San Diego Poetry Guild

notes on guild, poetry, and San Diego


Merlin's Meritocracy
[getting the most from your group investments]

The great quasi-Marxist Max Weber once wrote about "status groups" in modern society as basically those places we can go, and those people we can hang out with, whose interests, identities, and self-perceptions pretty much line up with our own. One's sense of well-being, of accomplishment, of value in life, Weber might have said, were not necessarily class determined (a basic Marxist notion) but might also (or instead) issue from one's sense of self in relation to family, friends, or other potentially like-minded people.

I'm writing here in part because I long for my status group.

I don't necessarily like the term ("status" is hopelessly loaded and invariably used pejoratively, while "group" means close to nothing), but the idea is perhaps worthwhile at least for what it promises. Writers, for example, should find their *affinity kin* (?) and hold tight to the non-cash rewards that such economies of active alignment might afford.

There should be "merit" earned in such alignments, in other words, and most likely where they exist there probably is. But the issue of merit, I think, should always be held close to the question of "status group" affiliation, especially if we're talking about writers, artists, educators or other groups typically left hanging under capitalism.

Basically, where there's no money (and the possibility even of losing some in the effort), little prestige (the main currency in Weber's account), and so few tangible rewards, what else might make it worth it, after all?

I think this question is more, not less, important in today's political and economic climate. With U.S. imperialism on the rise, and global capitalism pretty much defining the much-hailed (in conservative circles) new world order, where do you go to get your "stuff" these days if you're not into sweat shops, stock options, smart bombs and perpetual war economies?

The U.S. education system breeds merit almost like bacteria. Maybe that's why anyone who has read this far might find it a rather unsettling and unusually placed word in this context. Schools perpetuate meritocracy as the chief ideological cover for what amounts basically to socioeconomic selection and stratification. Garnered "merit"--in the guise of test scores, grades, citizenship awards, good attendance reports, and teacher endorsements--grease the wheels whereby little kids (and then bigger kids) turn over from grade to grade. If you go to public school in this country, you EAT merit for lunch everyday. You EARN it. You WIN it. You BUY it. And finally, you GET BY on it, or you don't get by at all.

So, assuming for now that the kind of merit you might, as a public school graduate, earn or win or buy is really just the means to a more prosperous (ideally) end, my question for this fine Spring day is simply this: Is there a way, really, of making merit itself valuable, a way of finding "status wealth," to bastardize Weberian theory, in choreographing merit outside of (and this is important) traditional channels of, say, school or college or university. A way, in short, of making social group affiliation really matter through the organized distribution of merit.

I'm not talking about school kids now. In fact, I think almost every kid who goes to public school (any school, really) is pretty much screwed inside that system--regardless of how "far" they go in it--unless a new generation of educators (myself among them) can find a way to play DOWN the ideological abuse that comes in the form of meritocratic *rewards* for what amounts to good behavior, conformity, and compliance with the dictates of one's predetermined "place."

I'm not talking either about writing contests, journals, web zines, small press publishing deals, grants, or any of the other ways in which some writers and teachers today are rewarded for years of admittedly (in some cases at least) good, hard work and self-sacrifice. Such rewards are not necessarily bad things (they often pay off in much-needed ways), but they mis-place the merit, to put it simply. They turn merit into currency of one sort or another. They translate "status" into economically readable code, and this code gets fed back into the meritocracy, breeding more bacteria, duplicating the system, making it seem like it matters (materializes) in ways that it really doesn't anymore.

I am leaning, I guess, toward a sense of merit-based exchange among those who proudly self-identify as "writer" or "educator" (or ideally, for this "group" at least, as BOTH) which rewards everyone equally (democratically) while still offering up the "goods" (prestige) that potentially goes with "status group" affiliation. Merit should be distributed--or delivered, and specially--in such a way that means and end conflate and ultimately disappear in the meeting of PEOPLE over moments of writing, reading, teaching, and action. Writing, in this context, is never "its own reward."

Fluffy and dreamy discourse, at this point, I know. But I'm convinced that there is no time left--not to mention no resources, no capital--for "making it" in any conventional sense as a writer, unless you already have, in which case you've read too far. I mean that to take the time, to manage/budget the time necessary to cash in on merit (it happens variously, to be sure), is to deny the special urgency that comes with living, writing, maybe teaching, learning, in a post-preemption universe.

I'm trying to survive as a writer without actually being one. Perhaps that's the best way to put it.

We didn't necessarily invent--or bring upon ourselves--the dirty economies that seem to prevail in the waxing moments of global hegemony. But we can go forth seeking out new channels and new methods for "getting by" (and maybe even "making it") in the non-cash economies of "status group" alliances.

That is the dream of this blog, at least, however foggy and ill-defined at this point.


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