Depth Perception

A recent workshop hosted at the UEA as part of the ‘Inner Lives’ project, which investigates emotions and the supernatural from the medieval to the modern period had me thinking again about some of the key problems that structure how historians have thought about selfhood and subjectivity.

What did I take away?

A sense that the supernatural is a privileged place for understanding interiority as a problem. Studying things that are ‘out of the ordinary’ has a special affinity with thinking about selfhood. The question of the unexpected finds its match in the question of the I, and historians are are often agnostic, if not outright skeptics about both.

I don’t mean this just in the abstract sense: there was plenty of great evidence of basic skepticism. Laura Sangha talked about just how ordinary the out-of-the-ordinary could be in the early-modern diaries of Ralph Thoresby.

I also left with a sense of being caught between different needs.

The need, for instance, for shared concepts, which explains the success of psychoanalysis among many branches of the humanities. To share a fundamental language of psychological structures, even a grammar of symbolism, this is surely the appeal of Freud, Klein, or Jung. It is an appeal that is both theoretical (how can we compare without shared terms?) and empirical (why does – for instance – witchcraft look so similar in so many contexts?).

Yet shared concepts were not the order of the day.

Even the big theories of the history of emotions, whether the Stearns or Bill Reddy seemed unpopular in the room. Instead, much of the work on display (including my own, I would add) seemed to be grounded in a kind of unshowy empiricism. Rather than applying Freud, papers asked how people at the time themselves structured inner experience. Laura Kounine’s paper was a powerful call to use the methods of Carol Gilligan’s ‘Listening Guide’ to pay attention to what the sources themselves are saying.

And what they aren’t?

One thing that still concerns me is the risk that we do not get certain information from our sources, even if we know that information existed. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

For instance, Matthew Champion seemed to me to represent the strongest voice in the room in favour of the idea that the interiority of historical subjects is beyond the purview of the historian. My concern is that historians not mistake the limitations of their sources for a theory of reality. As Lyndal Roper has so eloquently put it, to refuse the challenge of past subjectivities is to risk turning, for instance, the people of the early-modern period into ‘dancing marionettes, tricked out in ruffs and codpieces’ who can ‘neither surprise nor unsettle’ us.[1]

And I would add that importing a theory of mind wholesale, whether it is psychoanalysis, or evolutionary neuroscience, is not the only way around those silences. I’ve written about two alternatives before: reading silence itself, and borrowing the tools of fiction, such as characterisation.

Of course, the question cannot be solved so easily: I worry that ‘characterisation’ depends on normative definitions of selfhood, and who can judge whether one reading of silence is better than another?

But perhaps the question needs to be turned around: what do we have to lose?

Skepticism about subjectivity, after all, involves possibly sacrificing historical agency, the history of the emotions, and the narrative appeal of history. Historians aren’t done with the possibility of inner depths yet.




[1] Roper, Oedipus and the Devil, 11. Here is the place to point out that there are a great many other problems of method involved in this topic, many of which have been eloquently explored at length by historians including Lyndal Roper, NZ Davis, Carlo Ginzbug, Charles Taylor, and Michel Foucault, from the problem of the social vs the individual, to the emergence of ‘modern’ selfhood.

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