Ideology Affirmed: A Critical Review of Arlie Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”


Arlie Hochschild’s latest book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, has received deserved praise as a corrective to shallow, stereotype-ridden characterizations of right-wing working and middle class Americans, in this case residents of southwest Louisiana.  However, her attempt to draw on five years of interviews and social observation between 2009 and 2014 to argue for an interpretive innovation, the Deep Story, yields a study of ideology that is itself ideological. To put it simply for now, Hochschild only succeeds in reformulating a process that suppresses personal awareness of social contradictions rather than addressing the question of how that process might be undone.

Along lines similar to those I discuss in the case of Jennifer Silva’s Coming up Short:  Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, Hochschild’s interpretive approach marginalizes how interviewees manage conflicts stemming from their encounters with capital in favor of highlighting superordinate harmonizing themes.   Like Silva, in her effort to avoid criticizing her interviewees for some form of reality-denying thinking, Hochschild loses track of how that reality nonetheless presses their self-understanding into a strained accommodation in which, underneath an affirmative veneer, internalized social contradictions roil.  Thus, despite what appears to be a decisive difference in their interpretive goals – Silva wants to reveal the fallout of a failure to achieve adult status while Hochschild fabricates an idealized model of society putatively held by her interviewees – their interpretations steer us and the interviewees away from considering their convoluted adjustment to capitalism’s petrochemical embodiment.

Hochschild’s suppressive achievement is more interesting, however.  Unlike Silva, Hochschild capstones her research by explicitly offering her interviewees an interpretation of what she proposes to be their own “deep” interpretive structure, the Deep Story.  Paralleling a simple validating principle of psychoanalytic method, she looks to her interviewees’ experience of self-recognition in the Deep Story as a confirmation of her interpretation.  But unlike the psychoanalyst, Hochschild deliberately colludes with her interviewees in a project of conflict suppression.  The “ah-ha” experience the Deep Story conjures is based on an escape from conflict, not insight into it.  In following her principle of “empathize, don’t criticize” she invites them to affirm a simple model of society recalling the tunnel vision of Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” election ad (linked here 1 ). Like Silva, fear of the bugaboo of being seen as peddling an analysis that hinges, however remotely, on the concept of false consciousness leads to critical disarmament.

But, as I hope to establish, Hochschild’s Deep Story composition and its reception by her interviewees helps draw out certain features of their belief system that can be understood in light of the psychoanalytic concept of screen phenomena.  In essence, the Deep Story itself and its willing endorsement by her interviewees documents the outcome in fantasy of a series of defensive displacements and transformations instigated by an otherwise intolerable situation–their economic dependence on life- and environment-threatening petrochemical corporations.  Understood in this way, Hochschild’s insistence on “empathic” instead of critical engagement with her interviewees can be redirected to an investigation of how they have “come to terms” with their lot, struggling to retain a sense of dignity and self-respect in what would otherwise be a disheartening, enraging situation.  In short, empathy can be directed towards not only the fantasied self that Hochschild believes she has uncovered within the Deep Story, but also towards the real self that has to fantasize to get by.  An emancipatory empathy is possible.

The Great Paradox and the emotional basis of politics

Hochschild focuses on the nominally paradoxical unwillingness of her interviewees to turn to government regulation of the chemical companies polluting the region:

But in Louisiana, the Great Paradox was staring me in the face— great pollution and great resistance to regulating polluters. If I could truly enter the minds and hearts of people on the far right on the issue of the water they drink, the animals they hunt, the lakes they swim in, the streams they fish in, the air they breathe, I could get to know them up close. Through their views on this keyhole issue— how much, if at all, should government regulate industrial polluters?— I hoped to learn about the right’s perspective on a wider range of issues. I could learn about how— emotionally speaking— politics works in us all. (p.21)

Hochschild’s theoretical aims are expansive.  Reviewers who affirm her book as a caricature-correcting appreciation of right-wing beliefs miss that Hochschild uses it as a springboard to discuss the role of emotions as a primary organizer of sociopolitical worldviews (Kuttner, 2016; Pierson, 2017). Given the lethal  intensity of the contradictory impact of petrochemical  corporations on the lives of her interviewees –  well-paying jobs vs. cancer deaths, pollution and forced evacuations – this could have been an exemplary study of how people organize sociopolitical beliefs within emotional frameworks that constrain their responses to suffering.

In some of her past work, most notably the duly renowned The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Hochschild fruitfully studied emotional life as a frontier of capitalist penetration and organization of the personal sphere as part of the organization of work (Hochschild, 1983).  There she studied “emotional labor,” the fabrication, within the labor process, of an emotional presentation intended to please customers, and how employees struggled with a sense of hypocrisy and violation by complying with employer demands.  Emotions were a bedrock of personality that management sought to mine and sculpt, a final frontier of capitalist assimilation of the lifeworld.

