Re-encountering the bureaucracy after time on one’s own is always a bit of a shock to the system, and one thing it has produced in me the past couple of weeks is a vague nostalgia for episodes of the 1967-68 TV series The Prisoner.
Not that I am a particular devotee. I didn’t watch The Prisoner until I was in college in the early 1980s, and then only in a passel of bodies sprawled together on a mattress in a dorm mate’s room. I didn’t follow it coherently through the entire series, nor did I spend a lot of time in later years looking it up again. In fact, until I sought out video clips for this post, I recalled incorrectly that it was filmed in black-and-white. Probably my friend (if you can call him that) in the dorm only had a black-and-white TV. The guys were all fascinated with it, and we girls were fascinated with the guys.
I wouldn’t really relate to that sense of being trapped in social conformism for decades to come. But I certainly do now, and sometimes Patrick MaGoohan’s voice echoes in my head, shouting, “I am not a number! I am a free man!”
Number Six’s struggle to retain his sense of individuality, and the inevitable white bubbles that would trap and suffocate those who attempted to escape have stuck with me over all these years.
I also have strangely fond memories of one of the first loves of my life, who was part of the gang that sometimes gathered to watch The Prisoner. He had the habit of parting company with the words “Be seeing you”—and I think he learned all of the panache he had from listening to Patrick MaGoohan say this line. In the show it’s a creepy, ambiguous line—a reminder of how undetermined all superficial social interaction is. When we long for someone’s company, it’s a statement that feels like a promise of a future encounter, but it can also indicate a stalker-like Big Brother threat of surveillance. Sometimes in life, as in The Prisoner, it is hard to tell the difference.
One of the things this chain of associations led me to is that realization of loneliness in the busy-ness. I think this is the common result of people’s individuality not being recognized and of a lack of trust due to a culture in which everyone is out for “number one.”
Ironically, this is, of course, at the root of the very difference that President Bill Clinton pointed out in his speech last night at the Democratic National Convention–the difference between a “you’re-on-your-own society” and a “we’re-all-in-this-together society,” and it’s one reason why I will vote Democrat in the upcoming election. There is no way that one can truly support democracy without a belief in the value and rights of every individual. This is what democracy is about–collective individualism–not socialism and not the extreme isolationist individualism of the current right-wing. Individuality is only a positive value when everyone has an opportunity and ability to use it, not just the ones in charge who so often try to turn the rest of us into drones.
All too often these days, however, I see a kind of instrumentalism that goes way beyond the Repubicans. I recently started re-reading Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, and early on she mentions both “what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or obstacle to one’s own plans” and “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.”
I do believe that the humanities can help us with these endeavors, but not when it becomes a world driven by the old quid pro quo and rampant careerism. The values of the humanities are unfortunately too often betrayed by those in the humanities. I see this very kind of instrumentalism on a daily level even among many of my so-called liberal and progressive colleagues and acquaintances. Too many of us are so busy trying to claw our way to the top of some heap that we lose focus on anything else. It sometimes feels impossible to resist–it’s what we are trained to do by numerous forces in society today. In universities, this creates enormous cognitive dissonance–democratic and critical thinking skills that we believe in except when they apply to the system we’re embedded in. Our work is seldom gauged on its own merits–just by numbers–how many thesis projects you’ve supervised (not how well), how many butts in seats (not whether the students have been engaged or recognized themselves), how many committees you’ve served on (not whether you have created anything meaningful or have merely destroyed work that came before), and most of all how many publications you have (not whether you got them by trading favors, not whether they are of any quality). This is a societal sea-change, and to me it is a fearsome change, an infiltration of everything by those who have a vision of the world as an uncooperative and dog-eat-dog place. Not even progressives are immune.
I long for that kind of community where people recognize each other respectfully as individuals rather than as mere stepping stones on the way to success (or mediocrity, which is usually where this stuff ends up). I give and get some of this recognition in bits and pieces—friends and colleagues for whom I am truly grateful—but there is not nearly enough to go around these days. I know, I know–utopian thinking. Still, I take comfort in repeating the mantra that I am not a number, and I try not to treat others that way either.