On Knotting the Necktie and Other ‘Practices of the Self’

In Sociology on January 29, 2009 at 9:25 am

Editor’s Note: Sympathies is pleased to present the first of what we hope to be many posts from our old friend, Mr. Andrew Inch. Here, Mr. Inch responds to an earlier post of mine on J.G. Ballard and “My Dinner With Andre.” As is his wont, Mr. Inch has zeroed in on the true topic of the post which may have been submerged by a certain amount of thematic rambling.  Despite the fact that he has chosen the very European lifecourse of professional student, Andrew too once worked in an office, as his post makes clear.

Andrew Inch, United Kingdom

necktyingSo after promising not to get drawn into writing anything other than my doctoral thesis I find myself responding to something here on Classical Sympathies at some length, maybe even provoked to do so. Or perhaps just with a memory of provocation. Or a desire to provoke. In any case, Matthew Thomas’ recent post on “Social Image and Social Reality: On Ballard’s “Conversations” and “My Dinner With Andre”” seemed to invite a response.

Matthew’s post was concerned with the way we come to perform particular identities, to take on, or affect certain social positions. He seems interested by the nature of this performance, placing it in relation to the worlds of theatre and literature through the work of J.G. Ballard and the film My Dinner with Andre. He is concerned to probe the possibility of some kind of authenticity, and to wonder at the self he himself presents to the world through the stabilizing practices of routine. Ultimately, he seems to want to assert the potential for creative agency through exercise of the will-to-power, the possibilities immanent in the performance of new identities through the carrying out of the appropriate rituals.

For me this drew to mind a one time colleague, for arguments sake let’s call him MT, who would as a matter of course dress for work in a neatly pressed business shirt and necktie. Or at least that is how I remember him -some years have passed since we worked together after all. This was, however, particularly noteworthy since, in the workplace in question, there was at that time no formal dress code, and many of the rest of us chose to dress in a less formal fashion. When questioned about his choice of garb our protagonist would protest that the ritual of knotting a tie was an important sartorial marker, delineating work from home, and denoting a particular ‘professional’ persona. As I say, some time has passed since we shared an office and I would be interested to know what became of my erstwhile colleague and his neat appearance. Where did his ‘performance’ of this ritual take him? Who has he become at work?

Reflection on MT’s devotion to this apparently innocuous task, knotting a piece of cloth around his neck each morning, leads us towards what has become a key element of many recent theories of ideology. Derived from Pascal’s advice to non-believers, “kneel and pray, and then you will believe”, the French philosopher Louis Althusser sought to assert the materiality of ideas, and how ideology works through our actions as well as our words to define us as certain sorts of subjects. For Michel Foucault, one of Althusser’s students who sought to break with Marxism and the concept of ideology, the knotting of that neck-tie might have been considered a ‘practice of the self’, a way of disciplining oneself in line with a particular matrix of power and knowledge. The question that I think both of these thinkers struggle to address, however, is the extent to which we are able to shape our own selves, rather than simply being shaped by power. What scope do we have to resist the power embedded in these apparently mundane everyday motions?

Following such logic a little further we are also led to doubt whether our sense of living an interior life, of having a relationship to the selves we project to the world, has any value. Instead we are drawn to conclude that it is the act alone that counts. By kneeling to pray, or standing in front of the mirror adjusting the knot, we perform belief and so take on socially available identities. Is it possible then to stand at a remove from such outward appearances? In ideological terms is an ironic or cynical performance really any different from a passionate rendition? And, of course, in such a context the search for authenticity, for the ‘real’ you, is rendered redundant. We may have a choice between different colours of necktie, and maybe even different styles of knotting, but these are only meaningful because external powers have decreed that it is so.

And as for the rest of us in that office – what was the effect of not knotting the tie each morning? At times there were no doubt some who reveled in the non-conformity of that not knotting. In truth, however, did our alternative practices of the self not simply reproduce a slightly different, perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting? Was not wearing a necktie not just another kind of necktie after all? I am also left to wonder whether in the longer term the will-to-power that the necktie symbolises, and the respect it enables, is not rewarded? By looking the part are we more able to be the part? Or am I wrong? is there a hidden cost to the necktie and the culture it represents an accession to?

At this point, however, my mind has begun to wrap itself in its own knots, I am trying to work out where, if anywhere this takes us, whether it succeeds in provoking as I initially set out to. More than that, however, I am trying to understand our capacity to change the structures that govern workplaces and other places too, and I am wondering whether this is more or less possible in a necktie.

  1. Mr. Inch’s wonderfully ambivalent post deserves a full response, and, at the risk of typecasting Sympathies as a blog focusing on the minutia of social practice, will receive one. For the moment, I would only add that Puritano’s ability to pull off the circus clown/ Robin Williams look is dependent on the projection of an identity that supports the fashion in question. For those many of us yet to acquire to ability to turn on and turn off more or less at will what for lack of a better word can only be called “charisma”–a conventional, even conservative professional appearance may indeed act as a kind of catalyst through which a measure of social effectiveness may be harnessed. I think that the ambivalence, perhaps even the hint of insecurity, that animates Andrew’s post is precisely born of his uncertainty about how far charisma, charm, and personality can take before he too will need to rethink his rebel pose, his “alternative (…) perhaps less respect-able but nonetheless conformist, relationship to the rules and rituals that regulated life in that particular setting,” and find it in himself to don the noose. (Written at work sans tie on a Saturday morning).

  2. Hmm, Dean, not sure how my argument fares against someone who models themselves after Robin Williams’ command performance in Flubber. Guess I’d have to spend a bit longer on the dole to work that one out. And to be honest I think I’m beginning to crave working respectability, or at least a disreputable job so might never get there.

    Tim, good to know you’re still there and still living a double life. By day the respectable sensei, by night…if only the PTA knew.

  3. What about MY sartorial choices? Something wrong with suspenders and bow ties? It was me, not the slim one, who read and took to heart the self-help smash, “Dress for Success–If You Want to be a Circus Clown.”


  4. Interesting observations, Mr. Inch, and good recollection as well. I would point out further that as one who shared that office with you and Mr. MT, it always seemed to me that for most of the rest of us (although if you’ll recall, I also seasonally wore a tie) the choice not to wear a tie was also an act of rebellion against the cultural norm that we were thrust into. In other words, an act of rebellion against a culture that insisted that anything less than a necktie was less than professional. Some of us, I believe you would be included in that group, wanted to be taken seriously as professionals for what we DID, not the packaging in which we did it. I guess that would skew quite seriously the idea that we could become something which we were not by pretending to be it.

    At any rate, for me anyway, the wearing o’ the tie has become de rigueur, perhaps for the same reasons MT did and still does it, perhaps because I am in a culture which I cannot change, so I have changed my practices to be more in step with it. It still comes off before I even get out the door in the evening, however.

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