Postemotional Society


Stjepan G. Meštrović

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    To my precious Victoria Noelle, Daddy's little angel


    ‘Passion individualizes, yet it also enslaves’



    It is from Stjepan Meštrović that I learned the meaning of the term ‘postemotional society.’ It is a society in which people do not react to what, in an earlier era, would have been stirring occurrences and crises. Rather, individuals have become blasé, allergic to involvement, yet intelligent enough to know that the events are significant, and perhaps even to know that in an earlier era individuals would have responded with deep emotional empathy, or equally deep emotional antipathy, to particular individuals, and to the events surrounding them.

    At the time Postemotional Society was written, President Clinton had just injected the appearance of American power into the Balkan War, which Meštrović interprets, in my view quite appropriately, as the war of the Serbs against the Croats and the Muslims of the former Yugoslavia. The capture of cities, the killing of civilians, the apparently shameless braggadocio of the Serbian military — civilian leadership — all this reasonably educated people read in their newspapers and saw on their television screens, while erasing any sense of personal connection with events. Sympathy, perhaps Yes, but empathy, No.

    The postemotional stance absolves those who hold it from any sense of obligation, or sense of responsibility for what occurs in that part of the planet, the more or less educated part, to which people have in the past felt some sense of engagement and responsibility.

    Stjepan Meštrović has, so to speak, a family connection to the former Yugoslavia. He is a grandson of the great sculptor Ivan Meštrović, who left his native Croatia to become an American citizen, and to continue to contribute to the worlds of art. I have no such personal connection, and yet I have felt, since the Serbian aggressions began, that Western Europe and the United States ought to ‘do something’ to stop it and even to reverse it. (I do not feel comparable involvement in events world-wide, which would hardly leave me much peace of mind!) But, contrary to what is suggested in Postemotional Society, I feel at least as much involvement in what happens in the Balkans as I do in what happens in Italy — a country that makes an appearance, not always to its credit, in Postemotional Society.

    Meštrović refers to the O.J. Simpson trial, in which Simpson was acquitted. He concludes that at least white Americans viewed the case with postemotional detachment, believing for the most part that O.J. Simpson was clearly guilty, but not concerned especially with whether the jury found him guilty or not, because of the detachment that ‘postemotional’ life makes possible.

    At the age of 86, I am grateful that I was brought up in a world in which the disengagement implicit in the postemotional outlook did not yet have widespread currency. In my own life, not being postemotional has involved me in public affairs in contrast to my preference for privacy and noninvolvement. I had had no political concerns at all when I was a Harvard College undergraduate or Harvard Law student. With Pearl Harbor I became immediately involved in seeking to prevent the deportation of Japanese from the West Coast to the de facto concentration camps into which many were relocated, taking me to Washington, DC, to lobby with Attorney-General Biddle in the Justice Department, encouraged by the marginal connection my parents had with Biddle as fellow Philadelphians. From that time forward, I have been involved in intra-academic and also in national concerns, far more than is my personal preference. I believe I understand myself a little less badly because of the contrast with the postemotional outlook.

    I believe that other readers of Postemotional Society may find themselves similarly enlightened about their own reactions as well as the reactions of those around them. Perhaps, but not inevitably, it is too much to hope for that Postemotional Society will help many literate individuals again to allow themselves to become engaged in the multiple worlds we inhabit.

    DavidRiesman, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus


    In this book, I propose a new sociological concept, postemotionalism, as an alternative to both postmodernism and modernist theories such as Anthony Giddens's structuration theory which focus on the knowledge and skill of the human agent. The missing ingredient in most sociological theorizing is the role of the emotions. I argue that contemporary Western societies are entering a new phase of development in which synthetic, quasi-emotions become the basis for widespread manipulation by self, others, and the culture industry as a whole. I agree with the modernists that the contemporary individual knows more than our ancestors did, but argue against modernist theorists that knowledge is not enough to result in action. Action assumes a connection between the emotions and intellect, and that connection has been severed in postemotional societies. I agree with the postmodernists that the era in which we live is one of mass simulation and recycling the past, and that it is dominated by seemingly rootless circulating fictions. Some find this postmodern vision exhilarating while others regard it as nihilistic. But I argue that what seem to be postmodern circulating fictions are not really rootless or chaotic, and that postmodernism implies neither human freedom from traditional constraints nor nihilism. Rather, postemotional society introduces a new form of bondage, this time to carefully crafted emotions. The theorists and theories that I invoke in this discussion are wide in scope, from classical social theorists such as Freud and Durkheim to the critical theorists and Jean Baudrillard. Several sociological works and theories are particularly important, and are used as backdrop for developing the postemotionalism concept. I extend the insights of these theorists in novel ways that they may or may not agree with:

