The rising intellectual star on how commodities create feelings, the modern lingua franca of therapy-speak, and Israel’s emotional style.
When Eva Illouz says passion depends upon scarcity, she does so with the best of intentions. Recently named one of the most important thinkers of the future by German newspaper Die Zeit, Illouz could very well be the twenty-first century’s next great public intellectual. And how did she become internationally popular? Instinct. In trying to get at what most irks her, she’s analyzed everything from love’s leap into leisure, to Freud’s popularity in the American workplace, to psychobabble as a new lingua franca. Historian? Philosopher? For lack of a better term, Illouz is a cultural theorist. Unlike other theorists, however, her ideas are more than just complex complaining; they are surprising and poignant, perhaps because all of her investigations come from the heart. Things get to her, or as she told me, they “trouble” her.
Take for example her reversal of the most basic Marxist precept. Any sixteen-year-old with a Che t-shirt will tell you: capitalism makes us robots. And yet, it doesn’t, Illouz thought. In fact, it does just the opposite. Our hypermodern lives are hyperemotional. It was then that Illouz began to trace back our obsession with feeling, which, according to her, began in the workplace, where surprisingly, Freud was used to better workers’ effectiveness. Soon, the early psychologist’s ideas spread to the private sections of our daily life, to the extent that now we can’t describe our lives without psychotherapy, as Illouz points out in her most recent book, Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help. To explain our actions we have to hearken back to childhood memories and recognize emotional needs. She sees Howard Gardner’s concept of “emotional intelligence” as an extension of this psychological trend. What for Gardner is an aptitude for person-to-person response, Illouz sees the new calculating currency of advanced “emotional capitalism.”
If there is a predecessor to Illouz’s intellectual eclecticism, it would be the Frankfurt School’s attempts to analyze modern life on its own terms. For Illouz, those terms are web 2.0. She sees this phenomenon fueled primarily by the self’s modern currency: emotion. Drawing on nearly every thinker imaginable from Descartes, to Habermas, to Foucault (thanks to her background as a polymath, literati, and more recently, sociologist), Illouz can take the most tired topic and breathe new life into it. She sees Freud in Oprah, Machiavelli in Facebook, and the capitalism inherent in a candlelight dinner. And yet, despite the sheer variety and volume of thinkers she borrows from, her subjects are so topical, so right on, that it’s hard not to be pulled in.
Her first book, Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, focuses on love’s attachment to consumer capitalism. When love leaves the house and enters the public sphere in the nineteenth century, the date, as we know it, is born. Simultaneously, advertisers create new marketing strategies for domestic products to attract women. Domestic doodads like dish soap are magically transformed into Mr. Perfect magnets. In no time at all, it would seem, romance and consumption become inseparable. It stays that way until some fifty years later, when romance is rationalized. What was once passion becomes calculation, as she describes it in her next book, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Rather than waiting to be whisked away by the Bounty man, or good fortune on the Ferris Wheel, we look for matches via cost-benefit analysis. In this new world, sexy bodies and tight physiques are not part of real intimacy. Fantasy is no longer intimate. Looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend has more to do with finding an “authentic” other, than a six-pack. Thus, the pairing of personality profiles. Thus, the constant talk of our emotional interplay.
But there we are again, getting emotional about being emotional. When I asked Illouz about this loop I found in myself while reading her, she laughed and assured me there was hope. It turns out, she’s been troubled by that too. So she created a theory for theory. Basically, Illouz criticizes the way economists, sociologists, psychologists present the individual as a sort of automaton. Illouz argues that the very nature of choice has changed in modern society. That’s why she proposes “ecology of choice,” a new language with which to describe our ever-growing catalogue of options. I wasn’t sure I understood all of that, so I asked her to clarify and she simply replied, “You’ll have to wait for my next book.”
Born in Morocco, raised in France, she studied, and later, taught at some of the best universities in the world. As a result she has become something of an international intellectual, with her books translated into over ten languages. I interviewed her in Jerusalem via Skype from Colombia, where she has a small group of loyal readers.
—Jesse Tangen-Mills for Guernica
Guernica: Much of your work focuses on love and emotions, things that most people don’t associate with sociology. How did you become interested in love as a subject of study?
