Not a soul alive or dead has ever deserved love…

“Everyone is deserving of love, but few are capable of finding it”.

I was watching a video essay in which someone uttered this flagrant offence to actual love and became so incensed I had to write down why I find this position a despicable misunderstanding of any meaningful discussion of the concept.

First, let’s clarify our definitions. The above is referring to love in its noun form, describing the state of being-in-love or being loved or loving or falling in love or complete happiness (which is invariably the supposed outcome of a properly fulfilled love in fairytales and popular media East, West, North, and South) or any number of other variations familiar from everyday life and film, art, literature, gossip down the hairdresser’s, or two pints and a whiskey in the bar. It’s already clear that there is some difficulty in pinning down to what exactly we might be referring when using the term ‘love’. Therefore the question arises, straightforwardly enough: what is love?

Language can only describe concepts in the negative and in the abstract – which means we can effectively say what love is not and what it is generally (as opposed to extremely precisely what it is, and what it might be in any specific situation).

The concept of love here is not familial or platonic love, both of which are noble passions with venerable histories, but not our subject. This leaves romantic love in its fully complex, multifarious, cliché and intimate forms. Love in this sense is distinguished from friendship – though one can certainly be friends with a partner with whom one is also in love. Love here is also distinguished from a relation based purely on physical contact, which can be familiarly and generally known as lust – though again, one can certainly also lust after a lover. Love should also be distinguished from other terms including fondness, affection, duty, responsibility, kindness, compassion, care, interest, passion, comfort, convenience, fairness, support, exchange, calculation, mutuality, consideration, obligation, dependence, happiness, bliss, joy, fulfilment, contentment, satisfaction. These are all things which love is not. And, to respond once more to the quote above, love is most certainly not something of which everyone is deserving.

Perhaps the immediate question here will be: do I therefore argue that there are people who are not deserving of love?

Yes. There are people who are not deserving of love. The quote above, by suggesting that everyone is deserving of love, is able to also claim that love is like some rare species of near-extinct insect. Known about by many, actually encountered by few. This assumption that love is inherently difficult to encounter (as if there’s simply a scarcity of the commodity on the world market) and that everyone should somehow be entitled to a share is what I am opposed to here. It is not the case that A) love is an entitlement for all; and B) love is hard to locate in the uncharted jungles of misguided passions. It is the case that people fail to encounter love because, straightforwardly, they do not deserve to encounter it. But that requires more nuancing.

More precisely: I’d argue that most people do encounter love in a minimal form. The reason that it remains only in a minimal form and does not transform into a lasting form, or rather, resembles the transcendent model of pure bliss or unfailing contentment that is so familiar from poetry, painting, and mythology is an entirely different problem.

I’ll briefly set out more of what I mean.

Firstly, love is asymmetrical by definition. On the subjective level it can only be given and never asked for. That which is given under duress, or given at request, or even given at the offer of mutual benefit does not qualify as love. If one partner gives the other something in exchange for reasonable recompense, then this is nothing more than an economic relation – which can be extremely pleasant, affable, and compassionate, it must be said, but does not qualify as love. This is why it is possible to be in love without being reciprocated and to receive love without reciprocating, or perhaps even realising.

Secondly, love is an absolute relation by definition. On the subjective level there is no negotiation about it, by which I mean, if asked a question such as ‘what do you love about me?’, it is an incorrect answer to list any specific set of qualities and also an incorrect answer to say every, any, and all qualities. This is not a case of ‘all or nothing’, which remains a negotiation. One who demands you receive and accept all of their character traits or none at all is not asking for love – he is asking for a positive response to any behaviour imaginable, which means he is asking for a guarantee of a positive outcome, which amounts to narcissism, like playing poker alone and congratulating oneself on a high-stakes victory. The correct answer to ‘what do you love about me?’ is nothing, which is to say that regardless and irrespective of any given quality which may define your character or transiently pass through your personality (many of which one may find distasteful, unpleasant, ugly, and even overtly caution against or despise), the object of love remains unchanged. This is what I mean by absolute, with no negotiation, in this case. Of course one may individually love and hate various traits of personality or appearance, but this is not relevant to love of the singular object beneath the various traits.

