The Tyranny of Happiness

Renowned sociologist Eva Illouz studies the effects of consumer culture on people's lives.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

"I don't remember exactly what the city looked like," Prof. Eva Illouz explains when asked to describe her first home. "From living in Fez, Morocco, until age 10, I mostly remember the old quarter, the mellah, where the streets were dark and narrow, and full of life. But it's hard for me to know if these are genuine memories or if they come from postcards and movies. I attended a small private French school, where most of the students had French parents. I recall a very happy childhood," she adds, a shy smile on her face.

"We lived among Muslims and French, whose cultural presence - although they didn't officially rule anymore - was still very strongly felt," she recalls. "On the one hand, the Jews were similar to the Muslims in manners, in rituals and in placing such a high value on hospitality, but at the same time, they also identified with France. The French were able to present themselves like the rest of the West, as the universal nation that espoused liberty. As a young girl, I felt that in France, Jews could be assimilated as equal citizens. I was very attracted to, and am still very attracted to, the dream of universality."

Paradoxically, Illouz - who last month was honored by the prestigious German newspaper Die Zeit as being one of a dozen people who are expected to influence and shape the world's thinking in the future - still has difficulty putting her own past into words.

"My biography is one of a person who is really always somewhere else," she says somewhat dreamily, in a soft French accent. "When I was in Morocco, I was in France, and when I was in France, I was in Israel. When I was in the United States, I was in France, and now that I'm Israel I don't know where I am."

Six months ago, when she got the news from Die Zeit, she was also far from her home in Jerusalem, immersed in a different cultural world, albeit a familiar and well-loved one.

"When they informed me that I was included on their list, I was living in the Grunewald section of Berlin, in an apartment provided to me by a research institute that had given me six months to sit and write," she explains. "It came as a total surprise - I don't know why the paper's editors thought I deserved to be included on their distinguished list. When they sent a reporter from Hamburg to interview me, I was embarrassed and asked her if she was sure they didn't make a mistake when they selected me."

Dressed in black, the professor speaks slowly, and it's evident that much more is going on below the surface. Illouz, a member of the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a sociologist with an international reputation. During her 20-year career, she has published unique studies in which she examined the effects of capitalism, consumer culture and the mass media upon human emotions. Despite all this, she seems a bit taken aback by the honor that has been bestowed on her.

Romance of the market

After the publication of her first book, "Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), Illouz attracted attention as an intriguing and promising researcher. In the book, a Hebrew edition of which was published in 2002 by Zmora-Bitan and the University of Haifa, Illouz introduced the subject that has remained at the core of her academic work: the connection between the development of the capitalist world and the development of people's emotional world. In this book, the author questioned the popular notion that capitalism has given rise to an emotion-free world ruled by rationalism. She argued that not only does capitalism not act to suppress feelings, it fosters a new culture of emotions in the workplace, the family and in our relationship with ourselves.

Why is it important to understand these processes?

In her most recent book, "Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism" (Oxford: Polity Press, 2006), Illouz sought to rebut the Marxist argument that as the capitalist market takes over the world, human alienation increases. She tried to show that "economic relations have become very emotional, while close and intimate relations have become defined to a growing extent by economic models of bargaining, exchange and fairness."

She defined this process, in which economic relations and emotional relations define one another, "emotional capitalism." Technology, too, has a role in the creation of romantic feelings, she adds. The technology of the Internet, for instance, has given rise to dating sites, making the singles' market much more accessible. The Internet offers very advanced selection techniques, including the possibility of comparing and ranking different candidates. "This is an example of what I call 'emotional capitalism,' in which, on the one hand, you have businesspeople getting into the area of feelings," Illouz says, "while on the other hand, we are relating to our feelings in terms of profit and loss."

Illouz, who has three sons and is married to Elhanan Ben-Porat, an economics professor at the Hebrew University, was born in Morocco in 1961, moved to France at age 10, earned her doctorate in the mid-1980s at the prestigious Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and immigrated to Israel in 1991.

"The meaning of economic affluence in Morocco was much more significant than it was in Europe at that time," she says, returning to the early part of her biography, sipping delicately from a mug a coffee. "Because of the blatant exploitation of the labor force there, it was very easy for the middle class to employ people, which is why my parents had four or five staff to help around the house. And why my father, a jeweler, and my mother, a housewife, could raise us - we were five children - in great comfort."

But life wasn't all a bed of roses, she adds: "My mother, like many Moroccan Jews, was expelled from school during World War II. Her rightful education was stolen from her. Because of this, it was very important to her for her children to dedicate themselves to their studies. This was the reason why, even though she and my father were ardent Zionists, they decided not to move to Israel. My mother figured that the level of education in France was much higher, and preferred to move there."

'One stranger among many'

In the beginning, Illouz recalls, her parents chose to live in a suburb of Paris "with a high concentration of Jews." Nonetheless, the move to France brought her into contact with a wide variety of cultures. "I remember having kids in my class from Portugal, Spain and Africa, and this was a big surprise for me. It was a nice surprise, actually, because I didn't feel like a stranger. I was just one stranger among many. It surprised me, as a 10-year-old girl, to find out just how heterogeneous France was.

"Dealing with moving to a new country was good, because it made me reinvent myself. The main thing I felt was that if I wanted to belong to the French collective, I needed to speak the language well and gain a mastery of French culture. In America, you integrate socially via the market, but in France it happens via the culture, via the school that makes you a member of society. I was fortunate that even in a fairly rundown suburb like the one we lived in, the level of education was still quite high. There was strong faith then in education, in the schools and in the government's duty to provide education in an egalitarian fashion. The mythology was meritocratic - in other words, if you had talent and knowledge, you could do anything."