    • George Ritzer's thesis in The McDonaldization of Society that McDonaldization represents modernity's push toward extreme efficiency and rationalization is extended to the McDonaldization of emotions. These are bite-size, pre-packaged, rationally manufactured emotions — a ‘happy meal’ of emotions — that are consumed by the masses.
    • David Riesman's theory of other-directedness, found in The Lonely Crowd, is recontextualized and extended as follows: I agree with him that the other-directed type has become a powerless inside-dopester whose emotional life has been reduced mostly to curdled indignation and being ‘nice.’ But I dis agree with him that the long-term trend for other-directedness is one of becoming unemotional. I argue instead that the post-other-directed or poste motional type takes cues from peers and the media as to when he or she should rationally choose to exhibit a vicarious indignation, niceness or other pre-packaged emotions.
    • Émile Durkheim's sociological theory in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is re-analyzed and recontextualized in the following way: His category of the ‘sacred’ really pertains to the emotional side of humans, while the ‘profane’ is the languishing, dull, non-emotional side. But the sacred canopy has collapsed, ‘nothing is sacred anymore,’ and that which was for merly sacred and emotional has become public, pedestrian, accessible to all — in a word, it has been profaned. Thus, contemporary ‘collective efferves cence’ is staged and rationally induced. The ‘collective consciousness’ no longer exists: It has succumbed to a process of fission, a Balkanization of social identity into fragmented group identities that are hostile to one another.
    • Chris Rojek has shown himself to be a sophisticated theorist in addition to his expertise in leisure studies, especially in his Ways of Escape and Decentring Leisure. I agree with most of his arguments concerning the intellectualization and bureaucratization of leisure, which lend themselves easily to an extension of these processes to emotional life. I agree with him especially that both modernity and postmodernity have two faces, Modernity 1 and Modernity 2, diametrically opposed tendencies toward order and chaos. I extend his insights to argue that postemotionalism constitutes a new hybrid of emotions that stems from the fusion of Modernity 1 and Modernity 2, namely, rationally ordered emotions.

    In addition to these and many other social theorists, such as Herbert Marcuse and his concept of the ‘happy consciousness,’ found in One-Dimensional Man, I invoke and extend literary and humanistic writings in a sociological vein. Thus, Henry Adams argued in his well-known essay ‘The Dynamo and the Virgin’ that the emotional ‘power’ of the Virgin was being replaced in modernity with the mechanized power of the dynamo. But I argue that emotion did not disappear in the age of the machine. Instead, emotion has been mechanized. Similarly, Fyodor Dostoevsky's character the underground man foreshadowed today's postemotional type whose connection between emotion and action has been severed. Postemotional types can ‘feel’ a vast range of quasi-emotions, from indignation to compassion, yet are unable to put these feelings into appropriate action. This characterization contradicts completely Anthony Giddens's claim that the human agent is skilled and knowledgeable in relation to social structure. I argue against Giddens's overly felicitous account of human agency that postemotional types are more clever and knowledgeable than our ancestors could have imagined, yet have been reduced to acting out the role of Riesman's impotent ‘inside-dopesters’: They want to know almost everything precisely because they have concluded, deep down, that they are really powerless to do anything significant to affect politics or change the course of world events.

    George Orwell's writings constitute a particularly important backdrop for my development of the postemotionalism concept, especially his Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Road to Wigan Pier. I agree with his arguments overall concerning ideological manipulation in the West as well as a general trend toward mechanization. But again, curiously, it never seems to have occurred to Orwell that not only cognitive content was subject to manipulation. Emotions are also manipulated by the culture industry and thereby transformed into post-emotions. Orwell was too innocent to have conceived this truly frightening aspect of modernist, mechanized culture. His innocence is illustrated by the fact that he acted on his intellectual criticisms of fascism by fighting against the fascists in Spain. By contrast, how many intellectuals today have been willing to go to fight against new ‘fascists’ in Chechnya and Bosnia?

