You are not a product: Phil Lawton on Dublin as a hyper-competitive city

Back in 2015 I attended the inaugural symposium of the Health Research Board’s Trial Methodology Research Network (TMRN), which I blogged about here. The meeting (which was excellent) was in the Gibson Hotel in Dublin’s docklands. I found walking this part of Dublin somewhat eerie – within a short distance of some of the most deprived areas of the North Inner City we had this rather sterile, pedestrian-free, street-life-free zone.

As it happened, that day I came across a post by my friend Philip Lawton  which helped me understand some of my unease in what is, after all, my native city. I suppose Sue King-Smith’s post on writing in the age of person-as-product brought this back to my consciousness. Anyway, here are Phil’s opening paragraphs:

 

Dublin is so caught up in a maelstrom of ‘hyper-competitiveness’ that it barely has time to even think about what it is or what it means. At the centre of this is the tech industry, which influences everything fromlivable city agendas to housing discussions. It is a form of competitiveness that is presented in manner that makes it seem almost matter of fact or inevitable. When faced with this, the responses to recent announcement that the up-coming Web Summit will leave Dublin come as no surprise. The common mantra from various media sources (here and here) is one of ‘loss’, ’embarrassment’, and a sign that we must improve our infrastructure to cater for and attract events such as this. In a manner that would seem almost absurd to many, The Irish Times even went so far as to publish an opinion poll asking ‘Is the loss of the Web Summit a blow to Ireland’s reputation abroad’. In as much as such approaches are so dominant, it becomes completely accepted that the response must be for Dublin to reaffirm itself and ‘stay in the game’ or lose out. There is little reflection on what the level of mobility and ‘choice’ afforded to contemporary companies or organizations means for the city and for thinking about long-term sustainable approaches to economic development.

There are a number of factors worth remembering here. For one, the Web Summit is part of a culture of expectation, where every want and need is answered. If not, there is every chance that the relevant companies will move on. This reality is made explicit in this case, with the Web Summit blog stating: “We know now what it takes to put on a global technology gathering and we know that if Web Summit is to grow further, we need to find it a new home. Our attendees expect the best.” Thus, with one foul swoop, the birth-place of the Summit is rejected, with pastures new willing to cater to the wants and needs of the tech world. This is a world that is held aloft as proclaiming the arrival of a new world order of progress and betterment. Although most of us never experience it, it offers a luring image of inventiveness, youth, and progress all framed in a chic background of converted shipping containers and bright colours. Yet, in as much as this industry needs constantly innovate to remain competitive, it makes for a highly unpredictable outcome for host cities.

The Web Summit also forms part and parcel of a form of competitiveness that perceives and believes that any small dent in the shiny and glossy image of the city will end in a catastrophic result. It is yet another element in the firm belief of a ‘trickle down’ approach to economic betterment, even if we don’t know where it’s trickling. It is so normalized that it now presents itself as common sense – ‘we’ must fight for this agenda at all costs because these the outcome is ‘good’. As is nearly always the case, there is little to no questioning of why pursue this approach in the first place and of possible demerits.

 

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 I stumbled across this post randomly.

Just as when reading Adam deVille discussing late stage capitalism, I am not totally sure if “neoliberalism” is quite the right term for what King-Smith describes, but she certainly captures perfectly a certain pseudo-toughness many writers and literary folk affect that masks a sense of powerlessness:

 

This ideology dominates the publishing/writing ‘industry’ at present (as well as many other arts ‘industries’ and the entertainment industry, generally), where it manifests in many ways, including:

  1. Writers are nearly always defined as individuals, not movements or collectives (if they are collectives, they are rarely taken seriously). Publishers are always looking for the next best seller. Often books that are frivolous novelty items sell better than books that explore the deeper dimensions to society and subjectivity. Writers are no longer nurtured and developed by publishers over time to develop a mature and sophisticated body of work. There’s less capacity in the current publishing industry to subsidise important books that don’t sell in high quantities.
  1. Writers and other artists are always expected to be in competition with each other for the limited paid publishing opportunities available. Writers are told they have to be thick skinned, determined, tenacious and prepared to sell themselves. Writers are told to develop two personalities – a business self and writing self. NOTE: Many mainstream representations of creativity involve competitions of some sort e.g. shows like The Voice, X-factor, So You Think You Can Dance, etc.. Even cooking, which should be a way for people to come together and connect, is now depicted in competitive terms (e.g. Masterchef, MKR, etc.). We consume our culture in the form of competitive battles. Therefore, as a writer, if you aren’t successful, it is because you are not competitive or driven enough.
  1. A writer’s success is largely measured in terms of whether they make money or not. Now, I’m not saying that making a living isn’t important, but the vast majority of writers don’t make a living and for those that do, it’s usually pretty paltry. To measure our success by these terms means most writers feel like failures – even if their work is innovative, beautifully-crafted and says important things about the world

Most writers wear this paradigm and I think it makes us feel very powerless.

Of course, to a certain degree this pseudo-toughness on the part of literary agent is also a defence against being bombarded with not very good work.

My impression is that in the last 20 years or so literary types have become afraid to express anything that even smacks of Romanticism – or indeed a sense of vocation – about what they do. This manifests itself in this kind of rhetoric about “the industry” and a valuing of external achievements – this hypercompetitiveness indeed does deserve some kind of label. But is neoliberalism quite the mot juste? King-Smith’s article is worth reading in full.