The self as painting: we become who we are through repetition and representation. Encumbered only by our imagination and the culture in which we find ourselves, we craft ourselves through iterated projects of self-representation. We might find the materials available to us limiting, in which case we might seek out a more diverse palette of cultural ideas through which to express that which we are and wish to be. We might also seek to refine our technique, extending the range of our potential selves by expanding our capacities to represent them. But the process is fundamentally repetitive. We begin within constraints but once we start painting, it’s up to us what we do. The freedom exercised through this is one of redescription, in Richard Rorty’s sense, something which Roy Bhaskar once critiqued as relying on a ‘free-wheeling’ conception of freedom: it doesn’t hook on to the world, to the definitive ways in which things are at any given point in time, with all the constraints and limitations which this entails. 

Its appeal rests on the prospect of everlasting freedom. We can dispense with any one painting once we grow dissatisfied, throwing it away to restart in pursuit of ever richer and more vivid representations of our self. But there is an element of fantasy in this, refining our representation of self potentially at the cost of losing touch with the reality of who we are and where we are at any given moment. To craft the self as painting represents a private project of self-creation. It approaches the challenges of existence in an aesthetic register, one which cuts us off from our selves and from others in an ever-so subtle way, while holding out the (always retreating) promise of endless freedom in inner life, whatever the world out there holds for us and what we care about. 

The self as sculpting: through a sustained engagement with the material we find in our selves and our lives, we gradually produce the person we aim to be through our crafting of self. The process is subtractive, rather than additive. We select, refine and remove in a way that is path-dependent, often finding unexpected limitations which follow from the whole sequence of past choices we have made. The further we go in this process, the less room for manoeuvre we have because our form becomes progressively more concrete with time. To become who we are depends on what was latent with us, but how this comes to take the form it does depends on the world we have found ourselves in and how we have chose to make our way through it. 

We shape the clay but we do not choose it and our understanding of the range of possibilities latent within it will always be constrained by circumstance and experience. When the promise of the protean self is ubiquitous, tempting us with the idea that the only limit on who we can be is our imagination, the limitations of the clay can seem suffocating. But there is a freedom within these constraints. A profound, challenging and subtle freedom which refuses the reduction of existence to aesthetics. 

The notion of relational authoriality, which consistency demands I acknowledge emerged in conversations with Jana Bacevic, conveys a relational realist perspective on the question of authorship. It rejects the notion of the liberal individual as the origin of a text while continuing to insist that there is a definite causal story to be told about the emergence of any text, encompassing individuals and the relations between them. Relational authoriality stresses how creative production happens through interaction, direct or mediated, between individuals who care about what they discuss. People debate, discuss and digress about things that matter to them. It’s this concern to enter into dialogue, sometimes with the parties involved changing as a result of the process, which provides the relational underpinning to creative production. It might be that a particular individual takes forward this raw material, running with it and placing their mark on it in a way which leads to it being recognised as theirs. But this simple wouldn’t be possible without these prior networks, acting as the creative ecology within which individual authorship becomes feasible. Every completed act of authorship has its own history of emergence and accurate accounts of it will lead back to individuals, interactions and relations.

I was led to think back to this line of thought when reading Shattered: Inside Hilary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. As is often the case, speeches and speech writing figure prominently in the book. I’ve read a lot of campaign books over the years and I’ve always been gripped by these details. In part this is because political speeches are such a crucial part of the politician’s craft, with their (perceived) success or failure being integral to the fluctuating fortunes of political careers. This isn’t simply an American phenomenon. Consider the acclaim which greeted David Cameron’s 2005 conference speech, delivered without a lectern or notes, widely seen to have tipped the leadership contest in his favour. We can see a parallel in Ed Milliband’s first conference speech as Labour leader. Much of the increasing ‘plausibility’ of Corbyn as a political leader, at least amongst the commentariat, rests on the increasingly polished way in which he delivers speeches.

Why does this matter so much? There are many reasons why accomplished delivery are valued in an age of media-saturated politics. But I wonder if a fetish of delivery reflects a denial of relational authoriality. In reality, all who have considered it must surely recognise that politicians do not straight-forwardly write their own speeches, allowing them to meaningfully claim ownership of them in an individualistic sense. These are team efforts, at best produced through careful collaboration between committed partners and at worst produced mechanically through committees. We can see the character of politicians, as well as the nature of the organisations they inhabit, reflected in how they approach these challenges. Contrast the dialogical collaboration between Obama and trusted aides with the byzantine, sometimes conflicting, structures which Clinton often established for speech writing. But these are subtle judgements, pointing to relational authoriality rather than individual authorship, which sit uneasily within the individualistic frame of ‘political leadership’. We fetishise delivery of speeches, as well as the perceived strength of the individuals who delivery them, as the spiralling complex of governance ever more outstrips the capacities of the ‘strong leaders’ we praise.

There’s an intriguing argument in The Mediated Construction of Social Reality, by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp, concerning our dependence upon digital media and how we respond to its failure. From loc 5527:

We feel the costs viscerally: when ‘our’ media break down –we lose internet connection, our password stops working, we are unable to download the latest version of software required by the device or function we want to use –it is as if the social infrastructure were itself, in some respect, breaking down: recursivity has been interrupted, ontological security becomes threatened.

I take their point to be that our reliance upon digital media isn’t simply about specific purposes. For digital media to fail does not frustrate us because it impedes a particular purpose. In an important sense, our purposiveness as such, has come to rely upon digital media. For this reason, there is a latent trauma inherent in its breakdown. We experience its failure in terms of a impeded capacity to act within the world, as opposed to simply frustrating specific actions.

The argument is underdeveloped, as can be seen by the “in some respect” clause within it. It’s nonetheless an important and provocative one. It left me wondering if anyone has done qualitative research about experiences of wifi breaking down in terms of the affective fallout from such a failure? My experience of this has tended to be one of whole categories of action being foreclosed when this happens, as in a real sense I lose the ability to proceed with my work, rather  than it simply being a contingent impediment to particular tasks. I imagine there’s a great deal of variability in how people respond to such a situation but I nonetheless think Couldry and Hepp are pointing towards something very interesting.

An exercise in free-writing, undertaken at a writing workshop at the Becoming Academic conference at the University of Sussex.

