Emotion Space Environment

By Tom Bristow, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

Max Tom

Are emotions and space related? Spatial theory invites us to clarify the locus of human action – sometimes referred to as the practice of everyday life. Transcultural encounters are very interesting in this context, but how might a focus on ecology, landscape, city, metropolitan area or bioregion respond to this invitation?

This June I decided to seek out some help with these questions by visiting our partners within the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

There has been lots of exciting research in our Centre that has considered emotions in the contexts of performance, ritual and public spaces. There are also several researchers examining the idea of emotional contagion, something that affect theory lends itself to in terms of transcorporeality in a way that the biographical aspect of emotions theory short-circuits in its desire for the psychoanalysis of the individual subject. Professor Anne Brooks in her CHE blog outlines the specific role that the discipline of geography has to play in the contested space of the seats and sites of emotions in her review of the Edinburgh conference on Emotional Geographies, and readers of this blog would benefit from reviewing that entry before they read this contribution.

When I first came to the Centre I was struck by how much of our work is focused on human feelings, on society, on the mind; I couldn’t help but think how anthropocentric this all was. That response was partly owing to how in the preceding decade I had been over-exposed to environmental ethics, environmental philosophy and ecocriticism, which are critically oriented to dissolving the human subject into a larger field of play: to articulate a transpersonal fabric of life in which we are concerned for the ways that we inhabit more-than-human relationships that affords freedom, expression, and the curtailment of these. CHE was one of a number of collaborators at the Humanities Research Centre Conference (ANU) on this theme last year, titled Affective Habitus. However, slowly but surely, I began to observe how a number of scholars have pushed through with the question of the environment in a manner that my theoretical training and the new field of ecological literary studies had not.

Initially, I wondered why the focus on ‘society’ did not extend to the ‘environment’; I felt perplexed by the ways that theories of evolution seemed to end up in discussions that were primarily concerned with the mind, the hippocampus, and not the body, not the lifeworld in which we enact and respond to the affective contours of our experiences with others. I felt that a dualism between affect and emotion had not been resolved; rather, a diversion from some of the difficult conceptual terrain had been taken, resulting in a narcissistic turn to the human and most especially to the cognitive field – and my prejudices fuelled an instinct that this problem was particularly acute with scholars less comfortable in their bodies than their minds! It was time to stop here, rethink, and look again. Calm down. Breathe. Just what was it that I was referring to and naming the ‘environment’ – was there something ‘out there’, external to us humans? Was it something that physically registered the impact of climate change? How were these ideas nothing other than an extension of the dualism evident in the mind-body split that I was critiquing? It was time to go back to basics and rethink the traditional ‘somatic envelope’ as Peter de Bolla writes: the affective, bodily experience of being in the world.

I have recently written on a correspondence between ecocriticism’s promotion of interdependency and intimacy, and contemporary analytical philosophy’s perspectives on the embodied, enactive, embedded and extended mind (the 4E ontologies). Both belie the radical separation of mind and body, body and world inherent to dualism, while also considering what constitutes an ‘environment’ for minds and things. My research project requires me to think through a difficult question: how might the environmental humanities – particularly the field of environmental literary studies – learn from the history of emotions? Put more simply: are there approaches or findings in the emotions project that can help us better understand human relationships with the more-than-human world?

I had been finding this quite a difficult question until I felt an electric charge in the air during our emotions reading group in Melbourne in May this year. We had discussed the advantages of these non-cognitive perspectives when turning to Daniel M. Gross’s article on Darwin, and we considered how thinking of things at play was a way to bridge (or better, reject!) the conflicted epistemology, or schizophrenia evident in our methodology that must respond to theories of evolution and social construction simultaneously. It was one of those light bulb moments that are so rare, and often depend on particular group dynamics. Gross ends his article by drawing on 4E ontologies to state that ‘Just as we cannot understand bird flight by studying only feathers… we cannot understand emotional experience by studying only the face, the eyeball, the ear, the brain.’

