Academically Speaking (4/4)

So what can we learn from Yusuf Ali and his brilliant oratory today? Firstly, that however dominant some modes of speech (and some speaking bodies) are, inciting difference has actual value and can generate results even in the most conservative of contexts. It would be naïve to think that bringing more diversity to public debates is easy, but it can be done. However, doing so would probably require some cultural work in rethinking what counts as an authoritative, scientific or ‘expert’ voice and what is sounds like. Again, one could conclude that it is a simple matter of assimilation: if experts would learn to speak ‘like’ politicians, maybe they could be included more in the range of public voices heard as appealing, acceptable or present. But, as I suggested before, many experts already share a lot of their cultural values, practices and tacit assumptions with those who govern, and have to a large degree been cast in the same mold.

In fact, quite a number of the expert voices we do get to hear, at the moment, are very comparable to the very visible speakers of the Victorian debating club. Those who, by virtue of their privileged backgrounds and conventional faces, could profit from the equation between presence and voice and can ‘get away’ with somewhat unconventional behavior. The Cambridge Union recorded, around 1890, a speaker who “caused great merriment by imitating the action of Ulysses, with an umbrella” – something a South Asian speaker would not have been able to afford to do. Not entirely unlike these charming eccentrics of the Union, a number of (highly educated, white, male, ablebodied, etc) experts are now ‘getting away’ with modes of speech that would otherwise set them apart as incomprehensible outsiders. Insisting on ‘only relying on the numbers’, ‘viruses don’t have ideologies’ or ‘just looking at the science and not letting politics interfere’, many of them -unwittingly, perhaps- rehearse exactly the kind of combative political discourse that has made experts invisible in the first place, and reinforces the distinction between the worlds of politics and science.

Insisting on an intrinsic modesty or political neutrality of scientific speech, however, is not only ineffective, it would also be dishonest – or at the very least naïve. What we do as researchers and scientists is political, and what we say in public is even more so, whether we like it or not. Insisting on some intrinsic difference between the political and the scientific voice is, therefore, likely to be counterproductive. Meanwhile, simple assimilation into the current rules of political persuasion would likely erase the potential for diversity and difference that public debates so desperately need. A catch 22 we’ve known before, of course, but one that seems more important now, especially for those who find themselves in a position of being compelled to speak about their experiences and expertise, without being offered a platform.

For the ‘true’ subaltern group, whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself, the intellectual’s solution is not to abstain from representation. (Spivak, 1988)

So what do we do, when we find ourselves in a speaking culture that is designed to exclude us? Or, more poignantly, what do we do when we find ourselves being given a platform because we live in culture that is designed to include us and afford us presence – and to deny it to others? We do what we’ve learned as overachieving first-generation insecure students: learn to master the language of power better than its native speakers, without forgetting to “gild” their “trite truisms” with the precious knowledge we carry with us from our plethora of different ethnic, geographic, class,…backgrounds. We turn to our brilliant friends and colleagues and push them forward where we can, amplifying those voices that should be present, muting our own where they are not needed or relevant. But most of all, we listen, and work to develop the skill to hear voices where our prestigious educations have taught us to hear noise.

This is what I hope my frivolous inessential course will do for my students: to help them develop an ‘ear’ for divergent voices, the skill of listening critically to public speech and recognize that what ‘power’ sounds like is a cultural construct, ready to be undercut by a skilful listener. To understand the situatedness of all voices in the public sphere and to reflect on the ‘presence’ of academic, political and activist discourse in our current soundscape of crisis. And maybe, having learned to listen analytically, critically and empathically, they will also develop the necessary skills to speak up and claim some presence for themselves. Because in all the clamour about who can or should decide how we should live in this new world of distance and digitalization, and in debates about the quality and values of our lives in the face of disease … it is the voice of the future leaders, experts, key workers and thinkers, that I would love to hear more.

Academically Speaking (3/4)

The philosophical tradition of equating speech with presence (including all its ableist complications) is alive and kicking today in politics as well as in (social) media. Most democratic systems suggest, in one way or another, that a universal ability to speak ensures equal access to political influence for all citizens, we can all speak up, we can all let our ‘voices’ heard on the ballot. Protest movements, though critical of this discourse of equal access, also tap into the narrative of voice as presence. We are not present in or represented by the formal chambers of politics, these movements seem to say, so we will make ourselves present by other, but equally vocal, means. We’ll shout if we have to. And thus the MeToo movement claimed to finally allow women’s voices to be heard, Black Lives Matter pointed at the importance of the presence and re-presentations of Afro-Americans and POC more generally in decision making (and indeed simply in the world). Even disability advocacy groups, for whom the simplistic democratic claim that political equity can be reached by giving everybody the right to speak, without any consideration of their effective ability to do so, have relied on this narrative. Nothing about us without us claimed a place at the table for people with disabilities and impediments, often by framing this as a way to make their voices heard, and make them count.

