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The body of emotions

Le corps des émotions

About the performativity of emotion in history

À propos de la performativité des émotions dans l’histoire

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Published on Monday, May 05, 2014


En prenant pour point de départ la métaphore du corps, ce colloque veut faire émerger de nouvelles possibilités d’étude de la performativité historique des émotions, comprises comme des agents donnant du sens aux corps, que ceux-ci soient physiques, sociaux, politiques, artistiques ou littéraires. Ainsi, l’expression « corps émotionnel » peut être considérée comme une catégorie analytique permettant de comprendre comment différentes conceptions historiques des émotions, ainsi que les pratiques et les objets qui leur sont associés, ont produit des systèmes de relations physiques et symboliques qui peuvent être compris comme des corps, dans une optique multidisciplinaire.



The idea that the body is the site in which emotions are expressed is an old one in Western Culture. We manifest fear through trembling, embarrassment while blushing or demonstrate love by showing that the pulse quickens and breathing becomes irregular. However, we cannot take for granted the existence of a natural relationship between emotions and these bodily translations. For instance, while the passions were considered in the Early Modern period to be the expression of the movements of the soul, as well as powerful agents shaping bodies in health and disease, late nineteenth century and early twentieth century physiologists and psychologists would discover that the material body was an effect of “the immediate and local emotions produced in the laboratory” (Dror, 1998). From this historical perspective, the relationships between bodies and emotions seem to be far from being universal, as they are also socially and institutionally produced in specific historical contexts.

This three-day workshop seeks to challenge the idea that emotions invariably correspond to certain bodily expressions, by showing that they can alternatively be understood as cultural practices that have the affective power of transforming reality by creating emotional bodies. On the one hand, bodies will be interpreted as an expressive medium that allows us to “negotiate the boundaries and crossings of self and society” (Porter, 2001). These malleable boundaries of the body will be understood in connection with the changing meaning of social norms, cultural codes and institutions, but especially as the result of the work of emotions. On the other, we propose the understanding of emotions as cultural practices that do things. This performativity of emotions has been stressed by scholars working on the history of the French revolution (Reddy, 1997; 2001), the history of medicine (Bound-Alberti, 2006), political theory (Ahmed, 2004) and literary theory (Labanyi, 2010) as one of the most fruitful lines of research in emotion history.

Taking the metaphor of the body as starting point, this conference aims at discussing new possibilities to enhancing our understanding of the historical performativity of emotions as agents that have generated meaning to physical, social, political, artistic and literary bodies. Therefore, the expression “emotional bodies” may be regarded as an analytical category enabling us to explore how different historical conceptions of emotions (e.g. sentiments, passions, affects and feelings), as well as the practices and objects associated with them, had produced systems of symbolic and physical relations which we understood here as “bodies” with a multidisciplinary purpose. We invite scholars working in any historical period to focus on one of the following topics; each of them related to the creation of scientific, socio-political and artistic bodies.

Producing emotional bodies in the sciences. Observation, experimentation and diagnosis have been historically used as techniques of scientific standardisation for defining the body in love, pain or pleasure. For instance, passions have been identified since Aristotle as powerful agents shaping human and animal physiognomies. Particularly, the body in love has been defined by determining the state of the pulse and the redness of countenance in Ancient medicine or through its twentieth-century conceptualisation in terms of hormone adrenaline and excitement. In which ways have scientific practices normalized emotional expressions throughout history? Have scientists’ emotions affected their work in hospitals or laboratories? How have emotions of non-speaking bodies such as those of infants and animals been scientifically categorized? Have scientific approaches on emotions penetrated into popular culture through novels, theatre, photography or film? We are looking for proposals that can contribute to shedding light on what extent the scientific production of emotions has shaped bodies that are recognisable in everyday life.

Emotions as sites for social exchange and political change. From the politics of fear examined by Joanna Bourke, to Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu and Christian Delaporte’s analysis of indignation and Sara Ahmed’s study on happiness, the collective dimension of emotions has been stressed as a potential site for social activism and political change. Is there any connection between the emergence of emotional styles and the production of the revolutionary bodies? What kind of materials and sources do we need to explore in order to reconstruct the emotions of the crowd? Has the performance of different emotions contributed to defining new bodies such as those of the feminist, anti-racist and queer movements? In this panel, we would like to address the question about the possibility of creating new social and political bodies through the performance of collective emotions.

The affective power of literature, photography and film. Scholars working in literary and photographic studies have claimed an affective turn in order to look at texts and cultural productions from the point of view of what they can do, rather than what they mean (Labanyi, 2010; Edwards, 2012; Bouju and Gefen, 2012). Thus, for example, a great number of novels, photographs and films of war have mobilised our empathy towards a humanitarian sensibility (Taithe, 2006). It was not long ago that Stéphane Hessel’s Indignez-vous! reminded us that emotions could also be a call for social and political action. How should we understand the performativity of aesthetic emotions? What role have they played in the creation of broader emotional regimes (e.g. mobilization of empathy, compassion or pity in the actual rise of the victim figure)? Can books, photographs or works of art be considered as “affective objects” produced by our sensory, haptic engagements with them? We encourage scholars interested in discussing the affective power of literary texts, photographic and film documents or artistic creations to present a proposal exploring the ways in which these objects can be interpreted as emotional bodies.

Submission guidelines

If you are interested in participating in this workshop, please send us a proposal of no more than 300 words for a 20 minutes presentation via email ( emotionalbodies@gmail.com ) by the 1st, July 2014.

Organizing committee

  • Dolores Martin Moruno – IEH2, University of Geneva
  • Sophie Milquet – Department of French Modern Studies, University of Lausanne
  • Beatriz Pichel – PHRC, de Montfort University

20-22 October, 2014 Louis Jeantet Auditorium

Route de Florissant,Geneva, Switzerland


  • Route de Florissant
    Geneva, Switzerland (1211)


  • Tuesday, July 01, 2014


  • emotions, corps, histoire de la médecine, changement social, émotions, esthétiques


  • Sophie Milquet
    courriel : smilquet [at] ulb [dot] ac [dot] be

Information source

  • Sophie Milquet
    courriel : smilquet [at] ulb [dot] ac [dot] be


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« The body of emotions », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, May 05, 2014, https://doi.org/10.58079/q2e

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