There were dozens of talks, panels, rallies, meetings – little attempts to chip away at a big, intractable problem. The details fade away in the end. They blur into the feeling of collective frustration, of swimming against a tide.
But after every event, without fail, I spot someone hovering up the back, trying to catch my eye. As the crowd disperses and they slowly approach me, I know even before they speak. Them too. My heart shudders.
The stories are all different, but in a way they are also all the same. Abuse of power, misplaced guilt, shame. It is wearying.
After a while, these stories of violence begin to pool and form an inky river. It runs around me, through the university, across the neat lawns and through the classrooms, leaving black grease in its wake. It appears in my dreams, but also in waking, in my lectures and in the library – it is a stickiness, sticking me to this place, to this problem.
What does it mean to work within an institution that feels like this?
To feel, viscerally, the rot within the house?
Sara Ahmed: ‘to work as a feminist means trying to transform the organisations that employ us – or house us. This rather obvious fact has some telling consequences. When we try to shake the walls of the house, we are also shaking the foundations of our own existence.’
(And when you try to dismantle the walls and the beams from the inside – it all comes down upon you.)
Another scene: I am sitting with a senior member of the faculty – she’s a queer theorist, a postmodernist, a feminist, ostensibly. I ask her to support a proposal to improve the university’s response to sexual violence, which is being taken to a high-level committee. And she tells me that the university is already doing so well, that there is no need to try to improve it. She tells me that everything is fine!(1)
How easily we can become part of the institution’s walls, holding it up like a timber beam: deadwood.
At what point do we become deadwood?
Hannah Arendt wrote that institutions ‘are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them.’(2)
But there is something about universities that feels already petrified. I was once told that the sandstone blocks that form the main quadrangle are held together with the crushed up remains of Aboriginal middens, and that the quad itself sits on a sacred site, that some don’t go there.
Inside the quadrangle sits a bust of William Wentworth, who called the speech of Gamilaraay people ‘the chatterings of wild orangutangs’ and thus prevented them from testifying in court about the Myall Creek massacre in 1838.(3)
What kind of house is this? What does it mean to call it home?
To distinguish between loving something for what it is, and loving it for what you want it to be, isn’t easy. Particularly when what it is (inky river/crushed middens) seems invisible to others, and what you want it to be feels extremely far away.
But how does one undertake the work necessary to change a place without some kind of love for it? After all, critique can be an act of care, as Wendy Brown puts it.(4) Like trying to fix a relationship that’s gone a bit shit: when you love something, you stay and work on it.
The staying is the hard part.
Making your point by leaving, by withdrawing your living power, can be cathartic, but it can also be its own form of complicity. You leave the institution – you stop posing a problem – yet the problems remain, for others to deal with.
Ahmed again: ‘When you expose a problem you pose a problem’.(5) And when you pose a problem, you begin to feel like you are the problem.
This feeling is what survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire have called ‘institutional gaslighting.’ You are assured that the thing you are talking about, pointing to, trying to challenge, isn’t really there. Architects, city planners, and developers told Grenfell residents that the building was solid and stable; that the ‘stay-put’ policy, rather than immediate evacuations, worked well. Everything is fine.
I think this is how living, breathing trees harden, become deadwood. When you’re told for long enough that everything is fine, it comes to seem fine.
Or else, the cold facts of money and power seduce you into the walls of the institution.
When NYU student Nimrod Reitman went public with allegations of ongoing sexual harassment from his grad school advisor Avital Ronnell, it created a stir in academia. However, the stirring came not from established, tenured academics, but from precarious, early-career researchers and graduate students. Those who had most to lose were those who took the risk of losing it. Those who were protected, stayed silent. It was, as usual, the lower frequencies making noise.
This is the rub: the institution represents your livelihood, a site of hope and investment, but also, at the same time, of suffering, pain, violence, and anxiety.(6) This is what Lauren Berlant terms cruel optimism, or ‘a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility’.(7) How do we respond to such conditions? Berlant says that we develop ‘technologies of patience’ – we learn to put aside the cruelties of the present in order to orient ourselves towards the future. We hold on to fantasy to get by.
But to me, this is a deadwood move. Staying present is the hard part.(8)
So in the end, all I’ve got is this one-foot-in, one-foot-out strategy: staying with the trouble, making a bit of trouble, refusing not to be troubled by what I see around me. Remembering that the change has to happen in this middle place, between the inside and the outside.
Retaining my lines of flight, just in case – holding onto the infinitesimal possibility of escape.(9)
(1) When she said this, I thought of that meme with the dog wearing a tiny hat, smiling while the room burns around it; how some learn to ignore the flames.
(2) Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic.
(3) Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 21 June 1844, p. 2.
(4) Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity.
(5) Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life.
(6) Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling.
(7) Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism.
(8) Donna Haraway: ‘staying with the trouble does requires learning to be truly present.’ It requires ‘inheriting hard histories, for everybody, but not equally and not in the same way’; Staying With the Trouble.
(9) Matt Fournier, ‘Lines of Flight’, Transgender Studies Quarterly.
Image: ‘Arches’, University of Sydney Quadrangle, Flickr