Saturday, 13 October 2012

Absence, Redundancy and Play

I have seen others before me in a state of panic in the face of redundancy. There was nothing I could really say or do to help them. Just as feelings of grief are extraordinarily visceral ( so too is the fear of imminent loss of livelihood. Unlike grief, sympathy brings no solace: they are different feelings, and I want to explore that here. It's a good time to do this because I'm absolutely 'in it', and however much we can sympathise with others who face this, just as with grief, there can be no imagining what it is like until you are there. I think the closest experience I had to this was divorce (I'm glad of that experience because it helps me deal with this one!). Yet we'd better get used to it, and we'd better understand  how to manage it because lots of people are in this, and many more will follow.

Panic is a kind of tension which produces 'flailing around'. In terms of a theoretical approach to tension (see I think the panic is due to an inability to distinguish between choices: an inability to identify the 'equibrium points' (in game theory) which are necessary to determine an effective action. Why does this happen?

What is revealed with a threat of redundancy is a gaping absence. It was always there, but a way of living, of communicating, of thinking had emerged which worked around it. Indeed, the 'presence' of the absence helped to coordinate action: it was a shared absence - shared between other colleagues for whom the prospect of unemployment was similarly shadowy. In other words, the absence explains the form our thinking took - it was the thing we all worked around.

A threat of redundancy makes the absence present. In doing so, a number of things happen, I think. First of all it means that the absence with colleagues is no longer shared. Making what was shared absence present for one individual means that the particular individual is in a different space: they see new absences surrounding the 'new reality' (the old absence) that is revealed to them; this new absence is not shared. This becomes very difficult to talk about, because to articulate the new absence will be challenge the existing shared absence in the rest of the group. They will not want that! Consequently, isolation is inevitable. [This is another way of expressing Bateson's Double-Bind] Not even support groups can be much help because each absence is so deep and individual... although there are exceptions. [Thinking about Bateson again, it is interesting to compare this perspective with his account of Alcoholics Anonymous - which resorted to religion for its shared absence - see] What is lost with this is the ability to make rational distinctions. What is required is for this ability to be re-discovered in a new context.

Shared absence facilitates communication because expectations of the behaviour of others can be aligned with expectations of one's own reactions: the double-contingency works. These are the circumstances of meaningful engagement. Without shared absence, and with a prohibition on being able to articulate the new absences that are revealed through redundancy, it becomes hard to nail the space which people have in common. Only existential absences can be grasped at, but most people who are still busy with their jobs will have little time for this, or the spiritual baggage that goes with it.

What is left for individuals in this situation are forms of exuberance. Art, music, drama, play, etc can still have the power to reach to the existential level. In so doing, they alone can be transformative of the situation because they can still create a shared space for everyone. Formal religions can embrace this too. But depending on exuberance is dangerous, as Bataille warns us. Violence, wars, profligacy, lust, etc are also exuberant. They perform the same function. But unlike art, their action is destructive.

What this leaves me thinking (and thinking this makes me feel a bit better!) is that in an age of employment insecurity, the means by which shared absences are revealed is incredibly important. The revealing of shared absence is a pedagogical issue: Hans Rosling does it right at the beginning of this talk: (the rest of the talk is also brilliant).
But more than that, it means that play, art, music and drama are of fundamental importance. The experience of insecurity is directly related to the inauthenticity with which we have been living for so long. The education system in particular is swamped by the inauthenticity of commodified degrees which infects everyone involved. Inauthenticity brought us to this crisis by blinding us to the absences which shaped our shaping of the world. Only a deep, existential, metacognitive engagement will lead us out of it.


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Mark Johnson said...

Thanks for Uniserfs - love it!!