Affective Science and Emotion Studies

By: Donald Wehrs, Auburn University

Contemporary affective science and emotion studies provide crucial context and orientation for literary universals research. They do so, however, against the background of fuzzy and contested notions within the humanities of what “affect” and “emotion” denote and how each bears on the other. Reflecting the philosophical legacy of mind/body dualism, “affect,” associated with physiology, predominated in natural scientific discourse, as did “emotion,” affiliated with subjectivity, in the social sciences and humanities. As late twentieth, early twenty-first century science came increasingly to highlight the interpenetration of the material and the mental, the interfusion of what had previously been disciplinarily segregated (psychologies of cognition, emotion, morality, and perception), both terms, however, came to be used, when not interchangeably, at least in ways suggestive of mutual entwinement. The humanities, by contrast, were subject to several intellectual legacies that implicitly reinforced residual dualism, and did so in ways that undermined the legitimacy of any notion of universals, and so of literary ones.

Behaviorism taught that emotions reflected conditioning whose manipulation could produce a desired sort of human and Marxism that subjectivity reflected material conditions and so could be radically reconfigured by altering those conditions. These seemingly antithetical discourses both maintained that human “material” was so malleable that talk of universals could only be sentimental or politically retrograde. Although Neo-Kantian developmental psychology (Piaget, Kohlberg) posited the universality of cognitive stages, it viewed transformation of abstract thought as the basis and guide of emotional maturation. Freudian psychology similarly formulated a universalism by viewing both affect and emotion as effects of biological drive (the pleasure principle), but also suggested that mental action (recognition, acceptance) may give emotional life such non-delusive, non-phantasy-based direction as it can have. Poststructuralist theory inherited from these and other sources the general notion that one’s emotions reflect a way of thinking, and that ways of thinking are culturally variable and so subject to radical reshaping. Its epistemological critique of all universals implicitly separated bodily affect, often associated with meta-psychological drives for desire, power, or liberation, from idea-engendered, idea-implicated, linguistically mediated emotions. Construing the separation of “affect” and “emotion” along these lines became foundational for the poststructuralist Affect Theory (frequently capitalized) that was initiated in the mid-1990s by Brian Massumi and since developed by Patricia Clough, Lauren Berlant, Sara Ahmed, among others. For such theory, affectivity’s bodily immediacy transcends and unravels linguistically inscribed distinctions. In doing so, it constitutes an avenue for liberation from the coercive conceptualities into which all talk of universals is, on this account, necessarily complicit and co-opted (Massumi).

By contrast, there also developed around the same time, the mid-1990s, some interest within the humanities about contemporary trends in natural and social science, which were moving in an opposite direction. This interest stimulated pioneering efforts to probe how work originating outside the humanities might fruitfully inform literary criticism, moral philosophy, and aesthetics. Particularly striking was research whose findings seemed to demand theoretical frameworks capable of separating the notion of universals from dependence on metaphysical thinking and thus complicity with essentialism. Notably, rethinking relations between affect and emotion proved crucial to pulling universals down from the realm of Platonic idealism and placing them firmly in the world of embodied, material, historical life and experience, thereby offering alternatives to programmatic poststructuralist binaries (relativism or essentialism, co-option or anomie, totalization or deconstruction) that seemed, to some at least, to unduly limit and predetermine what theory and analysis in the humanities could say and acknowledge.

Beginning in the 1960s, in a series of then little-read writings, Sylvan Tomkins, desirous of contesting both Behaviorism and Freudian meta-psychology, argued that affects, rather than being products of drive, functioned separately. He maintained that there were nine pairs of primary affects, which might be experienced in greater or lesser degrees of intensity, but nonetheless were innate to all humans (111-12). Though he distinguished between “basic” affects and more culturally variable “complex” ones, he insisted that for people everywhere the face was affect’s “primary seat” (205). To test Tomkins’ claims, his one-time student Paul Ekman presented depictions of a range of facial expressions to people from diverse cultures and asked what emotions they attributed to the represented faces (“Universals and Cultural Differences in Facial Expressions of Emotion,” The Faces of Man, Emotions Revealed). The results indicated a degree of cross-cultural convergence sufficient to challenge notions that cultures can impose, through language or otherwise, upon “blank slate” minds whatever sort of subjectivity desire or guile might design. Though subsequent research suggests that interplay between species-wide (universal) constraints, strongly recurrent but not invariable patterns, and what is culturally particular may take diverse forms, findings in comparative linguistics and categorization studies support the general thrust of Ekman’s work (Rosch and Lloyd, Berlin, Gumperz and Levinson).

