Itchy Feet: The value of boredom

On day four of #BadFeelings week, we get to grips with the feeling of boredom.

Tristram Oliver-Skuse is a postdoc at the University of Geneva and a member of Thumos. He recently received his PhD from Melbourne University under the supervision of Karen Jones and Laura Schroeter. Most of his research is in the philosophy of mind.

My contribution to the negative emotions conference was about boredom, a new area of interest for me. I argued there are two types of boredom – existential boredom and mundane boredom – and that the second type, which is sometimes directed at objects, can actually play a useful role in our lives.

Two types of boredom

Boredom is under-discussed in the philosophy of emotions and what discussion there is tends to focus on the most oppressive sorts of boredom rather than more mundane varieties. The form of boredom that captures the majority of the attention is existential boredom – the sort of boredom that flattens out the evaluative landscape, making everything seem uninteresting.

This sort of boredom is well-captured by David Foster Wallace:

I’d look out the window and see the glass instead of anything past it. I’d think of the sorts of small games and toys and developmental projects my mother always suggested and within the boredom not only find them unappealing but be unable to imagine how anyone anywhere could possibly have the mindless energy to undertake any sort of child’s amusements, or sit still in the silence long enough to read a picture book – the whole world was torpid, enervated, worry-logged.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King Chapter 23

By contrast, there is a common everyday sort of boredom which makes a certain thing stand out as boring against an evaluatively varied backdrop. Being bored by something in this sense involves other things seeming more interesting.

Imagine how you feel when you’re stuck in a staff meeting and you can see a nice patch of grass dappled with sunlight. Your attention may be draw to the grass, which will seem much more interesting than your meeting. It will require effort to redirect your attention back to the meeting precisely because of the different degrees of interestingness.

The productive side of everyday boredom

This more mundane sort of boredom can make us give up on some pursuits against our avowed intentions. In some cases, this plays a useful regulatory function, helping us to let go of projects that are not worth pursuing, even when we cannot see that they aren’t worth pursuing.

We see an example of the positive contribution boredom could make in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, where a doomed academic project threatens to consume the lives of Dorothea and her husband Mr Casaubon.

Mr Casaubon in a BBC TV adaptation of Middlemarch

Dorothea experiences mundane boredom whenever Mr Casaubon tells her about the project, and it is clear that Mr. Casaubon should experience this boredom when he pursues it. If he had felt more bored, and had given up on the project, his life would have gone better. Here is George Eliot’s description of Dorothea’s reaction:

Dorothea was anxious to follow this spontaneous direction of [Mr. Casaubon’s] thoughts .… but she was gradually ceasing to expect … that she should see any wide opening where she followed him. Poor Mr Casaubon himself was lost among small closets and winding stairs, and in an agitated dimness … easily lost sight of any purpose

George Eliot, Middlemarch, p. 145

Boredom is not just a mood

If we pay close attention to the qualitative features of experiences of boredom like Dorothea’s we can see that the feelings that make up the experience are not directed towards the boring object. Yet, I argue, her boredom is about a particular object.

To see the contrast, consider fear and depression. Sometimes fear is not a diffuse reaction, but a targeted one – it is about a particular thing which frightens us. By contrast, depression is not about things, it is a lens through which we experience the world. I argued that boredom is sometimes directed at things in the way that fear is.

If this is right, something other than the feelings must be responsible for boredom being about particular objects.

The response

Danny Dukes gave an interesting and entertaining response to my talk at our conference, outlining an empirically informed characterisation of the emotion of interest – plausibly the polar opposite emotion to boredom.

I also received very helpful questions on a number of fronts, and as a result I ended the day much less sure of my claim that boredom is directed at the objects that bore us. A number of people challenged the ways that I argued for this claim, and gave compelling reasons to think that it might be more similar to depression than I thought.

All in all, the conference was a fantastic experience. I am extremely grateful to all of the other participants, both for their excellent talks and for their generous and helpful questions.

The rational value of political anger

In this, the third in our series on #BadFeelings, exploring negative emotions, the philosopher Mary Carman looks at the meaning and value of anger.

Mary is a member of Thumos, the Genevan Research Group on Emotions, Norms and Values at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva.


The feminist activist and poet, Audre Lorde, famously wrote in her essay ‘The uses of anger’ that:

The angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of the saying. When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar. I have tried to learn my anger’s usefulness to me, as well as its limitations.

Political anger, anger in response to injustice, can undeniably be a useful emotion as Lorde discusses. It motivates us to act, serves to unify us in fighting certain causes, and can even be important for our sense of self-worth and -respect. Defences of the value of anger, like these, have long been made in feminist literature and in political spheres more widely. At the same time, many people remain hesitant about the value of anger, especially in political contexts. Anger is often problematic in the way that it undermines meaningful dialogue or the way in which the angry person seems irrational – over-reacting, making mountains out of molehills, not engaging with the world in a sufficiently unbiased manner. Have the defenders of anger sufficiently addressed this worry and, in particular, the latter worry that the angry person is somehow being irrational?

When we look at the philosophical literature that focuses on the rational value of anger, we find a common theme. Anger, it is claimed, has rational value because of the way in which it is a response to injustices. Because anger, like other emotions, can be assessed for fittingness, it can be apt or not apt depending on whether a situation really does instantiate an injustice. Through being responsive in this way, the arguments progress, we can learn from anger: we learn about ourselves and about others – what our and others’ values are – but we can also learn about the evaluative world: we learn that here, now, things are unjust.

Recognising the role that anger can have in our coming to gain knowledge and understanding about the evaluative world is itself an important gain. It does not, however, get to the heart of the all-too-common complaint that the angry person is somehow irrational. We can be responsive to genuine injustices; we can experience anger that is fitting, apt, morally appropriate and a manifestation of self-respect. And yet we can still be unduly biased, too hasty in our decisions, too hasty to find fault in others and not in ourselves.

