by Q Manivannan
“The code-name losses and compensations
Float in and around us through the window.
It helps to know what direction the body comes from.
It isn’t absolutely clear. In words
Bitter as a field of mustard we
Copy certain parts, then decline them.
These are not only gestures: they imply
Complex relations with one another…”
All Kinds of Caresses, John Ashberry
I gather and bundle together the gentle nudges, the brushes past, all kinds of caresses, the knowing gazes and cheeky winks, the encounters of skin and body that carve us, with each contact, into our (un)scholarly selves, and call it X, the X.
I call it the X as a gentle tribute to the excess, the exorbitant, the exceptions, the extensions. It is also a continuing anachronism, the prefix, the ‘ex’, constantly imposing the past on our present by colouring our gaze, troubling our writing, and leading us to an ethic of rigour, care, and reflection. The X hovers near my shoulder as I read conflict and peace; it lingers, formless but with weight and mass, smoke drifting into indecipherable shapes and symbols that I only rarely find the language for.
At a University and College Union strike in Dundee, Scotland, when asked to speak about what the university means to me, I say that my imagination of the university was not one of physical form. It is not a campus, or a curriculum, a system of training, or even a structure of ethical practice. The university is where my supervisor is, where my teachers, friends live, breathe, find love, fall sick, persist, recover, and grow plants; it is home, a space that contests power. “The university thus,” I declare, “is and always will be a protest, a strike, an informed and critical response to repression and authority, a space of care.”
The university is not just the people, however; it exists wherever we go, taking the X along with us. The X is the shadow of an encounter, a remnant of our confrontation with an unfamiliar stranger (nearby, and sometimes, very dear) who shocks us by doing surprising things: moving without notice, shrugging, speaking, smiling, and stopping in ways we do not predict or expect. Levinasian ethics accord a certain responsibility to proximity, and question an imperative of caring for that which is at arm’s reach. But the X collects the care we have not and cannot provide. It captures, binds, and holds in a prison the moments when subject-object-agent, teacher-learner, caregiver-care receiver, and the many non-binary figurations of structured human relations stand in the way of uninhibited love, anger, affection, cruelty, and shame. And to channel the X into our work is to shatter the prison and violently draw our liminalities into a centre that holds.
How do we do it? Why does this abstraction, the X, matter?
At a University of Winchester conference on ‘Impact in Peacebuilding and Reconciliation’ in June 2022, I found myself noticing only surpluses: an idol of two squirrels fornicating in a pub called The Black Boy (next to another bar, The Black Rat) where we convene to drink with a colleague leaving for Colombia the next week to research. The X. An academic is deeply concerned when I tell them about the oppression of minorities in India. Later, they say, ‘Your name is very Oscar Wilde-like. I don’t mean in the sexuality sense, of course,’ to which I laugh and tell them that they wouldn’t be off-track there either. They profusely apologise as I giggle, entertained, and assure them there’s no offence given or taken. Their confusion, their concern, and their love, moves me and softly challenges my language of queerness with a question of kindness. The X.
In parallel, practitioners and mediators at a conference panel talk of how seating people together for a meal, for breakfast or lunch (but rarely dinner) helps bring individuals with significantly divested cultural and political positions to a space of association, collaboration, and responsibility. At a meal we do not think about mercy or forgiveness. We are hungry. To express anger, suspicion, disrespect, to channel a hermeneutics of doubt at a table, would be unsocial, amiss in the grand architecture of human hospitality (or the shackles) of a dining table.
The next day, I leave to attend the British International Studies Association 2022 conference at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Comrades, old mentors, lovers, and friends are attending, but in the venue, there is only a sea of name tags, of people raising comments and questions not just for clarification or provocation but to establish their presence. They want to say, ‘Here, these are my words. I am here.’ Presenters shuffle between their notes and computer screens, speaking of decoloniality and constantly, repeatedly mentioning that they are aware of the limitations of their project(s) and that this is a start. It is always a start. Scholars write about bearing witness, doing the work from ‘the ground up’. Each time they do, the X trembles a little, uncomfortably.
At lunch, people flock to tables with names (and name tags) they recognize. BISA organisers have named the block of time ‘Lunch and Networking’. We are too grown up to make friends, and I ponder our use of the term ‘network’. Our abolitionist, feminist, queer selves, continue to locate ourselves as objects to be linked, connected, introduced to, and placed within capitalist and mechanical institutional figurations. The X sees people ebb and flow between the many crowded circular tables in the dining hall, like the turning gears of a clock; behind the tables, exhibitors from journals and publishers have stalls, and distribute tote bags and giveaways with a charitable spirit, funded as it were by money given (upon demand) by early-career and marginalised scholars for open-source ‘access’ to their own writing. I beat a hasty retreat outside, to escape. I find a spot on the grass behind a tree that hides me well, and I breathe and read in the quiet company of daisies. I offer a quick prayer to all the many people, now lost, with whom I would give the world to share just one more weary breakfast in the sun. Loneliness is not ancillary to my work, and it is not just limited to a realm of emotion. It is the reason for my work, the cross on a map. The X.
