When you smell a rat...
Subtitle: thoughts on battling odours with spectres.
Two things coincided recently to teach me an overdue life lesson.
Firstly, I applied for a job and failed to even get an interview… and, secondly, I helped hunt down and isolate a rat plague. This post is all about smelling the rats (of patriarchy and privilege) and what to do about it.
On the morning of a highly successful conference and exhibition, the finale of a year long research focus on ‘Technologies of Memory and Affect’, I received this form email from HR. Apparently the position I’d applied for (part time and not dissimilar to my current position, but with the possibility of tenure) had attracted:
‘...a pleasing number of applications of a high calibre. By way of feedback, I am able to advise that there were a number of applicants who more closely matched the requirements of the Position Description. As a result, I regret to advise that your application has been unsuccessful on this occasion.’
It’s hard to go into detail without getting myself into trouble however, suffice to say (and by prior open acknowledgement of members of recruitment team) the position description addressed the most broad terms possible, all of which I matched (and, arguably, surpassed in abundance). My first response was via text: I smell a rat...
At first I was angry, but easier to suppress inchoate rage than tears, so thanks to testosterone for that. Since then I have done my processing and ‘moved on’ but I sill feel the need to address the odour in the room.
When I blurted to a colleague she sent a text:
Omg you must have heard me seething on my drive home. To so blatantly subvert the process of appointment by merit. To lay down the welcome mat for another young white male. Shit I'm pissed.
We had just been reflecting upon Donna Haraway’s recent call to ‘stay with the trouble’, and Sara Ahmed’s ‘survival tips for killjoys’ in ‘Living a Feminist Life’.
We are inspired by Ahmed’s blog posts in which she reflects upon how easily and unconsciously one might be co-opted by a system. We are inspired by calls to action from women who dare to critique patriarchal and neoliberal aspects of Higher Education, choosing in some cases to signal their discontent by refusing to play anymore (see Liz Morris in www.timeshighereducation.com/features/why-audit-culture-made-me-quit and at www.academicirregularities.wordpress.com )
So back to the rat.
We’ve all had to track down the mysterious odour right? Not the worm-scraps, or the kombucha brew, or the vegie keeper this time. It’s the rat that has managed to die, trapped in the dripper tray at the back of the fridge. Very unnecessary. One might even argue that it's one for the too hard basket. Except for the pervasive stench... one might tolerate it, except for the spectre of increasing decay.
Operation crime scene ensues with hilarious narration from 15 and 8 year olds who refuse to help. Triumphant, we move on. But the scent lingers. A day later I track it back to an air conditioning vent. It seems several years ago, when I paid a ridiculous amount of money to an air conditioning expert to check that the system was efficiently sealed, they lost interest when it got a bit tricky. So, instead of drilling through mutually resistant materials in order to secure the vent, they left a gaping great gap, and sent me the bill. The too hard basket again.
I won’t go into the horror but, it was very satisfying to collaborate with GK in isolating the source of the odour and the spectre of many more rats. We successfully stifled vomit and now we have a much more efficient air-con system. The rat remains decaying in a ceiling cavity above our heads but we've isolated and dealt with the problem.
So now to bring these two stories together.
Not getting an interview was my opportunity to smell a rat. And I did. And I think I’ve worked out the strategic isolating manoeuvre in which, presumably, I am the hypothetical rat contained in a too hard basket in a house called patriarchy.
When I decided to apply for the job, I did so because my contract expires at the end of this year. It wasn't my dream job but nevertheless a meaningful grasp for some kind of security. I've been playing nicely, working hard and kicking goals for quite some time now. I felt confident that my track record and vision of the future (rest assured, not too radical and couched in warm and fuzzy neoliberal terms, involving updated curriculum, better leadership and greater transparency) would merit a viewing.
I prepared a pretty good pitch addressing why I am the best candidate and in fact the only one with particular experience on the ground. I know the members of the recruitment team yo be sympathetic feminists and ambitious women, personal friends, and respected/respectful colleagues. In this context I merit an interview so that they can hear my spiel… and because that would be equitable right?
But lingering in the back of my mind, like a spectre, I observed the thought: if, on the one hand, there was me (recently ‘announced’ name change, gender-neutral pronouns and an unhealthy appetite for the post-digital and complex) and, on the other hand, a similarly qualified straight white man, who would they choose? My helpful personal critic noted that, if they were on the selection committee, they would relegate me to the too hard basket. Too tricky. Too complicated.
As Sara Ahmed puts it:
Becoming a killjoy can feel, sometimes, like making your life harder than it needs to be. I have heard this sentiment expressed as kindness: as if to say, just stop noticing exclusions and your burden will be eased. It is implied that by not struggling against something you will be rewarded by an increasing proximity to that thing. You might be included if only you just stop talking about exclusions.
The fact is, discrimination is not always overt, albeit strategic and systemic. Which is where the grey area of ethics come into it, with smelly odours and tricky spectres. There a pretensions between the detectable and measurable odour of a rat, and the indeterminate fear of a spectre.
While odour requires public comment and action, spectre is far more insidious. It is experienced personally and more likely to be dismissed as paranoia or instinct. Also, fear of imminent danger (of the neoliberal chop) can be a distraction, enabling people to justify actions that they would otherwise think unethical
I’ve been mulling over what might cause my colleagues, whom I thought were my allies, to disregard their ethics… and the pervasive odour of patriarchy. I think, unconsciously perhaps, I was relegated to the too hard basket. This has the strategic effect of fixing the leaky vent and isolating the smell. But it doesn't stop the invasion.
Unlike the rat in the story, I am not dead yet. I am willing to ‘stay with the trouble' in order to scramble out of, or otherwise destroy the too hard basket.
Maybe it's feminists and activists past, present and future that represent the spectre. Maybe we're someone else's nightmare, circumnavigating infrastructure, shining light on policies that veil bad smells. Maybe with our spectral allies, we have the chance, the opportunity, the privilege (born or acquired) to persist.
I will apply for other better and more interesting jobs and maintain the quest (for new knowledge, social change). I will work to detect and analyse the stench of patriarchy. I will deconstruct and resurrect the creaky old air-con in small but significant ways that eventually will impact the overall structure.
Some take away lessons: don’t make assumptions or have expectations; don’t bitch about colleagues (it makes for a stinky workplace); and don’t ever EVER disregard your ethics when you can smell a rat.
I was determined that this post should be neither 1) whiny about not getting a job (lord knows academia is privileged and I am by no means perfect 2) damaging to further employment prospects. So I sat on it, then shared a draft with a few trusted (other) colleagues. Its spontaneity suffers now through further thought, editing and desire for a neat, coherent ending. The problem of rats and spectres remains unresolved.
The take away lesson is flawed in that I am not a rat, and neither are my colleagues. Patriarchy is not merely a house, or leaky air vent… and in fact what I am talking about here is not merely patriarchy or transphobia… or even injustice.
So I'm working on training my instincts to recognise both the spectre (widely feared, possible danger) and the pervasive odour of something wrong. Together, with guidance from ferocious and dangerous feminist spectres like Ahmed and Haraway, I can be ethical in the only visceral, embodied and outspoken form I know and can be.
Ahmed lists some strategies for surviving being a killjoy. This excerpt struck a chord with me:
Protest can be a form of self-care as well as care for others: a refusal not to matter. Self-care can also be those ordinary ways we look out for each other because the costs of protesting are made so high, just as the costs that lead to protest remain so high… And that is why in queer, feminist, antiracist work self-care is about creation of community, fragile communities… assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday, and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves; of looking after each other.