Tag Archives: academic life

How our contradictions make us human and inspire creativity

(published on AEON, 7/12/16, https://aeon.co/ideas/how-our-contradictions-make-us-human-and-inspire-creativity

Have you ever wondered how many contradictory thoughts you have in a day? How many times your thoughts contradict your actions? How often your feelings oppose your principles and beliefs? Most of the time, we don’t see our own contradictions – it’s often easier to observe such inconsistencies in others. But you are as full of contradictions as I am. We humans are structurally made of contradictions, living peacefully, sometimes painfully, with our oxymoronic selves. Walt Whitman got it right when he wrote in ‘Song of Myself’ (1855):

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Think about buying technological gadgets while opposing child labour and ecological waste, or about condemning theft, then illegally downloading music and movies. Think of those who hold forth about respecting private life, and a moment later post personal photos to Facebook. There are environmentalists who constantly fly, finance traders who care about poverty, and sermonising priests who have lost their faith. Sebastián Marroquín remembers his father singing lullabies while he drifted off to sleep – and his father was the drugs lord Pablo Escobar, the greatest killer in Colombian history. Living a contradictory life is profoundly, perhaps definitively, human.

The American feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott argues that what characterises a critical thinker is the ability ‘to point a finger at contradictions’, but critical thinkers don’t escape contradiction either. In his book Le génie du mensonge (2016) – ‘the genius of lies’ ­– the French philosopher François Noudelmann portrays Michel Foucault invoking the ‘courage of truth’ while hiding his fatal illness, and Jean-Paul Sartre, the intellectuel engagé, playing a very ambiguous role during the Vichy era.

Today, some globalised academics make a lucrative business out of the critique of capitalism. Perhaps contradictions are a necessary ingredient for triggering intellectual creativity. While most humans struggle to maintain a sense of psychological unity, contradictions produce destabilising breaches in the self. Whether conscious or unconscious, these fissures nourish creative inspiration, which can be interpreted as a way to resolve or sublimate internal oppositions. I believe this can be said of all domains of creation. Perhaps art, literature, science or philosophy wouldn’t be possible without intrapersonal contradictions and the desire to resolve them.

Is there anyone who lives according to the Stoic principle of Plutarch, in ‘perfect agreement between the maxims of men and their conduct’? No, but this isn’t always a cause for crisis. We compartmentalise knowledge, practices and emotions. In certain domains of life, some behaviours and thoughts are acceptable but not in others. For instance, lying might be seen as a heroic act when done to protect victims from a brutal regime, but in a friendly relationship it is unbearable. In labs, scientists can produce evidence-based research in the context of their professional lives, then go home and attend religious prayers addressing the existence of invisible entities.

Humans live peacefully with contradictions precisely because of their capacity to compartmentalise. And when contradictory statements, actions or emotions jump out of their contextual box, we are very good, perhaps too good, at finding justifications to soothe cognitive dissonance. An environmentalist friend of mine, to whom I pointed out that smoking is not an ecological act, used to reply: ‘I know, David, but I smoke rolled cigarettes!’ as if rolled cigarettes are less toxic than industrial ones and don’t depend on the destructive industry of tobacco exploitation – which he, of course, condemns.

Contradictions are omnipresent in our intrapersonal life and they are particularly visible when strong beliefs come into play, such as faith, morality, militantism, and so on. In Guinea and Laos, where I’ve conducted my ethnographical research, most people are convinced of the existence of spiritual entities that can transform themselves into a multiplicity of incompatible forms, able to ontologically turn themselves into animals, plants or objects, or to even be invisible, all without the slightest concern for contradiction. Our own popular culture features zombies, alive and dead at the same time, and robots with all-too-human emotions. Our minds are, indeed, full of these entities imbued with contradictory qualities that defy the ‘principle of non-contradiction’. While one thinks that it is impossible to be A and non-A, in fact humans adore entities with incompatible properties. As psychologists of cognition have shown, such contradictions are particularly attractive to the human mind. They challenge core ontological expectations that we have about animals, artifacts or persons. As a consequence, they hold important cognitive salience and memorability.

