As a psychologist working in a college counseling center, I encounter many talented, industrious, and high-achieving undergraduates. But many, as successful as they are, are self-reproachful in the extreme about their performance. No matter their good grades nor their accolades, they feel that they just aren’t doing enough, aren’t achieving enough. They believe they shouldn’t need as much sleep or downtime as they do, and ask me if I could somehow help them become more efficient, more productive. They seem to exude what the philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes in The Burnout Society as “autistic productivity,” a chronic, frenzied productivity that is aimed at producing little else than a more productive self.
And no wonder. Their pursuit of productivity for productivity’s sake would seem to be an anxious adaptation to our aggressively deregulated economy, which burdens the individual with the brunt of enterprise’s risks. Thrown back solely on our own resources in making a way through the world, we become entrepreneurs of ourselves, trying to make ourselves endlessly flexible, and endlessly accruing marketable talents, skills, and experiences to prepare for the violent fickleness of the market. Today’s undergraduates have had much practice in such self-investing, many having exploited their breaks and their pastimes—areas of living previously considered irrelevant to educability or employability—to cultivate their marketing package to college admissions officers. They have been socialized into an entrepreneurial outlook on self and world, which reimagines living as resume-building activity.
In my work with such entrepreneurial students, I often found myself appealing to the psychoanalytic notion of the fetish. Not because they shared the psychodynamics of a fetishist, of course, but rather because the metaphor helped me wrap my head around the way the students seemed to relate to themselves and to others.
Instead of relating robustly to another person, the fetishist relates to an object. Putting an object between the self and other serves to disempower and de-animate the other, containing and disarming them. The fetishist may animate an inanimate object with libidinal charge, but it is in the service of de-animating a living other. Similarly, the entrepreneurial self is so self-critical and so anxiously self-monitoring that they are most intensely related to themselves rather than the outside world. My students seemed predominantly engaged in a relationship with their own objectified image of themselves; in a way, they were self-fetishizers. The clinical material I use to illustrate this self-objectification has been disguised and amalgamated to protect client confidentiality.
One student tells me with ecstatic pride that she possesses an unusually large “engine” for productivity, which allows her to achieve more than her peers in any given period of time. I know her to be a person who only feels at ease when in the process of getting something done. If she was not getting something, anything, done, she experienced acute guilt that she attributes to the “success culture” around her. When she attends a conference, the most unpleasant part for her are the 15 minute breaks between sessions: too short of a time to get anything done. Just being and not doing is too uncomfortable. It seems she can feel temporarily at ease only when living in accordance with her fantasy of possessing a limitless inner engine.
In referring to her inner engine, this student momentarily renders herself machine-like, rapidly churning but inanimate. Indeed, many students in their quest to remain ever-productive seem to imagine themselves as machine- or computer-like in their efforts to transcend the limits of human physiology. They can be contemptuous of the body and its limitations. That they need to sleep, or to rest, are inconvenient impediments, spoken of as if they are somehow optional, instead of taken for granted givens of experience. As this student put it, “I’ve spent a long time negotiating my limits.” Just as the fetishist cathects to inanimate objects to avoid encountering the actuality of living bodies in all their dreadfulness, the entrepreneurial self engages with a fantasy of limitless machine-like productivity instead of their actual physiologies.
In addition to imagining themselves to be limitless machines, the students render themselves object-like in an altogether different way. The group of students I have in mind are profoundly self-conscious. They speak about their internal experiences haltingly, uncomfortably. They complain of not being able to get out of their own heads. They seem unable to sink into unselfconscious absorption in their own experience but are instead always thinking about it.
Neoliberalism would seem to require such self-consciousness in its subjects. With fewer and fewer enduring structures around which to orient our identity and aspirations, and with the risk of enterprise falling solely upon private citizens, the individual must become unusually deliberative and strategic about his or her career path and life course. One is forced to consider one’s life as if from the outside—in other words, to become self-objectifying.
One student in particular instructed me in this way of looking at oneself as an object. Her words often confused me, and I could tell she also felt very confused by me. She often asked me questions that it would seem only she could answer. If I asked her if she felt anxious, she might reply in genuine confusion, “I don’t know, am I anxious?”
