On walking (away)
About social roles and the structure-agency dynamic
Do we always rationalise our condition or can an otherwise random encounter engender an awareness about a hitherto unknown aspect of ourselves which we may then reason about?
It is winter time. An evening like all others. You leave the workplace late as usual. Must be 19:30 at minimum. As you walk outside the building, the rain gets stronger. The weather forecast predicted as much. You button up and search your backpack in hope that you pull out an umbrella. Caught in your peripheral vision is a colleague who exuberantly approaches your position. Perhaps you are not the only workaholic around or maybe there are no workaholics whatsoever and this simply is the reality of those tacit job requirements…
— Don’t you have a car?
— Come, I’ll drop you wherever you want. Where do you live?
Long work hours have taken their toll. It shows. You are not in the mood to talk to anyone, make new friends, or even accept a kind offer from a stranger. Well, not a stranger per se, just one you have noticed once or twice before without making their acquaintance.
— Don’t worry! This is my favourite type of weather to go on foot.
— Strange… You have no umbrella. It is really bad. Are you sure?
Off you go in a hurry. Could you not even be bothered to utter a “bye” or “good night”? Words are so simple, yet situations make them difficult.
Alone you are. Half wet and feeling worn down. Though you remain calm. One might say “surprisingly so”. You know better. This minor inconvenience is nothing compared to the ordeal of sociability that comes at an inappropriate time. While you understand the inner need to recharge your batteries, the intuition of an appropriate time remains elusive. You have not found correspondence between that notion and your quotidian experience. When is the right moment and how does it feel like? Do you even want to meet people or are you only opening up to those whom you trust? And how can you entrust someone without getting to know them?
Let’s be clear: you will be labelled a fool. This is not about leaving the umbrella at home and insisting on your preferred means of transportation despite the unfavourable meteorological phenomena. It has to do with human relations. Did you not see? Why pass on a chance to get to know a hot colleague? It could be the start of something fascinating. And if not, it would not hurt taking your chances. Sure, everybody has a bad day or moments when they want to switch off. But, I mean… Your reaction to that is to run? Seriously?
Okay, that’s harsh and inconsiderate. Apologies! Normativity can do that to the mind. It makes it strip away the complexity from the case’s actuality, reducing the actors to their simplified expected roles. Expected by whom? Who writes the script and who decides on the setting? And why should any of that matter and under which circumstances?
No one can ponder such questions when they are tired. Yet there you are doing just that. It has been hours since you last had the chance to think; to wonder in quietude. The walk back home is all you’ve got. Not even the remote chance of an erotic escapade can take it from you. How could it, after all? You did not even turn your eyes to your side and did not listen to your colleague’s opening statement:
— Hi! I work in the office at the other end of the corridor. I’ve seen you before. Nice to meet you!
Did you not hear any of that or did you pretend not to listen to avoid going down that path? Sometimes you seem to pause and disconnect from your surroundings while your mind is busy outlining some elaborate conceptual apparatus. That has to be it. Nah, this is nonsense. You just assumed to be invisible and the remark was directed at someone else. It couldn’t possibly be you, after all. No one would, right? Behold the misguided internalisation of self-deprecation! Or is it unfettered honesty?
Invisibility is a superpower you can’t attain or a luxury you cannot afford. Either way you are conspicuous. What you do and what you don’t, when you speak and when you remain silent. No matter the particularities, you are always communicating a message that gets interpreted by people in your milieu. All you can do is endure their scrutiny.
What does it mean to know someone? And how can we be sure that our knowledge is true? There you are, walking in the rain thinking back at the beginning of the end from a few months ago. No, not the attractive colleague from earlier. You barely have recollection of that incident. You did not even consider the attractiveness factor. It did not register with you as you were already caught between the surrounding conditions and the world you were exploring in your mind. Did that dialogue even transpire? Was it you participating in it or someone behind you? You cannot tell because you did not muster the strength to turn your attention towards the person approaching you. None of that matters any more. Only what stays with you can be problematic. It is hypocrisy that troubles you.
The beginning of the end… You had signed a new contract thinking that you were just getting work done. No fanfare, no boasting, no outward sign of elation. Nothing but a formality. News travels fast though, much to your chagrin. Gossip, damned gossip! As soon as you got back to the office to resume your mundane task, a group of coworkers welcomed you. They brought gifts galore and alcohol to celebrate the occasion. What’s so special about fizzy wine and the rest of the bunch? The bartender knows better after having prepared all those drinks a zillion times. Where did your peers draw all that apparent happiness from? You had barely ever talked with them and always were preoccupied with some assignment whenever they tried to approach you. There is no need to be so industrious, by the way. It is not like you will get bonus points per unit of output. The more efficient you are the more work you will end up doing. If you finish early, someone will simply invent a new demand whose satisfaction is supposed to be bound by a hard deadline for that same evening followed by an ominous “only if you want” remark.
