Historicizing Emotions at the International Congress of Historical Sciences, Jinan, 24th August 2015

 Historical-Conference-2015-22nd-CISHBy Amy Milka, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of Adelaide. 

The 22nd International Congress of Historical Sciences was held in Asia for the first time this year. The palatial surroundings of the Shandong Hotel in Jinan, China, provided the backdrop for a congress of almighty proportions: over 70 independent sessions covering a vast array of topics, and over 2000 historians from all over the world in attendance. That the history of emotions was allocated an entire day as a Major Theme within this event is testament to the importance of the field and the enthusiasm and dedication of the organisers, Ute Frevert, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development Center for the History of Emotions and Philippa Maddern, founding director of the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions (1100-1800).

Philippa Maddern, CHE founding director, 24 August, 1952- 16 June, 2014.
Philippa Maddern, CHE founding director, 24 August, 1952- 16 June, 2014.

The day began with a tribute to Philippa Maddern, who passed away on June 16, 2014, and who had worked closely with Ute Frevert to bring the conference to fruition. They had envisaged a conference which would take a long view of history, and which would tackle some key themes in emotions history: emotions and the economy, the creation of ‘others’, bodies and spaces, and of course theories and methodologies. Around the discussion of these four areas, important questions and issues emerged about the problems and the benefits of studying emotions, which led to much stimulating debate throughout the day.

The day was organised into four sessions, corresponding to the themes mentioned above, with presenters speaking for only 10 minutes to summarise their pre-circulated papers. Discussants Ute Frevert, Charles Zika and Jacqueline Van Gent then gave their responses and observations to the papers, after which the audience were invited to participate in discussion and ask questions. The first session, ‘Emotions, capitalism and the market’, showcased a range of approaches to how emotions are generated and fuelled by a market economy. Papers included ‘Emotional economies in early modern Europe’ (Laurence Fontaine, CNRS-ENS-EHESS, Paris), ‘The Pre-History of Stress’ (Anna Geurts, University of Sheffield), and ‘Advertising culture and the making of the modern consumer’ (Anne Schmidt, Max Planck Institute, Berlin). The papers addressed many different ideas about economy, but were united by an interest in the emotional politics of saving, spending and risk, demonstrated in the prodigality of the aristocracy in Fontaine’s paper, Geurts’ discussion of economies of time for nineteenth-century tourists, and Schmidt’s focus on the ethics and rationale of consumption in early twentieth-century Germany. This led discussant Ute Frevert to ask some important questions about the impact of capitalism in propagating emotions such as envy over empathy, and in generating new emotional styles. She noted the recent turn towards the idea of ‘moral economies’ as one way of approaching these issues.

In the second session, we heard three papers considering the emotional politics of ‘othering’: ‘Feeling rules in Mexico: crying in colonial contexts’ (Andrea Noble, University of Durham), ‘Fear and fascination – savages in the slums and the colonies’ (Christianne Smit, Utrecht University), and ‘A comparative study of emotional pedagogies: emotions as analysis in mission studies’ (Makoto Harris Takao, University of Western Australia). Discussant Charles Zika stressed the importance of thinking not only about how ‘others’ are constructed, but also how discrete groups create their own ‘other’ identities in emotional communities which are distanced from mainstream culture. The third session focussed on ‘Emotions in bodies and spaces’. Papers included ‘Emotions and mourning rites in late medieval Sicily’ (Fabrizio Titone, University del País Vasco), ‘Emotional expression and the Passion at the basilica of St Anthony of Padua in the early eighteenth century’ (Alan Maddox, University of Sydney), and ‘Love making homosexual bodies? 20th century perspectives’ (Benno Gammerl, Max Planck Institute, Berlin). Jacqueline Van Gent’s summarising comments focussed on emotional transformations, reflecting dramatic social changes, and shifts from subordinate to powerful positions. She highlighted the importance of urban spaces in all three papers, suggesting that they facilitated dramatic emotional change.

The final session featured two papers, ‘What can the history of the emotions learn from the neurosciences’ (Tuomas Tepora, University of Helsinki) and ‘Emotions and memory in ego-documents: from correspondence to oral history’ (Radmila Švaříčková Slabáková, Palacky University Olomouc), which both considered the bigger methodological and theoretical issues facing the historian of emotion.

The day concluded with a discussion of the major questions emerging in our field: what are the vectors of emotion? How long can emotions last? Where and when do emotions occur, and how do they change across space and time? Is there a ‘true’ emotion, and if so, how can historians attempt to access this? What is the divide between cognition and emotion? Are there ‘special’ emotions which work differently from others? While of course, many of these questions were left open, the day also came to some useful conclusions; we were reminded that emotions are not states in their own right, but rather practices, expressions, performances, and even weapons.

Discussion also focussed on the importance of dialogues between cultures: historians should be sensitive to the idea that emotional translation does not happen in a vacuum, and that the terms for this exchange are often dictated by a particular cultural or political context. While we had heard papers from very different periods, and with very different social, cultural and political concerns, these questions and conclusions seemed to apply in many ways to the work of all the presenters, and to the preoccupations of the audience.  Indeed, an interest in emotions was evident in many other sessions across the congress, in a half-day panel devoted to nostalgia, and in ‘New Directions of Research in French Revolutionary History’, where Timothy Tackett (University of California) and I both spoke about the importance of emotions in making sense of revolutionary violence and political radicalism.

The Historicizing Emotions Day was a thought-provoking and stimulating experience, with enriching debate for those of us involved in emotions history. It brought together postgraduates, early career researchers and established scholars from a variety of backgrounds. It was also an important opportunity to broaden awareness, and to encourage more scholars and students to take an interest in this fast-growing field.


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