Talking about passion

For anyone who has binged on a show to the point of minor health scares, this may sound familiar. A few years ago I got into a manga and anime series called Naruto in a big way. I’ve now read over 600 copies and watched more episodes (mostly flashbacks) than I expected Masashi Kishimoto and his team to make. Time has been spent reading up on the trivia and visiting the numerous encyclopedias on the series, and in so doing I have developed in depth opinions on events that have never even taken place. To say the least, my knowledge of the Naruto world is impressive – if only such things could be impressive. I don’t think this is a rare thing. The knowledge some people have of their favorite bands could easily be considered ‘expert’ level. It’s the same deal with cinema buffs that can fill whatever films duration with fun facts and few breaths. Genuine interest abounds.

Keeping a finger on that page, while picking up a different book (alt-tab) for a moment, it seems to be more or less old news that every job or vocation contributes to identity like herbs to a stew. This is why questions like ‘so, what do you do?’ are hard to say without the niggling feeling that you lack imagination and conversational flare (while we’re here, it seems to me that the word ‘so’ is often used as a preamble to conversations where the speaker doesn’t really know what to say… but I digress). It’s fortunate then that a new, more exciting question has replaced the old stock. A question that not only shows much more apparent interest, but also helps to uncover (and hopefully fill) the existential hole at the center of our bellies:

‘What’s your passion?’

I’ve had this question playing trash can drums in my head for a long time now. This was made even worse when Ted.com seemed to take it as a central theme. All of a sudden it seems to be an entirely legitimate question, along with its variants ‘have you discovered your passion (yet)?’ or ‘do you have a passion?’ (notice that it’s rarely plural). Think about it, somewhere, deep inside of you, there is a passion waiting to be discovered: a diamond in the rough that is everything else in the world. Have you found it yet?

Congratulations! / Why not?

The high social capital that finding and doing ones passion commands is very desirable. It is certainly better to have one than to not have one (common sense, I know). But this is precisely why I worry about this new fetish for passion. I think that in the effort to keep up human contact we say all kinds of stuff, it doesn’t even matter if what is being discussed is worthwhile; we often make up, embellish or downplay feelings, understanding of our ‘selves’, tastes, dislikes, beliefs or whatever for the point of conversation (with others and ourselves). I don’t think this is a bad thing. Though I certainly do think it’s a thing. Unlike tastes and dislikes, however, passion is often presented as an existential compass: ‘find your passion and then do it, no matter what! (and if you don’t have a passion, find something you enjoy or are good at, call it your passion, and then do that!)’ Whatever you find you enjoy, and then get bored of and then want to leave (as people do), will be that much harder to walk away from once you’ve gone through the matrimonial ceremony of calling it your passion.

Flipping the kept page back open with another alt-tab, suppose that my genuine interest in knowing every little scrap of knowledge about Naruto is a passion. Same goes for your possible love of The Walking Dead. Or some other readers desire to constantly be seen and admired. Why are these answers rarely given to the question of passion? Why are they less legitimate than photography, playing the sax or perfecting the art of cooking cakes? One answer could be that the search for a ‘true’ passion is in fact a pretty deep political act that we negotiate in terms of what is asked of us, what we are actually capable of (a loaded ‘actually’ if there ever was one), what friends we keep, what friends we want to keep, and the context in which the parent/employer/beautiful stranger asks us the glittering question. I’ll leave such considerations open, though drop the buzz words of utility, prestige, social currency, utility (again) and (just to be sexy) indoctrination. I do not doubt that some people out there (like the strapping young lads on Ted.com) have found what they could currently call a passion – though that says little of the diamond to block the existential drain. If only I desired to google successful business models, classical literature or post modern poets instead of Japanese Manga. Another time, I guess.

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3 Responses to Talking about passion

  1. Jeremy says:

    You are right Chris – passion in academia is very political. “If only I desired to google successful business models, classical literature or post modern poets instead of Japanese Manga.” That’s it, scholars are encouraged to follow their passions, but only along narrowly defined pathways that are deemed ‘academic’.

    ‘Passion’ seems to be a discursive means for trapping scholars into narrow fields of interest. The expectation to commit oneself to a narrow field of interest and stick with it throughout one’s academic career is the result of the Durkheimian view that knowledge/society has become so complex that a division of labour through specialisation is the only way to move forward (I once had a senior Professor explain this to me in these functional terms). As a result, the great intellectuals (like Durkheim) who spanned many disciplines are all but gone (maybe Foucault was an exception to this). Academics now operate in silos, only speaking to others who share their ‘passion’ and largely unable (or unwilling) to conduct a dialogue with anyone outside their field. That’s quite sad in my opinion.

  2. Hi, Jeremy

    Yes, academia is a good example of how ‘passion’ can be adapted by institutions to suit whatever needs. In other words, so long as a passion is a specific ‘thing’ that you can find and then ‘do’, it can be viewed through the lens of utility. On top of this, so long as this is accepted by the public, it will also be a powerful weasel word. These two factors: questions of utility, and the ways in which organisations express this question to achieve whatever ends, can make finding ones ‘passion’ a matter of finding ones ‘function’ . . . which can be an issue in a society that doesn’t consider the critique of taking for granted ideals of utility and so forth as ‘functional’.

    It is sad that the university encourages thinkers to become researchers who then might not communicate with other fields of research. I certainly don’t intend on becoming a silo.

  3. Jeremy says:

    “These two factors: questions of utility, and the ways in which organisations express this question to achieve whatever ends, can make finding ones ‘passion’ a matter of finding ones ‘function’ . . . which can be an issue in a society that doesn’t consider the critique of taking for granted ideals of utility and so forth as ‘functional’.” Absolutely. Wow, we could almost see some idealogical concealment going on here (cue Marx). Next time someone asks me about my passion, I’m going to tell them where to go! 🙂

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