Over time we realized that she was quite sincerely unable to discriminate what in her experience was self-generated and what parts of her experience were determined externally. It seemed natural to her that I, the psychologist, would somehow know better than she would if she were anxious.
One day she told me the origins, as she saw it, of the confusion about what came from outside and what came from inside: her parents would routinely take a spontaneously expressed interest of hers and package it into its marketable correlate. She was interested in engineering and chemistry, and her parents, seizing on chemistry as the more unusual interest and therefore more attractive to college admissions officers, “turned it into a label.” She was now presented to friends and neighbors as the “kid that’s into chemistry.” And worse, she began to experience herself through this external label as well, frequently interrogating herself about whether she really was interested in chemistry or had just been defined by others as such. Her parents fetishized their daughter’s interest in chemistry, relating to the object of chemistry more vividly than to their daughter’s interest, and she continued to relate to that part of herself as a deadened, alien part—as if lodged into her rather than a part of her.
The practice of psychotherapy itself buttresses the surrounding neoliberal order. Psychotherapy dovetails with neoliberalism in its framing of problems as essentially individual rather than social in nature. And in a world that enjoins us to regard our lives as projects on which we must deliberately work, therapy would seem to be a perfect site for us to tirelessly work on ourselves.
I find it poignant how many students ask me if I could help them develop skills in meditation and mindfulness. For some students such practices seem to help them break out of the tension-filled cult of hyperproductivity they previously seemed caught in. But more often such practices—which ostensibly enhance our ability to simply be rather than always having to do—simply become conscripted to the neoliberal agenda, turning into self-improvement strategies that must be frantically and diligently perfected.
Even if psychotherapy colludes with neoliberalism in many ways, it seems well-worth exploring the possibility that it may also contain the potential to challenge or at least help us move more effectively through existing social conditions. Perhaps it can do so by challenging our self-encapsulation, our fetishistic preoccupation with our objectified selves. We interrupt self-focus when we promote recognition of the social realities that constrain us, and also when we address our tendency to self-blame, which allows those social realities to remain opaque.
The students who strike me as particularly susceptible to psychological damage by neoliberalism typically grew up in overprotective yet also demanding, critical homes where they were implicitly tasked with tending to their parents’ well-being. They grew up to be people who had a hard time distinguishing what was external and what was genuinely internal to their experience and who internalized their parents’ criticism, resulting in remarkably self-reproachful personalities. Used to taking on responsibility for anything and everything, they become unusually porous to neoliberalism’s pressure to transmute living into producing.
Just as a traumatized individual will gladly assume blame for their own mistreatment instead of acknowledging that their world is fundamentally unsafe and unpredictable, entrepreneurial selves prefer to imagine themselves as the authors of their own misfortune rather than recognize the truly hazardous and precarious position in which they have been placed by their society. So much better to imagine oneself as possessing agency than to acknowledge how limited one’s agency in fact is. Again, I think of the fetishist who clings to a fantasy of grandiose omnipotence instead of mourning the discoveries of separateness and genderedness. The entrepreneurial subject’s fantasy of limitless productivity occludes awareness of the grave limitations placed upon them by the social order. It renders what is actually an external conflict, between self and society, into an internal one that gets played out between two parts of the self.
It can be helpful in such instances to restore a sense of an outside that can be struggled against. One student reports experiencing guilt at any period of inactivity, and routinely chastises himself for struggles in his new campus job. At one point I suggest that perhaps his difficulties on the job are not due to a personal failing, as he keeps insisting, but because of a mismatch between his training and the job’s requirements, long my suspicion. My merely suggesting this is so sincerely surprising to the student that he refers to my intervention as “countercultural.” And in a way, he is exactly right. I had pointed out that sometimes we are constrained by features of the actual world rather than just by the weakness in our wills. That this could be read as countercultural illustrates again just how invasively neoliberalism shapes our subjective lives.
Katie Jenness PhD is a psychotherapist and analytic candidate in New York City.