There is no occupation so sweet as scholarship; scholarship is the means of making known to us, while still in this world, the infinity of matter, the immense grandeur of nature, the heavens, the lands and the seas. Scholarship has taught us piety, moderation, greatness of heart; it snatches our souls from darkness and shows them all things, the high and the low, the first, the last and everything in between; scholarship furnishes us with the means of living well and happily; it teaches us how to spend our lives without discontent and without vexation.
-Cicero (106-43 BC)
Our lives are always going to be governed by structures. What structures we are subjected to, and what capacity to have to shape them, is different for each individual. That said, I have never been convinced by structural philosophies that render the individual a simple victim of social, cultural or governmental forces. I tend, instead, to lean toward existentialist thinking that increases our capacity to act even under the most constrictive conditions, because this is where hope is found, and hope is the lynchpin to emancipation. In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre famously argued that even prisoners are free because they have the power of consciousness – the prisoner may always choose to resist or acquiesce, even just in the mind, and the freedom is in the choice, not the circumstance.
I made a choice many years ago to give up my successful business in California to chase what Cicero describes in the opening epigraph – I always believed that spending my life absorbed in thought would make life richer and, ultimately, make me a better person. Whether it has or not (who is to know what lives might have been) I know I was right in making that choice, even though many friends at the time called it into question. More recently, many of my colleagues seemed shocked when I told them that I was quitting my coveted permanent lecturership at a UK Russel Group university to take up a fixed-term contract as a University of Sydney Fellow. And yet most of those same colleagues are perfectly aware that the promised structure of those ‘coveted’ positions, with 20% of your 40-hour workweek being dedicated to research, is a myth long evaporated into the bureaucratic fog of the neoliberal university. A year into my lectureship, I once again ran into Cicero’s words and never in my life had I felt so far from them.
Here I sit, a year later, with two and a half years ahead of me of near 100% research time, a near-empty inbox and days that are as slow as they are expansive. This was all expected – I chose it. What was not expected was the way that having this time would make clear to me that for many years, I had been so blinded by my struggle to free myself from the structures of the institution that even my body was failing. A renewed sense of having a body has meant taking the time every day to tune it, and taking the time to flex those once-again-tuned-in sensory organs to see the ‘grandeur of nature, the heavens, the lands and the seas’ all over again. I will spare you the details of the former (essentially I’m vegan, I drink less and I exercise every day), but in terms of the latter, the other day I was alone in Royal National Park wading through waist-high brackish water at the mouth of Wattomolla Creek, where it spills in the Pacific, and suddenly time slowed to what felt like a standstill. I crouched down and pushed myself out into the river with two grips of soft sand, flipped over and floated downstream. During my float I considered how my experiences had actually broken my sense of time – that I had, at some point, stopped experiencing those fleeting moments of structureless time that ground, and produce, great creative work.
I have moved at incredible speed since I started my PhD 10 years ago, and though it was productive, insightful and, to be honest, a veritable carnival of desire and peak emotion, I also hacked my way deep into a structural ticket, becoming not only disembodied in my quest for a profitable life of the mind, but also consciously complicit in the capitalist exploitation of my research and life, which became inevitably intertwined. The co-option was predicated by the structure of life under late capitalism where freedom can only be inherited or earned through prostitution of ideas. I became an academic streetwalker extraordinaire – I hacked a path deep into the system, holding on to just enough ‘edginess’ to make sure it was all marketable, and got everything I wanted. Imposter syndrome of course asserted itself daily. I was convinced someone would figure out I was a stowaway. But in actuality, everyone was too busy building thier own ‘brand’ to notice and I was too busy bolstering my defences to care if they did. So much for the life of the mind.
When I realised the means had become the ends, I quit my job, knowing full well that gaming the system, and almost working myself to death, had bought me a ticket to wherever I wanted to go. The question was, with freedom achieved, what then to do with it? And while I did take up another academic post, I made sure to put in place my own structure this time that would always take precedence over any structure imposed on me. This included:
- Focussing on writing one book, and writing it well, over the period of the fellowship
- Only publishing journal articles necessary to keep me in the game
- Spending at least one hour a day doing something physical and, eventually, getting into the best shape of my life
- Not working on anything that I’m not deeply invested in, unless it pays and, if it does pay, using that money for play
- Streamlining my engagement on social media so it doesn’t feel like work
- Saying no to conferences, paper reviewing, helping random students with their projects and anything else that sucks up time when I should be reading or writing or swimming or making love
- Saying no to spending my own time or money doing things for institutions who are not invested in me on a personal level
- Writing only four hours a day, but writing words that matter
- Reading as much as a writing and tackling texts that have intimidated me in the past (see reading list here)
- Being a better son, uncle and partner, having decided I have no interest in ever being a parent
I knew that I was alleviating mundane pressures by giving up the lectureship. What I didn’t know is that meditative space would open to begin a total rebuild. The ability to be reflective, calm, in the wild and in the body, comes from having space and no one is going to give it to you. If you manage, as I did, to grab it, you probably hurt yourself getting there and the next step in the process is not using the space to spin up to even greater speeds – do not fill the space! I have two and a half years to perfect spaciousness and I could probably line up another fellowship afterwards. But I wonder how long the string on this kite is? If I were to save everything I make here for the next two and a half years, could I not buy myself one more in 2020? And what if 2020 – call it a gap year or rolling retirement – had no structure at all? Where does the life of the mind lead if one were to, let’s say, just walk through National Parks in the American West for 12 months, unspooling until the structures of life are a Google earth view, pretty to look at but blissfully just out of reach?