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Economies of affectivity

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Life and biopolitics

It is no longer an exaggeration to claim that we are in the
« biological century », judging by the intense development and the
dimension of the achievements attained in recent years in some of
the life sciences, such as Genomics and Biotechnology. However, let
us not forget that the increasingly more efficient knowledge of
the biological processes or genetic determinations of life and its
functional mechanisms is only a small part of biopolitical action,
whose real capacity for regulation is much more extensive, spanning
all of the vital processes that ultimately make up the collective
production of subjectivity. Thus, the capacity to improve or transform
bodies or the biological conditions of a life are no longer prevalent
among the keys of biopolitics but rather, more than anything else, the
production and reproduction of ways of living.

Therefore, the permanent questioning of the limits of what is natural
and of human ethics as regards genetic manipulation or the fact that
the scientific industries aimed at these areas of work should be the
most probable environment for the future capitalism revolutions[1 to
take place, are just a minimum number of problems within the extremely
complex series of biopolitical practices with which any exercise of
power is integrated with the logics of vitality (and from which it
would be non-differentiable). Thus it seems inevitable to validate
Giorgio Agamben’s claim that the concept of life should constitute
the object of the philosophy to come[2. It is certainly obvious
that the most industrialised societies have reached the full stage
of consolidation of this process in which the zoé (bare life) will
gradually merge with the field of the political (although this process
is actually more likely to have occurred inversely). The diagnosis
posed by Michel Foucault in the seventies regarding the concept of
biopower is obvious today. It is evident that power has taken intense
control over life, it is exercised at the level of life, losing almost
all its autonomy and transcendence, the exteriority it used to have
from its field of application, now acting from inside life, regulating
it from the inside, an integral part of it. And if power is not
exercised on individuals, but rather if it moves around them (we all
make it move, at varying degrees of consciousness), it seems logical
that the most efficient dispositifs in the exercise of power can no
longer be unilateral or permanent, but rather participative, adaptive
and reversible.

Thus, more than through the exercise of traditional political
sovereignty, power acts by producing and extending ways of living,
ways of enjoying and experiencing life. Therefore, biopower should
be understood to mean much more than power over bodies, much more
than technologies to control the biological or physical life of the
population. In short, almost all politics today are biopolitics,
because practically all of the political and economic strategies now
focus on life and the living ( whereas this term does not refer only
to the biological, but to the wider, vital sphere)[3.

Production and affectivity

Throughout the recent history of industrial and commercial practices,
affectivity has generally acted as a language or a means that incites
a certain positive predisposition in the interlocutor, like when
a salesperson smiles and affectionately greets a new customer (in
fact, many affective expressions are socially and not emotionally
motivated). However, the gradual acknowledgement of the relationship
between affectivity and business effectiveness has meant that little
by little, values such as personalised attention, closeness and
proximity to the customer have become some of the essential principles
of corporate action. To make the customer feel valued, to ensure
that he/she notices that the company appreciates his/her interest
in a particular product or service and considers him/ her to be
important, to ensure that the customer has sufficient expectations
that he/she will receive personalised attention, or even that he/she
is going to be a friend and not only a customer (as is often offered
in advertising for banking services, for example), are some of the
practices of this emerging « emotional marketing » whose priority
strategy would be to « captivate the customer’s heart »[4.

