Review: Iana Robitailleon working like you mean it

Neoliberal Keywords: Creative, Passionate, Confident

Some recent dispatches from my university inbox: 

Everything Is Fine: A Toolkit for Surviving and Thriving in Grad School … 

Register for our Empowered Educator Online Conference … Leverage technology to increase students’ digital literacy and career readiness … 

The most important thing you will do in this role (and maybe your entire career!) is be a part of building the future of education for your area of domain expertise. You will design a program to teach traditional school subjects but in a non-traditional way. If you are a passionate subject matter expert who believes that technology – not teachers – is the key to unlocking students’ full learning potential, then this job is for you. 

There is something so banal, even embarrassing, in the aggressive positivity and predictable cant of these emails. Such exhortations have become ubiquitous on the corporatized university campus, where a diverse cast of players – administrators, student clubs, brand ambassadors, Christian ministries, military recruiters, corporate employers, fitness organizations, test prep companies – coalesce around a shared set of keywords. But when did we all become so empowered, passionate, and self-enterprising? And how did having those qualities get to be so important? 

Three new books address those questions, each dismantling a core myth of neoliberal discourse. In The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History, Samuel W. Franklin uncovers the contemporary premium placed on “creativity” as a product of postwar US anxiety. Passionate Work: Endurance After the Good Life, by Renyi Hong, critiques the contemporary idea of “passion” for one’s work as an affective tool for managing the disappointments, alienation, and injustices of labor under late capitalism. And in Confidence Culture, Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill contend that the contemporary discourse of self-empowerment directed at women – both a “culture” and a “cult” – represents a neoliberal strand of feminism that makes the individual responsible for improving her own circumstances rather than addressing systemic and institutional injustices. 

Together, these books provide historical context for some of neoliberalism’s most persistent idioms: grit, resilience, initiative, innovation, positive mindset, and self-improvement. The books also remind us of the stakes of language in all this. When we continue to rely on such keywords, we obscure the structural reality – and political urgency – of issues like worker precarity and widening economic inequality. Our linguistic repetition reinforces the unquestioned “truth” of the words themselves, and we thus naturalize political problems as personal ones. 

“Kindergarten teachers, mayors, CEOs, designers, engineers, activists, and starving artists, we all basically agree creativity is a good thing and we should have more of it,” writes Franklin in The Cult of Creativity. But how did we get here? What is it about creativity that is so inherently good, and does it actually offer the solution to all of our problems? 

As the subtitle of Franklin’s book suggests, the highly valued quality we call “creativity” – so ubiquitous today as to seem universal and timeless – is actually quite new. Franklin tells a story of psychologists, scholars, business management “gurus,” ad men, education policymakers, artists, and engineers who together reified creativity as immanently versatile, a trait both inherent to the individual and developable at scale. In theory and in practice, creativity became the solution to the United States’ postwar ills: anxieties over the emergence of a “mass society” and its attendant threat of “conformity”; increasing alienation in the workplace; fear of Soviet technological superiority and communitarian ideology; and the urgent need for education expansion and reform at the national level. It turns out the taken-for-granted virtue of creativity is yet another dubious invention of midcentury cold war and a product of academia’s collusion with industry. 

From our 21st century vantage point, the history that Franklin traces is at times weird, at times funny, and often eerily familiar. In his first chapter, for instance, he locates creativity’s early roots in the postwar psychology boom. As American anticommunist sentiment grew, people rejected materialist explanations for their increasing anxiety and alienation and instead turned inward. Psychologists became the bearers of new social and cultural capital. Creativity research – pioneered by psychometricians such as Joy Paul Guilford and Calvin Taylor – was a compelling sell to both industry and the private citizen, valuable precisely because it could capture the benefits of supposedly inborn, personal traits and “distribute [them] among the millions.” Not surprisingly, it was also attractive to employers and managerial scientists. Franklin offers an example of this in a 1962 panel co-convened by the McKinsey Foundation of Management Research and the University of Chicago Business School. In addition to well-known psychologists, panelists included ad tycoon David Ogilvy and famed Bell Labs physicist and “eugenicist Silicon Valley pioneer” William Shockley. Together, the participants found that highly creative employees tended to be motivated not by loyalty to an organization but by their own passions and innate entrepreneurialism. Through the right controlled methods, such creativity and passion could be cultivated in all workers and harnessed in the name of industrial progress. 

