Despite the thoroughly daunting, not to say crushing, analysis I am about to subject people to, I am invigorated by the prospect of discussing the most eye-opening analysis of current malaise that I have seen in a long, long time with the intelligent, committed, reflective folks who show up for serious discussion in this series. Many thanks to the creators of this haven and to the well-informed and serious folks who bring vibrancy to the discussion.
Why has forcing fundamental change become so difficult? What are the obstacles to re-asserting the power of the masses of people as against the forces of concentrated capital and political power? Today we will examine this question from a sociological/psychological perspective. It is my hope that we will each place our own tendencies and social behaviors under the microscope along with those of the wider culture.
My assumptions are that power and capital are more concentrated than ever before, that the trend continues toward greater concentration, that the only hope for reversing this distressing circumstance lies in empowered solidarity from all who place the welfare of everyone above the indulgences of a few. I accept the scientifically derived truth that, contrary to our subjective senses, emotion is the determinant of thought and of behavior. I take capitalism to be inherently antagonistic toward democracy and the common welfare, thriving as it does on exercise of control through economic tyranny. This essay is a cold-eyed assessment of some of the obstacles to mounting an effective challenge by the many to concentrated power of the few.
It is one thing to convince sheep to engage the cause with neither authentic commitment nor personal autonomy. Such pseudo-movements are doomed to be brushed aside by opinion-makers and controllers of media at the first hint of actual threat to the status quo. In other words, not only is competing with Fox and CNN for the eyes and ears of the masses a hopeless fantasy; even if success were achieved, real people power would not result from replacing one authoritarian ideology with another purporting to govern on the basis of the common good, even in the absence of inevitable corruption. Put simply, people who lack autonomy cannot be expected to vote their own self-interests. Through the Communist regimes of the last century up to the thrilling election of Barack Obama, we have seen enough of such shallow pseudo-movements to take an accurate measure.
The heart of this discussion is the ideas of Stjepan G. Meštrović, Professor in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M, concerning what he calls the “postemotional society.” I first noticed this thinker’s name on a list of expert witnesses at war crimes trials. Upon investigation, I discovered that I share with him not only a burning concern with human rights and war crimes-- he has also analyzed at length and with great insight several other issues I have been worrying in my own mind. As you will see, many salient and troubling behaviors right here on dailykos are brought into sharp focus when viewed through the lens of an other-directed, post-emotional analysis.
Meštrović re-invigorates the thoughts of David Riesman, author of the best-selling sociology text of all time, The Lonely Crowd (1950). He extends Riesman’s claims of a new orientation in society—other-direction—to an analysis of a new emotional reality, postemotion. Meštrović’s more general views concerning culture and current malaise (anomie) are congruent with the thinking of Emile Durkheim. It is sobering to find dire analyses and predictions from decades ago looking like gloomy but overly-optimistic prophesies of trends in place today.
What is the glue that could hold together a truly empowered mass challenge to concentrated power? I contend that information is not sufficient, nor is ideology, nor shared values, nor abstract commitment to the group. With Durkheim and Meštrović, I hold that emotion-based commitment to a flesh-and-blood group is the only force strong enough to counter the inherently exploitative tendencies of us humans. We are skilled at thinking of ourselves as selfless and forces for good, but our thoughts are unreliable in this regard. How many instances have we all seen of self-serving behavior being blindly justified with notions of high-mindedness? Compassion, love, selflessness—these are emotions, not ideas. Selfless commitment to the group arises only in circumstances of face to face interaction between people. In addition, compassion and selflessness cannot be taught—they must be modeled. In short, I offer no definitive solution, but I insist that any viable solution will include bonding of people in authentic community on the basis of actual personal interaction.
So long as we confuse facebook groups and dailykos with authentic community, our commitment to the welfare of our fellow humans will remain far too tepid to actualize meaningful change. The rest of this essay is an examination of the unique modern phenomena which render formation of authentic community and exercise of real autonomy extremely challenging. I do not attempt a full explanation of the intricate and subtle notion of postemotion. The concept becomes more clear with continued discussion. For me, the more I understand it, the more I see it explaining the behaviors I see everywhere I turn. Please keep in mind that postemotion is the water in which we all swim, none of us is immune to its effects. The burning question for me is what steps can we each take to free ourselves from the hypnotic effects of other-directedness and postemotion? Certainly killing the television is high on the list. Placed in positive terms, what can we do to create authentic community on the basis of face-to-face interaction?
