Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Five years ago, I put together a research paper on the problems of open plan offices in universities. These problems were by no means limited to the higher education sector but were evident across multiple industries. One of the points I raised related to the dangers of disease transmission. Of course, this is now a problem which has come home to roost in a very major way in the wake of the global pandemic. Although the ostensible reason for the construction of open plan offices was “collaboration”- something they arguably reduced in fact, the convenient rhetoric hid the true reason, which was a perceived cost saving (again perceived rather than actual – given a measured reduction of worker productivity in this environment) and greater surveillance.

There must be many companies now kicking themselves for their false economy in foisting these designs on their hapless workers. When this article titled “The Pandemic May Mean the End of the Open-Floor Office” appeared in The New York Times recently, I had to laugh. As the article says of a movement which has gathered increasing momentum in the last ten years:

The embrace of open floor plans stretches back to the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s. It was hailed as essential to collaboration and creativity, but is, of course, also about cramming more people into expensive office space, a situation that people now realize creates unnerving petri-dish conditions.

The phrase ‘now realize’ is ironic considering that these dangers had already been pointed out in some detail by researchers and of course unceremoniously ignored. The miseries of the open plan worker, now mask wearing and surrounded by perspex, are only set to be compounded.

As Ron Weiner says below, a number of the measures taken to deal with the problem will amount to little more than theatre – no more than a symbolic gesture by employers with very little real world efficacy for their employees.

The proposed changes to the offices have struck some as more cosmetic than substantive, especially the sneeze guard.

“I call it social distancing theater, like T.S.A. security theater after 9/11,” said Ron Wiener, chief executive of iMovR, a Seattle company that designs standing desks that are used at many large employers, from Google and Facebook to the Department of Defense.

So how is the problem going to be solved? Allow Darwinian selection to take its course and save on salaries? Send the workforce home? Have a staggered roster system? Many of the open plan offices are new, built on the graveyard of individual offices – too large an investment for companies to demolish and rebuild or even substantially refit. It will be interesting to see where things go from here.

Foucault has this to say about “self-expression”:

I don’t believe in the virtue of using language for “self-expression”. The language that interests me is the one that can actually destroy all the circular, enclosed, narcissistic forms of the subject and of oneself. And what I mean by ‘the end of man’ is, deep down, the end of all these forms of individuality, of subjectivity, of consciousness, of the ego, on which we have built and from which we have tried to build and to constitute knowledge. …The West has tried to build the figure of man in this way, and this image is in the process of disappearing. And so I don’t say the things I say because they are what I think, but rather I say them with the end in mind of self-destruction, precisely to make sure they are no longer what I think. To be really certain that from now on, outside of me, they are going to live a life or die in such a way that I will not have to recognize myself in them.

This passage transcribed from the subtitled The Lost Interview video by Sebastian Edin is rendered in Michel Foucault, Freedom and Knowledge, Interview by Fons Elders. Translated by Lionel Claris, Elders Special Productions BV, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2012, p,33 as follows:

I don’t believe there is virtue in using language that is intended only to express various forms of subjectivity to others. That is a language that does not interest me. The language that interests me is the one that can actually destroy all the circular, enclosed, narcissistic forms of the subject and of oneself. And so I don’t say the things I say because they are what I think, but rather I say them with the end in mind of self-destruction, precisely to make sure they are no longer what I think. To be really certain that from now on, outside of me, they are going to live a life or die in such a way that I will not have to recognize myself in them.

It is not about trying to find, then expressing an “authentic self” to the world. Rather, we could see our personal existence as an ongoing experiment with non static practices of the self, of manifesting a self to others through various kinds of external and internal practices. These practices are borrowed and modified from the practices invented by others and plugged into a general social and cultural network. It is not a question of finding, then externalising with anguished difficulty some authentic individual and unique interior.

A definitional discussion on “self-expression” on the Positive Psychology.com site notes the following:

self-expression is, at its core, the action of expressing yourself, and it can take a wide variety of forms. You can use your words, your facial expressions, your body, your movements, clothing, actions, and possessions to express your authentic inner self.

and refers to a definition drawn from Kim, H. S., & Ko, D. (2007). Culture and self-expression. In C. Sedikides & S. J. Spencer (Eds.), Frontiers of social psychology. The self (pp. 325-342). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.

that self-expression is one of the most highly-regarded and venerated values in Western civilization due to the near-deification of “the individual” in our society. Not only is self-expression a vital practice of Western culture, it is also baked into the very roots of psychology. After all, psychology is all about the study of the mind, including the self, others, and groups of people.

Of course, the idea of an “authentic inner self” is something that Foucault famously challenges, also noting that the “free and unique individual” that people think they are expressing is far more constrained and illusory than they think.

