Archive | September 2019

Wrestling self-help language from Neoliberal-speak (self-help in a ‘cult of self-belief’)

This will be a clumsy post, a jumble of ad-libbing thoughts that have nonetheless been a concern at a deeply personal level over the past few years.

I don’t think my politics has ever changed, really. The deep sense of bad and good (or healthy or unhealthy, through the language I so far identify as ‘Spinozan’) is still the same.  What has had to change is my way of going about things. This is because after years of telling myself, ‘I’ll become a better person, rid myself of bad life practices, and bouts of regretful actions, when society changes and I can be free’, I realised I couldn’t do anything towards the greater production of ‘healthy’ from such a position.

No matter how many blogs I wrote, drawings I made about the environmental, social, mental and spiritual ills delivered by capitalism, no saviour ever arrived. Of course I didn’t officially believe I would be saved; but deep down I was certainly dependent on something swooping in, magically fusing my abstract pictures with my body, from where I could act in life the way I wished before it was too late. Until then, it seemed, I’d be a limbo[id], waiting, trying harder and harder to elaborate on ‘this great big thing’ stood in the way of living to my true capacities.

I’d use others as examples, only to ultimately feel hollow when that person ‘got on’, found a life for themselves. I wouldn’t call it jealously, just a deep deep sense of loneliness. I wanted my story to be other peoples’ story too (surely if it became all of our stories, then society would change!?). But I felt stuck, unable to move forward in life, side-tracking with a thousand million exhausting jokes to entertain people in the hope they’d give me some magical validation, and nearly as many stupid drunken texts, ever more desperately seeking the deliverance of a the self I couldn’t locate.

I’m not seeking any sort of sympathy (maybe a little forgiveness where I see fit). We all make mistakes, and many will share my story, no matter what their politics is, or whether they even mentally engage with ‘good and healthy’ on a political level. It is the story of losing, for whatever reasons, the capacity to act in the way we would wish, and falling into a state of assumed disempowerment to do anything else but hold on.

This, however, is where politics cannot be simply brushed aside as irrelevant to our personal stories of self-help, ‘self-actualisation'(if you must). Initially, I’m not talking about a certain idea of politics, or even the realities of the politics of different social structures, but that, to clumsily quote the psychiatrist David Smail, we are born into a world made up of forces far more powerful than ourselves. Some of us are enabled more at those crucial formative years than others, but none of us are immune from being shaped, and informed by the social forces we encounter.

Although I’m not directly communicating about what those specific forces may or may not be, nobody should be hostile to accepting this – it shouldn’t have to change your own story, or life path you have chosen. Seriously, I’m no in the habit of dismissing anybody’s life plans; they are an affirmation of life – it’s when we don’t have life-affirming strategies that we are more likely to do harm. Yet, similarly, we can all recall moments of feeling empowerment or disempowered due to situations largely out of our control, and some of us recognise these moments have shaped us.

Yet, even if I ,thus far, do not feel I have developed a useful language to employ this beyond my own life story, I have to try to define a difference between pure self-help and what I call our ‘cult of self-belief’ or the neoliberal-speak of post-industrial capitalism. Nobody can deny that the world we inhabit, the world we have inhabited for a few decades, is full of language and slogans based upon improving our personal stories. Some may find them inspiring. I’ll admit I’ve always found them deeply insulting, but perhaps never fully know why.

Let’s put it this way: from some point in early adulthood, the words ‘you need to get a job’ felt like a kick in the chest. Nobody would deny my work ethic, my willingness to work, my punctuality. Yet the aforementioned words, spoken, or seen written down, could kick me where it hurt the most: my self-worth.

In hindsight, I was reading these words in this way: ‘take leadership in your life, choose what you want to be, and be it, now! right now, this very minute!’ I’d no idea this is what caused the anxiety, because I hadn’t fully recognised how indifferent I was to the leadership of my life. Yes, I was anxious of a full time job taking up my time to my make my drawings about ‘the state of things’, but I was anxious because I could only ever imagine a job role negatively, because I never even realised that I had no confidence in myself to do any ‘proper’ job that wouldn’t bring misery.

However, this is the reality for so many. Much contempoary work does bring misery, we are an overworked society, and are likely to be resentful towards anybody who isn’t as overworked as we are. Yet we have to assigned those ‘choices’ to do that work to ourselves, because we are in a culture that endorses taking leadership of our lives as the only game in town.

