skip to main content

“Emotional Bodies. A Workshop on the Historical Performativity of Emotions” Geneva, 20-22 October

Beatriz Pichel

09 January, 2015

The history of emotions has become a bourgeoning field in recent decades. A growing number of publications, conferences and institutions have focused on how emotions have been conceived and experienced in the past, and ways of studying this history of the subjective and the self. “Emotional Bodies: a Workshop on the Historical Performativity of Emotions” (20th-22nd October, 2014) aimed to contribute to this debate by focusing on how emotions understood as cultural practices have the affective power of creating emotional bodies.

Organized by Dolores Martin Moruno (University of Geneva), Sophie Milquet (Université Libre de Bruxelles) and Beatriz Pichel (de Montfort University), this workshop reunited a number of specialists from different disciplines (history of medicine, literary studies, medieval history and political history, among others) covering different periods of time. The workshop was organized around four axes: “Emotional Bodies in the Sciences,” “Emotions as Sites for Social Exchange and Political Change,” “Artistic and Literary Bodies,” and “The Affective Power of Visual Culture.” Many of the presentations in the four sessions dealt in one way or another with different aspects of the history of science, and this review will particularly focus on them.

In the introduction, Martin Moruno, Milquet and Pichel presented a multidisciplinary analysis of a particular case: the photograph “Grève aux usines Javel”, taken by Willy Ronis in 1938. This photograph, which was selected as the image of the workshop, aroused reflections on diverse but related topics: the psychology of the masses and its definition of the emotions of the crowd, the agit-prop theatre of the 1930s and the emotions created by the many lives of a photograph over forty years. All of these perspectives emphasized how the practices of emotions in different sites and through different objects created emotional bodies, such as those of the photographer, the people photographed, and the spectators.

The first day was opened with the keynote lecture given by Otniel Dror (Hebrew University of Jerusalem). “The Adrenaline Paradigm of Emotions” presented the main lines of his groundbreaking work on emotions in the context of physiology through the late nineteenth to the twentieth century. In particular, Dror explored the emergence and consolidation of adrenaline as a paradigm of affective embodiment. By this, Dror tried to characterize a principle (adrenaline) that little by little abandoned the scientific realm, penetrating into other domains, such as sports, theatre or consumer culture, as the cause and origin of emotional reactions related to excitement.

This discussion introduced some of the key questions that would be present throughout the workshop, such as the coexistence of parallel paradigms and the mechanisms through which one can dominate over others. This question directly relates to one of the main challenges in the history of emotions: the description and explanation of historical change. This was precisely the subject matter discussed in Damien Boquet’s (Université d’Aix-Marseille) “Saintes humeurs. Émotions et fluids corporels dans l’hagiographie féminine au XIIIe siècle,” focused on the emergence of the affectivity of female religious bodies two centuries after the turn to affect in Christianity. Boquet related this new affectivity to medical understandings of female fluids and in particular to the blood. Other topics discussed the first day included the different meanings of the blush in different disciplines and settings (“The Blush of Love”, by Paul White, University of Cambridge) and the role of emotions in scientific practices, explored through the case study of the Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy (“Flournoy et Théodore: entre maîtrise du corps et émotions de l’esprit”, by Marc Ratcliff, University of Geneva).

The second day started with a panel dedicated to the social and political effects of collective emotions. Piroska Nagy’s “Making a Collective Emotional Body” (Université du Quebec) and Sophie Wahnich’s “Les émotions dans la Révolution française” (CNRS) revolved around the ways in which we can historically reconstruct the emotions of the crowd. The following presentations focused their analysis of collective emotions on the field of humanitarianism in relation to the history of medicine. Bertrand Taithe’s “Compassion Fatigue: the Changing Nature of Humanitarian Emotions” (University of Manchester) examined the emergence and transformation of the diagnosis of “compassion fatigue” among caregivers. Taithe demonstrated in his presentation that each of the meanings attached to this entity were used with political intentions, highlighting the role of emotions in the links between the making of scientific knowledge and its political effects. In “Performing Population’s Humanitarian Emotions in Wartime”, Jon Arrizabalaga (IMF-CSIC) presented the story of the creation of the Spanish Red Cross during the civil wars of the 1870s. Through the analysis of its leading figures, Nicasio Landa and Concepción Arenal, Arrizabalaga introduced key questions in the historical study of emotions, such as the definition of the criteria that established who deserved care and humanitarian relief. In this regard, Arrizabalaga analyzed the premises and the consequences of the universality of care proposed by the Red Cross in a local context.

