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In the 1920s, Agnes Smedley (1892 – 1950), a radical American journalist, wrote a story about a Chinese man named Kwei Chu in her book Chinese Destinies: Sketches of Present-Day China. She begins by citing the comments of a Chinese professor to whom she has just related Kwei Chu’s story: “It is typical of thousands of our intellectuals today. Kwei Chu was broken by love. His own personal emotions were the most important thing in life to him. Of course! The intellectuals have nothing else. Even the revolution, to most of them, is nothing but an emotion; not a life and death necessity as it is for the masses.”1 Like many educated Chinese youths in the early decades of the twentieth century, Kwei Chu fought a hard and unsuccessful battle against the patriarchal institution of arranged marriage and experienced bitter disappointment in his pursuit of free love. He was able to find temporary release from personal misery by dabbling in revolutionary politics. But [End Page 263] as the space for a passionate political life shrunk under a repressive regime, he became disillusioned and gave in to self-pity and dejection. In prefacing her story with the Chinese professor’s remarks, Smedley seems to share his diagnosis of Kwei Chu’s affliction. Toward the end of the story, she cites an exasperated friend of Kwei Chu who accuses him of being “a futile intellectual” lost in the “swamp” of his own emotions.2 In this short anecdote, especially in the framing commentaries, a great deal is said about emotion subtextually. Fleshing out these assumptions will, I hope, allow me to demonstrate the fundamental importance of historicizing and contextualizing the study of emotion.

The most basic assumption, something very much taken for granted in most modern societies, is that emotion pertains to the private life of the individual. It is a domain of experience grounded in the individual body or psyche and is ultimately knowable only to the individual. Emotion is expressed through language, gestures, and signs, but expressions can only approximate emotion and can fail when emotion is too strong for ordinary words or tears. The power of emotion is such that it can destroy a person, mind as well as body. The second assumption is that the educated classes tend to place a high premium on the life of the emotions, particularly romantic love, so much so that love has become modernity’s most privileged sign of individuality and subjectivity. The pursuit of free love against the claims of kinship and community is so habitually deployed to signify an individual’s coming of age and acquisition of subjecthood that it can still resonate powerfully despite being hackneyed. Love turns people inward and against society, giving us many a ruminating and rebellious romantic hero.

The third assumption has to do with emotion’s alleged atomizing effect. It is assumed that the private emotional life of the bourgeoisie is fundamentally discontinuous with the social and the political. Once emotion has become “the most important thing in life” for an individual, it detaches that individual from communal life and renders him or her a self-absorbed aesthete. In other words, emotion is ethically constrictive and politically immobilizing. From the emotionally absorbed individuals — typically of bourgeois or petit-bourgeois extraction — one cannot expect genuine and steadfast political commitment. When they do participate in political activities, they cannot but be merely seeking an outlet for their gushing nature [End Page 264] and are usually too brittle to withstand the test of time. Their devotion to the life of the emotions depoliticizes them, reducing them to private persons incapable of forging lasting social bonds, let alone transclass solidarities. In particular, romantic love is égoïsme à deux: narcissistic, possessive, and affected. One learns the rituals of love from novels, plays, and movies. Romantic lovers are nothing but simulacra of one another: they write the same plaintive love letters and heave the same melancholy sighs and plot their lives according to the same melodramatic script. The emotional turbulence that wrings their hearts to pieces is of no significance to others. Their extraordinary feelings cannot be easily transferred...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8271
Print ISSN
1067-9847
Pages
pp. 263-278
Launched on MUSE
2008-08-06
Open Access
No
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