All Too Human…

So I am going to begin my first post with a depressing cliche: “I learned the truth at seventeen; that love was meant for beauty queens” (Janis Ian, At Seventeen).

Why begin this blog with a 1970s pop song that is heavy with the special brand of angst best known to teenage girls? Because, deep down, we all are battling our child selves…look at me, Mum, do you like my painting, Dad…you don’t answer because you are battling the hell inherent with caring for another child with a deadly illness? Well, that is OK, that is understandable…and my painting isn’t that good really, not to show to a professional illustrator…

Here, you can see my anxieties about why, a writer of almost twenty years, has never shared a blog with the world. I tried social media and it was for beauty queens – the overt attention whores with flocks of friends, family and admirers. I was never that girl and have plaintively begged the world for the wrong kind of attention all my life. Yeah, I am an over-sharer…in reality and everywhere else…and just recently, I have accepted this. As a writer, whether I was crafting a jingle for a milking technology company or writing an old man’s biography, I always shared myself between the lines. And as one who has kept a journal since 11, I know the release of sharing what wells inside. Only now do I realise that my feelings of alienation are not strange, individual or pathological.

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My venture into social science and philosophy gave me formal, respectable qualifications – not like my art school diplomas and writing degree that both employers and social norms scorned. From this, new opportunities emerged. My grades were rewarded with entry into Honours and first class Honours with entry into a PhD program with wonderful colleagues to assist me in creating an academic self. I felt authentic, fulfilled, enriched with life…but somehow, I was missing an inexplicable piece. I have found it. It was my own acceptance of my enormous and unbridled creativity. Since I was twenty, I suppressed it to become more employable, more practical, more of an adult…and this is what underlies many issues I continue to face in my life.

The exploration of creative social research methods, like Geertz’s ‘thick description’, auto-ethnography and other approaches are only beginning to gain mainstream respectability with the academy. However, my own acceptance of such methods has just been found. Supervisors and colleagues identified repression in my initial attempts at thesis outlines and plans. Like a patient with a crippling –  yet undiagnosed – disease, I sought their feedback hungrily. What was I doing wrong? What was wrong with me? Did I deserve my position in the academy? It felt so familiar, like my continual attempts to impress my parents and my other desperate attention seeking behaviors…

My fears that I did not fit in with the intellectually beautiful echoed my lifelong anxieties and exacerbated my obsessiveness. If I only worked harder! If I only was louder, more audacious! It is only within the last months that I found the dark frightening road that veers towards self-acceptance. It was with the assistance of some very special colleagues that I found the directions to this place and also, the important advice that nothing humans can do can be perfect. Life is cavernous, challenging, amazing, daunting, maudlin, fantastic and rich with contradictions. I can be both an existentialist who seizes life and pursues gaudy dreams…and a nihilist who sees only empty landscapes and dark motivations….

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It does not make sense.

But like the academic journey and the profession I hope to enter, it is not meant to.

Thank-you for sharing my thoughts…I would be honored to hear your reflections in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “All Too Human…”

  1. Anxiety almost seems to be built into our academic practices. If we’re not being told to venture into the unknown, we’re being assessed on how well our explorations conform to already-established maps. We’re quite fortunate to emerge into an academic arena where there is a higher expectation that both peers and senior staff will provide some form of guidance and assistance in our academic pursuits than has been the case in prior generations. We need to take advantage of this. Our colleagues can offer emotional and intellectual support, perhaps when they are barely aware they are doing so. Indeed, the best advice I have been given came at times when I was not looking for it.

    We can easily fall into the spiral of feeling lost in academia’s labyrinth of expectations, shifting opportunities and seismic conversations occurring from the department up to the federal budget. Human faces are not just interfaces between us and the academe. They are, I believe, lighthouses: both vantage points and indicators. The first step, perhaps, is to trust our eyes: take advantage of their assistance and be honest about our own desires and daemons. The most insufferable prison is the one we build for ourselves.

