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Emotions in capitalism (and the rise of homo sentimentalis)

Emotions in capitalism (and the rise of homo sentimentalis)

May 10, 2021

Intimacies Frozen (2007) is the title of the work in which the sociologist Eva Illouz It is proposed to analyze emotions in the instrumentalization that capitalism has made of them during the last century .

Studying the impact of psychology in the development of an "emotional capitalism" in which economic relations parasitize and end up transforming the culture of affects, the author composes the aforementioned work through the three conferences that will be reviewed. The first of the conferences is titled The emergence of homo sentimentalis.

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What are emotions (and their role in capitalism)

Illouz starts by considering emotions as an intersection between "cultural meanings and social relationships" that, by simultaneously engaging "cognition, affection, evaluation, motivation and body", involve a condensation of energy capable of enabling human action.


Likewise, the author considers that emotions have a "pre-reflexive and often semi-conscious" character since they are the result of social and cultural elements that escape the conscious decision of the subjects.

A new emotional style

At the beginning of the 20th century, and through the dissemination of the therapeutic discourse promoted by clinical psychology, a "new emotional style" was extended, consisting of "a new way of thinking about the relationship of the self with others". The main elements to consider for this "new interpersonal imagination" of psychoanalytic type were:

  1. The crucial role played by the nuclear family in the conformation of the self.
  2. The importance of the events proper to everyday life in the configuration of normal and the pathological.
  3. The centrality of sex , sexual pleasure and sexuality in an imagination structured linguistically.

Beginning in the 1920s, this new emotional style spread mainly through what Illouz calls "advice literature." But while the psychoanalytic style provided "the vocabularies through which the self understands itself" in a manifest omnipresent vocation, it ended up being especially functional to the business world, contributing both to the emotional management of workers' lives , as to the systematization and rationalization of its activities during the productive process.


The role of psychology in business management

The author argues that "the language of psychology was very successful in shaping the discourse of corporate individuality" to the extent that contributed to neutralize the class struggle by displacing labor conflict towards the emotional framework related to the worker's personality .

In any case, the uses of psychology in the business world should not be understood only as a subtle mechanism of control by management, since they also established "budgets of equality and cooperation" in the relations "between workers and managers". Such contributions would not have been possible without the development of a "linguistic model of communication", whose foundation lies in the search for empathy on the part of the interlocutors.

Thus, the communicative ability that allows social recognition ended up being a strategy through which to achieve business objectives in such a way that the knowledge of the emotions of the other through communication facilitated the practices of professional competence, while mitigating uncertainties regarding the advent of a flexible mode of production. Illouz sums it up in this way: "Emotional capitalism reorganized emotional cultures and made the economic individual become emotional and emotions to be more closely linked with instrumental action."


The role of psychology in the family

After "promoting efficiency and social harmony in the company", psychology penetrated the family field in order to extend "the market of therapeutic services" to a middle class that, since the second half of the 20th century, increased considerably in the advanced capitalist countries. Likewise, therapeutic psychology was supported by the rise of feminism from the seventies , whose main concerns were around family and sexuality.

Both psychology and feminism contributed to converting into public, and therefore political, that which until then had been experienced as personal and private.

This attitude shared by the therapeutic and feminist discourse regarding the "ideal of intimacy" was based on the equality between the members of an affective relationship, so that "pleasure and sexuality [were founded] in the instrumentation of fair conduct and in affirming and preserving women's fundamental rights. "

The rationalization of emotional relationships

As a consequence of a new egalitarian paradigm in intimate relationships, it tended to systematically and rationally systematize the values ​​and beliefs of the members of the couple . Accordingly, "intimate life and emotions [became] measurable and calculable objects, which can be translated into quantitative affirmations."

The rationalization of intimate relationships based on the questioning of the emotional bonds on which they are based led to the transformation of such relationships "into cognitive objects that can be compared to each other and susceptible to a cost-benefit analysis". Subtracted from its particularity, depersonalized and subject to a process of commensuration, the relations assumed a condition of indetermination and transience .

Bibliographic references:

  • Illouz, Eva. (2007). Frozen Intimacies. The emotions in capitalism. Katz Editores (p.11-92).

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