Sarah Burnside,  October 23, 2014

“So, What Else Do You Do?”

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In a recent piece on “the work fetish,” German journalist Patrick Spaet wrote that “Probably no other sentence comes up at a party as often as: ‘So, what do you do?’” Spaet noted that this question contains within it the seeds of another, unspoken inquiry: “Are you useful?” He observed that work “determines our social status: tell me what your job is–and I’ll tell you who you are.”

This inevitable question is indeed irksome, as is the underlying notion that paid work defines our worth. But the question isn’t limited to how we pay the rent. Our hobbies (those things that well-rounded adults are meant to have on their CVs) offer competing identities as well. I’m not referring to casual pastimes like watching television, drinking beer, or writing morose thinkpieces, but to the kinds of obsessive hobbies that keep us fully occupied–and lord knows, it’s important to be busy these days. No longer are we doomed to be tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor; instead, we can be CrossFitter, foodie, swing dancer, rollerderby player. It’s not just what we do for a living that defines us, but what we do for fun in our constrained leisure time. A character in the 2000 movie High Fidelity, based on the Nick Hornby novel, said that “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like.” Increasingly, and with the help of our social media posturing, the former blurs into the latter.

I’m trying to tread carefully here; in a world that has given us the phrase “brunch-industrial complex,” it’s clear that tastes and preferences are apt to be over-analyzed. Further, I don’t want to overstate the novelty of pastimes-as-identity, as subcultures have been part of western societies for many years, and hobbies are nothing new either. In his 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn,” George Orwell referred briefly to “the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life.” For Orwell, England was “a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans.”

What’s arguably new, though, is the movement of such pursuits from the private to the public realm as our hobbies and interests increasingly become part of who we are. Between Orwell’s time and ours stretches over half a century of intensifying consumer capitalism, andthe creation of identities around our interests is a marketer’s dream. A particularly grumpy Wall Street Journal article from last year on the alleged annoyingness of runners focused on what the author diagnosed as a narcissistic desire to be seen, but it also noted the consumer goods this identity can necessitate. Chad Stafko wrote:

There is Runners World [magazine], with its 660,000 subscribers, but also Running Times, Trail Runner, Runner’s Gazette and several others…Or these runners, when they’re not running, can go shopping—at a running store… Many of the shirts on the racks have running logos, motivational slogans and images of stick people running…this apparel serves a clear purpose: We can look at them and immediately know that the person wearing it is a runner—perhaps even an accomplished one.

Identity, then, is not something we’re stuck with: it can be created, developed, bought, and sold. There is certainly something liberating in being defined by what you love, rather than by your job; the two only coincide if you’re lucky. In a recent blogpost on capitalism’s war on nature, George Monbiot wrote that we “use consumption as a cure for boredom, to fill the void that an affectless, grasping, atomised culture creates, to brighten the grey world we have created.” All-absorbing hobbies serve a similar function, adding color to lives that extend beyond the confines of the workplace. They also relieve loneliness, creating identities which are collective in nature; no burlesque dancer is an island.

Nevertheless, there is something peculiar about the concept of an identity capable of being self-selected and consumed. In a thoughtful piece on the frenzied culture war that has become known as “gamergate,” videogame critic Brendan Keogh noted:

From the mid-80s onwards, the ‘gamer’ identity was created and cultivated as a particular target consumer base through gaming magazines and marketing. For the nerdy kids that could self-identify as gamers, it was something to embrace, something to be, and, for the videogame publishers, it was a known, homogenous group that can easily be marketed to. They were sold an identity, they took it, and it persists today: ‘I’ve been a gamer my whole life.’

This kind of group-creation has grown alongside the much-contested role of “identity” in contemporary left politics. “Identity politics” is commonly criticized for focusing on the narrowly personal at the expense of the structural, but such criticisms must be viewed with a skeptical eye. It would be ludicrous to argue that a person’s race, gender, or sexuality has no impact on his or her lived experiences; you might as well claim that social class doesn’t exist. Identities that are based on likes and dislikes, unmoored from the material world, are another matter entirely, however. It’s jarring to read a journalist using the language of civic participation to refer to, say, enthusiastic adult fans of My Little Pony as “the brony community.”

The growth of bespoke selves may also be part of something broader: a kind of fracturing and splintering of the ways we conceptualize ourselves. If we’re purchasing and inhabiting new identities, it’s merely a continuation of our packaging and repackaging of curated versions of ourselves, such as in that minor absurdity of modern life: the Twitter bio. Consider also the admittedly banal phenomenon of linkbait listicles that encourage us to define ourselves through a series of arbitrary criteria, and then to share the results with like-minded souls in our online communities. They are endless: 30 Problems That Only Introverts Will Understand; 23 Things Only People Who Hate People Will Understand; 8 Things Only People Who Hate Confrontation Understand; and perhaps, one glorious day, 17 Things Only Utterly Self-Absorbed People Will Ever Truly Get.

This is, then, an age of many, many responses to the question: what kind of person are you? And if the answer isn’t to someone’s liking, you can rush out and put together a new self, one which emphasizes different pastimes, exercise habits, likes, or dislikes. The eternal party-conversation-filler Spaet wrote of (“So, what do you do?”) is unlikely to disappear any time soon, but the possible answers are almost limitless–and they’re all for sale.

Sarah Burnside is an Australian writer with an interest in history and politics. She tweets at @saraheburnside.

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