Thirdly, love is non-pragmatic and non-utilitarian. A principle reduced by example from the two above, this means that love is always an end-in-itself. One never loves for-the-sake-of something else, and one never does something for-the-sake-of love. Any such action is disqualified from the realm of love. The first formulation will not be so objectionable; philosophy since Kant has been happy to claim all people should be ends-in-themselves, and that one should not use people for-the-sake-of some other goal, much less love them in such a way. The second formulation will strike the modern listener as more strange, however. Is it not one of the most common tropes of love in its current romantic expression that we ‘do X for-the-sake-of love’? A glace at a hundred romcom film scripts will show that a love has come to be measured by what one is willing to give up for it – but this is a misunderstanding. Love is not pragmatic – it cannot be reduced to what one does any more than the more common criticism that it not be what one says. If love were measurable in this way, the outcome would be calculable in advance, which would, again, make it no more than an economic exchange, which it is not. Rather, love never has a what-for, and never has a for-love, which is to say it has no reasoning that is publicly expressible. Privately, within one’s own subjective experience, it may make perfect sense, but this sense should never be fully expressible in word, gesture, action, or any form of information available to the public. In other words, it cannot be generic, but must be specific to the direct union between the loving subject and the beloved object.

Fourthly, love is uncertain by definition. Directly related to and due to the above, because it is simply not wholly expressible, calculable, knowable, and only really communicates by analogy, allusion, and metaphor (which is why the tenderest expressions of love have forever been heralded as beautiful whether they be in literature, song, film, physical gift, photograph or facebook message), it is never certain that the love one is giving is being received by the beloved party, and it is furthermore never certain that the love one receives truly qualifies as love. The only real counter claim possible here would be to suggest that direct access to the inner mind of another subject is possible. I think it is not. As such, in order to adequately love for any meaningfully extended period of time requires a constant renewal of commitment in the face of uncertainty. This means a reaffirmation that one’s love is being given without any guarantee of reciprocation or even of it arriving at its destination; a reassertion of the love’s absolute character – that it is not confused with any characteristic of the beloved or its totality; a renewal of the love’s independence, that is, its refusal to be reduced to mere pragmatic acts or utilitarian gains; and a repetition of the love’s uncertainty, that there is no necessary correlation between anything one might know, think, or feel about the love and its reality, and the resolve to pursue it in spite of this. As the great author Murakami Haruki puts it: it always has to be the first time and the last.

With these tenets established, it is much easier to see how and why I declaim the idea of love being deserved by all but encountered by few. Love is rather encountered by many in a minimal form, but fails to take root because those who encounter it fail to complete the commitments necessary to make it into a meaningful relation.

Consider again our definition: expressions which are utterly one-sided, absolutely centred on one love-object, without rhyme or reason, and without any certainty of reciprocation, acknowledgement, or even understanding, are in fact, extraordinarily common. I cannot think of an individual I know who has not attempted to either deliver or perhaps witlessly received such an act in her lifetime. Hence, acts of love, in a minimal mode of expression, are practically universal. The reason Love as an enduring and stable state is much less common is, to my mind, largely because of a failure to understand the basic characteristics of what it is to love as set out above, and in particular, a failure to complete the final stage of repetition or commitment. Note that I am not talking about the failure of successful relationships here – as one can be wildly in love but have a catastrophic relationship, just as one can have a lifelong relationship which is explicitly loveless. I am specifically focused on an ongoing state of love (which, it should also be noted, does not have to register as necessarily ‘romantic’ in the terms with which we are familiar).

So to be clear one more time: to claim that ‘everyone is deserving of love’ is straightforwardly incorrect. Noone, in fact, is deserving of love in any inherent sense. Unless one is willing to give it and ask for nothing in return, to love an object without any criterion save its own identity, to love without ever being understood in the why or what-for, and to repeat these commitments in the face of uncertainty, one will never successfully give love. And giving love, or rather, loving, is a much more important category than deserving love, which noone does, since given the above criteria for love itself, if one only gave love to one who deserved it, this would by definition disqualify it from the realm of love in the first place, and if one only received love because one deserved it, this would put into question the very intention of the love-giver (because who indeed evaluates who to fall in love with by assessing their moral right to deserve it?).

Not a soul alive or dead has ever deserved love. But every soul that has ever loved has found that each and every single time they’ve given it, it has always been the first time and the last.


Purple Air – a pair of mirrored tanka

Beneath the bridge, the river.
Twenty feet or two hundred?
Above, trees in bloom;
Wisteria. Dare I pierce
the water’s flesh? Like

the sun the ocean.
Like the wind the apple grove.
Like clouds pierce the stars.
The purple air remembers.
Moths alight on the evening.

