“…and if I could, I would open up a research institute that would see and set visibility and all those values as institutionalised assets. However, at the same time, the ability to open up is also a privilege, but I do think we can change our surroundings in a way that it’s getting easier for those who want to do so.”
These were the words of a friend as reaction to my manifesto bit about radical self-expression and working in academia. I feel I could expand on the topic of visibility. Last November I attended a Young ECREA panel on neo-liberalisation of research production, and I remember professor Kees Brants stating in a rather amused manner he is able to say whatever he wants, when he wants it due to his secured position (tenure-track, professorship), as the little harm others can do to him is negligible. At the same time, he did acknowledge this is privilege. The relativity of privilege becomes more apparent if I compare myself to professor Brants: I am what I call a “precarious academic”, meaning I am not on a tenure-track; my academic career (at the moment my only source of income) depends on my ability to obtain temporary employment in the context of research grants and fellowships (or other unpredictable opportunities), while being invited to collaborate in research projects (in the fortunate event those projects get funded) depends on other people’s opinion about my expertise and my qualities as a co-worker and person. I suspect it also depends on my potential colleagues’ and employers’ views (and prejudices) on what constitutes the moral substance of a researcher. Or on what a fellow’s attire should look like (see my post entitled Do not hide who you are), especially if said fellow is a woman. Speaking of which, I do hail from Eastern Europe and have worked in Central Europe for the past 3 years, and sexism in academia is still very much alive and kicking hereabouts. So there’s that. However, compared to grad students (who are highly dependent on securing the good graces of their coordinators), or even tenure-track teaching positions in faculties, where one is more exposed to the scrutiny and judgement of colleagues and higher-ups from the department, being just a research fellow sort of feels like a privilege in terms of professed and practised visibility.
As a general rule, the separation between work life and private life is quite strict among academics. It’s all about maintaining boundaries and control over one’s image. Moreover, living in the surveillance culture turns privacy into a highly coveted product and exposure into something to be avoided. In the logic of living our lives according to what other people think, of constantly calculating how our actions are perceived, judged and sanctioned by others, concealing is a better surviving strategy than exposure. But more than responding to actual threats of exposure, living in the panopticon of surveillance has also made us paranoid. I was commenting in this article after ECREA 2014 conference, what the post-Snowden era means for how we think about privacy, visibility and exposure, especially in the context of social media:
[In the classical Bentham panopticon], “the inmates feel they are being watched from the control tower in the center of the prison, but never know for sure if and when. It occurred to me that the alienation we experience construes itself in a reverse-panopticon, where the certainty of surveillance (I know for sure I am being watched) is never felt, never experienced at a personal level”.
Privacy is also a granular, “selective control of access to the self”1, more than a 0-1 binary construct. So when it comes to deciding who has access to what when interacting with different publics (colleagues, students, supervisors, others), I feel fellow academics favour privacy over visibility. Placing higher value on visibility than on privacy is thus counter-intuitive.
At the same time, the appetite for idle gossip is considerable among academics – it is more tasteful to gossip than to expose yourself, in the manner that noblemen and noble ladies of the court would thrive on discussing one another by whispering in the corners of the salons but strictly refrain from openly admitting they hate each other’s guts. That would be un-civilised, not courtois, the opposite of self-controlled and contained behaviour. There is an enforced shame in being too visible, the indecency of too much exposure recalling British attitudes regarding “minding one’s own business” and keeping private matters behind closed doors (note: unsurprisingly, the Brits are heavy gossipers, according to Kate Fox2) [note: I sort of have a hunch that gossip is more prevalent in more hierarchical structures, e.g. a faculty departments, than in horizontal ones, such as a research institutes; maybe someone can shed some light on this].
To sum up, I agree with my friend, there is (relative) privilege in visibility, but also inherent risks. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Expansion occurs out of the comfort zone, and taking risk is crucial for our own emotional and mental health, we were not meant to die having lived cautiously and carefully. There are costs to being visible. At any time, someone might decide that my lifestyle and life choices are not compatible with whatever standard they deem valuable, and might forgo working with me. On the flip side, this leaves more room for those who appreciate me to step forward.
1Altman, I. (1975). The environment and social behaviour: privacy, personal space, territory, crowding. Brooks: Monterey.
2Fox, K. (2004). Watching the English. The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder & Stoughton.