Margrit Pernau, Helge Jordhem et al., Civilizing Emotions. Concepts in Nineteenth-Century Asia and Europe

Margrit Pernau, Helge Jordhem et al., Civilizing Emotions. Concepts in Nineteenth-Century Asia and Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015) £83.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-19-874553-2

Civilisation is at the heart of today’s campaigns for increasing social harmony and courtesy in public space. This process, Pernau and Jordheim tell us in their recent edited book, pertains not only to behaviour but also to the cultivation of emotions, which ultimately defines a highly political arena.

But this is no new development. The story of a century and a half of a crusade for civilisation and global order is elaborately documented here in a good thirteen chapters, with a strong focus on language and translation as political devices. Translation is, in fact, the methodological emphasis with which this book attempts to overcome the problems of monolingual approaches, offering as a result a robust frame for cross-national analysis. For the non-expert reader, its very informative introduction reminds us that transfers and cultural borrowings across languages are not given, but rather are a product of the practice of translation. And so translated terms are often only roughly equivalent, and relate to changing semantic fields. This is key to understanding the main argumentative line of the book.

It covers a large geographical area, notably Northern Europe and Asia, focusing purposefully on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In doing so, it marshals etymology, philosophy, culture and political theory. Rationalisation, we are told, 'also incorporates emotions to the extent that irrational emotions are supressed to make way for more rational ones' (14), a process orchestrated by science and industrial development, and the unmistakable pace of modernity and progress.

Civility, however, is far from being an unproblematic term. And although monopolised by Western nations, and thus embedded in a hierarchy of ranks of progress, contestation has increased over time. Has not power been allocated to those who have successfully managed their emotions and behaviours? Such is the issue with which one is confronted in the opening section.

In a chapter of her own, Jordheim gives us an immense etymological treat. She traces the semantics of civility and civilisation in Scandinavia to paradoxical identity discourses (1870-1920) that linked humans and nature, humanity and wilderness, civility and temper. Yet the whole of the humanity is fated to civility because, so goes the explanation, it is a precondition for civil coexistence. In Spencer’s view, it is an evolutionary process that the whole of the humanity will go through. Understandably, the hugely influential sources examined by Jordheim are strongly marked by the evolutionist and biological ideas of their time. More importantly, the analysis illustrates how this system of ideas led to the connection between emotions and levels of civilisation, with the Aryans sitting at the top of the hierarchy.

Pernau, in another chapter, shows how, though once classified as belonging to the soul, emotions became a sphere of the body. With this move, emotions were stripped of their moral connotation, subsequently to be appropriated by biologists and physicians, with race becoming a deterministically imposed trait of civilisation. Encyclopaedias as a genre were elevated to the status of reading canon and thus served as a means of disseminating ideas, through which racialisation would become enormously influential in Britain and elsewhere.

Obviously, a chapter devoted to France (Emmanuelle Saada) is of great importance in a book of this type. By retracing such words as civilité and courtoisie, civilisation as a process (rather than as a state) is reconstructed; this was a progression of imperial scale, one that underscored the education of desire as the basis of French modern colonialism and of the shaping of the French metropolis. However, a chapter on Germany (Christian Bailey) is no less prominent here, for inward-looking Kultur (as opposed to outward-looking civilisation) is reported to be the underlying principle in Germany’s contact with the Near East and the subsequent patriotism. As in previous sections, the emphasis is largely methodological – the author states that she seeks to 'understand how concepts of civility were at play within a dense semantic field made up of other terms.' (85), giving the impression that this linguistic feature was the study’s ultimate aim. This is an impression which is pervasive across the chapters.

I found the chapter on Ottoman culture (Einar Wigen) particularly interesting, as it traces rough equivalences for the French words civilité and civilisation, which actually relate to an entire semantic field, including notions such as morality (ahlak), manners (adab) and urbanity (medeniyet). Here we are shown how late nineteenth-century English and French texts also influenced the thought of a growing literate population, especially through texts on social orderliness and child raising that actively encouraged prudentia. A similar case is made for the Arab Middle East (Orit Bashkin) and the Persian-language region (Mana Kia), with a constant flow of ideas, texts and people between Iran, Istanbul and Cairo. As we read on, the pattern of influence and progression remains fairly analogous, which may become somewhat tedious to non-linguists. We are told, for example, how the Urdu language (Margrit Pernau) became imbued with the ideals of anti-barbarism, which also relate to a before and an after the advent of Prophet Muhammad – as in knowing how to have a virtuous life.

It is not until the chapter on India (Mohinder Singh) that the explanation varies significantly. Here, the author explains, the alleged racial superiority of the British could not be upheld effectively by language alone. External symbols and behaviours were necessary to reinforce that which was communicated through language – that is, representation of authority. It is very insightful to see how linguistic and non-linguistic devices mutually reinforced while imposing colonial rule from the early nineteenth century onwards. Interestingly, India’s resistance to hegemony and claims to sovereignty were based not only on its cultural differentness but also on its civilised state. Civilisation thus became an apparatus of both colonisation and decolonisation.

In the remaining chapters, we find a discussion about how the term civilisation implied a struggle for national identity and political life among Bengali people (Rochona Majumdar), how it mediated the radical political transformation of modern China and of Chinese mentality (Angelika C. Messner), and how it surrounded processes of technological and military advancement in Japan (Oleg Benesch). Not surprisingly, all three paths developed with the cultures looking at themselves, at neighbouring cultures and at the Western hemisphere.

The book brings together corpora, data, and techniques, which are put to use so meticulously in demonstrating ‘transformation in transfers.’ Yet, as in every book, there is an Achilles heel to it. Intellectual historians as these authors are, I missed a reflection that bound everything together and that invite us to look at today's cultural production, notably literature, in a different light. Though methodologically laudable, as I finish reading the concluding section (Jan Ifversen), I am still asking myself that uncomfortable question: ‘so what?’

Ricardo A. Ayala, University of Ghent