Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Media, Messages and Emotions

By David Luhrssen
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Love and hate, it’s always been the same, right? Not necessarily, according to the authors of Doing Emotions History (University of Illinois Press). As pointed out by the editors of the essay collection, Susan J. Matt and Peter N. Stearns, emotions are biologically and culturally constructed, at least in their human expression. Emotion, not unlike economics, has a history. And the sort of people who try to understand history without reference to emotions are like the deluded economists who believed only in rational self-interest (and helped drive the world economy into the ditch in 2008).

Surprisingly, for a collection of this kind, essays on emotions in China and Eastern Europe, and religion and emotion, aren’t joined by an exploration of how Hollywood has contributed to the construction of contemporary emotionalism. The closest stab comes in the chapter called “Media, Messages, and Emotions” by University of Pittsburgh communications professor Brenton J. Malin. Malin surveys the history of concerns over “emotional over stimulation” that began with Socrates’ worry that the written word “cannot make choices about where and when not to communicate.” He compared written texts to a pharmakon—a drug. Malin quotes a 19th century physician alarmed by that anxiety-inducing new invention, the telegraph, because of its potential for delivering unexpected news at unexpected moments. If correct, then imagine how batty today’s texting addicts must be!

In 1916 American psychologist Hugo Munsterberg aptly noted, “to picture emotions must be the central aim of the photoplay,” and hoped the conventions of theater wouldn’t hinder the development of cinema along those lines.

On the other side, the psychologists who wrote the monographs collected as the Payne Fund Motion Picture Studies (1933) evoked Socrates by comparing the effects of movies to a drug. As with the drugs prescribed by physicians, motion pictures can offer escape from life’s pain, but the “continuous or frequently repeated emotional stress” of movie plots and images “lead to a neurotic condition.” Too many movies can drive you nuts? Just glance at what’s gone viral on You Tube for evidence.

The Payne Studies led to the prevailing trend in psychology of imagining that mass communication transmits ideas or images to more or less passive recipients—like stimuli to zombies. The distance is short from this hypothesis to the notion that listening to Black Sabbath records turns teens into killer occultists. The Payne Studies helped foster such reductive and anti-humanistic claptrap by attaching “psycho-galvonometers” to test subjects watching movies in a lab. In the minds of some scientists, this registered as proof. But as is often the case, scientific evidence is in the minds of the interpreter.

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