Things get even more complicated when one moves beyond the confines of the self. Human communication consists of subtle manoeuvres between contradictions, for instance between what is said and what is expressed through gestures and tones. As an individual, one persistently strives at interpreting the contradictory messages of our interlocutors and decoding the inconsistent behaviours that one observes in social life. (The English anthropologist Gregory Bateson and his colleagues at the Palo Alto group in California have lucidly written about these phenomena.)

There are social situations where one is stuck in paradoxical injunctions, for instance when a teacher commands her students to ‘be spontaneous!’ The worst scenarios imply a ‘double bind’ in which infants are wedged in the contradictory emotional demands of their parents. But, there are also many non-pathological settings described by anthropologists, such as rituals, where contradictions are performed and valued as modes of communication. Take the ancient Jewish ‘slapping’ rituals performed at a girl’s first menstruation. In the past, among Eastern European Jews, when a girl told her mother that she’d got her first period, the mother would slap her daughter’s face and, at the same time, exclaim ‘Mazel tov!’ (congratulations). Here, the contradictory nature of the messages constitutes the foundation of the ritual and the necessary ingredients for its efficiency.

Building on the poet John Keats, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in Promises, Promises (2000) describes three ‘negative capabilities’ indispensable to growing into a mature human: the experience of being a nuisance, of getting lost, and of being powerless. I would add one more to that list: the ability to discover and accept our contradictions, even if, at times, we struggle to renounce them.

Comment se débarrasser de son « faux-soi » académique ? 5 principes anti-utilitaristes

Principe de soin :
– Remplacer la compétition par une éthique du soin (pour vous-même et pour les autres). La science n’est pas un massacre, mais plutôt un processus collaboratif de production du savoir.

Principe d’incomplétude :
– Reconnaissez que vous n’avez pas tout lu et que vous ne pouvez pas débattre de tous les sujets. Apprenez à dire : « Je ne connais pas bien Derrida. Peut-être qu’un jour, je le lirai, ou peut-être pas ».

Principe d’honnêteté :
– Entraînez-vous à dire publiquement : « Je ne fais pas de recherche en ce moment, et je n’écris pas ». Quand un collègue vous demande « Sur quoi travaillez-vous actuellement ? » apprenez à dire, « Je ne sais pas. J’enseigne, cela me prend déjà un temps considérable. Je n’ai rien à publier à l’heure actuelle».

Principe d’ironie :
– Garder toujours un regard critique et distancé sur les classements et autres types d’évaluations néolibérales. Ils ne font que rouvrir vos blessures narcissiques.

Principe d’auto-préservation :
– Essayez d’éviter – autant que faire se peut – les collègues toxiques qui ne vous demandent jamais comment vous allez, mais se préoccupent surtout de dresser la liste de leurs propres exploits universitaires et se concentrent sur la glorification de leur CV.

Si ça ne marche pas, doublez la dose et réessayez.

David Berliner, anthropologue.

Como libertar-se de seu falso-eu acadêmico?

– Princípio do cuidado –
Substitua a política de competição por uma ética do cuidado (de si mesmo e dos outros). A ciência trata de conhecimento colaborativo, e não de um massacre.

– Principio da incompletude –
Reconheça que não leu tudo e que não é capaz de debater sobre todos os temas. Aprenda a dizer: “Não sei nada sobre Derrida. Talvez um dia vou lê-lo, ou não”

– Princípio da honestidade –
Tente dizer publicamente: “Não estou investigando nada de novo neste momento, nem estou escrevendo”. Quando um colega te perguntar: “em que estás trabalhando? ”, aprenda a dizer: “não sei (se for o caso). Estou dando aulas e isso me demanda uma quantidade considerável de tempo. Não tenho nada para publicar nesse momento”.

– Princípio da ironia –
Ria criticamente das métricas e outros truques das avaliações institucionais de caráter neoliberal. Elas somente servem para reabrir dolorosamente as suas feridas narcisistas.

– Princípio do auto-preservaçao –
Evite, tanto quanto seja possível, os colegas tóxicos que nunca te perguntam quem és (ou como estás) e somente se limitam em enumerar as suas próprias realizações acadêmicas e se centram em elogiar o seu CV.

—– Se nada disso funcionar, duplique a dose e tente novamente. —–

Cómo liberarte de tu falso yo académico?


