Minor Intellectuals Further Theorize About Selling Out Here

In Organizations, Sociology on February 17, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Editor’s Note: It is nice to see the affinity for the fascinating subject of sartorial conformism on the part of sympathists.  This post is organized as a dialogue, made up of comments to previous posts as well as material written expressly for the colloquy.

Tim Chanecka, Kyoto

Interesting observations, Mr. Inch, and good recollection as well. I would point out further that as one who shared that office with you and 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.

Dean Williams, Kyoto

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.”

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

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 look is wholly 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.

Andrew Inch, United Kingdom

Fascinating stuff, Mr Thomas.  Goffman does indeed provide interesting means for thinking about the self and identity.  I think, however, that in part you have misinterpreted the roots of my ambivalence, and in so doing attribute something rather different to my post than I intended
(not that I entirely object since I have no rights of ownership over my words, and suspect that this ambivalence does indeed emanate in part from some of the anxieties you diagnose). Still, for the sake of clarification and some further jousting…

Rather than being a “generation x type naval gazing” (a somewhat uncharitable jibe perhaps?) I am interested in what I think to be a more profound question – whether our experience of an inner life can be considered “real” or meaningful, and particularly whether it has political implications or potency.

This is in part a problem that Goffman’s sociology leaves unconsidered.  The type of “role theory” he deals with leaves unquestioned the assumption that there is an essentialist core of individual humanity “behind” the role.  I think this in part explains why Goffman has become somewhat overlooked, though he still stands amongst the central figures in the development of sociology and anthropology in the second half of the 20th century.  Recent approaches to thinking about identity have instead been inspired by a rather different form of theorising that is both anti-essentialist and anti-humanist.  Foucault in particular refused to recognise any part of our existence as subjects other than that which was “written onto us” by socially produced discourses.  Others, such as Slavoj Zizek, drawing on the Lacanian psychoanalytic traditions that Foucault rejected, assert that though we can experience a certain interiority we can never know the “Real”, the absence at the core of our being.  They would further maintain that identity is only made real through performance, as in the knotting of the necktie.

As an example TC’s response to my previous post is a good one.  His own performance of the necktie ritual is self-conscious, and he continues to assert a distance between the “him” that wears the tie, and the “real” self that rips it off on the way out the door each evening.  My interest, as I said, is particularly focused on the spaces for resistance within such thinking or presentation of the self.  For Zizek that sense of inner-resistance to outward conformity is as much, or even more so, a symptom of ideology as if TC defined himself entirely by the colour of his tie.  If, as such approaches imply, the performance is all that matters, then Tim’s sense of what Goffman might call “role distance” is in fact entirely ideological and simply serves to reproduce existing social relations.

You may well be right to consider the implications of this kind of thinking as so much naval gazing, and dressing for work is probably not a very good example of searching for meaningful resistance.  I am certainly not willing to suggest that not wearing a tie be seen as a radical gesture (though lets remember that at certain times and places not wearing something, say a bra, might have been). Certainly it does not stand up to an assessment of how leading public figures present themselves to the world and become enmeshed with their own public persona.  Still, it does focus attention on the way that we perform the everyday activities of social reproduction.  Other examples might prove more substantial, one such, slightly dated but still often cited, being from Terry Eagleton who asks whether a white South African could really have been anti-apartheid even as she sat down on a bench marked “whites only”?

My own sense of ambivalence is, I suspect, in part a reflection of not really knowing what I think about the wearing, or not wearing of ties.  It is also rooted in a lingering attachment to the personal experience of interior angst in the face of the general outward performance of a conformist identity.  More profoundly, however, it is premised on an unwillingness to give up on a space for both human agency, and for the value of that interior voice in any conception of that agency. As such it is an ambivalence that flows directly from some of these forms of theorising.  Foucault, in particular, is often accused of leaving us no space for real resistance to power, or for shaping our own sense of self.  Instead our practices are always related to some configuration of dominant knowledge.  I detect an element of truth in this, but am also not just ambivalent but also suspicious, disturbed and resistant to it.  At the moment I am reading around this, trying to get the measure of myself in relation to the disciplines of thought that these theories imply (for such reading is surely a practice of the self par excellence).  Recently I have found in the philosopher Ian Hacking an interesting attempt to meld the Foucauldian with the insights of Goffman.  Elsewhere feminists, most influentially perhaps Judith Butler, point in interesting directions that re-affirm some of our capacity to shape ourselves and to perform identities that resist social norms. I’ll let you know if I ever make up my mind.

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Good to hear back from Mr. Inch on this–baby I wrote it with you firmly in mind. Of course there was more to your post than “generation x type naval gazing”–and someday I will mature out of the need to take the occasional cheap shot…apologies. Reading your comment I circle back actually to a section from your original post:

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?

Based on my reading of your comment, this last question remains an open one.

I guess what I’m getting at is that when one reaches a certain age (and this is for you BJ) there just isn’t much mileage left in kicking against the pricks WITHIN the institutions which with you are daily affiliated. In other words–professional and personal conscientiousness begins to demand that you fall into line with at least the semiotic schematics that surround you–one ignores these schematics only at the risk of setting a ceiling on one’s ability to achieve anything within that space–one’s ability to either reproduce, transform, or, as is more common, reproduce certain elements of your “dominant culture” while having a transformative effect, if only a slight one, on others. Put another way, and I mean this sincerely, not as a cheap shot at all, a “lingering attachment to the personal experience of interior angst in the face of the general outward performance of a conformist identity” while it may feel like it creates space for genuine imaginative and creative resistance, probably devolves more often than not into some species of adolescent sulkiness, unfocused and ungenerative crankiness, and underperformance. Nothing attractive in that lineup.

