odw II, or The Great Refusal

How can we be both successful in the world, and non-conformist? There could be a few easy, glib responses to this question but it’s one I’ve been pondering whilst galloping through One Dimensional Woman, specifically chapter 1.1 You’re Like an Advert for Yourself or as Nina puts it far more humorously, ‘the walking CV’. We have to sell and promote and boost ourselves as working, career-devoted, totally able, totally devoted workers whose only aim is up. (A series of pop song titles cleverly knitted in to that I hope you note.)  But as I said to said author, she is herself a walking CV surely? The (brilliant) blog, the books, the articles in anything from New Statesman to Radical Philosophy to … (actually, take a look at the blog if you want to know more otherwise this post will come across as page 3 of her CV, which would be tragic and sugary). Those of us who read Infinite Thought regularly know that the author is often exhausted, ill and working harder than a dehydrated donkey crossing the desert. We know that capitalism will end before the author’s workload has been completed. We know that the author lectures for hours and hours and hours every week, marking texts, translating other ones, editing books, writing books, reading hundreds of others. And she still pumps out a blog, a film club, photography for mates etc etc etc etc. It’s exhausting just reading about it. This, presumably, is the way to ensure that you are a successful academic these days, perhaps particularly if you work in an *unwanted* philosophy department that is seen to be an indulgence to managers of university budgets. Is it the only way? These circuits of work are self-perpetuating. Certainly, I know from working as a journalist that the more you write the more people want you and the more they want you the more you have to work and the more you have to work the more wanted you are and it goes on and on and on and on into a whirling work-life of sleeplessness and, I think, a kind of thought-less-ness. Clearly IT is able to keep thinking. We can see/read and hear that. But for how long can, in this case, an academic keep running intellectual marathons before collapsing? More to the point, though, by being super-academic – and I think I know several, so let’s just depersonalise this from IT only for a minute – you are playing right into the hands of the managers, no? You will work as hard as they want and produce the goods and show that their completely unreasonable inhumane demands are human and achievable and absolutely fine. In fact, they are better than that, they are a good thing because everyone benefits with more products, more promotion and more work. Surely all of us – especially academics on the Left who help to lead some of the debate – must act what they critique and discuss. We have to say no to the workmasters who always want a little bit more of us. We have to say no so that more people can get a share of that work and that pay, otherwise we risk collapsing into these self-serving circles (usually very elitist) in which certain people become kind of celebrities of their work. Even academics. The  temptation to self-promote and to constantly prove you are able is what we are all being encouraged to do all the time – the blog is a perfect example of this (which novelist has resisted her agent’s demands to write a blog these days?), surely. We live in a frenzy of activity where there is neither time to make sandwiches for lunch, boil up your own coffee in a flask to take to work, or listen to, say, some beautiful CD of music we bought a couple of years ago. If you cook your own food – as I do – you are criticised and scoffed at as being ‘privileged’ to have the time to do it. And yet, for me, the act of, say, making my own pastry (yes! I do!) is partly about sticking two fingers up to the plastic packaging of Mr Kipling & co, as well as being able to make 24 for 99pence as opposed to buying 4 for 99p While Stocks Last. The very nature of rushing about to work etc means you end up buying your coffee and sandwiches from Starbucks or Pret or M&S or Tesco’s or wherever you go. Your rush promotes the very system it seeks to destroy. (Not you, Nina: I mean you, all of us). There is something of the Marcuse one dimensional man in all of this: there is never time to think, to rest, to stop and take stock. It’s one long mad rush. We end up being blind to the nature of the society in which we live because we are in such a rush to survive it.

I’m very glad IT wrote this book. I’d like to read the next volume and the one after. But my small tiny piece of advice to her would be to relax a bit. Take it easy. I’m not a Buddhist or a self-help promoter, but sometimes it’s just important to sit down and do nothing. Pick your nose for half an hour and contemplate the light-bulb in your office. (People pay for that kind of advice you know.) And don’t do work for free, ever!

An anonymous reader adds:

‘One of the problems with a certain generation of Left is that it actually bought a version of Thatcherism, the “run, run, run in the Hamster Wheel because there’s no alternative” thing. Of course there’s a fucking alternative. There always was. One of Thatcherism’s pieces of genius was to rule it out automatically, to naturalise it as a condition; the other piece of course, was to help the condition along economically so that it began to be true. The Left bought into this by imitation, without realising it – a kind of accidental slipstreaming, an unconscious whistling of one of your opponent’s best tunes. But no one had to buy it then, & no one has to buy it now. It’s a temperamental thing. In the 80s, even the Left let that particular temperament, that particular personal style, get the upper hand & lead.’