It can come as no surprise that in a society in which the majority
of the goods that are consumed are services with a duration in time
(telephony services, Internet connection, etc.), to achieve customer
fidelity often depends more on the establishment of these relations
of appreciation and attention that the customer seeks, rather than
the actual quality or the comparative assessment of the cost of the
service offered. A humanisation of the corporate production and
management systems, however, which very often only exists in a virtual
sense in its slogans and advertising spots, based on sentences of the
type, « we want to get to know you » or « the most important thing is
to be close to you ». Therefore, it seems to be almost evitable that
the increasing computer automation of the productive and management
processes in companies should only be able to generate the mere
effects of closeness, affective simulations of service for the user,
who will not cease to complain about the lack of contact with actual
« flesh and blood » people when hiring services, solving doubts or
presenting complaints. In order to reduce the negative consequences
of these situations, there has been a major proliferation of a
whole sector of workers for remote assistance, normally subject to
unusual timetables, with low salaries, mostly formed by young people
and especially by women, whom the human resource departments in
companies usually consider to be better suited to this role of patient
attention to users and customers, for friendly processing of their
complaints and indignations. This reminds us of the persistence of the
damaging effect of the loss of prestige of affective work throughout
the history of humanity and its being assigned to the sphere of
the feminine, of the presumed incompatibility between affection
and control down through the centuries. In this regard, we should
highlight that the traditional association of women to emotions and
affection, limited to the intimate space o the home and restricted
to providing loving care for the family, has always been opposite
the presumed coldness of the man in his professional relations and
links. A differentiation on which actively discriminatory practices
towards women have been sustained, leaving them outside the « cold »,
organisational fields of masculine work and therefore far from the
exercise of public or corporate power or responsibility. A separation
that has been nurtured, deep down, by an ancestral paradox: the
mothers’ dedication to looking after children and families has always
been considered to belong to the sphere of voluntary work (and has
therefore never been remunerated), but without bearing in mind that
it is generally caused by an involuntary or even mandatory situation
(i.e. to have children or not to be able to work outside the home).
A paradox that is compounded by many others, especially the one
that is derived from the fact in spite of new technologies taking
affective work practices outside the reproductive and family sphere to
make them work as an engine for production (what some have called a
certain « feminisation of work »), this has not led to a higher economic
valuation, in general, of the affective work activities that are most
common in all fields of industrial production today.

Of course, it is possible that in the near future we may cease from
considering affectivity to be merely an added value for work or a
means of facilitating it. This will happen when the key to the new
production processes will not consist only of care and attention to
the individual adopting market logic. Perhaps then the circumstances
would be right for the real discovery of the immense productive
force of affections and emotions, which will mean that affectivity
may be considered as a job in itself, requiring a total rethinking
of affectivity within the future forms of biopolitical production.
It is clear that the first step towards this situation has already
been taken, and it is the aforementioned dissolution of the former
incompatibility between work and affection, by virtue of which
affectivity is for once and for all liberated from its former,
restrictive enclosure in the contexts of intimacy and the family
and is gradually becoming the real object of production in new
industries that are increasingly designed to produce new forms of
life and subjectivity. And in this context of multiple interrelated
dynamics, the presence of the body, subject for decades to the
immense proliferation of its images at the service of fashion,
cosmetics, dietetics or the health industries in general, is extremely
intensified in many other channels as a result of the emerging
interest in managing its emotional chemistry. Emotion, understood as
the alteration of the body that is linked to a certain affective state
or mood, is a privileged point in the new economic dynamic, which
invests great efforts in propitiating its intensified experience in
several ways[5. Precisely in order to manage affection and emotional
involvement in specific fields, they are constantly resorting to a
countless number of narrations and representations, For example, the
celebrity gossip programmes or soap operas, two of the most important
components of the television industries, show us the intensity of
the pleasure that seems to be derived from experiencing affective
relations through those of others (perhaps because of the compensatory
capacity of this process), showing the immense power of the trend
towards the most extreme simplification of affectivity ( reality
shows like Big Brother are good examples of the dynamic of reducing
affective complexity, taking the affection/ disaffection polarity
to its maximum expression, focussing precisely on the expression
of this polarity and providing the public with their only possible
participation with the contestants: to vote for/ against someone).

On the other hand, the biopolitical paradigm is fast imposing the
consideration of human beings more as the possessors of a life to
enjoy and make the most of rather than as political subjects (or as
political subjects inasmuch as they are possessors of life), which
means that the context of the societies with the highest rates of
consumption is no longer propitious for disciplinary technology, not
even for the pole of biopower that Foucault believed was focussed
on an « anatomopolitics » of the human body, based on the pretension
to achieve its best possible adaptation to the production system so
that it would be capable of producing more and better. Nowadays, the
individual as a living body, is starting to be considered as a wealth
in him/herself, even when not active in employment. For example,
anyone that strolls around any of the macro centres for leisure and
free time that proliferate in the outskirts of our cities is actively
collaborating, just with his/her expectations of having a good time,
in the production of an « affective territory », an environment of
collective relaxation and receptivity to pre-designed entertainment,
a space where he/she and many others will feel good, thus allowing
to set in motion all of the complex systems of consumption and
membership of the increasingly powerful « conscience industries ». This
is because the productive value of subjects no longer lies in their
potential as a force of production as workers, but in their condition
of the possessors of a life that yearns for entertainment, enjoyment,
satisfaction. That is why it has been said on so many occasions that
life itself « works » nowadays).