Eva Illouz: You’re right. Emotions traditionally belong to psychology, but there has been what I would call an emotional turn in all of the social sciences and even the humanities. For example, in literature people focused on interpretation of text and really never bothered to actually pay attention to the fact that texts and movies elicit emotions and draw you in through emotions. Or sociologists who asked themselves why people do what they do could talk about competition, when you consume something, or they could talk about class stratification but never about the envy or the humiliation or the shame that can accompany class stratification. So you can say that in the social sciences and the humanities there is a very dramatic shift. Not only in those fields, however. The neurosciences have also focused on the parts of the brain where emotions are seated.
The other thing is that there’s been this claim in the literature for a long time that capitalism enables or facilitates romantic love because presumably capitalism is more individualistic and encourages freedom, which would encourage people to make marriages based on emotional choices. So that was the heart of the claim that I was interested in examining.
Guernica: Everyone I know that had read Cold Intimacies was affected by it. Not only sociologists, or cultural theorists, but everyone felt as though it spoke to their lives directly, in a way that similar books, like Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Love, did not.
Eva Illouz: I’m delighted. Can you say how?
Guernica: I think it’s because people identify with your theories.
Eva Illouz: This is marvelous. You have no idea how happy this makes me.
I think one of the incidents that made me think about Consuming the Romantic Utopia was when I was doing my doctorate in the United States and I was living on a very tight budget. I had a boyfriend and it was his birthday. And so I thought, Well, I can’t really invite him to a restaurant because I just didn’t have money at all, so I’m going to cook for him. But then, when I thought I was going to cook for him, it was obvious to me that I needed to cook some kind of fancy food. I needed to buy candles and I didn’t even have a tablecloth because I was living, you know, like a student. And so then I realized actually in order to produce the effect of a romantic dinner for this boyfriend I needed to put out money, which at the time I didn’t have. I think that must have been one of the first personal triggers for the questions that then I asked myself about, this connection between a romantic atmosphere and money and consumption.
Commodities not only help people express their feelings, but they actually create feelings.
I hope that all my work starts from something that bothers me. I think actually all my work does. It was one of those moments when you realize you have a cliché mind. I think most of us go around with clichés in our mind, not being aware of them. But then when reality collapses under your feet and you cannot actually fulfill the cliché, that’s when you’re compelled to be aware of the cliché. And that was how I became aware of what I thought my romantic dinner was supposed to look like and that piqued my interest in the topic.
Guernica: How did you get from romantic atmosphere to the dating networks that you focus on in Cold Intimacies?
Eva Illouz: Actually that was quite unconnected. But what struck me was that these were two very different versions of capitalism. The version I talk about in Consuming the Romantic Utopia was a version in which commodities could help people bond together, through rituals, so people could travel or go to the restaurant, and in this version of capitalism I could not adopt an anti-materialistic point of view. In other words, we have this cliché that commodities and emotions are opposed: emotions are spiritual and inward and commodities are materialistic and outwards. I think one of the conclusions of Consuming is that you really cannot draw this dichotomy and distinction because commodities not only help people express their feelings, they actually create feelings.
Guernica: Can you give me an example of that?
Eva Illouz: Take what we call a “romantic atmosphere.” The adjective “romantic” in the nineteenth century was mostly to designate let’s say a landscape. If it was a desolate landscape it evoked feelings of melancholy. In the same way “romantic” was a property associated with landscapes, as well as an intellectual movement of ideas. But the twentieth century meaning of romantic, you see, derives from the fact that some objects actually create an atmosphere. To talk about a romantic atmosphere—which is to say this is something that should actually happen between a man and woman—is actually induced by their surroundings. That specific meaning of romantic is induced by commodity.
Think also of the word “cool” today. To be cool is at one and the same time to have a certain emotional attitude, to be cool, but it’s also how you dress, the kind of music you listen to or how you manipulate and at the same time are created by your clothing and your haircut and whatnot. Cool is the same thing because you can’t separate the emotional attitude from the object. There are a lot of emotional atmospheres that go along with commodities.
That was one part of Consuming the Romantic Utopia that deals with this close intertwining between emotions and commodities. My research on the internet was very different: the rationalization aspect of capitalism. In other words, tendencies which really counteract emotions and emotionality and what I call intuition and passionate thinking. Whereas the book does not preclude the possibility that the consumer market may help you actually live great moments of passion, in the internet research I show that technology undermines what nineteenth century people called passion because of the way technology forces you to manage your relationships in a completely rational way and because of the way in which it creates a blasé attitude and cynical attitude towards the encounter. It’s the choice, the possibility of choice that changes completely the experience of passion because passion was based on scarcity.
