by Tomás Ojeda

On Wednesday 3 October 2018, LSE Gender PhD students organised an event titled ‘Why feminisms? An open discussion about doing gender research’. During this event, MSc and PhD students discussed what inspired them to study gender. Three PhD students then presented their thoughts about doing feminist research in this particular moment in history: one where gender studies faces calls to adapt itself to the needs of the neoliberal university, whilst also being challenged to decolonise its syllabi, pedagogy and other practices. At the same time, the rise of far-right movements across many contexts brings with it a politics hostile to the very concept of gender and gender studies, as we have been discussing in our current blog series. This series of posts on why feminisms presents the transcripts of the speakers’ discussion papers.

I want to begin with a provocation; a statement that stuck in my mind and returned to my thoughts again when thinking about the workings of power in a particular location such as the academy. Three months ago, I found Jack Halberstam’s blog on Audre Lorde’s master’s tools, in which the author questions the kinds of tools we use to oppose what the piece identified as the systems of oppression at work in current times. In its depiction of the present, Halberstam problematises the political place of Gender Studies in an era where its institutionalisation works ‘only as a place to study the master’s house’. And the author goes on to say that ‘the site of knowledge production that should be committed to tearing the house down, [has become] the safe house for accusations against previous owners’.

In what ways, if any, could gender studies be thought of as a safe house? How do I, personally, relate to this challenge in the context of my journey as a graduate student at this particular university, and within this particular department? When being accusing of and/or engaging with certain phenomena through our critical work, who are the owners and what are the structures behind these? How do we account for our institutional affiliations while at the same being critical on the workings of the academy, which can be imagined, here, as the Master’s house?

I was unable to stop myself from thinking about this issue after reading that paragraph. Towards the end of my first year, I had begun working on my own research proposal. During this time, I tried to think through the kinds of questions that had already come up when discussing the framing of this event. These were precisely the same issues that were at stake in the quote on gender studies and the master’s house. At that time I was excited, and I took pleasure in my work and the year that I had spent at the Gender Department. I was also tired, both physically and emotionally. This was not only due to my own commitments and the responsibilities of working in my PhD, but also because I couldn’t, and still can’t, stop thinking on the context in which our illusions, expectations and joys towards the academy are located – because for me, doing a PhD is also about exposing my own thinking to the world I am to contribute in, and to think differently within in; and this, sometimes, can be an emotionally tiring experience.

On the context. A place we experience, and it is traversed by ambivalent feelings of joy, happiness and uneasiness. A context we also feel and lived as shaped by a ‘culture of harassment and intimidation’, as well as by the pervasive effects of the so-called global mental health crisis that affects both students and faculty, though differently if we look at how structures of oppression disproportionately affect people’s response to normative understandings of health and wellbeing. And this is why some of us experience this context as a warfare; a reminder of the exclusions that the framing of the safe house produces, and the privileges of those who can navigate through their academic journeys without even paying attention to the ‘negative feelings’ of our work – as if it were possible to do such a thing.

close up of a torn piece of pink paper with words mental heal visible and some partial text on the next line torn which suggests the full message had been 'mental health under attack'Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski ‘Mental heal’

The question, therefore, is how do I situate my own research and political investments within the academy, in a moment in history where the tools that we have developed to fight for an alternative to capitalism, neoliberalism and white patriarchy, are not doing their work when it comes to addressing the very issues of power within higher education. What, then, does it mean to do a PhD in Gender, while locating my own research as doing a feminist critique within this particular context?

Recent discussions on instances of sexual harassment occurring at PhD level, have provoked similar concerns around the role of the academy and the conceptual tools that we have developed to act upon its effects on the life of our friends, colleagues and scholar communities. When abusive behaviours happen within universities and graduate programmes, it is predominantly issues of power that arise at the centre of academic analysis, and which make up one of the core analytical tools we have for tackling sexual violence in higher education. However, its prevalence and devastating effects reveal that there is a gap between analysing the workings of power in our own research, and the lived experience of dealing with its various expressions in our daily interactions and relationships. Our attention often goes to the sexual dimension of the abuse, leaving aside what appears to be less sophisticated for our intellectual appetites. As Corey Robin exposes accurately in his take on the Ronell/Reitman case in the US, academy ‘prides itself on its understanding of power’, which unfortunately ‘is often not extended to the faculty’s dealing with graduate students, where power can be tediously, almost comically, simple’. What are these everyday situations that we all share and that we think are irrelevant, not worthy of analysis, and useless in our efforts to counteract power relations? What are the spaces, interactions and ways of producing knowledge that need to be seen as simple?

