Are we emotionally dead?

The Postemotional Bully by Stjepan G. Mestrovic [2015] Sage Publications

Review by Roy Coleman


Stjepan Mestrovic’s work has long concerned itself with emotional life in modern societies: in particular the importance and potential of its spontaneous and collective nature. His latest book is about the intensification of coercion over individuals and groups in modern societies and it demonstrates how relations of force are manifesting in ever expanding areas of modern life. As social media users, university educators and student learners, conspicuous consumers and career-chasers – we live under a series of impositions. Quite literally, we are compelled by prescriptive ways of talking and doing, of working and learning, of ‘sharing’ and ‘participating’. We are, therefore, becoming normalised to the means of bullying as part of everyday experiences. Bullying is bound up with participation within contemporary ‘social’ life. In this book we see how individual and collective emotion is the vehicle through which bullying is being processed. In short, modern life is a bully and has developed tendencies along this trajectory since the birth of modernity. Of course – officially – ‘bullying’ is something decried and action is taken against it – particularly if the bully is an identifiable ‘dysfunctional’ individual with peculiar characteristics. But the barbarian temperament – as Mestrovic would call it – is a much deeper problem than the fiction of the individual troublemaker.

Bullying is often dressed as something else. It is also routine and incorrigibly infectious. Whether in work, education or unemployment – we are endlessly trained, retrained and trained again in the pursuit of endless milestones. This is known to some as ‘life-long learning’. The constant self-monitoring and other-watching, in which we become the judges of what passes for ‘normal’ as well as the judged, circulate lessons and prescriptions for us to attain ideal bodies, more likeable selves and, thereby, the means to enhancing our ‘status’. We glamourize bullying through all kinds of media and dress it as entertainment, choice and freedom.

Therefore, processes of state, corporate and civil power operate as a form of bullying and are firmly tied to postemotionalism: not the disappearance of emotion but its compulsion alongside rational enlightened institutional power.   Mestrovic’s is a book about continuities and discontinuities in the story of emotional states in modernity. Thus bullying is not a new phenomenon and was identified – albeit in different terms – by the likes of Durkheim, Veblen, Simmel, Park and Weber. Like-wise the concept of postemotionalism has its roots in early sociology. But as Mestrovic shows some of the key concerns of such work is written out of sociology today, in particular its pessimism towards rational, modern and ‘progressive’ society.

Early sociology had concerns about a transformed emotional life consistent with Mestrovic’s postemotional society: the increasing mechanisation of life; specialisation and endless training/bullying; the demotion of spontaneity, and the promotion of egoism through status magnifying technologies. Mestrovic shows how early sociologists were forthright in their critiques of progress, rationality and modernity and how these criticism related to the negative transformation of emotion in modern human life. This transformation does not herald the disappearance of emotion but its subservience to an insidious rationalisation process. And, like Webber’s notion of the cage of modernity, this process has weaved its way beyond the boundaries of state / work bureaucracy and into what we might have previously thought of as the means of ‘escape’ – sport, tourism and leisure (all subject to rationalisation and emotion prescriptiveness).

What Ritzer referred to as the McDonaldization of society, Mestrovic sees as postemotional society. Whereas our lives are increasingly subject to quantifiability, continuous monitoring, routinisation, automation and predictability (the McDonaldization thesis), so too are our emotions subject to such processes (postemotionalism). The point for Mestrovic, however, is that the latter intersects with, and reinforces, the former. For example, corporate dominance over many of our lives and its impetus to McDonaldize life would not be as effective “without the emotional power of charisma and the gift that continues to operate in modern societies” (42).  He continues:

“I refer to this as postemotional charisma because it is not the truly spontaneous ‘magical’ charisma of the oral tradition and written word societies, but the deliberate, rational, and systematic reproduction of fake charisma and fake gifting

This is because “humans cannot live by rationalisation alone”. In recognition of this corporations attempt to operate as a sort of ‘club’ in which we are gifted with freebies and ‘personally tailored special offers’ if we join. Artificiality, manipulation and distortion are the cornerstones of postemotionalism along with the institutionalisation of force (bullying) and the replace-ability (fundability) of the individual. Thus, like emotion more generally the gift has been “redirected and transformed” into “capitalism and modernity”. Incidentally, there is no deeply felt emotional attachment to capitalism or modernity, hence the efforts to postemotionalise lives within these societies. For me this is illustrated by splintered emotional collectives such as we see in any modern city concerned with its international image: driven by short-termism, event driven outpourings of emotional patriotism that are contrived, imposed and homogenised.

