You can’t ever go back home again

At the start of December, I took the boat from Newcastle to Amsterdam. I was in Amsterdam for a conference, but it is also true I used to spend a lot of time in Amsterdam – Holland in general – both for private reasons and for work, between 2010 and 2016. Then, after a while, I took a train to Berlin. Then another, sleeper train, to Budapest. Then, a bus to Belgrade.

To wake up in Eastern Europe is to wake up in a context in which history has always already happened. To state this, of course, is a cliché; thinking, and writing, about Eastern Europe is always already infused with clichés. Those of us who come from this part of the world – what Maria Tumarkin marks so aptly as “Eastern European elsewheres” – know. In England, we exist only as shadow projections of a self, not even important enough to be former victims/subjects of the Empire. We are born into the world where we are the Other, so we learn to think, talk, and write of ourselves as the Other. Simone de Beauvoir wrote about this; Frantz Fanon wrote about this too.

To wake up in Berlin is to already wake up in Eastern Europe. This is where it used to begin. To wake up in Berlin is to know that we are always already living in the aftermath of a separation. In Eastern Europe, you know the world was never whole.

I was eight when the Berlin Wall fell. I remember watching it on TV. Not long after, I remember watching a very long session of the Yugoslav League of Communists (perhaps this is where my obsession with watching Parliament TV comes from?). It seemed to go on forever. My grandfather seemed agitated. My dad – whom I only saw rarely – said “Don’t worry, Slovenia will never secede from Yugoslavia”. “Oh, I think it will”, I said*.

When you ask “Are you going home for Christmas?”, you mean Belgrade. To you, Belgrade is a place of clubs and pubs, of cheap beer and abundant grilled meat**. To me, Belgrade is a long dreadful winter, smells of car fumes and something polluting (coal?) used for fuel. Belgrade is waves of refugees and endless war I felt powerless to stop, despite joining the first anti-regime protest in 1992 (at the age of 11), organizing my class to join one in 1996 (which almost got me kicked out of school, not for the last time), and inhaling oceans of tear gas when the regime actually fell, in 2000.

Belgrade is briefly hoping things would get better, then seeing your Prime Minister assassinated in 2003; seeing looting in the streets of Belgrade after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and while already watching the latter on Youtube, from England, deciding that maybe there was nowhere to return to. Nowadays, Belgrade is a haven of crony capitalism equally indebted to Russian money, Gulf real estate, and Chinese fossil fuel exploitation that makes its air one of the most polluted in the world. So no, Belgrade never felt like home.

Budapest did, though.

It may seem weird that the place I felt most at home is a place where I barely spent three years. My CV will testify that I lived in Budapest between 2010 and 2013, first as a visiting fellow, then as an adjunct professor at the Central European University (CEU). I don’t have a drop of Hungarian blood (not that I know of, at least, thought with the Balkans you can never tell). My command of language was, at best, perfunctory; CEU is an American university and its official language is English. Among my friends – most of whom were East-Central European – we spoke English; some of us have other languages in common, but we still do. And while this group of friends did include some people who would be described as ‘locals’ – that is, Budapest-born and raised – we were, all of us, outsiders, brought together by something that was more than chance and a shared understanding of what it meant to be part of the city***.

Of course, the CV will say that what brought us together was the fact that we were all affiliated with CEU. But CEU is no longer in Budapest; since 2020, it has relocated to Vienna, forced out by the Hungarian regime’s increasingly relentless pursuit against anything that smacks of ‘progressivism’ (are you listening, fellow UK academics?). Almost all of my friends had left before that, just like I did. In 2012, increasingly skeptical about my chances to acquire a permanent position in Western academia with a PhD that said ‘University of Belgrade’ (imagine, it’s not about merit), I applied to do a second PhD at Cambridge. I was on the verge of accepting the offer, when I also landed that most coveted of academic premia, a Marie Curie postdoc position attached to an offer of a permanent – tenured – position, in Denmark****.

Other friends also left. For jobs. For partners’ jobs. For parenthood. For politics. In academia, this is what you did. You swallowed and moved on. Your CV was your life, not its reflection.

So no, there is no longer a home I can return to.

And yet, once there, it comes back. First as a few casually squeezed out words to the Hungarian conductors on the night train from Berlin, then, as a vocabulary of 200+ items that, though rarely used, enabled me to navigate the city, its subways, markets, and occasionally even public services (the high point of my Hungarian fluency was being able to follow – and even part-translate – the Semmelweis Museum curator’s talk! :)). Massolit, the bookshop which also exists in Krakow, which I’ve visited on a goodbye-to-Eastern-Europe trip from Budapest via Prague and Krakow to Ukraine (in 2013, right before the annexation). Gerlóczy utca, where is the French restaurant in which I once left a massive tip for a pianist who played so beautifully that I was happy to be squeezed at the smallest table, right next to the coat stand. Most, which means ‘bridge’ in Serbian (and Bosnian, and Croatian) and ‘now’ in Hungarian. In Belgrade, I now sometimes rely on Google maps to get around; in Budapest, the map of the city is buried so deep in my mental compass that I end up wherever I am supposed to be going.

