… if I had the brainspace.
Hey Harpies! Here are a handful of posts that have come across in the past week that seem, to me, to engage some important themes around social privilege, economic striving, the constitution of modern neoliberal citizen-workers, and what left-leaning social justice activism (e.g. feminism, queer rights) might have to say to the mainstream notion of self and success.
But somehow I haven’t been able to muster the language to write more incisively about it, so … here are the posts as food for thought. Have at it in comments as you so desire.
I do not aspire to power. I do aspire to do well and to do good but I am somewhat ambivalent about power. That is a result of my upbringing but it is also a result of the many small decisions I have made during my emotional and intellectual development about who I am in relation to power. I will also admit that is greatly shaped by social processes that limit the potential of my access to power. Whether I am accepting those limitations or asserting my own agency is unclear but either way I know that fat, black, southern bodies that went to low-status schools and come from rural, formerly enslaved people have limited avenues into power. Slaughter makes an odd aside to the narrative of “having it all” that includes one needing to be skinny to be boot. It’s an aside for her but a real structural barrier for me. The difference is illustrative.
As I said in comments at Racialicious:
Thank you so much for this piece. It helps clarify in my own mind why certain frames for mainstream feminist politics (e.g. feminism as access to power / a place higher up in the kyriarchy) don’t resonate with me. Because as the daughter of 70s hippies of modest means, I was never encouraged to be powerful. I was encouraged to, as you say, “do well and to do good” good in small everyday ways and to be very suspicious of those who sought or consorted with power and the powerful. I think this was reinforced by the liberation/feminist theology I was exposed to also. Thus, a feminism that seeks to assimilate into places of power rather than dismantle them seems alien and suspicious to me. It doesn’t small of home!
And then, on the heels of the Slaughter article — and the diverse responses to it — came a blog post at the New York Times’ Opinionator blog about the cult of busyness in our modern era. I’m sure many of you have seen it or responses to it:
Tim Kreider | The “Busy” Trap:
Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
via Blue Milk.
What I really like about this post is that he acknowledges the class divisions here, and the link between overwork and one’s identity as a worker-citizen, as a professional. Kreider’s life is one of professional flexibility (he’s a successful freelance writer), a position of social privilege that allows him a great deal of autonomy in shaping his own existence. So we can argue that his is an example many of us cannot follow — that is, if we want to be able to afford food and shelter and health care and luxuries-of-choice for ourselves and our families.
At the same time, I think he points out that many people who could follow his example, at least to some extent, choose not to. Nor to they challenge the structural issues that encourage us to identify with our work and let non-market aspects of our lives fall by the wayside. Hanna and I are continually weighing the costs and benefits of being employed. We’re lucky enough to have professional jobs that pay decently (in 2011 we grossed about $48K between us) and only require 35 hours/week from me and between 20-30 hours/week from her — while still providing generous vacation, healthcare, and retirement benefits. And we’ve purposefully chosen those work environments in part because they don’t require 70-hour work weeks (or even 50-hour ones!), and when we leave work a the end of the day we can leave work behind.
Obviously this means we have less disposable income than we would if we were both working more high-powered jobs, or just both working full time. But for us, the trade-offs (even without kids to parent!) is totally worth it. So much so that we actually talk about ways to work less.
Which brings me to the third piece (via Hanna) that brings Slaughter’s “having it all” together with Kreider’s “busy trap” (although the post doesn’t mention the second piece) and reminds us that our current relationship to work is historically contextual and thus contingent, changeable, a choice rather than an inevitability.
Amy Slaton | Having (and Dusting) It All:
The idea that our homes should be privately curated collections of consumer goods is not new; that’s the point of reading these histories. The demarcation of social advantage through consumption was at the heart of the industrial revolution, and the ability to purchase things beyond those necessary for health and comfort is intensely seductive, without question. Social historians in the 1970s and 1980s (that pre-post-feminist era) did a tremendous job of demonstrating how the American middle-class came to exist as a distinct (if broadly defined) entity through the creation of this possibility. Why have we not learned from their findings?
Put another way: Can’t we look head-on at the seduction of ownership? At what Mumford called the “magnificent bribe”of technology? I am guilty of almost every self-fashioning acquisitive behavior I question here. But Slaughter seems to suggest that we have no choice. Historians of technology and other folks who think systemically about the material character of Western lifestyles suggest otherwise.
So there you have it, folks. Three stories on power, privilege, social responsibility, historical agency, and the ways in which our personal decisions both shape and are shaped by the social milieu into which we are born and come of age.
How do you think about the relationship of feminism and the powers-that-be? How have you decided to approach your worklife and identity in relation to work? What do you think about the way in which we’ve constituted the modern citizen (read: person of worth) as someone who is able to give over their life to “productive” rather than “unproductive” occupation?