But in Strangers the distorting power of the wage labor relationship, though still manifest, has faded in salience for Hochschild as a site of conflict and requisite emotional self-regulation.   In its place she offers a construal of politics as a struggle over the freedom to express feelings.  Instead of analyzing the struggle of employees against a personality-invasive capitalism, now Hochschild is most concerned with the struggle of her interviewees to affirm their feelings against the criticism of liberals:

At play are “feeling rules,” left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel— happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice. Such rules challenge the emotional core of right-wing belief.  (p. 15)

Hochschild continues to focus on struggles over authentic emotional expression but in a significantly different context.  Instead of an overseeing, threatening management specifically targeting proper emotional conduct, in southwest Louisiana there’s what we might call a diffuse “Liberal Gaze” disapprovingly wagging its finger.  The demand for emotional management is disjoined from core power relationships, the clucking of coastal media tongues has replaced pink slips.  If it is true that resentment over constraints on emotions is so central even when sanctions are so much weaker, the contrast moves us to wonder how the issue of emotional freedom has taken on a new, politicized form.  More on this below.

Avoiding the empathy wall to discover social metaphors

As a corollary to proposing that resentment against the Liberal Gaze is central to right-wing politics, Hochschild dedicates herself to popping her “Berkeley bubble” and engaging her interviewees empathically, unbounded by an  “empathy wall:”

An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances. In a period of political tumult, we grasp for quick certainties. We shoehorn new information into ways we already think. We settle for knowing our opposite numbers from the outside. But is it possible, without changing our beliefs, to know others from the inside, to see reality through their eyes, to understand the links between life, feeling, and politics; that is, to cross the empathy wall? (p.5)

In one sense, this guideline is a commonplace in qualitative research.  Typically, the interviewer questions so as to encourage the interviewee’s perspective to unfold, taking care not to interject new terms and concepts and certainly to not immediately confront the interviewee with perceived shortcomings in their logic.  Empathy is first and foremost expressed in a manner congenial with a quotidian notion of tactful respect.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that the interviewer cannot eventually raise questions about what they’ve heard.  They may refer to ambiguities, or apparent contradictions, or what strikes the interviewer as absences or omissions in the interviewee’s presentation.

Hochschild’s research goal, however, involves a supersession of these conventional interview dialectics.  Her forswearing of the Liberal Gaze aims to not only allow her interviewees to reveal the more conscious categories of their lifeworld but, by suspending her preemptive censorship of their views, to allow herself to perceive latent ones.  In this she is guided by the work of Lakoff and Johnson  on social metaphors (Lakoff and Johnson, 2003), a link she develops only briefly in footnotes:

Metaphors, [Lakoff and Johnson] argue, shape how we think and act. They also shape how we feel, I think. If the government is “big brother”— bossy, overbearing, intimidating— then it inspires fear and resentment. If the state is a giant “nanny,” then we are made to feel like big babies, and so we feel unwelcome shame. Metaphors are not a form of extra decoration on ordinary speech; as the authors rightly point out, they are embedded in ordinary speech and so continually guide our feeling.For Lakoff and Johnson, metaphors come to us as proposals for how to see life, one by one, each static. …A metaphor is not imposed by reality, but seems, to the individual, to fit reality. Politics, I argue, gathers itself around a deep story— a metaphor in motion. I add the idea that the deep story implies a special corresponding self, which, once established, we guard by managing our emotions. I also add the idea that every deep story implies an area of amnesia, non-story, non-self. (269-97 passim, my emphases)

Amnesia, non-story, guarded self

The concept of amnesia, though only glancingly developed, strongly shapes her understanding of how the Deep Story covertly opposes a non-story of suppressed reality.  Hochschild imports amnesia from Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Nuer tribe, whose members knew the names of male ancestors eleven generations past but not those of their female counterparts.  Evans-Pritchard thought of this as “structural amnesia” based on power relations within the male-dominated Nuer kin system.  Hochschild sees something similar going on in southwest Louisiana, where corporate boosterism drowns out worries over pollution and cancer deaths.

The Arenos [a couple interviewed by Hochschild] faced structural amnesia about something else and linked to a different source of power: the Louisiana Chemical Association, the Society of the Plastics Industry, the Vinyl Institute, Shell Oil, PPG Industries, and their leaders in government. Spokesmen for this source of power drew the popular imagination to the exciting economic future. The Arenos felt that their silent bayou, their buried kin, their dead trees were forgotten, like the female half of the Nuer.  (p.52)

There is a parallel, but it soon obscures more than reveals.  In the case of the Nuer one can imagine that gender bias against its female heritage would eventually result in an absolute loss of remembrance akin to the material destruction of records in the “memory holes” of 1984.  But the Arenos are not surrounded by people who cannot remember the dead of 200 years past.  Instead, they are contending with, to put it one way, a very immediate community-wide “mobilization of bias” (Bachrach and Baratz, 1972) against criticizing petrochemical companies.  They are caught up in the hot social-psychological dynamics of this mobilization.  If the Arenos actually  think of their fellows as suffering from amnesia, the term would serve as  a colloquial synopsis of how their community deflects tensions with corporations that would otherwise endanger a pockmarked prosperity. When Hochschild herself resorts to amnesia, she encourages theoretical inattention that colludes with and mimics those defensive processes.2  Recourse to the concept of amnesia encourages the superficial belief that conflicts have lost mental registration and cannot be revived.  “It’s done and forgotten.”

