Paradigm Shifts, Head Fucks and the Ivory Tower
I seem to be in a funny mood today which started last night. I have suffered bouts of depression since being a teen and I think I’m in one my minor doldrums (which usually last a week, as opposed to major episodes which come along every couple of years and last a couple of months or longer) so bear with me if I seem particularly peculiar in the next few posts! You’ll see why I’m sharing this in a bit…
Anyway, I kicked off the day with a read of Jane Fae’s blog
and a really thought provoking post (more so than normal) entitled ‘Paradigm shift (and other words that hurt!)’.
Jane asks the question ‘What IS it with a certain sort of feminist argument that does my head in so?’ and although this is then largely discussed through the prism of Jane’s own transition, it has wider applicability. Towards the end of the post, Jane touches more explicitly upon academic language, writing:
‘I remember, though, even after I’d written extensively about sex and sexuality being invited to speak at an academic conference on the subject – and having my mind well and truly blown by the way people talked about ordinary easy topics. Words like “discourse” and “paradigm” just flowed and it all felt so easy to parody or mock’.
Given I use both terms (more so discourse) in teaching, writing and conference presentations, I realise I’m one of these mind-blowing (write your own joke) folks. As an academic, we increasingly use complex language to explore and explain the debates (and discourses) we seek to consider. Words are our tools and we always want the latest and shiniest. Just like a mechanic or a doctor we are happy with our own specialist language.
Yet, when our car breaks down we like the mechanic who is an expert but who can explain the problem to us in human language, and similarly when we or a loved one falls ill we want a doctor who can explain the situation without us needing to reach for biology or Latin textbooks. In this respect, academics are often useless, and those academics who work in sexuality are, it seems to me, particularly guilty in this regard.
Driven by theory – such as the feminism Jane notes – we are trapped in a language that is not readily comprehended. We privilege that language and in doing so, we can often create the impression of a loss of emotion. Brooke Magnanti has written
an excellent (and accessible) piece entitled ‘The Irrationality of the Anti-Sex Lobby’ in which she argues for the importance of emotion in policy debates, and the failure of many pro-sex academics to use the tool of emotion.
I’ve previously written (apologies, it’s an academic article
), about the way academics often create de-sexed identities in the arena of sexuality studies today in contrast to personal and open narratives of the 1960s, 1970s and to a lesser extent, 80s. Taken together, these ideas form a response to the concerns that Jane expresses.
Whether we are stood in a valley looking at a town, or looking at the same town from the top of a mountain, we are looking at the same thing, but what we see is radically different. Where we are coming from influences in the most profound way, what we can see and conclude.
In place of the mind-fucks that academics often appear to be engaged in, or the over-simplistic and trite press releases that universities push out, academics can engage with their audience, they can be open and forthcoming about who they are and where they come from – as I did in a very small way at the start of this blog – and in doing so re-engage with the notion that academics do not randomly write on areas, we choose areas that we are passionate about and that passion is influenced by our own emotional lives. In framing it in such a way, we can also use the language of the personal, addressing both the points that Magnanti and I have raised. It also enables us to cut through some of the impenetrable language we sometimes resort to, and present our ideas beyond the Ivory Tower – that is to say, beyond the closed community of academics.
This blog is my ever evolving attempt to engage a wider audience of students, academics, activists and anyone touched by law and sexuality – which of course is anyone. I don’t always get it right, as in the case of this bareback group
(warning very NSFW explicit image at the top of the link) who thought I was coming from a position of criticism rather than support. Even the zine pieces I’ve written have been viewed by some as evidencing the ‘out of touch’ nature of academia. Yet, these criticisms have always been outweighed by the messages and emails of kindness and support, of people who welcome this wider engagement.