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.

Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility

Last month, I gave a keynote at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in Oxford. Below, you'll find the full text of my paper, edited lightly to ensure sense in terms of references to images. My thanks to Amsterdam University Press, who have given permission for me to post the paper in full here. Such copyright permission is necessary, given the fact that the majority of the text is taken from my book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens (Introduction and Chapter 3). If you would like to cite or reference this published material, please use the book version!  You can download the Introduction as a .pdf gratis here. For all other material, feel free to cite this post for now. Plans are in the works to publish the keynote-only stuff, and I will post an update here with all relevant info whenever I have it. Having covered all the logistics, now it's on with the show, and onto the paper proper.

B/w print ad for Bell & Howell Canonet 19 camera, featuring nun using camera. Holiday magazine (?) (October, 1963), p. 22. Source: Etsy.

B/w print ad for Bell & Howell Canonet 19 camera, featuring nun using camera. Holiday magazine (?) (October, 1963), p. 22. Source: Etsy.

In 2002, Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker made an urgent call for the revalorization of hagiography as a rich source of medievalist material: ‘The message seems to be that “true medievalists” do not concern themselves with hagiographic sources, or if they do, it is only because they wish to study the earliest texts in the vernacular or are interested in folk beliefs and popular mentality.’[1] Hello, my name is Alicia and I am, apparently, not a ‘true’ medievalist, whatever that actually means. For I maintain that hagiography is important precisely because it reflects the ‘popular mentality’ of medieval Catholics. Moreover, I contend that this ‘popular mentality’ is not reducible to an inherent medieval-ness. Medieval hagiography is certainly a product of its historical context. Nevertheless, it expresses and discusses many of the issues with which our contemporary popular culture grapples. Medieval hagiography’s ‘popular mentality’ is constituted by altogether human, trans-chronological pre-occupations. In particular, today I focus on one issue: the ways in which ‘acceptable’ female identities are produced, consumed, and lived both in medieval hagiography/biography and in our modern media ecology. Who gets to be visible? Who gets to be invisible? And who makes those decisions? In a moment in which I find myself with the privilege of standing in the spotlight – as a woman, as an early-career researcher, and as a medievalist, ‘true’ or not – I look to a pair of radically visible women for my source material, fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe and twenty-first century selfie queen Kim Kardashian West. These two ‘always make a spectacle of themselves’ it seems, working tirelessly to produce their own identities with the tools at their disposal.[2] They traffic in the political economies of visibility as ‘extraordinary’ individuals – women outside of the norm, and thus deviant; women who are extra-special and thus lauded, celebrified saint and sanctified celebrity. Before I embark upon my analyses proper, let me sketch out all too briefly the terms of my engagement, the analytical framework within which my hypotheses are oriented.

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Fig. 1. Untitled gif featuring Virgin Mary eating a TV dinner, watching Christ’s Passion on TV, by Scorpion Dagger (James Kerr).

Hagiographical scholarship has long struggled with the issue of mediation inherent to the genre. We can never view the hagiographical subject ‘face to face’. We set eyes only on the figuration of the holy person provided by the biographer, compelled to author the work by a variety of ideological aims.[3] In short: the existence of a medieval vita typically ‘only proves’, as Nancy Caciola puts it, ‘that a single, literate man […] was impressed by the woman he described’.[4] Instead of grappling with the ‘problem’ of mediation, I suggest that we embrace the full weight of the proposition’s heuristic possibility, considering hagiography as media, and pop-cultural media at that, situating medieval hagiographic subjects alongside those presented in our contemporary pop-cultural media. For my work today is not just to prove that ‘true’ medievalists can and do love hagiography, adoring it with an ever-critical eye – but that ‘true’ medievalists can also render their primary sources relevant, engaging – and, dare I say it, visible – to non-medievalists, if only we appreciate the analytical value of contemporary pop culture, considering pop-culture material as worthy of our attention, our time, and our serious critique. The arguments I present today are drawn from my first book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience. This gif (Fig. 1) pretty much lays out my central arguments. But if you’d like a version that’s more than a dizzying video loop, I’ve got you covered: today’s paper is grounded on the analyses I set forth in the book’s Introduction and Chapter 3.[5]

Why media? Or perhaps – how media – how does media ‘work’ in terms of hagiography, and vice versa. Here, I draw especially on Birgit Meyer’s definition of ‘media’: ‘those artifacts and cultural forms that make possible communication, bridging temporal and spatial distance between people as well as between them and the realm of the divine or spiritual’.[6] In this light, it becomes clear that media are, and always have been, ‘intrinsic to religion’ as a means of making divinity visible, tangible, and intelligible to believers.[7] My formulation relies also on W. J. T. Mitchell’s theories of media, with particular emphasis on two key tenets.[8] Firstly: media are ‘environments where images live, or personas and avatars that address us and can be addressed in turn.’[9] Hagiographic media are immersive and communicative. They solicit interactions with readers, and open up spaces of virtuality in which their hagiographic personas live and into which the reader can project themselves.[10] Secondly, I concur with Mitchell’s pronouncement that ‘media purity’ is a fallacy.[11] All media are multimedia in the sense that they are fabricated from an assemblage of mixed media. A film, for example, is an admixture of image, text, sound, and so on. Consequently, engagement with media is always a multi-sensuous and multimodal process. Even in the most superficially two-dimensional interaction between reader and book, for instance, we find the visual (the words on the page), the haptic (turning the page), the imaginative and intellectual (processing the words’ meaning), and even the olfactory (the smell of the book).

Hagiographic media are dynamic, active, in some sense animate, or at the very least vital. Things live in media, or at least they seem to. The most potent example of such living media is the celebrity (or ‘star image’).[12] However ‘realistic’ the celebrity subject appears, they are an inauthentic representation, fabricated from an amalgam of ‘media texts’ and grafted on to the real personhood of the star-as-subject. In fact, the ‘true’ identity of a celebrity is fragmented, pieced together by various attributes which together form a whole. When analysing celebrity, Richard Dyer observes that ‘we are dealing with the stars in terms of their signification, not with them as real people. The fact that they are also real people is an important aspect of how they signify, but we never know them directly as real people, only as they are to be found in media texts.’[13] The same is true for analyses of hagiography. Medieval holy women (and men) exist to us solely in, and as, hagiographical ‘star images’. What is at stake if we call our celebrities saints, and our saints celebrities? In an effort to answer – or begin to answer – this question, it’s time for Margery Kempe and Kim Kardashian West to take the stage once more.

Screen grab from  KUWtK  (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). Kourtney Kardashian (left), inadvertently launches the ‘ugly crying’ Kim Kardashian West (right) meme: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying ‘cause I just can’t help it. She has this ugly crying face that she makes.’

Screen grab from KUWtK (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). Kourtney Kardashian (left), inadvertently launches the ‘ugly crying’ Kim Kardashian West (right) meme: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying ‘cause I just can’t help it. She has this ugly crying face that she makes.’