A Flat Ontology of Payscale Accountability

I was recently non-consensually offered the non-negotiable opportunity to increase my equitable market value and improve my tradable worth in the volatile employment marketplace, which is to say, I was made to do mandatory training last week. Ostensibly for the benefit of all employees in our team, and in no way related to the inspections taking place in my offices (who operating companies, for the sake of confidentiality, will all remain anonymous), the day-long course was, to the trainer’s credit, well-conceived, pedagogically sound, and well-executed, to my mind. In spite of this, the content of the course largely fell on deaf ears, doomed to fail from the outset, partly because of the failure to tailor the material to the attendees’ specific needs, and also partly because of the generally anaesthetised attitude inevitable to those in attendance at mandatory training not either already well-versed in the subject, or stricken by the condition of being insufferable suck-ups. Even still, there was one instant during the afternoon session of ‘practical’ training which ejected almost everyone in the room from their stupor, a moment which, if intentionally constructed by the training programme, constitutes a stroke of tragicomic genius, at least by the standards of professional skills enrichment.

The moment came during an exercise in which the trainees were required, in silence, to listen to a recording of a conversation and take down notes by hand, as if recording minutes for a meeting. The recorded conversation, a peppy performance by three voice-actors just barely outstripping the standards of believability necessary for a secondary school level foreign language exam, was the cause of this remarkable occurrence. For, before our very ears, the strident and clear voice capable of belonging to who we all imagined to be our own senior manager, a female voice conceived, at least in my head, as a thirty-something career woman with a bob, loudly proclaimed that, for the month of August, an annual leave rota was to be imposed upon all staff below managerial level. Heads already rising from the artificiality of the exercise and struggling with barely suppressed laughter/outrage, the voice went on to defend the thesis that it was the responsibility of the managers to organise and lay out the terms for what constituted minimum cover in the office and that in no uncertain terms were the lower payscale staff capable of organising such a system themselves. The mood in the room by now veering wildly between rankling and guffawing, the voice concluded with a rebuttal to the suggestion that the same system would have to apply to the managers for the sake of fairness: ‘that would be a complete non-starter.’

Incredibly, this otherwise banal recording had managed to cause sustained and even interested engagement from a room of tired journeymen (and journeywomen) office workers without any strong impressions of contrivance or crassness. I would, in fact, be willing to wager that our transcripts of the mock meeting likely increased in accuracy across the board as a result of our unexpected interest in its contents and further suggest that the use of a sudden reframing of an exercise or re-sceneing of a scene in the same vein would produce repeatable results, though that’s not the focus of what I’m writing about here. What I do want to focus on is, in fact, the contents of the mock meeting recording; the very cause of this aesthetic moment of awakening among us that day. Specifically, I want to pursue with a degree of seriousness the idea that workers should be able to impose administrative and organisational systems upon managers asymmetrically.

What would such an idea mean? The history of management is disputed, but, to my mind, it would be relatively uncontroversial to claim that management in its current workplace form first emerged in the early 1900s, with the gradual separation between the managers and the managed maturing across the century. Broadly, it is possible to assume that two main kinds of system exist which instantiate the structure which maintains the separation between the manager and the managed.

The first appears as a system in which a worker is promoted out of his job. This system sticks to a hierarchised model of leadership in which it is, perhaps reasonably, assumed that increased experience correlates with increased skills and therefore merits increased responsibility. This might make complete sense in a small-scale workplaces, almost regardless of the industry: a ten year blacksmith is far better placed to take on high level tasks and supervise a couple of new apprentices just as a ten year coding expert is far better placed to manage and mentor one or two novices at C++. However, for a number of reasons this hierarchised model fails in the current style of management. Firstly, workplaces are simply too big. An employee of any serious managerial clout is unlikely to spend a great deal of time with any one team member and will certainly be largely non-functional in the capacity of teaching, training, or in any meaningful way supervising their work. More significantly, and as already noted, the tasks belonging to management and to the employee tend toward divorce. It is commonly the case that there is little in the day-to-day work of a manager that is in common with the underlings who are managed by them. This is why it is possible, in this system, to be promoted out of your job. Since this model retains a direct hierarchy in which experience leads to rising in the hierarchy, it is natural that experienced and capable workers should be expected to move to higher positions. However, since the day-to-day tasks of managerial staff and their working counterparts are entirely divorced, not much of the experience accrued as an underling serves the worker well when she is moves up to manager. It is as if she is starting a new job over again from scratch.

