Emojis! Feminism! Rage! Sociologist Billy Holzberg joins us to talk about emotion. Why is it dismissed as an obstacle to progress and clear thinking – and to whose benefit? How can we let anger into politics without sanctioning far-right violence? And why are some of us freer than others to play with emotional abjection? Billy reflects on all this and more with Alexis and Rosie, celebrating thinkers from Sara Ahmed to Karl Marx, W.E.B. Du Bois to Yasmin Gunaratnam.
Billy also reflects on queerness, childhood and shame; the emotional precarity of TV’s Fleabag; the playfulness of emojis; and the desperate but subversive power of the hunger striker. Plus: a welcome clarification of the slippery line between affect and emotion.
Guest: Billy Holzberg
Hosts: Rosie Hancock, Alexis Hieu Truong
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker
Find more about Uncommon Sense at The Sociological Review.
Billy, Rosie, Alexis and our producer Alice recommended
From The Sociological Review
By Billy Holzberg
Rosie Hancock 0:03
Hi, welcome back to Uncommon Sense from The Sociological Review. I'm Rosie Hancock in Sydney, Australia.
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:10
And I'm Alexis Hieu Truong. Normally in Ottawa, Canada, but today I'm in Quebec City. So, each month with a new guest, we look sideways at themes that seem kind of simple, and we talk our way through it to see it differently, more critically, really.
Rosie Hancock 0:26
Yeah, it's about seeing our world through the eyes of sociologists. And you know, not that we're saying there's just one way of thinking sociologically, of course – but I think it's possible to say that there are certain things sociologists do share – like an awareness of social structure, of relationships, or concern for thinking beyond the individual. And this week, we're talking about something you might think isn't that sociological at all – emotion. Alexis, what do you think of when I say emotion? Emojis? Emo music? Perhaps some kind of sappy romantic movie? Or something more serious?
Alexis Hieu Truong 1:02
Hmm, actually, I feel like I'm getting emotional talking about emotion, but not really. Like, for example, recently, my eyes watered up while I was in a, like, super serious meeting to talk about my research. And I made a reference to the time we had spent with our eldest kid in the intensive care unit when he was born. And I was like "Is my face leaking?" And I apologised, like, profusely because it didn't feel like the time in place to shed tears. Yeah. But I guess thinking about it – my heart and my emotions always feel kind of one step ahead of my mind. And I feel like they're a central part of how I experience the world. And how about you, Rosie?
Rosie Hancock 1:42
I mean, crying at work, I ... Yep, that rings a bell for me. I'm one of those people who cry when they're frustrated, or angry or afraid, or, in fact, even really embarrassed. So that's kind of a vicious circle there. And crying at work has absolutely happened to me in the past, and it's a total nightmare. But I guess what you said Alexis, about how you tried to hide the emotional impact of what you went through, does point to a couple of things. So, the fact that we often think of the emotional as something a bit overblown, or beyond us, while being at the same time the real us, which is weird – and also that we see it as something that's supposed to be hidden away from the rational or professional life. So yeah, let's be honest, who hasn't ever accused their partner or their siblings of being emotional? It's sort of like a bit of a put down, a byword for "irrational" or "excessive" and a way to tell someone they're being unreasonable.
Alexis Hieu Truong 2:39
Well, we're here with Billy Holzberg, who can set us straight on how sociologists think about emotion, and how he thinks about it, particularly with reference to social justice – which is what much of his work is about. He's based at King's College London, but today, he joins us from Berlin. Hi, Billy.
Billy Holzberg 2:56
Rosie Hancock 2:57
Billy Holzberg 2:58
Thanks for having me today.
Rosie Hancock 2:59
Look, since we're talking about emotion, today, we thought we'd put you on the spot and ask that rather ubiquitous question. How are you? Or more accurately? How are you feeling today?
Billy Holzberg 3:09
Yeah, I'm good. Very, very excited to be here. Yeah, of course, also, a little nervous and anxious for doing a first podcast. And maybe we can start even with this emotion, and thinking about it sociologically of, like ... where those feelings might come from?
Rosie Hancock 3:24
Yeah, where do they come from?
Billy Holzberg 3:26
Well, I was thinking about it – because I was thinking about for this podcast, right – we normally think of them, I guess, more through a psychological lens. So we think of them as something highly individual – personal, may be shaped by our childhood – but kind of the most inner part of our subjectivity. And I guess, from a sociological perspective, we think more about how emotions are shaped and maybe even produced by social structures, social relations and institutions. So, if I take the example of preparing for this podcast this morning, I was thinking about "okay, how am I feeling?" I was excited, but also kind of nervous and anxious, right? Okay. So where does that come from? A sociological take would be to think of that as part of the social relationships. So, me as a junior academic speaking on quite an important sociological podcast, a big venue – all kinds of chances to embarrass myself, to maybe discredit my career, my responsibility as a scholar in the field – so there's something about that relation, and this being part of a certain labour relation even, that produces these forms of emotions. And of course, then they also have a social effect. So, I guess, the anxiety made me prepare a bit more, it led to kind of me being potentially more productive. It could have also led to other reactions though, right?
