ON THE EMOTIONAL TERRAIN OF NEOLIBERALISM
by Tim Jensen
Question: Could obviously ecocidal (and therefore suicidal) behavior on a collective scale take place so easily, so efficiently, and so prevalently without mass emotional disorientation?
Just as with the exploitative extraction and reshaping of our natural environment, our collective emotional and affective environment is being shaped—violently, systematically—to serve the interests of capital. Derrick Jensen rightly notes, “It would be a mistake to think this culture clearcuts only forests. It clearcuts our psyche as well. It would be a mistake to think it dams only rivers. We ourselves are dammed (and damned) by it as well. It would be a mistake to think it creates dead zones only in the ocean. It creates dead zones in our hearts and minds. It would be a mistake to think it fragments only our habitat. We, too, are fragmented, split off, shredded, rent, torn.”i When these territories of desire and imagination are stolen, ravaged, and toxified it becomes that much easier for the theft and destruction of natural landscapes to go uncontested, unnoticed.
Premise: Affect and emotion are foundational.
We have theories that illuminate how the dominant culture—referred to here as neoliberalism, though it goes by many names—reproduces itself by promoting marketplace rationalities as the most credible, if not the only valid means of logic for twenty-first century living. The logic of profit and exchange, in other words, has become the near equivalent of common sense. Those with fancier pants may call it something like “hegemonic ratiocination,” though I prefer DJ Quik’s summation: “If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.” (link)
The status quo is entrenched not only through a common economic logic, but also a common sensorium, which we neglect to our detriment. Neoliberalism entrains us to experience certain emotions over others, suggests rules for their expression, and even tries to define what one is “allowed” to feel for. These everyday flows of feeling—from bodily intensities of relation (affect) to their narrativized accounts (emotion)—habituate us to the cadence of neoliberal subjectivity. Part of what prevents us from noticing the extent of these influences is what William James observed over a century ago: we consistently put the cart of rationality in front of the horses of affect and emotion.ii This essay calls on radical strategists to recognize that reasoning is mediated far more by the reverberations of affect and emotion than the other way around.
Indeed, theorists are beginning to survey neoliberalism’s fields and flows through this lens: Jodi Dean argues that neoliberalism “establishes [the] possibilities through which we narrate our relation to enjoyment”; Barbara Ehrenreich maintains that neoliberalism demands an affective labor of cheerfulness, “because the key to getting a job in today’s corporate world is not knowing things or having skills or experience, but having a positive attitude”; Lauren Berlant notes that for the first time, the US is not waging war on a people or nation, but on an affective state; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest that the neoliberal privileging of immaterial production over (but not against) material commodities amplifies the importance of affective labor and emotional intelligence.
These mappings allow us to conceive of a neoliberal terrain of emotion and affect upon which discourse and rationality flow.iii The topography directs the movement of bodies—collectivities of people, as well as bodies of thought—making certain passageways of feeling well-worn, thus inviting for their ease, familiarity and safety. Charting these scapes is our first step; the second is to put them to use, translating insights into pragmatic action.
Needed: Ways of seeing, sensing, and thinking strategically that lead toward creative, effective acts of resistance.
Shifts toward new perspectives are not easy, in part because the critical theories we have inherited offer routes of resistance that have distinct limitations. Wanda Vrasti points out that theories which have “over emphasized the extent to which the modern narrative of accumulation relies on rationality and its related tropes, like economic calculations, private interests, competition, masculinity, and hyperindividualism” must be reread or discarded, for “[t]he entrepreneurial orientation of late capitalism is not exhausted through rationality. Instead the hegemony of late capitalism is being fought on territories . . . such as the personal, the affective, and the aesthetic.”iv The terrain for resistance has shifted, expanded; so we must, too. Waiting for the internal contradictions of the capitalist system to bring itself down is not a strategy; an economic model based on perpetual growth on a finite planet will inevitably fail, but not without first ravaging the ecologies of our land and psyches. For solidarities of resistance to become more effective means becoming more strategic, which, as Lenin put it succinctly, “means choosing which points we apply force to.”v
Proposition: Tactics that leverage the features and formations of existing terrain to their advantage can be applied to the emotional and affective terrain created by neoliberalism.
