Category Archives: emotion

Emotion and the arts: CfP and research network

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Dear friends, a post that isn’t explicitly digital, but that certainly doesn’t exclude it either–

Along with Dr Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild, I’m hoping to make connections with other researchers interested in the role of the arts and aesthetics in the history of the emotions. In a 2005 essay entitled ‘Is there a cultural history of the emotions?’, Peter Burke made a bold claim: ‘The kinds of document historians use most do not tell us very much about emotions.’ The arts, he and others have suggested, are where past emotions really reside, but figuring out how to study them is tricky business.

In an attempt to start unpicking this question, Dr Herzfeld-Schild (a musicologist) and I (a literary scholar) are organising a panel at the Cultural History conference in Umeå in June 2017 called ‘Emotion and the Arts: An Interdisciplinary History’. The panel is now open for paper proposals, which should be sent to isch2017@culthist.org by 19 December. We’ve copied in the panel abstract below and also linked to the fuller conference programme here – please do think about proposing a paper, and also feel free to contact us with any questions.

In addition to the panel, we’re hoping to develop a research network on emotion and the arts, which ideally would include academics from many different disciplines (literature, music, art history, history, philosophy…) and an equally wide range of historical periods and places. If you might be interested in being part of such a network, please send me an email at e.sullivan@bham.ac.uk. This will no doubt be a slow-burn, but if there’s enough interest then we’d like to work towards a series of workshops on the topic and eventually a joint publication.

Best wishes,
Erin and Marie Louise

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Umeå conference panel (26-29 June 2017) – Emotion and the arts: an interdisciplinary history

What can the arts reveal to us about emotional experience in the past? Can we use music, visual art, literature, theatre, and other aesthetic works to move beyond the more established study of historical discourses and classifications, and towards a deeper understanding of how emotion was felt, shared, and put to use in past times and places? How can we draw historical insights from not only the emotions that aesthetic texts represent and describe, but also from those that they make us, and others, feel?

This panel invites papers from researchers working on history, emotion, and the arts in all their forms. It seeks to explore the extent to which the study of the history of the emotions can in fact be emotional, not only in the object of its research but also in the methodologies that it deploys. Topics for discussion might include how methods from cultural anthropology; formalist criticism; philosophies of mind, body, or aesthetics; phenomenology; archaeology; or audience research might be put into conversation with more traditional approaches in historical emotion studies. Papers might consider how the ‘affective turn’ in critical theory offers new ways of moving beyond language, or how a sharper focus on embodied experience and aesthetics might reveal new insights into emotion, sensation, and cognition over time. Whatever their approach, papers in this panel will help further a discussion about the place and power of artistic evidence in the development of the history of the emotions as a field.

Convenors: Erin Sullivan, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham e.sullivan@bham.ac.uk
Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild, University of Cologne m.herzfeld-schild@uni-koeln.de

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Valuing sadness, past and present

March was a big month for me – my first monograph, Beyond Melancholy, came out with Oxford University Press. The book focuses on the different ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood and thought about sadness, and how this influenced explorations of identity and self-experience. While my digital Shakespeare research is in many ways a world apart from this work on the history of emotions, there are some important connections in terms of how new technologies shape how we feel and how we experience our own sense of self. I wrote the short essay below for OUP’s blog last week, and while it’s mostly about Renaissance sadness, you’ll quickly see that 21st century digital technology has made its way in too…

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In September 2013, the American comedian Louis C.K. talked to chat-show host Conan O’Brien about the value of sadness. His comments emerged from a discussion about mobile phones, and the way they may distract us from the reality of our emotions. ‘You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.’

For Louis C.K., a large part of that ‘being there’, of being a person, is about being sad. ‘[S]ometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car … it starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it.’ And the best response to this, he suggests, isn’t to dodge the feeling by picking up a mobile phone, but rather to look at it head on, ‘and let it hit you like a truck … Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.’

Four hundred or so years ago, around the time of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, John Donne, and King James I, people also talked about the meaning of sadness, and whether or not it brought any value to life. While few would have described the experience of sadness as ‘lucky’, many did suggest that, in the right contexts, the emotion could be seen as useful, productive, and even enlightening. Think of Shakespeare’s King Lear on the stormy heath, whose extraordinary sorrow helps him see life from a different point of view, to acknowledge the suffering of his impoverished subjects and ‘to feel what wretches feel’.