Kim Kardashian West’s ‘ugly crying face’ is a viral online sensation.[14] In 2008, Kourtney Kardashian, Kim’s sister, drew attention to Kim’s unfortunate mien when upset. In a ‘confessional’ from Keeping Up With The Kardashians (KUWtK), the family’s massively popular reality-TV show, Kourtney declared: ‘I start laughing at Kim when she’s crying because I just can’t help it, she has this ugly crying face that she makes’.[15] This footage, coupled with Kim’s regular emotional outbursts, has become a well-known and much-circulated meme online. Margery Kempe is the Ur-example of ‘ugly crying’, and her Book is the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV.[16] Given the audience for this paper, I’m going to cut to the chase in terms of Margery’s vital statistics. Tl;dr: born c. 1373 to a burgess family in Norfolk (England), married to a burgess, mother of fourteen, widow, pilgrim across England and Europe, one-time brewer, #blessed with a lot of visions, and – most importantly for my point here – cries her eyes out as a sign of her devotion. Almost everyone finds Margery’s crying obnoxious.[17] Even the woman’s closest relations cannot stand her incessant wails. During one of Margery’s whine-athons in Canterbury, her husband pretends not to know her, and runs off.[18] He abandons Margery to the clutches of an angry mob that has formed around the urgent social issue of putting a stop to Margery’s interminable wailing – or as the Book tells it, her suspected Lollardy. A note on terminology is necessary before I go any further. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Book is a work of ambiguous authorship: it is predominantly narrated in the third person; two scribe-amanuenses are identified in the work; and the division of labour between Margery and her scribal helpers is simply not clear. To handle this instability, I follow Lynn Staley in referring to the author-subject as ‘Kempe’ and the text’s protagonist as ‘Margery’.[19]

Fig. 2. Kim Kardashian’s Best Ugly Crying Moments, (YouTube video, 1:17: posted by Fun Trolly, uploaded 23 October 2013)

In Sharon L. Jansen’s summation, Margery is ‘garrulous, attention-seeking, and funny, both repellent and endearing.’[20] The same can be said of Kardashian West. And for both women, ‘ugly crying’ operates as an iconographical metonym for the variety of ways in which they are ‘always making a spectacle’ of themselves.[21] Indeed, in direct response to Margery’s crying jag in Canterbury, an elderly monk informs her bluntly: ‘“I wish that you were enclosed in a house of stone, so that no-one should speak with you.”’[22] Margery’s tears are a means of affectively ‘taking up space’, a sinful colonisation of the public realm by a woman. Similar condemnation is evident in many of the comments appended to a YouTube video, Kim Kardashian’s Best Ugly Crying Moments (Fig. 2), which has netted over 1.2 million views as of last week (3 January 2018):

she is such a disgrace for women.. shame on her.. so pathetic

Shes a massive DRAMA QUEEN AND SHE NEEDS TO GET OVER IT STUPID WOMAN

I can't believe I live in a world where this woman exists... God damnit[.][23]

Other commenters seize upon Kardashian West’s illegitimacy as a ‘worthy’ celebrity. She is categorised as an ‘attention whore’, a fame-hungry ‘train wreck’ that should simply not be famous.[24] Margery Kempe is trolled similarly in online comments from modern readers outside the academy, and those with only superficial; awareness of her beloved status in contemporary medieval studies:[25] Here are two of the choicest call-outs served to Margery:

This woman was crazy. Hands down, batshit, insane. […] Margery Kempe is not a religious figure to look up to and instead is a self centered, self serving, medieval woman who used religion to gain fame.[26]

[Margery is] a nutcase, a freak, an annoying pain […].[27]

Kardashian West and Margery’s stardom is in question because it emanates from a process of auto-celebrification. They are ‘reality-TV famous’ rather than the products of the traditional celebrity manufacturing process.

Reality-stars are famous because they have been on reality TV, not for any special talent. Initially, reality-TV producers operate as ‘star-makers’, choosing which lucky hopeful is cast in their shows and making tactical editorial decisions to present desired storylines. Their source material, however, is the brute force of persona, an individual who has consciously chosen to put themselves up as a ‘star image’ for audience consumption. Reality-stars typically engage in conscious attempts at auto-celebritisation beyond the show which first brought them to public attention. They package and manage themselves as star-objects by appearances in other texts over which they have more control. Presence on social media, in celebrity magazines, and in the tabloid press are mainstays in the reality-star’s toolkit. The reality-TV star harnesses the praxes of celebrification established in the traditional system, but under their own steam. ‘Fake it till you make it’ goes the saying, and that is surely the mantra of the reality-TV celeb. By performing the gestures of ‘legitimate’ fame often enough, to enough onlookers, and with enough skill, the wannabe becomes famous too. In a similar manner, Margery requires models of other acclaimed holy women to legitimise her own forms of piety, both within the diegesis (Margery and her community) and extra-textually (as the author seeks acclaim for the text’s protagonist).

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Untitled gif, supercut of Kim Kardashian West's 'ugly crying'.

The Book details Margery’s determined attempts to garner spiritual fame by modelling herself on other holy women. She is a fame-hungry fan, a wannabe desperate to transform herself into a celebrity saint in her own right. Though Margery grinds out her days on the D-list, she looks fannishly to a roster of A-list female saintly stars, in whose image she fabricates herself, or tries to. The Book calls out luminaries such as Birgitta of Sweden, Elizabeth of Hungary, Catherine of Alexandria, Margaret of Antioch, Mary Magdalene, and St. Barbara.[28] Kempe relies on a patchwork of citation, borrowing from various spiritual texts to construct a viable – read: ecclesiastically and socially acceptable – holy life for Margery. In terms of Margery’s ugly crying, for instance, Marie of Oignies is invoked as a lachrymose predecessor who demonstrates that crying, and crying an awful lot, is a sign of holiness. Marie lived in present-day Belgium, and is considered by many as the first beguine – woman who is not a nun, but also not entirely secularized either.[29] She died in 1213, and her hagiography was written two short years later by Jacques of Vitry. Marie’s text was a blockbuster success. Susan Folkerts catalogues 39 extant manuscripts containing her vita, either in full, or in extracts and fragments.[30] The full Latin vita was also translated into an impressive number of languages: Dutch, English, French, Italian, Norse and Swedish. All this to say that Marie of Oignies, however unknown in modern scholarship, was a very well-known holy woman in the medieval period. She, rather than Margery, was the star way back when. Marie is an apposite example for Margery to turn to: she was renowned for her tears. Marie of Oignies is quite literally the dictionary definition of pious crying. Indeed, the entire entry for ‘tears’ (‘lacrima’) in Arnold of Liège’s fourteenth-century exempla anthology the Alphabetum narrationum (composed c1308-1310; translated in the fifteenth-century into English as the Alphabet of Tales) is devoted to the holy woman.[31]

Margery’s scribe, we learn, reads Marie’s biography and comes to greater understanding of Margery’s piety:

And yet our Lord drew [the scribe] back in a short time – blessed may he be – so that he loved [Margery] more, and trusted more in her weeping and her crying than he ever did before. For afterwards he read of a woman called Mary of Oignies, […] and of the plenteous tears that she wept, which made her feel so feeble and so weak that she might not endure to behold the cross, nor hear our Lord’s Passion rehearsed, so she was resolved into tears of pity and compassion. [32]

Ditto the Dominican doctor Maistyr Custawns, presumably Thomas Constance:

The worthy doctor said to her, ‘Margery, I have read of a holy woman [Marie of Oignies] to whom God had given great grace of weeping and crying as he has done to you. […] In the church where she lived was a priest who had no favourable opinion of her weeping, and caused her through his prompting to go out of the church. […] She prayed God that the priest might have some feeling of the grace that she felt […]. And, so suddenly, our Lord sent him such devotion during his mass that he could not control himself, and then, after that, he no longer wishes to despise her but rather to comfort her.’[33]

