you can’t fake it

Suspect this will be a long one.

I’ve enjoyed living in New York, very much, and it’s hard to imagine that I’ll ever leave. (Particularly given that I have a pension.) When I announced my job I took a good deal of razzing, probably deserved, for having made fun of Brooklyn writer types for years, and now here I am, writing, in Brooklyn. And I’ll take my medicine on that. I confess that people were right and that part of it was enjoying my perch in Middle America too much, too caught up in this horseshit self-aggrandizing narrative of the incorruptible guy a thousand miles from the cultures and industries he critiqued — never really pausing to note that I was getting money and an audience within them at the exact same time. I’m an asshole.

One thing I’ve found about being around people here, in various milieus like academia, media, and lefty politics is that there’s an infectious sense of inadequacy with what you’re doing now, compared to the cool shit other people are doing. I generally don’t have much of a problem feeling content. A year ago I still hadn’t nailed down this job after two years on the market, I was broke and desperate, and I was intent just on getting a steady, decently-paying gig. I’ve got that. I have never been particularly ambitious as a writer, content to carve out the little niche I have. I’ve written for most of the places I’ve wanted to write for, I still get invitations to pitch, and making some extra scratch freelancing is always an option. I’m enjoying writing my new education blog immensely and its Patreon is now almost my student loan payment, which obviously matters a great deal. This all strikes me as Good Enough. Family comes next.

But here in the city there’s this weird ambition by osmosis. Things I don’t care about have started to matter to me. I feel like my own sense of the adequacy of my position is less important than the communal sense of inadequacy of anyone’s position. Even if my particular rung on whatever ladders is a comfortable place, there’s a vague but urgent pressure to ascend higher. There’s a series of mini-Hollywoods that are tiny and meaningless to the wider world but which are tracked as obsessively as real Hollywood is by the tabloid press, by the people inside them. I never had this problem in Indiana.

As I get older I tend not to get less cynical about things but to move judgment from individuals to systems. And just about every time that I’ve made some sort of judgment on the integrity of people, individually or in groups, I later find that in fact those people are just trapped in systems or cultures that they didn’t create and which narrow and dictate their choices in unhealthy directions. Having gotten a little more exposure to the social world of writers in New York, that dynamic has played out once again. The individual people are mostly lovely; the culture is one of nervous competitiveness that people are simultaneously witheringly critical of and yet incapable of letting go of entirely. Like so many other aspirational cultures, writer culture is defined by the conscious indifference to a competitive hierarchy that is itself a necessary prerequisite of advancing within that hierarchy. You show that you are someone worthy of upward mobility in part by disdaining that mobility.

As an observer of… I dunno, society or culture or capitalism or whatever, I have been increasingly preoccupied by a basic question: why is everybody such a wreck? Why do people who have every reason to feel emotionally and socially secure still feel so deeply insecure?

People kind of hate when I write this stuff, and tell me so. But clearly it’s not just me who has observed these things. There is in fact an entire genre now that discusses the ubiquity of personal insecurity within the aspirational classes. A really good overview comes from the Institute for Precarious Consciousness and their piece “We Are All Very Anxious.” They lay it out succinctly:

Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious. Anxiety has spread from its previous localised locations (such as sexuality) to the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.

Indeed. There are definitely issues with using social media to observe people in mass. But social media seems to be both a chronicler of mass insecurity and a cause of it, and always with this particularly toxic self-undermining effect: we assert a particular muscular vision of our own confidence on social media precisely because we do not inhabit that vision naturally. And so we have irony-drenched tweets that express acerbic and bitter takes on contemporary politics, expressed with total insouciant self-possession, that are the product of the bone-deep fear that stems from our absurd and brutal political moment; we have the endless progression of positivity-mongering Instagram memes, expressed in a kind of lunatic self-worship that borders on pure solipsism and almost Nietzschean insistence on getting what we want personally, which could not exist if the people sharing them did not feel some sort of deep and penetrating inadequacy.

I enjoyed this recent piece by Leah Beckmann, about the myriad social anxieties that pile up after the most banal interactions. I admire how straightforwardly she describes the mind as a kind of relentless and unforgiving chronicler of every last misstep. The 500+ comments on the post indicate that Beckmann is reflecting a broad, shared tendency. There’s a part of me that can’t help wonder why Beckmann would ever feel this way; she’s an established, respected, and well-liked member of a profession that many aspire to be a part of. That she still feels these perpetual anxieties speaks to their fundamental irrationality. But that in turn leads me to question whether, for as much as I admire her piece’s honesty and candor, her technique can actually work for most people. I doubt most of us can actually turn off our thoughts after 7 seconds. “Just release it” — well, sounds lovely, anyway….