If we read much of the literature of this time – and perhaps any time – we discover a world of agonizing, and yet somehow also constructive, pain and sorrow. Emotion is repeatedly represented as an extension of the self, meaning that as characters start to know their feelings, they also start to understand themselves and the world that they’re a part of. At the same time, if we read much of the more formal and explanatory writing on emotion from this period, we get a rather different story. Here, writers frequently characterized emotion as a ‘malady’, a ‘perturbation’, and even a ‘disease of the soul.’ For emotion was believed to cause motion in the mind and body, which could destabilize rational thinking and jeopardize the harmony of the self.

Frontispiece to 'The use of Passions'
The unruly passions.

This was nowhere truer than in the experience of sadness. Of all the emotions recognized and discussed at this time – or of all ‘the passions’, as they were called then – sadness or ‘grief’ was widely regarded as the most dangerous and damaging. Countless writers emphasized the physical ailments sad feelings could bring. ‘There is nothing more enemie to life, then sorrow’, the humanist and diplomat Thomas Elyot wrote in his best-selling medical regimen The Castell of Health, and the theologian Thomas Wright likewise advised readers in his The Passions of the Minde in Generall to ‘Expell sadnesse farre from thee; For sadnesse hath killed many, neither is there any profite in it.’

Medical physicians agreed, identifying the passions as one of the six ‘non-natural’ factors dramatically influencing health (the other five being diet, sleep, exercise, environment, and, to put it delicately, ‘evacuation’). Linked to the cold, dry humour of melancholy (literally meaning ‘black bile’ in Greek), sadness was seen as the harbinger of numerous bodily troubles, including stomach aches, light-headedness, heart palpitations, and wasting illnesses, which, in their most extreme forms, might even cause death.

Indeed, while we might now think that dying of sorrow is a rather sentimental idea fit only for the stage, in the seventeenth century ‘grief’ was regularly included as a cause of death in the London Bills of Mortality, which were one of the earliest forms of municipal record keeping. Though many of the Bills no longer survive, if we look through those that do remain, we can see that during the years 1629-1660 more than 350 people in the city of London were believed to have died from extreme sadness. Elyot and Wright’s comments, it seems, were not idle threats.

J. Graunt, Natural an political observations.
11 deaths from grief in 1632.

And yet, despite the palpable dangers posed by sadness at this time, many writers still suggested that it had important benefits, and even a kind of ‘poetry’, to harken back to Louis C.K.’s twenty-first-century observations. First and foremost, these writers insisted that there were different sorts of sadness, which had different effects on the mind, body, and soul. ‘Grief’ was not always identical to ‘melancholy’, which was certainly not the same as ‘godly sorrow’ or ‘despair’ – both of which had much more to do with theology and the immortal soul than physiology and the medical body.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, these different sorrows didn’t mean the same thing irrespective of the sufferer. Even a dangerous grief could be productive if the person experiencing it deemed it so. In the literature and historical records of the period we can find numerous instances of people defying the advice of doctors, priests, family, and friends, and persisting in sorrow due to a belief that it revealed something important to them about their own sense of self.

Many scholars have suggested that culture offers people ‘emotional scripts’ by which to make sense of and act out their feelings, but looking at responses to sadness in Renaissance England we can also see how people engaged in what I call ‘emotive improvisation.’ These wilful, and often defiant, responses took sufferers ‘off book’ and towards new ways of understanding emotional experience and self-discovery. They show us what happened when people ‘put the phone down’, as it were, and let life hit them like a truck.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2016/06/valuing-sadness-past-present/#sthash.Xas4UAhP.dpuf

 

Banksy and digital art – making it and saving it

Banksy’s newest piece of street art has caught my attention twice this week – first for the work of art itself, and the powerful way that it incorporates digital media, and second for the clearing away of the work, and the way it’s being saved for the public digitally.

So let’s start with the work of art itself. It turned up last Saturday across the street from the French Embassy in Knightsbridge. At its centre is the iconic illustration of Cosette from Les Miserables, but with yellowy tears running from her eyes, and gas from a nearby canister clouding her body. Most have read it as a critique of the French government’s use of tear gas in refugee encampments in Calais.

Photo: banksy.co.uk
Photo: banksy.co.uk

This isn’t the first time Banksy has used his work to speak out against the treatment of immigrants and the dangers of xenophobia – for other examples see here and here. It is the first time, though, that he’s included a piece of digital technology that invites viewers to take his image a step further, and to have a look for themselves at the media footage he’s responding to.

