Negotiating Power

For most of my life, I've spoken my mind, as the saying goes. Growing up in my house, this was considered not just good and right but downright noble. And so, in grad school, I let those around me — from professors to students — know if I found them less than intelligent. Needless to say, I had few friends in grad school.

I continued on this path as I entered the so-called professional world. I actually had a job job once, at an agency, and when people would profess how interesting a project was, I'd inevitably say, with certain contempt and disdain, That's what you call interesting? Try reading Kant. That's interesting. This is just banal bullshit to get us paid. Needless to say, I didn't last long at that job.

I was the same anti-social douche when I was teaching. Sure, I thought I was just being me, man, just laying it down. But, well, my colleagues were annoyed and, soon enough, I was no longer teaching.

I imagined that my work would speak for itself. At my job job, I did good work — even though I found it banal. Teaching, I taught my heart out, giving my health and vitality to those students and those lectures.

But that was stupid of me. Doing a good job and succeeding professionally are obviously not the same thing. All jobs are run through with a power structure in which someone else has more control over my employment than I do. This is in fact true of any situation. In any given social circumstance, someone has more power — through will, charisma, momentum — who can shun you from the moment, from the group, who can humiliate you.  

Confrontation almost always ends badly. First and foremost, it's a massive expenditure of energy. And, as I approach the mid-century mark, energy is in short supply. I just don't have it in me to parry and punch. But even in the best of times, why waste energy on such an expenditure? Better to expend it on merriment, decadence, delight. (I've been reading a lot of Bataille.)

And, often, very little is gained by being confrontational. Sure, in certain intimate relationships, confronting a problem head on can be beautiful. But with someone in power, with power over you, it just tends to end badly. What, exactly, is gained? Sure, it feels great to call your boss an idiot but what does that do for you? A nice moment that quickly turns to mayhem.

There is a subtle art to negotiating power in its manifold forms from boss to girl you like to nutbag on the street careening through a drunken schizo rant. The world brims with the cruel, the mad, and the vampiric. And we must tend to ourselves — to our health and vitality — as well as to the world.

Politeness is an underrated tool. A certain social protocol can be exquisite, maintaining distance while making a connection, allowing both you and the others to maintain their respective privacy while still noting them, accounting for them. Politeness is a conjunctive disjuncture.

Going with the world does not mean we need to do everything the world tells us to do. Sometimes — perhaps often — reading the way of things demands dissimulation or indifference. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau proffers a ruse — la perruque — as a way of reading with the terms power puts forth. La perruque entails looking as though one is working while actually putting the resources of capital to use for oneself — writing a novel when you’re supposed to be writing a tagline, building a rocket for yourself instead of a car for Ford.

