Like many of you, no doubt, I have been watching The Handmaid’s Tale. The first episode includes a scene of (what Atwood called) particicution (combining the words “participation” and “execution”) where the handmaids kill an alleged rapist with their bare hands. I struggled to fall asleep afterwards for thinking about brutality and complicity. So, ever the academic, I read a journal article on complicity and resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood’s novel ends with the transcript of a speech by Professor Pieixoto at a Gileadean studies conference in 2195. Stillman and Johnson (1994) describe it thus:
Professor Pieixoto of Cambridge University gives a paper on Offred’s tale to an audience that applauds frequently, asks no questions, and raises no objections to his (quite objectionable) interpretation. Neither Pieixoto nor his audience feel with others: they are not open to others, to the experiences of others, to the possible validity and meaning of the reports, concerns, and interests of others…
The conferees, like many academics, do not act—or rather, their only actions are their words. Their word play may satisfy them, give them a sense of identity, and ensure their self-created superiority and power of interpretation over Offred and her tale. But as they gain that identity and superiority—through Pieixoto’s words, the chair’s acquiescence in them, and the audience’s laughter and applause—they make themselves complicit in sexism, thoughtlessness and lack of feeling for Gilead’s victims and a lack of concern to avoid another Gilead (Stillman & Johnson, 1994, p 82).
I’ve been thinking about complicity and academia this week. My daughter continues to be in and out of hospital, having frequent (but fewer and shorter) seizures. She requires constant supervision. We haven’t spent this much time together since she was a newborn! I have been getting some work done—thanks to the care of grandparents, the use of fringe time and understanding colleagues. I am focussing on achieving one task per day.
Last week, I submitted a book chapter for the forthcoming collection Lived Experiences of Women in Academia edited by Alison L. Black and Susanne Garvis. Ali Black was aware of the context in which I was writing—indeed, as you read in my last post, I wrote about my daughter in the chapter. In her email reply she wrote (and I quote with permission):
I feel so torn that you are sending me your chapter amongst all of this, and suddenly feel part of the deadening academic machine that causes us to juggle work amongst such precious things as our children and their health and lives.
I am thankful to Ali for her thoughtfulness and feeling.
Last week also saw the publication of a special issue of Australian Universities’ Review on Activism and the Academy I co-edited with Karina Luzia and Kate Bowles. (Take that Stillman and Johnson’s (1994) with your jarring statement that “academics do not act” and denigration of the power of words!). In future posts, I will highlight other papers, but for thinking about complicity in the deadening academic machine I recommend reading Niki Harré, Barbara M. Grant, Kirsten Locke and Sean Sturm’s The University as an Infinite Game:
In the university, as in life, there are two kinds of games. One is the infinite game, the purpose of which is to keep the game in play and invite others in; the other is finite games, in which the purpose is to win (Carse, 1986; Harré, in press). The infinite game is a symbol of our potential as people living together to be open and inclusive, and to promote the life, and growth, that helps us flourish as individuals and communities. This game imagines a world in which our heartfelt, personal response to life, our deep listening to others (especially those who don’t fit in), and our careful observations and thought about the social, natural and physical world come together to create and recreate our institutions.
We are readily complicit in the finite games of academia. I have touched on these ideas in previous posts about quantified academia and the academic machine. As Harré and colleagues put it, we are “non-innocent … compromised” players. There is hope. I love the picture the authors paint of the gently activist possibilities enabled by focussing on the infinite game. Let’s play.