As a design historian, I spend a lot of time trying to think with things. And yet, as participation in the Emotions workshop revealed, much of this thinking slides past or slips around the feelings attached to materials. Where emotions do come into my research, which concerns designing and making festivals in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, they are resolutely on the sidelines or in the interstices of other enquiries – loosely framed in terms of the sensory or experiential impact of festivals, or, as footnotes in the relationships between the people involved in realising, participating in or witnessing the events.
The workshop issued participants with a challenge: to feel with materials before intellectualising or conceptualising them. We were presented with objects and processes from what initially appeared to be two divergent contexts: surgery and art. The first part of the workshop, led by surgeon Roger Kneebone, required us to think about the emotions generated by metallic surgical implements; the second, by artist Matthew Lane Sanderson, dwelt on the creative potential embedded in materials from cast iron to copper wire. Over two hours, what initially seemed to be completely separate spheres were brought closer together. Here, after all, were two professions that involve prolonged, rigorous engagement with materials; where practice is necessarily mediated through a range of implements; and where outcomes are determined by harnessing and, in some instances, controlling emotional responses.
Although occupying the unenviable position of being an extremely squeamish early modern historian – the seventeenth century is not a hospitable place for those without a strong stomach – my mind still reels with the very different perspectives on materiality the workshop encouraged: the beauty of the inside of the human body, the pleasures afforded by specific surgical procedures and the precise choreography of the operating theatre. What also emerged was the importance of tacit knowledge; the sense that familiarity with materials and processes can bring the practitioner to a point where language feels less useful and the hand takes over. And, indeed, the practical components of the workshop – cutting fatty deposits from a latex ‘wound’, making with copper wire – reinforced this notion of learning through doing and through tactile engagement with materials.
In translating my experiences of the workshop into further historical inquiry, I am drawn to a phrase from Frank O’Hara’s poem, ‘Interior (With Jane)’ and its notion [that], ‘The eagerness of objects to / be what we are afraid to do / cannot help but move us.’ Here, objects are framed as the awkward embodiment of past experiences that need to be unpacked and unpicked in order to reveal emotions and aspirations that might otherwise remain unspoken. Of course, we cannot expect to immediately ‘get’ these meanings in an historical context; instead we need to attune our engagement to uncover associations – the symbolic, for example – that are often less apparent. Materials, when treated for their emotional evidence, can reveal the relationships between people, many of whom have failed to leave other forms of testimony.