I don’t think I have enjoyed the median valley of nothing between the day of Christmas and the new year ever so much. The party cooking and cleaning is done. The leftovers are finished. There are no uninvited guests arriving in Athens to demand my attention. The shops are mostly closed, the traffic is slow, there are few emails in need of immediate response. I can do anything I want with my time now. I can do it all, or nothing at all. Maybe it is because I am no longer a rat-girl adolescent. Maybe I am a mature bourgeois woman now, I can appreciate the collective time-off, because I’m not working through it, or travelling by bus through it, or fretting about the February of no-invoice payments coming up through it. I am free to just sit in my room and feel weightiness of calm rest its head on the city.
If a decade is a significant passage of time, which we are told it is, my last decade could be described as full of striving and personal failure and some achievement and lots of work and a great deal of self-hatred and self-aggradisation. It was a bit too much. I am tired. I am over myself, and my minor, grating struggles.
I felt, I think, at the beginning of the decade, when I was 22, that in order to become a successful person, I would need to learn to do everything well, and on my own. Manage my body—its pleasures, desires, and workouts; manage my career—take every opportunity, work every angle, work every day for anything and anyone; manage my financial life such that I could become independently middle-class (and not independently broke)—to work all the time, whatever job, but to not take a profession because a profession would ruin my chances at writing; to manage my friendships—eradicate the messy narcissists, acquire interesting, non-messy ones who might bring something to my life. That year, I edited my university newspaper, worked two part-time jobs, financially supported my unemployed live-in boyfriend, finished my undergraduate degree with good marks, and spent a lot of money trying to pay off a large and stupid consumer debt. It was the beginning of a decade of trying to do everything in my power to not be the broke partygirl mess I felt I was destined to become.
Like everyone, I started the decade with some unrealistic ideas about life’s ability to be managed. And like everyone, I discovered I am not good at self-management, or self-restraint, or choosing the correct thing at the correct time.
I wonder sometimes who said that women could or should have ‘it all’. I suspect that no-one ever said it, like, ‘Now, women must have, and do, it ALL! And failure to do so will result in self-annihilation’, but that instead it was something liberal-inclined women in capitalism internalized and then blamed themselves for not being able to achieve.
The idea of ‘it all’ was always tragic stuff anyway, it was overwork by another name: you could work out at the gym, and also work at raising your children, and also work on your career, and also work at making your relationship sexually and emotionally satisfying (just one of these things seems unnecessarily stressful to me). And if you failed at ‘all’, you could blame feminism for expanding the possibilities of your life. It might be an idiotic ideal, ‘it all’, but I think most people who grew up during or after the GFC are entertaining some iteration of its fantasy. The idea that self-management is optimal.
‘It all’ might be connected to the idea that most? many of us, in this time, in this style of economy, feel compelled to make our lives into a workplace; to integrate work into the fabric of our everyday. Maurizio Lazzarato writes that we—intermittent workers and artists, that is—are all integrated into the process of capitalisation, whereby we are required to transform our labour into ‘human capital’, and are simultaneously:
personally responsible for the education and development, growth, accumulation, improvement and valorization of the ‘self’ in its capacity as ‘capital’. This is achieved by managing all its relationships, choices, behaviours according to the logic of a costs/investment ratio and in line with the law of supply and demand.
If you are doing this right, doing it successfully, you—your life, your subjectivity—becomes ‘a kind of permanent, multipurpose business’. ‘It all’ is—might be—another word for self-exploitation.
What about the other alls that we, workers, women, artists, can have? The better alls, like, now I can eat all the bechemel without feeling guilty, or I can study medieval history always and live with my cat and my girlfriend and not also die of poverty, or I can work as a bartender at a very cool bar to professionalise my desire to party all of the time. These are just some of the alls that are available to women. There are many other alls, and you could be living them.
There is a difference between choosing your life and being self-made. Everyone has to choose; being self-made is another thing entirely, an depersonalising thing. Like Xuela’s father in Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of my Mother: he was a man ‘who had made himself up as he went along; when he wanted something, he made himself meet the situation, he made his cut fit the jib.
The man, my father, whom his wife and son saw […] existed, but the person they saw was an expression of my father’s desires, an expression of his needs; the personality they were observing was like a suit of clothes my father had made for himself, and eventually he wore it so long that it became impossible to remove…
The man Kincaid is describing here is, really, a thief. Someone who is able to adapt his habits, his morals, his entire personality, to make it possible to take whatever he wants. Most people aren’t like that. Most people adapt, instead, ‘make themselves’, according to the limited correct options available to them. Sometimes this even feels like choosing. If they are creative, they might even invent new options that are slightly adjacent to the correct options. If they are driven by chaos, or destroyed by it, they might choose no option, and ruin their lives. Anyone can do this last one, but it’s not recommended. It is, however, something like an active choice.