I write to eliminate the clutter in my head, the accumulated debris which emerges within me as I make my way through the world, trying to understand my experiences as I go. If I am free to write, I am free to be within the world and my experience feels most full and most thick when I am externalising my internal reactions to the world. What C Wright mills called ‘the feel of an idea’ preoccupies me and my orientation to the world feels changed in those times when I seize upon that feeling, run with it it and make something new ‘out there’ from a reaction I had ‘in here’ to the world. But what can be difficult is when I can’t run with that feeling, when nascent ideas bubble up inside of me but circumstances preclude my running with them. Contingencies intervene and prevent my exploration of these things I feel moved to explore. If I don’t write, I feel in partial motion, stuck in the early stages of a range I cannot complete. If I can’t write, I feel somehow incomplete, as if my capacity to react to the world is subtly mutilated. I write to eliminate the clutter in my head and without writing I am inundated by mess.

I wonder if there is something performative about my writing, as if I bring myself into being through the process of doing it. I wonder why I feel so compelled to share my writing, as if it somehow isn’t real or can’t become real unless it is out there in the world. It’s a repeated exercise, conducted thousands of times, which has left me feeling extremely comfortable with the prospect of sharing my writing. But I’m still not entirely sure why I do it and at times it feels like a compulsion.

Which character from the Irvine Welsh novels has the most depth? While Francis Begbie might have counted as the most vivid, particularly as he was brought to life in Robert Carlyle’s unforgettable performance, I’d be surprised if anyone thought of him as the deepest. Yet that’s the impression one is left with after reading Irvine Welsh’s latest novel The Blade Artist. I don’t mean depth in terms of the psychological coherence of the characterisation, as much as that Welsh has clearly spent a great deal of time reflecting on Begbie and what makes him who he is.

The Blade Artist begins in California. We meet Jim Begbie, succesful artist and devoted husband and father, facing down two men on the beach who threaten his wife and daughters. We soon see the remarkable, most of all happy, life he has built for himself across the Atlantic. A balance which is shattered by the news that his son Sean has been murdered, prompting Begbie to fly back to Edinburgh in order to attend the funeral.

His transition is explored through his return to Leith and reacquaintance with the familiar figures from his older life. He finds himself sympathising with the police’s lack of interest in his son Sean’s murder, wondering to himself “Why indulge people like that when they would simply take each other out if you left them to their own devices?”. He’s baffled in the face of old rivals, astonished “now to think that he cared enough about this guy to consider doing that”. In the face of the leering optimism of Sean’s mother that they might reconcile, he can only find her grotesque and idiotic.

Finding his way to an old boxing gym when he returns, he suddenly relates to past acquaintances in a new way. Those who had “been keeping him at arm’s length for years” were now suddenly “welcoming him into the ‘he used to be a bam but he’s alright now’ club”. They had joined this club a long time ago but in finding membership in it, he realises there’s still a place for himself in the city and once more feels at home there.

There were two figures integral to his transformation. The first, John Dick, “believed in him, despite Franco being determined to present all the evidence to the contrary” and ran the prison scheme which “brought in the writers, poets and artists, to see if anything would gel” and “Saw a spark ignite in a few, Frank Begbie being the most unlikely. Amongst these was Melanie, the art therapist, now his wife:

But who was she? She was good and strong and I was bad and weak. That’s what hit me most of all from being around her. That I was weak. The notion was ridiculous; it went against everything I’d come to believe about my persona and image, against the way I’d consciously forged myself over the years. Yet who else but a weak man would spend half his life letting others lock him up like an animal?

I was one of the weakest people on the planet. I had zero control over my darker impulses. Therefore I was constant jail fodder. Some mouthy cunt got wide; they had to be decimated on the spot, and I was back in prison. Thus such nonentities were in total command of my destiny. That was my first major epiphany: I was weak because I wasn’t in control of myself. Melanie was in control of herself. In order to be with somebody like her, to live a free life, not in a tenement or scheme on the breadline, or even a suburb and crippled with a lifetime of debt, I needed a free mind. I had to get control of myself.

His work began to receive recognition when he was granted day release to take part in an exhibition in Edinburgh. It soon won celebrity sponsorship, with prominent figures fixating on his portrayal of the life he had denied the man he killed, as well as his wider tendency to mutilate representations of celebrities in the name of art. Social recognition comes to provide a momentum of its own, sweeping him along in changes that are already underway, not least of all through his relationship with Melanie.

Much of all his change involves a changed relation to himself. Throughout the story, we see Begbie respond to situations through self-restraint, in full awareness of his inclination to lash out. This illustrates the continuity of his character, as the old impulses are marginalised rather than annihilated. What has changed is how he relates to himself and the world, with new concerns leading to an eery distance from the social world which formed him.

To the outside world, such a change is baffling. It comes from nowhere and invites accusations of insubstantiality. An accusation that has a kernel of truth given that he is still the same person, he simply orientates himself to the world in a different way. But there were moments in his past in which he sought change:

Ah’m just no feelin it, he says, recalling slivers of alcohol-fuelled violence, bonhomie and shagging. Then the long periods in between, of being stuck in a cell. Coming out. A fresh start. A new bird. Big plans. Resolutions made.

Then another wide cunt. Another incident.

Rather than a life time of stasis being followed by a sudden change, we can instead see his life as involving a whole sequence of impeded attempts to change. Frustrated attempts to become something other than he was, lacking both external guidance and the conditions within which he might enjoy success. For all its flaws as a novel, The Blade Artist captures the dynamism inherent in becoming who we are, the constant activity at work even when people fail to outwardly change and the possibility of significant transformation which always remains latent within them. In the end do we really change? The Blade Artist would suggest not but does so in a way that reminds us of the limitations of treating fictional portrayals as akin to qualitative data.

In his Debating Humanity, Daniel Chernilo compares the approaches taken by Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt to the question of thinking. Both began with the philosophical tradition’s opposition between thinking and action: in this sense it implies withdrawal in some sense, relative to a world of activity. However Heidegger saw this thinking as an activity for the chosen few. From pg 80:

For Heidegger, on the contrary, it is defined in terms of the fundamental realisation that thinking is exclusively to do with thinking itself. Thinking is the professional craft of the philosopher; the slow, painful and authoritative listening to the great minds of the past in a process that leads to understand the one idea that a genuine thinker may be able to develop over the course of a lifetime.

