I have a confession to make, and then an apology. Lately, I have been more contemplative than pissy. I have been a honey creative writer, not a honey badger. That sucks for you. The good news is that I am building up to a rant. This post is not exactly a full-on rant, and for that I am sorry. My wordpress statistics indicate that you like FFG best when she is angry. So from now on, I will do more to please you. Tossing thoughtfulness aside, I will curse, swear, and fulminate. After all, I can improve. Or can I?
Here goes: Do you know what I hate? I hate those fucking inspirational posters that people upload to their facebook pages. The ones with phrases that encourage you to stop being such a lazy miserable bastard. The ones that provide helpful rules for living, hoping to replace your unhappy slob self with a motivated and fit people pleaser. The ones that tell you to “choose” to be happy. I say fuck those posters.
These images insist that happiness is something to be pursued, assessed, and constantly monitored. They affirm that the presence or absence of happiness in your life is a choice. So why are you so fucked in the head? So fat and out of shape? So lonely? Why, it’s because you are weak and lazy; it’s because you have “chosen to fail.” Well guess what? I choose to be annoyed by this bullshit.
Standing tall on my soap box, I denounce the way in which these posters attempt to enforce a particular personality type and way of being in the world. Unfortunately, the motivational rules on offer are based on ideas that have become commonsense in contemporary western culture: we control our own destinies; we are personally and entirely responsible for our own health, bodies, and current standards of living. In short, such posters participate in the wider construction of a neoliberal subject. Now, highly intelligent readers, I realize that you already know exactly what neoliberal subjectivity is, especially since you are bombarded by its invectives on a daily basis, but please indulge me by allowing a brief explanation. What’s that you say? “Go right ahead, you pompous jackass?” Okay, I will.
In his book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), David Harvey defines neoliberalism as a set of political and economic practices that have social effects. While advocates of neoliberal policies support such things as free trade and the rights of private property owners, they also strive to integrate these values into everyday life, encouraging people to regulate themselves according to the market principles of discipline, efficiency, and competitiveness. Using various technologies of subjectivity, including motivational posters, talk shows, and self-help books, neoliberal discourses indirectly lead and manage individuals by shifting the burden of such social risks as poverty, illness, and unemployment into the individual’s domain. This subject position—or particular formation of individual identity—is historically and socially produced to seem natural and obvious. It promotes the idea that “we” are individuals who exist outside of or previous to cultural influences, deciding which influences to accept or reject. Neoliberal subjects make their own beds and then lie in them. Anyone who lacks a bed altogether will not be fully recognized as a person within this institutionalized way of thinking; such failures will instead be framed as irresponsible objects of pity.
It is hard work being a neoliberal subject, for although s/he is rational—able to make clear decisions based on a calculation of best interests—s/he is also plagued by desires that undermine those interests. So the neoliberal subject who should be able to choose the good life, to become a better person, is continually threatened by bodily impulses for pleasure, rest, and comfort. In order to become a truly good person, then, the ideal neoliberal subject must possess (or deliberately develop) a mystical inner element known as “willpower,” which is the key ingredient for becoming economically productive, as well as able to form stable relationships and achieve health. Anyone who does not possess the willpower required to reach these goals basically “chooses to fail.”
If you have read my earlier posts, you will not be surprised to learn that I join many others in declaring that the neoliberal subject position is a crock of shit that reinforces longstanding power dynamics and blames victims. You will also know that my approach to subjectivity is based on post-structural, feminist, and queer theories. [Aside: shout out to the fabulous members of my Queer Studies Reading Group!]. But maybe you spent your youth going to parties and having sex instead of reading Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, Freud, Butler, and Barthes etc. like I did? Losers! Just in case you made such bad lifestyle choices [and probably now have a much shittier job than me, which serves you right], allow me to introduce you to Samantha Murray and her book, The “Fat” Female Body (2008), in which she critiques the production of the neoliberal subject within accounts of the so-called obesity epidemic as well as in the resistance to them. According to her, the “ways we have of perceiving and understanding each other are hidden and unspoken. They are inferred without being directly expressed; they are habitual and embodied without any conscious decision made about deploying them at any given moment. We respond to others on a visceral level: we know their bodies implicitly, and what they mean to us. We see a ‘fat’ woman, and we know her as lazy, greedy, of inferior intelligence. We may still address her more or less normally, we may smile at her, we may eat lunch with her, or go shopping with her, but somewhere within us these kinds of understandings, these knowledges, of what her ‘fatness’ means to us are stirred and brought to the surface in unconscious ways.”
