I wrote yesterday about cognitive triage in higher education and its ramifications for personal reflexivity. My claim is that an inflation of situational demands leads subjects to prioritise the urgent, moving immediately from one necessity to another, in a way which crowds out the important. While the urgent/important dichotomy is a feature of the ‘productivity culture’ I’m trying to analyse, I nonetheless think it’s actually a useful contrast. It loosely reflects the distinction between first-order desires and second-order desires offered by Charles Taylor and Harry Frankfurt: between our immediate desires and our desires about our desires e.g. I don’t want to go outside into the snow to walk to work but I want to want to do this and will if my second-order desire wins out over my first-order desire.
I’d like to develop the urgent/important contrast as a way of conceptually unpacking how reflexivity operates in working life. Dealing with both entails reflexivity but of very different sorts. The reflexivity of urgency is much more limited in its scope, often instrumental and usually restricted to situational considerations. The reflexivity of importance is much more expansive, often value-rational and tends to transcend situational limitations. It’s the latter that is the foundation of agency, as what is important leads to action orientated towards changing our circumstances or exiting them (another aspect of what I’d like to do with this project). This is an overview of what I’m trying to argue:
- Social acceleration leads what is urgent to crowd out what is important via an escalation of situational demands
- In doing so, personal reflexivity tends towards the urgent rather than the important
- This has important ramifications for how subjects behave within the workplace
- Coping strategies by subjects reinforce this tendency towards urgent reflexivity
- These coping strategies also tend to reinforce acceleration within the workplace, as they facilitate the continual escalation of situational demands
Along with Filip Vostal, I want to develop this argument using higher education as a case study but I believe the process is far from restricted to the academy. In short, we’re trying to explore how a ‘circle of acceleration’ is intensified by personal coping strategies. These questions seem politically pressing to me because social acceleration is not an inexorable phenomenon. While some important aspects of it are technological, there’s nonetheless a large element which emerges from new technologies of control within the workplace (and is in turn being entrenched through an expansion of the technological facilities for audit & intervention). This amounts to, as Will Davies put it, “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest” (I’ve had this line stuck in my head since I encountered it) – what we’re interested in is how people seek to get better at hopping and how this reinforces the overall trend.