Tag Archives: Identity

Beings and Becomings

Human beings are always in a state of becoming something else.

This might be true for other types of being as well, but, alas, I am no neuro psychologist, so know little of the ways of monkeys, rats and the like. So we’ll stick to humans. And possibly there is something in the distinctive evolution of our consciousness that makes this a particularly human fact. Nevertheless, any living matter is constantly changing, growing, maturing, flowering, then wilting, decaying, dying.

Hmm. This wasn’t supposed to be so serious.

The bit of human beings that interests me today though is identity, and it is in this sense which I say, we are never something, because as soon as we are conscious of ‘being’ something, our internal and external worlds collide and we become something else. Lots of people disagree with me on this one – those psychologists, again, most of them definitely do. But then, many of their ideas lose their foothold if they cannot begin with a relatively stable, static concept of identity, so I guess they have something vested in keeping that idea around.

Thinking about ourselves as constantly both being and becoming requires us to step outside this conventional understanding of being as something fixed and stable, to instead see being as a dynamic set of actions, processes, relations, aspirations, and, of course limitations. Many ethnographers get around the problem of being by talking about a set of doings; seeing culture at its most elemental, as collective practice.

I think about these things regularly, it’s a perspective that lives in me, and everything that I write is presupposed by these ideas. But in practice such a perspective can make for a deeply unsettling experience.

Well. I’ve changed.

A facile enough statement given the preceding paragraphs; but of course I have.

But this is different. Or at least it would be different if I were not so cynical.

Happy New Year!

I didn’t make any resolutions.

I don’t believe in them. They articulate a sense of what I want to be. A new me. What I am not.

Yuk. Aspiration presupposed by self abjection. Just what they want us to think.

Actually I did make one resolution, not to take sugar in my tea anymore, but this was for the sake of my teeth. I now drink about twice as much tea. That’s the thing with resolutions. They prompt a different set of doings.

So. When I got to this new year in the style I did; that is, on the back of an achievement of which I was very proud, I was very careful not to say: “Right! This is it. I’m something else. Now I have to live up to it. I’ve done this before and it has never worked out.

The thing is, something has changed. I’m doing things in a manner I don’t recognise. Not just don’t recognise fully, I’m not looking at one of those infuriating spot the difference puzzles. This is fundamental.

Hang on.

Nothing is fundamental.

Damn.

What I cannot stop tying myself in knots trying to say is that I am enjoying my working life much more than I accustomed to. Beyond that, I could not be happier with it. There’s loads of it – there always is – but this is no longer something that makes me feel disconsolate, anxious, stressed, guilty – all self defeating things which will allow that endless shit to pile up and become even more unmanageable.

No. Now I just get on with it.

And enjoy it.

I love it in fact.

*Suddenly* I find myself no longer looking upon what I do as a set of compromises resulting in continuous frustration, constantly looking back to something I thought I had better.

And I don’t know what it is. And I don’t want to. If I worked out what it was I would swiftly find some way of destroying it.

For now I will just enjoy it. But not be content with it; no surer synonym for death than contentment.

My as yet unsure and not-wanting-to-be-made cautiously optimistic appraisal of this situation is that recent experience has given me a massive boost in confidence and I am currently riding the crest of a wave. And while I have got the book out of the way for now, I still have a very severe set of deadlines ahead of me, and that has always been a good motivator as well. But even that has changed. There’s no anxiety, I just think I can do it and so I get on with it.

Yeah, it’s the confidence thing isn’t it. Some kind of honeymoon period. It can’t last. I mean, for all my rambling about dynamic sense of self, I actually have a very fixed and essential idea of myself as doing certain things in certain ways. As being good at some things and not at others. Well I’m currently being good at things that I am not accustomed to being good at and it has upset this sense. And the only way I can hold onto any fixed point in this swirling mess is to believe that it is temporary and as soon as circumstance allows I will return to being what I thought I was.

While I can reflect and see that this is the most repulsive piece of binary self othering, I can’t seem to stop performing it on myself.

Pride comes before a fall you know.

But all the while I am wondering, not quite hoping, too cautious for that, just wondering, quietly, to myself.

What if?

Well. If.

It took me about 2.5 years to get used to the idea of a PhD and myself as someone capable of doing one – by which time I was about six months from completion.

‘If what it might be turns out to be…etc…Well, then it will have taken me about four years to get used to the idea of a post doc career and myself as someone capable of doing it, and doing it well.

At this rate, the first 5 or so years as a senior fellow will really suck.

 

 

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#AcWriMo Reflections

This comes a little late, as #AcWriMo properly finished almost three weeks ago now. However I have been lacking the necessary reflective space via the exclusion of all else in favour of submitting my first book. This was of course the thing that loomed large and unassailable up until the beginning of November, when with the help of a virtual community of scholars and a seriously useful piece of external discipline via the Accountability Document (yet one more reason making it impossible for me to boycott Google, but hey ho) I took the proverbial bull by the horns and, well, tamed it.

Yes.