In his final chapter, Franklin turns to the new economic order that began to emerge in the 1970s, when creativity become an industry in itself. The contemporary emergence of “creative” everything – the creative class, creative cities, creative spaces – is, as Franklin writes, “the logical conclusion of fifty years of creativity discourse structuring our worldview.” And this should concern us. Creativity’s discursive entrenchment has led to the privileging of a “bohemian” capitalist aesthetics over genuine equity. It encourages individuals to understand their “career and lifestyle preferences as expressions of innate personality traits rather than as exercises in class distinction.” It normalizes the deprivations of late capitalism as a problem of individual ability rather than the product of compounded political choices. 

Hong’s Passionate Work offers a theoretical response to the post-Fordist moment where Franklin’s history ends – a moment when the technology and creative sectors refashioned the workplace as a site not only for labor but for leisure, and where workers’ relational and affective attachments would be both encouraged and regulated. This has presented a new problem that many of us are familiar with: an emphasis on autonomy, passion, creative fulfillment, and positive vibes that often comes at the expense of humane labor conditions and organizing efforts to improve them. But according to Hong, the “trade-off” thesis of post-Fordist work doesn’t fully account for today’s shifting work culture. Workers aren’t merely following their passions, nor are they being duped into an exchange of emotional fulfillment for exploitation. Rather, passion itself has become “increasingly mobilized as a shield, a means of attenuating the psychic drain of economic uncertainty and income scarcity.” 

Reaching as far back as the 19th century, Hong traces the shift from “happiness” to “passion” within modern managerial discourse; the psychological relationship between passion and resilience as responses to serialized unemployment; the growing gamification of the workplace as an expression of “compassionate imagination” and “hopeful suspension”; and, finally, contemporary coworking spaces as “urban preserves,” where freelance workers (often of the creative type) can attune themselves to the rhythms of capitalism and its promise of the good life despite the precarity of their position. 

Much of Passionate Work is so satisfying to read because it confirms and names a tension that feels deeply true. At this point, it is difficult to meet breathless exhortations for workerly passion with anything but cynicism. For many of us, a job is a job; we work because life is expensive, and the money has to come from somewhere. Even still, isn’t it also the case that for many – particularly those who entered the workforce after 2008 – whatever employment prospects do exist have been tinged by resignation mixed with existential dread? Is passion a luxury we simply can’t afford? Or is it the only thing worth working for given the deprivations and uncertainty of late-stage capitalism? 

Freelancing, as found in contemporary coworking spaces such as WeWork, is a particularly good example of this. As Hong tells it, “Coworking supports and permits the neoliberal fantasy: a belief that the decline of the middle-class good life can be stymied through self-transformations afforded by an infrastructural object,” by a passionate entrepreneurial subject who has “perfected the art of the hustle” and for whom the work of self-improvement is never done. As infrastructures of passionate, self-directed labor, coworking spaces materialize a positive aesthetics of sociality and leisure that boosts workers’ confidence and motivates them to work more, grind harder. 

Hong laments the “longer, more diverse origin story” the coworking movement might have had if it embraced early state-funded efforts to help women teleworkers balance reproductive commitments with professional ones. But, in general, an analysis of gender is not central to Hong and Franklin’s books. So how are women workers made to be and feel today? 

