Stopping the Clock(s): Precarious Times in the Academy

I don’t remember what time it was when I got the news. It was a bad time, though, I remember that sure enough. I was elbow-deep in writing a chapter for an edited collection (Spencer-Hall, forthcoming), steeling myself for one final push to bring my scholarly baby into the world. The deadline was tight – it’s always tight – but I could make it, if I could just keep going. I was tired and I hurt, I had logged long hours this past week or so of writing. I had shifted time usually reserved for self-care – for having breaks, eating lunch, taking exercise – into the work column of my schedule. The irony of the situation was not lost on me. I was writing a chapter on chronic pain and illness in the Middle Ages, underscoring the political urgency of recognizing ourselves, as members of the crip community, in historical sources.[1] In that other chapter, I theorised a trans-temporal crip-chronic community, subjects out of time that met in the blurred temporalities of crip time: an affirmative crip-chronic communion. And yet, the act of getting this material out of my brain and into the world, of pushing hard to meet the deadline – I felt, more than ever, the weight of my chronic illness. Here I was sketching glorious disability futures – and pasts – and in the present, the now in which I found myself, I felt more actively disabled than ever. This was only temporary, I promised myself. One final push in the dying minutes of the game, I thought, to deliver a chapter to my editors and to deliver myself to my bed, for hours if not days. And then the call came. The dying minutes were no longer a metaphor, the spectre of time running out shunted safely to the realm of sports and winners and losers and clear results of a game well played. He had died, and time itself seemed to fracture. The clocks, all of them, stopped.

I use the adjective ‘crip’, here and throughout this essay, in the context of ‘crip theory’, a radically inclusive, globalized and intersectional disability politics. [2] Usage of the term ‘crip’ is a conscious reclamation of the slur ‘cripple’, grounded in a rejection of the ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’ that structures our culture.[3] It operates for many, though not all, in the contemporary disability community as ‘a marker of in-your-face, or out-and-proud cultural model of disability’.[4] Most importantly for the purposes of the present essay, crip ‘has the capacity to encompass forms of embodiment or states of mind that are arguably in excess of the able-minded or able-bodied/disabled binary’.[5] In its adjectival form – as in ‘crip time’ – ‘crip’ is not simply ‘additive’ or descriptive, but instead ‘generative’.[6] It ‘remakes’ the noun it modifies, challenging linguistic and significative stability by insisting on difference, different ways of doing, being, and thinking. Crip time, then, is the time of disability, but also the times – plural – made possible by disability, the times in excess of the normate.

That call punctured my compressed timeline, bringing a halt to finishing off the book chapter. I wouldn’t make that deadline after all. Everything seemed to pause, balanced on the temporal fulcrum of that moment. And in that moment of stasis, the clocks stopped and time itself seemed to intensify, to thicken. The clocks were plural, in the sense of a collective of timepieces all stopping at the same moment to mark a death, the experience of time I shared with all others who had received the news. More significantly, for this essay at least, is that the clocks were plural in the sense of multiple timepieces showing different times, ticking – or jumping, or stuttering, or oozing – by according to the logic of various temporal modes, overlaying one another in haphazard layers. I perceived, more clearly than ever before, my embodied experience of different kinds of time. Academic time: days lost in the library, late nights of writing, strictly scheduled teaching hours, office hours, semester and term. Institutional time: promotion cycles, funding cycles, complaint procedures, access requests. Bodily time: menstrual cycles, pregnancy, sleep cycles, exhaustion, hunger, mortality itself. Crip time: the time(s) of disability, a kind of bodily time which structures, and is structured by, the lived experience of disability, and the time-scapes to which disability gives access. [7] Chronic time: a specific inflexion of crip time, the predictably unpredictable temporal landscape of living with chronic illnesses. I discerned, finally, how these times and their uneasy intersections radically structure my own life (work and otherwise).

This was a moment of radical ‘asynchrony’, a state of temporal confusion – or perhaps profusion – as theorised by Carolyn Dinshaw. Asynchrony, according to Dinshaw, is the instant in which ‘different time frames or temporal systems collid[e] in a single moment of now’.[8] This stands in stark opposition to the teleology which structures Higher Education in a neoliberal context, including both student learning and scholarly career progression. Students are urged to renounce, or simply ignore, their present desires and embodied experiences in favour of working towards an idealized future. [9] No matter if they love literature and value the arts, students’ future employability demands STEM subjects, or so the neoliberal rhetoric goes. Teachers must craft their lessons according to the rigid terms of learning outcomes, regardless of the needs and responses of their students in that specific classroom, at that specific time.[10] And scholars, especially those in early-career, are told to sacrifice their present – no time for a life, a family, and certainly no time for a malfunctioning body – in the hopes of that tantalizing prize, ever disappearing from view: job security, with genuine work-life balance. This enacts, as Catherine Herring and Paul Standish assert, ‘an expulsion of being-in-the-living present’, replicating ‘a view of time that is linear and hierarchical’.[11] By contrast, asynchronous experiences reveal that ‘the present moment is multiple’.[12] They force us to confront the fallacy of any flattened, singular notion of time, reinstating ‘the fact of temporal heterogeneity’. Above all, asynchrony ‘demonstrates the constant presence of other kinds of time in the now’.[13] In this way, recognizing, and embracing, asynchrony becomes an act of resistance to the ‘overwhelmingly mechanistic, self-limiting and […] corrosive’ chronotope of the neoliberal university.[14] Simultaneously, this enthusiastic recognition catalyses, somewhat ironically, progression in historiography, a means to move beyond reductive and marginalizing modes of studying history predicated on the notion of progress from imperfect past(s) to utopian futures.

Asynchronous experiences, for some, are precisely that: experiences, lived episodes with a beginning, middle, and end – no matter how many temporal modes are present in the ever-enfolding middle. Some of us do not just have an experience or two of asynchrony, but instead live with ‘the condition of being asynchronous’ as a mode of being in the world.[15] That is, our lives are ‘lived in other kinds of time’, ‘outside a normative or dominant time-scheme’.[16] This is crip time, to be sure. But it is also, for some, a certain kind of research time – or rather, our use of critical methodologies which foreground ‘the consideration of diverse temporal regimes operating here and now’.[17] Such asynchrony is integral to my working praxes as a medievalist, concerned with dismantling rigid temporal demarcations which cleave the past from our present. My first book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, for instance ‘reveals the interconnection of decidedly “old” media - medieval textualities - and artefacts of our “new media” ecology’, a ‘spectrum of visual experience’ linking medieval mysticism to contemporary iterations of multi-media content.[18] As a scholar, then, I have already always been enmeshed in crip temporalities, if only I had the vocabulary to articulate it. Crip time becomes a location in which, finally, my body finds itself on the same time-zone as my brain, as my work. Asynchrony as an embodied methodology permits us to crip history, and indeed ourselves.

Lives in which asynchrony is the norm are, according to Dinshaw, filled with ‘forms of desirous, embodied being that are out of sync with the ordinarily linear measurements of everyday life, that engage heterogenous temporalities or that precipitate out of time altogether’.[19] For this reason, Dinshaw argues that asynchrony is the lived experience of queer time.[20] Dinshaw makes no reference to crip time, even though, as Alison Kafer asserts, ‘queer time is crip time, and […] it has been all along’ (emphasis in original).[21] Asynchrony crips those in its grasp; crip time is fundamentally asynchronous.

That phone call, then, the one that precipitated this essay, had not fractured time after all, destroying something resolutely whole and coherent. That flattened, normative time was already a fallacy, a façade, debunked by the existential force of that call. It brought into clearer focus the truth of it: my life in crip time. As Richard Godden and Jonathan Hsy explain, crip time is ‘significantly dependent upon the pressures that embodied difference would generate for a person with a disability’.[22] For this reason, crip time is routinely experienced in and as delay. Life simply takes more time when lived with disability.[23] Bodily demands cannot be rushed or postponed; rushing to catch up or keep up with the non-disabled is often impossible. Such keen attendance to the body in the present-day is, paradoxically, accompanied by an insistent focus on the future self, for our needs cannot be met spontaneously in those future moments. Detailed strategizing is a mainstay of disabled experience. Accessible transit, for instance, must be booked in advance, with users forced to adapt to the (often arbitrary) schedule, and deal with service disruptions and delays. Care support must similarly be scheduled in advance, with clients negotiating (if possible) with support workers’ diaries in order to receive necessary support at convenient (or convenient enough) times. At the same time, crip time encompasses – for some – medicalized temporalities. This includes, for instance, the time of the doctor’s waiting room, the rigid schedule for taking medications, the time taken to receive a prognosis, the assumed time it should take for a body to recover.

Dinshaw underscores the ambiguous character of asynchronous experiences: they are ‘always wondrous and sometimes scary, prompting a temporal vertigo that can permanently disrupt one’s sense of self, society, indeed ordinary expectations of reality itself’.[24] This was true of my own experience. Once I perceived – lived, felt – the inter-dependent, blurry timelines that orient my life with such clarity, it was knowledge I could not forget. This essay is a direct product of that not forgetting, of allowing myself to perceive with fully open eyes the temporal structures that have always already given shape to my life, a life of an academic and of a disabled woman.

A moment of disclosure: I write as a (currently) middle-class, cis-het white woman living with a chronic incurable illness (fibromyalgia), a syndrome which comprises many symptoms, chief amongst them chronic pain and fatigue. My circumstances are not unique, but nor are they entirely generalizable. For one, fibromyalgia is itself vastly variable across different bodies, not to mention the fact that all chronic conditions, as illnesses, are experienced differently by those living with their effects according to their bodies and socio-cultural circumstances. Moreover, my experience of disability is decisively shaped by the fact that I have an invisible disability, with attendant privilege of being able to ‘pass’ as able-bodied.[25] I do not have to disclose my condition if I do not wish to. The ability to make this choice, or not, is especially ‘valuable’ in the early-career academic job market, as I discuss below. The integral temporal instability of my disability also orients my analyses. For with a chronic condition such as mine, my able-bodied-ness, superficially at least, fluctuates according to my body’s unfathomable whims. There are good days, and then there are bad days – days which depend for their very meaning on their specific temporal anchoring.

The ‘good’: less pain than before, certainly, but also a gateway to an imagined after. A future in which there are no more good days, no more bad days: just days. The ‘bad’: less functionality, harder to remember my place in the world beyond the limits of my body, harder – more painful – to remember the past before this moment, let alone to imagine a worthwhile future constituted by this never ceasing present. But no matter what it seems, all my days belong to an after, the bodymind I gained after being diagnosed, a place that offers me much comfort and satisfaction alongside its fair share of bodily dis-ease.[26] And that embodied knowledge structures my time, even on ‘good days’ – I pace myself, I hydrate, I exercise – not necessarily because I need, or want to, now, but because future me needs me to. As I pushed to finish the chapter to deadline, I abandoned – consciously – future me. I didn’t have the energy to do all the work to support her and do everything I needed to do in the now at the same time. My present-tense thickened, like honey put in the freezer. Minutes felt longer, breaks became fewer, pain and fatigue grew incrementally more emphatic. I felt like I hadn’t had a day off in forever, but, looking back, I don’t know if that is accurate. I simply can’t remember. The grinding march to finish the chapter swallowed me whole. I knew that, when it was done – would it ever be done? – I would pay the price, with some particularly grim days ahead, no productivity possible. But for the time being, it was what it was: I had get in sync with academic time, deadline time if only for a little while longer. Future me be damned. All of this to say, the only kind of crip time I know with any intimacy is, in fact, a chronic-crip time.

Chronic time is the timescape(s) of incurable persistent but non-terminal conditions, of the ever-enfolding present of being ‘sick’. The conventional teleology of illness comprises an identifiable onset, a ‘beginning’, followed by a symptomatic middle of an estimable duration, and, ultimately, definite point of recovery. Chronic conditions do not follow this model. Those of us with chronic conditions will never be normatively ‘healthy’ again, barring substantive medical advancements or spontaneous remissions. Bodily spontaneity is a hallmark of many, though not all, chronic illnesses. By this, I mean the fact that our bodies seem to act according to their own, fuzzy logic. Input does not equal output. We can do everything ‘right’ to manage our symptoms, and yet they will still flare, seemingly out of nowhere. This injects a chaotic pulse into life, according to which our best laid plans must try to account for the unknown and unknowable, building in margins of preparation time, potential sick time, recovery time. Nevertheless, chronic schedules, are integrally flexible, whether we like it or not: as often happens, our bodies throw a wrench in the works and we must reschedule or cancel at short notice. For some, the potential of an idealized future, a return to ‘normal’ health – realized through cure or remission –infiltrates the present moment, with the business of life itself ever deferred until we reach recovery. For others, past/present/future collapse and collide, as familiar symptoms return episodically, seemingly returning from the past to haunt our present moments, deflating our imagined futures.

For Dinshaw, asynchrony is, on the one hand, an integrally queer experience, and on the other, a queering experience, a means of enfolding individuals, however briefly, into the queer community.[27] Asynchrony is presented as a double-edged sword: illustrative of a precarious non-dominant subject position and the means by which the experiences of that subject are witnessed, understood, embraced by dominant subjects. Temporal alienation, reflecting systemic socio-cultural marginalization, ‘can prevent desired projects from ever coming to fruition; it can threaten to destroy sexual or social reproduction; among places of people, among races, among nations, it can be deployed as a rational for political subjugation’.[28] However, asynchrony can also be politically powerful: ‘the means of calling for justice for past exclusions and injustice’, allowing for a ‘more just’, ‘full and various’ present moment. This essay similarly hinges on the ambiguous duality of asynchrony: an integrally crip experience, and an experience that crips, one that facilitates ‘an orientation toward the world that asserts the potential for radical transformation of so-called normative social scripts, desires, and ways of life’.[29]

Speaking from the vantage point of the asynchronous moment with which I began this essay, and to which I will return episodically, I argue that ableism in the academy has a specifically temporal dimension. The culture of overwork – or ‘hyperwork’, as I call it below – essentialises productivity, endless and endlessly visible work, as the primary metric for employability, not to mention personal worth, in the academy. Such emphasis on productivity disadvantages disabled workers, no less in the academy than is elsewhere widely acknowledged. Robin Zheng is absolutely right: ‘precarity is a feminist issue’, and one which can only be reckoned with if we recognise that the ‘myth of work as its own reward’ and the ‘myth of meritocracy’ are just that, myths – fables we tell ourselves to make sense of the world which may have little relation to our everyday realities.[30] More than that, though, precarity is an emphatically intersectional feminist issue – one which affects disabled scholars to a greater degree than non-disabled scholars, and multiplies the effects of inhabiting other structural nodes of identity.[31] Feminist critique of precarity has, so far at least, also failed to account for a considerable overlap between one source of systemic discrimination of women scholars and disabled scholars: persistent dislocation from the academy’s temporal regimes, issuing from inescapable bodily demands.

Women’s bodily time: years of fertility, menstrual cycles, gestation periods. ‘Feminised’ time(s): time spent on activities that are socio-culturally deemed ‘women’s work’, including housework, child care, maintaining social networks. These all necessitate taking ‘time out’ of the academy, whether on formal leave or in routinely working to hours that permit a life outside the Ivory Tower.[32] ‘Time out’, or ‘time off’, is coded as irreparably lost time, professionally speaking. In the USA, the ‘tenure clock’ is a commonplace of academic institutions, i.e. a set period of time in which tenure-track scholars must demonstrate their suitability for the privilege of tenure. Since the 1970s, it has become standard to allow for ‘stopping the tenure clock’ (STC), specifically as a means to combat the loss of time entailed in pregnancy and raising a young family. STC usually equates to getting a one-year pause of the clock count-down, an intervention offered initially only to women but that now is typically gender-neutral, for all parental care-givers of young children. In theory, this is a welcome measure to combat temporally-issuing disadvantages. However, many women remain afraid of the internal fall-out from STC, including a reputation of lower productivity.[33] Studies show that men who STC, due to parental responsibilities, may actually benefit more from the pause than women, as they use the ‘time off’ to be strategically productive.[34] Men have the time, typically, because they have fewer care responsibilities, even during the STC pause. In other words, stopping the institutional clock does not remedy the structural inequality in gendered access to time more generally. It is for this reason that women are disadvantaged in terms of the UK’s most important institutional cycle, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the process used to determine funding levels across Higher Education last undertaken in 2014 and on the horizon for 2020/2021.

Recent research demonstrates that the inflexibility of the REF’s schedule ‘exacerbates existing inequalities caused by maternity leave and caring responsibilities, which ultimately amount to time taken out of a REF cycle’.[35] This is not just an issue of gender: anyone with a ‘messy’ body and/or care responsibilities, whether for themselves or for others, will be similarly impacted by being ‘out of sync’ with the REF cycle. This is vividly illustrated by the testimony of an anonymous male academic with care duties for his dying mother. Despite his emotionally distressing and physically exhausting circumstances, he was told point-blank to work longer hours and with higher productivity to fulfil the needs of his university’s REF submission.[36] He lost irreplaceable time to be with his mother: ‘I ended up next to my mum’s deathbed proofing a monograph. The last conversation I had with her was about work and why I was doing so much’.[37]

Disabled scholars, living in asynchronous crip time whether we like it or not, must reckon with the dominant temporal regimes which orient our profession – academic time, institutional time, eternally productive time.[38] At best, we negotiate workable compromises, stealing time(s) here and there. We might need ‘extra time’ but we cannot ‘make time’, our need for endless temporal flexibilities is, in fact, inflexible. And so we are systemically excluded from academic culture(s), promotion rounds, funding opportunities. Disabled scholars navigate the academy in a chronic state of asynchrony. Simultaneously, the ever more widespread experience of asynchrony – embedded in the working practices of ECRs, increasingly becoming the norm for established academics – functionally disables those that were previously identified, or identified themselves, as normatively able-bodied. Even as those that the academy disables in this way are (typically only) temporarily disabled, these transitory moments of communion offer a potential catalyst for the creation of a more inclusive, more diverse academy. Here, I draw upon – and hope to develop – the work of Richard H. Godden, a disabled medievalist who laid the foundation for the present study in a 2011 article on the ways in which his disability, experienced most emphatically as a ‘temporal problem’, intersects with his professional life, dominated by academic time. [39] Godden asked, as I do once more: ‘How can a consideration of a disabled temporality be an enabling lens for examining Academic Time?’.