Before introducing the Deep Story, I alert the reader to Hochschild’s awkward handling of the possibility that the Deep Story is shaped by coercion.  “A metaphor is not imposed by reality, but seems, to the individual, to fit reality” slides from suggesting that metaphor is objectively not an imposition to how it subjectively seems to the individual.  On this slippery ground Hochschild then imagines a “special corresponding self” which “we” guard – from what and to what end? – by managing our emotions.  Is the special corresponding self grounded in amnesia, an amnesia that somehow depends upon emotional management?  How stable and complete is this amnesia and the self it supports?  Might there be other selves in other stories that dynamically coexist with the one Hochschild arrives at and which acknowledge the presence and effects of corporate power?  These and related questions concerning her willingness to thoroughly account for the impact of power differentials on social consciousness hover over our reception of Hochschild’s Deep Story. 

The deep story, a tale of excommunication

Hochschild describes the Deep Story in these terms:

A deep story is a feels-as-if story— it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world (p. 135).

And here it is in abridged form:

You are standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage, patient but weary. You are in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, native-born, and predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not. At the crest of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line, a standard of living higher than that your parents enjoyed. Many behind you in line are people of color—poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees. You wish them well, but your attention is trained on those ahead of you. And now you notice the line isn’t moving. In fact, is it moving backward?

You’ve suffered. You’ve had marriage problems, and you are helping out a troubled sibling and an ill co-worker. Your church has seen you through hard times. You’ve shown strong character, and the American Dream is a badge of moral honor, as you see it, for that.

But look! Some people are coming from behind and cutting in line ahead of you!  The liberal   government   wants   you   to believe they have a right to cut ahead. You’ve heard stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate Syrian refugees. But at some point, you say to yourself, we have to build a wall against more sympathy. You feel like a refugee yourself (pp. 137-8 passim.)

Coming as it does in the ninth chapter, preceded by accounts of work-related death and environmental catastrophe, the Deep Story strikes us as a tour de force of social tunnel vision.  Although Hochschild prioritizes it as a foundational social narrative of frustration with government interference that “feels real” to the interviewees – again, some of them say that it fits their lives – and seems to be consistent with their Tea Party beliefs, its disconnection from other, supposedly  more shallow stories referring to corporate-related hardship is profound.

To illustrate this disconnection, let’s consider sections of her interviews with Lee Sherman, whom she introduces as exemplifying the Great Paradox:

Given his dangerous work at Pittsburgh Plate Glass, he is happy to be alive. “All my co-workers from back then are dead; most died young.”…In the 1960s, safety was at a minimum at PPG. “During safety meetings,” Lee tells me, “the supervisor just gave us paperwork to fill out. Working with the chemicals, we wore no protective facial masks. You learned how to hold your nose and breathe through your mouth.” “The company didn’t much warn us about dangers,” Lee says, adding in a softer voice, “My coworkers did. They’d say, ‘You can’t stand in that stuff. Get out of it.’ (p. 28)

[Here Sherman describes getting caught in a toxic spill.]  “But the chemical was burning pretty bad. It really gets you worst underneath your arms, in between your legs, up your bottom.” Despite the shower, he said, “The chemical ate off my shoes. It ate off my pants. It ate my shirt. My undershorts were gone. Only some elastic from my socks and my undershorts remained. It burned my clothes clean off me.” Lee’s supervisor told him to go home and buy another pair of shoes, socks, undershorts, Levis, and work shirt— and to bring in the receipts, to be reimbursed. A few days later, he brought his receipts into his supervisor’s office. The bill was about $ 40.00. But his supervisor noted about the incinerated clothes that he had already put some wear into them. “You got about 80 percent use of the shoes and about 50 percent use of the pants,” he told Lee. “In the end, taking into account discounts for previous wear,” Lee notes wryly, “My supervisor gave me a check for eight dollars. I never cashed it.” (p. 29)

After fifteen years of working at PPG, Lee was summoned to an office and found himself facing a seven-member termination committee. “They didn’t want to pay my medical disability,” Lee explains. “So they fired me for absenteeism! They said I hadn’t worked enough hours! They didn’t count my overtime. They didn’t discount time I took off for my Army Reserve duty. So that’s what I got fired for— absenteeism. They handed me my pink slip. Two security guards escorted me to the parking lot.” Lee slaps the table as if, decades later, he has just gotten fired again… Lee had been mad when PPG fired him, two guards marching him out to the parking lot. “I have a gun,” he tells me, “and I didn’t think of hurting people, certainly not my co-workers, but the place, yes. I was that mad.” (p. 31, my emphasis.)