Today I am a yes person.

I submitted my book on Thursday night.

I received an email back from the publishers straight away: an out-of-office autoreply. My publishing assistant is away until the 2nd January. That’s two days after the book was due. I am free of all concern and looking forward to Christmas sans sword of Damocles. I have #AcWriMo to thank in large part for this achievement, and I’m going to try and collect some thoughts together on precisely how this occurred and what it might mean in terms of a longer term trajectory.

As I think can probably be read in the tone of my first post about #AcWriMo when I was formulating my strategy, I was a bit cynical about the attempt. I mistrust the ‘group’ thing – facebook groups: disaster, music groups: too many egos, book groups: hot air, group therapy: somebody shoot me. I am also very bad at strategising, I’m more of a nose follower than rational planner. I am also deeply suspicious of routines, and their everyday oppressions.

And so here was this thing bringing all these other things together.

However, I was nothing short of desperate.

Through a combination of circumstances some more within my control than others, I had found myself at the beginning of the academic year 2012 with three months in which to turn my first draft into a final draft. With my thesis, that was a process that had taken the best part of six months alongside the demands of a full time job. And at this point in time I was still planning to conduct new research which would need to be completed, analysed and written into a new concluding chapter.

The rest of the book could not really continue without this process coming first. It wasn’t like the thesis, which is rather like a large and unruly jigsaw puzzle for which you’ve mislaid the completed picture: you mess around with lots of pieces for a long time until they start to take some kind of sensible form, then you work at that form until the picture emerges. I found the book more like painting a picture: you need to have a decent idea of where it is ending up before you first put brush to canvas.

In retrospect I do not think I would have completed this extra research work in time, so it was perhaps fortunate that I was let down by the person who I was working with to access participants for it. At the time however, this threw me into some disarray. Re-thinking things at the 11th hour: not good.

So, I reached November and I was still only on Draft 2. Draft One had been about cutting. Draft Two was now about making sense of what I had left. I had something that looked like a Storify account: bits and pieces cut and pasted together. It needed a narrative. It needed me to start at Page One and progress: I am born. I grow up.

At this point I had about 50,000 usable words. So I figured I needed about another 20,000. My #AcWriMo strategy therefore was 15,000 for November, leaving me a little in reserve for Draft Three and beyond. I set myself a target of 2 hours per day, and 300 words per hour.

Then I discovered the Accountability document: A sublime piece of panoptic self-surveillance, of which Bentham himself would be rightfully proud. It watched over me, disciplined me; I aspired to please it. Although I only found 1 hour a day with any regularity I had found an energy which I had eluded me since handing in my thesis. I was writing words that I was happy with for the first time in 3 years, and I was producing them at a rate that far surpassed the 1000 words that was my daily PhD milestone.

Still, I felt like I was not doing enough. And I was not sure how long I could meet the demands of the routine I had set myself.

One day I was travelling in to work on the train. We were held up just outside Manchester, and as I looked at the grey November morning outside, the frustration rose up inside me like fire: how dare this train sit so close yet so far from where I need to be, getting on with things. That magic first hour of the day that I had reserved for writing was ebbing from me minute-by-minute. I tweeted something to this effect. A moment later a fellow #AcWri-ter tweeted back, asking whether I could get anything done on the train. For some considerable time I had used this 45 minute train journey to read things that were not work related: it was my space, my time. However this was to change, and this single comment prompted in me the means with which I could shake the oppressive bonds of my routine, and find a new way to ‘be’ that made something both productive and personally satisfying out of my daily occupation.

In retrospect – in the four weeks or so since I was tweeped into action, in which time I completed drafts three, four and five of my book, before spellchecking, typesetting, and submitting (oh, and submitted two papers to journals) – I have come to see my former insistence of ‘my space, my time’ as a form of escapism. It was keeping me sane in a world which was threatening to drive me in. By the very desperation through which I was prompted into action, I have shaken the bonds of my writing routines, and find I am now able to write almost anytime, anyplace, anywhere (present example: I am writing this from my sister’s house, where my wife is currently carrying my very excited 4-year-old niece around upside down).

This in turn has not only allowed me to achieve the immediate task in hand, but has also unravelled the fundamental sense of alienation from my labours that was everyday deepening my sense of doctoral nostalgia. I find that I am now suddenly very satisfied with where I am and with my future prospects. I am hopeful and ambitious again.

However, I am also physically exhausted. I have been working for 12-15 hours a day every day almost without fail for about 6 weeks; mostly this included weekends as well.

I am absolutely not going to do that in the long run.

So, first new year resolution will be a new strategy – how to chanel this spirit into a productive, satisfying, and sustainable design for the future.

Watch this space.

And, thank you to #AcWri and #AcWriMo for restoring my faith in the group thing, to @mystudiouslife for the Accountability Doc, and to @ccandhealth for the tweet that shook my writing foundations and helped me build something more solid.

Merry Christmas all, from my distractors.

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Dude, where’s my pen?

I’ve lost my pen.