While you were pondering about the precarity of living conditions that led to the contractual agreement, you had to tend to the immediate issue of the impromptu party. Instead of joining them for a drink, you thanked them halfheartedly and off you went to get some fresh air. “Now that I’m happy, I’m taking a 30 minute break”. Such was your excuse. Cheeky! There went the party for you. You didn’t care. You never did. Nor did they.
Something else had been haunting you. There it was again. Normativity, the most prevalent of human conventions. It always pushes you to behave in a manner that is inconsistent with your current mood or your overall disposition. You had signed the contract shortly before going upstairs to your office but the party served as the catalyst which made you realise that no amount of money was ever going to be worth the pressure to perform—it always is a performance above all else. Such was no spontaneous reaction. You had considered it before and was hesitant to sign the papers. But you were not prepared to admit it. There is a trade-off between conformity with all its pleasures and comforts or an uncertain life in pursuit of what may well be the chimera of self-determination. There are permutations between the extremes, though you have long understood that in basic terms the latter has been your destiny. You always wanted to be yourself, else you had wished to become that which you could not specify though understood intuitively.
To want something implies certainty in its presence. Whence does this certainty come from? There are no facts of selfhood independent of the conditions that produce them. What you get is always framed, influenced, or otherwise determined by its context. Facts don’t speak for themselves. They do not have a standalone existence. Even this distinction between the presence and its environment is analytical. You won’t find it out there. Your immediate milieu may consist, in a manner of speaking, of other people which affect your perception of self. Yet while you are at the epicentre of this particular case, the same is true for each of those persons individually in cases where everything appears to revolve around them. It is all a matter of perspective, about how we choose to constitute the case. Those who point at some datum without assessing the underlying method used to derive it are either naive or engaged in the business of deceiving you. The method yields results that act as positive reinforcement which feeds back into the discussion on the given method, the methodology, from where comes a more refined version of the original conceptual framework, and so on. There is no linearity, no terminus. It follows a helix-like motion: it feels circular yet never really covers the same points in its space. The line is not smooth either. It is as if it is being drawn by the hand of an infant. Focus on the details and you will discern erratic zig-zag motions at each turn. Then again, this being a child means that it cannot be pursuing a grand telos. The helix is not inexorably approaching its finality. The kid makes mistakes, forgets what it was pursuing by moving in that direction until it eventually shifts its attention elsewhere. Poof! There goes your impression of unmitigated progress.
[ Read: Notes on Science and Scientism (2021-04-28) ]
You entertain the illusion of an objective truth in wanting to be your self. Who are you, anyway? Is it the fellow who walks away instead of rising to the occasion? That cannot be it. There must be something you are running towards, something you are in pursuit of. Or else there is an underlying condition, some state of affairs, that makes you comfortable. It is what you associate with your true nature. But why only that? When we are afraid, we flee; when we are confident, we stay and remain firm. Both are facets of our self. To pick one is to develop a narrative of self where you are depicted as the victim, the misunderstood other, and in which you simultaneously idealise whatever it is you are hiding.
There is no preconceived notion. No certitude of that sort. Yours is not a claim on the objective’s substantive qualities. You do not know who you are. It just is that you feel uncomfortable about certain things and so you interpret those as being antithetical to your disposition. The truth you are arriving at is drawn negatively, by ruling out what appears to be wrong. If you were to sketch out at the outset who your genuine self was and ventured to become that, you would be assuming as truthful that which had not been verified. Like those people who buy a commodity they do not need, thinking that it will yield them longer-term happiness, only to realise that it loses its appeal very quickly.
You walk away. Some may think you are pursuing your dreams. Though you are only escaping from what you dread. Hypocrisy: the bane of your existence. Your ambition is to know yourself by getting to know others, but those pesky role-playing tendencies keep getting in the way of your plans and misplaced wants. There is no one normativity. What is considered normal and what is enforced as such is specific to each setting. When people prepare you a surprise party, it is normal to be filled with joy, feel appreciated, and indulge in boosting your egoism. Despite all its evils, alcohol can help with cognitive dissonance and can allow people who are trapped in etiquette to speak their mind. The bartender knows all about it. There is always a normativity that conditions behaviour. It is not promulgated by some institution, it is not written anywhere. The society itself, the collective, perpetuates its existence by reproducing the structures which support it. People come and go, while the culture we are confronted with remains. All it takes is to follow along. Wear a mask to conceal your indifference and become what you must.
