Feelings as Socially Patterned

The understanding of feelings as the emotional aspect of meaning makes the approach in this book different from the turn to affect that has occurred in a broad range of fields within the humanities and social sciences as a response to the discursive dominance in poststructuralism (see Leys (2011) and Wetherell (2012) for critical reviews). In many theoretical versions of this turn, affect is seen as the opposite of meaning, as a ‘formless, unstructured, non-signifying force or “intensity” separated from cognition’: Leys 2011: 442). Contrary to this, I see feelings as an aspect of meaning and as part of the human capacity to understand and act in the world: feelings are enmeshed in stories, biographies and history (Chodorow 1999). This does not imply that feelings have to be verbalised in order to be felt and present in what is said and done. From psychoanalytic theory, I draw the basic assumption that feelings can be conscious, preconscious and unconscious, and that they work in ways that may be more or less known to the person who harbours these feelings. Feelings can be meanings that are existential rather than representational, ‘a form of deep memory’ (Bollas 1987: 50), but they may also be symbolised in words. Sometimes we reflect on and verbalise what we feel; at other times feelings just play an unacknowledged part—conflictual or not—in how we perceive the world, making themselves present in the ways we talk and act. I understand feelings as personalised meanings floating through inner and outer relations and through time. It is something the subject carries with him or her, but is also something that is continuously reinterpreted and reconstructed as he or she experiences and acts in the world together with others in shared contexts.

The idea that feelings are socially patterned is not new. Erik H. Erikson has already been mentioned as one psychoanalyst who wrote about the ways in which culture, history and ethnicity emerge in unconscious fantasies, symptoms and conflicts (Chodorow 1999: 227). A more sociological approach to this is found in the efforts of the Frankfurt School to integrate psychoanalysis and Marxism by studying the connection between social and economic structures, cultural patterns and individual psychological development. The main concern here is not the individual psychological story, but the social form of subjectivity and agency in a given historical context. One of the terms for this was Erich Fromm’s concept of social character, the emotional attitude common to people in a specific social class or society in a given historical period. Erich Fromm defined a social character as the psychological reactions typical for a social group, which have developed as a result of common experiences and life conditions for that group. The emotional matrix of cultural ideas is seen as rooted in the character structure of individuals, and this is key to understanding the spirit of a given culture, according to Fromm. What is seen as ‘normal’ in a society has an emotional foundation in the typical social character of this society. It is the similarities in individual responses of most of the members, not the differences between these responses that the concept frames. The differences are important if we want to understand the single individual fully, Fromm says; however, ‘if we want to understand how human energy is channelled and operates as a productive force in a given social order, then the social character deserves our main interest’ (Fromm 1941: 278). He engages with the cultural patterns in the subjects’ psychological organisation not only as irrational adaption based on repression, but also as something that may work as a social and generative force, a dynamic psychological adaption of human needs to a particular mode of existence in a given society.[1] Thus, the social character has both adaptive and creative sides—it internalises the external necessities, but in a way that also appears as sensible and often emotionally satisfying and motivating for the person. Fromm’s ideas about the social character, moulded in specific social spaces where the individual ‘by adapting himself to social conditions ... develops those traits that make him desire to act as he has to act’ (p. 283) can also be linked to Bourdieu’s much later concept of habitus and his idea about ‘a socialized libido’ which combines necessity with the person’s engagement in the field (Aarseth 2016). However, since Fromm understands society as not merely repressive, it may also meet the human striving for freedom and growth. In this way the psychological organisation of the individuals, which develops as a result of the social process, also becomes ‘productive forces, moulding the social process’ (p. 13).

A problem with Fromm’s concept of social character is that it works on a very general level, combining grand societal formations like Protestantism and modern authoritarianism with general traits of psychological reaction and defence, and thus leaves us with a rather massive image of the character as a fixed internal template that more or less stays as it was made, or gets defensive and destructive if the societal formations that produced it change. In this sense, Fromm offers a ‘grand theory’ working with jigsaw pieces too big to really understand continuing social transformations. The concept of character is also contested in modern psychoanalytic theory to the extent that it is based on assumptions about fixed and coherent identities. More process-oriented concepts like ‘identifications’ or ‘subjectivities’, indicating that a person have multiple versions of selves in his or her internal world, have gained foothold compared to theories of identity and character as fixed psychological structures (Benjamin 1995). Modern psychoanalytic theories would agree that developmental processes connected to biographical trajectories are formative, but not that such formations of subjective structures are unchangeable, coherent and without internal conflicts (Layton 1998). Instead of talking either about character and identity as reified entities, as in the case of Fromm, or about fluidity with no core or continuity, as is the case in postmodern theories, we may talk about historical patterns of identification, desire and subjectivity in individuals as well as across social groups.

