You'll Pay To Know What You Really Feel!

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-09-09 12:00:00 No comments

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I dug out a book I'd read before but decided to re-approach with fresh eyes, what with the world on fire. The book is entitled Postemotional Society and is by sociologist Stjepan G. Meštrović, and its premise is that modern society can be distinguished by being "post-emotional". I am not sure I believe everything Meštrović puts forward, and I think some of what he says is old vinegar in new wine bottles, but I have plenty to chew on all the same.

Meštrović wrote the book in the Nineties and so his examples revolve around things like the Balkan War, the Clinton administration, and the O.J. Simpson trial, but much of what he says seems scarily relevant to the moment: "A new hybrid of intellectualized, mechanical, mass-produced emotions has appeared on the world scene." (p. 26)

Meštrović goes through some pains to explain what he means by this:

Postemotionalism involves the use of "dead" emotions from a nostalgicized tradition and inner-directed past that are almost always vicarious and conspicuous and are treated as objects to be consumed. The emotions do not disappear, but are socially transformed. ... Anger becomes indignation. Envy ... becomes an objectless craving for something better. Hate is transformed into a subtle malice that is hidden in all sorts of intellectualizations. Heartfelt joy is now the bland happiness represented by the "happy meal". Loving really becomes liking. Sorrow ... is magically transformed by the TV journalist's question "How do you feel?" ... into the typical but vague answer "I'm very upset." ... [t]he dead or pale copies of emotions suggested above are part of a larger social framework of making emotional reactions conspicuous and vicarious in a standardized, neo-Orwellian manner. (pp. 62-63)

I don't think Meštrović is talking about anything as obvious as common propaganda, but rather "mechanized emotion-speak" (his words). My take is that they are emotions that are more like furniture than feelings, something to fill the space between us but never inside us. They become less things we have from inside out, but are more provided to us from the outside in, as things for us to express as part of our social role-playing exercises.

Meštrović also advances the idea that these packaged emotions are also disconnected from any real action. The indignation he mentions above is of the sort that causes us to gripe and maybe to write angry letters to the manager, but we never expect expect anything real and substantive to come of it. And so we become powerless against the people who have learned to exploit this, the "nice and happy villains", as Meštrović puts it. At one point he notes how Slobodan Milošević won people over by simply being more presentable and having a more winning personality than his opponents. (Thought experiment: How much of Trump's indignation on any given subject is genuine, and how much of it is a performance? How much of his audience knows it and doesn't care?)

What was once the empathic taking of the role of the other, as Meštrović points out, has become merely anticipating the reactions of others: " ... the other-directed postemotional type in all professions automatically rehearses in advance the imaginary emotional reaction of others, and thereby lives the emotion vicariously before it is allowed to be expressed." (p.64)

None of this is, I think, to say that the old way of outright hating someone was better or more "honest". Rather, it indicates a failure on our part to transcend our limits. Swapping simmering contempt for full-blown rage hasn't made us any healthier on the whole, and it still erupts into the horrible real thing often enough anyway, just tinged with cynicism to boot (see: Proud Boys). We have still not found a genuine way to have constructive collective experiences that don't also impose their own terrible costs, and so we've opted instead for atomization and ersatz emotionalism. We developed synthetic social substitutes for emotion as halfhearted responses to the deaths of communities and conventional horizontal social structures. But postemotional life cannot replace genuine emotional life. The poverty of postemotionalism is not just within us and around us, but has become us.

But some aspects of Meštrović's argument, I can't swallow. When he brings up political correctness as being one manifestation of postemotionalism, it's hard to tell if it's because he finds the expression a problem or the actual underlying sentiments a problem. E.g., when he talks about how American professors are obliged to leave their office doors open when a female student consults, the better to make sure nothing untoward can happen, he describes this attitude towards flirtation as "part of the postemotional mechanization of genuine emotions: Social encounters between males and females must be made smooth, foolproof, problem-proof, highly efficient. There can be no social space for the idiosyncratic emotional interplay that used to occur in mixed gender groups." (p. 148) (Camille Paglia rode this particular horse until it, too, died.)

There's only one problem: we do, in fact, live in a world where some male professors exploit their power dynamics with their female students. And the students in question have been trying to tell you this for a long time, only to be snickered at and told to stop making stuff up or just relax and enjoy it. Not all expressions of outrage are synthetic. So maybe all Meštrović means by this is that it's hard to tell which outrages are genuine when so many aren't, but in this case, I'm having a hard time seeing it.

Tags: postemotionalism sociology