Burnout and The People I Met At Work.

Art: ‘Cry of the Masses,’ Vachal

Note: I want this post to land in a caring way, and not an angry way. But maybe angry needs people to care.

I think it would be fair to say that I am currently in the deepest portion of the empathy burnout spectrum that I have previously here-to-fore inhabited. Maybe that’s why I’m considering a post comparing the types of people I’ve supported at work. I don’t think mental health workers get enough support. So let’s talk about burnout, which is what I’ve been dealing with lately.

Continue reading Burnout and The People I Met At Work.

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Summary and Notes.

I recently read Mark Fisher’s fantastic Capitalist Realism. It’s a short book and all, but engrossing. So I put it down in one sitting.

It’s a fantastic book. I’d recommend anyone who is interested in social critique of any sort.

Here are the notes I took on each chapter. It’s a fantastic book, and I’d recommend anyone who is interested in the same sort of societal themes and critique that I am to look into it. My intention is for these notes to help you get more out of it, though it’s also a nice, straightforward text. Maybe let them supplant discussion, if you can’t find anyone else to talk about the book with.

Chapter 1

The brutal dystopia as a cultural concept in entertainment serves to justify our increasing alienation, and increasingly competitive economic context. It idealizes the brutal individual, because this is what we are forced to become.

If we are increasingly driven to adopt the ideals of the brutal survivor in the post apocalypse, what might that say about the economic and spiritual realities we’re currently navigating?

This is, in the worst case, simply known as ‘being realistic.’ But we need to valorize it. Otherwise we are only victims of a horrible world, rather than possible victors.

Chapter 2

Much as per Zizek’s critique of Starbucks: do not worry, you can save the starving African children by purchasing this latte. Would you like a venti or grande?

Chapter 3

There are tacit ontologies we take on board as a matter of course. These assumptions make their rounds on the basis of their compatibility with the dominant narrative of economic success. Namely, they are that there is no way but capitalism; that there are infinite resources for capitalism; and that there is infinite affective capacity to endure the stresses of capitalism including individualization and the privatization of stress in the absence of the sort of communities that capitalism is hostile to.

Chapter 4

It is now ‘known’ that there is no way to get around capitalism. Once you accept this, whether it is true or not, there is only the pursuit of pleasure. Fisher calls this ‘depressive hedonia: wherein constant distraction and stimulation is the only solution to hopelessness.

He cites his experience teaching hopeless students– Capitalism’s new illiterates. Deleuze via Fisher: ‘Capitalism is profoundly illiterate.’

Strangely, the role of the teacher is no longer the disciplinarian who uses power to impose form and function a la the sort of analysis we see in Foucault. Instead, the teacher is present to justify the exercise of sitting in a classroom without any desire to learn at all. It would be difficult to believe the students had satisfactorily consumed the knowledge in the lesson without the presence of a teacher, though much more than that is unneccessary.

One of Capitol’s most effective ploys was to orient success around motivation: this was the privatization of stress. For Fisher, this was the moment whereby winners became the most effective perpetrators of the system.

Flexibility as an idol becomes a chain for the freelance professionals that embrace it.

Chapter 5

If schizophrenia is the disease at the edges of capitalism, as per Deleuze and Guattari, then bipolar disorder is the disease of the interior.

When workers are incentivized by the ‘freedom’ of neo-liberalism, they get chained to it too. But those chains aren’t external any more. Instead, they’re internal. The modern workplace offers pensions schemes after all, which are investments. Workers themselves become part of the market– they are psychically coupled to its cycles.

Chapter 6

Work in both public and private sectors have ceased to be oriented towards production, and instead have become oriented towards the image of production, with a constant battery of assessments, objective statements, targets, outcomes, etc.

This in some sense is a repeat of late stage Stalinism, according to which the plan was all that mattered: a valuation of symbolic achievement over achievement.

For capitalism this can be explained in terms of the stock market, wherein the perception of success is far more important for valuation than genuine success. This, ironically, is what trickles down.

Who isn’t allowed to know how bad things really are? Why are we performing as though this were a perfectly oiled machine? Who would be upset if we admitted how dire circumstances really are?

TV’s Big Brother as a perfect paradigm case of internalization. We are Big Brother. There is no Big Orwell, there is only Big Us.

