Work, Work, Work; The Embrace of Self-Obliteration

In its basic form, contemporary employment offers two kinds of work: Work which creates things and work which completes things. That is to say, broadly speaking, work can be split into two types: making and fixing, beginnings and ends, aperture and closure, desire and need.

Consider the builder. Her work is that of making, whether it be bricks and mortar on an industrial estate or laying the foundations on an episode of Grand Designs. It is work in which the object of work is formed through the work, work in which the fruits of one’s labours arrive after the work is complete.

Consider the doctor. Her work is that of fixing, whether it be hearts, lungs, brains, bones, or bipolar. This is work in which the object of work is fully formed at the start, and in which the objective of the work is to make the object of the work disappear. The fruits of one’s labours here, in a sense, never appear. The completion of this work involves a kind of self-obliteration: if all the doctors in an imagined ideal world completed all their work perfectly, there would be no more need of doctors.

Hang on. This is too ideal is it not? Isn’t this imaginary binary too far from reality? Builders in reality don’t merely create the objects of their work according to desire, they don’t merely fabricate endlessly. They have projects that they are given, they have contracts to fulfil, of course they respond to need just as well as desire. And equally the doctor does not merely solve problems, does not merely perform a machininc task according to need. The best doctors are of course creative, otherwise how to improvise when a high risk operation goes wrong? How else does one consult with and support a combined sufferer of schizoid-type personality ailment and Alzheimers dementia? Doctors are not mere algorithms designed to fulfil a task.

This is all true. Yet it does not diminish the value of the division between the two types of work when considering the nature of the work itself in a teleological sense. Teleology (from τελος, telos) refers to a goal or an end, a what-for, if you will. The work of building, that is, the act of building itself, the deliberate and essential executions that the work is composed of possesses a τελος that is, in a sense nonexistent. There is no total end goal to being a builder, one can build one house then build another and another and another. In theory, one could continue being a builder forever (material concerns like available resources notwithstanding). For the doctor this is not the case in the sense that, for the work of the doctor, the work of medicine, its essential execution, there very much is a whole and complete τελος to the work. The end goal is the cure of patients, with the hypothetical totalised goal being the cure of all possible patients of all possible ailments. Ideally, it would be impossible for one to go on being a doctor forever, rather it is only possible to continue being a doctor because of material constraints (there are many humans who will continue to suffer illness and injury and the condition of medicine cannot be perfected for the simple reason that we are not Asclepius the god of Medicine himself).

It is important to note here that in these two examples, the role of the ideal and the material flip. For the maker, the ideal of his work is infinity, without end. Materiality constrains this ideal and forces the maker to perform tasks for finite purposes. For the fixer, the ideal of his work is finite, total, completion. Materiality makes this completion impossible and consigns the fixer to work that is de facto infinite. This is why there is more to this binary division than mere arbitrary categorisation. If the we may posit the essence of the work in its τελος in the way I have described, then in the ideal terms I have denoted, I am yet to be able to think of an occupation, employment, vocation, pass-time, hobby, or job which does not fall cleanly into either the category of making or of fixing, or creation or of completion, of desire or need in the way I have described.

Why make this claim? Understanding the ideal form of one’s work and the way its material reality abrades against and facilitates different facets of this form affords us the ability to approach the work in the mood, in the attitude most appropriate to it.

Let us consider a new batch of examples. Consider the call centre worker. Worker A is a helpline call handler. This makes his work the fixer type. It responds to need. Teleologically, it is self-obliterating. At the τελος of his work, the helpline caller should have ‘helped’ every caller possible (whatever that means) and there should be no longer any need of his existence. The materiality of the work (we lack infinite time, we don’t really care much because we’re not flawlessly morally upstanding and we do this job for the money but hate being abused by irate customers, we’re in a call centre with eighty-four other loud, coffee-crazed individuals, our phone connection hasn’t been updated since 1994 to boost profit margins) makes it an infinite pursuit, one in which the end is inconceivable, even if in principle there is an end towards which we work.

