Rhodri Hayward: Onwards and Inwards: Making Sense of the Affective Turn at MBS2015

Rhodri Hayward

Rhodri Hayward

Rhodri works at at Queen Mary University of London and  teaches courses on the histories of selfhood, psychiatry and the supernatural in modern Britain   He has published on many different subjects including history of pentecostalism, dreams, cybernetics, demonology, psychosomatics, depression and psychiatric epidemiology. Two of his books have just been reissued as paperbacks: Resisting History: Religious Transcendence and the Invention of the Unconscious (2014) and The Transformation of the Psyche (2015).  He is currently trying to compete a monograph on the long history of the wellbeing agenda.

MBS 2015 might mark the point where modern British studies took the ‘affective turn’, A new awareness of the strength and power of emotion seemed to spill out from the presentations onto the conference floor. As Chris Moores noted in the aftermath of the meeting: “One of the things that seems striking is so many of us seem to have really felt this event and how many have been able to articulate their feelings”.

Competing ideas of affect were fielded in talks and debates to draw new connections between inner lives and the outer world; critique the assumed hierarchies of conference organisation, encourage solidarity and disrupt conventional narratives around the familiar organising categories of class, race and gender. The concepts did a lot of work. And for some this productivity gave rise to suspicion. There was a persistent complaint that the turn to emotion obscured the real issues: the distribution of capital and the organisation of labour under neo-liberalism.

At the same time there was an apprehension that the fecundity of these concepts derived from the fact that they were so ill-defined. I have some sympathies with these suspicions but think that the supposed opposition between the languages of economics and emotion is a false one. In this blog I want to think briefly about what historians are thinking when they talk about emotion and what might be different about emotions in modern British studies.


One of the fundamental problems of the history of emotions is that most historians, even when looking at their own lives, have very little idea what emotions actually are. At one extreme some, inspired by neuroscientists such as Paul Ekman, insist that emotions should be understood as universal biological responses, hardwired in evolutionary struggles but perhaps mediated through the demands of a wider culture.

Others, following the work of philosophers and anthropologists such as Robert Solomon and Catherine Lutz, understand emotion as a form of embodied judgment: an act in which cultural values and political appraisals work to organise our flesh and determine future action. Most of us, I guess, when we pause to think about emotions, adopt some kind of compromise position: seeing them as deeper and more authentic than thoughts or beliefs yet still somehow part of our wider culture.

This ambiguity around emotion was reflected in the language of the conference. Speakers referred to affects, emotions, passions, moods, sentiments and feelings, yet it was never entirely clear if they were referring to the same thing.

If there was one phrase that captured, and perhaps generated, some of the excitement around emotions at MBS2015 it was Stephen Brooke’s concept of ‘affective ecologies’: a space created through material and political interventions which allowed new forms of feeling to be articulated and explored. The phrase carried within it the echo of earlier analytic terms.

On the one hand, as Brooke acknowledged, it overlapped with the idea of ‘emotional communities’ promoted by the medievalist, Barbara Rosenwein. According to Rosenwein a shared repertoire of emotions works to both sustain a community and at the same time is sustained by that community. On the other hand, the term seems to refer back to the older idea of ‘structures of feeling’ developed by Raymond Williams, whose work helped shaped the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and whose approach in turn partly underwrites the current programme of Birmingham’s MBS.

‘Affective ecologies’ and ’structures of feeling’ occupy similar territory and it’s thus worth pausing for a moment to consider what is lost in the adoption of the new phrase. The concept of affect, developed in the work of the neuropsychologist, Silvan Tomkins has been taken up by a number of neuroscientists and cultural theorists. It is foundational to Ekman’s idea of basic emotions as primitive programs that precede language. At the same time it been has utilised by social theorists, including Nigel Thrift and Eve Sedgwick, to overcome the long standing prioritisation of culture over nature in the humanities and to undermine the disciplinary conceit that all phenomena can be understood as simple social constructions.

Within cultural theory this adoption was often allied to forms of radical critique that celebrated the authenticity of group feeling as a counterpoint to the political pessimism engendered by post-structuralist particularly Foucauldian, accounts of the all embracing nature of power, governmentality and subjectification.

