What does it mean to have a tactical relation to opportunity? What is an ‘opportunity’? What are the affects of ‘opportunity’?
Mel Gregg has an excellent post In Praise of Strategic Complacency over at Home Cooked Theory. In it she is critiquing of the neoliberal discourse through which most academics are encouraged to understand their careers. A key term in this neoliberal discourse is ‘opportunity’. Mel writes:
It’s not enough to have gotten the job. No, landing the job is just the first step in a constant process of planning, assessing and maximizing “opportunities”. From now on, there will be little if any time to sit back and acknowledge your achievements, and yet part of what I want to suggest today is that you must fight for this time. And beware of people offering “opportunities”!
The model of worker that is rewarded today is that which is endlessly, limitlessly productive. The university will take everything from you if you let it. There are minimum performance levels but you’ll note that there are no maximums.
Mel warns that “there is no temporal or spatial limit to the networked information economy that employs you”. Rather than the entrepreneurial grind of ‘maximising opportunity’ she challenges us to rethink academic practice on a number of levels. See her post for the details.
I’ve previously written about the ontology of opportunity. The discourse of ‘opportunity’ belongs to the master narrative of neoliberalism. From a structural perspective, the role of government, business and social institutions is to ensure that subjects have access to ‘opportunities’. The discourse of opportunity is couched in the language of self-actualisation (bordering on ‘self-help’) and entrepreneurialism. Capitalising on an opportunity requires a strategic view that locates the present in the context of a particular set of future outcomes. ‘Opportunity’ is a process, a practice and an event. More useful for thinking through the ontology of opportunity is the example of workplace relations (based on a previous post discussing Scale, Events and Object Oriented Philosophy).
‘Opportunity’ as a Mode of Neoliberal Governance
One of the central problems with the neoliberal discourse of ‘opportunity’ is that it presents an ontology of an ‘open’ future encouraging self-governance that smuggles in micro-teleologies. A useful way to think about this ‘open’ future of opportunity is in terms of a ‘contingency’. There is a ‘pay-off’ horizon where our tacit knowledge/appreciation of a given situation allows us to know what the ‘return’ (as in return on investment ROI) will be for a given opportunity. We are encouraged to seek out opportunities that push these boundaries.
Sometimes that ‘opportunity’ is one we are presented with (as Mel notes!). There is a continuum of opportunity that is differentiated by relations of futurity made possible by the character of contingency around which opportunity is organised.
1) If opportunity is presented by those in power (such as a manager/mentor to a worker/junior colleague), then the contingency is often disciplined in accordance with the outcomes of productivity demanded by the managers (or embodied institutional ‘outcomes’ by the mentor so they can be inherited via apprenticeship) and the way surplus value is extracted from the worker’s labour. This inherits the strategic relation to opportunity as reproduced by existing power relations between managers and workers, etc.
2) If opportunity presents ‘itself’, then it is because the contingency of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market have not been actualised. A new relation to the market can be actualised. This often happens for academics when shooting the breeze at conferences, through social media/blogging, and the like.
3) If a worker creates ‘opportunity’, then it is because he or she has critically appreciated the mechanics of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market in its virtuality (an example of what Deleuze called the ‘fourth-person singular’ and the practice of counter-effectuation); that is, the worker does not perceive the situation though the identity and horizon of experience of a ‘worker’ per se. The worker actively differentiates a new set of relations that can only be apprehended through action. This is a tactical relation to opportunity.
To enfranchise workers in the emergent entrepreneurial mode of workplaces organised by neoliberal discourses means equipping them with the capacity to appreciate the dynamics of managerial techniques and apprehend new conditions between labour and the market through the praxis of their own labour. It is not a matter of grasping the relations between specific individuals or objects (big or little) but of appreciating how the relations between individuals are actualised and differentially repeated in the actual conditions of experience.
Affects of ‘Opportunity’, Failure and Success: Between
I originally wrote about the event mechanics of opportunity in terms of parenting, but a similar paternalistic relationship can exist between mentors and junior colleagues. The disappointment of failing to ‘live up to expectation’ is evidence of an ‘opportunity failure’. The opportunity in these circumstances may have been produced for one person (say, a junior colleague) by others (mentor). Mentors are disappointed because the relations of futurity in part produced by them for their junior colleagues are not actualised in the way they expected. The mentors know the future in the sense they can draw on experience to produce their own expectations. If a junior colleague is talented and does not follow the relations of futurity produced by their mentors in a way that the mentors expect, then according to the mentors’ respective expectations, an opportunity is lost. Expectation here works to discipline relations of future; an expectation is a colonisation of futurity.
Beyond this paternalistic relation is more of a symbiotic or even quasi-parasitical relation between colleagues in a single workplace or distributed across the virtual ‘office’ (virtual in both Deleuzian and popular ‘online’ senses). I’ve focused mostly on the unknown dimensions of ‘opportunity’ and how these are transformed through practice into ‘outcomes’. An experienced-based knowledge of the topology of ‘opportunity’ is therefore produced through this experience. The striving required on behalf of a subject to actualise opportunities in practical ways has an explicitly affective dimension. Mel discusses this in terms of having a baby: “We have amnesia about how painful it is, because the end product is so amazing. To push the analogy: try to remember the pain, and that it can be very hard to make happen by force!”
There are multiple ‘activation contours’ which the subject of opportunity is mobilised by and passes through complex co-assemblies of affect. Here is a list of related affects-as-poetics; a beginning:
1. Hope. The wandering (Spinozist) joy of possible futures combined with a pragmatic investment of desire to realise these ideals.
2. Manic waiting. When you feel like you’re overwhelmed by a desparate unactionable urgency to act. Nervous, anxious, but forthright and awake at 3am.
3. Impassage. Portmanteau derived from Lyotard’s analysis of Kant’s ‘enthusiasm’. There is an impasse that serves as a passage; the impasse is at the dawn of Rumfield’s unknown unknowns. (I can’t go on, I’ll go on. The two I’s straddle the impasse; they are differential repetitions, etc.) Affirmation; joy, but in the trenches.
4. Grind. The end is in sight. Warding off hope, but allowing it to inhere or subsist just beyond the horizon of apprehension (the possibility of possibility, actualised as a virtuality). Steady as it goes, this is a hug from a modernist sculpture suffering from angles.