Overcoming the profile?

The psychologist Paul Verhaeghe once described the effects of neoliberal capitalism as having fostered a “relentless pressure to achieve”. I think this is a useful way to begin formulating a critique of our attitudes towards work and responsibility, especially given the recent and ongoing attacks poor and vulnerable non-workers in the United Kingdom.

Writing for the Guardian, Verhaeghe commented that the idea of a meritocracy in today’s economy has led many to “believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual”. In this way, he claims, the individual worker becomes a “perfectible individual” – someone’s whose worth can always be improved upon through hard work and self-discipline. Such an attitude means that many now also feel they “fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed” in their everyday working lives.

Interesni Kazki – Sisyphus

This description has stuck with me for a number of reasons. Chief among these was my recent entry into life as a new graduate student. Something that surprised me about making this transition was coming to grips with the inner workings of the academy and how career-focused many of the faculty were towards building and improving the skills of researchers. Courses and seminars at postgraduate level encourage students to promote and “professionalise” their work, all in service of creating an attractive and marketable profile towards accessing tenure. To an extent, this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, to find work in academia and to ingratiate oneself as part of an academic community is something many postgraduates aspire towards; it is admirable to want to shape one’s life towards the pursuit of knowledge. At the same time, however, the goal of these training sessions is not so much to contribute to an eclectic field of study and community as it is to set oneself apart, to become recognised for one’s individual talents. And this is something I think deserves interrogating.

One of the other reasons Verhaeghe’s analysis stuck with me was because of my background in journalism. Anyone who has worked in news reporting before would recognise the increasing pressure for writers and editors to build an online presence for themselves. Much like academia, this includes an up-to-date social media profile, a sizeable portfolio, and an exhaustive list of contacts. Today journalism isn’t so much something you do as it is something you are. And this extends not only to reporters, but also to the reporting of news itself. Take, for example, the August 2016 issue of Attitude Magazine, which published a front page special on the Royal Family Member Prince William. For this edition, Attitude had printed an interview with the prince on the subject of homophobic bullying, featuring several choice quotes, including, “[n]o one should be bullied for their sexuality or any other reason”, and, “no one should have to put up with [that] kind of hate”. The magazine’s editor, unsurprisingly, championed these statements as “making history”, writing, “I have met parents whose child has taken or lost their life after being bullied for being LGBT+ or just perceived to be LGBT. I am very happy that the future King of the United Kingdom agrees this must stop”. Of course, it was not so much the content of William’s interview that made the impact here (most of which consisted of a series of platitudes), but rather that the statements were made by the prince himself – elevated, that is, by someone who holds a significant public profile.

The fact that we are now able to tell a story this way – by using a name or a face to build recognition – tells us something about the ways we relate to the world as made up of distinct and reducible individuals. The obvious thread connecting the two examples I have provided is the idea of the profile as a guarantor for the world in which it can be situated. The good academic profile guarantees good research and the good royal Prince William guarantees triumph over homophobia. The profile not only tells the story; it becomes itself the story. As we can see, this practice has the power to not only reify the status of certain people in society, but also to divorce them from the contexts and the infrastructures that uphold them, ensuring their social status is read as necessary rather than contingent. It celebrates the perfectibility of individual identity by making the individual an exemplar of its own making – an active rather than a passive force in the creation of the concrete self.[1]

For many academics today, one of the main hurdles towards accessing scholarship is the prolific and widespread demand for self-promotion, and of the capacity of this demand to evince and encourage cutthroat competition. Is it any wonder so many graduate students experience “impostor syndrome” throughout the entirety of their careers? The philosopher Renata Salecl is right when she characterises the shame we sometimes feel in these moments as the sense that “we are in essence always frauds”.[2] What we must add to this definition is that the feeling is absolutely correct; shame is a “reminder that, by definition, we can never completely fulfil our expectations of ourselves”.[3] One experiences the life of a celebrated academic as an “impostor” because one is, by all accounts, a fraud to think that academic life can be anything but a collaborative or concerted effort. As a graduate student, I am constantly surprised by how much of my research is influenced and shaped by the conferences I attend, by the availability of my materials, and by the weekly advice of my supervisor. The temptation to build a profile out of my “scholarship” is constant, but these background details always throw this self-interest into doubt.

Luboš Plný – Untitled (2013)

I already mentioned how in journalism the tendency to incorporate the words and actions of individuals into their “profiles” underscores the ways we rely on simplified narratives about people in order to make sense of the world – and, indeed, even the ways we can affect a change in the world. To this end, the academic Sara Ahmed points out how institutional efforts to push for diversity must often pass through “credible” figures in order to begin to have any kind of influence; “[w]hen those who are important say diversity is important, diversity can acquire importance”.[4] In no example more obvious is this function than in Attitude’s choice to celebrate Prince William’s anti-homophobia as “making history”. The problem, however, is what to do when legitimate and progressive political forces lack the influence of such a figurehead. How do we proceed to “make history” if history is always shaped and re-shaped by the names and the faces of its current victors?[5]

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defines neoliberalism as a “programme for destroying collective structures which may impede the pure market logic”.[6] I find this description a useful base to use in conjunction with Verhaeghe’s definition. It helps to explain how the rise of the profile in various sectors is first and foremost a symptom of “pure market logic”, of its capacity to oppose and outright disempower the energies of cooperative work.

I opened this short article mentioning the plight of poor and vulnerable non-workers in the United Kingdom. If we are to begin to imagine a world beyond the auspice of the profile, and if we can build a life where collaborative work can be acknowledged rather than ignored, then maybe we can also restructure society to accommodate for the needs of so many who are unable to build livelihoods in today’s economy. More than making work flourish into ever more interesting forms, the abandoning of the profile can also make work function the way it should – as a technology for accountable and sustainable living. How to proceed?


[1] Grammar is a useful tool here. Think of the difference between an active voice and a passive voice. We prefer active sentences because they privilege the subject performing an action, allowing for a natural progression between cause and effect – “Picasso painted the picture”. Reversing this formula de-emphasises the role of the integrity of the subject, treating an object’s causes as contingent – “The picture was painted by Picasso”. The passive voice can also allow us to drop the spectre of the profile-subject altogether – “The picture was painted”.

[2] Renata Salecl, The Tyranny of Choice. (London: Profile Books, 2011), 138.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. (London: Duke University Press, 2012), 59.

[5] Not to mention, we can’t exactly ignore the brutal genocidal history of the British Royal Family here as well. If change is to be “intersectional” – as I believe it should – it must also learn when to reject particular totem figures of power. It must pass through social complexity in all its localities and manifestations.

[6] Pierre Bourdieu, “The essence of neoliberalism”. In Le Monde Diplomatique. http://mondediplo.com/1998/12/08bourdieu.


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