Friday, January 29, 2010

what I'm reading and what's next

people have been asking:

P= pleasure, S= school
Native Son Richard Wright (s)
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Erving Goffman (p)
The Second Shift- Arlie R. Hochschild (p)
Two Girls, Fat and Thin- Mary Gaitskill (p)
Too Much Happiness- Alice Munro (p)
The Children's Hospital- Chris Adrian (p)
Changing My Mind- Zadie Smith (p)
My Life In France- Julia Child (p)
The past three issues of the Believer (p, duh)
Complications- Atul Gawande (s)
The Managed Heart- Arlie R. Hochschild (s and p)
The Pursuit of Attention- Charles Derber (s)
The ABC's of the Economic Crisis- Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates (s)
The New Media Monopoly- Ben Bagdikian (s)
Independent People- Haldor Laxness (p)
Up in The Air- Walter Kirn (p)
Under the Dome- Stepehn King (p)

Please get together and work out my intervention.

Are you Lonesome Tonight? Alienation and collective identity at work

Cue your speakers! This is a musical entry

As I was working this evening I took a little break to nerd out on The AV Club and ran across this interview with Joshua Ferris, author of the tremendous Then We Came to the End, a dark and funny and deeply resonating novel about office politics and the formation of identity around work, especially that of collective selves.

I just finished an amazing book by Peter Callero called The Myth of Individualism. Callero’s definition of individualism illustrates that individualism is a particular ideology with tensions between the personal and the social, the private and the public. It also assumes that values of independence and the like are “natural”; a rational worldview with people as free agents making choices with direct outcomes that impact their lives (17). Callero notes that this definition is not inherently a bad thing on its surface, but rather the unintended consequences and ramifications that create negative outcomes. In short, there are limits to the good that individualism can bring an individual and a society.(This would be a great introduction to some of the basic premises of Symbolic Interactionism, the kind of sociology that I heart if anyone is interested. On the micro-level he cites work by Sheryl Kleinman, Arlie Hochschild and Stephen Lyng to name a few.) Specifically he is talking about how the narrative we tell ourselves about how we become who we are is detrimental to us in the end because we fail to realize the power of the larger social forces that shape us. Callero uses great contemporary examples like the Unabomber (attempting to “make sense” of Ted Kaczynski from a sociological standpoint and ultimately seeing him as a “radical individualist” or an “extreme American” (16- 18)) , the mythology surrounding the supposedly singular accomplishment of some famous Americans, and the participation of disparate lliberal-union groups in so-called "battle in Seattle". In short, the myth of individualism was created, perpetuated and institutionalized by those who achieved success in order to 1) prevent people from understanding their own agency and the power of collective action 2) create a kind of flip logic in addition where failures and constraints are seen through the lens of personal responsibility and failure 3) obscure the collective action that allows elites to remain in power 4) avoid examining larger social issues in such a way that the powerful are not criticized. Mills talked about this in The Power Elite and Marx did to, as well as many conflcit theorists, but Callero pointely looks at the way the narrative of the American Dream is scripted for the continued disenfranchisement of those who will be least likely to achieve it. That is, as fewer and fewer people are able to reach success, the more they believe they could do so with lots of hard work and determination.
Callero is NOT saying that individuals are not ambitious and motivated by singular forces sometimes, but what he is saying is that many Americans buy into a dream they can never achieve and the power of that dream prevents them from seeking alternative routes to agency.

So what does this have to do with Joshua Ferris?

Well, Callero also talks about how work is a particularly strong force in how we define who we are and how we construct identities. This is especially important to understand as right now, a new generation of “downwardly mobile” Americans find themselves wondering where they went wrong, measuring their failures by the brutal yardstick of the American Dream and coming up short. When work becomes difficult to obtain, maintain and make meaningful in these contexts it affects our relationships to others and to ourselves. Our personal narratives no longer make sense as they get interrupted again and again. This is a symptom of new capitalism or neoliberalism Callero draws a map from the new capitalism to larger social currents and problems. Issues like crime, education, poverty, divorce, and social isolation cannot be treated as incidents of individual motivation (or lack thereof) that only quantify “individual limitations or personal weakness” (123).

But another limitation, one that also resonates with themes of alienation is how when we do work power separates us. As Ferris says in his interview:

When you’re a member of management, you’re usually not one of the group. Sometimes you have to make decisions that necessarily exclude the collective. It’s more difficult to be a friend—even though they know each other and they treat each other like friends, it’s more of a challenge for them. It’s just institutional fact; the two characters that are the most aloof are the ones who have the most responsibility. If someone were plucked from the group and given those responsibilities, they might find themselves growing more aloof, just by virtue of that promotion. Suddenly the group culture excludes you. I saw this in my own working life, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence—I sensed a kind of loneliness in middle managers especially. The people at the very top could fall by and grace you with their presence and give you a little largesse, and you’d be “Oh, I’m so beloved.” In a way, it was kind of like flattery. The middle managers didn’t quite have that cachet, but at the same time, they had to seem like they were of that caliber. So there’s a little bit of loneliness at the heart of those with a little bit of power.


This statement is so true that is makes my teeth hurt, and it undesrcores the fact that those with power can become disconnected from those without it, even when they don't want to be. Being a manager is a special kind of hell in that you get to observe others forming bonds and creating strong collective identities, but you don't really get to participate. It's a lonely way to form a work identity in that you are usually doing it on your own, surrounded by those with more power than you (and similarly isolated) and those with less power than you (who are socialized not to see you as part of the group). You are from but not of. As Marx would say my "species being" is not being fully realized to my detriment. And I think Callero would say that this is a particularly American kind of loneliness at work.

To quote Bette Middler in Beaches, "Ok, enough about me, what do you think about me?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Next Big Thing

School starts tomorrow, and I don't wanna go. Ah, ennui. At least I have my finger on the pulse of the greatest and newest. Check out the next viral video