Enthusiasm as Affective Labour: On the Productivity of Enthusiasm in the Media Industry

Goetz Bachmann, Andreas Wittel


Longing on a large scale is what makes history.
Don DeLillo, Underworld


While the media industries have been rather thoroughly dissected for their capacity to generate enthusiasm through well-honed practices of marketing and patterns of consumerism, any analysis of the shift underway to capture and modulate the ‘enthusiastic’ and affective labour of media industry practitioners themselves may still have much to learn by reaching back to the long tradition in Western philosophy: a tradition, starting with the Greeks that has almost always contrasted enthusiasm with reason (Heyd). To quote Hume: “Hope, pride, presumption, a warm imagination, together with ignorance, are … the true sources of enthusiasm” (73). Hume’s remarks are contextualised in protestant theological debates of the 18th century, where enthusiasm was a term for a religious practice, in which God possesses the believer. Especially English preachers and theologians were putting considerable energy into demonising this far too ecstatic form of belief in god (Heyd).

This ambivalent attitude towards enthusiasm time-travels from the Greeks and the Enlightenment period straight into the 20th century. In 1929, William Henry Schoenau, an early author of self-help literature for the white-collar worker, aimed to gain a wider audience with the title: “Charm, Enthusiasm and Originality - their Acquisition and Use”. According to him, enthusiasm is necessary for the success of the salesman, and has to be generated by techniques such as a rigorous special diet and physical exercises of his facial muscles. But it also has to be controlled:

Enthusiasm, when controlled by subtle repression, results in either élan, originality, magnetism, charm or “IT”, depending on the manner of its use. Uncontrolled enthusiasm results in blaring jazz, fanaticism and recklessness. A complete lack of enthusiasm produces the obsequious waiter and the uneducated street car conductor. (7)

Though William Henry Schoenau got rather lost in his somewhat esoteric take on enthusiasm – for him it was a result of magnetic and electric currents – we argue that Schoenau had a point: Enthusiasm is a necessary affect in many forms of work, and especially so in the creative industries. It has to be generated, it sometimes has to be enacted, and it has also to be controlled. However, we disagree with Schoenau in one important issue: For us, enthusiasm can only be controlled up to a certain degree.

Enthusiasm in the Creative Industries

Schoenau wrote for an audience of salesmen and ambitious managers. This was simultaneous with the rise of Fordism. Most labour in Fordism was routine labour with the assembly line as its iconic representation. In mass-production itself, enthusiasm was not needed, often not even wanted. Henry Ford himself noted dryly: “Why do I get a human being when all I want is a pair of hands” (Kane 128). It was reserved for few occupational groups situated around the core of the mass-produced economy, such as salesmen, inventors, and leaders like him. “Henry Ford had a burning enthusiasm for the motor car” (Pearle 196).

In industrial capitalism enthusiasm on a larger scale was not for the masses. It could be found in political movements, but hardly in the realm of work. This was different in the first socialist state. In the 1920s and 1930s Soviet Union the leaders turned their experience in stimulating a revolutionary mindset into a formula for industrial development – famously documented in Dziga Vertov’s “Enthusiasm. Symphony of the Donbass”.

In capitalist countries things changed with the crisis of Fordism. The end of mass production and its transformation to flexible specialisation (Piore/Sabel) prepared the ground for a revival of enthusiasm on a large scale. Post-industrial economies rely on permanent innovation. Now discourses in media, management, and academia emphasise the relevance of buzzwords such as flexibility, adaptability, change, youth, speed, fun, and creativity. In social science debates around topics such as the cultural economy (Ray/Sayers, Cook et al., du Gay/Pryke, Amin/Thrift), affective labour (Lazzarato, Hardt/Negri, Virno) and creative industries (Florida, Hartley) gained in momentum (for an interesting take on enthusiasm see Bröckling). Enthusiasm has become an imperative for most professions. Those who are not on fire are in danger of getting fired.

Producing and Consuming Enthusiasm

Our interest in enthusiasm as affective labour emerged in an ethnographic and experimental project that we conducted in 2003-2007 in London’s creative industries. The project brought together three industrial and one academic partner to produce a reality TV show tailor-made for IPTV (internet-protocol-based television). During this project we encountered enthusiasm in many forms.

Initially, we were faced with the need to be enthusiastic, while we established the project coalition. To be convincing, we had to pitch the commercial potential of such a project enthusiastically to our potential partners, and often we had to cope with rejections and start the search and pitch again (Caldwell).

When the project coalition was set up, we as academic partners managed the network. In the following two years we had to cope with our partner’s different directions, different rhythms and different styles of enthusiasm. The TV producer for example had different ways to express excitement than the new media firm. Such differences resulted in conflicts and blockades, and part of our task as project managers was to rebuild an enthusiastic spirit after periods of frustration.

