Reflections on an Unruly Act

Last week we sought to utilise ‘the aesthetic’ to reveal our ‘hidden transcripts’. We dressed up to embody how we feel we are seen and essentialised, and to provoke a conversation about our how out intersectional identities interact with the institution and individuals that educate us. Some were money, to convey the sense of transactional relations that permeate the IDS; some were sheep, to highlight feelings of simply being one of the many; some depicted crude depictions of their continental or national identities, to visibilise the lazy assumptions people draw due to our race or nationality. I came wearing a sign that read: ‘Yes, I study gender. And yes, I’m in it for the chicks’. An attempt to depict crude assumptions regarding men and masculinity.

Our act of unruliness was a gentle one. We weren’t overly disruptive or in any way dangerous and we didn’t seek to offend. Given this, it is slightly peculiar that towards the end of the day, a prominent feeling I had was one of guilt. These feelings were drawn from an interaction I had with a fellow whilst we invited people to share their hidden transcript with the IDS.

I came across him carefully examining each and every comment that had been left on a post-it note across the board titled: ‘How does the IDS see you?’ I approached him and asked what he thought about the various reflections and whether he wanted to share a reflection of his own. He remarked how clever he thought everyone’s costumes were and how interesting an idea it was. He was just slightly disappointed to see that nobody had left anything positive up on the board. As I looked across the notes, I realised he was absolutely right. I guess this wasn’t so surprising, it was an unruly act after all. It would have been a curious kind of rupture, if we had merely celebrated the status quo. However, in this act of unruliness I think maybe something was lost in the narrative; a loss that’s says something about acts of unruliness more broadly.

There I was, standing with a fellow praising our ingenuity, despite a large majority of the criticisms describing negative student experiences, that people in his position are responsible for. Such an encounter would be completely inconceivable at my previous university. Not a single member of staff knew me by name. I was a nobody. At the IDS, despite all its flaws, the same can’t be said. It was this fellow’s willingness to engage with our unruly act, to carefully read through our expressions, to hear and speak with us, to see us, that said something quite profound.

Perhaps my sense of guilt is misguided and this was the appropriate forum to be critical; unashamedly critical. Though, I think this sentiment touches at the heart of unruliness.

When we are upset or angry, we often feel like tearing stuff down. If it’s rotten from the inside out – throw it away. I have this impulsion all the time. Academia is fucked. Politics is fucked. The environment is fucked. The world is fucked. Let’s build a new one! But is revolt not the easy answer? Psychologically it takes no effort at all to dismiss something as fucked. The reality is, things are more complicated than this. And yes, while things may be bad, however small they may be, there are always avenues for change – with that comes hope.

This all may seem a bit melodramatic. I am literally comparing changing to world, to changing the IDS. But I do think the thought processes are the same. How often do we stop to think about what we appreciate in something; even more rare, how often do we stop to take the time and energy to celebrate that something like we do in a moment of unruliness? In the current climate, we can so easily feel dejected. All we ever read is shit. All we ever fuel is shit. Maybe, if we took the time to voice our love for something positive, we could cause a rupture in this downward spiraling of negativity. We would invoke not dejection, but participation. Unruliness is often a blunt instrument and there is a place for it. But equally important is a means to celebrate what little we have that works, to ensure we preserve it in the process of tearing down all that doesn’t.

Then again, maybe I’ve just been so beaten down by the British education system that the second someone in a superior position takes the time to recognise me as a human being, I feel touched, honoured. Like Winston contemplating Big Brother in the closing passage of Orwell’s 1984:

“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

After everything he had to endure in Room 101, he still succumbs to admit those treacherous thoughts: I Love Big Brother. Well, today the IDS gave out free ice-creams. Magnum ice-creams. So yes, today I LOVE THE IDS!

unruly image

The Shame in My Private Transcript

 

I thought I’d use this space to offer a brief insight into the private encounters between white British males, conveyed through the particularly rigid transcripts displayed in the performance of gender. I want to specifically explore the notion that ‘power relations are not, alas, so straightforward that we can call what is said in power-laiden contexts false and what is said offstage true’.

