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Careers and professional development, Community, Language and communication, Social and behavioural

We/I: Reflections on the process of collaborative thinking

Clau Di Gianfrancesco and Elena Gkivisi offer a tentative example of what writing matrixially, together-in-difference, may look like.

03 January 2023

The text that follows has been written collaboratively following personal conversations and shared reflections. Drawing from theories and practices that we use in our work, we offer a tentative example of what writing matrixially, together-in-difference, may look like. The result is a fragmentary, un-smoothened, multivoice text that refutes literary mastery and artistic paternity.

The expectations we shared in thinking about and in writing this piece are at the forefront of our writing process. We dedicate this text to our peers and future early career researchers who, like us, are struggling to find less linear and more communal ways of working together, moving away from neoliberal individualistic pressures at the core of much academic work.

Bio and Collage

The collage we chose to accompany our piece (see image above) is not intended to offer a faithful graphic illustration of the points we expressed in our conversation and thinking together. Rather, as writer and psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose suggests when talking about illustrations, we offer our collage as ‘an enlivening encounter, something surprising – maybe that causes trouble, or disrupts things, rather than sewing them up’ (Grose, 2020, p.10). Furthermore, thinking with Halberstam, we also see collages as a particularly feminist and queer art form. As mixed-media assemblages, collages point to those spaces in-between which ‘refuse to respect the boundaries that usually delineate self from other, art object from museum, and the copy from the original’ (Halberstam, 2011, p.136). With our collage, which breaks and alternates between two of our photos and one of Bracha L. Ettinger’s notebooks, we wanted to find another path to being together-in-difference, to co-become metaphorically on paper, taking with us the words of thinkers by whom we are inspired with our work.

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I brought my diary to our meeting to write down notes of ideas we might come up with for the article, but I didn’t even find the time to open it. I did not even take it out of my bag. It is only after four and a half hours and two and a half pints of beer later, that I opened it to write. To write, half tipsy, really inspired, between days – it is almost midnight – and between spaces – I was travelling somewhere on the Piccadilly line, between Uni and home. In this liminal time and space, I wondered what co-writing and co-researching mean. Is co-thinking the sharing with and thinking together that happened just now as we let ourselves and our words flow from theory to intimate talks and back to theory again? Is it the sharing of doubts, [unreadable], and hopes?

This feels like a good place to start for me. Thinking together, as one but different, [as one but in difference?], as two or more, but in jointness.

Collaboration, as concept and practice, has already been used much, both in academia and in art as well as increasingly between academia-and-art. People have written papers and books together, they have drawn on collaborative teaching or research teams, they have co-founded whole new academic departments, sometimes defied the stilted effects of rigid academic discourse. But then, why does academia still feel like such a magnetic minefield of mastery? During the early stages of their careers, students and researchers are often invited to present collaborative assignments that sometimes, instead of creating a playful environment of creative exchange, feel competitive and threatening in that they are going to be assessed based on prescribed criteria that, at best, will recognise collaboration as a business-like skill of ‘ability to work within a team’ and will once again be judged individually and competitively: who was best at collaborating?

As we were drinking at a table outside, we were asked, by somebody we did not know but with whom we were sharing the table, if we were lecturers. We(?)/I felt both slightly awkward and flattered by this unexpected interpellation. We dove into a conversation about Longobard names, history and gender, taking our time to swim back to thinking together about what we want to write. But inevitably, after a bit more talking, we pleasantly lose ourselves again, drifting away from our questions on the article. And it is in these unknown waters that we find common points, buoys, links, and connections.

Sometimes, when in a smaller or bigger group of friends or colleagues, I have heard myself expressing thoughts and feelings using the pronoun ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. Realising it, I have almost always felt awkward, somehow entitled – as in ‘who am I to represent everyone’s thoughts and feelings?’, to present as more-than-one; or even ‘why am I so fragile and vulnerable, to have such an immense need to be part of a/this group, such that I am already expressing myself in the plural?’, such an immense need to be more-than-one.

I like this feeling of being immersed. Immersed in our conversations, in our words that run and flow like water. Immersed in a pool of feeling and thinking created by the sharing of words and thoughts. We spoke about moving and swimming while reclaiming our bodies and spaces, but I guess this was not what I was thinking of when the metaphor of a pool of water-thought was evoked in my mind. Rather, I am thinking of the enjoyment of being in this watery space together with another student, lost, not knowing what will come next, with the hope, perhaps, of remaining lost.

Researchers in their early careers often struggle to find a place within an academic ‘we’. Solitary figures (we) are struggling to study, understand, deconstruct, compose, oppose, teach, talk, present, making sure that we establish firm and separate subjectivities. Reading what you wrote about the assumed ‘we’ of a common reaction, I co-experienced this fear that made you use a question mark right next to it. At the same time, a huge relief: so there is this ‘we’, it’s not a private, precarious phantasy of mine! Other people use it and live in it too. I felt that this dreaded partiality of my subjectivity that at times feels as a mutilation, can be stretching towards belonging, can be a part of something. This ‘we’ is generated from the separateness of one’s own embodied personhood, and at the same time from the togetherness of conversing and allowing thinking to be thought of as common and shared, transforming the border between subjectivities, to a ‘link’. I write all that and follow another ‘link’ to add to our shared file. I’m thinking, this blank page floating somewhere in some invisible network cloud belongs to both of us, this is a space where our distance becomes proximity. I’m waiting for your response, for you to make something of my thoughts.

