On “Refusing the Academy of Misery”

Jody and Anne: This chapter begins in deepest love and deepest fear. A beloved baby, struggling amid a loving, and frightened, family of friends, in a mighty hospital right at the limits of its powers. On the worst day, in the other world of illness and hope, where, amazingly, writing also happens.

Anne’s dreams re-play these scenes. Who is “here,” who not? Who is on the margins, and speaks from “there”? How figure the relationships among a sick child, frightened parents, family, friends, medical advisors…?

How, also, to figure the relations among friends in such a site: comforting, but perilous, too…?

And what might such questions reveal about our on-going life in the ecotone, where danger and possibility, work and play, family and friends meet and comingle?

Searching for expansive ways to think-and-write about friendship in the academy–the shifting sites of connection, trust, risk, depth, change, where cracks within and between us call up play and work, ruptures and delights; reaching across conventional boundaries and warnings into shared political efforts, back again to places of personal pain and anxiety–we find wonderfully resonant an invitation from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, who ask how we can

think about it in a way to help us organize ourselves to make it better here?….How come we can’t be together and think together in…the way it should feel good?…. Everybody is pissed off all the time and feels bad….that’s the insidious thing, this naturalisation of misery, the belief that intellectual work requires alienation and immobility….Enjoyment is suspect….I believe in the world and want to be in it….in the joyful noise of the scattered, scatted eschaton, the undercommon refusal of the academy of misery.1

Our co-teacher Joel Schlosser identifies the “undercommons” as the site where acts of befriending can flourish, outside narrow social structures and legal contracts; he includes there relationships among faculty and students. Engagement beyond what is dictated by strict professional transaction is susceptible to unscripted, open-ended encounters:

Aren’t we really theorizing an art of resistance? Resistance to the structures of hierarchy that result in mere collegiality as well as unfriendly student-teacher relationships??….practicing friendship among colleagues resists collegiality and aims to remake the academy of misery; practicing friendship among students resists assessment and judgment and aims to remake the anxiety-ridden and insecure classroom. In both cases the practice of friendship seeks to replace paradigms of productivity–producing knowledge, producing learning (the “banking model,” focused on achievement) with …[what] is unpredictable, happens in fits and starts, can be a great source of pleasure.2

We seek out others who have similarly testified to the “collaborative creation of new relationships in marginal spaces.” Mark Kingston, for instance, draws on Foucault’s late, obscure work to argue that “putting this concept of friendship into practice…constitutes a form of localised resistance,” “a challenge to the excessive normalisation of relationships.”3

Acknowledging our own shared positioning–long-term, not tenured at the college–we try out Foucault’s understanding of friendship as a site where gay men can choose to stretch assigned roles, working together to build new forms of relationship, of potentially resistant, politicized engagement.4 We know from experience how the dialectical play of intimate relationships within established social structures can tease out opportunities for astonishment, inversion, disruption of the everyday order of things.

We also try on the related concept of “positive marginality,” first put forth by Clara Mayo, which describes how people in borderline social locations call on their differences as a source of critical appraisal and activism: among friends, “critical watching and reframing of life experiences” can be used to enact an intimate politics, bring about the “subversion of social institutions.”5

And we puzzle through contradictions: ways that befriending is not always a site of positive marginality or resistance, not necessarily a place where radical politics is enacted and productivity refused (consider the shared writing of this book). Although we like the word “pleasure,” that too is also not always the case (we have to stretch hard to meet one another, in the hospital, at the café….). Like other relationships, friendship can be troubled, troubling. Precarious.

Early on in this writing, Joel points out that, as a keyword, “friendship” is actually too noun-like, too “fixed” to evoke the sort of unpredictable, hazardous process we’re trying to uncover here. The verb “friending,” which suggests movement, works betterbut is also now associated with the casual “liking” that occurs on Facebook.

