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Anxiety Culture: Empire of Emotion

How emotions control us...

Consumer society sells "emotion" like any other commodity. Most lifestyle products are advertised for emotional gain feelings of confidence, control, success, etc. The marketed emotions must be socially appropriate every social circumstance has the "right" accompanying emotion, like every household task has the right appliance.

Having the "wrong" emotion lands you in trouble. Advertisements thus perform an educational function, rescuing humanity from all kinds of embarrassing, antisocial behaviours brought on by inappropriate emotional responses. Having the right product elicits (by conditioned associations) the correct emotion at the right time/place.

Negative emotions have a "right" place too. For example, certain crimes are supposed to emotionally "sicken" us. To be "sickened" is the right response, unless the crime is committed by the state for National Security purposes, in which case it's the wrong response. Emotional correctness in these matters is particularly important for public figures, who, by expressing appropriate emotions, set such a valuable example for the rest of us.

The emotional clichés of political speech require no comment, except to say that the sentimental emotions surrounding "family" and "country" achieve the fullest, purest expression within the most violent branches of Mafia. (If you don't know what we mean, watch the Godfather films or The Sopranos, etc).

Given the above hinted-at emotional control mechanisms, is there an argument for not playing the emotions game? Yes... but we're not the right people to promote it because it would invite accusations of "cold", "repressed", "cynical", "emotionally uptight", "unfeeling", "aloof", etc. Instead, we'll present the argument of someone unlikely to be accused of such things. The following (in italics) is taken from Timothy Leary's The Politics of Ecstasy:

Emotions are the lowest form of consciousness. Emotional actions are the most contracted, narrowing, dangerous form of behavior.

The romantic poetry and fiction of the last 200 years has quite blinded us to the fact that emotions are an active and harmful form of stupor.

Any peasant can tell you that. Beware of emotions. Any child can tell you that. Watch out for the emotional person. He is a lurching lunatic.

Emotions are caused by biochemical secretions in the body to serve during the state of acute emergency. An emotional person is a blind, crazed maniac. Emotions are addictive and narcotic and stupefacient.

Do not trust anyone who comes on emotional.

What are the emotions? In a book entitled Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality, written when I was a psychologist, I presented classifications of emotions and detailed descriptions of their moderate and extreme manifestations. Emotions are all based on fear. [...]

The emotional person cannot think; he cannot perform any effective game action (except in acts of physical aggression and strength). The emotional person is turned off sensually. His body is a churning robot. [...]

The only state in which we can learn, harmonize, grow, merge, join, understand is the absence of emotion. This is called bliss or ecstasy, attained through centering the emotions. [...]

Conscious love is not an emotion; it is serene merging with yourself, with other people, with other forms of energy. Love cannot exist in an emotional state. [...]

The great kick of the mystic experience, the exultant, ecstatic hit, is the sudden relief from emotional pressure.

Did you imagine that there could be emotions in heaven? Emotions are closely tied to ego games. Check your emotions at the door to paradise.

Why, then, are emotions built into the human repertoire if they are so painful, demanding and blinding? There is a basic survival purpose. Emotions are the emergency alarms. The organism at the point of death terror goes into a paroxysm of frantic activity. Like a fish flipping blindly out of water. Like a crazy, cornered animal.

There are times when emotions are appropriate and relevant. The reflex biochemical spurt. Fight or flight. There are times when emotional bluffs, like the hair rising on a dog's neck, are appropriate. But the sensible animal avoids situations which elicit fear and the accompanying emotion. Your wise animal prefers to relax or to play [...]

The way to turn off the emotions is to turn on the senses, turn on to your body... (p37-40)

This article is intended to provoke thought – it contains no certainties or final answers

Another approach to emotions is offered by some "self-help" techniques, such as The Sedona Method, which equates "freedom" with the ability to let go of emotions. This method rejects the two "normal" ways of dealing with emotion: expression and suppression. Whether we express or suppress an emotion is generally determined by our perception of the appropriateness of that emotion in a given social setting. Advertising, media, education and upbringing shape this consensus perception of "appropriate". The Sedona Method escapes this control system by providing an alternative strategy, "letting go", for which it provides several practical gimmicks.

Other self-help methods do a similar thing (eg some NLP manuals list a "letting go" strategy which sounds similar to the Sedona Method).

The Empire of Emotion affects us physically. Many therapies thus operate physically on breathing, muscular tension, etc. The goal is usually "relief from emotional pressure" (to use Leary's words), but they generally don't promote themselves as freeing us from emotion...

... Because even the enlightened have a residual suspicion that freeing us from emotions is somehow "unnatural" or "wrong". This is probably because they still view emotion within a false dichotomy of expression vs suppression so any emotionless state is seen as suppression (or "repression") and therefore "unhealthy". Only by rejecting this dichotomy can we perceive relative freedom from emotions as "good".

Another piece of conventional wisdom worth rejecting: that we need to be emotional in order to "feel" or "be sensitive to" nature, art, people, eroticism, relationships, etc which is a falsehood on the same level as: that we need to be chronically distracted by trivia in order to feel pleasure (see The Distraction System: http://www.anxietyculture.com/dustract.htm).

Although beyond the scope of this article, it's worth pondering why pioneering psychologist Wilhelm Reich used the term "emotional plague" to describe certain authoritarian, fascistic tendencies in "normal", "respectable" societies.

Emotion = Lack ?

Making people feel anxiously lacking forms a big part of marketing. And one of the defining characteristics of emotion is an urgent sense of lack – a lack of peace; a tension/agitation; a sense of needing something.

This is obvious with some emotions – eg grief, anger (lack of sense of fairness or control), fear (lack of sense of security), etc.

It's less obvious with "good" emotions, such as prideuntil we notice that people cling to such emotions.

A perception of lack obviously accompanies feelings of emptiness and apathy. People who feel this way mistakenly think they lack emotion, but they are experiencing a specific emotional state, not a lack of emotion.

There are two opposing viewpoints about the path to contentment. One sees contentment as something that is originally lacking – something to be strived after and accumulated (with the help of consumer purchasing and/or emotions, etc).

The other sees contentment as something which is originally present, but which gets covered up by worries, cares, emotional baggage, social-status striving, etc.

(These two viewpoints can be seen as forming another false dichotomy. They are also isomorphic to religious orthodoxy/heresy: you either need to get "God" from the priests, or "God" is already inherent within).

The viewpoint which sees contentment as inherently present can be seen as an "empowering" alternative to the emotionally-striving, lacking-accumulating consumer mentality.

But it's not so empowering when used as a socio-economic argument: "Since we already have contentment without external props, why does society need to provide things like welfare? Surely harsh/simple living helps to uncover our inner contentment".

The emotional control system of supposed psychological "lack" (which seems to affect rich and poor alike) shouldn't be confused with external instances of lack (eg lacking money to pay rent) which trigger panic emotions. If you see an old lady being mugged, you don't tell her to let go of her "sense of lack of security" – you chase away the mugger, or call the cops.

The moral: Don't use your brain like a blunt object. Watch out for neurochemical events (eg emotions) which tend to rigidify your brain.

The Politics of Ecstasy (Timothy Leary, Ronin 1990 edition)
The Sedona Method (Hale Dwoskin, Sedona Press, 2003)
The Mass Psychology of Fascism (Wilhelm Reich)

This document is a print version of www.anxietyculture.com/emotion.htm.