Being in the Academy

A week or so ago, I had a brief twitter exchange with Aberdeen PhD student Zoe Todd, after she asked

I responded at the time, among other things, that I sincerely believe that the simple act of having a conversation about ourselves as spiritual beings in the academy counts as something. As anthropologists in particular, we have an ability to talk about diverse forms of spirituality and diverse ontologies in ways that can be quite radical in contrast to the dominant public discourse. But as scholars, we  – particularly those of us who are not also members of Indigenous or other marginalized communities – also have a tendency not to apply those ways of thinking to ourselves and our own lives. This becomes, ultimately, a way of perpetuating the idea of a detached observer, no matter how reflexive the observation process may become. We discuss engagement and collaboration, but this engagement happens in the context of our fieldwork, as a way of bringing our academic knowledge to bear on the spiritual, political, and personal experiences that are happening to others. While I do believe that the reverse happens, and remains, as Todd points out, the default state of being for many Indigenous academics, I don’t feel as though we have a set of commonly accepted ways of talking about that side of the equation.

This short article by Ilana Gershon summarizing some of her work on media ideologies and neoliberalism made me think about these questions in a different way, and it is clear that this is a state of being that is, of course, not unique to the academy. The neoliberal self, the self that requires that state of constant flexibility and responsiveness to the conditions being asked of us in order to ensure that we can meet our basic, material needs, is inherently not a personal one, and it is most certainly not a spiritual one. What is different in the academy is the degree to which we – and again here, I especially mean scholars who belong to dominant cultural groups, with recognition that this is not an either/or binary of dominance/marginalization or belonging/not – study what it means to be a spiritual self, and talk about ways of being in the world, and analyze, and detach, and represent, while at the same time struggling to apply that to manifesting our own selves. The uncertain and precarious nature of academic employment, especially in the early stages, creates an anxiety about being anything other than a properly critical academic citizen.

I am speaking here from a place of preliminary senses based on my personal feelings and observations, mostly as a way of getting some ideas and impressions out on the topic. I do know that there are spaces for talking about these questions among some groups of academics, and I certainly know that the ways in which such anxiety and uncertainty can be dehumanizing and inhumane is being discussed among many who contest the adjunctification of academic labour. By coincidence, I have just now come across this piece from last year by Andrea Smith in which she takes on some of these gut feelings of mine in a much more thorough and extensive analysis. As Smith highlights,  white/settler confessions of privilege become ways of achieving an ally identity, of constructing a critical self that is above/beyond the politics of recognition because it does not require recognition, it chooses it. Quoting Hiram Perez, she discusses the “abstract theorizing” used by the white subject to constitute him or herself in light of a consciousness of anti-racist/colonial struggles that make the default assumption of self-determination clearly problematic – but that continue to rely on an abstract theorization about and in relation to the concrete, material realities of “fixed, brown bodies”. Likewise, in discussing the acceptance of different ways of being spiritual, different ways of being personal, different ways of being and how these might contribute to a reshaping of the academy, the self-reflexive white settler academic works primarily to make space for it, to recognize it, to describe it, to theorize it – not to be it. Being it remains primarily the purview of those who are stuck in their political bodies. Being different, being spiritual, being personal, being political are all elements that are of course extremely challenging and dangerous for those who do not fit the white/settler mold, and I don’t in any way mean to suggest that this is an easy thing to do or space to occupy. What I mean to point out is that in the way we have made these realities something that we talk about for them, we have yet to detach ourselves from a one-way ethnographic gaze.

And of course, I think much of this is as related to the academic self as part of the great machine of capitalist production as it is to identity dynamics. In that regard, the academy is just one workplace among many, and as Gershon discusses so well, the increasing merger of our professional identities into our personal lives is pervasive and stressful. One of the privileges of academic life, though, is that we get to talk about this and we get to ask these questions. And the question is becoming, for me at least, not how to adapt my personal self to better achieve my professional goals – though they are important to me, and I value those goals as a part of who I am, politically, personally, and spiritually – but how to be fully human within my professional realities. In returning to Todd’s question above, I think that while a very small way to think about those goals, it is the only way that I have to start.

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