Once upon a time at job interviews, when I was asked that standard question about my greatest weakness, I replied with the standard responses: ‘I am too much of a perfectionist!’, ‘I have trouble saying no!’, ‘I get too absorbed in my job to have work-life balance’. It was what I had been coached to give.
We are coached to give these responses because these admissions of weakness are designed to communicate something very particular to a potential employer–that my ‘weakness’ is to your advantage. But our veiled brag actually points to something deeply troubling about the way we have been taught to approach work and life. What we’re really saying is: ‘I will obsess unhealthily over an unrealistic standard’, ‘I lack boundaries. I will keep doing things even when I feel I am at capacity’, ‘I don’t rest enough’. Psychological studies have shown that perfectionism, lack of boundaries, and inadequate rest are antithetical to productivity. So why is it so ingrained in working culture?
Hetero-patriarchal binaries in capitalist culture
The root, I argue, is in capitalist hetero-patriachal structure that underpins contemporary work culture.
In the weeks following my father’s death I stayed in an old caravan that was parked amid the horse stables on my father’s property. I couldn’t sleep and so I’d find myself awake late into the evening, leafing through the books that, in daze and under some fundamental misunderstanding that grief might lend itself to productivity, I had taken from my office the day after I had gotten the news that my father had died.
These books were Michael Jackson’s The varieties of temporal experience: travels in philosophical, historical, and ethnographic time, and Renato Rosaldo’s The day of Shelly’s death: the poetry and ethnography of grief.
This is a piece I wrote in 2013 that never found a home in print. I recently uncovered in the jumble of thoughts and images that is my computer hardrive. It is interesting to see how my interest in presence and absence–central themes of current PhD thesis–have preoccupied my thoughts for so many years! As always when looking back on old work, I found parts of this rather cringy (I was going through an experimental writing phase), but I hope it is of interest to some. A huge thankyou to Dr Stuart Glover for his feedback and mentorship on this piece.
Bianca Jane Insane’s had her eye on a few places for a while now. She knows what she’s looking for. The long grass. The decay. The public notice for development.
She weaves her BMX through the Fortitude Valley traffic, threads around pedestrians and the midday drunks. You follow at some distance. Your bike clatters with every inch forward, screeches when it should stop.
Bianca shouts a running commentary on the buildings you pass, a tangle of things she’s learned from textbooks and from spending a lot of time stoned in derelict buildings. Her words catch on the wind, fragment, float back to you as part of the city’s synesthesic song. A tapestry of heat ripples, jasmine flowers, requests for ciggies, and the guttural wrench of beat-up Fords.
There’s an awesome…seventies style…used to go there a lot…art deco windows… a squat, man…
On a Saturday in June 2020, as I was drawing together the disparate themes of my PhD thesis, I took a break from my writing to stand with some 30,000 other people in Brisbane’s King George Square. The protest against structural racism and Black and Indigenous deaths in custody was part of the Black Lives Matter movement, which, on the crest of social media, had swept the globe in the weeks following the death of African American man George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
The drive was twenty hours. Long straight stretches of bitumen and heat-hazed horizons, interspersed with the occasional dirt road and the odd truck stop. At the end I’d begin my fieldwork. Partly to stay awake, and partly to stave off my sense of dread (what the hell does ethnography even mean? What do I do when I stuff up? What if I’m not emotionally tough enough? What if I end up hating my research participants? Is it too late to bail? ), I started to listen to an audiobook a friend had recommended.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about stories within stories.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a while– as an art model, I occasionally sees photos of myself looking at a painting of myself (a painting done while I look at the painter and the painter looks at me). It’s bound to come up.
But the real reason I’ve been thinking about nested narrative (mise en abyme, or “placed in the abyss”, if you will) is Ryan Gossling. And Macauley Culkin. (What’s sacred and what’s profound in this theory/movie star confluence is up to you….).
Often, as Western speakers, we say ‘I see’, when what we really mean is, “I understand”. It’s just another of the many dead metaphors we kick around. When I was child, I had a friend who would take such a pronouncement of “I see” as an opportunity to interject with “…said the blind man who could not talk”.
While my childhood friend intended this a nonsense quip, her joke highlights an important question: how is it that an individual might ‘see’—that is, understand—their environment and cultural world through different faculties of sense, particularly if those senses are not, as Western thought would have it, primarily linked to sight or sound?
When I try to think of what happened in 2012, I am lead through the rooms of my memory palace by the scents: the flowers, the mangroves, the rain, the grass seeds. These scents lend a succession of fragrances to the passing months. Later, I can match the fragrances I evoke so clearly to dates that quickly become blurred.
In his 1906 ethnographic venture into the Andaman Islands, Radcliff-Brown noted much the same thing.
“The Andamanese,” he wrote, “[mark] the different periods of the year by means of the different odoriferous flowers in bloom at different times…their calendar is a calendar of scents”.
“What, just end?”
“Just like that?”
“The Mayans predicted it.” The man was all very matter of fact. He didn’t seem too concerned about having just handed you a set of major philosophical questions and an eschatological crisis along with your chai tea.
“Dou venons nous? (where have we come from?)
Que sommes nous? (what are we?)
Ou allons nous? (where are we going?”)
…These were the words scrawled in the corner of Gauguin’s Dou venons nous?
It was it to be his last work: upon finishing it he swallowed a bottle of arsenic.
But he survived…and painted many more.