I’ve intended to write about imposter syndrome for a number of years. Since my PhD, it has become less frequent yet somehow more acute when it occurs, possibly reflecting my transition from an academic identity as ‘social theorist’ to a para-academic identity as ‘digital sociologist’. Here’s what goes through my mind when I feel like an imposter:

  1. I’m a dilettante and will eventually be exposed as one. The only reason it has yet to happen is because the siloed quality of the academy means that people in one area are impressed by the fact I know something about another area, in the process assuming I know much more than I do. I’m a beneficiary of the accelerated academy I claim to find pernicious, creating the possibility that frequently making statements about a lot of topics be conflated with intellectual significance in a more meaningful sense.
  2. The essentially shallow quality of my thought gets revealed every time I ask a question at a seminar. When I can communicate via text or have time to prepare a talk, I’m able to dress up this shallowness in the performance of profundity. When people respond positively to my talks, it’s a response to a performance I’ve cultivated rather than the content of what I’ve said. I vividly convey a sense of being thoughtful but the thought never really goes anywhere. When people realise this, the illusion will be shattered.
  3. Knowledge doesn’t accumulate within me. I incorporate shiny insights from things I read but it passes out of me, never to return. My intellectual biography is a history of fleeting fixations, converted through rigid writing routine and intellectual slight of hand into academic capital. Gender and class combine to leave this ‘range’ being read as profundity, as opposed to an inability to focus. I perfectly embody exactly what I claim to be broken about accelerated knowledge production.

This extremely useful little book introduced me to this consideration recently. It’s very important to my developing argument about the intensification of work: the escalation of demands placed upon workers, their mediation through the internal conversations of individual workers and its implications for how they exercise their reflexivity in the workplace. Here’s the data I’ve just been looking at about trends in the United States:




Why disappointment? In common usage, and in the dictionary, we talk about disappointment as what happens, what we feel, when something we expect, intend, or hope for or desire does not materialise. One of the difficulties of living in our world is that it is perhaps increasingly less clear exactly what we might expect or hope for or desire. In fact, these words mean different things. The most basic is desire: it carries connotations of needing urgently, yearning, to the point almost of trying to will something into existence. Sometimes we desire something so completely that we revert to our infant selves and scream, metaphorically or in reality, in the hope that our desire may be realised – just as, if we were lucky, the milk used to appear in response to our screams from the cot.

Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 3

In this thoughtful book Ian Craib argues that ‘disappointment’ is an integral aspect of human life which increasingly finds itself denied by dominant tendencies within anglo-american culture. I think what he’s getting at relates to something which Andrew Sayer describes in terms of the ubiquity of dilemmas in our lives. We constantly face ‘tough choices’** that elude resolution, forcing us to choose the least worst option or avoid the moment of choice at the cost of inertia. But we seek to deny the unavoidability of such choices. We wish to avoid consequences other than those we seek. We wish to avoid waiting. As Craib puts it,

Some part of us wants immediate satisfaction, wants it all and wants it now, and whilst we might try to rationalise this away with our knowledge that it is unreasonable, our gut reactions belie our heads … I spend my life surrounded by other people, who are more or less independent of me and constantly doing things on their account. As a consequence, I have to adjust to them. If I am to control my own life, then I will first have to control the lives of all those around me.

Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 5-7

Disappointment has its roots in the social world and this is why dilemmas are ubiquitous in society. Craib’s argument is that “there is much about our modern world that increases disappointment and at the same time encourages us to hide from it: to act as if what is good in life does not entail the bad – for example, that we can love and be loved by another person without having to give up other aspects of our lives” (pg vii). Disappointment is irrevocably bound up with ambivalence because “nothing is ever simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and most things are at the same time good and bad” (pg 2). This entails a perpetual remainder, uncomfortable left overs to our decisions which run contrary to what we expected and hoped for. Craib’s point is two-fold. Firstly, disappointment is unavoidable in this sense regardless of the social context. Secondly, there are peculiar features of our social context which encourage problematic tendencies in how we react to disappointment.

He brings this point to life in his discussion of relationships and intimacy, drawing on the use Giddens makes of self-help books in his work on late modernity to develop a critique of ‘the powerful self and its illusions’. He takes issue with a tendency to see ’emotional satisfaction’ as the central basis for intimate relationships, arguing that with this “our primitive fantasies of complete satisfaction are brought into play”:

The simple question ‘Is everyone OK?’ carries a whole impossible world of satisfactions, one loaded with so much feeling that the thought that things might not be OK is enough for the speaker to consider flying from the relationship. The demand for the impossible is at the centre of this type of intimacy; the tragedy is that it prevents us from seeing or learning from its impossibility. If everything is not OK, we do not learn but seek out another relationship in which it might be OK. If we fall in love, then the decline of being in love, whether slow or fast, is felt as a failure rather than a deepening of our understanding of the world and the reality of the other person. The speaker’s sense of ‘never being satisfied’ is an accurate perception of internal and external reality, but it is experienced not as knowledge and understanding but as failure and deficiency.

Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 123-124

Intimate life is perhaps an extreme case of a broader tendency, with this disposition to flee in the face of dissatisfaction (“if we’re not happy then the relationship must be wrong”) matched by a milder, though no less problematic, intolerance for unhappiness in other spheres of personal life. Our failure to accept disappointment, those aspects of life which are unwelcome and unexpected, leaves us perpetually moving and problem solving. We can’t live with our choices or sit with their consequences. Our actions can never bring about their consequences in the straight forward way that the ‘illusions of the powerful self’ lead us to expect. Our relationships of all kinds inevitably elude our capacities to control them because “when two people come together in this way, what happens between them is less a matter of conscious control and planning (although that enters into it) than emotional attachment and interlocking that makes such control difficult” (pg 127).

