Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Precarity of Work, Precarity of Moral Dispositions: Concern for Others in the Era of "Emotional" Capitalism

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Precarity of Work, Precarity of Moral Dispositions: Concern for Others in the Era of "Emotional" Capitalism

Article excerpt

As early as the 1930s, and in a more systematic fashion in the 1950s and 1960s, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno developed a theory of the precarity of moral dispositions. With his concept of "bourgeois coldness," Adorno invites us to conceive of a socially produced form of vulnerability that affects the moral agent, a vulnerability inherent in the fact that the moral agent is prone to relating to self and world in a way that prevents them from both perceiving and responding to the moral expectations of others. This precarity is linked to the ever-present threat of a sociopolitical neutralization of the conditions for morality. Adorno's thesis must nevertheless be properly understood. Our social context engenders bourgeois coldness not by stifling something that would otherwise have been effective in all other circumstances, namely, "natural" moral dispositions. Rather, it does so by constituting a second and vicious (falsche) nature-a nature that could otherwise have included a form of attention to others. The human "nature" produced by the historical process and the practical activity proper to capitalist society does not include the form of concern that leads to a sense of responsibility for others. Quite the contrary, the "nature" thus produced leads to indifference.

As Adorno's phenomenology of it shows, bourgeois coldness brings together the sense of indifference to others inherent in the pursuit of one's own interests; the inability to identify with others; an assiduous submission to what is perceived to be inevitable; and a well-maintained restriction of experience to the domain of one's private life alone (Adorno 2005a, 195).

This coldness results from mechanisms that I cannot describe here in all of their fine-grained detail. Let us first of all remark that these mechanisms nevertheless converge and condense into a system; in this sense, they are mechanisms that go beyond the sphere of work, even if they are deployed there in all of their force.

Following Walter Benjamin, Adorno makes the atrophy of lived experience one of the primary causes of indifference to others (Adorno 2005b, 122). Full experience, or Erfahrung-experience anchored in the possibility of linking history to one's personal life-is replaced by atomized Erlebnisse, or brute isolated experiences, experiences that are more like convulsions or traumas than segments of intelligible existence (Benjamin 2006, 316-21). They become accidents from which one has to be defended. In particular, the organization ofwork in a factory alters each one of the senses, isolates the worker from all experience, replaces memory by conditioned responses and savoir faire by repetition. Practice no longer has any signification. Such an atrophy induces a profound mutation in one's relation to oneself, to time, and to nature, but above all to others.

Moreover, capitalism eliminates the possibility of apprehending others as singular beings. This is because the model instituted by exchange under capitalism is generalized to the point that every object, but also every subject, can be exchanged for another. In both its qualities and its creations, it is comparable, and measurable in relation to another. As Max Horkheimer and Adorno write in Dialectic of Enlightenment, "Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It make dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities" (2002, 4). In exchange, nonidentical individuals become commensurable, that is, they become identical. Such a generalized commensurability implies that relations between individuals have been degraded to the level of relations between things. As Adorno and Horkheimer formulate it, in the context of a fully functioning capitalist so- ciety, "Being is apprehended in terms of manipulation and administration. Every thing-including the individual human being, not to mention the animal-becomes a repeatable, replaceable process, a mere example of the conceptual models of the system" (2002, 65). …

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