“Emotions take on an unprecedented place in history”

How to define emotions?

George Vigarello: This is a more complex question than it seems because the French language has taken time to qualify emotions. It’s in the XVand century that the idea emerged that the nuances of sensitivity are worth dwelling on, with the works of the Italian poet Marsile Ficino on melancholy or that of Christine de Pisan on fatigue. Starting from the body, from what it feels, the idea of ​​interiority was gradually put in place. It led to the major turning point constituted in the 19and by psychoanalysis, where Freud affirms the link between body and mind. The psychological part will imperceptibly emerge, then impose itself. The History of Emotions traces the deepening of intimacy and the human psyche over time.

A man of the sixteenthand century feel the same as today?

GV: Let’s say that the texts for a long time do not grasp what is of the order of emotion. The word itself appears only in the XVIand century. The verb “to be moved” was already used but in a physical sense, to evoke a displacement – in the XIVand century, one could read: “Saint-Louis was moved from one city to another” – or amorous transport. The phenomenon of consciousness of feeling was not explained. He was perhaps present but was not said.

Nobody was interested, then, in the inner life to the point of following its meanderings. The field of the interiority of the man of the XVIand century was much more limited than today. As proof, the evolution of tools and modes of expression of emotion. Thus, in the provincial courts of the Middle Ages, the gentleman had at his disposal a fairly simple music, a few texts, while the courtier of the royal court of the classical age benefited from the opera, from a much more sophisticated theater , literary projects galore, painting… It is a prodigious interior enrichment.

Was romanticism an important shift?

GV: In the 19thand century, the retreat of the religious has left a vacant place and allowed a spectacular deepening of the intimate. Westerners, for the first time, are beginning to think that perfection no longer comes from the divine but from nature, qualified as sublime. Because the individual is less confronted with something which is given to him from the outset and which overcomes him, the question which emerges is no longer of the order of morality but of the psychological: what am I in the middle of this nature ? What is my interior space? The relationship to the world questions you more intimately about what you are. What was compartmentalized is decompartmentalized.

Have we today entered a society of sensitive man?

GV: Emotions take on a completely new place in the story. The individual is now central. The turning point came during the First World War. In his novel The fear, Gabriel Chevallier denounces the condition of the soldiers of the war of 14-18, who no longer belong to themselves, crushed by fatigue and pain, and are condemned to obey. In previous war stories, where the suffering was just as terrible, the testimonies described self-sacrifice, without ever questioning obedience. During the Great War, the perspective changes and, for the first time, the man affirms: “I am obliged to obey and I cannot bear it. I exist as an autonomous individual who intends to conform to his own decision. »

Since then, the approach according to which domination and the emotions linked to it are unbearable has not ceased to gain ground, driven by three dynamics: the idea of ​​democracy, the economic transformations which have resulted in overvaluing advertising and consumption (both of which give you the feeling that your choices belong to you, whether political or economic) and the psychologization of behavior (which promotes the fact that your sensitivity is nuanced and extended, different from other sensitivities).

Today’s man considers himself justified in no longer supporting certain emotions. This is glaring in the field of sexual violence. That a victim is confronted with the absolute unacceptable is increasingly condemned collectively. We invent new terms, such as “harassment”, with ever more aspects that complicate it: sexual, moral, professional, school, etc., to designate pressures or intrusions exerted by the other and which have become unacceptable.

Which emotions are the most valued today?

GV: Those that affect childhood: a continent has emerged since the 18th centuryand century on what it feels and the affectivity it arouses. The child as a promise, as a reason for action, especially ecological. In this regard, the emotion that is very new is that which concerns the degradation of the environment, which is accompanied by the feeling of great helplessness.

The “charitable” emotion, the sensitivity to the suffering of the other also increases. This refers in particular to a rise in victimization: in a society where there is less of a feeling of being able to change the world, where society, since the collapse of the great ideologies of the twentiethand century, promises less promising tomorrows, the individual becomes more sensitive to the limits within which he finds himself enclosed, here and now – which also brings us back to the question of domination. Hence an assimilation to the suffering and suffering. At the same time, the feeling of self-fulfillment is valued. The “start-up nation” has taken over from the “self-made-men” in the pantheon of self-realization.

You say that emotion dominates. Yet the great traditional collective fervor, political or religious, is receding…

GV: The fervor has shifted. Not long ago, the Fêtes-Dieu gathered the whole village and the great political tribunes, with their megaphones, tried to reach an immense crowd. This is no longer the case: most of the time we receive the great speeches by interposed screens, within the home, and these adapt: ​​they are pronounced in a low voice, in a more intimate way.

At the same time, new places of fervor have appeared, on the periphery of public life. Not on the roundabouts of the “yellow vests”, where it was more a matter of a sum of individual demands, but in major sporting events, or demands in matters of morals, such as the “pride marches” by example, whose very name refers to a form of emotion.

Can a political project be devoid of affect?

GV: We can no longer imagine a political proposal that would not converge towards emotional sensitivity – with certain dangers, such as social networks that facilitate the passage of fury or hatred. The practice of power is also evolving in this direction. The powerful allow themselves more to manifest their affects. For example, a President of the Republic in office can now let his joy burst out during a football match, which was unthinkable in the past, where the exercise of power meant keeping emotions at bay.

Even if today the powerful still manifest a certain restraint, the most successful politician remains the one who is able to arouse emotion in the interlocutors. But there is always a danger in exacerbating the affects. We saw it for example with the Capitol riots, where Donald Trump pushed his supporters to the point of hatred. Overinvestment in the emotional field is a sign of major political irresponsibility of autocrats and populists. Emotion is certainly essential, but we cannot play on it.


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