Home > affect/care, technology > Juan Martín Prada, “Economies of affectivity”

Juan Martín Prada, “Economies of affectivity”

“Economies of affectivity”

Juan Martín Prada

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.


[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 <http://www.nodo50.org/cdc/valoryafecto.htm&gt;
[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.

Categories: affect/care, technology
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