This article is Ancient (archive 2011)

Productivity Narratives and Consumerism’s Triumph

Don’t You Have Something Better to Do?

Defining eras based on productivities and entertainments we use to describe them might be an interesting exercise, but not one I want to do.

Perhaps the current era’s fascination with productivity makes this a seductive paradigm.  This is, after all, the era of GTD and Life Hacking, and, from what I understand, this is a “consumer economy;” we don’t produce anything.
Measuring output not in widgets but widgets creates considerable anxiety about individual productivity. A bad economy, job insecurity, and foreign market competition all contribute to some degree, but are Americans so incompetent that they need How-Tos and life-managing software to get anything done? Then why are the top twenty-five applications at Apple’s App Store video games or quote generators?  Are we that confused and insecure?

Solidarity, Objectivity, and Utility

“There are two principle ways in which reflective human beings try, by placing their lives in a larger context, to give sense to those lives.  The first is by telling the story of their contribution to a community…  The second is to describe themselves in immediate relation to a non-human reality… I shall say that stories of the former kind exemplify the desire for solidarity, and that the latter exemplify the desire for objectivity.”

–Richard Rorty “Solidarity or Objectivity”

But extreme-specialization, celebrity, and a fractured and furious political landscape have been hell on solidarity and objectivity alike.  I couldn’t bring myself to finish the thing (and I’ll go on record saying that Philip Roth and John Updike are hacks), but I looked up the Wikipedia synopsis of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and decided that the chief question it aspires to address is how one defines productivity and how that defines one’s relationship with the world.  The problems of contemporary American productivity wreak havoc on the characters’ lives, and its answer to the productivity challenge?  Define productivity for yourself (society’s definition involves questionable ethical decisions and moral compromise (I don’t disagree)).

This assumption demands a certain subjective objectivity that can also devastate an individual’s personal productivity narrative when trying to reconcile a solidarity and objectivity with a sense of cultural relativity.
If solidarity requires accepting the narratives of the culture at large without question, does objectivity demand rejecting even the cultures purporting to give a perspective (objective) outside of culture at large?
What if the culture at large has incorporated the counter or “objective” narrative into its larger narrative?  The protagonist’s answer, which we can crudely characterize as environmentalist, suggests not, but further suggests that we cannot actively participate in the alternative narrative.  One must lead by action,, without a clear definition of this action, I guess.

As it happens, many people, on both sides of the solidarity divide, guess, and share a meta-answer: more.  More time, more money, more entertainment, more pleasure, more safe songbirds and more fair-trade organic coffee, but we need productivity apps, hacks, how-tos to squeeze ever more out of our unproductive days.  Maybe this is because the things we define as productive don’t satisfy our urge to produce.
In a way, contemporary lyric poetry and perhaps ecopoetics responds to this in its general reluctance to engage with its subjects,or rather engaging with the world and its environment less through Thoreau’s transparent eye than O’Hara’s transparent I, the speaker painting herself into the landscape of the poem, to mix metaphors, an object not a subject.

“We reclined as we spoke, we reclined and the sand that coated our
arms and legs is known for softness that is distinctive in the
islands and the waves were a gentle one to three feet and a soft
breeze blew through the ironwoods and we were surrounded by
ditches, streams, and wetland areas, which serve as habitat for
endangered waterbird species.”

–Juliana Spahr, “This Connection of Everyone with Lungs” (Apparently something of a big deal, it comes up often enough)

Because the engagement comes to us, it seems, and wherever we are, and chides us for not having done enough in our lifetime.

Consumerism vs. Consumption (Guess who Wins?)

As with politics, opting out is as calculated and partisan as opting in, and, when your time is your only commodity, you cannot spend or use it without participating in the productivity economy, and this is consumerism’s chief triumph: commoditizing our time and productivity and selling it back to us for consumption.  And we must buy as this is the only way we can construct a satisfying narrative of our lives.