This post is by Katie Clarke.
We like answers and our brains like shortcuts. Especially right now, as everything seems indeterminate, unanswerable and interminable. Brain shortcuts, known in Psychology terms as “heuristics,” allow us to function despite the constant influx of stimuli to our five senses, not to mention the additional emotional reflexes that accompany these inputs. Heuristics help pare down and sort information that’s useful to us and keep the information that keeps us safe, happy, and healthy.
However — and this is a big however — I have been thinking about how all this shorts out in times of crisis.Human perfectibility culture, or “optimization,” is the everyday aspiration to complete knowledge of ourselves and our psychological states, to the end of being more “efficient,” “productive,” and ultimately, “happy” under the capitalism of today. As the COVID-19 epidemic escalates and we continue to support our communities, health workers and other essential service workers by staying home, we are bombarded by the productivity/optimization rhetoric. Productivity culture is telling us that we have all sorts of “free time” at home (which we don’t, really, but that’s a whole other essay).
While the biological and functional use of heuristics makes sense, I often wonder why this “shortcut culture” so much a part of our day to day lives. Self-help books are some of the best selling and highest grossing works put out by publishers in North America. These are alongside a genre I’d like to call “optimization lifestyle reads”: anecdotal insights into “human nature” as such, like those put out by Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pink. These books slip in optimization buzzwords like “scientific” and “research-based” (which they often are, it’s true!). But this alluring language of objectivity can provide a false sense of certainty. This research/storytelling hybrid genre is captivating: often well-written, engaging and relevant to the culture of perfectibility and search for ultimate self-understanding that is taken up by our brains and bodies from the day we’re born. While social isolation measures are in place, some folks might have a little extra time to pick up a book. Why not make it something “useful” like an optimization lifestyle read? That’s where my brain went, at least, two days after stopping university classes and trying to juggle a multitude of academic and professional commitments which had “simply” slid into the online realm. I figured that if I was going to read “for pleasure” for once (and I love reading, I really do), it should be “productive.” And don’t get me wrong, I can get behind some of these bestsellers, but I felt inclined to self-examination and optimization, rather than any semblance of true relaxation or distraction from the situation at hand. The pursuit of perfection and self-regulation, foregrounded by self-understanding, is a pervasive urge — one cemented by productivity culture.
To me, productivity culture is the product of both an ingrained scientific tradition and the perils of (you guessed it!) advanced capitalism. Physicist and Philosopher of Science Evelyn Fox Keller deconstructs how modern science reinforces our urge to optimization and self-understanding in her collection of essays, Reflections on Gender and Science. She identifies a complex interplay of autonomy, objectivity, knowledge and power in a distinctly masculine scientific custom. Keller demonstrates how a search for individual autonomy and power over the self distances the “other” or object of examination — the subject of scientific inquiry, for example. Objectivity holds the “other” at arms length and asserts that the subject (viewer, scientist, supposedly self-aware human being) can access total and complete knowledge of the object (task, schedule, body, brain), being separate from it. Power over the self, self-control, is quickly manipulated into a totalizing theory of certainty. In the current pandemic, science is incredibly important — finding a vaccine will be a feat of biology, technology and medical expertise, among a multitude of other fields. However, recourse to capital-S Science as the measure of all things is not a straightforward capital-S Saviour. Future access to a COVID-19 vaccine will also rely on innumerable number of social, organizational, political and communal resources, not to mention a tremendous amount of community support and care.
Yes, we do live in an era of extraordinary scientific advancement. However, this period is structured by an age-old scientific system held in place by market interests and economic stakeholders in those scientific developments. Under the guise of optimization and productivity, work becomes a project of certainty and perfection, a race to make the most money in the least amount of time with the least mistakes. In self-isolation and under physical distancing protocols, this urge to self-improvement is incubated in our living spaces: bathed in the blue light of our devices, the irresistible glow of social media, news and self-optimization.
Jia Tolentino, journalist and author of the 2019 essay collection Trick Mirror, wrote an op-ed for the Guardian titled “Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman.” Tolentino describes the “ideal” young professional woman as one who’s body and mind are organized, who’s schedule is flawless, who flies between barre workouts and kale salads and an endlessly productive workday only to end the day and tap into a seemingly limitless social sphere. This hard work, then (prescribed, organized) play atmosphere tends to harden our bodies and our immune systems and our emotions into recognizably adverse, highly regulated networks. I feel I can lean in to the “organized” discomfort that over-regulates my brain and body because it’s much more cohesive with the optimization-first structures that surround me. This is what makes me valuable under capitalism. I’ve been taught to fear mess and disorganization above all else. Tolentino’s optimized woman is another kind of artificial, scientifically crafted and genetically optimized nightmare: wouldn’t we all want to be like her, if we could?
