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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
There are some wonderful reflections in this Guardian interview with George RR Martin on the writing process, the power of fiction and losing yourself in your work:
When he’s really on a roll with his writing, “there are days when I sit down in the morning with my cup of coffee, I fall through the page and I wake up and it’s dark outside and my coffee is still next to me, it’s ice cold and I’ve just spent the day in Westeros.”
“When I began, I didn’t know what the hell I had. I thought it might be a short story; it was just this chapter, where they find these direwolf pups. Then I started exploring these families and the world started coming alive,” Martin says. “It was all there in my head, I couldn’t not write it. So it wasn’t an entirely rational decision, but writers aren’t entirely rational creatures.”
“I think that’s true of any fiction worth reading, that you’re really talking about people. And maybe it’s set in space or in a castle with dragons, maybe you set it in a suburban town where Dick and Jane live, or in some urban hell hole. Wherever you want to set your story, it’s still about people trying to make their decisions about what is right and what is wrong, how do I survive, questions of good and evil.”
On the other hand, once I really get rolling, I get into the world, and that happened recently with Fire and Blood. I was going to sleep thinking of Aegon and Jaehaerys and waking up thinking of them and I couldn’t wait to get the typewriter. The rest of the world vanishes, and I don’t care what I’m having for dinner or what movies are on or what my email says, who’s mad at me this week because The Winds of Winter isn’t out, all that is gone and I’m just living in the world I’m writing about. But it’s sometimes hard to get to that almost trance state.”
“We live our lives and I think there’s something in us that yearns for something more, more intense experiences. There are men and women out there who live their lives seeking those intense experiences, who go to the bottom of the sea and climb the highest mountains or get shot into space. Only a few people are privileged to live those experiences but I think all of us want to, somewhere in our heart of hearts we don’t want to live the lives of quiet desperation Thoreau spoke about, and fantasy allows us to do those things. Fantasy takes us to amazing places and shows us wonders, and that fulfils a need in the human heart.”
It can be hard to take distraction seriously as a political factor because it is rooted in personal life. It tends to be understood as an individual ailment, perhaps significant in someone’s experience of their own life and exercising a diffuse constraint over their effectiveness but nonetheless beyond the bounds of the political. However individuals changes have aggregate consequences for political life. As James Williams puts it in Stand Out of Our Light pg 10:
But I also knew this wasn’t just about me – my deep distractions, my frustrated goals. Because when most people in society use your product, you aren’t just designing users; you’re designing society. But if all of society were to become as distracted in this new, deep way as I was starting to feel, what would that mean? What would be the implications for our shared interests, our common purposes, our collective identities, our politics?
Addressing these questions pushes at the boundaries of a disciplinary separation between psychology and sociology. If we reduce to distraction to a costruct of experimental psychology, we lose track of why our goals and tasks matter to us and the significance of our declining capacity to attend to them. If we approach distraction in a purely sociological way, we over-socialise it and obscure the subtle variability of its development in individuals. Furthermore, it necessitates resisting the evisceration of the human, reclaiming the language of human purposes in the face of attempts to reduce our meaningful action to digital metrics.
How can we reconcile the psychoanalytical and the reflexive? One way is to deny there’s a tension and the work of someone like Ian Craib illustrates how this can be so, excavating reflexivity as a site of fantasy that is itself acted on reflexively. We find the image of a powerful and boundless self intoxicating but sustaining it necessitates reflexivity in defence of this object. Rather than scrutinising our assumption that life should be without disappointment (Craib’s catch all term for the negative emotions which inevitably emerge from our engagements with a recalcitrant reality) we move into the next job, the next partner, the next home in the earnest hope that this time we can elude the mess of life which has followed us up till now. In this case, reflexivity misidentifies itself, mistaking a fallible and constrained capacity to calibrate our becoming in the world for a powerful and boundless capacity to build the life we aspire to. There is no tension between the psychoanalytical and the reflexive because we can’t understand one without the other.
However what about our super ego? What about injunction we feel to behave a certain way and meet specific standards? I think someone like Adam Phillips can be read in a similar way to Craib, concerned with the space of freedom which is closed down through our misidentification of these demands; a freedom which can only be embraced by recognising our own limitations. But what about the pleasure we find in subordinating ourselves to these injunctions? This is something Žižek discusses on pg 195-196 of Like A Thief In Broad Daylight:
This, then, is what makes millions of us seek refuge in our opiums: not just new poverty and lack of prospects, but unbearable superego pressure in its two aspects –the pressure to succeed professionally and the pressure to enjoy life fully in all its intensity. Perhaps this second aspect is even more unsettling: what remains of our life when our retreat into private pleasure itself becomes the stuff of brutal injunction?
