Review workshop “Emotional Bodies” (20-22 Oct, Geneva)

The past 20th, 21st and 22nd of October took finally place at the Louis Jeantet Auditorium in Geneva the meeting “Emotional Bodies: A Workshop on the Historical Performativity of Emotions”. Three days of fascinating papers, passionate conversations and challenging questions that I will try to summarize here in a few lines.

The entry to the auditorium

The entry to the auditorium

The aim of this workshop was to reflect on how “emotional bodies” have emerged in different historical contexts and how different disciplines can help us to think about them. We asked the participants to present particular case studies rather than theoretical frameworks, as the purpose was to see whether this category could actually be applied and be useful for the historical inquiry. This is why Dolores Martin Moruno, Sophie Milquet and I introduced the event discussing from different perspectives the same case study: the photograph “Grève aux usines Javel” taken by Willy Ronis in 1938. Martin Moruno explained the political situation depicted in this photograph, what led her to make connexions between the represented foule with the psychology of the masses and its ideas on the emotions of the crowd. Milquet, for her part, related the photograph with Prevert’s theatrical activities in the 1930’s, reflecting on the spectators of the performances as emotional bodies. Finally, I traced the material history of this photograph, considering photography as an emotional practice, and the Ronis’ body as an emotional body. This presentation aimed to open up the discussion by introducing some of the main questions to be discussed in the coming days, such as the differences between individual and collective bodies, the spectator’s responses, the role of practices and performativity and the benefits for the history of emotions of interdisciplinary analyses.

Dolores Martín Moruno, Sophie Milquet and Beatriz Pichel

Dolores Martín Moruno, Sophie Milquet and Beatriz Pichel

The first session, “Emotional Bodies in the Sciences” was opened by the keynote speaker, Otniel Dror. In his presentation “The Adrenaline Paradigm of Emotions”, Dror offered an overview of the main arguments of his forthcoming book. He proposed to understand adrenaline as a paradigm of affective embodiment inasmuch as adrenaline became the way to understand a series of emotions, ranging from those related to fight to masculine activities like sport to, finally, other cultural activities that involved some kind of “excitement”, such as theatre and consumerism. One of the most discussed ideas of the paper was the question of its preeminence alongside other paradigms that coexisted during the 20th century.
After him, Paul White discussed “The Blush of Love”. Focusing his analysis on different literary texts and illustrations produced in the 19th century, White examined the different meanings of an emotion that Darwin considered as particularly human. Damien Boquet brought us back to the Middle Ages in his presentation “Saintes humeurs. Émotions et fluides corporels dans l’hagiographie féminine au XIIIe siècle”. Boquet challenged the traditional account of female mysticism by showing that the affectivity of the female religious body emerged only in the 13th century, long after the affective turn of Christianism, as a result of the convergence of a series of factors. Finally, Marc Ratcliff discussed in “Flourny et Théodore: entre maîtrise du corps et émotions de l’esprit” how Flourny’s emotions between the theory and the practice of psychology played a role in the constitution of the first psychological laboratory in Geneva. In brief, the first day explored some continuities and discontinuities in the history of emotions based on a closed examination of the ways in which medical and psychological knowledge of the body have permeated other cultural and literary fields.

Paul White and Damien Boquet

Paul White and Damien Boquet

The first session of the second day was dedicated to “Emotions as Sites for Social Exchange and Political Change”. Piroska Nagy interrogated in “Making a Collective Emotional Body: Christmas in Greccio” what Francis of Assisi wanted in creating this event. Through the analysis of this example, Nagy brilliantly discussed  how the emergence of emotional bodies can be interpreted as the condition for the creation of emotional communities. This suggestive idea connected very well with Sophie Wahnich‘s presentation, “Les émotions dans la révolution française. L’auto-contrôle de la cruauté dans la foule révolutionnaire”, in which she challenged traditional assumptions of the revolutionary crowd and its tendency to cruelty. Grounding her political analyses on contemporary movements such as the Arab Spring or the Spanish Indignados, Wahnich defended that the revolutionary crowd has mechanisms of self-regulation. This case study served Wahnich to address the essential question about what is the very purpose of the history of emotions, and what do we want by doing this history. Then, both presentations discussed the performativity of emotions: what emotions do in the social and political sphere. The creation of collective bodies (either communities or crowds) were pointed out as essential mechanisms in these processes.

Dolores Martin Moruno, Sophie Wahnich and Piroska Nagy

Dolores Martin Moruno, Sophie Wahnich and Piroska Nagy

The following panel continued the debate on the social and political work of the emotions in the field of humanitarianism. Bertrand Taithe in “Compassion Fatique: The Changing Nature of Humanitarian Emotions” traced the history of the diagnosis of compassion fatigue to humanitarian carers. By showing the different meanings and symptoms ascribed to this syndrome, Taithe showed how compassion fatigue has been politically used to blame carers for their alleged lack of compassion, will, etc. After him, Jon Arrizabalaga in “Performing People’s Humanitarian Emotions in Wartime: Narratives of Relief Action in Front of the Spanish Civil Wars in the 1870s” related the history of the Spanish section of the Red Cross in the 1870s, focusing on the role of Nicasio Landa and Concepción Arenal. One of the main interesting topics addressed by Arrizabalaga was the question about how the criteria of who deserved relief in the Spanish civil wars were constructed.

