Presentation Fever and Podium Affects - Yasmin Gunaratnam

In her book ‘Dust’, Carolyn Steedman, gives a visceral account of Jacques Derrida’s, ‘Archive Fever’ (1). Steedman's fever breaks out during her archival research, most often in the twilight hours, in a dodgy low-budget hotel. Unable to sleep, the historian tries her best to avoid the grubby blankets and debris left behind by other bodies. Obsessing about the bed, Steedman confides, is a screen anxiety,

What keeps you awake, the sizing and starch in the thin sheets dissolving as you turn again and again within their confines, is actually the archive, and its myriads of the dead, who all day long, have pressed their concerns upon you…You think: I could get to hate these people; and then: I can never do these people justice; and finally: I shall never get it done. (p.17-18)

My screen anxiety during fieldwork also comes out in insomnia and when I do manage to fall asleep, teeth grinding. Like Steedman, I worry myself silly about the amount of work that I need to do and failing those I have met, whether in the flesh or in the archive. At night, when all sense of the duration of a second, a minute, an hour is wildly distorted, feelings flare up from a low grade anxiety into something more crazy and metallic.

With me, the fever seeps out from fieldwork into the public presentation of my work, when research responsibilities meet the weight of institutional and disciplinary orthodoxies and rituals of public performance. It is a tension captured by Gayatri Spivak’s notion of ethical responsibility, as being `caught between an ungraspable call and a setting-to-work' (p.23). This ‘setting-to-work’ has different facets to it in Higher Education, depending on who you are and where you are. Black scholars - those who have ticked the cramped and flawed boxes of Black African/Black Caribbean/Black other - are especially marginalised and vulnerable in the UK. Of the UK’s 18,500 professors in 2013, 85 were black, 17 were black women. Recent initiatives, such as ‘Why is my curriculum white?” and ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’ have unearthed how racism and other forms of institutional power weigh down and damage both teachers and students. We can be subject to, and feel, what Nirmal Puwar describes, via Franz Fanon, as ‘super-surveillance’. For Puwar, ‘bodies that are out of place have to work harder to convince people that they are capable’ (p.61). Out-of-placeness, super-surveillance and 'presumed incompetence' are electrified when we take up public space.

Despite technological advances, there has been surprisingly little change in academic habits or in what is expected of speakers. Paternalistic authority and certain bodily dispositions are still prized. The physical layout of conferences and seminars speaks volumes of the tenacity of these outmoded conventions. In an article, ‘Shape Structures Story’, Rosemary Garland Thomson, contrasts the habitat of conferences for disabled people with “wheelchairs, sign language interpreters, personal assistants, closed captioning screens, white canes, speech synthesizers, crutches, service dogs” (p.120), and more traditional academic gatherings. In Garland Thomson’s view, “There’s a sense that much more is going on here than at more ordinary conferences, where everybody just sits quietly and unobtrusively in rows of chairs staring intently at a placid speaker behind the podium”. If we stop to think about the set-up of public events for bodies that are not healthy or are disabled, what is valued and expected – confidence, fluency, succinctness, clarity in speech, standing, the long days, the packed programmes, the podium itself – are ridiculously unimaginative.

Photo by Media Diversified

Photo by Media Diversified

In my work on diasporic dying, I have long been struck by the recurring metaphor of tightrope walking, used by care professionals to convey the perilous inching along between the extremes of ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it wrong’. It’s a vivid image of precarity; of balancing knowledge, training, risk, intuition and skill. The unpredictable moment-by-momentness of it comes close to what speaking in public can feel like, particularly with some audiences. Behind a podium or table, often being the only woman or speaker of colour at an event - sometimes feeling that this might be the reason I have been invited - and looking out into a sea of institutionalised sameness is destabilising, even scary. A lifetime of disparate insecurities can condense. The times that I have been been among a diverse panel of speakers are so rare that they stand out as treasures.

If you are a minoritised scholar in the social sciences or humanities, talking about marginalised experiences, or perhaps drawing on your own life, you can find yourself up against the recursive entanglements of what Miranda Fricker calls ‘hermeneutical injustice’. Hermeneutical injustice is at play, Fricker believes, “when someone’s testimony is not squarely disbelieved but a conceptual impoverishment in a particular culture prevents that person from being able to clearly articulate their testimony” (p.533).