I assign the term ‘the cult of self-belief’ to our post-industrial age of neoliberalism. It is constantly telling us to be the best we can. We never feel good enough because this ‘best’ isn’t actually on our own terms. We are being asked to be our very best to a rigid idea of a self that only ever leaves work production to maintain their health and fitness. This is kind of evidential, it’s everywhere in our cities, most notably in the language used to promote a new development project.

Yet what’s hard to both do, personally, and to communicate in sound, positive language, is to separate one’s plans and strategies for self-help from this culture. YouTube is awash with adverts of entrepreneurs with positive mindsets, telling you how their positive attitude, and self-belief got them to where they are. But not all of us want to be entrepreneurs, and maybe not all entrepreneurs want to be mega rich? But surely we all want to live to our full capacities?

I spent years resentful of this self-improvement language because I felt constantly pressured to be the person I wanted to be, but it wasn’t the person I wanted to be! I spent many years being a ghost, evading self-actualising, because I couldn’t imagine it beyond this language; being officially liberated, whilst actually subordinated to neoliberalism.

But just because this language has been taken up by neoliberalism, it doesn’t mean it owns the ideas of self-help and self-improvement. I want to now take leadership of my life on a vague basis of living well, towards myself and others, in a way I haven’t before. It isn’t easy to do this outside of ‘the cult of self-belief’, yet I can’t see what good I can do myself, or others, if I don’t somehow achieve something similar to taking this leadership of my life.

Wall, i

Precursor: I developed ‘Wall, i’ as a film intended for exhibitions, and independent screenings, but was encouraged to make it accessible online. The work covers a series of complex contemporary issues, so whilst the film is available to share, I just politely ask people not to share clips of it out of context, as, out of context it may unjustly offend (even in our are of stimulation-saturation!), So, please, share with consideration 🙂

‘Wall, i’, is a young male who is born into a world that tells him he can be whoever he wants to be, that the ‘old world’ of duty, discipline, division and drudgery has gone. Yet the promise doesn’t turn out quite how it was anticipated. In a new world of new technologies and self-help slogans, the past returns with anger, and ‘Wall, i’ becomes trapped inside himself. Unable to connect, he descends into a spiral of minor addictions, loneliness, bitterness and hatred, from which he ultimately seeks forgiveness.

A song-based film, Wall, i is a response to the 30 anniversary of the fall of The Berlin Wall, and the affirmation that we had reached ‘the end of history’, and the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s The Wall (‘Wall, i’ tries to employ similar themes for a ‘Millennial’ experience). It is also an autoethnographical (using collated experiences personal and pier experiences, to expand into a fictional self) response to the political, social divisions we now see in 2019.

This film was a highly collaborative film, and I wish to thank everybody who helped. I could never have done anything like this without the help of these people.

Co-songwriter and music composer – Lee Garforth
Assistant director – Jordan Blake
Assistant director (2) – Sheldon Ridley
Lead actor – Ben Crawford
Lead actor and contributing vocalist – Jade Robinson
Lead actor – Laura Clowery
Creative support – Rebekah Whitlam
Editing support – Katherine Lacey
Support assistant director – Rob Nunns
Supporting vocalist – Carys Bryan
Sound editing support – William Addy
Technical support – Simeon Dear

Actors: Yew Tree Youth Theatre (Ben Walton, Chloe Walton, Ellie Barraclough, Madison Mersini, Lara Earnshaw, Lucy Gallican, Tom Mason)

Actor – Kevin Parkin
Actor – Mollie Hobson
Actor – Sam Francis Read
Actor – Celeste Taylor
Actor -Lucy Crouch
Event support- Chris Scarfe
Event support – John Chambers (Temple of Muses)
Event support – Steve Ellis
Supporting actor – Ben Parker
Supporting actor – Rose Merry
Supporting actor – Rachel Marie Thornhill

Becoming After MA Degree show


A4_MA Final Show Flyer[4245]

This blog page has become far less frequented, and seems to represent a different stage in my (artistic/philosophical) life – a time when I wasn’t so bogged down in the affect of words, not only on others but on how they rebounded onto me. I retain deep core ideals, yet also a muscle memory of mildly traumatic online exchanges, and an awareness that the legacy is arguably our deeply divided, sectarian world – a dividedness few anticipated with the advent of mass internet use.