As we empathize with Sherman when he angrily slaps the table and struggles with his outrage, the inadequacy of Hochschild’s analytic categories  – paradox, structural amnesia and the Deep Story/(non-story) social metaphor –- is viscerally palpable.  Hochschild dedicates her project to giving emotions their due priority, and yet her analysis pits itself against full registration of the presence of strikingly manifest emotions.  Like Silva, Hochschild fails to follow up on expressions of discontent by asking probing questions about how discontent is contained.  Instead, Hochschild, who has her theoretical solution already in mind, turns away from Sherman’s struggle with PPG to inventory the miseries of other interviewees.  Under the rubric of “paradox,” Sherman’s angry flareup is thus relegated to one in a collection of interviewee experiences.  That Hochschild allows it to fade away—having been surreptitiously banished to the non-story –leaves the reader perplexed. Eventually in the ninth chapter our perplexity finds resolution with the Deep Story and a footnote  implying that a Deep Story-based self that must be preserved against any experiences that run counter to it.  Thus, experiential content is theoretically exiled into an amnestic “non-story.”

Hochschild runs afoul of her commitment to empathy.  Her project of avoiding empathy walls culminates in the discovery within her interviewees and their communities of vaguely defined empathy walls between story and non-story, self and non-self.  Bound by her code of empathy, she uses a theory of social metaphor to arrive at an arbitrary construct that by virtue of its supposed deepness, renders insignificant that which lies outside of it.  But then a most pressing question arises:  Does empathy require us to not inquire about what is obviously a process of excommunication, i.e. a social-psychological process in which individual and social suppressive mechanisms combine to banish core social tensions from discourse? If we do inquire, does that inevitably mean that we must adopt the Liberal Gaze? As we shall see, not at all.

As goes experience, so goes theory

With some irony, we find ourselves mirroring Hochschild’s effort by trying to empathize with her as she seeks to gauge what she can communicate about what has been excommunicated. The overriding nature of her “don’t gaze, empathize” guideline has brought about a collapse of theoretical and empathic freedom.  Hochschild becomes caught up in a theoretical shell game of Deep Story/non-story in order to not violate her interviewees’ trust in her respect. She believes she must help them “guard” a sympathetic self, born through her mimetic censorship, one apparently required for their ongoing adjustment to a highly constrained, corporate-dominated situation.  She circumscribes her range of critical reflection about interviewees’ handling of experience and does so unreflectively, just as in the Deep Story the interviewees seem to unreflectively condense their misery into the containing image of themselves “patiently waiting in line for the American Dream.”  What appears to be a social-theoretical innovation is actually a formulation of something like a Deep Story of theory that casts any theory that questions the Deep Story into the non-story abyss.  Hochschild’s analysis brings her to teeter on a hermeneutical knife edge between discovery that might lead to critical reflection and discovery that leads to collusive ratification.  She chooses the latter.

Psychoanalysis and the formation of a constrained self: pride and honor

From this perspective we can, as in other essays on this site, ask and answer the question of the relevance of psychoanalytic theory to her endeavor.  Hochschild is inevitably drawn to recognize the fact of excommunication.  In her recourse to the theory of social metaphor she reprises in theory the social psychological process of excommunication, but believes that empathy compels a respectful silence concerning it.  Against this, we maintain that psychoanalysis, although theoretically disruptive of the ideological self, has necessarily developed an empathic procedure, a therapeutic technique informed by its theory of mind (and emotional dynamics), to help analysands tolerate the disruptive acknowledgement of constraints in their formulation of the ideological “self.”  In this sense psychoanalysis is a reflection on our capacity for excommunication and our resistance to acknowledging it.

Here it is useful to call attention to how Hochschild highlights the interviewees’ pride and sense of honor:

Lee’s work at PPG was a source of personal pride, but he clearly did not feel particularly loyal to the company. Still, he did as he was told (p. 29).

Indeed, Tea Party adherents seemed to arrive at their dislike of the federal government via three routes— through their religious faith (the government curtailed the church, they felt), through hatred of taxes (which they saw as too high and too progressive), and through its impact on their loss of honor, as we shall see (p. 35).

Underlying all these other bases of honor— in work, region, state, family life, and church— was pride in the self of the deep story. The people I came to know had sacrificed a great deal and found honor in sacrifice (p. 217, my emphasis).

Although Hochschild recognizes the importance to her interviewees of their transformation of hard experiences into honorable sacrifices, she does not discuss how this transformation informs her approach to both the interviewees and interview analysis.  In this way, I think, she overlooks, or at least underplays, an important psychodynamic driver of the “deepness” of the Deep Story and also loses track of what inhibits her.

Recall her ambivalent handling of the question of whether the Deep Story metaphor is actually imposed on her interviewees to whom it “feels real” and authentic.  Although what is most manifest in her presentation of the Deep Story is the sheer absence of corporations, turning it into a libertarian fantasy map of oppressive social forces, what may make it most compelling is how the Deep Story ratifies a feeling of rightful pride.  Thus, it is not simply the case that the Deep Story showcases an essentially rule-observing, conflict-avoiding self.  The self that is most valued, the self that is to be vigilantly guarded, as Hochschild puts it, is an honored self.

