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Show Some Emotion

The doomed quest to taxonomize human feelings

My dad, when asked about his emotional state, is likely to say “hungry” or “cold,” maybe “tired.” Once, frustrated after being gently mocked for this kind of response, he asked—in all seriousness—if there was some list of feelings he could consult. This request has led, to his even greater frustration, to yet more gentle mocking. But he is far from alone in his wish for a catalog of emotions.

Perhaps the most famous emotional taxonomy is Paul Ekman’s list of “universal basic emotions.” Beginning in the 1960s, Ekman, a research psychologist, conducted cross-cultural studies aimed at demonstrating that certain emotions are universal—that is, that they are inborn rather than learned, consistent across cultures and contexts. His work built on Charles Darwin’s 1872 book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, which argued that emotional expressions were vestiges of once-useful evolutionary behaviors (scowling when angry, for instance, may be a vestige of the impulse to curl the lips and bare fangs).

Ekman’s most famous experiments involved showing people from different cultures photos of faces and asking the participants to match each facial expression to an emotion. Based on this research, he argued that there are six distinct universal basic emotions—anger, surprise, disgust, happiness, fear, and sadness. (Ekman has sometimes suggested that there are seven basic emotions, adding contempt, and many who support his general framework have suggested that there are five, removing surprise; other groups of researchers building on his initial research have proposed that there are as many as fifteen or twenty-seven). In the popular imagination—and with Ekman’s encouragement—these six so-called “basic emotions” have often been interpreted as representing the entirety of emotional experience.

Ekman conducted cross-cultural studies aimed at demonstrating that certain emotions are universal.

Ekman’s work was controversial from the start. In an essay on his trajectory as a researcher, he recounts that during a presentation of his research at the American Anthropological Association in the late 1960s, a colleague shouted that he was a fascist. His research, many argue, does not make space for the role of cultural differences and learned behavior, and it leans too heavily on the idea of biology as destiny; his suggestion that interior states can be easily read through the face has traces of phrenology. Worryingly, this latter concern has affected Ekman’s work with the TSA, the Department of Defense, and other institutions, where his theory is incorporated into AI models and surveillance techniques—many of which have demonstrable racial biases. His research has also been criticized on methodological grounds: his studies adopted a forced-choice paradigm, where participants were given limited words and limited photos to match. The photos used were the ones Ekman personally felt best displayed each of his “basic emotions” while more ambiguous expressions were excluded, and these images were of simulated emotional expressions rather than authentic emotional experience.

More recently, the Museum of Contemporary Emotions—a project of the Finnish government’s Finland Forward pandemic communications initiative—picked up Ekman’s work as its scaffolding. The Museum, really an interactive website, is a kind of digital archive of experience during the Covid-19 pandemic, styled with the sans-serif aesthetics of a direct-to-consumer startup and the haunting, echoing soundtrack of a post-apocalyptic Catholic Mass. The events of the pandemic are positioned on a timeline—the discovery of the virus, the toilet paper panic, the ban on events, and so on—and a click on any one of them leads to recorded testimony from Finns about the emotions they experienced at that time, along with data visualizations and quick facts (for instance: “oven-baked dishes were popular during the pandemic”). Each event is also assigned a “dominant fundamental feeling” drawn from Ekman’s six. Remote work is identified with surprise. Coronavirus testing: fear. An anti-racism rally: joy.

The Museum’s vision of emotional life is one in which, at any moment, an individual has a “dominant fundamental feeling” of joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust. This model permits some minimal nuance—the Museum allows that, for instance, “when your dominant fundamental feeling is anger, you may feel betrayed, critical, belittling, irritated, humiliated, jealous, or bitter.” But the framing makes clear that it is ultimately (and often nonsensically—is “humiliated,” for instance, more angry than sad? Was the dominant feeling of the anti-racism protests really joy?) dedicated to the idea that all emotional experiences can be distilled down to one of a finite number of basic emotions.

In doing so, the Museum largely neglects the ways that the emotional experience of the pandemic has been unique and context-dependent—that is, the possibility that it has been an occasion for new feelings. Its simplistic assertion that the “emotional world may be traced back” to Ekman’s six “fundamental” emotions is also in service of a bleak argument: that “by being aware of our emotions, we can regulate them and our behavior more easily.” The Museum eliminates the possibility of mixed emotions and new feelings and, in doing so, makes clear that its central goal is not so much documenting the messiness of emotional experience as disciplining it.

At the same time, the Museum claims that finding words for one’s emotions is important to understanding and communicating those emotions. This is linked to the concept of linguistic relativity, which suggests that language structures and influences our experience of the world. In its strongest form (sometimes called “linguistic determinism” and largely discredited), this theory suggests that we can only feel the emotions we can name—and the Museum, with its insinuation that it is providing the language necessary for participants to understand their emotions, is closer to this end of the spectrum. If it were true that we are only capable of understanding emotions we can name, then the Museum’s provision of just six possibilities would be a serious impediment: with these options to choose from, it may be possible to communicate how you feel, but the content of that communication will be so generalized as to be almost useless.

