The Navigation of Feeling

“What are Emotions?” is a question asked by William Reddy (2001) in his book The Navigation of  Feeling: A Framework for the History of History of Emotions. The first part of that books looks at the answers, from Cognitive Psychology in the first chapter, and Anthropology in the second. He points out early, however that:

Western specialists who study emotion cannot even agree on what the term emotion means.

He references Paul Ekman (et al)’s attempts to codify emotions by the few facial expressions that all cultures seem to attach a shared meaning to. That this is in the Cognitive Psychology chapter is interesting – I would have suggested it’s a more anthropological approach, but as Reddy points out it did encourage a lot of study looking at biological indicators of emotion, such as heart rates, hormone levels, skin conductivity etc. Reddy also points out two “nagging problems: (1) What happened to emotions when arousals subsided and the face returned to normal? (2) How were emotions such as love. shame or nostalgia to be fit into the scheme, when they had no obvious single facial expressions to go with them?” Not only that, he argues that “twenty years of work by many researchers” has shown only that “In the absence of forced choice and pretest training, agreement on other than happy faces was weak. If photographs of spontaneous facial expressions were used (i.e., naturally occurring ones, rather than the carefully posed ones of the initial tests), agreement sagged further.”

He also highlights the problematic relationship between emotion and cognition: “If
a sudden sense of fear redirects attention to a dark corner of the room, why not conclude that this sense of fear is the cognition of the potential danger of that corner? No experimental or test procedure has been offered so far that would allow one to rule out this possibility; it is resisted solely on the grounds that it counters the commonsense belief that emotion is something separate from thought, something opposed to ‘reason.'” That “reason” he argues is questioned more and more. Try as they might, philosophers and researchers are finding it harder, not easier to distinguish between “what counts as voluntary or controlled, and what counts as involuntary or automatic.” This is not helped by subjects’ mis-attribution of arousal.

Reddy also explores the difficulties measuring emotion. Most psychologists use valence, a measure of how pleasant or unpleasant an emotion is, and intensity, a scale of how difficult it is to override the emotion. Of course its not so black and white, fear is an “unpleasant” emotion, and yet horror movie audiences, theme park riders and gamers actively seek it out. Similarly Reddy argues that am emotion’s intensity may be altered by the triggering event’s relevance to a person’s goals – here he uses health anxiety as an example, “we generally pursue health for its own sake; but it is obvious that health is a means or condition for the pursuit of many, many other goals. As a result, pursuit of health as a means and pursuit of health as an end in its own right are likely to be indistinguishable (both to observers and to the person involved). Like-wise, loss of health is widely regarded with fear or anxiety. Such fear or anxiety is a “badge” of the deep goal relevance of health.”

When he goes on to explore mental control, I fear he strays more into the study of cognition that emotion, but he is striving to support an argument that “emotions can be regarded as overlearned cognitive habits.” I think Panksepp and Bevan might disagree, but I’m not seeking to argue the point – for my studies, whether emotions exist beyond cognition, or are tightly intertwined with cognitive thought is hardly relevant. When it comes to a cultural, or anthropological, approach I think my conclusions will be the same – my model already separates out social emotions from the more visceral ones identified by Panksepp and Bevan.

Reddy begins his examination of an anthropological approach by outlining the idenitity crisis of the discipline itself, especially in the area of the “production of knowledge”. He spills little ink on the psychocultural model of emotions. This approach, as with cognitive psychology, is built on the idea that there is “a broad commonality in human emotions”. He tackles the contructionist approach first, with the work of Michelle Z Rosaldo. Her study of of the Ilongot people of a mountainous region of the Philippines led her to conclude that emotion was, at least in part, a product of language.  However a roughly contemporaneous study in Tahiti by Robert Levy concluded that people suffered the symptoms of grief even if they didn’t have a word for it. Its interesting to note that the two in these studies examples given are opposed on my model. Grief is one of the mammalian emotions identified by Panksepp and Bevan, while Rosaldo’s word liget, while not having a direct analogue in English seems to fit well with Fiero in my model.

However, Reddy also relates a constructionist argument that is also a more cutting critique of the psychological view of emotions, from Catherine Lutz. “In Lutz’s view, the notion that emotions are biologically based is not simply erroneous, it is part of a larger, insidious, gender-biased Western view of the self that privileges alleged male rationality over the supposedly natural emotionalism of women. Expert and lay assumptions coincided, Lutz charged, in regarding emotions as internal, involuntary, irrational, potentially dangerous or sublime, and female. Men were rational and therefore better suited to action in the public sphere. Ethnographic research showed, however, that emotions were a product of social interactions and showed, as well, that outside the West, emotions were generally not distinguished from thinking in the peculiarly sharp way Westerners distinguished them, and were generally regarded as an outcome of social interaction, rather than as rising up, ineffably, from within.” This argument requires a change in philosophy. If knowledge is constructed by culture, it hard to criticize constructed knowledge, be that headhunting in the Philippines, or Western cognitive science. So, according to Reddy, Lutz’s approach was less about culture and more about discourse as defined by Foucault. But that is an argument well beyond the scope of my work.

Reddy gives some attention to other anthropological models too, but not much. What clearly interests him about those me mentions are steers towards a concept of emotion as performance. Indeed his long conclusion to the chapter, which starts out as an attempt to reconcile cognitive psychology and anthropology, is mostly about control of emotion through performance – oversimplified as putting on an happy face, or to use the example he prefers a “‘bright face’ (mue cedang)” in Balinese.


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