As a large number of such movements have had to discover rather painfully, however, simply raising one’s voice does not bestow influence. What the Western tradition equating voice with presence has all too often failed to acknowledge is that not every sound produced by a human who demands to be heard, is heard as ‘voice’. Many, of course, have not even been recognized as human for large parts of history (Bourke, 2011). In order to count as voice, as something to pay attention to, an utterance must not only be launched from a body that is recognized as fully human, it must also fulfil a number of cultural expectations regarding what a voice is, or what it sounds like. Otherwise, it risks being confused for ‘noise’. Historical explorers failed to hear ‘voice’ and the potential of language in the sounds made by numerous indigenous people. Many of us now dismiss children’s tantrums as noise disturbing our zoom meetings. Developing a vocal sound recognized as a voice that bestows presence takes time (most zoom bombing children of today will acquire this ability) and immersion in a cultural environment that passes on the unspoken expectations of what is considered acceptable or conventional in the public sphere (some children will have a better chance of doing so than others). This, more than actual political acumen, is what was passed on in debating clubs claiming to prepare men for public life. It gave them a voice that allowed them to be present. Or, as Simon Kuper put it in a 2019 article on the continuing influence of shared educational cultures of politicians on Brexit, “one thing you learned at Oxford (even if you weren’t in the Union) was how to speak without much knowledge”.

Environments such as these were (and are) almost entirely governed by tacit knowledge. Universities were largely seen as spaces where one could learn how to navigate a very particular elite community, mostly by learning to disentangle their unwritten rules. Their impenetrability is, perhaps, best exemplified by their particular sense of humour. Consider these two ‘hilarious’ limericks in The Granta at the end of the 19th century.

(any resemblance between these Victorian Cantabrigian poems, and current Oxonian politicians is, of course, entirely coincidental)

photo: Martin Argles, for the Guardian


There was a young student of Clare

who wore quite a tangle of hair

but this rough-looking image

had been in the scrimmage

and so was a hero at Clare.




Getty Images

There is an Etonian of King’s

to the oldfashioned customs he clings

to he turns up his nose

with a statuesque pose

and sneers at Harrovian things.


In a world dominated by the rituals and rules of Eton and Harrow, the acquisition of skills such as that of ‘speaking without much knowledge’ was made distinctly more difficult for relative outsiders. Middle-class girls, for example, would be taught to debate by the end of the 19th century as well, as did men in working men’s clubs and the students of the first women’s colleges. For them, too, the acquisition of the skill to speak had wider implications, increasingly giving them access to parts of the public sphere (even if they wouldn’t enter the House of Commons until much later). However, for them, assimilation into a public sphere not made for them took up a lot of the implicit curriculum of debating clubs…learning to perform middle-class sensibilities (Hurd 2000) and even impersonating male politicians in order to practice modes of political speech (Sunderland 2019).

Despite all these difficulties and limitations, some newcomers did manage to break into the Oxbridge inner circle and made themselves heard. One example is mr. Yusuf Ali, a student at Cambridge in the 1890’s (Hoegaerts 2019). Ali had grown up in Mumbai, but came to Britain to read law, and would later not only become a barrister but also a respected scholar of Islam and the Kuran. As a student, he also made splash at the Union, and even served as its president for a while. When he gave his ‘maiden speech’ in 1893, it was praised as one of the best first attempts the Union had ever heard. Ali came in for some veiled criticism and (not so veiled) racism as well, his “oriental vigour” drew a wide range of opinions. Overall, however, the image of Ali that emerges from the pages of the Granta is that of someone who had managed to very carefully master the unwritten rules of a world that was hostile to people like him, but had somehow allowed and embraced his particular presence. He was characterized by his fellow students as “a speaker of the luxuriant and oratorical class”. Whilst he was credited with “a better command of English than any Englishman present” he was also said to “gild many a trite truism with gold from the Orient”.

Ali’s mastery of conventional speech at the Union was very effective at allowing him presence, and he was not alone in achieving this feat. In fact, South Asian members of the Union became so successful that their presence elicited vitriolic reaction of this kind:

An unbroken stream of broken patter, word follows word, words too crowded to be intelligible, too disconnected to be humorous, words merely, unmeaning, tedious, voluble. One by one the few poor whites remaining slip away in disgust. More Asiatics enter and sit in compact mases drinking in the turgid stream of verbose inanity with apparent avidity.

