politics of the hap

Being Twentysomething: The Question Mark Decade
May 19, 2011, 2:17 pm
Filed under: Subjectivities | Tags: , , , ,

As recent research has ‘revealed’, twenty-somethings are increasingly experiencing a ‘quarter-life crisis’. Leaving education and the relative security of home, young people are overwhelmed with concerns about money and debt and the pressures of building a ‘career’. This has resulted in a great deal of insecurity and a suffocating sense of disappointment as idealism has given way to monotony.

This isn’t how it was supposed to be. We are meant to be having the time of our lives, right? Somehow though the naive childish aspirations didn’t hold up to the experience of living in the ‘real world’ after all, dissipating to leave behind only exhaustion and indifference. Observing the twenty-somethings around me, this appears to be a relatively accurate description of the present phenomenon. I doubt however that this is specific to ‘my’ generation, despite having our own historically situated difficulties (i.e. cuts, cuts and cuts), but rather a far more universal story to do with the struggle to build/maintain what we define as our ‘identity’.

Some young people do of course appear to make the transition from child to adult well. This is evident through browsing the Facebook profile of people you went to school with; some are married, engaged, with children, working in ‘proper’ jobs. You have to remind yourself that they started off in life at the same point as you, yet somehow achieving things that remain elusive in your own life. Worse, I still remember when they wore shell suits and I played pogs with them in the playground, how and when did they grow up?

Generally though I think an increasing amount of young people, perhaps especially those in London or big cities, would identify with the experience of twentysomething Emma, a central character in David Nicholl’s current bestseller One Day – The one with an orange cover seen being read by multitudes on the Tube (I read it in private as a bit of post-Michel Foucault frivolity):

Emma’s mid-twenties had brought a second adolescence even more self-absorbed and doom-laden than the first one. ‘Why don’t you come home sweetheart?’ her mum had said on the phone last night, using her quavering, concerned voice, as if her daughter had been abducted. ‘Your room’s still here. There’s jobs at Debenhams’ and for the first time she had been tempted.
Once she had thought she could conquer London. She had imagined a whirl of literary salons, political engagement, larky parties, bittersweet romances conducted on Thames embarkments. She had intended to form a band, make short films, write novels, but two years on the slim volume of verse was no fatter, and nothing really good had happened to her since she’d been baton-charged at the Poll Tax Riots.
The city had defeated her, just like they said it would. Like some overcrowded party, no-one had noticed her arrival, and no-one would notice if she left.

Being a big fish in a small pond – as I was – you grow an inflated sense of purpose as you believe you are ‘too good’ for this pitiful town, and criticize others for their perceived lack of will or motivation to improve their lives. I want to go back and slap my old self-righteous self who simply could not comprehend people who ‘settled’ in that small town. I always wanted more, more, more. So I ended up in London, with whether I admitted it or not, fantasies similar to Emma only to realize that they were, and will remain, mere fantasies.

After you arrive, you find out the city is unsympathetic and uncompromising and relentless. It rewards only those who have authority in it. As an aimless wanderer it merely amplifies your non-descriptiveness, mirroring the central dilemma of being twenty-something: the lack of identifiable identity. As a twenty-something you have the fear of being inconsequential, whilst at the same time recognising that you are in fact unexceptional. It becomes a battle of sorts, the desire for external acknowledgement as strong as the desire to escape all types of confines.

I am reminded of something I wrote at 19 – I do believe 19 was my literary height – that describes this ambiguous phase well:

When one leaves that comfortable institution of education, of schooling, the final gates of childhood, they are let out into the world where once they were something now become nothing. Nobodies, trying desperately to salvage their old identity or piece together a new one but failing dismally for their purpose is no longer the same, nor is it anything in particular. Not a woman but not a child, not a wife, not a mother, not a daughter. Nameless and seemingly insignificant, life means nothing and is nothing, for the power, the strength to change, mould a direction; hope lies still out of grasp. And will remain so until patience finally wins over the convoluted mind and the bubbling desire for action eventually subsides.

Without purpose – a named category – life can appear meaningless, as we live in a world that demands and requires tangible meanings via established social categories. This meaninglessness must be overcome we tell ourselves, as we are told by others, the confusion quashed and normality once again established. Is this not the classic recovery narrative I in my academic brain so vehemently reject? Yet there appears to be an expectation that in personal matters some form of stability should (and will) be obtained. There are certain people I know that would be both relieved and happy (allegedly happy ‘for me’ but in truth happy their understanding of the world is again unchallenged) if I were to secure a well paid job, get married and follow the well-worn narrative. In One Day the characters have a dalliance with uncertainty in their twenties but ultimately manage to conform to the normative standards of middle-class blah: marriage, children, suburban home. While One Day is hardly trying to be a radical novel in any respect (though to be fair there are a few twists in the tale) the narrative reaffirms how insecurity belongs to the twenties – the question mark decade – and settling down belong to the latter years, with an erasure of radical tendencies along the way.

But what if this uncertainty goes on and on? In my current position of 26, the feelings of anxiety over the future are exacerbated by the fact I can not foresee how things will ever change. And if they don’t, then what? What are the options then? Subsuming into passivity – settling for second best, going back to my hometown and admitting defeat or a continuation of instability, confusion and the haphazard. Are these the options? Or is something missing in this?

Recently I watched Dustin Hoffman on the insightful Inside the Actors Studio series and he commented at the end of the programme on his own haphazard narrative, describing the twenties as the ‘question mark decade’. Watch from around 10.08 mins onwards:

Hoffman touches on the implicit obligation we all face, to know the answer to the questions ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘What do you want to be? Without answers – or answers that satisfy (e.g. being a part-time stickering machine* – how I consider my job description, which is not exactly a detail that helps build a meaningful identity) – how are you to reply to the burning and preoccupying proposition: who are you and what do you mean? And of course this is the wrong question, though the imperative to pose it remains as strong as ever, particularly when you can’t pay the rent, or the heating stops working again and when everything in your life seems to be falling apart.

And so how are we to ‘play’ as Hoffman suggests, surrounded by these limitations to time, money and energy? I recall a lecturer making similar comments in a first year lecture on identity. He told us we should play with our identities, try new things and if they don’t work then try something else, for this was the time to try and fail and explore. This was very inspiring to my 19/20 year old ears, and yet I could never quite embrace this self-conscious play of identities in practice. Rather I fell into things and fell out of them mostly with negative consequences, all the while wishing for recognition as something (and awful as it sounds, inclusion).

Not knowing what will become of yourself has never been a ‘luxury’ it has been oppressive and confusing. The twenties simply become a waiting game, and as nothing happens you observe your peers fulfilling different narratives and you anxiously anticipate what outcome will be yours. But as Dustin Hoffman also pointed out, if you simply wait, for the ideal job, or to fall in love, for whatever dreams to be realised, you will die. This is a death of the childish hopes and naive idealism that drove and shaped your choices and decisions. But at what cost must we cling to these? How many obstacles are too much? How can it be that to achieve some semblance of freedom we must undergo so many restrictions, so much non-living where everything is un-, un-happiness, un-certainty, everything the non-existence of feeling. There is a limit to ‘playing’ and if you are without the necessary safety-nets (namely money) you risk simply falling through the gaps – no-one noticing your arrival and no-one noticing when you leave.

But until then we have the constant re-iteration of the same, the re-newed attempts, the re-freshing of beliefs, the re-inforcing of perserverance, the re-doing of last week’s undoing, the neverending chase for something new.

She made a firm resolution, one of the resolutions she was making almost daily these days. No more sleepovers, no more writing poetry, no more wasting time. Time to tidy up your life. Time to start again. (One Day, p. 72)

*Involving the stickering and re-stickering of various items with various stickers


Scattered Speculations
May 9, 2011, 2:39 pm
Filed under: Resistance | Tags: , , ,

Scattered speculations from a scattered mind. So much to write about yet currently lacking an appropriate frame from which to make sense/critique all which I am witness to. From the death of Osama bin Laden to The Wedding, to virginity testing to Nato leaving migrants to die to the 7/7 inquest to police withholding information over Ian Tomlinson’s death, to the AV referendum, to the continuing cuts, tuition fees debates – it is no surprise the nation appears to be subsuming into a mutual sense of melancholy, particularly it would seem my fellow peers.

And everyone has their views on everything. Obsessively reading blogs, catching the news updates on Twitter, examining the stream of comments on newspaper articles and blog posts; the immediacy and ‘democratic’ platform of online commentary often results in a overwhelming glut of opinion, that serves to gag more than it inspires the reluctant writer.

I find this a particular trend amongst the leftish ‘youth’ who now ‘radicalised’ and politicised by their recent protesting and kettling endeavours feel the need to spout their rhetoric at will. Whilst not totally critiquing this sometimes positive move, it does unfortunately result in many cases the circulation of ill-formed, biased opinion (and the incorrect usage of theory namely old favourite Chomsky, and for the more critically engaged, Deleuze). Passion and creativity have a very important place, but despite my empathy for the voices of the student ‘revolution’ I cannot help but feel it is time for a move to the next phase. Continuing to engage in counter-strategies or demanding a reversal of the current system will not get very far. Counter arguments and movements cannot rise beyond the structures they are fighting against for they are still within. Further there are many contradictions in the arguments which make easy targets for attack by not only the conservative right but people who also consider themselves left-wing. What is lacking is a coherence and more importantly a clear understanding amongst some of the young population of what and who they are fighting, who they represent and from where they are speaking from. (This is exemplified in the writing of Laurie Penny, who a 24 year old journalist of sorts has been appointed it would seem as the voice of the student protest movement. Her contradictions and bias require analysis on their own which have been critiqued by many. Suffice to say I was quite sympathetic to her cause until I saw her on ‘Young Voters Question Time – a remarkable programme if only for the remarkable density and incomprehensible nature of much of the views of its token ‘yoof’ audience -where Penny came across as disrespectful of others opinions, childish and ignorant in her blanket views).

This mentality always reminds me of my first year as a Sociology student. I remember witnessing a sort of reawakening amongst my peers as we learnt about media and popular culture and feminism and Marx and suddenly the thin veneer of ignorance was peeled away and we saw the world for what it ‘really’ was. Many people stay in this stage and this is the cause of the problem. People are arguing truth with another truth both believing there is an ultimate sovereign truth. But from where is this truth derived? And from what position are you claiming truth? The shattering of illusion is easy in comparison to a critical engagement, that requires the development of a vigilance to your position, to deconstruct the hows and whys of representation, that call in to question your very loyalties.

As an academic this scholarly rigour is mandatory and it is for that reason perhaps I find the stream of over important ill-informed babble so repugnant. However these are integral tools I feel to any journalism, or for the establishment of any coherent argument. Most importantly they allow the creation of dialogue rather than a throwing back and forth of information. Now as I write this I am sure many would believe the time for dialogue is over, and indeed that dialogue requires the flow of interaction both ways. Yet the use of words such as ‘they’ and ‘the government’ (as used by Laurie Penny in YVQT) gloss over the contingency and peculiar situatedness of context. It also reinforces categories of them and us (as in government and plebs) which again is unhelpful and promotes a juvenile idea of politics of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ that falls into the games of the media that relish simplistic narratives. I am not denying the truth of these narratives, the pre-arrests before The Wedding are a clear demonstration of the demonization of certain groups. Yet this type of anti-government rhetoric (which appears to be against governance of all forms) is at odds with the demands to increase and reinstate government support of tuition fees, EMA and so on.

It maybe the case I have been reading to much Michel Foucault, but arguments that lack any recognition of historical and political context and fail to interrogate the implications and motives of their demands are becoming tiring and also counter-productive. I find myself instead steadily moving to the adoption of a position perfectly described by the late great comedian George Carlin:

Divorcing oneself as a mere observer is perhaps not the most ideal, nor feasible, prospect. Yet with the noticable and detrimental absence of a sustainable ‘alternative’ – even if that alternative is no alternative and merely an attempt to attack from without as Herbert Marcuse detailed – then I see little way of transgressing this bind. Foucault, who profusely rejects the claiming of any ‘politics’ or to be situated in any way, perhaps can provide different strategies through problematizing rather than searching for a political formula to contain a just and definitive solution. Foucault is rarely one to advocate a strategy, but he outlines below what this could look like:

Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are. We have to imagine and to build up what we could be to get rid of (a) political ‘double bind’, which is the simultaneous individualisation and totalization of modern power structures. The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try and liberate the individual from the state, and from the state’s institutions, but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualisation which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity which has been imposed on us for several centuries.

(Foucault, (1982) ‘Subject and Power’, p. 216 in Dreyfus and Rabinow ‘Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics’.)

The creation and promotion of new forms of subjectivity is a proposition familiar to anyone acquainted with feminist writings and post-colonial critique. This is a process far less straightforward and requires better tools than occupying Fortnum and Masons. But of course occupying Fortnam and Masons is an acceptable strategy – depending on what your aims are. The question for the anti-cuts movement now is one of revising strategies in order to obtain the form of liberation Foucault outlines – one that would entail the sort of reflexivity and vigilance in order to recognize and deconstruct the forms of state linked power that have shaped individual subjectivity, involving a refusal of what you take yourself to be, or else a lowering of ambitions and a demand simply for shifts within the same system, and a return to the familiarity of what was before. Will people change themselves or continue with short-sighted ambitions? I wish I could be more optimistic about it all.