Jason Read is among those who argue that any viable “political response to neoliberalism must meet it on its terrain, that of the production of subjectivity, freedom, and possibility.” We must extend Read’s claim, however, because to meet neoliberalism on its terrain without adequate strategy is to waste time and resources (like sending letters and petitions to CEOs asking them to feel compassion for that which they destroy.) Meeting the opposition on the territory they dominate requires tactics designed to level the asymmetrical field of power. It is common knowledge among the military minded that leveraging terrain is paramount; study the monumental upsets in military history and the phrase “advantage of terrain” repeats throughout. This should suggest to us the importance of not just charting neoliberalism’s emotional territories, but doing so with a keen eye for where tactics of resistance can best be implemented.
Memory: “People start pollution. People can stop it.”
In a 1971 television PSA actor Iron Eyes Cody, dressed in traditional Native American attire, steers a canoe down a misty river. The camera pans out to reveal an industrial setting, with factory stacks heaving plumes of toxic smoke into the air. Encountering litter at every turn, Iron Eyes Cody walks to the edge of a highway where a passenger throws a bag of fast food out the window that bursts upon impact with Cody’s moccasins. Looking up from the debris, he turns his head directly at the camera’s gaze as a single tear peels off onto his cheek. In grave tones a voice over says, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”
Funded by beverage bottling corporations, the campaign was intended to lessen political pressure on manufacturers to stop producing non-refillable bottles and more generally be held accountable for creating the products that create litter. By placing the onus on the individual consumer, who is positioned as the cause of the problem and thus the solution’s origin, too, these corporate interests successfully deflected growing concern about pollution away from themselves. In fact, the ad is credited with helping launch the Earth Day festival and bringing the “Keep America Beautiful” anti-litter campaign to the nation’s attention.
The PSA performs an emotional orientation focused on guilt, an emotion that is critical to our current landscape. What makes its rhetorical strategy effective is not simply the evocation of guilt in the consumer, but a specific form of guilt that is coupled with a pathway that channels the desire for atonement—one that does not put profit at risk. Asking why harmful bottles are being made in the first place and to what degree their manufacturer should be held accountable is trumped by a framework of consumer culpability, individualized responsibility, and ineffectual chores. It marshals the potential forces of transformative collective action and individuates them in an atonement strategy that now seems omnipresent: that feel-good moment of recycling, buying a TerraPass or switching light bulbs to compact fluorescents? It’s the mild deflation of an overly inflated, misplaced sense of guilt.
Topographic Mapping: Unlike shame, which often triggers tendencies of avoidance, guilt motivates a desire for atonement; the specific form of guilt we are concerned with here is collective and thus indirect.
Collective guilt is the label applied to the feelings one has when a group one identifies with is perceived to have caused harm to others or failed in respect to certain principles of proper action. The guilty feelings arise in response to one’s tacit endorsement of the group and is often heightened when one benefits from the harm committed. The phenomenological experience of collective guilt is quite different from that felt in individual guilt because the wrong-doing is established through an indirect relationship—harm has been committed in our name, but not by our direct deeds.vi Unlike intense feelings of direct guilt, collective guilt often exists at low, steady levels in the background of everyday actions, frequently escaping the focus of our emotional aperture. Like a kitchen ‘fridge buzz, it fades from notice precisely because it is constant, ambient.
Emphasizing the distinction between direct and collective guilt is critical because a key rhetorical strategy of those in power is precisely to collapse it as much as possible: participating in the capitalist system is tantamount to full ownership of its consequences. Consider US Coast Guard Captain Ed Stanton’s remark during a press conference in the oily wake of the BP/Deepwater Horizon explosion: “[There are no perfect options for cleaning up the spill.] It’s name your poison. Look, we’re all guilty in this rummage. If you drive a car, you own part of this spill.” Three important tactical maneuvers occur in this claim that compose the overarching rhetorical strategy: first, it reinforces a specious “we”; second, it frames the present ill as a result of prior individual choice, invoking and personalizing a sense of agency requisite for feeling culpable; third, it emphasizes that complicity, obfuscating the proportionality of guilt, making a false equivalence between a direct, individual guilt and an indirect, collective guilt. The degree to which you or I are guilty for the BP oil spill is infinitesimally small. But by emphasizing this fallacious complicity—tenuous as it may be—one is led onto a terrain of guilt that orients subsequent behavior.
Specifically, one is more inclined to seek absolution of their own guilty feelings, concentrating on their individual actions, thereby attenuating the motivation and attention given for retribution from those actually responsible. Stanton’s remark demonstrates how the strategy behind Iron Eyes Cody’s tears has become a ubiquitous means by which affective and emotional orientation is achieved.