This is a radically slow conception of thinking. So slow as to preclude the vast majority of humanity from truly engaging in it. The human disappears in Heidegger’s conception of thought, as the irrelevant site through which thought occurs. His approach to thinking entailed that we leave out the thinker, as thought itself proceeds on a level which is entirely independent of the one who thinks. In contrast, Arendt casts thinking in a thoroughly quotidian frame as “the internal dialogue of a thinking ego that is directed to objects in the world”, ascribing to this “general anthropological capacity of stop and think” the ability of humans “not only to regain some control over their lives but to creatively envisage something that is new” (pg. 80). It is, as Chernilo puts it, “precisely the human quality of thinking that makes thinking worthy of attention” for Ardent (pg. 81).

What caught my imagination about Chernilo’s account is his contrast between the worldliness of Arendt’s conception of thought in contrast to the worldlessness of Heidegger’s. This distinction is one we could usefully apply to contemporary debates on distraction, distinguishing between what I think are two clear tendencies:

  • Constructing ‘distraction’ in terms of a lost past, contrasting the attentional commitment presumed to have once been possible with the fragmentation assumed to define the life of the contemporary mind. What was one slow has become fast, what was once quiet has become loud and human beings (or in some cases only ‘millennials’) are seen to have undergone a process of loss.
  • Constructing ‘distraction’ as a practical impediment to the capacity to withdraw from the world so as to reflect on it. Distraction is cashed out in terms of specific impediments to thought, inviting us to consider what withdrawal actually means and the socio-temporal conditions which can facilitate it.

If we reject the former in favour of the latter, it no longer seems plausible to frame ‘distraction’ in epochal terms. Perhaps more importantly, we can begin to explore the socio-temporal and socio-technical conditions within which we ‘stop and think’, as well as how we can individually and collectively exercise an influence over them. We must insist on worldliness in how we characterise the life of the mind. Or at the very least I should finally get round to reading this book I’ve intended to for years.

Ever since I was a philosophy student, I’ve been interested in how we conceptualise individuals and groups. The two are connected in my mind because, if groups are composed of individuals, our concept of individuals is going to condition our concept of groups and vice versa. However discussion at this level of abstraction can seem remote from the real world. In fact this is what led me away from philosophy and into sociology when I encountered it as a masters student. But this wasn’t my rejecting a focus on concepts as much as a desire to see how those concepts operate in the world.

I was thinking of these issues again when reading Jana Bacevic’s From Class To Identity, a study of education reforms in former Yugoslavia. How we conceptualise agency is a key concern of the book from the outset at the level of its object (claims about groups are a crucial factor in educational reform) and its explanatory framework (claims about groups are crucial to explaining the link between education and conflict). For instance “linear, one dimensional or causal explanations” such as “educational discourses -> exclusionary identities -> war” make (inadequate) assumptions about agency while being “hardly helpful in the understanding of the dynamics between education and conflict” (pg 7). Agency is often left unexamined in such processes, particularly when researchers are examining trends at the macro-social level. From pg 9:

Consider, for instance, practices of military recruitment: going into the army (in countries without mandatory conscription) is frequently the choice of people who come from poor, discriminated or otherwise marginalized backgrounds. Knowing the ubiquitous (and at least partially causal) connection between education, income and social status, it is both reasonable and empirically sustainable to assume that these people also happen to have lower educational levels. But do they go to war because they are not educated? Or do they go to war because they are poor and marginalized, so enlisting may give them an opportunity to earn (legally or illegally) wealth, security, and status they could otherwise not hope to attain?

If we fail to recognise the role of agency in such dynamics, we render the political opaque. From pg 17-18:

In other words, instead of the teleological understanding of the political dynamics of the Western Balkans as progress towards European integration and away from the communist past, this book will aim to bring the political back into the analysis of policymaking. In this context, the notion of “political” is closest to the meaning in which theorists such as Chantal Mouffe (2005, 1993), Ernesto Laclau (1994), and Jacques Ranciere (e.g. 2010) utilize it (cf. Ruitenberg 2011, 98). This means understanding politics as a place of, and for, the challenging, contestation, transformation and deliberation of different ideologies related to what constitutes a good society, who should rule it, and how its benefits should be distributed.

Treating agency in the abstract is not a retreat from the political but rather a precondition for its adequate exploration. Claims about individuals and groups are fundamentally contestable, if not necessarily contested, constituting vectors through which political struggle is pursued. The success of such strategies leads their advocates to leave the stage, with the results of their scheming appearing to be self-evident and incontestable. But these deploy particular understandings of individuals and groups which exercise a causal influence through their embedding in policy agendas and organisational processes. From pg 19:

Rather than a self understood and “natural” part either of dealing with the communist legacy, or of European integration of the region, then, policy agendas and particular decisions are seen as fundamentally political, in the sense in which they actively engage in creating, constructing, defining, organizing, using and mobilizing, or, alternatively, suppressing, containing, manipulating and controlling particular political and group identities.

We face a challenge in distinguishing between these various claims about agency, the social processes through which they are rendered natural and the real properties and powers of agents in virtue of which they are able to pursue or contest such claims. Abstraction is crucial to meeting this challenge because it allows us to distinguish between individual/groups and the claims made about them. In part this is a matter of theoretical literacy, ensuring we have the vocabulary we need in order to draw these distinctions, preventing us from getting tied up in the discursive contest and letting the world which is being contested slip away from us. But it’s also concerned with the reality of the agents themselves, their characteristics and capacities, the contexts that have shaped them and how they’ve shaped those contexts.

Earlier this morning, I found myself impatiently waiting in my local petrol station to purchase a drink before I went swimming. The woman in front me in the queue was rather slow. Initially seeming surprised that money would be required for the transaction, she proceeded to initiate an entirely different process to locate her coins after handing over the necessary notes. Having completed the exchange, she gathered her things with a similar lack of pace, slowly preparing to leave the shop. It was at that point that she gently chided me for rushing her, suddenly leaving me aware that this was in fact what I was doing by impatiently lingering while effectively pointing towards the cashier with my drink.

