In The Corrosion of Character, sociologist Richard Sennett argues that our new “flexible capitalism” makes it increasingly difficult to construct a story of our own life.
In flexible capitalism we change jobs often, assume that all positions are temporary and are forever on the lookout for new opportunities.
He contrasts this with an earlier form of capitalism he calls “the iron cage,” marked by rigid bureaucracy, routine, seniority and lifelong employment.
Although the new capitalism can rightfully be seen as liberating, it also exacts a heavy emotional price.
Flexible Capitalism Corrodes Our Character By Eroding Our Stories
According to Sennett, flexible capitalism has a corrosive effect on our “character,” by which he means the long-term coherence that gives form and meaning to our emotional experience.
In the new way of working, we lose the ability to craft a life narrative that can organize our values and our conduct, as well as give our lives a sense of purpose and direction.
“Narratives are more than simple chronicles of events; they give shape to the forward movement of time, suggesting why things happen.”
He compares the lives of a father and son. Enrico, the dad, spent his entire career at a Boston Bakery. “Enrico had a narrative for his life,” Sennet writes, “clear and cumulative, a narrative which made sense in a highly bureaucratic world.”
His computer-consultant son, Rico, “lives in a world marked instead by short-term flexibility and flux; this world does not offer much, either economically or socially, in the way of a narrative. Corporations break up or join together, jobs appear and disappear, as events lacking connections.”
It is this lack of connections, of things holding together, which underlies the tension in our modern lives.
Can We Restore Our Character With A New Kind Of Story?
In order for our lives to be coherent and meaningful, we need to be able to create stories that work for us within the hyperkinetic environment in which we now find ourselves.
What’s required are new narrative forms to help tell us who we are, where we’re going and how we’re joined together on the journey.
And there’s reason to be optimistic. After all, storytelling has evolved over the millennia. The Iliad and the Epic of Gilgamesh may seem odd to us now, but they made perfect sense to the people of their time. The novel is a relatively recent invention, and even if it’s dead (as some pronounce), there’s no reason to think it will not be replaced by a new storytelling forms that are equally compelling.
Are Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest The Answer?
Some suggest platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are the new ways to tell our life story.
Back in February, for example, Facebook unveiled a new “A Look Back” feature allowing users to access a video summarizing their Facebook lives. The feature uses an algorithm to automatically construct a 62-second clip including some of the user’s most-liked posts and a random selection of photos. Some may consider this a story, and since it offers up events chronologically, it in some way resembles a story, albeit one in which the author of your life is not you, but a machine.
Likewise, since we are all pattern-detecting creatures, if you reviewed the entirety of your tweets or pins there too you might be able to glean some sense of form and narrative direction in your life.
But these new platforms may only underscore the problem at-hand. Creating a life story is difficult today not for lack of data but rather on account of the overwhelming volume of data we generate and consume, and our inability to filter it and make the kinds of connections within it to give our lives purpose and meaning.
Accumulating information on a timeline or pin board simply doesn’t cut it.
Your Story Is Not “One Damn Thing After Another.”
The legendary British Historian, Arnold Toynbee, famously quipped that a story is not just “one damn thing after another.”
His point was that the mere assembling of data or the documentation of events does not constitute storytelling. Chronology is not narrative.
Director Ang Lee, who won an Oscar for his film, The Life of Pi, amplified the point when he said: “We need storytelling, otherwise life just goes on and on like the number Pi.”
The problem with our new storytelling tools is that they encourage an understanding of life that “just goes on and on.”
So what, if anything, is the solution?
Your Story Demands An “Iron Cage”
What was it about the routine and rigidity of “iron cage” capitalism that enabled people like Enrico the baker to create meaningful life narratives?
In short, limits.
As any artist knows, limits set you free. It’s vastly easier to begin composing a piece of music, for example, when you know it has to be 3:05 minutes long and scored for a string quartet of amateur musicians than it would be to compose something with no constraints at all. Limits keep you from being overburdened by information and options. Limits, by their very definition, provide structure, clarity and direction.
Put another way, limitlessness is disorienting and paralyzing, as Barry Schwartz discussed so eloquently in The Paradox of Choice.
Now, few of us would want to return to a work life constrained by the iron cage. But by understanding the value of limits, you’re in a position to enjoy its emotional advantages and create a life story that follows a coherent and ultimately satisfying path.
Fortunately, flexible capitalism gives you the freedom to define your own limits. With order and structure no longer imposed upon from the outside, you’re now in the position to build your own cage. Better yet, you can re-design the cage as you move through life.
But this presents its own difficulties.
New Stories, New Challenges
First of all, it’s emotionally challenging. The story of your life is now totally up to you. That’s a heavy responsibility.
Then there’s there’s the intellectual challenge of determining the limits themselves. What is the shape of the cage? Its dimensions? Materials? What inside and what’s out?
If you’re into social media, what this means in real terms is deciding, for example, who (if anyone) you will follow on Twitter and who you won’t. What topics you’ll tweet about. Which sites or blogs you’ll visit regularly and which ones you’ll ignore. Who your real friends on Facebook are and who should be left out of the loop.
Building the cage is a creative act in itself, and once you start you’ll find it liberating. It is a first, and extremely important, step in organizing your thoughts and feelings.
Then, of course, comes the challenge of creating your story within the cage you’ve built.
This is all about making connections.
I still believe the best way to do that is through writing, as I am doing right now. Writing forces you to establish intelligible relationships among various aspects of your thoughts and feelings.
So start blogging, or keep a journal. And forget about whether or not anyone’s going to read what you’re writing. This is about you, not them.
If you’re into video, make a movie. If photography’s your thing, arrange a series of your photos in what you consider a logical sequence. Or take all of your tweets, edit them and organize them into a grand epic poem.
My point here is not that you necessarily have to returned to established forms, but rather that you create some kind of form, and one that demands linearity. I well aware that, apart from coding, linear thinking is not in vogue these days, but it can’t be beat when it comes to creating a story. And that includes your life story. Along with a central unifying idea, a meaningful narrative still needs a beginning, a middle and an end.
(Hopefully for you, that end will be a long way off.)
Yes, You Can Have A Life Story In Today’s Economy
You may jump from job to job, enjoy 7 careers, live in 12 cities on 4 continents, know hundreds of people, and remain forever unaware of what the next step in your life will be.
But by establishing limits throughout your journey, and then making the effort to establish connections among the elements within the constraints you’ve set up, you at least have a shot at pulling it all together in a story that will give your life meaning and bring you a certain degree of peace.