- 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...