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Trey Buchanan

Time-and-Emotion Studies

A little historical perspective helps us get a grip on our emotions.

Two major university presses have recently published books that attempt to locate our understanding of human emotions in what many might consider a novel place: American history. Ours is a society that regards emotions as inner psychological entities shared by humans across time and place. Hearing Hamlet brood, recounting the passion of Christ on Good Friday, or watching the proceedings of the House Judiciary Committee on C-SPAN provokes feelings that we regard as universal. Although we may not individually experience the same emotions while following the debate over presidential impeachment, say, we typically regard emotional states as basic, shared constructs of the human psyche. Further, we regard feelings as rather historically static and culturally similar.

But how universal are emotions? Anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists have for some time been amassing evidence that argues for both the universality of emotion (e.g., Carol Izard's updating of Charles Darwin's work on the recognition of facial expression of basic emotions) and its cultural construction (e.g., the field work of Catherine Lutz among the Ifaluk of Micronesia). Inventing the Psychological and An Emotional History of the United States enter into this ongoing discussion by viewing emotions through the filter of history, "seconding" our emotions behind yet another set of disciplinary methods.

While both of these books explore the history of emotions with a specifically American focus, their approaches to the subject differ significantly. An Emotional History of the United States, edited by social historians Peter Stearns and Jan Lewis, portrays emotion within the interwoven nature of American life where gender, religious morality, economic forces, and popular culture come together to create an ever-shifting ground for the experience, understanding, and expression of "feelings." Erin Krik New's cover art for the book—a close-up, filtered image of a faded, hand-woven American flag—is ...

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