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The Fear of Emotio


CCC Research Master Project, HEAD – Geneva School of Art and Design, 2015-2018


Nature versus Culture, Emotio versus Ratio

Before the 17th century ‘nature’ was understood as mutable, something that could be modeled and a subject of allegory. With the entry of the Enlightenment the terminology ‘nature’ became known and used as ‘state of nature’, the period before a society existed and was defined as ‘primitive’ . The canonization of reason and therefor culture dominated the Enlightenment and demanded the sacrifice of strict separation of reason and emotion, culture and nature. Consequently emotion was defined as unreason as well as ‘primitive’.


The Modern Man and the Retreat from Emotio to Ratio

According to Norbert Elias’s (1897–1990) research of European modernity, which involves an ultimately linear process of increasing control of affect, emotions that medieval men and women could freely express became in the transition to modernity, overlaid with taboos, emphasizing their conjunction to shame, guilt and disgust , promoted by Christianity .These taboos were internalized by modern society, external compulsion became self-compulsion, and at worst was leading to ‘compulsive actions and other symptoms of disturbance’ often in form of unintelligible emotional outbursts. The retreat from emotio to ratio was linked to the unsettling sense that there was an ‘emotional life within us which is always ready to inundate intellectual life and to carry out sudden reversal of that evolution that Modern Man was so proud of from emotion to thought, from emotional language to articulated language. Through his metaphor, the ‘affect-economy’, Elias implied that a feeling that disappeared from one place had to reappear in another. What would that mean for the feelings that are being controlled and suppressed by the Modern Man to be part of the culture of the Modern Society?


The revival of so called ‘primitive’ emotions and the seductive emotional potential of Fascism

Lucien Febvre (1875–1956) believed that the linear historical narrative of ‘the gradual suppression of emotional activity trough intellectual activity was being undermined by ‘most recent history’ and the ‘revived primitive feelings’. The threat of European Fascism and seductive emotional potential of National Socialism prompted Febvre’s suggestion to study ‘the history of hate, the history of fear and the history of cruelty’ .Especially as he observed, that ‘emotions are contagious’ , an observation shared by his contemporary, the Sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918). Simmel had no doubt that emotions such as trust, honour, and loyalty–but also enmity, envy, jealousy, anger, hatred, contempt, and cruelty–not only divided individuals and groups but also brought them together; and that this way emotions promote the formation of social groups. Those social groups were the perfect incubator of raising emotions that for the individual being were perceived as ‘primitive’, but grew acceptability in its expressed multiplicity. Which eventually had a huge part in the rise of fascism in Europe in the beginning of the 20st century.

What can be the consequences when suppressed so-called ‘primitive’ feelings are being released as part of a larger social formation nowadays? How to control them? Can they be controlled? Who controls them?


The Vicious Circle of supressing Emotions

To understand the logic and reason behind emotions is one of the keys to understand human behaviour. Recent socio-neuroscientific studies show that emotional suppression releases stress hormones in the human body, which inhibits reasonable thinking, and by that can distort and damage surrounding relationships, environment and consequently activates the cardiovascular system inside the human in a way that produces long-term chronic illness, which reciprocally releases more stress hormones again.


BPD, Emotional Personality Disorder

Emotional personality disorder (BPD) follows the same vicious circle. It’s patients feel emotions enhanced, more easily, much deeper and longer. Hence BPD patients point out the differences between the various emotional states more exaggerated and therefor clearly. Their appraisal system is heightened compared to the (western) human standard, therefor emotions for them are more difficult to control and qualify. Consequently, following an expected behaviour of not to seem too emotional, BPD patients often supress their emotions to better fit in with their surrounding, eventually resulting in the opposite outcome, which produces more stress hormones and therefor more emotions again.


The Perspective of BPD as Methodology

As a person with BPD experiencing and researching this condition simultaneously, what can I learn about the fear of Emotio? And how could understanding this fear from my personal perspective¬–not being able to follow behavioural standards based on my emotional perception–have a socio-political relevance? How are the notion of emotional control and its entanglement with the development of technology since the enlightenment, industrialization and the rise of capitalism connected? How is the concretization of the knowledge and vocabulary of mental illness related to this shift and the resulting change in family politics and structures? What can I learn about this progression and it’s current effects trough my perspective of emotional personality disease? And what if this intensified perceived emotions can foster a more sensitive understanding of the changes we go trough right now, in the beginning of the 21st century?


This entry is informed by the reading of:

Jan Plamper, ‘The History of Emotions’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015

Tania Singer, Matthias Bolz, ‘Compassion. Bridging Practice and Science’, Max Planck Society, Munich, 2013

Marsha Linehan, ‘Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder’, Guilford Press, New York, 1993