Drawing on empirical work on the effects of anger on decision-making and judgements in choice situations helps to flesh out what exactly this kind of complaint against anger is. Anger, the evidence suggests, has effects on both the processes and outcomes of our decision-making processes. It focuses our attention on things that reflect our anger; it encourages us to attribute blame to others, with a sense of confidence and certainty in ourselves; anger tends towards more risk-willingness; and angry thinking, unlike sad thinking, tends to be heuristic in nature.

If we apply these findings to a paradigmatic rational process like inquiry, we see that anger can be problematic in introducing undue bias, in undermining the coherence and consistency in our views through encouraging attribution of blame to others and not ourselves and through encouraging shallow examination of our ideas. Overall, we might worry that the lack of self-critiquing that tends to accompany anger creates problems for our rational values that require coherence, consistency and rigour in our own thinking. This, or so it seems to me, gets at the heart of the complaint that anger is problematically irrational, and it does so in a way that is independent of whether or not our anger can have other value in our lives.

Not all is bad, however. In my paper at the Negative Emotions conference, I proceeded to argue that anger can also have good effects on our thinking. For instance, and as feminist theorists have long argued, anger can draw our attention to injustices that we might otherwise overlook. The risk-willingness that accompanies anger may encourage us to proceed with lines of inquiry that are controversial or go against a status quo. And the optimism for one’s future and sense of control that accompanies anger can encourage resilience and productivity that can ultimately lead to progress, both in one’s own thinking but also in the shared knowledge base of a community as a whole.

Further, empirical studies suggest that there are mitigating techniques that are effective in counteracting unwanted effects of an emotion like anger, techniques such as reappraising the original emotional stimulus, inducing countervailing emotions, making use of choice architecture, or increasing awareness of the misattribution effects. We can expect all of these, to greater and lesser extents, to be applicable in political scenarios where anger is rife. In particular, increasing awareness of the misattribution effects of anger through being pre-emptively self-critical by expecting to justify oneself to an expert audience seems especially promising. Of course, this requires seeing one’s opponents as an expert audience, which requires seeing opposing views to one’s own as legitimate. This places an important limitation on when anger can be rationally defensible: not all cases of dogmatic anger will pass the test.

If all of this is right, then we have the tools to hand to counter the objection that the angry person is being necessarily irrational. In fact, in many typical scenarios of political anger, such as the anger of members of marginalised and oppressed groups, we have good reason to suppose that the angry are indeed motivated to and are making use of mitigating techniques to a certain degree. We thus do need to take the anger of others seriously.

With all of this in mind, other questions about anger then start to arise. What, for instance, should we say about rage and about mild indignation? What if anger not only is responsive to injustices but instantiates an important form of understanding injustice – how do we balance all the different aspects to the value (and disvalue) of anger? What if we choose to be ‘irrational’ in order to capitalise on other aspects of our anger in order to achieve some goal, where does that leave the rational status of our anger? In any event, Audre Lorde is quite right: we must learn both the uses and our limitations of our anger, and doing so can be for the benefit of ourselves and of others around us.

Read more about anger on the History of Emotions blog.

Further reading

Defences of anger:

  • Audre Lorde (1981). ‘The uses of anger’. Reprinted in Sister, Outsider (2007). Berkeley: Crossing Press, pp. 124-33.
  • Uma Narayan. (1988). ‘Working together across difference: Some considerations on emotion and political practice’. In Hypatia2, pp. 31–47.
  • Eusebius McKaiser (2015). ‘Anger misunderstood’. In Run Racist Run. Johannesburg: Bookstorm, pp. 103-113.
  • Amia Srinivasan (forthcoming). ‘The Aptness of Anger’. In Journal of Political Philosophy.

Reviews of empirical work of effects of anger and emotion on decision-making :

  • Jennifer Lerner and Larissa Tiedens (2006). ‘Portrait of the angry decision maker: How appraisal tendencies shape anger’s influence on cognition’. In Journal of Behavioral Decision Making2, pp. 115–137.
  • Jennifer Lerner, Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo et al. (2015). ‘Emotion and decision making’. In Annual Review of Psychology1, pp. 799–823.

Life’s Anxieties: Good or Bad?

This is the second in our series of guest posts on #BadFeelings this week on the History of Emotions blog. Charlie Kurth is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis. His book, The Anxious Mind (MIT, forthcoming) develops an extended philosophical defence of what anxiety is and why it matters for moral and social life. The book is part of a larger set of projects at the intersection of emotion research, moral psychology, and ethical theory. In this post he asks whether our assumptions about anxiety are unduly negative.

Folk wisdom tells us that anxiety is an inherently unpleasant and pernicious emotion. Anxiety is unpleasant, no doubt. And it can clearly go awry—taking our attention away from what matters or, worse, paralyzing us when we need to act. This, of course, is obvious to anyone who has ever struggled with a bout of anxiety. A recent slew of “anxiety memoirs” enriches the picture with tales of anxiety-wrought havoc and disaster (e.g., Berry 2014; Stossel 2013; Smith 2012).

But claims about the pain and trouble that anxiety can bring aren’t just bits of the common lore—they also have empirical and philosophical backing. For instance, a recent review of research investigating the effects of anxiety in evaluative settings notes that it’s “predominantly harmful to task performance” (Zeidner & Matthews 2005: 147). And among philosophers, there is a long tradition—in both western and eastern writings—that views anxiety, and negative emotions more generally, as problematic for virtuous thought and action: the virtuous person is typically thought to display a “tranquil mind” in the sense that there is “harmony” or “serenity” among her beliefs, feelings, and motives—competing impulses have been “silenced” (e.g., Kant 179; Annas 2011; Hursthouse 1999; McDowell 1998; Confucius). In short, we seem to have a rather unflattering picture of anxiety: it is impairing, inherently unpleasant, and inconsistent with virtue.

