Monday, September 19, 2011

The Well-Adjusted

The privatisation of stress is a perfect capture system, elegant in its brutal efficiency. Capital makes the worker ill, and then multinational pharmaceutical companies sell them drugs to make them better. The social and political causation of distress is neatly sidestepped at the same time as discontent is individualised and interiorised.

(Mark Fisher)

Having adapted or conformed suitably to new conditions, the well-adjusted go confidently about their business. And their business is most likely to be contract work in a finance, services, marketing or IT-related field. These are proper new economy jobs, as opposed to old economy jobs that have been rebranded and casualised. The strategist. The outside consultant. The optimiser. The optimisation strategy consultant.

However the well-adjusted are not primarily a social class. They are a socialised class.

The well-adjusted rely on social media and mobile communication to craft and maintain their personal and professional reputation. This is a tautology, insofar as in the world of the well-adjusted the personal is the professional.

The well-adjusted are effortlessly ingratiating. Their mediated social interactions are always calculated to maximise the likes and minimise the dislikes. But calculated is a misleading term, for the rhetorical techniques and the inter-personal algorithms necessary to achieve this goal have been fully interiorised.

While possession of an iPhone device or equivalent does not alone a well-adjusted person make, it is necessary to own an iPhone device or equivalent in order to aspire to well-adjusted status. The capacity to police one’s reputation on the go is an essential requirement.

The well-adjusted enthuse about Twitter and are dismissive of Facebook, but are active on both.

The well-adjusted do not check their messages or Twitter and Facebook updates with obsessive frequency. They check them with the correct frequency.

Politically, the well-adjusted gravitate towards the left of centre. Professing to oppose the neoliberalism that produced the economy in which they thrive, they nonetheless maintain that the reforms of the nineteen-eighties were necessary and retain a soft commitment to social democratic goals – think New Labour in Britain, or Clark’s Labour in New Zealand – combined with the belief that there is no alternative to free-market capitalism, a flexible labour market and a lean, rationally streamlined welfare state. They call this ‘being pragmatic’. By contrast, right wingers who believe that radical neoliberal reform will lead to a purer, truer welfare for those who actually need it are forced to defend that conviction on purely ideological grounds.

Having adapted or conformed suitably to new conditions, the well-adjusted don’t believe in ideology. They believe in rational, evidence-based debate on an issue-by-issue basis. There is nothing that the well-adjusted love more than data, but they rarely question how it has been collected outside of a quick check to make sure that the methodology is in order. Attempting even a watered-down Foucaudian critique of this position is one of the few sure ways of irritating the well-adjusted, who are otherwise largely unflappable.

To their credit, the well-adjusted are excellent listeners and there is virtually no limit to the points of view that they are prepared to consider and dismiss.

The well-adjusted believe that politics is the art of the possible, where by ‘possible’ they really mean ‘what can reasonably be achieved within the next six months’. However this doesn’t stop them from supporting a range of campaigns and social causes, typically by means of retweeting as opposed to marching.

The well-adjusted believe that anthropogenic climate change is a scientific fact and advocate sustainable living.

The well-adjusted are in favour of multiculturalism, chiefly in that it broadens the range of available recipes and ingredients. For the well-adjusted are passionate about food. Often you can tell a well-adjusted household just by looking at the spice rack. Or the wine rack. Or the whisky cabinet.

And the coffee, God, the coffee. You don’t want to get the well-adjusted started about coffee. Jesus Christ.

In all matters related to food and drink, and many others beside, the well-adjusted reify taste over culture. So for instance a well-adjusted shopper may purchase Parmigiano Reggiano or the scandalously expensive ‘parmesan’ produced by Kapiti Cheeses in New Zealand. But if it turns out that they like the knock-off better, then the Kapiti Parmesan will be declared as good (and functionally ‘real’, ‘authentic’) as Parmigiano Reggiano, if not more so, and become a suitable substitute in all Italian recipes that call for this particular type of cheese.

Taste being an end in itself, and requiring little by way of education (or study, or understanding), the well-adjusted are happy to enjoy the things that most people enjoy, including – in post-ironic fashion – the most exploitative manifestations of popular culture. They would dismiss Neil Postman’s arguments in Amusing Ourselves to Death simply in that he had them at ‘amusing’: an enjoyable spectacle by definition can do no harm, either to the spectator or to more nebulous categories such as culture or discourse. Criticism is therefore reduced to the form of the review, and critical theory is dismissed out of hand.