 

Public and private transcripts relate to performances in power-laden contexts. Performances of behaviour that convey the nature of the relationship between oppressive and oppressed groups. In ‘Behind the Official Story’, Scott lays out the performances permeating interactions where power disparities are present; the public transcript located on-stage where oppressed meet oppressor, and the private transcript found off-stage within the confines of exclusivity. Scott explores the disparities in the public performances between groups and the private performances within groups, highlighting how the public transcript only tells part of the story. Whilst our public performances display subservient obedience to the status quo, our private performances may unveil a begrudging resentment to ‘the other’. In moments of unruliness, the private performance leaps on stage, the script is torn apart and the performers reveal a new set of masks.

 

It is my performance of the private transcript, in the archetypal interactions within the privileged group of white British men, that I find myself most uncomfortable. When I inform the charming gentlemen often found belonging to such a group that I study gender, I am routinely met with the same bewildered response: ‘Gender?! Gender is for girls… isn’t it??’ Despite becoming increasingly familiar to such hostility, I usually respond with some unintelligible academic drivel about ‘toxic hegemonic masculinities’, and how ‘men are affected by patriarchy too, you know!’ My rambling draws to a close around the same time as I notice my fellow compatriot’s eyes have glazed over and what I have said, has fallen on deaf ears. I know that I have utterly failed to communicate my point when the follow up question is – ‘Soo, how many girls are there on the course?’ On learning that I am one of five males on a course with 30 females, all suddenly becomes clear.  ‘Ahh, now I get it! Not as daft as you look ayy!!’ – followed by profuse winking and elbowing at my side. The insinuation, of course, being that I have dedicated a year of my life to study gender, purely to strategically position myself as a more desirable ‘feminist ally’. This whole year is in fact one almighty pulling manoeuvre – one that ought to be commended.

 

Now, here is my chance to be unruly! To do away with the LADs code of conduct. To do away with the idea that feminism is about an overly self-righteous group of bra burning females. To challenge the ridiculous suggestion that men and women can’t just be friends or colleagues without underlying sexual fantasies. When I relive these situations in my head, at this point I break into a profound and stirring monologue about gender equality, social justice and the fucked up world in which we live, leaving the privileged group of men bewildered and stunned by my intellect and conviction! In reality, weight of performativity hangs too heavy on my shoulders. At best, I regurgitate some more academic shite that even I barely understand. At worst, I muster up a half-arsed chuckle and reluctantly agree, ‘yeah, something like that.’

 

Back at the IDS (home of the public transcript), engulfed by the similarly minded, lefty liberal feminist academics I feel way more at ease. Alas! The language of heteronormativity, liminality and precarity. The language of ‘women’s empowerment’, ‘gender constructions’, and ‘Fuck the patriarchy!’. Ohh how I feel at home! I do however question the truth of this public transcript too… There is a slightly perverse and narcissistic aspect of me that does get a bit of a kick out of people’s intrigue in a straight cis male studying gender. Maybe I do acquire a certain status in a certain group of people by studying what I do? And is this not another wonderfully convenient patriarchal dividend I so willingly cash-in? A man studies exactly the same course as a woman, and WOAH, suddenly it’s a big deal.

 

It is not as simple as assuming what lies in one transcript to be false, and what lies in the other to be true, rather it is a question of degree. I guess the question for me is, how do I prevent that horrible mask I sometimes sport for the private transcript, growing to fit my face? Perhaps this more honest performance onstage, will encourage a more authentic performance offstage too…

 

A Letter to Jacques Rancière

Fuck you Ranciere, you have no mates.

