Not Wong: Dissecting the BNOC phenomenon

Brian Wong subjects the Oxford BNOC to rigorous analysis

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We’ve all seen at least one of them during our time in Oxford. Walking down Cornmarket dressed as if they belong in the 18th century, strutting down the hallways of the Union, plastering their names all over the most viewed articles across the most prominent newspapers in Oxford. The BNOC is a mythical creature, who straddles the line between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the infamous and the famous, the average Oxonian and a character who defines and shapes the landscape of the university.

Yet, what—if any—are the attributable causes of the BNOC phenomenon? Why do BNOCs exist, and for whom are they ‘big names’? Why do we care, after all, about the life of someone who struggles with largely the same tutorials, readings, and difficulties that any other university student would face during their time in Oxford? There are multiple plausible explanations, but there is an underlying thesis that is recurring and apparent—the BNOC phenomenon is the product of the hyperreality negotiated by power structures and relations amongst students. In less academically pretentious terms, it’s an innate and inevitable part of the Oxford bubble.

Firstly, BNOCs are BNOCs because of the projection of our sense of self-importance. There may be celebrities out there in the public domain, but there is something unique about the nature of BNOCs within Oxford—for many, they represent the counterparts and resistance towards the ‘imposition’ of external celebrities. We accord ourselves an imagined level of sophistication, maturity, and importance associated with the so-called membership of the ‘top university in the world’, and project this imaginary on to characters that we perceive to be—in some way or another—functionally equivalent to celebrities who exist outside Oxford. To us, these individuals are big names, because an ecosystem is deemed important and sustainable only if it, too, like the external world, can turn out individuals who are big names in their own right.

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More importantly, the obsession some have over the antics of often eccentric, bizarre characters is an apparent manifestation of Oxford students’ desire to reject the cultural hegemony. To the extent that liberalism is seen by some to be taking over the ‘outside world’, reactionary figures who openly champion bitter, anti-liberal ideals are celebrated as BNOCs.

Alternatively, to the extent that the dominant culture encourages a discursive culture of tolerance and moderation, the Oxford community projects its BNOC candidacy on to those whom it deems to be firebrands, and those who are unafraid to voice their concerns. And truth be told—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Every community has its own aesthetic method of arbitrating importance, and if certain individuals do pass the ‘BNOC test’ in Oxford, kudos to them for somehow climbing this ‘meaningful’ social ladder of recognition, built as a way of reinforcing the Oxford bubble of self-importance.

Secondly, BNOCs tend to be important figures or leaders who represent some form of power or factions of power. Let’s be very clear here—power is neither purely materialist nor entirely culturally embedded. Neither is it explicitly tied to only structures and associations (if anything, BNOCs rarely tend to be people who are seen to have sold out to the legendary Establishment, whomever the Establishment may be). BNOCs may rise to ‘fame’ by being representatives or leaders within particular societies and associations. Or they may rise to ‘fame’ on a tide of populism, a tidal wave that sweeps across societies and percolates through the cracks of particular organisations. Power could be understood here as multi-dimensional—some gain their power from the collective mobilisation of others (e.g. ‘voting’, cough), whilst others acquire their power from the implicit consensus of others (e.g. ‘internal nomination’, or ascent through organisational hierarchies). Still others derive their power from the ideologies that effectively emanate from their capillaries. Note—the academic nature of Oxford lends itself nicely to a substantial volume of performativity when it comes to ideological preferences.

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That’s how certain BNOCs can rise to fame by riding on controversial and reactionary viewpoints e.g. celebrating Trump, glorifying Nigel Farage and the alt-right, and/or practising disingenuous campaigning. The bottom line here is that BNOCs should not be interpreted as individuals who ‘stand out’—they are merely puppets controlled by systems of power (and/or anti-power). And even when they characterise themselves as ‘anti-establishment’, they are merely a component of an alternative power structure that seeks to displace the entrenched one—and replace it with its own.

Lastly, perhaps a cautionary note and a caveat. Some BNOCs build their entire careers around the pursuit of fame (or infamy). But many others, in fact, contribute a substantial amount towards the Oxford community, with or without fame.

Despite all of the above, there are certain inspirational elements to be found in many BNOCs—some spend all their time hacking at night clubs and threatening the employment prospects of club bouncers, others spend more time on their second/third/fourth careers than their studies, and still others come to dominate particular scenes of art and culture in Oxford. The bottom line is clear: being a BNOC is a value-neutral identity. Some BNOCs are utter tossers, others are not—but the litmus test ought not to be whether they are famous, but what they are famous for.

The Oxonian hyperreality is one of intricacy and deep confusion. When you put a large number of confused young adults together, after all, you shouldn’t be surprised that there exists an innate desire to project the Kardashians and Trumps on to characters in this community. But there’s also much more to many BNOCs—not everyone is a contrarian, certainly not everyone is an alt-right edgelord, and, whilst ultimately everyone may be a manifestation of underlying power structures, BNOCs can do good—too.

But let’s not pretend that they are saints or holier than thou. Because they really aren’t.