Rosie Hancock 4:45
Billy Holzberg 4:45
Maybe I could have been so anxious that I could have refused to do this. I could have called in sick and the last moment, right? So, something unexpected could have happened.
Rosie Hancock 4:52
If it makes you feel any better, when I started doing this podcast, I was also really nervous and anxious, particularly because we get to talk to such interesting people with really interesting expertise and, as an academic, you're always a little bit focused on your niche – and I always am scared that I'm going to make a fool of myself by saying something really silly about someone else's area of research. But also, I'm also excited because later in the show, we're going to be talking about the popular TV show "Fleabag" and what it tells us about emotion, and we're also going to dig into your own take on emotion in just a moment. So, you know, you've already kind of laid some foundations there – because there's been so many attempts to study and categorise emotion – and it's something one might assume belongs to the psychologists, like you've sort of mentioned. And there's that influential psychologist Paul Ekman, who suggested there are a handful of key emotions – things like anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, sadness, etc. But, you've already done a really good kind of discussion about why sociologists are interested in emotion. But one thing I wanted to ask is, can you explain how emotion differs from affect? Because, I feel like "affect" is a word that pops up all the time in sociology, and I have definitely used it as a synonym for emotion. And I feel like maybe I've made a mistake there. So, can you correct me or tell me what I'm supposed to be doing?
Billy Holzberg 6:15
Yeah, that's, I mean, that's the million dollar question. And my understanding of it, or one way of thinking about it is that affect is often used to think about more messy, unordered, spontaneous forms of feeling that might not have a clear name or shape, compared to emotions, that are often thought about as more kind of formed or consciously available understandings of how we feel. So, anger, love, hatred – right? – those are kind of clearly demarcated emotions. So, affect is more like a certain weird feeling of unease or of something kind of unexpected happening. And there was a lot of hope, in sociology in the last years that – thinking more about affect in this kind of wild, messy form – would open up new analysis and would bring us to kind of different, yeah, more unexpected understandings of how the social world operates.
Rosie Hancock 7:06
Billy Holzberg 7:06
Whether that has come true or not, is another question.
Rosie Hancock 7:09
Okay. Well, that's helpful. I might definitely kind of work on precision, when I'm talking about emotion and affect. But we've already kind of mentioned, I think, in the intro, where Alexis and I were talking about it – and also in your response, as well – like, this fear of the emotional. I mean, why is that? Why do we have this feeling that emotion gets in the way of progress, essentially?
Billy Holzberg 7:31
I guess, a common narrative in sociology would be to think about how this comes about – particularly with Enlightenment ideas – that put a strong emphasis on rationality and reason as the way forward for a more kind of democratic and just society, which has led to all kinds of binaries of reason being superior to emotion, culture superior to nature ... So, this emphasis on reason and rationality has also come about with certain gendered, classed, and raced power hierarchies, though. So, in those binaries you also get this idea that the subjects that are really able to have those capabilities of rational thought were historically thought about as propertied white men. And also, those ideas have played a key role in the development of modern race science and colonialism, with the idea that racialised and colonised people don't have access to the same ways of rational thought and are "too emotional". And those racist and sexist ideas kind of come to haunt the ways that we think about emotions. And I think that's also how this threat is attached to it – that emotion is something that could disrupt the power structures as we know them.
Alexis Hieu Truong 8:53
What you're saying is really helping us understand how these emotions are defined and coded differently, right? And, I guess, it really helps us to think about what we mean when we use this word – emotion. And I use the word "we" here, and perhaps highlighting the fact that who we are, and how we express and read emotion really varies across cultures, doesn't it? I mean, it's kind of "anthropology 101", but can you give us a bit more detail about that?
Billy Holzberg 9:25
Yeah. I mean, I guess, in the more psychological frame, there's this idea that emotions are universal. So, you have these basic emotions and they are the same everywhere, whatever time or whatever place you go to. Whereas the sociological and anthropological understanding would be that emotions of course, vary, right? There are certain emotions that were part of particular historical periods or that are different in different locations. So, even just being here in Berlin, I'm always struck by how, for instance, certain expressions of anger or outrage or objection to certain things are much more allowed to happen in public space than they are, for instance, in London, right? Small differences – but still a different kind of emotional style that the city has. So, a sociological perspective will be very much about trying to understand how particular emotional styles or ways of experiencing emotion come about in particular periods. With, of course, the caveat that – given that this idea of who is emotional and who isn't play a key role in kind of racial formations – there's also a danger of national stereotypes; of like, "oh, British people feel like this", whereas, I don't know, "East Asian people have flat emotion" ... So, those ideas that play a key role in, for instance, how anti-Asian racism operates. I think we have to be very careful in the way that we do that, as sociologists or anthropologists.