Crucially, however, the usage of Marie as an archetype here is not a case of passive citation. Rather, the Book adapts the source material from Marie’s life to make it better fit Margery’s own circumstances. In both the Middle English and Latin versions of Marie’s vita, Marie petitions Christ directly to grant the derisive priest tears (‘gate graunt of oure Lord with terys’; ‘impetravitque à Domino cum lacrymis’).[34] This request has been suppressed in Kempe’s retelling. The Book’s adaptation also states that Marie leaves the church due to the priest’s demand (‘at the request of a preyste’), caterwauling about her inability to hold back her tears.[35] In the source materials, the priest only asks Marie to cease crying and pray quietly (‘bade that she shulde praye softely and latte be hir weyping’; ‘ut oraret cum silentio, & lacrymas cohiberet’).[36] It is Marie’s inability to hold back her tears and intense humility that drives her from the church of her own accord. Kempe takes a pre-existing narrative and re-shapes it to better suit Margery’s needs, a move both interventionist and derivative which bears all the hallmarks of fan fiction.

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Gif of scene from The Simple Life in which Paris Hilton directs her then-unfamous childhood friend Kim Kardashian West to clean her closet. Hilton: 'Kim I need you to clean and organize my entire closet.' Kardashian West: 'Yes Paris'.

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Gif from Paris Hilton’s interview with Entertainment Tonight in which she states ‘I created Kim Kardashian, her whole family owes me life.’

Like Margery, Kardashian West needed a guide in the celebrification process. She credits socialite-cum-minor-celebrity Paris Hilton as a mentor: ‘“I do think I learned a lot from Paris. I think that she has always been so gracious to the paparazzi, to her fans, and has taught me, you know, that there’s no real need or reason to never not be.”’[37] For a number of years, Hilton employed Kardashian West, a then non-famous childhood friend, as a personal assistant and stylist in her own C-list celebrity life.[38] Kardashian West’s earliest onscreen appearances are in episodes of The Simple Life, the reality-TV show that launched Hilton as a star.[39] Whilst the pair were friends, footage shows Hilton exploiting the power differential between them, effectively putting Kardashian West in her place. This entry-level position in The Simple Life was productive, however. It functioned as an internship in the twinned businesses of reality-TV and auto-celebrification. In a now famous – or infamous – interview with Entertainment Tonight (ET), Hilton credited herself as the ‘star maker’ not just of Kim, but the entire Kardashian clan, proclaiming ‘I created Kim Kardashian, her whole family owes me life.’[40] Since the ET interview, Hilton has become more circumspect in her classification of her role in Kardashian West’s rise to stardom. Speaking about the pair’s relationship in a 2015 interview with Yahoo! Style, she emphasised their closeness: ‘We’ve known each other since we were little girls. We’ve always been friends.’ [41] The rosy picture is masterfully subverted with Hilton’s next remarks: ‘It’s nice to inspire people. I’m really proud of her and what she’s done.’ It remains clear that, in Hilton’s eyes at least, she has ownership over her childhood friend’s celebrity, and should be acknowledged accordingly.

Kardashian West’s own reality-TV show, KUWtK, launched in 2007. It instantly elevated her celebrity, and transformed the whole family into a celebrity brand. KUWtK is still going strong in its fourteenth season (debuting October 2017), with various spin-off Kardashian-focussed shows and cross-marketed merchandise.[42] Audiences worldwide can’t seem to get enough of Kardashian West and her family. Hilton is irrelevant; Kardashian West is omni-present in the media landscape. In the Book, Christ implies that Margery will achieve a similar usurpation of her role-model, St. Birgitta. He speaks to the English woman “‘just as [he] spoke’” (‘“ rygth as [he] spak’”) to her mentor, suggesting an equivalence between the pair.[43] However, he blesses Margery alone with certain visions, assuring her that the Swedish saint ‘“never saw [him] in this way”’ (‘“say [him] nevyr in this wyse’”)).[44] Nevertheless, Birgitta has nothing to fear from Margery: she does not attain anything like Birgitta’s fame in her time.

Chris Rojek attests that ‘[c]elebrities offer powerful affirmations of belonging, recognition, and meaning in the midst of the lives of their audiences, lives that may otherwise be poignantly experienced as under-performing anti-climactic or sub-clinically depressing.’[45] Margery’s pre-mystic life was certainly no bed of roses. Indeed, the Book opens with an account of Margery’s first pregnancy, a devastating experience which leads to an eight-month mental breakdown:[46] During this period, Margery is beset by demons and diabolical temptations. When all consider her a lost cause, a visitation from Christ – the most potent religious celebrity of all – finally jump-starts her recovery. God has not forsaken her; if Margery devotes herself to Him fully, then all will be well. But how can Margery accomplish this mission, practically speaking? The numerous acclaimed holy women found in the Book function as role-models. These saintly celebs – or the models of faith they embody – offer the much maligned Margery a roadmap to full integration in her society, and ultimately to the recognition of her own sanctity. Margery is an attention-seeking acolyte, a superfan, whose greatest desire is not to be like a saint, but become one herself.

Margery’s breakdown is provoked by her inability to confess a significant long-concealed sin.[47] Thinking she is on the brink of death post-partum, the woman calls for a confessor. The cleric, though, rushes to rebuke Margery, cutting her off mid-flow and thus silencing her. Her transgression remains unshriven, and she fears for her eternal damnation. Diana Jefferies and Debbie Horsfall contend that Margery’s sin is not based in any specific act.[48] Rather, after her traumatic pregnancy she comes to renewed awareness of the original sin that afflicts all humanity, and her status as a ‘daughter of Eve’. In Genesis 3. 16, God instructs Eve on the gendered burden of sin she bears: ‘in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee.’[49] Margery’s labour pains are visceral reminders of her transition from virgin to wife, and all that entails: the loss of both her bodily autonomy and subjective agency.[50] Recognition of these losses propels the holy woman into insanity. In order to move beyond this annihilating relegation to bodiliness and reclaim her sanity, Margery must produce an alternate self-image. She turns to saintly mentors who seem to have redeemed, at least partially, the sinful female body via their religious praxes.

Keeping Up With the Kardashians  season 1 (2007) title card. The Kardashian clan stands assembled on their front lawn, in front of a large house. They look fairly normal and relatable, though they are clearly rich. Source:    The Sun   . The image exudes a sense of family togetherness, as the whole blended family have gathered together and using their best camera poses. They seem nice, if a bit awkward and even dweeby. This is in stark contrast with later seasons' marketing imagery, which oozes unattainable yet deeply seductive power glam. See, e.g. season 14's (2017-18) branding    here   .

Keeping Up With the Kardashians season 1 (2007) title card. The Kardashian clan stands assembled on their front lawn, in front of a large house. They look fairly normal and relatable, though they are clearly rich. Source: The Sun. The image exudes a sense of family togetherness, as the whole blended family have gathered together and using their best camera poses. They seem nice, if a bit awkward and even dweeby. This is in stark contrast with later seasons' marketing imagery, which oozes unattainable yet deeply seductive power glam. See, e.g. season 14's (2017-18) branding here.