The lonely X, here, is a dislocation, a disruption. While our institutions demand that we achieve precision and higher quantities (funds, publications, supervised students, MEQ and REF ratings), the X overwhelms us with quality, texture, beauty, and makes us take love and care seriously. It is born from holding hands, the unsupposing touch of shoulders with a colleague or friend when walking, the head resting on a shoulder on a train from one conference to the next, or the drunk, smiling assurance that we will be fine at the presentation, the assessment, the interview on the next day. The X is not just an encounter with people, but an encounter with memory – perhaps, here, an encounter with our past self who attended the conference, noticed the detail, said something, chose to stay silent, or was silenced.
We each feel the X –an itch, an instinct towards tenderness, a vulnerability that manifests itself in us reaching out to colleagues, or finding solace in art, in words, in layers of formalisation. Why, then, do we refuse to accept its meaning in our scholarship of lives, among our very living, very alive scholars? The language of global scholarly discourse has long accepted and inherited ‘lived experience’ and ‘lived realities’ as pertinent truths in the vocabulary of qualitative studies. These terms grasp at seemingly distant worlds: the insufficiency of theory in presenting holistic stories, and the carceral confines of academic conventions in presenting narratives of resistance, banality, and emotion. But the X challenges this. It presents a continuity to lived reality – a living reality, forever configured by and reorienting our experiences. The novel form captures the X in metaphor and anecdote, and the inventive possibilities of fiction allow space for X to come into being with the agency we all know it to hold. Are we afraid of accepting, acknowledging, and embracing wordlessness and abstraction? Is the X our own personal ghost?
If it were, it would explain the X’s incontestable agency. We can never hold, let go of, or forget this spectre. It creeps up on us when we least expect it to and melts us, in most stellar sunshine and melancholy nights. On the loneliest days, the X wakes us up to the heaviness of the air around — reminding us of how essential this weight is to our analyses, the atmospheres of our work, the spatial dimensions of where, how, and why we work. The X cries out loud constantly and is, ineffably, both witness and agent in our duties of care. I wonder, at times, if the X is simply yearning, grief, or unspent love. But if it were so, it would not explain its essence, its location, the vetala that hangs around our neck, the many ways in which the X persists below the skin, a subdermal map of work to be done charted from all the places we’ve been to before.
But most of all the X is intimate. A day after BISA 2022 ends, my friend and I walked through Newcastle, and talked about our constant worry about speaking too much or too little, that we, as Brown scholars, don’t have the privilege of reacting to condescension with righteous anger or arrogance; she told me her parents asked her, in their wisdom, to take notes and pen down reflections of the conference on the train journey back to university. At the railway station, we waited together for the train to arrive on the platform. We spoke about how, lately, our parents’ mortality scares us more, how when the thought crosses our mind, we scrunch our faces really hard until it goes away. How much does this fear, this feeling, the X of stuckness or purpose, inform our work, our scholarship? Who helps us hold on to?
The X ultimately is this, an extra pair of hands that teaches us what it means to care, and helps us learn what it means to not only do good scholarship, but to be a good scholar – both viewing and assessing from afar as an impossible witness, and also reaching out, holding, keeping safe. It is not only the foundation of our morality, but also that which points us to the (in)disciplines, the ideas, the areas of study that take over our bodies.
When the train finally arrived at the Newcastle railway station, my friend and I allowed each other a brief hug and walked in opposite directions towards our separate compartments; a hug, despite knowing we would meet again in a couple of hours at the station back home. The simple, gentle act of accompaniment and companionship gave me a faith that no amount of networking ever could. I think about what the X really is, how much it worries me, tests me, troubles me, scares me, always. But the X is just that – always there, ever present, a constant companion. If we notice it, perhaps we’ll find that we’re not quite as alone as it seems. Our silos have cracks, slippages, crevices to hide in, small holes and hopes to slip through.
When the disciplinary dies a quick death, the X is what remains. When these tensions, crises, and debilitations arise, we take them and bury them deep in our chest, calling upon them through the cracks, the X, in times of need, directing our grief, our care, our sadness, anxiety, and anger, into form, words, and stories. Critique, after all, shares a common root with the Greek krisis, the proto-Indo-European root ‘krie’ – meaning to not only sift, sort, judge, and decide, but to repair that which is rent. Perchance, with enough practice, we can do it together.
I am grateful to Sarah Gharib Seif for her friendship and the walks, and Roxani Krystalli for her insistence on granting space for the ineffable.
Q studies care, grief, and protest mobilization in Third World peacebuilding, as a PhD candidate and tutor at the University of St Andrews. They’ve spent over 7 years in policy, analysis, and activist organisations, and write and read poetry and peace to build home(s). To join a group of practitioners and scholars in collectivizing efforts on documenting and teaching care, please write to email@example.com. You can follow them on Twitter at @q_ueering and on Instagram at @q.ueering.