Cold Intimacies and the cult of sensibility

From Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies

1. Freudian depth psychology is a modern technology of self-production that masquerades as a set of practices that reveal the “authentic” inner self. Therapy and its tools elicit the self, but a particular sort of sick self that requires suffering to exist and progress.

2. This technology of self-production catches on as a means for consolidating bourgeois hegemony. Therapeutic selves and the means for forming them yields what Illouz calls emotional competence — the ability to self-analyze and communicate one’s emotionality in terms that other bourgeois can understand and work with, as well as read each other’s emotions and respond in a constructive way. This set of cooperative practices establishes an emotional style or habitus that marks middle-class belonging and becomes a requisite qualification for professional jobs, office work, etc. Emotional style becomes an accessible way to stratify people by class in an ostensibly democratic society. It seems “fair” as judgment is rooted in a discourse of health. Emotional competence also allows for a new kind of pleasure from relationships based on therapy talk, metarelationship conversations — “relating” through talk about each other’s feelings and the enjoying the resulting sense of intimacy and mutual understanding. “There are now new hierarchies of emotional well-being, understood as the capacity to achieve socially and historically situated forms of happiness and well-being” (73). Middle-class people have the advantage, a set of learned practices to deal with the instability of modern identity and relationships.

3. But at the same time, depth psychology and therapeutic procedures reify emotionality, subject it to reflexive, conscious manipulation, undermining emotional spontaneity. “The reflexive act of giving names to emotions in order to manage them gives them an ontology, that is, seems to fixate them in reality and in the deep self of their bearer, a fact, we may claim, which goes against the volatile, transient, and contextual nature of emotions.” Metaemotionality freezes emotions, makes them alienated, even as it proves their reality, reveals us to ourselves as suitably emotional.

This is precisely the paradox of sensibility, in the 18th century sense of the word. The cult of sensibility reified emotionality to dignify it, but ended up making it as instrumentalized as the economic rationality it was evoked to contrast with.

Emotional states, identity become end products to be publicized and validated rather than lived-in experiences. Our “moral and social competence” is a matter of executing the therapeutic narrative of self-discovery and self-betterment. “Narrating and being transformed by one’s narration are the very commodities produced, processed, and circulated by a wide cohort of professionals … and by media outlets.” This commodity — public identity — qualifies one for social recognition: see me, feel me, touch me, heal me; I have suffered. Rather it qualifies us for publicity.

Emotional competence becomes emotional capital, once a field is established in which reified emotionality is convertible into other forms of capital. Web 2.0 is such a field, though the “social factory” in general allows for this convertibility. Immaterial labor is more or less the process of turning emotions into other forms of capital. “The performance of the self is crucial to economic performance … Emotional intelligence reflects particularly well the emotional style and dispositions of the new middle classes … in intermediary positions, that is, which both control and are controlled, whose professions demand careful management of the self, who are tightly dependent on collaborative work, and who must use their self in both a creative and a productive way” (66). Emotional intelligence, then, indexes one’s potential as an immaterial laborer — my theory is that social networks are being relied on more and more to reveal emotional intelligence, to each other, to the state, to potential employers, and so on.

Sensibility worked similar changes — made men more suitable for the needs of capitalism, generating norms of cooperation, trust, negotiation, etc., necessary for developing the entanglement of relations necessary for growing the economy. But the man of feeling became a type; emotions become ambiguous in terms of their authenticity, as they acquired a strategic component.

With emotional capital viable, emotional capitalism flourishes as the manipulation of emotional states to achieve career goals, power, sellable products becomes an unmistakable opportunity, if not a necessary approach to cultural achievement and social recognition. Illouz defines it as a “culture in which emotional and economic discourses and practices mutually shape each other…. Affect is made an essential part of economic behavior and emotional life — especially that of the middle classes — follows the logic of economic relations and exchange” (5).

In the culture of emotional capitalism, emotions have become entities to be evaluated, inspected, dissected, bargained, quantified and commodified. In this process of inventing and deploying a wide battery and range of texts and classifications to manage and change the self,they have also contributed to creating a suffering self, that is, an identity organized and defined by its psychic lacks and deficiencies, which is incorporated back into the market through incessant injunctions to self-change and self-realization. Conversely, emotional capitalism has imbued economic transactions — in fact, most social relationships — with an unprecedented cultural attention to the linguistic management of emotions, making them the focus of strategies of dialogue, recognition, intimacy, and self-emancipation.

Emotional competence is fundamentally ambivalent, in Illouz’s view. Emotional self-awareness has genuine benefits (it is a “technology to reconcile individuality with the institutions within which it operates,” helping preserve a sense of self as it has become subject to constant external evaluation, as it has become necessary to “perform the self” for economic reasons) even as it reifies emotionality and subjects it to exchange and technological manipulation.

The most serious consequence is that “actors seem to be stuck, often against their will, in the strategic” approach to emotionality. The Internet exacerbates this, making rationalized interpersonal relations possible on a much larger scale and to a much greater degree, but wiping out the emotional, somatic aspects of these relations that make them viable, make them resonate. Illouz cites Jorge Arditi, who suggests that people have things in common that are too common, which makes relations somewhat generic, formulaic. (Her analysis of online dating is organized around this idea.) Illouz writes that “closeness results from the specificity and exclusivity shared between two entities. In this sense, nearness implies the sharing of ‘existentially generated meanings'” — inside jokes, lived reciprocity, common experiences that wouldn’t be elicited by surveys or self-help questionnaires or relationship counselors; the stuff that would be shared in advance as interests on a social-networking profile. Nearness, intimacy is precisely the stuff that moves us that we don’t predict in advance. Internet sociality tends to expect us to be adapt self-analysts and enforces the supposition that we can know what will move us predictably in advance.

This traps us into a cost-benefit approach to relationships that ultimately disappoints us, as it contradicts expectations inherited from previous constructs of romantic love. The discrete ontology posited for emotions makes them commensurable, exchangable, measurable, and thus subject to rational calculation, evaluatable by abstract criteria (as opposed to the demands of the moment). The capitalist acceleration of consumption then takes hold of relationships, meaning that our emotional choices and experiences are driven by considerations of convenience. Internet dating exemplifies this: It “has introduced to the realm of romantic encounters the principles of mass consumption based on an economy of abundance, endless choice, efficiency, rationalization, and standardization…. Romantic relations are not only organized within the market, but have themselves become commodities produced on an assembly line, to be consumed fast, efficiently, cheaply, and in great abundance.” Essentially a description of Facebook-style sociality.

These efficiency principles, however, undermine emotions’ ability to situate us in the world. “Therapeutic communication instills a procedural quality to emotional life which makes emotions lose their indexicality, their capacity to orient us quickly and unself-reflectively in the web of our everyday relationships.” Rather than operate on a “thin slicing”, “Blink”-style level of immediate judgment based on subtle physical cues, we become Spock-like in accordance to the ideology of therapy and deliberate analysis, of deploying language to control emotions — the prevailing mode, she argues of the Internet (at least in the pre-YouTube era in which this was written). The Internet is a collection of private selves — not a Habermasian public. It encourages the formation of an analytical self composed of answers to a series of questions about preferences in advance of social encounters, not developed through social interaction. So it promotes an inward turn, assessing one’s tastes and values as the same time it requires exhibitionism — publicly displaying the results of the inner quest to have them validated or recognized.

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