Notes on literature and emotional labor

What is the nature of the demand to love literature as part of the profession?

Let’s take it as a form of emotional labor first.

Here’s the basics of Arlie Hochschild’s discussion in Managed Heart: the emotional laborer must evoke a set of feelings—typically temporally bound with the presence of a customer—which serves the needs of a company/institution. Emotional labor is managed. Workers regulate their feelings using a set of feeling rules. Management operates through these feeling rules and through direct intervention when feeling rules are not being followed.

Self-management may be possible but is not central to Hochschild’s discussion here. That’s because the separation of interests becomes clearer the further one moves down the hierarchy. Upper management is here more directly aligned with the desire to evoke particular feelings in customers than workers, even if upper management is not engaged in the evocation of those feelings.

At first glance, then, the performance of emotional labor seems fully alienated. Yet the worker is not simply alienated in the production process. We see something distinct.

The central portion of Hochschild’s discussion focuses on the problem that emotional laborers confront in terms of their lived authenticity. Emotional laborers often begin from a place of fusion, in which their sense of self, emotional life, and work life, and neatly fused. This is something which production based on emotional labor encourages. Yet it is not easy to maintain and often fails. When it does, the worker confronts a question: Am I faking it all the time?

Phoniness would seem to be the price of all emotional labor, but it is one that appears when fusion fails, when the reproduction of emotions and self reveal themselves as separate for the worker. As Hochschild emphasizes, the discover of phoniness attacks the emotional laborer’s capacity for work. How? It affects a person’s self-esteem. This is a problem of emotional labor’s reproduction: an emotional laborer caught in this spiral will not be able to reproduce their capacity to labor. For this reason, emotional laborers work quite hard to figure out how to deal with this problem.

Hochschild offers us three ways workers typically deal with the split between real and fake emotion:

  1. Depersonalize the situation by dividing oneself between a true work self and a true personal self. In this instance, both are real but their separation allows the emotional laborer to navigate problems in production without it attacking self-esteem.
  2. Yet the work persona can come to seem less real than the private self. Treat the job as not serious. This causes a problem, though. If phoniness is the job, then self-esteem is attacked and anyone who allows this to become their lives will seem smaller to themselves.
  3. Resist all encouragement to act and “go robot.” In this situation, a laborer takes emotion and self out of the performance. All that is left is the act without feeling. It is unable to evoke the emotions required by the job.
    In essence, the good emotional laborer is skilled at separating public and private selves without losing sight of a certain truth within BOTH selves. The feelings they enact and evoke in work are real, but separate from their private selves.

How does one produce a true public self without making one’s private self vulnerable? Hochschild argues that emotional laborers use a similar set of techniques as found in Stanislavsky’s idea of deep acting. In deep acting, the emotional laborer draws on personal memories of feeling to act them out in a new context. The feeling is real, the context new. Hochschild contrasts deep acting with “surface acting,” which simply goes through the motions—a version of “going robot”

Is deep acting fake? No. Hochschild makes an important claim here: it is debilitating for emotional laborers to feel the constant difference between their internal feeling states and their external performances. Hochschild doesn’t see deep acting as bad or fake. It is necessary.

Deep acting shows us something important, I think, about emotional labor. The wage, in a classically Marxian sense, is not enough to reproduce it. One might equivocate and say that the emotional laborer slowly loses his or her capacity to labor emotionally and that this capacity must be reproduced outside the production process. They receive love and affection elsewhere and bring it to work. That is in part true. But there is a limit to this ability to import that capacity into the production process. The more that the work self seems fake to the worker, the harder the work becomes. Eventually, it becomes untenable. Positive emotions are needed within the production process to allow the work to continue.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying emotional labor is always happy and good and so on. It’s that intermittent positive emotional experiences are built into the production process as part of the laborer’s reproduction. Capital might hope to siphon an emotional laborer’s capacity for emotional labor drop by drop as though we are pieces of fixed capital, but this burns through emotional laborers quite quickly. The reproduction of the worker demands certain conditions within the production process, though they don’t always get it. A certain sense of fusion or positive deep acting not only allows this work to reproduce itself, it makes the production process possible. Without it, the whole system goes into crisis.