The term post-emotion intentionally parallels the term post-modern. It does not refer to an end of emotion, but rather to a transformation of emotion from an idiosyncratic inward force to a commodified quasi-intellectual force suitable for manipulation by the self and others. In postemotion, the connection between feeling and action is severed, authenticity is lost, and mass manipulation is empowered. Peer group replaces government as the means of social control. All the following citations are from Postemotional Society by Meštrović except where otherwise stated. Keep in mind that this was published in 1997, which explains the references to Clinton, the Balkans, and other then-current topics and the lack of reference to the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations. For those with eyes to see, the cogency of this analysis with respect to these latter barbarisms is painfully obvious.
Finally, it is possible to misread Meštrović as making subjective judgments. For example, he might be seen as glorifying the inward-directed type. He is not. Trust me that, with the heartening exception of a bias in favor of what is good for humans, Meštrović’s analysis is neutral. He is presenting facts as he comprehends them.
Other-Directedness, Being Nice, and the Death of Literal Meaning
The starting point for postemotion is Riesman’s notion of other-directed types. While the mundane need for approval from others is found in all societies and epochs, “it is only the modern other-directed types who make this their chief source of direction and chief area of sensitivity.” [The Lonely Crowd] Among other things, other-directedness leads to a cult of niceness:
...Being nice is an intricate act that involves the manipulation of self and others in highly predictable and deliberate ways, including: one’s physical appearance, language, tone, eye contact, choice of clothing, smile, choice and length of conversation, among a myriad of other factors.... Note that “niceness” is a synthetic, feigned, and ultimately insincere form of friendliness....
...as Riesman observes, the other-directed peer group seeks to eliminate temper, jealousy, and moodiness…. A social transformation has occurred from privately and passionately held rigid moral standards to a publicly and loosely held set of standardized feelings that are used in predictable ways depending upon social circumstances….I have observed here on dailykos a tendency to discredit argument, not through refutation, but through portraying one’s interlocutor as not behaving appropriately during his defense of his ideas. Once an accusation of rudeness or worst is hurled, questions of fact, accuracy, and viability of opinion are set aside in favor of resolving the issue of the social acceptability of the person making a claim. Such behavior is rife here and in the wider society.
Language in general has come to serve a social purpose rather than a discursive one. Being nice and controlling emotions are not the only badges of membership in the peer group:
Language itself becomes a sort of consumer good. It is used neither to direct the work economy, nor to relate the self to others in any really intimate way, nor to recall the past, nor yet as sheer word play. Rather it is used in the peer-groups today much as popular tunes seem to be used: as a set of counters by which one establishes that one is “in” and by which one participates in the peer-group’s arduously self-socializing “work.”
Riesman, The Lonely Crowd
...The language-as-consumer-good is no longer primarily the carrier of rationally intended meanings, but now carries standardized emotions as well. In addition, emotion itself becomes a luxury item exactly in Veblen’s and Riesman’s senses above. In previous eras, one expected that emotion could lead to action of some sort, but in today’s postemotional society, this “natural” relationship between emotion and action has been permanently severed. Emotions serve no appreciable purpose as such, and the more useless one’s emotions are, the more one demonstrates to one’s peer group that one has attained the level of prestige that makes the owning of emotions a luxury that one can afford….Neither the Pen Nor the Sword: the Peer Group
The neutering of language renders effectual action in one’s own self-interest nearly impossible. Unity, once created through emotional commitment, needs meaningful authentic language to act in common cause. As emotion and language are divorced from personal authenticity and from real-world connotation, information loses value as a springboard for action.
Part of the problem is that in other-directed societies it is nearly impossible to tell truth from falsehood because, in Riesman’s words, the individual “is judged for his attitude toward the audience, an attitude which is either sincere or insincere, rather than by his relation to his craft, that is, his honesty and skill.” But, “just because such a premium is put on sincerity, a premium is put on faking it.” Postemotional society has reached a phase in its development in which it values insincere sincerity, synthetic candor, feigned frankness, and affected openness…. So long as one is “nice” in one’s presentation, one can get away with just about any truth-claim.Riesman singled out the emotion of “curdled indignation” for special treatment. Writing in the 1950’s, he discussed with subtlety two of the most prominent features of life on dailykos: curdled indignation and inside-dopesterism. Both stem from perceptions of being powerless.
...contemporary indignation is also not linked to appropriate action, and is another luxury emotion. It is multi-directional and totally divorced from perceptibly fixed moral standards….