Published in the Granta under the pseudonym Jehu Pryde, the letter presents an author deepy committed to divesting the speech of ‘Asiatics’ of their quality as voice and undermining their presence. However, the anxiety ringing out from his vile statement also shows just how effective South Asian speakers had become at making themselves heard. It is hard to discover, from reports written largely by ‘insiders’ who had their own cultural conventions of journalism and satire to contend with, how they managed this. But judging from both the admiring and anxious reactions to “mastery of the English language” as well as “gold from the Orient”, we can infer that there were two processes at work: assimilation and a subtle (and perhaps conscious) bending and breaking of the rules. ‘Being heard’ in an environment that was not built for them, these newcomers did not impersonate insiders they could feel affiliated to, like white middle class young women did, but slowly carved out a ‘voice’ of their own. (Unlike women, of course, who were simply barred from both the Union and the House, they could at least technically gain access to a platform to do so at the time).

In order to ‘raise one’s voice’, especially when that voice is not immediately recognizable as presence, and is therefore not given legitimacy in the public sphere, requires cultural work. Brenda Brueggeman, writing about the particular challenges of Deaf rhetoric, points out this reliance of effective speech on conventions and perceived ‘normality’ and legitimacy as follows

While the principles, rules, and proscriptions that make up the art of rhetoric vary from one age to the next, rhetoricians and orators have always taken for granted that those who hoped to control the will of an audience had first to control their own voice and body […] It [speech] must convey the force of the speaker’s passionate conviction without transgressing cultural codes of conduct and deportment. It must, that is, perform “normalcy” even as it incites and inspires some difference (otherwise, we would not be moved by, or remember, it).(Brueggemann,2005)

One conclusion one could draw from this, and one that Victorian educational institutions would probably have endorsed, is that ‘unconventional’ speakers or outsiders have to learn to assimilate such cultural codes of conduct and deportment. They should attempt to somehow overcome their ‘improper’ bodies, backgrounds and beliefs. However, as the case of Ali and his peers shows, inciting and inspiring difference can occasionally take precedence, and the tensions between performing normalcy and performing difference can be usefully mobilized to claim and redefine presence.


Academically Speaking (2/4)

More than ever, it seems, we now live our lives surrounded by our ‘leaders’ ‘ voices. They come to us from various screens, out of the earplugs we carry around as we furtively go for our weekly grocery trips. Most of us can recite some salient sound bite recently uttered by public political figures (“I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic”), and we hear their voices in our collective and individual imaginations. So suffused with the political spoken word is our world, that we’ve also become attuned to its absence, its silences. Not only do we notice what is left unsaid or indeed consciously hidden – we note the disappearance of the simple sound of their voices. When Angela Merkel prepared to go into quarantine, we collectively felt the disappearance of her voice even before it happened. When Boris Johnson landed in hospital, we learned that in the face of vocal political silence, the simple act of breathing can take center stage and become a public message.

The universe in which we live now, in which whole nations can be found listening out anxiously for the breathing rhythms of their public figures as well as their loved ones, seems to have arisen in an instant. It was created by this sudden crisis and supported by modern audio-visual technology. We hear Macron’s voice in our heads, we think, because we also hear him coming out of our digital devices so often. We can imitate Trudeau “speaking moistly” because we live in an age of sound bites, aural memes and TikTok videos. Amid the new fears around a spreading pandemic, ongoing tensions between social and traditional media rage on, with journalists despairing of the preponderance of the sound bite and clickbait, insisting that the long read, the in-depth interview, are not only more informative or correct (and thus ‘superior’), but also that they are more solid gateways to knowledge because of their connections to traditions of the craft, that their older historical pedigree matters and sets them apart from faddish obsessions with the sound bite.

The stream of misinformation, badly referenced graphs, shaky scientific premises and just plain ‘fake news’ is denounced as part of this new phenomenon and a (direct) result of a new media culture that has been embraced wholeheartedly by populist movements and would-be ‘cool’ politicians alike. But populism is hardly new – and neither, I would argue, is the sound-bite. Victorian newspapers are full of sharp witticisms – Oscar Wilde was a well-known master of the genre, but he was certainly not alone. These look more like ‘literature’ to us now, because we only ever encounter them in the written form, but they had a distinctly oral origin, and probably retained that flavour for their contemporary readers, much in the way we can ‘hear’ Trump’s tweets in his voice when we read them. More importantly, perhaps, the tone employed by numerous public figures whose voices surround us now, has arisen from long-standing political and educational traditions: those of teaching young elites how to speak in public.

