The cult of productivity
The cult of productivity
  • Quynh Thuy Truong
  • 승인 2021.05.11 10:42
  • 수정 2021.05.11 15:30
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Division of International Studies
Quynh Thuy TruongDivision of International Studies
Quynh Thuy Truong
Division of International Studies

​​​​​​​capitalism got inside my head and made me think my only value is how much i produce
for people to consume
capitalism got inside my head and made me think
I am of worth
as long as i am working

From “Home Body” by Rupi Kaur


Three months ago, I was an enthusiastic self-tracker who kept record of how many hours I slept, how many pages I read, and even how many ounces of caffein I consumed a day. Now I have simply quit all of those habits, exiting the quantified-self movement. It is this sensational experience that caused me to question the nature of self- surveillance and, especially, the power relations embedded in it. From personal inquiries of how I felt compelled to engage in self- surveillance in the first place and how I was empowered to resist the practice, I embarked on the path of exploring the multidirectory power relations inherent in the practice.


Self-surveillance is the act of quantifying, datafying, and objectifying one’s own body and everyday life, targeted at quotidian behaviors and activities such as sleeping, eating, working, and even showering. Against this backdrop, the Foucaultian idea about an inevitable existence of power relations integral to any surveillance practice poses the question of who is exercising power over whom and how ‘power’ is intertwined in the relationship between the watcher and the watched.


On the one hand, the practice of self-surveillance seems to harbor an invisible actor in power that is the larger normative society. Despite being the active watcher, individuals committed to the quantified-self regime can be argued to only be facilitators or mediators of the practice instead of the one waging control over their own behaviors. First, the origin of the practice can shed light on the power the society has over individuals’ choices to track or surveil themselves. The concept of rationalization is tightly interwoven into surveillance practices as a predominant source of justification. Similar to how the age of modernism gave rise to the obsession with productivity, efficiency, and optimization, the boom of self-surveillance could be attributed partially to this preoccupation of modern human beings. ‘Self-improvement’, ‘effective’, and ‘rationality’ are buzzwords defining the quantified- self movement.


However, the self-tracking trend could also be traced back to post-modernist concepts such as liberalization, individualism, adaptability, and flexibility. As articulated in “The Wellness Syndrome” by Carl Cedestrom and Andre Spicer, post-Fordism generations are expected to navigate the extreme uncertainty and chaos of liquid modernity era by turning inward for supposedly internal stability or internal strength. Self- surveillance has, therefore, become a predominant tool of tracking every activity related to one’s health and thus a tool of objectifying one’s body. The recent limelight on fitness, yoga, and dieting must be read in the light of the simultaneous intensification of work life under the post-modernism age. Workers are demanded to play the roles of both diligent employees and self- love gurus. In other words, the desire to quantify one’s habits of eating, exercising, sleeping etc. is congruous with the post-modernist pressure upon individuals to treat their own bodies as the “truth system”, where they can find the constant “immediate reality” non- existent elsewhere in the liquid modern cosmos of uncertainty and precariousness.


On these insights rests the argument about how the society exercises power upon individuals in operation of this phenomenon. First, the frantic social pressure for increased productivity, enhanced efficiency, and optimized work life has put a stigma on resting, taking breaks, or any other activity not regarded as producing profits. The obsession with productivity, therefore, goes hand in hand with the unspoken – and seemingly, unnegotiated - denunciation of all other working styles and methods. In other words, on the scale of socially approved workers, one is either restlessly climbing the ladder of extreme productivity or being marginalized on the periphery of the society. The almost religious celebration of efficiency and productivity, rooted in the boom of industrialization during Fordism, classifies individuals into the binary boxes of ‘efficient valuable workers’ versus ‘inefficientunvalued workers.’ The fanatical pursuit of self-tracking for the sake of minimizing ‘unprofitable’ time thus should not be considered a voluntary act emanating from individual free will but a choice people are deliberately nudged into by imperceptible social norms.


At the same time, the post- modern society has dictated that self-surveillance is essential to what has been coined “sugerego- injunction to enjoy”. This superego demand, described in “The Wellness Syndrome”, refers to the command from the post-Fordist society that human beings enjoy life. Enjoying life has become an obligation instead of an ideal situation, while negative emotions and unhealthy lifestyles are frowned upon as failures or defects of a human life instead of signifiers of structural social problems.


The demonstration of such power is visible in the effects of the self- surveillance practice upon self- trackers. Self-awareness, self- discovery, or self-exploration are concepts that permeate the discourse on wellness and self- surveillance. It is these concepts that assume individuals’ natural or inherent ability to choose health, to choose happiness, or to choose well-being. By encouraging people to look inward for ‘the answer’, the movement is portraying oneself as the only barrier toward a happy life, disregarding every structural social problem that has been hindering personal well- being. As existential crises and problems are re-conceptualized as a matter of weak willpower and ignorance, individuals are labeled the sole autonomous, free-willed actors responsible for overcoming whatever is standing between them and a healthy, happy life. “Wellness is a choice” – when this message underlying the self-surveillance movement is internalized by self- trackers, they outsource some of the most intimate aspects of their life to numbers and data yet insource all of the responsibilities for well- being. The historical, social, cultural, generational, and familial constraints they have to tolerate immediately fall out of the picture due to this mentality.


Under such a context, self- trackers fall prey to unnecessary anxiety and guilt. The sense of moral obligation inflicted upon self-quantifiers by the wellness movement, ironically, entails adverse consequences upon their mental and psychological health.


Quynh Thuy Truong is a student majoring in International Studies at Ewha Womans University, South Korea. Her research focuses are on identity politics, social psychology, globalization and identity, and nationalism. She is the co-founder of Yenching Academy East Asian Studies Forum.

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