I feel it has been so long since we last met up. In all honesty, I have been feeling quite bad to have been repeatedly postponing writing down a response to our meeting and to your writing. But it has been such a busy time. Preparing for my upgrade, working on papers, presentations, and contributions while trying to deal with the messiness of life - of finding a new place to live in a rather unwelcoming city, of building a community and hopes for a more liveable future. Maybe I should not start with an apology and by diverging from what we have been talking about last, but I feel these things are so present and pressing in my life that I am struggling to find an alternative opening to our conversation.

I really enjoyed reading your piece.

Mmm… enjoy… this word, now that I have put it down into written form, sounds to my ears and eyes so weak and inappropriate to describe my feelings and reactions to your piece. I guess this morning – and perhaps all week, hence my repeated hesitation to “find time” to respond to you – I am struggling to find words that can do justice to the vibrancy of yours. Although, to be more generous and kind to myself, it could also be more than just a personal struggle for words. As Ettinger’s work that you evoke in your writing reveals, we need new vocabularies, especially when thinking together – about togetherness and severality. We need a new vocabulary to speak about how the work of others touches and transforms us, in co-copoietic metramorphic ways.

I/We envision academia as a space and temporality of borderlinking processes that would bring together multiple subjects in their shared response-abilities: shared skills, thinking, competencies, communication, collaboration in step with a deep shared understanding of ethics, a recognition of share-ability, sharedness, in-between-ness, trans-subjective-ness. Vigorous, alive and inclusive, ethically considerate conversations, more conversational projects, papers, books, shared posts.

This also brings back to mind the conversation we had about the possible ‘maternity’ of the texts we author, and specifically of the one we are slowly giving life to. This paced and shared gestation of our ideas, troubles once again the neoliberal, heteropatriarchal academic canons of productivity and individual success. Our – and here I re-claim the plural, although always somewhat provisionally – production is one, as we discussed, that refuses mastery and patronymic authorship, so that we may clumsily mother our text and find alternatives to the intellectual and artistic paternity that define so many academic works. Mothering is here understood as the giving birth not only of human life but also, and perhaps in this context most importantly, of a non-human progeny, gestated by not one, but several, related, as Donna Haraway (2006, p.122) writes, “not by blood but by choice”. In thinking about how this text is going to read and present itself to our readers, we both expressed the hope that our voices will entangle to the point where it will be impossible to know who is speaking while maintaining what Ettinger’s calls difference-in-jointness, so that while experiencing our voices together, in flux, our readers may still be able to detect that this text is unavoidably and clearly polyvocal - where the poly from πολύς, is inclusive of us and goes beyond us, to encompass all of the thinkers who continue to populate our conversations.

If this sounds abstract, this is deliberately so: on the one hand I/we do not aim to provide an alternative business strategy that would take the form of suggested bullet points for reformation and improvement. On the other hand, it may seem abstract as it may seem impossible. Let’s keep this imagined space in mind as a utopian alternative: in trying to bring it to life, let’s actively engage with it, in co-imagining and re-imagining a shared borderlinking place of constant exchange between ‘I’/‘We’ – knowing that there will not be a ‘finished’ result nor a product to be assessed.

In our working together in conversation we aimed to re-claim this collaborative space and to suggest it as a working practice for early career researchers; recognising an impossibility of not-sharing within academia, where we are being constantly immersed within common knowledge, partaking in other people’s thought processes, listening and processing, talking together, being interrupted, co-starting, co-re-sharing, co-re-thinking. I/We imagine conversational processes in academia not as imaginary units of complete understanding and agreement, not as supposedly free of conflict interactions (at this point in our conversation you added: we should say something about the refusal of the phallic phantasy of fusional undifferentiation and also of separation, castration, and antagonistic alterity) but as a borderspace, re-appropriating our unstable I(s) towards expansive, ethical and why not, playful and fun We(s). In this way of attempting to dissolve academic mastery and otherness, we may be, as we are currently doing with alternating our words and responses in this piece, not only citing each other, but also, hopefully and more importantly ex-citing each other.

About the authors

Clau Di Gianfrancesco  - ‘While studying for my BA in Psychology, I began working and training with Theatre of the Oppressed companies both in Italy and Scotland. Since then, my research has been primarily concerned with the potential held by this theatrical practice in enacting social change especially in relation to questions of gender and sexuality.’

Elena Gkivisi - ‘Having studied law, literature, cultural studies and psychoanalysis, my current research focuses on female/feminine subjectivity in contemporary literature and psychoanalysis. I'm also a writer and have published short stories as well as two novels in the Greek language.’