Conquering Gaze from Nowhere: Meritocracy Myths, Marked Bodies, and Spoiled Identities

The interpretation of objectivity as neutral does not allow for participation or stances. This uninvolved, uninvested approach implies “a conquering gaze from nowhere” (Haraway 1988). In many ways, claims of objectivity allow one to “represent while escaping representation” (Haraway 1988) and mimics the construction of Whiteness2 in the racialization of marginalized peoples (Battey and Leyva 2016; Guess 2006). Indeed, there is extensive evidence suggesting that STEM cultural norms are traditionally White, masculine, heteronormative and able-bodied (Atchison and Libarkin 2016; Chambers 2017; Eisenhart and Finkel 1998; Johnson 2001; Nespor 1994; Seymour and Hewitt 1997; Traweek 1988). Thus, while purporting to be a neutral application of a generic protocol, science-and STEM more broadly-has a distinct set of cultures that governs legitimate membership and acceptable behaviors. The concept of a meritocracy is often used to justify who succeeds in STEM cultures. However, far from “leveling the playing field”, meritocracies exist in cultural systems that prioritize people who have, or to a lesser extent closely emulate, these traits. Success in science, then, tends to privilege cultural traits associated with the above identities and often marginalizes scientists who can not or will not perform these identities. This introduces structural inequities in the pursuit of science that align with social manifestations of racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia and ableism (Cech and Pham 2017; Wilder 2014).

Source: Genealogy | Free Full-Text | Defining the Flow—Using an Intersectional Scientific Methodology to Construct a VanguardSTEM Hyperspace | HTML

I love that paragraph on objectivity and meritocracy. It resonates with my experiences of meritocracy myth objectivity in STEM, big tech, Silicon Valley, open source, and rationalist communities. I bought a copy of Donna Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” to get “a conquering gaze from nowhere” and “represent while escaping representation” in context.

I would insist on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere. This is the gaze that mythically inscribes all the marked bodies, that makes the un-marked category claim the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation.

Source: Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective on JSTOR

That requires some unpacking, but really gets to the heart of it. The “power to see and not be seen” comes up in journalism regarding any reporter reporting on their own community. It comes up in autism research regarding autistic autism researchers and in conversations between autistic parents and parents of autistics.

Haraway’s “marked bodies” reminds me of “spoiled identities” and the masking required to fit into “cultural systems that prioritize people who have, or to a lesser extent closely emulate, these traits.”

With a pathologized status comes the experience of stigma, dehumanization, and marginalization. Stigma refers to the possession of an attribute that marks persons as disgraced or ‘‘discreditable,’’ marking their identity as ‘‘spoiled.’’ Stigmatized persons may attempt to conceal these spoiled aspects of their identity from others, attempting to ‘‘pass’’ as normal. Investigation of ‘‘passing’’ and ‘‘concealment’’ has been explored in depth in other stigmatized populations; however, the application of stigma in autism research is a relatively new endeavor. Stigma impacts both on how an individual is viewed and treated by others and how that treatment is internalized and interacts with one’s identity.

Source: A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking: Understanding the Narrative of Stigma and the Illusion of Choice

Those “who can not or will not perform these identities” are marginalized, and those who can are exhausted. Those who attempt to advocate for themselves are discredited by the conquering gaze.

Meritocracy is a myth.

Masking for a false meritocracy is exhausting.

The “objectivity as neutral” conceit of the “conquering gaze from nowhere” leads to discrediting marginalized people and, in turn, to some “bloody regressive politics”, as we saw with New Atheism.

From my perspective, though, the deepest of the rifts was the emerging anti-feminist wing and the active neglect of social justice issues.

I realized it’s destination was where it is now: a shambles of alt-right memes and dishonest hucksters mangling science to promote racism, sexism, and bloody regressive politics.

Source: The train wreck that was the New Atheism

Via:

Previously:

Collective Risk Shift: Commodifying Social Inequalities with Risky Healthcare, Risky Retirement, and Risky Credentialing

The Mass Transformation of Other People’s Risk Into Profit” reminded me of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s writing on “risk shift” in “Lower Ed”, “Where Platform Capitalism and Racial Capitalism Meet”, and “The University and the Company Man”.

Lower Ed refers to credential expansion created by structural changes in how we work, unequal group access to favorable higher education schemes, and the risk shift of job training, from states and companies to individuals and families, exclusively for profit.

