Emotivism and Capitalism Revisited: Discourse on Method

My last post, in which I posit some sort of relation between capitalism and MacIntyre’s ’emotivist self’, was intended as little more than a placeholder for that indistinct thought. I am indebted to the ever-perceptive N Pepperell who, in the comments to it, correctly locates a certain methodological ambiguity in the analysis. This ambiguity is at the heart of at least one of the reasons why the post is rather unsatisfactory. For, as NP points out, on the one hand I engage in a ‘functionalist’ task, pointing to capital as a beneficiary of a certain emotivist form of subjectivity, while also identifying a more straightforward ‘structural’ homology between an emotivist form of subjectivity and the liberal-individualist form of subjectivity that capitalism ideologically posits and practically engenders. I want to take this opportunity to expand on these insightful comments–ones which I will draw on heavily in what follows.

It is a familiar trope of critical discourse to ask of the object of analysis whether–and if so, which–interests are served by that object. Thus, in my post, I ask of the formation of emotivist subjectivity what ends it helps achieve, suggesting that it reinforces a certain [quasi-]utilitarian logic that smoothes the operations of the social form of capitalism. We can consider this form of critique in more detail, examining the problems that it tends to get entangled in with respect to the legitimacy of the standpoint it presupposes as well as going on to point to some systematic blindspots it can encourage. These are distilled in the essence-appearance distinction it tempts us to adopt–at least, insofar as essence and appearance remain dichotomous here. The critique will often be articulated something like this: ‘Although x seems innocent, it is really exploitative/patriarchal/racist.’ This is a common sort of ideological unveiling whereby the theorist seeks to penetrate to the core of the object of analysis to reveal its essential workings as against its deceptive semblance.

Often problematic features of such analyses can be traced back to their reliance on certain–commonly tacit–assumptions with respect to a dualism of subject and object. These problems centre around the failure of the analysis to treat subject and object as items individuated within a unitary field (or ‘situation’) and thus leads to us seeing them as separated by a gulf that problematises their relation. This can occlude two important issues.

Firstly, under this dualist assumption, the critical theorist can become fixated on the attempt to uncover the object of analysis as it is in-itself. Their conception of their task thus becomes to determine whether their object really is as it appears to be–say, whether capitalist relations of production really are just, as it has seemed to many economists. This ‘functionalist’ model, which merely compares functional essence with appearance, is rather limited though. The deeper and often more interesting question is that given that sometimes there is a mismatch between essence and appearance–that something appears innocuous/pernicious when it is not–why does it take that specific appearance? For example, why has it (or alternatively, must it have) appeared to so many economists that capitalism is not exploitative but paradigmatic of just distribution? Ultimately we must ask how semblance can arise at all (for as Hegel recognised, it is this that is the real mystery!)? Fully answering these sorts of question, I believe, requires us to reject a dualistic opposition between subject and object, instead embracing a categorical framework that treats subjectivity as situated within and in some sense contiguous with the material world. This would provide a fuller set of resources for explaining the complex interplay between the subject and those material and intersubjective forces that shape its orientation towards the world.

The second issue relates to the situatedness of the critical theorist themself. For the functional analysis that reduces the object of critique to an essence (its functional role with respect to the interests of certain actors and systems) distinguished from mere appearance (those qualitative features subjects apprehend) we are left with a further question. That question is: given that the object does not make itself manifest immediately as it is, how does the theorist come to discover its essential nature? If the relation between subject and object is one in which the object appears to the subject as something other than it essentially is then it seems that the theorist must somehow stand outside the context of the subject-object relation–occupying some transcendent standpoint–if they are to discern the true function of the object (e.g. what interests it serves). Reformulated outside of the assumptions of a subject-object dualism, we can rehabilitate such a question in much more finessed terms, supplementing the crude essence-appearance model with an analysis of the whole field in which subject and object are situated within that explains how the critical methodology employed by the subject becomes available to them but not to others who remain misled. (Relevant here are Sinthome’s characteristically excellent discussions of ‘transcendental stupidity’; for the difficulties of successful normative appraisal of the object of critique are rarely ones of deductive errors or lack of empirical data.)

