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The Capitalism of Affects

In her groundbreaking book about emotional labor, The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochshild suggests that emotions are not simply stored in us waiting to be expressed: they are also produced and managed. The notion and practice of affects management, both privately and socially, are not specific to capitalism. Hellenistic philosophers made up a new word to convey this very idea: metriopatheia, from pathos, affect, and metrios, a word that conveys both the notion of measure and that of moderation. As Foucault correctly noted, the management or negotiation of pathē in Greek and Roman philosophers, and in particular in the Stoics, is constitutive part of a process of subject formation, utilizing what Foucault calls techniques of the self, through which a specific and historically determined subject constitutes himself as capable of self-determination and self-mastery through a process that was social and individual at the same time. Generally speaking the notion that pathē are the expression of an authentic self was to a large extent foreign to Greek and Roman philosophy: on the contrary, the very word pathē expresses passivity and conveys the idea that the subject undergoes affects and experiences them as forced upon him.

The social management of affects is not an invention of capitalism and does not, as such, characterize capitalism in a specific way. In other words, when we address the problem of affects under capitalism, we should be very careful to avoid the risk of thinking that the problem lies in the capitalist intrusion into our hearts, in an opposition between, for example, the authenticity and naturalness of our private affects and their forced and normative display or regulation dictated by capitalist social relations. On the contrary, we may even think that a robust notion of the privacy of affects as characterizing what it means to be a unique individual arises with capitalism and modernity. 

If this is true, then, we need some more analytical work in order to understand what exactly is specific to the managed heart under capitalism. For this purpose, I would like to suggest at least three factors that concur to a specific capitalist form of affects management.

The first: as shown by Hochshild’s work, under capitalism affects become, like other capabilities, a set of skills produced and regulated in such a way as to be sold as a commodity sui generis, that strange commodity that is labor power. That is, affects need to be included among the physical and intellectual resources that the worker sells for a wage: this transformation of affects into a crucial component of the commodity labor power cannot but have important consequences on a person’s self-perception and experience.

The second factor, strictly connected with the first, is what I would call affects fetishism. That is, precisely because affects have become marketable skills, they undergo to a large extent the same process characterized by Marx as commodity fetishism: they become things, detachable from their subject, that mediate the relations among people. This appears clearer in the use of affects in marketing, where the display of specific affects is employed for the sake of the creation of further affects, for example desire, self-identification, lust, ambition, to be attached to commodities. Another recent instance of such a phenomenon is what recent studies, which have aroused several polemics because of their intrusive methods, have defined as emotional contagion on social media. In other words, we witness here a divorce between affects and people’s living and organic experience. 

The third, crucial, factor has to do with the contradiction between the two phenomena that I have just mentioned, on the one hand, and the fact that one of the main anthropological transformations determined by capitalist modernity is precisely the constitution of the individual as the subject of unique, irreducible, never entirely expressible, and essentially private emotions and feelings. To clarify, what I am suggesting is that the transformation of our social relations and form of life under capitalism has produced both sets of phenomena at the same time: on the one hand we are interpellated to recognize and accept our “true” emotions as in them our inner and most authentic self finds expression; on the other hand, our emotions are detached from us and constructed as interchangeable and measurable things that can be exchanged on the market or as skills that add to our labor power. The estrangement experienced by people providing commodified affective labor lies precisely in this contradiction between quality and quantitative equalization through exchange, concrete living experience and abstract affective labor, autonomy and heteronomy. This contradiction, however, should not be conceptualized as a contradiction between naturalness and artificiality, authenticity and inauthenticity, but rather between two different forms of experience that are both socially mediated and that are both part of what it means to live in a capitalist society. 

While I want to challenge the idea of a complete privacy and naturalness of affects, I want to insist, at the same time, on the fact that these two forms of experience are actually different and contribute in very different ways to the process of subject formation and to the way a subject perceives herself. I am insisting on this point, because I think that we should avoid two parallel dangers. On the one hand, the danger of trying to find resources for resistance and struggle in artificial and romantic ideas of authenticity and naturalness. On the other hand, the danger of thinking that the form of social mediation in the management of our affects is fundamentally the same in all spheres of society.

To conclude, in very broad terms, I would suggest that decommodifying affects should be both our goal and a means of resistance and struggle, without for this reason falling into a romantic ideal of authenticity. It is not a matter of defending private authenticity versus social reification, but rather of mediating, shaping, and managing our affects through more humane social relations.

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Cinzia Arruzza

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