An Indictment of Professionalism and Professional CultureJanuary 8, 2020
Professional culture is a smoke and mirrors display of superficial pomposity that masks the lack of genuine value. It is the shiny, constantly renovated facade of a crumbling, and dilapidated building. Imagine, if you will, a team of talented people whose sole job is to keep this facade pristine and hip, taking the face of whatever new and exciting trend that has reared its head in the collective consciousness. But once you step inside you realize you’ve been greatly deceived. This massive deception is widespread, and more often than not, the radiance of the exterior blinds those ambling within its walls. And only much later, having wandered much too deep in the bowels of the burrow and ensconced themselves in a cozy corner, does the realization dawn that they are in the belly of a carcass, masqueraded as a healthy buck.
Whole halls of academia operate this way, let alone the world of markets and private firms. Esteemed institutions from the inside appear turgid, vacuous, steeped in an air of lethargy: stagnant thinking, myopic preoccupation with their narrow domains of thought, withdrawal into grandiloquence to disguise hollow content, dragons safeguarding heaps of coal painted golden.
What is professional culture? It’s perhaps best illustrated through sites of vacuity: professional associations, conferences, publications that posture as genuine scholarship in domains of human activity that absent the profession generate no intrinsic curiosity. Land surveyors, funeral directors, massage therapists, occupational therapists, midwives, dieticians, real estate agents, librarians, managers, and myriad more professions swell with associations, conventions, magazines, journals; people funnelled in these domains bubbling to expand their air of expertise by cementing themselves in the institutional fortifications of the profession: a managerial trick that harnesses human creativity and thumos to their ends. Those reluctantly thrust in the profession begin to change their minds: perhaps this was their vocation all along, and the many, positively fraudulent paths of further development put in place by clever managers appear to present genuine options of human development. Having erected this vast smoke and mirrors edifice of professional legitimacy and ensnared their subjects within it, managers will then stratify the profession based on a fabricated hierarchy of credentials tied to better compensated positions to keep the hamsters turning the wheel. Turn and turn the wheel they will, until their day of retirement. What folly! What imbecility and foolishness! It isn’t the managers themselves who have architected this, for they too are within the airy edifice, so in part it must have spun itself, and in part designed by the shareholder class of the market heathlands.
Thumos is a technical term coined by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, adopted from thymos, which in ancient Greek means spiritedness. In his jargon, it forms the root of two interrelated concepts: isothymia, the need to be recognized as equal to others, and megalothymia, the need to be recognized as superior to others. Whether of the former or latter variety, thumos operates in spite of whether it generates value, namely it latches itself to any activity that conserves the subject while yielding it positive outcomes. If it means garnering followers on instagram by posting soft-core pictures of oneself, or surreptitiously spreading rumours about a harder-working, more competent colleague to win the promotion, thumos is at play. In other words, the workings of thumos submit to complex “calculations”: calibrations of risk are measured against assessment of one’s capabilities and the thrust toward greater fortune takes the shape of a painstakingly hewn out path toward an outcome where value, one way or another, is staked.
The counterpart to professional culture is, of course, business culture, whence the above model springs. Business culture, more radically than any profession, spins shiny veneers upon dilapidated products. The shiny veneers that now overlay North American cities are just that, the veneers generated by markets to trap customers. The product itself never matches the wrapping, the coating, the smooth, silky rhetoric that surrounds it: effort is put insofar and inasmuch as it persuades you of its value. Whether or not it holds that value, is another matter altogether. Starbucks coffee, shorn of the atmosphere and signifiers of entrapment within the shop, is just that, bad, or merely mediocre (I’m no connoisseur) coffee.
If you look at any time in human history, the spheres of competence miraculously arrange themselves according to demand. This has deep implications for the meaning of human existence. For the idea of competence is deeply interconnected with the idea of environmental fitness. That is to say, if a demand for a service arises, some subset of the population will shuffle their bearings to fill it. Take a look at the internet ecosystem to understand how this stratification drives itself: at first, when the standards for the web were established, you had developers come up with integrated development environments with wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) capabilities to streamline the process, but you still had to know how to structure the site and find a domain name and host in order to publish it on the web. As demand for simple websites grew, intermediaries like content management systems emerged, Wordpress being the most prominent example, where the process was streamlined even further because the structure was latent. Then as Wordpress established itself, a whole ecosystem of plugins grew where those competent at web applications or simply front end design could sell themes to those with minimal capabilities. Those with minimal capabilities, in turn, can use this scaffolded structure to sell services to those with no capabilities, namely clients who want a quick and cheap website. Intermediaries within intermediaries is an apt image for how spheres of activity spontaneously stratify with different levels of competence finding ways of inserting themselves within unfilled crevices of the market.