Returning now to the content of my previous post, the ‘functional’ question appears somewhat tangential to the more structural concerns which centred on emotivist and liberal-individualist forms of subjectivity. Worse, insofar as it encourages a crude essence-appearance dichotomy then it abstracts away from what NP calls the ‘qualitative form’ of these subjectivities, subsumtively reducing their features through analysis into mere instruments of the overriding function. Preferable to the functionalist strategy, suggests NP, is one that pursues the thought that: “something about the collective practice of capitalism involves, or renders more likely, or suggests the possibility, or similar, for the practice and concept of an emotivist self.” This was my central thought that was clouded by my clumsy articulation of the issue. One potential caveat is the possible implication that there is a uni-directional relation of influence: that it is merely capitalism that creates a suitable context for an emotivist subjectivity. Rather (assuming MacIntyre’s thesis holds, etc.) the two forms of subjectivity–liberal-individualism and emotivism–would seem to be interpenetrative, or at least mutually reinforcing.

The relation between the two forms of subjectivity could be hypothesised as follows. Capitalist social practice encourages an unreflective, instrumental and pleonexic mode of engagement with the world, constituting an enculturation that privileges certain forms of perception. This provides a climate amenable for the emotivist self which substantially shares these perceptual tendencies and forms. The form of emotivist subjectivity itself informs a practice of moral reasoning that also forges these forms of perception, which in turn nurtures the liberal-individual form of subjectivity that conceives the world according to real-abstract capitalist concepts. Thus, through a joint Bildung, the modern individual would acquire a second nature in which their instinctive mode of relating to the world becomes a dual emotivist-liberal one. Other modes of worldly engagement are by no means ruled out but rather marginalised. The combined ‘direction of flow’ of these two modes of engagement would, as it were, cut channels into the subjective landscape that create a path of least resistance that privileges and naturalises certain values and behaviours. Moral traditions with some sort of hard moral kernel would then come to seem alien–their critical norms as unwelcome impositions on the ‘obvious’ order of things.

5 thoughts on “Emotivism and Capitalism Revisited: Discourse on Method

  1. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » A Few Shared Subjects and Objects

  2. Beautiful post. Once again, I’ll query a very small element:

    One potential caveat is the possible implication that there is a uni-directional relation of influence: that it is merely capitalism that creates a suitable context for an emotivist subjectivity. Rather (assuming MacIntyre’s thesis holds, etc.) the two forms of subjectivity–liberal-individualism and emotivism–would seem to be interpenetrative, or at least mutually reinforcing.

    I find it maddeningly difficult to talk about such things, but I wanted to ask if there is a small juxtaposition here, of two things that might in principle be distinct? Where I thought you were going when I read the beginning of this sentence, was to address a potential vestige of subject-object dualism in the analysis – this seemed to be what was implied, when you expressed concern that it might be easy to fall into an argument that capitalism was some kind of “context”, which then would be perceived as “causing”, or “inculcating”, or similar, some particular form of subjectivity. You rightly express concern that this might land us back on the terrain of a kind of subject-object dualism.

    Where you go next, though, doesn’t seem to strike this particular target at its centre, although I think it’s likely correct and valuable in its own right: you suggest that liberal individualism and emotivism may form interpenetrating or mutually reinforcing forms of subjectivity. I want to be very careful here to stipulate that I’m not at all trying to criticise this move – to which I’m very sympathetic – but I wanted to ask if the move might have also distracted a bit from the equally interesting question implied in the first sentence quoted?