Still, a person has to choose. Parenthood or the freedom from it. More money or more time. Less money or less time. Comfort or desireability. Gym after work or vino with Thanasis. Read or Netflix. Home brand or consumer debt. Weed or drink. Good daughter or absent one. Hilary or Bernie. Indulge or restrict. Speech or silence. Chips or salad. Country or Western. Answer or ignore. Show up or drop out. Easy way or hard way. Self-exploitation or self-denial. Yes, yes, or no.
I often think of the time Simone de Beauvoir said to Betty Friedan that no, she didn’t think that women should have the ‘choice’ to be housewives, ‘precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.’ The image is a little quaint now—can you imagine being able to consider running a household a full-time position (a crappy, undervalued one, but still, a legible social role)? To stay home and read to a small person? Watch tv while pickling back-yard produce all day? Go quietly insane in the privacy of your own home, rather than at work, rather than on the bus when the filth lizard beside you coughs in your face, rather than in a public place where you are expected to wear leather shoes and socks?
Now, if you want to own leather shoes, the economy demands full labour participation. Now, the ‘choice’ is the extent to which you will negotiate your time productively.
Beauvoir’s idea is that something is not a ‘choice’ if it has been chosen for you. Taking the correct, easy, established, natural path, is not choosing, it is submitting to orthodoxy, it is oppression. It becomes a choice only when you bring a new option into existence, and you make it material by choosing it. Probably some people find this harsh, or unsympathetic, second-wave nonsense, but it is fairly solidly in line with the Existentialist claim that freedom is a chosen burden, not something that can be freely enjoyed. The context of this school of thinking is to do with the fascist war, the Vichy government taking over Paris and murdering many of its citizens, and the deadly risk that choosing freedom (antifascism) presented. The correct choice, the established choice, which was the do-nothing choice, the fascist choice, made you complicit and might also have killed you. The real choice, which was to resist, to take up arms, to smuggle documents across blockades, to not dob in and therefore murder your comrades, to do what you could with your limited means—was clearly much deadlier. This deadliness represented the burden of freedom. And this is always the problem of active choice, they said in France in the middle of last century: it could easily destroy you.
When I was younger I resisted this school of thinking, convinced as I was of the determinist model of life. I wrote a paper in year twelve arguing that Existentialism was a prototype of free market Libertarianism! And I’m sure it got the best marks imaginable.
Most young people believe in the determinist model of life because their lives, in the early days, are so actually determined by the people who raised them and the kinds of things they said and did and the part of the world they grew up in and what was presented to them as ordinary. And to break away from one set of ordinary and build a new one based on more thoroughly and personally arrived at conclusions is a difficult thing, it feels almost impossible, until its possibility is made.
(There was also the problem of the Iraq invasion, and the years surrounding it, when, in Australia, for me at least, the very iteration of ‘freedom’ became highly suspect. They were dropping bombs on foreign capitals for freedom they were tapping phones for freedom they were putting academics on terrorist watch lists they were spitting on schoolgirls in hijabs for freedom. This ‘freedom’ seemed to have little to do with collective freedoms like freedom of expression or association or material freedoms like everyone getting free dental care or even the individual freedom to be a freak of nature, but rather the freedom for the market to trade petroleum cheaply. The idea of a choice, personal freedom, liberty, was a suspicious, washed out, bullshit capitalist slogan.)
Now I am not so young, and the ‘choices’ I have made and the ‘choices’ I failed to make, the things I let slide into my life that improved or sometimes injured it, are catching up with me.
I probably should have quit smoking. Instead, I moved to a country where smoking is compulsory. I should have read Middlemarch and Capital and the Foucault book about prisons by now. I should have left the friendship, the sex thing that turned me into a maniac, the dangerously psychotic housemate, the humiliating job that tore me open, long before I did. I should have excised myself from my comfortable bad habits and dependencies much earlier.
Oh well. I’m catching up now, I’m trying to choose actively instead of just coasting. Choosing to be less online. Choosing to not drink white wine every second night just because it is fun and my life is largely meaningless anyway. Choosing to close the door, to not take the bite of envy, to resist the temptation to undo myself.
‘All’, for me, would be simply six uninterrupted hours alone every day, and enough B12 in my diet, or at least a solid supply of supplements. Which shouldn’t be as hard to achieve as it usually is.
My resolutions for 2020 are, hopefully, realistic and non-human-capitalistic, non-self-exploitative:
· Read Middlemarch and Capital and the Foucault book about prisons.
· Less wine, less frequently, but allowing for the possibility of sometimes-a-lot-of-wine.
· Less social media.
· Less looking over my shoulder at the next person and imagining a life free from misery.
· Less weekend work.
· More buses to nature spots for the day.
I love you and wish for you a peaceful, non-human-capitalistic, non-self-exploitative 2020.