The current links and tensions between politicians and ‘experts’ obscures the fact that, by and large, both these groups pass through the same institutions in order to attain their respective positions. Systems differ nationally, and even locally, of course, but on the whole the production of experts as well as that of political representatives and high ranking civil servants is in the hands of a rather limited number of elite educational institutions. The continued preponderance of Eton boys and Oxbridge graduates in the British House of Commons is hardly a secret and, as for example Mary Beard has pointed out in The Public Voice of Women, also continues to have an influence on what is considered acceptable behaviour and speech in the House and the public sphere more generally. “Classical traditions”, such as the ones taught in these historical institutions, “have provided us with a powerful template for thinking about public speech, and for deciding what counts as good oratory or bad, persuasive or not, and whose speech is to be given space to be heard”. (Beard, 2014) Those educated within such classical traditions also share a mode of speech that has gained cultural and political canonical status. The irony of such highly educated politicians denouncing experts as elitist has not been lost on the media or the public, but we seldom reflect on the fact that this also implies that, for a time at least, future politicians and ‘their’ experts have shared these educational spaces and, therefore, are also likely to share aspects of its culture. The difference between academic and political speech may not be as large as we think. Neither is simply intuitive or the result of natural charm … and neither is politically or socially innocent. Speech, whether it is launched from a political or an academic platform, is subject to conventions, unspoken rules, and cultural expectations. It is also a skill to be acquired.

The university presents one of the most important places for that acquisition of skill to happen. Whilst we may increasingly think of universities as places to amass specialist knowledge and transferrable skills or, depending on one’s political bend, developing ‘critical thinking’, the role of universities has always been connected to the societies they are a part of. “It has to be emphasized”, as Stefan Collini suggests in What are Universities For?, “that higher education is a public good, not simply a set of private benefits for those who happen to participate in it”. (Collini, 2012). Part of the activities of universities has therefore also been, especially from the late 18th century onwards, to shape citizens (or national subjects). Or, as a reporter put it rather more succinctly in Cambridge student journal The Granta at the end of the 19th century, “the interest of the University is to produce useful men”. Exactly what constituted a ‘useful man’ was not clearly defined, but his production was, apparently, connected to activities within the student union, a debating club that prided itself on preparing its members for public life. What made a man ‘useful’ in a constitutional monarchy with representative democracy and a well-developed public sphere was, in other words, his ability to speak and speak effectively. This notion was echoed elsewhere as well, for example by elocutionist Emil Behnke who, in his self-help manual for vocal health claimed that:

Every day young men are launched from academic into public life, crammed, it may be, with useful information, and brimming with original ideas, but handicapped by never having their ‘mouths made’. They are sent forth fully equipped for the intellectual side of their work, but the physical preparedness, without which the stores of knowledge become practically useless to them, is almost entirely neglected (Behnke, 1880).

Behnke’s suggestion sounds quaint in its phrasing now, perhaps, but does not differ all that much from current complaints about ‘experts’: their heads may be full of knowledge but in their inability to speak to the public in a way that would be convincing, moving or relatable, they do not appear as ‘useful men’. (If they happen to also be a woman or POC whilst speaking, this only compounds the problem). In fact, academic or ‘scientific’ speakers hardly seem to occupy a space in the public conscience at all. In the absence of what we would recognize as personal, declaratory speech, the expert simply recedes from the public stage even when, like now, their advice is sought. Their speech, after years of training to sound a-political, loses the ability to reach anyone beyond their narrow group of peers. As noted before, academic speech is of course not politically innocent, but it often aspires to be (for better or for worse) and therefore seems to stand outside the long-standing traditions we share of employing speech primarily to reveal our self. Speech, to most of us, announces our existence and distinguishes us from others. We think of our voice as deeply personal, and expect others’ voices to reveal something about them as well. This has persisted throughout changes such as the rise of modern technology…think of the way we pick up the phone. “Hello, it’s me!”. This declaratory function of voice and speech is inherently social and political, something that was noted by the ancient Greeks (Heath 2005) and has since been part of the western philosophical tradition (Cavarero 2005). Hanna Arendt drew attention to it in The Human Condition,

In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world […] The disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is … is implicit in everything somebody says and does. (Arendt, 1958)

Academically speaking (part 1/4)

To be dependent is to be vulnerable to the social structure upon which one depends, so if the structure fails, one is exposed to a precarious condition.