Back in grad school I noticed this strange phenomenon regarding the concept of impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon in which people feel that their success is undeserved, that they don’t belong in the station or position they’ve advanced to in life, and that they will be “found out” and cast out of where they are. Success becomes hard to enjoy because it is filtered through this frame of being counterfeit or a mistake. This falls on many people, but particularly on those from marginalized groups that are subject to traditional inequalities. That this phenomenon exists, is unequally distributed along traditional lines of inequality, and is pernicious seems completely obvious to me, so the discourse is useful.

Yet I found something odd in my academic social spaces: people seemed almost to celebrate, revel in, their own feelings of impostor syndrome. Talking about it became a social signifier, a thing that people did to indicate that they were members of precisely the profession and culture that their impostor syndrome was telling them they weren’t part of. Insecurity became a mark of belonging to the social circle, in an inversion of the usual expectation. I myself never felt impostor syndrome and probably for the reasons the theory tells us — I’m white and male, people treat me with a kind of respect that others are not afforded, and growing up in the academy made my belonging there seem natural. The weird thing is that I would sometimes feel like an outcast because I didn’t feel it. I’m not comparing that minor unhappiness to the larger one they were feeling, not at all. It just struck me that these politicized visions of social anxiety end up as attempts to normalize them rather than to get rid of them, likely because they seem so persistent and hard to defeat.

So you have on one hand insecurity as a kind of shared social language, an attempt to celebrate emotional self-harm as a way to dull and disarm it, and at the same time you have the over-the-top, borderline-sociopathic self-celebration common to inspirational memes. You have a kind of wallowing in insecurity out of despair of ever beating it, and you have a performed ultra self-confidence that if people actually felt would result in constant wars between people trying to establish themselves as dictators. What’s missing is a healthy, moderate sense of general self-worth, a persistent chipper conviction that you’re an OK person who most people like, a self-definition that is impacted by events but never entirely contingent on them, one that can both permit a steady confidence while never devolving into Coolest-Guy/Girl-In-Brooklyn Syndrome or the outright self-obsession of “it’s us against the world.”

Take the selfie and the discourse on the selfie. I take many. I do because a selfie tends to make you feel good, at least a little, and for a brief period. It’s nice to be told you look nice, and it’s nice to be able to exert control over how other people see us, for some fleeting moment, when today we are surveilled and broadcast to an international audience at all times. There’s always been this genre of bullshit takes about how they show Millennial narcissism or the coarsening of culture or whatever the fuck. It’s all idiocy; rich people used to spend a small fortune having people literally chisel their faces into marble. The myth of Narcissus is, what, 2500 years old? Get over it. People like to take pictures of themselves.

Yet I do think there’s a weird dysfunction to selfie culture even as I’m someone who takes part in it. Not that tired cliche about narcissism, but a sense that they are defined by a kind of therapeutic culture that is incapable of being legitimately therapeutic. What gets tapped into around selfies is a sort of perpetual digital group therapy, where we ostentatiously support each other by praising each other’s looks in effusive terms — you’ve never looked better! And can you blame us? It’s fucking hard out here. Everybody feels bad about how they look, and the internet is a steady deluge of insults and invective. Why not brighten somebody’s day? But there’s a certain degree of shared dishonesty to it all. Not that you don’t look good. But the very efforts to encourage each other speaks to the strained relationship we all have to our own physical attractiveness, unless we are part of the very small percentage of people who are considered very hot. We never really fool each other.

Physical attractiveness, in general, is a subject that demonstrates that all theory and discourse has profound limits. Because we have this vast intellectual architecture telling us, correctly, that physical attractiveness hierarchies are cruel and gendered and unfair, that judging someone by their looks is a shitty and absurd thing to do, and that cultural perceptions of what is and is not attractive reflect traditional bigotries and inequalities of power. All that’s correct. But we still care about being hot, and we still judge each other about it, and our theories and our papers and our humanities seminars seem entirely inadequate to the task of ending that condition.

