Capturing Mood — the Value of Mood Stories

Much contemporary effort is devoted to capturing individual and social mood states. The most common approaches involve claims to represent affective dynamics through scales of empirical measurement and normative assessment. For example, a range of psychological technologies for tracking, measuring and even modifying real-time mood fluctuations have proliferated in the early twenty-first century. Writ-ing about the contemporary spread of these personalised interfaces, William Davies (2017) observes how they turn their users into objects of assessment and judgement, blurring the lines between representing and disciplining experience. By placing faith in psychometric industries, apps and pop theories, people are inviting unaccountable others to tell them not only how they are really feeling, but how they should feel. They are submitting to what Davies refers to as ‘a kind of private panopticon’ in which their feelings are all too often de-socialised, leaving the user feeling responsi-ble for what seem to be failings of due resilience.

Another popular contemporary project to capture mood is sentiment analysis. This is little more than a macro version of individual mood tracking. The metaphori-cal objective here is to identify a ‘social pulse’, quantifiable through the persistent data chatter of social media. By codifying the affective texture of online subjective expression in relation to particular issues or contexts, sentiment analysts claim to be able to produce representative accounts of aggregate public mood. The representa-tive claims of sentiment analysis are open to well-rehearsed criticisms: the sentiment samples they examine are hardly typical of wider populations (Jensen & Anstead, 2013; Mellon & Prosser, 2017) and their interpretive codes for classifying the affec-tive meanings of the elliptic online messages they study lack nuance or cultural sen-sitivity and are dependent upon the semantic positivism of natural language process-ing (Coleman et al., 2018). Indeed, as we shall see, it is not only the inadequacy of the social mood representations that are problematic, but the very aim of trying to make  moods representable within an object-based schema.

Political scientists have also attempted to represent changing moods, referring to ‘policy moods’ as ‘an aggregate measure of the public’s preferences’ as expressed through opinion polls (Enns & Kelstedt, 2008). In essence, what leading proponents of this method conceptualise as mood is derived from cognitively framed responses to political attitude and preference survey questions (Bartle et al., 2020; Stimson, 2012, 2018). In seeking to compute mood as a quantitative aggregate of longitudinal data, ‘policy mood’ scholars confine themselves to those elements of public feel-ing that can be positively represented, completely ignoring the ineffably affective dimension of the mood states they claim to analyse.

The representational ambitions of the mood-capturing methods considered thus far are fundamentally delimiting, for they confine their object of study to descrip-tive quanta, missing the sense in which moods are not objective states that can be calibrated, but inflective filters through which reality conditions are postulated. Our discussion of the market as a social phenomenon that does not exist as a pre-formed object of action but is constituted through a process of nervous alignment between interdependent but uncoordinated economic actors, demonstrated the sense in which mood is not merely reactive but expressive. That is to say, the moods that we experi-ence and the stories that we tell about our experiences are ontological: they do not just represent what is already there, but express the sensory process through which situations and relationships come to feel real.

Turning from the range of representational forms designed to capture mood, I want to propose that a valuable way of understanding how moods shape experience is to listen to the stories that people tell about how they feel about things that mat-ter to them. I refer to these as mood stories. They are accounts of how it feels to be in the world at a particular time or place, caught up in an affective atmosphere that seems to infuse a situation or scene. They tell what it is like to be absorbed by an inscrutable ambience in which the details of emplotment are inundated by quali-ties of feeling. Mood-stories reveal how people come to register impersonal social forces as visceral sensations. They tell of a world that is inhabited by the teller who at the same time inhabited by the world. When people describe their experience in the form of mood stories, they struggle to find an expressive language that does jus-tice to their sensibilities. Confused between subjective feelings, such as exhaustion, incredulity or ebullience, and a seemingly objective affective climate, the tellers of mood stories are less interested in representing empirical reality than expressing qualitative perceptions which encompass ‘an element of evaluation that is, at least in part, devoid of propositional content’ (Caracciolo, 2014:36).