The concept of pattern is central in the work of the British cultural critic Raymond Williams, who has expanded on Fromm’s ideas with the concept structure of feeling in a way that maintains both the formative and the transformative dimensions of subjectivity and cultural practices. The structure of feeling is not an overall psychological organisation of the subject’s inner world, but patterns in the subject’s feelings:

The term I would suggest to describe it is the structure of feeling: it is as firm and definite as the ‘structure’ suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and intangible parts of our activity. In one sense, this structure of feeling is the culture of the period, it is the particular living result of all elements of the general organisation ... I do not mean that the structure of feeling, any more than the social character, is possessed in the same way by the many individuals in the community. But I think it is a very deep and very wide position, in all actual communities, precisely because it is on it that communication depends. And what is particularly interesting is that it does not seem to be, in any formal sense, learned. (Williams 2011: 69)

Williams describes the structure of feeling as a felt sense of the quality of life at a particular time and place, and he connects it to gradual change and to generation: ‘We are usually most aware of this when we notice the contrast between generations, who never quite talk “the same language”’ (2011: 68). Structures of feeling may change over generations, they may take on different forms in different segments in society, and there may be several structures of feelings in a society at the same time.

In spite of its holistic character, Williams’ concept seems to provide us with some smaller jigsaw pieces, explicitly detached from the idea that the material structures necessarily ‘come first’. He insists emphatically on the interconnectedness of different processes in society: historical processes are complex wholes where each part needs to be understood for what it is, but it is the interaction, interpretation and feedback between them that leads to transformation: ‘A keyword is pattern—it is with that any useful cultural analysis begins, and with its relationships to other patterns, which may sometimes reveal unexpected identities and correspondences in hitherto separately considered activities’ (Williams 2011: 67). He opposes the idea of separating a concept of ‘reality’ from subject—as subjects are in themselves realities and expressions of society, not something that should be related to a social world outside itself. Thus, human experience is both objective and subjective in one inseparable process:

It is right to recognise that we became human individuals in terms of a social process, but still individuals are unique, through a particular heredity, expressed in a particular history. And the point about this uniqueness is that it is creative as well as created: new forms can flow from this particular form, and extend in the whole organisation, which is in any case being constantly renewed and changed as unique individuals inherit it and continue it. ... In practical terms I think such approaches will be the kind of study of patterns and relationships, in a whole process, which we have defined as the analysis of culture. There, in the practice of creation, communication and the making of institutions, is the common process of personal and social growth. (Williams 2011: 125—126)

Williams is primarily writing about art and culture; however, he also includes the psychological organisation of the subject in this constant renewing of society. The re-creation of meaning is done both by the society as a whole and by every single individual. The idea that changes can happen on any level of society is particularly relevant to my argument about the generative role of feelings of gender. No structure has priority and subtle changes may take place before they are properly understood. Williams offers the example of gradual changes in literary style. Such small elements of qualitative changes are not necessarily epiphenomena to institutional changes or just accidental variation. They are social in two ways: they are ‘changes of the present’ and they are effective before they are classified and understood (Williams 1977: 132-133). Williams’ concept of structure of feeling, his take on incremental changes and how they can happen anywhere in a system are highly generative ideas for my analysis of how patterns of feelings in different generations, genders and classes represent an agency that may contribute in creative ways to the gradual change of gendered practices. However, the concept of feelings needs more psychological elaboration in order to become operative in a study of lived lives.

  • [1] It is important to be aware that the concept of ‘socialisation’ in this German tradition is not thefunctionalist one from Parsons with which it is often identified in the English-speaking world, buta concept that, like the concept of ‘subjectivity’, integrates societal moulding and adaption togetherwith the constitution of personal agency.
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