Let’s say Worker A has been to a compulsory employee wellbeing and support workshop because his employer is being scrutinised for malpractice by a regulatory body and they need to show a commitment to employee health and satisfaction. At the workshop, he is advised by a lively and cheerful consulting agent that a creative and proactive approach to work will not only improve his own experience of the work and his mental wellbeing, combating stress and burnout, but also improve outcomes for the business overall, benefiting both the employer and employee. He is instructed in the importance of the three Fs: Fun, Focus, and Fulfilment, and subsequently informed of the ways a creative and proactive approach to his work increases all three of these key factors in the workplace. Finally, he is given a certificate of completion and asked to complete a feedback form while remembering the importance of an enthusiastic and fun approach to office tasks and co-worker interaction. Now, most workers, for reasons of they think it’s stupid, will struggle to take seriously the efforts of consulting workshops of this sort. However, imagine that Worker A is an earnest and straightforward type of man who thinks; ‘what the hell, why not give the three Fs a shot?’. What will Worker A accomplish with a creative and proactive approach to helpline call handling?

In terms of creativity, this is obviously not an arena where Worker A will be producing artefacts like the builder, the sculptor, the musician, or the engineer. In what frame could answering the phone be possibly approached creatively? This will only happen for Worker A in the manner of his answering itself, in the how of his execution of his role. This will be a processual or procedural creativity. What he can create is a method, a way of thinking, of responding to caller queries and accusations, a way of positioning himself and manipulating the task at hand which is unique to him alone. If he goes so far as to formalise this methodology, he perhaps creates a document endorsed by the company for good phone manner, and then goes on to create, by extension, an entire culture of phone operation in the helpline service. Good job! Yet notice that what he has created has the antithesis of creativity in it: he has created a set of instructions which are to be obeyed for positive outcomes, he has created nothing other than dogma, a method designed to accomplish a task, to meet a need. His creativity has reversed into its opposite! Why? Unlike the created objects in building, in art, in brewery, in cooking, in writing, and in music, for example, what Worker A has created is impossible to share or distribute. The work of creativity he has performed has operated entirely on himself; he has been forging his own habits, manner, and mind. The act of attempting to move this fundamentally private act into a public form transforms it from the freedom of an individual in a creative act into a script of performative gestures which prescribe action as law. Even more importantly, it must be noted that this creative act has precisely nothing to do with the work at hand. Worker A could have quite feasibly, nay even more powerfully, worked on his character and developed his selfhood in an entirely different environment. He could have achieved something like this as a sportsman, or an astronaut, a gold prospector, a stock broker, or an ocean trawler fisherman. The self is the object that is always at one’s disposal for working on in an act of creativity. The fact that it was the only way for Worker A to perform a creative act in his workplace demonstrates the total absence of creative potential in his position. This altogether demonstrates the absurd nullity of approaching such an occupation with the ‘three Fs’ attitude – sprinkles on a turd cannot make it any more appetizing to the palate.

It hardly needs to be mentioned that proactive helpline calling would be just as total a failure: is there a waste of time more gratuitously frustrating and infuriating than cold-calling dressed in the pretext of ‘I wondered if I’d be able to offer you any help today?’

For all the contemporary excitement around the gamification of the workplace and so-called Fungineering in office environments, approaching certain kinds of occupation with this mood is entirely futile. Tasks which fall into the fixer category, which fulfil a need, which are meant to be completed, will never benefit in their essential form from being approached with creativity: these tasks, by definition create nothing. As I have stressed, these tasks are self-obliterating: the end goal of the doctor is to require no more doctors. To put the problem in reverse, imagine a doctor in an entirely healthy community. Whether by incredible coincidence or genuine divine miracle, this doctor has nothing to do. His work can only fulfil a need – with no need, there is no need for the doctor. If he were to be creative, would he not commit the heinous villainy of creating the sick that he might become their healer, a sort of self-satisfied anti-Jesus who blinds men and strikes beggars down with leprosy so that he might restore their sight and cure their dreadful ailments somewhere down the line?