    Without repeating the arguments made in this book, let me illustrate how postemotionalism draws on Orwell yet moves beyond him. I will draw on some of his best-known statements in Nineteen Eighty-Four and reformulate them in the context of postemotionalism:

    • ‘War is Peace.’ Indeed. US Presidents in recent years routinely send American soldiers into combat without seeking approval of the Congress because — after all — the soldiers are sent to create peace, not to wage war. No need to invoke the Congressional War Powers Act! But there is something new. After the Vietnam War, the death of even one American soldier for the sake of peace is too much for the American public to accept. Soldiering no longer makes use of machismo emotions pertaining to war; rather, as a well-known slogan claims, the US Army is ‘more than a job, it's an adventure.’ Fascists and enemies of democracy are no longer demonized, as they were in World War II. Rather, ‘dialogue’ is used to bring indicted war criminals to the ‘negotiating table.’ The USA fights wars no longer in order to win, but to produce a ‘balance of power.’ US war planes still bomb ‘enemy’ targets, but Pentagon spokespersons insist that the USA is ‘neutral.’
    • ‘Big Brother is watching you.’ The peer group is watching you. If you don't seek the services of a competent public relations firm or if you disregard the advice of political ‘pundits,’ the opinion-makers will destroy you. There is no need for Big Brother to watch you when the power of the peer group is so much stronger than the power of government. And the peer group can be manipulated easily. Marcuse was right: Once a happy consciousness is established, people obey without thinking in a society without opposition.
    • ‘Newspeak.’ Entertainmentspeak. For no one can tell the difference between news and entertainment any more. Newscasters depend on high ratings, and to achieve them they must not offend. They must bring in ‘human interest’ stories. They must be ‘nice’ no matter how heinous the news that they report. Conversely, the masses learn more about world events from psychodrama, Entertainment Tonight, Oliver Stone's films, and other forms of mass entertainment than they do from the ‘news.’
    • ‘Doublethink.’ Emotional cleansing. Contemporary politicians as well as media ‘wizards’ know that they have to ‘hook’ you emotionally to get your attention regarding an issue. Once you are ‘hooked,’ the rational arguments do not connect up with the emotional appeal. The original emotions disappear. Thus, opinion polls show that most Americans simply could not comprehend President Clinton's proposal to reform health care in the USA, although it seemed to be a compassionate alternative to the existing system. Newt Gingrich's Republican ‘revolution’ seemed to be a good idea at the time, as all revolutions do, but Americans did not realize that it would entail the loss of social services they deem essential.
    • ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Freedom is nice, and slavery is not. So long as consumers are free to choose from hundreds of different yet nice products, options, and opinions, why worry about slavery?
    • ‘Ignorance is Strength.’ Ignorance is cool so long as it is nice. Forrest Gump. Dumb and Dumber. Clueless. Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau movies. Being ignorant but nice ensures success. Strength just doesn't exist any more.
    • ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ History is no longer a matter concerning facts, but one con cerning imagination. Who controls emotional reactions to the past controls the future. Who controls the emotional reactions to the present controls the past. Baudrillard is right: History does not exist.
    • ‘Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of our own choosing.’ Power is in being charming while inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human emotions to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes without inducing the human agent to think about choosing.

    In summary, Orwell's formulations served their purpose in the inner-directed era of yesteryear. They apply to Hitler, Stalin, Brezhnev, even Truman and Nixon. These were rough and obnoxious inner-directed types. They were not nice. Truman dropped the atomic bomb on Japan without much explanation before or after he did it, and few Americans doubted that this war crime had to be committed for the sake of peace. The inner-directed masses understood concepts such as power, strength, and slavery. Yet one could still oppose fascism, Communism, and Big Brother because they were repulsive. But things changed in the other-directed and postemotional eras. Nixon's Presidency was the watershed in the transition from inner- to otherdirectedness on a mass scale. Watergate might have been just another scandal in inner-directed times, but for other-directed types, Nixon just wasn't nice. Gorbachev was the transition figure from inner-directed to other-directed Communism. Gorbachev headed the ‘Evil Empire,’ as Reagan called the Soviet Union, but he was a nice Communist. Reagan got to like him, and Americans liked Gorbachev more than the Soviets did. Boris Yeltsin also represents the new, postemotional dictator: He bombs Muslims in Chechnya but is hailed as a champion of democracy. Isn't he better than the obnoxious Zhirinovsky? Slobodan Milošević played tenderly on the piano at the Dayton Peace Talks. The American delegation liked him. Jimmy Carter was the first nice President, but Bill Clinton is the nicest President ever. He has been carrying the Whitewater scandal with him for most of his Presidency, but it cannot bring him down like Watergate ruined Nixon. Americans cannot get indignant at Bill Clinton. He is too nice. And he is too much like them. Clinton's ‘I feel your pain’ line is not something most people notice, or remember, for they tend to react as he does, with a false empathy where compassion would have been appropriate. In this book, I refer to Clinton as the postemotional President.