Figuratively speaking, of course. When I say you have no mates, what I really mean is, no-one cares what you think. Well, not that no-one cares, but very few people care. And when I say they care, I mean in a completely detached, purely theoretical, rational, unengaged sort-of caring way. I suppose what I really mean by care is, they care enough to listen. The sad fact is though, these people probably already agree with what you have to say. You don’t have to exist in the virtual echo chamber of Facebook to suffer the same false sense of self-righteousness that oozes through your every word – academia is much the same in this sense.

In short, what really pisses me off is why you write the way you do, and how this conceals a clandestine and contradictory politics. Or to borrow your privileged and pompous terminology, I take issue not with the ‘Aesthetic of Politics’, but with the politics of your aesthetic.

In your book you explain how Flaubert in Madame Bouvary, despite his autocratic and conformist political leanings was said to have created ‘democracy in literature’ through his very refusal to entrust his writings with any meaning whatsoever. It was the manner with which he chose to ‘depict and portray’ instead of instruct, that revealed the egalitarian tone to his work. You then go on to discuss some shite about ‘determined forms’, ‘determined content’ and ‘aesthetic distribution’ – it’s about there that I lose you. To your credit though, you have at least given me one useful tool that will be utilised in the ridicule of your work. If Flaubert’s work was charged with being ‘democratic’ due to the nature of its aesthetic, what political affiliations do we discover in yours? Quite remarkably, we seem to have the inverse of Flaubert’s case. We have a left-wing Unrulista who condones a leaderless, populace form of politics, displaying such themes in the most unnecessarily inaccessible and pontifical manner. Oh the sweet, sweet irony! If yours was a political regime it would be the ruling monarchy of Saudi Arabia: too conservative to let people vote or women drive!

There are times in your piece when you appear to advocate a type of politics in which things are suddenly made visible, sensible and available to experience. Like in the protests or revolutions, when the public, so often the audience of politics through our TV screens, become the performers and the distinctions between the two are lost. Well I implore you, if this is what you call the aesthetic regime, then speak its language! In a spontaneous and momentary political eruption, they do not speak the language of carefully constructed convoluted sentences. They speak the language of the people.

I recall in the Unruly Manifesto, it states we will be ‘committed to finding languages in which to speak across the current divides’. Yes, of course these languages should not be restricted to words; acts, art and music are all powerful transcendental languages. But you should not forget the power of the written word. In academia you observe, coldly analyse and appropriate. We take a moment of unruliness that seeks to ‘speak across current divides’, and then through our attempts to examine its power, we appropriate its language by adopting our own exclusionary and elitist one. What the hell are we doing???

If I could give you one piece of advice it would be to get out of your ivory tower and pick up a copy of the Communist Manifesto, or Common Sense. Now, Thomas Paine – there was a true Unrulista! Someone who didn’t cower behind the security of big fancy words, or academic institutions. He went out, got involved and got heard. Deeply immersed in both the French and American revolutions he wrote two of the most widely circulated books at the time in support of each respective revolution. And after the war, when the founding fathers refused to denounce slavery, he turned his scorn towards them. All with the power of the pen. He wrote to revolt. His aesthetic was his politics.

In Europe today we have a strange case whereby our academics, much like yourself, are predominantly left-wing. Simultaneously, we have a general public shifting to the right. Hmm I wonder why this could be? Is it because people cannot understand the form of the narrative we’re telling them? NOBODY UNDERSTANDS WHAT YOU’RE SAYING! Nobody agrees with the politics of your aesthetic!

So, back to my initial point about you having no mates. I guess I mean followers. You thinking you have followers is like me thinking that I have lots of mates because my family love me unconditionally. Even though my family aren’t supposed to be the intended target of my friendship – that is usually conditional on convincing a person that you’re worth your salt. So, while you may have a few mates in your ivory tower, there is a real world out there and in it – no one cares what you think.

A true revolutionary, a true Unrulista, sets out to speak the language of the people – a language they understand. People cannot follow what they cannot understand. So go fuck yourself.

Much love,

Matt