And why guarded?  Because her interviewees – nominally bearers of labor power free to choose as they contract its sale –  are, in fact, stuck in a state of deadly dependence on petrochemical corporations.  Not only is direct resistance difficult but their situation is also rife with a potential for feelings of impotence and shame.  For example, Sherman has been able maintain pride in his skilled labor for the company which so dismissively fired him.  But the same company forced him to pollute a bayou with filth – “he did as he was told” – and treated his health and that of his friends and co-workers with lethal indifference.  He was able to expose the company’s polluting activity at a meeting, but in Hochschild’s account this comes across as much as a confession as an indictment.  Sherman’s refusal to cash the check compensating him for the clothes burned off his back by chemicals is telling, for it is a private, nearly silent act of resistance that is meaningless as far as the company is concerned.  It is in fantasy that he turns the company’s insult to him into his insult to the company.

The psychoanalytic literature discusses pride under the rubric of narcissism.  Pride is regarded cautiously for its potential to turn away from painfully unreliable “really existing objects” to fantasied relationships and the standards they dictate, a move that undermines both reality perception and tolerance of “emotional weakness” attendant to reality.  Kernberg’s interpretation of pathological narcissism as representing a fusion of representations of the subject, their ego ideal, and a representation of their mother expresses the most radical version of this idea:  there is nothing “outside” the individual that might cause them to feel lack, they’ve met all their goals and they’ve got mommy again (Kernberg, 1971).   The assertion of someone undergoing a manic episode that they own the world, or at least most of Manhattan, captures this fantasy as a flight from object dependency to limitless material possessions.

Hochschild’s sensitivity to pride entails a cautiousness that is culturally and interpersonally savvy.  As part of a compensatory fantasy, pride inescapably incorporates defenses partaking of denial.  Denial need not take on absolute proportions, as when a grieving daughter escapes her grief by delusionally asserting a dead parent is really alive.  Instead, it can involve a persistent foregrounding of aspects of life that are made self-enhancing, promoted as reflecting the-way-it-really-is, overshadowing other aspects, backgrounding them.  Once this structure is set up, asking too many questions can quickly become threatening, destabilizing.  For example, Sherman’s avowal of pride in his skilled work for PPG implicitly asks Hochschild to keep foregrounding skilled performance against his inability to fight against dangerous conditions.  Indeed, his repeatedly endangering himself can be converted into a focus on his bravery, ignoring that he can’t determine the conditions that endanger him.  As Hochschild sits talking with him amidst a ruined environment and recalling friends killed by PPG neglect, his structure of pride takes on a rickety, fragile quality.  Pride cometh after the fall.

Hochschild’s emphasis on avoiding building a liberal vs. conservative empathy wall loses track of her wish to be tactful out of consideration for pride threatened by social facts.  Of course, “losing track” of the reasons for her own methodological decision is congruent with avoiding any endangerment of the compensatory pride structure.  It cannot be spoken of at all, lest its vulnerability be revealed.  In this light we question what Hochschild is really referring to when she talks about liberal “feeling rules” and the Right’s resistance to “being told how to feel.”  With each invocation of that idea in a way that omits explicit reference to pride, Hochschild inadvertently lays down a smoke screen over her own cautious navigation of the interviews.  How can liberals effectively prevent anyone from feeling something?  Is it only because at least some of Hochschild’s interviewees are members of a pride precariat, trying not to feel, let alone allow anyone see, the slaps of the hand that feeds them?   In this respect, the Liberal Gaze, hovering way off over the east and west coasts, takes the blame for a vulnerability to shame grounded in the immediacy of both community and interview.

A one-shot hermeneutic

Pinned down in this way, Hochschild approaches the problematic issue of false consciousness, aka the Great Paradox, unable to imagine any room to conversationally maneuver.  Our impression is that the hermeneutic circle of her interviews essentially entailed a prolonged reception of her interviewees’ stories followed by her formulation and transmission of the Deep Story, followed by immediate self-recognition by some interviewees while others asked for tweaks in the story line.  The commonplace “I think I heard you say X.  Is that right?  How does it fit with Y?” query, potentially destabilizing, fades from her account, replaced by one grand “After listening to you these past hours, I think you essentially feel that this is how things are?  Is that right?”

To briefly rummage in the dustbin of theory,  Habermas’ idea of a critical hermeneutics is worth recalling  here.  Habermas argued that hermeneutics, modeled on everyday dialog, is naïve with regard to the possibility that meaning can be destroyed or deformed (Habermas, 1972).  The precondition for a dialogue governed by acritical hermeneutics is that participants take each other seriously via a mutual assumption of communicative competence.  Habermas drew his model of critical hermeneutics from Freud’s radical insights springing from his observations of the disruption of “language games” – nonsynchronous or contradictory linguistic elements, action patterns and expressions – that are evident to the observer or dialogue partner but of which the speaker is unaware.  But the notion of “systematically distorted communication” can also be oriented to processes of distortion that are not primarily grounded in processes defined by psychoanalysis, but socially defined processes instead.

