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The Value of Relationships: Affective Scenes and Emotional Performances

Abstract

Many theorists have charted for some time how capital extends its lines of flight into new spaces, creating new markets by harnessing affect and intervening in intimate, emotional and domestic relationships, and into bio-politics more generally. Feminists have known for a long time that women’s ‘domestic’ labour has been central to the reproduction of capital but that it has been made invisible, surplus and naturalised and is rarely taken into account in theories of value. Yet we are now in a bizarre historical moment wherein a format has emerged (reality television) in a major capitalist industry (the media) that is premised upon spectacularly visualising women’s labour in all its forms, especially through its focus on relationships, dispositions and emotional performance. Drawing on an ESRC research project, ‘Making Class and the Self through Mediated Ethical Scenarios’, this paper demonstrates how very different spheres of exchange—economy and affect—have come together, offering possibilities for fusing calculation and care. This process bears remarkable similarity to the legal adjudication of property and propriety in intimate relationships. Yet the paper shows how, as attempts are made to commodify affect, it is precisely affect that exposes and disrupts exchange and enables reality television as a technology of affect to visualise the different types of person-value that are constituted through class and gender relations.

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Notes

  1. For our research project we counted over 92 reality television programmes in 1 week in November 2005. The format occupied 78% of television time if non-terrestrial programmes were included.

  2. Because many of the formats rely on the trope of transformation, producers specifically target those whom they believe are ripe for reform (see the Wife Swap and Ladette to Lady websites). Working-class women participate often for financial return (White 2006), but also for a raft of other reasons as our research demonstrated (Skeggs and Wood 2008, 2009).

  3. Nancy Thumim was employed as Research Associate on the project from October 2005 to March 2007. Helen Wood was the co-director. We have developed the methodology in Skeggs et al. (2008). Papers from the research can be found at the ESRC ‘Society Today’ website (http://www.esrc.ac.uk). ESRC grant no: 148-25-0049.

  4. It is for this reason that I want to keep the economic combined with the moral. In the case of women’s labour they are often tightly entwined.

  5. Although it is not really straightforward as it depends on the value of commodity, money and the extraction of surplus value, hence the method of economic calculation of different variables.

  6. Whether the value is owned, possessed or prosthetically attached is less significant than its potential for exchange.

  7. Research project conducted for CRESC, University of Manchester, on ‘Contingencies of Value: What Matters?’ by the author (2006). Findings presented at ‘Contingencies of Value’ conference, Manchester, 2009. Even gift exchange anticipates the value of the return on the gift (Mauss 1925/1990).

  8. For instance, symbolically denigrated reality television characters—Jordan (Katie Price) and Jade Goody—were highly evaluated by our Black and white working-class research respondents, because of their cumulative displays of affect: of their approach to motherhood, caring for their children and families and for their lack of pretension, for ‘staying real’ (see Skeggs and Wood 2008).

  9. The most obvious invisibility of value is of labour in the commodity, hence Marx’s identification of the ‘commodity fetish’. Freud likewise argues that fetishes exist to hide drives.

  10. In an interesting twist, Gilroy (2000) estimates that the promotion of marriage and domestic values among America’s Black slave population did a good deal to promote the development of the concept of the ‘free’ self that was to play such an important role in anti-slavery campaigns.

  11. Val undertook this unpublished research whilst studying for a PhD at Manchester University. The novelist Graham Greene describes this phenomenon as ‘brothel love’ in The Honorary Consul (1974).

  12. See also Moran and Skeggs (2004) on the relationship between propriety and the ownership of property in gay space.

  13. Steedman (2007) documents the cases concerning servants heard (during the 1700s) in the justicing room of the local magistrates court and criminal cases heard at the assizes courts.

  14. The relationship between privacy, property and personhood has long been subject to legal contestation: see, e.g., Dangelo (1989).

  15. See Hall (1979) on Octavia Hill, and McClintock (1995) on the fetishised fascinations of Victorian philanthropist Arthur Munby with working-class Hannah Cullwick.

  16. See Deleuze (1978) on how affect is produced through the social encounter, not psychologically.

  17. It is impossible to enter any social relationship without the presence of affect for affect is produced in the encounter; it does not reside in a subject or figure, is not a property of the person and exceeds the emotional performance of the singular individual. It is usually recognised through the non-verbal, through feelings, gestures, postures, expressions, intonations and movement, which makes television, with its increasing emphasis on evocation and close-up, a particularly suitable technology for its display.

  18. Or not, in the case of The Jeremy Kyle Show in the UK and The Jerry Springer Show in the US, where participants are invited/expected to perform their abjection.

  19. We identify these moments as ‘judgement shots’, where the camera held for a long-time on the face often produces intense drama. These shots hold the participant accountable for previous actions and invite us as viewers to scrutinise reaction: see Wood and Skeggs (2008).

  20. Academia and the case of the RAE/REF productivity/performance measurement is a case in point.

  21. The significance of tables for engineering proper communication has a long history: Brooks (1995) notes the existence of ‘table talk’, that is talk that was considered worthy of imitation, in seventeenth century conduct manuals. The technology of advice to control mothers also has a long history (see Donzelot 1979).

  22. As Gillies (2007) demonstrates in her work on parenting and schooling, for middle-class children many cultural similarities exist between school, home and leisure, whereas a greater gap exists between the different spheres for working-class children. She points to a moral value clash: “Individualistic middle-class values around achievement, competition, entitlement and instrumentalism might be read by peers as evidence of self-centredness, conceit, disloyalty or personal exploitation. Vulnerable working-class families cannot afford to risk the social alienation this might provoke. Perhaps more importantly, many working-class mothers are appalled by these values themselves” (Gillies 2007, p. 153).

  23. Text in Action viewing session with Ruby, Brockley group.

  24. Michelle, Addington group.

  25. Ruby, above n 23.

  26. I met Michelle (with Carole) when we were all involved in a debate on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ programme to discuss their performance on Wife Swap. She called it her ‘new life’, appearing on TV and radio, if only to discuss the futility of her relationship with Barry.

  27. See Lyle (2008) for an explication of the pedagogical imperatives of Wife Swap.

  28. Bringing the affective sphere into calculation, cognitive psychologists have developed “the mathematics of divorce” by coding 20 emotional states or SPAF (specific affect). Trained SPAF coders are able to predict to 95% accuracy the probability of a relationship lasting up to 15 years. See http://www.gottman.com (accessed 22 January 2010).

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to Lauren Berlant, Camila Bassi, Ruth Fletcher and Jin Haritaworn for taking the time to read and publicly discuss the issues raised in this paper, and to Kate Bedford, Anisa de Jong and Jon Binnie for organising the seminar in the CLGS at the University of Kent which provided the space for opening up this discussion. And to Kate and the two reviewers for some great comments. Thanks.

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Skeggs, B. The Value of Relationships: Affective Scenes and Emotional Performances. Fem Leg Stud 18, 29–51 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10691-010-9144-3

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Keywords

  • Affect
  • Intimacy
  • Reality television
  • Relationships
  • Value