Notes Towards A Critique Of “Emotion”

One of the many things that surprises me about our world is how everybody talks about “feelings” as if it is perfectly clear what the word means, and perfectly certain that everyone has the same thing in mind when they use it. To me it is less obvious. Perhaps this comes from decades of exposure to a woman-friend who talked incessantly about being allowed to “have her emotions”, in a manner that seemed to add up to her always getting her own way, see my piece on neurasthenia in “Mrs. Grundy”. Because if it is a directive that you be free to express your emotions, and if expression take the form of actions in the common social space – how else? – then the demand must amount to an insistence on doing whatever you want, and the devil take the hindmost. The “having” here seemed to equate with a feedback-howl of refining, distilling and hypertrophising the slightest emotional response, accompanied by contempt for anyone who, like me, ignored minor flickers of feeling in order to get something done. She made the “having of her emotions” a full-time occupation, paid for by medical insurance, a professional invalid of the kind hitherto only seen in Victorian novels. And no, it didn’t make her happy.

These decades soured me on the whole concept of “feelings”, although I suppose I do experience the damn things myself. In fact, a bizarre side-effect of the stroke I suffered in May 2014 is that I cannot read poetry aloud without tearing up. At the same time I resist the notion that these readier tears in any way make me a better person. After all, there is a well-established connection between sentimentality and cruelty, men have been easily moved to tears by music or pets in between sessions of torturing and exterminating people. How clear are we on the difference between such sentimentality and the rest of the realm of “emotion”? Moreover, not all cathexis is a good thing. There is a SF book about an interstellar voyage to meet the singer of astonishingly beautiful music, which they eventually find is sung in celebration of successful rape.

I read somewhere that the romantic criminal “folds the violence into an invented category of his own, passion, and he constructs an elaborate personal mythology in which it is better to be passionate than law-abiding or devout….” Yes indeed, but how many people in our culture do almost the same thing, constructing an elaborate personal mythology in which it is better to be passionate than sensible and intelligent? In fact, an extreme take is that “love” is a narrative women have developed to justify fucking wicked men.

This kind of sensibility would seem to have nothing whatever to do with the philosophical or scientific accounts of emotion as stimulus/ response, embodiment, action and so forth. Sentimentality and the cultivation of one’s “feelings” like marrows in a prize-vegetable show do not belong in the models. So much the worse for science, then, as this variety of unnaturally cultivated emotion intended to increase self-esteem seems to me to dominate our epochs.

Posted on January 1, 2011 at 09:07 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, What Is This Thing Called Love?

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