Friday, October 14, 2011


This is one of my favorite faces in Romanesque sculpture (specifically from Saint-Pierre at Aulnay, its a capital on the west front).  I like its puffy roundness and the way that seems to soften the stone.  I like how the shapes of the mouth and tongue are repeated by the eyes sockets and eyeballs.  I like how the mouth collapses inwards, even as the tongue, ears, tendrils (hair?), and forehead stretch out in different directions. 

I've chosen it for my first post here because of the combinations it creates: soft and hard, mouth and eyes, in and out.  Because my purpose here is to join those things for myself.  I plan to pick an image and write about it for a while, so joining eyes and mouth in the sense of seeing and speaking - or in this case writing.  But a different kind of writing than my normal academic prose: something softer and more clearly connected to my insides.  I'll be letting those insides come out - even if the result is a bit grotesque as it is in this image.  I imagine that sometimes the images will come from my research or teaching and the content of my writing will then be more academic in content, if less formal in tone.  Otherwise the images will come from my postcard collection or from my own photography and the content of the writing will be more personal.  But I do expect and even want to see the lines between those two categories begin to blur, to see the outside academic collapse inwards and soften even as my messy insides become visible in words out in the world.  The images will be mostly medieval because that is what my research and teaching focus on and because many of my postcards were purchased and my photographs taken on research trips.  I am opening up to investigating why I work on medieval art, to discovering what inner personal investments drive my professional work.

Starting this was inspired by one of my students, who opened his big mouth to ask if I did any other kind of writing besides the scholarly stuff.  I said no, just boring academic work, but then I started to think...

Over the summer I had been thinking about my writing and myself very differently.  I'd just got tenure in my job in the spring.  I was trying to get used to that idea and thinking about what difference it might make in my life.  I knew what I didn't want: to become one of those tenured profs we all hear about, you know, the ones who basically stopped working once they got tenure.  I'd been joking around a lot about that, about how now I could be lazy and irresponsible and there was nothing anyone could do about it, but I didn't want that to be true.  I also didn't want to become a service whore: you know, the people who are on every committee and do every little administrative task, who feel martyred by all that but do it anyway, and then don't get any of their own work done (I see a real danger for me here).  So I had resolved to start to think about myself  as a writer, instead of as an academic, as a writer who just happens to primarily write academic art history - but perhaps writes other stuff too???  And I had started a different project, a personal memoir focused around something that happened in grad school (which I don't want to get into right now).

So how did I get from there to telling my student that I am just a boring old academic hack?

Well, its been a hard start to the semester.  My department is going through a huge transition: a new chair with new ideas, moving to a new space, a new budgetary reality (cuts!), and some new pressures from the upper administration who don't seem very sympathetic towards the arts or humanities.  We've had a long stream of meetings and the tension has run high.  Tenure hasn't meant freedom for me.  Its meant the realization that I need to care about all of this stuff now, since I am probably going to be working here for the rest of my career.  And I know from my past that this kind of stuff gets me all wound up inside in a way that nothing else does.  My own work, the productive positive thing that I do for and by myself, goes out the window as I obsess over who said what to whom about what and what I should have said and what we could do to fix it all if only and so on.  This time I finally snapped at someone and I never do that.  I can't remember the last time I lost my composure - although this person, a colleague, provoked it with some really insensitive remarks about my personal life.  That was almost two weeks ago and I am still obsessing over it, wondering why she thought it was ok to speak to me in such a hurtful way, thinking about what I should have said in response, reliving the whole thing in my head.

So I am hoping that this is a way forwards from all of that.  A way back to that idea of being a writer first and to doing a variety of different kinds of writing, both academic and personal, and maybe even somewhere in-between.  A way out of the mind-fog of the semester and its constant demands.  A way to make a more positive connection between the personal and the professional.  A way in and a way out.

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