...Riesman feels that the other-directed type has concluded that he or she is fundamentally powerless to really change the government or any other social institution…. Hence, the other-directed type becomes the inside-dopester who wants to know the inside scoop on everything as a kind of compensation for being unable to do anything about it. “The inside-dopester may be one who has concluded (with good reason) that since he can do nothing to change politics, he can only understand it.”… Our age is drowning in information, but it is not all evident that all this knowledge has contributed to autonomy, informed citizenry, increased democracy, or tolerance. On the contrary, various information outlets cater to particular groups which preach to the converted.... Thus, information becomes one more commodity to be consumed along predictable lines depending upon one’s membership in a “target audience.” The same is true for politics.Manipulation of Recycled, Dead Emotions Undermines Autonomy
...Any speaker who wants to be taken seriously or respected in other-directed or postemotional societies must not show personal passion in the presentation of his or her topic.... One must appear to be emotionally detached.... The twentieth-century is the century of emotional cleansing. Even wars, which used to be the arena of powerful passions and hate, have been reduced to abstractions.... Both apathy and cynicism are hallmarks of the current era, as numerous authors have argued.I would quibble here that personal passion is acceptable in pre-determined instances, such as when those who have been anointed victims by the peer group express their hurt, anger or indignation, even when the triggering affront occurred decades before their birth.
…Postemotionialism can account for the emergence of a distinctly new and mechanized emotion-speak…. 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…now 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, as the manifestation of affliction, anguish, grief, pain, remorse, trials, tribulations, and sadness, is magically transformed by the TV journalist’s question “How do you feel?”…into the the typical but vague answer “I’m very upset.” Old-fashioned caritas or love of neighbor now becomes institutionalized tolerance….
…Yet the 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.Meštrović discusses three ways in which emotions are vicarious and conspicuous.
…mentally, other-directed types are anxious about the opinions and receptions of their peers regarding all their thoughts, actions, and feelings…. the other-directed postemotional type in all professions automatically rehearse in advance the imaginary emotional reaction of others, and thereby lives the emotion vicariously before it is allowed to be expressed…. In general, old-fashioned spontaneous emotion is now processed ahead of time through vicarious participation in the reaction of the proposed audience.Emotions are also vicarious in the sense of being borrowed from the past, even the recent past.
But the most distinctive, and ominous, form of vicariousness is the one that does not allow the other-directed person to live fully in the present. The postemotional type is simply incapable of being taken in by the present event, of reacting with spontaneous emotion. He or she must not only borrow from the past, and rehearse for the future, but must also process the appropriate emotions for the present....this is a revision in status nascendi, literally a revision of emotions as they are being born to make sure that they are appropriate to the peer group. Hence, opinion-makers tell us what to think, and feel, as an event is unfolding…. The other-directed type thereby lives his or her own emotions vicariously, in the present, through other opinion-makers, and nearly everyone is an opinion-maker in some capacity or other.This concept of opinion-makers explains much of behavior on dkos. Many a time I have wondered at the urgently aggressive responses I have faced at the mere expression of my view. I have wondered why I could not be more easily accepted as holding an opinion or mounting an analysis at odds with a fellow progressive. What happened to a notion of individuals with varying views hammering out areas of agreement with an acceptance that there will always be differences? Before reading Meštrović, I found occasion to say to someone, “You mean there is only one way to feel?” (More on the feeling side below in the analysis of Barney and Friends.) Postemotion makes sense of this behavior. I was being treated not as an individual, but as an opinion-maker. In this brave new world, a statement is taken as a claim that everyone should feel the same way; personal views are taken as either worthless or suitable for mandatory adoption by everyone. It is little wonder that this state of affairs leads to a determined insistence that unfavorable views are not merely mistaken, but are worthless and dangerous.
Rebellion Mollified, Ethnic Cleansing as Metaphor
Historically, autonomous actors and free thinkers effected change through questioning. But,
…The questioning has now reached an institutionally pathological stage in which it is nearly impossible to ascertain what one truly feels…
…postemotional authoritarianism of the peer group represents such a “nice,” friendly, happy, and tolerant face that it prevents traditional types of rebellion. It was easy to oppose Nazi ideology because it was so offensive, or even Communism, which, as [Thorstein] Veblen noted, threatened the capitalist’s pocketbook. But who could justify an attack on “tolerance,” even if it is intolerant?As an example of the slipperiness with which postemotional society evades cogent examination, Meštrović notes that his students
…abhor political correctness even as they embrace it, in a sort of schizophrenia that makes genuine rebellion difficult….We find paradox everywhere: advocates of tolerance fanning intolerance, “nice” people providing cover for war crimes, information diluting understanding. In general, we see the truth that attempts to control human instincts and tendencies through force or denial leads to eruption of these instincts and tendencies in indirect ways. In the end, we find our age of high civilization, compassion fatigue, and tolerance beset by terrible barbarisms.