Our learning experiences as students and researchers, are shaped by a form of relationality that is unique in its nature and that needs to be conceived as such: a relationship that is emotionally mediated, and that is structurally unequal. Power imbalance is always the case, and this is something that we should be aware of, and especially those in positions of power. Not surprisingly, one of the ways in which we can understand how power works within academic institutions – and this is, of course, a simplification of very complex and diverse realities – is by individualising the solutions to abusive behaviour. For instance, this can be done through the development of individual skills for managing the power imbalance – something that students and academics are expected to navigate by themselves as part of their career building paths.

We are supposed to cope with what we feel as a threat to our wellbeing. We are supposed to deal with multiple deadlines, language issues, cultural dis-encounters, and transgressions to our mental and physical boundaries by ourselves, as evidence of success and as a sign of health and resilience – because, of course, we also have to prove that we can put our personal life in the equation by being also good parents, partners and friends. We are thus expected to resume our lives as normal, an ideal that our bodies most of the time fiercely resist in the form of headaches, insomnia, back pain and recurring dreams, which in some cases could also work as a healthy mechanism for us to remind ourselves that we simply can’t continue in this vein. As Sara Ahmed powerfully put it in her piece on selfcare, sometimes we simply can’t cope. And the we here is intentional, as we share the burden of an ideal that gains protection from us, every time we decide to keep it within ourselves as a shameful secret, a weakness, a disappointment and a lack of will…

The structure and the system that produces this ideal, and that also enables the experience of abuse in the form of the failure to cope, are simultaneously depoliticised and re-located inside the psyche as merely private matters. As some colleagues have argued consistently for the case of the so-called mental health crisis in Chile, growing tendencies to individualise social discontent also bring to the forefront the experience of fear and distrust towards the system, which, on the one hand, produces social relationships as instrumental and exploitative, and on the other, it places the academy, or the health system more broadly, as a place where relationships with the institution are marked by a sense of transgression and abuse. While this might work as an accurate diagnosis of people’s experiences in the present, we also know that the same mechanisms that enable abuses of power in the academy can also tell us how to interrupt the chain of self-deprecation and isolation that usually makes our concerns visible just as problems that need to be efficiently managed. What needs to be fixed here, and this is my contention, is the institutional culture that naturalises abusive behaviours and unhealthy lifestyles, as both a test and evidence of our ability to cope. It is easy for me to say it, but hard and complicated to put all this into work, especially when the care aspects of our experience as students and our life outside the academy are displaced and rendered invisible in our understandings of power, and the politics that inform our responses to the problem.

I still don’t have any conclusive answers to these issues, but I do see the effects of linking the knowledge we already have on the workings of power, with the experience of not feeling at home in our own bodies when our coping strategies fail and expose our vulnerability to the system. And this gesture, far from being wrong and misplaced, paradoxically has the potential of both transforming our approach to Gender Studies and of tearing the house down. It is here that I come back to Sara Ahmed, and wonder, with her, what if not coping can be thought of as an action; a creative response to an institutional logic that doesn’t want to know anything about all this, that just captures our energies into complaint forms, in an endless process aimed at just tiring people out. What if this shared experience translates into a collective, tied up by our shared fragilities, dreams and hopes? What if we take seriously the critique against the privatisation of suffering and the marketisation of the academy, by putting into words our feelings and emotional responses to what brought us all here to feminism, gender, queer and post/decolonial studies?

To conclude, I want to bring here the words of Hannah Gadsby on the doing of comedy and humour, especially when it comes to freeing the audience from the tension they experience after listening to the painful stories that we would prefer not to listen to, and to not be aware of. In Nanette she refuses to do this work for us and she leaves the tension on the stage, as a silent witness of what we all have suffered in one way or another, what we all have dismissed and let down; our complicities as well as our desires to be listened, recognised and seen. If, as she said, ‘stories hold our cure’, talking about our experiences and thinking about our Masters and PhDs from that location, is therefore a legitimate way of doing theory and analysing power. Because, contrary to what we are often told, not addressing all of this is also how power works, and it is how we stop fighting for an alternative to the precarisation of life, and for ways of relating to each other that are neither exploitative nor abusive.

Picture of the author
Tomás Ojeda
is a PhD candidate at LSE Department of Gender Studies and member of the Engenderings editorial collective. His research examines the political place of Chilean psychology in the making up of the sexual subject of diversity, by analysing the sexual epistemologies at work in the so-called turn to diversity in contemporary clinical practice.