Do you need a rest pause after that long quotation? Breathe in through your mouth to the count of five, then out through your nose to the same count. Repeat as necessary during this stressfully exciting time of the year.
Murray draws on the work of Linda Alcoff to argue that we engage with historical and cultural structures that pre-exist us. We are not “dupes” of dominant modes of thought, but rather we necessarily exist within them. We can recognize these modes and even struggle against them. Yet as Murray contends, we cannot fully realize the ways in which they imbricate our very being, the very core of our identities, making it rather difficult to “just say no.” It is not really possible to shout: “I am no longer a neoliberal subject,” or something similar like “I now love my fat ass!” The pursuit of lasting change is more complicated.
Murray is a fat woman and academic interested in how conceptions of the neoliberal subject inform discussions of obesity, framing fat people (especially women) as lazy, spineless weaklings who require medical and psychological administrators to help them make good choices. The idea is that although these fatsos are fully responsible for the sorry state of their bodies and doubtlessly unhappy lives, they can be guided towards improvement. Perhaps reading a few posters could also inspire them finally to accept and therefore walk (eventually run?) the correct path toward enlightened happiness.
But what is happiness, anyway?
It is another cultural construction, and an historical one. The notion that “following your dreams” and “being happy” are the ultimate life goals is relatively recent, and very western. Visions of the “good life” are forced on us with a vengeance, in TV shows, advertisements, magazines, films, pop psychology, medical training and, especially these days, facebook. These sources uniformly tell us that a happy person is optimistic, upbeat, active, productive, healthy, has a fulfilling career, exciting hobbies, good personal relationships with adults and children alike (and probably owns a home and a car or two). Do you not fit this mold in every single way? Well then, anti-depressant drugs are clearly in order. Now don’t worry. I am not going off on a Tom Cruise-like anti-better-living-through-chemicals rant, especially since such mood- and personality-altering drugs can be helpful in cases of serious mental disorder. Some friends who have relied on anti-depressants have informed me that swallowing these chemical concoctions was quite beneficial, whereas other friends are currently self-medicating with illegal drugs, bucking the system in their own fashion. Just yesterday, a female pal admitted that she liked her dog much better than most (if not all) people. “Yes,” I replied, “but sometimes people can be useful.” I understand my role in her life and I accept her personality, which is mostly at odds with that of the ideal neoliberal subject noted above. In the past, she would have been considered an artistic-melancholic character. Now she feels guilty about her status, and wonders if she should be “working harder” to be happy.
If taking anti-depressants is not your thing, our culture offers another surefire way to become happier: lose weight. It seems that a number of the large and luscious women I know—by no means all of them!—actually believe that their lives would improve if only they lost a few dress sizes. This belief is credible, given that the diet industry, magazines, and likely even their friends and family members deliver this message on a daily basis. I have heard living, breathing, and presumably intelligent large women say that “If only I was fitter I would finally get that great boyfriend/girlfriend, go back to school, be more confident, be stronger mentally, etc.” While I am willing to go out on a limb here and agree that losing weight may well make some people healthier by placing less stress on their joints and hearts—an argument potentially at odds with what some members of HAES and fat power groups would claim—I can assure them that thin and fit people are often miserably oppressed by the “cruel optimism” of the current construction of happiness. Becoming leaner might make people more confident, and they might be treated with greater respect in some social situations, but they will not magically become better people. To provide just one cautionary example: becoming fitter and better looking has made me even more of a narcissistic asshole than I was before.
