When Eva Illouz says passion depends upon scarcity, she does so with the best of intentions. Recently named one of the most important thinkers of the future by German newspaper Die Zeit, Illouz could very well be the twenty-first century’s next great public intellectual. And how did she become internationally popular? Instinct. In trying to get at what most irks her, she’s analyzed everything from love’s leap into leisure, to Freud’s popularity in the American workplace, to psychobabble as a new lingua franca. Historian? Philosopher? For lack of a better term, Illouz is a cultural theorist. Unlike other theorists, however, her ideas are more than just complex complaining; they are surprising and poignant, perhaps because all of her investigations come from the heart. Things get to her, or as she told me, they “trouble” her.
Take for example her reversal of the most basic Marxist precept. Any sixteen-year-old with a Che t-shirt will tell you: capitalism makes us robots. And yet, it doesn’t, Illouz thought. In fact, it does just the opposite. Our hypermodern lives are hyperemotional. It was then that Illouz began to trace back our obsession with feeling, which, according to her, began in the workplace, where surprisingly, Freud was used to better workers’ effectiveness. Soon, the early psychologist’s ideas spread to the private sections of our daily life, to the extent that now we can’t describe our lives without psychotherapy, as Illouz points out in her most recent book, Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help. To explain our actions we have to hearken back to childhood memories and recognize emotional needs. She sees Howard Gardner’s concept of “emotional intelligence” as an extension of this psychological trend. What for Gardner is an aptitude for person-to-person response, Illouz sees the new calculating currency of advanced “emotional capitalism.”