Zen and the art of road rage

How Emotions Work

June 9, 2000

How Emotions Work is a study of emotional experience in a range of contexts and an analysis the process of interaction with other people. The work originates from a seminar course at the University of Paris, although the general style is pure California. It falls uncomfortably between two stools: is it an interesting read or an academic textbook? There is a lengthy preamble on "methodological commitments", and there are frequent references to both Zen and existentialism. Both figure in a lengthy bibliography that makes interesting reading in itself.

The book has a broad sweep across a contrasting range of case studies, which makes it easy to dip into and it does have a lively style. However, the case studies are unrelated and it would be disjointed to work from as a source. The title refers to emotions, yet arguably only aggression, guilt and shame are covered, while crying takes up half the book. The case studies are a rather odd selection: "Pissed off in LA" picks up on local driving habits, with intriguing insights into Zen driving. There are assumptions about how vehicles are viewed from within the internal combustion engine culture. Cars seem to blend with identity, as people compare the size of their hooters. The social pressures behind car ownership are apparent: "The way that a person gives philosophical orientations to his or her car shapes his or her corporeal disposition when driving" seems to say it all.

"Families and funny mirrors" is based on videotaped observations at what is described as a "Parisian fun house". It fails to take into account any cultural contrasts in behaviour, and linguistic elements are overlooked, which is either a glaring omission or a missed opportunity to compare reactions between different national groups. "An episode of whining" looks at an infant class and would be familiar to anyone who has worked on discourse analysis among children. "Crying in the whirlpool" is a detailed analysis of a real-life interrogation of a man suspected of murder, which comes with stills from video surveillance. This is particularly dramatic, but is presented in a sensationalist way that may jar with an audience who live in a state without the death penalty.

A great deal of thought has gone into the book, but it would have benefited from some tough editing to remove superfluous jargon and sub-headings like "Bodily glossing verisimilitude", and also to underscore the key elements and the valuable insights offered. Concluding points are uneven: some chapters are rounded off neatly, while others seem to raise more questions than they answer. And the final conclusion is only a page long. In many places the footnotes are more complete and make more absorbing reading than the main narrative. Comparisons are made at one point between drivers in traffic jams and customers at a supermarket check-out, with references to the "cultural communism" of both situations. The footnote provides a useful background to changing attitudes in Eastern Europe with the demise of communal pressures on public behaviour, which places the main point of the narrative into a proper context.

Ultimately, the beginning and the end are the most solid parts of the book. The main chapters would work better expanded separately to provide a broader range of comparative case studies. They could even be developed as a series of television documentaries, which would get round the problem of describing inflections in the voice and gestures. But in print they fail to convince.

Tim Connell is professor of languages, City University, London.

How Emotions Work

Author - Jack Katz
ISBN - 0 226 42599 1
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £19.50
Pages - 407

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