This is what makes the city your own. Flow, like the Danube, massive as it meanders between the city’s two halves, which do not exactly make a whole. Like that book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is a Hungarian name, btw. Like my academic writing, which, uncoupled from the strictures of British university term, flows.

Budapest has changed, but the old and the new overlay in ways that make it impossible not to remember. Like the ‘twin’ cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma in the fictional universe of China Miéville’s The City and the City (the universe was, of course, modelled on Berlin, but Besźel is Budapest out and out, save for the sea), the memory and its present overlap in distinct patterns that we are trained not to see. Being in one precludes being in the other. But there are rumours of a third city, Orciny, one that predates both. Believing in Orciny is considered a crime, though. There cannot be a place where the past and the future are equally within touching distance. Right?

CEU, granted, is no longer there as an institution; though the building (and the library) remains, most of its services, students, and staff are now in Vienna. I don’t even dare go into the campus; the last time I was there, in 2017, I gave a keynote about how universities mediate disagreement. The green coffee shop with the perennially grim-faced person behind the counter, the one where we went to get good coffee before Espresso Embassy opened, is no longer there. But Espresso Embassy still stands; bigger. Now, of course, there are places to get good coffee everywhere: Budapest is literally overrun by them. The best I pick up is from the Australian coffee shop, which predates my move. Their shop front celebrates their 10th anniversary. Soon, it will be 10 years since I left Budapest.

Home: the word used to fill me with dread. “When are you going home?”, they would ask in Denmark, perhaps to signify the expectation I would be going to Belgrade for the winter break, perhaps to reflect the idea that all immigrants are, fundamentally, guests. “I live here”, I used to respond. “This is my home”. On bad days, I’d add some of the combo of information I used to point out just how far from assumed identities I was: I don’t celebrate Christmas (I’m atheist, for census purposes); if I did, it would be on a different date (Orthodox Christian holidays in Serbia observe the Julian calendar, which is 10 days behind the Gregorian); thanks, I’ll be going to India (I did, in fact, go to India including over the Christmas holidays the first year I lived in Denmark, though not exactly in order to spite everyone). But above and beyond all this, there was a simpler, flatter line: home is not where you return, it’s the place you never left.

In Always Coming Home, another SF novel about finding the places we (n)ever left, Ursula LeGuin retraces a past from the point of view of a speculative future. This future is one in which the world – in fact, multiple worlds – have failed. Like Eastern Europe, it is a sequence of apocalypses whose relationship can only be discovered through a combination of anthropology and archaeology, but one that knows space and its materiality exist only as we have already left it behind; we cannot dig forwards, as it were.

Am I doing the same, now? Am I coming home to find out why I have left? Or did I return from the future to find out I have, in fact, never left?

Towards the end of The City and the City, the main character, Tyador Borlú, gets apprehended by the secret police monitoring – and punishing – instances of trespass (Breach) between two cities, the two worlds. But then he is taken out by one of the Breach – Ashil – and led through the city in a way that allows him to finally see them not as distinct, but as parts of a whole.

Everything I had been unseeing now jostled into sudden close-up. Sound and smell came in: the calls of Besźel; the ringing of its clocktowers; the clattering and old metal percussion of the trams; the chimney smell; the old smells; they came in a tide with the spice and Illitan yells of Ul Qoma, the clatter of a militsya copter, the gunning of German cars. The colours of Ul Qoma light and plastic window displays no longer effaced the ochres and stone of its neighbour, my home.

‘Where are you?’ Ashil said. He spoke so only I could hear. ‘I . . .’

‘Are you in Besźel or Ul Qoma?’

‘. . . Neither. I’m in Breach.’ ‘You’re with me here.’

We moved through a crosshatched morning crowd. ‘In Breach. No one knows if they’re seeing you or unseeing you. Don’t creep. You’re not in neither: you’re in both.’

He tapped my chest. ‘Breathe.’

(Loc. 3944)


*Maybe this is where the tendency not to be overtly impressed by the authority of men comes from (or authority in general, given my father was a professor of sociology and I was, at that point, nine years old, and also right).

** Which I also do not benefit from, as I do not eat meat.

*** Some years later, I will understand that this is why the opening lines of the Alexandria Quartet always resonated so much.

**** How I ended up doing a second PhD at Cambridge after all and relocating to England permanently is a different story, one that I part-told here.

On reparative reading and critique in/of anthropology: postdisciplinary perspectives on discipline-hopping

*This is a more-or-less unedited text of the plenary (keynote) address to the international conference ‘Anthropology of the future/The Future of Anthropology‘, hosted by the Institute of Ethnography of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, in Viminacium, 8-9 September 2022. If citing, please refer to as Bacevic, J. [Title]. Keynote address, [Conference].