An example much closer to my experience is the relationship between artists and critics. Both are generative enterprises, but notice that critics are not just parasitic beings; they fill a demand to comment on, unpack, make palatable, and evaluate the creations of artists. The Matthew Arnolds and John Ruskins of the world staked their being not in creating the masterpieces of the age, though one imagines they aspired to, but in honing their observations of culture. Their skills and abilities found the strongest expression in their critical writings and cultural commentary, which in hindsight provide vistas into their historical periods. The question you have to ask yourself is whether Arnold and Ruskin were comfortable in their skin. I don’t know the answer to that question, but they must have pacified themselves to their perceived roles or followed the line of activity that provided them with the greatest personal satisfaction or social validation. The two are, of course, in some tension. Failure to mount summits of human endeavour does not beget failure, but camping stations in the Sisyphean path upwards, where one can set-up shop. This is perhaps related to the idea of a profession in some fundamental sense because the way up requires ignoring the low-hanging fruit that spread one’s capabilities thin along the axis of breadth, foregoing the profoundly terrifying pursuit of concentrated depth.
While the yields of professional culture are a recent phenomenon, the roots lie much deeper, probably in some evolutionary strategy, the equivalent of sneaker copulation in fish, where the smaller males mimic the female in order to gain access to the nest. It is difficult to tell how much principled competence as opposed to deception and mimicry factor into any sphere of activity. The relationship between cunning and deceit, of course, warrants further exploration. For deception at once sullies any hope for a foundation of virtue in any enterprise or institution, and yet equally lies at the heart of any favourable outcome. Virtuous deceit might then be cunning. And yet deceit, even in its most depraved forms, seems to live much too cozily in the abode of prosperity.
The connection between deceit and success seems to lie at the kernel of human relations. Because morality, or more bluntly, the rules of the game, are subservient to power and emerge as a byproduct of its dissemination. Deference to and desire for power, whose nature is liquid and almost always distributed, lie underneath the forms that human interactions take, often enough, also within the family. Morality, then, glazes or skims lightly above these relations and takes shape in the basin of deceit that ensures the actors involved appear frictionless in their interactions. The rules of civility appear to deteriorate should one party stray violently from those rules, and aggression, always gurgling in the recesses, rears its head. At the same time, the desire to keep hidden one’s source of esteem, or one’s source of future regalement, which fuels present assurance, presents possibilities for deep vulnerability. Because those who fail to hide their kernel of esteem, that ethereal ‘moving-towards’ that harbours a promise of future transformation, will lay naked and exposed, unable to maneuver virulently amidst their fellows, having deprived themselves of the elixir of secrecy.
So many pronouncements, oaths, odes, and general brouhaha are made about the truth, but hardly anyone enacts it. As far as I can tell, people cannot relate nakedly to one another, with all the layers of deceit put aside: for powerless and ashamed we’re unable to face the other. Neither parents and children, nor lovers and friends, nor kings and their subjects. A rift of contrivance orbiting the boundary of selfhood must separate people in order for them to have the gall to meet the pulsating eye of the other. For the world pulsates, and in its troughs we become one, and in its crests we split asunder into a million solitary and distinct beings who lock horns upon contact.
But where does that leave us? Those that see the artificial contours of professionalism and their attendant vistas for human growth as paths of self-actualization are merely extending their withered thumi onto readymade, organizationally contrived boxes. Those that gladly take up the call of professionalism have finally found a path to extend a thumos otherwise unmotivated, uncreative, into the sphere of stratified labour, where hollow tasks are elevated into the heights of accomplishment, buttressed, no less, by monetary compensation. Yet perhaps my digressive musings on deception as a necessary ingredient of success and lubricant in human affairs, suggest that the two, the hollowness of professional culture and the motivations of folk, form two sides of the same coin.