However, while there is much that is correct in these observations about anxiety, they’re not the whole story. Anxiety also has a more moderate and productive side. Here we find forms of anxiety that not only can help us see that we face a potential threat or challenge but that also bring the caution and risk assessment efforts that better enable us work through the challenges we face. Consider Henry Marsh. Marsh is one of the world’s most accomplished neurosurgeons. Though he has performed over 400 brain surgeries, these procedures still make him anxious. But, importantly, he does not see his anxiety as a distraction or a curse. Rather, he sees it as the manifestation of his accumulated surgical expertise: when determining whether to remove more of a tumor—at the risk of damaging healthy brain tissue—he is guided by his anxiety. As he explains, “you stop when you start getting more anxious. That’s experience” (Knausgaard 2015).

Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who is guided by his own anxiety when operating. Image © Alex Mackworth-Praed

But you don’t need to be a world-class brain surgeon to benefit from anxiety. The moderate twinge of helpful anxiety is a common feature of everyday life. The pinch of unease felt when talking to a new acquaintance signals that you may have said something offensive; this discomfit then brings an increased deference that can help you get your conversation back on track. Consider as well: feeling the itch of anxiety brings focus in advance of your big test; anxious about your important presentation, you decide to review it one more time and catch a subtle but significant mistake. Anxiety in situations like these—social interactions, public performances, and occasions where one may be evaluated by others—is beneficial because it functions as a regulating device: by signalling a potential danger or challenge, and by prompting caution, focusing attention, and engaging restraint, it operates as a check on overconfidence and our tendency to just go on autopilot.

Moreover, these examples are not just cherry-picked anecdotes. As David Barlow, a clinical psychologist and the founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, explains in his book Anxiety and Its Disorders (Gilford 2001):

we have known for almost 100 years that our physical and intellectual performance is driven and enhanced by the experience of anxiety, at least up to a point. In 1908, Yerkes and Dodson demonstrated this in the laboratory by showing that the performance of animals on a simple task was better if they were made “moderately anxious” than if they were experiencing no anxiety at all. Since that time, similar observations have been made concerning human performance in a wide variety of situations and contexts. Without anxiety, little would be accomplished. The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish…

So while we tend to focus on anxiety run amok—occasions where it manifests in unfortunate, even chronic and debilitating ways—that tendency obscures the milder, and likely more common, cases of anxiety and the benefits it can bring.

Importantly, anxiety’s positive contribution is not limited to facilitating social exchange or enhancing physical and intellectual performance. In contrast to the negative assessment suggested by the above comments from philosophers, anxiety can also make a positive contribution to moral thought and action. To see this, consider a familiar scenario.

The doctor has just told you that given the extent of your mother’s Alzheimer’s, it may be time to put her in a care facility. While you are inclined to follow this suggestion, the decision makes you anxious—your mother has always been terrified of nursing homes. But because of your unease about this decision you know you must make, you begin to consider whether there might be a better way to reconcile her needs and fears.

As this example draws out, your anxiety about your choice prompts (potentially) valuable brainstorming. Yet it seems to do more than just get you engaged in instrumentally valuable thought. For notice: your anxiety also captures something admirable about you—namely, your sensitivity to the significance of the decision you must make and your awareness of the limits of your knowledge and experience on these matters. If that is right, then it suggests that anxiety in a situation like this doesn’t just help you make a better decision; it’s also central to your admirable character—the manifestation of your virtuous concern.

The emerging picture of anxiety that we have here reveals it to be a complicated emotion, one that has the potential to both help and hinder our ability to negotiate the complexities of social and moral life. What are we to make of all this? How we answer this question will turn on both philosophical questions about the importance of emotions like anxiety in shaping thought and action, and empirical questions about how susceptible anxiety is to our efforts to cultivate it. On this front, I’m cautiously optimistic: anxiety is central to how we perceive, learn about, and assess the people and things that surround us; though it can go badly awry, it is also emotion that—with effort—we can shape so that we experience it at the right time and in the right way.

Negative Emotions: The good, the bad and the ugly

This week is #BadFeelings week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from a fascinating recent conference where a group of philosophers got to grips with the nature and significance of a range of emotions generally categorised as ‘negative’. In this first post of the week, the conference organisers, Mary Carman and Tristram Oliver-Skuse offer their preliminary thoughts on negative emotions. Mary and Tristram are members of Thumos – The Genevan Research Group on Emotions, Values and Norms, at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences (CISA), University of Geneva

Despite its bad rap, can anxiety in fact be good for us? How about public expression of contempt? Should we be contemptuous of Donald Trump and his orange menace and, if so, what form should our contempt take? What about embarrassment – does it in fact play an important function in our social lives, without which we would be much worse off? These were all questions touched upon in a recent conference on negative emotions at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences (CISA) and the University of Geneva: Negative Emotions – The Good the Bad and the Ugly.

Hosted by Thumos, the Genevan Research Group on Emotions, Values and Norms, eight philosophers tackled eight different negative emotions, followed by responses from graduate students in philosophy, psychology and sociology who are members of the Swiss Doctoral School in Affective Sciences and engaged discussion from the audience.

Towards the end of the conference, various participants drew attention to the fact that little had been said about what exactly a ‘negative’ emotions is. Some assumed that it was an emotion with a negative evaluation; others that it was an unpleasant experience. What the discussions at the conference highlighted, however, was how diverse the conceptions of ‘negative emotions’ are and how easy it is to overlook the ways in which an emotion – positive or negative – can have (or lack) value, if we attempt to pigeonhole it right at the outset. In this brief overview, we highlight some of the main claims made about the eight emotions.

The conference opened with Ronald de Sousa on jealousy with a response from Frédéric Minner. By arguing against monogamy, de Sousa argued in favour of a positive form of jealousy, ‘compersion’, the positive feeling appropriate when one’s romantic partner has sexual pleasure with another. Jealousy, he argued, revolves around viewing one’s partner as a possession. We should instead embrace their autonomy, down to taking pleasure in their enactment of their own sexual desires.

