What happens when institutions create spaces that tone down academic formality? Reflecting together on the past few months, this question seems to best capture our experience at IIAS. Picture a long table, with a bottle of wine and hummus sandwiches. Around it sits a bunch of people, reading Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches, and Bases before they watch a Filipino movie, Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo (Once a Moth). On the same table, they would read Dai Jinhua’s caustic prose on the convergence between Mao-memorabilia and mass consumerism. Or translated short stories written by Indonesian-born Chinese authors, like Yuan Ni. With sparkling eyes and occasional laughter, they let ideas disrupt any rigid sense of time.
Doing away with formality is a shared desire in neoliberal academic institutions. We tend to assume that casualness would offset the gut-wrenching feeling that comes with expressing ourselves in a hierarchical space. Too often, however, we fail to achieve that promise of comfort. And worse, declared, if not imposed, casualness sometimes brings the opposite: it reproduces hierarchies, fuels our sense of awkwardness, or deepens our lack of confidence. Rather than the coveted figure of the slick public intellectual, we become the quintessential type of “affect aliens,” to borrow Sara Ahmed’s apt term (remember that time when you were fortunately funded to attend a major academic conference, in a five-star hotel in California, only to find yourself seeking comfort in the loneliness of a corner, wondering how the rest could have learned to master the repertoire of “acting as if”?)
Being socialized in an environment that purports an adaptable façade, is it even possible to take casualness beyond its prescribed, codified form, especially among young scholars (read: precarious nomads who are pressured to publish alongside paying the bills and worrying about visas)? The IIAS ‘Inspirational Sessions’ opened a space for possibility. The instruction was simple: in each session, a fellow is asked to share any piece of work, be it literary or visual, which shaped his or her trajectory. Initially, skepticism was on board for some of us. Is this yet another stage for adjusting our academic selves in front of others feigning interest? Despite the pessimism, we soon realized that copresence among fellows can relieve us from the anxiety of “footing” in conversations. Collectively, we reinvent the frame of discussion. Disagreement and tension arise without disrupting conviviality. We may enter the room remotely interested, but curiosity organically develops, taking precedence over our egos. Rather than a mere presentation, it is an invitation to be surprised. No need for a corner here.
Casualness of this kind expands – from discussions in lecture rooms, to walks along the canals, to sandwich-nibbling at Hortus, to Texels drinking at Café de L’Espérance. The next morning, the conversations make their way back within the walls of Rapenburg 59. We begin to excavate, on shared grounds, the unspoken truths of academic life without fear of embarrassment. Allow us a few examples: the expectations of what it would be like to be in a European institution, coming from a non-Western background; the perils of thinking along binary categories; freely expressing our disillusionment toward the imperatives of becoming a “promotional intellectual”; confessing the desire for conditions that would enable us to just even imagine living a conventional life, instead of pretending that precarious academic mobility is a normal way to live. In these moments, the organic flow of talk collapses any sense of hierarchy and identity politics, allowing us to take pleasure in coming up with ideas among, and within ourselves. All this, without the pressure to publicize our intimacy.
Our enthusiasm might raise eyebrows. You could be asking, isn't the pleasure derived from casual discussions among peers the new false consciousness? Aren’t we falling into the trap of romanticizing our accumulated exhaustion? We, as young scholars, are prone to justify the unjustifiable – how we have to bear through precarity for that elusive tenure. Cultural studies scholar Lauren Berlant calls this “cruel optimism,” the attachment to objects that structural dynamics have rendered unattainable but which keeps on providing a sense of belonging. Truth be told, we might not be getting closer to the next step – from the immediate task of finishing a chapter, to getting a more stable position. Yet, even as a “reprieve, not a repair,” to paraphrase Berlant, our sense is that such moments of togetherness are invaluable. We even dare say that our reinvention of academic sociality has equipped us better to confront the realities of uncertainty.
Through ‘Inspirational Sessions,’ we realized that institutions, as the routinization of practices, have not lost all capacity to produce good habits of conviviality that require minimal attunement. So when weeks go by without these Sessions, we, the “affect aliens,” actually look forward to the next.
Simply put, we are so glad, thankful, [insert any relevant social media terminology] to be part of this #academicfriendship.