Once again, creativity is strictly impossible in roles of this kind. One can always work on refashioning and tempering the self, sure, and this will bring new facets to the work, but this, as already stated has nothing even slightly to do with the work itself. And buried under all this disavowal of creativity lies the true ideal mood for the function of this kind of work: pure disillusioned instrumentalism. Gamification and Fungineering advocates hold that the workplace as disillusioned and disenchanted instrumentality is the cause of anxiety, stress, and employee dissatisfaction, but through our understanding of the maker / fixer dialectic, it emerges that this is simply untrue for a full half of the kinds of work that exist on today’s job market. Think how different Worker A’s story is if he abandons the pretense of injecting creativity into his work and simply creates his call handler methodology as pure, logically deduced, fit-for-purpose machinery. No longer burdened by the impossible task of producing a creative and proactive helpline service, is he not freed to carry out his tasks without the imaginary emotional investments and duties the workplace ideology that the ‘three Fs’ attitude demands of him? Is it not the case that one of the great taboos of modern employment is admitting that your work is nothing more than a functional, soulless task? Is not this burden of guilt, the sense that one has to sincerely enjoy one’s work at all times as a vocation or be condemned as lacking commitment or as a freeloader the true source of workplace stress, depression, and anxiety? Does not Worker A not only feel much better, but also work, live, and be much better when he is under no illusions about what his work is and the reality of what he spends eight hours a day doing? Compared to the worker who carries the emotional burden of a fixer workplace with them everywhere he goes, the worker who embraces disillusionment lives a life of spiritual luxury.

Expanding this principle even to the doctor; indeed, what doctor could carry out his or her work without understanding it as disillusionment and instrumentality? The whole practice of medicine is the practice of transforming the human being into an instrumentalised form, a machine which can be repaired, tinkered with, and reformatted more or less as you like within the limits of your tools. Is not modern medicine precisely the process through which the elements of the spiritual and the soul leave the sphere of health and are replaced by pure instrumentalised reason? What surgeon could daily slice open, crack open, vise open, scrape open, and sew up, stitch up, suture up, bind up, clamp up, human bodies as a butcher does to pig carcassses without fully appreciating her work is pure instrumentality? The conscientious medecin may well treat each patient as if he were her own parent, but does this not show that in the practice of medicine even one’s own family are instrumentalised as objects of treatment? It should be obvious that the ‘three Fs’ attitude to the workplace would be entirely nonsensical in the medical profession, whether in the high-stakes operating theatre of the neurosurgeon or the relatively sedate world of the community locum general practitioner. One cannot treat this kind of work as ‘creative’; that would be antithetical to its nature. And furthermore, one should not try to perform this movement. ‘Fun’, ‘Focus’, and ‘Fulfilment’ are not conducive to fixer professions, whose only calling card remains Necessity. A doctor may say that she achieves fulfilment in restoring the health of the sickly and in easing the suffering of men, women, children, and families of all sorts. This may well be true, but as found in Worker A, personal development, the reason why a person chooses to pursue their work, or the how through which they carry it out have no bearing on the nature of the work itself. Fulfilment is peripheral to the act of practising medicine. In fact, if one did find fulfilment or fun in the act of practising medicine itself, would it not demonstrate all the more than it is a profession, like all fixer professions, best embraced as instrumentalised? Who, indeed, finds a prostate examination or a transrectal ultrasound in itself fun or fulfilling without somehow imagining the entire process as a series of entirely functional and impersonal procedures, biology disenchanted?

So much for fixer professions, but what of the maker professions? What of their lot in this analysis?

Well, straightforwardly speaking, there is much less to say about maker professions firstly because their overall prevalence is on the wane, and secondly because much less is said about them already. When was the last time anyone mentioned an artisanal shoemaker or a carpenter attempting to gamify their workspace? In what instance could it be imagined that a filmmaker or a dance troupe would invite a professional Fungineer to impress upon them the value of the three Fs in the office? What would instructions to take a ‘creative and proactive’ approach even mean to a bricklayer or an architect?