Principio del cuidado

Sustituí la política de la competencia por una ética del cuidado (de vos mismo y de otros). La Ciencia se trata del conocimiento colaborativo, y no es una masacre.

Principio de incompletitud

Reconocé que no has leído todo y que no podés debatir sobre todos los temas. Aprendé a decir: “No se nada sobre Derrida. Tal vez un día lo leeré, o no”.

Principio de honestidad

Entrenate para decir públicamente: “No estoy investigando nada nuevo en este momento, ni escribiendo”. Cuando un colega te pregunte “¿en qué estás trabajando?”, aprendé a decir: “No se. Estoy enseñando y eso ya me demanda una cantidad considerable de tiempo. No tengo nada para publicar en este momento”.

Principio de ironía

Reíte críticamente de las métricas y otros trucos de las evaluaciones neoliberales. Sólo sirven para reabrir dolorosamente tus heridas narcisistas.

Principio de Autopreservación

Tratá de evitar, tanto como sea posible, a los colegas tóxicos que nunca te preguntan quién sos, y se limitan a enumerar sus propios logros académicos y se centran en elogiar su cv. Si esto no funciona, duplicá la dosis y volvé a intentarlo.

Fuente: https://www.academia.edu/34347273/How_to_get_rid_of_your_academic_fake-self Traducido al español por Pablo Gustavo Rodriguez

How to get rid of your academic false self?

Principle of care:

– Substitute a politics of competition by an ethics of care (for yourself and for others). Science is about collaborative knowledge and not a massacre.

Principle of incompleteness:

– Acknowledge that you have not read everything and that you cannot debate all topics. Learn to say: “I don’t know anything about Derrida. Maybe one day, I will read him, or not”.

Principle of honesty:

– Train yourself to say publicly: “I am not researching anything new at the moment, nor writing”. When a colleague asks you “what are you working on?”, learn to say “I don’t know. I am teaching and that already takes a considerable amount of time. I have nothing to publish right now”.

Principle of irony:

– Always have a big critical laugh at metrics and other tricks of neoliberal evaluations. They only painfully reopen your narcissistic wounds.

Principle of self-preservation:

– Try to avoid – as much as possible – toxic colleagues who never ask you how you are, but only list their own academic achievements and focus on lauding their cv.

If it doesn’t work, double the dose and try again.

David Berliner, anthropologist.

Academic anxieties

“You start with herbal meds, you end up with Xanax”. This formula summarizes the psychological trajectory of many researchers in academia today. I don’t want to pity them more than other professions that are so much more exposed to the effects of neoliberalism and global burnout. Not all researchers are taking anxiolytics either. Research in the social sciences (I am an anthropologist) is, above all, pleasure: jubilation to solve a scientific puzzle, accumulate facts, read endlessly, the pleasure “to not understand” (says French anthropologist Jean Pouillon) and to propose theoretical models to explain the world (1).

However, unlike the stereotypical view of the researcher as a butterfly collector (for anthropologists: a kind of Indiana Jones always traveling to some exotic country), contemporary academics need to be on many fronts: to publish in the best journals and in different languages​​; to attend dozens of conferences per year while pursuing their research; to teach at their local university and on other continents; to head research programs that will generate money for their universities; to be international and national militants; to mentor their doctoral students; to be useful to their university administration; and so on. These obligations make the researcher a true entrepreneur of his own intellectual life (2). As a matter of fact, the world of research leaves no room for hesitation, wander, doubt and serendipity. Our era is that of the neoliberal intellectual, caught in an economy of citationality, obsessed with its editorial visibility and always with an eye on Academia.edu and Google Scholar. Especially in the social sciences, this neoliberal scholar is nevertheless a fierce and ironic critique of the system. A kind of “neoliberal revolutionary”, as I call it… Beyond the oxymoron, such posture holds incompatible values between claimed romanticism and strategic hyperproduction.

