Self-identifying Beyond Capital: Let’s Not Make This Personal

a response to Arthur C. Brooks, “A Profession is Not a Personality”

It first came up on my FB feed — fellow disability advocates were reposting this article, “A Profession is Not a Personality,” from Arthur C. Brooks in the Atlantic. And in that light, I was ready to be on board here: the original poster and commenters were reflecting on the ways in which it often gets framed as though one’s advocacy and positionality is one’s entire personality (ie, the “killjoy,” an “angry” person, framed as always “complaining” or being “difficult” — language used for many who simply refuse to comply with the social contracts of accepting the lack of access, whether in this case for folks with disabilities but with parallels in race, class, gender, and all other areas of advocacy.) This happens to me a lot, and it’s exhausting, alienating, and definitely something I want people to recognize.

But then I read the article: and that’s not at all what it’s about.

And then I read it again. And then I positioned it within other conversations I’ve been having, with my students and in the world, in particular about how cognitive dissonance is at work in the world right now (in fact, here’s another link from The Atlantic on the subject), and also about how language and “expertise” works on perception and public meaning-making.

I started writing a post but then it got longer, and I realized it was something else, so here we are. It’s largely unedited, the work of response in a short, stolen pocket of day, and not something I have the resources (appropriately, per what you’ll find below) to make more studied, or to find a platform equally validating to post it on. Statistically, “most” people would find themselves in a similar position, as far as sharing our perspective, or even our research, is concerned: even if we are writers, or scholars, or scientists, access to outlets to publish and widely share (and thereby, offer some credence to) our observations / work is incredibly limited, and time to make that work outside our survival work is often slim to none. But this isn’t a personal failing, and doesn’t demonstrate our preference for the labor we do for others, or a lack of care or passion about what we would want to do with our hours if we could escape the extractive clutches of the way capital has set up most of our lives — so that we may never have those hours “free,” and that if we do, rest and recovery is what we’re capable of.

My first comment, when it was simply going to be for social media was, “I have so many thoughts on this, and so many critiques. This is written so… blithely. So…devoid of class analysis, so intersectionally and systemically bereft, and not only because it’s so problematic in its framing of Marx as primarily being about unhappiness.”

Yes, blithe: defined as showing a casual and cheerful indifference considered to be callous or improper. Which is to say: the voice of the writer which appears to be presenting facts and observations, even those meant to “help” and assist in the reader finding “happiness,” (indeed, it’s part of a larger series purporting to teach you “how to build a life”) are doing so in a way that already makes myriad assumptions about that audience, but which also show the author’s hand in what is absent. Because the way this article understands “personality” bespeaks a privileged relationship to choice, and lacks a systemic read of the conditions that are absolutely necessary if one is to suppose to offer “advice” to all but a few.

And even for those few: what does it mean to say that “to be happy, we need to throw off these chains we put on ourselves”? This is where the “blithe” comes in, because this is offered as a universal condition or option, which entirely avoids a systemic analysis of how and why what he calls “self-objectifying” in relationship to productivity and labor begins, and then how it is reinforced.

I’d go so far as to say that underlying that statement is the sort of “if you’re failing, it’s your fault” language that is at the root of so much meme-ing about the different perspectives of baby boomers and millenials. Yes: there are ways in which every one of us can employ language-assisted tactics like cognitive behavior therapy to help us move away from negative self-talk, but many of us are not unhappy in our relationship to extractive labor becuase we are over-identifying with our job. Even if and when the narrative we use for ourselves does tend towards centering our labor as our primary “story,” the reasons for this are not because we have the wrong friends or aren’t thinking hard enough about the other things that are important to us, but (I’d posit) that for most of us, we feel powerless to center those other things and it threatens to throw the delicate balance of our mental health and capacity to keep going in crisis.

Much has been written (both formally and informally) about the striking ways in which the pandemic shifted our relationship to our homes, our jobs, and the way we spend our time — though we didn’t choose to have this happen, reckoning with the way we labor, with what work is, in fact, essential, and how central our work is to our narratives sent many into what I don’t think is an exaggeration to call existential crisis. In fact, I made a video about this as part of my Speculative Solidarity series, back in March of 2020, entitled “The Work of Worlding: Rewriting Roles, Reclaiming Self.” But while these two accounts might seem to be doing the same thing, it’s important that we understand how they aren’t, and the work it shows we have to do if we are going to achieve seemingly aligned goals with people coming from entirely different positions (who may not be aware of how this colors their view).

I’ve been thinking more and more about cognitive dissonance, and meaning-making, especially as schools reopen during the ongoing Covid crisis. Now, here is a social scientist at Harvard writing for a major magazine, an “expert,” but also the way this piece is written immediately told me before I even looked him up about this person’s positionality in society. (Older cis white dude? Clearly privileged / well resourced? Check, double check: in fact, he’s a center-right independent / libertarian, and was previously president of the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.)

