Saturday, September 29, 2007

Tears of Rage Against the Machine

I'm at work today. Not the main work place, but the other one, where I've managed to pick up more work than I should ever have agreed to.

Actually, I didn't think I'd be marking these assignments at all. This is what has gotten me into the sense of trouble I'm feeling. I agreed to do the marking at the end of last semester, but then I didn't hear from the convener for ages, so I assumed he'd found someone else and I accepted other work. I didn't think that the convener would wait until the assignments were due to organise the paperwork for the appointment. Then I didn't feel as though I could say I've got too much on, because, technically, I had agreed to do the work. Well.

So between trying to marking these 80 or so assignments, I'm taking a series of short breaks by doing some blogging. I should warn you that I'm feeling a bit melancholy, which is my way of trying not to take responsibility for what you'll read in this rambling post, but, I suppose, the truth is, I've been thinking about various things along these lines for some time, things that have confused and upset me, whether it's needless emotion, I don't know--here, I think of Kate's byline from Moment to Moment: 'over thinking everything since 2005'--but I think I have to somehow get these thoughts out of my head, and I wouldn't mind some feedback from the more regular readers and commenters of this blog, because I value your insight.

To some extent, I've been prompted to write this by a couple of Oanh's posts, specifically those where she has discussed relationships between women, that is, her relationships with colleagues and school friends and her sense that she hasn't quite fitted in with them. On both occasions, on Oanh's blog, I made some obscure comments that I had felt the same way and that I would eventually work up the courage to write about it on my own blog.

Around the time I was responding to Oanh's posts, I had not long discovered that someone whom I had tried very hard to be friends with 'in real life' removed me from her blog roll. Being as honest as I can be, I have to say I took this personally; I was upset at what I interpreted as quite a public rejection. It isn't that I think anyone else necessarily noticed the deletion but more that I began to wonder what I had done to prompt the excision. Attempting to think rationally, I know that I likely didn't do anything, but I still can't convince myself that it wasn't a comment on something about me that was lacking. Or refining the nuances of my thought process even more (you see how my mind works?), I concluded that the person in question's action was a quite deliberate exclusion of my person from her network, and I became angry.

Let me explain. There's a bit of a history.

I had read this person's blog for a while. I had a link to it on my blog roll from the moment I became brave enough to link to people I knew irl, who didn't know I had a blog. Sometimes I found her blog tough going, in the sense that I suppose I do still make a distinction between academic sites and social sites, and the blog in question isn't necessarily the kind you read for social banter or laughs. It is an extension of the blogger's professional life.

Perhaps this is where much of my confusion lies. See, when I read on this person's blog that they were feeling lonely and isolated, I responded, not really as a colleague, but more as a potential friend (not that the two relationships are necessarily incompatible), saying we should do something social together irl. Well, that never really eventuated, and any common attendance at social occasions only came about through group decisions to go for drinks after work related events.

It was after several of these thwarted attempts to initiate friendship that I eventually came to the conclusion that anything I had read on this person's blog--from the feelings of loneliness and alienation through to the dissatisfaction with Brisbane's cultural life--was in fact a case of purely professional theoretical musings. I still don't know what else to conclude in light of my experience with this blogger: the words were an Affective articulation of the working conditions of a young, newly located, researcher. She is a very good writer. But it seems that there was nothing more. Nothing that could be responded to outside of the blog, an academic reading group, a conference or seminar presentation. Nothing that couldn't be turned into a research project.

What makes this situation worse, to my mind, is that even after discovering that I'd been re-evaluated as not-blog-roll-worthy, I still attempted to engage with the blogger on line. (Although it's not my efforts that make it worse, but rather the topic on which I attempted to engage with the blogger). I commented on her criticisms about a conference she had attended, where she suggested that the majority of the conference attendees had been self-indulgent, talking far too long in question times, and just generally apolitical and nostalgic. I responded to what I interpreted as a fairly sweeping dismissal of a large number of colleagues with a question. I hadn't attended the conference under discussion, but my question wasn't about the conference exactly, so much as my confusion about an apparent lack of generosity in the comments.

I asked the question, as well, because I knew a couple of the initial commenters who had concurred with the blogger's perspective (although I did not know the commenter who took me task for asking my question with a lecture about the alienating nature of academic discourse!), and when I read their assessment of the conference too, something just got stuck in my craw and a whole well of bile just wanted to spew forth.

