Can We Have a New Emotion?

Recently, working through a series of memoirs of assisted suicide, I began to wonder if the kinds of emotions that Americans have available to them are sufficient to think through the ethical decisions that we face on a changing planet, in a changing society, and across tumultuous life courses. Do we have the language — as individuals, as a society — to describe the kinds of feelings that we’re faced with on a daily basis? Have our emotional tools lost their teeth for describing experiences of the contemporary?

Anthropologists and historians have been pretty resolute that emotions are culturally variable, and that what’s a possible emotion in one society is not necessarily a possible emotion in another society. Even emotions that are sometimes thought of as universal — joy, anger, sadness, disgust — have been shown to be historically and culturally particular, with no clear analogues cross-culturally. Emotions that Americans take to be sacrosanct — like romantic and filial love — have also been shown to be historical by-products and socially constructed. If we can accept that emotions are culturally-produced, can we have a new emotion? Not just in the I’m-feeling-something-I-don’t-know-how-to-name way, but in the let’s-invent-an-emotion sense. And how would we go about experiencing it?

That is an image of the imagined heat death of the universe (borrowed from Elixir of Knowledge). It looks like a multi-colored gas cloud that is growing darker from the outside in. But don’t despair — it’s a long way away…

The feeling I have been thinking of is “subjunctive grief,” an of anticipation of loss that might motivate action in the present based on assumptions about the future. When Americans experience grief, it is often cast as grief for something that has been lost, situating grief as something that can only be felt after the fact. I started to think that the old Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) might be bent toward the future, providing a foundation for ethical decision making. In reading those memoirs of assisted suicide I was struck by how family members narrated their relationship to dying kin through something like the Kubler-Ross stages of grief — and it was only when they reached some kind of “acceptance” that they could aid their loved one; but, in a strict sense, they hadn’t lost anyone, yet. That loss would only occur in the future, and working towards that loss meant grieving in anticipation.

As a comparative example, consider navigating the politics of contemporary global climate change. What scientists, activists, and reporters tell us is that we are already in the process of losing a lot — island nations, coastal cities, a wide variety of species of animals, coral reefs, etc. – and that we’re likely to lose a lot more (diets, gas-fueled cars, coal and gas powered heating and electricity, etc.). There are clearly a lot of people in the denial stage, and maybe some in the anger and bargaining stages (if all the faux-meat start-ups are any indication), and probably a lot in the depression stage. Where we all likely need to be is in the acceptance stage. Accepting inevitable losses might serve as the basis for making decisions that preserve what we have while working to undo trends towards future damage (which is an argument not unlike that made by Elizabeth Kolbert in her The Sixth Extinction, which I write about in Theory for the World to Come).

How might one come to feel subjunctive grief? Maybe we’re feeling it already and just don’t have a name for it? In reading all of those memoirs of assisted suicide, I think I began to feel something akin to it, coming to viscerally experience — through the medium of the memoir — the experience of loving family members retelling their experiences of anticipating loss and its aftermath. In reading recent climate-change focused speculative fiction (or “cli-fi”) — and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is exemplary of the genre — there’s something therapeutic about reckoning with a world that has already changed. Situated as we are in this moment of global climate crisis, it sometimes feels like there’s an overwhelming number of actions to take to make the smallest possible difference; resignation seems justifiable in that context. But looking comparatively between a well-modeled, imagined future and our present might serve as a way to facilitate a kind of acceptance of inevitable changes (even if they don’t work out quite like a novel or model suggests).

There was a segment on WNYC’s “On the Media”in 2017 that featured an interview with Robert Macfarlane about neologisms for our catastrophic climate age, which pointed to the need to name experiences that our current moment is creating, but which we have no language for. Without names, those experiences lack tactility; they’re too fleeting to work with. Which is all to suggest that new emotional registers might do political and practical work, and that one way forward in our societal moment of environmental crisis — and in the everyday moments of personal, anticipatory crisis — might be the elaboration of new emotions or new terms for feelings we’re already having. Subjunctive grief might be just one emotional tool to implement; what are the others to help make sense of slowly unfolding catastrophes?