As Orgad and Gill would have it: confident. ”To be self-confident is the imperative of our time,” the authors contend at the opening of Confidence Culture, and that imperative is disproportionately directed at women. The emergence of this rhetoric corresponds to a postracial, postfeminist turn that claims to have moved beyond the problems of race– and gender–based inequity. The issue is no longer that women have fewer opportunities or unequal access to them; they simply lack confidence. According to Orgad and Gill, this “confidence deficit” is framed as a personal (rather than political) problem that requires women’s ongoing vigilance and psychological labor to overcome. 

What confidence has become, then, is another psychological character – like creativity, passion, resilience, or positive mindset – that the individual is responsible for maintaining as part of a “technology of self.”1 Reading a broad archive of contemporary cultural texts including beauty ads, self-help and fitness apps, women’s magazines, professional and parenting advice literature, and transnational humanitarian projects, the authors identify (and critique) the confidence imperative as a new strand of popular “feminism” retrofitted for today’s neoliberal paradigm. 

Orgad and Gill track the movement of this “confidence cult(ure)” across five domains: body confidence discourse, the workplace, personal and romantic relationships, motherhood, and international development. The chapters are systematic in their organization and offer sharp, satisfying analysis. But what I am most interested in is where the book begins and ends. The authors contextualize confidence culture as symptomatic of the broader “mainstreaming” of psychological and therapeutic discourse, a trend whose roots lie in the same 20th-century psychological turn that gave rise to creativity and passion. And, as for Franklin and Hong, a familiar character emerges at the center of this history: the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs” popularized the idea that individuals can achieve “self-actualization” only after basic necessities like food, shelter, and security have been met, an idea that – as Franklin and Hong’s histories show – became immensely useful to 20th – century managerial scientists. The more fulfilled an employee feels at work – the more their creativity, passion, and confidence are encouraged – the more productive that employee will be. Maslow’s theory of self-actualization continues to prevail in workplace management, but it has also come to inform how we live our personal lives. We must always be doing the work of self-improvement and growth, and this work is fueled by a necessarily positive mindset. We alone determine our circumstances by making the choice to do better or feel happier. 

This rhetoric of self-optimization is, frankly, as banal as it is exhausting. But it is also insidious: when we place a rhetorical premium on words like confidence or creativity or passion, larger structural problems and their solutions become depoliticized and reduced to the level of the individual. This is where Orgad and Gill ultimately leave us. Under the guise of feminist intervention, confidence today is a “gendered technology” used to manage increasingly precarious and contingent labor conditions and to justify social and economic disinvestment. 

It’s tempting to level an academic critique of “neoliberalism” as something that happens out there, or as the cause for higher education’s institutional woes: the ever-increasing casualization of academic labor and dearth of faculty positions; a professionalized, student-as-customer model of higher education; the “death of the English major” and humanities writ large. Fair enough. But hasn’t academia – with its imperatives of intervention and innovation – always privileged the qualities of individual merit, creativity, and passion? Perhaps the call is coming from inside the house. How then should scholars address the inherent tension in scholarly critiques of “neoliberal individualism”? 

Ambivalently. For Orgad and Gill, the answer is an “ambivalent critique” that explicitly acknowledges the authors’ own implication in an academic culture of confidence. Hong suggests we restore “passion” to its Latin roots, a move that would denaturalize the understanding of passion as something innate and internal to the individual, and which would instead emphasize the socially determined, collective, and contingent nature of our feelings and attachments. And Franklin, finally, calls for a radical break from the very ideas of innovation and intervention. Instead of focusing on creativity as the impetus for ever – newer and better ideas, we should prioritize ensuring that all people have the opportunity for dignity, “a sense of agency and constructiveness,” in their work – whatever the work may be.  

The Sydney Review of Books and Public Books have partnered to exchange an ongoing series of essays with international concerns. This essay, ‘Neoliberal Keywords: Creative, Passionate, Confident’, by Iana Robitaille, was originally published by Public Books on 7 June, 2023.

Works Cited

Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton, eds., Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (Tavistock, 1988).