The Historian of Emotions as a Subject of Enquiry

by Javier Sadarangani

May 19, 2021

The emotional impact of the coronavirus pandemic is unquestionable. Along with the feeling of uncertainty produced by the relative novelty of living through a pandemic, there are the feelings inspired by measures that have been set up around the world to deal with it. Regulations promoting relative: isolation, as well as the restriction of public freedoms, have produced anxieties, frustrations, vulnerability, fears, sadness and a series of emotional constellations that are simultaneously difficult to manage. Even more so, the problem does not only encompass the amount of those emotions experienced, but also their sheer intensity and seemingly permanent state, having lingered now for more than a year. Nowadays, national and international organizations are increasingly concerned about the mental health of the world's population.

As we know, this impact is general, and although it affects all social actors in different ways, common to all is mental exhaustion, stress and constant concern about how to preserve that once "normality" in this exceptional context. Certainly, academic work is one of many arenas that has been altered under the pandemic state, and reflecting on it, invites us - being historians of emotions -, to think over some questions that I would like to expose in this occasion.

Unless one is a part of research centers or study groups, academic work is often done in solitude. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists and other social scientists who are engaged in academic work go to libraries and/or archives, write down the results of their research and publish them, a frequent practice in which few people are involved on a daily basis. The pandemic outbreak has also generated some difficulties for research work: closed libraries and archives, the digitization of academic spaces, and above all: even more loneliness. The day-to-day life of the researcher has become even more self-referential. The main forms of academic interaction (colloquia, classes, seminars, among others) have been reduced to a computer tab, and are dependent on a good internet connection (which always, inevitable, collapses). Amidst these troubles, academics also have to deal with the demands of other daily tasks such as parenthood.

We researchers are people who want to be heard, because we spend a lot of time thinking and researching in order to show what we work on. And now that possibility of being heard is becoming even harder. This withdrawal of the body further increases anxieties and frustrations, and social isolation feels even stronger. At the same time it shows how important socialization is for a work that is often practiced without terribly much of it. Direct, bodily contact with our peers has thus proven to be more important than we thought.

During these times, it has been interesting to think about how to deal emotionally with these conditions. As I look at my shelf, most of my books have the word "emotions" on the cover, but none of them help me to have better tools to face my own emotions in this situation. They do invite me to think about the "circularity" of this phenomenon. In other words, that what I name my "object of study" (i.e. emotions), is actually something that also happens to me, and in a very particular way nowadays. So, we wonder how much, and how do the emotions of the researcher influence the moment they are researching? What happens when, at the same time, emotions are the topics we study? Is it important to think about the emotional states of the observer when studying emotions? Is it important to find states of relative emotional tranquility at the moment of reflection? And ultimately: to think about the bond between the observer and what they are studying? These are questions that emerge when we are reminded that the observer affects what they are study, and that there is no such distance between the observer and what they want to understand…

Generally, the academic world is a space of few emotional expressions, and more of exposure, confrontation and idea production, even when these ideas are about emotions. It is difficult for us to think of the possibility of a person having an emotional outburst while teaching, or while presenting the results of their latest research at an international seminar. The fact remains that knowledge production is a practice that has come to be associated with solemnity, elegance and a lot of self-observation about how we do what we do; a practice of very well-established rituals and behaviors, which in turn demands high degrees of emotional repression.

On the contrary, the question of "how we feel" becomes fundamental in this context, even more so in an academic field whose forms of knowledge productions are still rooted in the nineteenth century. But it also becomes even more fundamental when what we investigate are emotions, since the emotional state of the observer becomes part of the research process itself, as an "emotional practice" (Monique Scheer). It becomes one more context to consider when analyzing the production of texts and books.

It is inconceivable not to consider the political and social background in which Georg Simmel found himself while publishing his articles, just as with Simone de Beauvoir, Theodor Adorno and so many others. Knowing how they felt while they were writing, would undoubtedly contribute to a better understanding of their works. Although this is something we can no longer know, we do have this possibility today, to try to understand why we decide to write -in this case- about emotions (beyond the fact that this question is answered with academic arguments).

In this sense, the practical difficulties in carrying out academic labor and the appearance of intense emotions in a pandemic context, become catalysts to put the academic work in question, as well as those of us who work in it, especially when we make emotions our main focus.

Go to Editor View