“Impostor syndrome” – a product of indoctrination?

impostor

Edited image c/o Tom Woodward on Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

Ever since #radlib15, I’ve been considering“impostor syndrome” and some of the issues that emerge as a result of its existence (read Andrew Preater’s more thoughtful take if you want to skip to the end of this). First, I want to begin by challenging and reframing the term, because it raises issues around the notion of it being a “syndrome” that, by extension, can be treated. I think the reality is that rather than a “syndrome” it could equally be considered as a form of indoctrination and perhaps should be more appropriately termed “impostor indoctrination”. Indoctrination, because I would argue this is a feeling that is imposed upon us we are supposed to have, rather than something that emerges due to an irrational thought process. It is a constructed state of mind, rather than the naturalised one that the term “syndrome” implies.

During #radlib15 I identified my own personal experience of this feeling. I come from a working class background, was educated in Kent (a county which still has selection at 11), I didn’t go to the grammar school and instead went to the state comprehensive – because, effectively, I “wasn’t good enough” to go to the local grammar school (it was argued in a tribunal that I would probably “struggle” at the grammar school, whereas I would perform well at the state comprehensive). This was followed by average grades at school, followed by below average university (for my chosen field) and several years of working in retail. I then had the fortune to meet my partner, who is a trained medical professional. Through her financial support, I was able to partake in postgraduate study, get my LIS qualification and, now, practice as a professionally qualified librarian.

The manifestations of “impostor syndrome”

My feeling that has emerged from this experience is one of “I do not belong here”. I come from what I consider to be a working class background, and yet I find myself in a professional that appears to be dominated by the middle class. No matter how my career develops from now on, I will always have that sense that I don’t belong here, because I was led to believe from the age of 11 that this is not for me. I’ll come back to this point later.

What was particularly interesting for me in this session is the perspective of someone who self-identified as middle class in the same session. Their sense was not that they didn’t belong, more that they didn’t measure up to some idealised version of a library professional. Their “indoctrination”, if you like, emerged from some marketised ideal of what a professional should do and behave like. The impostor indoctrination had imposed an ideal. You should be here, and now you are, here is the standard you should attain. I should add at this point that this feeling is not restricted to librarianship, it affects all manifestations of labour.

I think this feeling and how it manifests itself varies according to class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality etc. How I as a white male of working class origin interprets this feeling is perhaps different from a white middle class woman and, likewise, a black working class man. There is no single definition of what this feeling is or how it manifests itself. This is also why I feel unifying such different and varying experiences and feelings as a “syndrome” is not quite an accurate representation of the sense that one is an “impostor”.

The Ideological State Apparatus

I would argue that the feeling is part of an indoctrination process, an effort to control and ensure discipline amongst a broad base. Indeed, I think that Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) theory could be used as a framework for understanding how this emerges. Althusser argued in 1970 that the ISA operated as a way to disseminate ideology amongst the general populace. ISAs exist in all aspects of society, but Althusser argues that the education ISA is the predominant one. Althusser argues:

“It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable’, squeezed between the Family State Apparatus and the Educational State Apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected ‘into production’: these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the ‘intellectuals of the collective labourer’, the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced ‘laymen’).”

Which begs the question, if you are expected to have been one of those “ejected” at 16, ie sent down a particular path which made an alternative outcome less likely (eg to become of the petit bourgeois or a “professional ideologist”), would that not instil a sense of being an “impostor” once you emerge as a member of the petit bourgeois or “professional ideologists”? After all, you were identified as not being suitable material for such a position, so to arrive there regardless of the barriers placed in your way must surely create a sense of unease that you had somehow cheated the system and are at risk of being found out?

Althusser goes on to argue:

Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfil in class society: the role of the exploited (with a ‘highly-developed’ ‘professional’, ‘ethical’, ‘civic’, ‘national’ and a-political consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to give the workers orders and speak to them: ‘human relations’), of the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience ‘without discussion’, or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader’s rhetoric), or of the professional ideologist (ability to treat consciousnesses with the respect, i.e. with the contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of ‘Transcendence’, of the Nation, of France’s World Role, etc.).

The education ISA is fundamental in schooling individuals in the dominant ideology but also in providing them with the ideology that suits the role they have to fulfil in society. If we then find ourselves in a position that we were not destined to fulfil, ie we were put on a path that pre-supposes you were more likely to be ejected “into production”, that would surely create a tension – a tension that ultimately emerges as a rejection of the indoctrination process thus it becomes a feeling of being out of place that emerges from a condition of indoctrination?