Hi all. It’s odd to be addressing you at a conference entitled ‘Anthropology of the Future/The Future of Anthropology’, as I feel like an outsider for several reasons. Most notably, I am not an anthropologist. This is despite the fact that I have a PhD in anthropology, from the University of Belgrade, awarded in 2008. What I mean is that I do not identify as an anthropologist, I do not work in a department or institute of anthropology, nor do I publish in anthropology journals. In fact, I went so far in the opposite direction that I got another PhD, in sociology, from the University of Cambridge. I work at a department of sociology, at Durham University, which is a university in the north-east of England, which looks remarkably like Oxford and Cambridge. So I am an outsider in two senses: I am not an anthropologist, and I no longer live, reside, or work in Serbia. However, between 2004 and 2007 I taught at the Department of Ethnology and Anthropology of the University of Belgrade, and also briefly worked at the Institute that is organizing this very conference, as part of the research stipend awarded by the Serbian Ministry of Science to young, promising, scientific talent. Between 2005 and 2007, and then again briefly in 2008-9, I was the Programme Leader for Antropology in Petnica Science Centre. I don’t think it would be too exaggerated to say, I was, once, anthropology’s future; and anthropology was mine. So what happened since?

By undertaking a retelling of a disciplinary transition – what would in common parlance be dubbed ‘career change’ or ‘reorientation’ – my intention is not to engage in autoethnography, but to offer a reparative reading. I borrow the concept of reparative reading from the late theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay entitled “On paranoid reading and reparative reading, or: You’re so paranoid, you probably think this essay is about you”, first published in 1997 and then, with edits, in 2003; I will say more about its content and key concepts shortly.

For the time being, however, I would like to note that the disinclination from autoethnography was one of the major reasons why I left anthropology; it was matched by the desire to do theory, by which I mean the possibility of deriving mid-range generalizations about human behaviour that could aspire not to be merely local, by which I mean not apply only to the cases studied. This, as we know, is not particularly popular in anthropology. This particular brand of ethnographic realism was explicitly targeted for critique during anthropology’s postmodern turn. On the other hand, Theory in anthropology itself had relatively little to commend it, all too easily and too often developing into a totalizing master-narrative of the early evolutionism or, for that matter, its late 20th– and early 21st-century correlates, including what is usually referred to as cognitive psychology, a ‘refresh’ of evolutionary theory I had the opportunity to encounter during my fellowship at the University of Oxford (2007-8). So there were, certainly, a few reasons to be suspicious of theory in anthropology.

For someone theoretically inclined, thus, one option became to flee into another discipline. Doing a PhD in philosophy in the UK is a path only open to people who have undergraduate degrees in philosophy (and I, despite a significant proportion of my undergrad coursework going into philosophy, had not), which is why a lot of the most interesting work in philosophy in the UK happens – or at least used to happen – in other departments, including literature and language studies, the Classics, gender studies, or social sciences like sociology and geography. I chose to work with those theorists who had found their institutional homes in sociology; I found a mentor at the University of Cambridge, and the rest is history (by which I mean I went on to a postdoctoral research fellowship at Cambridge and then on to a permanent position at Durham).  

Or that, at any rate, is one story. Another story would tell you that I got my PhD in 2008, the year when the economic crisis hit, and job markets collapsed alongside several other markets. On a slightly precarious footing, freshly back from Oxford, I decided to start doing policy research and advising in an area I had been researching before: education policies, in particular as part of processes of negotiation of multiple political identities and reconciliation in post-conflict societies. Something that had hitherto been a passion, politics, soon became a bona fide object of scholarly interest, so I spent the subsequent few years developing a dual career, eventually a rather high-profile one, as, on the one hand, policy advisor in the area of postconflict higher education, and, on the other, visiting (adjunct) lecturer at the Central European University in Budapest, after doing a brief research fellowship in its institute of advanced study. But because I was not educated as a political scientist – I did not, in other words, have a degree in political science; anthropology was closer to ‘humanities’ and my research was too ‘qualitative’ (this is despite the fact I taught myself basic statistics as well as relatively advanced data analysis) – I could not aspire to a permanent job there. So I started looking for routes out, eventually securing a postdoc position (a rather prestigious Marie Curie, and a tenure-track one) in Denmark.

I did not like Denmark very much, and my boss in this job – otherwise one of the foremost critics of the rise of audit culture in higher education – turned out to be a bully, so I spent most of my time in my two fieldwork destinations, University of Bristol, UK, and University of Auckland, New Zealand. I left after two years, taking up an offer of a funded PhD at Cambridge I had previously turned down. Another story would tell you that I was disappointed with the level of corruption and nepotism in Serbian academia so have decided to leave. Another, with disturbing frequency attached to women scholars, would tell you that being involved in an international relationship I naturally sought to move somewhere I could settle down with my partner, even if that meant abandoning the tenured position I had at Singidunum University in Serbia (this reading is, by the way, so prominent and so unquestioned that after I announced I had got the Marie Curie postdoc and would be moving to Denmark several people commented “Oh, that makes sense, isn’t your partner from somewhere out there” – despite the fact my partner was Dutch).

Yet another story, of course, would join the precarity narrative with the migration/exile and decoloniality narrative, stipulating that as someone who was aspiring to do theory I (naturally) had to move to the (former) colonial centre, given that theory is, as we know, produced in the ‘centre’ whereas countries of the (semi)periphery are only ever tasked with providing ‘examples’, ‘case-‘, or, at best, regional or area studies. And so on and so on, as one of the few people who have managed to trade their regional academic capital for a global (read: Global North/-driven and -defined) one, Slavoj Žižek, would say.