My own thought: the only way to overcome the continual deferral of the beaurocratic instinct is to willingly act where you would not be empowered to: beuro-kratos.

Chapter 7

We are deciding to ignore this. We are complicit. ‘Life is but a dream’ and we are willing to pay for it. We are willing to forget that we have done this. The only remainders are our implicit memories– the procedures that we use to forget in the first place, and which we employ without any memory of why.

Chapter 8

The call center as the clearest illustration of decentralization. The generation of a hatred that has no proper object, because this mess is no one person’s fault in particular.

The collective entities that in actual fact make up the capitalist structure do not have agency the way we think of it; therefore, they cannot have moral standing and cannot be responsible. This is not a problem of people. Anyone would do the same if they were a CEO or a banker.

Chapter 9

The death of paternalism. Now, there is only the injunction to enjoy. The idea that there might be anyone who ought to tell you how to live, as if they could possibly know better than you do, is dead. This structure requires people to know what they want. Which means that nothing new can ever be made.

But consider the following: From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” (PP.81)

Recommending “It’s Not All In Your Head.”

I recently came across a podcast that approaches similar issues to those that I’m concerned about like the profit motive in mental health care, the encroaching influence of the psychopharmaceutical companies, the atomization of the individual, etc.

I think it’s important to share it here, because I think it’s an important discussion to have. Note: They spend the first 8-10 minutes talking about their own backgrounds, including a bit of what I felt was signalling identity politics. I personally found that a bit much. That being said, the discussion that follows is well worth waiting for/skipping to, and I would encourage you to listen to it.

Link: “It’s Not All In Your Head.”

Some Ways Meditation Has Been Affective for Me.

Some people think this is Freud. I think he’s doing Yoga.

In this piece, I’ll recount the experience I’ve had with practicing contemplation or meditation, or whatever you want to call it, and the way it effected my personal and professional lives.

Update (29/05/2020): It’s worth noting that I don’t take meditation very seriously these days. At the minute, I’m questioning a lot of things. That being said, I thought it would be better to keep this up because otherwise I’d be a bit of a revisionist and those types can get annoying.

I. Note on Method.

I’m intending this piece to fit within the broad tradition of qualitative research in the phenomenological tradition. Without getting overly technical that means I intend to be as precise as possible about my own experience in the hope that it will be knowledge bearing, in the hope that it might be useful for someone else.

In our day to day lives, we are often perfectly happy to act on a piece of observational simply because the observation is interesting or relevant. The inclusion criteria of a personal observation into this discussion is simply that it seemed noteworthy to me. If you also see my observations as noteworthy, I encourage you to experiment with the ideas I present later on.

I absolutely see the epistemic status of any conclusions I draw here as: something to consider, rather than something you must absolutely accept. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what would constitute ‘something you must absolutely accept…’

II: The Basic Observations.

A. Contemplation and Skill.

Let’s get into the idea that contemplation involves some skills. But first, what do I mean by contemplation? I’ll offer you a model that is synthesized from my study of a few different traditions and my own experimentation. This is my view on contemplation.

Contemplative practice is any regularly pursued exercise that involves a posture of stillness, solitude, silence in-as-much as is possible, a bodily orientation, and calm. The aim of a contemplative practice is to still yourself to such a degree that your attention is naturally drawn towards personal content that is usually inaccessible.

However, in order to achieve the sort of calm that is required for contemplative practice, it is also important to develop the ability to focus quite cleanly. Focus is also a kind of stillness. You can learn focus in plenty of different ways. You can learn it by focusing on your breath, or by sitting perfectly still. Kierkegaard would probably call focus ‘willing one thing.’ Erich Fromm highlights the ability to will one thing as an essential part of switching into the being mode.

I think ‘willing one thing’ is probably a more important or useful way to understand the quality of samadhi than ‘focus’ is. The reason for this belief of mine is that in my own case, trying to focus is associated with a whole bunch of baggage from my time in school, etc. Focusing is something you force yourself to do. Willing one thing is something you let yourself do.

So here’s what you do in contemplation: you will one thing until you are quiet and alone enough to notice things about yourself that you’ve never been able to notice before. It sounds kind of simple, right? Well, what do you notice?