The more archaic “befriending” sounds less trendy, evocative of actions stretching far back in time. That history carries a preface with a tail of other meanings. We like the first—“cause to be”6–because of its deliberate quality. The O.E.D. says that the prefix “naturally intensifies the sense of the verb,” adds “the notion of ‘thoroughly, excessively.’” “Be-“ is “a living element, “renders an intransitive verb transitive.”7 All active.

But then “befriending,” too, begins to unpeel.

Sounds if it’s about beginnings—and yet we are using it to evoke on-going, mutable experiences of being and doing in relation.

Our friend Mark Lord asks, “Is befriending different than ‘becoming friends with?’ Seems like one is for people of unequal status, the other for peers. If such categories apply.” In Mark’s reframing, “befriending” sounds not “just” like reaching out, but reaching out to someone below or beneath oneself—and yes, checking the dictionary again–the O.E.D. calls it the act “of a Samaritan,” places it “in areas of social work.”8

Since we are using the shifting locations of margin and center as ways to understand relationality, this is a troubling development. Joel reminds us that the “good Samaritan,” who helped the stranger in the parable, was himself excluded, marginal. Each of us seeks and offers succor from different places, for different reasons, trips over and triggers various power differentials.

Eventually, we decide to stick with the term “befriend,” precisely because it is fraught. Because the actions of befriending are fraught: in reaching out to others, we make ourselves vulnerable–to their losses, and to losing them. the actions of befriending are fraught: in reaching out to others, we make ourselves vulnerable–to their losses, and to losing them. Judith Butler writes movingly about this in her book Precarious Life, which finds in human attachment the source of our fundamental fragility, “sees us as vulnerable to the loss of the other, to grief in the sundering of emotive bonds.”9

Making a new friend may also mean not reaching any further, excluding others outside the “friendship circle.” (We fret about those we may have left out here.) Inclusion and exclusion are always in motion, never fully or finally realized.

The sort of befriending we attempt to understand and describe acknowledges such losses and limits—but also always urges us toward surprise. The uncertainty of what can emerge among friends evokes possibilities beyond what is already known. And so, with Jack Halberstam, we refuse the institutional “call to order,” the conventional “distinction between…chatter and knowledge,”10 looking instead toward the never-predictable uptake among and between us. We join Eve Tuck, too, in her call for a moratorium on “damage-based research,” reaching with her towards forms of inquiry and activism that spring from “desire,” the complex web of lived, living with, dreaming toward.11

We locate our looping narrative in acts of befriending that are constituted by the emotions of vulnerability and passion, as well as by reflections on them that assume a form of “bifocality,” attending, as Lois Weis and Michelle Fine note, to both “structures and lives.” 1Lois Weis and Michelle Fine, “Critical Bifocality and Circuits of Privilege: Expanding Critical Ethnographic Theory and Design,” Harvard Educational Review 82, 2 (June 2012): 174, accessed June 20, 2016, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.17763/haer.82.2.v1jx34n441532242 We examine the relationship of public to private; how our emerging relations as allies, accomplices, con-spiritors, collaborators re-figure our classrooms, the college that hosts them, the space that stretches wide beyond the campus. We invest in one another’s flourishing, in the institution that binds us, in the world that holds us all; we also acknowledge the interlacing tensions, ambiguities, ambivalences that characterize these. The synergy of befriending, institutional and world commitment unsettle, and so re-generate, one another.

Anne: May 28, 2015. Alice, Jody and I have planned a three-way, day-long retreat for ourselves. Eager to work together in a range of modes, we meet at the Spruce Street Harbor Park on the Delaware River Waterfront, gather around the monolithic stone at the park’s center, start slowly with movement–stretching, opening.

