The Position We Are In

­The Position We Are In

Ellen K Foster & Shannan L Hayes

  • This piece is an “interdisciplinary” conversation between two early-career, contingently employed, undisciplined academic upstarts (trained in science and technology studies/feminist technoscience & critical theory/cultural studies/feminist theory) who met on the dance floor in Philly amidst sweat and fog. 
  • It is a collection of thoughts that vent frustration over the normalized hierarchies, conservative comforts, and structural exploitations that organize the academic contexts we occupy. 
  • It is an attempt to articulate—at times through simultaneous lines of thought which never quite circle back—the impasses and excitements that come from trying to occupy multiple realities at once. 

[Song curated by LN:]  “Ima Read” by Zebra Katz 

Photo taken by Shannan. Dustbunny, December 2019

Academia has unquestionably shaped us. It has provided us the space to study with detail those operations of power and political-economy that inform what we wish to unlearn and negate. Academia also, as no surprise, requires that if one works on anti-capitalist projects within the academy, they do so while being incorporated into the capitalist values of the academy. This means fitting inquiries into individuated, privately owned projects; relegating ways of thinking and objects of study into artificially divided, and subsequently defensive, fields of study; being subjugated as scholars through productivist “publish or perish” disciplinary norms; and channeling rebellion into moderate, professional, reformist ways of thinking and feeling.

We try, for the time being, to practice disobediently despite these imperatives, without regard for carrot or stick. We know, after all, that there are no secure jobs being dangled our way anyway, and even if there were, we literally don’t like work. Instead, we reserve our imaginations for practices of experimentation and tended-to elation outside of the academy. These practices don’t show up on our CV’s. We try to steal back our energy, our sociality, and our time in doing so. We sense that our academic selves are as unintelligible and unneeded on the dance floor as our nihilistic desires for creative destruction are unwelcome and unintelligible in departmental meetings. 

We appreciate the importance of keeping such worlds separate, and yet operating across such contradictions occasionally makes our heads spin. We wish to mobilize the cracks between our worlds, which often take the shape of anxieties or fractured realities. We wish to sharpen these cracks into blades for cutting up new realities and holes for falling into with each other. We are not totally sure what that looks like, but we love that we have found like-minded people straddling academic, activist, and queer-left creative spaces in each other and other rad people in Philly, Providence, and beyond. We hate when we feel too worn thin from work or life to build these connections by just hanging out. We spit and snarl and resist in whatever ways we are capable.

[Song curated by Shannan:]  “Shut Up” by Deli Girls 

  Photo taken by Shannan. West Philly, October 2020

Photo taken by LN, Dustbunny, March 2021

At the time we slid into each other’s DM’s in the correspondence below, both of us in some ways had already been interrogating our own complicated attachments to those academic institutions we worked so hard to be a part of. While we hadn’t explicitly spoken of it, both of us felt conflicted, somewhat guilty, and definitely frustrated. It was summer-fall 2020, and while we ran into each other quite a bit on the streets, we both felt like we hadn’t been “on the ground” enough. We had mixed feelings about being in privileged proximity to the academy while also precarious. We felt drawn to caring about our students’ mental health and recognizing the trauma of school for many, while also feeling totally impinged upon by the labor of actually building trust with all of one’s 30 to 60+ students. At moments we hoped to translate across, in both directions, the institutional and interstitial spaces we occupied, stealing resources from the one and giving to the other as much as possible. At other moments we felt totally disoriented by realizing just how unaware so many securely employed “colleagues” appeared to be about the plain unlivablity of our current world-order, no less the lively experiments in subject-formation, social reproduction, and interpersonal relations happening on the ground in the face of this. 

Throughout the COVID pandemic and initial quarantine-phase, many of us came to question our scales of time and space and being and relating. We felt the strain on our relations as this stress has brought out a lot of our coping mechanisms. By now, as the fatigue has turned from spring to summer to fall to winter to spring and back around, we witness the so-called “return to normal” being misrecognized as home. We still desire the disruption of it all. We want to fight to not sublimate that chaotic force. 

[Song curated by Shannan:]  “Pump My Body Up” (Jasmine Infiniti Remix) by Boy Pussy

Photo taken by Shannan. Philadelphia, May 30, 2020    

[Shannan’s IG post: Sept 10, 2020]

On Avoidance: a reasonable, yet unsustainable, coping mechanism and political affect