Notably, Godden seized upon the potential of social media to create more accessible forms of academic community, ones not limited to sharing the same physical location or temporal orientation. This is made possible by the fundamental ‘asynchronicity’ of social media, which offers a ‘positive sense of the untimely’, an affirmative experience of the dynamics of crip time accessible to all users.[40] Such asynchronous experiences, for Godden – and, indeed for myself – are hopeful, allowing for the ‘a recognition that we do inhabit different timelines, but that we can also come together’. This affirmative spirit motivates the present essay, even if the asynchronous experiences upon which I focus are, in their lived experience, both disabling and disenfranchising. But in order to move forward, to find these uplifting positives – new modes of being in the world, academic and otherwise – I must first go back, back to the time of that phone call, when death itself seemed to intrude in my life.

 

Death and (Academic) Re-Birth

He was old – over a 100-years old – and he said clearly and firmly that he wanted to die. For him, at last the time had come, the time of ending. But for the rest of us, his varied assortment of family spanning three generations, it was too soon. It was an ‘end of an era’, we said to each other in phone calls and emails and WhatsApp messages. He died and none of us were so young any more, even as we felt our distance from his advanced age, a temporal gulf between us, opening up ever further. He died, and he started drifting away from us, out of time, belonging to the ‘before’. The sense of this temporal hinge, the imposition of a before and after on the messy chaos of life, hit me hard. I was racing to meet a deadline, something I’d been working on for months at a time. But I was also in the final moments of a longer trajectory. I was so very close to achieving a long-held personal and professional dream. Tomorrow, the day after, my first book would come out. That is how I remember when I got the call: 30th November 2017. It was the day before, before I would be transformed – in my imagination at least – into this different category of person, a scholar with a book out. He would have been proud of me, with my book. He was proud of me, anticipating the book’s publication. And yet, he never met me in the ‘after’, in my new incarnation: a ‘real’ scholar once and for all, definitively and reassuringly post-doc.

I had heard what most every ECR does, getting a monograph out is make-or-break for one’s career. It is the benchmark by which CVs are sifted, determining which scholars make the cut – of the first cut at least – and make it to a shortlist, and onwards to the biggest prize of all: a permanent job. Such wisdom retains an aura of truth, at least to those of us who still believe that academia is a meritocracy.[41] It makes logical sense, after all. But upon closer inspection, the logic is faulty and the truth is revealed: things have changed, and a book is no longer enough, it seems that nothing is ever enough. Time itself has distended for those of us at the start of our academic career. I say ‘start’, though that’s not necessarily accurate: many of us have been working in academia for a long time now, moving in staccato from PhD to post-doc, to another post-doc, to short-term contract, to never-ending short-term contracts.[42] The category of ‘junior’ or ‘early-career’ researchers has swollen to include many of us that are not young, not any more. We live in stasis, crystallised in an ever-expanding present that almost swallows us whole. Our families grow, our bodies age, our output grows exponentially, and yet nothing really ever seems to change. This is how one part-time lecturer puts it: ‘Three years of temporary contracts have meant that my life has been on hold. My friends outside academia are settling down, buying houses and getting married. Meanwhile, I have a PhD, a book that’s too expensive for anyone other than a university library to buy and face constant uncertainty’.[43] This is the reality of ECR life for many, if not most, scholars.

 

Precarious Times

We live in precarious times, professionally speaking. Permanent jobs are ever more difficult to find, with casualised teaching fellowships and serial post-docs the new norm in ECR life, in the UK and elsewhere.[44] According to data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), over half (53%) of academics working in UK HE institutions were employed on insecure contracts in 2014/2015.[45] Insecure contracts come in a range of forms, including: ‘fixed-term employment contracts; zero-hours employment contracts; variable hours hourly-paid contracts; hourly-paid contracts with set hours and so on’.[46] All such arrangements, whatever their specific iterations, share the same temporal dynamic: persistent instability, be that of hours, of months, of years.

One Further Education lecturer reflects upon their experiences of precarity:  

The main issue is that flexibility only goes one way. With those contracts you end up working long hours for a couple of months, then nothing and then back to crazy hours. If you get sick or need days off, you’re really stuck. Ultimately, even if you earn enough, you cannot really plan anything for the future as you mainly think about securing your next job.[47]

 ‘Long hours’, ‘a couple of months’, ‘crazy hours’, ‘days off’, ‘the future’, the ‘next job’: precarity is all about time. Or rather, about times, plural. An imagined future, always deferred: the next job, the next gig. The thickened present of days, weeks, months – even years – of agonizing waiting to be notified about whether you will be (re)hired, whether your past performance was good enough, whether you will be able to pay your bills. The institutional clock takes its sweet time, seemingly unaware of the other, viscerally banal time-lines in which scholars must live, and for which everyone must pay. Monthly payments for accommodation; three square meals a day; irregular socializing, the cost of having friends and family, holidays and birthdays and minor celebrations.

Who belongs to the (academic) precariat? Junior scholars, defined primarily as individuals in early to mid-career, alongside working post-graduate students. These scholars – this author included – are far more likely to be employed on short-term fixed contracts, with permanent posts becoming the norm only at the level of senior lecturer and senior research fellow.[48] In 2015, University College Union conducted a survey of casual staff in post-secondary educational institutions (i.e. HE and Further Education [FE]) in the UK. One in ten academics (11%; 10.4% in HE and 9% in FE) simply could not give an accurate estimation of the hours they typically worked in a week, because their hours were so irregular.[49] Just under half (47%) of staff noted that they worked less than 30 hours a week, though staff in FE are significantly more likely by work under this threshold than colleagues in HE (63.5% vs. 40.8% respectively).

If in a teaching post, precarious staff are often employed to cover less ‘desirable’ modules, such as full-cohort undergraduate survey courses, compulsory modules, or skills-based offerings. Teaching to one’s scholarly specialty is not necessarily an option, though when the opportunity for such research-driven teaching does arise, it often comes with very few salaried hours attached. Precarity is endless flexibility, but made to the model of the market – or marketised institution. There is little loyalty, a neo-liberal fantasy of individualism reigns supreme. In the precariat, we are all independent contractors. Casualised staff are expected to respond rapidly, not to mention gratefully, to ‘opportunities’ with which institutions gift them, including ones which are either unpaid or dramatically underpaid.[50] This includes, for instance, receiving notice of allocated teaching hours. ‘I do not find out until a week before the semester starts as to whether I have managed to get a class or not’, shares one FE lecturer.[51]

Whilst casualised staff may be ‘employed’ by an institution on paper, their lived experience is one of underemployment. Individuals are underemployed, as Douglas C. Maynard and Daniel C. Feldman note, ‘because they cannot work as many hours as they desire, because they can only obtain temporary jobs when they desire permanent employment, or because they cannot get jobs which are commensurate with their education, skill levels, and experience.’[52] It is for this reason that ‘underemployment’ may best be defined as ‘disguised unemployment’ or ‘inadequate employment’.[53] Underemployment is a typical characteristic of the working life of disabled people.[54] Disabled workers’ skills are often underutilised in their jobs, and the disabled community has significant levels of unemployment.[55] In other words, the discriminatory disadvantages of disability are being normalised more generally, as more and more people experience the effects of underemployment. This suggests the possibility for an empathetic coming together of able-bodied and disabled workers, finding common ground in our underemployment. Nevertheless, disabled workers are marginalised to a greater degree than non-disabled employees by the insidious spread of such casualised working practices, given the difficulties in finding appropriate employment and lower levels of financial security routinely faced by people living with disabilities.[56] This means that disabled ECRs may find more fellowship than ever before with able-bodied peers, but we are still more likely to be disadvantaged in real terms, both professional and economic.

 

Time is Money

According to a study by the University College Union, staff on insecure contracts routinely struggle to pay their household bills (42%).[57] More than one in three (35%) are insecurely housed, reporting difficulty in making mortgage and rent payments. Beyond housing insecurity, one in five casualised academics (21%) face difficulty in putting food on the table. For many, poverty is a seemingly unavoidable consequence of choosing an academic career. This financial outlook is bleak for all involved. However, disabled ECRs are doubly marginalised on this front, given the fact that poverty is a distressingly routine component of living with a disability.[58]

Bluntly put, disability is expensive.[59] A recent report, using data from 2015/2016, calculates that disabled people in the UK face, on average, additional disability-related costs of £570 a month, not defrayed by welfare benefits.[60] For one in five disabled people, the costs rise to in excess of £1,000 per month. Disability alters the relative value of one’s earnings – in other words ‘disabled people’s money doesn’t go as far’, with £100 wages of an able-bodied worker equating to £67 for their disabled colleague. This does not factor in another persistent financial hardship faced by disabled workers: the disability pay gap.[61] Disabled employees across the board tend to earn less than their able-bodied counterparts. In a study of median hourly earnings from 2015-2016, for example, disabled people earned £9.85 per hour, compared to an hourly wage of £11.41 for able-bodied workers.[62] The disability pay gap compounds the financial marginalization(s) levied alongside the intersectional axes of identity, such as gender and race pay gaps. A disabled woman makes (even) less than a disabled man; a disabled woman of colour makes (even) less than a disabled white woman. Of particular relevance to disabled academics is the fact that the pay disadvantage persists ‘at every level of qualification’: ‘a disabled person with a degree is more likely to be low paid than a non-disabled person with a degree’.[63] In essence, then, the PhD of a disabled scholar has less earning power than the same qualification held by an able-bodied peer, irrespective of the content or quality of the comparable degrees themselves.

 

Speeding Up

The economic hardships associated with disability function to make disabled ECRs less resilient, financially speaking, to subsist in the early career marketplace. We need more money than able-bodied peers simply to scrape by, yet we have less earning power due to systemic ableism. Critically, disability-related expenditure is non-discretionary, i.e. it is not a luxury that one can ‘cut back on’ to save cash. Moreover, the survival mechanism adopted by many, if not most, struggling ECRs are not necessarily accessible to us: the ‘side hustle’, i.e. taking on additional (usually low-paying) jobs to generate more income. ‘Hustling’ equates to increasing one’s earning potential by increasing one’s pace: working more hours, at more jobs. Pace here equates to productivity. Workers must be ever more productive to keep up with the racing treadmill upon which they’re running, a seemingly ceaseless marathon to the finish line of a permanent academic job. And productivity as a metric of employability – and, by consequence, an individual’s integral worth – is exceptionally problematic for disabled people, as a driver of systemic institutional discrimination.[64]

In the rhetoric of valorised productivity, disabled employees, as Eline Jammaers et al note, ‘are discursively constructed as less capable, willing and productive workers and thus as less valuable for and/or employable by organizations.’[65] This ableist paradigm is especially prevalent – and pernicious – in the academy, in which the culture of overwork has long been a peculiarly prized practice.[66] Writing in February 2018, Yale professor Nicholas A. Christakis offered a one-Tweet precis of the institutional stance which remains predominant throughout academia: ‘I tell my graduate students and post-docs that if they’re working 60 hours per week, they’re working less than the full professors, and less than their peers.’[67] It is telling that Christakis’s remarks emphasise the importance of comparison between scholars, with the quantifiable common denominator of working hours, not counting finite outputs or their quality. Overwork is integrally performative in nature: whoever looks busy must be busy, and thus be an ambitious, dedicated scholar. Such an attitude disregards the findings of numerous studies which demonstrate that working longer hours usually has a negative impact on worker productivity.[68] Also overlooked are the experiences of generations of disabled employees which demonstrate that longer hours on the job does not equate to better job performance.

Notable push-back to academic overwork is found in the ‘slow scholarship’ movement, advocating for less frenzied speeds of academic work and pedagogy.[69] All such frameworks, however, are grounded in the optional uptake of this ‘slower’ working modality. ECRs do not usually have the luxury to make such a decision, as doing so would jeopardise our very survival. The issue for disabled scholars is, of course, that our scholarship, even if produced at similarly slow speeds to those of avowed ‘slow scholars’, is, in fact, just our ‘normally paced’ scholarship. We do not have the option to ‘speed up’ if and when it would be advantageous to do so. Embedded in the ‘slow scholarship’ ethos, then, remains the kernel of ableist thinking on productivity, at least in its use of language.

No matter how long a scholar works – even pulling 12-hour days, Monday to Sunday – they are never productive enough. Being normal or average, working 30 or 40 hours a week say, is no longer enough.[70] And it certainly is not enough for those of us without permanent positions, with all the instability and financial hardship that entails, who must work harder than anyone to ‘prove’ themselves worthy of a ‘real’ job, alongside working all hours simply to earn enough to survive. This means the reality, or so it seems – and feels – to many of us is, in the words of one casualised lecturer sharing his fears, that ‘“the only ones who get permanent academic jobs are those able to tough out several years of fraught, unstable work”’.[71] Not everyone can ‘tough it out’ for long, if at all. The people who are able to are those ‘“with considerable financial privileges, without caring responsibilities, without financial dependents and those mentally resilient enough to cope”’. With such integral politics of exclusion, the praxes of precarity are not just ableist but also discriminatory along intersectional lines.[72] They are a catalyst for the wholesale loss of ‘non-normative’ scholars – read: not cisgender single middle- or upper-class able-bodied white men – from the academy.

The term ‘overwork’ still captures the sense of work that overspills its nominal channel, work undertaken outside of one’s set hours and beyond the terms of one’s contract. This is an apt descriptor of the situation of many casualised ECRs, dealing with the constraints of highly limited paid hours allocated for core pedagogical tasks. As one casualised academic remarked to the local branch of their University and College Union: ‘“Either you stick to the hours you are contracted to work and provide substandard teaching for your students, or you put in extra hours, effectively reduce your hourly rate of pay, and try to be good at your job”’.[73] Putting in extra hours in this context has an ethical dimension: if you’re committed to your profession, to competent pedagogy and to your students, then you keep working for as long as it takes.[74] Support your students by working for free or pay yourself by pursuing a wage elsewhere: this is posed as a moral dilemma.[75] Those who cannot, for whatever reason, make the sacrifice are cast as selfish, venal, and lacking necessary commitment to their career and their profession. In this context, disability becomes a metonym for moral degradation.

Advice commonly given to ECRs, including this author: transfer to a full-time job in academic administration and continue to do research ‘on the side’, submitting applications for research jobs in one’s ‘spare time’. The neoliberal academy demands control over all of a researcher’s time, irrelevant of contractual terms. Academic time(s) take priority over personal times (personal lives), as highlighted by one casualised HE lecturer: ‘My employers expect me to conduct my research in my own time, but they then benefit from it in the REF’.[76] This lecturer is likely exempt from the REF, if their contract is for teaching alone. Nevertheless, for this individual to remain competitive on the job market – including for casualised teaching-only positions – they must demonstrate their research expertise, and publish as much as possible. In this way, research is shunted into one’s ‘own time’, despite its central role in professional trajectories, alongside in institutional funding in terms of REF outcomes. If this lecturer does manage to publish in their ‘spare’ time and is then employed on a contract under which they are subject to the REF, then their home institution essentially monetizes their free research labour.

Lisl Walsh succinctly cuts to the ableist heart of it: ‘academia conflates capacity with quality’.[77] Permanent jobs and professional honours are based on ‘what the dedication [of an able body] can achieve’ (parentheses in original) – productivity at all costs, at all times, thanks to a body that can withstand a battering, at least for now. This is not just a culture of ‘overwork’ but, more emphatically, hyperwork – unceasing, high-energy, frenetic – as scholars must do more things in less time, all the time. Pressure to adopt such working practices is intensified by the systemic financing issues plaguing HE institutes across the UK. Ever higher student enrolment targets are coupled not with attendant staff increases, but instead under-recruitment, outright hiring freezes, and even widespread lay-offs.[78] Since December 2018, redundancies have been announced across the sector, including at Bangor University, Cardiff University, Queen Margaret University, the University of Gloucestershire, the University of Kent, and the University of Reading.[79]

For those ‘lucky enough’ to retain their jobs, covering the additional workload takes a toll. ‘There aren’t enough staff to do the fundamental work of a university’, testifies an anonymous member of Sheffield UCU employed on a research-teaching contract.[80] Their contract should nominally comprise 40% research (12.6 hours), 40% teaching (12.6 hours) and 20% administration (6.3 hours), based on a 35-hour work week with 0.1 FTE buyout. This tally, however, radically underestimates the amount of time taken by teaching and administration, whilst ignoring altogether obligatory service work, including mainstays such as peer reviewing, grant writing, and REF preparation. According to the Sheffield academic’s calculations, they are left with ‘negative 2 hours per week to conduct [their] world leading, 4* research during the teaching term’ (ibid.). Undertaking this research is critical to academic career development, even to remaining employed. Under-performing researchers are subject to a variety of penalties, ranging from probationary periods and performance improvement plans to redundancy. The impact of REF 2020/2021 is already being felt in these terms. Universities are ‘shedding academics’ who they deem to be ‘underperforming’ and who would negatively skew REF scores, using early-retirement and severance schemes, ahead of the exercise.[81] REF expectations can be particularly onerous for early-career staff, who are often tasked with teaching high-volume survey modules necessitating a significant amount of administration, alongside navigating the demands of their relatively new roles. UCU reports, for example, that the University of Liverpool has warned ‘several junior academics’ that they must publish a paper every 18 months, with a 3* REF score which defines ‘internationally excellent’ scholarship in order to pass probation in the run-up to the next REF.[82]

Academics simply must find time to research. Our survival depends on it. But time is not a resource to which everyone has equal access, nor is energy. Everything takes more time – and correspondingly more energy – when you are disabled, and fatigue is an exceptionally common component of chronic illness. Being in pain all the time is exhausting. Living with disability is a second-shift from which disabled scholars cannot ever clock off. We don’t necessarily have enough time, or energy, to attend to our ‘scheduled’ work hours, let alone put in any more hours at a moment’s notice. As Susan Wendell points out, making increases in pace obligatory for workers actively disables ever more of the affected workforce: ‘[if] … the pace of life increases without changes in other factors, more people become disabled simply because fewer people can keep up with the “normal” pace.’[83] Scores of testimonies about the increasing ill health – mental and physical – of notionally able-bodied scholars due to the ever-increasing demands of their jobs bear witness to this phenomenon affecting today’s academic workforce.[84] Early-career scholars are hit particularly hard, given the integral instability of their (under)employment.[85] In 2016, Greg, a casualised ECR at the University of Nottingham, shared his employment history with an interviewer from The Guardian, recounting a narrative as appalling as it is emblematic of the ‘new normal’ in ECR working practices.[86]

It wasn’t so bad in the beginning. Greg started out, like so many of us do, as ‘a promising young academic’ with a fixed-term contract.[87] He wasn’t well-off, but he had enough, just about, for household expenses and paying the mortgage. After his contract, he was depending on getting a research grant. It fell through and Greg’s life began to crumble. At one point, he was ‘pulling five jobs, working up to 70 hours a week’, earning somewhere between £22,000 and £23,000 before tax. This is significantly less than the national median annual income earned by those in full-time employment: £29,668 gross.[88] Greg cobbled together various jobs in order to survive: short-term hourly-paid teaching at Nottingham; more of the same at a different university; gardening; writing for a local paper; picking litter. Starting his working day picking litter at 3.30am, he had enough time for a quick nap and change of clothes before heading to his lecturing gig at Nottingham, surviving on a catnap of 20 minutes or so before he began teaching. ‘“Permanent exhaustion”’ became the norm, a fog in which he operated across his various shifts, accompanied by insidious stress, worry, and fear about his predicament. Under such intense mental and physical strain, he, unsurprisingly, fell ‘seriously ill’. The incremental disabling to which Greg was subject was, in fact, hastened by the presence of pre-existing disability in his family: his wife was ‘too ill to earn much’, which meant he used up his meagre savings fast as he did not have access to much-needed extra funds from his spouse’s earnings.