Indeed, since the 1970s an enormous body of scholarship in diverse disciplines has presented compelling evidence that species-wide cognitive processes and affective tendencies are so rooted in the embodiment peculiar to humans, itself the product of a complex and distinctive evolutionary history, that while heterogeneous cultures certainly engage and weigh upon such processes and tendencies, they cannot simply deactivate them. Remarkable recurrences of similar patterns among geographically and chronologically separated peoples in the archeological, anthropological, and historical record attest to the actuality and importance of non-essentialist universals (see, for example, Trigger, Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, Bellah 2011, Flannery and Marcus). Comparative studies are supported by groundbreaking research on infant-caregiver interactions, which collectively stress how intensely embedded sociality is in the emotional lives of small children, and how much imitative responsiveness to facial expressions, body language, and nonverbal sound patterns (tone, rhythm, etc.) underlies communicating affect and sustaining shared intentional worlds (Meltzoff and Moore, Gopnik and Meltzoff, Dissanayake, Bloom, Descartes’ Baby, Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, 69-84, 192-204, Sterelny).

Such work builds on a linking of the psychology of perception to evolutionary biology pioneered in the 1970s by James J. Gibson, who argued that vision is oriented toward discerning within environments such features as constitute “affordances” for physical and social human flourishing—potential rock shelters and forage-rich riverine valleys, for example (Gibson). By presenting attention, significance-attribution, emotional valence, and intentionality as necessarily bound up with one another, Gibson provided an analytical framework consistent with Magda Arnold’s argument, later influentially developed by Keith Oatley, that appraisal of circumstances in relation to aims elicits emotion (Arnold, Oatley, Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts). Along similar lines, Humberto R. Manturana and Francisco G. Varela, noting how organisms’ pursuit of survival and flourishing prompts them to adjust to shifting environments, argued that processes of creative “self-making” or “autopoesis” are integral to biological—and by extension cultural—evolution. Concurrent empirical research in comparative social psychology sought to refine Tomkins’ enumeration of basic affects or core emotions, and their relation to complex, mixed affects or social emotions. This research often suggested that powerful mutually reinforcing feedback loops lay behind significant correlations of certain kinds of culture and conceptualization with intensifications and/or combinations of certain kinds of emotions (Rozin et al., “The Cultural Evolution of Disgust,” Rozin et al., “The CAD Triad Hypothesis,” Graham et al., Haidt).

