Emotional Control   /   Spring 2010   /    Emotional Control

Human Flourishing and the Sovereignty of Feeling: A Review Essay on Contemporary Thinking about the Emotions

Matthew Mutter

When trying to understand the status of the emotions in contemporary culture, one encounters what seems like a paradox. On the one hand, many have seen modernity as an epoch characterized by the heightened constraint and regulation of emotional expression. In his classic study, the social theorist norbert Elias showed how a new culture of emotional control played an essential role in the “civilizing process” that created the modern age. In a similar vein, the economic historian Albert Hirschman argued that, in the aftermath of the war-ridden, early modern period, a number of thinkers looked to capitalism to usher in a social world in which the unruly and destructive “passions” would be displaced by the more stable and efficient “interests” as the emotional medium of social life.11xSee norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978); Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

On the other hand, we live in an age in which public discourse is saturated with the language of emotion. The ascendency of psychoanalysis and the therapeutic ethos has created a cultural picture in which our emotions are the most “real” and consequential presences in our lives. They are invested with powers that range from the private capacity to facilitate personal intimacy to the public capacity to effectively manage employees. Recent years have seen the rise of concepts like “emotional intelligence” and “emotional competence,” which emphasize the importance of emotional self-awareness for effective performance in all areas of life. Whereas a century ago it seemed that the representative citizen of modernity was a cold, affectless bureaucrat, today this citizen relies on her inmost feelings to navigate every aspect of the complex modern world.

The paradox, however, is only apparent. The centrality of emotional discourse in contemporary social life does not entail emotional freedom.

Indeed, just the opposite is true: this discourse is preoccupied with discovering, naming, and—most importantly—managing our emotional states. Emotional transparency is necessary precisely in order to achieve a precarious balance in which no emotion is excessive or one-sided. The culture obsessed with emotional expression is also obsessed with emotional regulation.

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