Not sure if you saw Who Do You Think You Are? with Olivia Coleman on Monday. My friend Geordie told me he would be in it (the guy with the excellent 1980s jumper) and I heard there was an East India Company connection. And of course, we all love Coleman.
It seems her emotional response to the stories of her ancestors hit a nerve with the nation, according to some of the (hmm right wing) press. Now that I'm nearly two years into my PhD I look at these things in a different way. It IS interesting that Olivia cried so much (on TV) when she read about children being separated from their mothers, and about the affection between grandmothers and grandchildren. It's IS interesting that people responded so warmly to her open emotional response. Having been edited out of a TV documentary (grr) myself nine years ago, it IS interesting that they kept so many tears in the final edit. People want to consume this sort of TV: tears are ok, personal and emotional responses to history is good telly. Whilst the (many) sins of British Imperialism weren't entirely swept under the carpet, we were more concerned about the lives and tears of the white guys.
So much emotion! There are a couple of aspects to this that make it relevant to my research project. Firstly, a key part of my research is about Scottish sons of the nineteenth century who went to India, one of whom sent his children back to Scotland. They were brought up by their Scottish grandparents their father died and their Indian-born mother never saw them again. The second key part of my research is that emotional responses are historical; Coleman's response was of our times, and says something about them. Eighteenth century responses were of their time too. Emotions, even maternal love for example, aren't universally naturally essentially the same wherever you are, whether expressed or repressed. They depend. They depend on the cultural social moment as well as the stuff that happens.
The kind of things I am looking at are based on the idea that our feelings such as happiness, joy, sorrow, emotional pain and so on, are not universal. They are actually different in different cultures and over different times. Our brains are what neuroscientists call 'plastic' (not in the fake way) but in the French sculptor way (plastic arts=sculpture to you or I). They are mouldable, flexible and learn things. They learn how to feel, rather than being born this way. Let's say the network capacity is there but it's the stuff of life, the folk around us that, in a back-and-forth kind of way, that makes us learn how to be scared of things, love things and feel it when our dog's under the weather. Our brain changes and we feel things differently, and how our brain has been moulded creates a unique-to-that brain flavour of feeling in response to events. Anthropologists have shown us that feelings are differently experienced and named across cultures and historians have shown us that feelings are differently experienced and named across time. Obviously, types of feelings amass in similarity within cultural and temporal groups, and obviously, the individual is still individual and will configure emotions in their own way. But, for Olivia to cry on TV about her ancestors, is also something to do with her gender, her status, and very much related to the fact that we think is ok or even quite touching. It hasn't always been this way and it's not just repression.
The theory, and I won't go in too heavy here, is that historical change is quite a lot to do with a change in emotional culture, for want of a better term. So, big things happen (how about a huge financial crash for starters?!) and this makes a lot of individuals have an emotional response. Enough people have this kind of response and then this generates different social pressure, and ultimately political response. It doesn't have to just be about big things. A bit more brain re-wiring takes place too (at which speed is very much under discussion). Historians are looking at this as a key nexus of change. Trump freaks us all out; his emotional culture is gawd-awful. I'm writing as though you, readers, are liberal, and polite etc. We've got a certain type of liberal educated emotional culture that is quite clearly outraged by Trump (and potentially a little holier-than-though it must be said). But, for those that voted for him, there is something they can relate to, something they've seen on TV a lot, something that is more familiar to them than the polished-seeming and thoughtful Obama. It's not just about race, though race and emotion are also an important area of research too.
Look on Twitter; watch the news, notice your friends, family and colleagues talking; look at what you argue about with your partner. It is fascinating to see how much of that contested space is about how people should react to events. What's a bad, inappropriate response? What's an endearing response? It's extraordinary how much of that appears to be a negotiation about the right feelings to have. We have an idea about the right level of anger. We are outraged about indifference, or outraged about outrage. Of course, other religions and other cultures have different versions of what's normal and what's ok in terms of feelings. Plus, these things are in flux. What people say is British culture is pretty much constantly in a state of re-negotiation. Whatever Trump says, that re-negotiation seems to be a given, and our emotions are being ever-so-slightly reworked through these societal, environmental, economic changes.
I don't exactly (yet) know the hard-historical event-changing reason why Olivia Coleman's tears are important or interesting. It's an example of gendered, public display of emotion that has quite a lot of cultural currency in these times. A rather cultured form of reality TV. The Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph thought it was lovely (even her 'genteel' shock at driving through Calcutta). They are telling a certain class of folk that this is normal and good (for Olivia Coleman as a certain type of woman) to cry in public like this. Rather like the clothes we wear, the emotions we feel and express are part of how we define ourselves as men or women. They aren't set in stone but they seem to do quite a lot in the wider world when you add them all up.
Some more reading if you are interested:
Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia (2015) OUP
Rob Boddice, The History of Emotions (2018) Manchester University Press
Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (2017) Macmillan