What do you think of all this, FFG readers? When I speak this way, I get a number of responses. Some friends claim that it is easy for me to critique constructions of the neoliberal subject and happiness from my position as a stereotypically fulfilled person who appears to have it all. I even dole out irritating advice from this privileged stance, telling friends that they are choosing their futures now; shouting “your clock is not ticking and you don’t have to settle!”; wondering why they enter bad situations again and again while hoping for the best with fingers crossed, passively taking up a “wait and see” attitude. I participate in reinforcing the neoliberal subject even as I try to resist it. Perhaps this is because I adhere to the neoliberal ideal rather precisely, a point of great embarrassment for me. I recently went to a therapist to discuss whether or not my cheerful, active disposition was in fact delusional and conformist. “Stop pathologizing your extreme mental health,” she advised, thereby confirming my worst fears. After our lengthy and yet singular discussion (she said that there was no need for me to come back), I texted my LSP: “Well I just got another gold star. I am some kind of monster.” He immediately agreed, and in conclusion, I encourage you to do the same.
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I think you’re hot when you use big words 🙂
Here’s a motivational poster I made that you might like instead.
Although it stretched my brain a little, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I will forward it to my mother immediately, as she is a physician concerned with the obesity epidemic. She specializes in diabetes. Also, she is a tennis and work out fanatic and highly intelligent.
My own question after reading this post is, if you say that you are denying the position of a neoliberal subject, what position do you subscribe to? I’m curious. What is the opposite of neo liberal?
P.S. I’ve started working out with FitBabe, she is awesome – thanks!
Thanks Jammy and I agree that Fitbabe is an excellent trainer. As for your question about subjectivity, we cannot simply subscribe to a chosen subjectivity, which means that most of us are currently shaped within and impacted by neoliberal discourses. This will no doubt change over time as subjectivity is historical. However, the explanation of subjectivity that is most appealing to me stems from psychoanalytic theory, and ultimately from the work of Jacques Lacan. It sees the subject as constituted by lack rather than an imagined plenitude. Sometimes the subject is envisioned as having an inner core of secret identity, which is then revealed either publicly or to intimates, by means of such techniques as confession (think Oprah etc.). In contrast, the Lacanian subject is composed of lack, driven by the frustrating effort to deny and overcome that lack. This effort will inevitably fail and is in effect the foundation of desire. That sounds pretty convincing to me.
I agree that the neoliberal ideal is, to use your words, “a crock of shit.” And I also agree, based on your past posts (and as you say), that you also adhere to this ideal. But my question, then, is: now what? I follow some of these fitness pages to which you refer and my FB newsfeed is full of this motivational crap everyday. Sometimes I see an inspirational quote and then feel the need to do some HIIT. Sometimes I see an inspirational image and say “fuck you.” Either way, I think, we make up our own minds about how we want to perceive and understand these images (while recognizing that our mind is the very product of neoliberalism ideology). I suppose that while reading your post, I thought you might have a solution to reshaping this neoliberal ‘subject.’ Thoughts on that? Now, if you do have a solution, I would promptly encourage you to leave the ivory tower of academia and go do some real good in this world. However, as a woman who doesn’t necessarily fit the hegemonic ideal, you’d probably fail (although you do have white privilege on your side). Back to the subject at hand, how should people begin to think critically about these things when many people don’t think critically, at all? And for those who are aware of the neoliberal subject and are undermining the status quo in other (important) ways, why should I care about these posters? For, as I said earlier, they either make me do some cardio or curse the world. I’m fine with either.
P.S. The Queer Studies Reading Group sounds fabulous.
