Literature and Social Emotions
University of Bristol, United Kingdom
Friday 22 June 2018

 An interdisciplinary symposium supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Work on the cultural and historical dimensions of emotion in recent decades has argued that all emotions are, to an extent, socially constructed experiences: think of Sara Ahmed’s conceptualisation of the way emotions ‘stick’ to objects in a social context, for example, William Reddy’s theory of normative emotional regimes, or Monique Scheer’s work on emotions as socially learnt practices. In this perspective, to talk about social emotions as a subcategory of emotion might seem tautological, redundant. Yet the term remains of use in scholarship across a range of disciplines, functioning to tease apart emotional experiences with an intrinsic relationship to social appraisal, real or imagined, from so-called basic emotions like happiness or fear. Emotions considered intrinsically social typically include shame, embarrassment, and envy: emotions which may seem non-prestigious, trivial, or in some cases even ‘ugly’ (Sianne Ngai) but which are prevalent and powerful in modern culture.

This symposium seeks to further our understanding of social emotions – remaining attuned to the problems of this label – by focusing on their rapports with literature. Jan Plamper and Sarah McNamer, amongst others, have pointed out that the history of emotions has much to be gained from closer contact with literature as a source. In addition to literary articulations of social emotions, however, this symposium is also interested in how the production and reception of literary works has often been, and still is, inflected by social emotions like guilt or pride. How might this understanding of literary practice as an ‘archive of feeling’ (Ann Cvetkovich) impact on the sociology of literature? Or the history of authorship, or reading?

To stage a mutually beneficial encounter between emotion researchers and literary scholars, this symposium invites papers which explore the history and theory of social emotions (broadly construed) and/or literature as a site of social emotions. Papers can draw on historical or contemporary contexts; perspectives from all areas of the arts, humanities, and social sciences are welcome. The working language of the symposium will be English but global and comparative perspectives are warmly encouraged.

Suggested topics for discussion include, but are not limited to:

  • The history of social emotions, either as a subset or by way of one specific emotion (e.g. shame, shyness, sympathy)
  • Theories of social emotions from philosophy, sociology, psychology, psychiatry
  • The implications, uses, and limits of the ‘social emotions’ as a category
  • Social emotions and links to other emotions or affects
  • Emotion words across time and space
  • The political efficacy or non-efficacy of social emotions
  • Social emotions and the body, gender, and sexuality
  • Literature which thematises or narrativises social emotions
  • The aesthetics of social emotions
  • Archives of social emotions
  • The role of social emotions in literary production, e.g. shame, shyness, guilt, jealousy, or admiration as a function of literary production
  • Reading and social emotions, e.g. guilt or embarrassment as an effect of reading
  • Reading communities
  • Literature and empathy
  • Literature and self-consciousness
  • Cognitive literary studies and social emotions
  • Literature and sociability: social networks between writers, between readers, and between readers and writers, e.g. fan-mail
  • The social emotions of authorship and literary celebrity
  • Social media and social emotions

Please submit abstracts (max. 500 words), along with a brief author biography, to literatureandsocialemotions@gmail.com by January 15th 2018. Enquiries can be sent to the same address.

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