Bertrand Taithe, Dolores Martin Moruno and Jon Arrizabalaga

Bertrand Taithe, Dolores Martin Moruno and Jon Arrizabalaga

The afternoon session was devoted to “Artistic and Literary Bodies”. Rob Boddice opened with the analysis of vernacular medical practices of hysteria in his “Hysteria or Tetanus? Ambivalent Embodiments and the Authenticity of Pain”. Departing from Louis Bourgeois’s Arc of Hysteria, Boddice discussed the difficulties of diagnosing hysteria based on bodily signs because of its similarities to tetanus. By means of the analysis of other diagnosing criteria such as the gender or the survival of the patient, Boddice examined the question of how to authenticate the pain experienced by patients along the 19th century. Rafael Mandressi examined in “Les passions sur scène: médecine, théologie et physiognomonie dans la représentation des passions dans le théâtre européen aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles” the transference of ideas of the passions between the medical and the theatrical contexts in the 17th century. Focusing on the classical theatre performed at the court of Louis XIV, Mandressi showed how these two fields were shortly after interwoven, first in the actor’s performance and then by the incorporation of stage’s strategies into the medical knowledge. In the last presentation of this session, “Sentimentalism, Masochism and Politics: The Anarchist as a Possesed, Demonic Body”, Guillermo de Eugenio compared Dostoievski’s description of a young anarchist to the memoirs of an anarchist of the same period. This comparison allowed de Eugenio to think about the body of the anarchist as a battlefield between different forces.

Sophie Milquet with Rob Boddice, Rafael Mandressi and Guillermo de Eugenio

Sophie Milquet with Rob Boddice, Rafael Mandressi and Guillermo de Eugenio

The last session of the day continued the focus on literary texts. Antonio Rodríguez displaced the focus of the previous sessions in “Le corps du lecteur et la poétique”, in which he examined the affective response to texts, rather than their representation of emotions. In this regard, his presentation revolved around the ways in which the body of the reader becomes an emotional body in the act of reading. Due to external problems with the technical equipment, Patrizia Lombardo could not make her presentation “Le cinéma de David Lynch: trouble, douleur et désespoir”. Instead of it, she reflected on the emotional power of literature through some extracts from Sthendal’s novels. She insisted that literary texts not only name the emotions, but that they can create narratives that suggest and provoke emotions without using the exact words. In this regard, Lombardo’s presentation recalled some of the topics already discussed by White and Mandressi.

Sophie Milquet with Patrizia Lombardo and Antonio Rodrígez

Sophie Milquet with Patrizia Lombardo and Antonio Rodrígez

The last day of the workshop focused on “The Affective Power of Visual Culture”. In the first presentation, “La fabrique de la physionomie”, François Delaporte analyzed the epistemological novelty of Duchenne de Boulogne’s project. He focused on the introduction of photography as the condition of possibility of Duchenne’s studies, as the photographs served to demonstrate his theory, the conquest of the surface. One of the topics that arose more debate was the meaning of the “grimace” for Duchenne, and why these nonsense expressions were not considered by him as elements for a new language of the passions. After him, Pilar León Sanz examined in “Body Image and Cancer from a Psychosomatic Perspective (1950-1959)” how the emergence of body diseases like cancer was understood as a psychosomatic process related to the body image that patients had of themselves. In this sense, León Sanz made an attentive analysis of the relations between emotionality and pathogenesis and recovery in the US during the 1950s.

The last two presentations discussed how technologies such as photography and digital design create different emotional bodies. Leticia Fernández Fontecha reflected in “Crying Children. Photographic Approaches to Pain in Childhood at the Turn of the 19th Century” on how photography was used in the debates between physiologists and physicians about the sentience of children. She concluded by describing the different bodies created by photographic practices, contrasting the meanings attached to the represented body to the actual experience of the children posing for the camera. Miriam Ronca, for her part, examined the affective regime of the images of Anatomicaltravelogue.com in “Le corps performatif, un prodige de la technologie”. Drawing on recent neuroaesthetic theory, Ronca examined the different layers of the spectator’s response to these images between science and art.

Leticia Fernández Fontecha, Miriam Ronca and Pilar León Sanz

Leticia Fernández Fontecha, Miriam Ronca and Pilar León Sanz

Ronca’s use of neuroaesthectis rose an interesting debate on whether the history of emotions should turn to neurosciences and affect theory more often or, inversely, it should evolve as a different field, based on different premises. This discussion led to a broader question about what is the history of emotions, and what it should be. It was clear for everyone that this is a kind of history that is being made from different perspectives and different purposes. While Nagy’s and Wahnich’s focus on the social was intended to help to understand contemporary movements (connecting then to the history of the present), most of the rest of interventions aimed to bring into light how emotions were understood and experienced in particular periods of time. Dror proposed to reflect on this question by considering whether the emotions have become something like the gender was before.

We were not able to give definitive responses to all these questions, but we agreed that maybe we do not need them. From my perspective, emotions are complex objects that require complex perspectives to be understood. Therefore, I think that having multiple methodologies, theoretical frameworks and purposes is not a weakness, but precisely what makes this field so interesting. It is in this dialogue that the history of emotions is being made.

I would like to thank my colleagues Dolores Martín Moruno and Sophie Milquet for her hard work organizing the conference, as well as Emanuela Maurizzo for her invaluable help. We would also like to thank our sponsors, the National Science Swiss Foundation, the University of Geneva and the Wellcome Trust for their generous support. And finally, many many thanks to all the participants for coming, discussing, arguing and being so nice.

Ps- Unfortunately I could not take pictures of all the presentations, so please apologize if there is anyone missing….