Lots of silence. Some writing, reading out. Eventually, we begin to speak, of what’s on our hearts, what’s happening at home. Then, beyond: Alice’s summer community-based work in Dalun, Ghana; Jody’s and my going into prison in North Philadelphia each Friday. Taking space to talk about what each of us is up to, really hearing what we’re doing and dreaming into. It’s a different mode of talking, looser, longer….Our focus shifts to the college: what’s happening there, where we feel discouraged, where there’s hope, what we imagine shifting, how our own re-imaginings might contribute to that.

Thinking deeply with one another, with a kind of freedom and passion of questioning–about what we understand of our work, as it has been, also some of what might be.  I have been inspired by the Democratizing Knowledge collective at Syracuse University12 which conceives of itself as both a sanctuary and site of risk-taking for those in marginal positions.13 Alice and Jody join me in considering what the concept of “democratizing knowledge” might mean for us, and perhaps for others, at the college….

Along the way, we wander into Queen Village, find our way to a neighborhood café for lunch, end the day in Jody’s living room, where we stretch again, re-configure.

Alice writes then,

I think of our collective as a kind of weave or grid–hammock-like, that can light up with insight, energy, and support as the occasion demands….We have slid, winged, glided, and otherwise shape shifted from a posse to a collective to a coven….I remember at the start of our retreat feeling ah, I am with other witches who know what to do. Such a great feeling….To our collective dreaming, I want to add, strongly, an alum presence….one of my main interests is to raise the vibration and power of an electric grid that already connects us with many alums on this wheel with us.

Anne: It hasn’t been so easy, though, for us to get to this place, has been unsteady en route.

We stumble, as we plan to gather, realizing that the time we’ve set aside for our small retreat conflicts with a larger faculty workshop. When Alice first shares her desire “to go deep, tap root, and be more deeply oriented, and dis-oriented as needed, thereby,” I confess that “am very much drawn to the retreat we’ve planned for us three. I am also very drawn to [the Environmental Studies Retreat, which is scheduled for the same day, and where (I say)] institutional intervention is happening/can happen/where I can help make it happen. And of course I don’t want to have to choose between these!” “Feeling mixed herself in a coupla different directions,” Jody names our honesty and risk-taking.

This is a painful exchange, sorting, shifting, eventually re-scheduling, recognizing that different facets (some of them unseen, maybe unknowable even to ourselves) are differently tangled, for each of us, with multiple other webs of commitment and connection. The plan for our three-way retreat is more easily changed than the institutionally scheduled one, but this very flexibility makes our arrangements seem tender, more vulnerable. As if we are struggling to be whole in an institution that fragments us.

Jody:  By the time we meet, Anne’s granddaughter is scarily sick. It is a lovely, warm and windless March morning. Growing out of individual pursuits, and the interest we take in one another’s, we do tai chi and yoga stretches in Rittenhouse Square before Anne goes to the hospital. Alice and I walk to Fitler Square. On leave, writing and doing yoga, I’m already worrying about what I’ll lose when back on campus; feeling time as a zero sum game. But Alice has a different way of seeing this. Her insight captivates and teases, as we amble up a narrow, cross-cutting street, one of those where another century feels just beneath your steps.

And later the three of us, at a table on Sansom Street sharing hummus and beer–the delight of running into our friend Joel and his wife Sarah in their dark shades.  Then coffee as we continue to probe what snags, intrigues: Anne’s and my recent difficulties in co-writing, and in making the move from teaching only at the prison to also working with people returning to the community.  One of Alice’s close partners in Ghana has elusive, troubling medical issues; another doesn’t yet have the money to finish her schooling as a community health worker; two are coming here to visit in April, she hopes, if they can get visas.

When we first talk about creating a different kind of space for our friendship, one with a more deliberate intention to support the work we do in the world, we have lots of questions:  Will we invite others to join us?  How public is our vision, how much about “institutional change”?  Alice talks about wanting an intimate space, in which we might have the time and the ease, trust with each other and ourselves to more fully cultivate the various branches of our work, our particular, variegated visions. Might institutional tasks include more of the juicy now of our work and loves?