A danger of an awareness of hermeneutical injustice, as it plays out for speakers, is that it can nourish self-delusion or defensiveness. If we haven’t put enough time or care into our research and preparation, the chances are that our ideas will be poorly articulated. More perversely, thanks to liberal paternalism, sloppy, superficial presentations can seem as if they have gone down well. “I keep seeing intensely performative ~love~ of black women by white women on Twitter”, the journalist Julia Carrie Wong, tweeted recently, “that feels less abt the object of love than the subject”. If we are already feeling insecure, needy or defensively arrogant, it’s much easier to believe the hype than to take a long critical look at the quality of our work. The other side of this, as Ann Phoenix has pointed out, is that when women of colour speak or write, our theorising is received as personal experience. For some of us, our theory is less theoretical.

 

Sara Ahmed's thoughts on the fragility of the figure of the feminist killjoy describe some of the mixed-up energies and histories that I have begun to think of as ‘podium affects’. There are projections, selective hearing, pre-emptive judgements and the huge emotional labour that we often put into not being the killjoy who disrupts a seemingly congenial atmosphere with too much critique. These are political feelings for Ahmed. At the same time, she cautions, we should be alert to the consequences of what we do in order to survive. Drawing from Audre Lorde, Ahmed writes,

I have shared this quote from Audre Lorde before: “in order to withstand the weather we had to become stone.” Becoming stone: it is a requirement to harden in order to survive the weather, the relentless pounding on the surface of the body. But she was also saying here something even more challenging. That by becoming stone, by making ourselves into harder matter, matter that will less easily shatter, we might harden ourselves from each other; we might in becoming less soft, be less able to receive each other’s impression.

To create opportunities for dialogue, rather than to profess without engagement requires vulnerability and what Sayantani Das Gupta, in the context of medicine, calls ‘narrative humility’; being open to others and to being undone. I think of its opposite, narrative arrogance, as a speakerly version of what queer theorists have identified as a ‘paranoid’ stance, where the critic is sovereign, "knowing, when others do not, the hidden contingencies of what things really mean" (Weigman, 2014, p.7).

Of course, it’s impossible to know in advance whether openness to others will be part of a generative dialogue or will lead to something altogether more destructive, but the institutional and epistemic conditions in which we speak play a hefty part. For the feminist writer and activist, Rahila Gupta, the movement of othered bodies into public spaces raises difficult questions: “When we are accommodated by the powers that be, is that a sign that our ideas have lost their radical edge? Is that necessarily a bad thing? Could it indicate that public opinion has shifted in our direction? Should we take that as a sign of our success?”

There is a lively body of writing on the politics of conferences, the curriculum and the classroom. There is still relatively little on the phenomenology and politics of presenting. Without these wider discussions, do we risk pathologising or misreading the bodily signs and sensations of presentation fever, recreating a Cartesian mind/body divide that valorises disembodied ideas and a mutated version of Donna Haraway's 'modest witness' (2)?

And let's not forget the after-affects. You’ve finished your talk and responded in the Q&A to the thoughtful gifts, barbed firecrackers and the monologues from those I think of as optometrists ('I' specialists). You’ve mingled afterwards and you may even have received further comments and thoughts through email or social media. Although I feel as if I absolutely know when a presentation has gone badly, I never really know how a talk has gone - ‘gone’ in the sense of journeyed. Feelings of bewilderment and loss accompany any presentation because of the peculiar mix of intimacy and distance involved. Inevitably, as the sociologist Erving Goffman believed, the ‘speaker and the audience rightfully return to the flickering, cross-purposed, messy irresolution of their own unknowable circumstances’ (p.195).

I have lived with the somatisations of presentation fever as inconvenient, annoying and sometimes exhausting personal foibles. I think it’s time to listen to our-selves more carefully. And to take seriously - and collectively -  what our insomnia, worn-down teeth, racing hearts and nervousness might be trying to tell us.

Notes

1. Derrida gave the lecture "Archive Fever' at the Freud Museum in London, in 1994. It was a rumination on what’s going on between the texts preserved in an archive and subconscious memories as repressed truths.

2. Haraway discusses the modest witness in relation to Robert Boyle's public experiments with the air pump. Haraway's argument is that in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, ideas about the scientist as an impartial observer and knower became embodied in white, propertied men and a certain organisation and control of public space. According to Haraway,

"...the modest witness is the legitimate and authorized ventriloquist for the object world, adding nothing from his mere opinions, from his biasing embodiment. And so he is endowed with the remarkable power to establish the facts. He bears witness: he is objective; he guarantees the clarity and purity of objects. His subjectivity is his objectivity. His narratives have a magical power — they lose all trace of their history as stories, as products of partisan projects, as contestable representations, or as constructed documents in their potent capacity to define the facts. The narratives become clear mirrors, fully magical mirrors, without once appealing to the transcendental or the magical." (p.24)