“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Alienation - can't do with it, can't do without it, part 2

Moretto comme ta bouche
Est immense quand tu souris
Et quand tu ris je ris aussi
Tu aimes tellement la vie
Quel est donc ce froid
Que l'on sent en toi?




Arlie Hochschild begins her book, The Managed Heart (1983), by contrasting two stories. One is a story in Capital, about a boy in a wallpaper factory who works at a machine, 16 hours a day. The other is of a training session for Delta stewardesses, who are instructed to ‘really smile” because a smile is your ‘asset’. This was the eighties, and this is what stewardesses did. One of the stewardesses told Hochschild, “Sometimes I come off a long trip in a state of utter exhaustion, but I find I can’t relax. I giggle a lot, I chatter, I call friends. It’s as if I can’t release myself from an artificially created elation that has kept me ‘up’ on the trip. I hope to be able to come down from it better as I get better at the job.”

Hochschild defined emotional labor this way:
“This labor requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others – in this case, the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe place. This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.”


Marx, of course, knew – as did factory owners and blue book writers, as did Dickens and Mill and Hugo – that a vast injury was being done to the boy in the wallpaper factory. But how was one to translate that injury? What, to speak as a certain type of philosopher, was the harm, here? Lack of pay? Was the harm that the boy did not pocket the surplus value he created?

Marx gives many indications over the course of his work that the harm, here, is not really translatable into ‘assets’. In that way, the harm can’t be put in an account book, a double ledger of benefits and costs – that is, without losing sight of the fact that benefits and costs, which seem, to the economist, to be scientific bits of quantified information, only make the leap to the quantifiable through gross metaphysical mystifications.

It is interesting – even, from my viewpoint, telling – that Hochschild’s term ‘emotional labor’ was gradually processed, in the literature, into ‘emotional management’. While the two terms may seem, at first glance, to be synonymous, one – emotional labor – actually attributes to the emotional a real position in the social world, while the other – emotional management – retreats to the traditional notion that emotion is a kind of savage thing, outside of which stands control. At the same time, sociologists soon started pointing out that those successful ‘emotional managers’ expressed more satisfaction with their jobs. Sociologists, in the 80s and 90s, were taking the turn away from such fuzzy and oppositional concepts as alienation and towards more friendly and professionally successful ones as public and rational choice. Businesses do not hire you as a consultant unless you are with the program, of course.

Still, the question is posed: on what scale should we quantify the quantifier? If our stewardess finds herself giggling and chattering a lot, if she fills out the questionnaire about job satisfaction with happy faces, are we not talking about a woman who is not a ‘bitch’, but a fully self empowered gal, who might even find feminism to be a useful ‘accessory’.



Yet, of course, we could pull back a bit on the question, even from the quantificational view, of what this training in smiles brought her. In the early eighties, indeed, the Delta stewardess was riding high. I knew a few in New Orleans in 1983, around the time that Hochschild’s book came out, and they were, indeed, leading a lifestyle full of chatting and artificial highs – usually cocaine.

It was about that time that three satisfied stewardess even proposed buying Delta a jet, purely out of their satisfied hearts. This became a locus classicus of business management books about implementing a “collaborative culture” – to use William Schneider’s phrase in The Re-engineering Alternative: “In 1982, three stewardesses for Delta Airlines announced that they and other Delta employees were pledging nearly $1,000 each to buy a $30 million Boeing 767 jet for the airline. “We just wanted to say thanks for the way Delta has treated us,” one of the women explained. By December they had raised enough pledges to buy the 767. Seven thousand employees turned out at the Atlanta airport for the christening of the Spirit of Delta.” [44]

Schneider presents this as a model of the company as family. The two stewardesses I knew presented it as the model of company as blackmailer. Delta’s public announcement that the management had ‘nothing’ to do with this was, of course, nonsense – as in any ‘family’, who contributed and who didn’t was quickly known.

As anybody who has flown Delta in the last twenty years knows, the smile culture gave way, after de-regulation, to a more traditional herding the beasts into the slaughterhouse culture. Notoriously, Delta’s management ripped off the pension plans of their employees, which was supposedly accrued during all the days of happy flying. As Scheider says, “the collaborative culture springs from the family” – and Delta’s management proved to have modeled their family feelings on those of the famous painting by Goya, Saturn eating his children.