And that takes me to a later essay by Hochschild, “Can Emotional Labor Be Fun?” Hochschild asks the question because it should be clear to everyone that IT CAN BE. Of course. Much of this kind of work is work that people value and thus feel is important and rewarding—in other words, the stuff of fusion, as Hochschild puts it in Managed Heart. What throws people out of fusion and forces them to confront the alienation of their emotional work is when something goes wrong in the production process, here specifically low wages and low respect. For Hochschild, this appears when the care system itself has broken down in some way.

The result is a new set of problems for the emotional laborer. Hochschild writes, “When a care system breaks down one sign is that the three-way relationship between the manger, the emotional laborer, and the client becomes frayed. […] Either way, the broken system has prevented her from feeling proud of her work. It has forced her to manage her feelings about doing her job in a broken care system.” The focus of emotional labor becomes the management of the worker’s feelings toward the job itself.

So we have:

  1. Emotional laborer performing emotion using private experience in public on behalf of the company to affect a client in ways that are more or less authentically felt and hence reproducible for the laborer.
  2. Emotional laborer managing personal feelings toward the client within the production process (e.g., when client rejects labor and so on) through management’s set of feeling rules.
  3. Emotional laborer managing personal feelings toward the production process itself.

What does all this have to do with literature and love?

If we take the love of literature seriously as a demand, where would we find it? It would be within the production process. What is that? I suppose teaching. It would be the most obvious situation in which the construction of emotion to a particular end between two human beings would be possible. It would be the situation in which a teacher would draw on their emotional experience to enact in the classroom a performance of this love and to evoke it in the client(s).

Is this really a demand we confront on the institutional level? I mean… I don’t know about that. Other kinds of emotional labor, yes, but the love of literature…?

It may be at the level of the discipline, department, or program, I suppose. It would still place the demand within the production process but in a way that is so distinct from management/labor that it is hard to apply the ideas clearly.

I think what we see is more akin to Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument in the culture industry chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, the selection of people already attuned to a particular ideology. The work selects for people predisposed to a particular set of feelings and beliefs (or easily trained to hold them).

Loving literature and inculcating that love, then, isn’t a task with a particular monetary compensation. It is part of a performance to be understood as a member of a class with its own set of interests and ideas. Yet again, though, who makes this demand? Whose interests does it serve? When did it appear? Has the practice of this feeling changed over time?

I have theories about the emergence of this demand within the profession as something that occurs alongside the rise of theory. It’s the affective contrary of critique. I doubt anyone felt called to love literature until then.

Of course, this turn co-occurs with a number of other cultural events, including the expansion of emotional labor as a result of the post-industrial economic turn and the increased prominence of women in English departments, not to mention the coincidence of colleges focusing on student satisfaction as consumers.

This is a perfect storm for English as a discipline. The gendering of care and the expansion of emotional labor makes the love of literature a happy ideological fit for the times. It seems a counterpart to the feeling airlines wanted to encourage in Hochschild, the feeling of domesticity. Isn’t the love of literature also a cognate for the canon wars? The love of literature can suggest to people in a similar idea: make me feel at home in literature. What feeling could be more raced, classed, and gendered than that?

None of this is to suggest that it is impossible to love or value literature—however defined—on the personal level. But it is to see the idea of this demand as embedded in a particular moment in time for the profession and its ideological understanding of itself. We may use our emotional lives in teaching literature—I suspect we all do—but the nature of the feeling rules and emotional management operative in higher education is, I suspect, more complex and less interested in our encouragement of someone else’s love. Perhaps one might understand it as the performance of our interest or love to evoke a particular affective response in students. Perhaps. Even then, though, it seems that the feeling work here is different, less about a relation to an object than a particular set of affective relations within a classroom or an institution. And that seems a more complex problem which lacks the formal management systems we see in managed emotional labor.