lose no sleep). Now it can be done; it is not quantum physics—in fact, my respect for various disciplines has changed, with the history of science and literary scholarship (including its time-honored “philological” methods, its attention to metaphor, narrative, etc.) moving to the top. I needed three years to become conversant with only a few hypotheses; it is difficult to really follow just these and humanly impossible to follow all of “experimental psychology” (including affective neuroscience) on emotions. Also, I had a privileged position to get into the neurosciences, working at Ute Frevert’s Max Planck Center for the History of Emotions alongside experimental psychologists, including a developmental psychologist (developmental psychologists are interested in individuals across the lifespan; they do not universalize college student test subjects to make statements about infants and octogenarians alike) who started using neuroscience methods and got an fMRI scanner while I was there. There was a lot of productive friction between experimental psychologists and historians. For those fellow Russianists who have neither these conditions nor the time, I recommend thinking twice before getting into the neurosciences. Actually, my advice is to steer clear for the time being. I know there’s a double bind here: I say this having done it, having proven that it is possible, only to then tell other historians to stay out of neuroscience.

You have organized and participated in conferences and panels about the history of the emotions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, India, and Russia. In your experience, how do cultural contexts influence the manner in which historians approach emotions as a category of analysis?

For example, it would be interesting to hear how the 2012 American Historical Review (AHR) conversation compared with the conversations you participated in during the 2008 conference on “Emotions in Russian History and Culture” in Moscow, the debates you took part in at the Max Planck Center for the History of Emotions in Berlin, or the 2008 Workshop at Princeton, “Fear: Multidisciplinary Perspectives.” Could the conversations that took place in Berlin have occurred at Princeton? Why or why not?

An interesting question. My initial impulse was to downplay cultural specificity, given how transnational and small the field is and given how hybridic or diasporic many of us are these days, but on second thought there is a “there” there. In Germany, for instance, it quickly became apparent that the history of emotions, especially when it talks about social aggregates and collective feelings, opens a backdoor for “mentality” and ultimately “national character.” At public events, my colleagues and I noticed that the history of emotions unintentionally attracted some very strange bedfellows, including ultraconservative psychologists who argue for the epigenetic, transgenerational transmission of war trauma (e.g., the bombing of Dresden) from those Germans who lived through the war to their children and grandchildren: my generation’s depression, inertia, and unwillingness to found start-ups and to produce enough children for the nation’s demographic survival—in short, our German angst—are purportedly all due to that inherited trauma.[13]

In Russia, the history of emotions seems to attract people interested in “subjective” (as opposed to “objective,” “scientific”) history: for our 2008 Moscow conference we got an abstract from an astrologer in Kamchatka. In India, the history of emotions is seen by many as a fruitful new approach to better understand communal violence among Hindus, Muslims, and others.[14] The United States is the only country I know where a medievalist historian would mobilize experimental emotions psychology and the neurosciences, arguing: “In an age when biblical literalism is on the rise, when presidents doubt the truth of evolution, when the teaching of evolutionary biology in the United States is being dumbed down and school boards talk seriously about creation science and intelligent design, it is all the more important for historians to support their colleagues in the biological sciences.”[15] Unthinkable in secular Europe!


[1]  Jan Plamper, The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), published in Russian as Ian Plamper, Alkhimiia vlasti: Kul´t Stalina v izobrazitel´nom iskusstve, trans. Nikolai Edel´man (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2010), and in Polish as Jan Plamper, Kult Stalina: Studium alchemii władzy, trans. Piotr Chojnacki (Warsaw: Świat Książki, 2014).

[2]  Jan Plamper, ed., “Emotional Turn? Feelings in Russian History and Culture,” special issue of Slavic Review 68, 2 (2009); Plamper, Shamma Shakhadat [Schamma Schahadat], and Mark Eli [Marc Elie], eds., Rossiiskaia imperiia chuvstv: Podkhody k kul´turnoi istorii emotsii (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2010); Plamper and Benjamin Lazier, eds., Fear: Across the Disciplines (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

[3]  “The History of Emotions: Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,” History and Theory 49, 2 (2010): 237–65; Jan Plamper, participant, “AHR Conversation: The Historical Study of Emotions,” American Historical Review 117, 5 (2012): 1487–1531.