Alexis Hieu Truong 10:53
I think it was in the first episode, I mentioned that I had a brother who passed away; and my father is actually from Vietnam, and he moved to Canada when he was 18. And when my brother passed away, I think it's the only time that I saw my father shed a tear. And I know that he's experienced great sadness, right? But because he doesn't really demonstrate that overtly, it's led some people to ask, like, "is he alright?" Like, "is he handling it okay?" Or like, "is he feeling normal? Because he's not showing sadness." So, definitely, from a first person point of view, I've seen how those stereotypes about how certain people from certain nations experience emotion play out in our interactions.
Rosie Hancock 11:42
And it's also the fact that emotion – how it's expressed and categorised and interpreted – doesn't only vary across cultures, but of course, within cultures as well. So, thinking about ableism, and this huge neurodiversity within every society, and I guess the expression of "emotion would change with how your brain works". In other words, there are loads of things that shape how we express emotion, and to say that it's a function alone with niche of national culture would be kind of crazy, I guess.
Billy Holzberg 12:15
Yeah... Well, you can also think of other dimensions such as gender, right? So, I mean, you were raising the example for instance of not seeing your father crying necessarily, right? That also might have to do with certain gender norms. Right?
Alexis Hieu Truong 12:25
Yes. So echoing on that the construction of how we feel or express emotions based on gender, for example, can you tell us how has the sociology of emotion grown in recent decades? I've read that it took a bit of a leap in the 70s and 80s, and I'm guessing that was partly linked to feminism and the recognition that the personal is political. Is that at least part of the story?
Billy Holzberg 12:50
I think that's definitely part of the story. I think that's definitely this idea that, yeah, the personal is political, and that we need to pay close attention to emotions in order to understand social life – definitely comes out of feminists; and then later on also queer thinking, as well as a lot of anti-racist work that has been looking at emotions for a long time and the kind of emotional life that also forms of racism produce. And it's often kind of attributed to the 70s, which is quite interesting, because when you think about sociology, in many ways, sociology has been thinking about emotions from its beginning. So, if you think about someone like Karl Marx, he is trying to understand, for instance, what forms of feeling capitalism creates. So, this idea of alienation, for instance – as of workers being alienated from their work, from their colleagues, from the product of their own labour – and the kind of misery that that creates is a key part of sociological thinking. Or W. E. B. Du Bois, early on, thinks about the emotional lives that racism creates, and these forms of double consciousness that racialised – particularly black people – experience in dominant white society. So yeah, it's surprising that there was this weird moment where kind of sociology lost track of it, and it kind of took till the 70s to really kind of come back to that.
Rosie Hancock 14:18
So, gradually, we've seen more recognition that the emotions we express in public aren't necessarily just "natural" – whatever we might mean by that. They are instead social and culturally conditioned. They depend on time, place, context, on our relationships, etc. And I know that you really wanted to talk about Arlie Hochschild's concept of "feeling rules" from the late 70s or early 80s?
Billy Holzberg 14:42
Well, I think it's one of the early concepts in the sociology of emotion. And I think it's just then a good starting point to think about how emotions might be social. So, it's this idea of social norms that shape how we come to express, but also how we actually come to feel certain emotions. For instance, one example you can think about is a funeral. Right? When you're at a funeral, you're kind of expected to be sad, and to be quiet and to be mournful. And that's something of how you express your emotion, but also something that you, yourself, will want to feel, right? If you feel angry – or if you will have to laugh or have a different emotional response – you will feel weird about that, right? So you have internalised those kinds of social feeling rules and those norms, that then also comes to shape your own emotional responses.
Rosie Hancock 15:35
Okay, so, on this point of feeling rules – this reminds me of being in Varanasi in India a few years back. And I was staying really close to the burning ghats – in fact, my hotel was on one of the burning ghats. And, you know – I was a young and impressionable 24 year old – and seeing, like, days of ritual that went into kind of the Hindu ceremonies, chanting for days beforehand, processing through the streets with the body, the burning on the funeral pyre; but then also the way in which the families, the immediate families, would then immerse themselves in the Ganges. And it was just such a revelation to me as someone from a family with a background in England – so, that kind of stiff upper lip emotional register. And, you know, it just kind of shows how the expression of emotion is so culturally contingent, which is bought out in the work of Yasmin Gunaratnam, and her book "Death and the Migrant" – which is an ethnography set in London, in a London hospice, where different cultures and particularly cultures of grief meet in a single space.