The deep story’s screening function

What might Hochschild draw on to frame a critical hermeneutic?  A psychoanalytic approach to Hochschild’s Deep Story and the conditions that make it plausible would, as I have suggested, question the story/non-story divide and the self-repudiations that create it.  A variety of orienting concepts are available.  As I now develop, one that I find particularly interesting would be to explore the Deep Story’s “screen” properties.  Thus, I call attention to a defensive function performed by the consciously-held story as a whole, not only its individual components.  To briefly argue for this I will take up two papers from the 1920s by Otto Fenichel, a leader of the psychoanalytic left (Fenichel, 1927; Fenichel, 1929).  Of great interest to us is how the screening process originally described by Freud as occurring outside of awareness occurs here with a conscious push from the subject (Freud, 1899).

In “The Inner Injunction to Make a Mental Note” Fenichel describes a patient recalling a time when as a little boy he was walking to a clinic where he was sent by his stepmother to undergo another round of painful corrective orthopedic procedures (Fenichel, 1929).  He recalled looking up at a poster for Palmona margarine and then telling himself he will never forget it.Palmona margarine best

His analysis brought out that he had signified the memory as one emphasizing how his stepmother always serves butter, not less-tasty margarine, which he promoted to himself as a sign of her love and to allay the loss of his mother.  He contained his fear and anger over the painful orthopedic treatment – treatment that resonated with unhappiness at home – by telling himself to never forget that his stepmother gives him butter.

The turbulent resentment he felt, preconscious and seeking expression, was countered by the screening affirmation of the butter-stepmother.  The little boy’s screening effort was not eradicative in the sense that the created perception – which in the next instant became a memory to be retrieved as needed – did not blot out all awareness of the pain associated with the ongoing relationship with the stepmother.  Crudely, the little boy did not become psychotically devoted to the memory in complete denial of reality.  Instead, the memory served as an escape in several respects:

  • Most simply, it served as a refuge, a respite in the sense that the pleasant butter-stepmother memory interrupts his current unhappy state and redirects attention away from painful feelings.
  • Relationally, it serves as a basis for asserting the goodness of the stepmother against experienceof her badness. The particular weight given to the butter-stepmother image will vary depending on a variety of factors.  Fenichel chose to highlight what could be characterized as a struggle in the “present unconscious,” a battle over all-too-readily available thoughts: “The little boy’s [preconscious] thoughts can be reconstructed as follows: ‘I have only a wicked step-mother, who sends me to the exercises. Oh, if only my mother were alive!’ But this [preconscious] thought was objectionable, and he had to subdue it with other thoughts of the opposite kind: ‘But yet she is so good and gives us only the best butter (i.e., is the best mother to us)’ and perhaps ‘I must never think like that again’. But the conscious thought was ‘I must always remember that’.” (Fenichel 1929, p. 448)
  • The butter-stepmother image does not only involve a reassurance about the stepmother. In the context of sustained tensions with her, it also helps the little boy feel capable of loving, not filled with resentment and hostility, and therefore deserving of love.  This may be a pressing concern; although there is insufficient information in the vignette to assess this, the little boy may have to contend with the accusation that he is insufficiently appreciative, bad.
  • Adjustment of the boy’s self-awareness can incorporate an act of obedience, complying with an injunction on the order of “don’t be angry with her, think of the butter she feeds you that proves she loves you!” In this way the stepmother’s demands blend with what we might guess would be his father’s demand to get along with the stepmother. This sets the stage for not only being pleased by his obedience, but also taking pride in his self-control that brings him closer to father.

The injunction to remember casts in spare cognitive terms a complex act of accommodation and self-transformation within a field of relationships.  It is the little boy internalizing his parents’ demand to get his mind right in a moment’s everlasting commitment to foregrounding what is good about family life against what is bad.  In Hochschild’s terms, it is the composition of a story against a non-story, but now with the little boy observed in the act of building an empathy wall against his misery.  He must remember in order to forget.

In an earlier paper, “The Economic Function of Screen Memories,” Fenichel discussed screen memories as performing a “safety valve” function against repressed material rising to consciousness (Fenichel, 1927).   In the “struggles with perception” an ongoing “hunger for screen memories” would reflect the routinization of this diversion. It becomes an important adjustment option, acquiring value of its own sake, for example,as a sign of “maturity.”  This suggests a process on the edge of consciousness, manifested consciously as the little boy’s pointed self-injunction to never forget the advertisement or more diffusely as “looking on the bright side.”  It could also transpire unconsciously, as Freud discovered when he came to understand how his concocted memory of a childhood idyllic day in the country was distorted to hide objectionable sexual feelings (Freud, 1899).

The little boy’s promise to himself – and to whatever persona were in his imagined  audience – to never forget in order to suppress shows us the psychological contortions of an individual under severe constraint.  At bottom, his solution is as paradoxical as that of Lee Sherman when he agrees with the screen Hochschild provides.