With this newfound awareness, my irritation at her transmuted into an irritation with myself. Why was I being so impatient? Why was I being needlessly rude? It immediately occurred to me that this was an example of what I mean by cognitive triage. Having woken up later than planned, I started the day with a vivid sense of all the tasks I had to complete, with one leading in sequence to the next. There were a couple of things that had to be done today but this sense of urgency mostly reflected a desire to be on top of things before I headed off to the midlands for the rest of the week.

It was an anticipatory urgency: a haste animated by the fear of falling behind in the future. This can be distinguished from rushing to meet a deadline. The imminent arrival of a deadline offers a fixed temporal horizon for an activity. One rushes and then ceases to rush. In contrast, anticipatory urgency is potentially open-ended. If an upcoming event is a threat to ‘being on top of things’ then where to draw the line in terms of what is required to be prepared? My suggestion is that anticipatory urgency engenders a peculiarly hasty form of haste. It involves rushing in a rushed way. Not simply speeding up to meet a deadline but trying to speed up one’s speeding up. How much can I get done before I go away? How prepared do I need to be? It’s a reflexive orientation that can bring out the worst in people, as my rudeness in the garage illustrates.

There is a pleasure in speed, as Milan Kundera powerfully captures in his Slowness. There is the possibility of transcendence. On pg 3-4 he describes the inner experience of a man on a motorbike:

the man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instance of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words he is in a state of ecstasy. In that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

In contrast, I’d argue, anticipatory urgency precludes this. One is not cut off from past and future but profoundly implicated in the relationship between the two. The present is subordinated the future, with the usual texture of temporality being reduced to an endless sequence of moments. Each one is simply a challenge lying in the way of reaching the next. It creates flat time. This suppression of relationality is licensed by the promise that the important events will come and our anticipatory urgency will have left us properly open to them. But the more time we spent in a state of anticipatory urgency, the less likely it is that this promise will ever be realised.

In the last couple of months, I’ve found myself reflecting on irritation. What is it? It’s one of our most recognisable reactions to the world, yet it’s hard to be precise about what it is. Is it an emotion? Is it a state of mind? Is it a reaction to the world? This is the definition which Wikipedia offers:

Annoyance is an unpleasant mental state that is characterized by such effects as irritation and distraction from one’s conscious thinking. It can lead to emotions such as frustration and anger. The property of being easily annoyed is called irritability.

There’s a whole model of the person implicit within this which I’m sceptical of. The idea that mental states manifests themselves in effects with implications for cognition, generated by propensities and generating emotions. It’s an individualised account, even if a multifaceted one, concerning something that’s deeply relational.

The most straight forward definition of irritation would be ‘something which irritates’. In one sense it’s circular, telling us nothing about what irritation is, but it captures the relationality of the reaction. We are irritated by something. We find something irritating. It involves an evaluative relation to the world, but one which, as it were, goes wrong. Far from the smoothly hermeneutic world of the post-Aristotelian philosophers, we have the Goffmanian reality of living together (in a world which frustrates our purposes).

So if irritation is being irritated by something, what is it to be irritated? To be “angered, provoked, or annoyed” or “inflamed or made raw, as a part of the body”. The second definition concerns the resolutely physical but I think it captures something important. We are irritated when we are inflamed by the world, made raw by its recalcitrance. People or circumstances irritates us when they impede our routine movement through the world. Things are not as we expect. We’re forced to calibrate ourselves in relation to the world, pushed back into ourselves confronted with a world that resists us, rather than easily making or way through it. 

We get irritated by others when they do not act as we expect them to. We get irritated by others when they do not act as we think they ought to. In this sense, I would argue that irritation tracks declining social integration: the less agreement there is about how we ought to comport ourselves, the more likely we are to experience irritation in daily life.

What interests me is how we respond to this. If we simply make internal allowances for the fact that others may have different expectations and aspirations to ourselves, it’s easy for the irritation to dissipate. A trivial example: I find it irritating when people talk loudly in the steam room at my gym. But I also recognise that some people go there to socialise, whereas for me it’s a resolutely individual activity. Reminding myself of that fact usually leads the irritation to subside.

On the other hand, if I seek external confirmation for my reaction, it’s unlikely to subside. This is where social media comes in: the imagined interlocutor (what Danny Miller calls the ‘meta best friend’) can serve as a outlet, without the possibility for censure that arises when you share with a concrete individual who’s liable to tell you to stop obsessing and let other people be. It’s even more effective when an agent of this imagined interlocutor, someone who emerges from the background to respond definitively before fading back into it and propping up an imagined consensus, confirms that they too find this behaviour irritating.

Sharing irritation through social networks can facilitate an extreme form of what critical realists call communicative reflexivity. We find confirmation of our immediate reactions in others, rather than further interrogating our reaction internally, leading to a hardening of our reaction and a disposition to act similarly in future. I don’t think digital technology straight forwardly causes a decline in social integration but I do think social networks can amplify personal reactions which entrench the decline by, as it were, depleting the reserves of tolerance we have for others who think about and approach life in a different way to us. This is connected to the paradox of incivility and it’s something I’d like to come back to in greater depth.

In his On the Ontological Mystery, Gabriel Marcel describes the experience of “an irresistible appeal which overturns the habitual perspectives just as a gust of wind might tumble down the panels of a stage set”. He is talking of a chance meeting with a stranger, but the image is a powerful one which characterises many episodes of what I think of as personal morphogenesis. Fateful moments, turning points and critical junctures often involve profound changes in the scenery of our lives. Things which we thought were solid fall apart. Suddenly what was fixed is revealed to be malleable. We realise that the background to our lives is not immutable, rather it was simply what had faded into the background. It is a sudden, dramatic and painful overturning of the strangely subtle process through which we ‘die a thousand deaths’, to use Roberto Unger’s phrase, as congealing layers of habit obscure our own agency.

I’m fascinated by these fateful moments because they are central to understanding agency. Their mysterious dynamics hold the secrets of our dual nature, free but always constrained, capable of choice but driven by automaticity. To adequately address the ontology of such fateful moments entails that we are careful about their epistemology. The mere fact of a moment being deemed fateful by a subject does not make it so. The poetics of ‘turning points’ often blind us to the mundane realities that preceded them, as the dramatic moment when the sense of our life ‘tumbles down like the panels of a stage set’ only came about because of many unnoticed gusts of wind that gradually eroded the foundations of this experienced order. 

