A Report for an Academy

by Aleksandra Jach

If one can be good scholar and at the same time not being interested in storytelling? I was wondering when taking a part in Jonas Anshelm seminar on which we were discussing process of structuring research material and building from it a scientific paper, which should pass through peer reviews. I would like to follow up in a moment we finished our meeting, because of the lack of time, when we came to the conclusion that storytelling which derives from riches of sources, mixing historical perspectives, jumping, as almost in effortless manner, from intimate encounter with the topic to analysis of scientific papers. It’s so easily to feel enchanted by the literature and adequately – I don’t know many people who feel the same toward the academic journals. Important question which was raised during our conversation was the question of labour management on the universities, and schedules of our researches, when very often so easily we feel that to stay up-to-date with all the publications which are released on and on, we switched our reading and writing mode to less time consuming scheme of mediating our knowledge. This economy of attention which has a lot to do with neoliberal conditions of academic work transformed our creativeness toward solutions fast and efficient. What I can gain from this text? What it can gives me? Is it possible to short it down? Let’s read only abstract and conclusion!

I believe, that this problem relates not only specifically to an academics, but it affect also a people who want to really study something and share their knowledge with somebody. Montaigne defined skilled writer as somebody who has this ability of inviting other people to the conversation. Her texts are just a tool to create kind of community within each of the members feels invited to add something and elaborate together on a different topics. Significant change which occured during the time which passed from the Renaissance is that our storytelling, writing, reading, mediating our knowledges were globalized. One of the faces of this process is a consensus of many of peer-reviewed journals to publish in English or to discuss our thoughts on the conferences in the same language. But it is not the case of specific vocabulary, tenses, grammatical rules and spelling, but all the material and semantic references which, by strenghtening unification of the languages, become universal. One would ask why to bother – now, we can share our thoughts with all over the world, but at the same time we are naturalizing very specific cultural values as set of references we should use.

Beside my great admire for writers as Donna Harway, Tim Igold or Anna Tsing, who shaped my thinking about nature, culture, life, communities, sex, gender, aesthetics, environment, humanities and many, many other things, I have to admit that sometimes when I reference to their works I feel not comfortable in a full way. The case is that the pattern of their experience as scholars who were educated in American-British context, clashes with my own „cultural traits”. When reading beautiful book „Primate Visions” by Donna Haraway, and when I’m following the story, by which we – as a readers – are visiting Natural History Museum in New York with her and we are entering the hall confronted with spectacular XIX century dioramas with egzotic animals, I cannot stop to think about small The Tatra Museum in Zakopane when I for the first time stand eye in eye with the brown bear. He was stuffed as animals desribed by Donna Haraway, but for me, as a child, his presence was as much striking, as New York specimens.

So what makes a good story? And who actually would read it and become a member of imagined community, community to come, which can/should organized itself around the text? How not to be reductionist trying to respond on academic standards of mediating knowledges? How to save the complexity of our experiences within humanities and not only these environmental?

There is a story of an ape which was caught in the Gold Coast of Africa. The name of our character is Red Peter and we are meeting him, when he performs his process of becoming „almost a human” in front of the academy, in front of a people, who, how we can assume, will judge after, if the process of building a human (from an ape) was a success. Red Peter admits at the beggining that actually he doesn’t have an access to his life as an ape anymore, and by this statement he proves that nothing can disturb his identification with humans. His memory, especially these part which is formed by the language (we don’t know what is going on with his affects!), is reduced to what he has been told and learnt after his capture in Africa. But still, in few parts of his story, we feel that there is still an ape in Red Peter. We can say that he is more than human, more than ape, and more than the each of it separately. By his unique experience, he created heterogenous identity by which he responded on the demands of the environment, but at the same time, he didn’t forgot what constituted him.

I repeat: I felt no desire to imitate men; I imitated them because I was seeking a way out, and for no other reason. Nor did that first triumph take me far. (…) If I consider my development and the goal it has so far reached, I can neither complain nor can I feel satisfied. With my hands in my trouser pockets, my bottle of wine on the table, I half lie, half sit in my rocking-chair and look out of the window. If a visitor comes, I receive him politely. My manager sits in the ante-room; when I ring he comes and listens what I have to say. (…) When I come home late at night from banquetes, from scientific receptions, from informal gatherings with friends, a little half-trained chimpanzee is awaiting me and I enjoy her company. (…) By day I have no wish to see her; for she has that wild, confused look of the trained animal in her eye; no one but me can recognize it, and it is more than I can bear. 

So what we can learn from this story for training ourselves as academics, as intellectuals, as people who want to read and write in a participatory way. A way, which invites others, human and non-human. I believe that the most inspiring storytellers remind us unceasingly that we shouldn’t reduce ourselves to Homo Academicus and they encourage us to stay with the trouble and remember about our more-than-human origins and being. Don’t let subjugate multiple voices, identities, biogragraphies which make your writing. Perform incoherencies, inconsistencies and difficulties!

Further reading:

Franz Kafka (1917), A Report for an Academy.

Donna Haraway (1989), Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, Routledge: New York and London.

Tim Ingold (2011), Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Routledge, London.

Anna Tsing (2004), Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton University Press.


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