- Getting Personal and Getting Personnel: U.S. Capitalism as a System of Emotional Reproduction
The usual definitions of capitalism note that the word surfaced in the early nineteenth century to label a historically specific economic system (then shifting from mercantile to industrial capitalism); identify capital as its mode of production; acknowledge that capitalism generates contradictions, depressions, unequal distributions of wealth, and uprisings; and sometimes conceptualize it as a cultural as well as economic system.1 It is less common for definers of capitalism to approach it as a system of what Karl Marx termed “spiritual production” or emotional reproduction.2 Arthur W. Calhoun’s daring three-volume Social History of the American Family from Colonial Times to the Present (1917–1919), influenced by socialist critiques, drew important connections between capitalism and the shaping of emotional life.3 In 1960 Philippe Ariès called for a “history of feelings” and argued that an “emotional revolution” had emerged that was symbiotic with the industrial revolution.4 And in 1976 Eli Zaretsky contended that one characteristic of capitalist expansion was an “expansion of inner and personal life.”5 Then in 1987 Colin Campbell, concentrating on Britain and to a lesser extent the United States, ranged from Puritanism to the present to assert that romanticism in various guises “played a critical role in facilitating the Industrial Revolution and therefore the character of the modern economy.”6 [End Page 1135]
American literature, religion, art, and eventually psychology have long contributed to ongoing emotional revolutions and the “inner life” market. To be properly historical, it is vital to recognize that some authors self-critically sketched links between capitalism’s economics and structures of emotions well before histories of emotional life were imagined. I have elsewhere suggested that authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne grasped capitalism not just as an economic system but as a system that reproduced itself partly by constructing and channeling emotional life. Such authors understood that capitalism produced not just labor, goods, services, and markets, but notions of self, affective investments, psychological capital, and incentives. The reproduction of workers, property owners, and consumers was tied to the reproduction of the nineteenth century’s “sentimental” families and the twentieth century’s “psychological” individuals in myriad ways. Hawthorne’s industrial-sentimental capitalism wasn’t narrowly economic.7 Corporate capitalism still isn’t.
With these literary, historical, and sociological traditions in mind, I was intrigued by the subtitle of Eva Illouz’s Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism (2007). For American studies—which is in part a cultures-of-capitalism studies—the challenge to discern how capitalism and emotional life are enmeshed should be fundamental. Here I suggest that Tom Lutz’s Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America (2006) and Micki McGee’s Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life (2005), like Illouz’s book, can help American studies explore what’s at stake in reevaluating U.S. capitalism as an economic and emotional system of reproduction.
Illouz is a prolific sociologist whose provocative books should be better known in American studies. She reads emotions not as “pre-cultural” (2) but as “compressed” “cultural meanings and social relationships” (3) that often feel wholly natural. Her approach to emotional capitalism examines how capitalism’s actors bind themselves to one another (2), generate energy (3), and come to think of themselves as possessing—or being possessed by—emotions “somehow locked and trapped inside the self” (33). She employs the term emotional capitalism to signify the “emotional cultures” (4) that “script” (60) economic and management practices that in turn “script” emotional styles beyond the workplace. “Emotional capitalism” locks “the emotional self more closely [in]to instrumental action” (82). Postmodern managers are...