Opinions - 24.04.2012 - 00:00 

We emotion managers

Our lives in emotional capitalism are as ambivalent as the knowledge about emotions we have assembled in the modern era. Jörg Metelmann on the boom of sensitivity and the effect of emotions as “products”.
Source: HSG Newsroom


22 April 2012. Our present age resembles the 18th century in two ways. For one thing, the structure of the general public is again being changed by new media. About 1750, it was newspapers and novels which gave rise to a specifically bourgeois kind of conversation (with oneself). Around 2000, it is the communication tools of the digital revolution from Facebook to Twitter which programmes private as public exchange – think of the Arab Spring and data protection issues, to name but two. And for another, we are now experiencing a boom in sensitivity which previously only existed in Richardson’s and Rousseau’s time: emotions were ubiquitous then, and they are now.

The emotional imperative rules

The sociologist Eva Illouz asserted that both points are connected. The pleasure derived from the interior lives of the protagonists of novels brought forth a cult of feeling, which the bourgeoisie put on their banners in the fight against the ‘cold’ aristocrats. In our present-day media world, this emotional navel-gazing appears to have become the supreme principle: whoever lets their hair down with regard to love, hatred, pride or shame may be assured of good viewing ratings. Emotions have become products, is the result of Illouz’s analysis. However, the emotional imperative does not only rule in chat shows, but also in the economy. The world’s most successful enterprise of our time, Apple, lives off people’s affective bonds with its appliances, and this not only in very practical haptic terms.

The slogan, “If you haven’t got an iPhone, then you haven’t got an iPhone” is not only a tautology but a formula of social pathos: you simply don’t belong. This is often a rather silly feeling – so go out and get that 4S plus all the apps including the techniques of well-being: advice for social competence, a better mood and an enhanced team feeling. For this does not merely apply to Apple but also to every life in an organisation: people who cannot show any empathy will become neither a good boss nor a committed member of staff. Emotions are marketing silver and motivation gold. The fact that all that glitters is not gold, however, is revealed by statistics about people’s commitment to companies.

When it comes to finding out what employees really feel, we discover frustration and a lack of recognition. There is a difference between praise as an object of bartering and as a gift, emphasises management thinker Günther Ortmann. In the first case, the additional service costs a firm a great deal of money; in the second case, it is free of charge since employees now feel that they are really held in esteem. Emotions are strong identity factors.

Dangerous emotions
The fact that emotions as such can also become dangerous is shown not least by the conflicts between ethnic groups and nations. Cultural differences, often from a long way back in the past, are emotionally medialised and shape a “us-them” structure which morally legitimises an aggressive attitude of defence. This ethical reduction of complex circumstances to emotions can be criticised but it must be taken seriously as a temptation, as cultural scientist Linda Williams has remarked. We can become annoyed by or marvel at the rhetoric of the Bush administration after 9/11 or the tone of the current tax disputes between Switzerland and Germany, but both point towards the power that emotions have when it comes to charging political positions. In such cases, the management of emotions consists precisely in feeling less and inkeeping a cool head.

Our lives in emotional capitalism are as ambivalent as the knowledge about emotions we have assembled in the modern era in this respect: between body and mind, between individuals and society, and between universality and particularity run the lines of sight of the debates on what emotions express about us as human beings. The fact that we require words for this does not make things easier: like Friedrich Schiller’s famous “soul speaks” poem, “Feel it!” is a paradoxical exclamation that is best met with both caution and dedication.