The point here is not to engage in a demonstration of multifocality by showing all these stories could be, and in a certain register, are true. It is also not to point out that any personal life-story or institutional trajectory can be viewed from multiple (possibly mutually irreconcilable) registers, and that we pick a narrative depending on occasion, location, and collocutor. Sociologists have produced a thorough analysis of how CVs, ‘career paths’ or  trajectories in the academia are narratively constructed so as to establish a relatively seamless sequence that adheres to, but also, obviously, by the virtue of doing that, reproduces ideas and concepts of ‘success’ (and failure; see also ‘CV of failures‘). Rather, it is to observe something interesting: all these stories, no matter how multifocal or multivocal, also posit master narratives of social forces – forces like neoliberalism, or precarity, for instance; and a master narrative of human motivation – why people do the things they do, and what they desire – things like permanent jobs and high incomes, for instance. They read a direction, and a directionality, into human lives; even if – or, perhaps, especially when – they narrate instances of ‘interruption’, ‘failure’, or inconsistency.

This kind of reading is what Eve Kosofsky Segdwick dubs paranoid reading. Associated with what Paul Ricoeur termed ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ in Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, and building on the affect theories of Melanie Klein and Silvan Tomkins, paranoid reading is a tendency that has arguably become synonymous with critique, or critical theory in general: to assume that there is always a ‘behind’, an explanatory/motivational hinterland that, if only unmasked, can not only provide a compelling explanation for the past, but also an efficient strategy for orienting towards the future. Paranoid reading, for instance, characterizes a lot of the critique in and of anthropology, not least of the Writing Culture school, including in the ways the discipline deals with the legacy of its colonial past.

To me, it seems like anthropology in Serbia today is primarily oriented towards a paranoid reading, both in relation to its present (and future) and in relation to its past. This reading of the atmosphere is something it shares with a lot of social sciences and humanities internationally, one of increasing instability/hostility, of the feeling of being ‘under attack’ not only by governments’ neoliberal policies but also by increasingly conservative and reactionary social forces that see any discipline with an openly progressive, egalitarian and inclusive political agenda as leftie woke Satanism, or something. This paranoia, however, is not limited only to those agents or social forces clearly inimical or oppositional to its own project; it extends, sometimes, to proximate and cognate disciplines and forms of life, including sociology, and to different fractions or theoretical schools within anthropology, even those that should be programmatically opposed to paranoid styles of inquiry, such as the phenomenological or ontological turn – as witnessed, for instance, by the relatively recent debate between the late David Graeber and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro on ontological alterity.

Of course, in the twenty-five years that have passed from the first edition of Sedgwick’s essay, many species of theory that explicitly diverge from paranoid style of critique have evolved, not least the ‘postcritical’ turn. But, curiously, when it comes to understanding the conditions of our own existence – that is, the conditions of our own knowledge production – we revert into paranoid readings of not only the social, cultural, and political context, but also of people’s motivations and trajectories. As I argued elsewhere, this analytical gesture reinscribes its own authority by theoretically disavowing it. To paraphrase the title of Sedgwick’s essay, we’re so anti-theoretical that we’re failing to theorize our own inability to stop aspiring to the position of power we believe our discipline, or our predecessors, once occupied, the same power we believe is responsible for our present travails. In other words, we are failing to theorize ambiguity.

My point here is not to chastise anthropology in particular or critical theory in more general terms for failing to live up to political implications of its own ontological commitments (or the other way round?); I have explained at length elsewhere – notably in “Knowing neoliberalism” – why I think this is an impossibility (to summarize, it has to do with the inability to undo the conditions of our own knowledge – to, barely metaphorically, cut our own epistemological branch). Rather, my question is what we could learn if we tried to think of the history and thus future of anthropology, and our position in it, from a reparative, rather than paranoid, position.

This in itself, is a fraught process; not least because anthropology (including in Serbia) has not been exempt from revelations concerning sexual harassment, and it would not be surprising if many more are yet to come. In the context of re-encounter with past trauma and violence, not least the violence of sexual harassment, it is nothing if not natural to re-examine every bit of the past, but also to endlessly, tirelessly scrutinize the present: was I there? Did I do something? Could I have done something? What if what I did made things worse? From this perspective, it is fully justified to ask what could it, possibly, mean to turn towards a reparative reading – can it even, ever, be justified?

Sedgwick – perhaps not surprisingly – has relatively little to say about what reparative reading entails. From my point of view, reparative reading is the kind of reading that is oriented towards reconstructing the past in a way that does not seek to avoid, erase or deny past traumas, but engages with the narrative so as to afford a care of the self and connection – or reconnection – with the past selves, including those that made mistakes or have a lot to answer for. It is, in essence, a profoundly different orientation towards the past as well as the future, one that refuses to reproduce cultures – even if cultures of critique – and to claim that future, in some ways, will be exactly like the past.