Billy Holzberg 16:41
Yeah. And I'd just recommend to everyone to read that book. Because it's also very interesting in thinking about how to study emotionally from a methodological perspective. How do we document or capture something as complex as emotional life? And how then also, do we communicate that to the reader, right? And I think, Yasmin Gunaratnam does some very beautiful work with narrative interviews, with life stories, with participant observation, and also then in the writing, kind of combining storytelling, kind of like short stories, with sociological analysis.
Alexis Hieu Truong 17:15
We've kind of looked a bit at how our understanding of emotion has changed over time, and varies across disciplines and authors. But I understand that your interest in emotion really grew out around the time of 2015 or 2016. Can you tell us why?
Billy Holzberg 17:33
Yeah. I mean, that's at least when it intensified. And I think it's a moment where a lot of social scientists started to pay even more attention to emotion, right? That was the moment of the Brexit vote, of Trump – there was a lot of talk about how forms of resentment, colonial nostalgia, nationalist feelings are growing and are shaping the political sphere. So, that was really when I started to kind of look at it. And I then particularly looked at how emotions get mobilised in migration and border politics, particularly in Germany, around the so called "Long summer of migration" of 2015, where there were a lot of appeals to different forms of emotions – from anger to empathy and hope.
Rosie Hancock 18:17
So, Billy, you're interested in the work that emotion – it's invocation, its identification, its kind of stirring up – can do in terms of social change, politics, and crucially, social justice. And I mean, that's literally in your job title – you are a lecturer in social justice. But can you tell us what emotion actually has to do with social justice? Some would say that one is about policy, and the other is perhaps about the personal?
Billy Holzberg 18:45
That's a really good question. And, I guess, from our conversation, we already have a sense now that emotions are key to reproducing the social order. And they're also key to how it can be changed. So, I think paying close attention to emotions, then, is a way into thinking about how we can enact more just social futures. And yeah, actually, that if we don't pay attention to emotion, I think we're not going to get very far. So, if you think about something like the Brexit vote, you can, for instance, think about what Paul Gilroy – the culture theorist – has talked about as post-colonial nostalgia and these ideas of "longing for Britain" – that "again, will matter in the world". And that goes back to certain kinds of imperial ambitions, and how that might have played a very important role in getting people to vote for Brexit. So, I think, without a clearer understanding of how that operates, we can do very little to contest these social processes.
Alexis Hieu Truong 19:43
So, we're talking more about how emotion really do something in the world. And you're interested in that with regards to the politics of migration – along with people like Ala Sirriyeh and Carolyn Pedwell, who work on things like compassion and empathy. And you pointed out that emotions we think of as a positive – let's say, for example, empathy – aren't always so simple in that kind of context. Can you explain that a bit?
Billy Holzberg 20:11
Yeah. So, I think a lot of NGOs, activist organisations will try to foster or call for more empathy towards people coming to Europe. So, one of the things, for instance, that I do in the book that I'm writing at the moment is to think about what this actually does; and to what extent it undoes the power relations that are in the way of a kind of more just society – and to what extent it cements it. And, I think, empathy has that problem, that it still keeps the power relations of the person who is giving the "gift of empathy" to the person who is receiving that gift of empathy intact. So, the person who receives that gift of empathy still has to perform and appeal to whatever sensibilities, likes or desires that the subject – the giver of empathy – has.
Rosie Hancock 21:01
Hmm. Well on the subject of emotion and power – and thinking about how we can maybe change the game a bit, and tell different stories – I know, Billy, you're really influenced by the important work of Sara Ahmed – including her thinking around what she calls "sticky emotions". Can you just unpack a bit why that concept in particular is relevant for you?
Billy Holzberg 21:22
Yeah, so Sarah Ahmed has this really fascinating idea of emotions being "sticky", and that they stick to particular bodies. So, she in particular talks about how discourses around migration – in the post 9/11 world – often get conflated with discussions around counterterrorism. So, this idea of "bogus asylum seekers being terrorists coming into the country", and how a lot of those discourses stick the emotion of fear to the body of, especially, the racialised migrant – so that a lot of people will be read as a threat to the nation. And that that's not the kind of natural process, but a social and historical one that has clear effects on also how policies, how more kind of violent border regimes can be enforced.
Alexis Hieu Truong 22:17
Actually, relating to the question of migration, also, you've been writing about hunger strikes. Can you tell us a bit about that in relation to emotion?