In my case, I started to build skills around my automatic emotional responses. I found that certain bodily responses were associated with emotions and thoughts, and that thoughts could lead emotions to arise, and that bodily responses could come before either in some cases. I found that certain tensions in the body were associated with certain persistent thoughts and feelings, and that a simple effort to relax the tension in the body sometimes resulted in the thought or the feeling passing away as well.

It’s difficult to describe the phenomena as if there was any sort of taxonomy I could make, or any set of if-then propositions. As far as I can see, what happens when you learn how to contemplate is that you acquire a sort of judgement about and intimate familiarity with your own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as well as their relations.

Beyond that, in the process of trying to learn how to contemplate, you’ll have to learn how to will one thing, which is by no means easy. There is a reason that traditional meditation teaching starts with samadhi before it moves onto vipassana or ‘insight.’ I don’t like the term insight either– I feel like it implies some sort of sudden light-bulb moment which isn’t necessarily how change will occur in you, if any does at all.

One problem with learning to will one thing is that it is incredibly powerful, and that contemplation is ultimately a morality-neutral practice. I do not have nearly enough evidence or science in order to start commenting seriously on visualization as a practice, which may be another instance of using the ability to will one thing. That being said, I have suspicions. If it’s just a coincidence, I don’t think it’s a meaningless coincidence that so many skilful athletes and artists cite visualization as a contributor to their success.

In my own practices of Tango dance and climbing, I think I can attribute a good amount of my progress in either case to visualization, and therefore to my practised ability to will one thing.

B. Skill and Outcomes.

But back to contemplation: I want to talk a little bit about how the skills I learned through the whole practice of contemplation have emerged as useful for me in my life.

I’m current pursuing an odd and difficult career in psychology. This means that I have committed to leave myself hanging in professional limbo for the period of time it will take me to gather enough relevant experience to be admitting onto the program. It also means that intend to become a trained therapist, and that I benefit from studying therapeutic literature in my day-to-day contacts with clients.

There is one quality which is very useful for the pursuit of an uncertain future, and which is very important to an honest attempt at helping someone who is suffering deeply. That is the ability to tolerate uncertainty on a bodily level.

You’ll note when you feel anxious or angry or afraid that your body might seem to be on fire. From a psychological perspective, we’d call this a state of extreme behavioural activation. Your heart rate is likely higher than normal, along with your body temperature. You may start to sweat. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may recognize these signs and fear them due to their tendency to runaway into a panic attack.

As far as I can see, the point of these emotions– in their phenomenological quality– is to demand action. This isn’t always the best idea. It’s usually a pretty terrible idea if you’re doing any sort of fine emotional work with someone else or yourself. Imagine working on a watch or a circuit-board by hand, and then suddenly suffering a violent sneeze or muscle spasm.

That whole delicate order you had been trying to preserve for your purposed would disappear in a second. Or think about playing ‘Operation!’ during an earthquake. Sensitivity requires precision and patience, and both qualities require calm.

I’m illustrating the importance of this concept with my own life, but I can make it relevant to yours, too. If you hope to do anything with your life that requires risk, then the ability to tolerate uncertainty will be an asset. If you hope to have a relationship that involves intimacy and vulnerability on your part, then the ability to tolerate uncertainty is essential.

Every life-course worth living involves risk, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a relationship worth having that did not involve vulnerability. Your relationship to your world and your relationship to the people that are important in your life are joined by another important relationship: your relationship to yourself.

The ability to tolerate uncertainty is a consequence of your ability to tolerate your self. The psychologist Carl Rogers spoke about an important principle in the process of self-transformation: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”

III: Results and Interpretation.

Consider more the idea that contemplation refines the sensitivity of your instrument, and you get an idea for the range of applications of the technique: any domain that demands intellectual or emotional sensitivity will be more easily accessed if you are sharp. At the same time, any domain that benefits from a degree of non-reactivity is more easily accessed by a contemplative.

That’s just if we want to talk about the more mundane consequents of contemplative practice. But it doesn’t seem like spiritual consequents necessarily fit in this discussion, and I feel like I speak enough about them elsewhere, so I’ll leave them out for now.