What much of this comes down to is “a desire to get out of the mess of life” as Craib memorably puts it (pg 131). In advocating the importance of disappointment Craib is suggesting we must live with mess. Not necessarily live with this mess but with mess as such. So we shouldn’t resign ourselves passively to our circumstances but we should resist the temptation to allow our responses to those circumstances to be dictated by an illusory image of the absence of mess. Our choices not bringing us the satisfaction we hoped for does not mean our choices were wrong. Our life encompassing periods of dissatisfaction does not mean there is a problem that must be solved***. These are the fantasies of an omnipotent self. In pursuing them, informed by a self-image of our potential for self-control, we preclude the satisfactions which are their ultimate object. The problem solving often is the problem and Craib is intensely critical of the tendency of therapy to get drawn into supporting this behaviour and reinforcing the cultural trends underlying it.

*Though I can’t for the life of me find where he does this, leaving me to wonder if I’ve imagined it. I’m really starting to regret the hundreds of books I read as a PhD student that I didn’t put into a reference manager.

**I wonder if there is a kernel of truth underlying the spread of this political platitude? If a repudiation of disappointment is as widespread as Craib suggests, what are the implications of this for political culture?

***While I’d trenchantly resist the reduction of political issues to psychoanalytical ones, it did occur to me that Craib’s argument could be leveraged into an intriguing critique of the ‘modernising’ tendency within political parties.

There are many things I dislike about 90s self-help Giddens. However one aspect that has stuck with me is his discussion of ‘ontological security’. This is established relationally between child and care-giver through the durability of trust, acting to “‘bracket out’ potential occurrences which, were the individual seriously to contemplate them, would produce a paralysis of the will, or feelings of engulfment” (Giddens 1991: 3). As I understand him, Giddens sees this as a response to a radical openness which characterises our relation to the future*: everyday life and everyday interaction presents us with a potentially infinite range of responses which are filtered through a sense of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. The great majority of possibilities simply don’t occur to us because our experienced participation in a “shared – but unproven and unprovable – framework of reality” which is “simultaneously sturdy and fragile” leaves us treating the world around us as if the qualities it spontaneously manifests to us are durable and enduring features (Giddens 1991: 36). As Giddens puts it, “To live our lives, we normally take for granted issues which, as centuries of philosophical enquiry have found, wither away under the sceptical gaze” (Giddens 1991: 37). There are many issues we don’t ponder because of the practical business of everyday life. The former is the condition for the latter, securing our capacity to function purposefully in the social world. But what secures this ‘turn away’ from existential rumination? 

Giddens places great stress on the capacity of routines which ‘answer’ existential questions on the level of practice. Through our routines, we treat the world as if it is stable and enduring. We answer questions with our practice and so avoid ruminating upon them through our reflections. It constitutes a “protective cocoon” which we “carry around” with us leaving us “able to get on with the affairs of day-to-day life” (Giddens 1991: 40). But a blind adherence to routine as a source of security can become compulsive if not coupled with the trust upon which ontological security depends. This compulsivity emerges from unmastered anxiety, with repetition constituting a performative attempt to dispel this anxiety rather than routine simply reflecting an ability to ‘get on with things’. However even when ontological security is well entrenched within the personality structure of the individual, it is not an impenetrable psychic shield. Ontological security brackets out possibilities, things which could happen but almost certainly won’t, preoccupation with which would quickly become debilitating. Like worrying that a helecopter will crash into the venue when we’re out seeing live music. But of course such things do happen:

We rely on ontological security to avoid obsessiveness. It is a psychological achievement which allows us to ‘let things go’. Rather than attempting to ‘think our way out’ of something which troubles us, it is what allows us to simply stop thinking and start doing. But it is recurrently challenged throughout our life course, sometimes in ways which are edifying and instructive:

“the protective cocoon is essentially a sense of ‘unreality’ rather than a firm conviction of security: it is a bracketing, on the level of practice, of possible events which could threaten the bodily or psychological integrity of the agent. The protective barrier it offers may be pierced, temporarily or more permanently, by happenings which demonstrate as real the negative contingencies built into all risk. Which car driver, passing by the scene of a serious traffic accident, has not had the experience of being so sobered as to drive more slowly – for a few miles – afterwards? Such an example is one which demonstrates – not in a counter-factual universe of abstract possibilities, but in a tangible and vivid way – the risk of driving, and thereby serves temporarily to pull apart the protective cocoon. But the feeling of relative invulnerability soon returns and chances are that driver then tends to speed up again” (Giddens 1991: 40)

But what matters is our capacity to immerse ourselves in activity once more. To recognise a risk but avoid obsessing about it. To take stock of possibilities inherent in our situation without allowing awareness of those possibilities to preclude the possibility of negotiating the situation itself. To instinctively recognise lines of thought worth pursuing, distinguishing between those which are symptomatic and those which lead towards a potential resolution. This is what I mean by reflexive poise.

*It’s on this level that the accusations of voluntarism against 90s Giddens ring most true. However 80s Giddens lurks beneath the surface of the 90s books if you read them closely, occasionally pulling him back from some of his more absurd conclusions.