Books for the News, Commentary

In praise of Eva Illouz


Let’s begin with a personal aside: during our sessions, my therapist invokes Eva Illouz more often than any other writer. At first I was largely deaf to this phenomenon, though eventually I acknowledged that excerpts from her work had come to function as a sort of Greek chorus alongside my own rambling metastasization of anecdotes from my early thirties. After weeks of failing to make the connection, I recognized her as one of our authors, read her book, and spent some hours poking around the corners of the internet digesting interviews and think pieces—later I picked up a few more books, and finally reflected on how and why a sociologist who studies changing emotional patterns under capitalism might elucidate my own benign/not benign driftlessness and failure to thrive.

The conclusion I reached is one that has been rattling around the zeitgeist—I tend to think of these pronouncements of grand-mal cultural tendencies as wheezing parakeets: often they are the equivalent of a clicking sound you can’t quite place, one insistently audible because it’s both so foreign and so obvious.

The background to Illouz’s ideas is a mainstream media that produces this (a now well-circulated blog post at Esquire in praise of the [formerly “tragic”] 42-year-old woman), which requires—yes, requires, even if the initial post can be written off a dozen ways to Sunday as everything from half-baked and harmlessly banal to absurdly patronizing and surreally out-of-tune—the kind of response posed by New Republic senior editor Rebecca Traister. Here is when someone might seemingly jump in with Illouz’s writings and point out that not only has Esquire been doing this sort of thing for a while (in praise of the 39-year-old woman was a theme from 2008; 27 was the focus number in 1999), but also another New Republic editor contributed to the literary apoplexy surrounding reviews of poet Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals by focusing more on why the poet served up possibly discomfiting internet-worthy innuendo than on the actual mechanics of her poetry (this is like a restaurant review centering on why someone drooled when they chewed their food).

Illouz’s arguments may seem obvious, but the success of her scholarship depends on the very fact that they aren’t: capitalism has changed the way we produce and consume our emotional responses; these responses are further shaped by class and other specific situational factors; and cultural critique can and should emerge immanently from our own cultural self-understanding.

What does this mean; why do I care; TL;DR? Well, first of all, it attributes the attrition of our emotional environment to cultural factors we continue to produce and consume, rather than to our self-contained neurotic flailing in a vacuum (i.e., as Jessa Crispin points out in a review of Illouz’s Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society, the myth that “it’s your personal chemical imbalance that keeps you depressed, not a very real and unhealthy shift in the way we manage our families, our communities, our cities.”) Hardcore BDSM romantic fantasy lit doesn’t become a bestseller with women because we all want to be in bondage gear ASAP; maybe some of us, I’m sure, but for the rest? It may be that this represents an endemic trend of cultural wanting, in which one might just be begging for it, by begging for help understanding WTF “romantic fulfillment” could possibly mean in a world that has produced and underserved them with Miss America, Joe Millionaire, and The Bachelorette (along with the Esquire think piece), in that order. These books sell, in part, because they further the production and consumption of two genres already targeted to a woman-identified demographic: self-help and romantic fantasy. They sell and will continue to sell and will in turn produce new hybrid object-narratives for the buying and selling because the experiential reality of desire in the society we make is anxiety-producing, frequently patronizing, often pantomiming, and requires some semblance of promised escapism and hoodoo finesse to merely maintain status-quo operations.

Crispin goes on to nail this aspect of Illouz’s thoughts in Hard-Core Romance at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Illouz refers to women’s mass culture as a self-help culture, and judging from Oprah fiction to women-focused magazines to women-focused talk shows and movies geared toward a female audience, it seems clear she is right. And this realm — where women are meant to work on their relationships, their bodies, their psyches — is where 50 Shades got its start. What’s most interesting about Illouz’s reading of women’s culture is her sense that self-help has been staged against any sort of collective consciousness: although we are encouraged to help ourselves, because we are women, we are not encouraged to help other women. Instead, self-help seems like a kind of masculinized competitiveness, in a different and more anxious mode. It is all about self-improvement, about the attainment of happiness, which comes through individual achievement, not any sort of political or societal improvement.

Illouz, who has been writing on this subject for years, in books like Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation to Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help to Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery, knows this is how you derail movements: by turning societal problems into individual failures. In this mode, the source of inequity turns into psychological inadequacy: it’s your daddy issues that are keeping you from finding a mate, not a generally hostile dating culture and conflicting messages about sex and love; it’s your personal chemical imbalance that keeps you depressed, not a very real and unhealthy shift in the way we manage our families, our communities, our cities.

All that said, if we could help ourselves, we might not be buying anything. And, for better or worse, that would make both E. L. James and my therapist a little lighter in the pockets, though maybe we’d all be at the Radical Feminist Empowered End Sexism Gender Fluidity Love Yourself Yarn In, knitting onesies for the next generation to wear (NB: I truly support the idea of a Radical Feminist Empowered End Sexism Gender Fluidity Love Yourself Yarn In; I am knitting mad swag; I just have doubts surrounding the dexterity of capitalism’s bony fingers).

Read more about Hard-Core Romance here.