Is prolonging “I Can” the same as saying “I Can’t”?

September 15, 2011

Jan Verweort outlines in the chapter “Exhaustion and Exuberance” from the book Tell me what you want, what you really, really want the highly performative society that we all live in. Moving beyond menial labour work, we each now ‘perform’ various duties in an effort to get things done. Transactions are no longer based on man-power but on information. Verweort is interested in the conditions in which these ideas are generated and the effect this has on a greater feeling of communality. In the midst of ‘performing’ to the requests and deadlines of others, we start to forget who these actions are ultimately serving and benefitting and whether this is stifling ourselves personally, and subsequently the community in which we operate. Underlying this idea is the broader question of political ethics – “How can we know what would be the right thing to do to make a better life possible for ourselves and others, now and in the future?” Verweort proposes that the answer to this is impossible to respond to because of the highly varying context in which it is asked, and that instead of answering this with a binary yes/no, either/or response the answer “lies precisely in opening up the space of those other options through the categorical refusal to accept the forceful imposition of any terms”. Verweort believes that we can use “imagination and the aesthetic experience” as tools in creating a resistance, by responding to performative pressures with the response “I Can’t”.

The “I Can’t” response can be purely non-active, with no alternative given, and as such operates as anti-performance, a refusal to comply by doing nothing. This approach however means you are no longer able to influence outcomes, you have removed yourself completely from the scenario. Verweort argues that we need to find ways in which the performance of ” ‘I Can’t’ [is] performed in the key of ‘I Can’ “. One possible way for this to occur is to embrace latency, which is the antithesis of our high performance culture. Because our society is so biased towards outcomes, we can become exhausted by constantly performing what is required of us. Embracing latency allows us to operate without a deadline, without outside pressure to perform, and thus can give us space for personal growth. The graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister utilises latency in his enforcing of a year long sabbatical every six years (his ideas on this policy are described in his TED talk presentation “The power of time off” http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/stefan_sagmeister_the_power_of_time_off.html). In closing his office and not taking any paid work Sagmeister uses this period as breathing space to refresh and develop ideas which otherwise get pushed aside in the constant performance of getting thing done. In this way he tells clients “I can’t” but does so in the belief that any developments or ideas generated during his sabbatical will ultimately feed back into new jobs when the time comes to say “I Can” once more. The policy appears then to prolong the eventual “I Can” for a period rather than really figuring out a new approach which would allow him to operate more reactively against ever saying a true “I Can”. This is further made evident when he outlines that he structures his “year-off” daily routine in the same manner in which he operates at work (setting aside specific time brackets for idea generation, reflection and actually producing work). Rather than embracing latency fully, the “time-off” period is still completely focused on performance with resultant outcomes, it is just in a freer environment. It is however an interesting example of somebody stopping their performative cycle to assess the ways in which their surplus energies can be harnessed or used in a different manner than that immediately requested of them. It is also worth noting that Sagmeister recognises that it is his creative energies which are his currency, and that witholding this does not devalue this currency for future transacitons.

One Response to “Is prolonging “I Can” the same as saying “I Can’t”?”


  1. Hi Tim…I think it’s you, Tim? (Be sure to sign off!) Thanks for clear comments, and especially for the link to Sagmeister! That was a really great example to forward during our discussion today. h


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