Author's Roundtable II: Eva Illouz's Cold Intimacies
Guest Writer: Bianca Isaki

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

Begging the Question of Emotional Capitalism

Written by Bianca Isaki (Asian American Studies Program)

Eva Illouz’s Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (2007) is a compilation of three Adorno Lectures she delivered in Frankfurt in 2004. This pedestrian statement, which I grabbed from an “About This Book” blurb from, actually says a lot about the book’s pedagogical tone, its seemingly resolute antipathy to Foucault (not unknown to Frankfurt School theorists) and its coevalness with a burgeoning literature on cultural structures of feeling and affect (Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, Michael Hardt – as well as other theorists of “biomediated” bodies – Antonio Damasio, Ilya Prigione, and some of William Connolly). But, for me, the best thing about Cold Intimacies wasn’t its genealogies and theory-archive so much as Illouz’s readings of popular culture – You’ve Got Mail and those who labor in the Internet-dating world.

Illouz definitely underlines that Internet-dating – with its projects of self-cultivation, articulation, representation, and marketing – are work. The wide-ranging apparatus under which these people - and to varying degrees, all of us – now labor is what she nominates “emotional capitalism,” defined as “a culture in which emotional and economic discourses and practices mutually shape each other, thus producing…a broad, sweeping movement in which affect is made an essential aspect of economic behavior and in which emotional life – especially that of the middle classes – follows the logic of economic relations and exchange” (Illouz 2007:5). The plan for Cold Intimacies is “to uncover another order in the social organization of capitalism” (4) because this un/re-covery “seriously alter[s]” what and how we usually analyze the “modern subject, the private-public divide and its articulation on gender divisions” (Illouz 2007:2). This other organization – emotional capitalism – takes form in “the psychological persuasion, the self-help literature, the advice industry, the state, the pharmaceutical industries, the Internet technology”; taken together, they constitute a “progressive fusion of the market repertoires and languages of the self” (Illouz 2007:108). Key components of this fusion were the language of psychology, a feminism that brought the public discourses about rights into the private sphere, and the new articulation of desire through the economic lexicons and instruments of consumer culture.

I’m not repeating her strategy in order to frame a discussion of what is wrong with it, but I want to push it a little. The idea that knowing more will change what we know for the better is riddled with assumptions and fallacies that all of us involved in a tertiary level of the liberal education project know well. It is this better-ness that many of Illouz’s respondents and questioners seemed to be striving towards during the latter half of the roundtable. Everyone seemed to agree that Cold Intimacies had indeed “uncovered” an important dimension of capitalism, and was eager to set that discovery to work.

Respondent Eric Dalle (Comparative Literature) asked for a comment on how Illouz’s analytical framework might travel to “post-ideological China” (this is the phrase that Lung-Kee Sun uses in The Chinese National Character: From Nationhood to Individuality (M.E. Sharpe 2002), but I suspect Dalle’s meaning fits within Sun’s framework), where the New Chinese Woman is now more likely to be iconized as a solitary female in a business suit and laptop instead of a pre-1990s image of a women’s collective serving the poor wholeheartedly. Perhaps, Dalle suggested, the successful person put forth by the business world in China might be oriented by emotional capitalism’s new lexicon of interpersonal relationships.

Manisha Basu (English) focused on another dynamic of emotional capitalism – the articulation of fluidity (for example, the irregularities of the market) and stasis (as in the reflexive act of naming emotions in order to give them an ontology). She proposed that such an apparatus might be articulated within the neoliberal/ neocolonial project in India by allowing difference itself to be apprehended and arrested. On the neoliberal side, it could allow us to approach a corporate meditation class in India that is being led by its CEO in San Francisco via satellite. And, an instrument that can “capture” difference is useful to (neo)colonial configurations of the New Bengali Woman – a figure whose capacity to be a repository of tradition also allows her to venture in the modern world. (A digression - this operation is precisely what Anjali Gera Roy describes – but does not provide an argument for – in “Bhangra Remixes,” a chapter in India in Africa, Africa in India (Indiana UP, 2008) which the “Intimacy, Domesticity, and the Nation: South Asia and Beyond” IPRH reading group read this earlier this month). An audience member later speculated that the success of religion-affiliated Internet dating sites contradicts Illouz’s claim about the increasing rationalization of romantic object choice. I think that Basu’s suggestion that the development of technologies for apprehending difference (like religious values) and locating them in intimate sites (like a love-object) has explanatory power here, but this isn’t the way the discussion proceeded.

Finally, in the most gentle terms, Alejandro Lugo (Anthropology-Latina/Latino Studies) pushed Illouz to account for her research site (middle-class U.S. culture) and her focus on a narrow strain of second-wave feminism. I was most on board with this response because it points to the ways that capitalism takes particular forms as it articulates with site-specific histories, terrains and cultures. Illouz’s response had something to do with the capacity of the U.S. to spread culture via globalization, generally glossing Lugo’s insistence on the specificity of her research sites. I later followed up with a question about politics: how does it matter that emotional capitalism’s convergence between psychology and feminism happened in the U.S.?