But I’m not always paying as close attention and I think for many people on the nebulous “left,” The Atlantic occupies a sort of social position as a sort of like… NPR kind of magazine?… for informed, liberal, intelligent cogniscenti types, who have, you know — Good Politics. Which means that maybe another person who thinks this is going to be a magazine of like-minded opinion is not so careful about subtleties, semantic nuances that tell us that while seemingly aligned, the friendly, social-science “informed” self-help article we’re reading is unwittingly also one that reinforces and relies on the maintenance and continuance of class and race privilege.

It makes sense that an author who identifies as libertarian is writing this, though, even if this isn’t mentioned in the piece, because the notion of “liberty” in especially the conservative-right leaning parts of that party outright reject much of the ideas of social democracy in its abstract rejection of the “State,” throwing out alongside this notions that any person’s claim to “unhappiness” as a result of systemic injustice is (as this piece concludes) indeed personal, a failure to stake one’s claim adequately in the free market rather than anything that could be understood as the result of intergenerational trauma, class, race, and so on.

In part, finding this here is a matter of looking not at what is present but what is absent: what is totally missing from this account is any sense of the operationalization of objectification, and when and how it’s required, how early in our lives we’re taught to do this, and by whom and of whom, and how this is not the same for all people, or all bodies.

What’s missing is what happens to our bodies when we’re conditioned by institutions to divorce ourselves from our own ideas of right or wrong, of our personal identities, and when our relationship to those systems is one of abuse and/or inequal power dynamics. “Self-objectifying” is not entirely an accurate description — as the person is in fact replicating what they’ve been taught and often are required to do in order to survive. When humans mirror language and perception received through system-objectification, it’s inaccurate and dangerous to position the self as the originator of those patterns of identification.

Seeking value in the ways you’ve been forced to spend your time makes sense, and yes, it’s important to remember that we’re not our jobs, but not because we “tend to valorize being driven and ambitious,” “letting work take over virtually every moment” of our lives, but because we’ve been taught since we were tiny children to participate in these ways that prioritize power and prestige and privilege, silencing what our bodies have needed, our opinions, our ethics, often feeling like doing so is inescapable. “In theory, you can ditch your boss and get a new job,” yes, but “in theory” is critical here: this is easier said than done, and when you learn who you are, realize you have value, and begin to self-identify in a way that refuses what labor under capitalism requires of us, we reach a different kind of impasse: we risk a body and mind that refuses abuse, but don’t have any options within this system to continue to participate / survive without numbing ourselves to what is required to make that happen. We’re seeing this happen across the country as people are beginning to refuse to work under certain conditions.

What will happen when people who are not in comfortable jobs with comfortable bank accounts begins to do this is *uprisings* and major class unrest, not people finding themselves on jaunts to Bali and Burning Man, so that they decide that their “real name” is the one on the playa, not that boring old person at the office. How lovely to have the opportunity for this revelation! Trying to find value in that work is, I’d say, a defense mechanism to cope within systems that feel inescapable, not a personal failing. Creating a narrative around why it’s worthwhile to abandon your health, your relationships, your dreams, your ethics in the service of sometimes working 80–100 hour weeks simply to afford a place to live, support your family, and eat, with your other hours left to chores, childcare, eating and sleeping…makes sense as a survival strategy, unless alternatives are systemically available, and that’s not the case in the US at current. It’s something the cognitive mind is doing to create an environment in which it can go on, because the reality is that it can’t, but it must. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And there is a seed of value here: it’s absolutely essential that we realize how we ended up here, and who requires that we stay here, and what that means about power, and privilege, and systemic abuse.

But the outcome of refusing not self but system-objectification is not a personal one: in order to stay in the self that refuses objectification, rejects the narrative we’ve been fed, and doesn’t silence it again to go back to the office. The self refusing system-objectification doesn’t continue reproducing the expectations and requirements of institutions. The self refusing system-objectification is present everywhere right now: in labor uprisings across the globe, in the Black Lives Matter movement, in Me Too, in nonbinary and trans folx refusing the gender markers assigned at birth.

Brooks claims to be talking about “well being” but his viewpoint assumes a position of one who isn’t concerned about the maintenance of physical well being in a system built to maintain his precarity. And yet even for those of significant means, spinning this narrative remains a mechanism for staying a participant in and reproducer of the ways our social contracts are abusive and extractive, especially of others. Folks in the upper echelons spinning value-narratives around their work and its central role in their self-identification is a defense mechanism, too: this language works to help forestall the reckoning other consideration brings to the fore about not only impact on their happiness but the ways in which they are lynchpins in the abuse of others and/or the environment.

For those of us whose survival is not promised, yet who are nonetheless working actively on sloughing away the objectifications hoisted on us, refusing to spin the narrative of labor-oriented-worth we find ourselves at a precipice: indeed, many of us are telling our own stories now, but when we do we can no longer return to institutions, to play the roles expected of us. But if we don’t…we don’t eat, we’re on the street, we have no healthcare… right? Well, this is the work of abolition, in the breaking down, and also the work of solidarity economies, and human rights work seeking rights for bodies who deserve affordable housing, access to food and water. I promise you, Mr. Brooks, we’re working on it. Did you imagine it would look like something else?

is a multimodal creative and social practitioner, curator, scholar, and educator. Founder/Director @The Operating System. Faculty @ Pratt. [they/them] #resist