However, the question of what the ‘pay’ for emotional labor is – and how emotional labor is standardized as labor - forces us back, inevitably, to the fully social self, the one whose aches and ecstasies might not be things that come in separate units, to be weighed on Bentham’s pleasure/pain scales.

Okay, now, here’s my translation of the next sentences in the German Ideology. I’ve tried not to smooth out the almost agonizing structure of these sentences, which remind me of nothing so much as Laocoon in the toils of the snake:

That it thus becomes an “unbearable” ["unerträgliche"] power, that is to say, a power, against which one revolutionizes, is integral to the fact that it has produced the mass of mankind both as thoroughly propertyless [“eigentumslos"] and at the same time as in contradiction to a world of wealth and culture spread before them, which both presuppose a great increase of the force of production, a higher level of its development; on the other side, this development of the forces of production (with which already the empirical existence of persons is put on a world historical rather than local footing) is, as well, an absolutely necessary practical pre-supposition, because without it only lack is universalized, and thus with neediness also the struggle for necessities begins again and we have to reconstruct all the old shit [die ganze alte Scheiße sich herstellen müßte] – and because, furthermore, only with this universal development of the forces of production is a universal commerce of people posited; thus on the one side, the phenomenon of the “propertyless masses among all peoples is produced all at the same time (universal competition), each making themselves dependent on the overthrow of the other, and finally the world historical, empirically universal individuals replace the local ones.”

The complex that is built around “alienation” here goes through certain recognizable steps.

First, we have what I’d call the Frankenstein moment. This is the moment in which the people who are collaborating realize that somehow, without their choosing it, the division of labor has taken on a life of its own. This in itself is an important clue that alienation is unthinkable without division of labor of some kind: between men and women, between adults and children, etc. It appears again and again in Marx’s writing, every time giving us a sense of the social uncanny. The monster, it appears, is alive:

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Beautiful! And hideous. At the same time the system produces the most astonishing beauty – such refinement and cultivation [Bildung] as has never been seen before -- and a wretchedness, and evacuation of life, that has also never been seen before. This evacuation is described in two terms: of unbearability and of propertylessness. Unbearability is, Marx claims at this point, the condition without which the masses won’t revolutionize. In the sixties, when Marx was good and thoroughly Nietzschefied, this moment would give rise to doubts – is it a fact that the bourgeoisie, here, is the great producer, and the proletariat merely the reactive social body? If this were true, of course, it would truly put a spoke in the whole system – for the rising of the proletariat would only create the old filth, the old shit of fighting for survival.

I want to press more on that unbearability – Unertraglichkeit – in order to think clearly about the chains that the workers of the world “possess’. But not in this post.

The second moment has to do with located this unbearability in relation to the instantiation of universal history – the world market – in goods and labor that characterizes the modern system of production. Marx never takes back this insight. At the time he is writing the German ideology, very few business enterprises spanned the globe, and the logistics of manufacture, trade and communication are – in spite of his comments in the Communist Manifesto – only at the beginning of their irresistible rise. Certainly, the velocity with which silk moved from Canton to London was faster than the days when it had to go to Manila, then Acapulco, then across Mexico to Veracruz, then to Europe – or through Central Asia to Turkey, through Italy and up through Europe. Marx saw that already, branches of industry in one country would manufacture goods for sale in a far away country – as for example, Chinese ceramics, produced for the European and American market – and that there was a greatly increased commodity and money flow. Marx’s emphasis on this – even when explaining alienation – is another clue that alienation has to do with a vast and seemingly monstrous system that has arisen behind the backs of the worker. Before human beings become the subject of world history, their monster already is. Earlier revolutions against the unbearability of the system of production were as local as the system itself. The transatlantic revolutions might be said to be the first true revolutions - the French revolution, spread across Europe and fought out, in an unexpected way, in Santo Domingo, kept working in the liberation of Latin America and even, one could say, in the 1910 revolution that overthrew the Chinese Imperial court. Marx, in a famous 1881 letter to a Dutch socialist, Domela Nieuwenhuis, wrote: “The general demands of the French bourgeoisie laid down before 1789 were roughly just the same, mutatis mutandis as the first immediate demands of the proletariat are pretty uniformly to-day in all countries with capitalist production.”