 

Taking Time to Disclose

In today’s job market, casualised academics living with invisible disabilities who can ‘pass’, more or less, as able-bodied have a strong incentive to not disclose their situation and their need for accommodations.[89] Disclosing chronic illness, for instance, risks bringing a scholar’s productivity into question, not to mention encountering stigma from co-workers and prejudicial judgments from institutional powers. Given the precarious circumstances of the vast majority of ECRs, the risks of disclosure are simply too high for many: we cannot afford to lose the job, we are only scraping by. Even the ‘best-case’ disclosure scenario – requested accommodations are approved and put in place – is fraught with potential professional danger. Putting accommodations in place is often a needlessly lengthy and complex procedure, requiring a significant amount of a scholar’s time, a department’s administrative time and institutional funding. This has been my own experience of disclosing disability as an ECR.

At ‘Research University’, I was employed on a one-year, non-renewable contract. I had disclosed my disability prior to the start of my contract. My needs are pretty basic, overall: things like an ergonomic chair and keyboard, a lighter-weight laptop, voice-to-text software. Yet my ‘special case’ was apparently complicated, and too costly to boot. The finance department queried in particular the ergonomic chair – did I really need a chair after all, didn’t I know that it was expensive? I pressed the issue, supported by the fact that a specialist assessor had recommended the chair in the first place. From start to finish, it took three months to acquire all the necessary equipment. The process rolled on in institutional time: glacial, bureaucratic, reliably delayed. Doing the calculations, my loss of productive time was stark: for the first quarter of my contract, I was limited in my working capacity by the lack of accommodations. With some irony, I lost even more time during that period due to dealing with the process of trying to get accommodations, of trying to speed up the plodding mechanism of institutional decision-making. Short-term contracts oblige staff to apply for their next post almost as soon as they take up the role. This is the well-known ‘second shift’ of ECR life, seemingly ceaseless rounds of applications in order to secure the next gig, and/or a side hustle to supplement the scant remuneration of your present post. Trying to project oneself in to the future, on the basis of past performance, whilst barely having the time to attend to pressing – present – matters. Thus, the time I lost waiting for accommodations to be implemented was also time subtracted from my future, or potential futures. Disclosing my disability, ironically, actively decreased my productivity.

Time itself can be weaponised in the academy. Sara Ahmed, for instance, dissects the ways in which universities use institutional time ‘as a tool’ to marginalise individuals reporting harassment and suppress reports of misconduct.[90] Making a complaint of harassment is itself ‘time-consuming, life-consuming’. Getting the complaint through internal processes is an equally lengthy process. Institutions can disregard a complaint if it is made ‘too long’ after the reported incident. ‘Too long’ for the institution, but not for the individual involved. Harassment is insidiously traumatic, not just in the moment but in the aftermath. Individuals may not be able to speak about the situation immediately to anyone, let alone their employer. This need for (temporal) space, a well-known effect of trauma, is recast by the institution as tardiness: transposed onto the institutional timeline, the complainant’s embodied temporal dynamics are grossly misrepresented. Institutional misconduct is now transformed into individual temporal mismanagement. Above all, the complainant must obey the institutional clock, whether it is fast or slow. And it can be fast, painfully so, when mandating deadlines by which individuals must respond in order for their case to be heard. Ahmed relates the illustrative case of two students who reported sexual harassment: ‘They talked of how slow the organisation was to respond to their communication at every step of the process but how they themselves were still expected to be quick: “they gave us a tiny time-scale” and “short-deadlines”’.

Requesting accommodations and reporting harassment coincide as experiences in which institutional time wielded by university powers – slow, juddering, regimented – is directly at odds with the chronotope(s) of the individual making the request or report, and which, for disabled scholars at least, govern the very need to make a request in the first place. Exhaustion can be ‘a management technique’ in the academy, as Sara Ahmed notes: ‘you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them too tired.’[91] In this way, draining an individual’s energy becomes ‘not just the effect but the point of a complaint process’. This is the implicit temporal logic of precarity, and of systemic ableism in the academy.

 

Conclusion: Curing and Cripping

Asynchrony is central to the experience of chronic life, and of disability more generally. Our non-normate bodies demand different kinds of time, time(s) which do not, cannot, correspond to the linear, regimented, orderly time of the dominant capitalist culture. The temporal paradigm of the academy, of what I call ‘hyperwork’, is a particularly intense iteration of the latter chronotope. The undergirding demand of our profession, indeed of eligibility of membership of our profession, has become ‘high productivity in compressed time’.[92] Ever increasing demands of productivity and of temporal flexibility – made to the mould of the academy’s needs, of course – systematically marginalize and ultimately exclude disabled scholars from the profession. This systemic exclusion is especially prevalent – lived, felt, visible – in the early-career marketplace. ECR life pushes scholars – our bodies, our minds, our whole lives – to their limits and beyond, increasing marginalisation of disabled scholars, whilst simultaneously disabling previously non-disabled colleagues. The latter have the privilege of ‘cure’: exiting the academic industry returns them to health, and, in theory at least, securing a permanent job will cure most ills. Even in permanent employment, however, disabled scholars must live with their embodied asynchrony, and deal with the systemic ableism of the academy.

ECRs in the contemporary academy are situated as chronically academic: subjects who are offered episodic, disorienting, unsatisfyingly partial contact with the academy. In this, the idealised academy stands in for the frustratingly temporary and only notionally ‘able’ body which those of us with chronic conditions (re)experience on the best of our ‘good’ days. For permanent employment is not a cure-all, no matter how much we desire it to be. Understood as a socio-political corpus, the academy is wrought with systemic dysfunction: the bodily dis-ease of neo-liberalisation which affects every cell in its body, including those in permanent posts. ECRs, ‘disabled’ by the academic system, thus become ‘a threatening presence’ for those in positions which are only superficially secure, workers who – right now at least – can keep up with the punishing pace.[93] Neutralise the threat – remove the source of malfunction by employing only those with superhuman stores of energy and drive – and the academic body appears to regain homeostasis, all things working in an orderly balanced fashion.

In this way, ECRs are isolated – practically and figuratively – from the community whose support we need the most, and those that have considerably more political power (not to mention financial reserves) to fight for an amelioration of our working conditions. What better name, then, for a network of academic staff with disabilities and chronic conditions than ‘Chronically Academic’.[94] The network connects disabled scholars, offering support in navigating the structurally ableist academy, whilst agitating for the deconstruction of such embedded marginalising structures. ‘Most of us are early career researchers’, the network’s homepage notes, ‘however, we look forward to and encourage supporting and mentoring more advanced academics.’[95]

Remove the so-called ‘under-performing’, and the academy is ‘cured’; ‘normality’ re-instated. This is the rationale of the medical model of disability, which pathologizes disability as individualized sickness, the ‘factually corporeal’ expression of deviance. For this reason, ‘cure’, as Alison Kafer articulates, has long been ‘the future no self-respecting disability activist or scholar wants’.[96] Instead, the social model of disability affirms the dignity of the non-normative body, a body marked by impairments – the need to balance pedagogy, administration and research, say; or the structured schedule which can seem bizarre to non-academics – but disabled only by society. Neoliberalism, austerity, systemic intersectional marginalization: these are the mechanisms by which the academic body is disabled. And yet, if we take the academy as a body – as our collective body, then this paradigm falls short too. For, as in chronic illnesses, the non-normative body itself is also the site of aversive and disabling experience(s) for ever more scholars.[97] ‘Cure’ – reduced workloads, shared responsibilities, more kindness – would be welcome. But how do we ‘cure’ the Academy, without annihilating difference within our community, without pathologizing disability itself?

There are no easy answers. But I would like, as I come to the end of my analyses, for now at least, to suggest pathways forward, by following an asynchronous thread, by looking backwards: to that other chapter that I was writing when I received the phone-call with which I began this piece, and to its medieval work. The other chapter was – is? – a survey of chronic pain and illness in the Middle Ages, included in a collection exploring the cultural history of disability. The purpose of my analyses was to progress both historical work in the field and contemporary disability theories, by creating an inter-temporal and radically reciprocal dialogue. By and large, in-depth study of chronic illness is absent in the field of medieval disability studies. This holds true for medieval studies more generally, bar the notable study of big-hitter diseases such as leprosy. In this way, the historical record – as contemporary medievalists report it, at least – has little to say on the topic of the experience(s) of medieval individuals living with chronic illness and pain. However, this elides the reality of the situation, as presented to us in medieval sources.

Representations of chronic illness do exist, most frequently in so-called miracle tales. These narratives are composed to offer proof of a given saint or holy person’s religiosity, demonstrated by their capacity to effect healing in others’ bodies, and often their own too. The disabled body is useful as a plot point, evoked as a corporeal ‘problem’ to be solved, and thereby to be annihilated.[98] This mirrors the discriminatory medical model of disability, in which the non-normate body must be ‘fixed’ at all costs and in which cure – the erasure of disability and disabled lives – is the ultimate goal. I repeat once more the questions which orient(ed) that chapter: How do we deal with medieval sources which seemingly perpetuate the discriminatory medical model of disability? How do we use these sources – so intent on highlighting cure as a possible and much desired outcome for desperate subjects living with marginalized bodies – to challenge our own limited contemporary frameworks? Recapitulated in the context of the present essay: How do we contend with wanting, needing a cure – for the Academy, for our own bodies – without pathologizing difference itself?

Such questions presuppose cure as a teleological, finite process of beginning, middle, and end. The illness is cured, never to return; the text falls silent. And yet not all cures, nor all bodies, function according to such rigid schemas of normalizing ‘progression’. This becomes clear if we resist the rhetoric of developmental periodization, if we recognize the lived experience of our historical predecessors as valuable, as worthwhile of study. For if a text does fall silent in the aftermath of the cure, the ‘cured’ body may begin to speak. This is what we learn if we pay attention to the story of Pellegrin, a young disabled boy we encounter in the thirteenth-century Occitan hagiography of Douceline of Digne (ca. 1215-1274) as I did in that earlier chapter, and to which I return again now.[99]

As convention demands, Pellegrin is presented as a three-year-old child desperately in need of miraculous healing at Douceline’s religiously amplified touch. His is a disabled body first and foremost, with the text cataloguing the multiple axes of impairment with which he lives. He is deaf and mute, hunched over and unable to walk, and lives with a grotesque systemic infection which cause deep sores across his skull.[100] The lesions are so deep that one of his ears is just barely attached. Douceline cures Pellegrin, of course. He can now walk, hear and speak. His body is whole. The miracle does not ‘resolve’ the plot, however. Rather it instantiates a crisis: his mother cannot recognize the child as her own son, even – especially – as he now speaks his own name.[101] After a bout of transitory madness, she finally finds proof of his identity. A line of ‘reddish’ stitches affix his formerly detached ear to his skull, never fading in colour nor seeming to heal. The sutures signify temporal distortion as Pellegrin’s body exists in an expansive present of ongoing healing, and thus of ongoing disability. Similarly, his notionally ‘cured’ illnesses reoccur in adulthood.

As vocational payment for her healing, Douceline required Pellegrin’s eventual entrance into the Franciscan Order, a move in opposition to his brother’s wish that he become a monk at the monastery of St Victor. Pellegrin is terrified of his sibling, who forces him to adhere to his wishes and thus disobey Douceline’s ordinance. In response, his body mounts a rebellion. Approaching the monastery, Pellegrin feels ‘terrible pain’ in his sutured ear that intensifies the closer he nears. Once inside, he experiences an anaphylactic-type reaction as the monks attempt to robe him, with his ears, throat and neck becoming so swollen he becomes functionally mute once more. Later, away from the monastery Pellegrin is cured once more, on the basis of his rededication to Douceline’s plan for his life.[102] This vignette is repeated in full: proximity to the monastery renders Pellegrin’s disabilities to become visible once more, until he begs Douceline for a cure once more. In total, Pellegrin is cured three times, demonstrating the inherent instability of cure itself, as repetition marks the impossibility of definitive ‘closure’, of wholly annihilating the non-normate.

Pellegrin’s disability is embedded within the fibre of his being, a core plank in his identity even if it is not always visible. Indeed, disability becomes the means by which he exerts his agency in the world: his body speaks by resisting able-bodied normativity, thereby resisting the brother’s demands when Pellegrin cannot. It is only by accepting the reality of his body, thereby affirming its dignity and his own subjective agency, that Pellegrin moves beyond the medicalized cycle of illness and cure, not to a place without cure but instead to a life in which cure is only part of the story.

The conventional medical cure is singular, detached, finite. This is the cure that annihilates, that suppresses difference by purging the faulty matter within. By contrast, affirmative curing, for Pellegrin – and for the Academic body – is grounded in the ongoing, engaged actions of politicized subject(s). The efficacy of these subjects’ – of our – work of collective healing rests upon our capacity not just to acknowledge difference and same-ness intellectually, abstractly, performatively. Instead we must actively work to de-center the normate in our thinking, in our scholarship, even in our understanding of our selves. Simultaneously, we must solicit the non-normative, the weird and different and difficult and faulty, not in a marginalizing effort to encounter some exoticism but instead to meet ourselves where we are, over there, left of centre, sometimes even in other bodies and in other times. For Pellegrin would not be with you – and us – in the ongoing cross-temporal conversation instantiated by the act of reading itself, if I had not recognized in him something familiar, something worthwhile; if I had not chosen to run my hands along the stitches in his body along with his mother. In this instant of politicized, willful recognition, a trans-historical community coheres, constituted by the act of ‘claiming’ Pellegrin as ‘crip’.[103] Pellegrin offers a model – a body double – for the ways in which we can build a community resistant to the Academy’s ills, a chronic-crip community of our peers, our sources, and our authentic selves. For claiming Pellegrin as crip makes possible – thinkable, coherently legible – the possibility of claiming ourselves as crip too. The closer I looked at Pellegrin’s life when writing the other chapter, the more clearly I discern – then, and now again even more sharply – the stark contours that shape my own life, the proud flesh binding Pellegrin and I and countless others together.

‘Claiming crip’, as theorized by Alison Kafer, is a radical model of community building, in which the notionally non-disabled are consciously included in the crip community, whether a given individual would identify as such or not.[104] As a practice of politicized empathy, the logic of ‘claiming crip’ rejects marginalizing binaries which split off the disabled from the non-disabled, the sick from the healthy. The point is not to flatten or outright elide difference. Rather, the practice of ‘claiming crip’ is rooted in the recognition of the ‘ethical, epistemic, and political responsibilities behind such claims’.[105] Claiming historical subjects like Pellegrin as crip is a methodology which mobilizes the temporal disjunctions and disorientations fundamental to crip time, thereby staging a ‘cross-temporal conversation’, a ‘provisional zone of contact’ which catalyzes ‘an intersubjective encounter’.[106] At the same time, an intra-temporal conversation begins, voices of modern scholars – disabled and non-disabled, ceaselessly different and unfailingly familiar – finding each other in moments of willful exposure to the fuzzy expanse of crip time, to allowing ourselves to recognize others and be recognized in turn.

Bodily dis-ease – as with Pellegrin’s allergies to the Victorine institution – can be understood as somatized rebellion, the body which no longer does what it is supposed to, and the body which refuses to obey the rules imposed upon it by structures that seek to oppress. The former is the Academic body, chronically dysfunctional and disabling. The latter, perhaps, is the Academy as pluralized corpus, of all our scholarly bodies, all our bodies of scholarship: a crip body, a body I claim as crip with my politics as much as with my own crip presence within its form. As an identity, ‘crip’ has the ‘potential to be simultaneously flamboyantly identitarian (as in, we are crip and you will acknowledge that!) and flamboyantly anti-identitarian (as in we reject your categories or the capacity of languages saturated in ableism to describe us!)’.[107] This is the stuff of which genuine, effective resistance is made. If the academy disables us, then let us claim it as crip, so doing let us claim each other as crip, embracing one another as and in a fierce crip collective, in and out of time, remaking the Academy anew in our ever-unfurling present.

 

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Notes

[1] Spencer-Hall, forthcoming.

[2] Robert McRuer’s (2006) seminal monograph Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability represents the first detailed articulation of this politics in scholarship, drawing together and developing existing work by academics and activists. For detailed discussion of the meaning of ‘crip’ and the ethos of ‘crip theory’, see: McRuer, 2006, pp. 33-76; McRuer, 2018, pp. 18-24.

[3] McRuer, 2006, p. 35.

[4] McRuer, 2018, p. 19.

