Saturday, August 8, 2015

211. Identity formation in modern work

Like a modern Marx, Richard Sennett claimed that in present capitalism people cannot express or develop their identity in work.[i] Work is no longer a career, or even a job, but is made up of spot activities with no history or future.

No history in struggling to build up professional competence, because competence has largely been taken over by automated processes. That turns the worker into a mere monitor without specialist understanding of what is going on, how it works, and how to intervene when it fails.

No future since due to ‘downsizing’ and flexibilization of work there is high insecurity of volatile employment.

There is risk not in the sense of an entrepreneurial project that may fail, but ‘risk as a continual state of vulnerability’ (in losing employment).

Sennett goes back to Luther, and further to Pico della Mirandola, for the notion of life not as a mere string of unconnected, incidental activities, but as a connected whole, as a ‘narrative’. Lacking that, in modern work, people ‘no longer have a sense of a real self’.

Going further back to classical Greek philosophy, we find happiness, ‘eudaimonia’, as a coherent whole which at death one can look back on, asking whether it was a life well spent.

So, the challenge is to find coherence in duration, between successive activities. In item 185 of this blog I referred to Henri Bergson’s notion of ‘duration’, where instants gain significance as part of a stretch of time as a whole. In walking, steps make sense not in isolation but as constituting a walk.

Is change ceaseless flux, unpunctuated, without stability?

Sennett recalls the farmer living with the rhythm of seasons.

Earlier in this blog (in item 31) I argued for a ‘cycle of discovery’, with an alternation of stability and change. Novelty consolidates, deepens and widens, and then, in shifting to novel areas of application, encounters the seeds and conditions for renewed change.

In the famous debate on scientific methodology between Popper, in favour of continually looking for the falsification of theory, and Lakatos, rationalizing stability and protection of existing core beliefs and assumptions, Popper in the end granted that one does not jettison a theory at the first sign that it is not perfect. One needs to exercise a measure of conservatism, maintaining a theory in an accumulation of misfits ‘to see where its real strengths and weaknesses lie’.

So, this is the form of change that I propose, with stretches of stability and consolidation alternating with steps of transformation.

Also, patience and coherence in time are needed to build relationships and trust, in order to carry development to fruition. Then, as the potential of the new is gradually seen to become exhausted, and new opportunities arise, one can happily and adventurously engage in the next swing of the wheel of change.

I believe this model offers a workable combination, not compromise but complementarity, of stability and change.

In items 8 and 9 I argued that personal identity arises from a life history, where one comes from, where one is going, and where one belongs: what positions, connections and relationships on has. I argued that identity is not an essence that one contains but a position in overlapping networks. I elaborated on this in item 209.

Team hopping may yield an incoherent sequence of incidents, but it can also contribute to the formation of networks, if the relations in the team had some substance and continuity.

[i] Richard Sennett, The corrosion of character; The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism, W.W. Norton, 1998.