Predictable Identities 25: External Control

This entry is part 25 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

My psychiatrist friend deals with a richer slice of New Yorkers, and she describes a common pattern. Her clients recount an abusive relationship or job that is pushing them to the verge of suicide. But they can’t leave, it is the only thing more dreadful than staying. Sometimes they admit the true issue: if I’m not [X], I don’t even know who I am.

Identities can control us. And other people can control our identities, grant them to us and withdraw them. My friend’s clients contemplate death, but the alternative is the death of the story they tell themselves.

Esther Perel describes how identity comes into play in relationships. Historically, marriage used to be about what you do (produce kids and/or feed and clothe them) or what you have (an alliance with the Habsburgs). But modern romance is about being loved for who you really are inside, not trivialities like what you bring to the table. This builds an identity of specialness: soulmate, the missing piece, the only one. As divorce and infidelity are becoming more common than ever they are also more painful, shattering one’s life story along with the relationship.

Not to be outdone by romance, companies also jumped on the identity-producing game. Jobs used to be described in terms of action: “glue together 170 widgets a day”. Now they describe a persona: “leader in the space” / “embodiment of our culture” / “inspiring team member”. You no longer merely work at BigCorpInc; you’re a Googler, Postie, Amazonian.

But these manufactured articles lack the predictive power that imbues identities with potency. Can you tell much about a person from the fact that they’re a Microsoftie? But some identities have predictive associations that were accumulated over centuries. Those who grant and withhold them possess great power, ripe for abuse. 

Yes, we’re going to talk about academia.

Series Navigation<< Predictable Identities 24: Anti-IdentityPredictable Identities 26: Academic Identity >>

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About Jacob Falkovich

Jacob is so proud of his blog,, that it's on his online dating profiles. He also tweets @yashkaf.


  1. Can you tell much about a person from the fact that they’re a Microsoftie?

    The post-structuralist corporation still tries to form souls, just like all institutions did but now they are doing it using emotionally charged ideas, which are supplementary to their own being. They create fantasy C-level positions in order to child care adults. They try hard not to appear like sociopaths and become strange, hybrid beasts in that process: rich and powerful monsters with feminine traits. No wonder they are so woke, as they are the truly transsexual, transracial and non-binary gender, far more than any biological individual can ever hope to become.

    Being a corporation, creating products and selling stuff isn’t good enough anymore. People ( or their proxies in the media ) are loathing capitalism. It’s much cooler to be an NGO, engaging for world peace, acting against climate change and surfing the N+1 th wave of feminism. They are seduced by the ideas of social and ecological responsibility, as they believe that this is what the society wants from them and makes them more likable – other than what most members of a society expect from the economical sphere and its subjects, other than services and material output: affordable living, a stable income, a little self determination despite having to work for others, being laid back at the workplace …

    • …now they are doing it using emotionally charged ideas, which are supplementary to their own being

      This doesn’t make sense in the context of the rest of the reply. The ideas are only supplemental with respect to the traditional corporation, perceived as a rather simple, profit driven market subject without much inwardness. Professionalism was precisely not an inner state of the soul. The post-structuralist corporation discovered its inwardness, its human-value compatibility ( woman, PoC, non-binaries … ) and now this has become a matter of care, redesign, self-promotion and political agency.

  2. I worry about people losing their sense of worth as AI continues to encroach upon and trivialize human creativity.

  3. A corporate persona actually has tremendous predictive value, because people will perform that persona or risk not getting promoted or even fired for not being a good cultural fit. It’s predictive because it is the output of a deep acting control process, or if it isn’t, then the person faking it more superficially is actually putting themselves under greater psychological stress by not transforming their internal emotional machinery to produce context appropriate feelings.

    These are useful not just because the modes of interaction they propose are useful, (and this can definitely also be true) but because investment in the persona provided by the workplace, transformation of your emotional habits to make sense within a highly altered context, are precisely what makes leaving and going somewhere else incomprehensible to the habituated: They are non-transferable identity skills.

    Of course, if someone does find the mask fits conveniently, these individual instances of the overal corporate identity can become something more, a source of pride, of shared memory, common ground between divisions etc.

