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Week 30: 1 April 2012

Benjamin Morris

Poet, fiction writer, playwright, and essayist

Occupational Polyglots

In Alfred Bester's short story “Disappearing Act”, he portrays a future of endless war in which every citizen of the 22nd-century United States has, by necessity, become an expert. Led by one General Carpenter, who insists that, “every man and woman must be a specific tool for a specific job, hardened and sharpened by [their] training and education,” the war ends in disaster when the officers come upon a scenario they've never seen before. Without spoiling the details – the surprise is part of the story – suffice to say that because of the drive towards specialisation, the brass are unable to find someone who works across fields, who engages plural modes of thinking, and who has a creative approach to solving problems. By the end of Bester's story, the United States is doomed not for lack of soldiers (they have a hundred million), but for lack, incredibly, of poets.

So, to stave off any such possibility for Nowhereisland, I'd like to propose the following constitutional amendment: that at any given point in our working lives, all Nowherians, by law, are required to have multiple careers.

The exact number is irrelevant – it could be two or twelve. It's up to each Nowherian to decide how many and what kind of careers they'd like to pursue, depending on their areas of interest. But the benefit of having expertise in multiple areas goes far beyond just being able to safeguard against unemployment, or accumulate additional income. Rather, the fundamental benefit is that we have the opportunity to learn entirely different ways of thinking, and either marry those into a novel harmony of thought, or engage in a useful form of mental contestation. Every profession has something to learn from every other – doctors from artists, jurists from journalists, policymakers from teachers – and enshrining a form of continuing education into our constitution will make sure that we reap the benefits of disciplinary innovation throughout the lifespan of our nation.

The point isn't just to achieve economic security (or national security, à la Bester). It's to achieve civic security. It's to be able to engage those around us on equal terms, to acquire multiple perspectives on an issue, and there's no better means of relating to another person and understanding their worldview than by working alongside them, fighting in the same trenches, and celebrating the same joys and accomplishments. Moreover, nothing keeps one more humble and respectful of others than appreciating the challenges we all face, knowing them firsthand. Keri Smith has proposed the “goggles of enhanced perception” as part of our national uniform, to enable Nowherians “to see things from someone else's point of view”: what better way to encourage that tendency than to outfit each citizen with a pair when they come of working age? Shared experiences build a foundation for understanding across divides of age, race, gender, creed, and class, which therefore preclude political polarization – what happens when dissent metastasizes into rhetoric, threatening the body politic.

Speaking just from this particular profession, one benefit will be that it promotes clarity in our work. Writers often face questions about what it is that they do: recently, while traveling in the Middle East, I met a man from Syria – a chef – who asked what I did for a living. On hearing the answer, he said: “Writer. What is that?” Sometimes we wonder the same thing, I said, and we shared a laugh. But it's a fair question. Personally, I've always wanted to be more than just that, to be a writer and a _____. Fill in the blank, depending on the task at hand: researcher, editor, bartender, adventurer. But the point is not to put any one career on a pedestal: rather, by working in as many as possible, we elevate all professions to the level that we see their occupants in a new and equal light, a light by which our own interests and goals sooner enjoin the needs of our community. So, in short, I propose that we train ourselves to be occupational polyglots, in the vein of multilingual nations found the world over: our political and civic lives depend upon it.

Now, because Nowherians will, of course, have transactions to enact – our merchants will sell what our artisans, tradesmen, and our chefs make, and our bankers, God love them, will safeguard our earnings – we'll need a currency. And this leads me to a second, smaller proposal, that the coins of Nowhereisland be a potent symbol: the ring. As a symbol of unity, of bonds which cannot be broken, but also a signal of the ongoing challenges that healthy partnerships entail, I can think of no more satisfying sound than a pocketful of jingling rings, reminding us of our responsibilities to all our partners – no matter whether they reside in our homes, our marketplaces, or our statehouses.

These rings could be fashioned of the same precious metals used in other nations – bronze, silver, or gold – or of a more natural, renewable material, such as wood or hemp. Being not an expert in materials science (at least, having not yet been drafted for duty), I leave that question open, and welcome all ideas. But as we go forward in fashioning our society, it's crucial to think about our economic future in more than just abstract terms: as Sam Thompson recently argued, economic performance is a means, not an end, and that the goal of good citizenship is a wealth of experience, not of possessions. He's right. Let's therefore write our laws to reflect our beliefs. Our national security may well be at stake. Just ask the poets.

Benjamin Morris

A native of Mississippi, Benjamin Morris is the author of Coronary, a poetry collection, and The Bella, a novella about the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen. His work – poetry, fiction, plays, and essays – has appeared widely in both the US and the UK, and has been the recipient of awards such as a fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission, an artist's residency from A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans, where he lives, and recently, shortlisting for the 2012 Crashaw Prize from Salt Publishing.

Currently an affiliate member the OpenSpace Centre for Geographical and Environmental Research, where his research examines cultural heritage and the environment, in summer 2012 he will join the University of Edinburgh as a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

More information about his work is available at http://benjaminalanmorris.com

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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

Identity designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Wolfram Wiedner, website by Wolfram Wiedner.