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/pzLSIzq6P6QrLkFacC8c9O8ZrOTF6x4A7oBCmWG3znoMdCy_16zp4Dfiy3RBJnGhRGkR1jBfpVyB99XVuFO3RjTTEHEj_xkxseLlfd3fPp9Zaj9k8jzw6Mg-g9126cMfyBqQAkAF
https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/vS7yUjUgmrXNerh8kbO6_51418nDavfuObYm3dNIGYxrxUbtzXHLQw4DI-pfXlwx5PfYr06_k0b-HJO8u5_ynWvXfO40J8eaxSNJgnvhlwsEmT1JB0Lzt6dJanQMUr2fcWL9HA5R
https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/HIfnv5TgYw-V8EEeHgThPgtUnaiFMy1nxN8tRBmX1BLeWNbmJSqObWyk8iKY23ng3fNknJbPSewUDVuzwDZ2Jd0q-8gQVFOuY5yNrJ9ru8zgVSIbnXJFA2nRimZu1sCacQAm9G9B
https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/7kHRpM4x3O7-9jn_zoHE1dY6uYAak7KgIPLWpXRd_3pQDJioXfZ8CADpK-4Fb244VSggMxbcf4OFHhPqI54NPzdQj7gDHtxX2oggaAXzdUIxDWM7GNFt1w1WDaWs1iwPTEC28ZUt
https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/jI_xXw2XhVY4K5RgRZy7d2N_WWsa0ksvuk67rEQVuO6kEP88f90VlPwweEjyS6XTqug-YdShzlWTaDYLam_vwT5LSUoNa7gJKjwgPi8VkuUL0GXGzLfHUVF0wb5wbPxDBTRVsLkM

Photo taken by Shannan. Philadelphia, early June 2020

[Ellen replied to their story]

LN: I wanna respond n write to you re: this on not a phone, but I was thinking heavily on individuated responsibilities and their deep ties to anxiety/depression in my own life and deep desire to sometimes just stop existing in this world while i was microdosing the other day. Yes yes yes to a lot if these sentiments

S: i want to hug your thoughts

S: um… and microdose

From here we talked more in person and via text about the state of academia, our lived realities of feeling both within and without it all, existing in some kind of borderland of validity to make change, take part, and retain ourselves in any kind of recognizable sense. All of which had escalated or become that much more apparent at the beginning of COVID. 

Finding each other with shared experiences and commitments was a start to a continuing project that has only just begun in this brief spitting out of text. Some kind of Refusal to “Going back to Normalcy” Manifesto entangled with our anti-disciplined long-term commitments of unlearning while leveraging academic entrapments. It is also a commitment to alternative pathways, practices, and spaces at the edges: For skilling up in various ways as well as restructuring structures of power. For dancing effusively for pure joy as well as reaffirming that the dance floor is political. We continue to consider how to dismantle and destroy while reimagining how the world of critical thinking could be otherwise, could more deeply engage our lived realities instead of being stuck up in an ivory tower, the suburbs, capitalist realism, fidelity to the endowment, and the avoidant mystifications of business as usual. 

A Twitter post appeared one day in one of our peripheries, posted by an established, tenure-secure academic. They vent about the demands of their success and visibility, entangled with the stress of emotional labor from being too in demand by their students. Our concerns feel mockingly distorted and platformed here from a voice of obliviousness, suddenly woke to the concept of emotional labor without any concept of power.  It sends us into a flurry of texts and in-person conversation about hierarchies, the unrecognized expectations put upon adjuncts and contingents who have no academic visibility, the way sheltered reality is reified, and the obdurate structures of higher ed that we thought might change if we collectively budge them together from within, yet seem quite steadfast. 

We text each other again to vent about the same, zillionth, zoom meeting in which our colleagues complain about how to get students to really learn the material via testing (who cares about their health or anxieties?). We jealously mock their spacious suburban home offices while cramming ourselves into south philly rowhomes with 3-bedrooms and 4 roommates (some who are frontline workers in grocery stores), or tiny studio apartments with New York style gentrification rents that take up half our paychecks and we surely won’t be able to afford once our contingent contracts are not renewed, and yet reminding ourselves that we are both on the high end of privilege with some kind of income and stable housing. 

Photo by LN, Coffee Fail, Enacapsulation of LN’s initial bed next to tiny desk workspace. March 2020.  

As much as our deepening commitments to students’ well-being, the importance of labor organizing in academic institutions, resisting and questioning arcane and outdated tenure-track qualifiers tied to capitalist ideals binds us together, we find that our lived involvement in the conditions of precarity–a concept so well theorized in the academy– increasingly casts us deeply apart from even our supposed colleagues who know this economic literature quite well.   

While these interactions are now over a year in the past, we want to hold onto the energy in this moment of questioning and action and small collective shifts, toward refusal of the-world-as-it-stands, and toward establishing how it might-be-otherwise. Taking bites out of the hegemonic order at which we snarl and spit, even as some of our worlds push back into “normalcy” or “business-as-usual,” we want to stay with the stoked fire feelings we have both been having and had all along. Refusal is never less than a smoldering coal ever-ready to catch wild and fast in our bodies and minds. 