[5] Ibid., p. 20.

[6] Ibid., p. 21.

[7] On crip time, see in particular: Godden, 2011; Kafer, 2013, pp. 25-46; Sheppard, 2017.

[8] Dinshaw, 2012, p. 5; emphasis in original.

[9] Herring and Standish, 2018, pp. 70-72.

[10] Ibid., p. 70.

[11] Ibid, p. 70 and p. 72, respectively.

[12] Dinshaw, 2012, p. 42.

[13] Ibid., p. 43; emphasis in original.

[14] Herring and Standish, 2018, p. 72.

[15] Dinshaw, 2012, p. 34.

[16] Ibid., p. 4 and p. 34, respectively.

[17] Dinshaw, p. 19.

[18] Spencer-Hall, 2018, back cover.

[19] 2012, p. 4.

[20] Ibid., pp. 4-5, 33-24.

[21] Kafer, 2013, p. 34. Kafer explores this link in detail, and offers a valuable precis of crip time in: ibid., pp. 34-46. On this, see also: Godden, 2011, p. 268.

[22] 2013, p. 330.

[23] Godden, 2011, p. 270.

[24] 2012, p. 42.

[25] On chronic illness as disability, see in particular: Brown and Leigh, 2018, p. 986; Hale, 2018; Wendell, 2001.

[26] On bodymind(s), see: Price, 2015.

[27] 2012, p. 4. On queer time, see in particular: Halberstam, 2005; McCallum and Tuhkanen, 2011.

[28] Dinshaw, 2012, p. 34.

[29] Godden and Hsy, 2013, p. 318.

[30] Zheng, 2018, passim.

[31] Adjunct, 2008; Perry, 2019; Zheng, 2018, pp. 245-46.

[32] On this, see in particular: Acker and Armenti, 2008; Herget, 2015; Mason, 2013; Mason, Wolfinger and Goulden, 2013; Oakley, 2018; Ward and Wolf-Wendel, 2004

[33] Ward and Wolf-Wendel, 2004.

[34] Antecol, Bedard and Stearns, 2016; Jaschik, 2016; Williams and Lee, 2016.

[35] Yarrow and Davies, 2018, n.p.

[36] Fazackerly, 2018.

[37] Ibid., n.p.

[38] On this, see: Godden, 2011, especially pp. 272-74; Godden, 2015, pp. 74-75.

[39] Godden, 2011, p. 269.

[40] Ibid., p. 276.

[41] For critique of the notion of academia as a meritocracy, see in particular: Walsh, 2017; Zheng, 2018.

[42] Jones and Oakley, 2018, p. 4, p. 8.

[43] Weale, 2016, n.p.

[44] For an illuminating study of the realities of precarious post-doc life in the UK, see: Jones and Oakley, 2018. On the casualization (or ‘adjunctification’) of academic employees in the USA, see in particular: American Association of University Professors, n.d. a, n.d. b; Angulo, 2018; Bousquet, 2008; Hurlburt and McGarrah, 2016; Kezar and Maxey, 2013, 2016; O’Hara, 2015; United States Government Accountability Office, 2017; Zheng, 2018. On the situation in Canada, see: Acker and Haque, 2017. For an international perspective, see in particular: Gupta et al, 2016.

[45] University College Union, 2016b, p. 4.

[46] Ibid., p. 2.

[47] University College Union, 2015, p. 10.

[48] University College Union, 2016a, pp. 5-8; using HESA data for 2013/2014.

[49] University College Union, 2015, pp. 9-10.

[50] Jones and Oakley, 2018, p. 8.

[51] University College Union, 2015, p. 10.

[52] 2011, p. 1.

[53] Dooley and Prause, 2004, passim, especially pp. 1-16.

[54] Lee, 2013; Maynard and Feldman, 2011, p. 2; Tinson et al, 2016.

[55] Barnartt, 2006, p. 590; Jones and Sloane, 2010; Meager and Higgins, 2011, p. 12.

[56] Zheng, 2018, p. 245.

[57] University College Union, 2015, p. 13.

[58] Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2017, pp. 63-69; Tinson et al, 2016.

[59] Mitra et al, 2017; Scope, 2018.

[60] Scope, 2018, p. 5.

[61] Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2017; Tinson et al., 2016, p. 5; Longhi, 2017.

[62] Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2017, p. 51.

[63] Tinson et al, 2016, p. 5; see also pp. 31-32.

[64] Wendell, 1989, pp. 113-14; 1996, 36-42.

[65] 2016, p. 1367.

[66] Brown and Leigh, 2018, p. 986; Mountz et al 2015. For critical discussion of overwork in the academy, see in particular: Acker and Armenti, 2008; Acker and Webber, 2014; Bell, Rajendran and Theiler, 2012; Connelly and Ghodsee, 2011; Ecklund and Lincoln, 2016; Kinman and Jones, 2008; Krause, 2018.

[67] The tweet went viral amongst the academic community on Twitter. On this response, see: Foulkes, 2018; McKenna, 2018.

[68] See e.g. Carmichael, 2015; Kodz et al, 2003, pp. 147-90.

[69] Berg and Seeber, 2016; Mountz et al, 2015.

[70] Brown and Leigh, 2018, p. 986; Member of Sheffield UCU, 2019.

[71] Weale, 2016, n.p.

[72] Jones and Oakley, 2018, pp. 6-7; Zheng, 2018, pp. 245-46.

[73] Chakrabortty 2015, n.p.

[74] Member of Sheffield UCU, 2019, n.p.

[75] Ibid.; Weale, 2016, n.p.

[76] University College Union, 2015, p. 12.

[77] 2017, n.p.

[78] My thanks to Jennifer Leigh for raising this point as integral to the discussion here.

[79] Adams, 2018; Jones, 2019; Vaughan 2019.

[80] Member of Sheffield UCU, 2019, n.p; see also Jones, 2019.

[81] Grove, 2018b, n.p.

[82] Grove, 2018a, n.p.

[83] 1989, p. 109.

[84] See e.g. Acker and Armenti, 2004, pp.13-16; Fazackerley, 2018; Jones, 2019; Jones and Oakley, 2018, p. 7; Kinman and Jones, 2008; Krause, 2018; Walsh, 2017.

[85] See, e.g. Acker and Armenti, 2004, pp. 12-13; Chakrabortty, 2016; Chakrabortty and Weale, 2016; O’Hara, 2015; Weale, 2016.

[86] Chakrabortty, 2016; see also similar stories in University College Union, 2015.

[87] Chakrabortty, 2016, n.p.

[88] Office for National Statistics, 2018, n.p. Full-time employment is defined as working 30 or more hours per week, or 25 hours or more for teaching positions. Annual income calculated from figure of £569 supplied by the Office for National Statistics for national median weekly wages (gross). Data sourced from the 2018 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings.

[89] Adjunct, 2008, n.p.; Brown and Leigh, 2018, p. 987; Perry, 2019, n.p. On the politics of disclosure as a disabled academic, see also: Kerschbaum, 2004.

[90] 2018, n.p.

[91] Ibid.

[92] Mountz et al, 2015, p. 1216.

[93] Garland Thomson, 1997, p. 41.

[94] Full disclosure: I am a member of the network, and have corresponded with founding members, chiefly in terms of the ‘Medievalists with Disabilities’ network, a disciplinary-specific sister organisation which I co-founded with Dr. Alex Lee.

[95] Chronically Academic, n.p. See also the public statement by Medievalists of Color (n.d.) which highlights the fact that ECRs are on the front-line of the fight to remake the academy, despite the risks they face. Established scholars are called to acknowledge this, and take action to support both this important work and ECRs.

[96] 2013, p. 7.

[97] On the ideology of cure and health in terms of disability, see: Clare, 2017, esp. pp, 5-17; Garland-Thomson, 2002, pp. 13-17; Wendell, 2001; Shakespeare, 2018, pp. 19-21, 91-93; Wendell, 1996, pp.19-22.

[98] In this way, they conform, at least superficially, to Mitchell and Snyder’s (2000) model of ‘narrative prosthesis’ (passim; pp. 56-57).

[99] Phillipine of Porcellet, 2001, pp. 84-87, 109-10.

[100] Ibid., p. 84.

[101] Ibid., p. 85.

[102] Ibid., p. 110.

[103] Kafer, 2013, pp. 13-14.

[104] Kafer, 2013, pp. 11-14.

[105] Kafer, 2013, p. 13.

[106] Godden and Hsy, 2013, p. 334.

[107] McRuer, 2018, p. 20.

Fans in the Academy?

FanFicColloq.jpg

I wrote the short, informal paper below as a contribution to the 'Fanfiction and the Pre-Modern World Colloquium', 13 July 2018, University of Oxford, UK. I had intended to deliver this piece with bells and whistles (or, OK, many gifs) in Oxford myself, but unfortunately I couldn't attend in person. I am sincerely grateful to Julie Dresvina, one of the event organisers, for proposing a solution: allowing my 'remote presence' in the day's discussions by circulating my written paper to attendees on the day itself. If you want a flavour of the programme - and believe me, you definitely want a flavour - check out the live-tweeting corralled under #premodfanfic18 and the Colloquium Twitter account @premodfanfic. This one-day event is just the start of a bigger project of establishing an interdisciplinary network in the field, and I look forward to our continuing discussions!

In honour of the Colloquium, Amsterdam University Press has released a 20% discount code for my book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, valid till 27 July 2018. My third Chapter works with star and fan studies in-depth, hence the tie-in! To take advantage of the discount, use code "MedievalSaintsModernScreens" (without the "s) and order directly from the Press here.

At the end of last month, the community web forum Metafilter hosted one of their regular Sunday-night ‘cocktail-talk’ threads.[1] As usual, informal chat was invited, cohering more-or-less successfully around an orienting question. The question – or series of questions - that week? ‘What things do people consider themselves to be a huge fan of? Have they watched/read/collected/participated in every episode/book/version/event? Where do they chat about their fandom online? Do they have an OTP (one true pairing)? Do they read or write fanfic? Or cosplay a character?’ Scrolling through the answers idly on my smartphone, relaxing after a day filled with close textual analysis with a perma-playlist of comforting TV shows on in the background, one response in particular jumped out at me. User ‘huimangm’ proffered the following sketch of their fannish life:

In the last five or six years I have written a relatively small amount of fanfiction (mostly for obscure book canons) and read a ridiculous quantity of it. I really like the way the very best of it takes the structure you’re familiar with (setting, character, plot, or all three) and brings out extraordinary depth that the original canon didn’t or couldn’t make visible (sometimes because the original creator wasn’t that good, more often because the focus just happened to be elsewhere). […] Otherwise, not sure if it’s a fandom or a special-topic or what, but I am somewhat obsessed with diaries from Britain in/around World War II. I have, what, sixteen or seventeen different people’s diaries? (in book form, not the originals), many though not all from Mass-Observation [Archive of historical documents], and for some reason I find them intensely interesting and fulfilling to read.

Well, doesn’t that sound familiar, somewhat unsettlingly so? Let’s plug in an explicitly scholarly context to the Metafilter comment, replacing fan-specific terms with more ‘appropriate’ academic phraseology (signalled by the bolding):

In the last five or six years I have written a relatively small amount of secondary criticism (mostly for obscure medieval books and canons) and read a ridiculous quantity of it. I really like the way the very best literary analyses take the structure you’re familiar with (setting, character, plot, or all three) and brings out extraordinary depth that the primary text didn’t or couldn’t make visible (sometimes because the original creator wasn’t that good, more often because the focus just happened to be elsewhere). […] Otherwise, not sure if it fits with my ‘research agenda’ or if it’s my new specialist topic or whatever, but I am somewhat obsessed with diaries from Britain in/around World War II. I have, what, sixteen or seventeen different people’s diaries? (in book form, not the originals), many though not all from Mass-Observation [Archive of historical documents], and for some reason I find them intensely interesting and fulfilling to read.

What do fans and academics have in common? Rather a lot, it turns out. Fans feel a pull to the object of their devotion, re-situating their identity in relation to a favourite media text. They analyse the minutiae of the fan object, engaging often in its creative re-contextualization, probing its meaning to tease out new readings, to splay open possibilities implicit in the original work. This is especially the case with ‘formal’ fan fiction, stories and/or media utilising an already established universe or cast of characters. But the conversations, the imaginings, the online arguments fans have about and within their fandom are all also interrogatory, revelatory forms of critique. Formal publications, and collaborative informal discussions developing knowledge – check, check. Critical commentary on an original canon as a body of work in its own right - the ‘fanon’ or ‘secondary literature’, pick your poison. Fans as scholars, OK maybe. Yet scholars as fans? That contention tends to be all too provocative. Why? What is at stake when we, as scholars, embrace the label of ‘fan’, albeit in the mode of the specialist ‘aca-fan’?

I began to use fan studies in my research in 2011 or thereabouts. [2] I’ve presented my work in this area in fora big and small, formal and informal, home and abroad since then. Broadly speaking, my research (or one strand of it a least) entails analysing medieval hagiography as a kind of celebrity-manufacturing machine, allowing us to consider afresh the complex power dynamics which govern the construction of sanctity – hagiographer/saint, saint/God, fan/celebrity. Crucially, for this paper, I draw on the work of Henry Jenkins, a pioneer of fan-studies, to argue that academic scholarship can be understood as a kind of fan practice, with scholars as ‘aca-fans’. Frankly, I didn’t expect the kind of responses I received, and continue to receive to this day. Allow me to hedge, just a little: I don’t intend to flatten the categories of ‘scholar’ and ‘fan’ (not to mention ‘saint’ and ‘celebrity’), superimposing one ‘neatly’ on the other. Of course, there are differences between these categories and these differences are intensified ever more if we consider context, on micro- and macro-levels. But what keeps gnawing at me is the kind of pushback I get when talking about scholars as fans on a meta-level, and in deploying theories from fan studies to analyse (medieval) texts. I think this pushback – and the specific pitch of its articulation – reveals two particularly corrosive threads in the academy, whether explicitly acknowledged or internally absorbed: intellectual gatekeeping and classism. The only way out is through, as it were – or one way out is through. We can (begin to? further?) combat such discriminatory modes by consciously leaning into this pushback, by continuing to claim spaces for fan studies in the academy, and allowing for the academic identity to also encompass the fan experience.

Generally speaking, the pushback to my work as a medievalist in/on fan studies can be grouped into two camps. As a mental shorthand, I call the first ‘the academy doth protest too much’. This is outright rejection of the validity of fan studies as a theoretical paradigm and especially of the relationship between academics and/as fans. Responses of this type emphasises the integral exceptionality of academics, with our intellectual work held up as a shining light of cultural production. The public, those outside the academy, cannot be trusted to do this work perhaps, or are just not suited to it, not trained and credentialed enough. Academics have the keys to the castle – or rather, the ivory tower – and this segregation from ‘real life’ is an essential component of academic life, and academics’ own identities. Fan output – media posted on Tumblrs and online forums, role-playing at Cons, epic fanfic spawning epic fanfic on A03 and similar – is just ‘low’ culture, not worthy of particular intellectual investment or serious analysis. What’s more, it is downright insulting to medievalists (or early-modernists, or Classicists, etc etc) to connect the weighty objects of their attention – ‘real’, ‘really’ culturally important stuff – with such throwaway ‘pop’ culture.[3]

This leads me to the second kind of pushback I tend to encounter: the ‘yes but’ school of thought. If the first kind of pushback I get makes me frustrated (and angry), then ‘yes but’ responses make me sad. For example: ‘Hmmm, that’s a persuasive reading of [medieval text] and throws up some new insights, but…’. And: ‘You know, that makes me think of [speaker’s ‘illicit’ pop-cultural text of choice] and how incorporating [nuanced, insightful analyses of said pop-cultural text] would really change our understanding of the [medieval text], but…’. ‘Yes but’ is about internalised gatekeeping, in essence. It stems, at least in part, about concerns over the intellectual validity of the topics at hand, and by extension the intellectual validity of the scholar themselves, if they ‘out’ themselves as enjoying low-brow fare on the regular. Time and time again, scholars have told me about the joy they feel in consuming pop-culture, and the geeky joy they derive from seeing the connections between their scholarly texts and the media they consume for pleasure.

Ah, pleasure, what a loaded term here. There remains a notion that taking pleasure in our work – in our analyses, in our source texts themselves, in making ‘illicit’ connections – is verboten. There are worries about being ‘too close’ to the media we consume outside of the walled academic garden, losing our analytical objectivity. After all, fans are those obsessive weirdos who sleep, eat, breathe their favourite texts. They seek out ever closer encounters with the text, they can’t be trusted to be objective, not like us academics. But here’s the rub: academic ‘objectivity’ is a fallacy. Scholars re-shape their objects of study in the very act of studying, our analyses are always partial, we select the version which makes most sense to us, given the available evidence and heuristic frameworks. Casting the academic as a fan lifts the veil of illusion, and that can be far too postmodern for some to stomach. With that veil removed, we see that the scholar, consciously or unconsciously, has designs upon their sources. We can justify our research agenda, explaining our lines of argument with appropriately dry verbiage – but that internal pull, that thing that makes us work long hours, obsessively pore over texts, animatedly debate texts, approaches, analyses with colleagues? That remains unspeakable, for some at least.

Intellectual gatekeeping and deep-rooted classism, that’s the rather depressing sum of it. In this light, embracing the label of ‘fan’ as a scholar becomes a political act, a conscious decision to reject ‘ivory-tower’ thinking. It is a means to build bridges with our wider communities, alongside a means to legitimize our own lived realities in and as our work. It is a means to show why what we do matters – critical thinking which enacts a bond between our sources and ourselves, and by extension others engaged in similar praxes, the legion ‘non-academics’ in fan communities. It values the work of those whom the academy most often marginalizes. What I’m arguing for, at heart, is a practice of ‘yes and’: recognise the connections between media texts, allow the thrill of pleasure to shoot through us, engage ‘seriously’ with media from and praxes in ‘non-academic’ communities. And use these moments of delicious familiarity and respectful dialogue to add context, to nuance points, to push ever further in our analyses and knowledge production. ‘Yes and’ we say, in a fannish chorus.