At the same time enthusiasm was one of the ingredients of the digital object that we produced: `Real’ emotions form the material of most reality TV shows (Grindstaff). Affects are for reality TV, what steel was for a Fordist factory. We needed an enthusiastic audience as part of the filmed material. There is thus a need to elicit, select, engineer and film such emotions.

To this aim we engaged with the participants and the audience in complex ways, sometimes by distancing ourselves, other times by consciously manipulating them, and at even other times by sharing enthusiasm (similar processes in respect to other emotions are ethnographically described in Hesmondhalgh/Baker). Generating and managing enthusiasm is obviously a necessary part of affective labour in the creative industries. However, just as Hesmondhalgh/Baker indicate, this seemingly simple claim is problematic.

Affective Labour as Practice

‘Affective labour’ is a term that describes labour through its products: ‘A feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion’ (Hardt/Negri 292-293). Thus, the term ‘affective labour’ usually describes a sector by the area of human endeavour, which it commodifies. But the concept looses its coherence, if it is used to describe labour by its practice (for an analogue argument see Dowling). The latter is what interests us. Such a usage will have to re-introduce the notion of the working subject. To see affective labour as a practice should enable us to describe in more detail, how enthusiasm shapes the becoming of a cultural object. Who employed affect when and what kinds of affects in which way?

Analysing enthusiasm as social practice and affective labour usually brings about one of two contrasting perceptions. On the one hand one can celebrate enthusiasm – like Pekka Himanen – as one of the key characteristics for a new work ethic emerging alongside the Protestant Ethic. On the other hand we find critique of the need to display affects. Barbara Ehrenreich shows how a forced display of enthusiasm becomes a requirement for all office workers to survive in late capitalism. Judging from our experience these two approaches need to be synthesized: Much affective labour consists in the display of affects, in showing off, in pretending. On the other hand, enthusiasm can only realise its potential, if it is ‘real’ (as opposed to enacted).

With Ehrenreich, Hochschild and many others we think that an analysis of affective labour as a practice needs to start with a notion of expression. Enthusiasm can be expressed through excited gestures, rapid movements, raised voices, eyes wide open, clapping hands, speech. For us it was often impossible to separate which expression was ‘genuine’ and which was enacted. Judging from introspection, it is probable that many actors had a similar experience to ours: They mixed some genuine enthusiasm with more or less enforced forms of re-enactment. Perhaps re-enactment turned to a ‘real’ feeling: We enacted ourselves into an authentic mood - an effect that is also described as “deep acting” (Grandey). What can happen inside us, can also happen in social situations. German philosopher Max Scheler went to substantial lengths to make a case for the contagiousness of affects, and enthusiasm is one of the most contagious affects. Mutual contagiousness of enthusiasm can lead to collective elation, with or without genuine enthusiasm of all members.

The difference of real, authentic affects and enacted affects is thus not only theoretically, but also empirically rather problematic. It is impossible to make convincing claims about the degree of authenticity of an affect. However, it is also impossible to ignore this ambivalence. Both ‘authentic’ and ‘faked’ enthusiasm can be affective labour, but they differ hugely in terms of their productive capacities.

Enthusiasm as Productive Force

Why is enthusiasm so important in the first place? The answer is threefold. Firstly, an enthusiastic worker is more productive. He or she will work more intensively, put in more commitment, is likely to go the so-called extra mile. Enthusiasm can create a surplus of labour and a surplus of value, thus a surplus of productivity. Secondly enthusiasm is part of the creative act. It can unleash energies and overcome self-imposed limitations. Thirdly enthusiasm is future-oriented, a stimulus for investment, always risky. Enthusiasm can be the affective equivalent of venture capital – but it is not reified in capital, but remains incorporated in labour. Thus enthusiasm not only leads to an increase of productivity, it can be productive itself. This is what makes it to one of the most precious commodities in the creative industries. To make this argument in more detail we need to turn to one of the key philosophers of affect.

Thinking Enthusiasm with Spinoza

For Spinoza, all affects are derivatives of a first basic drive or appetite. Desire/appetite is the direct equivalent of what Spinoza calls Conatus: Our striving to increase our power. From this starting point, Spinoza derives two basic affects: pleasure/joy and sadness/pain. Pleasure/joy is the result of an increase of our power, and sadness/pain is the result of its decrease. Spinoza explains all other affects through this basic framework. Even though enthusiasm is not one of the affects that Spinoza mentions, we want to suggest that Spinoza’s approach enables us to understand the productivity of enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is a hybrid between desire (the drive) and joy (the basic affect). Like hope or fear, it is future-oriented. It is a desire (to increase our power) combined with an anticipated outcome. Present and the future are tightly bound. Enthusiasm differs in this respect from its closest relatives: hope and optimism. Both hope and optimism believe in the desired outcome, but only against the odds and with a presumption of doubt. Enthusiasm is a form of ecstatic and hyper-confident hope. It already rewards us with joy in the present.