The afternoon session on “Artistic and Literary Bodies” also focused much of its analysis on how scientific debates on emotions penetrated into literary and artistic forms. In this regard, Louise Bourgeois’ Arc of Hysteria served Rob Boddice (Freie Universität Berlin) to introduce his presentation “Hysteria or Tetanus? Ambivalent Embodiment and the Authenticity of Pain.” Boddice examined the politics of diagnosis of hysteria based on the typical arc as it was represented in photographs and illustrations, and how these practices penetrated into vernacular medicine. The problem of the examination of these external signs, Boddice claims, is that their ambiguity prevented the authentication of the pain experienced by the patients. For his part, Rafael Mandressi (Centre Alexandre Koyré) examined in “Les passions sur la scène” the connections and mutual influence between moral, theological and medical theories of passions during the 17th century and their representation in classical theatre. This transference of knowledge between different fields introduced the discussion around the role of practices as key elements for the historical embodiment of passions.

The discussion then shifted to emotional bodies as literary creations. In this regard, a distinction was made between the bodies created by the texts in the narratives (Guillermo de Eugenio, Universidad Carlos III, “Sentimentalism, Masochism and Politics: The Anarchist as a Possessed, Demonic Body” and Patrizia Lombardo, University of Geneva, “Le cinéma de David Lynch: trouble, douleur et désespoir”) and the bodies of the readers, in which a different set of affects is aroused (Antonio Rodríguez, Université de Lausanne, “Le corps du lecteur et la poétique”).

The last day was dedicated to explore the relationship between visual culture and emotional bodies. Once again, the four presentations dealt with different aspects of the history of medicine and the history of sciences. In “La fabrique de la physiognomie,” François Delaporte (Université Jules Verne – Picardie) examined Duchenne de Boulogne’s Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine (1862). In particular, Delaporte focused on the epistemological innovations of Duchenne’s electrical analysis of the movement of facial muscles. According to him, these were the conditions of the emergence of the modern concept of “expression”. Delaporte also pointed out the key role played by photography in this process. A similar analysis was carried out by Leticia Fernández Fontecha (University of Greenwich) in “Crying Children”, in which she examined the construction of different emotional bodies of children in pediatrics and physiology at the turn of the 19th century. An innovative point in her presentation was the study of the different forms in which the photographic practices of portraitur could affect the children’s bodies. As a result, photography should be regarded as a tool to create different and often opposite bodies in the photographic image and the performance.

Pilar León Sanz (University of Navarra) examined in “Body Image and Cancer from a Psychosomatic Perspective (1950-1959) the role of emotionality in the pathogenesis and recovery in psychosomatic theories of the 1950s. Finally, Miriam Ronca (University of Geneva) explored the spectator’s bodily affects when confronted to the work of the visual artist T. Siaras, in which medical technology and art merge. Her use of neuroaesthetics led to a discussion on the differences between affect theory and the history of emotions, regarding both their methodologies and their object of study.

The workshop was an excellent occasion not only to debate some of the main questions of the history of emotions, but also to prove that the history of sciences and particularly the history of medicine are key contributors to this field. As most of the presentations showed, the analysis of case studies traditionally belonging to the history of medicine from the viewpoint of the history of emotions brings to light not only crucial aspects in the history of emotional experiences, but also the historical fluidity of scientific knowledge, which travelled between different fields. In this regard, the study of “emotional bodies” needs a multidisciplinary perspective that acknowledges the complexity of the social, political, scientific, material and visual contexts in which they emerge.

This event was funded by the National Science Swiss Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Geneva.

Beatriz Pichel is Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Photographic History Research Centre, de Montfort University (Leicester, UK). Her current research project, at the crossroad of history of photography, history of emotions and medical humanities, examines the role of photographic practices in the understanding of emotions by the emerging psychology and the theatre at the turn of the 19th century.

Backchannels / Report-backs

Reports and commentary from meetings, workshops, and seminars of interest to the STS community, with images and other media.