2-5 Subjects and Alienations of Affective Labor, or Theoretical Grounding for Study of Psychotherapist as Affective Laborer

2-5 Subjects and Alienations of Affective Labor, or Theoretical Grounding for Study of Psychotherapist as Affective Laborer

2-5 Subjects and Alienations of Affective Labor, or Theoretical Grounding for Study of Psychotherapist as Affective Laborer

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Daniel Gruner

In his book, The Flight from Woman, psychotherapist Karl Stern (1965/1985) writes from the 1960’s of the modern tendency to devalue “feminine qualities” (e.g., empathy, nurturing, and intuition) and valorize “masculine qualities” (e.g., rationality, dominance, and detachment). Though this schema is problematic for its essentialization and reification of “the masculine” and “the feminine,” which is just as easily employed to argue for heterosexual hegemony as it is for women’s equal participation in the public sphere, it is nonetheless representative of a dominant twentieth century discourse around human “alienation” found often in second wave feminist literature. Cited frequently by Susan Bordo (1983, 1986) to support her own arguments concerning the “Cartesian masculinization of thought” and the turn after the scientific revolution to a super-masculinized modern world, Stern serves as a torch-bearing sample of this theoretical trend. It is this theory of alienation which many have argued no longer represents contemporary social structures. In this essay, I will support one such position that emphasizes the experience of affective alienation, under so-called semiocapitalism, and its facilitation by contemporary modes of work, education, and social media.

Though I spend some time responding to the assumptions underpinning Karl Stern’s theory of modern alienation from “womanhood,” my primary focus is not placed on arguing against his gender essentialism or gender binarism. Instead, I quickly move to arguing that the definition of gendered alienation after the post-Fordist turn of western culture and economy is one which is wholly different from Stern’s formulation. Instead of being disconnected from our so-called hidden desires and being emotionally sterile, we are incited to act on desires and be in touch with our emotions so as to both control and employ them better. I will draw on affective labor theory, developed by post-Marxists including Franco “Bifo” Berardi (2009), to argue that we are now experiencing a type of reversal of (or intensification of, depending on one’s point of view) the previous modern mode of alienation produced by the extraction of value from mostly industrial and slave labor. What I mean by this is that those qualities which Stern and Bordo viewed as “womanly” are now playing an important role in the current mode of capitalism that we find ourselves within, as value or capital is now being created from the incitement and putting to use of these qualities themselves. Finally, I will consider ways in which subjects within this new economy and culture are produced and maintained in their labors, as well as the revolutionary potential these subjects may have as affective laborers. I consider these final notes a sketch of a portion of the class composition of the current economy.

Alienation from “the Feminine” and Karl Stern’s The Flight from Woman

Karl Stern’s primary thesis in The Flight from Woman (1965/1985) is of an alienation in modern culture, knowledge, and science from so-called feminine qualities, a trend which has been interrelated with modern culture, knowledge, and science’s hyper-masculinization. Again, this argument has not been inconsequential in the history of feminist theories on alienation related to masculine hegemony in culture, as influential feminist philosophers, including Bordo (1983, 1986), have cited Stern’s work in order to support their own similar theories. These arguments, both Stern’s and Bordo’s, are based on an argument for a cross-cultural, trans-historical gender polarity or duality, i.e., a historio-cultural argument based on an argument for gender essentialism. At the end of this section I will examine an alternative interpretation of Stern’s theory in The Flight from Woman that does not rely on his gender essentialism, but first I will evaluate individually the sub-arguments of his gender essentialism.

Stern (1965/1985) argues that “anatomical complementariness expresses psychological complementariness”: “[T]he male organ is convex and penetrating and the female organ is concave and receptive and the female organ is concave and receptive; the spermatozoon is torpedo-shaped and ‘attacks,’ and the ovum is a sphere ‘awaiting’ penetration.” Stern argues that the proposed “psychological complementariness” of men and women are based on this description of their “anatomical complementariness.” One will easily admit that the metaphor of the penetrative convex male organ complementing the concave and receptive female organ has a fitness to the phenomenon of male-female procreation, but one must also be curious as to what other metaphors fit. It would be just as true to the phenomena to employ a metaphor which casts “the female” as a trapper of “the male”: the male organ is trapped by the female organ. This counter-illustration undermines much of Stern’s gender essentialist argument. Here I am not making the argument that sex organs do not have to be gendered but that this is instead done by our culture. This argument can and has been made, and I believe successfully (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). I am simply stating that there are other ways of describing—through metaphor—this sex act, negating the realism which Stern seems to be arguing for, revealing the description as a contingent metaphor.