Of course, the new biopolitical economy aims above all to extract
a surplus from life, a corporate profit obtainable in life and
from life, with a global and biopolitical territorial structure
led by large multinational companies, producers and exporters of
specific ways of life and enjoyment. Thus the domination becomes
more diffuse, inherent to the social body, permanently interiorised
in the latter. Society and power have now established an integrated,
qualitative relationship. The individual serves and is served, in
turn, by an economy based on desire, affectivity and pleasure, even
in the joyful disappearance induced by the entertainment industries.
Therefore, in the context of the most highly developed technological
societies, economic power does not intend to continue to base all of
its privileges on the exploitation of its subjects as a workforce but
on the increasingly lucrative regulation of their ways of life, life
dynamics and personal and affective interactions, emotions, consumer
habits and satisfaction.

In other words, in today’s context, the concept of production
(historically linked to that of goods) is being continuously extended,
because the new industries, increasingly oriented to pleasure and
entertainment, and to the computerised production of « intangible »
goods and information, are really producing contexts of interpretation
and assessment, forms of identification and membership, interpersonal
behaviour and human interaction – in other words, its mission is
essentially the production of sociability itself. If this is its
objective, we can hardly digress from Michael Hardt’s claim that
the hegemonic form of economic production is what is defined by a
« synthesis of cybernetics and affectivity »[6, and by its vision of
the biopolitical context as « the field of productive relations between
affectivity and value »[7 .

Affective technologies

The nature of the mechanisms for the production of collective
subjectivity are intrinsically affective nowadays. In a way, the most
important raw material that will be used by the new « social worker »[8
in the immediate future will be affectivity, as this is already one of
the main engines of biopolitical production (some have appropriately
defined affection as « productive subjectivity »[9). This explains
why the most successful products of the new industries are the ones
that are characterised by the necessary flexibility and capacity to
adapt to each user, his/her tastes or particular needs (such as the
possibilities of « personalising » computer products) and, especially,
the interpersonal communication technologies, specifically designed
to exploit the field of emotions and affective interactions. Of all
of the technologies in existence today, the mobile telephone and the
Internet chat rooms are the leaders in producing feelings related to
the wellbeing of company and proximity, the states of proximity and
the continuous evidence of interpersonal affectivity, offering the
best of the technological representations of this new fusion that
exists today between communication and affection. Thus the eminently
affective nature of communication appears to be fully recognisable in
all of human interactions, intensified by the proliferation of these
new technologies that we could well call « affective technologies »,
responsible for an addictive technical mediation of affectivity that
allows for the intensive multiplication of the (continuous) exchange
of its need.

In this regard, it is highly descriptive that the immense growth in
the number of calls or SMS messages between mobiles in recent years
is statistically proportionate to its informative insignificance
beyond its basically affective nature. This is similar to the case
of communicative interactions in Internet chat rooms, in which
the visual representations of emotions and various expressions
using « emoticons » or by innumerable interjections of enthusiasm or
displeasure seem to be more a case of attempts at what Daniel N. Stern
called « interaffectivity », the correspondence between the emotional
state as the individual feels it inside and how it is observed « in » or
« inside » another[10.

