Emotional Labour and the Heart

‘Emotional labour’ is a term used by academics to describe a kind of work in which employees have to induce feelings they don’t have and/or suppress feelings they actually have, the purpose of which is to create a certain emotional state in others, usually customers.

There’s much more to it than that of course, but it’s explained at length in one of the course units and here I’m mindful of public readers of this blog. For the moment, I think this will suffice for them as an introduction.

‘Emotional labour’ is forever associated with the book which brought it to public attention, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1983), by Arlie Russell Hochschild. The book was based on her empirical study of the work of flight attendants and debt collectors.

I will be examining some specific forms of emotional labour in coming posts.

Here I want to briefly consider how this contrast between head and heart, reason and emotion, came to be.

The heart once had much wider connotations. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the heart was once regarded as ‘the seat of feeling, understanding and thought’. Here lay volition, courage, one’s very soul. Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199) was not so-called because he was a sensitive person.

a1616   Shakespeare Coriolanus (1623) iii. i. 257   His Heart’s his Mouth; What his Brest forges, that his Tongue must vent.

The brain, at that point, had yet to be ‘invented’.

The heart as the ‘seat of feeling, understanding and thought’ was undermined by the progressive medicalization of the body, beginning with William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood and the heart as a pump (circa 1628).

The heart that is associated solely with feeling was invented around the time of the French Revolution and the ‘cult of sentiment’ or ‘sensibility’. (On this see Michael Bell’s Sentimentalism, Ethics and the Culture of Feeling (2000)). Reigning ideas about emotions were transformed during the Revolution.

The heart that emerged was a feminized feeling heart, not a courageous, thinking heart; no longer the seat of ‘feeling, understanding and thought’, just feeling. Understanding and thought were now located in the head and these became regarded as male attributes.

This is the ‘Enlightenment’, so-called because reason illuminated what was in the shadows of custom, superstition and religion. Perhaps so, but reason casts a few shadows of its own.

That Richard the Lionheart’s mummified heart was subject to forensic examination by scientists tells us how far the heart has fallen and the brain has risen.

The remains of King Richard the Lionheart's heart and the lead box in which it was kept.

The remains of King Richard the Lionheart’s heart and the lead box in which it was kept.

Featured image: Richard the Lionheart’s stronghold in France, Chateau Gaillard

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