I pointed to the specificity of the U.S. settler colonial context in which the early twentieth- century psychological discourses Illouz discusses (especially, Freud’s 1909 lectures at Clark University) were taken up because, I believe, that specificity matters a lot. Psychology (Illouz doesn’t differentiate between psychology and psychoanalysis) was instrumental in elaborating a psychological interiority, which thus became a vector for projects that were trying to make sense of a huge influx of immigrants, nationalizing naturalization, and disavowing the displacement of indigenous nations. Cultural pluralism, multiculturalism, and a transnational America could create a citizenry across seemingly insurmountable differences by projecting a liberal imagination of abstracted “hearts and minds.” I’m schematizing here but, my point is that the politics of psychology get “uncovered” when we see them within the project of building a white settler colonial society over and against the historical and ongoing displacement of indigenous nations. And, insofar as psychology signaled the onset of emotional capitalism, neither can be divorced from the production of the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants” and a white-centering “multiculturalism”.

By contrast, in Illouz’s estimation, emotional capitalism has contradictory effects that cancel each other out such that she can say; “emotional capitalism doesn’t have a politics.” Her answer suggests that her analysis of emotional capitalism exists in a space that isn’t yet situated within capitalism’s political economy or cultural politics. Yet, most of the respondents pressed up against this limitation; we/they wanted to know what an analysis of emotional capitalism can do. Specifically, how do Illouz’s findings allow us to approach different kinds of modern subjects - therapy-patients, housewives, CEO-meditation instructors, a Mexican working-class, and clients? The point (as Illouz acknowledges) is to see how capitalism’s “intertwining of rationality and emotionality” happens in and through the production of modern subjects (Illouz 2008). But the picture of emotional capitalism’s materiality offered by Cold Intimacies is fractured; Illouz “suggest[s] that there is no direct continuity between social spheres and that they do not necessarily mirror one another” (Illouz 2007:92). This is a plea for a method of working out from “a deep understanding of the concrete cultural practices of ordinary actors” (Illouz 2007:93). Otherwise, the aleatory capacity of the singular gets engulfed by a too-quick a priori prediction about how something will “behave” (Illouz 2007:92). Put plainly, we need to know how something works in order to determine what it does and Cold Intimacies is working on the first part of that process.

My point is that I don’t think that this order of investigation works so well when we’re talking about social relationships under capitalism. Even theories of aleatory capitalism don’t suggest that capital produces difference for nothing. Rather, capitalism funds social transgressions in the short run, but only to exploit them in the end. Instead, Gayatri Spivak has suggested “begging the question” – showing how something works by first presuming that it does. Capitalism is useful as an analytic precisely because it describes processes that create value by trading on hierarchies of difference – the main difference being that between the differential between necessary and surplus labor. However, as feminist, marxist and queer analyses have shown (I’m thinking of the sociologist Roderick Ferguson in particular), hierarchies of race, gender, nationality, and, apparently, emotional appropriateness can also be exploited to produce differentials in social value. Begging the question would allow us to ask; how does emotional capitalism shore up, re/produce, extend, broaden, deepen, entrench or otherwise exploit hierarchies of difference?

This project offers a nuanced view of the ways that a language of emotion has been taken up into the waged-workplace and consumer culture; and I appreciate its attention to singularity and its eruption in strange and unexpected places like Internet-dating sites. But, as I indicated earlier, are we assuming too much when we risk thinking that we can know more by bracketing objects of study, and further, that knowing more will change how we know what we know for the better? This assumption shares at least morphology with Illouz’s “hyperrational fool, somebody whose capacity to judge, to act and ultimately choose is damaged by a cost-benefit analysis, a rational weighing of options that spins out of control” (Illouz 2007:113). Illouz was talking about a brain-damaged man trying to set a date for an appointment with a neurologist. She was comparing him to the Internet-dater who (mis)applies her economic literacy in her search for true love – or at least marriage, romantic happiness or a good time. I’m wondering if the same misapplied faith – that knowing more happens only in advance of seeing what the “big picture” is. The analogy, however misfitting, is with scholarly projects that bracket attempts to describe capitalist phenomena from their systemic location within productions of exploitation and hierarchy. I’m suggesting that the singularity of capitalism demands presuming that it has a politics (a systemic production of inequalities) and then showing how it does. This untimely order of analysis might better key to the asymptotic relationship between academic production and historically material struggles for lasting social redistribution, which, after all, will determine what any scholarship means in the long run.

Illouz, E. (2007). Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Malden, MA, Polity Press.

Illouz, E. (2008). Author's Roundtable II: Eva Illouz. Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Urbana, Illinois.


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