Growing appreciation that evolved attributes of human embodiment impress constraints and patterns upon cognition, emotion, and evaluation, as well as focus attention on affordances and prompt autopoetic activity, came, in time, to stimulate a rethinking of the value of a concept of universals (in the natural and social science sense) in relation to traditional subjects of humanities research. Crucial to this effort was the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Their 1980 study of the reliance of metaphors upon logic drawn from human bodily and social experience, and of metaphorical thinking’s embedding in both everyday and conceptual language, was followed in 1987 by Johnson’s analysis of embodiment’s influence on abstract and imaginative thought and Lakoff’s account of categorization, which argued human bodily scale and needs generated systems of organization and demarcation that appeared “fuzzy” or irrational, but actually were regulated by reference to prototypes of exemplary or typical instances, and did so in ways that gave rise to universal cognitive patterns (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Johnson, Lakoff). The bringing together of theorizing of the embodied mind with affective science, and evolutionary research was further advanced by the appearance in 1991 of Varela, Thompson, and Rosch’s account of embodied cognition in terms of autopoetic biological evolution and of Merlin Donald’s groundbreaking argument that bio-cultural evolution was the precondition for, rather than the consequence of, distinctively human cognition and affectivity (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind). Directly challenging poststructuralist epistemological assumptions, Lakoff and Johnson in 1999 argued that bodily experience, by shaping what humans can visualize as possible or desirable, both gives rise to and limits what they are apt to take as coherent, plausible, appealing, and good (Philosophy in the Flesh). Valuing symmetry and balance, for example, are not arbitrary, but reflect the bearing of bodily experience (the unpleasantness and threat to wellbeing of persistent dizziness) upon language and conceptuality (as in the association of being “upright” with moral health shared by vastly divergent cultures). In addition, interactions within and between groups, as well as negotiations with similar environment, may prompt convergent development in different places and times—as much scholarship on sociality’s evolutionary agency and human prehistory notes (Dunbar, Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Thinking, Why We Cooperate, Mithen, After the Ice). It follows that the recurrence among people and societies geographically, culturally unrelated of patterns similar and persistent enough to be viewed as universal ought not be unexpected, and that identification of such patterns need not deny cultural variability or historical change. Such identification could rather enable exploration of variability’s significance and the motivations, stakes, and consequences of particular changes.

Indeed, the idea that cognition and emotion could operate independently of one another, so that either might “determine” the other and thus impose its own (fictive) universals unilaterally, received something of a deathblow in 1994 with the publication of Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error. Beginning with an account of Phineas Gage, a nineteenth-century railroad worker who lost part of his brain in an accident, and continuing with case studies of patients who were victims of strokes and other neurological disorders, Damasio documents compellingly how brain damage that dampens emotions also impairs practical reasoning. He hypothesizes that the mental images through which we deliberate are “somatically marked,” that is, give rise spontaneously to bodily-articulated emotions, thereby eliciting in advance the feelings that experiencing those emotions would induce. We are thus affected, bodily, before we engage in self-conscious, formal deliberation, in ways that push us toward or away from certain choices (127-222). Noting William James’ late nineteenth-century theory that bodily affective responses underlie emotions, Damasio presents cognition, emotion, reasoning, and evaluation as inextricably woven together, as engaging in forms of mental processing putting in reciprocal mutual modification evolutionarily earlier and evolutionarily later anatomical-neurophysiological structures and systems. Work along similar lines quickly followed (LeDoux, Griffiths, Panksepp), and in a 1999 study of consciousness (The Feeling of What Happens) and a 2003 tracing of emotions’ origins back to single-celled organisms’ adjustments to maintain homeostasis (Looking for Spinoza), Damasio built a case for cognitive-affective co-evolution broadly convergent with Donald’s 2001 elaboration of his 1991 bio-cultural account of sociality’s role in enabling cognitive evolution (Donald, A Mind so Rare).

Damasio’s work signaled a transformative convergence of affective neuroscience with empirical social science, the consequences of which for the humanities were dramatically underscored by the discovery, in the mid-1990s, that primates’ brains exhibited attributes described as “neural mirroring.” In observing another’s action, or simply in anticipating or imagining such action, neural activity “mirroring” what would be involved in performing or undergoing the action is apparently activated. As a result, it was argued, cognitive registering of what another is doing or undergoing and affective resonance with the bodily sensations involved in that action or experience cannot but be spontaneously, involuntarily melded (Gallese et al.). As evidence suggestive of the intensity and breadth of human neural mirroring accumulated, in contrast to the limited mirroring discernible in monkeys and great apes, it appeared increasingly likely that radically enhanced neural mirroring both prompted and resulted from the bio-culturally mediated, deeply nuanced affective sociality distinctive to humans. Empathy, attachment, and the ability to understand other minds’ difference from our own seemed to be intricately implicated in a bio-culturally engendered mirroring affectivity interfusing cognition and emotion, leaving self/other boundaries strikingly permeable without being annulled or stripped of emotional weight (Gallese and Goldman, Iacobini, Rizzolatti and Singaglia). Notably, research arguing that human neural mirroring occurs in response to mimed actions and to actions merely suggesting an intention (Bucciano et al., Maeda et al., Catmur et al., van der Gang et al.) is broadly consistent with Donald’s claim that nonverbal mimetic culture developed and refined cognitive-emotional fellowship long before the advent of symbolic language. While neural mirroring’s scope and permutations has been debated, with a parsimonious view urged by some (Hickok, Pinker), a rare opportunity to implant wires in the brains of human subjects during an epilepsy investigation led to identifying eleven individual neurons that discharge during both the observation and execution of an action (Keysers and Gazzola). These results strongly support human neural mirroring’s actuality, though they do not establish its extent or the range of its agency).