Sedgwick aligns this reorientation with queer temporalities, characterized by a relationship to time that refuses to see it in (usually heteronormatively-coded) generationally reproductive terms: my father’s father did this, who in turn passed it to my father, who passed it to me, just like I will pass it to my children. Or, to frame this in more precisely academic terms: my supervisor(s) did this, so I will do it [in order to become successful/recognized like my academic predecessors], and I will teach my students/successors to do it. Understanding that it can be otherwise, and that we can practise other, including non-generational (non-generative?) and non-reproductive politics of knowledge/academic filiation/intellectual friendship is, I think, one important step in making the discussion about the future, including of scientific discipline, anything other than a vague gesturing towards its ever-receding glorious past.

Of course, as a straight and, in most contexts, cis-passing woman, I am a bit reluctant to claim the label of queerness, especially when speaking in Serbia, an intensely and increasingly institutionally homophobic and compulsorily heterosexual society. However, I hope my queer friends, partners, and colleagues will forgive me for borrowing queerness as a term to signify refusal to embody or conform to diagnostic narratives (neoliberalism, precarity, [post]socialism); refusal or disinvestment from normatively and regulatively prescribed vocabularies of motivation and objects of desire – a permanent (tenured) academic position; a stable and growing income; a permanent relationship culminating in children and a house with a garden (I have a house, but I live alone and it does not have a garden). And, of course, the ultimate betrayal for anyone who has come from “here” and ‘made it’ “over there”: the refusal to perform the role of an academic migrant in a way that would allow to once and for all settle the question of whether everything is better ‘over there’ or ‘here’, and thus vindicate the omnipresent reflexive chauvinism (‘corrupt West’) or, alternatively, autochauvinism (‘corrupt Serbia’).

What I hope to have achieved instead, through this refusal, is to offer a postdisciplinary or at least undisciplined narrative and an example of how to extract sustenance from cultures inimical to your lifeplans or intellectual projects. To quote from Sedgwick:

“The vocabulary for articulating any reader’s reparative motive toward a text or a culture has long been so sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary that it’s no wonder few critics are willing to describe their acquaintance with such motives. The prohibitive problem, however, has been in the limitations of present theoretical vocabularies rather than in the reparative motive itself. No less acute than a paranoid position, no less realistic, no less attached to a project of survival, and neither less nor more delusional or fantasmatic, the reparative reading position undertakes a different range of affects, ambitions, and risks. What we can best learn from such practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.“

All of the cultures I’ve inhabited have been this to some extent – Serbia for its patriarchy, male-dominated public sphere, or excessive gregarious socialisation, something that sits very uncomfortably with my introversion; England for its horrid anti-immigrant attitude only marginally (and not always profitably) mediated by my ostensible ’Whiteness’; Denmark for its oppressive conformism; Hungary, where I was admittedly happiest among the plethora of other English-speaking cosmopolitan academics, which could not provide the institutional home I required (eventually, as is well-known, not even to CEU). But, in a different way, they have also been incredibly sustaining; I love my friends, many of whom are academic friends (former colleagues) in Serbia; I love the Danish egalitarianism and absolute refusal of excess; and I love England in many ways, in no particular order, the most exciting intellectual journey, some great friendships (many of those, I do feel the need to add, with other immigrants), and the most beautiful landscapes, especially in the North-East, where I live now (I also particularly loved New Zealand, but hope to expand on that on a different occasion).

To theorize from a reparative position is to understand that all of these things could be true at the same time. That there is, in other words, no pleasure without pain, that the things that sustain us will, in most cases, also harm us. It is to understand that there is no complete career trajectory, just like there is no position , epistemic or otherwise, from which we could safely and for once answer the question what the future will be like. It is to refuse to pre-emptively know the future, not least so that we could be surprised.

Sally’s boys, Daddy’s girls

I’ve finished reading Sally Rooney’s most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where are you? It turned out to be much better than I expected – as an early adopter of Conversations with Friends (‘read it – and loved it – before  it was cool’), but have subsequently found Normal People quite flat – by which I mean I spent most of the first half struggling, but found the very last bits actually quite good. In an intervening visit to The Bound, I also picked up one of Rooney’s short stories, Mr Salary, and read it on the metro back from Whitley Bay.

I became intrigued by the ‘good boy’ characters of both – Simon in Beautiful World, Nathan in Mr Salary. For context (and hopefully without too many spoilers), Simon is the childhood friend-cum-paramour of Eileen, who is the best friend of Alice (BW’s narrator, and Rooney’s likely alter-ego); Nathan, the titular character of Mr Salary, is clearly a character study for Simon, and in a similar – avuncular – relationship to the story’s narrator. Both Simon and Nathan are older than their (potential) girlfriends in sufficient amounts to make the relationship illegal or at least slightly predatory when they first meet, but also to hold it as a realistic and thus increasingly tantalizing promise once they have grown up a bit. But neither men are predatory creeps; in fact, exactly the opposite. They are kind, understanding, unfailingly supportive, and forever willing to come back to their volatile, indecisive, self-doubting, and often plainly unreliable women.

