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21st century binge and purge

  • 16 May 2016


I have a turquoise post-it on my wall inscribed with the word 'discipline'. It's a little severe, a bit over-the-top robotic, as if I wish I could become a finely-tuned engine.

But I work from home, and freelance, so without a boss or externally-imposed deadlines, some measure of self-discipline is required to get work done.

For whatever reason, just looking at this word 'discipline' sends my brain a reward signal. Which is creepy, which should be creepy.

In 1936, Gertrude Stein criticised the intense over-regulation of European governments. The period she lived through in France saw war, hyper-inflation, famine, and the rise of fascism — scary upshots of, perhaps, extreme bureaucratisation and over-regulation.

She compares this against an idealised form of 18th-century Enlightenment liberalism in which she suggests that free from 'organisation', individuals possessed liberty. 'Organisation is a failure and everywhere in the world over everybody has to begin again.'

Looking into the 21st century, Stein anticipated a movement against organisation — 'perhaps they will begin looking for liberty again and individually amusing themselves again and old-fashioned or dirt farming' — and, well, she was right about that: union membership is at a record low, social capital is bottoming out, while the demand for organic food — dirt farming (!) — is booming.

But she didn't predict the flip-side of 'looking for liberty again': that faced with the task of imagining freedom anew, we'd content ourselves with the freedom to hyper-self-regulate.

When my alarm goes off in the morning I reach for my phone: check mail, check ABC, check Twitter. Get up, make filter coffee, pour one. Open my diary and spreadsheet, start working. Pour my second coffee. Eat something, clock calories in. Go for a walk, pick up whatever groceries, clock calories out.


"I am certain that the way we drink and take substances is just that: an outlet, based on a fantasy of freeing ourselves from the efforts of living."


At 10am I make a judgement about how I am feeling, file it in my mood app. Open my sobriety app, bank the money I have 'saved' on booze. Email a friend, text someone. Back to work. Am I cooking tonight? Look up a recipe. Go out to the garden, think about weeding, don't weed, sometimes weed. Back to work.

If whatever I am working on isn't very interesting, this accounting for a day, after day, after day, is fairly sad. But it's also just living a life