The strange death of emotional authenticity

We learn how to experience and express emotions and every society in every age has its own style of doing so.

Emotional styles are easier to recognize in the distant past. There is even pleasure to be derived from it. Jane Austen’s characterization of the culture of sensibility among the lower reaches of the English landed gentry in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park still pulls in readers and viewers. 

The drama, of course, lies in detecting real feelings beneath a veil of sentiment. In real life, for women especially, much depended on being able to distinguish between truth and lies, realities from appearances.

For a counterpoint to Jane Austen, consider Dangerous Liaisons, a 1988 movie staring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. It is based on Les Liaisons dangereuses a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Lacios, first published in 1782, i.e., during the last years of the Ancien Régime.

Via a series of exchanged letters, it tells the story of the two rivals and ex-lovers, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. They seduce and humiliate others and then glory in their manipulative skills. Their favourite victims are the virtuous and innocent.

In the movie, Glenn Close, as Merteuil, spells it out. She paid attention to ‘whatever it was that people were trying to hide’. She became ‘a virtuoso of deceit’:

The movie, like the novel, runs the gamut of emotions, from jealousy and revenge to guilt and grief. Both of the main protagonists come to a sticky end. Valmont dies following a duel, but not before revealing the letters which destroy the reputation of Merteuil. She retreats to the countryside where she contracts smallpox and loses sight in one eye. It is a morality tale about the depravity of the Ancien Régime. And the moral is?

Pride and Prejudice and Dangerous Liaisons have one thing in common: For those who cannot distinguish between appearances and reality all liaisons are potentially dangerous.

And today? What is the emotional style of ‘modern’ society? How will it be depicted by writers and artists of the future?

This is an age of simulation. Whatever can be simulated is. This includes emotions. This includes emotional authenticity. We feign the emotions we sell at work (emotional labour) and we consume the simulated emotions we buy (emotional branding).

It is no longer a matter of being able to distinguish between faces and masks, reality and appearance, for simulation dissolves these very distinctions. In Western, capitalist societies, simulation is the new reality—and it’s not much of one.

The characters of Jane Austen and those in Dangerous Liaisons were acting, dissembling, pretending. Now face, now mask. They thrived or perished on their skill in deceiving and detecting deception in others.

But simulating is not pretending, it is not acting. It is something else entirely.

‘To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence’ (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 3).

To simulate an illness, for example, can produce some of its symptoms. Hamlet simulates madness. ‘If he’s this good at acting crazy, it’s because he is’ (Baudrillard, ibid. p. 4). In the same way, to simulate emotions can produce some of their symptoms. But that doesn’t make them real or authentic. Where feelings used to be there is just an inner emptiness.

Emotional authenticity is dead. We no longer deceive and are deceived. This simulated society deceives us all. To paraphrase Trotsky on the dialectic: ‘You may not be interested in simulation, but simulation is interested in you.’

What are you feeling, right now?

It’s usually difficult to say, because we’re simmering emotional cocktails capable of experiencing a range of feelings at the drop of a hat. We have to say or do something to get some idea of how we feel.

‘Emotives’, a concept developed by William M. Reddy, helps explain what’s going on. While working on the recent posts about President Hollande, Valerie Trierweiler and Julie Gayet, I reread his ‘Sentimentalism and Its Erasure: The Role of Emotions in the Era of the French Revolution’, Journal of Modern History; 72; (109-152).

Let me simplify his theory of emotives:

  1. Not all statements are descriptive or referential. There is another class of statements: performatives.
  2. ‘Performatives’ are statements people use to perform or accomplish something. These statements are neither true or false. Statements about a speaker’s emotions are performatives.
  3. Performatives are not descriptive because emotional claims cannot be independently verified. We never know for sure how the person really feels.
  4. To speak about how one feels is to make an implicit offer to negotiate; to establish a relationship, alter or end it.
  5. Performative emotional statements have a feedback effect on the speaker. One can say ‘I love you’ and only then realize that you don’t. Or one can say in a state of anger, ‘I could kill you’ and realize that you probably could.
  6. So it’s not just a matter of having an emotion and then giving voice to it. Giving voice to it changes it.

Often we don’t know what we really feel until we hear ourselves emote and witness the react in others. Like this:

Bodily maps of emotions

Lauri Nummenmaaa, Enrico Glereana, Riitta Harib, and Jari K. Hietanend. ‘Bodily maps of emotions.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. November 27, 2013.

Reports of this research recently appeared in popular news media. It is interesting enough to warrant comment here.

Emotions are often felt in the body, and somatosensory feedback has been proposed to trigger conscious emotional experiences. Here we reveal maps of bodily sensations associated with different emotions using a unique topographical self-report method. In five experiments, participants (n = 701) were shown two silhouettes of bodies alongside emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. They were asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus. Different emotions were consistently associated with statistically separable bodily sensation maps across experiments. These maps were concordant across West European and East Asian samples. Statistical classifiers distinguished emotion-specific activation maps accurately, confirming independence of topographies across emotions. We propose that emotions are represented in the somatosensory system as culturally universal categorical somatotopic maps. Perception of these emotion-triggered bodily changes may play a key role in generating consciously felt emotions.