It might sound voluntaristic to be concerned with these sudden dizzying encounters with freedom, but it’s precisely in such moments when we can be face to face with the recalcitrance of reality. Best laid plans go awry, people and things resist our demands and the order we sought to impose on the world proves to be a hope, rather than a blue print. An adequate phenomenology of ‘fateful moments’ must be orientated to the past, as well as the future. What renders these moments fateful is being torn between the two, rather than habitually chugging along as past investments propel us through present circumstances and into an expected future.

Investigating fateful moments can help elucidate this strained character of agency, forever caught between past and future, blind to the full range of opportunities and constraints confronted in the present. But fateful moments aren’t reducible to agency. They are something relational, multifaceted and dynamic. For this reason, they can also be profoundly macro-sociological in origin. Reading Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful At the Existential Cafe, which incidentally introduced me to the Marcel text I opened this discussion with, offers a wonderful account of how the grand sweep of historical events can reshape the lives of those caught within them. At risk of stating the obvious, wars are amongst many other things a terrifying social machinery for generating fateful moments. A concern for fateful moments does not represent a personalist myopia, but rather an ambition to stitch together the tapestry of social explanation from the most intimate aspects of personal experience through to the most dramatic instances of systemic change.

In an interesting chapter Frederic Vandenberghe explores the role of the individual in Bourdieu’s Sociology, as well as the critiques which Margaret Archer and Bernard Lahire make of it. His intention is to respond to a sociology he sees as hegemonic by developing a post-Bourdieusian theory of the social world that is not anti-Bourdieusian. His project, as I understand it, derives from a sense that Bourdieu’s sheer influence is distortive, polarising debate in a way that steers it away from concern with better or worse sociology to more or less accurate interpretations of the master.

How accurate is Vandenberghe’s account of Bourdieu’s influence? His 536,230 citations certainly offer quantitative evidence of this influence, but the claim that Bourdieu’s sociology is hegemonic seems more contentious to me. Nonetheless, he’s surely correct that the combination of its influence, diffusion and systematicity make it a force to be reckoned with. Or rather a force that must be reckoned with, a reference point that is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore.

Both Archer and Lahire were deeply influenced by Bourdieu. My interview with her in here explores his influence on her thinking, as well as her time working with him as a post-doc in the early 60s. While, as Vandenberghe puts it, Lahire’s sociology is so “thoroughly Bourdieusian that he could well be considered the heterodox successor to the master (Loïc Wacquant being the official one)”. Both have worked at the intersection of sociology and psychology in recent years, with Lahire taking inspiration from Durkheim while Archer has looked to American pragmatism for intellectual resources. Vandenberghe argues that their work represents a social psychology of a new kind: orientated to “how groups, large and small, behave within in the individual mind” rather than “how individuals behave in small groups”. Their shared unit of analysis is the life, understood biographically, as a movement through the world constituted through choices. But the dissimilarity arises because Archer’s focus concerns how future projects shape present actions, whereas Lahire explains the present and the future in terms of past “dispositions and their activation in particular contexts in the present”. As he puts it, “His actors are pushed by their dispositions, while hers are pulled forward by their projects”.

From Vandenberghe’s exposition, it seems that Lahire’s critique of the concept of habitus resembles Archer’s in some ways: he “accuses Bourdieu of abusively generalising a particular model that only holds in exceptional situation (such as traditional societies and total institutions)”. But he make the same critique of the concept of field, “accusing Bourdieu of transforming a regional model into a general theory of the social world”. Instead he offers an account of the individual as “like a crumpled sheet or a rumpled rag”, with social space in all its dimensions unevenly folded up inside of them. Not unlike Archer, he sees what Bourdieu regarded as a marginal condition (the cleavage of the habitus) to instead be a general characteristic, at least under certain social and cultural conditions.

His exposition of Archer is excellent, rather unsurprisingly as one of the theorists most deeply conversant with her body of work as a whole. The slight exception to this is the latent teleology he reads into the concept of reflexivity, ignoring the extent to which we all practice each of these modes to varying degrees in everyday life. Oddly, he offers precisely this recognition as a suggestion of how her account of reflexivity can be improved, with his accusation of a “kind of disguised personality test” being an incisive critique of how her work on reflexivity is chronically misread, even by its advocates.

I agree with him however that Archer downplays the role of cultural structures, seeing them as something which “structures the situation from outside, not from inside in the form of subconscious schemes of perception, judgement and interpretation that prestructure the world and canalize action, excluding some options even before the actor becomes conscious of the situation”. His suggestion that we investigate empirically how the relative balance of reflexivity and disposition operates in particular action situations is one I find extremely plausible, perhaps demanding that we need methods other than the interview, as well as overcoming the relative neglect of situated embodied action within Archer’s work.

It’s an interesting chapter which I highly recommend. It’s left me wanting to return to my PhD, as well as investigating Lahire in greater depth. It strikes me that I’ve actually done something akin to what Vandenberghe advocates, synthesising Archer and Lahire, without actually having read Lahire. My curiosity demands that I establish whether or not this is the case.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on a late night train to Manchester from London. After a long day, I was longing to arrive home, a prospect that seemed imminent as the train approached Stockport. Then it stopped. Eventually, we were told that there was someone on the tracks ahead and that the police were on the scene. We waited. After another ten minutes, we were told that the police were still trying to apprehend the person on the tracks. I checked Twitter and saw this incident had been unfolding for a while, seemingly disrupting all the trains going into and through Stockport train station. We waited some more. The train manager announced that the police had told trains they could proceed… a few minutes later the finally moving train came to an abrupt halt, apparently because the person who, it turned out was still on the tracks, had almost been hit. The train staff seemed surprised and mildly shaken up, unable to explain why the police had given the order to move. 

I eventually made it to Manchester, albeit after the last tram to the north had departed. As a naturally curious person, I wanted to find out more about what had happened, not least of all to clarify the slightly weird Benny Hill-esque images I was left with following these repeated invocations of police “in pursuit of” this mysterious “woman on the tracks” over half an hour. Plus what the hell were the police doing telling the train to proceed when she was still on the tracks? If it was a mistake, I was curious about why exactly they thought their pursuit had ended when they hadn’t arrested her. If it wasn’t a mistake, it seemed an inexcusable and possibly illegal action, both in terms of harm to the woman and the psychological violence potentially inflicted on a train driver.