Yale political scientist Jacob S. Hacker says the new economy marks both an economic change and an ideological change, each characterized by the “great risk shift” of corporate responsibility to workers and families.

Source: Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy | The New Press

The so-called 1099 workforce represents a collective risk shift from firms to individuals (Cottom 2017; Hacker 2008) that extends beyond employees to obfuscating the idea of employee altogether. Digital technologies abet that risk shift through the sociopolitical regime of platform capture. That platform capture effectively transforms workers into independent contractors.

Source: Where Platform Capitalism and Racial Capitalism Meet: The Sociology of Race and Racism in the Digital Society

In his 2006 book, The Great Risk Shift, Jacob Hacker explores “the new economic insecurity and the decline of the American dream” by measuring the shift of risk from corporations to individuals. He focuses on three trends: the erosion of company-paid pensions, the declining value of corporate-subsidized health benefits, and the use of layoffs to manage company bottom lines. To take the example of pensions: the National Institute on Retirement Security reports that in 1975, 88 percent of private sector employees had a pension plan wherein the company guaranteed benefits, but by 2005 that number was 33 percent. Rather than eating the cost of the company man’s inevitable aging, the private sector shifted the costs of old age onto individual workers, replacing pensions with individual worker-funded investment accounts like 401(k)s and the security of the organization with the volatility of the stock market.

In The Two Income Trap: Why Middle Class Parents are Going Broke, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi describe how this shift of risk to workers has changed our family lives, with rising child care and education costs driving middle-class families into economic crisis. The continuing downward pressure on wages has made things look even worse today than in 2004, when the book was first published: Warren and Tyagi didn’t consider the extra costs borne by families paying not only for their children’s tuition but their own further education, in order to stop the decline in their wages.

For the rest of us, the prescription for insecurity is more college, but colleges do not know what work to prepare us for. In the 1950s the labor market presented us with a social contract, and higher education responded. But the economic forces that brought us the great risk shift killed the company man. For those of us looking for economic security who are not fortunate or able enough to be fast-tracked into the good jobs, there isn’t much college can do.

Source: The University and the Company Man

We can’t endure the great risk shift, as noted by Sarah Kendzior in “The View from Flyover Country”.

Failure, in an economy of extreme inequalities, is a source of fear. To fail in an expensive city is not to fall but to plummet. In expensive cities, the career ladder comes with a drop-off to hell, where the fiscal punishment for risk gone wrong is more than the average person can endure. As a result, innovation is stifled, conformity encouraged. The creative class becomes the leisure class – or they work to serve their needs, or they abandon their fields entirely.

People go to college because not going to college carries a penalty. College is a purchased loyalty oath to an imagined employer. College shows you are serious enough about your life to risk ruining it early on. College is a promise the economy does not keep – but not going to college promises you will struggle to survive. In an entrenched meritocracy, those who cannot purchase credentials are not only ineligible for most middle-class jobs, but are informed that their plight is the result of poor “choices”. This ignores that the “choice” of college usually requires walking the road of financial ruin to get the reward – a reward of employment that, in this economy, is illusory. Credentialism is economic discrimination disguised as opportunity.

Source: The View from Flyover Country | Sarah Kendzior | Macmillan

“Risky credentialing” is explored by both “The View from Flyover Country” and “Lower Ed”.

Hacker identifies two major areas where American workers feel these effects: healthcare and retirement. He calls the shift from corporate responsibility for workers through pensions and health insurance to personal responsibility “risky healthcare” and “risky retirement.” To that I would add, “risky credentialing,” or Lower Ed. Declining investment in social insurance programs that, by design, diffused the individual risk of old age or health episodes exacerbates the risks associated with sickness and old age. In the same way, declining investment in public higher education exacerbates the risks associated with labor market shocks. As social insurance policies like healthcare and pensions declined, so too did public investment in higher education. Traditional colleges shifted more of the cost of a credential (or risk) to students and families with more loans and fewer grants offered, even as steep price discounting fought to hold individual costs down.

The risk for changing jobs and moving up the professional ladder has shifted to individual workers across race, class, and gender. That risk makes credentials valuable only insofar as those credentials are easy to start, easy to fit into complex lives, and easy to pay for. For-profit colleges nail that trifecta for millions of people who are similarly vulnerable in this new economy of risk shift, declining job tenure, and insecurity.

Source: Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy | The New Press

Today, creative industries are structured to minimize the diversity of their participants – economically, racially and ideologically. Credentialism, not creativity, is the passport to entry.