Who are these fantastic men? Here is an almost perfect reversal of the traditional romance portrayal of gender roles – instead of unreliable, egotistic, unsure-about-their-own-feelings-and-how-to-demonstrate-them guys, we are getting more-or-less the same, but with girls, with the men providing a reliable safe haven from which they can weather their emotional, professional, and sexual storms. This, of course, is not to deny that women can be as indecisive and as fickle as the stereotypical ‘Bad Boys’ of toxic romance; it’s to wonder what this kind of role reversal – even in fantasy, or the para-fantasy para-ethnography that is contemporary literature – does.

On the one hand, men like Simon and Nathan may seem like godsend to anyone who has ever gone through the cycle of emotional exhaustion connected to relationships with people who are, purely, assholes. (I’ve been exceptionally lucky in this regard, insofar as my encounters with the latter kind were blissfully few; but sufficient to be able to confirm that this kind does, indeed, exist in the wild). I mean, who would not want a man who is reliable, supportive of your professional ambitions, patient, organized, good in bed, and does laundry (yours included)? Someone who could withstand your emotional rollercoasters *and* buy you a ticket home when you needed it – and be there waiting for you? Almost like a personal assistant, just with the emotions involved.

And here, precisely, is the rub. For what these men provide is not a model of a partnership; it’s a model of a parent. The way they relate to the women characters – and, obviously, the narrative device of age difference amplifies this – is less that of a partner and  more of a benevolent older brother or, in a (n only slight) paraphrase of Winnicott, a good-enough father.

In Daddy Issues, Katherine Angel argues that feminism never engaged fully with the figure of the father – other than as the absent, distant or mildly (or not so mildly) violent and abusive figure. But somewhere outside the axis between Sylvia Plath’s Daddy and Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto is the need to define exactly what the role of the father is once it is removed from its dual shell of object of hate/object of love. Is there, in fact, a role at all?

I have been thinking about this a lot, not only in relation to the intellectual (and political) problem of relationality in theory/knowledge production practices  – what Sara Ahmed so poignantly summarized as ‘can one not be in relation to white men?’ – but also personally. Having grown up effectively without a father (who was also unknown to me in my early childhood), what, exactly, was the Freudian triangle going to be in my case? (no this does not mean I believe the Electra complex applies literally; if you’re looking to mansplain psychoanalytic theory, I’d strongly urge you to reconsider, given I’ve read Freud at the age of 13 and have read post-Freudians since; I’d also urge you to read the following paragraph and consider how it relates to the legacies of Anna Freud/Melanie Klein divide, something Adam Philips writes about).

In the domain of theory, claims of originality (or originarity, as in coining or discovering something) is nearly always attributed to men, women’s contributions almost unfailingly framed in terms of ‘application or elaboration of *his* ideas’ or ‘[minor] contribution to the study’ (I’ve written about this in the cases of Sartre/de Beauvoir and Robert Merton/Harriet Zuckerman’s the ‘Matthew Effect’, but other examples abound). As Marilyn Frye points out in “Politics of reality”, the force of genealogy does not necessarily diminish even for those whose criticism of patriarchy extends to refusing anything to do with men altogether; Frye remarks having observed many a lesbian separatist still asking to be recognized – intellectually and academically – by the white men ‘forefathers’ who sit on academic panels. The shadow of the father is a long one. For those of us who have chosen to be romantically involved with men, and have chosen to work in patriarchal mysoginistic institutions that the universities surely are, not relating to men at all is not exactly an option.

It is from this perspective that I think we’d benefit from a discussion on how men can be reliable partners without turning into good-enough daddies, because – as welcome and as necessary as this role sometimes is, especially for women whose own fathers were not – it is ultimately not a relationship between two adults. I remember reading an early feminist critique of the Bridget Jones industry that really hit the nail on the head: it was not so much Jones’ dedication to all things ‘60s and ‘70s feminism abhorred – obsession with weight loss and pursuit of ill-advised men (i.e. Daniel Cleaver); it was even more that when ‘Mr Right’ (Mark Darcy, the barely disguised equivalent of Austen’s Mr Darcy) arrives, he still falls for Bridget – despite the utter absence of anything from elementary competence at her job to the capacity to feed herself in any form that departs from binge eating to recommend her to a seemingly top-notch human rights attorney. Which really begs the question: what is Mr Darcy seeing in Bridget?

Don’t get me wrong: I am sure that there are men who are attracted to the chaotic, manic-pixie-who-keeps-losing-her-credit-card kind of girl. Regardless of what manifestation or point on the irresponsibility spectrum they occupy, these women certainly play a role for such men – allowing them to feel useful, powerful, respected, even perhaps feeding a bit their saviour complex. But ultimately, playing this role leaves these men entirely outside of the relationship; if the only way they relate to their partners is by reacting (to their moods, their needs, their lives), this ultimately absolves them of equal responsibility for the relationship. Sadly, there is a way to avoid equal division of the ‘mental load’ even while doing the dishes.

