Author's Roundtable II: Eva Illouz's Cold Intimacies

Monday, November 10, 2008

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Eric Dalle (Comparative Literature)

Professor Illouz began her talk with an overview of her general research project which she describes as “how capitalism transforms the self.” That is an issue I have been struggling with in my own examination of Mainland Chinese literature beginning in the 1980s. This was, therefore, my personal point of departure in addressing some of the issues in Cold Intimacies.

As Mainland China moved away from high Maoism to a no-holds-barred global capitalism, major changes in the narration of the human subject have highlighted the relationship between economic conditions and psychological and emotional characterization. Beginning in the 1980s, writers began to purposefully write against the previously prescribed Maoist protagonist. They accomplished this by characterizing main characters that were often physically weak, maimed, prone to emotional outbursts, or severely mentally deficient.

My research thus far had concentrated on this particular time period of literature, so after reading Cold Intimacies I became curious about the current representation of the self as performed by the media and pop culture. As China has become a global economic competitor, has an emotional lexicon similarly been mobilized to treat the understanding of the self?

The answer is a resounding yes, and Professor Illouz in her justification for focusing her work on American pop culture and media gave some of the reasons why. Illouz stated that there is a global condition that facilitated the importation of the psychological model of business. Although this importation does undergo a cultural filter, it nonetheless is an importation of an emotional model of the self that is intertwined with capitalism. This model of the self had developed in the United States within corporate culture, and it is from here that it has spread worldwide.

In rummaging through recent scholarship on popular culture in China, I found much work that describes importation of a ‘vocabulary of the self’ (though not referring directly to the notion of “emotional capitalism”). I found interesting work on this in work looking at the popularity of women’s lifestyle magazines beginning in the 1990s. Woman’s magazines and pictorials are not new to Chinese popular culture. Similarly after 1949, the Maoist agenda necessitated pictorials and magazines to provide the model of behavior within the new society.

In the 1990s, these magazines drastically changed their overall project. Now, instead of the agrarian modern woman assisting in the work unit, the front cover of these magazines shows a solitary woman, in a business suit, with laptop. Accompanying this portrayal is a new lexicon of emotions geared toward the purpose of personal success through interpersonal relations. For example in 1999 one magazine ran an article called the “Thirty Traits of the Talented Woman” which lists among these traits: sensitive to the feelings of others, but not suspicious, intelligent, sharp-witted, independent, self-respecting, generous.”1

The reason for highlighting some similarities that I have found between the rise of the “homo sentementalis” as outlined in Cold Intimacies and the contemporary Chinese popular culture is not to suggest a completely parallel narrative between different contexts. Rather I see within the examples an intricate relationship between a desire for success and a parallel need for an emotional lexicon to express this striving for this success. This is shown in parts of chapter one which detail the adoption of psychological models by American corporations. If we are to agree that there is a modern appeal to quantitative emotional comprehension within the public/private sectors in which the capitalist subject inhabits, must we also look at the contribution to productivity? Why else, I would ask, should American corporations swiftly incorporate the various permutations of emotional self-reflexivity if in the end there is no perception of a monetary benefit? But what is actually gained and what is at stake when (as it is argued) that the persuasions of therapy, productivity, and feminism provide the rationale for extracting the emotional from the affective and sanitizing it into the “model of communication”?

I believe that the previous questions were addressed by Professor Illouz as she attempted to explain what she saw as the “political” aspect of the concept of emotional capitalism. This discussion ended our round table, but I found it extremely relevant to many questions that still remained for me. Illouz stated that she did not necessarily see a political agenda, but she immediately retracted and stated that there is perhaps one but it comes with many contradictions. What inspired my question is a need to figure out why the psychological model was so readily adopted by American corporations throughout the 20th century.

Finally, as argued in Cold Intimacies, the precondition of communication is the “suspension of one’s emotional entanglements” so that the project of the self might undergo evaluation, bargaining, and quantification. At what point can an individual categorize the self, so that one in the end one does not discriminate between affective emotions and their quantification? This was the final question that I posed at the end of my response, and again Illouz addressed this issue in explaining what she saw as the relationship between affect and emotion. In my reading of the conclusion to the last chapter, there is a separation of ‘emotion’ as a mechanism for categorizing and describing the self and ‘affect’— which was brought up in the following discussion as perhaps a narrative of affect.

In the end, I believe that the resounding consensus of the panel is that Cold Intimacies is a provocative work that resonates in diverse fields and allows us all to respond and reflect upon our own research from a fresh perspective.

1For this part of the presentation, I referred to the article “The New Chinese Woman and Lifestyles Magazines of the Late 1990s” found in Perry Link ed. Popular China: unofficial culture in a globalizing society


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