On seeking to be discovered

two ferns

This is not a post about Jeremy Corbyn or about Bernie Sanders. And yet, these two men with long, seemingly modest, political careers illustrate the very modern phenomena of “being discovered”. Suddenly, today, they find themselves star-like, shining and glistening. Admirers follow them, “like” them, retweet their words, and sell their once handled, disposable coffee cups on eBay; two older socialists, whose bodies, clothes, opinions and style are currently saturating national media.

Discovery is one of those words with many different meanings. In the age of discovery, lands, inhabited and deeply familiar to those who dwelled in them, were “found” by European travellers: uncovered, extracted, exploited, exoticised and settled. Discovery spoke to what was new and unexpectedly arrived at – or at least commodified and packaged as such, with its narrative of chancing upon unfamiliar places and peoples.

Discovery also of course has more overtly negative connotations. People in hiding are “discovered”, so are crimes, embarrassments, and dishonourable conduct. People with non-normative sexualities and beliefs can fear discovery by others ferreting about, who dig around in spaces and folds from where evidence, clues and signs may emerge. For discovering is something done. But what about being discovered – being the one who, like arrived-upon land, gets exposed to others?

Being discovered is to be turned into a thing, a thing that may be exotic and exciting or deeply shaming. Being discovered has also become one segue into fame.

Growing up, I can remember apocryphal stories of actors and models’ chance discovery. It seemed like you only had to walk down London’s Oxford Street and if you were tall enough, or conventionally good looking enough, and if you did it often enough, someone, some scout, would notice you and offer you his (usually his) card. You’d go to a meeting in some fancy west end office, and in no time your face would be The Face gleaming out from magazine covers and urban hoardings.

(These, of course, were the “lucky” ones. Most of us knew we would never be spotted, except, perhaps, by fake scouts who would also hand out a card, directing us to the alleyway office somewhere in south, west, north London. And then, who knew what might follow… but not the right kind of discovering, at any rate.)

Thinking about Corbyn and Sanders, and others I know who write, and sing, and act, who start small businesses and work as academics, I wonder about this world of discovery in which we no longer seek to discover but compete to turn ourselves into the terrain to be found. Is this what entrepreneurialism means today? Making our best efforts to be discovered through signs and evidence spread across social media, saying: “I’m here”, “I’m talented”, “I’m worth finding”. Tweeting our worth not once, but repeatedly – reminding people through every outlet possible, and through every recirculation of what others have said about what we have said, that we are doing stuff they’d want to know about.

But who do we want to find us? It’s tempting to suggest we have moved from an era of scouts and experts to discovery by the masses. Of course, in many fields this isn’t true. And yet, the desire to “go viral” is a desire to be recognised by the multitudes, a desire to hit such an intensity of rising interest that it is self-sustaining. Going viral is not the accumulation of interest spread over a life-time, but the self-reproducing attention of a single output. As one website remarks, “Going viral typically means lots of exposure and tons of traffic, without costing you any extra effort.”  In today’s world of micro-economics, “going viral” represents the epitome of efficiency – so much attention laden on so little.

Yet, even here, experts continue to play their part – helping people sift through the multitude of human worlds waiting to be discovered, informing us of who and what has been crowd-source found. For while we wait to be discovered, we also participate in discovering others, knowing this is a precarious process since our own chances of being discovered may diminish if our trail of “likes” shows evidence of faulty judgment and taste. The archive social media creates means living in wait of discovery is to live cautiously, aware of risk. It is to live in ways that perform a self who can withstand the microscopic inspection discovery draws on and depends upon.

But what choice do we have? Can we opt out of this economy of human discovery – of discovering and being discovered; should we? There will always be some who pursue the close-knit scale of everyday life consciously and carefully, refusing to wait for unknown others to land upon them; and many who feel outsiders, deliberately or otherwise, to a world where exposure is both fraught and typically short-lived.

Some of us inhabit occupational worlds that depend upon recognition. Universities, traditionally understood as places where discoveries are made, are increasingly identified as factories of self-exposure where academics are urged to make themselves discoverable: through high visibility publishing outlets, academic search engines, on-line updated CVs, blogs, press statements and tweets.

As academics have commented, the choice is no longer to publish or perish but to self-promote or fade. And yet, in the intensifying obligation to put increasing efforts into being discovered, the chanciness of discovery can get overlooked. Not simply what discovery will do – whether it will lead to fulfilment, happiness and influence, or humiliation and shame (as recent high profile allegations of self-plagiarism against world “leading sociologist”, the renown theorist, Zygmunt Bauman, sharply illustrates), but the chanciness that comes from lack of control by those awaiting discovery.

At school, they taught us about the immense effort underpinning discovery – long hours in labs, months spent at sea, labouring over graphs and test-tubes. But the very nature of discovery, when it came to scientific knowledge, bits of the earth or the stars, meant the fruits of hard work could not be relied upon; nor could they be predicted. In contemporary terms, discoveries constitute “events”, paradigm shifts not predetermined by the path leading to them.  But today, as people try to make themselves discoverable, the unpredictability of being found collides with, or perhaps more precisely extends gap-like away from, a meritocratic logic of effort and skill. So too, the tempo and orientation of discovery towards staging, representing and evidencing ones’ worth (while waiting for the event), collide with meritocracy’s inclination towards productivity and just getting on with it.

I don’t want to affirm meritocracy, which has more than enough holes. But I worry about the creeping logic of discovery. I worry about its individualism, its seductive lure, and its implication that the multitudes not discovered provide the sedimentary layers through which discoverers must dig – evidencing the effort required for a discovery that finds what is already present.

But fundamentally I worry that the intense (and growing?) desire to be discovered exists because opportunities and recognition, the desirable social resources and stuff of life – that could be shared far more equally and fairly, and could be far more widely dispersed – are selective, gate-kept, and pyramidal.

While opting out is possible, if we live in a world of subjects awaiting discovery the greater challenge is to undermine its logic of vastly unequal regard. One part of this is far less funneled access to opportunities – creative, discursive, governing or otherwise. Movements that remain leader-less, despite media pressures for human name recognition, is another. But a third part comes from the very creativity discovery depends upon.

Claims by famous actors to ownership of their identity or image, and so their right to sell, bequeath or exploit it, face the counter-argument that it is others (including fans) whose efforts and labour produced what the famous now seek to capitalise. Critical theorists make a similar point.

If being discovered is really about being made, we might pay more attention to those who do the work of forging others. And, in seeing these vast sprawling networks of creativity, networks which often include the discovered as well, it might appear a little strange to bestow so much light and exposure upon so few.

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