Reconnaissance: Identify spots in the emotional terrain of neoliberalism where a high degree of emotional orientation centralizes, inviting individualized, market-based actions and precluding solidarities seeking sane, sustainable cultures. In other words, where are the choke points in that terrain?vii
Take “eco-friendly,” for example: the term functions to solidify a set of emotional underpinnings that orients the flow of other discourses and decisions. With each articulation it reifies the assumption that the environment is something we can even be friends with (whereas I’m pretty damn sure that our dependence on healthy landbases for our very existence indicates a relationship that goes well beyond the boundaries of friendship). Operating similarly to the examples above, “eco-friendly” activates a sense of collective guilt by silently summoning accountability for “unfriendly” practices and simultaneously offers a means of individual atonement for this guilt via a market-based solution. Worse yet, a veneer of benevolence often masks this process of emotional orientation: one feels that they are “doing good” and making a positive contribution with their choice, rather than atoning for a guilt that infiltrates through “eco-friendly.”
The next step after identification of a choke point such as “eco-friendly” is try testing out tactics that reorient that desire, in this case one for atonement when others assume guilt that has been strategically and unfairly foisted upon them. Having recognized the emotional forces at work, attempt to steer that energy toward emotional terrain that is more productive for effective resistance: a connection to place, courage in the face of calamity, a love for defending that which gives us life. The goal is to use the momentum of existing flows and forces to our advantage, reorienting rather than overhauling.
In proposing we recognize the ongoing emotional disorientation —that which steers us away from ourselves, away from our connection to the places and people that sustain us, I do not mean to suggest that we all become Jedi masters of emotional manipulation. Instead, I’m calling for the rejection of outdated and ineffective Enlightenment-based frameworks that assume if we can just get the knowledge out, then others will rise up in opposition. Replacing these should be strategies that take into account neoliberalism’s calibration of collective intensities of emotion. A naïve hope in rationality is a poor foundation for a movement; even worse is one built on guilt. Sensitizing ourselves to the affective orientations that obscure ecocide, maintain oppression, and obstruct solidarities seeking real redress for real injustices is a necessary step toward effective resistance.
i Jensen, Derrick. Endgame: Vol. II, Resistance. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006. p. 552
ii “Our natural way of thinking about emotions is that perception of some fact excites emotion, and this gives rise to bodily expression. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry, and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry ‘and strike. This sequence is incorrect. My theory, on the contrary, is that bodily changes follow perception of the exciting fact and our feeling of the changes IS the emotion. Thus, we feel sorry because we cry, we are afraid because we tremble, angry because we strike.” James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publishing, p. 449–53.
iii Neither terrain nor foundation are intended to imply fixity. We sometimes forget that landscapes are in constant flux and that even mountains, iconic symbols of immense stability, are growing or receding before our very eyes, however slowly. The terrain of struggle indeed shifts beneath our feet. Beware travelers, the road moves too.
iv “How to Use Affective Competencies in Late Capitalism.” British International Studies Association Conference (submitted essay), 2009. p. 3
v By no means do I intend to suggest that this is the only front for action; rather, it should a component of a larger strategy that includes both above- and below-ground activity.
vi Some may raise an eyebrow at this parsing because shame and guilt feel so similar. There are critical distinctions between the two, as Deborah Tollefsen notes: “Phenomenologically, guilt may feel similar to shame but it functions quite differently from shame. Shame is usually directed at one’s self rather than one’s actions. When one feels guilt they feel guilty for doing such and such. When one is ashamed or feels ashamed, they are ashamed of who they are, rather than what they do. Shame causes one to hide, to avoid others, to avoid interaction with those in whose eyes we have been shamed. Guilt, on the other hand, often results in an opening up to others.” “The Rationality of Collective Guilt.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 2006. p. 224
vii A choke point is any node in a system whose unusually high centrality renders it a vulnerability. From the perspective of military strategists, this means any bridge, strait in the sea, or valley that forces or supplies absolutely must pass through. Take the Strait of Hormuz, where the Persian Gulf is at its most narrow before opening up into the Arabian Sea. Roughly 40% of the world’s traded oil travels through this strait, making it one of the most important sections of terrain for fueling global industry. That oil is itself a critical bottleneck in the system indicates that there are lineages of choke points: the further one goes down a chain, the greater the potential consequences.