Affect vs. Emotion

When reading Trigg’s discussion of affect verses the other words like emotions or passions, I think a light bulb finally went off for me.  Throughout the semester, I have thought that I understood the difference between affect and emotion, however, Trigg’s essay revealed to me that I had not fully understood.  Affect has to do with the preconscious responses rather than the socially constructed responses.  When a heart races, tears burst out uncontrollably, or sweating begins, these are bodily responses rather than conscious decisions.  One of the most helpful aspects of today’s discussion was the reference to the experiment in which Japanese people initially reacted with disgust (an affective response), followed by changing to a straight face (a culturally determined response).  In terms of the medieval literature we are reading, the distinction between the words affect, passions, sentiments, emotions, and feelings is important for critical conversation.  In order for critics to build on each other’s works, the definitions must be clear.  Now that I have a better grasp on what affect means, I think I can more successfully understand the critical conversation.

Public Emotion

While I liked reading parts of Trigg’s essay because I felt that having read some works of the authors she mentions I was more a part of her argument, some of it was still quite dense and necessitated a second reading. What struck me was Trigg’s incorporation of social medias in a modern understanding of emotions “to this personally directed inquiry about my emotional state, it seemed the social networking site was tapping into current scholarly interest in emotions, feelings, and sensibilities” (Trigg 3). Perhaps incorporation is not the right word to describe Trigg’s mention of social media, yet it does apply to a show of emotions. It seems that emotions are considered more of an inner state in contemporary society, but that feelings are an outwardly accepted expression of emotions. The term “affect” is not often used in our day to day vernacular but “feelings” is. We have all heard people say “I feel like…” in reference to what they are thinking, not necessarily what they are feeling. In this manner, the term feeling has morphed to represent our thoughts on various subjects. Viewing feelings as thoughts in this way explains why it is a much more socially accepted construct than those of emotions.

Collective Emotion

In her introduction, Trigg’s emphasizes “collective” rather than individual or personalized emotion.  This reminded me of Rosenwein’s “emotional communities,” but felt broader, or more encompassing, I guess.  Trigg argues that “emotions and passions can be governed or manipulated” either “individually or collectively” and that there were/are “social, cultural, and political frameworks” in which people “experienced, performed, and narrated their emotions.”  We must rely on the representation of these emotions especially, of course, in texts.  She also ditches the “affect theory” in favor of History of emotion, which emphasizes social construction-ism.

I thought her arguments made sense, especially in light of the exemplum we have been reading.  These texts, though about individuals, would have been read in a sermon (or to a family in the case of CA61), so very much in a collective setting.  What I find so interesting, and what we have been exploring all semester, is how these texts evoked feelings in the reader or listener, that may be different from those experienced (or represented) by the characters within the text.  In the “Jealous Wife” and “Incestuous Daughter,” for example, listeners may have felt repulsed by the characters actions at first because murder, suicide, and incest are behaviors that are culturally not approved of.  By the end, however, the poems may have been comforting to readers because God’s mercy saves even the worst sinners at the last moment.  The readings from Tuesday, however, might have be unsettling to readers who perhaps, like “sinner” and the “squire,” had not yet sought God’s mercy.  The purpose of the four is the same though and through their emotional evocation they confirm a religious belief.

A Review of Sorts

I guess due to my inattentiveness, (which is due to my lack of shut eye recently) when I read the title of Trigg’s article it didn’t occur to me that this was exactly what it says it is: an introduction. Due to this, when I was reading, the thought kept occurring to me that this all sounded pretty familiar, with a few new concepts introduced. After a while it hit me that this is the first chapter to the journal several of our other scholarly articles have come from this semester. I’m going to continue to view that mishap as the product of delirium, not incompetence.

While the content of this article was not entirely new, there were some things I drew from it and enjoyed. First off, I liked how Trigg connected our fascination with emotion and feeling with Facebook. I’ve heard many joke about the concept that if something doesn’t receive any likes on social media, did it really happen or does it really matter? Though this concept obviously doesn’t hold any weight, it does say something about our emotions and how and why we portray them to others. This is what I feel a lot of the articles we have read this semester are trying to figure out: how emotion is portrayed through Medieval literature and whether we can trust this medium for insight on how people actually felt during this time. Trigg points out that because “we cannot accurately map, chart, or measure somatic or cognitive affect” in historically-oriented studies, we “must rely on textual and material traces and representations of feelings and passions” (7).

This leads to another thing I enjoyed about the article: the distinction between affect and emotion. Trigg explains that the term “emotion” is more commonly used in these historically-oriented studies because “affect” more deals with the “unconscious, pre-discursive bodily response in quite precise terms” and is more “aligned with phenomenological and social inquiry,” whereas emotions “suggests a complex and productively layered senses of inquiry into historical change, historical emotions, and the history of the term and concept of the ’emotions’ themselves” (5, 6, 8). I’m finished quoting, I swear.

The main thing I liked about Trigg’s article is that it focused on how studying the history of emotion can help us understand historical social constructions and the changes they went through and why, which is something I plan on talking about for my final paper in relation to Margery Kempe and the effect the envy she felt and caused others to feel had on her social community.