But one still could hold to the position that, regardless of the contingency of the description of male sex acts as active/penetrating and female sex acts as passive/receptive, the complementarity of “sexed” physicality with “sexed” psychology is “a view as old as history,” and this is a view that embraces the metaphor being advanced by Stern. The argument is that this duality and the metaphor used to describe it (i.e., male/female equals active/passive) is accepted in all civilizations throughout history. Stern goes on to describe this in the civilizations and spiritual/cultural traditions often cited by occidental-centric authors: Judaism, Christianity, the Athenian Greeks, Taoism, Assyria (though he does not explain this), and the Upanishads (Hinduism) (1965/1985, pp. 10, 11). Even in the last pages of his essay, Stern writes clearly concerning both his position on the duality of the sexes and reveals the scope of his cultural reference:

[It is] highly probable that there exists a sexual polarity independent of contingencies, which cannot be viewed other than against a metaphysical background. One might argue against this by saying that the people and the phenomena presented here are European and of modern times. However, our point of departure has been precisely that the “absolute” point of view is the “old” one which is shared by Greek and Hebrew, by Hindu and Chinese (pp. 303, 304).

In this survey, upon which he founds the “absolute” perspective of a “sexual polarity independent of contingencies,” Stern leaves out vast numbers of other peoples and their various, changing ways. I will provide some counterexamples from those Stern omitted from his references.

Stern cites Margaret Mead, but he does so in a most unorthodox fashion, interpreting her research to be claiming “that there may be gifts, seemingly not connected with the physiology of reproduction, which are nevertheless fundamentally male and female” (Ibid., p. 13). Unfortunately, if not unsurprisingly, Stern does not cite any relevant passages to support this claim, but it is unlikely that Mead held this opinion; Stern himself recognizes on the page before this that Mead concluded “that apart from the specific role in the function of reproduction, sexual difference is an outcome of social and cultural considerations” (Ibid., p. 12). In fact, Mead (1935/1963) was the first anthropologist to become familiar with the three “primitive societies” of Papua New Guinea, known as the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli. In her studies of these peoples, she found that, even though they existed in a shared geographical region, all three cultures were organizing differently in regards to sex:

Neither the Arapesh nor the Mundugumor profit by a contrast between the sexes; the Arapesh ideal is the mild, responsive man married to the mild, responsive woman; the Mundugumor ideal is the violent aggressive man married to the violent, aggressive woman. In the third tribe, the Tchambuli, we found a genuine reversal of the sex-attitudes of our own culture, with the woman the dominant, impersonal, managing partner, the man the less responsible and the emotionally dependent person. (p. 279)

Though Margaret Mead’s work was groundbreaking for many in the west at the time, particularly in the field of anthropology, it is now common knowledge that genders outside of the binary/polarity have existed through history and cross-culturally as well as in various contemporary societies. In many First Nations traditions, there have been what are called ‘two spirits,’ which is a gender that is neither male nor female. Additionally, tied to the Hindu tradition Stern cites, there are the Hijras, which are the so-called Indian third gender.[1]

Though Stern’s position concerning the absolute nature of femininity and masculinity does not hold up to scrutiny, his argument that the period in which he writes is one that can be characterized by an alienation from those qualities he attributes to these gender poles may be taken account of after having dismissed the more ambitious claim of gender essentialism. In other words, what I take to be Stern’s primary argument—viz., that the people of his time, and of modernity in general, are alienated from “the feminine” and overly identified with “the masculine”—can be examined by itself. Gender essentialism does not seem essential to his argument. Though Stern would have probably disagreed with me, this is a way for a present day reader, such as myself, to read his work as generously as possible.