(Butler 2020)


Today, I am teaching…I will sit in my own living room, carefully pointing the camera away from the laundry, and I will talk to young people strewn across the city, the country and even the world, as they perch on their beds and sofa’s. I miss having them in the same room with me, and I can tell that they, too, would much rather have each other’s company, would much rather not have been forced back into their parents’ homes as if they are children or, in other cases, would rather not be interrupted by their 2 year olds toddling into the room as they’re trying to concentrate. But we show up each week, all of us, to talk about sonic personae, soundscapes, the invention of the gramophone and the visible alphabet … and every week I wonder why.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this course. It is one very close to my heart and every week is an opportunity to share exactly the things I’m most passionate about in my own research with a group of intelligent and innovative thinkers. But at times like this, it can be hard to imagine why I should insist on talking about sound waves instead of droplets, the spread of recording technology and not that of viruses, the development of acoustic rather than medical science. As I’ve been locked away in my tiny apartment, I’ve turned toward other subjects occasionally, such as pedagogical pamphlets like Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope. “We teach”, he writes there, “because we think it matters”. And that is, quite possibly, why I keep turning up, as do my students, to whom it matters too.

What matters, to all of us even as the theme of the course may seem to obscure it, is still there, and in fact may have become more pertinent. The course was never ‘about’ the invention of the stethoscope (we discussed it last week, I fully expect all participants to have forgotten most of the details already), it was about the construction of knowledge, about how humans engage with the world in thoroughly physical and somatic ways. About how thin the border between our ‘self’ and the culture and material world around us can be. Like most of my colleagues, the point of what I teach (or the ‘learning goals’, if you will) never completely mirrors the course content. As a historian I’ve gotten used to people confusing my enthusiasm for understanding the past with a thirst for ‘interesting facts’, but my students generally know better … and the students who are now accompanying me through this crisis which has pulled the rug from under most of us, and exposed the precarity of our lives, probably understand it best.

Wondering if I should further burden my students (and myself) with such reflections, I turn to Gannon again,

Make no mistake: higher education has both a role and a responsibility in creating and sustaining a free, democratic society, whether we admit it or not, whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we think it’s our job or not, whether we like it or not. If we mean what we say about the intrinsic value and good in our collective enterprise, then we cannot abdicate that role or our responsibility for playing it. (Gannon, 2020).

I spend a lot of my time trying to explain to students how daily embodied interactions, unconscious rituals, felt and lived emotions, the sheer sounds of our voices are culturally constructed and, thus, inherently political. A lot of the topics I cover (speaking parrots, the history of the MP3, Victorian stammering cures) seem trivial at first. Explaining their connection to larger social and political structures can be hard, and often leads to complex abstractions. What do I mean, exactly, when I proclaim that modern narratives and modes of knowledge rely on unspoken rules and conventions of speech as well, and that those are political? That some voices, by the interplay between their sound and the bodies they are launched from, carry more weight than others? That paying attention to historical changes in how experts and ideologues manage to make themselves heard matters, and that it matters now?

Today, my students and I will talk about silence and its communicative value. The program of the course was planned long before I could have known that the city would have fallen silent by now, that we would be surrounded by an invisible and inaudible threat. Next week, we’ll talk about voice and historical breathing techniques, developed amid 19th century fears of the contagious respiratory diseases that plagued industrial cities. I thought that, too, would be one of those topics that would seem trivial and unpolitical to most. It may not.

…aaaaand breathe.

Having just narrowly missed knocking over a lamp in a well-intentioned attempt to get some exercise in my living room, it occurred to me that what the world needs now is not more chirpy, high-quality exercise video’s, but some nice calming Victorian instructions.

After all, Victorian doctors were usually undeterred by their immense lack of evidence, information or (in some cases) basic medical training and could therefore speak with amazing confidence. And what is more calming than a confident authoritarian directive? Moreover, since most of these confidently written instructions contained multiple contradictions, they are also excellent for convincing yourself that whatever you’re doing is already great, and doing wonders for your health. If current, beautifully researched, instructions for exercise may give you the impression that you’re so incompetent you can’t even breathe right, fear not! Our Victorian friends are here to tell you that your inefficient clavicular breathing is in fact a sign of your superior civilization – and therefore fully gives you the right to be overcome by a fit of the vapours and faint artfully onto a chaise longue.


So…breathe in and turn your back to your friends, family and colleagues in the name of social distancing

Emil Behnke 1897 (19)


Let your shoulders drop, and buckle over in your desperation at the state of the world

Emil Behnke 1897 (16)

Gradually realize that a defeatist attitude is no better than the pollyanna approach of some idiot you’re following on twitter, and half-heartedly try to get up again

Emil Behnke 1897 (21)

Get struck by the idea that in times like these, you may as well try turning to religion. Reach up to the heavens with newly found hope

Emil Behnke 1897 (18)

And finally…breathe out, and get some well-deserved rest after another rollercoaster of emotion and exercise.