…Ethnic cleansing has already become a metaphor for our times, clearly visible not only in Bosnia but in the ethnic partition in many Western cities from Washington, DC, to London and Paris….It is no accident that, with admittedly much less at stake, the fantasy of cleansing unwanted elements has led to a thriving industry right here on dailykos.
The Authenticity Industry: A Disney Land of Happy Consciousness
Over a hundred years ago, thinkers were noticing the loss of authentic, spontaneous emotion and the resulting confusion of the will. Many believed that during the twentieth century “Life would break through forms.”
… A more academic precursor to the concern with authenticity is to be found in the works of the Frankfurt School, particularly in the work of Walter Benjamin on aura and Herbert Marcuse on “happy consciousness.” The previous fin de siècle was also concerned with spontaneous, genuine emotion as opposed to the modernist rationalization of feelings, and this concern is reflected in the works of Dostoevsky, Henry Adams, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Thorstein Veblen, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Simmel, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Ferdinand Tonnies, and many other writers.Meštrović’s assessment in 1997 was gloomy:
…Contemporary mythologies and rituals seem unable to offer an escape from Eliot’s wasteland…. Machines have become a modernist habit of the mind…. A post-society society has emerged in which the authentic (community) is mass-produced artificially. The notion of an artificial authentic community seems to be an oxymoron at first glance, but appears to be the meaning of Disneyland culture, the McDonaldization of society, Internet “communities,” and other anomalies that postmodernists have already uncovered. It is no longer [Theodor] Adorno’s culture industry, but a new authenticity industry that seems to characterize postemotional societies.
David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd makes one wonder whether authenticity—in any of the senses used a century ago—is possible to achieve any longer. As noted previously, Chris Rojek is right to conclude that for postmodernism authenticity is no longer an important issue. De-differentiation and the triumph of simulation have made it seem absurd to ask again, so many years after the 1960’s concern with authenticity, “What is genuine versus phony?” … To the extent that the problem enters contemporary discourse, it is phrased in cognitive terms of ascertaining the true, real, or original….
… emotion, not just cognitive representations, is the object of contemporary simulation, virtual reality, and recycling.
… It is not the “reality” question that determines authenticity, but the spontaneous emotion… Authenticity presupposes a community.All My Best Friends are on Television
I have noticed the skill with which television programs and especially commercials create in one the feeling of community, the visceral sense of interacting with friends. It’s as though our emotions believe in the Magic Mirror of Romper Room, believe that we matter to the television Friends we love just as they matter to us. Or perhaps we respond to the subconscious knowledge of being nothings with an increased desperation to do everything in our power to belong.
… Chris Rojek is right to claim that “the twentieth century has been the Disney century,” and that the Disneyesque refers to the general modernist tendency to seek escape. (I would add that it should refer to the postemotional tendency to seek a perfectly manipulated community, complete with artificial emotions.)…If one is emotionally committed to an artificial community, there is no space for authentic community. One interacts with friends as though in the presence of Jon Stewart or in Seinfeld’s living room. Lost is a connection with the particular conditions of one’s individual life, with the vital significance of mutual self-interest. Actual self-interest is modulated through an unexamined sense of belonging more fully to an imaginary community than to one’s actual community. How is meaningful solidarity possible in such circumstances?
In the existing scholarly literature on the Disney phenomenon, one reads that Disney World is America’s pilgrimage site; that Marxism explains the class divisions in the consumption of Disney imagery; that Walt Disney’s family background explains the curious family interactions in the fictional lives of Disney characters; that Disney World represents the utopia of American values such as the desire for eternal childhood and the freedom from responsibility; that Disney World represents a New Right utopia of an all-heterosexual world and traditional views of male/female relationships; and so on. [Max] Horkheimer and Adorno write that Disney cartoonsI repeat here the distinction between group think based on emotional manipulation and solidarity arising from autonomous individuals motivated by emotional connection. Attempts by a high-minded elite to wrest control of the mechanisms of manipulation from capitalists does not constitute a viable solution to the problem of self-government.
hammer into every brain the old lesson that . . . the breaking down of individual resistance is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their punishment.All this is well and fine, but the most obvious aspect of the Disney experience is missing in these analyses: Disneyland, Disney World, and the Disney industry attempt to manufacture emotions. More particularly, Disney World is an attempt to create an artificial community.