“More profoundly it is premised on an unwillingness to give up on a space for both human agency, and for the value of that interior voice in any conception of that agency.” Indeed, and I too take issue with Foucault, also with Althusser and his nauseating conceit that “history is a process without a subject.” I do not intend to accept this, and would agree that nothing of value has even been accomplished by someone who has approached life on the basis of such negation. The key question then becomes “is a certain amount of conforming, especially in matters such as dress, manners, and everyday social codes and norms, to be equated with mindless conformism and ’selling out’, or can it not be as an active, conscious choice, a ‘buying in’?” But there is a crucial ethical difference, it seems to me, between ‘buying in’ to an organization (a school, a company) and buying in to a culture as a whole. Specifically, it has always been my feeling that an employment contract ought be regarded as a sacred document on both ends. If you have, uncoerced, signed on the dotted line, you are duty and honor bound to fulfill the letter and spirit of the contract and to give your best. If you find that your best is something you can no longer find it in yourself to give, you should pack up. Simple as that. Now is this attitude somewhat complicated in a world of mass layoffs and of ever-withering loyalty from company to worker? Sure. But there are few things less attractive than layabouts on the job who bring nothing to the table, whinge on all day, pocket the paycheck, and generally suck at the teat of the beast that they do nothing to serve. My opinion, nothing more.

Back to the issue of authenticity and “role distance,” it seems to me that the insistence on a dichotomy (and I not sure if Mr. Inch is indeed trying to insist on this or not) between a meaningful ‘inner life’ and a zombielike social ‘role’ sustained, in this reading, by a mercenary motive, a power motive, or some form of false consciousness, is ultimately pretty unproductive, indeed deeply reductive.

Let’s break it down a little further: for TC, there may in fact exist significant distance between his professional role and face (’stage’ in Goffman’s language) and his after work (’backstage’) self–but this does not mean, and I say this with some confidence-that the TC with the tie is either a) a cynical pose, b) a self-sacrificial and uncomfortable caving in to a social more that “simply serves to reproduce existing social relations.” In fact, there are effectively two TCs, both perfectly real, both perfectly sincere, and, I may add, increasingly overlapping (TC is usually in the office with tie firmly in place before I arrive, for instance.)

In the case of, say, BJ, here is someone who’s belief in his essential own unconcern, while once possibly sustaining, has faded, and who is now, suddenly, willing to put himself on the line, to be seen to care, come what may. And to be sure, there is a risk in putting oneself forward, in definitively breaking ranks with the whingers, the professional cynics, the lads. But his desire to engage, and this is key, comes from within; it is a reflection of inner, deeply felt needs far more so than it is simple acquiesence to an externally imposed, alien reality.

OK. I’m not entirely sure how this will read, or if what is written above is really quite what I mean. But I do know this, today, before I seek to “re-affirm some of our capacity to shape ourselves and to perform identities that resist social norms,” it is incumbent upon me to think through a) specifically which aspects of social norms I intend to resist and which aspects I can learn live with (pick one’s battles); b) to what degree knee-jerk resistance makes me just another jerk. I think back to Obama’s decision to put on the flag pin–while I would have loved to be privy to the thought process behind the move, this is my guess: at some point he and his team realized that, far from tilting at windmills, they actually had the inside track on the presidency, a role in which, if he was able to seize and perform, he would have the ability to effect change from the pole position. At this point, “the they became the we” in the immortal words of Puritano’s general, Michael Kelley–and an action that he previously might have seen as compromising his integrity became performable, not out of cynicism or false consciousness but out of sincere intentionality.  Thus, the flag pin in his case, or the tie in ours, is donned not as an act of selling out but of buying in precisely to an acceptance of our own “capacity to shape ourselves” by allowing ourselves to adopt the ultimately hubristic and self-affirming right to sit down at the table as it is set.  Only once we are seated can we then proceed to re-position the silverware, loosen our tie, or even spill the wine on our hotess’ lap.

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  1. How do you think these things up? It can only be described as a gift. For some odd reason it makes me wonder if I haven’t already played myself in a dean devised play…

  2. Experimental Drama: In the Woods

    cast: 2 intellectuals, one having Gulf War flashbacks, the other “just along for the ride, what, Ho!”

    D: Son just trust me, it’s this way.
    A: Yeah? Cuz I’m feeling peaked.
    D: Look, the map shows us the path right here..
    A: Moron, that’s a damned river, not a road!
    D: Oh. In that case, we had better start a signal fire.
    A: Super! This copy of the Economist will do nicely…

    2 hours later

    A: Dude, i dont think anyone’s looking for us..
    D: Hush! Even now i hear the bold steps our saviours!
    A: Oh Jesus, Jesus…

  3. I’m currently available to the first bidder who makes an offer of subsistence level remuneration -it’s a buyers market out there though, a veritable fire sale of sub-prime intellectuals. Hell, I’d even play myself in a Dean devised play.

  4. Indeed–Dean maybe this could be your next play. What, exactly, are the characteristics of a “power tie”? Please inform.

  5. Plato:

    The problem of philosophy is, for all that exists conditionally, to find a ground unconditioned and absolute.

    After all the theorizing, can still see Matthew and Andrew in a movie, The Organization Man and the Rebel. The obvious Hollywood formula would be for them to gradually switch roles…Andrew gets interested in some innovative project and Matthew gets screwed and loses the end, Andrew is wearing a Brooks Brothers and a power tie, Matthew is slumped over his desk in a wifebeater T, doing crosswords.

    A: Son, you need to join the team?
    M: Team this, you drone…(grabbing himself)
    A: (walking away) It’s tough to lose a man….

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