From a realist perspective on reflexivity (Archer, Donati, Sayer et al) these pressures arise from our concerns. It’s because facets of our world matter to us, unavoidably moving us to action, that the question of which action becomes so thorny and difficult. This pressure comes from a relation of concern to the world, even if this is inflected through the cultural coding which is situationally available to us. However for a figure like Žižek this would seem like an escape from the real issue, a lofty rationalisation which obscures the obsene core of ‘what matters to us’ . Even if we see ‘servitude to a cause’ (a phrase he uses later in the book) as a psychoanalytical reading of a reflexive commitment, there nonetheless seems to be a profound tension here.
Can these perspectives be reconciled? Is it possible to accept the existence of cultural injunctions which capture us on a psychic level while recognising the capacities of agents to (fallibly!) calibrate the relationship between themselves and their world? I suspect is isn’t and I’m not sure what this means for my broader interest in recognising the reflexive and the psychoanalytical.
I came across the following extract in the Stafford Beer archive at Liverpool John Moores University. It is from a letter which Beer writes to his children, offering insights into the character of existence as a Christmas present to them. His use of the term poise caught my attention. I first used the term poise in a masters dissertation investigating the agency of LGBTQ youth in their negotiation of sexual normativity. I wasn’t entirely sure what I meant by it then and I’m still not certain now, in spite of it being a category which my thinking often comes back to.
By poise I’ve tended to mean something akin to a skilful and confident embrace of change. It connects to an observation Helen Kara made about changing tempos. Her experience resonated with me and it’s precisely in those moments of change when I often feel I lack poise, unravelling slightly and having to reassemble myself in order to cope with the change underway. But there’s much more to it than that, albeit in a way I’m still struggling to articulate. It’s too early in my encounter with Stafford Beer to know if he means poise in the same way. Nonetheless the focus on feeling in command of oneself in a way that renders one less susceptible to the vicissitudes of nature certainly rings a bell. To have poise is not quite to retain your shape through change, as much as exercise a second-order control over the change that is underway.
Perhaps as Beer puts it, it’s a matter of holding on to your cosmic slice. This idea makes me think of the Deleuzian notion of lines of flight. If we conceive of this as an object of our own awareness, a sense of our own becoming in the world lurking at the heart of all life’s mysteries, poise is a capacity to take ownership of our line of flight. Not in the sense of control but in the sense of steering, made richer by contingency and more elaborate by uncertainty. Cultivating poise is not sufficient for human flourishing but I suspect it is necessary.
On Friday night I was travelling home after a few days in Zurich. Waiting for my plane in Zurich airport, Bats by Uncluded came up on the random playlist I was listening to. I hadn’t realised Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson had collaborated. I was immediately gripped as what had been background listening suddenly grabbed my full attention, immersing me in the music in a way that was involuntary. I couldn’t help but listen to it a few times in quick succession, with the lines below gripping me in a way that is hard to get into words. As I often do, I looked up the lyrics and reading them alongside the music only added to the power of the song.
In times of death and disorder
You look for shooting stars
In the reflection of the water
And you open the gifts that you didn’t expect
On the birthdays of the dead friends that are stuck in your head
Like love, and hugs and songs and rage
And the keys that you needed to unlock your heart’s cage
The ability to put the pen back to the page
The heat beneath your feet to propel you on stage
The beat that completes your shit these days
Yeah the beat that completes your shit these days
(The beat that completes your shit these days)
I wasn’t able to download the track before getting on the plane so I was delighted to resume immersion once I arrived at Heathrow, listening to it multiple times on my journey home before my headphones ran out of battery. I couldn’t get the phrase “love, and hugs and songs and rage” out of my head and fleetingly wondered if this might be the second tattoo I’d been thinking about for a while. I continued listening the next day but the effect was subtly diminished, the song felt flatter and my attention was more deliberate and less voluntary.