Although the aims of such critiques were laudable they rested upon a kind of mystification. Their strength derived from their refusal to analyse the components of group experience. Affect was held up as a kind of non-representational force which lay outside the boundaries of pedestrian investigation. As Tomkins himself noted, academics “have a craft union tendency to polarize and debate things which nature has put together and to pull them asunder for analytic experimental purposes.

That is fine for many aspects of science. But if we want to understand feeling, we had better understand all the things that are conjoined. We can tease them apart, we can factor them, we can centrifuge them but they remain a unitary phenomenon which exhibits many diverse characteristics at once.” [1]. Against Tomkins, I would argue that it is precisely this craft union tendency that needs to be preserved if we are to understand the work of emotions in modern Britain. And it is Williams’s concept of structures of feeling that still provides us with the most effective means of doing this.

Structures of feeling, according to Williams, do not simply denote discrete emotions – of the kind imagined by Tomkins and his followers. Rather they are “concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt”. As Williams makes clear: “We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint and tone: specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships, not feeling against thought: but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind in a living and interrelating community.” They are, Williams concludes: “social experiences in solution, as distinct from other social semantic formations which have been precipitated and are more evidently and more immediately available’ [2].

This is a somewhat gnomic definition yet it makes apparent Williams’s insistence that such structures are human creations brought about through the combined forces of cultural and industrial production. The mistake with emotions, as with any other phenomena, is to treat them as given. Their complexity is a product of their ongoing fabrication. They only become simple (or precipitated, to use Williams’s phrase) when this ongoing process is ignored. This is what contemporary affect theory does by moving the creation of emotions far back into prehistoric time. It is a sleight of hand that disguises the true basis of emotion in living history. As Williams wrote: “The strongest barrier to the recognition of human cultural activity is this immediate and regular conversion of experience into finished products.” Part of the work of structures of feeling is remind us that other histories, and other futures, are possible.

Although I am deeply impressed by Williams’s arguments, I agree that it is difficult on first reading to see how his theoretical position can serve as basis for work in the history of the emotions. Although one might see how Barbara Rosenwein, Stephen Brooke and William Reddy’s new conceptual vocabularies (‘emotives’, ‘affective ecologies’, ’emotional communities’) present historians with the tools to fashion new descriptions of the world, Williams’s method appears more opaque. Moreover it is difficult to see how it could answer James Vernon’s demand (as tweeted at MBS2015) that one needs to answer the question of how historians are ‘to assess when emotion, and what emotion, becomes politically operative.”

Perhaps the best answer to this question was provided in Charlotte Greenhalgh’s contribution to the conference session on the history of the emotions. Reflecting on her research on the history of old age, Greenhalgh urged historians to recognise the role of material, technical and bodily practice in creating and sustaining emotions. This turn of practice which echoes the position of recent critics of affect such as Margaret Wetherell and Clare Hemmings provides historians with a way of answering Williams’s and Vernon’s demands.

Instead of treating emotions as somehow pregiven we need to be see emotions as phenomena that are ways under construction. And what’s significant about the twentieth century is that the number of elements involved in this process of construction is vastly multiplied. Emotions are no longer materialised only in facial expressions, verbal declarations and literary confessions. They are made manifest through a whole host of signs: sickness returns, industrial productivity, divorce rates, cortisol levels, crockery breakages, sexual performance etc. And with the expansion of this range of potential signifiers, emotions have become more closely bound into the political and economic landscape.

In Britain, the most obvious example of this appears in the ‘happiness agenda’, championed by Richard Layard and colleagues at LSE and taken up by Cameron and Blair but it can also be seen in the ways that attempts to govern emotion have been incorporated into management strategies and the administration of welfare or the ways that the languages of stress and emotional suffering have been mobilised to question working practices or calculate the costs of abuse.

This traffic between the living structures of feeling that Williams identified and the dead categories fielded in contemporary political debates is dependent upon a vast range of practices, theories and technologies but historians need to get to grips with these processes if we are to understand the foundations of the contemporary political landscape. If we ‘Follow the feels’ to borrow a phrase from Lucy Robinson’s excellent response to MBS2015, then we need to recognise the labour that has gone into to constructing these trails.

[1] S. Tomkins, Exploring the Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins ed. Virginia Demos (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), p. 285.

[2] R. Williams, Marxism and Literature, (Oxford: OUP, 1977), pp. 128-35.

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