The second system doubles down on the separation between managed and managee such that there is no transference between the two bodies at all, despite the maintenance of the systemic hierarchy. The exemplary figure of this structure is politics – whether today’s or the kinds from days gone by. In the liberal capitalist democracies of Europe and the USA, despite being ostensibly chosen from amongst the electorate as their representative, most of those who are in governance simply never experience the lives of their governed bodies in any meaningful way. It is simply not a requirement for being in charge that one should also have a seasoned understanding of what it is one presides over. In kingdoms and dictatorships this structure is identical, but with less pretense of empathy and sympathy between the rulers and the ruled over. And of course, in the workplace this is common in the form of management consultancies – entirely separate companies whose expertise is ‘management’, who have precisely zero experience [here, I exaggerate for effect] of the grunt work done at the ground level, yet who still perform the function of management, holding a superior hierarchised position over those who work below.

The long and short of this point is that there exist positions which are designated as specialised in management – management is their field and the brunt of their work. These positions are typically hierarchically situated above positions which carry out the majority of the actual work upon which the given industry is based: The policeman answers to the commissioner (who does not go out on the beat); the doctor answers to the hospital manager (who does not treat any patients); the builder answers to the contractor (who shifts no bricks on site); the shop teller answers to the shop manager, who answers to the boardroom bureaucrat, who answers to the shareholder, none of whom regularly perform the functions belonging to one another, yet all of whom remain fixed in a stratified hierarchical structure, one neatly on top of the other.

It may seem like I am against this (which I am) or that I am advocating a kind of primitivist idealisation of the localised workplace where everyone works with their hands on rustic tasks without bureaucracy (we should all be blacksmiths and farmers and have to earn our right to stand above someone else in merit). This is not what I am pursuing here. Retro-fitting the massively networked modern workplace with person-to-person accountability is untenable, and furthermore, undesirable. It is right to see the separation of labours of different kinds in one workplace. Management is indeed a skill in itself, just as is smithing, and administrating, and cooking, and public representation. None of these are derivative qualities which can be simply degraded in favour of more tangible ‘hands on‘ kinds of skills. But if each kind of labour is to be seen as properly its own discipline and each retain its separation, then what must be dispensed with is not specialisation, but hierarchisation.

If we are to accept that directorship, leadership, management, innovation, vision, and organisation are qualities and skills independent enough to hold disciplines of their own, separated from whatever other task the work may require, then it is no great leap to argue also that a director, manager, leader, or consultant should hold no hierarchical superiority over someone not within that discipline.

In terms of corporate structure, or the structure of organisations of all kinds, this would be necessarily transformative. Firstly, it should be possible to be an entry-level manager, or an entry-level director. If the disciplines are separate entirely, then it should not be any great problem to hire a specialist in management who possess particular training in management, and no other specialism in a particular working environment. This separation also necessitates that, if management is a separate skill to any other, then an entry-level manager should be no more valuable than an entry-level anything else. Hierarchy can only exist internally to each discipline, since each discipline maintains its separation and measures the merit of each worker based on its own criteria alone. This also flattens tacit dead-end immobility of certain kinds of work. If each discipline is taken as independent, then there cannot be some which are less essential to the workplace, since each contributes an entirely independent and non-derivative resource to the office environment. An office cleaner, for example, could, in principle, never be justifiably paid less than a typist or manager of comparable quality. An entry-level cleaner should fundamentally be no different in terms of their valuation than an entry-level manager since each fulfils a task which cannot be made derivative of another.

One might object here that the skills necessary to become a manager (or a teacher, pilot, or automotive engineer, for that matter) are simply more valuable than those deployed by a cleaner because they take more time, effort, and diligence to acquire and execute. This might make the skills more valuable in-themselves, or more valuable on the level of the individual in the purview of personal growth, but not more valuable in light of a workplace which maintains the separation and equality of the disciplines integral to its functioning. As far as an organisation adopting this stance is concerned, it would simply cease to function should there be no cleaners, just as well as it would cease to function should there be no typists, call-centre operators, or managing partners (some might even say the absence of cleaners is more likely to cause failure than the absence of managing partners). From this very basic stance, the value of different roles cannot be hierarchised. Beyond this, it is easy to contend that cleaning is a skill that takes some acquiring anyway (since more or less anyone can bring to mind an occasion where he or she thought someone else’s idea of clean was thoroughly inadequate), and that there are certainly entry-level cleaners, cleaning executives, senior cleaners, and emeritus professors of cleaning out there, each deserving of their hierarchical status internal to the discipline of cleaning (since most people can scrub a surface and mop a floor, some can graduate to washing dishes and clearing a kitchen, those of a certain skill can really leave a bathroom spotless of limescale, mould, and skid-marks, and only those with superior skills and experience will be able to adequately maintain, clean, distinfect, and keep dust-free sensitive equipment such as that used in robotics manufacturing or technologically augmented surgery).