From this vantage point we see Hochschild, having suspended the Liberal Gaze, instead providing Sherman with an explicit screen construction that ratifies a process of adjustment he is already carrying out.  Her query – “Is this is the way you think it is?” – covertly aligns with a social authority intent on separating the wheat of the story from the chaff of the non-story.  Resonant with the “Shining City on the Hill” of what has been called the American civic religion, the Deep Story offers a meager insinuation of political tensions into the scene, as though someone edited fleeting clips of the dark-skinned line cutters into Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America” campaign ad.  The Deep Story’s “safety valve” allows expression of social tension as it performs fairytale shapeshifting miracles.  Poisonous wage labor is transformed into a hill to be patiently and honorably climbed.  Sherman’s slamming of his hand on the table, his thoughts about a gun back home in the drawer–all are absorbed into the rule-bound seriality of the queue.  The hunger for screen experience reflects a wish for a torn social life to become calm and whole again in the mind of its beholder.

The Deep Story against other stories

The interpretive dominance of Hochschild’s Deep Story is hardly assured.  The history of social conflict holds examples of shifts in popular mood that lead us to suspect that there is always available more than one deep story.  The little boy’s butter-stepmother whom he must remember stood against the witch who replaced his mother and sends him to the orthopedist.  The Deep Story of the “little father Tsar” saving the Russian peasantry from the nobility contravened the story of a Tsar whose Cossacks sabred down petitioning demonstrators, an image that was both immediately real and was more adequate to the reality of class relations than that of a screening family metaphor.  That Hochschild didn’t try out Deep Story variants giving representation to elements of the Paradox that she excluded is testimony to the extent her empathy was governed by a kind of shared screen-memory hunger.

Once we admit the existence of contending stories, the idea of “deep” must yield to “hegemonic.”  The demands of the social order make the Deep Story “feel real” because life at a higher pitch of conflict would be unbearable.  Imagining solidarity with line-cutters comes up not only against the inertia of one’s own imagination but also against intimations of the terribly hard slog protesting would entail.  Feeling real isn’t only rooted in metaphor; it partakes of realism.  The naturalness of the Deep Story, its apparently foundational quality, does not spring from the quasi-Jungian archetypicality posited by Lakoff.  It’s a bricolage of identifications that shepherds anger away from defeat into the safety of honorable ressentiment towards the [capitalist] state.

Empathy and the reconstruction of the constrained ideological self

Early in the book Hochschild dismisses Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? “bait and switch” thesis – for example,  “Vote to stop abortion, receive a rollback in capital gains taxes” – for suggesting people are duped by their ruling classes.  No.  The Deep Story self votes in a way consistent with its imagined interests.

But Hochschild accepts Frank’s premise more than she acknowledges.  Frank asks why apparently-objective interests aren’t voted on, and Hochschild answers with a social psychology based on an amnestic self configured within the reduced field of relationships provided by the Deep Storymetaphor.  Against dupery, Hochschild offers multi-level forgetting.  That her interviewees nominally recognized themselves in her social model works in part because it is radically synchronic.  It is historically flat, like the myths studied by Levi-Strauss that give no account of their own formation.  All traces of a diachronic, formative process occurring over time and aimed at accommodation to perilous dependence vanish.  The model succeeds both because it amnesticly floats away from the hard necessity that the interviewees often refer to –-  if we don’t accept this, we lose our jobs – and because it pretends that necessity doesn’t inspire its creation.  In the hill that must be patiently climbed, the subjection to corporate power camouflages itself in the Deep Story landscape.

Collaterally, the selves on the hill also lose track of how they came to be who they are.  Indeed, such disorientation is integral to that patient hill-climbing self, free as it is supposed to be.  The force of necessity is always with them, appreciated in terms that are terse, condensed into social doctrine; endurance is forged into pride that is threatened by the externalized Liberal Gaze. “How did it come to this?” and “How did I become this way?” are deflected into an embrace of “tradition” routinizing relief of intra-communal hostility by asserting it against an Outsider.  A misplaced solidarity assures tolerance of eternalized social contradictions as well as inoculating against criticism that always seems to come from the outside.

Hochschild supplements her stance of empathic receptiveness with egalitarian reassurances throughout the book, to the effect that “we all have Deep Stories.”  In light of what I have argued so far, this way of assuring respect for her interviewees is off the mark.  The problem both she and her interviewees share is that they have matured in a class/race/gender biased society that imposes constraints on making sense of and acting on experience.  That society imposes the divvying up of experience into story and non-story, a process hidden by and compensated for via screening mechanisms that leave us divided both within and without and poorly compensated for our losses.  For all of us it is a struggle to fend off those constraints and think through them to try to get things straight.