Therapy is the lingua franca of most professional men and women living in Europe and the United States. How do you explain Woody Allen’s success? Or Oprah Winfrey?
Guernica: Although dating networks, as you say, follow a certain cost-benefit analysis that relies heavily on our psychological narrative, many network profiles filled with sexualized pictures are meant to indulge a different type of fantasy. Doesn’t that contradict this?
Eva Illouz: No, that’s because sex sites want only “the present.” There is absolutely no need to make a life-committing choice. So the two kinds of sites, sex-oriented and long-term relationships, reflect very well the split personality of the modern individual.
Guernica: Then what about the affair? Isn’t that when people seek out their “authentic love” outside of a relationship?
Eva Illouz: In the U.S., you can use (the word) even if it’s not an illegal affair. Originally, it referred to an illegal action, an extramarital affair. Now affair is only about a story that is short-lived, and is not geared toward commitment, but more towards the mutual sexual satisfaction of both parties. The affair really comes from an egalitarian culture where there is a disconnect between sexuality and emotionality but also between emotionality and institutionality. You can have sex without having emotions and have emotions without the institutions. So you have to have these separations to have an affair, while the great love or passion tried to connect all of them. The affair is about disentangling all of these threads from each other.
Guernica: How would you respond to the pictures some couples keep of themselves in their Facebook accounts?
Eva Illouz: I’ve beautifully managed to avoid Facebook.
Guernica: Okay. What about couples who put pictures in their living rooms of themselves on vacation?
Eva Illouz: Do you really think that’s interesting? I don’t think it’s very interesting.
Guernica: I guess not. (Pause.) So you describe the popularization of Freud in the United States in the earlier twentieth century, and once pointed out it’s easy to see how much therapy talk is embedded in modern life in the United States. But what about the rest of the world? Is this really a global trend?
Eva Illouz: Frankly, I think talking therapy is the lingua franca of most professional men and women living in Europe and the United States. How do you explain the success of Woody Allen? Or Oprah Winfrey, the example par excellence of that popular psychological jargon, where you have to be aware of your childhood, and work on your emotions, take responsibility for yourself. Of course, there are variations. France and Argentina are Freud-centered. And Lacan had a very strong impact there as well, whereas in the United States it didn’t. In France he’s present, not on the very popular level, but his thought is known. There are styles, therapeutic styles. Many Europeans abhor the ego psychology and the kind of humanistic psychology that has dominated the States. I don’t want to say there aren’t differences. There are therapeutic styles. However, on the whole there are many more similarities in how the person is conceptualized than differences. I would say these similarities today go across the globe. But you’re right, there are countries like Russia or China where this language doesn’t translate. It would not be absorbed because you would need a certain conception of the individual for psychology to work. However in most of Europe, probably Argentina, Brazil in some parts, and definitely in North America, this is the dominant language available for people to think about who they are, to make sense of their failures and suffering and to think about the goals they should reach in life. I think most of us have a strong model of self-realization, what it means to have a healthy emotional self, a healthy sexuality that guides us in our romantic choices.
Guernica: I’m interested in your view of Howard Gardner’s concept of “emotional intelligence.” What flaws do you see in the belief that each of us is endowed with a certain amount of quantifiable emotional response capacity?
Eva Illouz: Well, I think that what it ends up doing is flattening and standardizing emotional styles. This is something one can sense in the United States—I hope I won’t offend you. But this is the common experience of foreigners in the United States. The emotional style of Americans in the workplace is fairly predictable and follows standard rules. So if you know that to be emotionally intelligent is to pay attention to the person, to mildly agree with them, to speak in an assertive but non-threatening way, then you will have hordes of people adopting the same emotional style. So one of the effects is to standardize emotional interactions of people in the workplace.
Another consequence is that you end up building scales to create hierarchies of people in a way that will actually end up excluding whole groups of people. Think of somebody who grows up in a difficult environment. His parents yelled at him a lot. His emotional style will be one that is maybe reactive or hot tempered and this type of emotional style is utterly disqualified today from the workplace as reflecting incompetence, basic professional and human incompetence. Now, that is a problem.
Guernica: You mention the case of African-Americans as a group that may be excluded.
