Duke University Alumni Magazine

Unraveling the History of Emotion
William Reddy
by John Manuel

Painting: Henry Monnier
From the written records of past people's daily struggles, a Duke cultural historian breathes life into aspects and segments of society usually overlooked in traditional studies

f fifty years from now one were to write of the significance of the 1996 Democratic and Republican conventions from a traditional historical perspective, it would merit perhaps two sentences. We would note that Bob Dole was appointed the Republican nominee without strong competition, and that Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination after making a Trumanesque train ride across the Midwest. But to limit our analysis to these basic facts would miss a most fascinating aspect of American culture at the end of the twentieth century: The star speakers at the conventions were not the presidential candidates airing their parties' platforms. They were Nancy Reagan talking about her husband's battle with Alzheimer's disease, Christopher Reeve talking about life in a wheelchair, and Al Gore describing his sister's slow death from lung cancer. The appeal was strictly to emotion.

     What were the motivations and intentions of those who scripted these political events? And what does it say about our needs as a people, that we would sit spellbound by these speeches, even as we knew they were politically irrelevant?

     To those of us who went through school in the 1960s and Seventies, the study of history was an exercise in memorizing the names of leaders and dates of wars and treaties. The emotional lives of common men and women, and how those affected daily life and social change, were never addressed. Anthropology, likewise, was limited in its ability to explain how certain practices came to exist. Research focused on describing the practices and relationships in a particular society at the time the researcher studied it.

Painting: Henry Monnier

     But in the last twenty years, academicians have understood the need to draw upon other disciplines to understand the history, the cultural practices, and the agents of change of any society. From archaeologists, historians seek the importance of tools, from linguists information in language structure, and from anthropologists the details on everyday experiences and practices of people from distant times and places. William Reddy, Duke professor of history, combs through written records of past people's daily struggles to try to understand the motivations and intentions that shaped their lives. In doing so, he breathes life into aspects and segments of society usually overlooked in traditional studies.

     "You could say I'm an anthropologist of the past who looks at how cultures evolve from one form to another," Reddy says. "That necessarily involves looking at the individual, because individuals are sources of change. Some academicians see individuals as blank slates on which a culture writes its message. I don't fully agree with that, but I do believe that individuals are brought by their cultures to desire and do very different things from one age to the next. Describing how that happens is the real challenge of cultural history."

     Most of us assume we understand the motivations and intentions behind our daily interactions and pursuits. Reddy considers them largely mysterious, but believes we can and must try to explain them by tracing their origins. "Unless we discuss the historical and contingent nature of these apparently self-evident motivations and intentions, we can't assess what other possibilities lie before us."

     Why, for example does racial prejudice persist in Western society despite laws that seek to eliminate it? Why are women still not treated equally in the workplace? The answer, Reddy says, lies in the "fine detail of daily practice" reflecting emotional outlooks that have a long history.

     Kristen Neuschel, associate professor of history at Duke, says Reddy stands out among the so-called new cultural historians for his skill and courage in pursuing the ethnography of emotion. "Most historians now believe that people's psychological processes change over time, and they are interested in charting the process of change. Reddy is one of the few historians who is actually willing to take on that process of change. To do it well, you have to be grounded in a lot of disciplines."

     Reddy's multi-disciplinary skills are evident in many forms. He has joint teaching appointments in the departments of history and cultural anthropology. He has spent a year at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study at the invitation of world-famous anthropologist Clifford Gertz, and he worked with developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan as part of a fellowship at Harvard. The entire north wall of his office in Carr Building is lined with historical, anthropological, and psychological texts.

     "Bill sees the world through two sets of eyes--the historical and the anthropological," says Irene Silverblatt, Duke associate professor of cultural anthropology. "He understands the importance of change as seen through the fabric of emotional life."

     Historians attempting to discern motivations and intentions of any particular group have run into the thorny question of what exactly is emotion and whether it changes or remains the same. The layman might take for granted--and many psychologists might argue--that there are basic emotions such as fear that are universal to all humans. But Reddy cautions that this is not necessarily so. "Psychologists have a great deal of difficulty demonstrating that their findings based on research in Western society are generalizable to all of humanity," he says. "For example, psychologists have found that in Western society, husbands' autonomic nervous systems do certain things when they are lying to their wives. But would husbands in Java exhibit the same response? Perhaps not. You might not even be able to say what a lie is in their culture."

     Many ethnographers studying emotion espouse the theory that personal feelings are entirely a product of one's society, locale, or culture. This so-called constructionist viewpoint holds that individuals are entirely plastic--able to be molded by society. The constructionist never bothers to look below the skin for motivations or intentions and denies that there are any universal emotions. Others have taken the stance that people do have "real" emotions, but that trying to identify them is beyond their purview. In either case, ethnographers of emotion have shied away from attempting an historical account of changing emotional discourses or practices. Reddy has not.

     Over a period of twenty-five years, he has done exhaustive research on the historical shaping of intention and motivation, primarily in nineteenth-century France. Why France and why that period? "France is a fabulous country for historians," Reddy says. "Since the seventeenth century, the French have been document happy,' amassing incredible archives that are available to the modern researcher. In France, a researcher can get a project off the ground in weeks rather than months."