    There are a few conceptual “risks” to navigate here, in relation to the goal of talking about these issues in a non-dualistic way. One involves a tacit asymmetry in the treatment of liberalist forms of subjectivity (which are treated as in some ways “intrinsic” to capitalist practice) and “emotivist” forms of subjectivity (which seem to be treated -and please do correct me if I’ve misunderstood – as consonant with capitalist forms of practice, but not as integrally so as liberalist ones?). So, in a sense, one of these forms of subjectivity might seem more closely related to the form of “objectivity” you thematise than the other? I’m curious whether it might be possible to resolve the issue by refocussing on the term you use in the following paragraph – and which I like a great deal – “perceptual tendencies”: practices – including the practices associated with capitalism – include practices of perception and thought. It may be, though, that such practices of perception and thought are most adequately conceptualised as something quite abstract – as “perceptual tendencies” than could then potentially be articulated concretely in divergent forms (as, in fact, the sorts of structural tendencies that characterise capitalism can also be articulated into different concrete practices). This would mean that it might be possible to view both liberalist and emotivist forms of subjectivity as equally expressive of similar “percptual tendencies” – and also to analyse the ways in which they interpenetrate and reinforce one another, as you suggest above – without needing to treat the two forms of subjectivity asymmetrically.

    There are other routes around the same issue – to muddy the vision of context, for example, by thematising tensions within that context, or positing capitalist practices as lying alongside other sorts of practices within some overarching concept of context, or similar. I was just trying to explore the option that seemed most consonant with the concepts laid out in your post – particularly because I quite like much of the vocabulary and conceptual structure you outline – particularly in your final paragraph – and, since I also find it extremely difficult to work out a vocabulary for discussing these sorts of issues, and struggle to talk in a consistent way about them, and very interested in seeing how you develop this line of thought.

    If I can be particularly wicked with a final question: your own subjectivity remains unthematised here – in your conclusion, you ground the potential for resistence to hard normative claims – but not for such claims themselves. Would you be willing to share a bit of your thinking on this issue? Or would this distract too much from the line of argument you’re trying to develop at the moment?

  3. Please never worry about responding – I’m a bit conscious of bumbling in and cluttering your comments, when you were trying to develop a line of thought, and may have wanted to do that in peace for a bit. Respond only if and when it’s productive – I’m sure that, as your project unfolds, you’d eventually get around to anything I might ask in an organic way…

  4. hello,
    I feel a bit like I’m barging in uninvited, sorry if so. I’ve just stumbled onto your blog and this and the last posts (all I’ve read) are really great. I may be a bit off topic here, but I have three things I want to say on MacIntyre and emotivism.
    First – It’s been a while since I’ve read After Virtue, but I remember not finding his criticism of emotivism very compelling. In a nutshell, it seems to me that the attack on emotivism in moral or political/materialist (it serves some interests) doesn’t actually tell us whether or not emotivism is true. The need for humans to eat food and to have some kind of recreation serves capitalists’ class interest (providing needs for which commodities can be produced, as well as an incentive to work in order to get wages with which to buy things that meet those needs). But that doesn’t mean that these needs or theories that describe humans as having such needs are false. I think the same could go for at least some version of emotivism.
    Second – I don’t think emotivism necessarily cuts the legs out from under critiques of or organized attempts to abolish capitalism. Emotivism only cuts the legs out from under such projects that have as their necessary condition something which is incompatible with emotivism. Workers might be motivated to end capitalism out of (chains of reasoning which ultimately rest upon) things like, say, the emotions of affection for their children and their co-workers, or outrage at the bloody history of and present actions of the employing class and their lackey.
    Third – Like I said, it’s been a while since I read MacIntyre so perhaps he would disagree but I don’t think emotivism means that moral doctrines or moral utterances have to be abandoned. Rather, under emotivist lights they become reconfigured in our understanding as chains of reasoning or vocabularies that rest on or express emotions rather than something else. Insofar as they adequately express the emotions of the people using those doctrines I don’t see that one emotivist would have grounds for telling another to reject some moral vocabulary as a way of expressing themselves – no grounds in terms of emotivism I mean, there might be other grounds like economy of speech or something.
    Anyhow, great blog.
    take care,

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