Inside out, or a look at history of emotions
Emotions are hard. Pixar attempted to make this easier with Inside Out (2015), by creating characters to represent and interpret our base emotions (anger, sadness, joy, fear, and disgust). But in one hundred or five hundred years, what will this film tell future generations about how we experienced, understood and represented emotions?
Today we are seeing a rise in scholarly interest in the history of emotions. This is a field that focuses on understanding, analysing and categorising how people felt in the past. It can look at the ‘concealment, management and expression’ of emotions. Indeed, the history of emotions provides a new lens for interpreting virtually any historical source or area of study. A number of factors influence emotions: time, culture, social, gender, class and ethnic differences.
For example, while historians initially read diaries as a way to gain a personal perspective on well-known events, scholars are now looking at what these same diaries reveal about emotions, and how some use them as ‘a tool to manage […] emotions and exert self-control’
A key part of exploring the history of emotions focuses on ‘emotional communities’. An emotional community is governed by the ‘norms that are articulated and implied over a range of sources and within a coherent period.’ Yet, it is equally important to look at how an individual understood their personal emotions within a specific emotional community. Further, individuals are not members of just one emotional community. Just think about yourself: the way you express and feel your emotions varies whether you are at work, at home, with a friend or family member. We therefore act and present our emotions differently based on the specific context which we found ourselves in. Emotions are thus both felt and performed and it is how these areas interact and change over time which provide fruitful historical angles to pursue.
So how do you analyse emotions?
One way historians analyse emotions is through the use of words which individuals use to express specific emotions, such as happiness and sadness. This could involve looking at the use of metaphors and figurative language, an approach adopted by Michael Roper in his study on First World War soldiers.
Let’s take as an example this excerpt from Inside Out, where Riley breaks down after attempting to run away back to Minnesota after feeling very homesick:
Riley: I… I know you don’t want me to, but… I miss home. I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but I want my old friends, and my hockey team. I wanna go home. Please don’t be mad.
[Riley’s mother and father stare sadly at their daughter]
Mom: Oh, sweetie…
Dad: We’re not mad. You know what? I miss Minnesota too. I miss the woods where we took hikes.
Mom: And the backyard where we used to play.
Dad: Spring Lake, where you used to skate.
[Riley breaks down in tears]
Dad: Come here.
[Riley, her mother, and her father all embrace in a group hug, consoling Riley]
Riley employs a range of vocabulary to describe her emotions, the repeated use of ‘miss’ emphasises her yearning for her home in Minnesota. The use of ‘mad’ shows how Riley is concerned about how her parents will react to her emotional reaction to wanting to return – she is concerned about making her parents angry. Yet, from an emotional community perspective, Riley feels comfortable revealing her homesickness in front of her mother and father. However, she did not feel able to express herself to her parents beforehand. Her emotional state was volatile and changeable, as expressed through her representation on screen. In a similar vein, emotions history looks at how, where and when historical actors expressed emotions.
However, is there something deeper going on than is revealed in these words? Scholars focusing on the history of emotions stress that we do not take people’s emotions simply at face value. We all know that when someone asks us how we are over text messages, for example, we rarely reply with an honest representation of how we are feeling at the time. We therefore need to be cautious in looking at how emotions are represented, as this did not necessarily constitute the lived feeling itself.
On a related note, emotions are also linked to trauma. Currently trauma studies is a hot topic in academia because of the complexity of the definition and diagnosis of ‘trauma’. Trauma can be physical and/or mental: a person can feel ‘blunt trauma’ and require medical attention, but may also be said to have a ‘traumatic experience’. Trauma is caused by one’s mental state, and shows itself through many emotions, for example through anger, sadness, and fear. The feeling of trauma, of having experienced an event which does not leave your mind, is also linked to the concepts of melancholia and mourning. Both used and discussed by Freud, melancholia is an emotional state in which an individual who suffers great loss never gets over the experience.
Emotions also transmitted through generations: trauma, for example, can be transferred forwards, as Marianne Hirsch points out in Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory . ‘Postmemory’, a term Hirsch coined, is based on the idea that memory can be adopted by those who identify with a particular past, despite not having experienced it personally. For this to happen, there must be strong emotions involved.
To move the field of history of emotions forward, we also have to question the inter-connectedness between the experienced event, the experienced emotion resulting from that event, the interpretation and reinterpretation of the experienced event in our memory and its emotional links after the fact.
As we have shown, historians who study emotions have a task of multi-layered analysis ahead of them. Emotions are highly complex, and to attempt to understand them, we have to gain a sense of the way a specific period defined specific emotions. What do you think Inside Out says about how we experience and understand emotions in the twenty-first century?