In the German Ideology, the interweaving of the high level of the forces of production and their global scale leaves its impress on the chance of success of communism:

“Without this, 1, communism would be able to exist only as that of one locality; 2, the powers of commerce themselves could not have been developed yet as universal, and thus unbearable powers, they would have remained domestically-superstitiously “circumstances” ["Umstände"], and every expansion of commerce would negate local communism.”

11 comments:

duncan said...

Roger, again I want to respond to these more recent posts, but it'll take a little time... Hope all is well...

roger said...

All is more than well - it is spring, Duncan! I've liked the resistance against which I'm working from our disagreement - it has made me think harder. Anyway, you might want to respond on your blog - thus reviving Marx-y controversy across the blogosphere.

duncan said...

Oh God that Hochschild book is so frustrating. Can't you see how the degree of historicisation of her categories fluctuates depending on the moment in the argument? So - she discusses The World We Have Lost - about "a life that begins and ends in one locale, in one occupation, in one household, within one world view, and according to one set of rules." In contrast, modern life is unpredictable and in flux. Except once we're in the workplace, and our feelings have been commercialised: there "social exchanges are not, as they are in private life, subject to change or termination but ritually sealed and almost inescapable". This is bad, but bad because it's a "transmutation of the private ways we use feeling". "What is new in our time is an increasingly prevalent instrumental stance toward our naive capacity to play, wittingly and actively, upon a range of feelings for a private purpose". This naive ability to negotiate and transform the rules of emotion is thus now proper to the private sphere, which is understood as pre-commercial - instrumental exchange-emotion overlayed on gift economies of negotiated-emotion. She isn't taking seriously the degree to which the differentiation out of 'properly social' activity is associated with the same socio-economic changes she's discussing - but she makes some gestures in this direction, so it'd be an absolute nightmare trying to show the incoherence properly. (And I'm not talking about the exchange-relation infiltrating everything!) Why do you do this to me, Roger?!

duncan said...

But yes, I might respond properly on my blog.

duncan said...

Glad it's spring, anyway.

roger said...

Surely the incoherence is to call it 'pre-commercial' - there's nothing pre about it. The household, the barter econommy, the gift economy - they are not feudal relics, but are, rather, heterogeneous, sometimes competing, sometimes collaborating parts of the total economy. The total economy would stop without them. The concentration camp is about the closest you get to the crushing of the complex reciprocities which constitute the social practice of emotion. Capitalism, except in bizarre instances, is nothing at all like a concentration camp.

On the other hand, emotional labor helps us understand the key moment in the revolutionary process - the moment when the system becomes unbearable. Marx does not explain this, but it plays quite a major role in the revolutionary dynamic of history.

duncan said...

Yes your first paragraph's what I meant - I felt that Hochschild was failing to draw the full consequences of the way in which the categories she opposes to instrumental use of emotion are also located in historical transformations of the social system associated with the rise and then transformation of capitalism. It's not a coincidence that Erving Goffman (who she seems to be using quite heavily) is writing out of the postwar US boom, say. More generally, one of the effects of the rise of capitalism is the construction of a sphere that is regarded as specifically social - contingent, meaningful, human-made and remade. It's not (again) that capitalism destroys the family, by bringing exchange-relations - or even relations modelled after exchange - into the heart of the intimate sphere; it's that the modern social fact of intimacy is partly built out of the contrast with the public economic sphere - and that this contrast is part of, as you say, a larger social field.

A claim like that could probably be made differently and better if I weren't tired. I like the emotional labour concept better than it probably sounds like; I'm dubious though that 'alienation' is necessarily the best vocabulary to capture its force.

duncan said...

Still running on a little too little sleep, so apologies if this isn't as coherent as it could be. But... how to put this...

There's a very direct similarity between the labour of the wallpaper factory worker and the labour of the stewardess - they are both wage labourers; they both sell their labour power, their bodies and minds and hearts, to a capitalist firm, for it to do as it sees fit with all this human matter for the allotted period, give or take. This is a very clear sense in which labour is alienated - it's sold, and therefore in wage labour our selves are controlled by another's will, in a manner governed by culturally specific and when you come down to it sorta weird social rituals.