Emil Behnke 1897 (1)


(note: this exercise routine is based on the work of vocal therapists Emil and Kate Behnke, who thoroughly disapprove of your clavicular breathing and strongly advise you to take up boxing or horse riding so you can grow a back bone)

This is more of a comment…

Last week saw me taking part in not one, but two, international conferences. To me, that’s a great week, I love conferences and would happily travel from one to another indefinitely (well, almost). Weird as they are, in their social organization, the classic academic conference format just suits me.

  1. They generally come with an opportunity to travel, or if not at least the opportunity to hang out with people who speak beautiful languages I don’t know, accents I’ve never heard, and news I’m not aware of
  2.  They are structured almost entirely around the consumption of coffee (and the occasional biscuit)
  3.  They represent an opportunity to, quite literally, get paid to listen to very well-informed people about their specialist subject

and above all

5.  They come with an opportunity to listen to my own voice without it being too awkward. Like many academics, I am both deeply insecure and an incurable show-off, and a well-defined 20 minute slot to perform, in front of a captive audience, at very low production standards is just perfect.

(conferencing under the watchful eye of two national folk poets, a sheep and an elk)

However, working on issues of voice, (dis)ability and the links and tensions between oratory and social inequality has also made me acutely aware of how impenetrable a classic ‘conference panel’ must seem to those who can’t expect their presence and their speech to be taken for granted (something I’ve been thinking about every since I started doing research on stuttering). There have been fantastic suggestions by disability scholars like Jason Farr and Travis Chi Wing Lau to make conference presentations more accessible (e.g. in this contribution) and calls to ‘just use a microphone already‘ are becoming more frequent recently. Yet whilst making individual presentations accessible, and being flexible toward both speakers and audiences are necessary steps in the right direction, I wonder to what extent the format of the panel itself is in need of reform.

As was pointed out during a conference I organized last summer, academic spaces tend to foreground particular voices and silence others – and that often becomes painfully obvious during Q&A’s, when the same people always seem to occupy the floor. And so for our panel at the #Hexconference2020 we decided to play with the panel format a bit, trying to encourage different moments for discussion, hoping that breaking the typical timeframe might also loosen different tongues.

The result? General confusion and nervousness, as conference-goers (even at what truly was a very welcoming and warm academic environment overall) are so strictly socialized into the existing format that they seem to be unable to find their way past it. Or maybe it was just a redistribution of the anxiety usually shouldered by the few being transferred by the many?

Meet the team!

It’s a fresh new year, the holidays are over and the moment I have been waiting for with some anticipation has now arrived: ‘my’ research team is complete, and managed to be not only in the same country, but even in the same room. Hurray!


Moving targets in January

(It’s a hard-won victory, this, and I was seriously contemplating chipping all team members with a GPS tracker. Between conferences, archival trips and family holidays in Qatar, France, the US, Finland etc etc, they are hard to keep in sight. I’ve settled on a more traditional ‘family calendar’ instead)


The question on everybody’s lips if you are lucky enough to have landed a research project is, apparently. ‘so how is the project progressing?’. I usually just answer with a vague ‘oh, it’s going well, everybody’s doing interesting stuff’ (which is true), but I thought that, since it is a new decade, I’d take a moment to take stock, and introduce the CALLIOPE-crew (consisting of Ludovic Marionneau, Esha Sil, Karen Lauwers and Taru Auranne)

Together we


  • can handle 7 languages
  • do our research on 4 continents
  • hail from 3 different disciplines
  • have lived in 8 different countries, but have presented the project in 13 (so far)
  • are currently working on 17 publications (in all possible stages of completion)
  • have been/are involved in the organization of 5 conferences
  • visit more libraries and archives than I could possibly keep track of

It’s the kind of activity that would make anybody’s head spin … and I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished so far, and the ease with which all of the brilliant researchers in this group have shifted gears, picked up new skills, mobilized their existing knowledge, and have generally put their considerable intelligence and energy into the project.


Ludovic Marionneau at the ISCH conference in Tallinn


What I am perhaps most pleased with, however, is what a joy it is to work with a group of joyfully innovative, and also generous and mutually supportive scholars. There are lots of reasons to be weary of academia’s move towards ideas of clusters of ‘excellence’, the selection of an elite group of research ‘leaders’ and the disappearance of what is now called ‘curiosity-driven’ research. But in the end, the strength of this particular team is not the (undeniable) excellence of its members, but their ability and willingness to understand each other and reach across linguistic, disciplinary, career-stage,…differences.

untitled - Copy

Esha Sil at the MSA conference in Madrid


And so, whilst I was very happy (and relieved) to see, totting up the numbers, that we are a picture of productivity, I feel that what is most excellent about this ‘team’ will never be visible in any official reports: the beauty of freely sharing findings with colleagues without jealously having to guard them before publication; the sheer joy of having regular and thorough conversations about methodology with fantastic scholars who know exactly what you’re talking about; the presence of a supportive environment in which all academic triumphs and defeats can be shared and find a sympathetic audience … and, of course, the opportunity for me to feel a little bit like Shackleton, leading a team of intrepid explorers (potentially into the wilderness).


