ESR 9 Blog May/June 2023: Sophie Mak-Schram

The roof is lifted off above our head. We cook large vats of vegan curries to the rhythm of drilling around us. Beams of wood are walked across the site as small groups work on different structures. A few days later, the roof returns with a refreshed translucent covering and an extension.

In one of my earliest writings to you back in 2021, I was wondering about dancing in (the space of) the question, and how to make my relationship to those who might be reading the blog less abstract. I find myself returning to these thoughts as I begin to put projects, texts, experiences, and ideas into the written structure of my thesis. Abstraction, in the sense of zooming out, taking distance, displacing oneself from one’s own position, is a concern for me. Abstraction bears a proximity to representation, and representation in turn risks an easy slippage into reduction. In writing about an activist event in the wider context of its time, impact, and theoretical reception, for instance, I need to navigate between making the event’s purpose and significance clear for those not involved in it and retaining the specificity of my experience of, or relation to, the event. Turning something, someone, somewhere into writing makes it possible for that thing to be read and rewritten and cited beyond my control. Cases, people, or forms of knowledge can become symbols, reduced to their identities, instrumentalized into examples that superficially diversify a canon without making a canon more inclusive in its practices.

“I was there!” I think as I listen to a conference presentation. Our conversations, which felt like thinking-in-process, ways of meeting each other and coming into encounter with contemporary art and activist practices, have been distilled into an answer to a question I was not aware we were answering. We have become a singularity, an anonymous group identified by time, place, and project, that demonstrate how a concept could be rethought.

Abstraction of course also serves a purpose. There’s a generosity involved in making things legible, sharing one’s expertise outside of the specific circles in which these practices or events occur. Your abstraction as a reader is what reminds me to explain or collate the ways I’ve been spending my time lately. Yet, your abstraction also seems to invite my own; my body is only partially present when I write about the relief of cycling downhill from the university, the sun that lends a glow to the workshops I have been part of or led, the painfulness of knowing about the continued drownings of people trying to cross – with full right – into Europe.

But my body is an implicit container, surreptitious in its conversion of experiences into written knowledge, quiet in its creation of associations between events, communities, localities. I don’t write of how my body feels or what it needs as I move to where I need to be to produce the abstraction of texts, of knowledge. This is in part because there are so many privileges involved in these research trips and this concentrated time to write, and in part because I wonder about how much agency and autonomy I can maintain whilst also putting my body into an increasingly exclusive relationship to writing for the next months. I don’t want the neoliberal blurring of boundaries to turn me into an instrument of knowledge alone, or for all my relationships that sustain and make this thinking around collective forms of learning, teaching and education possible, to be turned into only productive relationships to be cited in my eventual thesis. I would argue for affect and the unruliness of feelings as relevant and necessary to be included in research, but I also want to defend me, you, us against a creeping productivity that means each moment could become an example to be studied.

Two six AM flights to conferences this month. K. spots me fresh off the first one as I gingerly walk down a steep hill to find coffee prior to attending a panel discussion, and I feel reassured to sit near them in the auditorium later. D. hosts me after the second, making me a strong ginger tea that proves insufficient to get me through the warm room, the late afternoon and – ironically – the conversations about the body in knowledge production that we then head over to attend.

I want to dance in the question, linger in it, even, but these activities require time. Claude’s question about the abstract finality of his work and how this relates to the indeterminacy of living, indeed of life itself, that I cited in my blog in April this year, continues to echo in my head. How can I write without reproducing the posture, position, and mode of production of the dominant academic body; the aging, cis white man? The writing table, as Sarah Ahmed notes in Queer Phenomenology, already invites a specific position, way of seating, its own erasure. So too, the written word reminds us of certain protocols of reading (concentrated, silent) in the global North and West. These protocols, positions, modes of production; they are the most frictionless way to produce within an existing academic system. So, to dance takes time that is not measured out by the length of a project timeline, and involves bodies not always counted into the budget of a grant.

Instead, an economy of care holds and hosts me through this time. One of you decides access needs are important enough that you design an additional handout for a conference we are part of, one of you drives me to the airport at an all-too-early hour, one of you finds the right academic language to defend one of my peers in an appropriate manner, one of you recommends a café close enough to the venue that we manage to eat at before our workshop, and one of you lends me your bike. I wonder about a politics of citation that can acknowledge the sociality and imbrication of study – in the sense of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s idea of study in The Undercommons as a thing you do with each other, amidst and despite structures of credit and progress – without making this study too visible or instrumentalized. I think of you all as I write; as you make me able to write. And, I keep on writing.


Image 1: A partial shot of my desk in Germany, including – clockwise from top left – Propositions for Non-Fascist Living: Tentative and Urgent (eds. Maria Hlavajova and Wietske Maas, 2019), ‘John Latham: there should never have been an Antiuniversity’ in Antiuniversity of London – Antihistory Tabloid (ed. Jakob Jakobsen, 2012), untitled (Aleksandra Waliszewska, 2020) and Text Me Yeah (Magda Archer, 2014).

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