Emotions Go Mainstream

(This is the first of five posts on themes that I found important at the Modern British Studies conference in Birmingham at the start of July. See http://wp.me/p3QdQ9-3c)

One of the panels which most excited me and drew a huge crowd to a packed lecture theatre dealt with emotions and history. Charlotte Greenhalgh (@CharlotteMareeG) put together the panel to try and think about whether she and other historians find history of emotions approaches necessary.

The discussions in this panel, and the ubiquity of emotions in the plenary addresses and a range of other papers made it absolutely clear to me once and for all, that for all of the sighing and groaning about the emotional turn, which I have heard described as pure window dressing, and which I do not doubt it can sometimes be, is nonetheless vitally necessary to many historical projects. Hard to do well, but necessary to do nonetheless. For Charlotte herself, there was clearly a feeling that in this moment, when emotions are the explicit subject of discussions across panels on gender, class, politics, race, creative history, humour, or in case studies of Anglo-Argentine families, or conscientious objectors, or slave-owners, when emotions are central in all of these places, they have truly, in her words ‘gone mainstream’

Gone mainstream, but also fragmented.

There was an excellent question from the floor in the emotions panel (and I’d love to know if anyone knows who asked this) about the history of emotions versus history with emotions in.

If I understood the distinction correctly, the history of emotions is about how emotions themselves are historical. I have emotions unknown and unnamed to my ancestors, and they felt things I never will. Emotions themselves change, and these huge shifts are massively important for all sorts of obvious reasons about how we interpret what motivated people in the past, and why things happened.

On the other hand, history with emotions in might be said to consist of two different but related things: 1. noticing the emotions that mattered to people historians study, making them an integral part of historical accounts (which does NOT necessarily require showing how these emotions were historically-specific) 2. making history writing emotionally evocative, choosing to provoke feelings in readers in specific ways. Charlotte talked of people who have cried reading her accounts, and as someone who recently made a permanent commitment to my partner, I confess to coming pretty close as she told the story of a widower reflecting on the absence left at the heart of his life by the death of his wife.

Which emotions historians evoke and provoke is clearly a political question. Pride in the heritages I value, disgust at those I abhor, amusement at the aspects of the past that tickle our weaknesses and regrets today..?

But the key, it seemed to me after this discussion, is to think very hard about whether I make claims to write history of emotions or emotional history, or both, and how they talk to one another, or fail to.


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