Review Philosophy

The Ecology of Affect

About: Louis Quéré, La fabrique des émotions, Puf

by Julien Bernard , 21 December 2023
translated by Arianne Dorval

Where do our emotions come from? Are they specific to our sensibility or are they a product of our environment? And how do they become collective? Louis Quéré proposes to revisit these crucial questions.

In La fabrique des émotions, Louis Quéré, Director of Research Emeritus at the CNRS, provides a theoretical and ontological investigation of individual and collective emotions that draws on a solid body of sociological and philosophical literature. He sets out to describe and explain the dynamics of emotions, giving full weight to the actions and situations in which they are embedded.

De-subjectivizing (and De-intellectualizing) Emotion

The proposed approach entails a move away from the tendency to define emotion through the experience of the “I” and through the sensations that accompany it. Indeed, as Quéré observes, the subjectivation that results from granting primacy to “lived experience” in the common sense of the word runs the risk of reducing emotions to bodily and mental states or processes. Drawing on Wittgenstein, he argues that such a framing reifies emotions and underestimates the importance of ongoing action, the environment, and the expressive character of emotions. It also leads to postulating the anteriority of the psyche in relation to behavior, and thus to making emotions a quick revelator of individual identity and values. By contrast, thinking of emotion in action enables us to view emotion less as a “state” than as a mode of behavior in transaction with the environment.

Indeed, far from establishing an individual-environment dualism, emotion manifests the interdependence between the “inside” and “outside” of individuals. Viewed from an ecological perspective, it is part of a more global process of engagement, rupture, and adjustment with the environment that “develops within a structure of intrigue” (p. 404). In line with Merleau-Ponty, the author believes that emotion is “a variation of our relations with others and with the world that is readable in our bodily attitude” (p. 49). More precisely, emotion is embedded in a course of action, from which it emerges, and this course of action is in turn modified by the new behaviors engendered by emotion.

Indeed, depending on the individual’s motor and mental orientations, he or she projects onto the situation a meaning and an idea of how it will unfold. Emotion arises when coordination with the world breaks down, leading to “organic dysfunction” (p. 84). Following Dewey’s theory of emotions, the author distances himself both from the behaviorist “stimulus-response” schema and from conceptions that give primacy to the actor’s cognitive appraisal. For Quéré, there is no such thing as an a priori neutral perception followed by an emotion-inducing appraisal of the situation. In his view, “the stimulus is always preceded by the sensory-motor coordination from which it emerges.” Appraisal of the object in question is also modulated by the emotion itself (“emotion configures what provokes it”). Thus, the author seeks to grasp the cognitive component of emotion “without over-intellectualizing appraisal.”

The proposed description of the emotional process links together perception, appraisal, emotion, and the reconfiguration of action. First, the breakdown in coordination initiates a movement of “immediate valuations” of impressions. These are felt positively or negatively on a continuum between attraction and repulsion; they manifest affective arousal and guide the apprehension of the event. Secondly, a dynamic is set in motion that is at once practical (tendency to act), cognitive (configuration of the object-stimulus, which is “discriminated, selected, and identified” (p. 96)), and affective (attribution of value to the situation and to its corresponding emotion). Emotion is useful in that it is a signifier for others (p. 85), but also for oneself. By selecting and rearranging data, emotion activates “the organization of experience,” which the author refers to as “emotional work.” In this scheme, the cognitive dimension is not absent, but it is secondary. Indeed, real appraisal only comes later, in the third stage, when, after “investigation,” the object of the emotion and the expressed emotion itself are subjected to moral analysis (p. 191). Emotions then enable us to probe our values retrospectively, through reflexive analysis.

A Theory of “Distributed Emotion” and “Emotional Habits”

Far from being centered on the individual, the proposed theory considers the characteristics and variations of the situational framework to be essential. Emotion stems from the intersection of two dynamics: the subjective dynamics of the individual and the “objective” (p. 211) dynamics of variations in the environment. According to the author, “things” in the environment—the properties of the setting, the behavior of other individuals, etc.—have “immediate affective qualities which are felt” (p. 105). The sensory qualities experienced by the organism have an affective quality per se, as perception is subject to “the action of things on the bodily organs that experience and respond to it” (p. 120). The view that “from the outset, things have affective/emotional qualities that are interwoven with their sensory qualities” (p. 184) leads to considering that emotion is not fundamentally within individuals: it is “distributed” among the various actors and parameters of the setting.

