Jack Goody and the History of Emotions

Posted by Melissa Raine, Associate Investigator, University of Melbourne

The recent death of anthropologist Jack Goody prompted me to reflect on his legacy. In a career spanning more than five decades, emotions were a prominent feature of Goody’s research. He was repeatedly critical of claims — in his assessment, ethnocentric and unjustifiable — for the uniqueness of significant forms of affect and interpersonal relationship and their impact on European culture. In Food and Love, he challenges the notion that romantic “love” is a Western, (indeed English) phenomenon, which allowed the development of “the modern affective family,”[i] seen by historians of Western Europe as crucial to the process of modernisation. Rather, Goody believes that “this elaboration on the discourse of love, this idealisation of the beloved, occurs in societies with writing and is therefore not only earlier than the eighteenth century and even the troubadours, but is found in all cultures which developed literary traditions.”[ii] In this formulation, before we can talk about emotions, we need to think carefully about language: Goody connects the inscription of ideas about self-experience with our ability to elaborate on them. Written language is pushed into prominence as a technology that is deeply implicated in our capacity to express emotions, one that also actively shapes the experience of self across time and place.

Na Casteloza, an early thirteenth-century trobairitz whose love poem Goody discusses. (BnF ms. 12473)
Na Casteloza, an early thirteenth-century trobairitz whose love poem Goody discusses.
(BnF ms. 12473)

Goody does not of course represent the entire field of anthropology, but the parameters of his discipline might shape his writing in ways that are not immediately palatable to those who work more closely with history. In short, Goody’s insistence on foregrounding these basic ideas might appear to be simplistic and essentialist. I would argue, though, that this potential dynamic between written language and self opens up a space that can be expanded to include nuanced consideration of discourses, the material means of transmitting texts, and the historically specific aspects of reading practices. As such, it provides a strong and flexible basis for thinking about the relationship between textual objects, upon which we are so reliant for our access to the past, and the ways in which selves from other periods experienced and organised their own emotional regimes. And in adopting this approach, we are well positioned to situate the historical and cultural specificity of our work within larger chronological and cultural contexts, should we choose to.

Goody’s insights seem to me to mesh well with current directions in medieval studies which could take the history of emotions in interesting new directions. At the recent ANZAMEMS conference in Brisbane, a well-attended session took place: “The Global Medieval in the Antipodes”. Several of the six panelists were motivated by the concerning use of the term “medieval” to describe contemporary events, particularly acts of violence occurring in the Middle East. They spoke of their conviction that it was time for the study of the European Middle Ages to broaden its scope and engage proactively with topics and disciplines beyond the usual boundaries. It was acknowledged that while contemporary events made the sharing of research and ideas compelling, such a project is far from straightforward; after all, “medieval” is, by necessity, ethnocentric, focusing on a specific chronological period of European history. Nevertheless, panelists and audience members gave examples of both positive and negative encounters between medieval studies and other disciplines that are beginning to take place. The example of what “medieval” means to Chinese historians was given, which put me in mind of Goody’s comparison of a thirteenth-century trouvère poem to a much older tradition of Chinese love poetry.

Goody compares the European poem to the much earlier Chinese Book of Songs, the first poem of which is reproduced here by the eighteenth-century Qianlong Emperor.
Goody compares the European poem to the much earlier Chinese Book of Songs, the first poem of which is reproduced here by the eighteenth-century Qianlong Emperor.

Goody’s paring back of many complex historical phenomena might well offer some clear, coherent points of engagement with which to begin connecting diverse scholarship.

 

The “Global Medieval in the Antipodes” Roundtable, ANZAMEMS 2015
The “Global Medieval in the Antipodes” Roundtable, ANZAMEMS 2015

A working group was established at the “Global Medievalism in the Antipodes” session. If you are interested in joining, please contact Sahar Amer (sahar.amer@sydney.edu.au)

[i] Jack Goody, Food and Love: A Cultural History of East and West (London: Verso, 1998), 96.

[ii] Goody, Food and Love, 110.

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