Kim Kardashian West’s auto-celebritisation is also rooted in a reclamation of subjectivity in the aftermath of trauma. In February 2007, she faced public humiliation after the leak of a sex-tape, made with the singer Ray J a few years earlier, when the pair were a couple. At this point, Kardashian West was mostly unknown, of interest primarily for her party-going with Paris Hilton and brief romance with boyband star Nick Lachey (of band 98 Degrees; he later married Jessica Simpson) in 2006. Nick La-who? – exactly! The sex-tape, then, was the primary ‘star image’ with which the public interpreted Kardashian West. It materialised her celebrity, or rather notoriety, as a sexual object: a body without a voice, and without a story. Paris Hilton faced the same issue, with her own sex-tape leaking less than a month before the debut of The Simple Life. The tape was certainly a media sensation. However, Hilton used her reality-TV series to offer a counter-narrative, crafting herself as the archetype of the rich dumb blonde. Once more, Kardashian West followed, and refined, Hilton’s example. Five months after the release of her sex-tape, KUWtK hit the air. In the show, Kardashian West comes across as likeable and family-oriented, in diametric opposition to the spoiled and entitled brattiness embodied by Hilton. Crucially, KUWtK allowed Kardashian West to exercise control over the narrative circulating in the sex-tape. The woman having sex in the video is not just a body. She is a woman with a real life, with a real family, and with real emotions. Kempe’s portrayal of Margery hits the same notes: she is not just body, but soul too.

Fig. 3.    Scan of Kardashian West,  Selfish , p. 253: a selfie of Kardashian West in an opulent bathroom in jogging bottoms and a casual bra top. Caption reads: 'I just got home from an Oscar party and put my sweats on.'

Fig. 3. Scan of Kardashian West, Selfish, p. 253: a selfie of Kardashian West in an opulent bathroom in jogging bottoms and a casual bra top. Caption reads: 'I just got home from an Oscar party and put my sweats on.'

In 2015, Kardashian West published the best-selling Selfish, a 448-page monograph composed of selfies taken in the period from 2006 to 2014 (though later editions have included more selfies from 2015-16 too). As with Margery’s Book, Selfish makes visible the celebrity manufacturing process. Megan Garber notes that in reading the book, ‘you see the work that goes into making Kim Kardashian, the person, into Kim Kardashian, the icon.’ [51] Countless selfies capture Kardashian West mid-beautification: in the make-up artist’s chair, or with her hair in rollers. She reveals the dissonance between celebrity ‘reality’ and her normal existence. Kardashian West might walk the Oscars red-carpet as a paragon of glamour, but when she returns home, the gown comes off and comfy sweats rule (Fig. 3).[52] The painstaking effort of maintaining a feminine persona, celebrity or otherwise, is revealed as Kim shows us the before and the after (see e.g. Fig 4.). All that labour pays off though. In 2014, Kardashian West was the second most Googled person worldwide.[53] In 2015, she was the most Googled person in twenty-six countries.[54] The transformation is complete: Kardashian West is a wannabe no more. Why does she succeed, whilst Margery fails?

Fig. 4.    Scan of Kardashian West,  Selfish , pp. 228-29 (top) and pp. 230-31 (bottom): close-up selfies of Kardashian West's face. Pp. 228-29 shows her face covered in strange-looking contouring make-up, captioned "Before". Pp. 231-31 shows her luminous face once the make-up has been fully blended, captioned "After".

Fig. 4. Scan of Kardashian West, Selfish, pp. 228-29 (top) and pp. 230-31 (bottom): close-up selfies of Kardashian West's face. Pp. 228-29 shows her face covered in strange-looking contouring make-up, captioned "Before". Pp. 231-31 shows her luminous face once the make-up has been fully blended, captioned "After".

Christ intimates to Margery four times that she will be the object of a posthumous cult in the Book. These promises are ultimately empty. There is no evidence of a cult in Margery’s memory. Regardless of Marie of Oignies’ example, Margery’s tears could not be assimilated into a successful saintly identity, in the Catholic context at least. The Church of England commemorates Margery in its Calendar of saints on the 9 November, in a relatively recent addition to their liturgy.[55] Margery’s inclusion here, though, is almost a back-handed compliment. A ‘commemoration’ is the lowest form of veneration available for inclusion in the Calendar: a kind of ‘participation trophy’ for the holy woman who – bless her heart – tried so hard, but didn’t actually produce the goods. In 2009, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA also provisionally approved the liturgical commemoration of Richard Rolle (d. 1349), Walter Hilton (d. 1396), and Margery Kempe on 28 September.[56] Even here, Margery finishes last. She is quite literally the hanger-on after the two illustrious male mystics in all official written material about the commemorative day circulated by the Church.

Instead of any significant medieval renown, evidence of any sizeable fan-base for Margery is instead found in modern academic scholarship, particularly in feminist critique from the 1980s onwards.[57] In 1998, Margery earnt an entry into the connotatively titled Who’s Who in Christianity anthology, a veritable star-chart of religious celebs. The last line of Margery’s entry concisely captures the shift in the holy woman’s fortunes: ‘In recent years she has become something of a feminist heroine.’[58] Margery’s Book is so compelling because our wailing heroine fails at – or more charitably ‘struggles with’ –– her objective of securing sanctity. In a personal blogpost, Clarissa W. Atkinson reflects on Margery’s impact in her professional life as a medievalist.[59] Atkinson was on the vanguard of academic feminism, undertaking postgraduate study at a time when women were practically absent from the medievalist canon. With Margery, she finally found ‘a recognizable (and annoying) human being’. Academic interest in Margery is founded on Margery’s relatability: she is a woman scrambling to find her place in a male-dominated world, balancing the competing demands of family, community, and personal passions. Visibility in terms of the discovery of Margery’s Book, and its eventual inclusion in the medievalist canon, equates to representation at a meta-level, as Margery functions as a proxy for women more generally in the field of medievalism.

Still from horror movie  House of Wax  (2005; dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), showing Paris Hilton (playing the role of Paige Edwards) crying.

Still from horror movie House of Wax (2005; dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), showing Paris Hilton (playing the role of Paige Edwards) crying.

Margery is not (academically) famous because she is (or was) recognised as a saint, a perfected image of (holy) womanhood. Rather, she is a celebrity, at least in medievalist circles, for the messiness of her persistent bids for (holy) fame. Margery has become famous for wanting to be famous. Jeffrey Sconce affirms that Paris Hilton’s ‘reality TV-level’ fame depends on her consistent (and perhaps even knowing) failure at doing something truly celebrity-worthy: ‘her entire persona depends on her signature inability to do or contribute anything productive, making her fame the most pure and tasteful of all.’[60] Similarly, Margery’s incapacity to perform holiness ‘productively’ underpins her enduring presence in the academic media-scape. The mystic’s failure, however, exposes the reality of the hagiographic star-system, the constructed-ness of accepted saintly identities. Katherine J. Lewis suggests that the Book was ‘intended to plug a perceived gap in female English sanctity by providing a saint who was Katherine, Bridget, Mary Magdalene and others all rolled into one – thus providing something for everyone.’[61] Margery (or Kempe’s) suturing together of numerous female saintly identities is a conscious hagiographical move to create a female English ‘multi-saint’. In other words, she is a try-hard, and trying too hard too obviously is the antithesis of celebrity cool. Margery’s behaviours may not be ‘tasteful’, to quote Sconce, but they demonstrate in perhaps the ‘purest’ form the ways in which saints are artificial objects, cobbled together from various narratives and for various ideological motives.[62] As a ‘wannabe’, then, Margery shows us how the ‘real’ stars are made.

