History of Technology, Emotion, and Film

MalinThe history of psychology has a presence in the most recent issue of Technology and Culture. In “Mediating Emotion: Technology, Social Science, and Emotion in the Payne Fund Motion-Picture Studies” Brenton J. Malin, Assistant Professor in Media Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, explores the complex relationship between technology and emotion in 1920s and 1930s America.

The research of University of Iowa psychologists Wendell Dysinger and Christian Ruckmick is at the centre of Malin’s discussion of emotion and technology during this period. The emphasis on technological measurement emotion, rather than introspection, is described in terms of the objective qualities of the former method. As emotion was both an object of study and a subject of concern, technology was employed to ameliorate the potential influence of the researcher’s own emotional state. In Dysinger and Ruckmick’s case a concern with objectivity led to the use of the psycho-galvanometer to gauge children’s emotional response to motion pictures.

Malin contends that research on emotional responses to motion pictures was of interest at the time due to the increasing presence of entertainment-oriented technology in society, as well as an emerging view that excessive emotion had the potential to harm. In his own words,

The Emotional Responses of Children to the Motion Picture Situation serves as a telling example of a set of tensions about emotion and technology that influenced both media research and the general culture of this period. Like the public-relations specialists, ministers, and film producers of their time, media researchers staked a claim in twentieth-century understandings of emotionality. While Dysinger and Ruckmick’s study focused on children, they would extrapolate their findings to an understanding of the media experience more generally and to a wider theory of human emotions. Their enthusiasm for the bio-technological view of emotion suggested by the psycho-galvanometer reflected anxieties about emotional control that accompanied the growth of entertainment media. Placing an emphasis on emotion-gauging apparatuses allowed researchers not only to monitor the emotional effects of mass culture, but to project an image of an emotionally detached, empirically rigorous social science that was itself free from the sensational emotions of the new media age. This technological view of emotion was indebted to, and became imbedded in, much twentieth-century culture and had lasting impacts on both popular and scientific understandings of media audiences. (p. 368, italics original)

Malin then goes on to explore the dynamic relationship of apparatus (psycho-galvanometer) and elicitor of emotion (film) in Dysinger and Ruckmick’s studies. According to Malin,

two similar technologies [were] pitted against and alongside one another: motion pictures inscribed emotions in celluloid and then projected them for the consumption of their audiences; the psycho-galvanometer translated the audience members’ physiological responses into numerical data, recorded on film. Positioned between these two technologies, movie audiences were passive collections of unperceivable bodily impulses waiting to be drawn out by the film or psychological apparatus . . . Dysinger and Ruckmick . . . elevated technology to a preeminent place in the media–audience relationship. Even audience members were themselves technologies. These researchers had essentially transformed the subjects of their study into the media through which these other technologies interacted; the audience was the electrical conduit through which the emotional meanings of the movie were translated into the transcriptions of the psycho-galvanometer. (p. 386)

Thus, these technologies both render the audience passive receptacles of emotion and transform them into active transmitters of such, as the body itself becomes the technology through which film and psycho-galvanometer interact.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.