The Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China: From Dreamscapes to Theatricality by Ling Hon Lam
Over the past several decades, the growing recognition of the emotions as a vitally important aspect of human life has been evident in disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. In recent years, this interest has truly gone global, with scholars exploring the distinct norms and practices of emotions that emerged in regions and cultures around the world, from ancient times to the present. This development has made it possible to envision the sheer range and diversity of the phenomena that fall under what we conventionally refer to as "emotions," but has also raised new conceptual and methodological issues: far from referring to a natural fact, the very term "emotions" turns out to be a moving target, referring to an entire spectrum of possible norms and values, conceptual frameworks, and ontological commitments. Envisioning the emotions from different cultural vantage points has thus opened possible avenues for interrogating the very terms of the investigation, offering new ways of conceptualizing what the emotions are, and at what level we should be thinking about them.
In his provocative and ambitious book, Ling Hon Lam takes up such an enterprise, proposing an alternative account of the very phenomenon of emotions by way of an excursus through what he calls early modern [End Page 37] theatricality. Lam's point of departure is a long-standing conception of emotions, influential in traditional Chinese poetics, in terms of a framework of interaction between emotion (or qing 情, conventionally identified as "interior") and landscape (or jing 境, conventionally identified as "exterior"). Rejecting this dialectic of inner and outer, which sustains a conception of emotions as fundamentally interior to the subject, Lam proposes that emotions simply are exterior: emotions, in his reading, comprise "the structure of space as an ontological condition without which we cannot even be outside in the world getting along with one another." It is this supposed exteriority of emotions that Lam refers to in proclaiming that "emotion per se is spatial" (p. 4).
Lam's project appears to be roughly along the lines of the anti-Cartesian re-assessment of emotions that has been the ongoing agenda among theorists of emotions for the better part of this century—one that rejects the conception of emotions as merely mental occurrences and argues instead that they are events that take place outside the mind. But if his argument is a philosophical one, it proceeds by way of a historical account—one that traces a shift, palpable in literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from "dreamscapes" to "theatricality." "Theatricality" refers here not to the theatre genre itself but to a particular early modern "mode of spatiality" marked by a deep and fundamental fissure in which "the dreamer becomes an onlooker" (p. 6). As Lam sums up: "In theatricality, a new sense of self-displacement informs the formation of individuals and communities by alienating subjects from their feelings, producers from products, writers from readers, and spectators from spectacles, under the combined sway of commerce, print and theater" (p. 6).
The chapters of this book are devoted to fleshing out Lam's proposed reconception of emotions by way of passages from the plays, novels, and short stories of late Ming/early Qing writers such as Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖 (1550–1616), Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 (1574–1646), Li Yu 李漁 (1611–1680), and others. Chapter 1, "Winds, Dreams, Theater: A Genealogy of Emotion-Realms," provides a rereading of scenes in Peony Pavilion that eschews traditional accounts of late Ming drama as emancipatory, giving voice to emotions unleashed after centuries of suppression—a reading that follows from the presumed "classical view" that emotions are aroused in the heart and expressed outward. Instead, Lam situates the text within his exteriorized account of emotion as an "all-pervading field of cosmological forces in which humans find themselves" (p. 23), and thus as part of a genealogical narrative of the "spatial" conceptions that preceded it—the ancient "topos of winds" and the "medieval dreamscape." Chapter 2, "The Heart Beside Itself: A Genealogy of Morals," is an excursus that takes us from Ming crime narratives to short stories to the sixteenth-century vernacular novels Water Margin and The Journey to the West, documenting the emergence of theatricality. Much of this chapter [End Page 38] concerns the intellectual history preceding the Ming—particularly, the ideas espoused by the Neo-Confucian thinkers of the Song period, whose perpetuation of the dichotomy of inner and outer would be finally resolved by Ming storytellers, who understood the fundamental theatricality and externality of emotions.
Chapter 3, "What is Wrong with The Wrong Career? A Genealogy of Playgrounds," traces the emergence of spectatorship beyond the domain of theater—a development that accompanied the spread of print culture in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. A central theme in this chapter is the recognition, epitomized in the plays of Li Yu, that "emotion is structured through and through by theatricality" (p. 102)—an observation that, once again, spills over into Lam's own claims about what emotions in fact are. This theme is further, and more boldly, carried out in chapter 4, "'Not Even Close to Emotion': A Genealogy of Knowledge," where Lam argues that "theatricality" grounds not just emotions, but knowledge itself—and not just in early modern theatre, but in fact in the entire Western tradition. Indeed, spectatorial distance comprises "the anthropological structure of Western knowledge"—a conclusion that Lam draws from an extended passage in Immanuel Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. The final chapter, "Time-Space Is Emotion," sets out, somewhat belatedly, to clarify the meaning of the fundamental terms of the discussion in this work—most importantly, that of "space." This project proceeds through a consideration of a host of thinkers, from both the Chinese and European traditions, to ultimately validate the endeavor of the book to move beyond the model of emotions as contained in the self, and to affirm its status as exteriorized "spatiality." The book concludes with a sinister image of the full implications of this transition: "We are never trapped in an iron house with no way out; rather, we are being locked out and are in need of another dream-ride into it" (p. 241).