A corollary to this is that nothing could be further than snobbery from the sensibility of the well-adjusted, and indeed the well-adjusted are not to be confused with hipsters. Hipsters are in fact far more capable of self-reflection than the well-adjusted, and besides the well-adjusted are neither setters nor followers of fashion. Although they pride themselves on always being current and informed about the latest trends, they do not feel pressured to conform to them.

So what do the well-adjusted look like? For a picture that is about to become out of date, trawl any archive of stock photographs with the search phrase ‘person with laptop’. Then you eliminate the ones who are too laid back,

the formally dressed,

or those who appear to be overdoing it (a phone, a laptop and your card? Plus, the well-adjusted know their credit card details by heart.)

Until you end up with something like this.

Busy, casual, relaxed, connected. Working – possibly, although it's hard to say – yet at the same time chilling out, at home or in a café.

(I say the picture is about to become out of date because the laptop will soon have to go. It’s just that ‘person with smartphone’ is compositionally more awkward and hasn’t quite produced an equally satisfying set of interchangeable images yet.)

This last exercise should have finally clarified that the well-adjusted do not exist except as a sociological construct, a composite image, a demographic profile. For the purposes of this post I deduced most of their characteristics by going through this article by Mark Fisher on the privatisation of stress and working my way backwards: that is to say by reversing the distressed mindset of the workers and would-be workers who in the course of the past two to three decades have had to metabolise chronic job insecurity and the constant shrinking of social safety nets, and attempting to produce its negative image.

To put it another way: if the success of capitalist realism is measured by the generalised belief that there is no alternative not only to the status quo but also to further neoliberal reforms (the only way out is to go deeper), then – if only because goods still need to be sold, but also and far more importantly to create a screen in front of the distressed subject – there must also exist a more cheerful narrative predicated on wilful acceptance. However creating this narrative is not solely the task of marketers and advertisers, nor ideologues or politicians for that matter: it is the culture itself that must produce the image of a model, contented subject by working inductively through the demands that are put on each of us.

Job insecurity and living from contract to contract are a source of anxiety? Then there must be somebody for whom this is not so, somebody for whom the designation of freelance (lovely word, that) is an opportunity for deducting some cost of living items from their taxes and who uses the enforced downtime as an opportunity for rest and recreation. The social and professional demand to be always communicatively available and plugged into multiple networks is a source of stress? Then there must be people who are only too happy to always be available, and for whom checking Twitter and Facebook updates or new emails and text messages never becomes a compulsive habit.

Because ultimately, if I can’t make it work, it must be my fault. If I can’t trust that the work will come, and that I won’t get sick, it must be my fault. If I feel ambivalent about some aspects of food culture, reality television or the Rugby World Cup, it must be my fault. I must adjust my settings and learn to enjoy. Some online communities can help with that, teach you how to smooth the corners. Not any single person can be well-adjusted, but together we can reach homeostasis and create a self-adjusted whole. A model, ideal subject: liberal, cultured, non-judgmental, environmentally conscious, socially aware. That’s someone, or something, to be. Don’t corporations also strive to embody those characteristics?

And so the social networks, as well as a place for creating and sharing on the margins of the established pathways of capitalism, are also this: a training ground for the aspiring well-adjusted. Which is to say – seeing as more and more the personal truly is the professional – a tool to fight insecurity, to behave more appropriately and become better liked, hence more employable; but also to derive much-needed psychological comfort from that collectively constructed simulacrum (or stock photograph, if you will) that is the well-adjusted person. Yet the simulacrum operates in turn as a source of anxiety, for it embodies and sharpens the demand to conform to that model subject and naturalises the workings of the system that produces it. (And here we glimpse the mechanisms of community without solidarity that Fisher hints at when he refers to the individualisation of discontent.)

I don’t have much to offer by way of conclusion, other than to suggest that we might wish to pay a qualitatively different kind of attention to the attempts at communication that fail, to the awkwardness, perhaps even the trolling, not as flawed or disruptive strategies to be designed out of the system, but rather as qualities of a different kind of subject – the maladjusted – to be considered in a dialectical relationship with its opposite. That could be something to pursue. In the meantime, read The Privatisation of Stress, for it is illuminating. I’ve also compiled a brief separate entry on the well-adjusted child.