Affective Labor as the Lifeblood of a Commons
We have so internalized the logic of neoliberal economics and modernity, even those of us who would like to think otherwise, that we don’t really appreciate how deeply our minds have been colonized. It is easy to see homo economicus as silly. Certainly we are not selfish, utility-maximizing rationalists, not us! And yet, the proper role of our emotions and affect in imagining a new order remains a murky topic.
That’s why I was excited to run across a fascinating paper by Neera M. Singh, an academic who studies forestry at the University of Toronto. Her paper, “The Affective Labor of Growing Forests and the Becoming of Environmental Subjects” focuses on “rethinking environmentality” in the Odisha region of India. (Unfortunately, the article, published in Geoforum (vol. 47, pp. 189-198, in 2013) is behind a paywall.)
How do people become “environmental subjects” – that is, people who are willing to apply their subjective human talents, imagination and commitments and become stewards of some element of nature?
Singh wanted to investigate why villagers were willing to regenerate degraded state-owned forests through community-based forest conservation efforts. She found that “affective labor” is critical in managing a forest. The term comes from Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who use it to describe the role that reciprocity, empathy and affect play in shaping human behavior and action. Indeed, other people’s affect influences what kind of “self” we construct for ourselves.
This whole topic is important because standard economics has its own crudely reductionist idea of who human beings are. We are “rational, self-interested” economic actors, of course, and most public policy is based on this (erroneous, limited) notion. Most economists frankly have no interest in exploring how people come to formulate their “self-interest.” They simply take those interests as given.
But what if participating in commons produced a very different sort of human perception and subjectivity, and indeed, produced human beings as self-aware subjects/agents? What if this process could be shown to be essential in integrating human culture with a specific ecological landscape?
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