Can this happen in a research interview?  Almost certainly not.  Hochschild is undoubtedly familiar with the guidelines for radical organizing, that organizers live with people, speak their language, address their concerns, earn their trust.  In her project she followed this rubric only to the moment of bringing them to open up to her and distilling their compromised story; moving to a phase of participating with her in a serious questioning of their beliefs is a far bigger step.  But the crucial point here is that this questioning has often happened, and in a way that is not arrogant or disrespectful.  The history of organizing efforts, ranging from the US civil rights movement to a variety of mobilizations throughout world history, demonstrate the possibility of empathic, tactful criticism. Integral to accounts of movement struggles is a recurring appreciation of the organizer’s role, on the order of “they helped us learn that we did not have to be afraid, that we have power.”  In terrifically condensed form it expresses a reconstruction and supersession of a formerly constrained ideological self.  The peasant learns and acts on the knowledge that they are not the beast of burden the estate owner made them out to be but rather a human being capable of competent management of the land.  Amid the dissolution of screening metaphors in the smoke and flames of the manor house, a Deep Story as a screening component of hegemony is replaced by a counter-hegemonic Deep Story.


Against the social contradictions informing the Great Paradox, Hochschild – whose political beliefs are of the left – immobilizes herself in methodological tact that reveals to her a metaphoric snapshot of adjustment.  By way of doing research, she performs a ritual of self-abnegation that she thinks allows her to better understand her interviewees.  But it only results in a collusive partiality, a cleaving away into a non-story of what doesn’t fit into the honorable picture.  The selves she constructs are detached from both social reality and the dissonant emotions it inevitably gives rise to.  Her empathy becomes an empathy dedicated to quiescence, not to a full account that includes suppressed anger.

Despite her diligent effort to fully know her interviewees, Hochschild’s theory and method lead her to fall into a reductive, summarizing approach that is characteristic of the kind of survey research she would like to leave behind.  Consider, for example, the debates among British sociologists investigating working class-beliefs in the 1960s and early 70s.  A principal controversy developed around a typological approach wherein, for example, workers might be characterized as “instrumental” because they saw the workplace primarily as a place to earn money.  As such their “image of society” – a concept obviously resonant with Hochschild’s Deep Story – would not be the “power and conflict” image associated with challenges to capital.  Against the methodology behind such interpretations, John Westergaard wrote:

The point … is that the typology does not allow for that sort of vision as part of class consciousness.  It cannot be accommodated within the box where proletarian traditionalism sets… Nor can it be accommodated in the other boxes.  But the historical reality is that the parochial boundaries of traditional proletarianism have indeed been transcended, and are still being transcended every day, by working-class opposition characterized by a sense of general class identity.  I find the failure to allow for this surprising (Westergaard, 1975, p. 252).

In a way, Hochschild’s method regresses behind even this highly problematic approach: she reports on only one box, the amnestic Deep Story. Westergaard’s surprise and assertive remembrance of a history of class contention that won’t fit in the boxes parallels our surprise and subsequent demand for a full accounting of the emotions and experiences that Hochschild excludes.  To make that full accounting possible, rudimentary psychoanalytic concepts that allow us to trace the formation and tension-filled maintenance of the ideological subject are essential. Only a psychoanalytically-informed social theory can keep the possibility of emancipatory praxis fully in view.




2. By focusing on the ability to remember ancestors, Hochschild’s example of structural amnesia in Nuer society draws on what might be a relatively cold, secondary manifestation of sex/gender conflict.  If there are hotter conflicts, e.g. around the distribution of work, the suppression of those tensions would very likely not take an amnestic form.  If that’s true, then even with her case example Hochschild places undue emphasis on amnesia per se.  Structural amnesia should not serve as a model of non-story formation processes.  Just as in clinical presentations, it is only a symptomatic outcome of  an ensemble of social-psychological processes aimed at containing a range of related sex/gender conflicts.


Bachrach, P. and M. S. Baratz (1962)  “The Two Faces of Power.”  American Political Science Review, 56: 946-55.

Fenichel, Otto (1927) “On the Economic Function of Screen Memories.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 13: 58-60.

Fenichel, Otto (1929) “Two Short Supplementary Notes.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 10:447-450

Freud, S. (1899). “Screen Memories.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume III (1893-1899): Early Psycho-Analytic Publications, 299-322

Habermas, Jurgen.  (1972) Knowledge and Human Interests.  Boston: Beacon.

Hochschild, Arlie.  (1983)  The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hochschild, Arlie. (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  New York: New Press.

Jacoby, Russell.  (1975) Social Amnesia.  Boston: Beacon.  

Kernberg, Otto.  (1971) Factors in the Treatment of Narcissistic Personalities.  Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 18: 51-85.

Kernberg, Otto.  (1974). Further Contributions to the Treatment of Narcissistic Personalities.  International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 55:215-240

Kuttner, Robert. (2016) Hidden Injuries.  The American Prospect.  Fall edition, pps. 97-104.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (2003). Metaphors We Live By.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pierson, Paul. (2107) Listening to Louisiana: what “climbing the empathy wall” can (and can’t) tell us about the populist right.  British Journal of Sociology 68 (1): 133-7.

Westergarrd, J. H. (1975).  “Radical Class Consciousness: A Comment.” In Martin Bulmer, ed.  Working Class Images of Society  London: Routledge Kegan Paul.

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