Another mode of distribution of emotions is through their institutionalization (p.103). The shaping of emotion builds on the “body of common sense knowledge” (Garfinkel) or the “natural attitude” (Schütz) prevailing in the social environment. In other words, ordinary ways of behaving and “valuations” produced in the environment act as institutions in the Durkheimian sense—i.e., as de-personalized, already existing ways of doing things that serve as guides for generating the appropriate emotion. Thus, emotions are akin to “channeled organic energies” that give rise to emotional habits through a process of embodiment. Such embodiment explains how emotions, which are organic facts, can be “socially constructed.”

Emotions “Molded into a Collective Form”

What does this theory say about collective emotions? In the second part of the book, Quéré undertakes a critical examination of the different theories of collective emotion. His aim is to understand the latter without losing sight of the bodily and dynamic character of individual emotions, but without considering it as a simple aggregation of individual emotions.
Thus, crowd theory, which is based on the idea of emotional “contagion,” neglects the importance of shared ideals. Conversely, Durkheimian theory gives excessive weight to representations compared to the body. The phenomenological intersubjective approach conceptualizes the synchronization of perceptions, but it underestimates the importance of the group’s organization and “institutional mediations” (p. 263). The “collectivist-normative” approach, which posits that individuals conform to the emotions of their groups, makes the mistake of attributing causal power to norms. Finally, social psychology approaches that emphasize the importance of group identification are hampered by the difficulty of defining the—highly variable—notion of affiliation, given that “emotional collectives [...] [can be] occasional and ephemeral and can have fuzzy contours” (p. 324).

Only the anthropology of ritual, inspired by Mauss, can help to understand the dynamics of individual emotions and their “molding into a collective form.” In this theoretical framework, what is shared is not feelings but behaviors. The collective is thus produced by “joint achievements that are mediated by uses, objects, apparatuses” (p. 328). In these action sequences, rhythm and motricity facilitate the emergence of collective emotions. As a result, “symbolization in public space through material and symbolic mediations” (p. 352) gives the collective emotion a public character. To this is added the emotion’s claim to legitimacy, which gives it political significance.

This transition takes us to the final chapter, which is very different in form from the previous ones insofar as it deals with one specific emotion (or feeling): resentment. Given the current social context, marked by a preponderance of “sad passions,” resentment is analyzed in the light of social facts such as the development of fake news on social networks, the growing mistrust of cultural authorities, the tendency not to separate fact from opinion or to surround oneself with like-minded people, etc. The author discusses the potential of resentment to generate social movements such as the Gilets jaunes (yellow vests), but also the potential of education to constitute a remedy against “sad passions.”

A theory tested in a wide range of experiences

The book offers a fairly comprehensive critical analysis of sociological and philosophical theories of emotions, while also proposing a powerful theory of emotions based on a synthesis of the contributions of Dewey and Mauss. It does, however, include a number of propositions and avowed stances that are bound to raise questions—which is not the least of the book’s merits.
For instance, the focus on action seems to exclude from the scope of analysis emotions that arise without any real prior orientation in the course of action, such as those that emerge in the solitude of one’s memories, or certain affective states that are not conducive to action (boredom, nostalgia, etc.). The proposed theory also fails to take into account differences between, on the one hand, emotions linked mainly to instinctive reactions, which are sometimes activated even before the identification of the stimulus, and, on the other hand, more cognitive emotions linked to progressive identification and evaluation, which give rise to a longer, slower arousal or “rise” of emotions: the theory lies somewhere in between.

The theory that emotions are distributed according to variations in the environment, including “immediate affective qualities,” may also come as a surprise. In seeking to emphasize external influences on corporeity, the author does not—or not clearly—consider that these “things,” objective though they may be, are subjectively perceived, invested with meaning and quality. One might counter that the “affective quality of things” does not exist beyond their apprehension by individuals, and that sensory impressions do not mechanically produce ad hoc affects.

Lastly, while the work of emotion (what emotion does to us) occupies a central place, the work on emotion (what we do with it) seems a little neglected. Indeed, emotion appears immediately as expressive behavior. Yet, perception of social norms can play a part in shaping emotion. Depending on prevailing norms, we may not only conceal our emotions or amplify their expression, but we may also work to transform them if we consider that they will not be understood or accepted by others. Thus, perception of the norm can be seen as an intrinsic component in the genesis of emotions, and not just, as the author suggests, as an external factor that exerts its effects after the fact, when we face the constraints of the situation.

Louis Quéré, La fabrique des émotions, Paris, Puf, 2021, 384 p., 27 €.

by Julien Bernard, 21 December 2023

To quote this article :

Julien Bernard, « The Ecology of Affect », Books and Ideas , 21 December 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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