With Spinoza we can understand the magical trick of future-oriented enthusiasm: To be enthusiastic means to anticipate an outcome of an increased power. This anticipation increases our power in the present. The increased power in the present can then be used to achieve the increased power in the future. If successful, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is this future-orientedness, which can make enthusiasm productive.

Actions and Passions

In its Greek origin (‘enthousiasmos’) to be enthusiastic meant to be possessed or inspired by a god. An enthusiast was someone with an intense religious fervour and sometimes someone with an exaggerated belief in religious inspiration. Accordingly, enthusiasm is often connected to the devotion to an ideal, cause, study or pursuit. In late capitalism, we get possessed by different gods. We get possessed by the gods of opportunity – in our case the opportunities of a new technology like IPTV. Obsessions cannot easily be switched on and off. This is part of affective labour: The ability to open up and let the gods of future-oriented enthusiasm take hold of us. We believe in something not for the sake of believing, but for the sake of what we believe in. But at the same time we know that we need to believe. The management of this contradiction is a problem of control. As enthusiasm now constitutes a precious commodity, we cannot leave it to mere chance.

Spinoza addresses exactly this point. He distinguishes two kinds of affects, actions and passions. Actions are what we control, passions are what controls us. Joy (= the experience of increased power of acting) can also weaken, if someone is not able to control the affection that triggered the joy. In such a case it becomes a passion: An increase of power that weakens in the long run. Enthusiasm is often exactly this. How can enthusiasm as a passion be turned into an action?

One possible answer is to control what Spinoza calls the ‘ideas’ of the bodily affections. For Spinoza, affections (affectiones) ‘strike’ the body, but affect (affectus) is formed of both, of the bodily affectiones, but also of our ideas of these affectiones. Can such ideas become convictions, beliefs, persuasions? Our experience suggests that this is indeed possible. The excitement about the creative possibilities of IPTV, for example, was turned into a conviction. We had internalised the affect as part of our beliefs. But we had internalised it for a prize: The more it became an idea the more stable it got, but the less it was a full, bodily affect, something that touched our nervous system. We gained power over it for the price that it became less powerful in its drive.

Managing the Unmanageable

In all institutions and organisations enthusiasm needs to be managed on a regular basis. In project networks however the orchestration of affects faces a different set of obstacles than in traditional organizations. Power structures are often shifting and not formally defined. Project partners are likely to have diverging interests, different expectations and different views on how to collaborate. What might be a disappointing result for one partner can be a successful result for another one.

Differences of interest can be accompanied by differences of the expression of enthusiasm. This was clearly the case in our project network. The TV company entered a state of hype and frenzy while pitching the project. They were expressing their enthusiasm with talk about prominent TV channels that would buy the product, and celebrities who would take part in the show. The new media company showed its commitment through the development of beautifully designed time plans and prototypes – one of them included the idea to advertise the logo of the project on banners placed on airplanes. This sort of enthusiastic presentation led the TV producer to oppose the vision of the new media’s brand developer: She perceived this as an example of unrealistic pipe dreams. In turn the TV producer’s repeated name-dropping led other partners to mistrust them.

Timing was another reason why it seemed to be impossible to integrate the affective cohorts of all partners into one well-oiled machine. Work in TV production requires periods of heightened enthusiasm while shooting the script. Not surprisingly, TV professionals save up their energy for this time. In contrast, new media practitioners create their products on the go: hype and energy are spread over the whole work process. Their labour becomes materialised in detailed plans, concepts, and prototypes. In short, the affective machine of a project network needs orchestration. This is a question of management.

As this management failed so often in our project, we could discover another issue in the universe of enthusiasm: Disappointed high spirits can easily turn into bitterness and hostility. High expectations can lead to a lack of motivation and finally to a loss of loyalty towards the product and towards other project partners. Thus managing enthusiasm is not just about timing. It is also about managing disappointment and frustration. These are techniques, which have to be well developed on the level of the self-management as well as group management.

Beyond the Project

We want to conclude this paper with a scene that happened at the very end of the project. In a final meeting, all partners agreed – much to our surprise – that  the product was a big success. At that time we as academic partners found this irritating. There were many reasons why we disagreed: we did not produce a new format, we did not get positive user feedback, and we could not sell the show to further broadcasters (our original aims). However, all of this did not seem to have any impact on this final assessment. At the time of the meeting this looked for us like surreal theatre. Looking back now, this display of enthusiasm was indeed perhaps a ‘rational’ thing to do. Most projects and products in the creative industries are not successful on the market (Frith). To recreate the belief that one will eventually be successful (McRobbie) seems to be the one task of affective labour that stands out at the end of the lifecycle of many creative project networks.


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enthusiasm, affect, affective labour, creative industries, project networks, ethnography

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