Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999

Postemotional Society

Stjepan G. Mestrovic
Sage Publications: London
0761951296 (pb)
12.95 (pb)
170 pp.

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We currently live in an age of crocodile tears and manufactured emotion. This is a society of synthetic feeling where we have all become progressively indifferent to the suffering of others. How else, charges Mestrovic, are we to understand the West's indifference to the practice of genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia ? The globalisation of the media and communications and the commodification of mass suffering means that we can no longer claim that we did not know. Civilisation in the Western world has come to mean the ability to exhibit refined manners while exhibiting a cool indifference to televised murder. The postemotional society values 'being nice' over the collective ability to be able to act on our emotions and to intervene to help others. Hence the capacity to be able to feel real deep emotions in an age which endlessly simulates sentiment through news bulletins, talk shows and soap operas is being progressively undermined. The display of feeling is short lived, useless, aesthetic and luxurious and rarely becomes connected to a sense of justice and a genuine concern for humanity.

Despite Mestrovic's overriding concern with the war in the Balkan's, the best illustration of his argument comes from an intriguing discussion of death. Unlike many traditional societies (and it is part of Mestrovic's thesis that society is becoming progressively worse) our collective rituals in respect of human mortality have become emptied of anything other than the most superficial sentiments. Death has become MacDonaldised with the modern funeral emphasising speed and efficiency. The emotional out-pourings that are needed to collectively reaffirm society of its common bonds have been replaced by the media spectacle of death and the standardisation of feeling. The postemotional society then is one of mass manipulation, fragmentation and cynicism.

Mestrovic gives a diversity of examples to support the thesis of postemotionalism. They range from the decline of dating, fast divorces, the disappearance of the Parisian cafe and the fact that lecturers no longer flirt with their students. What all these examples point towards is a society where emotions are progressively socially regulated. Postemotionalism disallows the possibility of emotions becoming chaotic and are increasingly subject to 'politically correct' forms of regulation. This cleaned up universe then leaves as little room for flirting as it does for our desire to intervene in humanitarian disasters.

This is undoubtedly a richly provocative book. Mestrovic asks some disturbing questions (particularly in respect of the West's moral indifference in respect of the Balkans) and his book sits well with other contemporary theories from Foucault to Ritzer and from Adorno to Baudrillard who have sought to warn us about some of the de-humanising effects of instrumental reason. However, this work is less than convincing in many of the conclusions that it seeks to draw, and offers a picture of modern societies that I take to be irredeemably flawed. Here I shall confine myself to only three objections (although there are others). The first is that the book seems to advocate a certain masculine logic when it comes to analysing the emotions. Emotions that do not directly lead to immediate forms of action are labelled as useless. This is not only a very instrumental view, but also takes as its touchstone an idealised masculine subject who has banished uncertainty and is able to confidently act in the world. The values of introspection, ambivalence and doubt are quickly dismissed as a form of cruelty that is indifferent to the needs of others. Secondly, we might also question the rampant moral pessimism of this book. The end of the cold war, collapse of communism, the rise of new social movements and the development of new and more global media are all potentially more 'progressive' phenomenon than Mestrovic thinks. He might equally have argued that emotions are becoming democratised and that ideas of respectful recognition are pushing a more concerted agenda within Western societies. Such a view might have lead Mestrovic to have offered a more complex analysis of modern society. Finally, while many of the examples are thought provoking, I did not come across a single one where it might not have been interpreted in a different way. This raises the question as to what is to count as evidence in such a sweeping account? How, without more 'empirical' support, can Mestrovic be so certain of the range of emotional reactions that ordinary people had to questions like Bosnia? The fact that Mestrovic rarely considers counter examples, questions of cultural variability, or arguments that might challenge his view, means that his book often reads as an enraged polemic. This only adds to the impression that the book's central arguments are not only over stated, but severely limited.

Nick Stevenson
University of Sheffield

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999