But I couldn’t find anything. I searched local newspapers but nothing. I searched social media but could only find my own tweet and the blandly descriptive disruption update on national rail enquiries. My point in recounting this story is not to stress the intrinsic interest of the situation itself. It’s not particularly interesting and you likely had to be there to have any concern. Rather, I’m interested in understanding the character of my frustration at being unable to find what I was looking for through digital means. It’s something I thought back to yesterday, when I was looking for a particular clip from the Simpsons to make a point in a conversation I was having with someone, but could not find it no matter how hard I looked.

In both cases, my behaviour revealed an implicit expectation concerning the extent of digitalisation. In the first case, that an incident which presumably delayed hundreds of people under (vaguely) mysterious circumstances would inevitably generate some digital record. In the second case, a memorable incident from a popular tv show would surely have been uploaded to a video sharing site. My frustration, though mild, stems from an encounter with the incompleteness of digitalisation. 

These thoughts are extremely provisional but I’d really welcome feedback. 

I love this expression from Peter Sloterdijk’s Selected Exaggerations loc 944:

Carrying the weight of the world is an art that can be practised in many different ways. I think it is right to say that it is fundamentally the same art. It consists of answers to the burdensome nature of life …

This is what I see as the core of an existential sociology: the predicament of life, the diversity of responses to it and the contexts which condition that unfolding. As he goes on to write on loc 951:

An idiot has different strategies for mastering life than the cleverest person in the same culture. I’m convinced we should look for the great gap that yawns between people on the level of individual strategies.

Do we have a sociology of these individual strategies? A key part of my book on distraction is an analysis of the novel strategies that are now emerging within the horizons of digital capitalism e.g. lifestyle minimalism, the 4 hour work week and self-quantification.

From J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, pg 173-174:

The Marine Corps assumes maximum ignorance from its enlisted folks. It assumes that no one taught you anything about physical fitness, personal hygiene, or personal finances. I took mandatory classes about balancing a checkbook, saving, and investing. When I came home from boot camp with my fifteen-hundred-dollar earnings deposited in a mediocre regional bank, a senior enlisted marine drove me to Navy Federal—a respected credit union—and had me open an account. When I caught strep throat and tried to tough it out, my commanding officer noticed and ordered me to the doctor. We used to complain constantly about the biggest perceived difference between our jobs and civilian jobs: In the civilian world, your boss wasn’t able to control your life after you left work. In the Marines, my boss didn’t just make sure I did a good job, he made sure I kept my room clean, kept my hair cut, and ironed my uniforms. He sent an older marine to supervise as I shopped for my first car so that I’d end up with a practical car, like a Toyota or a Honda, not the BMW I wanted.

By far the best film I’ve seen this year was The Childhood of a Leader. It recounts a number of episodes in the life of a nascent tyrant, exploring the emergence of what is hinted to be a boundless rage that might one day transform the world:

I’ve been thinking about this film since encountering Auden’s Epitaph on a Tyrant yesterday:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

What makes a potential tyrant? It’s the most obvious question to ask when history presents us with towering, pathological and destructive figures who have seemingly remade the world in their image. It’s one sociology is instinctively sceptical towards, given the risk that we uncritically adopt a ‘great men’ theory of history and obscure the social and cultural forces which allowed any such figure to assume the power that they did. But it’s one which I think can be legitimately asked, from a psychosocial perspective, without lapsing into reductive individualism.

This must surely involve resisting simplistic applications of labels. As Jon Ronson points out in his new book on Trump, there’s something that could be seen as a tad psychopathic about arm-chair diagnoses of psychopathy from afar. From loc 538:

A FEW WEEKS BEFORE I flew to Cleveland, I sat in the Green Room at the Pasadena Convention Center. I was there to give a talk entitled “Is Donald Trump A Psychopath?” All year, people had been asking me my opinion on that topic. (This wasn’t random: I had written a book about psychopaths.) I consider it somewhat psychopathic to label someone from afar as a psychopath. We love nothing more than to declare other people insane, especially people we don’t like. Diagnosing people as psychopaths from afar, I’d say, speaks to Items 2, 8 and 15 on the Psychopath Checklist —Grandiose Self-Worth, Lack of Empathy and Irresponsibility. You might even add Item 9, Parasitic Lifestyle, if you consider diagnosing Donald Trump from afar as a psychopath to be a parasitic lifestyle.

But can we nonetheless try and imaginatively enter into the affectivity of nascent tyrants? I have no idea of how to begin this process in a systematic way but there are cultural resources which might offer us hints. Two songs I’ve always liked came immediately to mind when I had this thought:

One concerns rejection and the other mastery. In the first case, we can imagine a refusal to accept rejection and an absolute mythologisation of self that emerges from this. In the second case, a preoccupation with the pleasures of mastery and where this might ultimately lead someone in how they orientate themselves to the opportunities they see in the world to assume further control.

They both suggest the sheer potentiality inherent in raw emotion, how this is usually canalised in predictable patterns but the terrifyingly open-ended possibility of where certain individuals might under certain conditions be led in their coming-to-terms with what they confront.

Has anyone got suggestions of further pieces of music that explore these themes?

A quick note on the Wacquant workshop. We’ve turned to habitus and he’s offered the unproblematic claim that we always encounter the physical world through the prism of symbols. Social relations generate symbolic relations which are deposited in the body, shaping action in ways which serve to reproduce or transform social relations. It would be impossible to dispute this. However there’s a relative autonomy to symbolic mediation which is too easily overlooked. There are time lags, contradictions and path dependent biographical effects. There’s also a voluntaristic aspect, as we’re inclined towards searching for new ideas in ways which challenge, contextualise and complicate the existing symbolic resources we’ve accumulated that shape our world view. I’ll do a proper post on this at a later date but the point of disagreement between the approaches taken to the person by the idiosyncratic strand of CR I follow and Bourdieusians has never seemed clearer to me.

