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  • Mark 2:09 pm on November 25, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: autonomous reflexivity, , , television   

    Harvey Specter: a study in late modern sociopathy 

    Over the holidays I stumbled across Suits and found myself weirdly hooked by it. It tells the story of Mike Ross, a gifted stoner whose life has been going nowhere, bumbling into an interview for new associates at a prestigious law firm while trying to escape the police after a drug deal gone wrong. He is taken on by Harvey Specter, the firm’s top lawyer, who has found himself frustrated by his company’s policy of only hiring Harvard Law graduates. Seeing something special in Mike, he contrives to bring him to the firm and helps cover up his lack of a law degree.

    Upon arriving at the firm, Mike finds himself mired in awkwardness, as his photographic memory often falls short of indicating what he should do and say when presented with the rules of legal institutions and the cultural norms found in a firm entirely populated by alumni of the law school he claims to have attended. Harvey presses upon him that this is his ‘chance’ and that to take it he must cast off the old friendships which have weighed him down, reconstructing himself for the new life he has stumbled into. It’s this biographical aspect of the show which intrigued me. Nonetheless, it also has a lot of weaknesses:

    If Dallas grapples with the question of how to remain contemporary,Suits seems to be on a mission to convince viewers it was made in the 80s, sealed in a time-capsule and only recently excavated.

    Even amid the sunny escapist output of the USA network, the series is a baffling anachronism. It proudly resides in an alternate universe where oily, overcompensated attorneys are hailed as heroes. Where their Italian sports cars, designer apparel and addiction to winning at all costs are seen as enviable character traits.


    It’s hard to argue with this criticism. I don’t even think the show is good in any straight foward sense. But I found it oddly compelling. My aim here is to explain the reasons for this, which all stem from the figure of Harvey Specter. In contrast to the bumbling charm of Mike, Harvey always knows what to do, always knows what to say and is admired and reviled in equal measure. Harvey Specter is a socipath and, furthermore, he has worked to become this way. He is a man who is “against having emotions, not against using them” and he seeks to help Mike come to share this trait.

    I use the term ‘sociopathy’ in the admittedly slightly glib sense employed by Adam Kotsko in his Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. His interest is in a class of characters who have increasingly come to dominate television and film in recent years. Though there are undoubtedly differences between Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Gregory House, Stringer Bell, Dexter et al (a list which seems a little incomplete without Vic Mackey) Kotsko argues that they share an indifference towards the moral order, manifested in a capacity to live outside social norms and yet also instrumentalize those norms to pursue their own agenda. While these characters might also share a degree of psychological complexity relative to their more shallowly characterised forebearers, he suggests that,

    It is hard to believe, however, that the exploration of the dark side of the human psyche for its own sake is behind the appeal of these sociopathic characters. What, then, is going on in this trend? My hypothesis is that the sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: “What if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?” And the answer they provide? “Then I would be powerful and free.” (pg 4)

    Kotsko sees sociopathy, understood as a cultural type embodied in such characters, as constituting a form of ‘reverse awkwardness’. In contrast to sociopathy, where lack of social connection engenders a capacity to masterfully manipulate social norms, awkwardness obtains in being drawn in and “rendered powerless by the intensity of their social connection” (pg 5). The appeal of the former rests on the experience of the latter, as our familiarity with the acute force of social pressure yields a vicarious thrill when we are presented with the lives of those immune to such pressure. These are people who always know exactly what to do. They are unbound by social pressure. They masterfully manipulate those interactions, which in reality exist as geysers of awkwardness, in a way which runs so contrary to our everyday experience. Their indifference to the social order translates as power and freedom. This is a figure who “transcends the social, who is not bound by it in any gut-level way and who can therefore use it purely as a tool”. Against the backdrop of a “social order that is breaking down, making impossible demands while failing to deliver on its promises” such characters become immensely compelling (pg 9-10).

    The fascination with individuals ‘who make their own rules’ cannot be understood in isolation from the social changes which are rendering ‘the rules’ paradoxically more transparent and yet also opaque. The preoccupation with mastery, the capacity to glide through life while always knowing what to do and say, stems from the broader conditions under which this is becoming ever less possible. I think Margaret Archer’s notion of the ‘reflexive imperative’ is useful here, as a way of understanding how the intensification of social and cultural change renders individual reflexivity (reflecting on one’s self in relation to one’s circumstances) ever more imperative in daily live. As she argues, “action needs to be at least recurrent in kind in order for norms to develop to cover it”. Variety and novelty can fuel awkwardness, much as they can also open up the possibility of a depth of connection and human understanding which might formerly have been crushed by the stultifying weight of tradition and routine. These are two sides of the same coin. The dilemma in everyday life consists in the difficulty of knowing if we are doing things ‘right’, if such a notion even makes sense and how others who are similarly confused respond to what we are doing, whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The sociopath fascinates because they embody a fantasistic solution to this dilemma. However in reality, we are faced with the ‘awkward abyss’,

