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Unnatural Emotions by Cathy Lutz


One of the themes I would like to reflect from Cathy Lutz’s (1988) Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and their Challenge to Western Theory and Michelle Rosaldo’s (1984) article “Toward an anthropology of self and knowledge” is the relationship between the private and the public or in other words, between the self and the person. Rosaldo (1984) points out anthropological interests in affect and emotion, especially “guilt” and “shame”, as the closest linkage (p. 148). “‘Guilt’ as a sanction is then associated with our individualistic and rapidly changing social form, and ‘shame’ with those societies that subordinate the person to a hierarchical whole, displaying more concern for continuity than for change” (p. 148). However, Rosaldo (1984) goes on to argue that this cultural relativist view on emotions like “guilt” and “shame” as rather inherent to all cultures only ignores distinctive interpretations of emotions in various cultures and societies. To elaborate, her argument urges us to think of feeling as “forever given shape through thought and that thought is laden with emotional meaning” (p. 143).


This argument is much clearer in Lutz’s extensive discussion on emotions like fago, song, and rus or metagu among Ifaluk. Of course, emotion interpretations seem to surface on linguistic usages and choices such as the system of pronoun affixes, metaphors, and lexical terms, especially the understanding(s) of the notions of person and self (see p. 86-97). But, I concern myself more with the ideological stance on the question of person and self in this reflection. For instance, fago (loosely translated as love/compassion/sadness) is not an inherent feeling, but a social discourse. There are a variety of ways in which one may feel fago for another such as illness, death, the lack of kin, or other forms of needs (see chapter 5). Lutz (1988) notes, “fago is an emotion whose full flowering requires the understanding that is attained only through social discourse” (p. 140). The capacity to show fago to those who are in need is therefore also a sign of social intelligence. Another emotion song or “justifiable anger” is also an illuminating concept to think with. Lutz (1988) writes that song indicates a person’s moral sensibility and quality while at the same time, the expression of song is not individualistic (see chapter 6). In fact, I find the expression of song among Ifaluk more social and collective than fago. It is indeed the difference between “anger” as we know it and “justifiable anger.” The expression of song is collective in the sense that the members of the Ifaluk society follows the Chief’s expression of song. Somebody who is being subjected to song is communicated, not by head-to-head discussion, but rather through gossip, a form of social condemnation (p. 162). The discussion on danger (see chapter 7) highlights the quality of emotion as a social phenomenon in that a sense of danger outlines or marks the social, spiritual, and material boundaries of the Ifaluk. (This is rather a familiar notion from Mary Douglas’ (1966) extensive discussion on Purity and Danger whose driving questions may be different but the topic--danger--through which sociality is observed share the common ground.) All three emotions as Lutz (1988) describes seem to provide the Ifaluk social positioning with themselves and with others through emotions.


Juxtaposing the ethnographic examples of fago, song, rus, and metagu, Rosaldo’s (1984) argument comes more alive. Here, it could also be beneficial to think alongside the western notion of EQ or emotional quotient as suggestive of both personal and social. Someone whose EQ level is high is somebody who can empathize or relate their experiences with others’ or vice versa. What does EQ mean for us and for those whose cultural interpretation of emotions, at a surface level, is similar to ours, but in fact may be nuanced? What is our emotion discourse(s) through which we perceive societies and cultures like Ifaluk? This is a question to keep pondering for all of us ethnographers who one way or the other have to acquire our research participants’ (friends-to-be or enemies-to-be) emotion discourses. It may be appropriate to end my thoughts here echoing Rosaldo’s (1984), “we are not individuals first but social persons” (p. 151).

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