The book has a number of admirable qualities. Perhaps most important among them is that it draws attention to the spatial dimension of the conceptualization of emotions—that is, to the ways in which thinking about emotions entails ideas about how the self relates structurally with the world. It identifies and points out the limits of existing narratives about the emotions, addressing the long-standing dichotomy between inner and outer, and the inadequacy of recognizing emotions as simply events that take place in some interior dimension of the self. It is also a wide-ranging and probing work that seeks to engage philosophically with literary texts, and subjects them to conceptual scrutiny. It combines conventionally separate genres (such as literature and philosophy), and draws from an impressive array of scholarly literature from many different traditions and periods.
I had difficulty, however, with some basic features of this book. Most generally, I was not convinced by its general account of, and approach to, the [End Page 39] emotions. While it makes sense to reject and challenge the idea that emotions are exclusively interior events, and to propose ways to expand the framework inquiry beyond the dichotomy of inner and outer, it was not at all clear why we should swing to the other end of the spectrum and assume that the "spatiality" has to be about "exteriority." This move is not only unwarranted, but also detaches the realm of emotions from its most important and crucial aspect—its reality as a lived and felt experience—and strips it precisely of the dimension that makes it meaningful and knowable to us. One might more properly take into consideration the "spatial" dimension of emotions by situating that felt experience within a larger framework—one that is inclusive of the world and of the situations and predicaments in which emotions emerge—instead of hollowing out and negating that experience.
A related problem is the somewhat bewildering conceptual slippage between historical and philosophical argumentation. While the book is presumably a genealogical project that traces the emergence and conceptual implications of a particular orientation towards emotions that developed in sixteenth and seventeenth-century drama and fictional narratives, it also seems to have been written from a standpoint that adopts that account as the correct one: as it turns out, emotion is something "exterior" and fundamentally "theatrical" in nature. In effect, it reads as a kind of philosophical manifesto masquerading as history—a history whose scope and narrative is framed and determined by the position it is meant to validate. And while that history purports to trace the emergence of entire "regimes" of thought and practice in which nothing short of the dismantling of "moral subjectivity and universality" is to have taken place, in the end we are only talking about a handful of texts, namely the writings of a circle of writers, working in a very specific historical moment and cultural milieu, producing short stories and works of drama for popular consumption. This is at best a subculture—a fascinating one to be sure, but one whose significance needs to be situated within a larger intellectual world of the period, and within the relevant debates over emotions that engaged late Ming and early Qing intellectuals.
Finally, it would have been helpful to see more deep and sustained development of the ideas and concepts deployed in this book, as well as more care in the use of language. The categories and terms of analysis in this book were, at times, frustratingly vague and undeveloped. In lieu of precise and well-grounded explanations of crucial terms in the analysis—such as "emotion," "exterior," and "spatial"—there was a rapid succession of discussions, involving a dizzying array of thinkers, from Goethe and Kant to Bakhtin, Lefebvre, and Heidegger—that invoked the major claims without offering further development of them. In effect, the edifice of this book rests upon a circulating economy of terms that are explained primarily in terms of each other, but that are not rigorously elaborated or justified. Vast and complex ideas—particularly [End Page 40] of pre-Ming thinkers such as the Song Neo-Confucians—were somewhat hastily processed, reduced, and repackaged in terms of the requisite labels of the driving narrative, on the basis of scattered passages taken out of context, to argue for sweeping, and often untenable, conclusions. On more than a few occasions, it was difficult to know what to make of the bold pronouncements—such as "time-space is emotion"—that were scattered through the text: pronouncements that were delivered without much effort to explain what they meant or how they could possibly be true.
These objections aside, this is a book that is to be applauded for demonstrating that the dramatic narratives of love, desire, and passion that figured so prominently in the late Ming cultural landscape were more than just popular forms of entertainment that allowed people to give expression to hitherto repressed emotions; they were also important voices in an ongoing philosophical discussion of great importance, offering fascinating perspectives that are not just of historical interest, but also of contemporary relevance, and well worth thinking about in our continued endeavor to grapple with the nature of human emotions.
Curie Virág is a senior research fellow and co-project director in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, and visiting professor in Philosophy and Medieval Studies at Central European University, Budapest. She is the author of The Emotions in Early Chinese Philosophy (Oxford, 2017).