 

Notes

[1] 'Metatalktail Hour: Fandom!'. Thread started 30 June 2018. MetaTalk [MetaFilter subsite]. <https://metatalk.metafilter.com/24837/Metatalktail-Hour-Fandom>.

[2] I discuss the notion of academics as fans in detail in: Spencer-Hall, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018, pp. 190-92. The rest of the Chapter (pp. 147-89) analyses hagiography as a means of celebrification, offering a case study of the ‘successful’ production of Marie of Oignies (d. 1213) as a spiritual star along the lines of the Classic Hollywood celebrity factory. I contrast Marie with Margery Kempe (d. after 1438), made in the model of a reality-TV star as one of Marie’s biggest stars, a wannabe-saint in perpetuity who authors fan fiction (her Book) to rework consciously narratives to better suit her aims. In parallel, I consider the production of female stardom in the twenty-first century in terms of medieval hagiography, with specific reference to Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian West. See also discussions of the ‘perfectly obedient’ celebrity, i.e. a hologram which performs on demand and/or a saint who responds to intercessory petitions immediately in: Spencer-Hall, ‘Post-Mortem Projections: Medieval Mystical Resurrection and the Return of Tupac Shakur.’ MDCCCXXVI Opticon1826 13 (2012): 56-71 <http://ojs.lib.ucl.ac.uk/index.php/up/article/view/1327/xEMOzGirlzxr71>.

[3] Sidenote: it feels significant to point out here that a considerable amount of fan works is produced by marginalized and/or underserved media consumers. If representations are not present in the source text itself (which reflects dominant culture), it is reworked until the fan’s own identity and/or cultural priorities come into view. In this context, refusal to engage with fans as critical textual producers means refusing to engage with those who are typically under-represented in ‘mainstream’ media-textual production, and perpetuating the erasure of marginalized voices from cultural work.

Transcript of David Lammy's Interview with Channel 4 News on the Politics of Grenfell Tower Fire

On 14th June, Grenfell Tower burned to the ground. Grenfell housed the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised - in one of the richest boroughs in the UK, Kensington and Chelsea. Residents warned the Powers That Be about the fire risk, but their voices were suppressed, or flat-out ignored. 30 have been confirmed dead so far; 70 are missing; many survivors remain in hospital. The death toll will certainly rise. It is a tragedy. More than that: the Grenfell Tower blaze is a logical outcome of austerity and conservative politics, which eviscerated and eviscerates support systems for people who need them most, who literally depend on them. It is not hyperbole to say that the stakes are life and death for those who rely on social care, the social safety net in all its forms. Grenfell is emblematic of the complete disdain the rich - and many of the (conservative) political class - have for those who fall below that all-important middle-class line. 

I first heard David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, speak at an anti-Brexit march. He impressed me with his passion and focus, his unflinching commitment to serving his constituents. As a result, I started following him on Twitter. And he's just given one of the most gut-wrenching, stark, insightful interviews I've seen in a long while to Channel 4 News (Twitter; website). He speaks movingly - and is himself visibly moved - about the politics of the Grenfell Tower fire, and austerity politics in general. I've embedded the relevant Channel 4 News tweet below, which has the video. But I wanted to ensure that the interview is accessible to all, so I've typed up the transcript of the interview below. Any mistakes are mine alone - and if you spot typos etc, please get in touch so I can rectify them. 

David Lammy: This is about the welfare state. For your middle-class viewers, this is about whether the welfare state is just schools and hospitals, or whether it’s about having a safety net. I get quite emotional as I say that. [DL visibly upset] We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable. And that means housing, it means somewhere decent to live. It was a noble idea that we built and it’s falling apart around our eyes. That’s what it about.

And if it’s taken this tragedy to bring that reality home to people, who are lucky enough to live in very different circumstances then thank God. It’s about the welfare state.

Do we believe in a safety net or not? [DL chokes up, wipes eye]

Channel 4 News: Because what do you think this says about the state of some housing? Some state-run, council-owned housing?

DL: You can’t contract out everything to the private sector. The private sector do some wonderful things, but they have for-profit motives, they cut corners. If you haven’t got the officers to check on the enforcement of buildings, don’t expect it to be done. You know, are there fire extinguishers? I knock on doors all the time, all MPs did. We’ve all been up to those tower blocks, they exist right across the country. Where are the fire extinguishers on every corridor? You know, where are the hoses? Are the fire doors really working? Where are the sprinklers? If you want to build these buildings, then let them at least be as good as the luxury penthouse buildings that are also being built. But these buildings aren’t, is the question. So you either demolish them and house people in a different way or you absolutely refurbish them to the best of quality of that we can do.

C4N: Do you think this says anything about the value that is placed on the lives of people who cannot afford to buy their own property? To live in some of the nicer bits of London?

DL: This is a tale of two cities. This is what Dickens was writing about in the century before the last, and it’s still here in 2017. It’s the face of the poorest and the most vulnerable.

My friend [Khadija Saye] who lost her life was a talented artist, but she was a young black woman making her way in this country and she absolutely had no power or locus or agency. She had not yet achieved that in her life, she had done amazing things, gone to university, the best in her life. [DL chokes up with emotion] But she’s died with her mother on the 22nd floor of the building. And it breaks my heart that that’s happening in Britain in 2017. It breaks my heart.

Playing All, Or Not, As The Case May Be: DVD Boxsets, Irrational Rage, and the "Play All" Function

I did not have a good birthday. The lurghy got me, and it got me bad. I started to refer to myself as "The Plague Ship". I wore the same comfort kaftan for a disturbingly long time. And I had a shawl perma-swaddled around me to stave off assorted noxious "draughts". This was not a drill. This was action stations for comfort and cheer. So I did what anyone would do in such a situation: I ordered myself over a metre of audio-visual content on Black Friday. Yep, I measured the fruits of my feverish, and clearly productive, stabs at the Amazon webpage not in terms of total cost -- alarmingly cheap! thanks neo-liberal capitalism! -- but in the total length of DVD Boxsets I had procured, when laying them side by side. It was glorious. So. Much. To. Watch. I could sit down, and just "play all" to my heart's content, or so I thought. 

Bear with me, this context is important. Because it turns out that I have basically seen All Of The Televisual Things, I ended up buying stuff that was a bit older than my usual fare or a bit left of centre to my usual viewing tastes. Some of it I'd watched at least partially in its original run: Frasier (1993-2004); Murder One (1995-1997); Ally McBeal (1997-2002). Others looked gung-ho silly enough (JAG, 1995-2005), whimsical enough (Northern Exposure, 1990-1995), or were eminently consumable procedurals to have on in the background whilst actually attending to the business of life (NCIS, 2003-present).  First, some viewer notes:

Niles Crane, applauding like a pro: it's all about the mixture of contempt, envy, and judgement. ( Frasier )

Niles Crane, applauding like a pro: it's all about the mixture of contempt, envy, and judgement. (Frasier)

  • Frasier - clearly inaccurately titled. Should obviously be called Niles, who is the best thing ever. Yes, I am glazing over consciously how deeply creepy his "love" for Daphne is for many seasons before they hook up. Also, deep dislike for Daphne's terrible fatty storyline. Props for showing that older people have relationships - and sex! - too. My hat is off to Martin, I would have thrown myself off the balcony instead of living with odious Frasier. 
  • Murder One - I remember watching snatches of this whilst pretending to sleep when my Mum was watching it. It seemed Very Serious and Dramatic. It is deliciously 90s, and pretty solid (at least season 1). Picture boxy suits and hair scrunchies. 
Ling Woo being, well, Ling Woo. ( Ally McBeal )

Ling Woo being, well, Ling Woo. (Ally McBeal)

  • Ally McBeal - this was iconic in my youth. One girl I knew at school changed the way she parted her hair to look more like Ally. This was a big decision and life choice at the time. Do not return to things that were iconic in your youth if they are called Ally McBeal. Ye gods. Apart from Lucy Liu as Ling, who gets a pass as she is clearly amazing.
  • JAG - created explicitly as a mash-up of Top Gun and A Few Good Men, so obviously rife with homoerotic possibilities. Dripping with Rah Rah Americah! sentiment, and embedded in a framework created by the Cold War and first Gulf War, it is camp as all get out. Like Navy MacGyver.  Completely throw-away, but fine. 
  • NCIS (box-set of seasons 1-5 only) - spin-off of JAG. I hate every character. Every single one. Mostly because I think they are all completely two-dimensional, e.g. Gibbs (stone); DiNozzo (misogynist pig); Ducky (English); Abby (imprisoned in a lab for crimes against goth); McGee (milquetoast). Do not get me started on Todd. Todd is played by Sasha Alexander. Why is Maura Isles lowering herself to consort with these Navy nobodies??? Where is Rizzoli??? What is happening??
  • Northern Exposure - my sister had the soundtrack back in the day. It's set in Alaska. I have watched all of Ice Road Truckers, so I have already bought into the snow-drama concept. However, I have as yet only seen two episodes of Northern Exposure, as the "plot" is thus far so slow moving that I always fall asleep. Needs more trucks and logistical crises?

Clearly I had a lot of #feelings about all these shows, and a lot of varied #feelings at that. But one thing united them all: their DVD format inspired a bone-deep excoriating irritation in me. Why? None possessed a "play all" episodes feature. Whilst I've obviously still got some way to go to work through my rage productively, I'm far enough past my flaming zenith to notice the wider signification of that. In a weird way, these boxsets - and the flaws I perceive in their feature set-ups - offer an implicit, capsule history of both technological development and the evolution in audience preferences and spectatorship styles.

A VHS cassette, with internal magnetic tape unfurled:&nbsp;"Projet 365 - 054/365.&nbsp;Old tape" - Nicolas Buffler. Via  Flickr . License:  CC BY 2.0

A VHS cassette, with internal magnetic tape unfurled: "Projet 365 - 054/365. Old tape" - Nicolas Buffler. Via Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0

I grew up with the VHS format, a now obsolete format using cassettes of magnetic tape for storing films and taping stuff of the TV. It took forever to interact with the cassette itself - make it fast forward, or rewind, say. And "rewind" was literal - the tape had to be physically re-spooled by your VHS machine to get it back to a desired point. This was a pain. So much so that the now-defunct video rental chain Blockbuster emblazoned their cassettes with the phrase "Be kind rewind". This maxim urged renters to do the annoying work of hitting "rewind" on their machines before returning the tape to the store. Otherwise, store-workers or new renters would have to do it themselves, because the tape did not automatically start at the beginning whenever you put it into the machine. 

"Blockbuster Video" - Thomas Hawk. Via  Flickr . License:  CC BY-NC 2.0

"Blockbuster Video" - Thomas Hawk. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-NC 2.0

It caused a kind of splinter-like annoyance, an obviously first-world problem that nevertheless highlights some of the frustrations associated with the VHS format. You excitedly rent a new VHS from Blockbuster, sit down to watch it, and press play - only to find that the last viewers left it right at the end, so the credits are scrolling, and it'll take you (what feels like) an inordinate amount of time to rewind the damn thing to the start of the movie. Or the last guys wanted to re-watch a pivotal scene, so when you hit play you're stuck half-way through the film, spoilers a-go-go. The lumbering VHS format meant that the technology itself predisposed you to "play all" - to let the cassette do it's thing, rather than flip between sections of a film or TV show. 

"DVD" - papanooms. Via  Flickr . License:  CC BY-SA 2.0

"DVD" - papanooms. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Then comes DVDs in the late 1990s, wheeeee! These shiny little discs are amazing, not just because they're so much smaller than VHS cassettes. Interacting with the film - fast-forwarding or (now non-literal) rewinding - is so much easier. And you don't even have to "rewind" a DVD when you finish the movie: it just automatically re-starts at the beginning. Film "chapters" are introduced too, which splits up the film into easily-navigable chunks of narrative action. Now, viewers no longer have to "play all" - put up with a clunky viewing mode or deal with the hassles of trying to make VHS do what you want. Instead, the DVD format offers more spectatorial power, as viewers can flit about the DVD content as much as they'd like. This is a positive thing, right? Absolutely for film viewing. And the ability for viewers to easily select different units of content - episodes - meant DVDs seemed extraordinarily suited to distributing TV shows, given DVDs could hold multiple episodes of a given series. And perhaps that was indeed true for a while, and still is for a few people. But the potential of the DVD format provoked a new kind of engagement with TV: binge-watching. (The eagle-eyed amongst you will already have cottoned on to the fact that my preponderous usage of gifs - endlessly looping video clips - to illustrate this post is a conscious decision to reflect the binge-watching format and experience. Also, I <3 gifs.)

Nehahalol Animated GIF .&nbsp;Dimensions: 640x640.&nbsp;Size: 553KB. Frames: 61

Nehahalol Animated GIF. Dimensions: 640x640. Size: 553KB. Frames: 61

Dafydd Wood summarises the impact of the introduction of the DVD format:

This technological development literally changed the way we watch television, weakening the importance of airing in a particular spot on a particular day. The DVD could contain multiple episodes and could be set to play all episodes in quick succession. This facilitated a radical change in the consumption of television, the most significant development in the history of the medium. Viewers could now sit down and consume a vast amount of a show over an extended period and on their own terms not according to real-time scheduling. The emergence of streaming services which could make multiple seasons of a series available instantaneously only solidified marathon viewing as a common cultural experience: Netflix and Hulu now release entire seasons of their own programming at the same time. ('Flies', p. 13)

Playing episodes sequentially by navigating through DVD menus introduces the viewer to the delights of binge-watching, creating a new kind of independent - and hungry - TV audience. With the introduction of the slick "play all" feature, binge-watching becomes de rigueur, normalised further by the DVD feature-set itself. The "play all" feature delivers on the smooth effortless binge-watching experience with which earlier DVDs tantalised the audience. The latter were stuffed with TV episodes, but provided only a staccato spectatorial experience, punctuated by viewer navigation through DVD menu hierarchies.  

Vidme Animated GIF .&nbsp;Dimensions: 480x270 Size: 2198KB.&nbsp;Frames: 84.

Vidme Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270
Size: 2198KB. Frames: 84.

There's a certain nostalgia for the dear, departed VHS format here, and a shadow of the pre-digital TV broadcast landscape too. One of the chief characteristics of the VHS is its rigidity, a compulsion to linearity: you put the tape in the machine, press play, and let it play itself out. With early TV, you had a very limited array of channels, from which you got served whatever they wanted to serve you, at whatever time the TV execs decided. An analogous experience is offered by the DVD "play all" - you make the initial selection of a given TV series or specific DVD, and "playing all" lets you slip back under the comfortable blanket of spectatorial passivity. It's just better than before: now you get to choose from a far wider array of audiovisual content the stuff that gets served at your eyeballs seemingly "outside of your control".  

In a thread on the online DVDTalk forum devoted to a discussion of the "play all" function, and why it's not present on all DVDs, one user, "120inna55", comments: 

I admit that I love the 'play all' function. I like to go to sleep to TV shows on DVD. (i.e. Simpsons, Seinfeld, Family Guy, even episodes of Homicide that I've seen several times before). Be it a good habit or not, I grew up with a televison playing constantly in my bedroom, even while I was sleeping. When VHS came along, I had tapes crammed with 6-8 hrs of favorite movies and television shows to which I could go to sleep. There was (is) something comforting about waking in the middle of the night to a familiar televison show. The 'play all' function is a must for such practice. [...]

The DVD "play all" feature is cast here not as as facilitating a decisive break from past viewing habits, as media chatter about the binge-watching "shift" - or Wood's "radical shift" quoted above - would suggest. Instead, the "play all" innovation acts as a means by which the viewer re-positions herself in the soothing embrace of a consciously passive viewing position, otherwise disrupted by choppy DVD menus.  

The first DVD TV boxsets were released in 2000, with the release of the first series of popular shows The X-Files, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City. 120inna55's comment quoted above was posted in 2005 (14/03/05 to be precise), shortly after the thread itself was started. In other words, DVD producers had not yet cottoned on to the ongoing shift in audience viewing habits. It had not yet become utterly standard for TV boxsets to have a "play all" feature. And what we witness in the DVDTalk forum is viewers negotiating the mismatch of audience expectation with DVD function. This is precisely what I am experiencing when I shake my fist in impotent and irrational anger at the foreclosed option of "playing all" which all these DVD boxsets deny me.

Ana Pérez López Animated GIF . Dimensions: 480x270.&nbsp;Size: 2398KB.&nbsp;Frames: 219

Ana Pérez López Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270. Size: 2398KB. Frames: 219

Given that the series themselves are of older pedigree, from the 1990s to early 2000s, then it makes sense that the boxsets were produced according to the expectations that initially governed DVD production. My inchoate grah at the DVD's set up lies in the collision of one spectatorial paradigm with another, how the DVD says I should watch and how I want to watch. Producers and distributors certainly do re-release DVDs, after adding extra special features including the trusty "play all" button (see e.g.) But re-releasing the shows which I purchased would likely be a waste of money. They're notable, but not cult, and so have relatively poor marketability. They're historically popular too, with the emphasis on historical:  popular with people who likely are less rankled by the lack of "play all" as they're more used to pre-streaming and pre-binging consumption forms. Really, they might even prefer the single-serve option. I'm so entrenched in my devotion to "play all" I cannot fathom that, but I write in good faith and with an open mind.  

