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

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

Written by Manisha Basu (English)

As I began to read Eva Illouz’s 2007 book Cold Intimacies, I realized that this was one of those rare books that spoke around and across the boundaries of distinct regimes of knowledge. Indeed, as it moved deftly from modern selfhood to postmodern role-playing to the ontic self produced in the conjunction between psychology and new media, and again between Durkheim’s sociology, self-help pamphlets, and traditions of romantic love, it drew in, perhaps demanded even, different disciplinary responses. In particular, I think there are two principal conceptual energies that impel Illouz’s book in these different directions for thinking. The first is an emphasis on the fluidity, the malleability, and the infectious intermixing of rigid binaries like public and private, rational and emotional selves, the surprise of love and the regularities of the market.

The other and deliciously contrasting impulse is an emphasis on stasis. For instance, when in talking of “the writing down of emotions,” Illouz says, “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 later again, when she refers to the ontic self arrested in the intersection between psychology and new media, she is bringing to the foreground “the colonization of time and space” that underlies visions of fluidity. With these two conceptual energies as a kind of framing device, I am going to shift Illouz’s analysis to a slightly different domain of analysis—that of colonial and postcolonial studies with particular reference to the South Asian context. I hope that such a shift is not too cavalier on my part, because of course Cold Intimacies gestures toward this movement when it extends its analysis of interpersonal relations to the imagining of nation and in particular, when it draws attention to Benedict Anderson’s emphasis on style in his diagnosis of the nation as imagined community.

Illouz points out how if “Victorian emotional culture had divided men and women through the axis of the public and the private, the twentieth century therapeutic culture slowly eroded and reshuffled those boundaries by making emotional life central to the workplace.” At the same time, Partha Chatterjee ,in an of-quoted articulation, has argued that the colonial situation and the response of nationalists to the critique of Indian tradition had already in the nineteenth century introduced a new flexibility in dichotomies like public/private, inner/outer, and spirituality/ materiality.

With the expansion of modern European powers into the Empires of the Orient, the Western male subject, fashioned on a principle of rational self-conscious individuality was confronted with a problem: How was he to practice slavery, oppression and exploitation of native men in the colonies who, as men, were rational individuals and, hence, equally deserving of freedom and dignity in the public sphere? Given this pressure to legitimize practices of domination, the public and private realms are reconfigured in terms of the colonial projects and their nationalist responses.

This reconfiguration involved the simultaneous effeminization and hypersexualization of Hindu Bengali men by colonial administrators who must naturalize the regularities of British imperial expansion, and by extension of British patriarchy. As a result, British women and Bengali men were both deemed incapable of rational political life because they were plotted on a continuum with one another. In response, at least the early Indian nationalists, many of whom were western educated, accepted the domination of the latter in the spheres of rationality, public works, impersonal bureaucracy, and modern education but maintained their cultural superiority in the ‘inner’ sphere, traditionally the domain of Indian women.

The modern Hindu Bengali woman was a key figure in this discussion—the nationalist text had painted her as the very repository of tradition, untouched by the profanity of the material world. But at the same time, she needed to have some idea of the world outside the home, into which she could even assay as long as it did not taint her core self. It is this latter criterion which loosened the boundaries of the home from the yoke of confines earlier defined by purdah to a more flexible, but nonetheless culturally determinate domain constituted by the differences between socially approved male and female conduct. The essence of woman had to be initially ossified in terms of certain culturally visible spiritual qualities, but once this was so, the domain constituted by differences clearly marked for the Hindu middle-class Bengali woman her "superiority over the Western woman for whom, it was believed education meant only the acquisition of material skills to compete with men in the outside world and hence a loss of feminine (spiritual) virtues” (Chaterjee). In other words, the binaries remained rigid for the western woman—she was a static figure who could be either feminine or masculine, either spiritual or material, either of the inner or of the outer world—whereas the Hindu woman was superior precisely because she was endlessly fungible and able to lubricate the boundaries between private and public spheres.

My point in bringing colonial and nationalist projects into the discussion is not a mere nominalism, but rather I think in some way to follow Illouz’s lead as she attempts to map how the self produced in the nexus between psychology, the language of productivity and the commodification of identity is further transformed and shaped by internet technology. In other words, in a situation where dichotomies like east and west or spirituality and materiality endlessly fold into one another through the neo-colonial traffic in alterity, how do we map popular understandings amidst the Indian middle-class, for instance, that ‘psychology’ is a ‘western’ luxury necessitated by the relentless materiality of that culture? How then do ‘eastern’ practices like yoga combine so seamlessly with ‘western’ psychology to provide a narrative of self-realization and infuse the materiality of the workplace with the spirituality of family and home? In what ways do we begin to theorize the packaged and codified re-entry of these forms into the newly liberalized Indian market when we witness management trainees in a swanky office building in Mumbai meditating after a long day of work, but this time not in response to a loin-cloth wearing ascetic, but rather a theater screen beaming an American CEO leading their meditation from his office in San Francisco. Is the apparent fluidity here undergirded by a stasis in which difference as a function of time and historicity is itself apprehended and arrested?


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