Sandy Berkovski then turned the conversation to embarrassment, followed by a response from Juliette Vazard. Embarrassment, Berkovski argued, is a lot more common and important than we might otherwise think. Some philosophers see embarrassment as a mild form of shame (and you can read more posts about shame on this blog), but according to Berkovski shame has an additional normative element and, on closer inspection, isn’t as common as we often think. Embarrassment is instead a mild form of humiliation.

The afternoon of the first day focused on two closely related emotions: anger and contempt. Focusing on anger in political contexts, Mary Carman looked at extant defences of the rationality of such anger which claim that it is rational insofar as it is a justified responses to injustice, but Carman argued that these defences fail to really address the common complaint that anger is importantly irrational. Drawing on empirical work on anger in decision-making, she cashed out this complaint through highlighting negative effects on our thought processes. Not all was bad, as she ended by suggesting both that there are positive effects and that the negative can be mitigated. This was followed by a response from Fabio Mancini.

Macalester Bell then picked up the theme of contempt, expanding on arguments found in her book Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt. She argued that contempt was a uniquely appropriate response to superbia – the vice of unrealistically and unethically elevating oneself over others, commonly manifested in racism and bigotry. According to Bell this unjust attitude can be combatted by the contempt of those demoted by the superbia. Heidy Meriste gave a response.

Day two opened with Charlie Kurth on the cultivation and regulation of emotions, with a discussion of the unique ways in which disgust, anxiety and compassion work, with a response from Melanie Sarzano. Since these emotions work in different ways and have different degrees of inputs from biology and society, different cultivation techniques are required. The differences between the sorts of techniques required have implications for different theories about the place of emotions in a good life, or so Kurth contended.

The conference then turned to pain, with Jennifer Corns presenting her arguments towards the claim that pain is not a natural kind. By this she means that the notion of pain does not play a positive role in the best scientific practices of explanation and prediction, not that we should cease talking about pain as a result, or that it is not a real thing. Scientific theories do not use notions like Portuguese red wine to generate predictions or explanations, for instance, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t Portuguese red wines. Giada Dirupo gave a response. Pain may or may not be an emotion depending on who you ask, but as various speakers had been drawing analogies between emotional experiences and pain experiences in order to develop their arguments, a focused discussion of pain was timely and well-placed amongst the themes of the conference.

Kicking off the final afternoon session, Tristram Oliver-Skuse talked about boredom and Danny Dukes responded with interest. Oliver-Skuse suggested that boredom poses a challenge to phenomenal views of emotional intentionality. In particular, he argued that it is possible to characterise what it’s like to experience boredom without ever mentioning the object that bores us, thus creating problems for a branch of views according to which the intentionality of a mental state is given entirely by the phenomenal character.

To close the conference, we focused on regret. Carolyn Price argued that we can distinguish two types of regret: hot regret and wistful regret. The former is characterised by a desire to change the situation we regret, that is, a motivation to act on a real possibility. The latter is characterised, instead, by a mere wish to do so – an idle motivation which is unconnected from real possibilities. Maude Oullette-Dube had the final words in response.

Over the two days of the conference, we had wide-ranging discussions from an engaged, supportive yet critical audience. This week, a few of our speakers will reflect on their emotions on this blog, thereby extending the discussion of the good, the bad and the ugly of what we may call negative emotions. As we hope you shall see, these so-called negative emotions are not a simple lot. We would like to think the Swiss Doctoral School in Affective Sciences, swissuniversities and CISA for their funding and support, as well as the History of Emotions blog for giving us this opportunity to share our work more widely. But most of all, we would like to thank our speakers, respondents and all who participated in the stimulating discussions and close examination of our affective lives.

“Ava’s Sigh” Prelude to Mood Shifts: A Sonic Repertoire, Tuesday, June 6th

Mary Cappello’s five books of literary nonfiction include Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and, most recently, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack (University of Chicago Press). A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow), and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. She will be speaking as part of the Centre for the History of Emotions event series on Tuesday 6 June: book online here.

Every now and then, a sound stops me in my tracks and asks me to listen more deeply or more fully. Truly to encounter it and to learn its name. Recently, I had this experience with my two-year-old niece Ava’s sigh.

Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania

We were roaming a public garden where fountains trickled and snapdragons trilled when, of an instant, my niece paused to sigh. Prior to this articulation, she had crouched as if readying herself to spring, but did not. Instead, she stood up, looked about her, twirled a bit then sighed.

By certain measures, my niece has been slow to vocalization, and yet, to my mind, there is so much that sigh might signify affectively. An indicator of an in-between state, it might be saying,

“What do we do next?”

“How shall I move?”

“What do I want, now?”

When Ava breathes in more fully like this, it’s not for absence of breath, but as a way of inward-moving-saying. It was actually more of a simultaneous intake and outtake of air than the more commonly recognized adult “sigh of contentment” (and when was the last time you uttered one of those?) Thought is involved in Ava’s sigh, but not exactly the sound of a thought—it’s more like the sound of thinking’s before or after. Ava is not yet verbalizing a whole lot, but she knows the word for sky (rhymes with sigh). “What’s up there?” I ask her. And she replies, smiling, “sky.”

If I could create a study borne of my niece’s sigh or if I could allow its movement into my prose, if I could find a way to essay it, I might alight on something like “mood.” Maybe I would need to drop my pen, or use the crayon in a child’s hand, to sweep across the page or graze it. I would definitely need to listen anew, from the vantage of an altered state, and to sound my understanding, in turn.

Moods seem to be a bedrock of our being (we’re never not in a mood of one sort or another), at the same time that moods seem to exist quite apart from our ability to perceive them. Writing Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack presented me with a tantalizing aesthetic problem: I mean, here’s this thing that is ephemeral, amorphous but ever-present and foundational. It will not let you pin it down, and it might only come into view when you aren’t trying to discover it. If you look too directly at it, it may not show itself, or will vanish. And the minute it does materialize, life is sure to break in, and poof, it’s gone.