The initial DVDTalk thread peters out after only two days of light posting (13-14/03/05). Somewhat bizarrely, it is then revived in 2011 by user "Judgeraye" (04/06/11):

GIPHY Studios Originals Animated GIF .&nbsp;Dimensions: 480x480.&nbsp;Size: 2129KB.&nbsp;Frames: 32

GIPHY Studios Originals Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x480. Size: 2129KB. Frames: 32

Ive wanted to know who the morons are that decide this for years. why in H--L
can't the buffoons who churn out theses things (DVD's) understand that like a poster earlier said, sometimes you want to lull yourself to sleep watching a few eps of TV shows you like. WHO is the person that has that say so and WHY when they are asked would they say "No" to a Play All feature on a disc with 6 or so episodes on it? it makes no sense. Does it cost more? how could it? it seems like a programming thing. I recently bought "Car 54 where are you?" season one on DVD. it was a 4 disc set of a tv show from 1961 about two cops in NY. mellow stuff and very funny and fun to watch. The company that produced the DVD was named Shlenechtidy or Shanastedy or some such odd name and they were very proud to bring us the set complete with special features. when i put the disc in it showed a menu of 7 episodes listed with a button next to each one but NO Play All Feature. I was P-ssed Off. i was gonna write a letter to em when i noticed that after the first episode ended, it went right in to the next show. There was an invisible "Play All" button i guess but thats the way it should be standard

How comforting it can be to find you're probably not the least rational person on the internet, eh? And frankly, though it might seem like it, I don't think I'm tilting at "play all" windmills, at least not entirely. If I hadn't been blazingly annoyed, then I probably wouldn't be thinking as much about DVD features and prompts to spectatorial consumption. It's interesting to me that this issue so bedevils me, beyond all reasonable proportion. Paying close attention to the grah lets me look more closely, more curiously about how and why I watch in the way that I watch. In short, I get to consider the conditions of my media consumption. And I get to commune with earlier incarnations of myself as a spectator - see how I too have evolved as a viewer. God I loved Blockbuster. God, what I wouldn't have given to have access to the variety of TV and film that I do now. Like "120inna55", I too had a few much beloved VHS mixtapes, filled with as many favourite TV shows or reassuringly trashy TV movies the cassette could physically hold. I still do have them actually, in a memory box somewhere. Why would I ever get rid of such dear friends? We live in the "Golden Age" of TV. I can watch it all, back to back, again and again. I can watch it on my phone, tablet, smartphone, TV, home projector screen. I never need to rewind the tape. "Play all" problems aside, ain't televisual life grand?

 

Hardcopy references:

Wood, Dafydd, ‘Flies and One-eyed Bears: The Maturation of a Genre’, in The Methods of Breaking Bad: Essays on Narrative, Character and Ethics, ed. by Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), pp. 11-25 (Google books)

Goodnight Menses: Period Realities & the Big Bad Wolf of PMS

1945 Illustrated Ad, Chi-Ches-Ters Pills for Relieving Pain from Menstrual Cramps. First published in  The Family Circle  magazine, November 9, 1945, Vol. 27, No. 18. Via  Classic Film/Flickr .

1945 Illustrated Ad, Chi-Ches-Ters Pills for Relieving Pain from Menstrual Cramps. First published in The Family Circle magazine, November 9, 1945, Vol. 27, No. 18. Via Classic Film/Flickr.

Last week, I shared a video in which Penny Higgs, Australian reality-TV contestant, threw down some real talk about the lack of attention given to women’s period pain. As a complement, may I present to you Goodnight Menses, written by Sami Main and illustrated by Dan Meth, which was posted to Buzzfeed in April 2015. Main and Meth’s digital work is a deliciously tart riff on Margaret Wise Brown 1947 children’s book Goodnight Moon.  

Brown’s famous work memorialises an anthropomorphic bunny’s bedtime ritual of saying ‘goodnight’ to all the artefacts in his room, and then the evening itself, the ‘stars’, the ‘air’, and finally the ‘noises everywhere’. (For a .pdf of the non-illustrated text, posted by the Early Childhood Lab at Stephen F. Austin State University, click here.) Every object to which the bunny wishes ‘goodnight’, then, is a part of his intimate – and fairly quotidian – experience. The text works as a catalogue of the landscape inhabited by the sleepy bunny, the routine contours of his life. The bunny’s words are a protective incantation: a means of reassuring himself, and also the objects, that they can reciprocally let go, close their (even inanimate) eyes and drift to sleep. This ‘goodnight-ing’ is an ending, surely, but also a ritual which suggests a perhaps interminable repetition – the ‘goodnights’ only end on that very un-good night when the bunny, or his subjects, are irrevocably absent. 

The delight, and impact, of Goodnight Menses is its skillful leveraging of these layers of Brown’s original work. Instead of the bunny’s childhood bedroom, the scene now is a woman’s ‘great dim room’, a glum space in which our sleepy protagonist endures her period. The text opens with a catalogue of the objects which populate the woman’s space, including analgesics, comfortable clothes, TV to binge-watch the pain away, and junk food:

In the great dim room
There was a beanbag chair
And a jar of Nutella
And a picture of
A goddess jumping over her moon.
And there were two little wolves sitting on stools
And three little Doritos
And a bag of Cheetos
And a little bottle of Midol
And an iPhone with a missed call
And a laptop and some sweatpants and a small old lamp
And a dent in the bed from where you rolled around with cramps.

Though not every woman will have these specific items in their menstruation survival kit, they are familiar enough items to operate as generalize-able categories. I read ‘Cheetos’, I nod, I think of my preferred salt and vinegar crisps. The text’s anonymous protagonist functions as a proxy for all menarcheal women. As Goodnight Moon allows us to envision the particularities of the bunny’s room (read: everyday existence), Goodnight Menses throws into relief the often unpleasant commonplaces of female life once a month. The text’s humour is drawn, at least partially, from the mundanity of the experience and the implicit familiarity of the tableau. Our collective coping mechanisms are on display. Therein, the enchantment of the ‘goodnight’ refrain: the ‘monthly visitor’ will stay only for a few days. With enough ‘goodnights' (stand-ins for 'goodbyes’), maybe you can speed its leave. But remember, the period is a repeat customer, it will be back. And, as with the bunny’s farewells in Goodnight Moon, that anticipation of interminable repeat casts its pall over Goodnight Menses

'mask' by Luisa Uribe. Via  Flickr.

'mask' by Luisa Uribe. Via Flickr.

Beyond the concrete items – ‘Midol’, ‘Doritos’, ‘iPhone’ – we encounter ‘two little wolves’, menacing embodiments of a hormonally frayed emotional state. PMS in lupine form, reminiscent of the fairy-tale staple of the Big Bad Wolf. In Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf swallows grandmother whole, dressing up in her clothes to fool, if only for a short while, a somewhat naïve Riding Hood. Goodnight Menses’ ‘two little wolves’, then, can pounce at any time to a woman in the ‘dim little room’ of menstruation. The space is not all bad though. For one thing, it’s a room of one’s own, in terms of lack of human co-habitants at least. And there’s that picture of the ‘goddess jumping over her moon’: a serene representation of the goddess of menstruation, traditionally tied to the lunar cycle, and a main-stay of New Age pro-period imagery. Embrace your goddess within! Jump over the moon with me! Do femininity! So the goddess, then, can be a two-edged sword. A positive affirmation of the ‘right-ness’ of menstruation; an irritating tone-deaf elision of real pain and discomfort. What’s more, the upbeat menstrual goddess meets her match in the sinfully female Biblical Eve, and it’s Eve that closes the text:

Goodnight Eve, for this original sin.
Goodnight stars
Goodnight air
Goodnight noises everywhere.

Eve and her ‘original sin’, symbolized graphically in her monthly ‘curse’, are just part of the status quo of a misogynist patriarchal culture – ‘noises everywhere’ – which categorises women’s bodies as abnormal, evil, or disgusting simply for behaving as biology intended.

Ultimately, Riding Hood too joins her grandmother in the pit of the Wolf’s stomach. The Wolf is superficially the agent of their demise. Yet he is also, symbolically at least, agent of their (re)birth. When a rescuer slices open the Wolf’s belly, both women fall out of his stomach alive. Goodnight Menses’ ‘two little wolves’ represent the hormonal component of menstruation, broadly speaking. Saying ‘goodnight’ definitively to these wolves would entail splitting them open, generating two alternate forms of womanhood – pre-menarcheal (Riding Hood) or post-menopausal (grandmother). Note, then, that we never say ‘goodnight’ to the wolves in the text, not directly:

Goodnight room
Goodnight moon
Goodnight goddess jumping over the moon
Goodnight bloating
And the two little wolves.

Letting go of the ‘wolves’ is hard to do, a grudging appendix to other menstrual attributes to which we are more than glad to bid farewell, relegated to the next line. Wrapped up with the ‘wolves’, we see potential elements of adulthood and independence:

'Flow' by Eugenia Loli. Via  Flickr .

'Flow' by Eugenia Loli. Via Flickr.

And goodnight missed call.
[…]
and goodnight Cheez Whiz.
[…]
and goodnight marathon of Breaking Bad.
[…]
and goodnight to the lamp.

It’s good to be a grown-up some times. You get to stay up as late as you want. Decide what you eat for dinner, no matter how unhealthy. Develop an independent social life, sex life. What happens when there are no more missed calls on the iPhone? When you’re no longer in demand, or viewed as sexually desirable? This is aging womanhood writ large, and it is not a particularly attractive prospect. So, goodnight menses, goodnight but hopefully not goodbye for good. 

Modern and Medieval Catholicism, Our Lady of Ta'Pinu and Santa Muerte

A focus point of devotion in the Lady of Ta'Pinu Shrine: the altar, and the Shrine's&nbsp;famous Marian image. Visiting shrines like this are the one and only kind of tourism I enjoy on holiday...

A focus point of devotion in the Lady of Ta'Pinu Shrine: the altar, and the Shrine's famous Marian image. Visiting shrines like this are the one and only kind of tourism I enjoy on holiday...

I am not good at tourism. Correction: I actively abhor tourism. I’m just not a fan of sweatily traipsing around over-crowded places, craning my neck to see “erudite stuff” obscured from view by crowds of eye-rollingly bored schoolchildren, getting lost in labyrinthine public institutions most likely haunted by a neo-Minotaur docent, and shoving over-priced stale sandwiches down my throat like a starved gannet for “lunch” on the go. Maybe I just do tourism wrong: this is probably true. Also, the bulk of my working life is spent reading, learning, thinking as precisely as possible about complex theories and problematics. Going to exhibitions and art showings and interesting film screenings is part of my research life, part of excavating cultural artefacts all around me to find their resonances with my specific research frameworks. So, on holiday, all I want to do is to channel my energies into actively not thinking: I want to kick back and go to the beach - I am very good at beaching - with a stack of really very silly books. My top recommendation for the latter is what are known in my house as the “sexy horsey books”, a series of well-written romance books by Bev Pettersen. No, “sexy horsey” does not point to any elegantly phrased tales of, shall we say, somewhat euphemistically, “paraphilic desire”. Pettersen immerses the reader into the world of serious horse training and jockey life, with well-drawn and thoughtful protagonists who have superb chemistry, propelling the romance plot along in fine style. Very much recommend, even if you aren’t very keen on horses. Horses as a species seem to have had a council meeting and decided unilaterally that they do not want me to be a rider…

      Anyway. Today’s post is not actually about tourism/holidays/horses, or not entirely. The only type of tourism that I enjoy is visiting religious institutions and saints’ shrines in lands afar, witnessing modern devotional practice and culture that so clearly relates to the medieval saints I have spent years working on and have come to love. In September 2011, I went on holiday to the Maltese island of Gozo, a sun-drenched rock which does a fine line in fish dinners, sandy beaches and Catholic basilicas. St. George’s Basilica in Victoria is a beautiful parish church, originally dating to at least the fifteenth century. It’s the kind of place that is so resplendent you sort of worry if you should be let in or not, yet it is still a hub of regular popular worship, as testified by their YouTube channel filled with videos of services. The juxtaposition of features I superficially ascribe in my imagination to medieval worship spaces evoked in hagiographic narratives – including intensely rich decorations and a tangible aura of sacrality– with modern worshippers going about their business, as they do on any given day of the week, really astounded me. This is the medieval/modern religiosity connection writ large. It also serves as an effective reminder that medieval churches were communal, public spaces – there to be filled with the flock, spaces of dynamic interchanges – just as in St. George’s today. This is something I tend to forget, or let fall by the wayside, as I consider the descriptions of churches and religious services in narratives I study, as it is so different to my own reality. 

"Dome of St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via  Flickr .&nbsp;No, I can't believe I didn't take my own pictures of the Basilica either.

"Dome of St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via Flickr. No, I can't believe I didn't take my own pictures of the Basilica either.

"St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via  Flickr

"St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via Flickr

      Though St. George’s was utterly lovely, I was most excited about visiting another basilica on the island, the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’Pinu in Għarb, given my immense interest in pre-modern female devotion. My holiday-mates were very gracious, and let me do my “medieval-religious-detective” thing for a few glorious hours. The gallery below features some of the many, many, (perhaps too many) photographs I took during my visit. The exact origins of the Shrine are unknown, but it is first described in writing in the sixteenth century. (For a potted history of the site, see the relevant page on the Shrine’s website. See also Mrg. Nicholas J Cauchi's slim volume, Ta'Pinu Shrine: The Pilgrims' Haven, published by the Shrine in 2008.) Though the Shrine had a long history as a site of Marian devotion, events in the summer of 1883 ultimately increased its fame as a particularly holy site. Two villagers, Karmni Grima and Franġisk Portelli, frequently heard the voice of the Virgin Mary calling them into the chapel to pray in separate mystical incidents. Further, Portelli's mother was afflicted by a deleterious illness at the time, but achieved a miraculous cure after her sons (Franġisk and Nikol) paid special reverence to Our Lady of Ta'Pinu, and kept a lamp lit in front of her altar at all times. These events established the Ta'Pinu Mary as a potent miracle-worker and very effective intercessor with the divine. Throughout this post, I'll use "Ta'Pinu" to refer to the specific construction of the Virgin Mary worshipped at the Shrine.

Offerings for Ta'Pinu cover every inch of space in a side-room off the chapel

Offerings for Ta'Pinu cover every inch of space in a side-room off the chapel

      The basilica (including a chapel, newer sanctuary, and museum) is, as you might imagine, fantastically opulent, crammed with beautiful stained glass, images, niches, candles and on and on. What grabbed me the most, though, were the countless modern artefacts and letters given up to Ta’Pinu as votive tokens (ex-votos), either in the hopes of receiving healing miracles or as a form of payment for the reception of Ta’Pinu’s grace. These objects cover the walls in a kind of hopeful collage of piety in rooms adjacent to the chapel itself. Walking through these spaces feels a bit like going to a bric-a-brac table sale, but with each offering – however innocuous or banal – imbued with profound personal and spiritual meaning. Plaster casts, browned Polaroids, orthopaedic screws, baby blankets, scrawled notes, chopped-off hair braids, bent bicycle wheels, typed letters, dented crash helmets, rosaries, crisp white Christening gowns. Perhaps the meaning or such mementos is not just personal and spiritual, but rather personal-spiritual. These are tangible objects which relate directly to a given believer’s highly specific experiences: subject-specific vessels of faith. The orthopaedic screws, for example, are spiritual for one believer as they come from their own body, a difficult surgery with a successful outcome thanks to prayers delivered to Ta’Pinu. Such screws would mean nothing to the believer petitioning Ta’Pinu for the successful delivery of a baby. Instead, she offers up a Christening gown, a tangible manifestation that the holy virgin came through for her and allowed her baby to thrive.  A sample of photographs capturing the mementos are below - for more, and for the gallery showing my trip to Ta'Pinu, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

      Browsing through the halls of such personal-spiritual tokens, you’re struck by the evidence of Ta’Pinu’s efficacy in responding with grace to her devotees’ calls. This is substantiated further as visitors to the basilica are invited to offer up a specific prayer to Ta’Pinu, which is printed in various languages in framed prints near the altar. Visitors are also invited to petition Ta’Pinu by writing their prayers in a sort of “prayer pro-forma”, to be sealed in the supplied envelope, and deposited in baskets by the altar. You can also submit petitions to the holy woman online, via a web form. The Shrine also offers webcams for attendance at Mass and visiting the chapel from the comfort of your own home, though I couldn’t make either stream play when I last tried. Nevertheless, I’m delighted by the Shrine’s conscious interfacing with the digital world. It represents, to me, a means of expanding the intercessory capacity of Ta’Pinu ever onwards, and suggests an (anticipated) popularity for her cult. Moreover, leaning into the digital world suggests a response to the evolving lifestyles and associated needs of believers. Rather than excluding those who might wish to visit or call upon Ta’Pinu, the Shrine has developed its offering of rites and rituals to speak to the needs of a geographically dislocated – or simply busy – flock.

      In 1998 a church dedicated to Ta’Pinu was opened in Bacchus Marsh, a site about 50km outside Melbourne, Australia, with the chapel being a replica of the original chapel in Gozo. For a brief history of devotion to Ta’Pinu in Australia, see here. See also Paul Harris’ short documentary film about the Australian site, below. As with the Gozitan Ta’Pinu Shrine, the Australian Shrine allows individuals to engage with the holy virgin online: by submitting prayers, requesting masses, and requesting candles be lit. It’s hard to avoid noticing, though, that the Australian site suggests monetary donations when you submit your prayer or mass requests and a flat-fee of $7 for lighting a candle. The prominence of such financial requests reflects, perhaps, the Australian church’s status as a relatively newly founded institution, in need of all the support it can get to equip its building and develop its ministry. In any case, the institution of the Australian Shrine, and its digital offerings, speak once more to an attempt to respond actively to the emerging needs of believers. It is an “All Nations Marian Centre”, and used by a variety of community groups from different ethnic backgrounds as a hub for Marian devotion, of which reverence of Ta’Pinu is just one form. In her Australian incarnation, then, Ta’Pinu represents the multiplicity of ways a believer can access the Virgin Mary, and relate to Her in ways that a believer feels fits their personal outlook and cultural heritage.

      Why do I love visiting places of worship like Ta’Pinu? Why have I shared the pictures here? I think the photographed artefacts are, above all, interesting, and resonate with a kind of beauty inspired by the fervent hopes and faith that believers have poured into these tangible vessels of the banal horrors of everyday life. Additionally, I offer the pictures as a window into modern Catholic worship culture. By gazing through this window, I believe medievalists can better do the work of investigating medieval religion. I’m a scholar of medieval religious culture, but I work in a predominantly – almost entirely – secular environment. Exposing myself to modern Catholic praxes can be eye-opening. Rites and rituals that sometimes feel overwhelmingly distanced, that could somehow only take place in medieval hagiographies or religious narratives, can and do exist in various forms in modern Catholic worship, re-modulated to greater and lesser degrees to fit contemporary worship preferences, doctrines, and styles. And so, as I wend my way around modern spaces of devotion, my eyes grow ever wider and my mind becomes ever more blown.

