Being Human, Emotionality and Everyday Life

My last few posts on Being Human have looked at Archer’s account of the emotions. She argues that affectivity should be understood as relational, emerging as commentaries on human concerns (understood generically as bodily well-being, performative competence and social self-worth) rooted in nature, practice and sociality. In each case affectivity arises as part of our engagement in different relations: body/environment, subject/object and subject/subect. In short: our environment gives us feedback and that feedback matters to us.

However once affectivity is analytically delineated in terms of the natural, practical and social orders then an immediate questions ensues as to the emergent relations between different forms of affect. Archer argues that we “have to live and attempt to thrive in the three orders simultaneously” and that this entails we “must necessarily in some way and to some degree attend to all three clusters of commentaries” (Archer 2000: 220). However nothing guarantees that the commentaries cohere and conflict frequently arises between them:

Nothing guarantees that the three sets of first-order emotions dovetail harmoniously, and therefore it follows that the concerns to which they relate cannot all be promoted without conflict arising between them. Hence, an evasive response to the promptings of physical fear can threaten social self-worth by producing cowardly acts; cessation of an activity in response to boredom in the practical domain can threaten physical well-being; and withdrawal as a response to social shaming may entail a loss of livelihood. In other words, momentary attention to pressing commentaries may literally produce instant gratification of concerns in one order, but it is a recipe for disaster since have no alternative but to inhabit the three orders simultaneously, and none of their concerns can be bracketed-away for long. It is only on rather rare occasions that a particular commentary has semi-automatic priority – escaping a fire, undertaking a test or getting married. Most of the time, each person has to work out their own modus vivendi within the three orders. (Archer 2000: 220)

Archer’s point is not that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ but rather that it is unliveable. On this view to remain at the level of first-order affectivity is a pathological state, such as arises from addiction or trauma. This can sound like an excessively strong claim but it’s important to realise how deeply mundane the process of ‘striking a balance’ between natural, practical and social affectivity is on her view:

What it entails is striking a liveable balance within our trinity of inescapable concerns. This modus vivendi can prioritise one of the three orders of reality, as with someone who is said to ‘live for their art’, but what it cannot do is entirely to neglect the other order. Thus it is significant that enclosed congregations of religious, who are said to have renounced the world’, all had Constitutions which minutely proscribed bodily relations (food, sleep, clothing, bathing, walking, custody of the eyes etc.) and closely regulated social relations (recreation, friendships, family contact, visiting etc.). Most of us have to work it out for ourselves, and the difficulties we experience probably account for public curiosity about how prominent personalities have done it – how long does the Prime Minister sleep, how hard does the Princess work-out, or even how does the President care for his dog? We know what questions to ask because, as fellow human beings, we know the problems that have to be resolved. (Archer 2000: 221)

To this we might add the fascination with the daily routines of writers, thinkers and artists. I find sites like Daily Routines so interesting because of what they reveal about the person who has produced the work we encounter – they shed light on how the mundanities of everyday life are organised, rather than addressing authors through the often nebulous frames of history or personality. We all organise our everyday lives in a way which is so continual and quotidian that we often fail to notice it and even less frequently discuss it in any sustained way. It most frequently arises in discursive consciousness when we begin to live with others, particularly when our investments in the different orders clash e.g. arguments about keeping shared spaces clean.

However this still leaves the question of what ‘striking a balance’ entails. Archer’s answer to this distinguishes between first-order emotionality and second-order emotionality. This is something I’ll address more comprehensively in my next post about the book. More briefly though, the important notion invoked here is transvaluation. Archer’s account of second-order emotionality is heavily influenced by Charles Taylor, with the crucial caveat that she criticises his view of emotionality as a ‘moral direction finder’ in its conflation of human concerns and emotional commentaries upon them. While she accepts that “emotions are undoubtedly of moral significance because they provide the shoving power to achieve any ends at all, their goals (intensional objects) may be completely unethical” and she challenges Taylor’s ethical intuitionism (Archer 2000: 225).

There is much that can usefully be gleaned from Taylor’s discussion of transvaluation per se to contribute towards an account of the emergence of second-order emotionality. (This is particularly the cause because transvaluation paradoxically dwells upon our emotional fallibility rather than upon the intuitive acuity of emotions.) Tranvaluation entails progressive articulations of our first-order emotions,. To begin with many initial feelings may remain fairly inarticulate, such as a diffuse feeling of guilt about our relations with an elderly parent. In such cases we may seek further understanding, by interrogation of self and of circumstances, and through this the feeling may be transformed one way or another. It might dissipate upon further inspection; it may intensify as we appreciate the significance of neglect; or it could diminish if we find that to do more would be to the detriment of other duties: ‘hence we can see that our feelings incorporate a certain articulation of our situation, that is, they presuppose that we characterise our situation in certain terms. But at the same time they admit of – and very often we feel that they call for – further articulation, the elaboration of finer terms permitting more penetrating characterisation. And this further articulation can in turn transform the feeling.‘ (Archer 2000: 226) [italics are Archer quoting Taylor’s Human Agency and Language pp. 63-4).

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