Likewise, there are those for whom  arrival at “the summit” is planned and expected. For this group, certain ideological expectations are placed upon them. They are expected and destined to exist at the summit, to act as “agents of exploitation”, “repression” and “professional ideologists”. Those that reject or do not exhibit the expected behavioural norms of the position, or who do not feel that they measure up to these expectations, are then also subjected to a sense that they are in the wrong place, because they do not feel they can measure up to that standard. Rather than feeling “I do not belong”, there is a sense that they are not fulfilling the expectations of those at “the summit”.

Ultimately, this tension is a desired effect of the educational ISA and ISAs in general. Indeed, this state of tension, of anxiety, the feeling of being an “impostor” is desired because it is a disciplinary technique. So long as people worry about whether they are in the right place or whether they are worrying about the standard/expectations that the educational ISA has inculcated within them, they will not challenge or upset the status quo. A precarious, anxious class is easier to control than one that is confident and assured. They will not challenge the status quo because their concerns are focused on development, on eradicating that feeling of being an “impostor”.

Precarity and anxiety

This feeling, as previously stated, affects us all. A feeling of insecurity is necessary, if not vital, to ensure discipline and maintain the status quo. As Richard Seymour puts it:

“For precarity is something that isn’t reserved for a small, specialised group of people – “the precariat” or whoever. It spreads. It affects us all. The whip of insecurity disciplines even those who were recently comfortable.”

The impostor indoctrination affects all of us, it ensures a widespread sense of insecurity in a variety of manifestation, all of which ensure discipline and help to maintain the status quo. Late capitalism has made us all “the precariat”, not just in the sense of creating a sense that our jobs our vulnerable, but also in creating a permanent sense of doubt about our capabilities, about our skills and knowledge. This unease, emerging from the indoctrination process through the educational ISA that either sets up an unobtainable ideal or that creates anxiety in those that have somehow cheated the system, ensures order and equilibrium in the system are maintained.

This creation of anxiety to maintain order has been a strategy throughout the history of capitalism. As Esme Choonara notes in “Is there a precariat?”:

“Over a hundred years ago Karl Marx explained how bosses use the threat of a ‘reserve army’ of unemployed workers to attempt to discipline those in work.”

To maintain order and compliance, one merely needs to create anxiety. Anxious labour is compliant labour. Compliant labour is, in the eyes of the elite, productive labour. Labour that is confident and engaged is ultimately a threat to the established order, because confident labour will seek to influence and challenge the established order. Better to create anxiety and unease than to risk disrupting the status quo which benefits the elite. Throughout history we find examples of regimes that use anxiety and fear to assert their authority and to ensure labour produces that which the leaders require.

This feeling, impostor indoctrination/syndrome however you wish to define it, is not only widespread, it’s also part of a deliberate tactic to ensure that the dominant ideology is not only maintained, but reinforced. Inward looking anxieties ensure control and discipline. If we are concerned about the precarity of our jobs, or focused on concerns around with whether we should be in a certain place, or whether we are measuring up to a standard that has been defined for us, we are distracted from the structures we exist within. For if we do not believe we are where we should be, or that we measure up to some standard, how can we hope to challenge and change the system? We cannot, and that is exactly what the system is designed to do.

 

Reflections on radical librarianship and #radlib15

anarchism

Image c/o Travis Gray on Flickr.

The Radical Librarian Collective has come a long way since it first started to emerge back in 2013. Back then I think it is fair to say that many of us involved in getting it off the ground had no idea two years later the third RLC gathering would have drawn to a close. Back then it was a bunch of like-minded people who felt that there was a need to bring radical politics into the discourse and had a vague idea that others might wish to engage in challenging some of the drift that had taken place in recent years.

Since those heady days of 2013, a lot has happened. As mentioned above, there have now been three gatherings of like-minded folk, an OA journal has emerged, there’s now a mailing list to encourage discussion across the library and information sector and there was the creation of an Open Access declaration to encourage a commitment to producing content that is free from copyright restrictions. Much has been achieved with much more still to do. As I always argue, the key to development is infrastructure building which must be progressed quickly to ensure momentum and avoid co-option (which emerged but currently appears to have been seen off).