Illouz's high-school teachers opened the young daughter of immigrants up to a boundless world of ideas and dreams. Just a few years after emigrating from Morocco, she was engrossed in Greek texts and Plato, which excited her tremendously.

"I had fantastic teachers, and without them I wouldn't have done anything," she notes. "Not only did they know their profession very well, but they did their work out of a sense of mission and vocation. What I learned from them in the deepest sense was the love of knowledge, of knowledge for its own sake and not for any ulterior purpose. One of my teachers in high school was Catherine Colliot-Thelene, a very well-known philosopher in France today, an expert on Hegel and Weber. In one year, she reviewed the whole history of philosophy with us. For a long time, I had the feeling that everything I knew was thanks to her."

Illouz, who is currently on the international editorial staff of the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, and is a member of the American Sociological Association's book selection committee, began her academic career with a major in literature, combined with minors in communications and sociology. Then she decided to come to Israel to pursue a master's degree in communications at the Hebrew University.

It wasn't her first visit here. For years, she had been spending summers here with her aunt in Herzliya. "I remember that she always had a pile of 'photo-novels' - stories with pictures, a genre that was very popular at the time, which you don't see anymore. As a teenager, I loved reading them, because I came from Plato and Rousseau and this sentimental 'trash' fascinated me. That's where I got my desire to study and understand it, and so I was excited to get to study communications. As a young girl, I was keen to absorb France's highbrow culture, and then [the degree in] communications gave the opportunity to research the pleasure I and others get from popular culture."

What do you remember from those vacations you spent in Herzliya?

"The experience of coming here in the summer was very powerful. There was a strong feeling of belonging and of liberation, on the most basic level, almost on the physical level. As someone who grew up in a very formal milieu, being in Israel, where you could go out to the street in your pajamas or a robe seemed both bizarre and charming to me. To see people sitting on the sidewalk cracking sunflower seeds, or hearing televisions blaring and no one complaining about it or feeling like it was an invasion of his privacy - I was enchanted by this kind of laxity and disorder."

She earned her Ph.D. in the United States and then returned to Israel at age 29 - "mostly in order to quiet my Zionist conscience," she says. "The Tel Aviv University sociology department offered me a job right away. Prof. Yonatan Shapira welcomed me and I worked there for eight years. These were very fruitful years, during which all my research evolved. All of the ideas for all of my books were born there, in Tel Aviv."

So why did you leave?

"I left after the faculty committee rejected the professional committee's recommendation that I be given tenure. Sociology, unlike mathematics, is a profession in which there are a lot of arguments. In other disciplines, the tools are much clearer and so the evaluation of scientific work is much simpler. In sociology, it's more a matter of personal taste. At Tel Aviv University, there was a group of people that didn't recognize the legitimacy of my type of work. Of course, I was hurt, but it also spurred me to work harder."

So, in this sense, does the recognition from Die Zeit feel like sweet revenge?

"I don't want to fight with anyone, but it is gratifying to see that my ideas are being accepted and are making their way in the world."

Spotlight on Oprah

"It started from a guilty pleasure," she confesses. "It all began one day when I was watching Winfrey's program, when I was in Chicago. That was before I'd ever heard much about her. Just like I used to enjoy reading those cheap sentimental novels, I really enjoyed the rawness of the emotions expressed by the guests on the show, and by Winfrey's ability to create empathy and compassion around all kinds of bizarre stories - like the story of a couple where the husband changed his gender and became a woman, but continues to live with his heterosexual wife and raise their children together. The fascinating thing about the program was the way in which Winfrey was able to present a carnival of life possibilities that exist in advanced societies nowadays, without passing any moral judgment.

You assert in your book that she is good at "staging misery." Isn't that going a little far?

And what's the problem with that?

This and other of your studies deal with American and European culture. Why do you ignore Israeli culture?

Is there a chance this will change?

"Actually, now seems to be a very apt time to move to the Israeli field, and this is what I've begun to do with the help of a research stipend from the Van Leer Institute. [Our team is] trying to think about the organization of Israeli identity around a number of key feelings, such as mourning or pride."

And what about Mizrahim?

"There are a lot of injustices in the world and there's no question the Mizrahim have suffered from a very great injustice that was done to them. But we all, openly or otherwise, choose the injustices that pain us the most, and to me it seems that, overall, Israeli Arabs have suffered and continue to suffer from greater injustices."

What motivates you, personally, to focus on manifestations of misery?

"That's an interesting question: Am I supposed to strip here?" Illouz says, laughing. "It comes from two different and apparently contradictory things. I don't think that I have an ideological stance against misery, like what you might find with psychologists. As a teenager, I loved telling myself that line from Nietzsche: 'What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.' I don't share that desire of modern culture to do away with misery at all costs. In that way, I guess I'm more in tune with 19th-century thought, which viewed misery as an inevitable dimension of existence - something that could not be escaped or recycled into something else. I don't think that existence without misery is possible. I have an aversion to the tyranny of happiness in our culture. When I say tyranny, I'm talking about the call, the duty, the cultural imperative to be happy. Anyone who doesn't feel happy feels like a failure. Something in me objects to the sense of failure that people develop if they're not happy."

Has there been misery in your life?

"One source of misery was the need to adapt to this place, to Israel. It's strange, but in all of my immigration experiences, from Morocco to France, to the United States, I didn't feel like an immigrant. There I was in a comfortable place of foreigners who are both inside and outside. I was very good at being a foreigner; I enjoyed the position very much. Here, that's just not possible. It seems to me that here the forces pulling you to belong are so strong that there's no room for the kind of foreignness I'm talking about. "Dante's limbos are for people who have committed no sin, but who still cannot enter paradise because they are not Christians. I am in such a limbo, unable both to belong and to be a real stranger." W

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