… and some more rage
I have spent five months writing a book. It turns out, when you write a book, there remains little time to blog. Then by September my sabbatical ended, and there remained time for about nothing.
As I have started rattling around in the wheel of everyday academic madness again, it has struck me over the past month how much of the job is about suffering in silence. Suffering in silence in fear of losing pedagogical advantages you might have been struggling to gain in the past. Suffering in silence because you are actually privileged when tenured and shouldn’t complain. Suffering in silence because Academia, in the big picture, is not as bad as other areas.
Suffering in silence is the exact opposite of what the people I studied in my early research have been doing. Intellectuals, by definition, are people who leave the realms of academia in order to speak up as public figures – based on the premise that their knowledge gives their word legitimacy. Of course, you make mistakes. Public discourse follows other rules than academic discourse, and you might very well say something that will not at all be interpreted in the way in which you mean it. But for intellectuals in general, there is this notion of a moral duty motivating to take the risk of being misunderstood, because what is at stake, for the individuals who engage in such a path, is bigger than their academic persona and whether said persona is fully understood or not becomes (theoretically at least), at some point, irrelevant.
I have not published on intellectuals for quite a while now. I felt I didn’t have much more to say about them. The Berlin intellectuals I have studied were appalled by Napoleon’s wrongdoings on Prussian soil, they talked their students into taking sides. Before them Voltaire, after them Zola, Sartre. A men’s world of higher moral ground.
The more I drifted away from this research topic, the more I felt the need to actually act on what I sensed was an unbearable state of things. I suppose I didn’t learn much from what I studied – because what I know for sure is that the extent of the effort involved is generally in no reasonable proportion to its effect (except of course if you are Voltaire, Zola or Sartre). For instance, you work yourself up to writing a column for a big newspaper. You think each and every word has been perfectly weighed. You expect impact, because you are, in this matter, right where most of people are wrong. Needless to say, the outcome is, more often than not, disappointment. But you will have overcome the first obstacle: daring to speak up.
In fact, there is some complexity in being in a position to speak up, feeling the urge to do so, and yet constantly questioning one’s own legitimacy. I guess this has in part to do with being a woman in Academia. I have helped schooling refugee kids, I have helped setting up meal distributions for students during covid. I joined Extinction Rebellion and did some door knocking to invite people to an information meeting. I have written a few position papers – none of them very angry – on how the digital world is poorly understood and poorly implemented in Humanities disciplines. But this is still very personal on one side, very professional on the other. And all the better hidden that, in the digital age, you can protest from your desk.
The exposure of bringing one’s face to the forefront of protest is a completely different story, even than putting your name under a sign-on letter. The exposure (especially the digital one) of being part of a public protest is so massive you have, in some sense, to compose or recompose a public persona: not the one who teaches, not the one who presents papers, and yet still this one.
In the coming days, scientists from all over the world will join in protest against the lack of political action on climate change. It will be a time for many to become this face, to be exposed like most of us never have, to leave a comfort zone the lab coats will hardly be able to protect. The face we show is the face of an infinite worry, because we know and we want all to know, and to act on it – and there is no Zola for us, there is just us, many of us.