Let’s not cite ourselves

Sara Ahmed is a feminist killjoy, and quite right too.

Sara Ahmed twitter profile pictureI came across her work a day or two ago, in the course of an initial skim of Google Scholar for stuff on ‘embodiment’. I’m going to a conference soon and I’ve rashly proposed to do a paper that will use theoretical work on embodiment to analyze the history of a refugee camp in British-occupied Mesopotamia circa 1920. I don’t know anything about embodiment as a theoretical concept, but figured that this was a good chance to learn.

One of the first books the Googlebot turned up was Ahmed’s Strange encounters. A bit more searching led to her departmental homepage and the Feminist Killjoys blog. There’s an excellent post there entitled White Men, a bracing and necessary read. It struck a particular chord with me for several reasons. First, recognition: what we see when we look at the senior management team of a university (or rather, who); how the buildings of a university get their names; how conferences and workshops are put together—pretty much every problem she identifies in this piece is one that’s familiar to me from my day-to-day working life.

It has become old-fashioned to mention that only white men are speaking at an event but not old-fashioned to have only white men speaking at an event.

Second, education. By drawing the connections between these different things and naming them for what they are—a system—Ahmed helps me make sense of them. Along the way she introduces a bunch of useful concepts that I might not otherwise have come across, in ways that make their meaning, and usefulness, immediately clear to me (Nirmal Puwar’s ‘somatic norms’, for example).

Sara Ahmed twitter page tiled imageAnd third, guilt: not because I happen to be a white man by birth, but because like many white male academics I claim to find these patriarchal and racist systems objectionable, but allow myself to be carried along by them nonetheless. (From a follow-up post: ‘some are not required to push because the system is doing it on their behalf’.) I’ve taken some specific, conscious actions to address a number of the points Ahmed identifies: when writing references, attending job talks, or organizing academic events, for example. But the bibliography of my book is mostly by white men (I’ve recently noted elsewhere that you won’t find many women in the index), and the reading lists for my own courses could most charitably be described as works in progress on this point. I’ve also watched in some dismay as a new team-taught first-year history course that I’ll be convening has turned into an exercise in building a white curriculum.

Which brings me to the title of this post. In 1950, Lucien Febvre gave his fellows and students in the Annales school a famous instruction: ‘Citons-nous!’* Canons are established, and academic careers are made, by citations. Febvre rightly saw that citations were a crucial tool if the Annales school was to be anchored in the mainstream of historical scholarship, and its key texts (especially those written by one L. Febvre) made canonical. Hence his command: ‘Let’s cite ourselves!’

Citation practices aren’t always so explicit. But the implicit practices are more prevalent. ‘White men’, Ahmed writes in her post, ‘cite other white men: it is what they have always done; it is what they will do; what they teach each other to do when they teach each other.’ Those words had the uncomfortably resonant clang of a truth spoken about myself.

Ahmed explains that in the book she’s writing at the moment, Living a Feminist Life, ‘I thus have a strict and explicit citation policy. I will not and do not cite white men. And you know what: it has been really easy! You should try it!’ And I should. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s an excellent thought experiment, an exercise in defamiliarization that can help me recognize how, consciously or unconsciously, I’m perpetuating systems of exclusion and inequality that I say I find objectionable.

I call upon white men not to keep reproducing white men; not to accept history as a good enough reason for your own reproduction.

If you’re a white man in a British university, nothing and no-one will ever oblige you to take up that challenge. Which is the best reason for taking it up.

*I read about Febvre’s remark in the London Review of Books, in a review by Richard Evans of a history of the Annales school: you can easily find it online if you’re interested. But neither Evans nor Febvre needs another citation, and the LRB, however much I like it, has this problem in spades.

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