Fig. 5   . Moschino Spring/Summer 2015 Barbie iPhone 5 case, shown (l-r) backwards on, sidewards on, front facing. Source:    Moschino.com    (3 single images, here conjoined)

Fig. 5. Moschino Spring/Summer 2015 Barbie iPhone 5 case, shown (l-r) backwards on, sidewards on, front facing. Source: Moschino.com (3 single images, here conjoined)

Fig. 6.    Moschino catwalk collection, Spring/Summer 2015. Blonde model, styled in Barbie-pink demonstrates the baroque-vanity mirror iPhone 5 case. Source:    Tiny Beauty Blog    (cropped).

Fig. 6. Moschino catwalk collection, Spring/Summer 2015. Blonde model, styled in Barbie-pink demonstrates the baroque-vanity mirror iPhone 5 case. Source: Tiny Beauty Blog (cropped).

The genius of Kardashian West is that she reveals the inequity and artificiality of the celebrification process, and leverages this revelation to support her celebrity trajectory. She is the hyperreal of womanhood, existing as mediatised images which reveal the logical end-point of the patriarchally enforced pressure that society places on all women to look and act in certain ways. Kardashian West turns to social media and selfies to chronicle her own navigation of the socio-cultural demands placed on female appearance and comportment. That she may enjoy dressing up or being photographed is not important here, no matter how the tabloids might frame it. What matters is that she consciously shows you the ‘before’ and ‘after’, how celebrity is manufactured. More crucially, this revelation emphasizes the constructed-ness of the image of socially ‘legitimate’ cis-heterosexual Western womanhood itself. Even before she snapped her first selfie, or appeared on any TV, Kardashian West was always already imprisoned in this panoptical woman-ification system, as are all women who must conform – or pay the price – to what society, at a given moment, designates as the appearance and behaviour of ‘real’ and ‘legitimate’ (read: acceptable) womanhood. She has managed to extract value from this system, to play it at its own game: she mediatises herself, and so doing holds up a mirror – or smartphone – to the cameras of patriarchy which adorn the walls of the panopticon in which all women find themselves. This dynamic is materialized in a smartphone case by Moschino, produced for their Barbie-inspired Spring/Summer 2015 collection (Fig. 5).[63] The iPhone 5 case is styled as a baroque hand mirror, replicated in fuchsia-pink plastic, with the traditional mirrored glass replaced by the screen of the user’s smartphone. But the mirrored glass has not been entirely removed: instead, it has been displaced, to the back of the holder. Whenever the user lifts their phone to snap a selfie, a ‘vanity mirror’ on the back of the case reflects those who look at the selfie-taker (Fig. 6). Snapping a selfie means quite literally lifting a mirror to the world around you, making those who would capture you with their gaze confront the trajectory of their own look(s). 

With her appearance on the medievalist scene, Margery gave feminist academics someone to root for, and someone whose life – struggles and all – rang true for them. This is not to say that Margery simplistically reveals enduring truths of womanhood, or not only that. She functions as a focal point for feminist medieval scholars to find ourselves in our field, in our primary sources, and perhaps even in our own lives. Margery’s Book – and its feminist reception – can be read, then, as a productive mirror of our own scholarly and socio-political contexts. Margery – as a mirror – allows us to sculpt our own auto-hagiographies, and ultimately move beyond her Book to bring to light other neglected, difficult, or messy stories from medieval feminist pre-histories.

Wendy Harding affirms that the Book stages ‘an unequal struggle for control of channels of communication’.[64] The illiterate Margery is dependent on oral expression to render her life into narrative.[65] In order to preserve her life story, Margery must give her spoken words, and thus her narrative agency, to an individual who can process her oral account in to text: the cleric Kempe. The mystic ‘cannot write her own script’.[66] Writing permits the elision of Margery’s body (subjectivity), as text conveys meaning ‘without the necessity of bodily contact’.[67] Moreover, in the epistemological hierarchy of the late Middle Ages, textuality is the most authoritative communicative format. Margery’s vocalisations are simply less significant than Kempe’s interpretation of them, and can never be fully represented in text in any case. The holy woman depends entirely on her textual producer to purvey her ‘star image’. In comparison, Kim Kardashian West is in almost complete control of her own celebrity narrative. Reality-TV producers might have first brought her into the public eye, but they no longer run the show. Paris Hilton’s ever-waning fame may, to return to Sconce’s critique, rest upon her ‘signature inability to do or contribute anything productive’.[68] Kardashian West, by contrast, is a digital entrepreneur, whose celebrity springs directly from her industrious and innovative media interventions.

Kardashian West has harnessed the power of social media to disrupt the traditional model of ‘top-down’ celebrity production, in which the star-object is controlled by her producer-creator.[69] She assiduously manages her multiple social media profiles. Kardashian West started the new year (i.e. January 2018) with over 193 million followers across her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts.[70] These social media channels equate to multimedia networks which are completely under Kardashian West’s control. In posts shared directly with her followers, Kardashian West carefully sculpts the particular image of celebrity she wishes to portray. She frequently anticipates content in her reality-TV show, releasing news on her social media channels to control the story, and uses her multiple platforms to refute celebrity gossip. Here, for example, she tweets in anticipation of the broadcast of the KUWtK episode dealing with violent robbery which took place at Paris Fashion Week (October 2016), in which she was held at gunpoint:

Tonight’s episode is going to be very tough for me.[71]

However, I thought it was important to share this story through my eyes & not in an interview where my own words could be twisted.[72]

I have always shared so much & I’m not going to hold back when this was probably one of the most life changing experiences for me.[73]

These tweets emphasise the fact that other narratives circulating around the Parisian incident are not (fully) authentic. The show, then sets the record straight – and contains compellingly raw and authentic footage of Kardashian West. What’s more, the tweets underscore that fans should not necessarily trust any Kardashian-West content not produced by the woman herself.

In her analyses of Margery’s orality, Harding explains that oral communication ‘is not linear but interactive and global’, a means of mediation that nevertheless depends on ‘the body in its entirety.’[74] These characteristics similarly govern social media. Indeed, social media is useful to Kardashian West for precisely these reasons. It allows her to interact with fans across the globe in an informal manner. Moreover, the star’s social media accounts allow her to foreground her subjectivity as an unavoidable part of the Kim-Kardashian-West package. She resists the reduction of her existence to body alone as a female celebrity and sex symbol. Instead, she shows followers her ‘body in its entirety’, complete with her personality, mind, and affect. This representation also serves to heighten for fans that she is authentic above all, and thus supports her broader celebrity identity as a ‘real’ star. Kardashian West is a consummate businesswoman, extraordinarily savvy in the art of auto-celebrification, or put otherwise autohagiography.[75]

Screengrab    from NPR website, with transcript of Kardashian West's episode of 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!'. Taken 22/01/17. The introductory blurb spotlights Kardashian West's many achievements, with her media enterprise front and centre. She is 'a producer, entrepreneur, designer, model, mom, tabloid magazine life support system - and now a star of public radio.'

Screengrab from NPR website, with transcript of Kardashian West's episode of 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!'. Taken 22/01/17. The introductory blurb spotlights Kardashian West's many achievements, with her media enterprise front and centre. She is 'a producer, entrepreneur, designer, model, mom, tabloid magazine life support system - and now a star of public radio.'

