Poking holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life

from Seminar 1   Turning on Success: Youth and Schooling

Poking holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life

Heather Mendick

Brunel University

About 8 years ago when I was working on an evaluation of the Teach First programme of initial teacher training, I went to a lot of their strange events. Among these were ‘cock-up clubs’ where top businesspeople would explore a time when they’d made a mistake and things had gone wrong. The aim was to show how they’d learned from this moment of failure; how it had led them to perform better and to be better. Increasingly it feels like this is the only way we’re allowed to acknowledge failure – as something in the past that we’ve used to make ourselves more successful. Yet, we live in a world where there are fewer jobs and those that are around tend to be less financially and psychologically rewarding. This means that many more of us are experiencing ‘failure’ in relation to the expectations of neoliberalism. In my talk for this seminar series and in this blog post, I ask whether there might be other approaches to failure. In this I am inspired both by the seminar series’ focus on alternatives to neoliberalism and by Jack Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure, where he writes:

What kinds of rewards can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.

In the seminar I offered three examples of such ‘failure’, here there is only space for one. This is drawn from an ESRC funded study into ‘the role of celebrity in young people’s classed and gendered aspirations’. As part of this study, my colleagues (Kim Allen and Laura Harvey) and I interviewed 51 young people in schools across England.

I really enjoy doing interviews. It’s a cliché, but it does feel like a privilege to spend 40 minutes or so talking to someone and getting an insight into their life. Usually people seem comfortable in an individual interview. Interviews are a familiar part of our culture and young people are increasingly being asked to speak about themselves and so usually have well-rehearsed answers. Part of the trick of the interview is to access these alongside other, less well-rehearsed stories. However, the interview that I talk about in the rest of this post wasn’t comfortable.

This interview was with a 17 year-old young woman who chose the pseudonym Person McPerson – expressing perhaps quirkiness, perhaps a desire for anonymity. She was studying for qualifications in English, Film and Drama, in a school in outer London. I do not think she was trying to be difficult in the interview and she answered those questions where she felt she had an answer to give. But to most of my inquiries – whether they were about her views on different celebrities or on the area where she lived – she persistently and insistently expressed doubt and ignorance. The section of the interview where I asked her about her future was typical:

Heather: So what do you want to do after school?

Person: Maybe go university.

Heather: Okay. Erm, and have you got any idea of where you would want to go?

Person: No, I have no idea.

Heather: Okay do you want a chance to stay in London, would you like to leave London?

Person: [exasperated] I don’t know. [both laugh]

Heather: Okay. Have you figured out what subject you want to do?

Person: Nope.

Heather: Okay.

Person: I might do English but I’m not sure.

Heather: Okay. So why English rather than film or drama?

Person: I don’t know.

Heather: [laughs] Okay, and have you got people to talk to to help you make your choices?

Person: Not really. …

Heather: Okay. So what is it about university that makes you want to go there?

Person: I don’t know, to kind of put off whatever I have to do with my life.

Here Person refuses, not simply to tell me what she wants to do, but more fundamentally, she refuses to construct herself as the rational choosing subject that neoliberalism requires. This is a subject that carefully weighs up the options before deciding where to invest him or herself. Instead, Person presents her next decision as arising out of a desire to delay choosing, to avoid the future, a way to ‘put off whatever I have to do with my life’.

While I was in the interview, I found her apparent inability to choose both frustrating and annoying. However, this interview has stayed with me and I have come to think of Persons’s position not as passive but as actively resisting the increasing compulsion to tell one’s life on demand. I’ll end with a final excerpt where I begin to conceptualise her way of being as a form of resistance: to read her refusal to dream, as a way of being in the moment and letting things happen, recalling Sara Ahmed’s move from planned happiness to finding happiness in whatever happens to happen.

Heather: Do you think there are things which make it difficult for young people to achieve their dreams?

Person: Erm. [pause] Like what type of things?

Heather: It could be anything. It could be like, I don’t know it could be like money, or it could be like things which happen to some people rather than others. It could be like I don’t know, erm, like where you’re born, where you live. Just some things people have said before.

Person: Er, erm. [pause] I’m not sure, it might be difficult to achieve your dreams if you don’t have any. But I don’t know maybe.

Heather: That’s a really good point no-one’s ever said that. It kind of assumes that you have something you want to end up doing, but if you haven’t got that then actually if you just let things happen, as they happen which is kind of what you do isn’t it?

Person: Yeah.

Link for accompanying presentation slides:  Poking holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life

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