     "The nineteenth century was the age of laissez faire," he says. "It was a period when there was a kind of conscious social engineering based on the assumption that people would pursue gain if left to their own devices, and that this would be the best thing for the society. It was applied with vigor to reform of existing laws. There has been a lively debate among historians as to whether or not this was a good description of human motivation and what were the effects of these reforms on society."

     In separate research projects, Reddy combed through court records, personnel files, and memoirs stored in Parisian governmental libraries to establish the identities of journalists, civil servants, and married women in post-revolutionary France. His particular interest was in understanding how these people experienced emotions and governed their behavior according to the dictates of honor and shame. The preservation of honor and the avoidance of shame were key motivations among nineteenth-century French men and women. Yet that long-accepted notion threatened to undermine the opportunities afforded by the Revolution for such things as equality among the sexes, a free and honest press, and a responsive and efficient government.

     French journalists in the early nineteenth century faced constant conflict between their duties as citizens and their duties as employees. As citizens, they were encouraged to research and write "the truth" as they saw it. Newspapers of the day were closely associated with a specific political faction, and journalists were expected to propagate that faction's point of view and assail its opponents, regardless of their personal point of view. "Journalists were constantly deploring the state of journalism because it was so concerned with calumny and insult rather than with the truth," says Reddy. "Yet they dared not face the shame of going without a job. So they ended up spouting whichever purple rage was demanded by the paper they got a job with. Journalists had to be careful to sell out in a way that wasn't too blatant. Freedom of the press was supposed to end scurrilous reporting. But it didn't do that."

     Among civil servants, Reddy found that there was a rhetoric of honor that promoted toadyism and discouraged efficiency. By examining documents from the Ministry of

     Interior, for example, he observed that civil servants were almost never discharged for poor performance. However, they would be discharged for causing public scandals such as debauchery or falling in debt. "There was a whole rhetoric of honor in the bureaucracy through which, if one were good at it, he could get promoted. And if you got promoted to the level of divisional head, a common practice was to purge your files. The chief goal was to eliminate the shameful traces of one's having begged for promotions."

     By examining records of marital-separation cases from the first half of the nineteenth century, Reddy observed tensions created by a long tradition of privacy with regard to marital relations--particularly with respect to male indiscretions--and the desire to seek justice. Secrecy and discretion (looking the other way) were accepted methods for reconciling public honor and private desire. The post-revolutionary courts exposed everything to public view and were prone to presume guilt on the lightest evidence. Honor was branded as something aristocratic and archaic. But Reddy found that the need for honor persisted among different classes and sexes in the post-revolutionary era, handicapping the courts in their attempt to determine the facts in a case and to deliver a fair ruling. "In the granting or disallowance of marital separations, preservation of honor continued to be the most important factor, not whether one party had been cruel or unfaithful to the other," Reddy says. His research on these groups has been brought together in a book, The Invisible Code: Honor and Sentiment in Post-revolutionary France, 1814-1848, published by the University of California Press.

     From his research, he concludes that there are always normative notions in any society about what emotions can and cannot be expressed. Language and rituals are set up to control these emotions. But as powerful as such controls are, "deviant" expression persists. "It's not all culture, it's not all classes, and it's not all in-born psychological dynamics. We are not all automatons to whatever discourse is prevalent at the time. As a society, we have great powers to mold our experiences, but not total power."

     Reddy describes how in the first century of the Roman Empire, there was a normative style based on stoicism. By being free of emotion, one could make the wisest decisions-- or so was the belief. "But in fact there was a lot of deviance among the ruling class," he says. "The standard was so strict that, once people felt they were failing, they didn't have any boundaries."

     Reddy says his interest in these matters may well have stemmed from his own childhood experiences growing up in Houston and St. Louis in the 1950s. His father was an Army captain who prided himself on self-discipline. He later became a salesman, which required him to be ever-enthusiastic, ready and willing to persuade people to part with their money for something he may not have valued himself. Reddy says the tensions created by these contradictory demands may have contributed to his father becoming an alcoholic. "That certainly had a formative influence on my studying the complexity of experience," he says. " You can be a successful member of the ruling class and be very unhappy."

     Which brings us back to the question of whether we in twentieth-century Western society understand our motivations and intentions any better than people did in the past. The "doublespeak" of nineteenth-century Frenchmen trying to hide their infidelities in a language of honor seem so obviously hypocritical now. Today, we have all manner of psychotherapists and support groups that allow us to come forth and express our feelings. Reddy thinks that's good, but he wonders if what he calls the "Oprah Winfreyization" of Western culture is really leading us to greater liberation from shame and repression--or just taking us in circles. "In folk shows of the kind pioneered by Phil Donahue and now epitomized by Oprah Winfrey, a guest is enticed to display for a mass audience feelings that he or she would normally hold private. But this constant baring of the soul has generated a new set of expectations. Such programs have become a fixed genre."

     Reddy says that what he calls "the boundless pursuit of openness and sincerity" can become a trap in the same way as the early nineteenth-century desire for absolute secrecy was a trap. "We need to recognize how much control we collectively have to shape emotional experience with our expectations and our conventions. It is so extensive that even notions such as sincerity or self-fulfillment can become tyrannical. You can lose track of what really matters just as easily by struggling to reveal your true self as by trying to conceal your feelings and desires."

     To a future historian researching American politics at the end of the twentieth century, the description of voters being courted not by policy statements and platform positions, but by competitive appeals for empathy, will make interesting fodder indeed.                                                                      

Manuel is a freelance writer living in Durham.

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