Billy Holzberg 22:26
Yeah. I think hunger strikes are an interesting ... So, I look at that in the relation of a politics of empathy, and as potentially a different register of how we can think [about] solidarity, through kind of an emotion of relation. Because what happens in hunger strikes, I think, is not so much – and I'm talking very much about hunger strikes by people who come to Europe, often in refugee camps, often asking for better conditions or for citizenship or making political demands, becoming political subjects in that process. So, what happens in those hunger strikes is a reversal of these power dynamics that I just described, right? So, in many ways, it's the people staging the hunger strike, to ask for emotional reactions that are on their terms. And they don't have to appeal to ideas of being the victim, of being nice and innocent people who deserve this gift of empathy, but they become political subjects who make certain demands.
Rosie Hancock 23:29
What you're saying there really brings to mind the work of Ashjan Ajour, who also works on hunger strikes, and she's written on hunger strikes and "the technologies of the resistant body" – it's a quote. And her forthcoming book actually looks at Palestinian hunger strikes. So, it's clear that hunger strikes is something we could really talk about a lot more here. But crucially, early feminist thinkers like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, have long taught us that the emotional shouldn't be – and indeed isn't – distinct from the political; and instead it needs to be revalued or de-gendered and de-racialised, and then more readily welcomed into politics. We need space for rage and anger. Can you fill us in a bit on that idea?
Billy Holzberg 24:15
Yeah, I think what particularly black feminist scholars, like Audrey Lorde, really point out, is also the question of whose emotions are allowed to be part of public life and political life? So, she writes about how – when emotions are sticky – how particular emotions of fear, for instance, have also been stuck to black women in particular. They're seen as too aggressive, as too angry, as being outside of public and political life. So, she very much contests that, and has this beautiful essay on the "Uses of Anger" – where she talks about how anger carries a lot of energy and information, and can be very important for political mobilising. And how – in response to the forms of racism, sexism and homophobia that she has experienced – anger might be a very key response to undo those systems of oppression.
Rosie Hancock 25:08
What we're talking about – emotion and politics – is so interesting because it gets us thinking about how some people are allowed to bring emotion into politics more than others, particularly when it brings them political capital or kind of political kudos, let's say. So, in the UK, Matt Hancock – when he was the health secretary – appeared to shed a tear or two on TV back in 2020, when the COVID vaccine started being rolled out. I mean, he can do that because it's a break from the norm of his particular masculinity, and therefore bolsters it in some way – I'm guessing – rather than undermines it. And so, for him, that's very little risk. Does that sound like an okay analysis there?
Billy Holzberg 25:08
Yeah, there's of course different risks involved in different bodies, in different people coming to enact emotions in the public sphere. So, if you think, for instance, of the amount of aggressive reporting and hate mail that someone like Diane Abbott, for instance, receives ... and has to be very careful in the way that – I would imagine – she expresses, also, certain emotional styles ... I mean, I think the Matt Hancock [example] is an interesting one, because, well, in some ways he was allowed to do it, in some ways it also very much backfired, right? There was still a kind of delicate game to play. I mean, also because there was something weird about crying about some policy that you have done, right? So in some ways, he was self-congratulating him on having done something so "wonderful" and being "moved" by it. But also, of course, there are still certain norms of masculinity that have become softer, and there's a certain amount of emotion kind of allowed to be portrayed there. But of course, it's easily also sanctioned.
Alexis Hieu Truong 26:45
Speaking of masculinity and emotional expression, or maybe cynically, instrumentalisation, we should also think maybe briefly about far-right violence and emotion; because, listening to us talk, you might say, "okay, okay, well if you're going to let rage and anger into politics – let rage and anger be heard – then great, but you should extend that right, I guess, to everyone." And well, if that leads to something like Charlottesville, or the storming of the Capitol in 2021 in the US, then ... what do we do then? Right?
Billy Holzberg 27:21
Yeah. I think that's a very good point. It's not that we just say, "Oh, yes, anger is great. Let's go with it." What is in the Audre Lorde quote, is this idea that anger is full of information. And I like this, because that's not normally how we think about emotions. But, I think, what she means by this is that it needs a certain reflexivity to think about where does this emotion come from? What kind of social effect might it have? What goal do I mobilise it for? And so, it becomes very powerful if you're mobilising for kind of anti-racist activism. But, of course, it can also be a form of entitlement or form of doing violence, if you do that in the name of white supremacy. And I think there's something about emotional reflexivity that marginalise subjects will – by necessity – have done way more. Because they will have been told that their emotions are not valid, that they are wrong, that their desires are off, that they're too angry or have the wrong emotional attachments. So, they will have thought about what that means. Whereas, I guess, people in a more dominant position don't necessarily have to do that work and, therefore, more easily re-enshrine entitled positions that redo violence.