 

Foucault News

After the terrible news of the fire and because the banner of Foucault News is an image of Le Stryge, one of the chimera on top of Notre Dame, I am reposting the message and photo below from the Alliance Française de Brisbane. The fate of the chimera is as yet unclear. This article on the BBC news site lists what has survived and what hasn’t.

Claude Mauriac in his memoir Le Temps Immobile describes watching Maurice Clavel, the journalist, playwright and author lecturing on Foucault at Notre-Dame, praising his anti-humanist Kantian stance in The Order of Things. (David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, Penguin Random House, p.192)

Resilience
The Motto of the City of Paris “fluctuat nec mergitur” (she is tossed by the waves but does not sink) This will prove to be true once Notre Dame is rebuilt again.

Donations are already flooding in…

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This sounds like an interesting read. The adulation of ‘busyness’ is definitely something I’ve noticed in the last couple of decades at least.

Bellezza, Silvia, Neeru Paharia, and Anat Keinan. “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol.” Journal of Consumer Research 44, no. 1 (June 2017): 118-138.

Abstract
While research on conspicuous consumption has typically analyzed how people spend money on products that signal status, we investigate conspicuous consumption in relation to time. We argue that a busy and overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become an aspirational status symbol. A series of studies shows that the positive inferences of status in response to busyness and lack of leisure are driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market. This research uncovers an alternative kind of conspicuous consumption that operates by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals. Furthermore, we examine cultural values (perceived social mobility) and differences among cultures (North America vs. Europe) to demonstrate moderators and boundary conditions of the positive associations derived from signals of busyness.

Peaks and pirates … A detail from a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s map by Monro Orr in 1934. Photograph: 14597/The British Library Board

I am fascinated by various kinds of literary and artistic maps. This article in The Guardian talks about some notable literary maps:

Robert Macfarlane, Frances Hardinge and Miraphora Mina, Wizards, Moomins and pirates: the magic and mystery of literary maps, The Guardian, 22 Sep 2018

From Moominland to the Marauder’s Map, writers Robert Macfarlane, Frances Hardinge and Harry Potter cartographer Miraphora Mina unfold their favourite maps

Broadly speaking, we might say there are two types of map: the grid map and the story map. A grid map places an abstract geometric meshwork upon a space, a meshwork within which any item or individual can be coordinated. The power of such maps is that they make it possible for any individual or object to be located within an abstract totality of space. Their danger is that they so reduce the world to data that they record space independent of being.

Story maps, by contrast, represent a place as it is perceived by an individual or by a culture moving through it. They are records of specific journeys, rather than describing a space within which journeys might take place. They are organised around the passage of the traveller, and their perimeters are the perimeters of the sight or experience of that traveller.

Tyler Cowen, Americans own less stuff because of the internet, and that’s a worry, Financial Review Aug 13 2018

Lately I’ve been worrying about a problem of the latter kind: the erosion of personal ownership and what that will mean for our loyalties to traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.

[…]

The nation was based on the notion that property ownership gives individuals a stake in the system. It set Americans apart from feudal peasants, taught us how property rights and incentives operate, and was a kind of training for future entrepreneurship.

This article in the Financial Review runs all the wrong arguments about the share economy. It’s not the lack of private ownership per se that is the problem and that is going to solve our current difficulties. Who needs more hoarding, more waste to clog up the environment, more greedy profiteers exploiting their fellow human beings – even at primary school level – where the latest educational trend is to encourage children to be ‘entrepreneurs’?

A more even social and economic distribution is what’s needed. The real problem is not the decline of ownership per se (which I think is a good thing – unless it’s due – as is often the case – to exponentially increasing economic disparities) but how goods are being shared and made available for use and who is making them available via subscription systems. What we should be more worried about in relation to some of the mechanisms the author describes (print, video and audio streaming services, google etc) are the ways our freedoms and access to knowledge are being controlled and manipulated by large corporations – all in the interests of profit. Also, some forms of the so-called share economy are just new and unregulated forms of exploitation. Uber and Air bnb, for example, are perhaps a little less ideal on that score than they would like to appear.

A useful article in The Guardian on the long standing prejudices against fan fiction and its emergence from the dungeons of dubious subculture particularly since the advent of the internet.

From Star Trek to Fifty Shades: how fanfiction went mainstream
Mikaella Clements
Wed 8 Aug 2018

The divide between a fanfiction writer and an original fiction writer can look very arbitrary when looking at authors such as Michael Chabon, who once described his own novel Moonglow as “a Gravity’s Rainbow fanfic”. Or Madeline Miller, whose Orange-prize winning The Song of Achilles detailed the romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and whose latest novel Circe picks up on the witch who seduces Odysseus in the Odyssey. Miller said she was initially worried when one ex-boyfriend described her work as “Homeric fanfiction” but has since embraced her love of adapting and playing with Greek mythology. The tag could also be applied to classics such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, reworkings of Shakespeare by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Edward St Aubyn in the Hogarth series, and a spate of parodies: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Android Karenina.

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