This might not seem like a disastrous situation to many. After all, while I’m a writer, surely I don’t write everything out with pen and paper. I mean, what century are we in??

Well, it is a big deal. It is my favourite pen. It was a present from my late grandmother, so it has sentimental value. I have appalling handwriting, and there are many pens I just cannot write legibly with, but I have used this one for a long time, so we are as comfortable together as a pair of old shoes. We have also been through a lot together. It accompanied me the whole way through my PhD, underlining key phrases, scribbling fieldnotes, writing notes at conferences, jotting down eureka moments on the move, or at 4am, whenever they struck. It has survived so many demanding research encounters, from infant classrooms to dementia care wards, that now to lose it in my house somewhere is infuriatingly mundane.

The long and the short of it is that I will either need to turn my house upside down in order to find it. Not appealing. Or I will have to go out and find a new pen. Heart wrenching.

There is a point lurking somewhere in this personal tale of woe. I’ve been fairly unsettled by this seemingly slight turn of events, now that might appear silly to some, but the fact is that it’s broken my stride a bit. It’s a little niggling thing that I notice whenever I reach for my pen and it’s not there. It’s like a little scratch that I can’t leave alone so it doesn’t heal. I think it is a part of a delicate thing that we all construct to help us administer our lives, which is routine.

Whether or not we realise it we all have our routines. Little things which we do in the same or similar way, or at the same time, on a regular basis. I would think the majority of people are aware of many of their own little routines – getting up at the same time, to go to work at the same time and place, where we all start the day in the same way, by turning on our computer, hanging up our coat and making ourselves a cup of coffee in our usual mug. Ok, this is a little glib, but you get the idea. But then I think even for those of us who are well aware of our routines, there are still more that lurk somewhere beneath consciousness, things that we are not really aware that we do in a patterned and predictable manner.

I also think we sometimes don’t understand the power of a routine, until we find it is not there anymore.

Routines are immensely powerful little strategies. They enable us to be the productive little nodes that we all can be. And taking them away can bring you to the edge of abyss. They are the rhythms through which we experience our lives, our selves.

I’ve written a fair bit about routine. When I first went into working in infant classrooms for my PhD research, routine was one of the ways I started to make sense of life in the classroom. And that is exactly what they do. They organise, they make sense, they rationalise. Thus the argument that I began to develop was that the manner in which the school child had their day organised for them – the time/space regularities of the school day, the uniform, the rules of interaction, the behaviour codes, etc., were all designed to internalise a sense of the right way to do school, the right way to be. Once there is a clear sense of what is right then those who don’t ‘fit’ are made clearly visible. Thus, routine is a fundamental principle of inclusion and exclusion. If you want to read the full version of this argument you can do so here or there is an older, not as good, but free, version here.

My scholarly interest in routines has also driven a personal love/hate affair with them. While I recognise the productive potential of a routine, and I have many of my own, I am still bothered by the somewhat disembodied nature of the routine. It feels like they require us to place a little bit of control for ourselves, a little bit of our personal sense of agency, into something impersonal, outside ourselves. I worry that we can become overly dependant on these little objectified parts of ourselves. I worry that the web they construct can become a very significant in providing us with an everyday sense of security, a sense of ourselves.

Then there are all the implications of the argument about the routine being a means of inclusion or exclusion. I worry about the manner in which I make myself visible via the routines that I either subconsciously accept or reject. Consumer behaviour makes an obvious example. To what extent can some clever marketer come along and simply map me around a supermarket? Or those ‘reccomendation’ pages that you get on places like Amazon. They bug me.

If routines are essentially about rhythm, then think about the power of the algorithm. Amazon and Last FM might be among the most benign uses of these – what about insurance companies?

Now, it is not my intention to instil a debilitating sense of paranoia in anybody. But, I’ve always thought that paranoia becomes a lot less irrational when we think about the forces well beyond our control or comprehension that we are subject to. So, a productive skepticism about routines, I think, reflects a healthy sense of paranoia.

I still use them of course, but they can be a bit like rights, they can clash.

I know the best times of day for me to write is between about 6am and 10am and the best places to do so is at home. However, I also know that being in the office from 9-5 is the best means of ensuring I’m up to speed with work. And there’s the clash, and one of my fundamental sources of Doctoral Nostalgia – writing gets squeezed out by the day job. True, I could get up at 5am, do three hours writing then get on the train to work and be there by about 9.30. But then I would have to go to bed at about 9pm, and that clashes with my swimming routine, and if I don’t do any exercise I become far too apathetical to even consider 5am a reasonable time to get up in the morning.

Routines can take you beyond yourself. How many clashes does it take before you reach your elastic limit?

Nevertheless, they can be handy little designs for life.

I know that if I read some fiction everyday then I will read more, not less, academic literature as well.

I know that if I do some form of exercise everyday then I will be happier.

I know that my coffee tastes better from my favourite mug.

I know that losing my favourite pen leaves me with a deeply unsettling sense of ontological insecurity.

Odd sort aren’t we?