Georges Vigarello: “Emotions take on an unprecedented place in history”

The cross : How to define emotions?

George Vigarello: This is a more complex question than it seems because the French language has taken time to qualify emotions. It’s in the XVe century that the idea emerged that the nuances of sensitivity are worth dwelling on, with the works of the Italian poet Marsile Ficino on melancholy or that of Christine de Pisan on fatigue. Starting from the body, from what it feels, the idea of ​​interiority was gradually put in place. It led to the major turning point constituted in the 19th century by psychoanalysis, where Freud affirmed the link between body and mind. From there, the psychological part will imperceptibly emerge, then impose itself. The History of Emotions traces the deepening of intimacy and the human psyche over time.

→ READ. The story of our emotions through time

Did a 16th century man feel the same as today?

GV: Let’s say that the texts for a long time do not grasp what is of the order of emotion. The word itself appears only in the sixteenth century. The verb “to be moved” was already used but in a physical sense, to evoke a displacement – in the XIVe century, one could read: “Saint-Louis was moved from one city to another” –, or amorous transport. The phenomenon of consciousness of feeling was not explained. It may be present but it is not “spoken”, it is not said.

Nobody was interested, then, in the inner life to the point of following its tiny meanders. The field of man’s interiority in the 16th century was, moreover, much more restricted than today. As proof, the evolution of tools and modes of expression of emotion. Thus, in the provincial courts of the Middle Ages, the gentleman had at his disposal a fairly simple music, a few texts, while the courtier of the royal court of the classical age benefited from the opera, from a much more sophisticated theater , literary projects galore, painting… It is a prodigious inner enrichment.

Was romanticism an important shift?

GV: In the 19th century, the decline of religion left a vacant place and allowed a spectacular deepening of the intimate. Westerners, for the first time, are beginning to think that perfection no longer comes from the divine but from nature, qualified as sublime. Because the individual is less confronted with something divine which is given to him from the outset and which overcomes him, the question which emerges is no longer of the order of morality but of the psychological: what am I in the middle? of this nature? What is my interior space? The relationship to the world questions you more intimately about what you are. What was compartmentalized is decompartmentalized.

→ CRITICAL. “The Emotions of God” by Emmanuel Durand

Have we today entered a society of sensitive man?

GV: Emotions take on a completely new place in the story. The individual is now central. The turning point came during the First World War. In his novel The fear, Gabriel Chevallier denounces the condition of the soldiers of the war of 14-18, who no longer belong to themselves, crushed by fatigue and pain, and are condemned to obey. In previous war stories, where the suffering was just as terrible, the testimonies described untold suffering, self-sacrifice, without ever questioning obedience. During the Great War, the perspective changes and for the first time the man affirms: “I am obliged to obey and I cannot bear it. I exist as an autonomous individual who intends to conform to his own decision. »

Since then, the approach according to which domination and the emotions linked to it are unbearable has not ceased to gain ground, driven by three dynamics: the idea of ​​democracy, the economic transformations which have resulted in overvaluing advertising and consumption (both of which give you the feeling that your choices belong to you, whether political or economic) and the psychologization of behavior (which promotes the fact that your sensitivity is nuanced and extended, different from other sensitivities).

Today’s man considers himself justified in no longer supporting certain emotions. This is glaring in the field of sexual violence. That a victim is confronted with the absolute unacceptable is increasingly condemned collectively. We invent new terms, such as “harassment”, with ever more aspects that complicate it: sexual, moral, professional, school, etc., to designate pressures or intrusions exerted by the other and which have become unacceptable.

Which emotions are the most valued today?

GV: Those that touch on childhood: a continent has emerged since the 18th century on what it feels and the affectivity it arouses. The child as a promise, as a reason for action, especially ecological. In this regard, the emotion that is very new is that which concerns the degradation of the environment, which is accompanied by the feeling of great helplessness.

→ MAINTENANCE. “Let’s be responsible for our emotions”

The “charitable” emotion, the sensitivity to the suffering of the other also increases. This refers in particular to an increase in victimization: in a society where there is less of a feeling of being able to change the world, where society, since the collapse of the great ideologies of the 20th century, promises fewer promising tomorrows, the individual becomes more sensitive to the limits in which he finds himself enclosed, here and now – which brings us back to the question of domination. Hence an assimilation to the suffering and suffering. At the same time, the feeling of self-fulfillment is valued. The “start-up nation” has taken over from the “self-made-men” in the pantheon of self-realization.

You say that emotion dominates. Yet the great traditional collective fervor, political or religious, is receding…

GV: The fervor has shifted. Not long ago, the Fêtes-Dieu gathered the whole village and the great political tribunes, with their megaphones, tried to reach an immense crowd. This is no longer the case: most of the time we receive the great speeches by interposed screens, within the family, and this one adapts: it is pronounced in a low voice, in a more intimate way.

At the same time, new places of fervor have appeared, on the periphery of public life. Not on the roundabouts of the “yellow vests”, where it was more a matter of a sum of individual demands, but in major sporting events, or demands in matters of morals, such as the “pride marches” by example, whose very name refers to a form of emotion.

Can a political project be devoid of affect?

GV: We can no longer imagine a political proposal that would not converge towards emotional sensitivity – with certain dangers, such as social networks that facilitate the passage of fury or hatred. The practice of power is also evolving in this direction. The powerful allow themselves more to manifest their affects. For example, a President of the Republic in office can now let his joy burst out during a football or rugby match, which was unthinkable in the past, where the exercise of power meant keeping emotions away from them.

→ CRITICAL. Understanding the affects that dominate our political moment, through two works

Even if today the powerful still manifest a certain distance, the politician who succeeds best remains the one who transmits emotion. But there is always a danger in exacerbating them. We saw it for example with the Capitol riots, where Donald Trump pushed his supporters to the point of hatred. Overinvestment in the emotional field is a sign of major political irresponsibility of autocrats and populists. Emotion is certainly essential, but we cannot play on it.


A sensitivity specialist

Director of Studies at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, Georges Vigarello is a specialist in body perception and the history of sensibilities.

He has published more than ten books with Editions du Seuil, including :

• History of rape: XVIe –XXe centuriesin 2000 ;

• The Feeling of self. History of body perception. (XVIe –XXe centuries), in 2014 ;

• The dress. A cultural history, from the Middle Ages to todayin 2017;

• History of fatigue, in 2020;

In 2016-2017, he co-directed a History of emotions, in three volumes, with Alain Corbin and Jean-Jacques Courtine, which has become a reference work.

An exhibition. With art historian Dominique Lobstein, he traces the history of emotions from the 14th to the 21st century (read below).


The emotions exposed

The result of the collaboration between Georges Vigarello and the art historian Dominique Lobstein, the exhibition “The Theater of Emotions” which is being held at the Musée Marmottan Monet, in Paris, until August 21, takes a fresh look at the history of emotions and their pictorial translations, from the 14th to the 21st century. Through some 80 works (above, The Melodrama Effect by Louis Leopold Boilly) and the contextualization of their creation, the ambitious exhibition tells how “these emotions may have varied over time, how their manifestations move, how the attention paid to them, or even sometimes the meaning given to them, changes.


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