It’s interesting, the disorientation of new spaces. Having just been re-reading Sara Ahmed talking about orientations (from Queer Phenomenology), I’m thinking about the ways that privilege lies in the ‘matching’ of a subject’s comportment and the space within which that subject operates. And thinking about how I feel about my work. Yes, mes amis, I’m afraid so: it’s going to be one of those posts!
I am, obviously, in a new space. I’ve left behind Sydneytown, and Canberratown, and Australia generally, for the low horizons, narrow streets, and streetside windows of a Dutch town. I expected all kinds of disorientation, reveled in much of them (see my Going Dutch post), and told myself not to worry about others (a friend wrote me today mentioning that she remembered moving into an office job and couldn’t work out the etiquette around whether one says goodbye to one’s colleagues at the end of a day. Yep, that one too!). And now, I’ve been in my workplace for about 3 and a half weeks…
I decided to kick-start my time here by reworking the paper I gave at the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association, a paper which I’d had positive feedback on, at the conference, and some positive feedback on from people here on the blog, and from a few other places. I like its argument, and I like bringing some larger questions of harm and suffering and law and medicine, to bear on a very specific case. I like, too, that I feel like I managed to suggest that there’s a way of arguing that we need to pay attention to the reception of new technologies, without alluding to the damage done to some ahistorical human nature, or biologically determined self, or whatever. I thought I’d said, fairly clearly, right, there’s nothing inherent to new tech that makes it problematic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problematic effects, and that’s usually because of how they get configured, given existing cultural logics, so let’s have a chat about them.
I like the argument; it’s been part of my approach to new tech for a long time, part of my orientation towards my work, towards the world, towards the new tech I’m talking about. It’s also grounded in some shared intellectual styles — feminism, critical race and whiteness theory, feminist theories of the body, feminist phenomenology, postconventional bioethics, queer theory — I can name them because I’ve had to, because part of what one writes when one is writing grant applications, is about these orientations, except they become ‘methodologies’, tools set ready-to-hand, not bodily styles that disappear in their perpetual use, that are soaked up like water in a sponge, that become part of me, to the extent that there is a ‘me’. It’s not that I’ve really had an intellectual home, in lots of ways — too feminist for one space, too philosophical for another, too critical for another, too, too, too to be at home in lots of spaces. But there have been home-ish-nesses, unexpected affirmations of my approach… But one of the largest disorientations in my new space has been around these intellectual styles.
In some ways, this isn’t that shocking, really. I knew in advance I’d probably be made anxious about my specific kind of interdisciplinarity, anxious about my work, anxious that for all that I didn’t conceal myself in my application, I would turn out to not be what they wanted, or expected, or…. uncertain about my legitimacy. It’s a pretty common experience for academics, especially women, so much so that they’ve ‘syndromised’ it: imposter syndrome. I had hoped that the affirmations of my orientations in academic spaces more generally — from my examiners’ comments on my thesis, through to the VC’s award, through to the smallest comments from peers or students — had given me a small space I could take with me, to keep my at-home-ness a little, if only to soothe me while I work out how my orientations can fit with the new space.
Part of the issue, of course, is that I don’t know this space. I can’t know the points at which I line up, or at which I am orthogonal, or at which I sit at the diagonal or even not on the field at all. They do, my colleagues (my lovely colleagues!): they know the space, know each other’s orientations, know where they line up and where they don’t. It’s part of the familiarity one gets from working together for a while, no doubt. I will one day have that settled-ness, I know. But at the moment, the disorientation is making me anxious. Two weeks ago, I wanted to share my work now, I wanted to let people get to know me and my work — felt open and cheerful and easy with it. Now, I feel profoundly uncertain, and I’m trying to articulate why. I know that my work will be read by lots of people as radical. I never quite feel it is, but there’s the at-home-ness again. The radical bit is okay; the potential for the overly interrogative space that arises from the perception of radical-ness is more troubling, however much it’s a catastrophising mirage.
Part of the complexity of new spaces, I think, is that the disorientation induced by the not-at-home-ness is rarely located in the space. I feel, in my attempt to settle, that it’s in me. I have an hour and a half next week to present the longer version of the AWGSA paper, and I’m anxious about how much I will have to justify. A colleague — one of my really wonderfully welcoming colleagues! — commented today that she felt she had to defend liberalism. I was asked why I referred to ‘the rape survivor’ as ‘she’. I was asked what other possible way there was for dealing with rape. I was asked what a judge is meant to do about the possibility that women regret sex and lie. I was asked why I held liberalism responsible when ‘it doesn’t rape people.’ The thing is, I have answers to all of these questions, to all of them. My approach was not carelessly or swiftly shaped; my orientations not simple matters of decision, but of a long period of pressing myself up against all different kinds of arguments and allowing them to shape me (in different ways: some I refuse), of living through them, of testing them over and again. I have responses to make, arguments to pose, yes. But providing lots of answers feels, first of all, defensive, and I really don’t want to be. It also reminds me of how much out of my space I am, that I have to make arguments, again, that in my slightly-more-at-home spaces are taken-for-granted. But it’s also that, in this disorienting space, these questions and their answers feel all too proximate. It feels like a test of whether I can line myself up (sufficiently) with the space. I should add, of course, that I have been told by various people, some my colleagues, that they know what my work is, and that’s why I was selected. And the anxieties still linger.
It’s strange to me, I think, because I knew disorientation was coming, and I knew that some of it would be hard, and I knew that some of it would be valuable and useful, and I knew that some would be fun. I suppose I hoped that my existing and persistent uncertainties about how I fit into academic spaces wouldn’t be such a strong site of vulnerability to disorientation. It feels, in some ways, like I’m sharing too much with my new colleagues, giving them too much of myself. And I want to be brave enough that I can feel like that and do it anyway…. which, of course, I will, because that’s my orientation towards disorientation… ;-P
Disorientation, yes, but probably lack of sleep too. Tonight, I’m going to aim for a kidlet’s bedtime! Apologies, my friends, if this post was too intimate or seekritly whingey behind the aca-talk. One of my aims with the move was to try to track some of how the move felt, and this is it…