Different perspectives and ways of thinking can dramatically push innovation; not just innovation in a material and technological sense but also the innovation of ideas. This is hardly a controversial view. Isn’t this just common sense?
But academia sometimes has very little to do with common sense. New ideas — especially strange ones and those which challenge current thought — are often met with resistance. It is troubling, counter-productive, and so commonplace. I sometimes wonder if the university is where good ideas come to die.
We need tradition, as a colleague reminded me recently, just as much as we need radical thought. It is difficult to know then when to push and resist — where to intervene in the system? — and when it is better to relent a little and go with the flow. This is something that I struggle with quite often. I know better now which battles are worth fighting, something which is a continual internal battle in and of itself. I am conflict shy and try not to be antagonistic. But that does not mean that I don’t (often) have (what others might think of as) strange ideas. This is potentially why I like the idea of agonism so very much. We need differing political views to have a democracy. We also need different ways of thinking to have any sort of intellectual progress.
As young scholars, we are pushed not to innovate and take risk, but to play it safe. I have had people ask what journal will possibly publish my research (incidentally by someone not a geographer). I am asked more often why I am not conducting interviews as my research method, suggesting that interviews would be far more effective source of data. While I seem to find myself conducting research amongst social scientists, it does not always feel like such a natural or comfortable place to be. I have been asked if it would not be better to be in an art history or a cultural studies department, a question I find to be an affront. So much of my identity and love for my work is tied to geography. These questions seem to arise from a general discomfort with doing things a little bit differently.
I have struggled in the past to tone down my work and methods, trying to fit in. The system is designed so that the approval of peers is paramount to any success in academia. You are required to publish in peer-reviewed journals, even if what you really want and love to do is teach. It is a system so fully flawed, at times utterly ridiculous, a system which in its maintenance of the status-quo does so much to hold science back. This is an unfortunate reality within many disciplines. New public management schemes, in which we are forced to count hours and not contributions, hardly help. But that is a rant for another day.
In being an artist and conducting research that touches so frequently on art, I understand that the artist’s intent is not always relevant. I do not need to know why and how someone painted something in order to be inspired, to have a reaction, an opinion, an experience. This fact is perhaps one of the greatest contributions to (aesthetic) philosophy of the 20th century (to roughly and probably inaccurately paraphrase Arthur C. Danto and his wonderful little book ‘What art is’). Maybe this is where social science and art conflict. The social scientist seems very much preoccupied with intent and method, and maybe this is why the idea that you must do interviews to understand the world is so pervasive. I am interested in these things too, of course, but I don’t think that needs to be the sole focus of research. In my methods, I interview the city: a wonderfully complex and ever evolving work of collective and collaborative art.
The cliché that urges you to be the change you want to see in the world may be tired but it might not be so very off the mark. The system pushes you back, down, rejects you, tries to form you, tries to keep you in line. Perhaps this is why I engage so much with art and artists, why I enjoy researching something illegal like graffiti and street art: there is so much more freedom in art. Working against systems, innovating, thinking differently; this is all part of art. Graffiti and street artists resist structures and systems — not always successfully — by making their interventions in the system of the city. Donnella Meadows, when she writes on intervening in the system, argues that even the smallest of interventions can have the biggest of changes.
Maybe the academy needs a little more subversion? A little more rebellion? I don’t think we should shy away from that or apologise for doing so. Sorry. Not sorry.
All photographs taken yesterday, wandering around San Hanshaugen, Oslo (2015). Might have even added something to one of them, irresponsibly interfering in my field. Not sorry about that either.