[4]  Jan Plamper, “Emotional Turn? Feelings in Russian History and Culture,” Slavic Review 68, 2 (2009): 232–33; Mark D. Steinberg, Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia, 1910–1925 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002); Catriona Kelly, Refining Russia: Advice Literature, Polite Culture, and Gender from Catherine to Yeltsin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Happiness and Toska: An Essay in the History of Emotions in Pre-War Soviet Russia,” Austrialian Journal of Politics and History 50, 3 (2004): 357–71; Árpád von Klimó and Malte Rolf, “Rausch und Diktatur,” Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft, no. 10 (2003): 877–95; Glennys Young, “Emotions, Contentious Politics, and Empire: Some Thoughts about the Soviet Case,” Ab Imperio, no. 2 (2007): 113–51; Alexander Martin, “Sewage and the City: Filth, Smell, and Representations of Urban Life in Moscow, 1770–1880,” Russian Review 67, 2 (2008): 243–74. Suny’s first printed contribution on the history of emotions appeared only in 2010 as Ronal´d Grigor Suni [Ronald Grigor Suny], “Affektivnye soobshchestva: Struktura gosudarstva i natsii v Rossiiskoi imperii,” in Rossiiskaia imperiia chuvstv, 78–114. An earlier piece by Suny, “Why We Hate You: The Passions of National Identity and Ethnic Violence,” was published in the spring of 2004 in the Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies BPS Working Paper Series. The 2010 article was followed by Suny, “Thinking about Feelings: Affective Dispositions and Emotional Ties,” in Interpreting Emotions in Russia and Eastern Europe, ed. Mark D. Steinberg and Valeria Sobol (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), 116–23.

[5]  See, e.g., Andrei Zorin, Poiavlenie geroia: Iz istorii russkoi emotsional´noi kul´tury kontsa XVIII–nachala XIX veka (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2016).

[6]  Jan Plamper, Geschichte und Gefühl: Grundlagen der Emotionsgeschichte (Munich: Siedler, 2012), published in English as Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[7]  For examples, see Brian Massumi, ed., A Shock to Thought: Expression after Deleuze and Guattari (London: Routledge, 2002); Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); William E. Connolly, A World of Becoming (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); John Protevi, Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Steven Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009). But see also Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2005); Hardt, “Affective Labor,” Boundary 26, 2 (1999): 89–100; and Hardt, “Foreword: What Affects Are Good For,” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, ed. Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), ix–xiii. My thinking has been shaped by Ruth Leys’s devastating critique of affect theory. See Ruth Leys, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37, 3 (2011): 434–72, and the ensuing discussion: Connolly, “Critical Response I: The Complexity of Intention,” Critical Inquiry 37, 4 (2011): 791–98; Leys, “Critical Response II: Affect and Intention. A Reply to William E. Connolly,” Critical Inquiry 37, 4 (2011): 799–805; and Leys, The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[8]  Slovar´ russkogo iazyka XVIII veka (Leningrad: Nauka, 1984), 118; Bol´shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 3rd ed. (Moscow: Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 1976), 24, pt. 1, 556.

[9]  Carla Hesse, “The New Empiricism,” Cultural and Social History 1, 2 (2004): 202.

[10] See William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 128. For philosophical attacks on the dichotomy, see, e.g., Robert Pippin’s reading of Hegel and Cavell (http://nonsite.org/issues/issue-5-agency-and-experience).

[11] See, e.g., David Christian and William H. McNeill, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

[12] Plamper, History of Emotions, 276, quoting Dror Wahrmann, “Where Culture and Biology Meet,” review of Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Human Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), Haaretz, 24 April 2008. Even more forcefully stated reservations about drawing on findings in the natural sciences can be found in Rossiiskaia imperiia chuvstv, 31–36; and “AHR Conversation: The Historical Study of Emotions,” 1510–12.

[13] See, e.g., Gabriele Baring, Die geheimen Ängste der Deutschen (Munich: Scorpio, 2011). For a critique, see Jan Plamper, “Die Deutschen als Opfer,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 8 June 2015, 15; and, less critically, Burkhard Bilger, “Where Germans Make Peace with Their Dead,” New Yorker, 12 September 2016 (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/12/familienaufstellung-germanys-group-therapy). It is true, however, that the processes that took place between mind-bodies at, say, a Nazi Party rally remain opaque. When it comes to emotions of groups of people in a single space with face-to-face contact, our analytical instruments do not go beyond metaphors of “contagion” (see, e.g., Max Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy, trans. Peter Heath [New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008], 14–17). This is one of several exciting areas where serious theorizing is needed.

[14] For a pioneering study, see Lisa Mitchell, Language, Emotion, and Politics in South India: The Making of a Mother Tongue (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

[15] Smail, On Deep History and the Brain, 11.