Another 48 hours later and I realised when listening to it that these lines were no longer standing out to me, manifesting in little more than an awareness that I had missed something. But if I listened closely, I still missed it because ‘something’ was a response these lines provoked in me rather than the lines itself. It was what I’d call the resonance opened up within me by the music, the interplay of associations and responses that emerged from my immediate relationship with it. The music gripped me and moved me and changed me. But now it was gone. After 48 hours.
This isn’t an unusual experience. I’ve had many conversations with people about obsessively listening to the same track until it becomes flat. I suggest this is mining resonance to the point of exhaustion i.e. taking advantage of our immediate control over the resonant item to repeat the experience, with the cost of diminishing effect as the resonance evaporates in the fact of its instrumentalisation. It changes our relationship to what resonates and involves exercising subjective control over what is otherwise outside us, eviscerating resonance by turning an external relation to a piece of art into an internal relation to an experience we are choosing. If we have to wait until something is on the radio or on TV then we can’t exercise this control. If the resonance is generated through live music, it remains something with a transcendent dimension to which we have to open ourselves up. If it is something we can repeat on demand, we risk emptying out the experience and destroying precisely what brought us to it in the first place.
Reflecting on this has left me wondering about binge watching. It can be an experience in which we are gripped by what we are watching, immersed so completely in the narratives of an alternative universe that to leave it feels fleetingly impossible. It can also be something hollow and compulsive, repeated with a grim but unspoken awareness that we are being nudged into continued engagement by the architecture of Netflix. What makes the difference? I would suggest it is resonance and that what we call binge watching or immersion isn’t just about consuming a cultural production, it’s how we relate to that cultural consumption. The ontology of this relation is subtle and streaming platforms simultaneously treat us as sovereign decision makers and hollow selves to be moulded. The phenomenology of cultural bingeing is much more complex than either characterisation can grasp.
In a wonderful London Review of Books piece, the composer Nico Muhly reflects on the challenge of being ready to think. If our work is embedded in a particular environment, scaffolded by the equipment we have within an office, it can be difficult to think when on the move. But even if we can take our equipment with us, it doesn’t mean we are ready to think. There is always refocusing required and this can take time and effort:
When I plan out a year’s work, I can see in advance that I’ll need to be writing certain pieces across several trips, and I seek out ways to keep my focus on work rather than the constantly changing environment. If the work were only saved on a computer, it would take me hours to refocus after a long trip, whereas if I bring a slim folder, the minute I see it on the desk or at the foot of the bed, I’m immediately ready to think about it again.
The folders accompany me everywhere; even if a piece is an unfertilised egg of an idea (‘Corpse Road’ is the title of an empty folder in my satchel right now), it is with me in my bag every day. At home, I save vegetable scraps and post-spatchcocking chicken necks and backs in a container in the freezer: a physical reminder that something can always be done with them. The folders, too, are a reminder of the endless possibility of what they might become.
How do we realise this promise of being immediately ready to think? I’ve been thinking about this since reading Andrew Abbott’s advice in Digital Paper about the necessity of tagging and categorising research materials because time and energy spent searching for an item is time and energy not spend working on it. He stresses the importance of this work because it constitutes the analytic categories of your research project, as opposed to being clerical labour standing outside the lofty world of ideas which scholars are inclined to see themselves as embedded within.
This relationship between the ideas we we are working and the tools we use to work on them is one which fascinates me, not least of all because digital tools and digital platforms makes it more complex than it has ever been. Firstly, the relationship becomes imperceptible (though not immaterial) because it is mediated by devices, giving a new valence to handwriting in the process and sparking resurgent handwriting cultures. Secondly, the ease of working with digital files means attentiveness has to be cultivated rather than being something which (mostly) flows organically from the physical process of undertaking the work. Thirdly, the vast array of tools and platforms with which we can work, as well as the changing ways of relating platforms which are themselves in flux, means a higher level of reflection is required, often subsumed under a notion like workflow.
The ideas we are working with are materials in the same sense as the tools we use but their realisation is dependent on those tools. There’s something important here about our ideational materials being at hand and the subtle alignments necessary in order for this to be true of the tools we use to access them. Adjusting our devices, habits and habitats in order to get our workflow right can feel like a distraction but in actual fact it is a crucial part of creative work. So much of what matters about creative work rests on what Nico Muhly describes as being “immediately ready to think about it again”. Unless we choreograph our digital routines, distractions multiply and we work in spite of rather than because of the tools we are using.