Photo: AP/Alastair Grant
Photo: AP/Alastair Grant

That’s right, a QR code. One of those black and white little squares that you really only see in marketing materials these days. In his book The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, Steven E. Jones takes a swipe at these pieces of low-fi, quasi-digital kit, largely for their ineffectiveness (who actually takes the time to scan them?) but also for their feeble and rather outdated gesture towards some other dimension known as ‘The Digital’. I pretty much agree – I downloaded a QR reader to my phone a few years ago when we got an app-based walking tour in Stratford, but it never really worked that well, and eventually I deleted it in order to make space for something else. But Banksy’s use of the QR code really caught my eye, and got me thinking about how it really can work, provided that the thing it connects you with is something genuinely interesting, useful, unexpected, and important.


As the video above shows, Banksy’s QR code links the viewer to media footage of the very event he is critiquing, and in doing so it layers art with reality, painting with video, street art with newsfeed. It is multimedial and multiexperiential, inviting us not only to revel in his satirical comment, but also to witness a few, harrowing minutes in the lives of people just 100 miles away from London. In a strange way, Banksy’s painting makes this live footage become ‘real’, rather than the other way around. By inserting it into the well-heeled streets of Knightsbridge, by giving it context outside of the numbing repetitiveness of the nightly news, by making it a part of a conversation, it focuses viewers’ attention and creates new impact.

It’s interesting too that the best video documentation of the painting that I’ve found – the piece embedded above – was created specifically for Facebook by the social media outlet AJ+, and doesn’t exist separately as an independent URL. It’s meant to be shared, and unlike the versions that I found on more traditional news sites, it actually mixes in the video footage opened up by the QR code. Plus, it forgoes the heavy, didactic narration of the news presenter and chooses instead to frame the piece through music and single lines of written text. The effect, for me, is far more engaging, exploratory, immersive, and powerful.

Now, the coda – like so many Banksy pieces these days, this one has already come down (or at least part of it – while the bulk of the image was painted on a piece of easily removed plywood, the tear gas can is on the base of a stone wall). Given the price that Banksy’s works now go for, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it makes its way into a private collection. But before the removal occurred, a man from Google came with the company’s Streetview kit to digitally record and document it. In a few months, and certainly a few years, this may very well be the only high-quality, officially archived ‘copy’ of the work available to the public. So what started off as a mixed media piece on the streets of London might ultimately end up as an entirely digital one in the clouds of the internet, increasingly managed by the empire of Google.

Othello @The RSC, stage and screen

Some thoughts on the RSC’s Othello, which I was able to see on both stage and screen this summer. In each case I caught the production at an extreme end of its run, seeing it live on stage in its early weeks (still officially in previews, I think), and live in the cinema the night before it closed. It’s worth mentioning then that some of the observations below might have as much to do with how a production evolves over time as to how it changes across media. But caveats aside, I’d like to start with a few of the ideas that stuck out for me after seeing the production in June, and then turn to the further thoughts I had after seeing it at the end of August at the Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse.

This production deals with race in a more interesting, complex, and meaningful way that most. It’s not just that it features a black Iago — though that of course is important. Out of a cast of 18, I counted at least 6 actors of color, a major institutional achievement in its own right (same goes for the director Iqbal Khan, and for the 6 female actors). In this far more diverse company than is typically seen on big national stages, Othello becomes not a lone black man in a sea of whiteness, but one citizen among many in a racially and culturally heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world. This doesn’t mean that issues of race disappear — far from it. Instead, it challenges us to think about how racial dynamics work when they can’t be reduced to easy binaries (black/white). It’s no mistake, I think, that the production’s most racially charged scene doesn’t actually focus on Othello, but rather is the party in Cyprus, where what seems like harmonious celebration soon descends into aggression and social conflict.

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The women are really good. And I don’t mean this as faint praise, particularly when it comes to Desdemona. She is so easily an utterly naive, docile, submissive, and subservient wife — how can this be avoided in performance and her character made into someone modern audiences can feel more than perfunctory pity for? Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona is lively, impetuous, child-like, and perhaps even childish. She is naive, but with a palpably fierce sense of loyalty and justice. She’s not okay with what’s going on with Othello, she just really doesn’t get it until the end. Emilia on the other hand tends to give actors more to get stuck into, and Ayesha Dharker brings out the complexity and subtlety in her part. One of the many strengths of her portrayal is the vulnerability she brings to the role; Emilia can easily become the cynical, worldly wise counterpart to Desdemona’s foolish waif, but here she is also complicated by her own insecurities and shaped by a moving tenderness.


