Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Million Little Cosa Nostras

In this post and this post, Isaac gets into some interesting areas. I'm particularly interested in the last paragraph here:
In other words, what's going to help them launch this thing is social relationships. And how do they come to have these relationships? They travel in the right circles. They know the right people. They live in the right places. This young good looking guy is now talking about how he ran into The Boss in an elevator. Class affects these social relationships. The more social a business is, the more likely class networks are to dominate it.
And theatre is the ultimate in social businesses. I started me thinking about the flip side of the whole MFA debate and the obstacles to achieving more diversity and the fact that sometimes good things lead to bad outcomes.

We build networks, make connections and, one of the things I and others of us have railed about out here on the interwebs, we should be nurturing these connections into communities. Communities are a good thing. We want them, we need them, and our theatres depend on them. But there's the other side of it: communities, by their nature, are exclusive. Even the most inclusive of communities can't take everyone. More on that shortly.

So in the conversations about the MFA feeder system kicking around, those who speak in defense of grad school talk a lot about the time to work and the access to excellent teachers, which is definitely part of the attraction and the benefit. But there's another aspect that grad schools use to attract students: their alumni. Showcasing the alumni is one way of showing success, but it also highlights a resource available to the students. Alums will generally take meetings, give advice, and certainly provide opportunities. That's part of how the feeder system works.

It certainly worked that way for me. When I came to New York, I interned at a theatre. When it was time for grad school, I applied to a school where the entire playwriting faculty were members of that theatre. I'm sure that my association with that theatre helped with my admission. When I graduated, I wound up working at that theatre and over the next couple of years, introduced a lot of the people I went to grad school with to that theatre. Some are still associated. Not to mention that one of my co-workers wound up attending the same school, largely due to the influence of a playwright who we worked with on a project. That's how things happen.

The thing is, we all know it. It's not even an open secret. It's even in Wikipedia: The Purchase Mafia. You can hear about Brown mafias, Julliard mafias, you name a school, there's a mafia. Oh, they'll call it an alumni network or some other gussified term, but it's a mafia: a closed circle that acts in a shadowy manner, works to further its own ends, and is only available to small segments of the populace. Pure RICO, folks.

And it's true at all levels. Here in New York, there are all of these overlapping circles. When you get in with one, you go around and around. You may get out, you may not. But one gig will lead to another and that will lead to another. People who like working with you will hire you again and recommend you for other gigs. You meet their friends and colleagues and it goes on like that. Before you know it, you've joined a community.

But this is the thing: it's supposed to be good. It's supposed to be that way. You go to undergrad or grad school, you work with people, figure out common ground, shorthand, a shared vision. You build on that, working together, giving each other opportunities. You build a community. That's good, right? Isn't that good?

But when you read posts like this, it gets frustrating. Because the social networks trump the work. Communities, as much as we need them, are part of the impediment to diversification, of all kinds. I've seen it in my own life. You connect with some people and build a community. You attract other people, and soon you're all rowing in the same direction. Then more people want in. If you bring them on, sooner or later, they'll want to row somewhere else. (To belabor the metaphor.) Sometimes people are happy to hop in a dinghy and head off on their own, but more often, they want to stay with the boat. The mission creeps, and it gets harder and harder to add new people, new voices to the mix.

Mafias protect their own and protect their own interest. And the line between healthy community and mafia is pretty thin.

I'm certainly not advocating ending communities or forcing people to never work with people they like again. But the good things we do and encourage can have unintended consequences.


Mark S. said...

I see the problems here as related to a few dangers:

1--The danger that a community will simply become an in-group, and rather than expanding our experience of life, will serve as a buffer against it.

2--The danger that social relationships become valued solely in terms of their use value, such that our friends, our peers, our colleagues, our mentors are little more than social machines for us by which we may engineer the lives and careers that would make us most comfortable. The danger, in other words, that we reify and commodify our relationships, eventually making mercenary our affection and enslaving our love to our ambition.

3--The danger that the privileges we enjoy become sought for their own sake.

I think danger 3 is the root of the other two as it's a total inversion of the greater moral value of privilege. Bernard Malamud writes that the purpose of freedom is to create it for others. I think this sort of ethos applies to any good, including privilege.

Expanding this point to a more radical degree, Simone Weil writes of rights and responsibilities saying that an individual cannot truly conceive of or lay claim to any rights whatsoever, that no individual has any rights at all--if we lived in a social vacuum, we would just have responsibilities, if only to ourselves. But rights exist. And what are they? They are the responsibilities that we have to other people by virtue of our shared humanity. Again, we cannot individually claim any rights for ourselves. Nonetheless, we perceive that others have rights because our responsibilities to them require things of us. If we do not view the privileges we have as entailing responsibilities to our neighbors, our communities, our world, then we are not worthy of them and should be stripped of them.

To be honest, my fear in this whole conversation has been that contemplating the privileges of others will lead us to covet those privileges as if they were owed us. Personally, I know I can be very envious of others' privilege, notwithstanding my own privileges of which I need to learn to be a better steward (I did go to an MFA program, by the by).

But the truth is, I am not owed any privilege. We, as individuals, are owed no privilege. Nothing is owed us. Nothing at all. But we owe everyone else everything. And this is a crucial difference. To paraphrase Weil again, we should not advocate for change or revolution because we have encountered some obstacle or suffered some injustice or been denied some privilege. But we must advocate for change or revolution when we are aware of an obstacle to life. The only legitimate revolution is the revolution which removes obstacles to life. Not to me. But to life. Anything else is just oppression by another name when what we need (to paraphrase Kushner now) is more life.

My rambling two cents, at any rate.


99 said...

A-motherfucking-men! I think that, as a member of a minority, I have had it drilled into me since childhood that my privileges and benefits have been earned for me by others and that trail of tears stretches back since time immemorial. I aim for humility and openness to honor that, but it can be hard to remember in this world. We would all do better to remember that someone else got us almost here and we're just moving the line ahead a little bit.

Thank you so much for sharing that.

Ian Thal said...

I actually attended SUNY Purchase, but since I was in the wrong department, I didn't get the membership application for the Purchase Mafia once I decided to become a playwright.