It didn't. I tried to be calm and direct my question towards the pessimism expressed about the older generation of scholars who attended the conference (there's almost something Oedipal there), but it's true to say that there was something else in my question. And it wasn't just the freshly minted feeling of rejection I was experiencing about the blog-roll snub; no, I admit my question was informed by something a bit more putrid and festering than that.

I have been in reading groups and master classes with these young researchers, and quite frankly, I have never felt more alienated or more dismissed in my entire life, while collectively they have monopolised the attention of the visiting expert scholar, engaging them in conversations inaudible to the rest of the class's participants, while remaining entirely oblivious to their slight, and completely unreceptive to any attempt to get them to reflect upon their actions. I have had conversations where I've felt like I've been assaulted by Judith Lucy wielding a base ball bat as sarcasm after ironism has been smacked to the outfield, leaving no room for response. I have had the repeated experience of having to practically reintroduce myself every time I encounter them since there is absolutely no flicker of recognition on their faces to suggest that they've ever seen me before. To say nothing of outright moments of snobbery.

Let's talk about lack of affect, shall we?


Are you still reading?

I needed a moment.

I'm not sure where to go now.

I want to say something about hypocrisy, but I don't think the situation is as simple as that: academics of all generations are quivering masses of doubts wrapped up in poor social skills that present as snubs and slights.

Another thing that prompted this post was an invitation I received to a birthday party this weekend. It was offered with the codicil that it would be good if I could make it because unlike many of the birthday person's friends (who are perfectly lovely people) I was able to talk about something other than shop, and right now, for this occasion, that would be very welcome. At the time I laughed and said that I could be invited anywhere and relied upon to talk crap, however, I was also pleased by the observation, because I don't want to spend every waking moment consumed by work.

That said, I have little problem talking about things other than work. I wonder if that isn't some of the source of my reaction to the anxieties that I've been discussing in this post. I find it really difficult to sustain for long periods of time the level of thinking required to do academic work, so I am nonplussed when I encounter people who seem to be able to operate on that level much of the time. I'd be less worried if it wasn't true that every aspiring academic compares themselves and is compared to these people who are pathological, in the most benign sense, ie 'not normal'.

I guess I have two things to say here. The first is that by removing the link to my blog from her blog-roll the blogger in question has demonstrated that she does not consider me to be one of her colleagues. I thought I was, so that's been quite a hurtful thing to realise.

Following on from that, and more vaguely, I am drawn to wonder about a forthcoming work event where the topic for discussion is about social networking sites and blogs as forms of collegial networking for contemporary researchers, who often work in isolation. I'm curious about the ways these networks are being extended, or not, to those who research fields other than the internet, but who experience similar working conditions.

If some deliberately exclude others from these collegial networks online, refusing reciprocal exchanges and deleting links, what are the consequences for collegial relationships between individuals within and across institutions in the same physical location? What happens when you encounter flesh and blood colleagues researchers, who are in the same general field, in the corridors and cloisters, or by the lift well of the physical world institution you inhabit?

Can you always dip your head and take the stairs?


db said...

A brave post Kirsty. I think one of the reasons I stopped blogging was realising that the format (and indeed the surrounding discourse) encouraged me to treat a certain set of relationships within a blogosphere as equivalent to my offline relationships, when in fact they did something quite different, and as you point out this brings about all kinds of ways of reading/misreading both online and offline connections.

That whole experience has left me very skeptical about the ability of internet networks to host a sustainable form of sociality, and generally I've spent a lot of the last little while disengaging from a number of online networks that have previously been more important to me.

The flipside is that I've been spending a lot more time in deepening RL relationships of both a professional and non-professional nature. Some of these relationships, it's true, began through shared writing, including online spaces. But there is certainly a different kind of power dynamic at play than the one you outline here about linking and support.

In the end, I think there is no "reason" in relationships and support networks - there is only shared desire and imbalances in desire. Relationships don't respond well to "shoulds" of the moral variety, people like or they don't. The web encourages the instrumentalisation of collegial relationships under the guise of some kind of grass roots anti-institutional movement, but increasingly I think that's just ideology, and that ultimately what works are relations built not on blogrolls but on mutual reciprocal interest and care.

It's always challenging when one finds oneself on the wrong end of the energy out vs energy in dynamic, but for myself at least, the kinds of experiences you describe have been helpful for me in reconfiguring my relationships, incl. letting some go, and whereby I put a lot less pressure on them to provide something back, and ironically they end up providing more back than one expects.

And this seems to make it that much easier to relax around the informal professional hierarchies that haunt us so much in academe.