There is, indeed, growing cynicism against these neoliberal conditions in academic worlds. Some, like Rosalind Gill, invite us to break the silence (3). Suffice it to read some posts of The Professor is In (a forum about mental illness in academia: http://theprofessorisin.com/category/mental-illness-and-academia/) to get a sense of the psychological distress experienced by some colleagues. Many academics, young and old alike, are paralyzed by doubt on the legitimacy of their scientific practices. Few researchers still dare to claim this useless part that is essential to research. Is there a place for the researcher who needs time to write (taking into account that one must usually “wait until our fifties to write something worthwhile”, said Bukowski)? Many of us have the feeling of being consenting victims of a system that limits our intellectual freedom. The well-known formula “Publish or perish” is indicative of the alienating regime in which we operate, where access to the most prestigious journals, mostly based in the US and the UK, is the essential criterion for obtaining the best jobs in the best universities (although there exists great initiatives, particularly with regard to Open Access journals such as Hau and Cultural Anthropology). To be efficient, knowledge is compartimentalized to the extent that one can nostalgically dream of a time when an intellectual was at once a physician, an inventor, a naturalist, a philosopher and a poet. Today, “Powerpoint thinking” dominates: simple ideas, concise formulas ready to be consumed fast. Goodbye complexity and interdisciplinary? Adieu the intellectual quest?

At these anxieties of the neoliberal time, increasingly denounced by academics as the success of “manic depression in culture” (4), one can add others inherent to the practice of research, writing and teaching. One of my anthropology students, Edgar Tasia, has just written an excellent Master thesis about these issues (5). Anthropology, because it questions the stability of our certainties, is an anxiety-riddled discipline, as brilliantly discussed by Devereux in his book “De l’angoisse à la méthode” (1980) (6). The deconstruction of these things taken-for-granted, our most familiar and intimate representations of the world, is a destabilizing intellectual enterprise triggering a lot of anxieties. Similarly, for many, writing does not rhyme with inner peace. In the process of writing, the whole organism tenses up. Insomnia is never far away. Teaching is also a real physical exercise. After school, Wittgenstein used to watch movies to let go the tension triggered by teaching. To these one must add: competitions between researchers in an unequal international world; local academic hierarchies (e.g., mentor/PhD student relationships summarized by Georges Steiner as: “I’ll never equal my mentor, but I’d like that, one day, he takes me seriously” (7)); the loneliness of research; rampant gender inequalities; uncertainties about the future (what to do after a PhD? And after the postdoc?); but also the profound psychological identification of researchers with their intellectual production. An article rejected, some aggressive comment from a colleague, and the world seems to collapse. Gregory Bateson, the eminent British anthropologist, wrote: “Some men seem able to go on working steadily with little success and no reassurance from outside. I am not one of these. I have needed to know that somebody else believed that my work had promise and direction, and I have often been surprised that others had faith in me when I had very little in myself” (8).

I have long felt that there was something necessary, exhilarating and suffering in the current academic ethos, torn between romance and overproduction. I participated in it 200%. I met with scepticism discussions about “slow science” inviting us to “slow down” as Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers puts it (9). Not that I wanted to emphasize quantity over quality. Not that I found neoliberal temporality adequate for research. Quite the opposite. But I wanted to accelerate, passionate and excited by my desire to contribute to anthropological knowledge. It also seemed to me that, in some European Universities, we needed more international evaluations and a certain dose of meritocracy against localism and clans. Yet I was also greatly mistaken. In the face of multiple pressures, in the midst of the current evaluative craze, academics also deserve a politics of care, an attitude of concern and responsibility about their vulnerability. This requires, above all, the recognition of the anxieties inherent to their work and the real risk of psychological exhaustion carried out by the neoliberal ethos.

(1) David Berliner. 2013, Le désir de participation ou Comment jouer à être un autre, L’Homme 206 : 151-170.

(2) See Shore, C. N., & McLauchlan, L. 2012. ‘Third Mission’ Activities, Commercialisation and Academic Entrepreneurs. Social Anthropology, 20 (3), 267-286.

(3) Gill, R. 2009. Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. In Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections.London: Routledge

(4) Emily Martin. 2007. Bipolar Expeditions. Mania and Depression in American Culture. Princeton University Press.

(5) Edgar Tasia. 2014 Anxiety anthropologists. The emotional impact of anthropology on the anthropologist. Master’s thesis. ULB.