Mood stories are narratives that pertain to affective states, but they are neither tra-ditional representational narratives nor simple impressionistic portraits of feelings. Narratives have conventionally been regarded as ‘the representation of real or fictive events and situations in a time sequence’ (Prince, 1982:1), but as Margaret Somers (1994:613–14) has observed, humanistically inclined social scientists have moved beyond this idea of narrative to develop a more ontological understanding that

… social life is itself storied and that narrative is an ontological condition of social life. Their research is showing us that stories guide action; that people construct identities (however multiple and changing) by locating themselves or being located within a repertoire of emplotted stories; that "experience" is con-stituted through narratives; that people make sense of what has happened and is happening to them by attempting to assemble or in some way to integrate these happenings within one or more narratives; and that people are guided to act in certain ways, and not others, on the basis of the projections, expecta-tions, and memories derived from a multiplicity but ultimately limited reper-toire of available social, public, and cultural narratives.

People do not have experience and then report on it in stories, but live their lives through the stories they enact, individually and collectively. Through the discursive formulations and interpretations of narratives, people come to perceive their identi-ties and environments narratively, with every story about experiential reality con-stituting an appeal to plausibility. Political stories are highly contested accounts of reality, involving an ongoing struggle amongst competing storytellers to delineate social experience, hence the obsessive efforts of professional political communica-tion strategists to ‘control the narrative’.

Many of the stories that people tell about their political experience concern inten-tions and the agency to realise or hinder particular outcomes. Political mood stories are different. They reflect upon situations in which people find themselves attend-ing to aspects of the world without intentionality: moments and periods in which the world appears to act upon human agency in inchoate, confounding, non-negotiable ways. Moods in this sense are qualities that inflect and constrain agency, not as know-able material forces, but as sensory checks and impulsions. If political stories are moot accounts of certain kinds of experience, particularly those pertaining to the dynamics of power, political mood stories tell of the affective and conative options that appear to be available within situations where the scope of attentive and reactive action is beyond the control of subjective volition.

Unlike methods designed to represent how moods empirically impact individu-als or collectivities, mood stories focus upon the frames and tropes through which people account for their agency in conditions of reflexive indeterminacy. How is it that irritability, acrimony and incivility come to feel like default responses within certain moments of public disagreement? What is the source of the nervousness and exhaustion that sustain surges of what feel very much like civic depression? Why does it sometimes suddenly feel like the right moment for a just cause to have its day? To be sure, there are material explanations for such trends, but the narratives that people elaborate about these moments and periods commonly stray beyond the logic of cognitive action and emerge as mood stories.

Such mood stories are rarely confined to semantic codification. The expressive repertoire involved in telling a mood story is rich in symbolic cues. As well as words, it comprises syntactical devices which often serve to indicate the absence of a volitional subject or stable narrative object (Bamberg, 1997). The tone units through which speakers structure the enunciative focus of their story offer impor-tant clues not only to what terms mean, but how they often carry with them intense supra-semantic intensities of feeling (Frick, 1985; Kleres, 2011; Kreckel, 1981). Speech markers such as mumbling, stuttering and self-interruption commonly pro-vide insights into the unsaid (Bloch, 1996; Retzinger, 1991). The temporal pace and structure of mood storytelling commonly encapsulates the mood itself; for example, a staccato tempo can evoke a sense of overwhelmingly disordered confusion, while the expression of negative feelings such as shame or humiliation might be accompa-nied by choked laughter (Scheff, 1985). Mood stories depend upon non-verbal affec-tive expression through which the body seems to be telling its own story within an unconscious somatic choreography. Indeed, much of what is most significant in the interpretation of such stories is undecipherable from verbatim transcription. When a storyteller repeatedly puts her head in her hands in response to questions and each such movement seems to convey its own responsive preamble, there is no hope of understanding what is being said by simply noting the existence of a pause between question and answer. The methodological value of a multimodal sensibility is to alert us to the mood-storyteller as a being who cannot entirely escape from the expe-rience that she is both recalling and constructing.

I have written previously about mood stories that circulated in one British city during the 2019 UK general election campaign (Coleman & Brogden, 2020), but if there was ever a political moment in which the shaping and apprehension of agency by mood stories was both apparent and significant, it was around the UK Brexit ref-erendum of 2016. Before and after that affectively charged exercise of popular/popu-list historical intervention, stories abounded, feelings gushed and agonistic narratives collided. While purportedly rationalist policy-makers found themselves reduced to the platitudinous vacuity of phrases like ‘Brexit means Brexit’, the storytellers were pumped up with affective energy and politics was subsumed by narrative overdrive.

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