History and emotions

A few weeks ago I’ve attended a fascinating conference on emotions and architecture at the The Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Almost all the presentations were really, really good, very informative, well conveyed, nothing really to complain about. I particularly enjoyed Uno Grashoff‘s talk on squatting in the DDR, as he pointed out not only to the uncanny parallels (and contrasts) to the situation in the West, but also, possibly even more importantly, to the margins of freedom in the authoritarian state. It also reminded me of an observation I had some time ago (not being a scholar of the communist regimes) that the late socialist states, in fact, competed against the capitalist ones for their legitimacy in terms of who can provide more/better consumer goods, which seems a bit of a paradox if one thinks about the ideology. Carla Hoetink and Harm Kaal and equally inspiring talk on the architecture of the Dutch parliament and the values behind its design.

Having said that, I could not resist a question, why the organizers decided to label the conference as dealing with emotions and architecture. Admittedly, I did not attend all of the presentations, but these papers which I did listen to, would work just as well if we dropped the “emotion” part. As I said, I think the presentations were well prepared, there was a lot of insight in them, and I genuinely think architecture deserve much more attention from historians and humanities in general. My point is not to bash The Max Plank Institute, the organizers nor scholars presenting, but rather point of to the uncomfortable question: what do those fancy labels actually give us? Apart from funding, of course.

Neither would I discard the importance and relevance of emotions as a historical subject. Not at all, Lucien Febvre‘s works shows very clearly that there is a lot to gain from inquiring into the matter. My concern is rather, that there seem to be a temptation to insert whatever is “hip” at the given moment to all the possible subjects, also those which would do very well without such a package. This critique is not that different from that I wrote about the Digital Humanities. And indeed, to my mind it is the very same phenomenon, namely the urge to “reinvent” history as a discipline, the constant urge to keep it up-to-date. The problem is not new, in the past historians raised questions if, for instance, terms such as the “enlighten absolutism” were not just old wine in new bottles. And some of those discussions have been very fruitful, they have helped scholars to reflect on the validity of the concepts used. After all, history rests on the foundations of words. But there is, am afraid, a very unhelpful and indeed misleading pursuit of modernizing history at any price, with or without making any sense. It seems, that to a large degree it is due to the structural construction of the discipline and the way in which it is funded. However, it is more than just that. Arguably, it has also a lot to do with the contemporary fascination with a constant input, ever-changing content. The criticism of sensationalism in the mass media, the urge to report all the time has been too many to list, but I would assume that the mechanism is not that different (for the philosophical underpinning check Bauman). The very concept that history as a disciple does not change, only the interpretations do, seems to be so much at odds with the current society and its values, that there is a need to rebrand the scholarly enquiries every now and then, even if that has only limited sense. To rephrase Voltaire: if there was no emotional turn, one would have to invent it.