Such professions suffer far less from the problems imagined to exist in the fixer workplace. Stress, anxiety, and disinterest and their magic antidotes Fun, Focus, and Fulfilment are not especially prevalent problems for the maker because they are intrinsic to the form of the work. Recall that for the maker, the object of her work only arrives at the point the work ends, whereas for the fixer the object of the work is present to begin with and is destroyed through the work. By definition the maker generates the object which is the source of stress/fun, anxiety/focus, disinterest/fulfilment. The maker needs no extra input from consultants or advisory bodies to regulate their emotional input in the work – the work itself demands this input as such. Where personal commitment strikes the fixer as a burden no matter what, the maker’s work lives within that commitment from the start.

For these reasons, and not surprisingly, the appropriate attitude for the maker is the opposite to that of the fixer. Those in the making professions cannot embrace instrumentality in the way that the fixer can, indeed, this is the most powerful way to destroy the essence of the work. Working to contract or on a production line in a maker profession is the exact way the these professions have been materially ruined. Can the artist who produces work as a mechanical task for sales purposes truly be called an artist? Is not the electrician who fits the wiring for large housing developments fundamentally compromised in the nature of his work if he is contractually obliged to complete the work of five projects in the time proper to only one? Is not the production line manufacturing worker divorced from the essence of her work, the making of the product as such, in her reduction into a functionary carrying out the same task endlessly? This is a much more traditional critique of industrialism / modernism; it need not be repeated by me at any great length. Suffice to say that here it is appropriate to invoke the figure of the artisan, the artist, the creative, in today’s jargon.

What the mobilisation of this binarism has demonstrated is not an overall ideological or discursive critique of work and the modern job market, and I have certainly not spoken in the vein of the Marxist nor intended to. These are projects for another time and other writers. Rather, the understanding of the division between making and fixing, or the understanding of the nature of the objects of these two different kinds of work, should here offer, as demonstrated throughout, a way of approaching one’s affect, one’s mood, one’s appropriate sense to the work at hand. Contrary to the contemporary wisdom and pop shamanism which encourages the creative in all things, which argues for a self-enriching spiritualism everywhere, and a self-care regimen of dietary restriction, silent isolation (meditation), and structured exercise to make a prison officer weep with joy, I hold that it is vital to embrace the moments where these are simply not appropriate postures towards the task at hand. For every uplifting youtube video and shared facebook post, every consulting workshop and professional advice paper demonstrating the merits of optimism in the workplace, self-fashioning entrepreneurship as freedom, community and camaraderie as obligations of employment, and the benefits of feeling valued and integrated in one’s role, there is a complete cultural failure to approach a solid half of the kinds work offered by society for what it essentially is. To try to force the fixer to approach her work as if she were a maker does no more than impress upon her an irreconcilable guilt which devastates hours of nine til five five days a week for years of her life. The lawyer, the doctor, and the deliveroo courier should therefore be under no illusions: their work is instrumental and fie on the fools who come in with their clipboards and target quotas who want a service delivered otherwise. For the programmer, the graphics designer, the hot-dog stand man, well, they’re fortunate enough that the mood of the times is with them: go and be non instrumental, be creative and all that jazz – fortunately your work is appropriate to it, and long may you flourish in your freedom. For the rest of us, embrace self-obliteration. If you can think of no reason to continue performing your work once its need is satisfied then make no mistake: you are in the role of a fixer. Creativity be damned and wish unashamedly for the day you may say fuck the niceties and let a robot do the shit jobs.


Identity Politics and Identity

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) is today, along with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), considered one of the foundational works of modern Feminisms, such that even if one has never read the book, one cannot help repeating and reiterating the ideas contained therein if one wants to converse within the discourses of gender and sex generally. At the heart of Gender Trouble is a thesis concerning the nature of identity. Butler defends, with vigour and force, the idea that gender is performative, that is; that the cultural and social signifiers which designate gender roles are a like a kind of language or grammar which are delivered in performed acts which construct gender quite apart from biologically determined sex. This idea, liberating and radical in its time, derives from the work of the postrstructuralists writing in the 1960s and 70s, particularly Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. One running thread is the idea of iteration and its link with identity. Derrida analyses identity in the form of a signature and demonstrates that the value of a signature comes not from its uniqueness or its unreproducibility, but rather from the converse, from the fact that it can be reproduced continuously. In this language-based model, the identity formed by a signature, formed by signification attached to a particular object (in this case, a written name attached to a personage), is produced from the way the signifier is repeated, from the way it is reiterated, reinscribed, and reperformed. To put it more directly: no signature is any use if it can’t be signed the same way many times, no identity makes any sense unless it is recognisable as itself.

