Making an Academic ‘Coven’

Author: Esther R Anderson, from the University of Southern Queensland, is an anthropologist of labour, temporality, and landscape, among many other things. You can follow her on Twitter at @EstherR_And.

A recent piece published via The Conversation indicates startling figures on academic isolation – 46% of researchers and 64% of postgraduate students report experiencing prolonged loneliness.Much has been written about the impact of the neoliberal university on mental health. But perhaps issues of identity, validity, isolation, and a subsequent need for care permeate anthropological work much more deeply than is already accounted for. This post calls for academic ‘covens’ within the discipline of anthropology (and no, this isn’t about witchcraft per se).  

Anthropological identities 

Reaching into the heart of a discipline, Sontag’s (2001 [1963], p. 74) essay on the ‘anthropologist as hero’ describes a false archetype of a researcher who is overwhelmingly masculine; an identity that is automatically presumed to be infallible, resilient, and bold:

“Courage, love of adventure, and physical hardiness – as well as brains – are called upon. It also offers a solution to that distressing by-product of intelligence, alienation. Anthropology conquers the estranging function of the intellect by institutionalizing it.”

Reality can be very different.

The many and varied lives of researchers globally shows that anthropologists are everywhere, and their work is experienced through vastly different bodies. As such, these are affordances that are differentially accessible to researchers who do not ‘fit’ within traditional models of scholarship (e.g., see this post by Rine Veith for The New Ethnographer, and forthcoming work by Megan Steffen). Alternatively, their identities are catalogued, rather than given voice and self-representation. The act of formalising knowledge is not always enough to mitigate entrenched, systemic alienation.

Although isolation and expectations of fortitude may be at the core of anthropological validity, from some aspects of fieldwork, to writing (and we are always, always writing), it is questionable whether this is actually a necessary emotive practice, or something that should be cultivated through entrenched disciplinary mythos. So, what recourse can be offered, when solitary work can be an impermeable truth?

Difficult writing-worlds

Research, and research-writing, is a passionate exercise. Elspeth Probyn (2009, p. 76) reminds us that “writing is a corporeal activity”. Sometimes it takes a physical toll: falling asleep while recording lengthy fieldnotes, or even developing atrophied, sore muscles from desk chairs full of initial ergonomic promise. At other times, our thoughts become muddled, and ideas put to page can become arcane to the point of incomprehension.

It is possible to be excited, mind buzzing, with a notebook full of thoughts and new directions. But what lingers in the afterwards is not unlike drinking a strong coffee at midnight: brain and body tearing in opposite directions, fighting each other for un/consciousness.

As much as it is physical, however, writing also occupies a sometimes intangible space that is more-than-words, more-than-human: feelings and visceral response. Writing up these new knowledges can manifest as a paradoxical confluence of excitable energy, solidarity, anger, exhaustion, and many other things.

When writing about difficult things, and inhabiting challenging writing-worlds (as is our tendency), emotional exhaustion, or fatigue, becomes a very real concern. Drawing on Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s extensive work on ‘care’ (2017, p. 92):

“…producing knowledge that cares is mostly about ‘caring about’, requiring less hands-on commitments than concretely toiling in the worlds that we study, ‘out there’. Yet having proposed to embrace a certain form of vulnerability in knowledge entanglements might require also acknowledging that these can take their toll.”

Words by Australian novelist and essayist Jennifer Down also resonate deeply, intertwining with familiarity in a shattering emotional symbiosis. She reflects that cataloguing and analysing trauma “feels absurd and esoteric and precious”, requiring simultaneous desensitisation to others’ lived horrors, and some new, healthy and formalised method to “describe the ugly cynicism, the fatigue, and the dread that has settled like silt in [my] blood”.

Even though not all research is necessarily entrenched in trauma, when writing about lives that are not our own, distance can easily become privilege, and embracing disconnection (even for the sake of ‘self-care’, itself a contentious phrase) can come to feel obnoxious. If only it were possible to freely embrace the identity of that imagined hero, that classical anthropologist; to write without consequence or concern, to come and go from ‘the field’ with abandon and presumably leave the self intact.

It may be irresponsible and ignorant to disengage from the lived challenges of our interlocutors.Yet, being enveloped by the emotional weight of others’ lives, and collecting their stories within our own, warrant questions about how to be responsible to ourselves. Writing, the mainstay of an anthropologist’s methodological toolkit, and part of the eventual dissemination of research, is fraught with challenges. Its after-effects come to rest somewhere in the bones, settling deep in the soul.

How, then, can fatigue be resisted?

Cultivating care with academic ‘covens’

It is necessary to establish a hopeful balance, somewhere between recognition and survival, if we are to navigate the process of inhabiting such difficult worlds. Anthropologists inevitably share their work with intent – words without purpose otherwise present themselves as questionable vanity projects, with uncertain motive and benefit, and so caring is inherent in our work. We hold onto writing and ideas like the strange parents of epistemological children, but their release can be such catharsis, especially when shared with an empathetic audience with similar concerns. There is so much hope projected in carefully-chosen words, steeped in concern and the responsibility of representation.

I am so often reminded of Sara Ahmed’s work (2017, p. 159) in this internal, messy web of thoughts. As she writes, “there are so many who cannot raise their arms”, and this should enliven a subsequent desperate call for solidarity:

“…so that when she speaks up…she will not be an arm coming up alone; she will not be an arm all up on her own”.

This means collaborative entanglements beyond institutions, shared research interests, geographical proximity, or seniority: rather, something that is entrenched in tender, compassionate voices. An academic ‘coven’, if you will.

The word ‘coven’ here, is an intentional, and also deeply personal choice: it implies both destabilisation and reclamation of power, of feminist underpinnings, and finding a home for that which can be made to feel distinctly Other at times. There are many, many, names for this type of supportive network, and you may seek to rename it something more pertinent to your experiences.

Academic covens allow for, and perhaps in some ways attract, weird folk who enjoy talking about weird things and doing weird things. Stepping outside the social norms requires a certain amount of courage and having a group of people who understand and support you is important. This magical quality allows ideas to ferment and voices to strengthen, which is necessary within a discipline such as ours. Perhaps this cultivation of solidarity and care is contained within a Twitter group chat, a long-running email chain, or it is a temporal heterotopia that emerges and disperses momentarily at a yearly conference. Destabilisation has few rules, and does not necessarily rely on the institution for maintenance.

Hierarchies persist, which is why factions, such as covens, coalesce in the first place. They emerge from a place of need. A need to counteract isolation, disparate power within disciplines, or the worlds anthropologists inhabit as part of fieldwork, and the worlds that meld and twist as part of the analytical process. Ultimately, there is a need for a space where, together, we can follow the anthropological call which itself is: wild, powerful and intimate.

A tender type of magic

Whatever form these collaborative networks take, they undoubtedly contain a tender type of magic.I hope that you find yours. I hope that you find comfort in the practice of cultivating collaborative networks, or can empathise with the challenges of inhabiting the difficult, emotionally-wrought practice of writing.

This reflection has attempted to offer a tender dedication – to a careful, respectful unburdening from words with the help of academic peers-turned-dearest friends. It feels remiss of me to write about collaboration and care, without acknowledging the support of someone from my own networks in developing this work. I would like to sincerely thank Emma Quilty for her comments on this blog post. Emma is a sociocultural anthropologist, whose PhD research focuses on young Australian women’s everyday experiences of practicing witchcraft. Her kindness, radical softness, and thoughtful interactions with other beings, human or otherwise, inspires me in my own academic life.

[Image: pastel broken lights, via Unsplash]

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