      The medieval saints and worship praxes I study are relics of the most potent kind: productive and animated artefacts which continue to exert power in the world, though they may be – technically, superficially – dead and gone. I’m not saying that there is a singular form of worship which exists, unchanged, from the medieval to the modern period. Rather, that there are demonstrable similarities between medieval and modern worship forms. Instead of bracketing of the modern from the medieval, I think looking at the modern iterations of worship can allow us to better understand and contextualise pre-modern religion, and the pre-modern era more generally. How did medieval believers react in this or that way to a given social/political/geographical/ideological event horizon? Moreover, I believe that we can better unpack the ways in which medieval believers responded to the Church – by reshaping their practices, exerting their own choices for where to put their faith in holy individuals – if we look at the ways in which modern believers do the same.

"Dia de los Muertes" - Jesse Means. Via  Flickr . A large Santa Muerte atop the public altar on the Day of the Dead in Seattle,&nbsp;2010

"Dia de los Muertes" - Jesse Means. Via Flickr. A large Santa Muerte atop the public altar on the Day of the Dead in Seattle, 2010

     Undoubtedly, specific circumstances mould religious praxes, be they social, political, geographical or so on. Catholicism, medieval and modern, is not monolithic. Frankly, I wish I could speak Maltese so I could dig into sources on Ta'Pinu which reveal the significance of this representation of the Virgin Mary to the people of Gozo, and Malta more generally. Another example will have to suffice for now: the rise of devotion to Santa Muerte (“Saint Death” in Spanish) in Mexico, parts of the USA, Central America and further afield. Over the past few years, a stream of articles have been published shedding light on this “new” saint: see Antonia Blumberg for The Huffington Post online; Steven Gray for TIME online; Evgeny Lebedev for GQ online; Carmin Sessin for NBC News online. In 2012, Oxford University Press released R. Andrew Chesnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, the first academic depth study of the saint. (My summary of Santa Muerte, below, is taken from these sources.)

"Santa Muerte 20100601 002" by Jim Hobbs. Via  Flickr . A "backyard shrine" to Santa Muerte in the photographer's neighbourhood

"Santa Muerte 20100601 002" by Jim Hobbs. Via Flickr. A "backyard shrine" to Santa Muerte in the photographer's neighbourhood

      Santa Muerte is a female personification of death, a Mexican folk saint with her roots in ancient beliefs about and reverence for death. Though denounced by the Catholic Church, Santa Muerte clearly encapsulates identifiable elements of Catholic practice– e.g. as a saintly intercessory figure with shrines as epicentres of worship, identifiable by specific iconography. Santa Muerte has been taken up, in particular, by people to whom the Church has not, or cannot, adequately cater: the poor, criminals, and the LGBT community. The Church has not fought to tackle poverty with enough vigour; cannot answer criminals’ prayers which relate to illegal and immoral behaviours; and has excluded LGBT believers from fellowship and sacraments. What’s more, for people living in communities torn apart by drug and gang violence, Santa Muerte seems to be the ideal choice. As Lebedev remarks: “Because people might die at any moment, they have begun to worship Death, since they believe this might at least give them some protection.”

      Whilst there is only one pontiff and a series of authorised ecclesiastical precepts, believers still customise their own religious experiences in various ways. Doctrine, after all, has always been questioned, debated, reformulated. The laity has always managed to express their religiosity in views not necessarily fully palatable to the Church. Santa Muerte is a modern iteration of this phenomenon, but the medieval era is full of religious narratives in which believers try to figure out their religion on their own terms. I’m thinking, here, particularly of the ways in which many medieval holy men and women we study now a “saints” were never actually canonised – but rather, they were taken up as sacred figures by devotees in their locale and beyond. This was the case for the corpus of extraordinarily pious thirteenth-century women I analysed for my PhD: none of the “Holy Women of Liège” ever received the official approbation from the Church in the form of canonisation, but were certainly held up as saints in various ways by their communities. No religion is made up solely of official doctrine: lay believers also play a highly significant role in constructing specific iterations of their own religion, which may just skirt the transgressive bounds of outright heterodoxy. What I’m interested in then, is recognising – and ultimately disentangling – the power dynamics at play in religious worship between the constellation of the Church (officialdom), God (that in which we have faith), and the believer herself. We can best do this work, I think, by casting our eye at both ends of the temporal divide: by recognising that worship forms are in the process of continual renegotiation in a given moment and across time. 

 

Gallery of Images from Visit to Ta'Pinu Shrine, Gozo - September 2011

NB Images are in order of my travel "through" the Shrine: exterior gardens and statuary (including statues of Karmni Grima and Franġisk Portelli); Shrine exterior; ornamentation and religious artefacts inside the Shrine; tokens left for Ta'Pinu by those seeking intercession

Some Thoughts on #s406 at #IMC2015 - Medievalists, Public Engagement & Budgy Smugglers

I didn't really need a warm welcome: they had me at "free coffee"

I didn't really need a warm welcome: they had me at "free coffee"

Last week, I was at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. It’s one of the foremost conferences on all things medieval, with thousands of scholars in attendance. One of the best things about such big area-specific shindigs is the variety of panels on offer: not just research-focussed stuff, but also organised discussions about the business of academia, how to be a medievalist going forward. On the first day of the conference , I went to a round table (session #406) on the role of public engagement – or “public intellectualism” – for medievalists. It’s a topic I’m obviously interested in – after all, you’re reading this on my medieval-monikered blog, and I tweet fairly regularly these days. The panel gave me a lot of food for thought, and I’ve been pecking out some thoughts over the past few days.

            Firstly, let me say that the speakers - Matthew Gabriele, Andrew James Johnston, and Erik Kwakkel – had a lot of useful, practical counsel to offer. I live-tweeted what I consider to be their key soundbites, so check out my feed from if you’re interested in my perspective, or check out the Storify of tweets about the panel curated by Peter Konieczny, editor of Medievalists.net. All three speakers are “public intellectuals” in various ways (and in different geographical contexts), and outlined their own approaches to entering into dialogue with non-specialist audiences, whether in print, online, or radio. What I want to blog about today is a brief run-down of the speakers’ insights, alongside some fairly problematic issues brought to light in our discussions about the troublesome us/them nature of public engagement, and by the make-up of the panel itself (three well-established white male academics).

            Gabriele urged us to consider the existing publics that we all have, including colleagues and readers of articles. All research, when published, is “public” – thus we are all, already, “public intellectuals”. Instead of trying to link contemporary news to anything and everything medieval, Gabriele advocated that we stick to talking about what we are really passionate about in the medieval universe, and then connect that to relevant modern events. His research centres on unpacking the relationship between religion and violence in the Middle Ages, and the cultural role of nostalgia and memory – themes clearly resonant with recent debates in the US about the deeply problematic Confederate flag. I also appreciated his explanation of his rationale to become more public-focussed. Gabriele is based at Virginia Tech, and after the heinous massacre there in 2007, he felt compelled to step up and refute any claims of “medieval” culture supporting contemporary violent, racist ideologies. As experts in our field, we have an ethical responsibility to push back against those trying to manipulate a spurious fantasy of the “Middle Ages” to bolster their own destructive urges. Indeed, Dorothy Kim raised this point well in the Q&A session after the talks proper. 

         If memory serves correctly, Kim was responding to some enervating – but ultimately useful, I concede – remarks from Johnston. Johnston raised my hackles a bit when he prodded the audience to question if medievalists really have anything to offer to contemporary public discourse anyhow. For him, the question is not how to become a (better) public medievalist, but whether to be one in the first place. My internal response: “YES OF COURSE WE SODDING WELL SHOULD!” Nevertheless, the hackle-raising was – and is – productive. This is a question of massive significance, and a means to situate oneself personally within the discipline. I became irritated because I so stridently believe that we have a duty to share research with our varied and dynamic publics and to learn from them as much as we purport to relay gems of medieval relevance. And the vehemence of my internal shouty voice needs to be matched by a willingness to do the damn work of engaging cogently, efficiently and non-patronisingly with those outside of our lovely academic echo chambers. There’s certainly more work needed on this, not least from myself. I’m inspired by vocal members of the audience who pointed out the need for academics to engage with audiences not normally tapped by intellectuals as potential readership. The ensuing debate amongst attendees highlighted class issues to do with the ways in which “public academics” define their target audience(s), who we deem “worthy” of “our” knowledge, and the entrenched power dynamics at play. See, for example, the following tweets:

 

            Kwakkel had a slick series of slides, which showed off his digital chops very well, including lots of hard data about his impact in the wider world – follower numbers, clicks, page impression and the like. Indeed, Kwakkel has over thirteen thousand Twitter followers, and a well-respected popular blog about medieval books. He underscored the need to be strategic about engagement online. Figure out your curated persona – who you want to be in the digital world, what you want to comment on, and to whom you want to speak. Give it time, up to a year of blogging and/or tweeting, and then reassess how your energies are paying off (or not), to evolve your plan of digital attack. Think clearly about making your stuff accessible and enticing: that means flashy pictures, a “sexy” hook, and no-faff explanations of key jargon. Entering into conversations with non-experts does not mean you need to dilute your intellectual content, but present it in more transparent and welcoming terms. In response to attendees’ questioning the ways in which a “public medievalist” might talk to audience(s) not traditionally accessed by, say, an academic-ish blog on medieval stuff, Kwakkel noted that there is a “trickle down” effect, i.e. journal content (hardcore intellectual work) migrates downwards, via blogs, vlogs, radio, and the like, to tabloid fare (the fluffiest version of research findings). I think this top/down hierarchy - stated by Kwakkel as an objective, monolithic system, is actually pretty harmful and utterly subjective to boot:

 

Helen Young also pointed out, quite rightly, that this model is out-dated:

 

            Johnston professed a dislike, or at the very least unease, with the term “public intellectual” himself. (And he maintains he will never have a Twitter account, hence lack of a hyperlink for his name.) He writes fairly regularly for a liberal left-wing newspaper in Germany, and features on radio programmes about almost all things British. He “smuggle[s] the medieval” in to a wide swathe of topics that he is asked to comment upon, thereby flagging the period to the public whenever possible. For example, the recent christening of Princess Charlotte can be parlayed into a conversation about medieval dynastic politics, inheritance, kingship and so forth. The word “smuggle” set off all manner of odd lightning bolts of association for me:

Brian Yap - Le Tour de Disneyland. Via  Flickr .

Brian Yap - Le Tour de Disneyland. Via Flickr.

  1. Enid Blyton-esque tales of bearded smugglers lugging booty in from every Cornish cove.
  2. Muggles, the non-magickals of the Harry Potter universe.
  3. Budgy smugglers, Australian slang for ultra-tight men’s swimming briefs, suggesting that the wearer has some form of small bird shoved down the crotch – for some examples (sans hunky wearer), see here.

Somehow, I think all three of these admittedly random associative pings flesh out my thoughts on the panel more generally. Bear with me.

  1. I have extraordinarily limited knowledge of the historical and contextual facts of Cornish smuggling enterprises. Literally all I know is taken from Enid Blyton or dodgy Sunday afternoon black and white films. However, what occurs to me in these kinds of narratives is that the smugglers’ contraband tends to contribute fairly significantly to the local community. For example, smugglers might bring in goods for the black market, or simply introduce more money into circulation so the small local economy keeps going. That is to say that the medieval booty we, as “public intellectuals”, "smuggle" actually has real consequences for our localities, and has valuable impact.
  2. Muggles are the “not-haves” and the “them” to the all-powerful magic “us” of Hogwarts alums. The vibrant and dynamic world of magic has to be hidden from the Muggles at all costs – otherwise, they’d ruin it, destroy it, or just completely freak out. Much of the discourse about “public intellectuals” posits a similar dynamic between “us” medievalist know-it-alls and “them”, the befuddled ignorant masses. We can’t really show them what we do, because they just won’t get it – or they’ll somehow break it.
  3. As an item of apparel, budgy smugglers are technically donned to cover up the genitals. But, of course, a swatch of tight tight Lycra does little to shield our eyes – and sensibilities – from the “horror” of the male anatomy. Instead, it draws our attention to it, like a giant neon sign saying “ahoy matey, here’s a penis!” The round table, for me, basically smuggled the budgy of gendered and racial privilege when operating in public spaces as a professional academic. Basically, the manner in which the panel did not meaningfully – if at all – address the significant and specific challenges to public engagement faced by those not represented on the panel, i.e. non-male non-white individuals, the more glaringly obvious the problem of representation and the effect of various kinds of privilege became.
You know it's a big conference when there's conference merch available...

You know it's a big conference when there's conference merch available...

            For most of #s406, I couldn’t help metaphorically staring at the deeply gendered budgy before me, being uncomfortably covered up by calls for “making your research accessible” and “just getting out there”.  “Getting out there” professionally online and in public spaces is demonstrably harder for women and people of colour. I am acutely conscious as I write this that I operate in the world as a white cisgender heterosexual subject, with all the privileges this position entails. I cannot speak for the experiences of those without my intersecting privileges; I can listen attentively, educate myself, and act as a strident ally. What I can speak to is inhabiting a female body, and the evidence of misogyny as standard in the patriarchal framework. For example, witness the harassment female Guardian writers recount in this video:

Or what about Gamergate - the rampant misogynist attacks on game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, and feminist video-game scholar Anita Sarkeesian? I do not want to be doxxed, stalked, threatened with rape or murder, or subject to torrents of abuse simply for doing my professional business of medievalism online. How do we address that as academics? As people? How do we protect ourselves? But also push back against such vileness too? These topics were apparently pretty much taboo in #s406.

            One of the principal aims of the session, presumably, was to encourage academics to foray outside of traditional institutional spaces, i.e. for members of the audience to be inspired to identify in some way with the speakers and move to emulate their public engagement. Yet, #s406 was a #manel – and an all-white #manel, at that. The vast majority of the audience were not represented by those at the speakers’ table and could not smuggle any budgies, i.e. were non-white and/or non-male. Granted, there was a female moderator, Sanne Frequin, and a female academic, Alice Johnston, had been slated to speak, but had to withdraw at the last minute. So it was not designed to be an all-white-male affair, but voila, that’s what we got. Speaking first, Gabriele started the shebang off well, noting his experiences online/in public were inevitably shaped by his intersecting privileges as a Caucasian cisgender heterosexual man. I was impressed, anticipating more dissection of practical approaches to challenges faced by academics of different identities, perhaps in the Q&A. Alas, this was not to be the case.

            An audience member, Rachel Moss, asked the million dollar question. To paraphrase: how do we do “public medievalism” successfully – and safely – if we don’t look like the speakers? Ross was seemingly ignored; the question went unanswered. A short while later, the question was asked again by Courtney Barajas:

The moderator, Frequin, shut the question down, commenting that the purpose of the session was not to “harass” the presenters. This was unfortunate and deeply frustrating. I don’t think the questions posed were harassing or argumentative at all, though the issue is difficult certainly. I can’t definitively speak for the audience as a whole, but for what it’s worth, I do not believe that we expected any “perfect” answers, nor any kind of apology by the presenters themselves for the iniquities of privilege, representation and public response. I think, mainly, we wanted an acknowledgement of this patently obvious issue, and some discussion as to what to do about it. I certainly did. Some of us expressed our frustration on Twitter:

            Audience members, myself included, had been live-tweeting the session, and our tweeting ramped up in response to the session’s swerve around the representation question. From shortly after 7 pm, #s406 was the number one trending hashtag on Twitter in the UK:

This surge in hashtag usage represents one of the wins of the session overall for me: passionate and informed analysis of the very real challenges of public engagement for some; the sharing of perspectives and personal responses; the coalescing of a supportive community. Through interaction with #medievaltwitter online – both those in the room with me, and those geographically dislocated – I felt seen and heard. In response to a lack of models with which I could identify and the panel’s frustrating silence, I found a whole host of online companions who just, well, got it – and get it on an ongoing basis. To loop back to the session’s topic: it is because of a set of active “public medievalists” that I feel more represented in the academy, that I feel seen, heard and felt as a female academic. This is invaluable work.

Bonus: to sign a pledge promising to actively avoid participating in #manels, click here. My thanks to Dorothy Kim, who tweeted about the pledge.

[Edited on 15/07/15 to fix some typos and nonsensical overuse of "problematic" in one sentence.]

Old News: The Polyvalency of Images and Nicki Minaj's Butt-Glow

The best scholarship, to me, contends head-on with the ambiguous, the potential spectrum of interpretations offered by a single text or image. I remember when I first stumbled across Barthes’ dead author fixation when I was 16 or 17, and it blew my mind. It opened up a world to me where literature and art, and everything really, is continually being re-inscribed with signification. Everybody, in some sense, co-creates that to which they assign meaning – and by so doing the “meaning(ful)” object access its own peculiar afterlife(ives) and even agency. TL;DR: everyone is dead, nothing’s dead, there is no singular truth. Wrestling with this, in various iterations, is basically why I went to grad school I think.

Image from&nbsp; Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Anyway, in “old news”, a solidly pop-culture image – and the ensuing online debates about it – demonstrates the exasperating and awesome roads this kind of hermeneutics leads us down. In August 2014, Nicki Minaj’s cover art for her song “Anaconda” (see image to the right) caused quite “le scandale”, even “le uproar”, as we say in my cod-French house. Looking at this particular image and debate offers a case study of the productivity of this theoretical attitude that is accessible to students. It also shows the ways in which such an analytical framework, often relegated – by arbiters of intellectual rigour – to “dry academic scholarship” of “worthy” or “high culture” objects, can and should be deployed more broadly.

There’s a lot at play in the commercial image – race, gender, sexuality, celebrity, socio-economic power, and even pleasure. And, at this point, others have almost definitely said it or said it better than I can. Metafilter, a community discussion site, has a great round-up of the strands of analysis, and some nuanced and informed comments from users too. (Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s November 2014 profile of Minaj for GQ makes for some good reading too, and provides context for those less familiar with the rap-star.) My favourite analysis of the image, by a decisively wide mark, is offered by Moze Halperin on Flavorwire, who draws on Lacan in a slip of piece. (Why yes, many moons ago I did fall hard for Lacanian critique of medieval literature. Once the Lacanian, ever the Lacanian, eh?) Halperin contends:

Whether or not Nicki Minaj meant to position her body so that – in keeping with the phallic motif of her upcoming single’s title, “Anaconda” – it resembles a human phallus, it’s hard not to give in to the powerful signifier, and now impossible to not see the pose Minaj strikes while getting her eagle on as deliberately dick-like. Especially from a distance. Inspired by Lacan, feminist critique often boils down to the insidiousness of society’s perception of the female anatomy as a phallic lack, and to that Minaj (perhaps, and I hope) responds, with a hotly intimidating smirk, not just by “taking” the phallus, but by rendering her entire form phallic, somehow all the while flaunting her exaggeratedly female figure.