In this new book, I wanted to court the mystery of this airy something that ever accompanies us, that some thinkers consider the very ground of our being, but which we barely have a language for, and I pursued something I came to call “cloud-writing” to do this. The prose forms that constitute the book are meant to invite a reader to hover and drift, to immerse and release, even occasionally, to sleep (perchance to dream). I’m not sure I succeeded at this—I’m still waiting for the review that says, “Life Breaks In succeeds in putting the reader to sleep”—but I was hopeful to play with form in such a way to approximate the vaporous density, the present absence, the ethereal materiality of mood.

Is mood a place?, the wonderful essayist and poet, Nicole Walker asked me recently, and I replied, Yes. But a place that is often enough un-locatable, un-map-able. That throws off both compass and clock.

The earliest form of the word in Anglo-Saxon suggests mood as a place—in the head or breast/chest. Nowadays, we affiliate it with a more broadly indicative “zone” that troubles distinctions between inner and outer states.

A detail from Florence Thomas’ Alice in Wonderland plaster bas-relief, Beverly Cleary Children’s Reading Room, Multnomah County Library, Portland, Oregon. From 1946 until 1971, Thomas was the incomparable creator of View-Master table top 3-D fairy tale tableaux, childhood “mood rooms,” par excellence.

Late in the pages of Life Breaks In, I begin to consider whether mood hovers in the space between words and the things to which words point. Or if moods are made of the stuff left over from childhood that left their trace without finding their way into representation (the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas tempts me down this particular path). For any reader willing to remain inside the book’s strange precincts, there’s a kind of lift-off from language altogether that eventually occurs. The book is often operating on that threshold between the representational and the non-.

I’m always interested in getting at affective states that are off limits or that efface the cribbed playing cards of happy, sad, angry, and bored. I’m also very aware of the blunting of all of mood’s complex shadings by “depression” as a signifier, and a bottom line premise of my book is that mood is the basis for a lucrative pharmacology even though there is no agreement either in the hard or social sciences on what mood IS.

In this way, my thinking is companionate with that of Tiffany Watt Smith, who, in an article in The Guardian where she discusses her book, The Book of Human Emotions, writes: I offer this collection of emotions as a gesture against those arguments that try to reduce the beautiful complexity of our inner lives into just a handful of cardinal feelings. Because one thing I’ve learned is that we don’t need fewer words for our feelings. We need more.

The other day, I texted a friend a guffaw-making article on one of the US President’s latest debacles, and he replied, “I manage to laugh and seethe almost simultaneously.” There’s no emoji for that combo, and the revolution will not be Google-able. New feeling states that have no name are more interesting to me than the clownish antics of our current commander in chief even if he and his kin—my fellow Americans—have paved the way for their emergence.

Which brings me back to Ava’s sigh. Now I’m thinking of the gasping sort of sigh I suffer daily, those multiple intakes of shock since the election. All of the OMG’s, and the whatthefuckjusthappenedtodays. If Trump’s presidency and person are taking up all the air in the room, it’s obvious that we need to find another way to breathe.

Insofar as words inch us towards mood, they do so on levels that are corporeal, unconscious, and elemental. At one point in Life Breaks In, I suggest that how (the sounds of) words affect us might depend on the quality of the air through which words move. What would happen if we suspended our reliance on taxonomies of emotion, and considered mood instead in terms of envelopes, niches and spheres; as gravity and wave, voice and hue; as temperature and tempo; as making and creating; as reverberation and skin. Mood as air; mood and sound.

Sign up for Mary Cappello’s free talk on the evening of Tuesday 6 June at the Horse Hospital here:


Gut Feelings Week: Dyspepsia and Navigating Nineteenth-Century Health

This guest post by Evelien Lemmens is part of Gut Feelings Weekin which a group of scholars participating in the conference Gut Feeling: Digestive Health in Nineteenth-Century Culture explore different aspects of digestion.

Evelien Lemmens is a PhD candidate researching the relationship between diet, digestion and emotional health in Britain between 1850 and 1937. She is part of the Wellcome Trust funded ‘Living with Feeling’ project at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for the History of Emotions. Her research interests include history of emotions, social history of medicine, and gender history.

How do you solve a problem like dyspepsia?

Dyspepsia, as a term used in lay literature and endorsed by the non-medical community, experienced its glory days during the nineteenth century. Gaining traction from around 1800 onwards, the term’s use was spurred on by the growth of the British press, significant attention to the ailment by manufacturers of patent medicine, and an increased demand for public education on topics of diet, cooking, and domestic science. By the 1880s, self-proclaimed “dyspeptics” were found, as per the physician Thomas Clifford Allbutt and fellow commentators, on every street-corner and formed a real nuisance for the medical community. However, throughout its rise and fall, and up until today, the term ‘dyspepsia’ remains a vague and flexible term.

Early example of a published monograph showing ‘dyspepy’ on its title page. James Rymer, A Treatise Upon Indigestion, and the Hypochondriac Disease, 5th edn (London, 1789).

Dyspepsia (as dyſpepſy) first made an appearance in an English-language publication in 1661, but it was not until the 1780s that it appeared in the title of one. Originally limited to use in medical and academic texts, ideas of dyspepsia steadily infiltrated lay literature, gaining increased momentum from 1800 onwards. This increased awareness resulted in a wider cultural attention for and appropriation of dyspepsia. During the first half of the nineteenth century, dyspepsia transformed from a disorder of the intellectual elite to the national disease of Britain and America. This was allowed for by a broadening of dyspepsia’s aetiology, which came to comprise every possible cause: mental overwork; emotional agitation; poor ventilation; substandard food quality and preparation; improper dietary habits and lifestyle; tightly-laced corsets; poor oral hygiene and so on. The breadth of dyspepsia’s aetiology meant that anyone could fall victim to it, and it became a perfect disorder for ‘cure-all’ patent medicines to target.

Despite its prevalence in publications, especially during the second half of the nineteenth century, dyspepsia has remained a difficult ailment to grasp. By its most basic definition, dyspepsia equates to indigestion. However, the term’s meaning increased in breadth and complexity at the start of the nineteenth century, and the surge in attempts to delineate dyspepsia resulted in a critical blurring of the ailment entailed.