Equally, part of this change has been a slight sideway shift in the way I make work. Indeed I’ve often recently found myself considering whether ‘making’ is the right thing to do at all, being that the ‘artist’ self-hood I developed in conjunction with coming of age in a neoliberal ‘cult of self-belief’ has often been problematic to say the least.

Yet, despite this constant awareness of our footprints (carbon, social, self-perpetuating ones etc) nobody has yet, to my mind, come up with a better practical philosophy than ‘onwards and upwards’.

This is so hard, because in one respect our society is saturated with a ‘cult of self-belief’, which is, to a large part, what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek sees as a core principle of the current capitalist culture that has brought us into a many-faced crises, which is arguably even more existential than anything. Notions of self-help and self-improvement can easily become indistinguishable from the survivalist anxieties we all experience from feeling that how we look, how confident we are, how positive we are, is vital to whether we ‘survive’ or ‘lose’.

The task is to distinguish. Just because our capitalist culture asked us to smile and live healthily, doesn’t mean we should never smile or eat only in Wetherspoons to prove a point (a mistake I have certainly made). Just because hyper competitive YouTube adverts have appropriated the language of self-improvement, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want to improve ourselves on our own terms. It’s just not an easy task: the driver to be the opposite of what is healthy for body and soul is often a result of the experience of the sheer internal violence (a violence we are so used to we just call it low-level anxiety) of feeling that we must constantly be happier, healthier and more productive than we already are, for a cultural superego that tells us to love ourselves, whilst reminding us that our right to self love is conditional upon our success.

wall, i postcard 2

‘Wall, i’  here played by actor Ben Crawford

‘Wall, i’ is a film-based work I have developed for the University of Leeds MA degree show. It has tried to work around this difficultly of living to a better self-script, taking the reigns of ones own destiny, actions and health. It is autoethnographical (which basically means using your own experiences, and of those you grew up with as a sort of social/cultural study).  Rather than the more bold political statements that my older artist self thought he had to make (and, to be honest, I never really felt I made them, I was just employing the wrong form to dicuss larger questions of self in relation political and historical circumstances – hence why even jesterly claims of hypocrisy felt painful) ‘Wall, i’ is a semi-fictionalised collation of experiences and phenomena for a generation who’s formative years were around 30-20 years ago, when the dominant cultural narrative had shifted towards one centred around being ones true self and believing in one’s true self.

Scripted by songs (co-written and produced by long time friend Lee Garforth), the narrative has sort of a ‘pop’ form to it (us first wave millennials were probably the last for whom the TV chart shows and radio played a pivotal role in our growing up). Additionally, loosely playing with the structure of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ , ‘Wall, i’ is kind of an inversion of The Wall’s ‘Post war’ narrative, to where a dominant cultural story of individual freedom goes awry. ‘Wall, i’ is a character who gets trapped within himself, and, enabled by new communication technologies, falls into a spiral of loneliness, addiction, bitterness hate, and finally self hate, whilst all the time being told individual freedom is the way out of this.

wall, i postcard 1

Scene filmed for ‘Wall, i’ with the help of Yew Tree Theatre Group based in Wakefield.

Yet the best part of doing this hasn’t been the telling of ‘this story’, it’s been the fact that a lot of people have been keen to help me do it. It seems appropriate that our group show is called ‘Becoming After’, because, although it is always hard to remind oneself, it’s those bits where you’re actually on the go with the making, with a group of people, that makes the project take on the significance within your own personal life story.  We often neglect the ‘becoming’, turn a blind eye to this grey matter, in favour of the ‘after’ moment. It’s so easy done; our culture is very individualistic and competitive; allowing the co-inhabitation of our own stories, and even the ability to get a group together in one space are sizeable asks, when most of us spend most our time anxiously guarding our selves from failure.

Yet this project was very much about the failures of the individualism story to deliver well-being to both ourselves and those we interact with. I wish for people to come see this film (and the larger group show) and connect with it (maybe I’ve found a new way of communicating I didn’t think I had), but more so I hope that it isn’t a point of closure and closure, period; but also the beginning of a new path.


Becoming After will run from Weds 18 – Saturday 23 September 10 – 6pm. And Sunday 23 10 -4pm

School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University Road, Leeds LS2 9JT