Thursday 2 August 2018

Reflections on 'Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character' – Pt. 2

by Akane Kanai

This blog series is adapted from talks given at the launch of the SRO special section 'Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character', 2nd July 2018, Goldsmiths College. The articles in this special section (published June 2018, Vol. 23 Iss. 2) query how character and resilience have been operationalised as both the cause and solution to social problems as diverse as educational underachievement, poverty, unemployment, the gender pay gap, and social unrest. The authors highlight fractures, tensions and slippages in how character is conceptualised, interpreted and mobilised. In illuminating these, the special section contributes not only to endeavours to resist dominant formulations of character and resilience, but to a wider project of re-appropriating these. 

When I was invited to respond to the recent special section ‘Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character’, I was very much struck by several key themes that the contributors bring so clearly to the fore in problematising the ‘turn to character’. To provide some context to my response, my work focuses on the connections between gender, affect, and digital media. A key concern of mine, which I think is shared with the authors in this special section, has been to think through the narrow, and highly interventionist ways we are asked to constantly adjust, modulate and makeover our subjectivity in line with neoliberal and post-Fordist goals. I want to outline three of the key insights the special section presented for me, and detail the way it connects to concerns across scholarship that I have been drawing on. At the end I’ll make some brief comments as to how this issue has raised further questions for me in a current project exploring contemporary feminism, subjectivity and digital culture. 

First, the emphasis on the masculinisation of soft or emotional skills, particularly noted by Erica Burman, and the continuing expropriation of women’s work. In following sociological interventions such as that of Lois McNay (1999) and Lisa Adkins (2003), we see continuing inequalities in which the ‘feminisation of work’ or rather the entry of middle class women into paid work, relies on the affective labour that women carry out while simultaneously de-gendering and devalorising that labour. In studies of digital culture I am particularly concerned with the way in which concepts such as immaterial labour and affect are used in ways that are completely divorced from analyses of gender and women’s work of social reproduction. It is vital to foreground this gendered dynamic, as this special section does so well. Moreover, I see applications of this kind of analysis in the valorisation of ‘resilience’, ‘vigour’, ‘grit’ and ‘non-fluffy’ feelings in the ways in which emotion in digital cultures is also valorised along gendered lines. For example, we might think of the ways in which feminist and antiracist campaigners are vilified as ‘snowflakes’, too emotional, too ‘soft’ compared to ‘trolls’ whose humour you just have to be ‘tough enough’ to withstand. 

Second, the articulation of the turn to the standardisation and measurement of emotion and corresponding character traits. The special section highlights a calculated sameness that aims to erase the existence of structural inequalities, particularly in the entrepreneurial subjectivities that are cultivated as Kirsty Morrin points out. To me, outside of formal educational contexts and policy spaces, this raises the question of what kinds of relationality and sociality such governmental grids produce. I have learned from scholars like Arlie Hochshild (1983), Sara Ahmed (2004) and Carolyn Pedwell (2014), amongst others, that affect and emotion must be understood as a relational phenomena that locates us in relations of inequality and dominance. As such, in seeing such patterns in the production of character extended in neoliberal culture in general, I am preoccupied by the standardisation of affective communication seen in varying mediated settings as well. These include the social platforms that extract value from users’ struggles to format themselves into shareable, likeable form, as well as the simplification and decontextualisation of affects such as aspiration, determination and hope. For example, one disturbing trend that Ros Gill and I have recently been thinking about is the way in which discourses of diversity in brand culture condense multiple differences of race, gender, disability into a single discrete obstacle that must be overcome by the individual through sheer ‘grit’. 

Third, and perhaps the most evident contribution of the special section is the focus on character itself. While I’ve been working in the area of gender, affect and digital media for a little bit of time now, the naming of the turn to character was a powerful articulation of the need to critically interrogate the production and intensification of certain moral subjectivities. As Kim Allen and Anna Bull state in their paper, across many contexts of austerity in post-industrial economies, we see concerted efforts to attach a socially conservative heart to neoliberal market principles. This was one of the most significant insights for me in creating conceptual links around the emotional landscape of the production of human capital in a context of social, political and economic crisis. And, in this special section and particularly in Nick Taylor’s piece, I observed resonances with the work of Stuart Hall (1988) in documenting the twinned discourses of Thatcherism and authoritarian populism some time ago, identifying the links between so-called Victorian values, crisis, economic transformation and abject and demonised subjectivities. The special section makes clear that in times of austerity, minoritised individuals are increasingly asked to lean in, bend, adapt to a society that gives little. In doing so it provides connections to the historical, nationalistic and imperialist histories that such a turn to character reinvokes, condensing, in Hall’s terms, the political and the moral in particular ways.

I want to conclude with some brief comments on some further connections with my current project that explores how self-identifying feminists are using digital spaces to learn about and participate in feminism. I think that this ‘turn to character’ is something of which we need to be cognisant, not simply in formally neoliberal state-based settings, or corporate culture, but also in the everyday mediated and even social justice settings in which we work. Here I’m also drawing on Ros Gill and Shani Orgad’s observation of mediated spaces as key to the proliferation of character discourses. In this project, feminist participants discussed their everyday social media use in explicitly pedagogical ways- that is, as spaces where a feminist curriculum could be learned outside of the classroom. But this learning dovetailed with significant work on the self. My feminist informants expressed a clear commitment to social justice causes. But it was equally evident that for many of my informants, perhaps because it felt too daunting to address larger structures, often the main ways in which feminist practice felt achievable and practicable was through ‘character work’. That is, by continual labour on the self, one’s disposition, and relations with immediate others. In the digital social spaces in which my informants participated, there was a sense that one’s individual feminism needed to be continually refined and improved as a personalised character trait. This dovetailed with the way in which feminism was at times conflated with moral notions of virtue and goodness; evidently, these are idealised traits historically associated with white middle class femininity.  

I hope I’ve been able to give a very brief account of some of the extremely insightful and useful connections this scholarship has allowed me to make in connecting the emotional and the moral with questions of gender, labour and digital culture. I want to thank the authors and especially the editors, Anna and Kim, for the opportunity to engage with this special section. 

About the author:  Akane Kanai is a Lecturer in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University. Her research on youthful femininities and digital intimate publics has been published in outlets including Feminist Media Studies, the Journal of Gender Studies, the European Journal of Cultural Studies, and Social Media and Society. Her first book, Gender and Relatability in Digital Culture: Managing Affect, Intimacy and Value is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.

Adkins, L. (2003) ‘Reflexivity: Freedom or Habit of Gender? Theory, Culture & Society 20(6): 21–42.
Hochschild, A. (1983). The Managed Heart: The Commercialisation of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Hall, S. (1988). The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the crisis of the Left. London: Verso.
McNay, L. (1999) ‘Gender, Habitus and the Field: Pierre Bourdieu and the Limits of Reflexivity’, Theory, Culture & Society 16(1): 95–117.
Pedwell, C. (2014). Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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