In her extension of this idea to gender, Butler maps repeatable markers of identity across a much broader scope than the signature, which refers to a singular identity only. Gendered performances such as those found in drag are famously described by Butler here, in an analysis I will not recapitulate in full. Suffice to say that after Butler, the simplistic division of masculine and feminine as characteristics of personality and identity became much harder to tie to a biological or physiological root with any certainty or concretion. Yet here start a number of other troubles.

The dismantling of rigid social roles comes to a dramatic fruition in this 21st century paradigm; a great and perhaps concluding collapse of few hundred years’ slide in history from the demise of feudalism, the diminishing roles of religion and caste and the divisions of class, wealth, race, sex and gender to the present where the diversities and mobilities of social groups of all kinds are visible and even dominant in the public eye. This is what is today called identity politics and is variously celebrated as a vehicle for change, decried as a mask which covers over the absence of actual liberation, and villified as a destroyer of identity itself. This is not to mention the ever-present mantra for the good Neoliberal: Capitalism capitalises. Hence we have everyone from Kanye West and Floyd Mayweather to Hillary Clinton and Nigel Farage cashing in their oppressed-identity cheques and selling their free-market moralised politics (Farage’s great appeal was his identity as a ‘normal’ ‘oppressed’ White British working-class man. Hillary, of course, mobilised her gender combined with an unhealthy complacency to disastrous effect. Kanye and Floyd have both made much of their race and their ‘oppressed’ status despite enjoying obscene wealth and comfort.). High street fashion sells so-called ‘gender neutral’ apparel (which is little more than slim mens’ clothing in grey). Facebook supports over 40 different sexual orientations. Starbucks, once the demonized tax-evading megacorp, reintegrates itself as the safe-space for open office gatherings aimed at the young and ambitious ‘entrepreneurs’ who fail to identify with the traditional workplace. Identity politics comes with a tote bag bearing Beyonce’s face and a receipt.

Let’s step back a little.

What is identity? We can quite safely say that it is not something reducible to race, sex, sexuality, gender, wealth, class, caste, biology, physiology, psychology, medical condition, star sign, birthstone, what car your dad drives (or didn’t drive), what street you live on (or didn’t live on), what school you went to (or didn’t go to), what haircut you asked for at the salon last Wednesday, what kind of knot you tie your shoelaces with, what you drink at the pub on Saturday afternoon, how often you cut your nails, the list goes on… It seems that the history we have has spent a lot of its time capably refuting what identity is not, but has been unable to find what identity itself is. From this, the best answer we seem to arrive at is that identity must be that which is not reducible to, well, anything. In current philosophy we have a couple of writers who work in this direction. One is Object-Oriented Ontology which proposes that the identity of any given object is that which cannot be exhausted by either its parts or its effects. Another is Tristan Garcia’s anti-reductionist philosophy which claims that the identity of an object must be the difference between its parts and its effects. The difference between these two is not strictly important here (and requires more semantic discussion than I wish to undertake now) so, for simplicity’s sake, let us state straightforwardly that identity is that which retains what it is regardless of the parts it is made from or the effects it has on other things.

We notice here that identity takes on the character that the existentialists (among whose company Simone de Beauvoir finds herself, incidentally) give to the human individual. That is, radical freedom – a kind of insurmountable withdrawnness which makes it impossible for any person (or being in general) to be totally identified with anything other than itself. It is a kind of tautology of essence: I am me, so to speak.

