Intrinsic Field Subtractor

It didn’t occur to me until later, but my thoughts about the burnout discourse could have used a reference to L. M. Sacasas and his observations late last year, expressly citing “the writing of Jonathan Malesic and Anne Helen Petersen”, around the idea that you can’t optimize for rest.

This is yet another example of the pattern I sought to identify in a recent installment: the human-built world is not built for humans. In that essay, I was chiefly riffing on Illich, who argued that “contemporary man attempts to create the world in his image, to build a totally man-made environment, and then discovers that he can do so only on the condition of constantly remaking himself to fit it.”

Illich is echoing the earlier work of the French polymath Jacques Ellul, to whom Illich acknowledged his debt in a 1994 talk I’ve cited frequently. In his best known book, The Technological Society, Ellul argued that by the early 20th century Western societies had become structurally inhospitable to human beings because technique had become their ordering principle.3 These days I find it helpful to gloss what technique meant for Ellul as the tyrannical imperative to optimize everything.

So, recall Petersen’s observation about the robot being the ideal worker. It’s a remarkably useful illustration of Ellul’s thesis. It’s not that any one technology has disordered the human experience of work. Rather, it’s that technique, the ruthless pursuit of efficiency or optimization, as an ordering principle has determined how specific technologies and protocols are to be developed and integrated into the work environment. The resulting system, reflecting the imperatives of technique, is constructed in such a way that the human being quahuman being becomes an impediment, a liability to the functioning of the system. He or she must become mechanical in their performance in order to fit the needs of the system, be it a warehouse floor or a byzantine bureaucracy. It’s the Taylorite fantasy of scientific management now abetted by a vastly superior technical apparatus. […]

Emphasis added (it’s the section, in fact, I highlighted when I sent Sacasas an email about autistic burnout) because that right there is both aspect and avatar of our society’s implicit and innate peer pressure to conform and perform. It surrounds us always, not just at work; a kind of intrinsic field permeates our everyday.

He quotes Ellul:

The human being is ill at ease in this strange new environment, and the tension demanded of him weighs heavily on his life and being. […] But the new technological society has foresight and ability enough to anticipate these human reactions. It has undertaken, with the help of techniques of every kind, to make supportable what was not previously so, and not, indeed, by modifying anything in man’s environment but by taking action upon man himself.

That’s the intrinsic field working. This idea, certainly, that it’s not our environment that must change but us is something with which actually-autistic people (and people of color, and gay people, and trans people, and et cetera, nearly ad infinitum) are intimately familiar.

When I use terms like “implicit”, “innate”, and “intrinsic”, it runs the risk of communicating that this peer pressure somehow is a natural force at work in our lives. This is not the case. It’s entirely a construct of the people and systems which shape the society in which we live. It’s entirely an artifice, and like any such can be undone and remade.