As I have argued elsewhere, our ability to enter effortlessly into others’ bodily experiences and intentional worlds without losing sight of our own generates an affective dissonance, a contrariety of emotions, that cultural discourse repeatedly addresses and whose exploration in incisive and innovative ways characterizes many of the most enduring works of literature (Wehrs, “Introduction: Affects and Texts,” “Narrative and Affect in Epic, Romance, and the Novel,” “Affective Dissonances and Literary Mediation,” “Placing Human Constants Within Literary History”). Put most simply, one is conscious simultaneously of elicited egoistic desires and appropriative impulses, on the one hand, and, on the other, of being moved by the felt authority of, and one’s own affective commitment to, values or perspectives that would curb or override such desires and impulses. Thus, Jane Austen’s describes the conflict in Elizabeth’s emotions at the moment she realizes her sister Lydia’s conduct has almost certainly ruined her chances of happiness with Darcy in a way at once readily comprehensible and enduringly interesting to readers: upon recognizing that “never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him,” “self, though it would intrude, could not engross her. Lydia—the humiliation, the misery, she was bringing on them all, soon swallowed up every private care . . .” (Pride and Prejudice 190).

“Self,” self-interested and self-centered affectivity, is felt to be an exterior force that nonetheless presses itself within: it “intrudes.” But though it impinges itself upon one, it does not take control of, occupy, or master one. It “could not engross” because its totalizing thrust is blunted by the interior resistance of something—which Austen variously calls “sense,” “right thinking,” and “proper feeling”—that will not be encompassed by it or reduced to it. Notably, the force of this resistance is not experienced as an abstract or disembodied need to obey rules or conform to a code. Instead, it is no less visceral, immediate, and inexorable. “Every private care” is “swallowed up,” swallowing being as bodily basic, and as confronting of exterior/interior boundaries, an action as can be felt by consciousness. In terms of literary history, Austen distinguishes Elizabeth from the implausibly and ideologically dubious self-effacing heroines of contemporary courtship novels, on the one hand (see Waldron), and from reductive psychologies, whether rooted in notions of conservative religion or secular materialism, that would trace all motivation and affectivity back to desire for one’s own personal happiness.

Of course, Austen understands that not everyone experiences such affective contrarieties, and that their experience is intermittent and of varying intensity for all of us (otherwise its recurrences would not fix our attention or prompt our reflection). Her characters Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine, Wickham, and Lydia have no problem being continually engrossed by self, but such an emotional-cognitive life is for Austen not “proper” in a dual sense: it is neither ethical nor fitting for humans. The very ability of readers to recognize what Austen is describing in relation to Elizabeth, to follow in imagination the sense of her prose, brings home what is blameworthy and self-impoverishing in characters such as Collins and Lydia, and in real people who resemble them. Moreover, readers’ simulations of Elizabeth’s affective contrarieties bring their dynamics and implications into the forefront of consciousness even as their vicariously enactment in reading makes habitual receptivity to entwinements of thought and feelings which both deepen self-understanding and are permanently transformative.