The point here, I think, is to analyse, respond to, and attempt to feel the experience of the bird’s body and how this in itself is a creative evolutionary expression of worldliness. While we might like to think of the development of our mammalian brains through natural selection, we might slow down when we think of ourselves as a species, in the same way that we would think of birds. As Mick Smith writes: ‘species are significant for the world’ in that all things with life have effects and carry with them ‘various semiotic possibilities’; to lose species, therefore ‘is to lose [a form of] openness on the world.’ Life, in its various forms, exercises different ways of becoming meaningful, and it harnesses various phenomenological experiences of a sensed world. Perhaps this is a new way to think of our affective experiences as humans? I’m not fully convinced about that, and I’m also keen think to through the project of Romanticism that seemed to ask for a larger sense of self than that constituted by sense experience alone. However, there is something worth exploring here. I would also like to state that this diversion into phenomenology might seem like a long way from what might help us better understand situated emotions, that is emotions in place, in space, in environments; however, it was one of four starting points that I took to colleagues in Berlin and I wanted to share it with you.

With help from Katrina O’Loughlin (UWA), Pen Woods (Sydney) and Benno Gammerl and Edgar Cabanas Diaz (Berlin), a group of us at the Max Planck Institute read articles by Sara Ahmed, Steve Pile, John Ryan and Andrea Witcomb. Taking these respectively, we discussed how happiness is sociable, how geography has come to a theoretical standoff between emotions and affect, how our emotional memories express a relationship with our environments, and how affective atmospheres in museums can trigger ethical responses to environments. When we stepped back to discuss themes running across these articles our findings were twofold: one considered attributes and processes of environmental experience, the other examined bidirectionality (between subjects and objects) and the question of contingency.

First of all, we realised that spatial features of our environments are to be found empirically and in discourse – there are real, physical spaces, and sites of experience that come to us through culture, and there are many spaces that combine the two; by extension, spaces contain and structure affect and also enable unexpected emotional practices. From here we concluded that spaces are conditions of possibility for agents, and those conditions of possibility need to be historicized for they really articulate meaning-making practices – for example, consider a first foray into a gay bar, or an outsider’s experience of an occult ritual. Secondly, after reviewing the academic literature it felt important to clarify that emotions and space are not reducible to each other; ‘space’ and ‘emotions’ move in-between our understanding of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ – just consider causal and organic relations between discrete things in space over time and you’ll soon come to an understanding that the relation between these is ongoing: there is always instability and dynamism. We seemed to like this idea.

As Giovanni Tarantino writes, citing Charles Zika, feelings and sentiments are not diametrically opposed. The different yet related ways of perceiving the world reminds us of the import of acknowledging hybrid environments that we experience through these two interdependent filters. If, as Zika concludes, emotions are integral to all human action, then we might wish to further consider the spaces in which these actions play out, for these spaces are equally subject to cognitive and affective perceptions, and social and biological formations. If emotion is ‘critical to the fields of politics and society’, surely it is critical to our understanding of environments, too? Our group in Berlin were not in a rush to escape what Zika names ‘the widely perceived dichotomy between a social and cultural level’ by simply displacing these scenes of interaction for an expansive sense of the cultural as the ‘environment.’ However, we did agree upon two things: firstly, thinking ‘environmentally’ – i.e. taking seriously humans as part of the more-than-human world (rather than conceiving an ‘external’ environment at a distance from us) – raises methodological concerns about the roles of social construction and evolution and our sense of the body as situated in and imprinted by space. We felt that such a perspective could be attentive to the organic and the material, to their formations and deformations. Secondly, intimate/ traditional knowledge of one’s environment is part of the process of building communities; the naming of things in space is a power that comes from an initiation process (‘sensorial apprenticeship’ as Ryan suggests) instructing us of the ways to put our body in places, for example appreciating a local flower, following a culturally specific ritual. These are exciting findings from an initial conversation and we hope to continue the dialogue between Australia and Germany over the next twelve months.

When the Australian philosopher, Val Plumwood, conceived of rational thought as ‘sado-dispassionate scientism’, that is enlightenment thinking based upon a dualism, which first registered in the cultural distinction between the sacred and profane, she was helping us to conceive of an ‘ontological divide’ that allows us to keep the world of living things at a distance from human experience. In Australia this is a particular problem for two reasons: firstly, we face exceptionally challenging local and global stresses of desalination, the management of the barrier reef and ocean acidification, invasion ecologies, climate change, species depletion, rewilding, and energy and population issues. Secondly, we seem to think that the fuse of our emotions can only be traced back into the mists of a European past; rather it has been lit in today’s environmental contexts and their sociogenic contours, which, taken to the question of the Aboriginal relation to ‘country,’ are inflected by the politics of grief.

