While some economic theorists take notice of class distinctions and their impact on quality of life, few choose to go deeper by asking such questions as “how does capitalism shape our feelings?”
Eva Illouz does just this by bringing abstract economic theory to the realm of the personal. Illouz acknowledges the trendy yet ensconced cultural tendency to observe life through emotional lenses. Her recent book, Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help, provides an in-depth articulation of this shift. Transcending academic and professional categories, Illouz spearheads a new kind of study, analyzing psychological and emotional language in its attention to human behavior. Guernica Magazine’s Jesse Tangen-Mills gives Illouz the label “cultural theorist,” as this approach doesn’t fit the typical labels of “historian,” “philosopher,” or “sociologist.”
Illouz’s thesis in “Saving the Modern Soul” reveals—if not pronounces—a change in contemporary discourse. In the early 20th century, “society” understood the world according to relationships. Community was what mattered; less so, the individual. When talking about the family unit, we spoke of it in terms of the greater good. Any defiant individual who caused harm to the community, for example, we “felt” and spoke of as being in direct opposition to the social good. When considered, the individual was most frequently viewed in opposition to, or in support of, the community, rather than the community towards the individual. This view has since been flipped.
Tangen-Mills points out that in shifting towards the emotional and psychological we now “hearken back to childhood memories and recognize emotional needs” when we talk about ourselves. The defiant individual is no longer a mere enemy, but is recognized personally. We begin to view the individual as a victim of the family and/or the greater community. We turn from a discourse that sees only the greater good to recognizing the personal and individual good.
If we doubt this trend, we need only look at the popularity of Oprah Winfrey and Woody Allen—both of whom, Illouz points out, have built their careers by recognizing the deeply emotional and often broken nature of modern day individuals.
The question is not whether such a trend exists, but whether it is in fact good that we have turned from a communal discourse towards an individualistic one. In evangelical Christian circles, the term “individualistic” is often antagonizing because it’s believed that an individualistic society perpetuates “self-focus,” which is in direct opposition to the selflessness directive given in Scripture.
Constantly evaluating the personal impact of one’s environment—for example, how a person was treated by their family—turns our attention furthur towards the “singular,” and away from the family and community. Rather than viewing a poor individual and his affect on the community at large, we fastidiously turn our heads towards the emotions he experiences because of his lack. Illouz comments:
…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.
Prior to the last several decades we analyzed and articulated subjects of study externally. Sociologists who talk about “competition” regarding human behavior, for example, remain just outside of a discourse of feelings and emotions. Competition is a perspective of relationship with others, rather than an emotion that comes out of such a relationship. The development of psychology as a discipline has brought with it a reading of human behavior that regards emotions almost to the exclusion of all else.
People spend an increasing amount of time focused upon the misery of an individual rather than of healing and triumph. Movies, for example, are more likely to show the gradual digression of users defeated by heroin or cocaine, such as Requiem for a Dream, than to show the impact of users upon the greater public or those individuals finding healing in their communities.
We are now inspecting the parts of a picture, instead of the picture. Yet, to ignore the minutia is to ignore what makes up the whole. This turn towards the psychological and emotional experience of the individual may not be such a bad thing.
In fact, by looking inward, we find some of the causes of our social diseases and have the opportunity to solve them. Modern society’s “emotional” approach is in fact liberating in its own right. Examining human experience according to its psychological and emotional impact allows us to understand our environment and community in a much deeper way. We give voice to injustice and pain, and doing so, are given the insight to carefully respond to the social or familial harms that create an experience which negatively influences individuals who become “defiant.”
Despite this psychological and emotional discourse being new to humanity, the emotional and psychological is part of our makeup. Humanity has always been and always will be emotional. Our discourse has changed; we have not.
But the way we speak about ourselves affects how we relate to one another. And so, as we continue in this new way, we should cautiously remember that individuals make up a greater whole. Environment and relationships affect the individual, and though the individual is important, he or she also impacts the whole. ‘