Things are messy: Be Careful What You Wish For

I was going to write a blog about Twitter, and voice and collectively generated knowledge, but this came out instead.  It is a starting point, for thinking through #beforethedrugsrunout


I’ve just got back from a 3 day conference Modern British Studies at Birmingham University.  It was immense. It was messy.  It was emotional. As anyone who follows me on Twitter will see, its discussions about and around academic papers spilled into Twitter inside and outside the room, during and around the papers.  I’m not sure we’ve really worked out what that means, or how we should actually map, or resist mapping, the ‘reach’, retweets and likes of a Twitter overspill from a physical conference. We should probably talk about it.  We should probably talk about etiquette. I should probably think about how I police myself.

The conference was set up, in an homage to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham, around collaboratively produced working papers in February 2014 that set out a series of calls for a reconfiguration of what history is and what its for in the university context. Be careful what you wish for. It provided space for important issues to be raised about the conditions in which we work, particularly the role of early careers academics.

As CCCS was the home of the earliest work on Subcultures, it seemed appropriate that the Network for Subcultures, Popular Music and Social change should grab the opportunity to bring subcultures back to Birmingham.  We talked about music, class, identity and place, and how subcultural work might work as a slightly naughty form of history as theory, experience and archive.

Because of Lauren Piko’s generous, unpaid, labour we have a storified narrative of tweets during the panel.

Obligatory Subcultures Network Selfie
Obligatory Subcultures Network Selfie

Then in the middle of the conference a woman I love as a friend and respect as an academic announced her resignation from her permanent faculty post on facebook, and Liz Morrish posted a response.  She validated my brilliant friend’s line in the sand.  Recognising that we can all get to the place where we are no longer  “prepared to go on sacrificing the possibility of intellectual creativity, family life and personal space forever”.  On one level, it struck me amongst the conference hash tags, that this seemed to take social networking as powerful acts of intervention to a different place.  This was not social networking to extend, narrativise or publicise a conversation. This was social networking as a space where some things need to be said. But it is also an important reminder of the limits of our individualised ability to resist, or dissent. We should be careful what we wish for.  It has reiterated, for me, the importance that we don’t buy in to the idea that a job is a favour, or act of patronage, something to be grateful for, and shut up and put up with ever since.  However it is sold to us, getting a job is not winning a prize, it is selling your labour.  Be careful what you wish for.  Demands we make on increased support at one stage of our career, become our responsibility to deliver at another.

And there was this – at the heart of the conference was this from Stephen Brooke


There was a lot of talk about loving the discipline, loving the subject, our emotional investment in History and ‘being a historian’ as a vocation.  But just because you love something doesn’t give you the right to do it or mean that you will do it well. Loving your job really is, (in the Twitter sense), a privilege. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you get to be with them, just because you love a subject doesn’t mean you get a publically funded job to do it.  Be careful what you wish for. Loving your job is a luxury and on a bad day can feel a bit like Stockholm Syndrome. But loving who you work with – that’s a whole different ball game.  That is why emotion matters, because collective subjectivities, or affective bonds, are acts of solidarity – whether you want them or not.  Around the conference itself, we had the best sleepover / breakfast parties ever, with some of my favourite people;  men, and women who organised themselves wordlessly as my collective carer, made me laugh and held my ropey body together with white wine spritzers, sisterhood and solidarity.

So this was a messy, disordly conference; imagined in so many ways at different points and by different people; a landgrab, a brand, a conversation, a moment, self identified as significant, an intervention in the discipline and the structures of the university but with all of the alt-metrics traces captured.  Twitter storified panels give it a sense of a narrative shape or conversation – in the room, roundtables and collective panels disrupted the usual model of a lone scholar talking at an audience. It had form; strands, themes, panels, discussants, key notes. And from listening to the discussion of possible absences at the conference it seemed that one pathway could throw up absences that were wholly present in another.

But there was really a whole other conference going on for me.  One which when we write the next chapter of what happened to CCCS at Birmingham really might intervene in its History and change the end of the story.  For me, it felt as if, there was a whole different conference going on for the women in the room.  An exciting, to be honest emotional, collective and individual recognition of context.  It really shouldn’t be that exciting to hear a collective paper written and presented by four women historians, but it was. It really shouldn’t be that exciting to meet a female historian in a lift whose tweets you love, but it was.  It really shouldn’t be worth saying that we are co-researchers with our PG students, and that it is our responsibility not to exploit them, and not to sell them lies to further our own careers, but it was.

But more than that, there was a collectivity of our historical practice as rooted in our individual experience.  MBS’s working papers showed their workings and possibly unwittingly uncovered a lot about the particular ways of working at Birmingham.  For me there were a couple of intellectual fragments that were picked up and turned into conversations during the conference: a call to focus on ‘cultures of democracy’ , real politics in ‘the public’, and doing so through over arching narratives.  Translate the working paper into the conference, and the ideas into practice, and it started to feel personal.  There was a lot of assuming who ‘we’ are, and where our politics lay.  And when the ‘we’ are people working on emotion, experience, feelings, reflexivity, identity, we were are also the fragments.  We were the offspring of failure, the emotional indulgences and it was time to get out of the way and let the big boys in to sort out the big stuff.  We should all know by now, that when you diss our methods and disciplinary interventions, it is personal. Because our experience is at the heart of our practice.   Stephen Brooke’s key note here was the exemplar of solidarity and allying – even if he hadn’t made it explicitly clear that it was, we would have recognised it as such* – because if you trace the affective ecologies, you do follow the money, map the power. Follow the feels.  But be careful what you wish for, because emotional labour, conscience,being a metaphor for someone else’s analysis, is work too.


*I’ve slightly changed the phrasing of this sentence from the first version as it suddenly struck me it could be misunderstood.  My point is meant to suggest that we take our solidarity from those who do and don’t actively offer it.

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