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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

  • grungewort

    Thanks! This does a great job showing both the historicity and unavoidability of affect-inflected identities. The political implications are clear too. I would just add that the dual warning offered here should be heeded not just by critics, but also by those who theorize and use affect in the course of political resistance.

    It would be great to hear what Prof. Stoler might have to say here…

  • Eduardo Duarte

    Cinzia Arruzza’s PS post compels us to think about how Capitalism effects affect, how our emotions are manipulated from outside, but also managed by us within the social relations that are dominated by the logic of capital. I’m fascinated by that line of critical theory, which reminds me of the Frankfurt School, especially Adorno and Marcuse. But I’m also of a very different mindset when it comes to how we might respond to this manipulation, and find myself becoming defensive when I read Arruzza dismissing what she calls ‘artifical and romantic ideas of authenticity and naturalness. She writes: “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.” I’m not sure what ‘decommodifying affects’ actually means, but I sense that it is relying on the same logic of authenticity as the naturalists Arruzza is dismissing. Authenticity may have been jargon in the middle of the twentieth century when it had degenerated under the weight of second wave existentialists, but anyone one who is serious about affect and the
    shift toward thinking through the heart, has to rely on the presumption of authenticity, which is the necessary premise that what I am feeling is genuine and real – however it is that it has come into being. The question is then how the emotional state comes into being. Indeed, for me the ‘kind’ of emotions we experience are a secondary matter. First
    and foremost are the kinds of experiences we have that enable us to think from the heart. Emotional thinking, how does
    this arise?

    My own conjecture is that resistance and struggle can happen in
    multiple ways, and one of those ways happens when we withdraw from the very social relations that Arruzza seems to believe are the only actual domain of human experience. (I have in mind here H.D. Thoreau’s two year experiment at Walden, his civil disobedience, and his ventures into the wilderness of the Maine woods, all detailed phenomenological accounts, which include thick descriptions
    of his affective states, as well as compelling criticism of his contemporaries need to ‘keep their billfolds safe, and their bank notes dry.’) There is nothing ‘romantic’ about being in the wilderness.
    And there is nothing romantic about finding yourself outside of the immediate and direct range of the commodity exchange, far from the constant media blitz, and the urban market’s assault on the senses. It strikes me as fatalistic to use romanticism as an epithet, as if the only ‘real’ experience were those meditated by human/social relations.
    The urban thinker must always find a way to ignore the possibility that
    it may be otherwise.

  • Ann Stoler

    Cinzia Arruzza offers an important intervention for those of us concerned with the history and contemporary valence of affect management. What is striking is that the case still needs to be made that « the social management of affect is not an invention of capitalism, » or that affects are not of a « private » nature. Anthropologists and historians have been
    attending to these issues for sometime. In many ways, « the affective turn » as it has manifest over the last decade, has contributed to ignoring the deep history in which the management of affective has mattered to governance and the making of modern states. One might turn to Albert Hirschman’s luminous work, The Passions to the Interests, to chart how centrally the “harnessing” of passions and the investment in countervailing ones, have figured as core features in state formation. Students of imperial histories can marshal ample work to show how sympathy, pity, and compassion — and to whom they would be directed — have figured in the racialized distinctions underwriting the « reason » of colonial states. Legal assessments of whom was eligible for European « equivalence » in the
    nineteenth century Netherlands Indies, for example, was predicated on the adequate demonstration
    that those of « native » origin could be considered to
    « feel at home » in a European milieu. The sharp distinctions draw between « reason » as public and « feeling » as « private » are fictions that successive generations of philosophers and social scientists have undone. The « supremacy of reason » is an
    artifice in the hierarchies of racialized rule. The politics of sentiments and the distribution of them are fundamental features in the management of
    difference and remain so in the implicit racialized distinctions that are drawn today. The « sale » of sentiment and the obligation to exhibit them in the proper measure have been enduring features in the making of inequalities for a long time. This does not mean that sentiment is mobilized in some universal fashion. But it should warn us against imagining that the performance and purchase of affect is a hallmark of our times.

  • Jeremy Safran

    This is a fascinating topic Cinzia. Something I’ve been thinking about for some time now- will hopefully be able to post on in the not too distant future.

  • Interesting and persuasive, though I wonder how starkly apart capitalism is in this, imagining what the alternatives might be, I see the tension, dilemma you highlight built into the social fabric, varying in different kinds of social orders. It is a manifestation of what Iddo Tavory and I are exploring as the social condition. The struggle is to deal with the tension, not to imagine that it can or should disappear. I must say for me this requires examination of a variety of experiences.

    All that said, nice thought provoking piece. I look forward to more on this perhaps with you Jeremy Safran and Ann Stoler examining it together.

  • Cinzia Arruzza

    Sorry for my lateness in answering your comments, but I have been away from the internet. Ann, thank you for your excellent observations, and I completely agree with you that it is astonishing that one needs to make the point over and over again in spite of all the historical evidence provided so far. To add to your observation and answer Jeff’s doubt, what interests me in particular is to figure out whether there is something specific to capitalism and to the commodity form as such not only in the way affects are managed, but also in the effects of this management in terms of alienation. The question I’m wondering about is not how the conscious political and social mobilization of affects works, but rather how affects are managed through the impersonal mechanisms of the market, of commodification, and of exploitation. And where we can locate resistance.To answer Jeff, as I tend to strongly believe in historical specificity, I would be quite surprised to find out that capitalism doesn’t have specific forms of affects management. My random suggestion is that this specificity, as I wrote, concerns, on the one hand, the generalized commodity form (both the fact that affective labor is sold as a commodity and the fact that affects can be bought and sold themselves as commodities) and, on the other hand, the contradictory emphasis on the naturalness, authenticity, and privateness of affects, which conflicts with commodification creating in this way an alienating effect. I’m not sure that this kind of tension can be historically found prior to capitalism, that is prior to the generalization of commodity production. One can of course find other tensions, and other forms of affects management, but this one… I don’t think so. Of course, the presupposition for thinking that this is specific, or even interesting, is that one has to agree that the generalized diffusion of the commodity form is a bit of an epochal shift.

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