Affectivity and sociability

And if affectivity as a concept takes on extreme importance today, it is
also because its most negative symptoms, like depression and anxiety, are
ever on the increase. In fact, it is possible that most of contemporary
anxiety could be described as floating affectivity, as the unsatisfied yet
eager willingness to affect and be affected emotionally by the environment
(let us not forget the definition of the human being as « pure
affectivity »[11 linked to ontology overcoming phenomenology).
And if on the one hand, communication technologies can in fact increase or
create the conditions for new affective interactions, it is also true that
they are potential resources for isolation, due to the addictive protection
afforded by bodily distance, technical and telematic distance between bodies
that interact in an ever frequent virtualisation (understood as
bodilessness) of affectivity. This is very much linked to the reclusion and
increasing isolation of a very high number of adolescents and young people,
the most dramatic representation of which would be the adolescents suffering
from the Hikikomori syndrome: closed up in their rooms, after any kind of
academic or affective failure, they avoid maintaining any relations with
their families and friends, shying away from any personal contact,
dedicating their time to watching television or playing on the videogame
console. This syndrome occurs not only because the most technologically
advanced societies are increasingly incompetent in solving problems of an
affective nature (mostly because they have given absolute priority to
competitiveness and to the recognition of success), but also because the
domestic entertainment technologies afford the depressed individual an
active abandonment, a stimulating hideaway. What these entertainment
technologies offer is a set of activities that despite requiring high levels
of concentration and energy – like what is required by the exciting action
of videogames – the individual does not have to expose or risk him/herself
affectively. In this hideaway, everything is liable to be disabled,
temporary, and innocuous from any affective responsibility. Nobody can hurt
you because there is nothing and nobody « real » at stake.

We could even go so far as to talk of an important transformation
provoked by the temporary dynamic to which the society of the media
and especially all of the entertainment technologies induces. It is
surely possible to claim that the experience of time imposed by these
technologies is more relevant in hindering affective interactions
than the weight exercised by their contents, fundamentally based on
the practice and identification of violence and entertainment. The
predomination of the reflex impulse, perhaps more dependent on the
speed with which it takes place than on its precision is, too often,
the only thing that allows the videogame to continue. And if this
experience is more and more often becoming a habit, in which one only
responds to the here and now, in its instantaneity and immediacy, we
cannot fail to consider this situation to be yet another difficulty
for opening up to the experience of affective interaction. This
is because there can be no doubt that affection requires time and
this provides evidence of the constructive capacity of affective
interaction compared to a system based on the motto « there is no time
to lose ». Perhaps affection could even be defined as shared biography,
with either people or other beings, even with places or environments,
like the memory of accompanied time (in most videogames, for example,
there is no company; the most is the accompaniment in the on-line
multi-player versions).

Affective resistance

It does not appear to be of no use to propose the study of the systems
of collective order in a society precisely through the moments in
which it is moderately or momentaneously disordered, like in its
parties and excesses, its nightlife, or in the always unforeseeable
sphere of affections. To take affectivity as the axis for social
analysis and research seems even to promise the solutions for many
of the problems of burnout that have arisen regarding some of the
key issues in the aesthetics and politics of our times, such as, for
example, the issue of identity, a concept that has almost always
been studied on a negative basis, i.e. as regards its conflicts. On
the contrary, to consider affectivity to be a methodological axis
for study would oblige us to study identity on a positive basis, in
its enjoyable functioning. There is no doubt that our social and
political thought is increasingly from the heart rather than from the
traditional exercise of criticism, which has time and time again been
neutralised by the institutions and bodies of political action and
government.

And it is precisely from the emotional apprehension of social
relations and the regulation of the perceptions (let us not forget
that affectivity is an essential element in perception, as Bergson
claimed on so many occasions), that the new cultural and entertainment
industries derive their greater capacity for social transformation and
their most important lucrative potential. It is no coincidence that
these are exactly the same elements where some of the most radical
artistic practises of the avant-garde and neo avant-garde movements,
particularly those based on the correspondence or comparison between
« art and life » (and therefore also biopolitics in the fullest sense
of this term) focussed the possibility of a critical and emancipating
action against the impositions of the « conscience industries ».
Therefore, we may claim that our days will witness the culmination
of the appropriation by biopolitical production of some of the
principles that used to oppose the former systems of economic and
political domination a few decades ago. Nowadays, contrary to the
mechanisms that characterised industrial production in the past, the
mechanisms of today’s biopolitical production are nor only related but
they fully coincide with those that are based on the expression of
difference and diversity, freedom and singularity (the characteristics
of young fashion, for example), ecology or solidarity. Therefore,
the deployment and globalisation of certain ways of living are not
carried out from an ideological or evaluative structuring (which
although still active, is hardly effective), but rather by extending
dynamics and habits of action that become particularly intense in
the spheres in which, like the culture of leisure and entertainment,
are unquestionably more useful in extracting a surplus from life, by
touching on the most non-renounceable and permeable aspects of the
latter: emotions, affectivity, enjoyment, happiness, fun, etc. Thus
one may be against the particular interests and inequalities that go
along with today’s system of production, but it is almost inevitable
to be more or less involuntarily condescending with the practices in
which the entire biopolitical system becomes stronger, because they
have precisely been mingled with those of life itself.