Reformulated, Stern’s argument is that modern people and the culture of the west are characterized by a lopsided valuation of those traits he calls masculine and a devaluation of those traits he calls feminine. Stern argued that there was problematic overuse of rationality and distance in problem solving and all human affairs, which he argued was particular to modernity, while there was an under-use of what he called “trans-rationality” or “intuitive intelligence” that is “tied up with love” (1965/1985, p. 28). This is the picture of alienation Stern gives of one who embodies this imbalance of rationality and distance over that of intuition and love: “The man in power, the executive who manages not only things but also people; the man who approaches human relationships as if they were a matter of engineering; the man who acts as though he were on guard against his own heart – these types are only too well known” (Ibid., p. 4). Stern goes on to write that this person can be summarized as being the embodiment of “an undue emphasis on the technical and rational, and a rejection of what for a want of a better term we call ‘feeling’…” (Ibid., p. 5).

This is the picture of alienation Stern describes, but this does not taken into account what Patricia T. Clough (2008) calls the affective turn in our political economy and culture. Disappointing the predictions and hopes of Stern, Bordo, much of second wave feminism, and even the 60’s and 70’s labor movement (Berardi, 2009), this affective transformation has decreased the degree to which supposedly feminine qualities are integrated in work places, workers, science, politics, and other culturally important arenas, while simultaneously increasing our alienation.

Postmodern Alienation: Semiocapitalism and Affective Labor

Stern mostly speaks of our alienation or disconnection from our feelings and intuitions, making his case with reference to philosophical and poetic literature on the topic. He stays away from the term alienation, displaying his disinterest with the political economics of the phenomena he is addressing. I have been using the term alienation to describe the psychocultural phenomenon which Stern is referring to, because I wish to focus on the way in which our taking on of various roles in the modes of production, implied by whichever phase of capitalism we find ourselves in, is autopoietic (a term I use in its metaphorical, philosophical sense: productive of a self by that self, in part). In other words, capitalism requires various types of subjects for its operation and it requires different ones at different times in its development and for different functions of its operation. This is a classic insight of Marx, and one which Jason Read (2003) explains well:

The production of things is also always an autopoesis, a production of the one producing – a production of subjectivity. As Marx writes with respect to the laborer, “Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature” (CI 283/192)”. (p. 115)

In this section I will sketch the way in which capitalism’s requirements for subjects have changed over roughly the last 150 years, and within this sketch I will show the way in which these different subject types imply different species of alienation.

Typical Marxist and much sociological thought agrees that, historically, Fordist principles of organization supplanted those characterized as Taylorist. Fordism achieved this by taking the Taylorist ideal – i.e., improving the efficiency of workers by applying “science” to their management – and making it actual by organizing labor and laborers around the task of producing standardized commodity-objects, using standardized equipment on an assembly line, and making them cost a price that the workers themselves could most often afford. This type of production required an entire hierarchy of managers who managed workers, workers who managed themselves and their families (the women and children), and women who performed the reproductive labor productive of use value that could be turned into commodities and exchange value (Federici, S., 2004). In this context, women’s labor and the “womanly ways” of “taking care of their men” at home through emotional care and house work were thought of as being of the “nature” of a woman and so “naturally occurring” and “their role” in society. This allowed for the reproductive labor of women, which was both emotional labor and hard labor, to be exploited via the extraction of the value that their labor created (Della Costa, 1971).

The creation of this managerial, rational, responsible, emotionally-sterile man who is opposed to an irrational, “flighty,” and irresponsible woman, prone to hysteria, emotional dependence, and weakness, is an intensification of a trend that Stern is correct to associate with the modern period.[2] In The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy Franco Berardi (2009) explains,

Classical industrial labor and specifically the organized form of the Fordist factory had no relation with pleasure. It had no relation with communication either: communication was actually thwarted, fragmented and obstructed as long as workers were active in front of the assembly line. Industrial labor was characterized mainly by boredom and pain… (p. 84)

Berardi makes it clear that there is no need for the worker in the Fordist style factory to communicate or have any emotions on the job, and that these occurrences were minimized as greatly as possible to improve efficiency. Michael Hardt (1999) corroborates Berardi’s summary, while making the autopoietic move concerning the creation of not just a worker but a subject: “In an earlier era, workers learned how to act like machines both inside and outside the factory” (p. 94).

