Object Emotions
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In a talk he gave in May 2002, the Thai monk Venerable Acariya Maha Boowa began to cry. He was widely criticized for his open display of emotions, which many considered to be at odds with his practice of Buddhism. A person who has calmed the mind through practice should be unperturbed by mundane existence. For Acariya Maha Boowa, there was no conflict. “Why all the fuss then about tears?” he asked. “After all, tears are only water” (Boowa 2005, 87). Crying, he explained, is not in conflict with spiritual realization but a way of acting in concert with the material world and its ordinary variations. Tears are not an expression, but rather a consequence, of insight.

Acariya Maha Boowa’s take on tears raises questions about the material nature of emotions. Are tears the result of self-knowledge or spontaneous physical responses? Are they separable from the social and intellectual conventions that shape our emotional experiences? What would it mean to understand tears as not just expressions of a transparent first-person experience but as evidence of a more complex involvement with our physical environments? Boowa’s account offers, in condensed form, a way of picturing these debates about emotions and objects as intertwined from the start.

In his 1884 essay published in Mind, “What is an emotion?,” William James defined emotions as perceptual records of a change in feeling. This was polemical in the sense that James saw no distance between the intricate gradations of emotional feeling and their bodily expression. While common sense may say that we are sorry and weep because of a loss in fortune, the emotional fact for James is that weeping is the physical expression of loss (1884, 191). This is further complicated by the fact that most “objects” of emotional experience are not what we think of as “things” at all. Occasions of “shame” or “regret” are educated responses to social conventions and moral values (James 1884, 195). If we think of Boowa’s assertion that “tears are only water” in light of James commentary, we might read it as a subtle resistance to an assumed path between having an emotion and fulfilling certain ideas of [End Page 155] moral life or sentimental education. Crying might very well be an expression of miseducation.

Inspired by a range of such examples, this collection of essays, which we are calling Object Emotions, considers theories of emotion and affect, and of objects or things, in conjunction with each other. We argue that the methodologies of affect theory, history of emotions, and new materialism, are interwoven on conceptual and practical levels. Taken together, these methodologies offer unprecedented possibilities for dialogue across disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Such dialogues only increase the need for specificity when we consider that each “object” of inquiry, whether it be the seeming discreteness of a rock or the amorphous pop culture phenomenon of happiness, takes on a particular character when shaped by disciplinary conventions or expectations.

By balancing seemingly contradictory demands for both porosity and determinateness—what Alfred North Whitehead called the twin propositions of “process” and “actuality”—our contributors mobilize methodologies related to objects and emotions to produce new ways of thinking about exchange, information, environment, and the location of the human amidst these overlapping systems. Some authors frame their work as a critique of the philosophical, ideological, or empirical assumptions underlying contemporary new materialisms, thing theory, object-oriented ontology, and theories of affect or emotion. Others build on these existing theoretical models and re-purpose them in new, more hybrid contexts of inquiry. In each instance, a variety of residual and speculative formulations about mattering and feeling are at play. These essays show how theoretical mutuality can be as useful as categorical definition.

Such mutuality is particularly useful within the context of recent critical debates about a plurality of “materialisms” where many different material and experiential scales are at stake, from the locality of body to planetary entanglement. Object Emotions helps us see how emotions and objects are always in the process of being redefined...