My Heart and the Real World
Reflections on academia as abuse culture.
I wrote the following back in mid-April, when spring was just beginning to unfold itself. I wrote it not because I wanted to, but out of necessity: a requisite component of my postgraduate degree was the submission of something called a ‘reflexive journal’. (The question of whether or not that is a tautology is one I’ll leave open.) The instruction was that we were to produce a short piece reflecting on particular elements of the course; perhaps inevitably, in my case, the scope broadened until the work became a meta-reflection on the assignment itself, interspersed with extracts from Sylvia Plath’s Mirror. I am not convinced that was what the faculty wanted, but it was all I could give them.
The thoughts I first expressed here now form the basis of my final dissertation (which I hope, if things work out, to rework for publication). I’m publishing this very unpolished piece now at the urging of a very dear friend, somebody who, like me, has found herself battered and shattered by academia as currently constituted in the UK. Perhaps there are many of us like this: perhaps we can find community, feel less alone.
There is so much here: the weight of winter, the weight of aesthetic and emotional labour; the expectation that, as a Women’s Studies student, you will act as a ‘dutiful daughter’ to the faculty’s role as ideological parents, as they gently condescend to you, try to shape you in their own image.
I wrote it in one sitting, stream-of-consciousness; aside from typos, it is unedited. Here it is, frozen in time: a snapshot of what my mind and heart were doing, one Sunday in April.
Perhaps inevitably, given my background, the processes of undertaking this module and preparing to write this assignment have led me to reflect on epistemological and political questions: particularly the questions of how, and for whom, knowledge is produced, and what the production of knowledge means in the contexts of assessment frameworks and the personal-social-political nature of a Women’s Studies course. The specific assignment to produce a reflexive journal is one example of what I have come to tentatively regard as the ‘performance’ of knowledge; what follows is an attempt to think through these issues as I reflect critically on my experience of and participation in both the the Interdisciplinary Methods module and the Women’s Studies: Humanities programme as a whole.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
On encountering ‘self’ and ‘other’ as a dutiful daughter: reflexive journal as theatrical space.
The philosopher Martin Buber writes, “Alles wirkliche Leben ist Begegnung” (“All actual life is encounter”). This proposition forms the basis of his ethical thought, and is something that has resonated with me throughout my academic ‘career’ thus far. The word Begegnung implies a meeting of two discrete entities, the moment in which relation takes place. My reading of Buber draws in the process-relational thinking of Alfred North Whitehead to develop this notion of the encounter into something liminal, and multiply transformational. We are not simply solid objects colliding, impacting upon one another: we are in process (which is to say, unfinished, radically incomplete, always both “passing away” and “never arriving”), and every single encounter is transformational. Every single encounter. This does not refer only to our encounter with human others, or ourselves, or ideas, or even with birds, trees, and campus ponies: I am changing on a cellular level every moment; my encounters with photons and molecules of oxygen and the resistance of the air as I move are radically transformational, and radically reciprocal. As Sara Ahmed says, “to receive is to act. To receive an impression is to make an impression.” What I call “my self” is an idea — a useful, often necessary idea — but nothing fixed; no point of reference or orientation.
This complicates the process of reflection: it muddies the waters, destabilises the ground beneath the presumed starting-point. The process is complicated still further by the factor of observation — by the fact that this piece is written for an audience, and an audience who will judge it according to a set of criteria, and assign a numeric grade that places it on a scale of implied value, from where it can be compared with the reflexive work of others. Thoughts swirl around my head: what is the ‘right answer’? What is the narrative that’s being asked for, here? And what if I don’t have a cathartic, redemptive narrative of personal transformation or self-discovery to offer? As a working-class woman from a violent domestic background, I am accustomed to these kinds of thoughts: much of my psychic energy is devoted to calculating how best to please others, particularly those in authority. The difficulty arises when this desire to please, to be a good girl, a dutiful daughter, conflicts with other deeply-held principles: the need to be honest and transparent. The desire to keep some elements of myself for myself; to resist the publicising of ‘the feminine experience’ — and if I do choose to speak about things, to do so on my own terms. The latter principle, framed purposefully as a desire rather than a need, has to be a least partially suppressed, for now. I must complete this task, or risk failing my MA — which is to say, risk my future, my potential path out of abject poverty. But the first principle — framed as a need — is less negotiable (and not for want of trying!). And so, as a means of navigating this, I complete the task, but I do so critically, meta-reflexively, and resistively.
