The Prisoner is now called a cult classic. I’m ancient enough to have watched the original when it showed in Australia in the late 60s. I’m talking of course about the television series in which the hero, played by Patrick McGoohan, is held captive in a fortress-like seaside village. Stripped of his identity, he is given only a number, Number Six. Each week Number Six tries to escape, and each week he fails. And each week he makes an impassioned speech against the de-humanising micro-society in which he is forced to live.
The programme was clearly to be read as commentary on a growing surveillance society. The Prisoner drew on popular dystopian literatures – 1984 and Brave New World being the most obvious. Kafka was also present in the obfuscatory, self-serving, circuitous and ultimately downright evil bureaucratic procedures that were employed by Number Two, deputising for an unseen Number One. And Foucault is up to some tricks too – Number Six must discipline himself or be punished. There are also shades of Marcuse and Adorno and … Well I could go on, but I’m sure you can see why, with all this cultural intertextuality, the programme was so popular at the time, and why it’s now got the reputation of cult classic.
But why is The Prisoner on my mind at the moment?
Well, last week I talked with a group of early career researchers about building an academic profile. I began with a little definitional move; I tried to use the difference between a profile and a brand as my starting point. I wanted to suggest that, given the way that higher education was going, it seemed less difficult for me to think of an academic self as a profile, rather than a brand.
The definitions that I found were these:
A profile was “a short article giving a description of a person or organization. “a profile of a Texas tycoon”
Description, account, study, portrait, portrayal, depiction, rundown, sketch, outline.
In other words profile is a kind of narrative which offers some key points about a person.
On the other hand a brand was “a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name., as in “a new brand of soap powder” or “you can still invent your own career, be your own brand”
Make, line, label, marque, moretype, kind, sort, variety, trade name, trademark, proprietary name, logo.
In other words a brand is attached to a product.
Now clearly the narrative/brand binary I offered has all kinds of difficulties. It’s in trouble because, these days, a brand often is a narrative – companies want customers to associate a story with a brand rather than simply see a logo or a slogan – a narrative provides something that the customer can hang onto. And regardless of what you call it – brand or narrative – your cv, webpage and bio notes still have to do the same thing – get you a job, convince a funder to hand over some cash, establish your reputation in the academic world. In the higher education marketplace, this about promoting yourself – it doesn’t matter whether you call it a brand or not, the task is the same. Maybe the problem I actually have is not about the name per se, but about the kind of job and funding market where self-promotion is inevitable and necessary. It’s about the action that the narrative or brand has to perform. Besides, we all know that words can mean anything, can’t they.
Yes, I can see all of that. All true. Brand, narrative, what’s the difference really? Yet it still feels that the idea of a narrative is not the same as the idea of a brand. The terms come from somewhere different, and that matters. A narrative doesn’t emanate from a market even if it’s been put to work in one. And a narrative is perhaps not simply a one-thing, but is able to hold together in some tension different aspects of an academic life. It’s not homogenous. It doesn’t represent a singular product or self, if you like. And maybe the idea of narrative opens up more room for the interpreter too – the listener or reader who makes their own mind up about what a narrative means. Maybe a reader is a bit different from being a customer who buys something – or not. Maybe the interpreter is a role description which encompasses broader social and institutional politics and personal idiosyncracies.
I can probably, maybe, possibly rationalise why I think that a narrative profile is a better term for the ways in which all of us, but particularly those who are marginalized by higher education job and bidding regimes, people at the start of their careers and not at the end like me, have to put ourselves out there now. Yes, I think I can argue that.
But you know there’s a tiny piece of me that wants to do a Patrick McGoohan. The piece that gives up on the terminology and has to put themselves out and about. A piece of me that in the middle of the night imagines being trapped in a disciplinary university ‘village’, unable to escape the nasty business of hawking my academic wares to the highest bidder – or none.
There I am on the beach, in the lecture theatre, in the cloisters. Clutching a cv, I stare into the camera.
“I am not a product who has to satisfy a customer. I am not a REF score and a funding success rate. I am a teacher and a scholar. I have my own opinions and the right to write …
Wake up. So yes, it was all a little fanciful… But still that nagging question. What am I, a profile – or brand? What do you think?