Othello is not blameless before Iago gets to him, and military life is certainly not noble.
The most obvious way we understand this is through the extra-textual torture scene inserted after the party scene and before Desdemona starts her ill-fated attempts to get Cassio re-instated in his post. To be a part of military culture, this production suggests, is to be a part of brutal and even inhumane campaigns against other countries, cultures, and their people. And if we might be tempted to think that Othello is merely the distant manager of a rouge troop, we are soon corrected by his own swift and decisive turn to torture when Iago starts suggesting to him that Desdemona is not all that she seems.

Hugh Quarshie’s performance as Othello is muted and even under-powered. There is a still core at the centre of Quarshie’s Othello that makes him imposing, compelling, but also at times inscrutable. His is a quiet and contained Othello, obviously enraged by his situation (or so the torture of Iago would suggest) but also strangely affectless. No wonder Desdemona is confused. For me this got worse as the production went on, and made the second half particularly difficult to grasp. The final scene was among the flattest I’ve seen, with Othello’s ‘It is the cause, my soul’ speech unfolding a bit too much like a to-do list. Though other exchanges in the scene did suggest more passion and conviction, they never grew into something greater, and the end effect for me was a disappointing woodenness. Over the course of his career, Quarshie has been famously outspoken about how the typical understanding of Othello’s emotional journey is an inherently racist one. But re-reading that journey caused its own problems in terms of clarity and power of character, leaving me underwhelmed as I left the theatre.

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So, with all this in mind, what did I notice, rethink, or experience differently on a second viewing, this time from my seat in the cinema?

First, and most importantly, the camera finds nuance where the stage does not. Quarshie’s Othello was still oddly contained when viewed through the camera lens, but certain choices about his character’s emotional arc did become clearer. What I saw in his Othello this go round was an ample dose of Hamlet — his lurching from stillness to rage and back again looked more cerebral deliberation and manipulation than wooden inscrutability. When he slapped Desdemona, calling her ‘that cunning whore of Venice / That married Othello’, I was surprised to find myself thinking of Hamlet and Ophelia’s nunnery scene. Disgust and righteousness were the top notes, hurt and loss the undertones; misogyny and misanthropy were present in equal measure. In the final scene, no nervous chuckles could be heard, and the focus of the camera helped intensify and structure the dialogue that I had previously found flat and strained. To my surprise, the lines that popped out for me more than ever before were Othello’s comments on the handkerchief, and the difference between murder and sacrifice:

By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in’s hand.
O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart,
And makest me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice:
I saw the handkerchief.

What he’s talking about here is emotion, and the way it colours his actions — something I only realize now from reading Frederika Bain’s chapter on affect and execution in the collection on emotion that Richard Meek and I brought out this year. In it Frederika shows how executions were supposed to be accompanied by minimal to no affect — these killings are just and deserved, and so they are governed by reason rather than passion. Murders, on the other hand, were marked by their lack of emotional restraint, with the unbridled feeling that accompanied them actually serving as a sign of their criminality. This is of course a historical approach to the issue, but it struck me as strangely appropriate in thinking about Quarshie’s performance. Containing emotion becomes a way of consolidating Othello’s political, social, and intellectual power; he is not a gull, or passion’s slave, but rather a deliberate and righteous judge. The problem that remained for me, however, is that I don’t believe that reason and passion are opposing forces, and I don’t think Shakespeare did either. While the camera helped me find nuance in Quarshie’s performance, I still felt that by denying Othello fuller emotional expression he also denied him his full power and complexity.

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Second, the camera can make assertions in places where the stage simply suggests. There are several examples I could talk about here, but let’s just go with two. In the staged version, the added torture scene doesn’t directly involve Othello, but he is certainly implicated: first and foremost by being the leader of these men, second by shuffling around the edges of the stage while the scene is going on, and third by initiating torture himself in a later scene. In the filmed version, his complicity and command are made much clearer — at the end of the sequence we get a framed shot of Othello looking through papers in a file (the tortured prisoner’s?), a choice that specifically directs the political force and affective discomfort of this interpolated scene towards this one man. Likewise, at the very end of the production, we close with a final shot of Iago, down on his knees, laughing diabolically as the lights go out. His laughter continues to reverberate in the darkness until the lights come up and the applause begins. I have no memory of this choice from the night I saw it on stage, which makes me wonder if it simply wasn’t part of the production at that early stage. But even if that is the case, its importance is deliberately underscored here, as is Othello’s participation in a kind of warfare that is far from dolce et decorum.

