the sensitive condition



Ways and ways of feeling in the West

Apparently, we live in a time of notable transformations in the way of thinking, acting and feeling. Theoretical models and referential frameworks, which guided our way of thinking, are in disrepute; value systems and sets of norms, which guided our way of acting, fall into disuse; behaviors and practices, which guided our way of feeling, become obsolete.

It is precisely about the transformations in the ways of feeling that Claudine Haroche's book deals with. the sensitive condition reveals, already in the title, the complexity of the object it intends to examine. Here, sensitive is understood in a double register. On the one hand, it concerns the ways of looking, listening, touching, in short, what concerns the senses and, on the other, the ways of perceiving and perceiving those around us, in short, what is related to feelings.

More than defending positions, the author seeks to delimit issues. As she herself says in the prologue, she presents research that is both “pre-disciplinary” and “trans-disciplinary”, bringing into play philosophical, sociological, anthropological and political interpretations. If she does not always excel in conceptual precision and analytical rigor, she makes her objective clear: she wants to explore an approach in which different registers are mixed, to venture “into the deep layers and foundations of the fluidity in motion in contemporary societies” .

Through the examination of the fields of feelings and senses, it proposes to deal with the current constructions of the individual, the subject and the self, focusing on the emergence of new ways of feeling. And, to make the changes that the conceptions of the self, the subject and the individual go through more evident, it contrasts the study of the human being of today with that of other historical moments.

Thus, in the first part of the book, Haroche turns to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It aims to show that, then, behaviors and practices were aimed at dominating oneself in order to exercise dominion over others. Education treaties for rulers and civility manuals emphasized the need for the individual to control and contain himself. Both the father of the family and the prince knew well that being a master of oneself was an indispensable requirement for being a master of one's surroundings.

It was based on this rule, present throughout society, that ethical and political demands were made. Hence, the central place occupied by the moderation of attitudes and gestures, but also deference and posture. They were associated with the sacralization of space, the function and meaning of distance, the privileges of immobility. In short, posture and deference, as well as moderation, were at the base of the ways in which the individual, the subject and the self were constructed.

Retracing the history of the desire for recognition, pointing out the ways in which it was expressed and translated on different occasions, is one of the purposes that the author pursues in the second part of the book. She sets out to show that, in the eighteenth century, claims for recognition arise, which become increasingly broad. Associating with the ideas of consideration, respect, reputation, honor, dignity and merit, but also with the rules of politeness, etiquette and courtesy, they will be present in different moments of history, from the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and from the Citizen to contemporary democracies. Retracing this route undoubtedly contributes to a better understanding of how the desire for recognition is expressed today. The reader is led to realize the extent to which certain behaviors and certain practices end up structuring a certain way of being of the individual, the subject and the self. He is also led to realize his current condition in the environment in which he lives.

But it is in the last two parts of the book that one finds more detailed analyzes of the entirely new ways of feeling of the hypermodern individual. Summoning the contributions of the humanities in general, Haroche intends to show that, marked by fluidity, contemporary societies undergo continuous transformations, which produce changes both in the personality traits of individuals and in the nature of the relationships they establish with each other. Because, nowadays, we are witnessing the decline of forms and manners or, in the words of the author, “of what we sometimes call civility or politeness, sometimes courtesy or urbanity”.

From the moment informality prevails, distances are suppressed and hierarchies are eliminated; in short: the horizontalization of relations is promoted. There is a mixture of records, a confusion between public and private spaces and, as a result, a general psychologization of society. Among the various traits that come to characterize individual behaviors and practices, as well as collective and institutional mechanisms and modes of operation, the author lists deinstitutionalization, disenchantment and the rise of insignificance. It also recalls the individual's isolation and massification, the subject's instability, the inconsistency of the self.

Under the effect of acceleration and globalization, the ways of feeling, in the double sense of the term, are transformed both in their relationship with time and with space. An example of this is the transitory and fleeting nature of the bonds we create. With the dilution of the borders between the real world and the virtual worlds, unstable and ephemeral selves multiply. On the other hand, the search for visibility, which ends up becoming a synonym for legitimacy, brings into play interchangeable individuals who are ready to be used by others – or by themselves.

Underlining that the externalization of the human being entails the narrowing of consciousness, Haroche explores the consequences of the impoverishment of the inner space. Special place deserves the examination of disengagement. A central element in games of power and domination and in mechanisms of alienation and humiliation, it is even present in thought processes, constituting an obstacle to reflection.

Of the twelve chapters in the book, ten were the subject of previous isolated publications. Dealing with diverse issues, they touch each other in different ways. Independent of each other, each presents its common thread. That they return to ideas is inevitable, given the specific strategies they require. However, the repetitions always focus on key points of the readings that Haroche does. Although timid in his conclusions, the sensitive condition offers the reader a broad overview of the current state of the discussion about the so-called hypermodern man.

*Scarlett Marton is a retired full professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP and the author, among other books, of Nietzsche, from cosmic forces to human values (UFMG Publisher).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, No. 6, October 2009.


Claudine Haroche. The sensitive condition: forms and ways of feeling in the West. Rio de Janeiro, Back Cover, 240 pages.


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