What has been particularly notable has been the way RLC has been received. Initially there was a somewhat dismissive response (something that occurs when people build infrastructure that challenges accepted narratives), if not openly mocking. It’s noticeable in the last two years how that has declined as barely noticeable now. Partly, I think, this is due to a growing belief in the values and ideas behind radical librarianship. I’ve certainly noticed a growing radical rhetoric within the profession, particularly in the United States where a number of influential and highly respected individuals have been taking clear radical stances on key issues affecting our practice. Perhaps the highlights being Barbara Fister’s keynote at Lilac [pdf] and The Nation‘s coverage of Alison Macrina’s work in the United States (taking radical librarianship to the front page of a well-respected left-wing publication). We are still at early stages, but the movement has gathered momentum and asserting confidence, which perhaps explains the decline of the dismissals.

But what of #radlib15?

Once more the day was filled with interesting discussion and a political take on some of the issues that we face. In terms of my input, I ran or co-ran two sessions on the day. The first, with Sarah Arkle, focused upon the creation of small RLC regional groups. This is, for me,of utmost importance.ive had several discussions with other RLC folks in recent weeks about how RLC can push forward as a thing. For me, the building of small groups is crucial. Ultimately, I believe, small distributed groups that are part of a larger national network is where we should be. The annual national gatherings should then be about pulling together these small regional groups to share actions, discuss activities and work together to strengthen all that underpins the radical librarianship movement. I think issues are best resolved locally rather than nationally, and where there are resolutions, they can be shared and incorporated across all groups, spreading throughout the network.

At the end of the day, we encouraged people to pull themselves together geographically and exchange contact details and, ultimately, organise. There was some talk about building local radical networks, so I’m pretty optimistic that this will start developing and I’m excited about the potential of it doing so. (You can find notes from the session here and here [pdf].)

The other session I proposed was on Althusser and Ideological State Apparatuses. I won’t get into this too much here as its something I would like to explore further in a long form piece of writing, exploring the theory and its relationship with our practice. The theory itself is something I stumbled upon last year and has been whirling around my head ever since I read the piece. I’ve always been interested in how ideologies are spread and disseminated throughout a populace and it’s something that I feel has a strong relationship with our work practice as facilitators of access to information.

In terms of the session itself, I felt that a discussion around this theory would be interesting because there are a number of points of discussion that could be brought into it. I’ve often remarked in discussion with people that specifics in relation to theory is my weak point. Whilst my entire first year on the English Literature aspect of my undergrad was literary theory (which, by the way, I think looking back was vital in developing my critical thinking skills – Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory being the only text we really devoured for a year), I have never been good with specific theories. Indeed, the history aspect of my degree has had a much greater influence on the way in which I understand the world around me from a political perspective. Essentially. I like to learn from the deeds of others rather than the thoughts of others.

In terms of the Althusser piece, I think there is some interesting theory for the theorists to get stuck into, but there are also ideas that are very easy to relate to our practice and how we operate. It was for this reason I thought it would be a good point of discussion and certainly I got the impression that similarly non-theory minded folk got as much out of it as the theory orientated ones. One thing that I think did help with this session, was the 15mins of silent reading to begin with. Whilst I had posted the extract online before the event, I figured it would be good to just ensure we were all at the same starting point and just quietly read to ourselves within the group. Something about this seemed both somewhat radical (in an “unconference” that is all about talking and sharing ideas) but also calming coming as it did at the end of the day. Should I run a session like this again in the future, I will definitely try to incorporate that silent reading aspect once more. (You can find notes from the discussion here [pdf].)*

I took a lot from the other sessions on the day, but I won’t go into my feelings about every session here. There was, however, an interesting discussion about imposter “syndrome” (which was recognised as a problematic term due to the connotations around clinicalising the feeling) that got me thinking a lot about class and the marketisation of our role. This arose as a result of a couple of blog posts by Elly O’Brien and Laura Woods. My take on this as a thing is entirely personal, but having grown up in a working class household in Kent (where we have selection whereby at age 11 you are either sent to a grammar school with supposedly higher standards of learning or a state comprehensive) I can identify with the notions of being somewhat of a fraud. What was interesting was hearing how this feeling manifests itself in those from a middle class background. I’d roughly characterise this as:

“I shouldn’t be here” (working class) vs “I’m not measuring up to the expected professional norm” (middle class)

That’s a rough approximation (obviously nothing is as binary as that), I’d be interested in how others view the distinction.

