Historicized Feeling: an etymology of emotionality.
Department of Psychology, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
Discourses of emotionality are powerful components in how we come to constitute our subjectivity. Predicated on a notion of emotionality as a textual practice, this paper is concerned with the historically and contextually contingent nature of emotionality. In tracing the etymology of a few contemporary terms denoting emotional reactivity, both historical origins and a trajectory of semantic evolution are suggested. In this process of historicizing and relativizing emotionality it is suggested psychological discourse casts us in the ahistorical present, having recourse to little more than the superordinate and self-evident category of "emotions". This has a number of macro-level implications, interestingly demonstrated by how psychologized talk of national reconciliation and healing becomes tightly circumscribed by our discursive deployment of emotionality.
"If we should seek to break the emotions, thus enumerated, into groups, according to their affinities, it is again plain that all sorts of groupings would be possible, according as we chose this character or that as a basis, and that all groupings would be equally real and true" William James (1890)
This paper aims to look at the discourses of emotionality in contemporary life. Adopting a historical perspective it takes as its concern how discourses of emotion speak through us and come to constitute us as subjects on a socio-linguistic terrain. An intuitive and widespread folk-psychological notion is one of emotions as possessed by a single individual, genetically prepared, biologically based, and experientially grounded (Gergen, 1994). In this formulation emotions are self-evidently apparent, and held to be transhistorical and culturally universal entities. This popular understanding, in turn, contributes to the use and explanatory power of a discourse of emotionality.
Reber (1985), in a widely used Dictionary of Psychology suggests with possibly a hint of exasperation, of "emotion" that "probably no other term in Psychology shares its nondefinability with its frequency of use". Pointing to the definitional ambiguity and problem of referentiality associated with talk of emotion, a problem perhaps more pronounced in Psychology than many other academic disciplines within the post-Wittgensteinian universe. Largely because, terms of ostensive reference can not, in principle, be established for terminology denoting emotion. Our talk of emotions, therefore often conjures up a misplaced concreteness, privileging emotionality and reifying the textual practices to which it refers (Denzin, 1992 & Gergen, 1994).
The rhetorical mobilization of emotionality furthermore confers upon us the superordinate and overarching category of "emotions". This category in turn, is an important component in how we ahistorically constitute our subjectivity, in the present, within the parameters of psychologized discourse. It contributes to the dominant ontological belief in the individual as a bounded, autonomous, and feeling being. The concluding paragraphs aim of submission to briefly discuss some of the critical possibilities opened up by an awareness of the fundamental constructedness and relativity of emotionality.
The focus of this presentation is not to recount or review general theories of emotion, but it is useful to gain a sense of the various strands of emotionality. Treaties on emotions go back to Plato and Aristotle, and theorising around emotionality is a venerable tradition stretching from Kant to the Congnitivists, from the Behaviouristic to biologistic and Psychoanalytic paradigms. Yet the discourse of emotion, or emotionality, is particularly amenable to discursive analysis because of terms referenial slipperiness, as well as the necessity of a prior lexicon and metaphors to articulate and understand ones subjective affective states (Soyland, 1994, p.92).
The origins of a still popular narrative of the origins of emotionality, find expression in Darwin's thesis of emotion, which attributed it to the act of perception (cf. Darwin cited in Edwards, 1997). William James inverted this formulation, emotion was rather a consequence of behaviour. In either case emotions were closely linked to aspects of bodily sensation. Lay psychological and institutionalized discourses of emotion frequently and implicitly attribute emotion to this, the corporeal realm.
Against these essentialist and biologistic notions an alternative view of emotionality exists, framing it in terms of individual action. What Soyland (1994, p.99) calls "choice" accounts of emotion, wherein certain emotional states are enacted out of "choice" for their purposive rather than reactive power. If talk of "choice" has an Existential ring to it is because Satre himself elaborated on these ideas in his "The emotions: outline of theory" (Soyland, 1994). This perspective, in its breaking with the explanatory hegemony of biology, is a precursor to the latter day constructionist accounts of emotion.
The social constructionist movement in turn offers up notions of "emotion as embodied experience" and criticises essentialist accounts for amongst other things their ethnocentrism; the constructionist perspective being particularly receptive to lessons from history and anthropology. Emotion becomes a form of socially sanctioned and constituted display which can not be separated out from a socio-cultural context. The referenial locus for emotionality is removed from the head of the individual actor and placed within the sphere of interrelation (Gergen, 1994). So, one is not motivated by - one does emotion. Consistent with the tenets of a broad constructionist perspective, emphasis is placed on the constitutive and performative function of emotions, emotions as "transient social roles" in Averill's (1982) formulation.
This perspective avoids being drawn into the moot distinction between emotional discourse and emotions per se. As Harre sums up the principle is "the phenomena to be investigated in a psychological study are what the relevant vocabulary picks out and its use creates" (my emphasis) (Harre, 1989, p.20). Much research in traditions other than the constructionist is predicated on epistemological circularity, identifying those cultural truisms which are "emotions", measuring them on technical-measurement scales, proceeding to draw conclusions and finally reflecting the palpable and tangible nature of emotions back into popular consciousness. It is within this constructionist and textual turn look at the history of specific terms denoting emotionality.
In terms of constructionist perspectives on emotionality, Edwards, (1997) delineates three loosely related varieties viz. historical, anthropological and discursive. Each concerned with exploring the "ontological, conceptual, and temporal priority of the public realm" (Harre, cited in Edwards, 1997). Much mainstream Psychology draws on a set of textual practices, structures, theories, explanations and largely unacknowledged historical trajectory of emotions. This historical trajectory, wherein neologisms are coined, terminology mutates and meanings shift is particularly amenable to constructionist brand of analysis and the etymological archaeology which is the concern of this paper.
A specific example: Accidie is an extinct emotion. Dating back to medieval times it was inextricably linked to the cardinal sin of sloth. Accidie referred to what would today be referred to as an approximate mixture of idleness and misery, and was an emotion congruent with the then dominant theological view of the world - it came about when one neglected one's duties to God. This emotion was predicated on the then widely accepted belief that discharging one's duties to God should be a joyful affair. One could not perform ones duties to the Lord out of a sense of measured or reluctant obligation. So even if one's behaviour was suitably unslothful, if one's intentions and sense of joyfulness were not present one could suffer from accidie. (Edwards, 1997)
Idleness, procrastination and slackness still carry with them a moral stigma and a societal opprobrium but these failings are viewed against the societal backdrop of