A common critique of Descartes’ Meditations is that it is performative, almost theatrical: that Descartes’ apparent transparency about his reflexive method of radical doubt works to conceal the framework of presupposition within which the text operates. In constructing this process of theatrical doubt, in which basic points of knowledge are elevated onto a stage, placed, in isolation, beneath a spotlight, and methodically examined, Descartes mobilises the performance of reflexivity in service of what he already knew he wanted to say. When we pay attention to the things that he does not subject to doubt — language, ‘reason’, the universality of experience, the existence of a thing called ‘I’ — both his position and the artificiality of his method become more clear.
Following from this, the concern that I have is that mandatory reflexivity is necessarily performative; that the unproblematised adoption of the epistemic ‘I’ means that our critiques can form only along certain, pre-approved lines. As Foucault has stated, “power produces knowledge… power and knowledge directly imply one another; [and] there is no… knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” The relationship between power and knowledge in academia is pronounced, though rarely addressed in terms of pedagogical relationality: the faculty acts as both gatekeeper and judge, determining what we are permitted to know, what counts as valuable or important knowledge, and (in the process of handing out marks that determine our results) what we will, going forward, be perceived to know. What are the power relations in play when the performance of knowledge through theatrical reflexivity is demanded?
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
When your reflection is wrong.
To exist as a woman is to exist in public; to repurpose a line of Arendt’s, one exists both within and as a “space of appearances”. Supported by the feminist awareness that one’s actions cannot and do not exist in a vacuum, this being-in-public thus demands and extracts from me a very specific toll: that which I will call, with some qualification, self-consciousness. This consciousness-of-self does not imply a sudden belief in the immutable epistemic ‘I’; rather it represents the knowledge that when one appears in public, one is taken as a whole: face value. And so I think and think and think about what I do and what I say; about the ways in which I move through the world, and the waves and ripples that my motion might be causing or affecting. This self-consciousness represents, in many ways, emotional labour: “the work of caring”; it is undoubtedly necessary, and it is undoubtedly gendered. The work of caring is the work of being human: the hard stuff, the difficult stuff; I cannot argue that it should stop. It is, as one Metafilter user argued, “social glue… and maintaining that glue is something that devolves mainly onto women, 24 hours a day.”
This sense of responsibility for the maintenance of society is something that weighs heavily on so many of the women I know. Endless conversations in which we will mention, off-hand, choosing our words carefully so as not to upset somebody (even when that person has wronged us!); or taking so much responsibility, in heterosexual relationships, for things like grocery shopping and holidays that one begins to feel like a project manager rather than a partner. The extra weight of thinking about others, of carrying their needs alongside your own, the weight of which is, perhaps, not shared. The consciousness of self: of how ‘self’ impacts the lives of others; of its nebulous power and the desire, or the pressure to use that power for common goods.
There is another kind of hidden work that I want to talk about: aesthetic labour. Is there a ‘Western’ feminist alive who hasn’t had some sort of politicised discussion about clothes or makeup (should we or shouldn’t we?)? Is there a woman alive who hasn’t, in spite of herself, felt that her entire worth was predicated on the way that she looks: the way that she appears in the world? Is there any arena in which a woman’s body is not always already a battleground, a site of political struggle or debate? I am not sure. What I am sure of is that, if there is a mirror, I will check my reflection. I will look to make sure my hair is neat, my clothes are clean and hanging well, my makeup is not smudged. I will adjust my waistband or the angle of my head, perform the routine appraisals necessary in order that I might earn my place in the world. Similarly, in social situations, the expressions, tones, and gestures of others become mirrors: am I overstepping? Speaking too much? Am I too loud, too forceful? This lecturer just visibly rolled her eyes when I spoke: should I be quiet? Does what I say have value? To be a woman (and, added to that, a feminist) is to always-already be reflexive, and reflected; to the point that sometimes I wonder whether or in what form I exist outside of that. What identity I have is formed around doing right, around pleasing people, having the right answer, not rocking the boat: ensuring a smooth passage for others. Making sure that my reflection is not aberrant, is not wrong. (On many occasions, it has been: the shame of being an unruly woman is seared into my memory: a warning, a deterrent.) And this process, trained-in after thirty-four years of practice, is nothing but a process of reflection, reflexivity: of locating my ‘self’ in wider contexts and asking, how and why and when should I act?
