Year Two at Cold City U. is coming to an end. Back in the fall, oh so long ago, I was under the misapprehension that this year would be plus soignée, easier, relajado compared to the rigours of my first year. I was wrong, of course. The work, the responsibility, and moreover the representational pressures for the perfect performance increased exponentially, for the bar had already been set so high, you see, by my first-year glamour. Well, I think my colleagues and I know each other a bit more now (including our relative limitations), but inside, I still feel the need for flawless finish, close-up ready makeup, my key light in the right position. And then one looses the thread, the wig slips, and you realise tout à coup that the sound stage is empty, the crew gone home, the camera off, while you continue to chafe under your costume.
And representation is so precious to us. Not only the performance of collegiality and professionalism that stalks us down the hallways and in the classrooms and the conference halls like a bad date, but the sense that our self-identity is contained and enclosed within the performance of our relative positionalities, in particular in the humanities, but also in the social sciences. The personal is political, and the political is personal, but how those two categories collapse into each other in the academy has always troubled me. Educated at the Sarah Bernhardt Memorial Theoretikal Skool of Hard Knocks, where personal characterisations had the disturbing tendency to explode into political accusation, I tend to be allergic to dense prose claiming it is on the cusp of revolutionary transformation, identifying it with the self-aggrandising posturing so common to my graduate training. I must constantly remind myself, however, that the world is not my particular, peculiar, and in retrospect, incredibly special formative training.
For all the painful trauma the experience inflicted, it occurred within a context in which I did not have to confront, at least in the same brutal, ham-fisted manner, what other colleagues have had to deal with, in terms of racist, sexist, and heteronormative questioning of topics, subjects, and fields in their graduate training and subsequent professional placements (the mind fucks at the Theoretikal Skool were more subtle). Interestingly, I was allowed to do what I wanted, and that freedom has meant that, largely, I put what is considered by the greater profession to be marginal work at the centre of my research and teaching, warping my standpoint to the degree that I find it hard to recognise that this is not the way it is everywhere. But moving from margin to centre is disturbing not only the reactionary boogey men of academia, but also the leftist utopians. To centre something means to take it seriously, in all its glamour and flaw. Some texts and authors cannot stand this glare, the hot key light, and retain the perfection they ironically attain on the margin. But that, as they say, is how the cookie crumbles.
Regardless, the formal question that so dogs theory (“Theory writing is so hard to read!”) is less interesting to me than the material aspects of performing such image-texts. This is also not to bring out that old red herring of academic privilege (so we can’t say anything progressive or radical because we are so privileged, which we are, but still…), beaten to a pulp by both the Left and Right punditocracy. It is to say that we live our lives in complicated interstices of power and, yes, privilege, and in my experience and keeping with the allegory, the performance itself is more important than the playwriting in this regard. There are lots of folks who have made their careers on less. But that is neither here nor there. Nowadays, everybody feels disabused and marginalised. In fact, the most interesting aspect of 21st century society in the overdeveloped world is that no one owns agency. From the glum white guys in the Ziggurats of Mammon to the gum-snapping Dominican clerks at Duane Reade, everybody’s pissed off. But isn’t the point of liberation to own agency, to have power, a recognisable power?
Following this, isn’t it interesting how academicians form a sort of symbiotic ecology of authorised and unauthorised discourses? How tropes of thinking and interpretation form their own hermetic worlds, and when interrupted by new, different, or strange thinking, those different thoughts become unintelligible, literally outside of the sphere of communication, like white noise or garbled transmissions from the moon. We know, uncannily, what we can say and what we cannot. It’s like a magical dog whistle we are trained early to hear loud and clear. Don’t go there, girl! This is as true for the Left Academy as for the Right Academy (Yes, Mr. Horowitz, there is a Right Academy). My work focuses around several iconoclastic writers, and I consider myself too iconoclastic in the sense that I am willing to go there, in so far as eggheads can, ahem, go there. But I am also constantly drawn back to politesse and feeling vulnerable to the impressions of others. Part of the problem of attempting to intervene in established discourses (especially as they concern the shibboleths of social identity) is the derision and mischaracterisation such unauthorised enunciations can trigger, the professional and social vulnerability that is the mother’s milk of the academy, which operates much like any institution based on unequal power relationships (which is to say pretty much everything, but alas…).
Years ago, I witnessed a conversation between June Jordan and Angela Davis where Jordan characterised the differences between them (paraphrasing): Here Angela has the gun and I’m saying, “Would anyone like more coffee?” I have always felt more like Jordan than Davis, but then that social desire for smoothness, for politesse, for “being nice” (or more appropriately, correct), runs against the grain of my intellectual thinking, which is to disrupt, to disturb, to challenge, perhaps on occasion incoherently, but always from a position of personal honour (“this is what I think”). And one always pays a price for such vanity, the little cuts, the insecurities, the larger paradigms of professional Siberia (from the micro to the macro and back again). All of which is to say, I need to get my book(s) out. As The Fierceness used to say after a particularly depressing seminar, it’s the work that is important, not the verbal performance. But increasingly, work (as in academic writing) is almost purely performative, at least some of the “hot” texts I’ve been reading over the past couple of years. So where does that leave us? I have no answers, just frustrations, petty jealousies, and legitimate and illegitimate resentments. As Soul 2 Soul once sang, Keep on Movin'.
Recently, I left Cold City for a conference on the western coast of North America, really a pre-planned reunion with La Gamine and the Gentle Scholar, two friends from graduate school that now work, as is typical of our profession, in disparate places across the continent. Together, we’re working on a couple of conference circus acts, connected but distinct. The public act would be perfecting our panel (as we’ve presented together before), fine tuning the bells and whistles of three relatively good papers that work well together, but changing the titles with an eye towards the CV. We’ve getting better on this one. The other act, the private one, would be figuring out the non-conference conference, and by this I mean the art of “appearing” at a conference when you’re really there to deliver your paper and shop and dine with those you know. This is bad form if it is too evident, disrespectful to your colleagues who actually schlepp to 9:00 am panels and go to pallid closing receptions. Verisimilitude remains elusive here, although we’re working on it. At one point I felt like Divine and her girls in Female Trouble smoking and commiserating in the girls’ bathroom, cutting class on a one way ticket to reform school—
Dawn Davenport (Divine): “I’d like to set fire to this dump!” Concetta (Cookie Mueller): “Everybody’s jealous just cause we’re pretty!” Chicklette (Susan Walsh): “This place is just like a prison, even at Christmas, just like a prison!”
As I expressed some interest in a panel or two, La Gamine rolled her eyes and cried, ”Out of the closets and into the Stores!” (or something like that). To which I replied, “And we wonder why we’re not at R1s, hello!” And off to the stores we went, the proscenium, the bell, book, and candle left, temporarily, behind.