Alexis Hieu Truong 28:35
Thanks, Billy. We'll be back in a second to talk more about the idea that we are apparently more emotionally in touch than we've ever been. And I think we'll also be returning to this problem of some us being more free to, let's say, play with emotion than others. That's after a word from our producer, Alice.
Alice Bloch 28:52
Hi again, and thanks for listening to Uncommon Sense from The Sociological Review. Each month Rosie and Alexis, here, sit down with a guest to talk about a seemingly straightforward concept, something so everyday that we tend to take it for granted – say bodies, school, care, security, cities – and we chew it over to see it a little bit differently, more sociologically, without jargon or paywalls. Over at the podcast page – at thesociologicalreview.org – you'll catch details on all of our guests, plus reading tips to share. And do take a moment to tap "follow" in the app you're using to hear this. It really does help us to keep making this podcast for everyone. Thanks for listening.
Rosie Hancock 29:36
Okay, so we've already tackled a few assumptions. The assumption that emotion is distinct from the political, that it belongs more to the world of psychology than sociology, that it's this thing that just comes from within us regardless of time or place – but, this is the part of the show where we really focus on just one seemingly common sense notion and try to see it differently. And today, we're talking about how it seems like we – at least in the UK, and maybe Canada and Australia, too – are becoming a more open, emotional, and in scare quotes "in touch" society. Whether it's the rise of footballers talking publicly about tough life experiences, politicians crying, or TV shows in which the characters really let it all hang out.
Alexis Hieu Truong 30:31
Yeah. Billy, we don't want to set up a straw man here. So, I wonder whether you do think that's actually the case – that it can seem, at least, that we're heading in that direction? I mean, look at Harry and Megan opening up on Oprah, the Royals talking about mental health. What do you think?
Billy Holzberg 30:50
I mean, I think the question of whether that's the case or not is a very difficult one to answer because it also depends on what we mean by that. But I think, in general, there is that sense in a lot of sociology that talks about this emotionalisation of society, and the kind of growth of a kind of therapeutic emotional style – where ideas of psychology, in particular, have spread through self-help literature, through social media, through TV shows, advertising. So, I think the more interesting question – in some ways – is, why this might be the case? And I think that is really something that – living in a world of insecurity and precarity of climate breakdown, of escalating inequalities, of war, where we have very little control or feel like we have very little control over those larger social processes – there is a turn to the emotional and the private, and potentially of therapeutic as something that gives us some hold, something we control. So, if I only saw my relationships, or if I only learned my attachment style – right? – maybe at least I can live a better life within this, this very difficult world. So I think that's very much a trend that we can see.
Rosie Hancock 32:01
And I mean, you're in Germany right now, Billy, do you think these trends apply in Germany as well as the UK?
Billy Holzberg 32:09
I think there's a shared discussion around this, particularly through social media. I think that a lot of those processes are driven right through Instagram, YouTube, other forms of digital life, that very much draw on this emotional style, and that very much work on the emotions, also. Even algorithms that keep us kind of "glued to the screen" by making us feel anxious, but maybe also joyous or excited, right? We find ourselves like three hours later, still on the screen scrolling, doom scrolling or laughing at cat videos. So, I think that's something that's shared – as well as the kind of crisis mode that we live in. So, I think this retreat into the private is something that we can see across different national contexts.
Rosie Hancock 32:54
Well, as part of talking about this seemingly more confessional culture, we wanted to bring up your co-authored work with Aura Lehtonen, on a madly popular UK TV series, which was also big in the US and really big here in Australia too – Fleabag. Because, I think, it really leads us to talking about to what end we are – or perhaps act – as though we are "in touch". Billy, for those who haven't seen it, can you describe the show a little bit? Who Fleabag is?
Billy Holzberg 33:29
Yeah. I mean, Fleabag is a young white middle-class woman living in London, and the show very much focuses on her emotional, in particular, her dating life. So, it's very much about her trying to find a partner and just running into one kind of shitty man after the other. So, what I do in the paper with Aura, is very much think about what this reveals about certain kinds of emotional style in this cultural moment. There's a lot of talk about this concept of hetero-pessimism or hetero-fatalism, by Asa Seresin; this idea that – particularly in these moments of crisis – there is the kind of reattachment to heterosexuality, but not through an optimistic one – not through an idea of, like, "Oh, we're gonna get married and everything is wonderful" – but in a pessimistic mode, in a mode that men are shit and heterosexual romance doesn't really work. So, Fleabag, you will often see kind of making jokes about this and is very kind of explicit in her discussion of how bad the sex is or how shitty the men are that she encounters. Yet, she will not detach from that fantasy – that fantasy that this might be the thing that would help her solve her kind of other emotional, and maybe also social and political problems, remains. So, I think that's very interesting to kind of think about what political effect, also, these forms of attachment and this kind of emotional style has.