One example from my own life: it is common in psychotherapy to talk about counter-transference. In the literature on borderline personality disorder, counter-transference is understood in terms of the emotional reactions, sometimes prompted by personal baggage, in the therapist toward the emotional content brought forward by the borderline client in the course of the session.

Having had my own one-on-one encounters with the emotional content of borderline clients, I can tell you without any hesitation that the ability to take a contemplative stance can save the relationship and the interaction.

This skill is by no means important just when it comes to borderline clients. Any time you are faced with exploring someone’s emotional world, you are faced with a situation where your own history and experiences might become present and obscure the reality of the person you’re faced with. In the worst case, this can end up in a complete misinterpretation of the person– with possibly disastrous consequences.

But it seems that even in the ‘best’ cases it can significantly hinder your ability to actually relate to the person. In any of these cases, the ability to ‘calm the waters’ is invaluable in getting a clear picture of what is reflected through them. Namely, the other person.

It can often be very difficult to focus your effort on setting your own emotional content aside for the purpose of understanding the person to whom you are trying to relate. In these cases, the ability to ‘will one thing’ is once again relevant. Our emotions are compelling for a reason– usually they prompt some sort of action that would be the best thing to do in a certain context. But that doesn’t mean that we should be led by them, rather they should inform us.

It is the ability to ‘will one thing’, and the ‘sensitivity of instrument’ developed by contemplative practice that allow us to do this.

IV. A Little Discussion

A.

There is a notion that comes from Spinoza that power is not just the capacity to affect, but that it is also the capacity to be affected. In meditation, we get the ability to be sensitive from the ability to be still, and that is its own form of power. Affect and effect are interestingly different. I think the best way to distinguish them is like the difference between your heart and your hands.

B.

When you’re meditating, you’re sitting perfectly still, which means you can’t do drugs or eat unhealthy food or hurt people or get irritated with those you love. If you meditate a lot, then you might learn how to remember what it feels like to not do all those bad things when you get the opportunity to. That might help you avoid doing them later if that’s the sort of thing you want to do.

Status Consumption and the Costly Signalling Treamill.

I’m not sure when it will be sensible to end the measures we’re currently taking to kerb the spread of coronavirus. It is by a long-shot not my field.

But I do think this is an opportunity for us to reconsider the course that society is currently taking. Some of my more climate conscious friends have been rejoicing at statistics in the news to the effect that carbon emissions are down 50% in some areas. Some workaholics I know have been reflecting on the surprising value of being forced into a small space with their families.

For me personally, this has been a period of time where I’ve allowed myself to slow down on my own pursuit of career goals. The lockdown hasn’t made me spend more time at home than I would have otherwise, but it has given me the opportunity to sit still for a second, comfortable in the assumption that everyone else that I’m racing is also sitting still.

I’ve described three facts of the life that we usually live: pollution, isolation, and stress. With nothing to say of pollution, the scientific literature is pretty unequivocal in the way it describes the effect of stress and isolation. These effects aren’t just mental or emotional, by the way, social isolation and stress have demonstrable correlations with physical health measures like heart rate variability and risk of heart attack.

I wonder whether we’re going to go back to normal after all our respective lock-downs are lifted. When I consider that eventuality, I ask myself: do we have to!? The answer is somewhat complicated. While we certainly don’t have to, we won’t be able to avoid it without some serious self-reflection.

I tend to lose patience with pieces of writing that recommend self-reflection and then don’t provide anything useful to reflect on, so let’s try and come up with some reasons to change, and some ways to change. It’s very easy to point out that something is broken without even contemplating an alternative. My alternatives might not be particularly attractive– but neither is going sober from the perspective of an opiate addict. From where I’m standing, we are substantially addicted to a few things, and it’s always important to admit there’s a problem.

I. Progress Mythologies

One of the biggest cited advantages of the capitalist system is that it incentivizes growth through competition. Now, it might be true that competition pushes innovation– though Noam Chompsky has some rather convincing evidence to the contrary, citing the range of important research in the 20th Century prompted by government funding as opposed to the free market— but we also need to recognize that growth is only necessarily valuable in the context of the social mobility mythology.

When I say social mobility mythology, I’m not trying to say that social mobility doesn’t occur. I’m instead trying to use mythology to point out a socially sustained conception of morality or good-ness that is propagated via the stories we tell ourselves and each other as opposed to a set of propositions.