One would suspect that a college student who can pay $22,000 to work 25 hours a week for free in one of the most expensive cities in the world needs little help making connections. But that misconstrues the goal of unpaid internships: transforming personal wealth into professional credentials. For students seeking jobs at certain policy organizations, the way to get one’s foot in the door is to walk the streets paved in gold. In the post-employment economy, jobs are privileges, and the privileged have jobs.

What they are defending is a system in which wealth is passed off as merit, in which credentials are not earned but bought. Aptitude is a quality measured by how much money you can spend on its continual reassessment.

Namely, they have raised the price of the credentials needed to participate in the new meritocracy by such dramatic measures that it locks out a large part of the population while sending nearly everyone else into debt.

Source: The View from Flyover Country | Sarah Kendzior | Macmillan

A broad theme I take away is the commodification of inequality by shifting risk.

Lower Ed is, first and foremost, a set of institutions organized to commodify social inequalities…

Source: Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy | The New Press

More selections on risk shift from Lower Ed:

we have a labor market where the social contract between workers and the work on which college has previously relied has fundamentally changed and makes more workers vulnerable.

The new economy makes one overriding demand of education: constantly and consistently retrain millions of workers, quickly and at little to no expense for the employer. The new economy is marked by four characteristic changes to the relationships that underpin our social contract: people are frequently changing jobs and employers over their working lifetimes (job mobility); firms place greater reliance on contract, term, and temporary labor (labor flexibility); there is less reliance on employers for income growth and career progression (declining internal labor markets); and workers are shouldering more responsibility for their job training, healthcare, and retirement (risk shift).

Risk shift for those with good jobs means greater competition for less stability but still high status. Risk shift for those with bad jobs means more of the same poor labor market outcomes and fewer ways to work one’s way into a good job.

This risk shift has created an ascendant new work contract that provides fewer buffers to help workers navigate life shocks.

But as one river, these streams flow through a single valley—a time trap where the risk shift of educational costs outstrip social insurance programs like affordable childcare, the viability of investment vehicles like education savings accounts, and employer security like promotions and wage increases. For millions of people, the time trap makes a for-profit college your only practical choice for labor market entry, stability, or mobility.

Now Senator Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi called this the “middle-class squeeze” in their book The Two-Income Trap. Hacker calls this the “risk shift.” Sociologist Arne Kalleberg, in his book on good jobs and bad jobs, talks about the “hollowed out middle” class jobs.8 Of course, poor people and the working poor have long felt this squeeze, absorbed this risk, and stared down the gulf between themselves and their dreams. Essentially, even those with good jobs don’t feel like those jobs buy the same quality of life as they once did. They are right.

Source: Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy | The New Press

Tech Ethics, Roaming Autodidacts, and the White-Male Effect

The internet’s “condition of harm” and its direct relation to risk is structural. The tech industry – from venture capitalists to engineers to creative visionaries – is known for its strike-it-rich Wild West individualistic ethos, swaggering risk-taking, and persistent homogeneity. Some of this may be a direct result of the industry’s whiteness and maleness. For more than two decades, studies have found that a specific subset of men, in the U.S. mostly white, with higher status and a strong belief in individual efficacy, are prone to accept new technologies with greater alacrity while minimizing their potential threats – a phenomenon researchers have called the “white-male effect,” a form of cognition that protects status. In the words of one study, the findings expose “a host of new practical and moral challenges for reconciling the rational regulation of risk with democratic decision making.”

Source: The Risk Makers. The nuclear, auto, and food industries… | by Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly | Sep, 2020 | OneZero

That reminds me of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s observations on “roaming autodidacts”.

A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male. As a result of designing for the roaming autodidact, we end up with a platform that understands learners as white and male, measuring learners’ task efficiencies against an unarticulated norm of western male whiteness. It is not an affirmative exclusion of poor students or bilingual learners or black students or older students, but it need not be affirmative to be effective. Looking across this literature, our imagined educational futures are a lot like science fiction movies: there’s a conspicuous absence of brown people and women.

Source: Black Cyberfeminism: Intersectionality, Institutions and Digital Sociology by Tressie McMillan Cottom :: SSRN

I very much resemble the roaming autodidact. Tech and open source are full of us. It took longer than I’d like to admit for me to recognize the white-male effect in my own thinking. “A form of cognition that protects status” is an apt summary, especially for roaming autodidacts who’ve lived and believe the meritocracy myth.

See also: