Featured Image: Sally Rooney’s Normal People published by Faber and Faber
A dystopian culture games you and undermines you even before you’ve been born.
A maiming that’s a bit like Kwashiokor, starvation you are born with.
Above: The Famine sculpture in Dublin. File photograph: Frank Miller
My feeling is that we are deep inside an ideological war where there are no holds barred and winning is presented in all forms of media address as everything. As all there is. Truth is a sacrificial lamb in the service of breaking down our sense of a shared culture and trust. Reducing humanity to a business model where it’s normal to ask whether curing people is a good business model?
Dystopian culture (where there’s always only pain and brief release, never a reversible reaction, never a dialectical model of learning and understanding), doesn’t have action in it, strangely. It’s very very passive, so it’s really hard to act (listen to the interviewee at 27.31), so is also a handy disempowering tool that enables economic and political power brokers to continue to plough forward without democratic accountability: undermining counter narratives of collectivism, cooperation, social justice and mobility while raining more and more fearful and hair raising stories on our heads.
Above: Thesis=the problem or question Antithesis= what we need to go through to understand the question properly and Synthesis= How we blend and create a living solution that makes sense to anyone who looks at the problem again
But the Dystopian environment stops us looking at the dynamic nature of people, problems and their possible solutions.
Instead of detached and informed appraisal when, for example, new building and development is envisaged, planners and developers (strangely) control more of the PR of a project rather than the technical result. What the media (on our behalf), imagine is a moral high ground of the public good but actually, discussion about the impact of decision making on the quality of resources for projects for people from different parts of society doesn’t happen because it’s actually managed by technicians who in choosing a product can be defining rationed notions of public safety and safety norms.
And of course those decisions are social.
Above: the shocking result of the Grenfell Tower fire and 2 miles away the luxurious 3 Merchant Square where every flat has a sprinkler system as a norm
It’s even wider than that though, in reducing aspiration and expectation on norms….Pedestrianisation? (I’d like to walk but…crime…too many cars…keep safe, stay in the car), Planning a community park? weeeeell, they’re good in the ideal but….they encourage all kinds of people that you just ‘don’t know’ to congregate together…). Perception of crime becomes an obstacle to thinking creatively.
I thought about this quite a lot, one day, as I travelled to work, last week. I overheard a conversation between two young people from a local high school: they were talking exam stress: the impact on their friends.
We had a conversation about what the recent OFQUAL managed exam changes practically meant to them this year and the impact on students mental health.
It was a great and enriching conversation. I told them I’d blog anonymously what they’d said. After we’d talked I wondered what I thought. My first thought was whether turning the grading system upside down (9 replacing 1 as a good) had been arbitrary or carefully constructed to disorientate:
the idea of 1 is uniqueness, the idea of the self, the me with a story. Intrinsic worth, citizenship, a place in the community, the right to have a job, a home and a future.
9 is the many, you are just a number. Although it is highly significant biblically and can mean divine knowledge, the end of your journey, or great luck in this iteration, where it is forced upon an unwilling group of people it means at the current time:
‘We will tell you what we want, you will deliver it and, at any time, we can revoke your right to participate. You only have a licence to participate‘.
Is this just a perky little tweek by a bright, sarcastic programmer against the neo-liberal value consensus? A joke against ‘the parents’ and ‘the grandparents’ who think they know everything and have the pensions to show for it, while young people…well, young people have to ‘game it’ because, well, the rules of engagement with society have changed.
If the changes in the exam system are a real attempt to break with an inadequate past and let the next generations really learn and gain ability and skills, will this new system also be open to change, evolution and diversity at every level: does it understand the history of inequality, enfranchisement and shared culture? If it does, then the new 1-9 system might just have the magic we need in it.
My fear is that many of the new ways of thinking and working are coming from the alt right’s obsession with the negativity of what it calls the wrongness of identity politics rather than a natural evolution over the post war period of a fight back against what might be seen as a forbidding incarnation of a future that might be shredded before you get there if you’re not from a privileged class.
This is why archives at work, in history, culture, health, education and services are important. It’s why GDPR has a massive importance: but what we don’t realise is that the difficulties in implementing new systems in the schools are because of the way it’s done, denying the history, knowledge and understanding of the school and its community.
Above: How to Build a Community From BeMaven
I looked at the students and saw how this kind of change manifests itself in people’s faces, their conversations, their sense of normality and proportion. Their questions, their uncertainty, their growing awareness that there’s something bigger here in the school that student A’s parents paid for and Student B won a scholarship to.
How Your Face Tells Everything: Bliss Clinic
In this new exam system there is a real lack of respect for the things their families and their teachers assume as their cultural archive: the difference in the new system between reflection, choice and ownership of knowledge over the period of them attending school and their alumni so that in the school community they should be able to feel that they’ve all come to a good decision in bringing in a change.
The problem for the students is their own disappointment and realisation that in this system you have to rehearse and perform the role of the good and obedient student whilst silently imagining ways to change it, imagining incarnations of a self who can succeed but you may not ever have the chance to express them.
What is the point of an education system that over time will have fewer and fewer cultural referents: instead of contextual cues there are just endlessly changing goalposts?
Is it likely that our students, under such massive outward pressure to conform, will become increasingly depressed like japanese and chinese students and consider suicide because they ‘don’t get the grades?’
mmmmm…what did these two students think?
Bear in mind I have a relative who successfully went through a similar school, the other won a scholarship to an elite school and then decided to go to the local comp.
Both of my relatives think about education, knowledge and culture in different ways.
One spent time in Africa helping to build a school and travelling before starting a business consulting role, the other teaches a new approach to architecture at a university.
They’ve grown up. I know that the professional environments they (and their friends inhabit) are very pressured. I know a bit.
Student A had just done the GCSEs. ‘It was very hard and very, very stressful. For english I had to learn 40 pieces by rote. We couldn’t have reference texts in the exams so we felt we had to learn everything. I can’t remember anything now and I feel I’ve let the subjects down. It’s not the way I want to appreciate literature, my subjects or my teachers. It’s not assessed by course work. Our teachers kept giving us misinformation because they’d been given differing information about percentages and grades. In our school we were invited to the exam body for a seminar on the changes but it was too much to absorb, too rushed’.
Student B will do the GCSEs next year. ‘I suppose I’ll benefit from what they’ve all gone through. (They both laugh). I’m from a low income family and won a scholarship to get to this school: in my exams this year I was affected though because we were trialling the new grading system and I got low marks. I was piggy in the middle between my teachers saying ‘don’t worry, we don’t really know how it’ll play out next year but it will settle down and you’ll be fine’ and my mum saying: ‘you’re really clever, they’re not giving you the help you should be getting’.
I think it’s to do with, ironically, in our bold New (Brave) World of ‘academies are to schools as an algorhythm is to an answer’, a need for a fight back by parents, teachers and children to question and hold these new processes and forms to cultural account.
It became clear when I was talking to the students, that the archives of knowledge in a school, (its institutional confidence, if you like, in the teaching, pupil and parent or carer communities, are being aggressively challenged and gamed by a new authority that’s really just pushing its luck to see how far it can go. Though everyone who has come into contact with a school exam system over the last few years is in some way shocked, in shock, are suffering post traumatic stress, noone is yet articulating the or a institutional response.
It’s like a war on those who would least suspect they were being attacked. Children, parents and their teachers.
What are we rehearsing here?
It’s the kind of corrupting force of technology because as a new technology unfolds itself we back off into our shells imagining that we are always sentient and rational: committed to an individual normality that leads to a better collective normality.
But in a way we are increasingly feeling that we are performing the form of our lives, becoming committed to repetition of activity rather than having much control over the content and direction of our lives. We all want to start at ‘normal’ and find something better. In this new system, nothing is what it seems, all parties are experiencing what it’s like to be driven by technology.
When the social heart and point of a system are disconnected from a process we have failed so we need to call the beta software giants, warehouse capitalists, snackers on dystopia to account.
We can make technology sensible, responsible and attentive to who we are and what we’ve already achieved. Don’t ask it to simplify some tasks so enigmatically that people become mystified and hypnotised by the smart performance of form that results in a reality so uncertain that we lose the plot and the point.
We don’t want young people who think they have to perform very fast moves on social media to become the kind of robot that tech loves.
At the same time, we’re not wrong when we avoid the real, when we hide inside the roles this technology is increasingly assigning us: we collude with the technology and are smoothing its way but we also need to challenge it and bring it to account.
In the book Normal People, Sally Rooney writes (and tries to write to) many things.
This is a good in itself and expresses a turn for the modern novel into how it feels, seems and is like to be studying and living in Dublin when culture has no future value: it’s been shredded.
The great insight in the work is the oblique impact history, culture and the political disenfranchisement of market and venture capitalism have on people’s hearts minds and ability to live and act in Ireland and Europe. She notes, reads and details how harm is so casual and ordinary in this context, yet somehow never quite fatal.
You step into that sense of an oppressive history where people are written, underwritten, written off, a process that haunts their ability and desire to live as people with political, cultural, social ideals and agency.
The culture they live in makes them sick (Zadie Smith also sees this kind of TB of the soul) as it encourages all the tools and devices around the rational, modern world to exploit and expose the viscera of emotion in only one way: pain and pleasure, strong and weak, male and female. Loss and gain. Nothing but a form of consumption which romanticises itself: all relationship is transactional.
Where’s the place that history, culture and politics can reach these students? Where can learning and hope be? It is still to be fought for.
Normal People releases the narrative as prisoner of some kind of strange post holocaust suffering, using both privileged and underprivileged eyes. It’s a story about all kinds of education where children are brought up to behave ‘as if’ they already know everything, as if in their twenties their best time is already over. A place where they have to act a role that’s already written for them, having to pretend rather than being able to make believe and act out.
It proves how absurd that is.
It’s hard to prove or distinguish between the under and over privileged here as they’re both groomed for role play in a claustrophobic world that is always defamiliarised: a world that can never be ‘known’ and owned and things they thought were good and true, believed, desired, wanted disappear before their (our) very eyes. So if they make it up noone’s any the wiser.
But the very act of charting this, creates dishonesty’s fiercest critic.
How do you bring these spirits of ‘would be’/’as if’ people, shared places to life in contemporary Europe?
How can there be a new creativity that isn’t ruined by a historical notion of ownership that wants to consume them and their creativity? How can people exist honestly and on equal terms more often? How can we feel and smell the sense, historical ground and culture they came from: ground they shared, ground they aspire to without fear and oppression?
How can they (and we) learn that we really know nothing at all really while we accept such inequality. People drop dead all the time but not for the reasons we think they do.
I don’t know the answers. Yet Sally Rooney’s characters show me what it’s like to live ‘on license’ in capitalism and in that sense it breaks up the tarmac we’ve put on our roads for too long.
Capitalism, as Rooney has shown, is a place deep in our hearts and souls: a place truthful and bleak, counterfeit and already always devalued, yet somewhere we have also driven hope.