The social mobility mythology is attractive because it lets us feel good about ourselves. Beyond that, it’s attractive because it prompts us to work for ourselves and for the good of those around us that we care about. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a story. It might even be true— though I’m not sure what truth means in this context. But it’s still a story.

Stories need to be revised when they cease being adaptive. While we might be able to justify the social mobility story as adaptive just by a fingernail from our current perspective, I’m not convinced that pushing for individual or even local-collective progress is going to be morally defensible once we realize that we really were all in this together and that we really don’t have anywhere to live any more.

The point of a critical approach to culture is to be able to appraise the values of these mythologies in a multiple step process. The first step of this process is always to acknowledge that these are mythologies. Unfortunately, many would-be critical eyes point out the mythological component of a cultural practice they don’t like, acknowledge to everyone else that it’s simply mythological, as if that were sufficient to motivate throwing it out, and then they conveniently ignore the mythological component of their own favorite cultural practices.

One common criticism of baby-boomers is that they believe they’re responsible for their successes, where in reality it was an economic serendipity that they were able to purchase their homes at ridiculously low rates while making relatively massive salaries stocking shelves at the grocery store.

The difficult part to acknowledge is that we’re all capable of that sort of cognitive dissonance, and in fact we do it all the time. I’m not particularly responsible for my own success– I was lucky enough to be born into a family with enough money to send me to good schools, and at those schools I was lucky enough to be inculcated with a belief that knowledge was valuable, which prompted me to work hard enough… and so on.

II. Status Consumption.

As long as we believe that progress is the aim, and as long as we acknowledge that individual progress is important because it’s scarce, then we’re always going to be trying to beat each other. That’s great as long as we aren’t leaving behind loads of out-dated luxury goods to rot in landfills, for example, but that’s also exactly what we’re doing.

Status consumption is when you make a purchasing decision on the grounds that is either explicitly or implicitly associated with what we usually call a ‘lifestyle statement.’ The costly signalling treadmill is what happens when the exclusivity of a given commodity is a component of its status value; when signals for that exclusivity become reproducible without the actual exclusivity; and where as a result those who yearn for status.

In its worst form, this can result in a sort of status costume: purchasing decision can be made on the grounds that the decision signals social status or the association with it. The problem with this is that it the actual good that had once been inherent in the thing to be desired, which is that it resulted from the ability to do difficult things– such as acquire scarce or exclusive resources, for example– ceases to be associated with the actually positive quality with which it had been originally associated. 

In the course of working with some of the most putatively deprived members of society, I’ve noticed odd purchasing decisions. I have come into contact with homeless schizophrenics who can afford to abandon council properties costing far in excess of my own rent in housing benefit, and who still have enough money left over to spend multiple hundreds of pounds on designer clothes. 

What struck me as most salient here wasn’t the incongruity of a homeless man having so much gross income as such. Instead, what I noted was that his decisions all were oriented around consuming goods that we usually think of as high-status, or luxury goods and that those goods took such high priority. I how on Earth that situation could have come about, and I wondered at what sort of implicit mythology must have been at work supporting it. I also feel the need to note that this was not uncommon. It is in fact so common that you would be dumbfounded. In the absence of any meaningful long-term purchases, some of these people resorted to flash sneakers instead.

I came up with one of two possible explanations: the first is that money is an analgesic, and that we as a society are happy to give it to those who suffer the most so as to absolve ourselves of the very difficult work of helping them in more substantive ways; the second is that a vibrant consumeristic lifestyle is actually one of the best things we can think of to give someone who is suffering. Maybe we see it as a genuine improvment to furnish our poorest and most downtrodden with the ability to buy a bunch of status signalling personal possessions. Though the reality, I suspect, is somewhere between the two.

I hope you agree with me: the idea that our social structures are uninfluenced by own our unconscious biases and beliefs is a pretty ridiculous one. It doesn’t take much psychonanalytic insight to realize people project their values without meaning to.

It’s also my experience that people are far more likely to ignore ugly truths rather than act on them. That might support the money-as-analgesia explanation, but it also might support the consumption-as-genuine-gift explanation. 