An interesting formulation from Eva Illouz in Why Love Hurts. I’m certainly a ‘sobered modernist’ in this sense. From loc 375-393:

While my analysis of love in the conditions of modernity is critical , it is critical from the standpoint of a sobered modernist perspective: that is, a perspective which recognizes that while Western modernity has brought about a vast amount of destruction and misery, its key values (political emancipation, secularism, rationality, individualism, moral pluralism, equality) remain with no superior alternative currently in sight. Yet, endorsing modernity must be a sobered enterprise because this Western cultural form of modernity has brought about its own forms of emotional misery and destruction of traditional life-worlds, has made ontological insecurity a chronic feature of modern lives, and increasingly impinges on the organization of identity and desire. 24

Notes for a talk next week

My concern in this short talk is not to diagnose the underlying conditions which generate an acceleration of social life, or indeed the various experiences which differently placed actors have of such acceleration. Instead, I’m interested in the novel and deeply reflexive cultural forms arising under these conditions, as what we might think of as temporal strategies, originally grounded in the lived experience of coping with intensified demands, instead become commodified and take on a relative autonomy vis-a-vis their application.

The most familiar manifestation of this commodification is the self-help industry, estimated as an $11 billion industry in 2013. This is a market that has changed a lot in recent years, as depressing incomes have constrained a previously buoyant market of live events and the challenge of digital media has encouraged many self-help gurus to give away ‘taster’ content online as they attempt to build up a brand. It’s easy to become preoccupied with the highest profile speakers and their global best sellers: for instance The Secret has sold more than 19 million copies and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold more than 25 million copies. But there’s also a buoyant coaching market (estimated $1.5 billion world wide) and public seminars market (estimated $308 million in the United States) which need to be recognise as part of the broader self-improvement or self-help industry.

My concern is with a more recent addition to this landscape: productivity culture. The most influential text of productivity culture, Getting Things Done by David Allen Green, has sold 1.6 million copies. The category of ‘productivity’ has become a central feature of apps, with many thousands available for the many millions of iPads and iPhones in circulation, as well as comparable availability for other mobile platforms. There’s a whole movement towards what the technologist Alex Pang calls ‘contemplative computing’: designing software that minimises distraction and facilitates immersive productivity. The popular blog Life Hacker reaches over 20 million people each month and has helped spawn a much wider ecosystem of productivity orientated content online.

It’s within this broader ecosystem that we can see a rich flourishing of what I’ve come to think of as triaging strategies: ways of coping with an intensity of demands placed upon the self by calibrating our responses to our environment and establishing new priorities. We have to treat these strategies carefully because they’re being promulgated: some people might simply be reflecting upon their experiences for anyone who happens to take an interest but many are selling books, coaching services and webinars. In fact people can move from one category to the latter, as the fact of having accumulated an audience for one’s musings on these issues holds out an inevitable temptation of ‘monetising’ this audience through the production of a book. In this sense, the promulgation of a triaging strategy can itself be a triaging strategy i.e. it’s a scheme to escape the ‘rat race’ and find a new direction in life, one more satisfying and rewarding than the present reality.

One further methodological caveat. We shouldn’t infer a common outlook  from a common action. Just because someone buys a particular book or read a particular website, does not mean that they do so for the same reason or  react in the same way to the cultural content they are engaging with. Someone might buy  a book for idle curiosity, a deep sense of need, to fill time, to critique or for any number of other reasons. Someone might then devote their life to the principles expounded in the book, react with a disinterested curiosity about the different ways in which one can live life, throw the book away at the first opportunity, forget it all together or any number of other reasons. Recognising this variability of responses is crucial to understanding the phenomenon of triaging strategies: these are cultural resources, usually though not always offered as commodities by those seeking to sustain themselves through this activity, susceptible to being picked up and put down, applied in many different ways or not at all. These are technologies of the self. But we misconstrue them if we fail to consider the diverse range of ways in which differently situated selves might draw upon them, how their characteristics will be inflected through the ensuing context, as well as how such actions will aggregatively lead to the transformation or reproduction of the cultural form e.g. contributing to rising sales figures through word of mouth or changing public perceptions of it.

My suggestion is that the 7 triaging strategies I offer can be usefully analysed in terms of the nexus of work and life. This is the terminology that occurs frequently within the literature but these are also useful analytical categories to understand the lived experience of intensifying demands. We occupy multiple social roles and there are many factors leading to an intensification of demands upon each one of them e.g. constant connectivity at work, rising expectations of parental activity, automation leading to the outsourcing of ‘shadow work’ to consumers etc.

There are many factors, each of which could be a talk in their own right. My concern here is not to elucidate them but rather to consider how intensifying expectations within clusters of social roles that we can loosely categorise as ‘work’ and ‘life’ create problems for the subject. As Margaret Archer puts it, “roles are greedy”. There’s no logical limit to how much of ourselves we can invest in them but there are temporal, physical, psychological and socio-economic constraints on the choices that we make. It requires reflexivity to negotiate between these competing demands, something which itself requires time and space. My argument will be that these 7 triaging strategies can be usefully conceptualised as different solutions to the increasingly problematic relationship between ‘work’ and ‘life’ under digital capitalism. My suggestion is that this is usually experienced as personal life being consumed by working life, the concerns of the self being subordinated to the imperatives of the workplace. But a crucial part of the investigation which I’m still in the early stages of undertaking is to analyse the different ways the underlying dilemmas conceived of and represented in this literature.