Thanks very much for your reply Linda, and yes the Queer Studies Reading Group is indeed fabulous. I offered up the posters as one minor example of a much wider, and all-pervasive neo-liberal phenomenon. Yet I do think that we can “do something” about dominant forms of subjectivity, even if we cannot fully recognize the way in which they utterly shape our ability to imagine ourselves as individuals who “make choices” on a daily basis. First of all, it is important to talk and think about such issues as subjectivity. I am a big fan of the power of thinking, which is why I take some umbrage at your reference to the “ivory tower,” which smacks of anti-intellectualism, a position that separates thought from productive work. People who think and respond critically to culture are crucial in order to have a rich, fully functioning society. I imagine that you mean “doing something” that appears to be more concrete or more important? Well, I can only report some of the many things that I do, far outside of the so-called ivory tower. I produce this blog, which is not academic and for which I receive no academic credit whatsoever. My own published work does not resemble this blog in any way; it is far more historical and theoretical. With this blog, I am hoping to communicate with a wide range of audiences, including academics, aspiring graduate students, personal trainers, and intelligent curious people such as yourself. This makes the task of writing challenging for me, as my readers bring diverse knowledges to the posts. I need to explain things that will seem completely obvious to academics, without condescending to anyone [shout out to the grad students at McGill], and while trying to be as inclusive as possible. I consider writing this blog to be a form of action. I also challenge myself on a daily basis to think differently, in part by engaging with different kinds of people with diverse values, and by volunteering, as a Big Sister (Big Brothers/Big Sisters), teaching at a women’s shelter, and helping out at homeless shelters etc. I do this as much to challenge my assumptions about subjectivity as to help others.
Thanks for your enlightening and quick reply, FFG. (And there was no offence intended with my ivory-tower remarks, so apologies for the miscommunication.) I indeed see the very value in academia, but I suppose what strikes me as unfortunate is that it often seems that academic theories and methodologies are rarely implemented on the ground and, in this case, to policies that shape the neoliberal subject or neoliberalism politics in general. I’m very happy that you’re so involved in the community. When I went to university, it seemed that very few of my professors were involved in community activities and worked to maintain the general divide between popular and academic audiences. I, however, continue to be curious about the neoliberal subject and the broader discourse of liberalism. While we are all subjects of the culture in which we live, there must be more ways in the continued pursuit of interrupting this dominant narrative. One way of doing this, as you mentioned, is blogging and initiating conversations like these. But I also wonder how it is ‘we’ can do so on a continuous basis? And relating to one of your themes here, how can we do this in places/spaces of fitness and ‘health.’ Of course, these are very large questions and I’m sure entire grad seminars could be devoted to such questions. Thanks for making me further think on this.
Linda I like your idea of bringing resistance into the realm of fitness and health, especially commercial gyms, because that is where the neoliberal subject currently reigns supreme. I think the presence of highly muscled women—women who are much more muscular than me—offer a point of resistance, in ways that I am currently thinking about as I write my FFG book. As for the “ivory tower,” all of the professors I know are very involved in their communities, and often tailor their work to serve/work with communities, in the north etc. I am in a Department of Art and Design which may foster such exchanges, but other professors in English and Film Studies and History are also politically active. Maybe I am not interested in the more ivory tower professor-types, and do not even notice them.
Oh so true. Thanks for this. Must be ideas in the air since I recently rambled about a similar (although not as intellectually complete) idea on my blog. Happiness is I think a rather new idea. I’ve seen many a marriage end of pain and misery because one of the partners exerted their “right” to be “happy”, even if that meant inflicting misery on those who loved them most. Is it an American thing? The pursuit of happiness? I expect my methodist grandfather, born in 1901, would say so. It’s obviously inane to structure your life around the pursuit of something you can’t even define. But we think we CAN define happiness. And our definition is, I would argue, manufactured by advertisers.
And yes – love the poster. I have been know to tell fitness fiends who offer me unsolicited exercise advice that I will work out one hour for every hour that they spend reading literature, or a serious newspaper (metro doesn’t count). I have not been taken up on this by anyone yet. And, I’ve been told that “I don’t have time to read” … touché…