Eva Illouz: I think it was a movie by Ken Loach named Ladybird Ladybird. It was a really striking movie about a real case. A woman who has three or four children, young children, and she was very poor and had to work. To make sure nothing happened to her children while she was at work, she had to lock them up and then go. Then one day there’s a fire in the house. One of the children gets hurt or dies, I don’t remember. The authorities take away the children from her because she’s deemed incompetent. Can you imagine this woman—whose only life revolves around her children, who went to work to make a miserable salary just to be able to feed them—is accused by the authorities of incompetence? She goes to the tribunal and the judge starts rebuking her and she’s utterly revolted. She starts screaming. As she should. Anyone who has a normally constituted emotionality when he or she is the victim of an injustice screams. However, her screaming actually disqualifies her further. The screaming is viewed as the proof that she really is incompetent because a good mother should keep her calm and display the middle-class English virtues of self-control, and if she cannot then she is not a competent mother. So that’s an example of how your emotional style can have institutional consequences, like a tribunal. Some people know how to handle themselves emotionally more than others, and manage to project an aura of credibility.
I’m against the typification of certain emotional styles being more credible or authoritative.
Guernica: Have you seen the standardization of emotional styles in other countries? Your native Israel?
Eva Illouz: Absolutely. It is one of the most striking things about Israel. Contrary to the stereotype, because of the overwhelming dominance of the army, the emotional style here is very restrained. Despite the fact that public figures speak in an unrestrained way, by and large if you want to project professional competence, both in Israel and in the Unites States—there is a strong similarity between the two places—you have to project level-headedness, and your capacity to bracket anger and to speak in a very matter of fact way about problems and issues, so individuals are not supposed to be individually implied. You have groups like Jews of Middle Eastern origin that have a very different emotional style than those that come from Eastern Europe and they have more difficulties projecting an aura of credibility.
The left wing sensibility is about compassion for people who had bad luck in their lives. Meanwhile, the right wing sensibility is that people can and should help themselves.
Guernica: When I start putting all of your work together I find myself in a loop. I say I shouldn’t be so obsessed with seeking happiness. It’s not healthy. But then I’m using therapy talk. Do you find yourself in situations where you want to shut off your critical perspective?
Eva Illouz: I find myself often trapped when I want to judge someone. Someone has done something I find really, really jarring. The only ways in which we can understand that person, we tell ourselves that person must be crazy. I’m not talking about people actually being crazy like schizophrenics or psychotics in metal institutions. But when people deviate from what we expect people to be or do, most of us have only the explanation that they are crazy. It’s stupid to judge people morally. It has become that way. We have to judge people using psychological categories.
Or if you see a good friend of yours not being able to have a stable relationship or a stable job, it’s very difficult to resist the idea that they’re doing it to themselves. As opposed to telling ourselves that there is something sociologically difficult about settling with others, finding a stable relationship, finding a stable job in certain fields. It’s very difficult once you see people being in a pattern or situation that repeats itself to resist the psychological explanation that they are doing it to themselves. Now that’s very dangerous collectively.
For me at least, the right and left often diverge on the issue of responsibility, of who is responsible for what. The left is much more willing to say we are put into situations not of our will, not of our responsibility, and we should help you. The left wing sensibility is about compassion for people who had bad luck in their lives. Meanwhile, the right wing sensibility is that people can and should help themselves; if they have fallen into difficult circumstances, it is better for them get out of it on their own because this will form their character.
Where I find myself trapped is that I’m aware of the psychological explanation that makes people responsible for themselves and plays quite often in an uncompassionate view of others and a view that would make them too responsible. On the other hand, you cannot help but think on a private level, that the only thing really as the Stoics saw it, we cannot change the world but we can change ourselves. That’s my dilemma in terms of hesitation. On one hand, not wanting to play into an individualistic point of view, something that gives too much responsibility to people, but on the other hand thinking that it is much easier to change our emotions and inner life than it is to change the world.
Guernica: So to some extent, it’s our choice. Does this have to do with what you call the “ecology of choice”?
Eva Illouz: It’s a new concept I’m working on now in my book. I define it by how there are environments that shape your choice: advertising is a mechanism to restrain your choice, or endogamic rules about with whom you can or cannot get married. And you’re right; it is connected in the sense that what we think are our private choices or doing are actually a result of invisible constraints that exist in our environments. You’re right. That’s exactly the point. In my book for example I try to explain something that we call “commitment phobia” as actually the result of a transformation in the ecology of choice. That’ll be in my next book. Maybe we can talk then.
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To contact Guernica or Eva Illouz, please write here.