  1. If personal life is being consumed by working life, one solution is to seek a job that perfectly expresses yourself.  Thus I believe we can see the contemporary resurgence of the notion of the vocation as  something expressive of an underlying impulse towards finding personal fulfilment in working life by blurring boundaries between the two domains. As well as the macro-economic untenability of this strategy for most under contemporary capitalism, much scholarship in cultural policy and the sociology of work reveals how this discourse of ‘passion’ – doing what you love – goes side-by-side with exploitative and worsening working conditions, growing expectations of unpaid work and spiralling working hours.
  2. An equally familiar solution  is to instrumentally calibrate the demands of working life and personal life. This is most frequently expressed in terms of the notion of the work/life balance, but in sectors defined by a project based knowledge work  we increasingly see the notion of the work/life merge: a wilful collapse of temporal boundaries, using mobile computing to both work and life in a more or less spontaneous sequencing over the course of the day. The extent to which this is chosen or enforced remains a pressing question.
  3. Another solution is to  is to minimise the demands of personal life and working life. The most extreme expressions of this  lifestyle minimalism represent a form of moral athleticism, in which advocates compete to see who most radically reduce their possessions into a set number of objects. It’s correspondingly hostile to ‘clutter’ and imbues it with almost magical capacities to shape one’s psychic life. It sometimes celebrates nomadism – of a very privileged sort – including a permanent home within the category of ‘stuff’ that constrains our lives. But it is driven by an underlying concern for quality over quantity: reclaiming core experiences by dispensing with that deemed ‘unnecessary’. It’s striking how completely dominated the online discourse of lifestyle minimalism is by childless white men in their 20s to 40s, usually seeming to be without attachments. This is asceticism for a certain demographic rather than a strategy for all.
  4. Perhaps the most novel solution is the concept of lifestyle design: instrumentally reducing the demands of working life in order to focus on personal life. Propounded most successfully by Tim Ferris, whose book The Four Hour Work Week has sold well over a million copies, it encourages a strategic mobility: exploiting currency differentials in order to live richly without necessarily being rich, outsourcing as many tasks as possible to virtual assistants operating out of Indian cities and taking ‘mini-retirements’ to focus intensively on certain skills or experiences. It almost represents a kind of hipster neo-colonialism, a strategy utterly dependent on global power relations defining contemporary digitalised and financialised capitalism.
  5. A fifth solution is to seek to dispense with working life to the greatest extent possible. A superb recent book by the Cardiff sociologist David Frayne presents interviews with a diverse range of movements sharing a common orientation to the refusal of work: reducing hours to their minimum, giving up work entirely or otherwise seeking to escape from working life.
  6. We can see a novel form of temporizing emerging in extreme early retirement: embracing a rigid asceticism for many years, intricately monitoring spending and income, in order to ensure the possibility of retiring by a fixed point in time. This represents a solution of sequencing: solving the problems of the relation between work and life by working now in order to live later. It’s interesting to consider the assumptions this makes about the future calculability of digital capitalism e.g. if this is reliant on pensions and investments, how will predicted long term declines in average returns lead to a gradual ratcheting up of the early retirement age and how will practitioners of extreme early retirement reaction to this?
  7. Finally, I think self-optimisation can be included here, particularly when it involves open-ended projects of self-improvement using self-tracking technologies. Not all self-tracking practices are concerned with self-optimisation: we need to distinguish here between goal orientated self-tracking, experimental self-tracking and ongoing projects to perpetually optimise oneself. But an ongoing project to become more productive in work and life, to optimise oneself for the conditions in which one lives and works, seeks to solve the dilemma by improving performance on both sides of the dichotomy. The problem arises because demands are not static and learning to be quicker inevitably incites one to do more: choices that might formerly have been made on the basis of practical necessity now become live options, risking an intensification of demands and rendering further self-optimisation necessary in order to cope.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and each of these strategies presented is just a brief outline of a complex phenomenon. My claim is that these need to be recognised in their specificity and that the ‘greedy’ relationship between the role clusters of ‘work’ and ‘life’ represents a useful analytical framework through which to understand the purpose of these strategies and how they can be taken up by subjects struggling to cope with the intensified demands of digital capitalism.

Notes for my talk for the Reflexivity Forum at Warwick on May 24th

What does it mean to be distracted? For the last year, I’ve been telling people that I’m working on a new project about digital distraction and everyone seems to immediately grasp what I mean by this. But conceptualising precisely what we should take ‘distraction’ to mean is slightly more complex than I realised at the outset of the project. The dictionary offers a good starting point, with two definitions:

  1. a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else.
  2. extreme agitation of the mind

Looking at these definitions, it’s easy to infer a causal relation between the phenomena they designate: we might assume that (1), if encountered to a sufficient degree under conducive circumstances, leads to (2) through sheer accumulation of distraction. In other words: lots of distractions lead to distractedness

In a recent piece of work, I tried to analyse the rise of (1) in terms of constant connectivity. Interruptions have always been part of human experience, in so far as that there are always contingencies which might emerge in order to disrupt an activity that’s in process. But the ‘triple revolution’ of mobile computing, wireless internet access and social networks have contributed to a proliferation of interruptions, as have the second order effects when this multiplication of communication channels lead to the qualitative and quantitative escalation of communication e.g. people trying multiple means to contact someone in the absence of governing norms about appropriateness, strategic communication that seek to shock and surprise in order to be heard above the din.

Analysed in this sense, talk of interruptions leads rather inevitably to the consideration of reflexivity. What does it mean to ‘prevent someone from concentrating on something else’? It means there was something else they were trying to do and the external event, which we label as a distraction (1), has interrupted their action towards this end. Distraction needs to be conceived of as relational: there is the distracting object, but it only has this power in relation to an existing activity undertaken under conditions that leave someone conducive to being distracted.

What we’re being distracted from might have been routine action, e.g. I get a phone call when making a cup of coffee, but the very act of interruption engenders an awareness of that from which we were interrupted. Consider a distraction (1) significant enough to completely disrupt our previous action: when we ask ourselves “now what was I doing before he phoned?”, this is an incitement to reflexivity, albeit one that reflects a prior failure thereof. So rather than seeing distraction (1) and reflexivity as antithetical, we have to recognise a more complex relationship between them. Distractions impede reflexivity but also highlight it. Persistent distractions engender reflexivity, when we recognise something as a ‘problem’ and begin to ask what it is we might do about it?

It’s for this reason that I don’t think we should consider distracted people as somehow a-reflexive people. Distracted people are those who live within a socio-technical environment sufficiently productive of distraction (1) that we might talk of them as being characterised by distraction (2): it’s an ‘agitation of the mind’, rather than an absence of reflexivity, a difficulty articulating and sustaining courses of action rather a lack of capacity to reach conclusions about what a desirable course might be. Distraction is something which operates on a number of levels simultaneously:

  1. A distracting environment renders time and space for reflexivity unlikely: the conditions for internal conversation are often not in place and where they are, they’re unlikely to last.
  2. A distracting environment supplies more stimuli about potential courses of action and potential projects: under these conditions, ‘bounding’ variety becomes increasingly difficult, rendering internal conversation more necessary than ever.
  3. A distracting environment militates against sustained trajectories of action, because interruptions to action become more likely (with the cognitive costs they entail) as do interruptions to reflexivity exercised about those actions.

Distracting environments are characterised by the proliferation of distractions but the causality of how this leads to distractedness is more complex than I initially realised & I’m still trying to clarify my views on this.