    The desire to make an employee out of a useful stranger can have many advantages in terms of sticking people in place and providing reliable interchangable units, even if it also diminishes cognitive diversity and productive variation in approach. Even amazon’s corporate identity of conflict and one-upmanship, ostensibly something encouraging heterogeneity, can drown out approaches that gain advantage from caution, intuition and empathy. And this uniform drive for supremacy could eventually drive them off a cliff of being considered generically evil despite their otherwise good customer service.

  4. It’s interesting to think of how people are increasingly defining their identities according to their employment at a time when corporations increasingly have become psychopathic. Maybe it’s unsurprising that psychosis and personality disorders are on the rise.

    But of course, we are mostly talking about the middle-to-upper class, a small portion of the workforce. This kind of corporate identity has gained such prominence because our political and media system focuses on this narrow demographic.

    Most people in our society are still relatively poor without job security. About half the population is unemployed, unemployed, or so underpaid to not be able to pay the bills. That is why the majority on welfare are also employed.

    Keep in mind that three-quarters of the population doesn’t even have a college degree, much less a professional career. Employment is not what defines this permanent underclass. Or at least not specific employment.

    Earlier in life, I worked minimum wage and was below the poverty rate. I had various jobs: cashier at a Hy-Vee grocery store that prides itself as “employee-owned,” a floor person at a Holiday Inn, janitor at some small local businesses, and dishwasher at a university cafeteria. Trust me. None of these defined my identity.

    • It’s much easier to talk about “predictable identities” in socio-economic contexts when one moves out of modernity, back to the age of the craftsmen/trader guilds. A guild imposed a set of rules upon its members. The rules made the individuals legible but this was a desired state to be in. Quarrels were less of a political nature, but related to honor violations.

      Guilds were very much the anti thesis to commercial freedom but they kept the state small, which doesn’t mean it lacked power. They were square not only to modern economies, but also to modern political ideologies. Objectively they lost to industrialization and wage work without recovery. Some of their legacy is preserved in unions, but unions were never rendering the socio-economic system, they do exist despite of it as some kind of resistance.

  5. EelFletchings says

    “Since modern man experiences himself both as the seller and as the commodity to be sold on the market, his self-esteem depends on conditions beyond his control. If he is “successful”, he is valuable; if he is not, he is worthless. The degree of insecurity which results from this orientation can hardly be over-estimated. If one feels that one’s own value is not constituted primarily by the human qualities one possesses, but by one’s success on a competitive market with ever-changing conditions, one’s self-esteem is bound to be shaky and in constant need of confirmation by others. Hence one is driven to strive relentlessly for success, and any setback is a severe threat to one’s self-esteem; helplessness, insecurity, and inferiority feelings are the result. If the vicissitudes of the market are the judges of one’s value, the sense of dignity and pride is destroyed.”

    “His prestige, status, success, and the fact that he is known to others as being a certain person are a substitute for the genuine feeling of identity. This situation makes him utterly dependent on the way others look at him and forces him to keep up the role in which he once had become successful.”

    – Erich Fromm

  6. Thanks for this perspective! I worked 7 years in a company that was big on creating identity, I cringe at the memory of drinking the cool aid 😀 I thought everyone who left, what I can now see was a toxic environment, was moving on to lesser stations in life. Then the inevitable creeping corporate takeover happened, my boss got shunted to a nondescript role and I was asked to follow a few months later. Almost ate that crow because of the identity crutch but a friend encouraged me to expand my horizons and I found another job and jumped ship. It’s been 6 months now and I haven’t been this relaxed since 2011.

  7. I’m pretty uneducated and all and I’ve had a few shitty jobs over the years. It’s funny I think about them in terms of what my boyfriend’s parents will think of me when I tell them what I’m doing. They just want to know we’re okay, and saying “I’m working at a bookshop” somehow sounds a little bit better than saying “I’m working at a supermarket”, even though the day-to-day tasks of both those jobs are actually very similar. Partly this need for identity-through-job comes from the, I wouldn’t say shallow, but rushed nature of a lot of human interaction. People ask you “What do you do?” and you need to have an answer. Sometimes what I do doesn’t have an easily recognisable name, and then I’m forced to describe what I actually do. This is boring and confusing to people. The interaction is unsatisfying. Of course, what you wrote about academic identity is directly relevant to this. It’s so much better to be able to say “I’m doing a PhD on this” than “I’m just really, really interested in this and spend a lot of time researching it”.