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The Rhetoric of Contemporary Excellence

Thomas Muntz

From the course: Rhetoric, Culture and Democracy

About the Lecture

The goal of the lecture is to problematize the way excellence has become such a dominant rhetorical instrument in modern culture. Examples for this will be drawn for instance from pop-culture (almost half our tv-programs consists of so called ‘talent shows’, shows wherein both amateurs and celebrities provide us with entertainment through either horribly failing or heroically excelling at singing, dancing, skating, baking etcetera), but also from developments in the labor market. Take, for example, the warehouses of Amazon, in which workers de facto function like robots, although they are not called warehouses, but ‘fulfillment centers’.

This lecture will then move on to analyze the notion of excellence in modern day work and study experiences. For this the lecturer draws on the theoretical framework from the books The Spirit of New Capitalism (1999) and The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1983), the notion of narrative self from French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), and an interpretation by Ricoeur from my UvA-colleague dr. Coolen who is currently working on a very interesting theory of work, burn-out, and narrative identity.     

The lecture will start with an explicit comparison between on the one hand excellence (perfectionism) as an ancient concept, connected to ‘agonism’, the emphasis on contests in the Greek world and ancient notions of heroism, and on the other hand modern excellence that is (weirdly and problematically) both ‘deeply romantic’ and ‘highly mechanical’.

Broadly the analysis proceeds as follows: it is typically modern to have your identity depend on your work, your career or your position in ‘the labor market’.

It is also typically modern that we have both a romantic view of the world and ourselves, and to have an ‘enlightened’ or mechanical view of the world and ourselves. This presents modern people, workers, students, with a very ‘hard command’: you have to work for your living (“you don’t work, you don’t eat”), you have to be efficient (which is the mechanical view of the self and society) but also, you have to be passionate about it – you have to love your job. 


In terms of Ricoeur, modern man creates an identity of herself by creating a narrative of herself, your job (also when your ‘job’ is ‘student’) features heavily in this narrative of identity. (Here the lecture will illustrate this point with rhetoric used by companies, universities and future employers that center around ‘excellent’ workers/students/candidates).


In striving for modern excellence you narratively construct a personal identity of someone who does the job really well, but also whose job is her passion – in all the senses of the word. This leads to a form of ‘fragility’, meaning that the inevitable failures of our (work) life become not problems, but crises.

This, to conclude, gives us a framework to analyze at least two typical twenty-first century ailments as instantiations of these work-identity-crises, namely: burn-out and perfectionism. Burn-out as a failure to discursively connect the reality of your working practice with the ideals of your identity (an analysis the lecturer draws from the work of dr. Coolen) and perfectionism as the other way around: when your ideals and notions of excellent work inhibit you from actually, practically working.

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