So much for office roles necessarily being valued with full equality if they are to maintain their separation. But if hierarchy is to be removed between roles, this also suggests that accountability cannot be hierarchised either. If there is no vertical structure, a worker can no longer be accountable to his manager and the manager accountable to her senior manager, and she to the general manager, and he to the director and she to the shareholders and he to etc. Instead, accountability must be reciprocal, which is to say that the managees must be accountable to the managers, but then so must the managers be to the managees. Initially, it seems impossible that this should be workable – how can the various roles maintain separation (with therefore little knowledge of each others’ skill sets) and still assess the adequacy of each others’ performance? Well, here it must again be remembered that all these bodies are held equal in their fulfilling of a function for the organisation and as such, their performance may be assessed in terms of how well they promote the other bodies in fulfilling their functions.

For instance: an administrative team and a managing team work in an office. The administrative team use a system requiring all outgoing correspondence to be hand-signed by the document’s owner and paper copies to be kept in filing cabinets in the hall. The management team call the administrative team to account for the inefficiency of this system on the grounds that its cumbersomeness hinders the proper function of the management team. Conversely, an administrative team operate under a system split across three databases which do not share any compatibility features, necessitating manual input of the same data separately into each database. These databases were outsourced at the recommendation of the management team. Here the administrative team calls the management team to account for the imposition of this system because its unwieldiness hinders the proper function of the administrative team. Here we can see how each body may hold another to account with the only necessary criterion being that this is in the interest of their functions promoting the functions of other bodies. It may be that this initial example appears somewhat trite, but this becomes significant when, for example, a management team imposes a working-hours requirement upon medical staff which might jeopardise patient care, or site management places a deadline for a finished build which necessitates either unsafe working conditions or shortcuts on the building work itself, or an accounting team fail to adequately file their work such that management is required to put together a paper-trail piecemeal. All these are cases where, if roles are really held to be independent and therefore valued equally, it would be not only right and proper, but also beneficial to all parties involved to have them call each other to account for failing to promote the function of their counterpart disciplines.

It is my feeling that the division between disciplines in workplaces and organisations will only grow as globalised economy, the gig economy, and networked theories of business continue to proliferate. It makes sense, therefore, for this separation to be properly attended to as I have proposed. I only ask the reader to consider the potential of being able to formally supervise and provide feedback on the performance of who today is your own supervisor and imagine how such a transformation of the flow of responsibility would alter your working relationships and the character of the workplace in general and I think the essence of the idea will be communicated.

Please forgive how badly this piece has been written: I’ve wanted to get an idea like this off for a while, but my concentration has been poor and it shows in the structural confusedness here.

To Kathy, Hailsham. Ishiguro’s breath and ink; Lover, Heart, no more.

Here’s a repost of a poem in honour of the venerable Kazuo Ishiguro; newly adorned Nobel laureate in literature. May your work collect all the things we’ve lost since our childhood for many years to come.


I am a carer.
See my fingers, soft, gentle,
Hold this withered hair.
Hands, friends. Organs without Flesh:-
Persistence, Desire, Longing.

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The Non-Tragedy of the Vegas Mass Shooting

If there is any notable commonality between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it is the tendency to portray as tragedy events of great violence. Perhaps it is a generalised strategy of the modern politician, but at least amongst these two otherwise utterly disparate men, it is observable in in Trump’s response to the Las Vegas shooting of October 2017, and in Obama’s speeches given in response to the numerous mass shootings across his two terms in presidency.

The gloomy, sombre tone, the grave, ashen face, the big, slow delivery of weighty words – these are the hallmarks of mass-shooting speeches. It is my view that, as a response to the acts with which these men grapple politically and ideologically, this approach fails. This is because these acts are ultimately not tragic.

This is not to say that these events are not sad. It need not be stated that the depth of the grief endured by the bereaved, the trauma suffered by the wounded, and the horror born by the survivors is without fathom. It also does not do to deny that these events demand a bearing witness, a mourning, and a frank and direct scrutiny of what these lives might have been lost for, what they might have meant, and what life might mean for those who continue in the wake of such violence. Yet it remains the case, and must be stated even moreso if justice is to be done for the lives lost, that these events are not tragedy.