This phase of capitalism or industry in which the male worker was a machine “in and out of the factory” and the woman was relegated to recreating this machine through her emotional and reproductive labor, is no longer the phase in which many exist today. Berardi (2009) writes, “The rise of post-Fordist modes of production, which I will call Semiocapitalism, takes the mind, language and creativity as its primary tools for the production of value” (p. 21). Here, Berardi is writing in a tradition of (mostly) Italian post-Marxists who outline the new forms of value production, as well as the different subjective cartographies they require and create, which are dominant in what he and other theorists have called semiocapitalism.[3] By way of defining ‘semiocapitalism,’ these authors take Marx’s ideas in Grundrisse and Capital, especially concerning his theories of the “general intellect,” and use them to describe the way in which the primary economic engines of our time are different forms of what Maurizio Lazzarato (2006) calls immaterial labor:

In today’s large restructured company, a worker’s work increasingly involves, at various levels, an ability to choose among different alternatives and thus a degree of responsibility regarding decision making. The concept of “interface” used by communications sociologists provides a fair definition of the activities of this kind of worker—as an interface between different functions, between different work teams, between different levels of the hierarchy, and so forth. What modern management techniques are looking for is for ‘the worker’s soul to become part of the factory.’ The worker’s personality and subjectivity have to be made susceptible to organization and command. (p. 133)

Michael Hardt (1999), following and clarifying Lazzarato, argues that there are “three types of immaterial labor that drive the service sector at the top of the informational economy” (pp. 97, 98). These three types are as follows: First there is that which is “involved in industrial production that has been informationalized and has incorporated communication technologies in a way that transforms the industrial production process itself” – this is the type of immaterial labor that Lazzarato describes above which makes of the worker an “interface between different functions”; second is “analytic and symbolic tasks, which itself breaks down into creative and intelligent manipulation, on one hand, and routine symbolic tasks, on the other”; and third is affective labor, which “involves the production and manipulation of affects and requires (virtual or actual) human contact and proximity.” The valorization within semiocapitalism of this third type of labor has great implications for Stern’s and Bordo’s arguments concerning our alienation from the so-called feminine. Summarized in a question: are people still alienated from their emotional and intuitive sides, their souls and unconsciouses, or is it now the case that, like Berardi claims, our “souls” have been put to work?[4]

It is an understatement to say that many in the economically “developed” parts of the world are now comfortable expressing emotions at work and in everyday life.[5] The opposite trend from that of a dominance of the hyper-masculinized, rational demeanor has been occurring for many decades now. To make the link clear between affective labor and what some call “feminine qualities,” I will quote from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2001):

The other face of immaterial labor is the affective labor of human contact and interaction. Health services, for example, rely centrally on caring and affective labor, and the entertainment industry is likewise focused on the creation and manipulation of affect. This labor is immaterial, even if it is corporeal and affective, in the sense that its products are intangible, a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion. … Affective labor is better understood by beginning from what feminist analyses of “women’s work” have called “labor in the bodily mode.” Caring labor is certainly entirely immersed in the corporeal, somatic, but the affects it produces are nonetheless immaterial. What affective labor produces are social networks, forms of community, biopower. (pp. 292, 293)

Hardt and Negri make a link between affective labor, “caring labor,” and “women’s work,” and goes on to say that what is produced are social networks and forms of community. In the Fordist stage of capitalism, women performed most to all of the reproductive labor, as I have written above. In the post-Fordist phase, reproductive labor is distributed more evenly amongst laborers (though, of course, there are still housewives who maintain parts of the previous phase in parallel with the new phase). The worker preparing their own food in a one bedroom apartment or the worker tweeting with others while watching a show each signal the shift in labor that has occurred in relation to reproductive labor, as reproductive labor is construed as all those forms of effort which reproduce the worker from whom value/capital may be extracted.