Early sociology teaches us that initiation is an important part of social bonding, engaging us emotionally in integrative rituals of collective effervescence. Mestrovic speaks of postemotional initiation which operates more as illusion than meaningful social practice. For a start, initiation whether in the form of military hazing or perpetual performance management in educational establishments and all other manner of contemporary institutions, leaves the modern individual in “emotional limbo”: neither initiated or uninitiated, included or excluded! This can be likened to constant disciplinary inspection but, under postemotional conditions, there is no settlement or arrival point, only more hoops to jump through. Stress and anxiety are hallmarks of these kind of social arrangements.

Given these broad insights we could talk of postemotional justice, education, work and communication and so on. This requires more work. Reading this provocative book brings further questions to mind. Certainly we have ample evidence for what sociologists in the 1890s warned about: increased social morbidity and derangement. And like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four double-speak is in operation here. Reality TV carries morbid aspects of collective consciousness today that includes partaking in judgemental, emotional lambasting and bullying of celebrities and want-to-be stars of tomorrow. This is called ‘entertainment’ (infotainment) or merely ‘chat’ or ‘gossip’. Body mutilation through surgery is called ‘creativity’ and ‘empowerment’. The idea of the bully has a particularly masculine tone and relates to the functioning of institutional forms such as the military and police. Such rational organisations emerged from an ‘enlightened’ view that rules women as ‘prone to emotion’ and therefore the de facto symbols of chaos, triviality and unruliness. Therefore I would argue that postemotionalism has a specific and gendered tone. The bullying of women and girls in line with prescriptive ideas relating to desirability, ‘sexiness’ and domestication has a long history and implies postemotional bullying. Here, self-surveillance, self-punishment, as well as emotional restraint, and hurt continue to play a role in maintaining a particular patriarchal order underpinned by threats of violence. The bullying towards ‘self-improvement’ in this context is truly Durkeimian in its infinite encouragement of a fantasised and unattainable self, all leading to derangement, anxiety, narcissism, self-loathing and self-harm.  It is the beauty and cosmetics industry, however, that feed women’s anxiety about their bodily and psychic experience whilst at the same time offering postemotional ‘solutions’ to it. As seen in any edition of Cosmo, the corporate bully is also the ‘fun’ and ‘empowering’ friend.


Pic: POSTEMOTIONALISM & GENDER: Managing the feminine, forced effervesce & emotional training in women’s media

This is not a book for those seeking guidelines to ‘fight bullying’, the kind that one might see posted on a wall in any one of our modern institutional settings. Bullying cannot be reduced to ‘bad apples’. The argument here forces the more stark but difficult task of unshrouding commonplace ideas of civility and progress in order to expose sites and interests for the promotion of systemic collective and individual bullying.

One of the overriding concerns of Mestrovic’s book, although it is barely discussed explicitly, is the potential for genuine collective emotional and meaningful bonding. In a fragmenting world what are the possibilities offered by social media and digital communications to aid transformation of the social world? Are bullying and coercion necessary parts of social life? How is resistance to postemotionalism manifest? Mestrovic hints that one avenue of hope might be found in exploring peaceable social groups such as the ascetically orientated. Perhaps we need to broaden this out and include lessons learned from experiments in living hatched in counter-cultures, ‘travelling communities’ (such as New Age Travellers) and cooperatives are various kinds. In common here is a non-rational and dematerialised form of living in which emotional connections in life can be reworked afresh. Also in common, however, is the everyday violence, legal oppression and intimidation that such ‘alternatives’ suffer at hands of states and corporations whose vested interests are better served by postemotionalism. Perhaps we also need to see how the latter is buttressed in political economies that numb, manage, direct, silence and make profit from exploiting emotional life forces. Bullying has engrained itself into common consciousness for sure but it also has a resourceful and material anchorage within powerful habits and practices of state and corporate power.  The growth of state-corporate ‘caring’ along with programmes to invent happier, more loyal and friendlier work ‘spaces’ point to the growth of morbid social forms rooted in a malign political economy that ensconces a public duty to be fake ones satisfaction.

This is a brilliant and thought provoking book.




Published by EmotionalStates

Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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