    Threatened by the awkward abyss, we cling to our declining social norms and ask them to be more than they are or can be. We let them rule over us all the more as they fail to serve us, either by providing clear expectations or approximating some form of justice or fairness. (pg 15)

    But what would it be like to avoid this? What would it be like to just be? As Kotsko puts it, “if only I didn’t give a fuck about anyone or anything, we think — then I would be powerful and free” (pg 7). But we do, so we are not. Even if we truly did want to be this way, it is an option that is foreclosed by the weight of commitment. Or is it? What intrigues me about Suits is how much of the narrative arc of the two main protagonists revolves around Harvey Specter socialising Mike Ross into sociopathy. In seeking to ‘mentor’ Mike, Harvey is also teaching how he can be emulated by him. What stops this being obnoxious is the gradual revelation of the extent to which Harvey has had to cultivate his sociopathy, much as Mike must now do himself.

    When we meet Harvey, he is pure presence. He controls every situation, always ready with a witty retort or a strategic reaction. This also leaves him paradoxically absent. In the first half of the show’s initial season, we see little of Harvey qua person beyond occasional allusions to his longstanding friendship with his boss. In one scene Mike attempts to come over to Harvey’s apartment to share news of a breakthrough on a case. Having sternly ordered him not to come round, he opens the door and we see Harvey in casual clothes for the first time in the show. However the door is immediately closed on Mike (and on us). There’s a sense in which Harvey seems almost unrecognisable as a person, as his preoccupation with his own social mastery leaves his inner life entirely opaque. At one point he boasts to Mike about having Michael Jordan on his speed dial, proving this to an initially sceptical Mike who then turns and asks “who are you?”.

    It’s a good question and one which is eventually addressed. As the first season approaches its end, we come to see more of Harvey and how he came to be the person that he is. The meaningful relationship with his boss which was intermittently hinted at (she supported him through law school and their relationship existed prior to this) finds more direct reflection in the figure of his stated mentor, the New York District Attorney. In the first half of the season, we see a Harvey who is already fully formed and self-subsistent. But later we begin to see how he came to be this way. He was not born “the best closer in New York city”. He had to become him. He had to make himself into who he wanted to be. We begin to see something of his inner life. We see that he hates to lose. We even see him lose his temper. He reminds us that sociopaths, in Kotsko’s sense, are people too. They are admired people, as a search through youtube for videos of Harvey will make clear.

  • Mark 7:32 am on June 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , autonomous reflexivity, , imaginary, instrumental rationality, , , ,   

    Understanding the agency of people we disapprove of 

    Why do people do what they do? It is a question at the heart of the human sciences but it is also one we ask in everyday life. However the way we ask it often tracks our prior feelings towards the people we ask it of. For instance, as Jana Bacevic has argued, many fail to grasp the agency of managers and consultants within the ‘neoliberal university’ and through doing so misdiagnose both the intentions of these managers and the system their actions are contributing to.

    When people seem to embody systemic tendencies we are critical of, it inevitably slides into a disproval of the people themselves. They are reduced to vectors of these organisational processes, revealing a quotidian Althusserianism which is important to understand if we want to grasp how organisations and systems are imagined by participants within them.

    There was an example I came across earlier today which made me think about the role of distance in this process. This is an observation which Richard Brooks makes on pg 14 of his Bean Counters: The Triumph of the Accountants and How They Broke Capitalism:

    Few arrive with much sense of vocation or a passion for rooting out financial irregularity and making capitalism safe. They are motivated by good income prospects even for moderate performers, plus maybe a vague interest in the world of business. Many want to keep their options open, noticing the prevalence of qualified accountants at the top of the corporate world; one quarter of chief executives of the FTSE100 largest UK companies are chartered accountants.

