The Sociology of Everythingism

There was a Guardian article last summer which really caught my imagination. It introduced the term ‘everythingist’ to explain a recurrent inability to commit because there are so many other things to do. I’m a recovering everythingist. Or maybe I’m not recovering but I’ve learnt to make it work for me (at least in my working life). Though I’m not going to admit how many books I have on the go at the moment. The appeal of productivity culture for me (in the sense of things like GTD and omnifocus) stems from its capacity to help me extend the number of things I can keep on the go at the same time. It helps me elude the inevitable constraints of attention and energy. But those constraints are still there. Are you an everythingist?

Here’s how to tell if you, too, are an everythingist. Do you clutch your phone in your hand at all times, like a beacon against the cold, a magic talisman with its promise of otherness, betterness, of more attractive people desirous of your company elsewhere? Does it ensure you are unable to quite go with a plan or be in the moment because of all the other plans and moments where you might be, cheating on yourself with your other selves? Does your phone give you FOMO (AKA fear of missing out) for the party you’re not at, even when you’re at it? Did the news that Prism could be spying on all of our data give you a giddy rush when you thought that one of the lockdown powergeeks might be looking in and realising that you – you! – are the chosen one? Do you tend to fall asleep in your clothes, just in case the revolution should begin outside your bedroom window in the night?

Do you, like me, think that fairytale endings will magically happen to your life – ie, you will fall in deep rewarding love and raise daughters with Rapunzel hair in a beautiful Welsh farmhouse one day, writing novels on a typewriter, milking your nanny goats at dawn? Of course, this all will have to happen magically as you absolutely refuse to give up nightclubs and the closest you have come to milking your nanny goats at dawn was all a case of mistaken identity and that restraining order for going within a 40-metre ring of the late-night Turkish greengrocers is a gross infringement on your civil liberties, which you will sort out as soon as you find the bit of paper they wrote it on.

The everythingist can’t be tied down by a job and so they work freelance (ie are self-unemployed). They don’t want to be restricted by narrow labels like straight or gay because they believe their sexuality to be a fluid concept (ie they keep getting dumped). They are breathlessly addicted to their youth, despite being 12 years older than their parents were when they had them; can’t read a book to the end because they’ve already started two more; and they need to know, at all times, that they could, in theory, if they wanted to, at any point, run away to Rio de Janeiro.

The everythingist works from home, revelling in their freedom to go for a walk in the sunshine while other sad jobsworthy losers are stuck at their desks with not so much as a freelancer’s liedown to look forward to. The everythingist has been planning this walk in the sunshine for 17 days now, having been quite distracted by all the freelancer’s liedowns that it is their right and freedom to enjoy. In their lunch hour. I mean, why not? It’s not as if there’s any lunch.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/11/everythingist-craving-new-experiences

I’d been vaguely intending to blog about this since last summer (unfortunately there were so many other things I wanted to blog about…) but two things reminded me about the notion of ‘everythingist’ recently. Firstly, an interesting Oliver Burkeman column argued that “the only conceivable way to live a meaningful life is to not do thousands of meaningful things”. His point was that committing to too many things undermines your capacity to properly commit to any of them. We have finite time, energy and attention. So if we try and pursue all the things we find interesting (or most of them) then we foreclose the possibility of really engaging with any of them. Secondly, I recently read the wonderful book The Importance of Disappointment by Ian Craib. He discusses the ‘illusions of the powerful self’ and a pervasive cultural tendency which leads us to seek ceaseless self-control and self-awareness.

What both these ideas point to are the objective implications of our actions. There is a subjective moment to decision making (“that’s interesting, I should do it”) but in so far as a decision is made there are also objective consequences to our decision. Some of these are consequences for ourself, as our commitment entails an allocation of our finite resources (though of course we don’t conceptualise it in these terms). Some of these are consequences for our circumstances, as our commitment leads us to enter into contracts and agreements, moving places and making changes to the characteristics of our lives. Everythingism represents a fundamental antipathy towards these constraints. It represents an inclination to try and elude the consequences of our actions. We want to have everything. We want to do everything. We want to be everything. At least in my case I want to read everything. It’s a particular response to cultural variety.

It’s a reticence to ‘bound’ variety, as Margaret Archer puts it, so as to delimit the pool of options we experience and choose from a more restricted set. For communicative reflexives, personal relations ‘bound’ variety. For autonomous reflexives, strategies and instrumentalism ‘bound’ variety. For meta-reflexives, ideas and ideals bound variety. For fractured reflexives, variety is overwhelming and disorientating. For everythingists, variety is a challenge. Unlike fractured reflexives, it provokes sustained responses but these sustained responses are mutually exclusive. Doing A makes it more difficult to do B etc. In trying to do both I run up against an objective relation, activated by my subjective commitment but irreducible to it – the fact I really really want to do both A and B doesn’t diminish the objective limitations on my time, energy and attention nor does it change the demands which doing A and B place upon me (given my personal characteristics).

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