Another recent online exploration of emotional states, the Emotions Lab, allows for a far more complex picture of the emotional landscape. A project of the Center for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, the Emotions Lab is dedicated to documenting the history of emotions. It features short essays and podcasts on various feelings—including many, like anxiety, nostalgia, compassion, and loneliness, that are not on Ekman’s “basic emotions” list—as well as games. The Lab’s two games are Emotionology—a kind of print-and-play emotional charades—and What Are They Feeling?—a winking variation on Ekman’s research that asks players to match feelings to historical images, meant to illustrate how emotional expression has changed over time. The games are genuinely challenging (one of the faces in What Are They Feeling? was originally intended to depict a grieving man; I thought he was confused), a clear demonstration of the idiosyncrasies of emotional expression.

At the same time, the Lab shares some of the Museum of Contemporary Emotions’ goals. It is funded as part of a project called “Living with Feeling,” which “aims to use history and the humanities to help people articulate and move towards their own well-informed vision of emotional health”—a similarly self-optimizing aim that replicates the Museum’s frustrating insistence on individual responsibility for emotional well-being, despite the Lab’s overall focus on emotional experience’s social, cultural, and historical context.

But, unlike the Museum, the Lab rejects Ekman’s theory outright and implicitly rejects linguistic determinism; its entry for schadenfreude focuses on how the emotion was felt by English-speakers before the German term became familiar in the English-speaking world. Instead, the project aims to demonstrate the ways in which emotional expression, language, and experience have changed over time. The very idea of an evolving history of emotions, and of emotions themselves evolving, suggests that the simplistic approach of the “basic emotions” proponents is at best incomplete. If emotions have a history, they also have a future.

That future is explored by the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, a participatory online artwork “established . . . for the purpose of collecting, translating and creating a new vocabulary for the Anthropocene.” The Bureau’s website features a photo of two women looking out at the grey sea, facing the oncoming climate crisis. Below the photo are white cards featuring user-submitted new words and their definitions. Not every word is an emotion—some explain new experiences, objects, and relations—but many are. For instance, “blissonance” is a feeling of bliss disrupted by the understanding of how the place one is in will be impacted by climate change in the near future; “empathetic blench” is the feeling experienced when one is on the receiving end of a generous gesture whose negative environmental or social impact the receiver understands though the giver may not; “déjà sisyphé” is “a recurring sensation of exhaustion and frustration one experiences during a conversation in the moment they realize they will need to explain again.”

The Bureau recognizes that existing emotional categories, including Ekman’s “basic emotions,” are not sufficient to communicate emergent emotions in an uncertain future. It hopes that, by providing “new words to express what people are feeling and experiencing as our world changes,” they can “facilitate conversations . . . with a view to facilitate a greater cultural shift around climate change.” This hope is a bit naïve—it has been clear for some time that more than conversation is needed if climate change is to be meaningfully addressed. But it is exactly the scale of the ongoing crisis that makes the Bureau’s project compelling. The world is changing, and words alone won’t fix it, but we will need new words for the new feelings these changes will bring.

The Bureau of Linguistical Reality takes the idea that language gives shape to our experience as a given. It explicitly (though “playfully”) embraces the concept of linguistic relativity, arguing that language impacts a speaker’s perception of the world. At the same time, the project, like the Emotions Lab, appears to reject linguistic determinism. The belief that people can feel things they can’t name is inherent in the project’s structure, which invites participants to create new words for the new feelings and experiences brought about by climate change. This invitation assumes that participants have a pre-linguistic understanding of their new feelings. While perhaps more illustrative than useful (I don’t see “blissonance” becoming part of my everyday speech, although it is a feeling I am familiar with), the Bureau recognizes that emotions are necessarily context-dependent and there aren’t yet words to describe the new emotional terrain uncovered by a warming world. In doing so, this project acknowledges an emotional range that needs more language, not less. It takes concerns like my dad’s seriously, trying to give people more words to talk about all the ways they might be feeling, while also recognizing the impossibility of generating a complete list of every emotion.

Finding the right words will not stop climate change or reverse the effects of the pandemic.

The “linguistical reality” of the project’s name, then, refers not only to an individual’s reality, but to a shared, social reality. The Bureau suggests that while we can feel things without naming them, naming them makes them sensible and communicable, to others and also to ourselves. Language gives shape to feeling, concretizes it. It helps us, as the Bureau’s mission statement puts it, to “fully grasp” what we feel. While the Museum of Contemporary Emotions makes a similar argument about language making experience legible and communicable, the Bureau of Linguistical Reality manages to do so while making room for an expansive view of emotions, rather than a limiting one. Perhaps the difference can be attributed to the fact that the Bureau wants to work toward a better world, while the Museum wants to return to a pre-pandemic “normal.” In other words, the Bureau hopes that more language for more feelings can change the future; the Museum hopes that a neatly corralled emotional range can re-establish the past.

All of these projects, to varying extents and to divergent ends, suggest that by cataloguing emotion, we can master it and put it to use. But fully cataloguing emotion is an impossible task—a truth that the Emotions Lab and the Bureau of Linguistical Reality acknowledge, even as they continue building new emotional taxonomies. In The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, a short essay about the arbitrary nature of language and taxonomies, Jorge Luis Borges wrote that “the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe cannot dissuade us from outlining human schemes, even though we are aware that they are provisional.” Emotions are a particularly amorphous element of this divine scheme, so our attempts to catalog them are doomed to be provisional at best, and our attempts at mastery are doomed to fail. Finding the right words will not stop climate change or reverse the effects of the pandemic. Maybe the best we can hope for is to make our strange and messy feelings communicable without reducing their complexity. My dad will never get his list, but sometimes it’s enough to have an answer when someone asks how you feel.