(6) Georges Devereux. 1980. De l’angoisse à la méthode dans les sciences du comportement. Paris: Flammarion.

(7) Georges Steiner et Cécile Ladjali. 2003. Eloge de la transmission. Paris: Albin Michel.

(8) Gregory Bateson. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

(9) Isabelle Stengers. Une autre science est possible. Paris: La Découverte.

© 2014 David Berliner All Rights Reserved©

Angoisses académiques: de la valériane aux benzos

Tu commences par la valériane, tu termines aux benzodiazépines. Cette formule pourrait résumer la trajectoire psychologique de nombreux chercheurs dans le monde académique d’aujourd’hui. Non qu’il s’agisse de les plaindre plus que d’autres catégories d’acteurs, ceux qui sont tellement plus exposés que nous aux effets du néolibéralisme et du burn-out global, notamment quand règne l’insécurité économique actuelle. Non que tous les chercheurs soient sous anxiolytiques non plus. La recherche en sciences sociales (celle que je connais) est, avant tout, plaisir: jubilation à résoudre une énigme scientifique, suivre des pistes, accumuler des faits, lire à n’en plus finir, un plaisir ressenti « à ne pas comprendre » (écrit Jean Pouillon) et à proposer des modèles théoriques d’explication du monde (1).

Mais, contrairement à l’image d’Epinal d’un chercheur collectionneur de papillons, toujours en vacances et entre deux avions, les académiques se doivent d’être sur de nombreux fronts: publier dans les meilleures revues et dans toutes les langues, se rendre à des centaines de conférences tout en poursuivant leurs recherches, enseigner ici et sur d’autres continents, diriger des programmes de recherches qui permettront de dégager des fonds pour leurs universités, être des acteurs internationaux et nationaux engagés, encadrer leurs doctorants, se soumettre à des évaluations régulières, être utiles à la société et à leur administration universitaire, et j’en passe. Autant de devoirs qui font du chercheur un véritable entrepreneur de sa propre existence intellectuelle. Le monde de la recherche ne laisse désormais plus de place à l’hésitation, à l’errance, au doute, à la serendipité. Notre ère est celle de l’intellectuel néolibéral: pris dans une économie de la citationalité, souvent obsédé par sa visibilité, il se veut aussi, surtout dans le domaine des sciences sociales, un dénonciateur ironique de ce système. Un révolutionnaire néolibéral, en quelque sorte… Par-delà l’oxymoron, il s’agit d’une position de grand écart, souvent intenable entre romantisme affirmé et hyperproduction stratégique.

De fait, dans le même temps, se développe un cynisme croissant à l’égard desdites conditions. Nombreux sont les jeunes et moins jeunes paralysés par le doute sur la légitimé de leur pratique scientifique. “A quoi sert notre discipline”? est la question existentielle la plus fréquemment posée par mes étudiants qui, souvent, succombent au diktat de l’utilité. Et ne croyez pas qu’elle soit réservée aux étudiants! Rares sont les chercheurs qui osent encore revendiquer cette part d’inutile, pourtant essentielle à la recherche. L’ère néolibérale ne cesse de nous grignoter cette liberté. Nombreux sont ceux qui ont le sentiment d’être les “victimes consentantes” d’un système qui leur échappe. Pour être l’éditeur d’un revue scientifique, je suis bien conscient du régime aliénant dans lequel nous fonctionnons, où l’accès aux revues les plus prestigieuses, aux mains de multinationales de l’édition, constitue le critère indispensable d’obtention des meilleurs jobs dans les meilleures universités (bien qu’existent désormais de belles initiatives, notamment en matière d’Open Access avec les revues Hau et Cultural Anthropology). S’y ajoute une hypercompartimentalisation des savoirs, qui peut faire rêver nostalgiquement d’un temps où un intellectuel était tout à la fois médecin, inventeur, naturaliste, philosophe et poète. La pensée “powerpoint” : des idées simples, des formules lapidaires, bonnes à circuler et à consommer rapidos. Adieu la complexité, l’interdisciplinarité, la quête intellectuelle?