In the connection Hardt and Negri make between affective labor and reproductive labor, they are, as they say, building on a long line of work by feminist Marxists and post-Marxists. Silvia Fedirici (2012) has done significant work in drawing out this connection, and recently theorists and satirists from the art world (Jung, 2014) have updated Fedirici’s analysis of the “hiddenness” of unwaged work to include the unwaged labor implicit in affective labor of all types. This update draws out the androgenification of the affective work that is necessary for maintaining and creating social bonds in an economy that requires their constant dissolution and recreation. One answer to why affective labor has been diffused across gender lines is exactly this: the neoliberal economy has broken the modern institutions (e.g., nuclear family) that contained the reproductive labor necessary for the production of the workers of the modern era. With this understanding of the diffusion of affective labor across genders, it is clear that Stern and Bordo maintain their position (that people and our culture are alienated from so-called feminine qualities) only because they have misidentified the current socioeconomic landscape and thus the conditions of labor and ‘being social.’ In this way, though Stern in some ways anticipated the coming phase of capitalism, he was massively wrong concerning its therapeutic and ameliorative functions on the culture and its inhabitants.

Autopoesis of Affective Laborers and Revolutionary Potential

(Re)producing subjects fit for the current economy, with its stress on communication and affect, means placing emphasis on training in these areas crucial to improving the future employability of the student/worker. A crucial factor in their employment success is their ability to seamlessly adjust to new employment settings in various locales that employees will nearly inevitably have to travel to in order to find employment. This hyper mobility of post-modern employment is tied to the trend of neoliberal economic domination I referenced above. In this section, I will discuss some of the ways developmental psychology has become engaged in the process of reproducing laborers, concluding with reflections concerning possible ways of relating to these ‘occupational skills.’

The incredible voraciousness of experimental and observational research, conducted in tandem with the school systems and parents of Anglo-American students over the last several decades, has produced a large body of literature, educational policy, and pedagogical advice and mandates, which stress the link between the mother’s use of “mental state language” in conversation with her preschool age child and the child’s emotional intelligence (Mcquaid, et al., 2007; Ontai & Thompson, 2002). These studies suggest that the more a mother speaks with her child about mental states, the more emotionally intelligent the child will be. Parents go about improving their children’s emotional intelligence by speaking to the child in ways that express not only how they themselves are feeling, but that also guess at the way the child is feeling or seek to entice the child to put words to what they are feeling. Teachers, as well as parents, are encouraged to speak to their young student about how they are feeling and about the ways in which they make others feel.

This is a revolution in the primary educational classroom, since in previous decades students would never have been invited to speak to how they were feeling. Would the teacher care? Certainly not. Education was about “uplifting” the child into the adult world as a disciplined, rational agent (Foucault, 1975/1995). And this transformation in education speaks volumes to the cartographies of the self that are being laid for the new-coming subjects of our semiocapitalist world. We can explain this transformation in education easily by appealing to the valorization of affective labor as not only an essential lubricant of the economy, without which the entire economy would break down like an unoiled engine, but also as a key producer of value in itself, a condition to the production of all other values. Thus, just as the education systems in the Fordist era disciplined subjects to fit positions as managers or laborers in factories—as well as support positions to these factories (wives or secretaries)—we now discipline subjects to fit into the roles needed by semiocapitalism. Children are taught to do the emotional and affective labor that will be required of them in their labor, just as they are taught to do the “analytic and symbolic tasks” (i.e., typewriting, Excel, word processing, possibly some coding and design, and data entry, as well as smart phone use, app interfacing, social networking, etc.) which make up the second of the three types of immaterial labor so important to this stage of capitalism (and thus to society in general).