Your trouble with selfhood stems from the uncertainty germane to the concept of the negative truth, but also rests on the inherent difficulties of decoupling persons from personas. That cheerful colleague of yours may be genuine or may be acting out to conform with the norm. A masked salesperson of happiness? You let go of the particulars. They do not matter. What you wrestle with are the dynamics of the context, how the structure conditions the agents and how those who exhibit the phenomenality of agency function as structure, as the constants which enforce normativity when viewed from the perspective of others. There are no neat dichotomies, no “we against them”. It is not only you who faces difficulties in finding their true self. Everyone does. It cannot be that uncertainty has only gripped your mind. Those who behave in a certain way do so to relieve the pressure of non-conformity. It is their means of escape. You are compelled to operate the same way, only your threshold is different and are instead pressured when you do acquiesce to what is done to you, namely, the projection of expected patterns of behaviour upon your being.
[ Read: On individuality and partiality (2021-03-14) ]
How can the structure-agent dichotomy collapse into itself? This is your thought while the wind is howling and you keep getting wet. You really wanted to avoid that predicament back at the workplace. The absence of an umbrella would not deter you. How far is your house, anyway? That car ride sure seems appealing right now, its driver notwithstanding. Then you recall how banalities ought not be underestimated as they provide insight into the abstract order of things. What happened two weeks ago is a case in point. You were asked to join them for a drink on a Friday evening. You politely declined. Everyone was cool about it and expressed how they respect your choice and only want you to preoccupy yourself with whatever works for you. You took their sincerity at face value. Faith is easier than doubt. It closes the circle. Then, on the next occasion, they became passive aggressive.
— Wanna join us?
— No, thanks.
— It’s fine that you do not like us.
— You got me wrong.
— Relax! It’s a joke.
Has anyone ever laughed at that kind of humour? At any rate, your thoughts lie elsewhere. We think of the structure as immutable and impersonal, yet what we discern is other people, themselves agents. The structure consists of them plus their acquired behaviours. It is the set of patterns which we associate with roles that grants them structurehood in that context. Agency entails initiative. Structure delineates the realm of possibility within which action may unfold. Agency can thus become structure when its functioning involves the determination of possibilities, such as in how your peers mould you and remake you cumulatively. You think of this dynamic, of how it evolves through its internal loops, and are prepared not to pass judgement on others. They are not necessarily hypocrites out of malicious intent. Those are the rules. Humanity can do anything when the game world expects as much, including the capacity for inhumanity. Why do you think politicians, corporations and their consumers are fine with extracting resources from war zones, exploiting foreign child labour, destroying local ecosystems, and more? Because the dictates of the game are such where those magnitudes are not pertinent. What matters is year-on-year fiscal growth, or simply how many possessions you have at your disposal. Those determine your high score—and you can’t afford to lose out on the leaderboard!
“It’s just a joke”. Such an innocuous statement. Much like the “it’s just a job”. There is no consideration of its underpinnings and its consequences. It is done because it has to. And it needs to be carried out by virtue of a shared delusion about the propriety of the narrative that renders it placable. The uneven distribution of power governing it goes largely unnoticed. The narrative is not a self-evident truth, notwithstanding the pretences to the contrary. It is what the powers that be consider conducive to the preservation and eventual betterment of their status.
You contemplate what made you think about those themes. You walk away because you are desperate to be heard. Such a bizarre attitude, isn’t it? To search for a face in a world of masks. You remain relaxed. What compels you is not a decision of yours. The pressure you feel in those moments hints at an underlying reality. You are repelled or attracted by a given situation and your mind simply attaches feelings to the respective reactions to reinforce the desired one until its prioritisation requires the allocation of as few resources as possible. There is nothing you can do about it. People always tell you otherwise. How you haven’t found the right one, that you should try harder, follow some inane tips and tricks, take medication… All so that you may finally stop being maladjusted. There it is: normativity in action. You ought to do as much because the end goal, that of fitting in, is assumed as a good in itself. The game world does not consider the “why” you perform those tasks. Why should we grow? Why must we buy more stuff we don’t really need? Who cares about their score on a meaningless metric? Questions of that sort cannot be raised. They are alien concepts. What the game understands is the feedback it gets as a result of the instructions it has passed on to you. Do those and you ascend in the leaderboard, which in your case is about making so-called “friends” at the workplace who will not harass you any longer as you will always be answering affirmatively, pursuing a successful career to the effect that your bank account and the rubbish you accumulate expands at the expense of your wellness, wanting to fuck someone—anyone—to dispel any doubts while you are empty inside from the conditions imposed upon your life.
