Thursday, 4 January 2007

Succeeding and Belonging

Last summer, I had a below-the-line exchange with Pat Kane on Comment Is Free which brought into focus a set of questions about success and belonging. More recently, this theme seems to have taken over my reading and thinking - in part because it bears on my work at The School of Everything, but also because it connects many of the stories I have reported on over the last few years. It's time I started to write up some of that thinking, on here and elsewhere, so I'm going to start by revisiting that original discussion.

Pat had written an article about the way adults misrepresent children, in which he challenged George Monbiot for selective quotation of a survey that suggested 16% of young people "believed they would become famous, probably by appearing on a show like Big Brother". What Monbiot didn't mention was that the young people questioned also aspired to imitate figures like Richard Branson, JK Rowling and even Tony Blair. Commentators, as Pat rightly pointed out, are often too quick to caricature young people.

Even so, I suggested that there was a deeper and more important issue raised by the survey:

Modern societies are proudly (if inefficiently) meritocratic - there is a great emphasis on finding meaning in personal competitive success. But the same societies tend also to have reduced chances of 'success', in its socially recognised forms. Richard Sennett, in 'The Fall of Public Man', described the emergence of the virtuoso concert pianist in the world of classical music during the nineteenth century, and the parallel reduction in the overall number of pianists able to make a living from their skill, as giant concert halls were built and people only wanted to see star names. John Berger has written eloquently of the new gulf in quality between great artists and hack painters in the early modern period - it takes an unprecedented vision, tenacity and resilience to stay faithful to one's vocation in a society where commodification and alienation are built into the economic fabric of life.

So while it may be more encouraging that children aspire to follow Branson or Attenborough than to appear on Big Brother, is it any more likely that such aspirations will be fulfilled? And is there a problem with a relentlessly meritocratic education system that drills into young people the message that their lives will meaningful in accordance to their outward, competitive success?

One way of challenging the supremacy of success as a source of meaning would be to rehabilitate the value of belonging - of knowing one's place, not in the demoralising sense of one's position in a league table, but in the inspiring sense of valuing the specific, the local, that which slips through the net of use- and exchange-value. Such talk is easily heard as reactionary and Prince Charlesish - but the extrication of the radical sense of belonging from its reactionary twin is an important challenge in a time when so many of the assumptions of modern society are already in question.

I think I still agree with most of that - and I know that it's a subject I can't leave alone.

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