Our Emotional Makeup: Ethnopsychology and Selfhood (Book Review)

Author:  Despret, Vinciane
Publisher: Other Press, 2004
Reviewed By: Geneva Reynaga-Abiko, PsyD, Vol. 26 (2), 45-48

As can be ascertained by the title, this book focuses on emotions. Despret has written an incredibly thorough text about a topic that is frequently taken for granted. It is both philosophically and psychologically grounded, and the reader is provided with an entire history of how emotions have been treated theoretically. The book begins with a question that many of us may be wondering: “How can what we think of as so obvious be the object of such an incredible accumulation of theories, proliferation of written work, definitions, explanations and controversies?” (p. 4). Despret spends the rest of the text answering this question.

In the first chapter, we are given an introduction of sorts, in which we come to understand that “…we fabricate our emotions so that they will produce us” (p. 20). In this way, we are inextricably bound to them, as they create us as much as we create them. Any kind of theoretical understanding is only an attempt to answer a question by taking all of the meaning out of emotion. Science (psychology and neuroscience) assumes that it is investigating emotions through experiments and laboratory research; while instead, science is constructing emotions with an a priori assumption that emotion and reason, pace Plato, are binary states. As a result, it is not surprising that scientific research focuses on the need to control passion, i.e., to reduce emotions to the control of reason.

The next chapter, “The ‘True Nature’ of Emotion,” gives a history of how emotions have been understood. Despret spends a lot of time discussing how, until the end of the 1970s, emotions were understood as psychobiological processes that could be read in the body and that were impervious to culture and society. The laboratory chose to control “culture” as an extraneous variable that tainted “true” emotions. It is a point well taken that, although researchers thought they were producing emotions in their research participants and achieving results that were “universal” and “generalizable,” this was not actually the case:

It [the psychology lab] is defined as a place of universalization, that is to say, a neutral system, a place that is true everywhere and for everything. It is not defined for what it really is and what it is for those who are invited there, that is, a social place characterized by its reference to science in which emotions and the possibilities of what they may be could be negotiated. The presupposition of the universality of emotions, as much as the way in which the lab constructs and defines the connections, thereafter frequently led the researcher to delete things and events “that count” from his research, as much for the one to whom his questions were directed as for all those he was not questioning. (p. 79)

This is an idea that is very important to think about, as much of what we are taught in traditional psychology training programs is based on the notion that quantitative, laboratory-based research is the only way to produce trustworthy results. While psychoanalysts have not typically fallen into this trap, as they utilize case studies and more qualitatively based research designs, the fact remains that in order to be deemed credible, one must utilize quantitative methods in the lab.

The next chapter delves further into this idea, and Despret tears apart the myth that the lab is a “neutral place.” We spend an entire chapter reading about how impossible it is to assume that research participants are doing anything other than what is expected of them:

The lab is not a neutral place, it is a social place laden with expectations, the researcher’s and the subject’s trying to guess those of the researcher. The mere fact of calling them ‘subjects’ already suggests to them how they should behave and places them in a specific connection of the social relationship, stamped with knowledge and authority, stamped also with the asymmetry of the roles. (p. 85)

This is interesting not only as it relates to the so-called scientific method, but also because it is this kind of philosophy that has formed the basis of the psychological theories that inform current practice. It is even more relevant when one considers the recent push in the field to focus on treatment that is “empirically supported.”

What kind of philosophy are we abiding by when practicing according to models that force our patients to talk about what is wrong with them? Despret likens this to repeating the torture that brought them into treatment in the first place:

…the biases on which our psychotherapeutic models are based prevent us from seeing the violence we exercise upon ‘others,’ and this even more seriously so when these ‘others’ not only come from different cultural worlds but were victims of torture there. The Western model…based on the omnipotence of affects, as a last resort ends up by repeating the torture, since it is all about ‘making [the patient] talk’ by repeating the violence of the intrusion. Seeking the truth of the repressed affects—as if the confessed emotion would permit the attainment of an authenticity of being—then takes on forms that are very similar to those of torture and confession. (p. 115)

One may call such behavior voyeuristic, though, of course, we are convinced that this is “helpful” and ultimately guiding our patients toward mental health. But what if it isn’t? What if talking about emotions is not the best way to recover from them? This idea is controversial and frightening, in that it goes against everything that we have come to believe as practicing psychologists.

The next chapter takes us away from these anxiety-provoking ideas and into a discussion about Plato and the controlling of passion. This is where the idea begins that we must contain those who fall prey to passion, or those who are uncontrollable, on the verge of rioting, etc. Despret makes the point that this is just another way of controlling people:

Speaking…of the necessity for controlling passions is speaking of managing those to whom the sad privilege of these passions is attributed; it is speaking of and stigmatizing those who cannot “contain themselves” as a danger. Speaking of controlling or managing emotions proves to be first and foremost nothing but a way of speaking of the duality of nature of those who are the particular target of this discourse. It is a nature that is experienced both as weak and as dangerous, that is to say, the nature of dominated groups. In other words, speaking of emotional control is one way of speaking about power and the exercise of power. (p. 153)

Is this not what we see in the way psychoanalysis is targeted as a treatment for the upper echelon of society, or those who can afford it? Is this not played out in those who have access to giving voice to their troubles and those who do not? Is not having the money to pay someone to listen to you speak the same as not having the right to?

The next chapter focuses on what emotions are like when seen for how they truly are: socially based, full of culture, and not easily contained. In this way, they represent what is going on in the world. Despret gives a historical account of emotions that used to exist but that no longer do, given that they are no longer relevant in modern times. This is an interesting idea, and this chapter helps us understand just how bound by culture emotions truly are.

The final chapter is simultaneously a conclusion as well as an introduction of sorts. It gives a summary of the text while also providing a rationale for the entire work. Despret talks about misunderstanding and translation as a way of reinventing new possibilities and new ways of understanding each other. We end with the promise of hope in our endeavors with emotion:

I am confident. I know what the confidence we may grant ourselves and upon which we can confer ourselves, may arouse: by contrast, this is shown in what a scientist’s lack of confidence vis-à-vis his subject can produce when loyalty to the ambition of practicing science reduces the subject to silence and ignorance. Not only does this confidence change the access to what we want to know and what we are examining, but it is also what saves humor from irony, astonishment from cynicism; it is what allows risk, hesitation, perplexity, and tolerance for the undetermined. This is the confidence I can see at work in translation and it is also what saves version from theme. It is what provides the courage to resist the motif of separation. It is what makes versions of knowledge into versions of passion: amazement, humor, love, interest, and curiosity. I am confident. Or rather, confidence has won me over. (p. 302)

In this work, we are taken on an historical and philosophical journey about how emotions have been theorized and researched in a way that is meant to control and maintain the status quo. While this may not be suggested in its title, Despret has written a convincing text about the exclusion of culture and the continued oppression of certain people throughout time. Although the material is dense and sometimes difficult to follow, it was validating to find such words in print, as this subject is not often discussed in the psychological or psychoanalytic literature.

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