 

Illustration from "How to dress like Nicki Minaj"  on WikiHow ; uploaded by Wikivisual.&nbsp;

Illustration from "How to dress like Nicki Minaj" on WikiHow; uploaded by Wikivisual. 

Whilst I don't want to rehash the insightful critique already floating around the internet, I have been thinking recently about my personal relationship to Minaj and the image. I like Nicki Minaj. I think some of her tracks are fantastic, mainly those from Roman Reloaded – Super Bass, Starships, Freedom I’m looking at you. I think her aesthetic swagger is provocative and interesting. She is, after all, the reason that the delightful “pelican fly” entered my vocabulary as a descriptor for Very Nice Looking people, items, and ideas. Beyond that, I don’t really have much to comment. Of itself, the image doesn’t make me like her more or less. At first sight, I wasn’t particularly scandalised by it. Sure, I “got” the “wow, lady flesh!” element of much of the professed internet shock, but I was more fascinated by the symmetrical reflection of glowing light off each buttock. Somehow, the gleams read to me – remember I look at a lot of hagiography – as almost halo-like, signifiers of some evanescent internal special-ness. So, butt-glow signifying unattainably polished feminine performance, crossed with a “fuck-you” empowerment transmitted by her unapologetic gaze back at the viewer. “Yeah, I see you – I got you – you will never get this” – a gender-neutral retort for women who can never look like her and inhabit her fierceness, and men who want to penetrate (more or less literally) her persona for their own purposes.

The fact is, my reading of the image is not just utterly biased by my own concerns for gender politics and power dynamics, but also by every piece of criticism about it I read before ever seeing the cover myself. My (analytical) sight was, and is, channelled through the reactions of others. I read about the furore, read pieces deconstructing the furore, and then saw the art. As I said, the image doesn’t really affect my feelings towards Minaj more generally. However, Halperin’s interpretation of the image absolutely does. Halperin opens up a hypothetical Minaj-identity in which the rapper forthrightly and playfully challenges us to consider gender, power, and the processes of visual consumption. I too join Halperin’s cry of “perhaps and I hope”. I’ve never seen the “Anaconda” single as a material object, though Amazon UK suggests it was available to purchase at some point. I wonder if my reaction would have been – or would be – different had I ever encountered the image in tangible form, possessed the CD itself? Could I pin my feminist-Lacanian hopes on Minaj after literally buying into the woman’s commodification, her literal objectification as cover art? Would buying the CD be supporting Minaj’s – or Minaj-Halperin’s –  message of empowerment, or undermining it somehow? I honestly don’t know, but I suspect that the digital and material versions may elicit different reactions – in this instance, and more generally in terms of our responses to objects of interpretation.

St Agatha's double mastectomy, from Jacques de Voragine , Légende dorée (1401-1500) -  Paris, BNF, MS&nbsp;&nbsp;Français 242, fol. 57r.

St Agatha's double mastectomy, from Jacques de Voragine , Légende dorée (1401-1500) - Paris, BNF, MS  Français 242, fol. 57r.

Looking at the Minaj image, and reading the various positions viewers adopt towards it, I’m reminded strongly of a chapter in Bill Burgwinkle and Cary Howie’s 2010 book, Sanctity and Pornography. The book disentangles the relationship of modern pornographic image (and narrative) to medieval hagiography, a genre that so often foregrounds tortured bodies with more than a touch of titillation. (For an image-based example, check out St Agatha's "sexy mastectomy" - shudder - that accompanies this post.) If you’re a scholar of hagiography, Burgwinkle and Howie's book is, frankly, a must-read, particularly given its direct engagement with male saints rather than the more usual focus on sexualised female religious. (If you’re interested, read my review of the book for the journal Marginalia here.) In the chapter “Looking at Saints” (pp. 74-109), the authors argue that images of “sexy” martyrdom elicit a shifting viewing perspective: ‘The viewer of such scenes will almost inevitably flip between identification with the torturer, wielding his power, and the saint who intuits this torture as his opening onto transcendence’ (p. 78).  Further, the viewer’s interpretive ‘strategy’ can – and does – ‘change from day to day: sometimes I am with the victim, sometimes with God, sometimes with the torturer; sometimes I can identify with nothing more than the diegetic viewers or the textual space; sometimes I can identify with nothing at all […]’ (p. 83). The Minaj image – loaded with doubly signifying iconography of female empowerment and gendered oppression – invites such muscular flipping of viewer positioning and concomitant interpretation. All interpretations are subjective, dependant on the viewing subject’s biases and inclinations. More than that, though: the viewing subject’s relationship is not monolithic, but shifting and swirling from moment to moment.

At the end of the day, does it matter if Minaj had none of the intentions Halperin assigns to her? Kind of. Maybe. No? This feels like a deeply personal question, as the internal life of the viewing subject unavoidably shapes the signification of the viewed image. I don’t have any desire to “know” Nicki Minaj in the way you might “know” a family member, friend, or spouse. In this, I am indebted to the scholarly work of celebrity studies, which posit that a celebrity functions primarily as an image-icon: a signifier of values/ideology that is tied to a flesh-and-blood person but certainly not identical to that being. The rapper’s “real” name is Onika Tanya Maraj. “Nicki Minaj” is an image conjured by the woman herself, a rap/star persona she has consciously chosen to animate in particular ways. Nevertheless, I like my Nicki Minaj, who may not be the same as your Nicki Minaj. I like what my Nicki represents to me, what I have chosen to assign to her thanks to my “faith” in Halperin’s deciphering of the image. Talking about faith in the context of secular imagery seems discordant. But, I think this is what it comes down to for me: I have analytical “faith” in the potentiality of the image to signify what I would like it to signify very much, that whilst Minaj might not be making any particular statement at all with the image, she might just be saying exactly what I want to hear.

 

Bonus Minaj analysis: read Elizabeth Dickson’s dissection of hypermasculinity in Minaj’s video for “Pound the Alarm” at The Sociological Cinema.

"That Gives Me an Idea": An Explanation, of Sorts

The t-shirt under discussion. Thanks, Sybil!

The t-shirt under discussion. Thanks, Sybil!

About five or six years ago, my dearest friend – let’s call her Sybil – gave me a t-shirt for my birthday. The design on the front is pretty much everything: Jessica Fletcher kindly staring out from the chest, “Medieval, She Wrote” emblazoned flirtatiously beneath her. This blog has had official merch for over half a decade before it even started. Apart from the ready supply of choice merch, why name this blog “Medieval, She Wrote”? I offer, as an explanation of sorts, the reflections below.

Sybil basically couldn’t go wrong with her choice of custom apparel. I’ve been a devotee of Murder, She Wrote as long as I can remember, as long as I’ve had eyes and the capacity to blink. Love is probably too banal a word for my feelings towards Murder, She Wrote’s heroine, Jessica Fletcher, a fifty-something fiercely intelligent mystery writer and globe-trotting detective. I can’t figure out when I imprinted upon Jessica; I have seemingly always been in awe of her. 

Man with wolves, from a bestiary (c 1230-14th century); highly reminiscent of scenes from Marie de France's "Bisclavret".&nbsp;London, BL,&nbsp;Royal MS 12 F XIII, fol. 29r.  From BL online.

Man with wolves, from a bestiary (c 1230-14th century); highly reminiscent of scenes from Marie de France's "Bisclavret". London, BL, Royal MS 12 F XIII, fol. 29r. From BL online.

By comparison, I can pinpoint the moment that medieval literature got me. You see, I started my French and German undergrad degree absolutely sure I was going to do super-modern stuff. I wanted to pull apart texts that let me look at big abstract questions: gender, power, relationships, civilisation, and on and on. It was a leaden grey day, with students huddled miserably in the middle of an overly large lecture room, fitted out with a pointless chalk board and un-openable windows. We were there for an intro to French lit course, and this was the week for which decrepit medieval narrative would be wheeled out as a kind of courtesy. Yeah, no. The snappily dressed lecturer took those fifty minutes on Marie de France - covering the construction of gender, the meaning of the supernatural, the problems of authorship – and Blew My Mind. After that, I basically stalked medieval literature through all further higher education.

Despite my adoration of both Mrs Fletcher and medieval lit, the two have tended to occupy very different places in my head. Which is perhaps not entirely surprising. Medieval lit is for hardcore intellectual labour, for challenging traditional paradigms and my own biases. It is for footnotes and out-of-print editions and the glory of ironing out how something really difficult theoretically works in a text. Ultimately, medieval lit offers a bone-deep satisfaction, but is not always an immediately pleasant undertaking. Murder, She Wrote offers uncomplicated, easy soothing. It might be a generational thing, I think. The show always used to occupy the after lunch slot on BBC1, following the soaps Neighbours and Doctors. It was reliably there, Monday to Friday, offering an oasis outside of earthly concerns. It did not hurt that Jessica Fletcher looked vaguely like my Grandma, a resemblance made more striking by the Murder, She Wrote producers’ dedication to filming everything in fuzzy soft-focus and my squinting at the screen a bit. Jessica would always solve the murder and the murderer would always confess, avoiding any disturbingly grey concerns about criminality, innocence, and guilt. She had loved a man very deeply once, but he died and she carried on. She built a new independent life for herself, supporting herself as a best-selling author, and living a life filled with joy and human connection, even though she was childless. In these ways, Mrs Fletcher always represented to me the potential of pop culture to represent various social and ideological stances, to shape who the viewers are and also to challenge their assumptions of who they can be. I’ve realised that referring to Murder, She Wrote operates often as a kind of personal shorthand, as I intend to point less to the specificities of the show itself but instead to its theoretical functioning and potential effects, i.e. to products of pop culture more generally. At stake, I think, in the separate warehousing of Murder, She Wrote (as pop culture) and academic medievalism is a division between the personal and the professional.  Underlying this split was the assumption that pop culture is not sufficiently worthy a topic of intellectual investigation: it can’t be professional, so it has to be personal.

Yes, I do own all 12 series of  Murder, She Wrote  and the four made-for-TV movies that followed. No, I do not loan any of these out.

Yes, I do own all 12 series of Murder, She Wrote and the four made-for-TV movies that followed. No, I do not loan any of these out.

Despite my conscious reluctance to conjoin Murder, She Wrote with my medievalism, the two have always been yoked together in some subtle form or another. Sybil’s magnificent t-shirt materialised that reality. “That gives me an idea!” is Jessica Fletcher’s oft-repeated catchphrase. After letting the particularities of a situation marinate for a while, hunting down new clues and avenues of investigation, a bolt of inspiration hits her. This “idea” will usually lead to the murderer’s disclosure: it reorients the game, and lets Jessica underscore her position as the sleuthing queen of Cabot Cove, Maine. And so, Sybil’s t-shirt “gave me an idea”. Granted, it’s taken years to percolate through my system and lead to this blog, but there it is. I don’t think I’m destined for a life lived in episodic TV tranches of forty-five minutes to resolution. For me, Murder, She Wrote is a staunchly feminist show, offering a fairy tale tailored almost exactly to my personal and professional dreams: a woman becomes independently successful (socially and financially) thanks to her intelligence, kindness, hard work, and writing skills. Apart from the functional similarities of Jessica’s life and that of a successful academic, Mrs Fletcher and Dr Academic both decode – almost obsessively – the hidden or ambiguous signification that underpins the world around them.

Let’s move away from Jessica Fletcher for a moment or two. One of the common complaints about plying one’s trade as an academic researcher is the demolition of boundaries between work-time and “off-the-clock” living. There are certainly economic and industry-specific structural reasons for this. Young researchers must often pick up extra work on the side – adjuncting, tutoring, barista-ing – to get by. This doesn’t always leave you the luxury of having much coherent leisure-time to speak of, as you’re always juggling the balls of pursuing research passions vs. paying the rent vs. carving out time for family and friends. Often – in the Arts and Humanities at least – you aren’t afforded institutional workspace, and thus no office to quarantine work concerns in. When you work from home, at a desk shoved in the corner of your living room, you don’t really – or, rather, automatically – get a sense of a demarcation between your professional self and who you are apart from that. The difficulties of research-life that are directly exacerbated by entrenched institutional – and arguably social - issues, are being exposed and challenged by a wide swathe of scholars these days. Look at, for instance, National Adjunct Walkout day in the US on 25 February 2015. (On the reasons for the strike, check out, in particular, pieces by Sarah Kendzior and Cameron Conaway). On the micro-level: chatting, bitching, and commiserating with colleagues is often pretty eye-opening. Such problems are not what I really want to talk about right now, and currently seem somehow “above my (knowledge) paygrade”, if you’ll permit the obvious metaphor. I hope to learn more, do more, about this in future.

Factory punch clock at Fabre's art laboratory. Photographed by Bernard Polet.  Via Flickr.

Factory punch clock at Fabre's art laboratory. Photographed by Bernard Polet. Via Flickr.

In research, there are no punch-cards, or shift changes, or slick-haired managers yelling at me from the next cubicle over to Get Things Done. I am enormously thankful that these things are absent from my working life: in their place, I have autonomy and a sense of intellectual and logistical freedom that are, frankly, fucking amazing. Nevertheless, at worst, the research day is marked by an unrelenting feeling of oily guilt that you haven’t done enough, read enough, been intellectual enough. Research, so often, is the glory of being left to your own devices, analytically and otherwise. And that means developing the self-discipline and motivation to do the damn research. Self-discipline is a skill so necessary to research that, I think, it can mutate into a bulging brute-like sensation of “never enough-ness”. Oh, if I only had the self-discipline to eschew seeing my friends and work through the night, I could get this paper finished! I could get that post-doc! Look, every other scholar I know seems to be doing it, I’m lagging behind if I don’t too! Hypothetical peers and working practices out from the shadow of The Man seem to be perniciously useful as a means of self-flagellation.

A complement to “never enough-ness”, I’ve found, is “everything everywhere-ness”. In some ways, I think this is the glory of research: you find something that interests you, obsesses you, something that’s important and ZOMG cool and intellectually rich.  It invades your brain, as it must do really in order to do decent high-quality research. But your brain isn’t walled-off from the rest of your life, and the project infiltrates pretty much everything you do or think about. Basically, your research interest comes with a whole side-dish of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon for free. My PhD thesis, broadly speaking, is about saints, divine visions, and film spectatorship. Let me tell you, pretty much anything I read or watched “in my spare time” (ha!) suddenly, dazzlingly connected to lady saints and eye-beams from God and we are all screens and and and and…Indeed, I once woke my husband up in the middle of the night, after trying to unwind from a heavy writing day with an episode of the ‘90s crop-top fest witch show Charmed, to proclaim: “No, but you see, we are ALL PIXELS. ACROSS TIME.” He insists, to this day, that I uttered this solemnly, even reverently. I could not decipher the scribbled note I made on the back of a take-away menu that explained my intellectual breakthrough, alas. But I think my point still stands. Probably.

Anyway, the point is that what you’re working on tends to seep ineluctably into every nook and cranny of your life. Methodology – or more plainly, how you approach your work – also seems to slide into everything else. This is a chicken-or-egg thing: am I super-analytical, and am thus drawn to a profession of textual/social/cultural analysis? Or does the fact that I spend all my working life teasing out significations of textual and other artefacts mean I, almost on auto-pilot, do this “at home” too? Either way, this can be hellaciously annoying. I would like to be able to turn my research-brain off sometimes. That way I could enjoy reading “proper” literary fiction without feeling like I’m teaching myself an A-level English Lit course in my head, breaking down sodding motifs and allegorical flourishes. And yet. This state of affairs can also be breathtakingly enjoyable. I hoover up content, letting the delicious connections between everything roll around my brain. Growing up, my mother and I primarily did three things: watched films and TV, went for coffee, and talked about films and TV over coffee. Analytical work – so often paired with that academic ambrosia, strong coffee – is deeply rooted within my pleasure and comfort centres.

Murder, She Wrote  artwork by Robert Ball.  Via Flickr .

Murder, She Wrote artwork by Robert Ball. Via Flickr.

How does this all relate to “Medieval, She Wrote”? Well, this blog is conceived of as a space for me to sketch out the little shards of ideas that lodge in my brain, when the “everything everywhere-ness” bites. I say “space” consciously here, with a droll over-emphasis, as this locational element of blogging feels important. “Medieval, She Wrote” constitutes a space that I have consciously carved out for myself in order to (try to) balance the demands of “everything everywhere-ness” and “never enough-ness”. Blogging feels like a form of supportive space-claiming and community-building, even if that space is only digital and that community is formed of one. Equally, it is an experiment of sorts. Instead of seeing the blurring of professional/personal in academic life as negative, what if it is posited as productive? What if we allow the random “non-academic” analytical findings we generate every day to mean something? And what if we let such findings directly inform our “proper” work? In this way, the blog also exists to push back against the endless waves of the “never enough-ness” gremlins. “Personal” intellectual activity – i.e. work outside research projects, publication plans, and so forth – can be viewed as taking away from our professional life. Yet, such thinking has intrinsic worth, whether or not it makes it into an academic monograph. It has worth, even if that is solely because it is pleasurable.  

I hope to post to “Medieval, She Wrote” with some regularity, though I’ve not yet established a specific schedule. I’m enjoying letting my writing follow my caprices, to be honest. I anticipate posting both longer and shorter pieces, in various stages of “finishedness”, about stuff that strikes me as interesting, important, or just worthy of comment. Posts may be less about what I think than the process of figuring out what I think. In any case, I hope you, dear reader, enjoy whatever unspools from this first post. As a token offering to those who have waded through this long explainer, may I present to you an excerpt from Jessica Fletcher's...no, scratch that...Angela Lansbury’s 1988 health and fitness VHS, “Positive Moves”, below. Your mornings will never be the same. You’re welcome!