None of that is the real “you”. We assume normality to be a state where behavioural patterns are not conditioned by what effectively are thinly disguised orders backed by implicit threats. There’s the uncertainty once again: one cannot pinpoint this brand of normality in positive terms, but only as the absence of compulsion.
A realisation springs to mind. You did not always walk away. It started happening at some point, but you are sure it was not the case from the beginning. So if your perception of self is to be influenced by your current state, then your prior state would have to inform the impression of your self at that time. There is change. How can you be your self, let alone your true self, when that which you aspire towards is not constant? Its phenomenality presents it as a variable. Is variability open-ended or otherwise characterised by randomness? Can, in other words, the variable assume any possible value or only a narrow set of predetermined ones? If the former, then your quest is in vain, for what you want is but a fleeting dream. There is the recognition of variability, which raises the expectation that it might persist as variability—itself a constant. And there is the belief that the value it may acquire is arbitrary. As such, the self is indeterminable. What must then be the conclusion if the possible values the variable may take are limited to a small set? It means that the self is a composite which consists of both constant and variable parts.
The notion of a composited self seems more plausible to you. It helps you hypothesise about why some people gravitate towards wearing certain masks instead of others. You can predict the role they will likely assume under different scenaria. It also lets you discern patterns amid the multitude of phenomena with which to infer an abstract edifice. No two rain drops are the same, yet you know what happens when you walk in the rain, you are certain that water will fall from the clouds, and so on. The process of change does not render meaningless the underlying substance so long as you are clear that the thinkable is distinct from the instantiable. The conflation between process and substance, the belief that only one of the two is real is reinforced by the failure to admit the possibility that what is thought to be the case is not necessarily the case and that what may ever be thought to be the case is all that the case may ever appear to be.
We cannot act from a position of certainty, as our scepticism will force us into stasis. How did we arrive at that certitude? Is it the truth, in the sense of us having passed final judgement on it? Or is it an intermediate point between research programmes? If the former, did we expand that certitude to the adequacy of the instruments that were used to deliver those findings and so on recursively? Be honest! If, instead, our certainty is couched in terms of an ongoing inquiry, we can accept it as an expedient workaround, provided we make a sincere effort to hold as few assumptions as we can. Ad-hoc faith keeps us going. No, not dogmatism, not unflinching belief in something decisively unverifiable. It is about heuristics and hypotheses which are formulated and tested in a spirit of non-commitment. It is paradoxical that scepticism presupposes certainty of an intermediate sort. The key to resolving the apparent contradiction is in the disposition of not clinging on to said findings. What matters is the attitude of approximating the truth, not the misplaced reaction to stand behind one’s pet project.
To try to remain truthful to one’s self is to experiment with a hypothesis at any given point. We flee situations that are stressful to us on the premise that we will find a better place somewhere else. What if it does not exist or we can’t get there? Hope is good, provided it is reasonable. Otherwise it can blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. The astute student of events acknowledges that there is no point in escaping the inescapable. What must follow is acceptance, not dread. To recognise how things stand instead of entertaining illusions. We are calm only insofar as we are aligned with reality. Everything else is to our detriment.
[ Read: Comments on Epictetus’ “Enchiridion” (2021-07-10) ]
As you reach the apartment, you inquire upon the desirability of a walk that happens regardless of the prevailing conditions. It is the only time when you do not sense norms besieging you while in public. Those are the moments during which you are allowed to think. There may be people all around you. It does not matter. You have taken measures to protect yourself. They cannot form the structure that informs your agency. Not in this case. They are no friends, colleagues, relatives in the sense that there is no relationship of control in effect. The parameters of the bond are what matters, not the actual persons involved. Individuals do not wield power. Status does. To walk alone and maintain a low profile is to be as free as possible from claims on your conduct. As for the rain, you actually enjoy it for it ensures that no one will join you. No point in taking chances with losing such precious moments, correct?
Have you rationalised your insecurities and assumed them to be your pure self? Did you think of them as inevitable and unalterable? Have you befriended your fear in the hope of turning it into its opposite? It is always busy inside that head of yours… You answer one question, ten more emerge. It never ends, though you know that already. Hence your aloofness. You take a cold shower. It feels good, despite the initial shock. Why would you even do that in February? Have you not suffered enough? Or is that minor inconvenience ephemeral and thus tolerable, since it is not attached to some criterion of persistent conditionality? As you are about to go to bed, you decide on your future. That contract shall not be renewed. There will be more walks, but there will not be any more walking away from what underlies those events. You recognise that your self remains to be determined. As you close your eyes you prepare to take a leap of faith into the unknown.