Full text of the article is available here. Supporting information here.

Some comments

1. The colourful images attract our attention but note that are not the result of body scanning. They are a pictorial representation of the subjects’ reports of how their bodies felt. They are subjective reports.

2.  Subjective reports, of course, can be valuable. To discover how people feel there seems little alternative. But the images can easily leave the impression that they are the result of scans of somatic changes.

3. These findings complement the theoretical work of Antonio Damasio (which is examined in Unit 5 of this course), particularly his distinction between emotions as objective somatic states and feelings as awareness of those states.

4. This paper and its images remind us that emotions ‘live’ in the entire body, and not just the bit above the shoulders. They are somatic states, not just cognitions.

Finally, for our purposes, these maps are useful in getting us to think about how we experience emotions. The important questions: Do they resonate with your own experiences?

Maps of bodily emotions

‘The trick is not minding that it hurts’

So says T.E. Lawrence, played by the recently deceased Peter O’Toole, in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia. The ‘it’ in question is allowing a match to burn down to his fingers and not displaying any feeling of pain.

Or is it that Lawrence quite liked that it hurts? There are subtle hints in the movie that Lawrence was a closet homosexual with masochistic tendencies. (The movie is set at the time of the First World War.) There seems scant evidence to support this, but the slur had the effect of undermining the moral ground for Lawrence’s role as a guerrilla in the Arab Revolt while the movie cultivated the romance of the spectacle. The British prefer their revolts on the screen.

The match ‘trick’, however, can be interpreted another way: as a lesson in the nature of aversion (to pain) and craving (for pleasure). Let us call the typical response to the burning of a match to the fingers an aversion to pain. Let us imagine a craving for pleasure, e.g., for the touch or taste of someone or something.

Lawrence’s match trick suggests that what we avoid and crave are the sensations or feelings that objects elicit in us and not the objects themselves. [Do we love our beloved, or do we love the sensation our beloved elicits in us? It can take a lifetime to appreciate the distinction.] The burning match does not hurt Lawrence because he is aware of this distinction. The burning match does hurt his companions because they are not.

How does this work?

Sensations have both external and internal causes. Internal causes involve emotions. We’re not ‘only flesh and blood’. Fear of being hurt, in this case by a burning match, infiltrates the material experience and influences our experience of the sensation. Typically this fear causes us to resist the pain by tensioning and this makes matters worse.

All this matters because craving for pleasure and avoiding pain are the means by which secondary emotions are internalized. Avoiding the vicious circle of craving and aversion through arduous and prolonged emotional training is the raison d’être of Buddhism.

Lawrence (1888–1935) was a remarkable man—a scholar-warrior-monk.

Hurts so Good: Modern love

Do you love your beloved?

Or do you love the pleasant sensations she or he elicits in you?

In other words, do you love the person you desire, or do you love desire?

There is a difference.

If you practice “romantic” love the chances are that you love desire. We like those pleasant sensations and want to keep them for ourselves. Romantic love is possessive love. We want our beloved to be happy, but only if that happiness is contingent on ourselves.

Romantic love feels natural but it developed within modernity and from Christianity. The model of this passion? The passion of Christ. Religious passion and devotion to God became secularized and formed the basis of the relationship between man and woman.

Romantic love idealises the other and scripts the proper course of development of the relationship.

This love became a narrative by which men and women lived their lives. Hence the “romance” novel. As readers of romance, women diffused and feminised romantic love. It became a narrative by which subordinated women could entrap a likely provider. But few women would have made the mistake of believing in it. Many men do just that.


In Carmen, for example, that was Jose Navarro’s error—he believed in romantic love. On this basis, he attempted its corollary, to capture this love by controlling the life of his beloved, Carmen.

Carmen knew this was like trying to capture the wind and laughed at him. In a futile attempt to capture this love for himself, Jose killed Carmen. Men attempting to preserve their desire by controlling their partner, is all too common in romantic relationships.

Hurts so good.

Corporeal mime: how to touch people with feelings

Corporeal mime mutes the voice and articulates thoughts and feelings via the body and its gestures and movement.

It puts the brain back in its place. The body speaks through its actions. Today, so many words, so little meaning.

The above mime artist is ‘Baptiste’, a character based on Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846), a Bohemian-French actor and mime who performed at the Théâtre des Funambules.

Baptiste is played by Jean-Louis Barrault, who studied with the great mime artist Etienne Decroux, the founder of corporeal mime. The aim of corporeal mime, for Decroux is to ‘make the invisible visible’. This clip shows exactly how this is done.

Baptiste is a character in Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, (The Children of the Gods). The ‘Gods’, in the context, means the audience, the life and vitality of the streets.  The center of the action is the area around the Funambules theatre, also known as the Boulevard du Crime.

The action is set in Paris in 1828s, but the film was made in Paris between August, 1943 and January 1945, i.e., under Nazi occupation (the Nazi’s marched into Paris on June 14, 1940).

Many of the actors were members of the resistance. And the movie itself is an allegory of occupation and resistance.

Try being Baptiste for a day.