Since the last long post I wrote I have been having some confusion about what to write next. As often happens in those situations, I do nothing until I think I have worked out what is exactly the right thing to do next. This, for the record, is not a good strategy. There is no exactly right thing to do next.
The reason I became confused was actually rather silly. I had some good feedback from the last long post I wrote, and it was something of a departure from what I have written on this blog. It was a set of preliminary thoughts about some things I am thinking about in my academic work as well as my personal life, rather than about the writing process. After I posted it, I started feeling the pressure to write something in that vein again, and then I pondered whether that really fit with the blog, and then I started having absolutely lethal thoughts about how I am an academic and should really write a more professional blog. I left myself some room to move from the beginning by describing the blog as about ‘writing and thinking I have not yet done’, but my scholarly training in proper specialization and focus started eating away at the joy I had begun to take in writing this blog.
Although it makes sense to define the scope of your blog, as social media experts are always telling us, I realized that in mulling over these questions I was letting the same thing happen to my blog as graduate school training did to my love of intellectual work. I was participating in the process of making a neoliberal homo economicus of myself, as we are relentlessly encouraged and enabled to do. (Here, by the way, is a beautifully clear and concrete way to understand what the homo economicus is in the neoliberal age by Lucy.) I started worrying about specialization and focus, but to what end? I am not trying to make money out of this and certainly don’t have the readership, in any case, to worry about whether I am fulfilling a pact with my readers who expect to read about x, but not about y. I was also worried about the consistency of the product, but again, to what end? Consistency belongs on CVs and job applications, where you are trying to demonstrate that everything you’ve done before has naturally led to this moment when you will become a Research Assistant or Senior Policy Analyst. Here, I am trying to do quite the opposite thing, which is to write without constantly being bothered by the thought that I am a ‘professional’ academic.
My primary goal in starting this blog was to find a way back to the joy I used to take in writing and thinking. Along the way, this intention has allowed me to write about a variety of things that have become important to my thinking, such as meditation, as well as things that simply sparked my intellectual curiosity, such as the posts about the mathematician Gödel or going to see Philip Glass’ opera Satyagraha. At the moment, it seems necessary to me to carry on writing from this rather broadly defined space, perhaps paradoxically because this is the only way I can imagine being able to go on being an academic specialist for the next thirty years.
There isn’t enough space to meander anymore in academic life and that is undoubtedly one source of many scholars’ melancholy about their work in the contemporary university. I think that this works in two ways. In the first place, it means that people feel the pressure to stick to their area of expertise. It is time-consuming and risky to branch out too much into reading and thinking about other things that interest you. It is time-consuming because you only have so much time to read in addition to marking, lecturing, administering and writing, so you become very careful about reading ‘outside your field’. It is risky, because if you start writing about every little thing that you find interesting (assuming you can keep up with the literature), your ‘profile’ starts to look eccentric, even unprofessional, and hiring committees and funding reviewers don’t know what you are. At least, that’s what ‘they’ say. You confine yourself, because it seems professionally dangerous to do otherwise. But on the other hand, you thereby become, as described by Benjamin Nugent in another context, a monomaniac. All this specialization and focus starts to wear you down until you can’t think anything because you keep trying to think about the same, one thing. You start to lose your ability to connect things in unexpected ways and thereby generate new insights because you aren’t exposing your mind to any contrasts or differences that could set off that flash of thought.
If we want to preserve some time to explore, to saunter, to be flâneurs in the city of knowledge, then it is up to us to resist the urge to manage ourselves at all times as if we were an enterprise. Posts I have planned for the near future include more thoughts on the lived experience of diasporic culture, a review of Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling, Deleuze’s anti-medical view of literature and the usual assorted comments on dealing with procrastination. Maybe, hopefully, I’ll run into you along the way, out on your own explorations in the city of knowledge.