For Stephen Muecke, Aboriginal philosophies ‘are all about keeping things alive in their place’ – I feel that a history of emotions, distributed around this country, might be sensitive to the affective immanence of broken landscapes, practices that generate forms of belonging and their concomitant economic, social and political processes, which are largely understated by the now normalised postcolonial euphemism ‘settler society.’ The first step to addressing this obscured narrative of feelings in space, following our first examination of new methodological approaches to emotions in Berlin, would be to rethink the history of emotions in terms of spatial theory and how this extends to a sense of the environment as the site and seat of emotions over time. During a period where a growing acknowledgement ‘of the impact of societal forces on the biosphere’ are couched in terms ‘of a narrative so completely dominated by natural science’ as Malm and Hornborg argue, it is time that our substantial contribution to the critical interpretation of human practices leads us towards a confident interjection in this domain, and helps us to construct a new framework for the ‘environment’ and ‘emotions’ for public understanding and debate.



Further reading:


Sara Ahmed, ‘Sociable Happiness.’ Emotions, Space and Society 1 (2008): 10-13.

Peter de Bolla, The Education of the Eye: Painting, Landscape, and Architecture in Eighteenth-century Britain, Stanford UP, 2003.

Daniel M. Gross, ‘Defending the Humanities with Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872),’ Critical Inquiry 37 (2010): 34-59.

Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, ‘The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative,’ The Anthropocene Review 1.1 (2014): 62-69.

Stephen Muecke, ‘The Sacred in History,’ Humanities Research 1 (1999): 26-37.

Steve Pile, ‘Emotions and Affect in Recent Human Geography.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 35 (2010): 5-20.

Val Plumwood, ‘Journey to the Heart of Stone.’ In Culture, Creativity and Environment: New Environmentalist Criticism (Eds Fiona Becket and Terry Gifford). Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 17-37.

John Ryan, ‘Botanical Memory: Exploring Emotional Recollections of Native Flora in the Southwest of Western Australia.’ Emotion, Space and Society 30 (2012): 1-12.

Mick Smith, “Ecological Community, the Sense of the World, and Senseless Extinction,” Environmental Humanities 2 (2013), 21-41.

Andrea Witcomb, ‘Toward A Pedagogy of Feeling: Understanding How Museums Create a Space for Cross-Cultural Encounters.’ In The International Handbooks of Museum Studies: Museums Theory (Eds. Andrea Witcomb and Kylie Message). London: John Wiley and Sons, 2015. 321-344.

3 thoughts

  1. This blog post raises very important questions: the anthropocentric nature of many research, more-than-human relationships, the limits of dualisms, empathy, and the term “settler-society”. It is a term which I myself use for now in my research but which I am also struggling with, as I don’t find it satisfying for several reasons. I am eager to see which directions this discussion around the term “settler society” will take.
    I like how you shift the focus to space and spatial theory and speak of “broken landscapes” (perhaps the potential theme for a future group reading, if it hasn’t been done yet?).

  2. Thanks, Angelique. Yes, I agree: let’s watch out for those euphemisms – they seem to veil a dark reality sometimes. And the idea of ‘broken landscapes’ comes from Cameron Muir’s work – see his post in the journal, Environmental Humanities under the ‘Living Lexicon’, and his book, The Broken Promise of Agricultural Development! Perhaps thinking about environments is just another way of thinking about space (at least in terms of affect) and one in which we might not stop so suddenly at the focus on society, perhaps expand this a little bit, include the more-than-human. I’m not sure, but I do feel that when we turn to the emotions and the environment, that shift into a psychological subject seems to put the material world ‘out there’ and apart from us some how – this is true, in theory at least, less so in literature (and worth thinking about the indigenous use of ‘country’: no definite article). Let’s explore some more!

  3. Thanks, Tom! On your suggestion, I have read Cameron Muir’s article “Broken” and it did spark some very interesting thoughts. True, speaking of “broken landscapes” alters the way we think about space but also about time, I think. The term re-places the concept of settler society as a more transient formation rather than a normative structure. The focus on place provides this continuity, in which settler colonialism stops being the favored point of reference (or departure?). It also allows to understand the articulation of the concept of settler society in relation to place. How does such a concept alter our understanding of, and relation to place, for instance? To what extent can it account for our perceived distantiation from the environment?
    The Indigenous use of ‘country’, as you mentioned, brings something very interesting into this reflection, which precisely reaches beyond the more than human or the material.
    I also feel that a focus on space allows us to engage with various and divergent perspectives in a more systematic way and kind of challenges imbalanced settler colonial power relations.

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