The tragic, in the long history of Euro-centric culture, has been about Man in the grip of the supreme, about Humankind in the wash of vast tides; ‘the pride and refuse of the universe’ (I can’t remember where that quote comes from). In all cases of tragedy, in the broadest possible strokes, Man conspired against by forces against which (s)he cannot triumph. Whether this be the Gods of Olympus, the Lord in Heaven, Satan in Hell, or our own blessed soul, the great vices of men, their hubris, wrath, greed, sloth, lust, and fear, all of these forces appear as elements of fate in the tragic. This is present from the Ancient Greeks where oracles foretold great doom, and the tragic hero falls to his doom precisely because it is irrevocable, inexorable, it is his very nature, his tragic flaw to succumb to this fate. This has been retold endlessly throughout Euro-centric history, and is retold again now.

When Trump says that the mass shooting of October 2017 is ‘an act of pure evil’, he appeals to precisely this mode of representation: that the events here were of a divine nature, of forces inescapable and unpredictable, of power so sacred and indefiable that only a disembodied moralism could explain them. It is as if Evil himself, embodied perhaps in a demonic angel or a fiend from one of the more elaborate Buddhist circles of hell was the cause of these deaths.

It is important to note that this is quite different from the ‘evil’ mobilised by speakers such as George W. Bush, who, of course, used ‘evil’ to frame a friend-enemy distinction in order to mobilise the Afghanistan / Iraq wars in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001. Where Bush’s ‘evil’ was designed to morally justify an act of violence (war), Trump’s ‘pure evil’ is used to absolve all responsibility for an act of violence. For Trump, when over fifty dead and five hundred injured are the result of ‘pure evil’, it allows him to forget and deny by omission the fact that over fifty dead and five hundred injured are actually the result of one man being able to access and purchase, without any  known impediment, tens of firearms which are designed for military use in the sole pursuit of transforming living tissue into perforated flesh. Tragedy here is used to cover over the need to address gun ownership and ease of access, something which sits rather well with the National Rifle Association, who, of course, unequivocally support the Republican party. Need it also be said that when events of an actually tragic scale (two of the worst hurricanes in recorded history to make landfall in the USA) took place, Trump was the first to forget all tragic rhetoric and insist upon immediate point-scoring?

The case is more nuanced with Obama, who, it will not do to forget, vigorously campaigned to regulate gun ownership in the USA during his presidency. For he used the tragic to try to gain support for gun control, to develop an empathetic community with victims of gun crime, and to attempt a call a stop to needless loss of life. One of the reasons that he rhetorically failed is again, his misuse of the tragic. Once again, the tragic belongs to forces of disembodied and irresistible power: God(s), or the fatal flaws of man. Tragedies are always divinely wrought, or self-wrought, or both. Just read some Shakespeare – Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, some of the greatest tragedy of literary history bears witness to the tragic notion that man is most miserably struck down when he would defy fate through vice (indecision, pride, ambition), and in his defiance is the one who brings his fate to fruition. Noone would claim that the victims of mass shootings are tragic in this sense. Did they defy any Gods to deserve their fate? Did they bring ruin upon themselves for some unholy misdemeanour against ancient rites and sacred pacts? No, no, and no! Obama’s use of the tragic fails because, in an almost tragic irony of his own, his very deep-felt belief that gun crime is avoidable and that this loss of life is tragic, ends up absolving American culture as a whole of responsibility and covering over the direct action needed to address the issue. The more he portrayed the violence as tragic, the more, by definition of the tragic, it seems possible to deny that anything could by done about it.

Let us not continue to muddy the issue. It is admirable, and perhaps even a necessity of the public figure to show solidarity with victims, to empathise, to console, to acknowledge suffering and grief and loss. These events are not tragic. They do not belong to tragedy, and they never have. They have a direct causal root which can be found in the constitutional American obsession with the ownership of firearms. This is not tragedy, this is violence – and autoimmune violence at that. A mechanism put in place to defend the citizenry of the United States of America turns virulent; a right held to be a fundamental liberty of a people releases septic discharge into the bloodstream of a nation. The doctor does not tell the patient their perfectly treatable polyps are grievously incurable cancer in order to acknowledge the subject’s suffering. If we wish to be witnesses to these events, to take responsibility for them, and to do justice to them, then dispense with the tragic; lest our commitment to the dead do nothing to prevent more – and incidentally occasion the cause for a real tragic irony.

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.