Rosie Hancock 35:03
Hmm. Because your paper talks about how Fleabag's precarity is emotional rather than financial. Can you explain that and its significance to what we're talking about here?
Billy Holzberg 35:13
Yeah. I mean, a lot of the response to the show is focused on celebrating how transgressive that show is – that you see a woman farting, talking about sex. And of course, this is only possible in a certain way, because she's so much part of normative structures otherwise – as a white middle-class woman – and so, she can play with this form of emotional abjection, in a very different way to how a working-class woman of colour, for instance, would be able to draw on this. So, this really kind of puts us to think about what that means – who can transgress emotional boundaries and who can't.
Alexis Hieu Truong 35:55
So, Billy, you kind of mentioned there the shows subversive kind of elements, and I'd like to ask where do you see the shows transformative power, then? Can you expand a bit on that? Because, as with something like the US series "Girls" – which came before it – there is merit to it too, yes?
Billy Holzberg 36:13
Yeah. I mean, of course it's a fun show and it does transgress certain kinds of gender norms and ideas. I guess, our reading is the kind of queer reading that very much focuses on how it kind of re-attaches us to ideas of normative heterosexuality. So, from that reading – where we kind of see a more interesting or potentially transgressive potential – is actually in Fleabag's relationship to her best friend, Boo. So, there is a whole storyline of her deceased best friend that is kind of cut out from being considered as potentially something romantic. But, putting a kind of queer reading on it, we could think about this as potentially part of even like a lesbian continuum, or at least a different form of intimacy. So, maybe, there is a way there to kind of think beyond forms of intimacy or relationships that go beyond this kind of more cynical hetero-pessimist style – where everything is just shit but you do it anyways – and towards something where emotional life could actually flourish in a different way.
Rosie Hancock 36:13
Billy, I want to jump back to earlier, when you spoke about emotional abjection. Could you clarify what you mean by that just a bit more for us – "abjection" in particular?
Billy Holzberg 37:29
Yeah. I think, abjection – a complex concept used in sociology, and also coming from kind of psychoanalytic theory. I would think of abjection as normally that which gets cut out from social norms, that which cannot be part of something that is socially legitimate or accepted. So, for instance, I think abjection is a key concept – also thinking about the hunger strikes that I talked about. So, in many ways, by not performing the victim and being part of that kind of empathy encounter, and by inflicting violence upon yourself, people on hunger strike do enact a certain form of abjection, and potentially also create emotions of horror, of disgust, of shock. But of course, that's a very different use of abjection – for a political goal. Then, we see the play with abjection, for instance, in a show like Fleabag, and there's very different stakes and very different repercussions of how abjection can be embodied in one or in the other.
Alexis Hieu Truong 38:33
All right, so we've been talking about TV shows and such, but we're moving on to our pop culture tip section. And so, before we go, it's time to share our tips for, say, a book, a movie, a piece of art, a social media meme, or whatever that speaks to today's theme. Right? So, emotion. There is so much that we could choose from, so let's just jump right in. Billy, what have you got for us?
Billy Holzberg 38:59
Yeah. Okay, so I actually have two film recommendations. One, just an interesting one to reflect on, kind of very psychological understanding of emotions. And I guess the kind of mainstream one that we've been critiquing in the beginning of the show, would be the Disney film "Inside Out" – that is very much based on this idea of a basic emotions approach, with distinct clear emotions that are inbuilt and then get expressed out. And actually, some of the key psychologists – such as Paul Ekman – have been involved in making this film. Another film that's closer to my heart and that I use often in also teaching would be to watch "United in Anger" that portrays the history of ACT UP –so the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in New York in the 1980s – and their response to the AIDS crisis. And, I think, it shows in very beautiful ways how emotions can be mobilising forces for political action and for collective political actions – and it has some really powerful scenes also of people, for instance, putting the ashes of their deceased ones on to the lawns of the White House. So, breaking with the feeling rules of how we would normally grieve, and really asking for accountability of the government that isn't responding or not caring about the situation of queer people in particular, in the US as well as around the world at that time. So, I think it's very interesting objects to think about the politics of emotion, and also thinking that from a sociological perspective,
Rosie Hancock 40:35
So, Billy, you did mention at the beginning that film "Inside Out" and there was also the movie called "the Emoji Movie" – and we haven't actually talked about emojis at all today. So, maybe, that's my contribution to this discussion, which is emojis. And I guess, the one that I use the most would be the upside down smiley face ... I mean, I don't actually know what it's supposed to mean, but I use it as like a sarcastic, you know, happy, like, "oh, yeah, this is really fun." So, how do you read those sociologically? Going back to the question of, I guess, whether we're more in touch than ever before, is their use a sign that we're maybe a bit blocked, or that we're actually maybe emotionally sophisticated?