And I am sure this does something for the women in question too; after all, there is nothing wrong in knowing that there *is* going to be someone to pick you up if you go out and there are no taxis to get you back home, who will always provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, seemingly completely irrespectively of their own needs (Simon is supposed to have a relatively high-profile political job, yet, interestingly, never feels tired when Ellaine calls or offers to come over). But what at first seems like a fantasy come true – a reliable man who is not afraid to show his love and admiration – can quickly turn into a somewhat toxic set of interdependencies: why, for instance, learn to drive if someone is always there to pick you up and drop you off? (honestly: even among the supposedly-super-egalitarian straight partnerships I know, the number of men drivers vastly outstrips that of women). The point is not to always insist on being a jack-of-all-trades (nor on being the designated driver), as much as to realize that most kinds of freedom (for instance, the freedom to drink when out) embed a whole set of dependencies (for instance, dependence on urban networks of taxis/Ubers or kind self-effacing mensaviours there to pick you up – in Cars’ slightly creepy formulation, drive you home).

Of course, as Simone de Beauvoir recognized, there is no freedom without dependency. We cannot, simply, will ourselves free without willing the same for others; but, at the same time, we cannot will them to be free, as this turns them into objects. In Ethics of Ambiguity – one of the finest books of existentialist philosophy – de Beauvoir turns this into the main conundrum (thus: source of ambiguity) for how to act ethically. Acknowledging our fundamental reliance on others does not mean we need to remain locked into the same set of interdependencies (e.g., we could build safe and reliable public transport and then we would not have to rely on people to drive us home?), but it also does not mean we need to kick out of them by denying or reversing their force – not least because it, ultimately, does not work.

The idea that gender equality, especially in heterosexual partnerships, benefits from the reversal of the trope of the uncommitted, eternally unreliable bachelor in the way that tips the balance in an entirely opposite direction (other than for very short periods of time, of course) strikes me as one of the manifestations of the long tail of post- or anti-feminist backlash – admittedly, a mild and certainly less harmful one than, for instance, the idea that feminism means ‘women are better than men’ or that feminists seek to eliminate men from politics, work, or anything else (both, worryingly, have filtered into public discourse). It also strikes me that the long-suffering Sacrificial Men who have politely taken shit from their objects of affection can all-too-easily be converted into Men’s Rights Activists or incels if and when their long suffering fails to yield results – for instance, when their Manic Pixie leaves with someone with a spine (not a Bad Boy, just a man with boundaries) – or when they realize that the person they have been playing Good Daddy to has finally grown up and left home.

Women and space

Mum in space

Recently, I saw two portrayals of women* in space, Proxima – starring Eva Green as the female member of the crew training for the first mission to Mars; and Away, starring Hilary Swank as the commander of the crew on the first mission to Mars (disclaimer: I have only seen the first two episodes of Away, so I’m not sure what happens in the rest of the series). Both would have been on my to-watch list even under normal circumstances; I grew up on science fiction, and, as any woman who, in Rebecca West’s unsurpassed formulation, expresses opinions that distinguish her from a doormat, have spent a fair bit of time thinking about gender, achievement, and leadership. This time, an event coloured my perception of both: my mum’s death in October.

My mother was 80; she died of complications related to metastatic cancer, which had started as breast cancer but had at this point spread to her liver. She had dealt with cancer intermittently since 2009; had had a double mastectomy and repeated chemotherapy/radiation at relatively regular intervals since – in 2011, 2015, 2018 and, finally, 2020 – the last one stopping shortly after it started, as it became evident that it could not reverse the course of Mum’s illness and was, effectively, making it worse.

As anyone living with this kind of illness knows, it’s always a long game of predicting and testing, waiting when the next one will come up; it’s possible that the cancer that eventually killed my mum was missed because of flaky screening in November, or because of delays at the height of the pandemic. What matters is that, by the time they discovered it during a regular screening in June, it was already too late.

What matters is that, because living with this sort of illness entails living in segments of time between two appointments, two screenings, two test results, we had kind of expected this. We had time to prepare. My mother had time to prepare. I had time to prepare. What also matters is that I was able to travel, to leave the country in time to see my mother still alive, despite the fact that at that time the Home Office had been sitting on my Tier 2 visa application since the start of July, and on the request for expedition due to compassionate circumstances for three weeks. This matters, because many other women are not so lucky as to have the determination to call the Home Office visa processing centre three times, the cultural capital to contact their MP when it seemed like time was running out, nor, for that matter, an MP (also a woman) who took on the case. It matters, because I was able to be there for the last two weeks of my mother’s life. I was there when she died.

But this essay isn’t about me, or my mum. It’s about women, and the stars.

Women and the stars

Every story about the stars is, in essence, a story of departure from Earth, and thus a story of separation, and thus a story of leaving, and what’s left behind. This doesn’t mean that these themes need to be parsed via the tired dichotomy of the ‘masculine-proactive-transcendent’ principle pitted against the ‘feminine-grounded-immanent’, but they often are, and both Proxima and Away play out this tension.

For those who had not seen either or both, Proxima and Away are about women who are travelling into space. Proxima’s Sarah (Eva Green) is the French member of the international crew of astronauts spending a year at the International Space Station in preparation for the first mission to Mars.  