This blurring of dyspepsia contributed to divergent judgements of the ailment. On the one hand, dyspepsia could be accepted as an objective and legitimate category of diagnosis, as it was used in official medical reports, court cases, and parliamentary records. Dyspepsia could alter how an individual’s actions were judged, especially if these were considered erratic or out of character. For example, an 1894 inquest into the suicide of Captain Charles Ernest Cureton – an occasion of “considerable gloom” – offers a verdict of “suicide while temporarily insane” resulting from his dyspepsia, hypochondria, and depression “in spirits.” Here, dyspepsia connotes more than a failing of digestion.

Frontispiece of Sydney Whiting’s Memoirs of a Stomach, showing a man suffering from dyspepsia and indigestion resulting from over-indulgence and faulty habits.

On the other hand, dyspepsia was often depicted as a woolly excuse of a condition, amounting to little more than indigestion following one’s own faulty eating habits, accompanied with unwarranted self-pity. These “martyrs to dyspepsia” became a favourite target of satire in periodicals like Fun and Judy, and fear inciting advertisements for dyspepsia remedies, which presented the ailment as life-wrecking, were criticised as “puffery.” The social acceptance of dyspepsia was dependent on the interpretation of the term, and fluctuated over time, genre, class, and gender.

Today’s dictionaries continue to exemplify this difficulty, as is demonstrated by definitions of dyspepsia in the Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. The CMD, a standard reference guide for medical practitioners, defines dyspepsia as:

(indigestion) n. disordered digestion: usually applied to pain or discomfort in the lower chest or upper abdomen after eating and sometimes accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or a feeling of unease or fullness after eating.

Meanwhile the OED, the accepted authority on the English language, defines dyspepsia as:

Difficulty or derangement of digestion; indigestion: applied to various forms of disorder of the digestive organs, esp. the stomach, usually involving weakness, loss of appetite, and depression of spirits.

While both present dyspepsia as disordered digestion, the CMD mentions nothing of the accompanying mental and emotional dimensions that are present in the OED. Furthermore, while the CMD focuses very much on symptoms post-eating, the OED highlights a loss of appetite. The difference is striking: a sufferer of dyspepsia in the OED is inflicted with weakness and poor emotional health, as well as a lack of interest in food, whereas the sufferer in the CMD predominantly has digestive complaints following the intake of food.

Similarly, dyspepsia is still included in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) today. However, the diagnosis of dyspepsia is splintered and occurs in a myriad of diagnostic categories: a disease of the digestive system (K30); symptoms and signs involving the digestive system and abdomen (R10-19); or somatoform disorders of nonpsychotic mental, behavioural of neurodevelopmental symptoms (F45.8).

This splintered and dynamic nature of medical diagnoses, past and present, highlights the value of medical anthropology in studying the cultural and social history of medicine and health. In The Body Multiple, Annemarie Mol presents an ethnography of the day-to-day diagnosis and treatment of atherosclerosis, a comparatively straightforward ailment. Following “objects while they are enacted in practice,” which she terms praxiography, she notes the significant discrepancies between different specialisms (surgeons, physicians, internists, radiologists, pathologists) in diagnosing, explaining, and treating atherosclerosis. Though these discrepancies complement each other and can work together, they offer different interpretations of the disease and require tools of translation between them. In this study, Mol clearly demonstrates that medicine “has gaps and tensions inside it. It hangs together, but not quite as a whole.” Her approach – tracing the enactment of pathology – offers a new way for historians to approach the history of medicine through practice theory, which will illuminate dynamic tensions within and between historical ailments.

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Gut Feelings Week: The Bitter Taste of Rationing

This guest post by Kristen Ann Ehrenberger is part of Gut Feelings Weekin which a group of scholars participating in the conference Gut Feeling: Digestive Health in Nineteenth-Century Culture explore different aspects of digestion.

Kristen Ann Ehrenberger, MD PhD (History), is a resident physician in the combined Internal Medicine-Pediatrics program at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She is co-author of an interdisciplinary monograph on memory formation, Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation: Analogous Processes on Different Levels (MIT Press, 2012); is an Editor for H-Nutrition at the H-Net Commons; and blogs as Frau Doktor Doctor.

During and after World War I (1914-1918), the Allied Powers enforced an increasingly strict trade embargo against the Central Powers, restricting the importation of not just ammunition and metal but also food, fertilizer, clothing, fuel—anything that could be construed as contributing to the war effort. With human and animal power diverted from farms to urban factories and to the fronts, the German food system was severely underproducing. Not only did large military purchases and housewife panic drive up prices, but an absolute food shortage developed. In January 1915, just five months into the conflict, the federal government instituted bread rationing. Later that year potatoes were rationed, then butter, meat, milk, cheese, eggs, pasta, beans barley, and oats. (By the end of the war, clothing, shoes, soap, coal, and oil were also regulated with coupons.) The German Empire was divided into rationing districts that overlapped with both political states and military departments. More rural districts such as Bavaria and East Prussia were expected to provide agricultural products to more industrial areas, such as the Ruhr Valley. Unsurprisingly, Germans developed strong feelings about who got to eat how much of what. In Saxony, the single most common sentiment about the wartime food economy was bitterness (Erbitterung).