Nevertheless, Kardashian West’s stardom is not viewed as fully ‘legitimate’ by many. In June 2015, her appearance on the National Public Radio (NPR) show, ‘Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!’ provoked ire in listeners.[76] Hundreds wrote in to complain, with many threatening to cease their NPR sponsorship in response.[77] A complaint from listener Brianna Frazier is indicative of the tenor of the backlash: ‘vapid, talentless, and shallow individuals who have not earned fame or fortune through an ounce of hard work have no place on a show of such caliber’. In religious terms, Kardashian West is a celebrity not via any official canonization, but instead via grass-roots lay devotion. Margery Kempe and Kim Kardashian West’s auto-celebritisation does not have ‘official’ backing – be that a gifted hagiographer or circle of clerical, or indeed cultural, supporters –  and is enacted via non-traditional routes which fundamentally threatens the establishment, be that the Church or broadcast media. As Margery is dismissed as heretical and annoying, Kim is classified as talentless and low-class. Despite her success, Kardashian West’s auto-celebrification is only partially successful. A significant portion of the public resist her disruption of the celebrity machine. But, love her or hate her, they know who Kim Kardashian West is. ‘Famous’ or ‘infamous’, she remains in the spotlight. In much the same way, Margery Kempe is ‘everywhere treated as a miracle, a scandal, a cause celèbre’.[78] She endures as an object of fascination and irritation, both in her own contemporary context and in academic scholarship alike.

If this study of radically visible women has shown anything, it is that being visible is neither a simple nor an easy prospect. Navigating the politics of visibility is fundamentally necessary though, an inescapable part of Kim and Margery’s lived experience(s), the very formation of their subjectivity. You can’t ignore it, you have to confront it: visible or invisible, there’s no escape from the spotlight – it defines even that to which it brings shadow. Visibility is always political, emblematic of agency and oppression by turn. For being visible – being in the spotlight – gets one noticed. I am keenly aware, as I speak these words, of the context in which I speak. I have the profound privilege of giving a plenary paper as an early-career researcher, a heretofore almost unheard of undertaking. But this isn’t the whole story, my whole story (professional or otherwise). My presence here today, having my moment in the spotlight, depends on the work of countless scholars - colleagues, collocutors, collaborators – who are invisible to you all yet should, rightfully, share the stage with me. What’s more, innumerable early career scholars are producing paradigm-exploding work which would make ideal material for a keynote. I am fortunate to have a research fellowship, but one that doesn’t pay – I haven’t been paid for my academic work since last September. This state of affairs is not particularly unusual, at least amongst my group of early-career friends and peers. Making space for early-career researchers on the scholarly stage is a momentous, incredibly laudable, move. Exposure, however, is not enough for the precariat. Increased visibility must lead to increased recognition institutionally, with ECRs being valued for their work and their time, in terms of professional stability and financial remuneration. In a Twitter thread from last December, Lucia Lorenzi cuts to the heart of it:

I see many emerging scholars who are told they are brilliant - that they should apply for PhD programs, postdocs, jobs - but their ‘promise’ becomes a way in which the academy neglects or abuses them.[79]

And all too often, there is no pay-off for all this ‘promise’. However brilliant a marginalized scholar may be, jobs seem to go to the usual suspects: white able-bodied men.[80]

Medieval studies today must reckon with visibility. Like it or not, many people – academics and non-academics alike – simply do not see the value of our research, and do not understand why it should be funded. We must speak from where we are, and who we are. And like it or not, the Middle Ages are being weaponized as fodder for neo-Nazis and white supremacists. This isn’t new, but it is more visible than ever, particularly in the United States of President Donald Trump and in a post- (or mid?) Brexit Britain, ‘little England’ writ large. In her blogpost ‘Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy’ (published 28 August 2017), Dorothy Kim laid out what is at stake for medievalists in our current political environment:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. […] Neutrality may have worked in a distant past when white supremacists/KKK/white nationalists/Nazis were some imagined fringe group, but that is not going to work now. […] So, what are you doing to overtly signal that your medieval studies class is not going to implicitly or explicitly uphold the tenets of white supremacist ideology?[81]

As medievalists, we must work to adopt a politics of engaged public visibility, a strategy of showing ourselves – and our work – to push back firmly and frequently against the rising tide of hate. Becoming visible is not an easy undertaking, nor can every individual adopt this role. Visibility, especially for women and for people of colour, can be dangerous – as shown all too readily in a quick Wikipedia search for ‘Gamergate’, in any cursory perusal of social media and online comments sections, and indeed in the recent harassment faced by Dorothy Kim in response to her blogpost.[82] Those of us with various privilege(s) must stand up and become visible. A comforting – protective – cloak of invisibility is simply not an option for many. Not everyone can pass as the patriarchy’s default, and thus ‘unmarked’, state – cishet, white, able-bodied manhood. We must stand up and be meaningfully present for those, and with those, for whom the fact of visibility is inescapable. We must also protect the right to be invisible, affirming the right to privacy for those who cannot step into the spotlight, for whatever reason. We must also pursue, vigorously and productively, alternate modes of visibility, ways of imagining how visibility is achieved for academics as a component of building professional reputations and scholarly networks. Here, I think particularly of those of us with more or less visible disabilities, with care responsibilities, and with bodies – and lives – which do not, cannot conform to the pressures of academic life: always working, always productive, always visibly so.

I leave you with questions, to which there are no easy answers: How do we make visibility safe, affirmative and genuinely inclusive? How do we support those who are invisible and need to remain so? How do we create a feminist-medievalist politics of visibility? Here are a few final thoughts, Jerry Springer style.[83] We must work to share the spotlight’s glare, at times seductively scintillating and at others harshly penetrating. We must work to diffuse the spotlight’s exceptional beam across the individual and institutional surfaces of our discipline. In short, we must make spectacles of us all, for us all.

'Silence is Invisibility', by Melina Vanni-González. Source:    Flickr.    White wall, flecked with paint, with graffiti in orange and red stating ‘silence is invisibility’. (CC BY-SA 2.0.)

'Silence is Invisibility', by Melina Vanni-González. Source: Flickr. White wall, flecked with paint, with graffiti in orange and red stating ‘silence is invisibility’. (CC BY-SA 2.0.)

' invisibility', by garann. Source:  Flickr.  Bench in garden, with chalkboard back support, with text saying ‘Invisibility 5¢ for 5 minutes’. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

' invisibility', by garann. Source: Flickr. Bench in garden, with chalkboard back support, with text saying ‘Invisibility 5¢ for 5 minutes’. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Notes

[1] ‘Invention’, p. 5.

[2] Here I draw on Jansen’s (n.p.) remarks on Margery Kempe, which I quote later in this piece.

[3] Mulder-Bakker, ‘Laywomen’, p. 5. See also Flory.

[4] Caciola, p. 271.

[5] See in particular: pp. 11-14, 47-52, 167-87.

[6] Meyer, ‘Media’, p. 126.

[7] Ibid., p. 127. On this, see also: ‘Medium’, in which the citation appears verbatim on p. 60.

[8] Lives and Loves, pp. 201-21.

[9] Ibid., p. 203.

