I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This is the most humble day of my life

[Thanks to Gio Abate for directing me to this wonderful image, from the Tumblr site of Eva Truffaut: check out the animated version.]

Last night, when I was supposed to be going to bed early, I stayed up, glued to my computer screen as the Murdochs appeared before the parliamentary inquiry into telephone hacking. James Murdoch tried to take control over proceedings and wanted to begin by reading a statement (like some AFL footballer whose drinking/gambling/racism/sexism has uncomfortably seen the light of day). This was refused, but he began his first answer with what was in fact the same statement, the first of many generalising, filibustering remarks that have correctly been analysed as carefully orchestrated and rehearsed spin. At one point Rupert leaned in, touched his arm, and said he just wanted to say one sentence: "This is the most humble day of my life."

As many commentators have pointed out, he didn't really look humble, though.

As I am reading my way into the history of emotions project, and think about the question of performance, such statements become increasingly difficult to analyse. For historical researchers, the naming of words like 'humble' or 'humiliation' or 'shame' can seem like the gold standard of emotional expression, especially in non-literary contexts. We have a detailed context, and an unequivocal statement of feeling that is pretty rare in pre-modern contexts. But Murdoch's carefully prepared sound grab shows there are rich layers in such expressions, and I don't think they are entirely a function of saturation media coverage or a self-conscious modernity.

Murdoch didn't look humble, but was he? He said he was. Why isn't that enough? Do we need to see more of a downward gaze, a lowered voice? Wouldn't we just say he had scripted that, too? How can we ever judge the truth of a person's statements about their emotional state? If he does not seem sufficiently emotional, what differentiates our response here from the judgemental condemnation of Joanne Leys and Lindy Chamberlain for not seeming emotional enough when they were questioned about the death of their partner or child? What normative expression of emotion are we invoking, or looking for, here?

Other questions arise: what's the relation between word and feeling? Words are switched on and off, just as the acted performance of emotions and feelings can be, too.

But need there be a watertight correlation between the emotion we seem to see and the signifier we hear?

While it's easy to think that Murdoch's statement indicates merely the switching on and off of the emotion, how could we ever judge whether he's truly humble: whether he feels it truly, in his heart of hearts, or whether he only believes he does, or whether he is simply lying. There is also something performative about this, in any case. For someone like Murdoch, even saying the day is a "humble" one, no matter what he feels, is a performance of being humbled. Having to say it, whether he feels it or not, must surely produce at least the simulation of being humbled. And it's a humbling thing to do: that is, saying you're humbled is to humble yourself, no? And in the end, how could we ever tell the difference?

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