Saxons apparently were willing to tolerate the terrible food situation itself—probably not least because many helped themselves extra-legally—but they could not abide the thought that other Germans were not suffering as much as they were. In a February 1917 meeting of the Saxon Nutrition Advisory Council, the industrial miller Erwin Bienert (1859-1930) from Plauen “confirmed from his own experience that bitterness prevailed among the workers, not solely due to the lack of food and to the high prices, but above all because the state of affairs was better in other counties; in particular the munitions and war material workers were so much more privileged.” The common folk in Dresden were bitter that colonial wares shops continued to display unrationed luxury goods in their windows that they could ill afford. Housewives were bitter that vegetables found their way to public soup kitchens but none were available for purchase at the markets. Those who had been sick were “bitterly disappointed” that there was not enough “nutritious and easily digestible food” available to fuel a quick recovery. Urban consumers were bitter that premiums for grain farmers had increased the price of bread, while agricultural workers were “more than bitter” over the epithets applied to them by leftist newspapers and politicians. “Is it any wonder that a starving Saxon’s temper flared when he heard that the Bavarian allegedly sat down to dishes full of meat?” asked one observer later. Finally, (perceived) preferential treatment of the inhabitants of the capital of Berlin embittered both the public and government officials in Saxony.

At a time when food and eating were of nagging and growing importance, Germans expressed their anger, fear, and frustration as the taste of bitterness. This shared emotion united consumers against government regulators, city dwellers against rural food producers, and Saxons against their fellow countrymen and –women to the west and north. Although World War I-era rationing enacted the ideal of a paternalistic government caring for its citizens on an unprecedented scale, “fair” did not and could not mean “equal” distribution of foodstuffs, due to the diverse geography and demography of the German Empire. Critics like the ones quoted here expected a more even exchange of Saxony’s munitions manufactures for other states’ agricultural abundance, but no authority was willing or able to wring sufficient supplies from surplus-producing areas like Silesia. When they were asked to depend on and provide for each other, social bonds broke down under the mental and physical stresses of war and deprivation. “Ja, ja: Germany should be united,” scolded a socialist columnist in July 1918. “Every German wishes all Germans well—but the best for himself!” Cynical envy was a tenuous and combustible basis for national solidarity, and it eventually exploded in the 1918 November Revolution that brought down the Empire and ended the war. Unfortunately for hungry Germans, the Allies refused to lift most trade restrictions until the Treaty of Versailles had been signed in June 1919, and due in part to reparations paid to France, domestic food production remained low into the 1920s. Defeat was bitter indeed.

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

This guest post by Kristine Lillestøl is part of Gut Feelings Weekin which a group of scholars participating in the conference Gut Feeling: Digestive Health in Nineteenth-Century Culture explore different aspects of digestion.

Kristine Lillestøl has a background as a medical doctor. She has a PhD in medicine, on a project about psychological and immunological factors in irritable bowel syndrome. Her current project is about the history of neurasthenia, mainly in the Norwegian context, and she currently holds a position as a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Community Medicine and Global Health, at the University of Oslo. She receives funding from the SAMKUL programme of the Norwegian Research Council.

Neurasthenia, literally meaning “want of strength in the nerves”, was a widely used diagnostic label during the decades around 1900. As the name suggests, the condition was perceived as some kind of “weakness” of the nervous system, but the exact disease mechanisms were unknown.

The popularization of neurasthenia was initialized by the American physician George Miller Beard (1839-1883). In his classic work A Practical Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion (1880), Beard described a wide variety of possible symptoms of neurasthenia, including headache, widespread pain, insomnia, drowsiness, mental irritability, inability to concentrate, morbid fears, and hopelessness, to mention but a few.

Beard also presented several suggestions when it came to possible causes of the “lack of nervous force” in neurasthenia, and he became particularly famous for his portrayal of neurasthenia as a product of the rapid societal changes and hectic American modern life at the end of the nineteenth century (See George M. Beard, American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences, 1881). Other authors emphasized other causal explanations, such as the French professors of medicine Gilbert Ballet and Adrien Proust, who warned against “over-pressure” on the brain, including “moral over-pressure”:

The depressing emotions, that is to say, vexation, anxiety, disillusions, remorse, thwarted affection, in a word all states of sorrow and disquiet – these are the usual causes of nervous exhaustion. (The Treatment of Neurasthenia, 1903)

The history of neurasthenia has been widely studied during the last three decades, but few scholars have focused on the gastrointestinal aspects of this history. The digestive apparatus was, however, a site of special interest to many physicians during the heyday of the diagnosis, in Europe as well as in America.

Symptoms relating to the gut, such as constipation, heartburn, belching, abdominal pain, nausea, and loss of appetite, were generally considered to be very common features of neurasthenia. Some authors even argued that it would be useful to single out patients with predominantly gastrointestinal symptoms as a distinct subgroup that should be labelled “neurasthenia gastrica” or “digestive neurasthenia”. The gut was also perceived as important when it came to the pathophysiology of neurasthenia, and the various understandings of the possible interplay between the gut and the “nerves” in this condition became hot topics for debate in the medical literature.

One frequently recurrent question in these debates, was that of the possible role of so-called “gastroptosis”. Many physicians had observed an association between neurasthenia and what they perceived to be an abnormal “sagging” of the stomach. In some cases, this sagging also involved the intestines and even other organs of the abdominal cavity, and was then referred to as “enteroptosis” or “visceroptosis”, respectively. This downward displacement of the stomach and intestines was frequently assumed to be associated with a loss of tone (“atony”) of the respective organs, and consequently with slow emptying of the stomach, reduced intestinal motility, and “stagnation” of the intestinal contents. This stagnation was in turn assumed to increase the risk for “intestinal autointoxication”, where the absorption of toxic products from an abnormal fermentation process in the bowel could cause systemic disease, including a wide range of neurasthenic symptoms.

Visceroptosis is also known as Glénard’s disease, named after the French physician Frantz Glénard (1848-1920)

Although it seems to have been widely accepted among medical authors that there had to be some kind of close interaction between the “nerves” and the gut in neurasthenia, there was considerable debate about the nature and direction of these interactions. Of course, not everyone agreed that neurasthenia could be understood primarily as a disorder of the gut. In the case of gastroptosis, for instance, there was disagreement as to whether this should be interpreted as the primary cause or a secondary effect of the general weakness of the nervous system in neurasthenia. Differing views in this respect could lead to quite different therapeutic recommendations. If the gut-related signs and symptoms were perceived as a consequence of neurasthenia, the treatment was directed towards the general condition, for instance by means of rest cures, hydrotherapy or electrotherapy. On the other hand, if a sagging stomach or a toxic bowel was perceived as the primary cause of neurasthenia, this could prompt more radical and invasive treatments, such as surgery.