Therefore, the possibility of effective political resistance, appears
to reside, more than in the negativity of criticism, in an operation
from the inside of biopolitical production itself, in that the
subjects should active appropriate the latter. This process is only
possible, of course, after we have acknowledged the emancipating
potentials that are inherent to some of the principles that, like
affection, cooperation, meeting, attention or care, form an essential
part of the bio political productive dynamic. Up to now, the capacity
of social transformation of these principles had remained practically
dormant, inactive, as they were maintained at the superficiality
required by their immediate usefulness and productive efficacy. To
acknowledge in these principles a really collective, social purpose,
is the mission of the new resistance, which should make very clear
the potential they contain for the production of community and beyond
the latter, for generating an active deployment of the principle of
commonness.

And it is probably the expansive power of « freedom and ontological
opening » contained in affection that is most promising in this
mission. Toni Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s claims that political
rebellion would be replaced by a « project of love », or the graphic
exemplification that they propose in their book Empire of the future
life of political militancy with the figure of Saint Francis of
Assisi (he who identified real wealth as the « common condition of the
multitude ») are certainly two of the most explicit examples that we
might mention within the countless set of proposals launched in this
direction by the most recent political theory. Of course, in order to
achieve this, it is necessary, in the first place, that communication
should no longer be usurped by the economy, that it be allowed to
flow. In order to do so, the creation of an endless number of new
channels, of free means for collective contact and interpretation, of
free technologies for meeting and creation, should go on. We already
know, this teleology of the common, also specified in the enlightening
potentials of the « general intellect », is the power of solidarity,
exchange and cooperation, of the occurrence of the subject through
actively being with others, of a certain dissolution of being in
language, in communication, participation and collective, shared
creativity, all of which will be fuelled, of course, by the enjoyment
and happiness that belong to a radical (and affective, of course)
opening up to diversity.

Notes:

[1 See Maurizzio Lazzarato, Les Révolutions du Capitalisme. Empêcheurs de
Penser en Rond, Paris, 2004.

[2 See G. Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, Stanford
University Press, 1999.

[3 Under no circumstances, however, should we forget that the old
disciplinary technology that arose at the end of the 17th century, is still
active, buried in biopolitics. For example, in the international events of
recent years, particularly those that were derived from the so-called fight
against international terrorism, the right to die, the threat over the
individual’s life that belonged to the traditional sovereignty regimes,
continues today, almost paradoxically, alongside the most intense of the
orientations for dealing with life and the productive regulation of its
processes that characterise the political systems of the countries that are
most advanced in terms of economics and industry (and which paradoxically,
are the ones that play the leading role in this contradiction).

[4 See Brian Clegg, Cautive el corazón de los clientes y deje que la
competencia persiga sus bolsillos (Capturing Customers Hearts: Leave the
Competition To Chase Their Pockets) Pearson Alhambra, Madrid, 2001.

[5 In the repertoires offered by the new emotion markets, life experiences
are the most relevant goods to be consumed. We could therefore speak of a
commercialisation of the experiences of life themselves and of their most
adequate contexts, through a countless number of systems acting in a very
wide spectrum of action, from the chemistry of the vitality of energy drinks
or new designer drugs to the leisure culture or methods of relaxation and
for combating stress.

[6 Michael Hardt, « Affective work » (text included in this same e-show).

[7 Ibidem.

[8 According to Toni Negri, the « social worker » would replace the
« professional » worker and the « mass worker » of the past, « the social worker
is the producer, the producer, before any good, of his/her own social
cooperation » in « Eight preliminary theses for a theory of constituting
power », « Contrarios » Criticism and Debate Journal, April, 1989.

[9 See Toni Negri, « Value and affection », at

[10 See D. N. Stern, El mundo interpersonal del infante (The interpersonal
world of the infant). Ed. Paidós. Barcelona, 1991.

[11 We should remember that Spinoza had already identified life with
affectivity. However, it was Michel Henry that defined the subject as « the
appearance of appearing », « pure affectivity » in his work Phénoménologie de
la vie, PUF, Paris, 2004.