No, it’s not likely that we’ll abolish capitalism for a local trade and barter system anytime soon (although the more time we spend in isolation, the more it seems possible, and the more microcosms of this possibility become visible…). But how do we imagine novel futures that do not ask us to optimize our bodies and minds like machines? Our deviant and unruly bodies are some of the first things to be regulated in this perfectibility culture — as feminist scholar Hannah McGregor comments in one episode of her peer-reviewed podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda. McGregor laments the pervasiveness of deterministic diet culture, citing a diet-enthused relative: “’in an ideal future, when we really perfect nutritional science, we’ll be able to do bloodwork, and know exactly what each person should be eating’ — what a eugenicist nightmare you are painting!” (SFA ep. 4.10 20:30–20:43). While this might seem dystopian, the idea of a genetically perfected and predictable human being is not so far from our everyday consciousness. In social isolation, the internet seems to be reminding me of my existence in my body/as a body more than usual. Diet culture, too, is incubated in our now smaller spaces, with incredibly harmful effects. I found this comicby local Halifax artist Mollie Cronin an excellent response to an influx of fatphobia and diet culture on the internet.
Neural networks (artificial intelligence programs modelled on the human brain) are another modern “optimization” tool which can provide incredible mechanical and economic benefit. However, neural networks are another force of technological and economic development that encode the rhetoric of human perfectibility in our day to day lives. The masculinist “rationality” of neural networks is (at least in part) incompatible with the human brain — which is not deterministic or wholly rational at all. Stoic, masculine science presents “ideal” form of human intelligence which rests in the potential of artificial intelligence. While perfected models like artificial intelligence and neural networks can prove incredibly useful — essential even — for research and medical care, their presence as psychological models or standards can lead to a dangerous reductionism and self-effacing “objectivity.” In this pandemic, vaccine research and medical treatments are linked to our advanced technological abilities, likely including the use of artificial intelligence. However, I would argue that most of the life-saving care work that’s going on is done by human beings — nurses, doctors, care workers of all kinds, people offering to support one another remotely. Who knew? We’re not surviving on big tech or big science alone — but on interpersonal care and trust (even if it’s from a distance). As we strive to become more and more like our perfected, rational, machine counterparts, we’re becoming dangerously enamoured with the surreality of masculinist perfection — doing violence to our soft, emotive, critical, failing, irrational brains.
Feminist scholar Donna Haraway counters the allure of objectivity in her essay “Situated Knowledges”: “feminists don’t need a doctrine of objectivity that promises transcendence, a story that loses track of its meditations just where someone might be held responsible for something, and unlimited instrumental power. We don’t want a theory of innocent powers to represent the world” (579). We are not innocent; we are angry and flawed and we make mistakes. But we should make mistakes. The genetically, technologically and socially optimized human being of perfectibility culture is a product of statistical averages. In statistics, the centre of a curve or the “average” is non-existent — as an average of everyone, it corresponds to no one in particular. The average, the perfected, the wholly optimized human being does not exist. To blindly seek out and imitate this speculative, flawless form is to destroy our precious partiality.
Now, more than ever, we (feminists, working from home, still on the front lines at the hospital or grocery store, kids, parents, students, families) can fight against the optimization or standardization or our brains and bodies. We cannot know or control everything (and at this point it’s hard enough controlling our own daily schedules). We can contribute to our communities, we can start to heal or help others heal, we can rest, we can lean into our individuality and our partial vision, while listening to and learning from others who see things differently. We can begin to create routines and space for ourselves in this crisis. We don’t need a sense of obligatory or additional productivity in a pandemic. But we can make space for creativity and creation (in whatever unique, situated form it may take) in crisis.
Katie Clarke is a student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, studying Psychology and Contemporary Studies a LORAN scholar. Passionate about women’s rights and mental health, she uses poetry and playwriting as a medium for feminist activism. In her spare time, Katie runs the Oxfam Society at Dalhousie University, and she volunteers as a literacy tutor with newcomer and immigrant Canadians.
Fox Keller, Evelyn. Reflections on Gender and Science. Yale University Press, 1995.
Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1988, pp. 575–599. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3178066.
Lewontin, Richard. It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions. New York Review of Books, 2001.
McGregor, Hannah. “Our Categories of Knowledge Suck with Tina Sikka.” Secret Feminist Agenda, 20 Dec. 2019, https://secretfeministagenda.com/2019/12/20/episode-4-10-our-categories-of-knowledge-suck-with-tina-sikka/