…The inner-directed type of a generation ago might have been able to imagine artificial emotional experiences in solitary confinement, so to speak. But in line with Riesman’s analysis, the postemotional type must consume such experiences in a group…. The entire setting of Disneyland as well as Disney World is group-oriented and is meant to serve as an artificial community….
… McDonald’s promises the postemotional utopia of foolproof, friendly service in a “nice” atmosphere in which one is in the midst of a throng.
…Thus, if America is Disneyland, as [Jean] Baudrillard suggests, it means that the emotional lives of Americans are being manipulated on a mass and highly organized scale. Its real meaning is that Americans are duped and dupe themselves into believing that they live in the perfect community, free of racism, ethnic cleansing, and other uncivil phenomena relegated to the rest of the world…. Why would Americans and pilgrims from other Western industrialized nations seek out sites in which their emotions are manipulated such that they “experience” the perfect family life, the perfect community, the perfect Enlightenment ideal and other unreal emotional utopias? These are among the new questions that the concept of postemotionalism exposes."The emotional lives of Americans are being manipulated on a mass and highly organized scale." And emotions triumph over reason. To me, the bombing of Libya demonstrated the seemingly effortless manner in which emotional manipulation led to support of policy, all seamlessly carried out such that most Americans felt they were mobilizing their rational faculties in order to participate in democratic decision-making. Setting aside that the decision to bomb was made independent of public opinion (Dick Cheney's "So what?" continues to define the relation between US government war-making and public opinion), even more insidious is the ease with which three days of calculated CNN, Fox, and MSNBC coverage led even war-hating liberal Americans to conclude that they had little moral choice but to support intervention, this despite all they knew about the record of US duplicity and war-mongering over several decades. The moment I saw a mainstream television segment highlighting the plight of rebels in Libya, I knew that my government would soon be bringing its military resources to bear in the region, and that most Americans would support the action. Nonetheless, I was painfully unprepared for the extent to which the liberal community would follow the bouncing ball of "benign" U.S. imperialism.
…post-emotions are quasi-emotions in that they partake of the passion-idea dualism simultaneously….
… The Enlightenment project is clearly is disarray and one is hard pressed to believe that authentic myth or authentic community or authentic anything will save humankind….Meštrović identifies two aspects of modernity which are in tension but mutually present. Put simply, Modernity 1 represents the rational, machine-oriented, controlled aspect while Modernity 2 is the irrational, emotional force of disorder. While theorists have typically chosen sides and argued for one or the other as definitive of modernity, Meštrović holds that adequate understanding will be furthered by accepting the presence of both tendencies
…Modernity 1 has entered a new phase in which it seeks to order and control an aspect of Modernity 2 that has always been seen as the most autonomous and unruly aspect of human social life, namely, the emotions….I Have to Stop Somewhere
There is much more to this analysis. I have the quotes cued and ready to go, but it would not be “nice” for me to demand more time from an already patient audience. It looks as though this will need to be a two-part project. Next time we will look at Meštrović’s discussion of communitarians with respect to the implications of postemotion, at the repressive lessons of Barney and Friends, and at further defining of our Disneyesque, McDonaldized culture. I’ll leave with these quotes as teasers for next time, the first two because they name the essence of the challenge, the last because it is stunningly powerful, even prophetic, having been written almost fifty years ago.
…knowledge alone is insufficient for establishing communities, because communities are held together by sentiments, not cognition….
The present discussion of postemotionalism suggests that words are no longer adequate substitutes for deeds.From One-Dimensional Man  by Herbert Marcuse:
Loss of conscience due to satisfactory liberties granted by an unfree society makes for a happy consciousness which facilitates acceptance of the misdeeds of this society. It is the token of declining autonomy and comprehension.Happy consciousness is commensurate with Riesman’s focus on the other-directed type’s obsession with niceness, and, of course, culminates in the McDonald’s happy meal. Marcuse elaborates:
The Happy Consciousness—the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods—reflects the new conformism which is a facet of technological rationality translated into social behavior…. Torture has been introduced as a normal affair, but in a colonial war which takes place at the margin of the civilized world. And there it is practiced with good conscience for war is war…. Otherwise, peace reigns…”the Community is too well off to care!”My postemotionally “dear friends” and virtual neighbors, the real is not rational and the system most definitely is NOT delivering the goods.