Good luck with the marking and sanguinity!

Kirsty said...

Thanks for your comment db.

I have done some disengaging of my own, but I think it's been of the resentful variety rather than a calmer moving on kind--although I have tried. But clearly my post reveals that I haven't been so successful with the being calm.

I do tell myself that I would be better off directing my energy more usefully. I have plenty of things to be getting on with, really. But I think you're right about the ideology of the grass-roots promise of social networking etc in academia. And it bears repeating. I laugh at myself because I did a master's thesis on zines and drew similar conclusions myself about the ideology of anti-institutional self-publishers. If cultural studies should have taught me anything, it's that there's *always* a hierarchy of values, even amongst those of us who are so attuned to the processes.

Perhaps what makes it more difficult is that I encounter these people in RL on a fairly frequent basis. I have some purely online networks with people whom I've never met and it's very clear to me that I get on with some of those people a lot more than I do with others, but while I've sometimes wondered why, I guess I am less attached, or able to accept that we don't have a connection, there is an 'imbalance of desire' if you will.

That said I suppose if I don't have a connection with other people wandering the campus IRL then it's not likely we'll have any online. We mutually 'don't like'. Hmmm.

I suppose I *have* been seduced by the ideology of online collegiality and the formal markers of that in things like blogrolls and visible comments.

Thanks for your insights db. They've been very welcome.

Oanh said...

Kirsty -

This is a wonderful and very thought-provoking post.

What do you think would happen if the person whom you refer to read it? Would she engage? Do you want her to engage? Do you think she even realises how you might be feeling / responding to her actions?

Academia seems so fraught, sometimes, with the inter-relation between social and professional circles.

Online is fraught, too, because you can't soften the things you do and say with a smile, or a gesture, or excuse it with absentmindedness. Snubbery is so much more hurtful because it's lasting, and it's conscious: being removed from a blog-roll is willed, whereas a failure to recognise or an inability to include in conversation can be the symptom of so many other things (like your wonderfully phrased 'quivering masses of doubt wrapped up in poor social skills').

On the other hand, controlling your online life is one of its great advantages. I got all fearful about my real-life friends crossing over with my online-friends when I signed up to Facebook until I realised that I can view all my relationships not as real versus unreal (because online) but premised upon other things: my law school friends versus my new work friends versus the myriad people I have met online.

Maybe it's arrogant, but it's her loss.

Kirsty said...

What do you think would happen if the person whom you refer to read it? Would she engage? Do you want her to engage? Do you think she even realises how you might be feeling / responding to her actions?

These are good questions Oanh, and truly, I simply don't know the answer to any of them. Except perhaps to say that if she did read it and engage then I wouldn't step away from it. I would owe her that, especially, I think, if she didn't know about my response, because I imagine it would be quite confronting to find out about such a response to you for the first time. It's on that level that I feel a waver of regret or rather indecision about writing such a post, but I've done it so I'll take responsibility for the fall out.

And then there's the part of me that wants to answer back to the fetishisation of affect and wonder when it simply becomes affectation wielded by some enormously privileged people; the performance of affect if you will.

Melissa said...

Hi Kirsty,

Clearly I do read your blog, and I didn't realise you were so upset. I'm not sure whether you want a response to this, but you've made some pretty strong statements here. I'm interested to see what your readers think too, and I think DB's comments are great.

I don't consider my blogroll a literal or proximate manifestation of every friend and colleague I have, and I'm sorry that you've read it that way. I also remember talking to you online and offline the last time you wrote on my blog in an effort to explain some of the aggression that took place there, and sharing many chats in the lift over the past few months. I'm confused that you are so unhappy with my behaviour (and others who can speak for themselves), but I also don't feel as though I should be compelled to defend my decision to take the stairs sometimes because it's about the only exercise I get, or respect the quiet workspace of people working on hotdesks in an open plan office.

I hope we can move on from this and work out a form of collegiality that we both recognise, online and offline.

barry said...

eh, it's a blogroll. i've never been on mel's blogroll, but given that i never use them, or even see them (like many people, i use an rss reader) i really couldn't care.

and, err, to call someone pathological for finding a job where they are doing stuff they enjoy - well, that's a bit messed up, eh? I looove working in media/com, and i ended up here cause i was doing it as hobby - why is it pathological? are you saying it's abnormal to find a job you enjoy? it's messed up to expect that people have a job that they don't.