Obviously, if you never write the tagline or build the car, you’ll be fired, lose your ability to pay rent, be tossed aside. Navigating the situation hence entails heeding what needs to get done, putting on the proper look of diligence and mirth, and then quietly going about one’s own business. La perruque is not a going against but a mode of going with. Tyler Durden's professional experience, especially as a caterer, pushes this to a limit.
The good reader sizes up the situation and makes the most of it. This is true whether reading a book, a film, a person, a martini glass. If you find yourself eating a meal that makes you sick, you stop eating. So it is with a book or film or art: turn away, put it down. But in the social, one cannot always walk away so readily. This is why when reading the social, and particularly when enmeshed in a power scenario, one must resort to the ruse in order to make the most of things. Confronting your boss by calling him an incompetent moron is rarely a keen reading tactic — if you don’t end up losing your job, you will make the everyday intolerable. Of course, there is a certain delight in calling out one’s incompetent boss. And, at times, it might be the best possible thing to do, no doubt.
But there is a beautiful kind of mastery that entails making the dysfunction of the social — and of work in particular — productive. This means abandoning one’s principles of honesty in all situations. It may mean ridding oneself of dignity, at least in appearances. It may mean sitting there and letting your moron boss think he’s the smartest guy in the room while you know — you know— that’s not true. It means nodding and smiling — “Yes, of course, I’m on it!” — while quietly doing the things that make you happy. Take the check, tend to yourself, and scurry on out of there.
Reading the way of things is complex and is not simply a matter of succumbing. It is a matter of negotiating a calculus of indifference, passion, health, life. What kind of expenditure — personal, financial, spiritual — will such-and-such demand? While you may cling to your principles, this doesn’t mean you need to announce your adherence. You can look like you’re one of the crowd when you’re anything but.
This does not mean one should always eat proverbial shit. There may be very good reasons — revolutionary or personal — for announcing your feelings. And, sometimes, this announcement may be dramatic, extreme, confrontational, even violent. But always ask yourself: What is the play here? How can I make sense of this situation so as to maximize it — not for the company or the boss or even for yourself per se but for the good of the world, for beauty and grace, for the moment and what it seems to be demanding? This is not a call to unbridled selfishness. It is a call to the complexity of reading the social, of making sense of this exceedingly complicated world.
And, of course, this is not algebra; the reader isn't solving for X. There is no one right, best thing to do. The situation is multiple for all parties at all times. You are Pi in which no one knows the next number until it's happened. 

Going with the world is not an abandonment of oneself — that would be going for. And the smart reader of the world does not go for his work or his principles. He goes with them. He enjoys a complex constitution of desires, loves, limits, propensities, metabolisms. To read well means maximizing the event of which the reader is constitutive. To completely abandon oneself is not to read well; it is to be a lackey, a disciple, a slave.
Let’s consider the Pixar film, Toy Story, for a moment. The film gives us two relationships to things. On the one hand, there’s Andy who plays with his toys as they were “meant” to be played with — the cowboy acts like a cowboy, the astronaut like an astronaut. Now, Andy does take some license but the terms of his play always conform to some traditional narrative from which these toys were born.
And then there’s Sid. Sid does not think, for one moment, that he has to obey his toys or the terms prescribed by their meta-narratives. Sid looks at toys and sees play, combination, the head of this one should go on that one, this foot should come out the ear, a hole needs to be drilled there. 

Reading the way of things may be generous but it's not an abandonment of self. There's a way to say No to power, to the humiliating demands of capital and management, that don't involve truth or principles or integrity — they involve playing smart, navigating the madness of the world in the way that best maximizes the situation.


Lindsay Meisel said...

I thought about all this stuff when I read Lean In. Why is everyone talking about leaning into work or leaning out to family, I wondered. The real struggle is to be good at half-assing everything.

The happiest I ever was at work was when, bored and underutilized in my first real job, I started blogging. I was good enough at my job, and I felt so alive in the writing I was doing for myself.

It's really hard to maintain this though. I feel guilty about working on my own shit at work, but I don't feel guilty about fucking around on the internet, so that's what I end up doing. Somehow it still sucks all the energy out of me, and I don't feel like writing any more when I get home. I'm constantly trying to figure out this problem, and that's what I wish there was a book about. Maybe I'll write it one day.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I'd read it.

The guilt element is distressing. For some insane reason, we feel guilty for tending to ourselves while someone else is paying us — even though however much they're paying us, they're making money on us. I think communists call this exploitation. And guilt is such a powerful, insidious tool they use.

My suggestion is to accept that exploitation is, indeed, inherent to labor (in a profit driven system) but that this exploitation should define the entire management-labor dynamic. That is, we workers can exploit, too. Our profit might not always be monetary; it might be energetic.

Consider the whole labor as a system of energy creation and expenditure. We expend energy to create things — words, ideas, code, gadgets, services — and, in turn, get something back: money. But why not also energy? The present system is built on the expenditure of the working body (yours). Which doesn't seem sustainable. You — we all — need to tweak the flow so that we fuel ourselves as we fuel the Man's coffers.