In praise of the parenthesis (and other pieces of punctuation)

Those who have been subjected to my writing will know that I am a Big Fan of parentheses – and dashes, for a bit of variation (see what I did there? Ha!). Considering I am otherwise conventional or indeed downright boring in my writing style, I have no idea where this particular idiosyncrasy comes from. It’s doubtful I’ve been taught to write like this and it seems to garner me equal amounts of exasperation and ridicule in any language I write in. But I loooove parentheses and so, rather than weaning myself off them (as I probably should), I’ve decided to become their more vocal champion. After all, if others can have big opinions about the Oxford comma, the semicolon (,) and other obscure issues of grammar; so can I, right?

It may be useful to make clear, at this point, that I am utterly clueless about any actual rules of punctuation in English (I somehow manage to devour whole books about language, style and editing without ever ingesting any of the information regarding punctuation). But then I’m hardly alone in using colons, full-stops etc as ‘rests’, breathing pauses to indicate the flow and melody of a sentence. And that’s how parentheses work as well, perhaps. For someone who perpetually interjects her utterances with quiet ironic asides, the parentheses do great work in translating my ‘big voice – bigger insecurities’ personality onto the page. They allow me to offer opinions in the way I tend to voice them: brazenly (and then immediately undercutting them with a hint of self-effacing attempts at humour).

And so, for now, the parenthesis is my authorial voice and my friend and will stay (…I think).

On wielding the master’s tools

Last week the University of Helsinki played host to a conference on (de)colonization, racialization and above all whiteness in the North. (You can have a look at the program here). It was, in many ways, a success: attracting a number of engaged, exciting scholars, bringing influential international voices to Helsinki to join in the debate, and leading to the kind of interdisciplinary cross-over that doesn’t always happen in academia – and there are many things I (as part of the organizing team) am very proud of.

At the same time, as these kinds of occasions necessarily will, the conference and its aftermath has also left me questioning the structure of academic discussion, and indeed my own role (as someone who, for better or for worse, is implicated in ‘academia’)  in discussions such as these.

At the start of the first day, I’d gestured to some hopes and goals for the conference – and I like to think that these are genuine ambitions I also bring to my own work, trying – borrowing a phrase from Audre Lorde- to ‘dismantle the master’s house‘ even as I increasingly seem to inhabit it, amplifying the work of ‘other’ academics rather than reiterating a canon of privilege. We would try

  • to not look at minorities as a set of problems to be overcome, but to see the space they occupy in- and sometimes outside- society as a fruitful opportunity that can be embraced as a scholarly perspective as well (in the spirit of bell hooks)
  • to not disenfranchise ’tradition’ by elevating history over it as a superior form of knowledge about cultures and their histories but to acknowledge the agency of carriers of tradition as participants in an ongoing cultural dialogue (as pointed out by Linda Tuhiwai Smith)
  • to go beyond questioning ’race’ as a category and start thinking about the ways in which colonization and segregation have shaped humanity itself as a category (taking inspiration from Achile Mbembe)
  • and to see how ‘we’ and our scholarly disciplines have shaped Europe as a place that imagines itself (wrongly) as simultaneously colourblind and white (as recently pointed out by, e.g., Olivette Otele)

Did we manage to do any of that? I’m not so sure. Despite the critical and deconstructive ambitions of both speakers and organizers (and, I must stress, a number of absolutely excellent contributions), our conference was far from perfect – and indeed far from radical. It featured an uncomfortable number of all-white panels (a situation that can be explained in some ways, but not really excused), it circled back to national and regional understandings of the white ‘self’ far more than it should have and it relied on conventional academic structures (the form of the scholarly paper;  understandings of hierarchy, seniority and the right to speak; forms of politeness that are comfortable mainly for the selected few).

It is the latter that probably bothers me the most, because they make it so acutely clear that, in helping to uphold these structures (all in the name of civil debate and smooth organization, of course) I am effectively wielding the master’s tools – and have become so accustomed to them, that I genuinely struggle to think of viable alternatives. 


