Cultural Narratives of Ambition, Community, and the Problem with being the Big Fish in the Big Pond

by - Monday, October 08, 2012


The Boy has noticed that every time I now talk about my once favorite show, Parks and Rec, I get mad, so I am going to try to explicate the frustration here. I have been disappointed by the narrative arc of Parks and Recreation because on some level it suggests that you have to keep moving up to be moving. I don't think that is true, and I resent that the show would trot Leslie around DC to make her feel bad about where she is and what she is doing. It only continues the trend began last season when she began to run for city council. I loved Leslie Knope as a character because despite the seemingly small job she had (and in turn the show's seeming joke on te Parks and Rec department of a town as being relatively meaningless), she showed the massive amount of work, enthusiasm, and thought even a "small" job deserves.

As the show became more about her larger scale successes, you actually could lose track of all the things that make Leslie Knope great in the first place, because she is so incredibly focused on herself. If you want to see this in action, compare even Pawnee Rangers to the first episode of this season. I know that this arc of "success" is supposed to make me happy as a feminist, and I certainly wouldn't suggest that if you are a woman and you are ambitious you shouldn't go for it, but I think people need to be self-critical about ambition and the way it is portrayed in tv. Also, as a side note, I am still on the fence about how the Parks and Rec thing will go, and I am open to being surprised, but in general I will turn on things that try to enlarge their scope.

I feel like now there is a larger culture shaming of being the big fish in the small pond. Cultural narrative is constantly about ascendancy on large scales- people who are good at what they are doing moving way up in the world, often through competition. People have to win nationals (Glee or Pitch perfect). Or the big game. Or they have to get bigger and bigger jobs or they seem really pathetic and sad (watch Pam and Jim on the Office for this one). This, to me, is really dangerous, and the older I get, the more I see the value in trying to do good where you are because that is important too, not because it will take you to some mystical next level where more people will notice.This works both in the kind of narratives we prescribe to and in the kinds of local vs. corporate cultural material we consume.

The lesson is, from my perspective, the world could use a lot more people who care about small things in small places, and if they all went to the top we would all be in big trouble. Because to make it to Washington DC (in Leslie's case), you have to spend the vast majority of your energy on getting there, on yourself.

Not to bring in another television reference, but I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain recently where he went to New Orleans. Walking around the city with a writer from Treme (if someone knows the name, please let me know, because I would genuinely like to read this guy's stuff), the writer made some very important points about the importance of community identity. He suggested that the city's strength comes from its own awareness of its own music and food- basically, it's resistence to listening to the same top 40 stuff and eating at the same chain restaurants. The man firmly believed that this kind of communal small-cultured resistence is possible everywhere (his point was that everyone ate something before McDonald's, and it wasn't the same). He said in pursuing the local, the culture can find "what's emblematic in themselves."

This to me is so powerful, because it speaks to a larger communal loss of self- I just read tonight how Lyotard characterized postmodern culture as creating large groupings of individual consumers. Even in a movie theater we all sit mostly alienated from each other's thoughts (unlike a public concert). At this point the trope of each person sitting at dinner with their own phone is a cultural norm. Technology isn't bad, but it creates a large scale access that threatens community even as it also offers it. The loss of the local is detrimental, and it encourages a capitalist logic of ambition that is detrimental to the ways we relate to each other. Still, this (it's worth noting Television) writer makes a powerful point that we can also use cultural products like food and music to find what is emblematic in local cultures.

I think this kind of small culture responsibility, especially a mindfulness about what we consume, is really important. It is what makes things like Applefest, even if it is a headache to locals important. Community festivals allow a small town like Franklin to put their foot down and say what we have here is also important. Our city band is important (even in the super cute German band formation). Our hamloaf is important (but also gross. I do not like hamloaf and believe that meat should never taste that sweet).It becomes a celebration of things which are always there and continually serve the community, whether the rest of the world catches on or not.

I can say now, being in a sea of formerly big fish in a big pond, the difficulty is being able to identify what the community needs and to be a responsible citizen to the world you are living in. I can see the positives in globalization, and I think it is a positive that we are gaining awareness of the larger needs of the planet as well as our own smaller sphere of existence, but you still need to know if this house next to you is on fire. There has to be a balance of local and mass consumption, and a balance of community civic responsibility and personal ambition.

Of course, this is easier said than done when you haven't lived in a place your whole life, and we have had a tremendously difficult time tapping into the community of Silicon Valley, because it is so comprised of transplants and there is no real community identity. Even the communities we have tried to latch on to are constantly changing people, so it is difficult to make much difference. I think I am just recognizing this for myself and my own goals. I am not really a competitive person, but in the context of graduate school, there is an assumption that you want to compete, that you won't be done until you are at the top of the ladder, that everyone wants to be the best/ most intellectually capable/ whatever. It's this desire to climb the ladder that leaves our community so bankrupt, and now that i am getting to the more independent chapters of my education, I have to be alright with not wanting any of that. The dream is allowed to be wanting to be valuable and committed to a smaller community where I can help and be helped. It is really alright. And I am telling you that too!

Competition vs community are almost always in conflict, and it is useful to keep that in mind when you are trying to navigate your own decisions. If you want a radical way to resist corporation, put your money, time, and energy into the local, wherever you are. Capitalism will always encourage competition, wanting the best, wanting to be the best, wanting to have the best- be radical and collaborate instead. It is really ok to decide what you have (or what you are) is enough.

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