    The exercise of agency here is provisional and tentative. Rather than rapacious instrumentalists concerned only with maximising their income, we find people keen to keep their options open and seeking agreeable outcomes without hemming themselves in. It is similar to the claim made by Kevin Roose in his superb account of the everyday lives of young financiers on Wall Street:

    As strange as it sounds, a big paycheck may not in fact be central to Wall Street’s allure for a certain cohort of young people. This possibility was explained to me several weeks before my Penn trip by a second-year Goldman Sachs analyst, who stopped me short when I posited that college students flock to Wall Street in order to cash in. “Money is part of it,” he said. “But mostly, they do it because it’s easy.” He proceeded to explain that by coming onto campus to recruit, by blitzing students with information and making the application process as simple as dropping a résumé into a box, by following up relentlessly and promising to inform applicants about job offers in the fall of their senior year—months before firms in most other industries—Wall Street banks had made themselves the obvious destinations for students at top-tier colleges who are confused about their careers, don’t want to lock themselves in to a narrow preprofessional track by going to law or medical school, and are looking to put off the big decisions for two years while they figure things out. Banks, in other words, have become extremely skilled at appealing to the anxieties of overachieving young people and inserting themselves as the solution to those worries. And the irony is that although we think of Wall Street as a risk-loving business, the recruiting process often appeals most to the terrified and insecure.

    I’m not suggesting we should take people’s accounts of why they do what they do at face value. If we did, the space to be critical of power and hierarchy would soon collapse in the face of an endless succession of people with apparently good intentions of varying degrees of systematicity. But it does seem important that we also avoid taking our attributions of agency at face value, interrogating what we are imputing to people and the reasons why we might be imputing them.

  • Mark 9:40 am on April 14, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: autonomous reflexivity, , , , ,   

    Reframing Margaret Archer’s critique of habitus 

    One of the most contentious aspects of Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity has been her critique of Bourdieu’s habitus. I was thinking back to this issue when reading Sam Friedman’s excellent new paper in the Sociological Review on the habitus clivé. It’s a whole dimension to Bourdieu’s work which I was completely unfamiliar with and furthers my hunch that if you continue to develop Bourdieu in a phenomenological direction (along the lines undertaken by Nick Crossley and Will Atkinson) the dispute about reflexivity comes to seem much more about conceptualising social change than it is about theorising subjectivity. I’ll blog about Sam’s paper some more later (and I’m interviewing him for sociologicalreview.com) but I just wanted to share this brief extract:

    Bourdieu did acknowledge that long-range social mobility can be more problematic, however, particularly when individual trajectories provoke abrupt rather than gradual transformations of habitus. During such moments of profound change, when there is a mismatch between one’s (primary) habitus and the habitus required in a new field, Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) argued that a hysteresis effect takes hold

    As a result of the hysteresis effect . . .   practices are always liable to incur negative sanctions when the environment with which they are objectively confronted is too distant from that in which they are objectively fitted. (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977: 78)

    In most of his work, Bourdieu explored hysteresis in terms of habitus shifts wrought by large-scale changes in field conditions, such as that posed by the Algerian War of Independence (Bourdieu, 1979) or the introduction of the 1914 French State Code on inheritance (Bourdieu, 2002: 12). However, in later work (1998, 1999, 2004) he also began to explore how hysteresis is experienced at a personal level, particularly among the socially mobile.

    This makes it easy to recast Archer’s claim in Bourdieusian(ish) language: the intensification of social change leads to the generalisation of ‘hysteresis’ as a condition of social life because past experience fails to provide workable guidelines for present action. It’s under these conditions that, as she puts it, reflexivity becomes imperative. She prefers to use the concept of ‘routine’ rather than ‘habitus’ (partly because she rejects the idea that the social ‘gets inside’ us as opposed to inculcates a tendency to act in a particular way) but accepts that routine (habitual) action predominates under certain conditions, it’s just that she argues such conditions no longer obtain.

    This process doesn’t operate inexorably and not everyone becomes more reflexive in the face of the ‘reflexive imperative’: her differentiation of modes of reflexivity are an attempt to conceptualise the empirical variability we can see in reflexivity and how this might contribute both aggregatively and collectively to the macro-social trends which are generating mass ‘hysteresis’.

  • Mark 9:34 am on August 2, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: autonomous reflexivity,   

    The Reflexive Imperative and Autonomous Reflexivity 

    In contrast to the fractured reflexives (deliberation leads to the intensification of affect) and the meta-reflexives (deliberation tends to problematise self and society) autonomous reflexivity is constituted through purposeful, self-contained and instrumental deliberation. It is promoted by situations where instrumental rationality tends to advance the concerns of subjects:

    These situations are distinctive because they confront subjects with ‘contextual discontinuity’, which means that conventional responses deriving from their natal repertoire are no longer appropriate guides to action. Because of the intrinsically competitive nature of these situations, subjects must determine where their own best interests lies and deliberate about the best means to achieve these ends – doing both fallibly and under their own descriptions. In other words, extreme practitioners of autonomous reflexivity come closest of all to acting like the ‘rational man’ of Rational Choice Theory. (Archer 2012: 34)

