Illustration by Leah Goren for TIME
The following is a window into a somewhat intimate conversation on chaos, feminism, the anticipation inherent to the month of June, the organisations we rely on to support us, and how this all manifests in our work life and beyond. It is a conversation between four members of the lab, who will remain anonymous.
Building on our conversation from today’s spirit-talk, I’m curious about your thoughts on the following:
What is a feminist approach to chaos?
Chaos – there are phases when work or life can feel a bit like a tightrope walk where chaos is being avoided by narrowing down focus to that thin line to just get from A to B. That winnowing can feel like a loss of the bigger picture, of what animates inspiration, because so much gets excluded or set aside. In thinking about a feminist approach to that chaos, I do not think all chaos needs to be embraced, nor is it bad to narrow in order to avoid it, but what you need is the landing points so that the tightrope feeling is limited in duration, and you can arrive to a stable place and look around again. Catch your breath.
Chaos can be useful source of turbulence and inspiration when one is not nearing burn out, not winnowed down into survival mode. A feminist approach would also maybe diagnose a bit what also creates that winnowing. It was useful to me to hear yesterday that others are feeling that same kind of calendar chaos feeling, the need for to do lists, for narrowing focus.
Is it something about this time of the year, the academic calendar, the assumptions we make about June as “more available” because it is after the term end and therefore, we get overambitious about it?
Another term we have worked with is entropy. Are entropy and chaos the same? Not exactly. Everyday entropy and mess can feel like it may verge into chaos when it creates a sense of incoherence bordering on meaninglessness. Finding out that this time of year is perhaps just a tightrope time for many of us gives it some meaning for me.
Something we reflected upon together yesterday was that the anticipation of summer break is not very restful for some of us. I feel quite the same. It will be nice to take some time to put work aside and be with family, but the sense that August will start already with a tightrope makes it difficult. It would be so nice to know that some of what we are doing in ETHOS in the fall would be a landing place to take stock and not be a lot of calendar pressure, but rather a respite, a safe distance from the chaos to think about how to invite some of that chaos in since it tells us about the bigger collective picture.
The analogy with the tightrope and the landing points really resonates with me. Reading it, I caught myself almost holding my breath at the thought of the long tightrope, only for the landing point to trigger a deep sigh of relief. Imagining July as a break affected by the anticipation and anxiety of stepping straight back onto the tightrope again (and as such, perhaps not even feeling like a break) makes me want to workshop how we can utilise ETHOS to create a soft landing from where we can take off with lungs in full capacity – and from there, how ETHOS can continue to serve that function.
I’ve also been thinking about temporality and the value of a moment that ‘serves no greater purpose’. Academia offers a wonderful pool of inspiration and potentials for professional connections. But there is also an explicit pressure to turn that into publications and conference papers and great big projects. Which is incredibly valuable, but also stressful for the individual. And that pressure adds to the *chaos*.
I really value the moments that “serve no greater purpose”. I recall a mentor of mine resisting being booked for supervisions, her time was being carved up so much that there was no longer that “time between” that was not towards productivity or putting out fires or helping others (students) produce. She said, do not “book me” for a meeting. Come find me at the café. It was not just the change of location, but the sense that she was reclaiming the time as hers and I could join her, instead of “taking”. Time belonging to something outside of a calendar requires great efforts of resistance, I think.
I guess I’m wondering how to balance intentionality with ambition. Is it really just as simple as saying no to more things to allow for greater depth in the projects of ambition? Is that even possible if we’re lacking in spirit and as a result have gotten tunnel vision – only focusing on getting across the tightrope to the next landing point?
These reflections made me think that feminist approaches might also critically engage with the question of who is seen as responsible of managing or preventing chaos.
What often contributes to my sense of walking the tightrope is the sense that the responsibility for preventing chaos often becomes individualized. I am made to be responsible for preventing chaos that might happen due to for example organizational neglect or mistakes. I find it is often the case that individuals pick up the pieces or try to steer the ship back on course when things go wrong through no fault of their own.
Yes, we are responsible for our calendars (and perhaps responsible for overbooking them at this time of year), but we are also overbooked because we are asked or implicitly expected to do things – or else (organizational) chaos might erupt. I think there is something about responsibility and the dynamics around that that is very interesting in academic organisations in relation to this theme.
These are very cool reflections on chaos and feminism. I have also been meeting with chaos daily lately – but in my case, it is more so inside my head. Reading this helps me understand things a bit more.
When I sit down to write I only see chaos in my head, in my ideas. First, it’s just the ideas, but then you realize it’s also external factors like our schedules, our expectations as friends/human beings, and generally for ourselves. I don’t really know how to make sense of it really. However, the question about who is responsible for managing chaos kind of made me aware, that in a way, this chaos is my life and my approach to it is also to some degree assigned to myself as a responsibility. You know? This makes me take it a bit easier and re-affirms that I must be gentle with myself in everything which is within my control. This is also where ETHOS comes in since it allows for these cool exchanges and inspiration.
Writing chaos, I can definitely relate to. I tend to have a lot of feelings of chaos in the writing process, lacking ways to structure it. Sometimes I feel that my writing is too messy and chaotic and lives too much in the head or on my computer in started and unfinished states. I have had some shaming around it too. Being told by a supervisor that I was not “productive enough” since I write a lot but not in ways had not become “products”.
What does it mean to be responsible in managing that sort of chaos? I am definitely a bad manager of my own laptop (nested folders, unsaved files, too many open tabs). I realized recently that one of the habits I lost during covid times was having one physical notebook to jot things down in for myself. How did I let go of something so essential for my own management of self?
Sometimes I think a feminist approach is taking seriously the time it takes for maintenance of self and care of things like closing folders, tidying up the office and desk top. But often it feels like there is not time for this. Saying no more would open up space, but as we are discussing saying no is not always enough when chaos overflows from the broader organization. Maybe simply hesitating in the face of urgency to ask about conditions of work and reflect on the feelings of chaos before immediately personalizing and internalizing is enough – as this conversation is doing.
The question of how we become managers of chaos organizationally is very poignant. For example, I am invited to an interview for a PhD student, but I have conflicts. Should I take the fact that it was scheduled without attention to my calendar as an indication that I am not essential to be there? Who do I follow up with? I am trying to do more boundary-setting when really someone else should be managing this chaos, but what about when it effects for example the chances of an applicant having the best chance at a successful interview?
Sometimes I also think anger is appropriate when there is chaos created by mismanagement, but anger also can create more chaos since it absorbs my attention from other things.
I think anger is a valid emotion, and I definitely think resistance is a justified reaction when it comes to chaos. And for me, at least, it helps to write things out to make sense of them. Writing is processing, after all. I suppose something I will try to think about during summer is how to enable prevention over reaction. I know it will not always be in my control, but wherever possible I would like to show myself as much care as I can.
I appreciate you all for being an island in a sea of chaos where it’s safe to even admit that the chaos is too much.