[10] This associates hagiography with other medieval media which aim at engendering authentic yet virtual experiences. This includes, for example, guided meditational manuals in the tradition of affective piety which place the reader-cum-seer in the thick of biblical history, such as Aelred of Rievaulx’s De institutione inclusarum and the Meditaciones vite Christi (dubiously ascribed to John of Caulibus). I refer to the latter briefly in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, Chapter 4 (pp.193-94). Virtuality was equally central in medieval pilgrimage guides to, and images of, Jerusalem for the imaginative use of those for whom travel to the holy site in person was impossible. For details and analyses of such works, see: Rudy, ‘Cityscape’; ‘Guide’; ‘Fragments’; Virtual Pilgrimages.

[11] Lives and Loves, p. 215. Mitchell writes extensively on this topic, see in particular: Iconology, pp.7-46; Image Science, pp. 13-21; 125-35.

[12] The phrase ‘star image’ is coined by Dyer, used repeatedly in Stars.

[13] Stars, p. 2.

[14] Although still known a ‘Kim Kardashian’ by many, the star rebranded herself across all media outlets in 2014 as ‘Kardashian West’ following her marriage to rapper Kanye West. As such, I refer to her as ‘Kardashian West’ throughout. On celebrity and ‘ugly crying’, see: Cote.

[15] ‘Kardashian Family Vacation’ (S02E08, first aired 4 May 2008). On the links between reality-TV tears and medieval crying as confessional expressions of contrition, see: Weisl.

[16] I refer to the Staley edition of the Book for all original citations (as MKB), and the Windeatt’s translation for modern English text (as MKBEng).

[17] See, for example: MKB, 1.13.620-23.40.

[18] Ibid., 1.13.623-73.41-42.

[19] Fictions, p. 3. On this, see also: pp. 1-38.

[20] N.p.

[21] Ibid.

[22] MKBEng, 1.13.63. ‘“I wold thow wer closyd in an hows of ston that ther schuld no man speke wyth the.’” MKB, 1.13.629-30.41.

[23] Comments by YouTube users ‘stiLLa himself’, ‘MUSIC IS MA L!FE!’, and ‘Frank Conrad’ respectively. As of 3 January 2018 (4pm), the video had been viewed 1,260,831 times.

[24] Quotes from comments by ‘Frank Beltra’ and ‘John Roberts’.

[25] Bale, p. 16.

[26] ‘Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe: This woman was Crazy’, n.p.

[27] Dr Virago, n.p. These are comments made by students when encountering Margery in their reading list, reported in a blogpost by a medievalist professor using the pseudonym ‘Dr Virago’. Though technically made by individuals ‘in the academy’, these cutting remarks nevertheless summarize the general critique levelled against Margery in trolling online.

[28] On this, see in particular: Atkinson, ‘Sanctity’, pp. 226-33; Lewis; Staley, Fictions, pp. 171-200; Yoshikawa, pp. 94-104.

[29] The ‘beguine’ classification is problematic generally. I discus this at length in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, pp. 25-37.

[30] Pp. 226-7, 230, 235-41.

[31] Arnold of Liège, ex. 435-36, pp. 246-47. For references to Marie in the fifteenth-century translation, see: Banks (ed.), II, ex. 427, p. 293; ex. 429, p. 294.

[32] MKBEng, 1.62.191-92. ‘And yet owr Lord drow [the scribe] agen in short time, blissed mote he ben, that he lovyd [Margery] mor and trustyd mor to hir wepyng and hir crying than evyr he dede beforn, for aftyrward he red of a woman clepyd Maria de Oegines, […] and of the plentyuows teerys that sche wept, the whech made hir so febyl and so weke that sche myth not endur to beheldyn the crosse, ne heryn owr Lordys Passyon rehersyd, so sche was resolvyd into terys of pyté and compassyon.’ MKB, 1.62.3610-15.149.

[33] MKBEng, 1.68.205. ‘The worschepful doctowr seyd to hir, “Margery, I have red of an holy woman whom God had govyn gret grace of wepyng and crying as he hath don onto yow. In the cherc ther sche dwellyd was a preyste which had no conseyt in hir wepyng and cawsyd hir thorw hys steryng to gon owte of the cherche. […] [S]che mreyd God that the preyst myth have felyng of the grace that sche felt […]. And so sodeynly owr Lord sent hym devocyn at hys messe that he myth not mesuryn himself, and then wolde he no more despisyn hir aftyr that but rathyr comfortyn hir.”’ MKB, 1.68.3925-33.160.

[34] VMOME, 1.5.152-53.93; VMO, 1.1.17.640.

[35] MKB, 1.62.3618-21.149.

[36] VMOME, 1.5.148-49.93; VMO, 1.1.17.640.

[37] Pomarico, n.p. See also: Kardashian, Kardashian, and Kardashian, p. 100.

[38] Kardashian West insists that she was not, in fact, Hilton’s stylist, but the socialite was a client of her eBay-selling and closet-organising business: Kardashian West and Swisher, ‘Interview’.

[39]‘Ro-Day-O vs. Ro-Dee-O’ (S01E01, first aired 2 December 2003), ‘The Nolan Family’ (S04E01, first aired 4 June 2006), ‘The Ghauri Family (S04E02, first aired 11 June 2006), ‘Murrie Family’ (S04E06, first aired 16 July 2009).

[40] For all intents and purposes, this interview has been scrubbed from the internet. It is impossible to pin down exactly when this interview took place, though it coincides with Hilton’s promotional tour for The World According to Paris, which debuted in June 2011. This is clear when examining a short excerpt of the interview posted to Hilton’s YouTube channel, in which she discusses her new series: Paris Hilton - Entertainment Tonight. Hilton’s appearance and the set décor matches the clip of the interview in which Hilton disses Kardashian West. This clip is a much-shared gif online, and the interview remarks are cited in myriad online gossip stories, though without any source identification. See, for example: Flynn; George; Woodward.

[41] Hilton and Zee, n.p..

[42] See, for example: Kourtney & Kim Take Miami, Kourtney & Kim Take New York.

[43] MKBEng, 1.20.83; MKB, 1.20.1089.58.

[44] MKBEng, 1.20.83; MKB, 1.20.1085-86.58.

[45] P. 52.

[46] MKB, 1.1.130-87.21-23.

[47] Ibid., 1.1.142-50.22. This episode is often interpreted as post-partum psychosis or mental illness within a modern framework. See in particular: Craun; Freeman, Bogarad, and Sholomskas; Jefferies and Horsfall, pp. 350-52; Torn.

[48] P. 353.

[49] Douay-Rheims Bible.

[50] McAvoy, pp. 36-37.

[51] N.p.

[52] Kardashian West, Selfish, p. 253. See also the ‘before’ and ‘afters’ selfies: ibid., pp. 228-31.

[53] Google Trends.

[54] McCluskey.

[55] Brother Tristram and Kershaw (eds.), p. 502.

[56] Church Pension Fund, p. 611.

[57] On this, see in particular: Tolhurst.

[58] Cohn-Sherbok (ed.), p. 167.

[59] ‘40 Years’, n.p.

[60] P. 336.

[61] P. 215.

[62] Sconce, p. 336.

[63] ‘Runway Capsule Collection’, n.p.

[64] P. 170.

[65] Ibid., p. 174.

[66] Bynum, p. 41.

[67] Harding, p. 172.

[68] P. 336.