This sense of 'alienated' is absolutely consistent throughout Marx's corpus - he wants wage labour abolished. The question is how one understands the nature of the harm that is done here. One way - a way that is often associated with the use of the word 'alienation' - is to see an essence betrayed. I don't think this is a good way to understand social life, no matter its basic affective force. I prefer to see the self as made up of many different intersecting social commitments or communities, and the construction of self as involving a series of different kinds of choices between these different circles. One such choice is where one places the weight of meaning of one's life. Now, the wage-labouring self is divided in a very specific and obvious way - the at-work self is notably different from the at-leisure self. All these selves are multiple, of course - but there's still a clear division here.

One way of dealing with that division is to "live for the weekend", as they say: to place the weight of one's life's meaning on leisure activities, and to get through the working week with gritted teeth and harrowed nerves and soul-crushing lack of engagement with the tasks before one's eyes and under one's fingers. Another way is to invest oneself very heavily in one's work, so that one's work-life personality is close to the self one feels one inhabits when outside the workplace, the latter being modified, perhaps, to better fit the demands of the job. And, of course, there are a million stories to be told and I'm being grotesquely simplistic in putting things so schematically.

(cont...)

duncan said...

Marx wants wage-labour abolished. He wants a massive recalibration of the weighting of self in capitalist society. He thinks that the productive capabilities unleashed by capitalism make it ludicrous that the work-self we have to be in order to survive should have this kind of hold over us. If we're wage-labourers, after all, our total selves - our mesh of different selves - are going to be massively influenced by the self our work demands of us, in one way or another. Marx thinks this is unnecessary, and should be stopped.

Is this a continuation of the 1844 emphasis on alienation? I can see how it could be understood that way, sure. To me, the language of alienation seems unhelpful, because it to my ears so strongly suggests an essence lost or hidden. I think that even a lot of social theory that doesn't understand itself as working with such a model really is, deep down. I prefer to see one part of self as providing leverage against another part - and, therefore, against the social conditions that produce that other part - with neither part being taken as more fundamental. A complex argument could be made along those lines, because the modern sense of equality that drives so much anti-capitalist revolt, almost since capitalism began, is also a sensibility, an understanding of self, produced by capitalist social dynamics. But never mind that.

duncan said...

This next comment probably unreadable - but: it's important to distinguish Marx's critique of the centrality of wage labour, I think, from a general critique of exchange practices, or of consumerism, say. Marx believes that capitalism will just keep on and keep on reproducing the capital-labour relation; that it doesn't matter how wealthy 'we' as a society get; the great mass of mankind will never attain the kind of leisure (and the consequent opportunity for that recalibration of self) that the available social wealth would easily make possible, so long as capitalist social relations remain in force. This is one of two fundamental pivots (the other is Marx's belief that capitalism will keep on producing poverty) which differentiates Marx from economic liberalism. I re-read Keynes' Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren today - the goal articulated there (genuinely widespread material prosperity and leisure) is Marx's goal too; the difference is that Marx, unlike Keynes, doesn't think capitalism can do it. This isn't just an argument about inequality (though obviously that's central); it's also an argument about captialism's constant reproduction of the importance of wage labour to socio-economic life - when this seems, in a way, like the most counterintuitive thing. You have massive mechanisation; the displacement of vast swathes of the population as their jobs vanish; and rather than this being an opportunity for leisure, it's an opportunity to starve. Until a bunch of new industries get created, which absorb the displaced labour, in a host of newly invented tasks. So you get these vast structural transformations of the economy - from agriculture to industry to service industry - all the while wage labour being kept at the heart of social existence. Which is, Marx thinks, a bad idea.

I'm leaving aside, as I say, the other pole of Marx's critique, which is capitalism's production of poverty, because I think that's not what you're hitting on here in your discussion of Hochschild, etc. Important, though, imo, that the argument about the reproduction of wage labour be foregrounded, because this is part of the heavy lifting Capital is doing: showing why the system, once in place, would tend to reproduce this form (rather than, as is regularly predicted by people like Keynes, opening up a utopia of economic security).

duncan said...

The point being that the thing to take away from something like the Hochschild (in my opinion) is the critique of wage-labour specifically - this is certainly one of the main focuses of Marx's own politics - rather than a critique of a somewhat fuzzier category of alienation, which can then easily but misguidedly be connected to a confused understanding of modern life in general as utterly subsumed by exchange relations. This latter critique is not only wrong, it's social-theoretically and politically unhelpful. And it's not what Marx is doing, I submit.