Imposter Syndrome & Depressive Utopias
Right now, a Saturday morning, I’m listening to the Pauline Anna Strom compilation Trans-millenia Music, which is ethereal and weird and intense, while the cats romp around me on the bed, intermittently climbing over to the windowsill behind me to look out. Last Saturday I watched the trippy Busby Berkeley musical The Gang’s All Here, in pretty much the same position, then, like now, feeling at the same time the cool air from outside on my back—the window is open—and the overly-steamy air of my apartment. I went down a Wiki-hole about musicals and another about Carmen Miranda, who features prominently in The Gang’s All Here and who, it turns out, later served as a sort of reference point for the Tropicália movement. I.e., both last week and this weekend, I’ve sat around and absorbed some culture and enjoyed the physical sensation of resting and passively existing in the world, and this is something I was not able to do for a long time.
I finished a doctoral dissertation a little over a year ago, and the best thing about having finished is that I’m now able to let myself get fully absorbed in things that I do not aim to study professionally. I got into academic work, as I imagine most people do, out of curiosity and interest, but ultimately found the process of writing a dissertation to have a dampening effect on my curiosity about art and, really, pretty much everything. You need to study one thing very intensely—for me it was ephemera from ’60s social movements—and there is not a lot of room for taking in art outside of that. That seems okay, and probably somewhat necessary. You’re not going to produce a book without getting super into a particular headspace. And I don’t regret that I both know about and produced some knowledge about a period of time and set of texts that still totally fascinates me.
But there’s something about assuming the role of the “expert” that feels really stifling. For a long time, I actively pushed away any engagement with anything outside my field. When I was in Detroit, I had a partner who often wanted to go to see music together. If I could fit the show into some sort of fuzzy idea of a canon of contemporary experimental art, that was close enough to things I was studying, and I would go. If I couldn’t, I would say I wasn’t really a music person and was busy with my work. Eventually something would catch my interest, and then I would figure out how to frame it in terms of the things I was already interested in. Suddenly punk music as something arising out of suburban malaise was interesting to me, and then I’d briefly be interested in punk music, since I’d roped it into a sort of official set of interests around politics and art. Of course, the history of punk and the suburbs really is totally interesting, but I had to continually center everything around my idea of my project—or really, around a professional identity. It seems embarrassing now that I paid no attention to music for years, and no attention to film unless someone had put something on my radar as being related to the things I had already decided I was interested in. But for me at least, and I think probably for others too, being in PhD school came with both a sense of always-being-too-busy and a sense of defensiveness: if I didn’t already know at least a little bit about something, I didn’t want to engage with it. As I’m writing this, I think what I’m describing sounds kind of like it’s just bad work habits, and also an over-engagement with something that ought to be separated out from one’s personal life and thought about as a job, but I know far too many people who have described similar PhD experiences for me to think that my orientation to my work was not in part structurally produced. What I’m describing also sounds a lot like depression, and I recall that a therapist once asked me, a few years back, if I ever “just enjoyed life,” and I found the question baffling and irrelevant at the time—a response which itself now seems very strange.
My way of relating to new things also sounds like classic imposter syndrome. The term “imposter syndrome,” and the idea that it’s a thing to overcome, though, really only makes sense if your lens for looking at all of this is the academic job market. Teaching decidedly doesn’t give me these feelings; I can give my students a lot, but the whole thing is really centered around eliciting learning from them. The way that expertise functions there doesn’t feel vexed at all.
But when it comes to art, expertise feels very vexed. And I’ve found going to shows, watching movies, and reading novels outside of the period and genres I work in wildly pleasurable over the last year or so. Music is probably the best. There’s no narrative for me to analyze; I can’t migrate over my literary-analysis skills the way I can with movies, for instance. I don’t have any responsibility to music. I never learned to play an instrument and cannot even keep on a beat in a spin class, so there’s no risk of me getting good at it and turning my pleasure into work. When I talk about books, lately I like describing them more than analyzing them. I wind up doing this at museums, too—describing what you see with other people often feels like it does more, in some way, than analysis. And while analysis itself doesn’t bother me—and is often something I love—I fear the way that it might fold over into a conversation located within academic discourse, about someone or other’s book, about a field, about what you have and haven’t read, and suddenly not only would I be at work on a weekend, but I’d be at the sort of work that then encompasses the things that previously marked themselves off as an outside to work, as distinctly not-work, if we take work as both the thing that one does to reproduce oneself and also an unpleasant, anxiety-producing, near-constant reminder of exactly how that goes: that you are only alive, experiencing the world, because you continually pay for your living with a large chunk of your brain and your time and your body.
Some of my skittishness about expertise has to do with art and some of it has to do with careers. The other day after work I went with my friend to eat cheap noodles and drink at a dive bar. We were in the mode of complaining about work stress, and my friend started describing other employees in his office. One, he said, was continually self-deprecating. An older guy, who always downplayed his work and the skills required for it. “That probably hasn’t helped him,” I said, “I mean that’s probably a self-fulfilling circle thing.” “Yes, definitely,” said my friend, “but it’s also the reason I like him better than anyone else in my office.” And my response was that that made total sense. Not that I’m happy that this office employee was making things harder for himself, but I do really hate the neoliberal imperative to talk oneself up constantly. And tend to dislike people who are good at it and appreciate people who are bad at it.
We’re all pretty familiar with the imperative to identify totally with one’s career, to love what you do and do what you love, etc., at this particular moment in capitalism. We know that it is bad. But it’s really struck me lately: not knowing things is pleasurable, and thinking of yourself as relatively small in relation to the world is also pleasurable. Having to talk yourself up constantly leaves no room for not knowing things and no room for a worldview that isn’t about you. It’s not that anyone is purposefully advocating the conflation of academic tasks with larger questions about life, but academia nonetheless necessitates a life built around one’s own knowledge. I have had no engagement with organized or non-organized religious or spiritual anything for the past two decades—it’s definitely exactly something I know nothing about—but a sense of deep-running agnosticism about how the world works and a sense of oneself as relatively small and decentered in relation to the general trajectory of humans/the world/whatever bigger thing there is both seem classically religious and also ... positive? Fun? Relieving? I’m not sure I even have the vocabulary to describe these things in a non-instrumentalizing way. But there is something about being a worker in neoliberal capitalism, and then even more so about being a worker in academic culture and therefore performing not just your ability to work well but also your expertise about culture—that you know everything that is worth knowing about a particular topic—that feels pretty depleting.
Imposter syndrome, or feeling inept at any job, is depressive and incapacitating and bad all around. So my aim here isn’t to suggest that such feelings are good; they are definitely terrible. But I’d like to think that the resistance to expertise is also a rejection of the conditions of our labor. In a better world, we’d be able to enjoy how much we don’t know, and enjoy the expansiveness of that—that when your curiosity leads you to learn something new, there’s always something beyond it, another thing to learn. An experience that feels crushing in graduate school—in that there is always something else to read—is actually a pleasurable phenomenon. And the idea of knowing a lot about the world is, when you think about it, horrific—it is existentially terrifying to think that one’s understanding might constitute knowing “a lot” about anything. I want to think that in our depressive insistence on our inadequacies, we’re also holding onto the utopian possibility of having our worldviews fucked up by new things, over and over again.
Marie Buck is the author of three collections of poetry: Life & Style (Patrick Lovelace Editions, 2009), Portrait of Doom (Krupskaya, 2015), and Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul (Roof, 2017). She also recently completed a dissertation, Weird Propaganda: Texts of the Black Power and Women’s Liberation Movements. She is managing editor of...