Adam Curtis-On Hugs, Television and Socio-emotional Change

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Film and documentary maker Adam Curtis, perhaps best known for his theoretically-informed BBC documentaries such as The Century of the Self (2002-available here), The Power of Nightmares (2004-here) and The Trap — What Happened to our Dream of Freedom  (2007-here), all of which I recommend to students, has a recent blogpost that I found particularly interesting.  Ostensibly about hugs, what the post and the numerous clips from the BBC’s TV archives (where Curtis appears to live) depict are changes in emotional regimes and feeling rules through time.  As usual, his approach is critical.  He writes that, while he wants to ‘tell a brief history of the rise of the Hug on TV and also show some of the strange, odd heroic figures who held out against it’, he also wishes to ask:

(W)hether the TV hug has become oppressive and limiting….That not only has it become a rigid convention – as rigid as anything in Victorian times – but because it teaches that we should concentrate on our own inner feelings, it also stops us from looking outside ourselves and thinking imaginatively about the society and the world around us.  I want to suggest that the Hug has become a part of the modern problem of not being able to imagine any alternative to the world of today. The Hug is no longer liberating, it is restraining.

It is the clips themselves that are most interesting, depicting, as they do, a fundamentally different ‘structure of feeling’, in Raymond Williams’ terms.  Williams defines structures of feeling as ‘social experiences in solution, as distinct from other social semantic formations which have been precipitated and are more evidently and more immediately available…. Yet this specific solution is never mere flux. It is a structured formation’.  He continues, with echoes of A.N.Whitehead to suggest that:

The term is difficult, but ‘feeling’ is chosen to emphasize a distinction from more formal concepts of ‘world-view’ or ‘ideology’…. We are concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable…. An alternative definition would be structures of experience…. We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity (Williams, Marxism & Literature, pp.132-3).

While Williams, at the time, was almost apologetic about using the term ‘feeling’ and at pains to justify it’s use, today, post the (so-called)’affective/emotional turn’, we can perhaps be more confidant in speaking of these matters.  For me, what the clips suggest or display is an emotional world and an emotional ‘being-in-the-world’ (or what might be called an emotional habitus) that is at once familiar, yet fundamentally different from the ones most of us live in and have today.

Take, for example, the first clip on Anna Neagle, who caused a scandal in 1958 by weeping, openly and continuously, in an early This is Your Life.  Both the programme makers and the public in general appear to have been scandalised by the public display of emotions and the lack of emotional control.  Even more poignant and unusual is the tale of Ministry of Defence clerk, Francis Beveridge, who’s generalized and articulate melancholia, is fascinating and strangely affecting.

The post is long, mainly due to the clips, but I recommend that you try to watch at least some of them.  One reflection on reading and viewing them again was that clips such as these, the archives of old documentaries in particular, might be useful tools for the contemporary sociologist of emotion in researching past emotional cultures and regimes, but also for teaching students about these (and other) core sociological concepts.  These appear to be under-utilized, yet clearly useful resources.

Enjoy,

JH

 

EDIT: Link to blog fixed! Also here.

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