Interior tension between egocentric and non-egocentric valuation and emotion-processing, born of entering into the inner affective-cognitive life of others while not losing a sense of the separateness of our own, may well reflect an evolutionary past in which imagining, anticipating, and identifying with communally shared emotions and neutral third-person perspectives acquired natural selection advantage by helping curb freeloading, bullying, or otherwise uncooperative behavior likely to alienate one from the group upon whose regard one’s wellbeing and survival depended (Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Morality). Indeed, consciousness of such contrariety, of its continual recurrence and intractability and thus desire to transcend or ameliorate it, may be foundational to the motivation for art. The absence of pre-homo sapiens cave paintings and other evidence of symbolic culture (Mithen, After the Ice, 242-43), however, suggests that art’s possibility also required a capacity to channel mimetic impulses into simulations that by recombining experiences of and material from heterogeneous domains (connecting images of horses with cave walls, blending attributes of lions and men, for example) projected imagined worlds in which affective dissonance could be assuaged, explained, or made the subject of depiction and reflection. Certainly one may argue that the inherence of such contrarieties in human embodiment is reflected in the variety and history of literary universals.

If emotion is understood as a means by which organisms with complex brains are prompted to act in ways likely to enhance survival, it follows that what is associated with “biological value” for us is naturally viewed by us to be in itself good (Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, 31-60). Positive emotion may be elicited by direct neurotransmitter “rewards” (Farari and Delgado) or indirectly from favorable appraisals of circumstances in relation to aims (Arnold, Oatley). To the extent that kin and in-group wellbeing is experienced as being inseparable from one’s own flourishing, selective sociality may follow from egocentric emotion processing (Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, 108-29, Rolls 172-99, Churchland 27-94). But involuntary affective resonance with another’s bodily experience will recurrently disrupt, and so be experienced on a phenomenological level as putting in question, egocentric and consequently ethnocentric measures of relevance and value (Singer, Singer et al., Klimecki and Singer).

If registering another’s physical pain is immediate, being neurologically direct (as Avenanti et al., “Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Highlights the Sensorimotor Side of Empathy for Pain,” “Stimulus Driven Modulation of Motor-Evoked Potentials During Observation of Others’ Pain” suggest), then involuntary somatic resonance is likely to be felt on a phenomenological level as imbued with attributes of force, authority, and priority. Empathy with another’s psychological or social feeling, however, involves significantly more indirect neurophysiological processes (Klimicki and Singer). Consequently, much recent work in affective neuroscience is at pains to emphasize that automatically mirroring “emotion-sharing” need not ensure “higher-order” (psychological or moral) empathy (Decety and Meltzoff 63). On the contrary, reduction of activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in perceiving others as fully human when subjects are in competitive or adversarial contexts suggests that in such circumstances pre-conscious mechanisms for selectively dampening empathy come into play (Klimecki and Singer 542-43, Zaki and Ochsner). Moreover, empathy in itself is no guarantee of ethical feeling or ethically rational thought and action (Bloom, Against Empathy). That said, neural mirroring appears normatively to correlate with stimulation of prefrontal cortical areas associated with mental state inference and social cognition (Rameson et al., Zaki and Oschner 29, Klimecki and Singer 539-40). If the latter is indeed the case, then neural mirroring would seem to facilitate a degree of direct, involuntary perception of aspects of another’s mental life (Goldman, Krueger), albeit, a perception of general sensations rather than of precise memories or ideas.

The general thrust of research in affective science and emotion studies over the past fifteen years provides enriched context for understanding the value of the concept of literary universals to literary theory and criticism. When Patrick Colm Hogan introduced the term in the mid-1990s, he argued that storytelling evocative of core emotions and affective ambivalences intrinsic to human embodiment give rise to prototypical plots that in turn established generic paradigms common to many different cultural traditions (“Beauty, Politics, and Cultural Otherness”). Following the example of categorization theory, Hogan noted that prototypes are not static, but create the opportunity for permutations, admixtures, and spinoffs responsive to different contexts and aims. Thus, “prototype effects” that function as cognitive-affective interventions, that engage core and complex emotions variously in different cultural, historical situations, play a central role in shaping literary history, the transformation of genres and modes, and even the development of individual authors’ work (Hogan, The Mind and Its Stories, Affective Narratology, How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, Beauty and Sublimity). At the same time, the universality of both prototypical plots and repertoires of prototype effects, which may be validated empirically by statistical analysis of the recurrence of particular features among narratives from different times and places, suggests how much literatures seemingly radically disconnected from one another actually speak to one anther by speaking to species-wide aspects of human cognition and emotional life.