Finally, I really like those floating crane shots. Basically, every time they appear in the film, there’s a comment in my notebook saying something like ‘really nice shot!’, or ‘beautifully filmed!’. Even when this is the torture scene, or Othello manhandling Emilia, or indeed the Willow song. Give me a sustained wide shot, and I’m happy. Add some visual wonder to it, and I’m positively elated. Like the stadium shot in sports, these views let me see what’s going on and anticipate action before it actually occurs. But having read Barker’s book this summer, I’m also aware of the fact that not everyone feels this way. Am I over-prizing the long shot, and the kind of perspective it allows? How many different ways are there to see, and feel, a play?

A smile is more than showing teeth

Cover art

It’s been a long time since my last post, and I’m afraid it’s going to be quite awhile until the next one too, due to the need to once-and-for-all finish my first solo-authored book (started in my PhD days…!). But I wanted to write a short something to mark the new year, and also to reflect on a couple of digital things that actually relate to the book I’m finishing. That project is on the history of emotion and specifically sadness in Shakespeare’s time, and in many ways it’s a world apart from the ideas about Shakespeare and digital culture that I’ve been discussing on this blog over the last year. It has involved lots of archival work, dusty rare books, histories of medicine, and histories of religion — seemingly very different territory from this blog — but it’s also led me to read and think lots about why and how we feel things, and how different cultural, artistic, and indeed technological influence may shape how that process of feeling works.

Which is where the digital comes in. I haven’t written much at all about emotion and digital culture so far, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for a long time, from watching films like Her to seeing photographs of Banksy’s depiction of modern love to listening to St. Vincent’s most recent album on repeat. To pursue that last one in a bit more depth — like many people, one of my new year’s resolutions has been to get outside and get moving more, and over the past few weeks I’ve gotten back to a bit of running, and a bit of simultaneous music-listening in the process. I had already heard a few songs off St. Vincent on the radio and tv, but listening to an album with headphones on, while you’re doing something you don’t especially enjoy, has a special power to focus the mind.

Love: that special glow.

What I hadn’t realized until recently is how much of the album is about life in a twenty-first-century digital world, and the kinds of emotions it leaves us with — or, as it happens, without. ‘Call the twenty-first century, tell her give us a break’, St. Vincent sings in the penultimate track, ‘Every Tear Disappears’. That song also begins with the title of this post: ‘Oh a smile is more than showing teeth’. It’s a lyric that caught my attention first and foremost because it inadvertently poses a challenge to one of the most influential, and yet contested, methods of studying emotion across different cultures — the recognition of facial expressions. Spearheaded by a man named Paul Ekman in the late 1960s, this method asks people from different parts of the world to identify emotion based on a set of photographs, and the resulting evidence has been used to make a case for what Ekman calls ‘basic’, or universal, emotions across cultures:

http://thepositiveblog.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/expressions-2.jpg
Ekman’s ‘basic’ emotions

But without going too deep into the tangly history of the study of emotion, the other thing that this lyric from St. Vincent made me think about was how our experience of technology impacts on our sense of emotional identity and capability. The first single off the album, and as far as I’m aware the most successful track to date, is a song called ‘Digital Witness’. Featuring the repeated, tumbling refrain, ‘People turn the tv on it looks just like a window’, the playfully techno-critical song evokes for me elements of the Buggles’ 1979 hit, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. ‘Pictures came and broke your heart, we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far’, that tune tells us over and over again, as it semi-ironically mourns the loss of one form of entertainment technology as a new one swiftly takes over. And even if you don’t remember the words to the song, you may very well recall that the music video for it was used to launch MTV to the world in 1981.

Nearly thirty-five years later, the video for ‘Digital Witness’ tells its own story of digital — and implicitly psychological — change. St. Vincent herself, with her candy floss hair, is the central focus, always drawing our attention despite the fact that she never looks directly at us. Instead, she looks just off and above camera, like someone watching a tv screen at a bar while they half carry on with conversation. The eerie, de Chirico-esque landscape she travels through is colorfully vivid, but weirdly devoid of human agency or vivacity. There’s a gently, if beautifully, lobotomized feel to the aesthetic, and presumably one that’s not incidental to the title and lyrics of the song. And while I should say that I don’t fully agree with the idea that technology turns us into drones, it’s still an argument that’s worth making.

As a historian of emotion there’s no doubt in my mind that technology is changing us, in potentially fundamental ways, but I don’t necessarily see that as intrinsically bad — just something that we need to keep a firm eye on, and not one that’s partly askance while we do something else. If anyone wants to read more about the study of the history of emotion — without which ‘there will be no real history possible’, the great Lucien Febvre suggested — then have a look at a review essay of the field I wrote a couple of years ago. Please wish me luck as I move into the final stage of revisions, and look for more posts here later in the year!