    If there is any truth to Durkheim's dictum that political leaders are created by their constituencies as representatives of their social character, then Bill Clinton represents postemotional America. To be sure, some Americans complain that he is wishy-washy, but the truth is that most Americans are ambivalent about almost everything. Ambivalence and ambiguity are the hallmarks of the postemotional intellectual too: He or she must demonstrate the ability to see all points of view and take a stand against none (except for clearly obnoxious points of view, of course). Yet even representatives of racist, sexist, and other offensive points of view are learning how to package their views in increasingly charming ways. As of this writing, Slobodan Milošević of Serbia is the penultimate example of the charming racist. Even the policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’ has a nice, clean ring to it, far removed from old-fashioned genocide.

    In this book, I argue that a neo-Orwellian process of emotional manipulation is dawning in the Western world. Its consequence is that any policy or event, no matter how repulsive it might be by old-fashioned inner-directed standards, will be acceptable as long as it is packaged properly. Proper packaging entails a nice exterior and the pre-planned channelling of indignation into pre-chosen channels. This constitutes a new form of totalitarianism that is distinct from inner-directed forms of totalitarianism. It bears some resemblance to the portrait of mass society found in Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man and other critical theorists. But it is significantly different. First, one cannot get really indignant at this new form because it has a nice face. Second, the mass society of yesteryear has given way to fractionalized group identities so that it will be less possible to form a unified front of resistance. Third, to the extent that one still gets indignant, the indignation will not lead to action because it will be cancelled out by competing, fractionalized indignation vis-à-vis splintered group identities: men against women, whites against other ethnic groups, gays against straights, and so on. Fourth, heightened rationality cannot save humanity from these trends, as the critical theorists, in their over-estimation of the Enlightenment, had hoped. This is because postemotional control is aimed at the emotions, not the mind. The power of rationality and of the mind enshrined by the Enlightenment has given way to an indolent mindlessness.

    The scenario for the future that I sketch out in this book seems more horrifying than the one envisioned by Orwell or Marcuse. This is because both of them still had faith in what has come to be known as the Enlightenment project. They believed that heightened rationality could save humanity from totalitarian mind-control. But I argue that the Enlightenment project itself is a postemotional phenomenon, that it constitutes yet another instance of emotional clinging to a simulation of the Enlightenment. What serious observer of contemporary culture would really argue that the West values the ‘mind’ that was enshrined by the Enlightenment? Indolent mindlessness and kitsch emotional reactions to serious problems seem to better characterize the contemporary social landscape in the West. In addition, I draw on Rojek and Ritzer to suggest that the escape routes from postemotional society have been closed because the ‘ways of escape’ are also manipulated and controlled. Yet the reader would be wrong to conclude that I agree with them completely, or that my position is nihilistic. I drop plenty of hints throughout this discussion on how to find the real escape routes. But these hints remain undeveloped, given that the intent of this book is to sketch the parameters of postemotional society, not to find the escape routes.


    I would like to thank colleagues who discussed with me various aspects of the argument put forth here: David Riesman, Keith Tester, Akbar Ahmed, Slaven Letica, Philip J. Cohen, C.G. Schoenfeld, and Thomas Cushman. I would also like to thank undergraduate as well as graduate students in my classes for their responses to the ideas that I later developed into this book. I could not have completed this book without the research and editorial assistance of Rebecca Wood. Finally, thanks to my wife, Amber, and my daughters, Ivy and Victoria, for generously letting me work on this book when I could have and probably should have been spending more time with them.

    The author and publisher wish to thank the following for permission to use copyright material: The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, from The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by Émile Durkheim, translated by Joseph Ward Swain. Copyright © 1965 by The Free Press. Yale University Press, from The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman. Copyright © 1950 by Yale University Press.

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