III. How to Get Off The Costly Signalling Treadmill.

But what happens to luxury goods when the lowest strata of society can purchase them in ridiculous amounts? They cease to be worth much in terms of signal value. That means that something new must emerge, just so that there is something more exclusive, less easily procured, and therefore signalling greater amounts of social capital. 

I’m pretty sure that’s the best thing we can conceptualize as the good: just the unending refreshment of social capital and the refreshment of our self-image. I don’t think that needs to be the case.

In some cases, one of the really wonderful things that emerged in recent history is the idea that consumption is less of a signal of excellence than the ability to self-deny. The problem is that it’s possible to commodify the image of self-denial through sorts of rough-textured health food or aesthetically pleasing water bottles. It is oh-so-easy to be diverted from genuine self-control. 

I criticized above the sorts of people who complain and don’t offer alternatives, so here’s my offer. It seems like one of the best ways as a society is to orient away from unhindered consumption towards an increase in self-control as an acetic-aesthetically pleasing end in itself.

It would even in theory be possible to justify this on a social signalling level. Self denial is hard, it requires skill and training, and it requires focus. All of these are valuable and difficult and scarce and beneficial. But we don’t really make much of them in the public sphere, which strikes me as so odd.

At one point in the near past, we were able to take these skills seriously– to the point that we accidentally landed ourselves in all sorts of Protestant-authoritarian intellectual wastelands. But certainly we can look back on then, look squarely at the present, and then realize the two aren’t mutually exclusive nor mutually exhaustive alternatives.

If anything, it seems as though the skills of focus and self denial are even more important to develop in the current age of multicolored and ubiquitous advertising designed to drive us into decision fatigue, alongside the near ubiquity of sugar– which I’m sure you no doubt know is potentially more difficult to kick than cocaine.

What does this look like in concrete terms? It means wearing second-hand clothing, preferably old enough to still have been made to last. It means using old phones, again, as old as possible so they can still have been made to last. It means boycotting companies at our own inconvenience simply because despite convenience offered, they still operate in immoral ways– that’s one of the real keys to untangling this issue, but without religion it’s unclear how we might rescue morality.

How can we make it so self-denial constitutes a good? I certainly don’t think we can ground the value of self-denial in the mythology of improvement per se. If we tried that, then it would be difficult to stick with when it became uncomfortable or difficult or when it actually started costing the individual in a material sense.

In order to undertake the sort of collective reorientation that a rejection of capitalism entails– the reorientation toward ecological sustainability for example– the idea of the energetic individual as the consumptive end in itself has to be consigned to the flames. The idea that the growth of the self and its development has to go the same way. The idea that the natural and domesticated spheres serve as nothing more than clay for the live expression of the individual has to be rejected.

Pragmatically speaking, we’ll need to get people to feel good about having less rather than by having more. I think the best way to achieve this is to promote an ethic of neighborly giving, as trite as that might sound. If anything, the apparent triteness might go some distance to indicate how alienated that value has become at the moment. We could say that a good metric for the necessity of considering an alternative to the mainstream in the case of particularly all-encompassing ideologies is to examine how absurd the alternatives might seem; the more absurd the alternatives, the more all-encompassing the ideology has become under our noses.

IV. Joy at Loss for the Self and Others.

Consider the following thought experiment: a young professional has been working as a manager at a job for the past two years after having worked there for a prior three. At a review, it is collectively decided that our young professional is to be demoted again– they are simply ineffective in their role and were doing a much better job in their previous position.

In the managerial position, they were an active drain on the group, and in their return to their prior role, they are once again a net positive for themselves and for everyone with whom they work. Anyone who has ever had a job has also met someone who was both a manager who should not have been a manager. I put it to you that we will have become appropriately self-determining when we can earnestly see this move as something to celebrate rather than something to lament.

The initial intuition is to be sad for our young professional, because they have lost status. Instead, we should be happy for everyone, because a bad structure has been reoriented towards actually producing good again.

If the young professional, their family, and their co-workers could be happy that a collective benefit had been rendered rather than sad because one individual’s status had been lowered, then I suggest this would be a social mythology that was, if not free from the status-progress mythology, at least less enthralled by it than our current society. 

That would indicate we had done away with the obsessive compulsions toward status and personal progress that are currently alienating us from those around us, and which continue to incentivize the destruction of our planet and already anaemic communities.