Having established physical autonomous zones and communities in the liminal spaces of underground culture, we understand the ephemerality of these bright fires, and the importance of keeping them lively in our minds/hearts/hands. To us, not only the academic sphere, but the dancefloor and its visceral emotional output is political. These are places to consider intention, infrastructure, and other ways of worlding.

LN mirror selfie. Dustbunny @ the end of its run. March 2021

Even as the encampments end. As the protests diminish. As DIY spaces shut down. As we continue to teach and take part in academia. We reserve time and headspace + bodyenergy at the edges to organize, build up skills, hold one another, share these angers, to jump and run and dance, hard. [include BPM? lol] We cannot go back to “normalcy” because normalcy as such does not exist, never did, and it never will for us and so many others. 

We are left with continuing questions and unresolved conversations that we gnaw upon as we both refuse to consider the stability and institutional acceptability of tenure track positions. We don’t want to stop pursuing other life interests, goals, and political commitments, and we know that academia wants us to. We have toyed with the idea of “getting ahead” in order to leverage resources for reworlding or disruption, but we have seen too many like-minded academics with similar intent be co-opted, entangled, and run-down into the ground by capitalist, neoliberal institutions that disallow for change.

Selfie of Shannan on their 38th bday. 6:12 am, September 2021

Selfie of LN. The Slabs. February 2021

So. 

We leave you, perhaps by our side, in thoughts and struggles (and maybe even inspirations?), grappling with a set of ideas that we think are better off left alive: 

  1. How does one disrupt, or smash, the table rather than just make more places at the table of “higher education”?
    • We recognize that academia can only imagine reform, not actual destruction or novel creation.
    • We also recognize that criticality gets incorporated in this way.
    • How could we tap into a mindset that both smashes and builds? 
    • Does this entail building heterogeneous alternative pathways (Gibson-Graham 2006) that can sustain a multiplicity of identities and desires, outside of “higher ed?”
  2. How can more interdisciplinary thinking–that is, thinking which is not loyal to the artificial separations of the disciplines–happen, while also not burdening interdisciplinary thinkers with needing to be accountable to all the disciplines and still being treated with suspicion?
    • We recognize that the institution reproduces itself through discipline-specific standards and qualifying criteria, and that so long as this continues there is a limit to how much one can actually do across fields or unbeholden to them.
  3. To what extent should the chaos we desire be directed toward our local contexts of (the massive cultural institution of) higher education? 
    • We recognize that academic citational practices and economic interests do not easily allow for alterity, chaos, disruption, etc, and to the contrary have been technologies for subsuming radical energy (for example that of the 1970s student and social movements) through the lure of professionalization and the discipline of austerity measures/budget cuts (Ferguson 2012).
  4. What is still viable in the project of higher education?
    • We recognize that colleges are mystification dream-machines that encourage reality-avoidance and require an incessant future-orientation (attached to a future that never arrives), at the same time that they are administrators of individualized self-shame and actors in the creation of material wealth disparity. 
    • We see a clear connection between Lauren Berlant’s succinctly described notion of “cruel optimism” and this affective attachment to higher education as an investment that is supposed to deliver (to undergrads, grads, and junior scholars alike) a better life which, quite frankly, is materially unavailable for all but a few amidst the interlocking crises we face (Berlant 2011). 
    • We recognize that such avoidant optimism appears also in the ways secure faculty can’t face the possibility of violence (even against private property) as perhaps, sometimes, a valid and appropriate mode of address. 
  5. Do we need alternative structures of learning to launch off toward?
    • But not in the utopian-plan, pre-established, exacting, blueprint way. Because that’s always going to go wrong and we are never going to do anything if we have to wait to come up with some sort of idea that seems feasible and right…
    • Might we just destroy that which is working so hard, through ten million “not personal” cuts, to destroy us?  
  6. Do we need so much scholarship? 
    • What if people published only when they actually had something they wanted to explore in writing, or something pressing, with clear stakes, that they wanted to say? 
    • What if we wrote in conjunction with our struggles, if and when that seemed powerful, rather than publishing out of the need to maintain professional legitimacy? 
    • What if we also had time to write and think creatively, expansively, to sustain our joys in writing and thinking, by lifting some of the productivist pressures of content production that extends within and beyond the  neolibearl academy?
    • And what if there were institutions (academic, social, or otherwise) that actually supported this?

[Song curated by LN:] “Glue” by Bicep + “Final Frontier” by Underground Resistance

Photos for possible collage or inclusion:  

Works Cited:

Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel optimism. Duke University Press.

Ferguson, R. (2012). The Reorder of Things. U of Minnesota Press.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2006). A postcapitalist politics. U of Minnesota Press.

Ellen K Foster is Postdoctoral Researcher in Science and Technology Studies at School of Engineering Education, Purdue University.

Shannan L Hayes is Visiting Assistant Professor in Writing & Peace, Justice, and Human Rights at Haverford College.