[69] Ingram; Kardashian West and Swisher, ‘Interview’, ‘Naked Selfies’; Kirst.

[70] As of 3 January 2018, Kardashian West had: 58 million followers on Twitter; 105 million followers on Instagram; and 30.1 million followers on Facebook.

[71] Kardashian West, ‘Tonight’s episode’.

[72] Kardashian West, ‘However’.

[73] Kardashian West, ‘I have always shared’.

[74] P. 172.

[75] On celebrity as a business, see Kardashian, Kardashian, and Kardashian, pp. 131-39, 213-19.

[76] Pesca et al. This is a typical reaction to Kardashian West’s appearance in ‘series’ media. See, for example: Gannes.

[77] Jensen, n.p.

[78] Watson, p. 396.

[79] Lorenzi, ‘I see many’. The whole thread is worth reading on this topic: ‘Sitting here’.

[80] Lorenzi, ‘Because I’ve seen’.

[81] N.p.

[82] For a summary of the vitriolic – and abhorrent – backlash Kim has received after posting the piece, see: Roll; Xu.

[83] Jerry Springer devotes the closing minutes of his massively successful talk show, The Jerry Springer Show, to his ‘final thoughts’ on a given topic. Or at least he did, when I was a regular watcher in my misspent youth, i.e. the early 2000s. Contrasted with the typical trashy, tabloid banality of an episode, these final remarks allowed Jerry to deliver some home-spun wisdom, roughly centred on lessons learnt from his guests.

Pre-modern Primary Sources

Aelred of Rivaulx, De institutione inclusarum, ed. by C. H. Talbot, in Aelredi Rievallensis Opera Omnia, 7 vols (Turnhout: Brepols, 1971-2017), I, pp. 637-82

Arnold of Liège, Alphabetum narrationum, ed. by Colette Ribaucourt and Elisa Brilli, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis 160 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015)

Banks, Mary Macleod, ed., An Alphabet of Tales: An English 15th Century Translation of the ‘Alphabetum Narrationum’ of Étienne de Besançon, from Additional Ms. 25,719 of the British Museum. 2 vols, Early English Texts Society 126-27 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1904-1905)

Jacques of Vitry, De B. Maria Oigniacensi in Namurcensi Belgii dioecesi, ed. by Daniel Papebroeck, in AASS, June IV (23) (1707 (repr. 1969)), 636-66

———, ‘The Middle English Life of Marie d’Oignies’, in Three Women of Liège: A Critical Edition of and Commentary on the Middle English Lives of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis, and Marie d’Oignies, ed. by Jennifer N. Brown (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), pp. 85-190

John of Caulibus (?), Meditaciones vite Christi olim S. Bonaventurae attributae, ed. by C. Mary Stallings-Taney, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis 153 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997)

Société des Bollandistes, ed., Acta Sanctorum quotquot toto orbe coluntur vel a catholicis scriptoribus celebrantur, 68 vols (Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Tongerloo: various publishers, 1643-1940; 4th repr. Brussels: Impression Anastaltique Culture et Civilisation, 1965-1971)

Staley, Lynn, ed., The Book of Margery Kempe, TEAMS Middle English Texts (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996)

Windeatt, Barry, trans., The Book of Margery Kempe (London: Penguin, 1985)

Secondary Sources

Atkinson, Clarissa W., ‘Female Sanctity in the Late Middle Ages’, in The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism, ed. by Lynn Staley (New York: Norton, 2001), pp. 225-36

———, ‘“This Creature”: 40 Years of Margery Kempe’, Oldest Vocation (24 February 2015) <https://oldestvocation.wordpress.com/2015/02/24/this-creature-40-years-of-margery-kempe/> [accessed 27 May 2016]

Bale, Anthony, ‘Woman in White: Why Margery Kempe Divides Modern Readers as Much as She Did Her Medieval Audience’, Times Literary Supplement, 19 December 2014, pp. 16-17

Brother Tristram, SSF, and Simon Kershaw, eds., Exciting Holiness: Collects and Readings for the Festivals and Lesser Festivals of the Calendars of the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the Church in Wales. 3rd edn (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1997 (repr. 2007))

Bynum, Caroline Walker, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991)

Caciola, Nancy, ‘Mystics, Demoniacs, and the Physiology of Spirit Possession in Medieval Europe’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 42.2 (2000), 268-306

Church Pension Fund, Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints. Conforming to General Convention 2009 (New York: Church Publishing, 2010)

Cohn-Sherbok, Lavinia, ed., Who’s Who in Christianity (London: Routledge, 1998)

Cote, Rachel Vorona, ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Ugly Cry’, New Republic (1 April 2016) <https://newrepublic.com/article/132289/agony-ecstasy-ugly-cry> [accessed 21 July 2016]

Craun, Marlys, ‘The Story of Margery Kempe’, Psychiatric Services, 56.6 (2005), 655-56

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Abbreviations

AASS: Société des Bollandistes, ed., Acta Sanctorum quotquot toto orbe coluntur vel a catholicis scriptoribus celebrantur, 68 vols (Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Tongerloo: various publishers, 1643-1940; 4th repr. Brussels: Impression Anastaltique Culture et Civilisation, 1965-1971)

KUWtK: Keeping Up With the Kardashians, created by Ryan Seacrest and Eliot Goldberg (prod. by Bunim-Murray Productions and Ryan Seacrest Productions, 2007-present)

MKB: Staley, Lynn, ed., The Book of Margery Kempe, TEAMS Middle English Texts (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996)

MKBEng: Windeatt, Barry, trans., The Book of Margery Kempe (London: Penguin, 1985)

VMO: Jacques of Vitry, De B. Maria Oigniacensi in Namurcensi Belgii dioecesi, ed. by Daniel Papebroeck, in AASS, June IV (23) (1707 (repr. 1969)), 636-66

VMOME: Jacques of Vitry, ‘The Middle English Life of Marie d’Oignies’, in Three Women of Liège: A Critical Edition of and Commentary on the Middle English Lives of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis, and Marie d’Oignies, ed. by Jennifer N. Brown (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), pp. 85-190

Edited 03/12/18 to fix a typo.

Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility - Keynote at the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference 2018

I have the distinct honour of giving a plenary paper at the 2018 Gender and Medieval Studies conference (GMS) (8-10 January 2018). This will be the first year that this long-running conference has included a plenary from an early-career researcher, and I am delighted/thrilled/terrified to have been invited for the inaugural slot. My paper, entitled 'Hagiography, Media, and the Politics of Visibility', presents key arguments from my first book, in particular the Introduction and Chapter 3. Handy reminder: see my earlier blogpost to find out how you can download a .pdf of the full Introduction for free, and to snag a voucher code for 20% off the listed price of my book (valid till 1 February 2018).

In my GMS talk, I first sketch the theoretical foundations for my consideration of hagiography as media, setting out my terms of engagement. Then, I discuss in depth the ways in which the politics of visibility are central in the creation, consumption, and lived experience of female identities. In particular, I bring the fifteenth-century English mystic Margery Kempe and twenty-first century celebrity icon Kim Kardashian West into dialogue, analysing the ways in which the pair attempt to self-produce 'acceptable' exceptional identities in their respective contexts. Finally, I discuss the role of visibility in the academy today - for early career researchers, and for medievalists more generally. Flicking through the slide deck below should give you a feel for the material. I look forward to seeing all those who can make it in Oxford!