A ces angoisses du temps que dénoncent de plus en plus d’académiques s’en ajoutent d’autres, inhérentes à la pratique de la recherche, de l’écriture et de l’enseignement. L’un de mes étudiants en anthropologie, Edgar Tasia, vient d’écrire un mémoire de Master passionnant sur ces questions (2). L’anthropologie, parce qu’elle questionne la stabilité de nos certitudes, est une discipline anxiogène, comme l’avait déjà brillamment annoncé Devereux dans son ouvrage “De l’angoisse à la méthode” (1980). La déconstruction de ces choses qui vont de soi, de nos représentations du monde les plus familières et les plus intimes, est une entreprise déstabilisante et productrice d’angoisses. De même, pour beaucoup, écrire ne rime pas avec paix intérieure. Dans l’écriture, tout l’organisme se crispe. Les insomnies suivront, et ce alors que le chercheur doit souvent “attendre la cinquantaine avant d’écrire quelque chose de valable” (suivant le mot de Bukowski dans “Women”). Enseigner est aussi un véritable exercice physique. Après ses cours, Wittgenstein allait au cinéma voir un Western pour faire redescendre la tension suscitée par l’enseignement face à un public. A cela, il faut ajouter les compétitions entre chercheurs dans un monde international inégalitaire, les hiérarchies académiques locales (notamment, le rapport professeur/thésard que Georges Steiner résume ainsi: “Je ne vais jamais l’égaler, mais j’aimerais bien qu’un jour il me prenne au sérieux”), la solitude de la recherche, les inégalités de genre, l’incertitude du lendemain (que faire après la thèse? Et après le postdoc?), mais aussi l’identification profonde des chercheurs avec leur travail. Un article rejeté, le commentaire agressif d’un collègue sur sa recherche, et tout se passe comme si le monde s’effondrait. Gregory Bateson, l’éminent anthropologue britannique, écrivait d’ailleurs : “J’ai toujours eu besoin de savoir que les autres croient en mon travail, à son sens et à son avenir. <…> J’ai souvent été étonné de la confiance qu’on me faisait, alors que moi-même, je n’en avais que très peu” (Vers une écologie de l’esprit 1977). Enfin, de ces millions de mots et de paroles que nous proférons, nous chercheurs nomades d’aujourd’hui, combien laisseront donc une trace? Il a bien raison Tchekov: “Oui, on nous oubliera. C’est notre sort, rien à faire. Un temps viendra où tout ce qui nous paraît essentiel et très grave sera oublié, ou semblera futile. Curieux, mais il nous est impossible de savoir aujourd’hui ce qui sera considéré comme élevé et grave, ou comme insignifiant et ridicule”.

J’ai longtemps considéré qu’il y avait quelque chose de nécessaire, de grisant et de souffrant, dans l’éthos académique actuel, écartelé entre romantisme et hyperproduction. J’y ai participé à 200%. J’ai accueilli avec scepticisme les discours sur “la slow science” (qui nous invitent à “ralentir”, comme le souligne Isabelle Stengers dans “Une autre science est possible” en 2013). Non que je ne souhaite privilégier la qualité sur la quantité, non que je trouve la temporalité néolibérale adéquate au temps de la recherche. Bien au contraire. Mais, personnellement, je voulais accélérer, passionné et exalté par mon désir de contribuer au savoir anthropologique. Puis, cela sentait trop les dénonciations habituelles de l’américanisation du monde universitaire. Il me semblait aussi que nous avions besoin de davantage d’évaluations internationales et de méritocratie contre le localisme et les clanismes. Je le pense toujours, tout en observant avec inquiétude le “tout-évaluatif” d’aujourd’hui.

Pourtant, je me suis aussi largement trompé. Car, face aux pressions multiples qui s’exercent sur eux, les chercheurs ont aussi droit à une politique du care, une attitude de souci et de responsabilité face à leur vulnérabilité. Cela passe avant tout par une reconnaissance de la dimension anxiogène de leur travail et du risque très réel d’épuisement des individus que charrie l’éthos néolibéral.

(1) David Berliner. 2013, Le désir de participation ou Comment jouer à être un autre, L’Homme 206 : 151-170.

(2) Edgar Tasia. 2014. Angoisses d’anthropologues. De l’impact émotionnel de l’anthropologie sur l’anthropologue. Mémoire de Master. ULB.