    1. Well said 🙂
      The unknown is integral to academia, that is what makes it exciting. It is also what makes it frightening. I find the comparison of our research to the academe standards petrifying…so many paradigms exist within social science and this further problematises the notion of a worthy academic contribution. Enjoying the company of others enmeshed in the same struggle is certainly an opportunity for solace and furthering academic selves. I think self-introspection can be a double-edged blade yet ultimately, the rewards are greater than the risk…

  2. Congrats on starting a blog. It’s something I’ve been considering (and lately starting on).

    A few disorganised thoughts on your post –

    A) I think authenticity is a really interesting idea, as to be successful academics we will inevitably need to establish our professional identities. Doing this through vast array of metrics and the quantified techniques of modern academia means that in a sense we are also creating a brand, and identity to be sold and consumed by the marketplace. I wonder how authentic this is? I know Christian Fuchs in the UK has written heavily on the advent of digital labour via social media. It is a conundrum as pursuing our own work is quite personally satisfying and liberating, and yet we can only do so within a certain framework. False consciousness in action perhaps?

    B) I agree with Fabian on anxiety and uncertainty. It is very much a part of our culture, and solidified under neo-liberal regimes of government and business. Knowing this, Isn’t it worrying though that we are so keen to embrace this lifestyle? A recent survey in the Guardian (UK) – Higher Education section discussed the tremendously unhealthy mental lives academics have. Anxiety and depression are very common and institutionalised to a certain degree. When I considering my future, I am very pragmatic about where my PhD will take me. I’d like an academic career but this mindset and lifestyle should be taken very critically (after all, isn’t it what we apply to every other aspect of our work?). I would not place academe on a pedestal above other options for this reason. But that’s just me.

    Best

    Ashlin
    @Ashlin_J_Lee

    1. Hello Ashlin,
      Unfortunately I don’t think I got a chance to introduce myself to you at last year’s TASA Conference – your interests reflect some of mine. I dabble a little in the dark arts of STS and I’m lucky enough to be a member of the RMIT Digital Ethnography Research Centre, who have already taught me a lot…they’re looking for PhDs right now in your area because of a huge international ARC project. Google digital-ethnography if you want to know more and see who is affiliated with the centre. Ah, I do love trying to steal good academics from other universities…but I digress 🙂
      As an admirer of the Frankfurt School, I have always liked Marcusean notions of ‘false consciousness’…it applies an excellent critical framework to how social actors may over-value what is ultimately contradictory and self-defeating. Because we find intense meaning in academia, it does present some kind of double-bind where we are both tied to strict norms but also encouraged to craft authentic and unique academic contributions. I admit that my PhD has not been emotionally easy for me. Personally, the contradictions of the contemporary academy has magnified many other contradictions in my life…and led to perhaps too much soul-searching.
      I love the conclusion in the existentialist Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf’ that we are cursed with a ‘thousand souls’ of competing desires, which leads to reflexive individuated struggle. Like this, consumer society gives us a corridor full of doors leading to enthralling commodities loaded with symbolic importance. Both these concepts are inherently dark as they are underpinned by self-sacrifice – or the sacrifice of those around us.
      I see this quality within academic culture too. I also saw the Guardian survey when it emerged. I often feel emotionally naked around academics because it is like they can read my mind, or they know my secrets somehow. This is disconcerting for someone who ping-pongs between introversion and extroversion – and is very good at pushing away friends who recognize my struggles and want to help.
      I think academics suffer immense mental distress from this neoliberal notion of democratic rewards for those who work hard and ‘be the best’. This is a fallacy. I have been highly regarded in past professions but have not been rewarded with much other than a mortgage on a crappy old house 45km from my workplace in the CBD and becoming alienated from friends and family. To ward off nihilism, perhaps the Nietzschean/Foucauldian idea of ‘artistry of self’ is a positive way to view our contributions to the academy?
      I look forward to reading your blog…and hopefully, meeting with you soon, perhaps at a TASA shindig 🙂

  3. Hi Anoushka

    I think soul-searching comes hand in hand with academia. When you spend your days developing critiques its hard not to have it bleed into your personal conduct (for better or worse).

    On neo-liberalism – I believe it’s a poison on our times. It is a dehumanising trend whose convoluted obsession with responsibility and choice is breeding inequality of a scale not seen for many centuries. And yet we embrace it with such enthusiasm. Wow. Such choice. So responsible. However it is how the game is played. In a conversation with some members of the sociological community (identities withheld) we decided at this stage we have no hope of resisting and may as well attempt to channel it for the good of our discipline. Isn’t that a shockingly hypocritical thought for us ‘enlightened’ academics?

    Off topic – I’m actually planning on heading up to Melbourne in August/September on some business, and was planning on visiting the DERC (And Federation Uni amongst other places). Heather said I should drop in. Would you be interested in catching up then? That ARC project sounds quite interesting.

    Best

    Ashlin

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