Now, a conflict develops between Butler’s notion of performativity and the existentialist idea of identity as freedom. On the one hand we have identity as defined by repeatability, by the repetition and reiteration of performed acts which proliferate in a public, discursive space. On the other we have identity as something which cannot be exhaustively disclosed in public at all, something entirely private, something by definition impossible to iterate, impossible to reduce to any kind of action, form, signifier, or performance. This dispute arises in a confusion best clarified in Kant, but taken note of in a great deal of thought since then: the split in reality between the noumenal and the phenomenal, or rather the split between things-in-themselves and things as they appear in phenomena for other entities. This is not the same as a divide between mind and body, nor is it identical to the duality between private and public (though this is closer to it). Rather, in this case, noumenal refers to something without relation at all, whereas phenomenal refers to something as it relates to other things.

It should be clear that, seen through this lens, advocates of performativity are speaking in the realm of the phenomenal, whereas the existentialists are speaking in reference to the noumenal. The one group are discussing identity as it appears socially, as it appears in language, in culture, as it appears for others, and the other group examine identity as it belongs only to itself. There is something like an order or presidence here too. Only a subject essentially free to begin with in itself could choose to present itself or perform itself in the various roles it wants to adopt in the public eye. Yet all is not resolved. Freedom in the context of these two realms is more troublesome than meets the eye.

This is because the logics of these two kinds of freedom reverse in opposite directions. The freedom of the existentials reverses into non-freedom in that in its originary sense I will always be me; there is no escaping identity as oneself, even if this absoluteness of identity also gives that identity freedom from all external influences. The freedom of performativity  reverses into non-freedom in that total freedom of performance (in the sense that one can perform any role, any identity at all) leads to non-identity. That is to say that if performative identity is based on the repeatability of the performance, of the signature so to speak, then if one never repeats their performative acts, one never achieves an identity in the social or discursive realm. For the existentialist, radical freedom as myself means I am riveted to myself, absolute unfreedom. For the performativist, radical freedom to perform means I am entirely unmoored; I can act the masculine the one day, the feminine the next, the sys-trans asexual for the next half hour and the left-legged unicorn for the next fortnight if it takes my fancy, at the cost of maintaining any kind of  stable identity whatsoever.

Herein lie the weaknesses in identity politics and its affiliates which are so easily exploited and reintegrated into the Neoliberal profit margin. This is also where many well-meaning humans shoot themselves in the foot.

Consider the modern job market. The ideal worker is expected to be flexible, multivalent, diverse. She is expected to fast-paced, adaptable, entrepreneurial. All of this amounts to justifying employers in offering as much occasional and fixed-term work as they can, in other words, offering workers ‘freedom’ (to explore your own avenues, to find yourself, to not be fixed to one role, to be your own boss) in exchange for never having to offer permanent contracts, abdicating long-term responsibilities to employees, and pay less and less out in wages for the same work done. Yet simultaneously, the ideal worker should be unique, he should bring not only skills, but personality to the workplace, he should have a lasting impact on his team, make his mark, do what only he can do, make the job his own. This justifies employers is leaving roles ‘undefined’ or ‘developing’, which means dispensing with training of any sort, and treating employees as expendable in lieu of profitable results or as soon as a more exploitable offer comes along. The result of this playing of performative identity against existential identity is the ‘gig’ economy, which has already built up a healthy body of criticism for the conduct of companies from Deliveroo and Uber to Amazon, which I shan’t repeat here.

Every industry today from Fashion and beauty to Fitness and Health is moving toward capitalising on the same paradoxes: You can be (buy) any identity you want, we have a huge range of underarm toner colours for you to choose from, but God forbid you look like anyone else, find your own look, make your own style, out of the huge range of underarm toner colours we have for you to choose from. You have freedom! Come to the gym and try our range of classes, build (buy) yourself into whoever you want to be! But remember not to be like everyone else, why not go the extra mile and become the true you (with a gold membership and a personal trainer)? Meditate daily! Liberate yourself of your worldly attachments, remember you can become anything you want and be free (classes in meditation and Yoga for £15 an hour or a discount rate if you book monthly!)! But remember you’re exactly okay as who you are, treat yourself, be happy in yourself, be good to yourself (cake and coffee after an avocado toast all for a delicious £19.99)!

