Yesterday, upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away
– William Hughes Mearns, 1899
Burning your reserves to establish just how “professional” you and your colleagues are is not a new activity. Workers in almost every occupation have, at one point or another, expended a considerable volume of blood, sweat, bile and a whole shelf of other secreta in pursuit of the question of just where in the pecking order their avocation lies.
The matter is especially loaded in those occupations sometimes described as “semi-professional” because of the dubious not-quite-status one acquires from living on a fault line, classic examples being teachers and social workers (my preferred colleagues for interpreting work). Liminality is both sexy and corrupted, and is very much a characteristic of the era: it is no coincidence that popular culture in the West is currently heaving with tales of vampires, zombies and morally ambiguous superheroes having torrid and needlessly complex liaisons and daddy issues on the eve of apocalypse. Identities are not what they were. The ink on everyone’s labels is running, like the tear-streaked mascara on a hard-working but second rate drag queen.
But even in the proper world of proper grown-up work, the wider questions of what a profession really is and whether it is desirable, useful or indeed possible to be a member of one are typically left unasked. It is all just assumed. Professionalism is an ideology: magically levitating, but you can’t see the strings. Challenging it takes some persistence and will probably be seen as a threat. If you have difficulty with professionalism, you must not be professional enough.
We forget (so easily) that the very broad concept of “a professional” is socially constructed, and like much else built out of bits of language and history, from semi-conscious mass participation in medial ephemera, the idea is really a bit of a dog’s breakfast. We construct an infinite variety of narratives about ourselves in our continually renegotiated attempts to make sense of anything: one story of “what a professional is” is never quite repeated, but cultural themes will re-occur. White coat, grey suit, red robes: the symbols of the old professions of doctor, accountant and judge have been created by a continual process of broadcast and regurgitation (literature, film, pub banter) that began in the Middle Ages; they are almost universally, if unconsciously, recognised. I knew I’d really graduated as a “master” of my “art” only when I saw the fuck-off-huge gold sceptres those blokes were nonsensically hefting at the ceremony.
“Professionalism” is not only symbolic but archetypical, a super-class, an abstract interface: a “profession”, a specific instantiation of professionalism, is more of a stereotype. For example, assuming some common cultural background, I can say “nurse” to you and can reasonably predict you are now thinking in terms of either Angel or Slut (and that’s just the boys). In 2014, Monty Python performed for the final time the sketch where the chartered accountant wants to be a lion tamer and everybody rolled around clutching their sides as if it were still 1969. An accountant who wants to be a lion tamer is silly.
We all “just know” what “professionalism” is, and of course, we all want to achieve it if we’re not certain we already did; we want desperately to hang on to it if we think we might have. Professionalism is inescapably bound to aspiration, because a professional is good marriage material; a professional has the respect of the community; a professional has power over the lives of others and is therefore a repository of trust, with responsibility and competence and integrity. A professional commands a rare wage, a prestigious status. A professional is an expert practitioner of an incomprehensible art, mysterious: much, much more than a mere “worker”. Small wonder we all want to be one.
There’s just one small problem: there is no such thing as a profession.