The central tension develops along two vectors: the characters’ relation to their male partners (Sarah’s – ex – Thomas, Emma’s Matt); and their relationship to their daughters – Sarah’s Stella, and Emma’s Alexis (‘Lex’). While the relationship to their partners is not irrelevant, it is obvious that the mother-daughter relationship is central to the plot. Neither is it accidental that both (and only) children are girls: in this sense, the characters’ relationship to their daughters is not only the relationship to the next generation of women, it is also the relationship to their ‘little’ selves. In this sense, the daughters’ desire for their mother’s to return – or to stay, to never leave for the stars – is also a reflection of their own desire to give up, to stay in the comfort of the ground, the Earth, the safe (if suffocating) embrace of family relations and gender roles, in which ‘She’ is primarily, after all, a Mother.

It is interesting that both characters, in Proxima and in Away, find similar ‘solutions’ – or workarounds – for this central tension. In Proxima, Sarah leaves her daughter, but betrays her own commitment by violating pre-flight quarantine regulations, sneaking out the night before departure to take her daughter to see the rocket from up close. In Away, Emma decides to return from pre-flight Lunar base after her husband has a heart attack, only to be persuaded to stay, both by the (slowly recovering) husband and, more importantly, by the daughter, who – at the last minute – realizes the importance of the mission and says she wants her mum to stay, rather than return to Earth. The guilt both women feel over ‘abandoning’ their daughters (and thus their own traditional roles) is thus compensated or resolved by inspiring the next generation of women to ‘look at the stars’: to aim higher, and to prioritize transcendence at the cost of immanence, even when the price is pain.     

We might scoff at the simple(ish) juxtaposition of Earth and the stars, but the essence of that tension is still there, no matter how we choose to frame it. It is the basic tension explored in Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy – the tension between being-for-themselves and being-in-relation to. It’s the unforgiving push and pull that leads so many women to take on disproportionate amounts of emotional, care, and organizational labour. It’s a tension you can’t resolve, no matter how queer, trans, or childless. Even outside of ‘traditional’ gender roles, women are still judged first and foremost on their ability to conceive and retain relationships; research on women leaders, for instance, shows they are required to consistently demonstrate a ‘collective’ spirit of the sort not expected of their male counterparts.

A particularly brutal version of this tension presented itself in the months before my mother died. I was stuck in England, not being able to leave before my Tier 2 visa was approved, and her condition was getting worse. Home Office was already behind their 8-week timeframe due to the pandemic; the official guidance – confirmed by the University – was that, if I chose to leave the country before the decision had been made, not only would I automatically forfeit my application, I would also be banned for a year from re-entering the country, and for a further year from re-applying for the same sort of permit. In essence, this meant I was choosing between my job – which I love – and my mother, which I loved too.

Luckily, I never had to make this choice; after a lot of intervention, my visa came through, and I was able to travel. I am not sure what kind of decision I would have made.

Mum and daughter in space

I saw Proxima in August, shortly after moving from Cambridge to Durham to start my job at the University. It was only the second time I was able to cry after having learned of my mum’s most recent, and final, diagnosis. I saw Away after returning from the funeral in early October, having acquired a Netflix account in a vague attempt at ‘self-care’ that didn’t involve reading analytic philosophy.

My mum saw neither, and I am not sure if she would have recognized herself in them. Hers was a generation of transcendence, buttressed by post-war recovery and socialism’s early successes in eradicating gender inequality. She introduced me to science fiction, but it was primarily Arthur Clarke, Isaac Assimov, and Stanislav Lem, my mum having no problems recognizing herself in the characters of Dave Bowman, Hari Seldon, or Rohan from ‘The Invincible’. Of course, as I was growing up, neither did I: it was only after I had already reached a relatively advanced career stage – and, it warrants mentioning, in particular after I began full-time living in the UK – that I started realizing how resolute the steel grip of patriarchy is in trying to make sure we never reach for the stars.

My mother famously said that she never considered herself a feminist, but had led a feminist life. By this, she meant that she had an exceptional career including a range of leadership positions, first in research, then in political advising, and finally in diplomacy; and that she had a child – me – as a single mother, without a partner involved. What she didn’t stop to think about was that, throughout this process, she had the support not only of two loving parents (both of my grandparents had already retired when I was born), but also of socialist housing, childcare, and education policies.I would point this fact out to her on the rare occasions when she would bring up her one remaining regret, which was that I choose not to have children. Though certainly aided by the fact I never felt the desire to, this decision was buttressed by my belief (and observation) that, no matter how dedicated, egalitarian, etc. etc. a partner can be, it is always mothers who end up carrying a greater burden of childcare, organization, and planning. I hope that she, in the end, understood this decision.

In one of the loveliest messages** I got after my mum died, a friend wrote that he believed my mum was now a star watching over me. As much as I would like to think that, if anything, the experience of a death has resolutely convinced me there is no ‘thereafter’, no space, place, or plane where we go after we die.

But I’m still watching the stars.  

This image is, sadly, a pun that’s untraslateable into English; sorry

* For avoidance of doubt, trans women are women

**Throughout the period, I’ve received absolutely stellar messages of love and support. Among these, it warrants saying, quite a few came from men, but those that came from women were exceptional in striking the balance between giving me space to think my own thoughts and sit with my own grief, while also making sure I knew I could rely on their support if I wanted to. This kind of balance, I think, comes partly out of having to always negotiate being-for-oneself and being-for-others, but there is a massive lesson in solidarity right in there.