If we are alienated from what were previously named “feminine” aspects of our existence – caring, community building, passion, etc. – then it is not because we do not make use of them in our everyday existence. We are enticed everywhere to bring these qualities to bear in our labor, to make work between fellow workers go more smoothly, to co-manage one another. Affect is introduced into our work lives, emotional intelligence is encouraged, and it even appears as though our culture has gone through the transformations that were necessary to correct the imbalanced rule of so-called masculine qualities. However, just as workers in a steel factory are alienated from the products of their labor so are the workers who perform affective labor alienated from the products of their labor, which are the “social networks, forms of community, biopower” (Hardt and Negri, 2001) they produce. One may recoil at this proposition for its leveling quality – is this possibly too general a claim that the social networks and forms of community we produce in our new stage of culture and economy are the tools of our own alienation? Social media is a prime example of this process because it is simply a virtualization and thus intensification (because it is freed from restrictive somatic rhythms) of what already was taking place in semiocapitalism. Most of the people in the west spend hours a day updating their social media profiles and communicating with other users on these various social media sites, all free affective labor that allows these enterprises to be sold for billions of dollars, which the users (laborers) will see none of. Some, such as those behind the Wages for Facebook manifesto, have issued their desire to overcome this alienation mediated by the affective labor of social media: “WE WANT TO CALL WORK WHAT IS WORK SO THAT EVENUTALLY WE MIGHT REDISCOVER WHAT FRIENDSHIP IS [sic]” (Jung, 2014).

Facebook is not going to start calling their users workers anytime soon, so it would seem that the “demand” to provide wages to social media users is dead on arrival. Yet hope within this bleak picture may be found in the insight of Hegel (1807/1977) in his dialectic of the lord and bondsman. In the slave or laborer’s manipulation and work on that which is their object, they gain understanding and closeness with that which they work on. The worker labors in fear of his master, but “in fashioning the thing, he becomes aware that being-for-self belongs to him, that he himself exists essentially and actually in his own right,” which he had come to doubt in his fear of his master/boss/law. “[T]he bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own,” and yet “having a ‘mind of one’s own’ is self-will, a freedom which is still enmeshed in servitude” (pp. 118, 119). In the fashioning of tools, houses, and weapons that we then do not use and are thus alienated from, we learn to make these objects and have a greater understanding of them and ability to use them than most of those who pay us to make them and then profit from their sale. In past stages of capitalism this insight allowed revolutionary forces to be unleashed from the working class by harnessing the knowledge gained in their labors. Today, the emotional, communicative, and social skills learned “on the job” doing affective labor may also be liberated in the unleashing of unpredictable revolutionary forces that focus on the transformation of our relationships and communities rather than on the transformation of the larger political landscape. The two goals need not be mutually exclusive.


I based the positions advanced in this paper atop a dispute with the gender essentialism underlying Karl Stern’s arguments concerning what he takes to be modernity’s imbalanced valuation and deployment of masculine qualities over womanly ones. Dispensing with Stern’s linking of a rational, managerial disposition to masculinity and a receptive, caring, and intuitive disposition to femininity, I nevertheless accepted his assessment that the modern individual is disconnected or alienated from the latter grouping of qualities. I further argued that, though this disconnection from our ability to show care and listen to and respect intuition and emotion as significant in all aspects of life seems to have been characteristic of the modern individual’s mode of alienation (particularly men’s), the affective turn seen in cultural, political, and economic transformations in the last quarter of our preceding century necessitated a new type of work space that “put to work” these types of “feminine” qualities that previously had much less of a place in the production of value/capital.

I have shown that this shift has implications for the way in which we are educated and develop into subjects that are appropriate for our particular economic and social context. Children are now encouraged to speak about their feelings and to take into account other people’s feelings when making decisions. This is quite different from the rule-oriented education of previous generations, and it seems that “emotional literacy” has become a prized asset for employees in nearly all labor sectors. I have considered the role of education in the subjectification of the individual in our society as emotional and made some proposals for a way in which affective laborers can resist their subject positions by counter-deploying their skills in creative ways. I have not given as much attention in this paper to the ways in which adults are maintained as affective laborers and the intriguing role that therapists and other “helping professionals” play as affective laborers par excellence. This will be an important direction for future work: therapists, counselors, and the psy-apparatus (to use Nikolas Rose’s term) must be examined with a focus on the ways in which their affective labors serve or do not serve hegemonic semiocapitalism, along with the modes of resistance and counter-deployment available to these workers.

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