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Ana Marta Gonzalez Gonzalez, Director of project "Emotional culture and identity". Institute for Culture and Society.

Emotions, culture, identity: an enriching dialogue

Emotions constitute indications of what concerns and worries us (Frankfurt, 2006); and things concern and worry us according to how we perceive their relationship with ourselves, with some aspect of our identity.

Mon, 23 Sep 2019 10:53:00 +0000 Published in Magazine of the Spanish Federation of Friends of the Museums

Certainly, not every emotional reaction is equally significant of a subject's identity. What the Stoics called "first movements" did not have the same importance for them as the emotions which, a fortiori, we could call "reflexive" (Sorabji 2000). Implicit in this is a feature already pointed out by Plato: desire and passions can be modulated according to reasons. Therefore, we must be cautious about establishing excessively simple relations between emotions and identity: emotions can be culturally shaped. Even if we admit that fear is common to animals and humans, stock market panic is undoubtedly a characteristically human form of fear, to which adults of the 20th and 21st century are particularly prone, and which does not affect mice or children. To understand why a broker's heart starts pounding when he reads certain stocks on the trading floor screen requires an understanding of many things, a whole culture.

Culture is emotionally relevant insofar as it shapes our identity, insofar as it tells us about ourselves. This means that, in principle, only those representations, practices, stories, etc., that in some way become part of ourselves, with which we really or ideally identify ourselves, have the capacity to resonate emotionally in us, to the point of mobilizing our thinking and our lives.  

Now then: if certain representations, practices, stories etc. can resonate emotionally in us, it is only because we ourselves are largely made up of representations, practices and stories... which constitute, so to speak, the significant environment in which we are born and grow up, with which we learn to orient ourselves in the world, taking it for granted, as a matter of course, as a matter of course. It is not strange, therefore, that from entrance we are more emotionally attuned to those with whom we have similar experiences.

However, it is a fact that in the course of our lives we also show ourselves receptive to representations, practices and stories different from those that have formed us; and this is indicative that our own humanity is not circumscribed to our origin, to our home, to our people. We also recognize ourselves in the representations and stories of others to the extent that we glimpse in them a sliver of value and meaning, because this is, in the end, what touches the core of our humanity. And in this we also have a sample of the way in which, from an always particular and local origin, an individuality is forged.

Indeed: the structure of our subjectivity is defined by the desire for value and meaning; our very way of being and living is, in a very fundamental sense, a desire to acquire stature and understanding, and in this consists both the soul of culture and the forging of the individual personality: if culture resonates emotionally in us it is only because acquiring stature and understanding is part of our way of being in a very deep sense, something like a desire that precedes the reflective task itself. Kant spoke of the "interests of reason", and noted that neither animals, lacking reason, nor a purely intellectual being, lacking sensitive impulses, would have what we call "interests". If reason has interests, it is only because it is a finite, human reason: proper to a being affected by inclinations. The questions that, according to Kant, condense the ultimate interests of reason - what can I know, what must I do, what can I hope for, and ultimately written request, what is man - give meaning to human endeavor and find symbolic expression in the vast world of culture.

From this point of view, emotional attunement to certain cultural works would in fact reflect a special cultivation of our humanity, precisely with regard to questions of value and meaning. This is due to the very reflexive nature of emotion, which is at the basis of its relationship to identity.  

It is obvious, in fact, that the emotions of any given subject are related to the nature of that subject: the sight of the wolf provokes different emotional reactions in the sheep and in the bear. Something similar to a certain extent can be said of different human beings: different people react differently to the same melody (in fact some do not react at all), not only according to organic causes, but also according to previous experiences and Education . Certainly, emotional reactions to a given piece of music can depend on many causes; not the least of which is having some musical culture. Whether, as Bourdieu has argued, having or not such a culture is also indicative of other things -social position, status, etc., which give familiarity with the rules of the game to which the definition of a given artistic field is due- is another matter. It is clear that those who, in certain contexts, say that they like Falla's music say many things about themselves, about who they are or who they pretend to be, that do not necessarily have to do with Falla's music per se, but rather with the associations of cultural or social status that this taste evokes.

Contexts and cultural practices predispose our emotional reactions in one way or another. That entrance in a museum predisposes us to value a piece as a work of art, while that same piece in the street leaves us indifferent, certainly speaks to us of cultural practices that predispose us in a certain way, and, incidentally, questions conventional expectations about art -for example, that it should be limited to reproducing beautiful things in predetermined places and times-. However, the fact that contemporary art has been consistently questioning these expectations is indicative of how, by arousing certain emotions, it seeks above all to provoke a reflection and a conversation about the practices that, as a society, we take for granted. In this way, by summoning its public, it contributes to recreating society.