Democratization and its (false) promises

I have spent the last week in the delightful company of two wonderful historians of modern politics, power and representation (if you haven’t come across Birte Förster’s and Hedwig Richter’s work yet, I can only urge you to check it out forthwith. You can start with their books on 1919 and electoral history, for example). Somewhere between thinking through the importance of the Weimar Republic, considering the absence of women’s experiences in historiographies of revolution, and discovering the many sunny terraces of Helsinki, we have also come to some insights about the nature of the practice of writing histories of democracy. And we’ve decided that it is a historiography that could to with a bit more inclusivity and democratization. (Shocking, I know).


Transnational discussions on suffrage and equality at the library

As it happens, Birte and Hedwig have already been democratizing a more inclusive history of democracy: earlier this year, they built a twitter-thread of biographies of the first female representatives in the Weimar National Assembly. An edited version, by Mareike König, is now available here – showing not only that relevant and important histories are to be written about these largely forgotten figures, but also that bringing such stories to a public platform is a welcome innovation to the ‘craft’ of the historian, as it allows and indeed encourages a large number of people to interact with the authors and the content they’ve produced.

Writing inclusion into the history of democracy, however, is not the only way to make its historiography more inclusive. Whilst heroic newcomers, such as these early female representatives, deserve to be remembered, studied and perhaps even celebrated, they represent only a small part of the process of ‘democratization’ – and can even obscure the circuitous path such ‘progress’ often takes. What is often missing from narratives of the progressive inclusivity of democracy, are the many failed projects, hopelessly counterproductive measures, anxious returns to tradition, and reactionary counter-revolutions that also play a role in the process of democratization.

My own research tends to stumble across such ambiguity and counter-movements with alarming regularity, and that has everything to do with the deeply meaningful (symbolic) role voices and speech play in the imagination of democracy and its inclusivity. The central role of voices and votes in democracy carry a promise of near-universality: anyone can participate, it seems, as long as they can speak. The dictum of ‘one man, one vote’ – seemingly implying that every ‘voice’ can be heard – conveniently obscures the fact that ‘the ability to speak’ is, firstly, not distributed evenly in cultures that value speech as a political act and, secondly, that speaking and being heard may be very different things indeed.

In fact, the very idea that the ability to speak would become the (only) qualification necessary for political and economic inclusion in the modern world, led to exactly the kind of reactionary response that is so often invisible in histories of the development of representative democracy. In 1880, a contributor to the Cambridge Review wrote, with barely concealed horror, that

“There can be no doubt whatever that with the continued expansion of our political system, and with the gradual opening to the many of professions which have hitherto been confined to the few, the value of trained skill in speech as an instrument for success must immeasurably increase”

His fear was not unfounded: research (such as that of Madeleine Hurd) has shown that for example the working class men who would increasingly gain access to this ‘expanded’ political system were very aware of the value of trained skill in speech, and went to significant lengths to acquire it. The same was true for ‘colonial’ subjects, as I am finding out in my research now. The reaction of those who, until then, had had privileged access to the political system (or at least the large proportion of them who were educated at Oxbridge) was a practical and effective one: debate, oratory and ‘impromptu speaking’ would increasingly become part of the University’s social fabric as well as its curriculum. A change in system that was designed to democratize (one man, one vote, one voice – encouraging equal access to representation for all adult men) effectively encouraged leisurely and educational practices that would ensure the (perceived) superiority of the existing elites. The ‘ability to speak’ was equated with the ability to produce a type or genre of speech that was typical of the debating clubs of Oxbridge, and thus exclusive to its members.

This increasingly dominant genre of speech was not necessarily seen as the most elegant or well-constructed (both Indian and French speakers were commonly thought to be naturally more gifted at oratory, for example). In fact, numerous commentators seem to have prided themselves on the fact that the English national character was ‘not loquacious’ and that

“every one has pitied the forlorn position of an ordinary Englishman addressing his fellow-creatures”.

The real Englishman – or, in fitting Victorian style, the real imperial ruler – therefore distinguished himself not by polished oratory, but by suggesting that he was the kind of man who, deep down and hidden rather than demonstrated by his speech, had some secret knowledge. The best speeches, apparently, suggested intelligence by carefully cloaking it in nonsense and ‘wit’. And so representation and political speech would be a matter of somehow managing to claim audibility and attention by seemingly helplessly bumbling about.

In a political system that rested on debate, on having a voice and being heard; clarity and good oratory could be learned in all kinds of working men’s clubs, societies, classrooms,  or even from a book – thus contributing to what seemed like a linear process of democratization and increased inclusivity. However, the skill to produce the particular genre of bamboozling speech that expressed imperial ‘Englishness’ and, indeed, political power, was so confusing and obscure, it could only be acquired at Oxbridge.


Boris Johnson, former president of the Oxford Union Society and owner of a “magniloquent tongue“, according to F. Hayward and G. Faulconbridge (Reuters).