With Anne and me on leave–writing this bookwe still have a presence on campus. The provost asks Alice and two students to speak about a departmental diversity initiative that we’ve been involved with, first at a chairs’ meeting, then at a gathering of the full faculty. When the “project dorm room” competition is featured on the college website (“Judges are looking for…ingenuity, and style….the interesting and creative ways that residents have decided to work with limited means and spaces”), we strategize about what seems a troublingly classed event. Alice raises our shared concern on campus, initiates some dialogue there.

An e-mail goes out asking for nominations for an award, for staff members “who are hard-working, humble, kind, dedicated, enthusiastic, approachable, considerate, and willing to go over and above expectations.” “Humble?!” Anne writes. “Institutionalizing humility?” Alice begins to track this, through relationships with people variously positioned on campus, wending her way through the institutional web. We see how the intersection of fancy dorm rooms and humble servants reprises the college’s long history, in which, as Grace Pusey writes, “white women could be groomed to inherit a role…ruling over men and women of color.”14

These are the varied and complicated textures of our own locations and connections: befriending various others in a range of settings, discovering tensions and potentials. Our befriending is contiguous with something instrumental, inviting different intercessions that intersect with individual and communal growth. We explore how such arrangements might operate too in working groups, classrooms, programs: spaces where the intimate can vex the political, the political irritate the intimate, giving rise to new possibilities in public and private spaces, as well as troubling the formulation that sees them as separate.

Re-envisioning the university both as a site of misery, distancing and separation, and as a site of connection, resistance, and surprise, we share here stories that entail laughter and energy–also frustration and anger–as we try to pull ourselves beyond ourselves, to shift how intellect and feeling intertwine, how knowledge is authorized and shared. In these contexts we understand befriending as intimate, holding, public, political. Succor and risk. From the “chatter” of these gatherings that move out of and back into institutional structures emerges a dance of order, resistance, desire, divergence, reordering.


  1. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 117-118, accessed March 1, 2016. 
  2. Joel Schlosser, e-mail message to authors, March 2, 2016.
  3. Mark Kingston, “Subversive Friendships: Foucault on Homosexuality and Social Experimentation,” Foucault Studies 7 (September 2009): 7.
  4. Kingston, “Subversive Friendships.”
  5. Ruth Hall and Michelle Fine, “The Stories We Tell: The Lives and Friendship of Two Older Black Lesbians,”Psychology of Women Quarterly 29, 2 (June 2005); 177-187, accessed April 15, 2016, doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2005.00180.x
  6. Vocabulary.com, s.v.befriend,” accessed June 20, 2016.
  7. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v., “be-prefix,” accessed July 1, 2016, www.oed.com.
  8. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v., “befriend,” accessed July 1, 2016, www.oed.com.
  9. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 26, 3 (Summer 2011): 599, posted online June 17, 2011, accessed June 20, 2016, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2011.01206.x ; see also Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004).
  10. Jack Halberstam, “The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons,” in Harney and Moton, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, New York: Minor Compositions, 2013, accessed March 1, 2016, 8-9. 
  11. Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79, 3 (Fall 2009): 409-427, accessed June 20, 2016.
  12. “Democratizing Knowledge Project: Developing Literacies, Building Communities, Seeding Change,” The College of Arts and Sciences, Syracuse University, accessed March 1, 2016, http://democratizingknowledge.syr.edu/
  13. Chandra Mohanty, Amina Mama, Margo Okazawa-Rey, Hayley Marama Cavino, Linda Carty, Susy J. Zepeda, Carol Fadda-Conrey, “Transnational Challenges to Global Empire: Cultivating Ethical Feminist Praxis,” panel presented at the annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association, San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 13-16, 2014.
  14. Grace Pusey, “’Unghosting’ African American Women’s Labor History at Bryn Mawr College, 1880-1940,” unpublished manuscript, December 5, 2015, 5.

Footnotes   [ + ]