No wonder identity-based-politics finds it no easier to make heads or tails of governance, much less any given individual trying to make his or her way in the world. Many a feminist has fought compatriots over whether gender identity is determined or fluid (existential or performative). Many a disenchanted young man has heard all about his proposed social mobility and freedom (performative) and found himself stranded in a seemingly bottomless pit of occasional work and unskilled labour after running up against the paradoxes of the job market. Many an ethnic minority tries to preserve and protect its identity (existential) but attacks those who attempt to share in cultural identity (performative). The slew of arguments surrounding appropriation, cultural diversity / authenticity, free speech, discrimination, and on and on testify to this fundamental confusion.

What to do?

What both the performative and existential models of identity as I have characterised them here take for granted is that identity is a kind of freedom. Identity is not, however, solely to do with freedom. This does not require contesting, but rather accepting both the existential and performative accounts of identity and, crucially, taking responsibility for them. What does it mean to take responsibility for identity in these senses together? It means giving up freedom (performative). If freedom (existential) is absolute (I am always me, and can never be reduced to other) then this means I am committed to being me, to a completely unalterable identity at all times. Thus, responsibility means attributing freedom (performative) to identity (existential), which is to say performative action, public identity and presentation must become worthy of and responsible for the person from whom they emanate. It means that, while performative identity remains free, it must willingly surrender its freedom and commit itself to a stable identity capable of bearing the gravity of existential identity.

Take the case of John Barrowman, actor most well known in the UK for his role in the TV series Dr Who. Openly gay, Barrowman acts as a public voice combating homophobia and discrimination. In the context of identity and performance, this is already a step towards a responsible approach to identity. To be publicly disclosed in this way is a commitment to a performative identity,  a commitment to being who, and what, he is claiming to be in the public eye. If we consider a counter-case of a Barrowman who does not publicly disclose his sexuality – well, who could blame him, anyone might want to do without the trouble, and what business is it of the general public what his sexuality is anyway? This is all correct, and it would be his right and an exercise of his freedom (performative) to remain not publicly disclosed in this way. Yet how much more is he able to do, able to be, when publicly disclosed? When his performative identity stabilises and rivets itself to his existential identity, how much more does he become? An undisclosed Barrowman retains an identity as Barrowman = Barrowman alone. A disclosed Barrowman becomes Barrowman = Barrowman = gay = campaigner against homophobia = role model = inspiration etc. Disclosed this way, he sacrifices freedoms he would otherwise have enjoyed but gains responsibilities he may otherwise never have been able to fulfil.

A further example: Barrowman took part in a 2008 TV series in which his homosexuality was investigated through a series of empirical and scientific methods. The goal was, purportedly, to demonstrate a causal root for his orientation. Memorably, Barrowman was shown a scan of his brain activity in response to men and women, and expressed immense anxiety followed by relief upon discovering that his brain registered a great deal more activity in response to men than women. Regardless of the scientific interpretation of the results, what does Barrowman’s own response tell us? On some level he places a high determining factor on the data presented in the form of his brain scan. In terms of performative freedom this is indeed an abdication of freedom, but it has the opposite effect as before. This is because Barrowman does not surrender his performativity by returning the responsibility for his performance to his identity, rather he surrenders it by donating responsibility for his identity to some external body, in this case, a scientific discourse. Imagine again a counter-case where Barrowman is not anxious to know the results of his brain scan and retains the certitude of his self-identification as homosexual regardless. Is this not a greater example of bearing responsibility for chosen identity? Does this kind of self-dependent certainty not do more justice to who he is in himself and the freedom he claims? Conversely, does a dependence on the scientific discourse, or any other discourse for that matter, not betray an ultimate weakness or uncertitude in identity? Does it not fail to do justice to identity and undermine the commitment made to a performative role?

An understanding of one’s own identity and a commitment and investment made this way is something that anyone can accomplish, and I see no reason why a culture-wide change in this arena could not be achieved with the appropriate educational framework. I am not hopeful for the actualisation of such a thing in the near future, yet I am certain that without such a transformation in the generally deployed concept of identity, the general malaise that is identity politics and its affiliates will continue and continue to do more damage than good in the arenas in which it performs.


Thanks for reading.

Please forgive the sloppiness of my concepts this time. I am far below par as a writer here, so I am grateful for the reader bearing with my imprecision.