Billy Holzberg 41:17
I think they really speak to what limited language we have for emotions. And that, I think, by extending that, we can potentially even get a more nuanced or more enriched kind of understanding of our own emotions. So, I see a certain kind of development – for instance, I use, I think, that monkey closing their eyes as the kind of form of embarrassment or cringe ... And often used in moments where you wouldn't necessarily think that's there, but I think it adds another layer of talking about emotions, and articulating what is going on there. And of course, it shows very much how these are social, right? And how those emojis, also, are used differently by even different generations or different people across how the language of emotions and how we understand it to be is also changing.
Rosie Hancock 42:05
Alexis, what about you?
Alexis Hieu Truong 42:07
Well, actually – from personal experience – a few months ago, when Thomas was starting to learn words, when I put him to bed, or put the children to bed, I will say like, "Oh, I love you", right? And at one time he just repeated it – like, "je t'aime" – like, "I love you." And I'm like, "Oh, that's so interesting" ... I'm, like, super touched – that's super cute – but at the same time – thinking about how emotion is socially constructed, its expression, its understanding – I was like, "well, what do you mean by that?" – "are you just saying the words or? Like, what is it?" And so, my suggestion for today is actually a child's book called "Love You Forever" that was first published in Canada in the 80s, I think – written by an author called Robert Munsch – that is absolutely brimming with emotion, and which he wrote as a memorial for two stillborn babies he and his partner had some years before. So, this book has kind of a recurring song, sung by the characters and says, like, "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living, my baby, you'll be." And my parents actually used to tell us that story all the time. And now we're telling it to our kids. But yeah, I feel like it's a great example of how complex things like love, relationships, and emotions can be thought about in the most beautiful ways – but are also socialised; they're also thought from a very, very young age.
Rosie Hancock 43:25
That's such a beautiful sounding book, Alexis. Before we started recording the show, we were chatting about how we get taught emotions as children; and this is in the context of Alexis, myself, and our producer, Alice, all having young children – poor them – who have to get taught emotions by sociologists. But, Billy, do you remember being taught about emotion as a kid?
Billy Holzberg 43:49
I mean, my parents are actually psychotherapists, so that maybe explained some of my ...
Rosie Hancock 43:55
That's even worse!
Billy Holzberg 43:56
... some of my interest in emotions, and the kind of understanding of us being emotional creatures and not just kind of rational ones. So, I think, that that was very much there. Do I remember being taught about that? That's a very difficult question. I mean – yeah, of course – there are certain ways that you learn feeling rules. I think some of the ones that I've become more interested in this – also to think about this from kind of a queer perspective – and thinking, for instance, about certain moments of shame, where I was transgressing gender norms or where I was transgressing desire that "shouldn't have been done". And those go back very early, to being four or five years old. And it's interesting talking to kind of other queer people about how that seems to be a shared experience, and how that also creates shared languages, shared cultural forms, shared expressions that can also be very beautiful. But I think there's really something of thinking about kind of shame – and particularly to queerness – that would come to my mind when I think about learning about emotions as a kid.
Rosie Hancock 44:59
So fascinating, Billy. And speaking of emotion, it's also really moving to hear you talk about that. Sadly, this is where we say goodbye. It's been such a delight to have you. Thank you so much.
Billy Holzberg 45:11
Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Alexis Hieu Truong 45:13
Thank you Billy.
Billy Holzberg 45:13
Alexis Hieu Truong 45:14
And that's it for this month, you can check today's reading list – including our picks of pieces from The Sociological Review – and more on those pop culture tips – including one from our producer, Alice – by clicking on our podcast page at The Sociological Review website, or have a scroll of our episode notes in the app you're using to listen to this. Rosie, I think the most surprising thing for me today was the way that he defined kind of the differences between emotions and affect – which is something that I kind of like understood that there was a difference, but I really didn't understand it that as in depth, how about yourself?
Rosie Hancock 45:55
I mean, that was also a very useful discussion for me too. But yeah, I really enjoyed learning about emotional abjection today and how it's used both in kind of lighter, more pop cultural contexts like Fleabag, but then also in very political contexta as well, like through hunger strikes.
Alexis Hieu Truong 46:13
Next month, we'll be talking about the notion of Natives with Nandita Sharma – a subject not unconnected, of course, to emotion.
Rosie Hancock 46:20
If you've enjoyed listening to Uncommon Sense, tap "follow" and give us a rating in whatever app you use to catch your podcasts and share us with, well, everyone – because sociology is for everyone.
Alexis Hieu Truong 46:31
Our executive producer was Alice Bloch. Our sound engineer was Dave Crackles. See you back here next month.
Rosie Hancock 46:37