Conference Report from the History of Emotions Conference at George Mason University, Fairfax Virginia, June 1-2, 2018

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History of Emotions Conference

Session “Themes in Modern Emotions History”

George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

June 1-2, 2018


Report by Susan Eckelmann Berghel, Ph.D.

University of Tennessee Chattanooga


The session “Themes in Modern Emotions History” concluded an invigorating, informative, and collaborative two-day History of Emotions Conference hosted at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia and organized by Peter Stearns (George Mason University) and Susan Matt (Weber State University). The conference drew scholars from all parts of the world, including Europe, Australia, North America, the Middle East, and Scandinavia. Sessions addressed a diverse range of thematic issues, engaged important methodological questions across different disciplines, and covered a broad chronological and geographical scope.


Susan Lanzoni (Harvard University) opened this last panel with a discussion on the invention and evolution of the concept of empathy in theory and practice. Presenting a useful model of the history of emotions, Lanzoni traces the professional and intellectual dialogues from pioneering German philosophers to social scientists in the United States. During the late nineteenth century, psychologists began to examine the concept of empathy “as a way to imaginatively feel into objects of art and forms in nature.” By 1908, Anglo-American psychologists offered an English translation, “empathy,” for the German Einfühlung. By the mid-twentieth century, psychologists, philosophers, and sociologists understood the concept to include emotional expressions and shared experiences. Lanzoni provides a fuller history on this subject in her forthcoming book Empathy: A History (Yale University Press, Fall 2018).


Thomas Dodson (New York University) added another dimension to the panel’s dialogue by considering the history of emotions through the lens of critical theory. By revisiting major social theorists of modernity, he suggested that the field “needs to be more self-reflexive and account for its own conditions of possibility in the present.” In addition, he outlined preliminary conclusion of his analysis of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.  


Julian Polain (University of Melbourne) asked the audience to consider the emotional world of disenfranchised indigenous populations and non-European immigrants in twentieth-century Australia. Highlighting a psychoanalytical perspective of Ernest Favenc’s literary works, Polain’s presentation examined emotions such as shame, guilt, and fear in shaping nightmares of Australian social and cultural groups. Studying news media, literature, music and popular culture of Australia since the Federation, Polain’s broader work uncovers the cultural meanings of dreams and nightmares as well as the emotional dynamics informing in Australian culture.


Susan Eckelmann Berghel (University of Tennessee Chattanooga) examined 1960s children and teenagers’ political uses of emotional rhetorical as a form of contestation. Her research on youth correspondence following race-based violence in the U.S. South highlights the political work emotions inspired in modern America. Young citizens relied on emotions to articulate political pronouncements and advance petitions for full legal rights.


In his talk, Martin Bowen-Silva (New York University, Abu Dhabi) offered an insightful examination of counter-emotions as a form of nineteenth century political control in Chile. By censoring public mail, Chile’s “emotional regime” claimed to present news “truer than truth” and criminalized citizens’ discourses of “untrustworthy” information. Revisiting Jürgen Habermas’s work, Bowen-Silva highlighted how fear and anxiety shaped the Chilean public sphere during Age of Revolutions.


Nicole Eustace (New York University) presented concise and insightful synopses of the session’s key themes along with constructive remarks for each presenter.  A lively discussion following the presentations included additional methodical and archival questions.


Peter Stearns’s blog offers a general overview of the conference. Interested scholars may review abstracts and conference papers on the conference website. Following the organizers’ concluding remarks, participants and organizers discussed a North American branch of the Society for the History of Emotions and proposed a conference to be held biennially.