I am not cruel, only truthful,
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Reconciliation, or: how I pretended to stop worrying and love the academy.
So what happens when all of your reading and thinking and talking and writing brings you to the conclusion that the life-path to which you’d harnessed your hopes — the only thing you feel you can do well enough to almost live on — is a neoliberalised competition-machine that thrives by grinding you down, chewing you up, and then demanding from you vast amounts of labour, the results of which will be measured in order to prove your worth (or lack thereof)? What do you do when you know that you cannot give the right answer, because you are not the ‘right’ person: when you cannot be dishonest, nor harden your heart, however much your future might depend on it? The answer I’ve arrived at is this: you do what you can, and you survive. You accept that the opportunities and praise will go elsewhere, and you continue to do the work that you’re called to do. And you look deep within yourself, and you find the thing that pulls you towards this work: the thing that fuels this sense of justice and honesty — and you change your plans to accommodate it.
Halfway through the spring semester, I realised that my dissertation topic needed to change: that the only way I could process and reconcile with my academic experiences was by working through them, quite literally. I wanted to write about the thing that’s kept me awake these past six months: whether or not an ethics of love (a broad term which I take to mean gentleness, care, generosity honesty, transparency, good intentions, good faith, and so much more) is possible in a culture of abuse. This question of ‘abuse culture’ is one I’ve been toying with for around 18 years, since I left home and began to get some distance from the experiences that shaped my childhood; and it’s something that is, I’ve come to realise, epitomised in microcosm in the academy. The constant demands for money and/or free labour from university administrations; the insistence that one meet a set of nebulous standards or criteria that nobody is ever able to fully articulate; the ways in which students are constituted as individualised neoliberal subjects who are in direct competition for allegedly scarce resources and funding (meanwhile, vice-chancellors and deans earn astronomical, almost unthinkable salaries). In the midst of all of this, I wondered — is it possible for us to be genuinely soft, kind, tender to one another? Is it possible for us to love? And (and this is really the same question, differently inflected), is it possible for me to survive in this environment?
I’m reminded of Robin McKay’s obituary for Mark Fisher, the cultural theorist who took his own life earlier this year. McKay’s description of Fisher’s praxis as a producer of theory reads, in many ways, like something I could have written: a mission statement, an autobiography; something reflexive.
While there is a sense in which, for Mark, everything was personal, since he always gained theoretical purchase by connecting theory to his own experience, he also relentlessly attacked the very notion of the ‘person’ or ‘individual’. For many years Mark wrote about his struggle with depression; but his question was never ‘What is wrong with me?’ but ‘What is wrong with the world that it should produce such a suffering, closed-off subject?’
He multiplied his burden by believing that he could only heal himself by reconfiguring the world, or at least by seeding a social collectivity capable, against all prevailing forces, of breaking out of the prison-house of capitalist subjectivity. That’s because he was for real, ‘theory’ was not a game for Mark… Even when his work was acclaimed and he was appointed to a ‘real job’ at Goldsmiths, I think he always feared he was an impostor, just one who had decoded the scam and learned how to ‘pass’.
Something reflexive: something that reflects my ‘self’, my experiences, my approaches. And this is what theory can do, when it is done with love and resistance — be the greatest kind of reflection, a looking-glass within which a quiet and unhappy woman can see a mirror-world of possibilities, if only she can step through.
Ahmed, Sara. ‘Multiculturalism and the Promise of Happiness’, New Formations Winter 2007/8, 6, pp.121–37
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958)
Buber, Martin. Ich und Du (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1995)
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), translated by Donald A Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993)
Dōgen, Eihei. ‘The Time-Being’, in Kazuaki Tanahashi (ed.) Moon in a Dewdrop (New York: North Star Press, 1985)
Emotional Labour: The Metafilter Thread Condensed, accessed 15 April 2017, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0UUYL6kaNeBTDBRbkJkeUtabEk/view?pref=2&pli=1
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995)
McKay, Robin. ’Mark Fisher 1968–2017’, 16 January 2017, accessed 15 April 2017, https://www.urbanomic.com/mark_fisher/
Plath, Sylvia. ‘Mirror’, Collected Poems (New York: Harper, 1981), p.174
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality, 2nd revised edition (New York: Macmillan USA, 1979)