Explorations of literary universals’ relation to cultural variety and historical change encourages appreciation of the complementarity of universality and particularity that is one of literature’s most striking features (Joyce wrote about turn-of-the-twentieth-century Dublin but nonetheless captured a worldwide readership because what he wrote seemed be speak directly to and illuminate their individual experiences, sensations, and intuitions). How literary universals engage affect and bring cognition and emotion into particular kinds of dialogue may be brought into even sharper focus through research addressing the interplay of enculturation and neural plasticity (Lende and Downey, Tucker and Luu) and the role of narrative and performance in shaping affective sociality during homo sapiens’ long bio-cultural prehistory (Boyd, Colombetti, McConachie, Dunbar). The turn to considerations of how texts, genres, and forms elicit affect and seek to influence the interplay between different forms and levels of emotion processing has come to mark much recent criticism (Plantinga, Vermeule, Armstrong, Faflak and Sha). The more such work undoes the remaining vestiges of cognition/emotion segregation, “blank slate” relativism, and abstraction of human subjectivity from affective sociality, the more the relevance and inescapability of literary universals for criticism and theory will become.

Future Research

Investigations of literary universals quite properly involve empirical, statistical calculations of certain patterns, tropes, and generic features, such as the prevalence in talking animals in folklore and of heroines who are donors of “wisdom” (often configured in terms of nuanced social cognition or appreciation of reciprocities among natural, social, and cosmic/divine realms). One may also see endemic affective dissonance motivating the articulation of certain kinds of literary universals. One may also explore how efforts to negotiate cognitive-affective tensions that can never fully be resolved in either individuals or societies shape the recurrence of genre patterns and genre history among culturally, geographically diverse peoples. Indeed, without ever using the term “literary universals,” the eminent scholar of oral literatures Harold Scheub has, in effect, done both in his 2012 book Trickster and Hero. There he identifies trickster figures, emblematic of exorbitant self-will and masters of a cunning at once disruptive, irresponsible, antisocial and yet creative, productive of new orders, and generative of human community, as a recurrent feature of the narrative traditions of cultures worldwide. He then argues that as the attributes of trickster figures gravitate toward those of heroes, characters who serve as bridges between an old order and a new one by making the world safe for sociable existence by clearing it of monsters, oral tales move toward epic—as in the Winnebago Hare cycle or Homer’s Odyssey.

One might further argue that the egoistic, devouring, and antisocially animalistic qualities of trickster figures become the basis for monsters such as the Minotaur or the demons (râksasas) of Sanskrit epic. In their monsters, different cultures imagine the possibility and effects of a competitive sociality entirely unrestrained by cooperative sociality or empathic affectivity. As there are trickster elements in heroes, their defeating monsters subdues or moderates self-aggrandizing, predatory aspects of themselves and thus of the world. Such narratives, prevalent worldwide, speak to affective-cognitive legacies of an arduous evolutionary prehistory. The appeal of trickster figures to audiences, and the way that their cunning is often presented as a necessary part of creation, speaks to the persistence in humans, and value for them, of modes of cognition and affectivity keyed to competitive sociality. But the unease such figures induce prompts narratives enquiry into whether and how the qualities they exemplify may yield or co-exist with cooperative, kindly forms of sociality. Contemporary novels describing the ethical and emotional anguish caused by the prospect of emigration from failing or deeply troubles nation-states, where personal flourishing appears to demand withdrawal from communities to whom identity and affects are bound, articulate generic features sufficiently widespread and recurrent to be called universal which ultimately are rooted in conundrums of emotional and affective life not unlike those which structure Mantis folktales among the San of southern Africa.



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