    The families of the autonomous reflexives in Archer’s study show a much greater degree of geographical mobility and a higher propensity towards divorce, separation and living apart. Nonetheless she suggests that these are empirical indicators and that the underlying mechanisms productive of autonomous reflexivity can be found in the emergent relations within the familial group, which is what quantitative measures of the above trends would be tracking. These emergent relations were characterised not by the presence of relational harm (as was the case with the fractured reflexives) but by the absence of many, if not all, the relational goods which could be found in the backgrounds of communicative reflexives. Autonomous reflexives faced ‘mixed messages’ with little, if any, shared orientation by parents towards collective projects of the sort needed for the emergence of relational goods. It was not possible for them to seek to replicate their natal context in the manner of communicative reflexives because the lack of normative consonance precluded the identification of what it was that would be replicated:

    Either their parents had split up over their differences, were preoccupied with negotiating their own relationships or had engaged in commitments that distance themselves from their offspring. This group of students had been strangers to ‘contextual continuity’ from the start. None had normative consensus as part of their natal backgrounds but were presented with necessary of selection as a normal ingredient of their life worlds whilst growing up. All were confronted with the need to shape a life as an everyday occurrence, evidenced by their parents’ doings and struggles, and all absorbed the lesson that this was a personal responsibility to be undertaken without a template. (Archer 2012: 170)

    This amounted to ‘enforced independence’ albeit of a variable form: “common exemplifications are children assuming domestic responsibilities that are usually associated with adult roles and certainty taking charge of their own personal practical needs. Not infrequently, this extended to providing support for one parent or intermittently for both, thus seeking to compensate for the interpersonal deficiencies in the parental relationship. They phoned home to check that everyone was all right rather than to reassure their parent(s) that they were” (Archer 2012: 168). The autonomous subjects had observed their parents engaging in selection and, in turn, their response to the necessity of selection was to meet it head on – unlike the communicative reflexives who evaded it through projects that sought to replicate their natal context, meta-reflexives who problematised it through their searching for and/or enactment of a ’cause’ and fractured reflexives who were simply disorientated by it. Furthermore, every practitioner of autonomous reflexivity in the study had a much deeper investment in the practical order than could be observed within the other groups:

    Significantly, every member of this group had a deep self-investment in the practical order – in music, languages, competitive sports, car mechanics, cookery and property development. For most, in their independence at home, such interests had already been discovered and honed. Although some were put on hold at university, for the greater part they were continued and other practical interests added to them. This proved important for their friendship patterns, which were interest-led, and for the use they made of university activities – the autonomous reflexives proving one of the two most intense user groups of all entrants. (Archer 2012: 169)

    In contrast to the intensely face-to-face friendships of communicative reflexives, the friendships of autonomous reflexives were mediated through their practical interests. Thus the social order is subjugated, to a certain extent, to the practical order: the friendships are valued because they enhance and extend the practices they enjoy. This is paralleled by their willingness to separate out the necessity of selection from shaping a life, approaching the former in an instrumental fashion and engaging with the latter once their career is established. Archer suggests that “autonomous reflexives do not appear adept at dealing with the plural final ends that are inescapable if and when they seek to become a couple” and that “when they attempt to counter their individualism by subordinating their own goals, they seem to do so unilaterally, without establishing what kind of reciprocity the other entertains or would welcome” (Archer 2012: 201). Or in other words: it’s difficult to sustain an instrumental orientation to the world alongside genuine reciprocity with significant others. One strategy is to evade the problem through wilful preoccupation with one’s own goals before turning to the challenge of shaping that life in a way which allows it to be genuinely shared with another. This trend is important in understanding the reproduction of autonomous reflexivity in conditions which are increasingly incongruent with it:

    These natal backgrounds supplied neither relational goods nor normative consensus, and the independence induced in their offspring was immediately deployed to sieve parental values and lifestyles for what was deemed worthy of retention. Given the increasing rates of divorce, separation and re-partnering together with relatively novel arrangements such as ‘living apart but together’, Europe appears to guarantee a continuing output, if not growth, of ‘enforced independents’ in the coming decades.

    On the other hand, it is because some of these young autonomous reflexives appear more concerned to establish their careers first and not to be distracted from the pursuit of this goal by friendship or serious relationships, which coincides with the European tendency to marry later. These appeared to be the readiest recruits to internships in both public bureaucracy and financial services. Others who contracted partnerships during their undergraduate years were distracted but seemingly undeterred from the same type of career destination. In other words, late modernity does not appear about to suffer from a crisis in recruitment because of a shortage of autonomous reflexives – if only because of the ‘rocky’ state of marriage. (Archer 2012: 202-203).

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