It was also interesting to consider the disconnect between a marketised version of ourselves and the ‘real’. The trauma of this disconnect thus provoking stress and anxiety which feeds into a feeling of being an “imposter”. It’s an interesting area of discussion when taking into account class issues as well as the neoliberal construct and the extent to which this provokes a trauma related to an unattainable ideal.

As always, I took a lot away from the day and it will take me some time to process things fully. What I have identified, however, is that sense that these discussions are becoming accepted and there have been efforts to try to incorporate them more widely in the discourse (see the recent CILIP Conference). As I have argued before though, this is a dangerous moment for those of a radical persuasion. The more ideas are incorporated into mainstream discourse, the further away they move from their radical roots. In essence: be aware of co-option. The ideas and concerns that lay behind RLC are radical in nature and sit outside mainstream discourse – that should not be forgotten.

My attention was drawn yesterday to a Schopenhauer mis-attributed quote (to Schopenhauer) I wish I had been aware of when I wrote about the journey of radical language a little while back:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

I think this is something I can certainly identify with as things have developed over the past two years.

I feel very fortunate to have been involved in two entities that have had at least some influence on general discourse relating to our practice. Both Voices for the Library and RLC have been (and continue to be) things I feel fortunate to be associated with. Not only because of what they represent and what they have achieved, but also because they have enabled me to collaborate with people I hold in high regard and have a huge amount of respect for. Whilst I do reflect on what they have achieved thus far with a certain degree of “how on earth did this grow into something?”, my focus is always on the process of building and pushing things forward. So I look forward to the continual construction of infrastructure with fellow radicals in order that we can continue to build solidarity and mutual support in the face of an ideology to which we are united in opposition.

* Further to this, I am looking at establishing (alongside fellow like-minds) a radical library chat with the first one being a discussion of Althusser’s ideas. I hope to get this up and running within the next two weeks so keep an eye on RLC for details.

Is there a class divide in reading habits?

There’s more to reading than books… (image c/o nate bolt on Flickr).

There was a flurry of tweets and comments this morning in relation to the media coverage of a survey commissioned by the Booktrust on the reading habits of 1,500 adults across England. The Guardian claimed that:

New research shows a stark and “worrying” cultural divide in the UK when it comes to reading, with half the country picking up a book at least once a week for pleasure, and 45% preferring television.

The BBC headlined their piece:

England ‘divided into readers and watchers’

The problem is, the much of the media coverage has been a little confusing. Take this section from The Guardian’s piece:

The England-wide survey of the reading habits of 1,500 adults by the University of Sheffield says that on average, the higher the socio-economic group that someone is in, the more often they read: 27% of DEs never read books themselves, compared with 13% of ABs, while 62% of ABs read daily or weekly, compared with 42% of DEs. Reading charity Booktrust, which commissioned the research, believes its findings should serve as a warning that “Britain’s divided reading culture is a barrier to social mobility”.

This is where I started to question the survey and its reporting. One minute the Guardian claims it reveals how often people read, the next it talks about books. It hardly needs spelling out, but reading does not necessarily equate to reading books.

According to the reporting of this survey’s results, I could read the Guardian (or the BBC) online every day without ever touching a book and yet I would not be considered a ‘reader’. Indeed, I would be considered a ‘watcher’ who would rather watch TV than read. But if I am reading the Guardian’s website on a daily basis, surely that makes me a ‘reader’? Likewise, if I read a magazine, a newspaper or content on any other website, that would also make me a ‘reader’. But according to the reporting of this survey, I am not a reader which seems a bit odd given that I regularly, well, read.

I would guess that, in reality, very few people do not read at all. Of course there are those who cannot read or experience difficulties trying to read, but even then I would imagine the proportion is relatively small. Drawing wide-ranging conclusions and drawing a class division based on the reading of books specifically (and I know people who read but don’t read books) is, in my view, a little simplistic to say the least.

This is not to say that I don’t think there is possibly a problem here that needs addressing. We should certainly be encouraging the reading of books in all their forms, particularly in encouraging children to learn to read. However, as Christopher Warren points out, the report also focuses on book purchasing and does not consider books borrowed from public libraries. This also rather skews the results as it makes the obvious point that those with money buy more books.

So, is there a class divide in reading? Maybe, maybe not. There’s currently no hard evidence to suggest that this is the case, and this survey certainly doesn’t address that particular point. It’s misleading to define reading solely as ‘reading a book’ and it is equally misleading to only draw conclusions based on book buying and not incorporate book borrowing. Despite the media headlines, there is very little to get too worked up about here, other than the media headlines themselves.