In 1903, Ballet and Proust concluded that none of the available pathogenic theories of neurasthenia at the time were altogether satisfactory. Many would agree with them. Nevertheless, the gastrointestinal history of neurasthenia is an intriguing one, which also serves as an important precedent for our current debates on brain-gut interactions in health and disease.

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

This guest post by Manon Mathias is part of Gut Feelings Weekin which a group of scholars participating in the conference Gut Feeling: Digestive Health in Nineteenth-Century Culture explore different aspects of digestion.

Manon Mathias is Lecturer in French at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on the relations between the novel and the natural and medical sciences in the nineteenth century. She is the author of Vision in the Novels of George Sand (OUP, 2016). Her current project, funded by the Carnegie Trust and the British Academy, examines digestive health in nineteenth-century culture.

France led the way in the publication of ‘hygiene treatises’ from the 1800s, when ‘hygiene’ was understood as the preservation of health. These texts place great emphasis on the stomach in maintaining a healthy body, but their interest in digestion is in fact a means of elevating the mind.

Hygiene treatises in this period advocate harmony, especially between the brain and the stomach. Réveillé-Parise argues, for instance, that one cannot deny ‘the effects of the viscera on the brain’ (Physiology and Hygiene of Men Devoted to Labours of the Mind, 1834), and the harmony between ‘the functions of the cerebral organ and those of the nutritive system’ must, he argues, always be maintained.

Figure 1: Physiology and Hygiene of Men Devoted to Labours of the Mind

Yet in the case of the man of letters, the health manuals foreground an imbalance between the stomach and the brain in ways which venerate this condition. Étienne Brunaud notes ‘the exquisite frailty and sensitivity’ of the scholarly stomach (Hygiene for the Man of Letters, 1819), and Réveillé-Parise suggests that digestive breakdown raises the scholar ‘beyond other mortal beings’ (Figure 1).

Such preoccupations are also seen in many novels of the time which show particular interest in the viscera. Zola’s Belly of Paris (1873), for example, is a novel in which ‘the stomach dominates the action’ (Zola) (Figure 2).

But in Zola’s novel, food is a form of dirt, putrefaction and decay and a solid digestive system — linked with middle-class complacency — is ultimately a form of death. The novel ends with the bourgeois shopkeeper, the embodiment of greasy health, standing ‘lifeless’, still, and ‘motionless’.

Figure 2: The Belly of Paris

If digestion is equated with literal and moral decay for Zola, the inability to digest is inversely elevated. This is particularly the case for Florent, who barely eats and is plagued by nausea and stomach pains. One of the few characters to show strong moral values, Florent represents the scholarly figure and embraces the realm of thought rather than that of the body.

Florent not only rejects the processes of digestion but, when engaged in deep thought, becomes almost disembodied: ‘his feet seemed not to touch the ground, as if borne aloft by his desire to pursue justice’.

This ideal of scholarly transcendence is taken further by Joris-Karl Huysmans in his novel, Against Nature (1884) (Figure 3). Huysmans’ central character, Des Esseintes, admires a condensed form of literature which he describes as a ‘highly refined juice’, echoing debates on the ‘restaurant’ or restorative broth in the 1760s. This dish reduced meat to a simple essence and liberated the body from its digestive duties. Des Esseintes’ predilection for such essences shows his yearning for disembodiment.

Figure 3: Against Nature

More specifically, Des Esseintes’ preference for ‘concentrated’ writing shows his ambition of transcending the body through art. He imagines a novel which could concentrate into a few sentences ‘the distilled juice of a hundred pages’, and in which every adjective would open such vistas that ‘the reader could […] ascertain the present, reconstruct the past, and divine the future’. This literature reduces the material to its purest essence, beyond the earthly limitations of time and space.

A novel written in this style would also lead to ‘a communion of thought’ between the writer and the reader, ‘a spiritual collaboration’ bringing together ‘superior beings scattered across the universe’. The novel thus leads to an untethering from the binds of worldly existence and specifically leads to a union of minds.

Such writing, however, is summed up as ‘the osmazôme of literature’, the term for concentrated meat juice as used in gastronome Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste (1826) (Figure 4). Des Esseintes thus draws on the terminology of the medico-culinary sphere in order to transcend the body, in a paradoxical co-dependence.

Figure 4: Physiology of Taste

This co-dependence surfaces in other ways. Against Nature, for instance is peppered with allusions to food as excrement and excrement as food — a meat bouillon is a ‘salty, muddy’ substance and horse droppings are the colour of gingerbread — and this digestion/excretion pairing is linked with the process of writing.

The narrative constantly alternates between Des Esseintes’ reflections on literature and comments on his digestive difficulties, and throughout the novel, literature is discussed in digestive terms: one writer’s work ‘indigestible’ and another’s is a form of ‘constipation’.

Moreover, Against Nature ends with Des Esseintes stating that ‘the waves of human mediocrity are rising up to the sky and will engulf the refuge whose floodgates I unwillingly open’. The opening of the gates is a reference to the ‘health regimen’ advocated by his doctor which requires des Esseintes to re-connect with the ‘filth’ and ‘slime’ of society.

Zola’s novel also ends with the dominance of dirt as Florent is overwhelmed by ‘the mud from the greasy streets rising all around him’. Florent, representing the writer, is immersed in the filth he has tried to avoid.

By drawing attention to the scholar’s inability to digest, the hygienists and novelists of nineteenth-century France set this figure apart from the rest of society and make the gut a central element in the thinking man’s identity.

This identity, however, is based on an impossibility, as the characters in Zola and Huysmans’ novels fail in releasing themselves from dirty corporeality. The authors thus attempt to transcend the body whilst at the same time revealing an essential link between writing and digesting.

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