As for the criticism of other researchers - I have the same reaction to researchers who ask stupid questions as i do to students who don't do the required readings - if you can't be bothered to be prepared, why are you here? It's not an age thing, it's about whether you've bothered to think of a good question. Far too many researchers don't think about what the presenter has actually said - they just want an opportunity to show off their own knowledge.

Kirsty said...

Barry, I think you have misunderstood me. I enjoy working in media and cultural studies too. I was lamenting that I had very much felt the same kind of alienation and frustration being expressed by Melissa and her commenters about their O/S conference experience in *their* presence so I wondered about that. I didn't experience those awful feelings as a normal, everyday collegial encounter.

And if you can thank someone for the 'add', then what's the appropriate response to the de-add?

Mel, I think we do have a very different reading of our encounters. To me they never seem complete. Interrupted. Stolen in an accidental and not really welcomed meeting. Of course, I wouldn't begrudge you exercise, but you know I wasn't being literal with that comment. And you're right to respect the communal office space, but again I think you underestimate the importance of the phatic in a workplace environment that is *so* open. A smile and a nod go a long way.

I was truthful in my response to Oanh's comments that I didn't know if I wanted you to respond. I did know it was a possibility, that you would read it, and so you have, but I'm still not sure. I accept that you've responded as you're entitled to in this forum.

I agree my statements were strong, but then so were your's. (And perhaps I was encouraged by c--the title of this post is a direct reference). I wonder did any one of those people with apparently sticky fingers read your post? If they'd defended themselves, what would your response have been? Perhaps they are so self-important, they wouldn't bother to look beyond their navels? I don't know.

I enjoyed db's comments too, but s/he certainly doesn't read the situation through the lens of the rhetoric of your academic work, in the way that, I guess, I've been doing. Badly perhaps. I don't know. I remain perplexed.

Hmm, I might have to start referring to myself as k. or kl. ksl?

db said...

Hmm, I might have to start referring to myself as k. or kl. ksl?

Good idea! Although the thing is, the world of Brisbane blogs is pretty small - in fact the world of Australian blogs is pretty small, so even the pseudonym may not get you the kind of space that would allow a post like this one to go under the radar. Again, the kind of sociality and risk in the online world in a US model that supplies all the discourse fails to operate in a very different and smaller context.

I didn't know that it was Mel's blog you were talking about (though I was thinking it was probably one of three that I knew with hers included), but her and I have our own related mostly online history which I'm sure she could describe in a way that's more interesting than I could. I would say that it informs the comments I made earlier, not because of her response in particular, but because MG was one of the first academics I met (at my second conference in fact) who seemed to embody a shared ethic, and it took a while to work out that while some of it was shared, some of it wasn't, and we both have our own directions that of course are more complicated than that first recognition (for me, but perhaps for both of us). That's no disrespect to Mel, in fact, au contraire, I think it just shows how she inspires academic desire all round! So you're not alone there. But I think there are generational, disciplinary, and other gaps which are not easily papered over, no matter how much you want them to be.

I sensed in your original post that you fused the de-linking with offline dynamics of the academic setting that you felt uncomfortable with, and I think this is where you can easily end up painting yourself into a corner. My main take on all of this is that the academic environment (like my other natural habitat, the art world) tends to breed paranoia about social relationships, and as academics we are very good at reading significance into things. And perhaps, sometimes too good for our own good.

I think it's a valuable (and as I said, brave) thing to write a post like this, and to put your desires and identifications on the table. And I think/hope it will have the effect of clarifying the dynamic of not just this particular instance, but provide a way for you to find more comfort with the kinds of interactions that occur in a small city and a small blogosphere. After all, I think the group of people who can even have this conversation is too small and valuable to get deeply fractured by interpersonal dynamics.

Kirsty said...

Hi again, db. I think you're right about the lack of anonymity factor in Brisbane. I discovered today that someone I would certainly never have expected to read my blog had read this post. I wasn't brave enough to ask if it was on account of a tip off or if s/he was a regular reader.

Anyway I was given some very useful insight, akin to the kind of thing you've said about desire etc. And I think it harks back to your first comments, too, about the false promise of the internet to eliminate hierarchies, when in fact there are hierarchies that exist IRL that, again, as you say, can't be papered over so easily. On the one hand there's the desire of the postgrad to be a postdoc or more, and then there's the desire of the more senior person to create a community and attempt some kind of egalitarianism that doesn't really acknowledge the power imbalance inherent in the academic institution either.

At any rate, it's been a learning curve, which, after all, is what we're all here for. Cheers.