Author Interview: Joanna Cohen

Author Interview: Joanna Cohen

Our author interview from the September 2019 issue is with Dr. Joanna Cohen. Joanna is a Senior Lecturer in American History at Queen Mary University of London. Her article is titled “‘You Have No Flag Out Yet’: Commercial Connections and Patriotic Emotion in the Civil War North.” She is the author of Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn, 2017) and is currently working on a project about property and loss in nineteenth-century America.


Thank you for speaking with us about your project! Many of our readers have read your article in the September issue, but could you briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article?

The article examines the great outpouring of commodified patriotism that accompanied the outbreak of Civil War in the north and asks: how did northern Americans feel about a patriotism that was stimulated by commercial productions and market networks? I look at everything from red, white, and blue jewelry to mass-produced sheet music, and in each case I find some cautiously and others creatively embracing the opportunities for emotional expression that these things offered. With these examples, I investigate how northern Americans, and especially women, tried to define a relationship between the marketplace and their emotions. Ultimately, I find that even as northerners embraced a market-based patriotism, they still maintained that true emotion could not be commercially produced. As such, I see here a moment where northerners created a modern subjectivity, one that relied on the idea that an authentic “self” needed to be kept separate from the marketplace.

One of the things I appreciate most about this article is how you demonstrate the value of “reading” material culture—like the jewellery and sheet music you mentioned just now. Can you talk a little about your process and methodology?

I love to start with the things themselves. For this article, I begin with the cartes-de-visite, the sheet music, and the thing that really excited me: the collar and cuffs fashioned out of the stars and stripes. Even without the object itself, images of objects, or even text descriptions of things capture my attention. I let the objects raise the questions: how would this have figured into someone’s life? What did it mean to them and how would they make those meanings. This is an approach that began for me with reading Arjun Appadurai in graduate school. His methodology, to follow the life of the thing, really made me think about objects in ways that I had never considered before. Then I start placing the object more firmly into the culture it exists in. I look for newspaper advertisements, broadsides, or magazine articles about the objects. I look in diaries and letters to see how people used them and what impact these things made in their life.

Digital resources have made an enormous difference to this method for me. I can keyword search for objects, to see how and when they appear in people’s lives. But I also read through whole documents to get a sense of how the objects exist in the broader material world. For this piece, I really wanted to think about the emotional dimension of the objects: an interest that has been stimulated by working at Queen Mary University of London, where my colleague Thomas Dixon runs the Centre for the History of Emotions. Because of that, I started thinking more carefully about how objects elicit and encapsulate emotional responses. The more I work on this, the more I find the paradox of modern objects fascinating: they are something that can be incredibly personal, even as they function as key pieces of a political economy that emphasizes their abstract nature and interchangeability. It is something I am taking further with my next project on property and loss.

On p. 382 you stated that Northerners typically believed that “the expanding realms of commercial society could not be expected to cultivate patriotic emotion. On the contrary, market relations counteracted the creation of nationalist sentiments.” Of course, they were living in an increasingly commercial world and during the Civil War people did make connections between the marketplace and their political values. This discussion resonates with a lot of readers, I would imagine, because we ask similar questions today—for instance, is wearing a bathing suit that has the American flag on it an act of patriotism, an act of disrespect, or something else? To what extent are these kinds of “patriotic” products just an opportunity for retailers to make money? These strike me as salient issues now. When it comes to the commodification of patriotism, do you see similarities between the Civil War North and America today? Have we resolved any of these issues?

The flag is a great place to start this conversation, because it still raises many of the same issues today, and many are still unresolved. The flag, especially in the U.S., is both a sacred and commercial object. It can exist in both these realms. Yet at the same time it continues to be an object that transgresses those boundaries that both individuals and society create regarding the division between the commercial and non-commercial worlds. That dividing line is constantly being policed by various different groups, and as they re-draw those lines they also shape new ideas about what parts of human life ought to be outside the market, or perhaps beyond its influence. For the nineteenth-century northerners I examined, their response was to try and keep the source of patriotic emotion beyond the marketplace. Today, I think more people are concerned that friendship and love have been subsumed by the marketplace – either because our relationships are being monetized by corporations through surveillance or because our emotions are being subject to commodification through algorithms. While I was writing this article, I read Eva Illouz’s wonderful book, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, and the resonances struck me straight away. If anything, I think the problems nineteenth-century northerners were working on in the Civil War have only become more deeply entrenched.

That is fascinating, and her book sounds like a great resource! Throughout the article you articulate white women’s roles in supporting the war effort. What are some of the other ways that Northern white women demonstrated their patriotism, aside from sewing or flying the American flag? And what do you think this might teach us about gender dynamics on the homefront?

Drew Faust observed long ago that the Confederacy made a particular vision of womanhood one of the lynch pins of their nationalism. Faust then went on to observe how white women in the Confederacy challenged and even rejected those ideas, with catastrophic consequences for the southern nation. It was an article that reminded us that women are absolutely critical to the making (or indeed breaking) of patriotism. So, when I looked at what women in the north were doing, I saw how their decisions to use the marketplace to facilitate their patriotic contributions really impacted on how northerners understood their own nationalism. It made commercial activity, and especially consumption, a mark of civic virtue. As I argued in my book, Luxurious Citizens, Union victory convinced many northerners that freedom and capitalism were mutually reinforcing, not because of elite discourses on political economy, but, as this article shows, because they saw such a dynamic in action; and women were absolutely key to this development. So, in terms of what this shows us about the gendered dynamics of war, well, I would follow Stephanie McCurry and say that it reminds us that in unexpected ways, sometimes welcomed, war affords women a different kind of power to shape the nation and the state.

In the past decade scholars have paid more attention to the role of emotions, including Michael E. Woods, Nicole Eustace, and others. Where do you think your work fits within this field, and where do you think emotion studies will go from here?

There is no doubt I am drawing enormous inspiration from the work of scholars in this field. Nicole Eustace has been especially important for me, in terms of thinking about how to model an approach to the history of emotion and so has Susan J. Matt. I have also really enjoyed going back to the work of William Reddy, because I think he is someone who has drawn attention to the connections between emotions and political economy and that is the relationship that I would most like to explore in my future work.

But I have also been really inspired by the material turn in emotion studies. At a point when I was revising this article, I found a wonderful collection called Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions through History edited by Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway, and Sarah Randles. At the time, I was in the midst of putting the finishing touches to a conference I organised with Zara Anishanslin at the McNeil Centre called “Coming to Terms,” a conference that looked at the visual and material culture of war in the Atlantic World. Throughout the conference, I was struck by just how many of the papers demonstrated the significance of material things to our emotional worlds. The emotions that objects create seem vital to me, because it is in that process that I can see a way to think about the connections between how people make the personal into political economy. That question seems so urgent to me at the moment. Never have we been more conscious of global capitalism as a system, and yet still people have to live within that system, and not only survive economically, but also make an individual identity for themselves within that structure. I want to examine how people do that, and how the possibilities and limitations of that process might ultimately change the system itself?


Thank you so much, Joanna, for participating in this interview. To read the article, please subscribe to the journal or find it on Project Muse.

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