Go to a feminist academic conference where everyone has read, absorbed, and agreed with intellectual rejections of judgments of physical attractiveness. I promise you that most everyone in that space will nonetheless undertake an unchosen and immediate mental accounting of the relative physical attractiveness of most everyone in the room. They won’t voice it, thank god, and they’ll work to minimize its impact on the way they interact with each other, and that’s what matters. And they’ll have different individual sense of who is more attractive than who, and thank god for all of us. But nobody won’t notice who’s hotter than who. I’m just trying to be real with you here.

There’s been an admirable expansion lately in what kind of looks are considered hot, and every kind of person has someone who finds them attractive. But still, hot people exist, and science says they reap the benefits.

Trust me: none of this is an endorsement. All of it sucks. I agree 100% with the critique of these things. I just find the critique totally toothless when it comes to the persistence and power of this social phenomenon. It is ridiculous that people who are brilliant and motivated and kind should be judged by accidents of genetic attractiveness. It is sexist and destructive that men are considered conventionally attractive far later in their lives than women. It is absurd and ugly that motherhood is associated with a kind of sexlessness or invisibility that fatherhood isn’t. But if we’re sincere about wanting to erode these conditions, we need to be honest about the inadequacy of theory when it comes to something as primal as how we feel about our looks. I don’t know, maybe it will just take more time for culture to catch up. I hope so. But though there is no doubt that culture deeply influences perceptions of attractiveness, it seems clear to me that evolution is at play as well, as impolitic as that is to say. I hope I’m proven wrong. But maybe it’s just centuries of natural selection pressing down on us and forcing us to care about what would have had evolutionary advantages 300,000 years ago.

Tricks of evolution aside, I’m left to wonder: what makes people insecure? Why is the condition so common? An obvious culprit, if you’re in my position, is capitalism, which gives you a vision of your inadequacy for free so that it can then sell you all of its cures for that feeling of inadequacy, which like the kinds of drugs pharmaceutical companies most value must necessarily manage that feeling rather than cure it. But perhaps this overestimates how different the perspective of contemporary people are from that of other historical eras. Perhaps the status of humans as the thinking animal also ensures that we’re the insecure animal. Chomsky has said that perhaps consciousness is a maladaption, an unfortunate byproduct of the intelligence that has permitted our species to flourish.

But these analyses are general and while the problem is widespread it does not seem remotely universal. There are a lot of perfectly healthy people out there who generally love themselves without being in love with themselves. Certainly there’s some selection effects here, with people who are unusually likely to be anxious or insecure self-selecting themselves into academia and media and the general urban achiever landscape. Perhaps most of this is the product of trauma, sexual and physical abuse or neglect, inadequate care and support from parents in early childhood. Perhaps it’s genetic, and to one degree or another you’re born with a brain that is capable of producing whatever chemicals make you feel generally secure and confident or you’re not. I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know. We’ve got a political critique of the ways that notions of human worth are dictated by traditional inequalities of race and sex and class, and a set of political concepts like self-care that are designed to fight the negative effects of that. We’ve got a self-help culture that constantly counsels that everyone is a ray of brilliant and unique light that alone can shine the way through a dark world. We’ve got an increasingly woke world of marketing and goods that sells its products by selling you to yourself. (A gym I pass by sometimes used to have a sign that said, “Join the Body Acceptance Movement!”, neglecting the fact that if we all accepted our bodies there would be no such thing as a gym.) We’ve got a medical industry busily developing all manner of powerful drugs to “manage” all of this anxiety and insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. We’ve got our social media tools to craft and perfect and share an idealized visions of ourselves, curated and managed to the millimeter, so that we can present exactly what we want to present, to put our best foot forward with digital precision.

And none of it works.

I’ve known people in my life who were the most outwardly secure and confident, who never betrayed a hint of doubt or guilt or remorse, who projected cool at all times, who were quite popular, who received plaudits and positive affirmation from others at all times, who were academically and professionally successful, who had money and respect, and who cultivated the kinds of micro-celebrity that are common to contemporary life. And yet the flow of life revealed that, inside, they hated themselves fully and completely and with a bitterness that I can’t imagine enduring at any time, let alone all the time. None of that stuff mattered. None of it could get at the core self-hatred within. They could never fool themselves. And, well…

I wonder: is this the human condition? A human condition? The condition of capitalism? The condition of late capitalism under neoliberalism, austerity, and the aspirational diseases of meritocracy? Can we tear down these systems and build something wholly new?

And would it matter if we did?