Some time ago I proposed five principles for getting rid of one’s academic false self (https://f.hypotheses.org/68). I intended to drop the masks (mine first) by exposing the oppressive role-play that alienates many of us in the contemporary scientific ecosystem and generates psychological disorders, sometimes severe, too often kept in silence. The values of competition materialized in the diktat of the evaluations and a temporality of urgency, the precariousness and the scarcity of the accessible positions as well as the various loads once one is “inside,” have come to aggregate with the inherent pathogenic conditions to the practice of research—the need for recognition, the existence of castes and inequalities, loneliness. A toxic cocktail, devastating in the absence of an ethic of care, which affects especially the most vulnerable academic categories (doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, adjuncts, young teachers, etc., this “cannon fodder” of the university institution), but not only.
Invented by Winnicott, the notion of “false self” seemed relevant to me to capture some of the aspects of our loyalty to an alma mater. The false self is a set of attitudes deployed by the toddler to adapt to the needs of a failing environment. In Winnicott’s model, when a mother is not a good caregiver, because she is depressed for example, the infant comes to react to her stimuli and generate a false self, a second skin that not only hides and protects, but also anticipates and complies with the mother’s demands. Unable to do otherwise, her development is constrained by the emotional failure represented by the mother when she is not “good enough.”
It is difficult to compare the dual relationship of a mother and her child to that of an individual within an institutional ecosystem. Yet, there seems to be shared ingredients. Without infantilizing them, doctoral students and young researchers are helpless, at the mercy of their professional environment. The thesis supervisor’s face functions as the mirror in which, according to Winnicott, the mother gives the infant a reflection of herself. The very first months spent in a laboratory are decisive in the development of a scientific being-in-the-world, while the novice grasps herself in the specular capture of the eyes of elders and peers. By observing and participating, without a clear pedagogy, she acquires the categories, the practices and the implicit rules of the environment, as well as many stimuli to which she will learn to react. Gradually, she internalizes them and her reactions become like a second skin. Today’s academic system is, in many aspects and in many parts of the world, failing. It deploys a competitive ethos emphasizing exploits and trophees (i.e. publish in the best journals, have read everything, etc., with an eye on rankings and other types of evaluations). It glorifies the absence of boundaries between scientific and private life, thus the inevitable exhaustion of scientists in their work. It promotes the silencing of negative emotions. And meanwhile pervades a societal contradictory discourse on the necessity and, at the same time, the meaninglessness of research.
Undoubtedly, the quest for scientific knowledge stricto sensu brings jubilation and a lot of positive feelings. However, too often, the academic ecosystem does not have the dimension of “holding” so dear to Winnicott, this capacity to welcome researchers’ anxieties and to hold their creativity. Immersed in this gray area that is called “intellectual passion,” we are willing to accept the potential toxicity of the environment that holds us, as a toddler would adapt to a depressed mother. Soon, as we become our own Orwellian “Big Brother,” we will flagellate ourselves to comply with the ecosystem demands, both our protector and our torturer. The institution will survive. No doubt many of us find in there the perfume of the failing environments that we have already known before.
So, the question is: how to build a “good enough” academic community (made of solicitude, honesty, incompleteness, joyful irony and self-preservation) ?