“Not a game, Not a game, Not a game”: Outline of Some Theories of Practice

My old friend and colleague Dylan Mulvin and I have a piece in the new issue of Seachange journal. It’s about practice, which we define as “the repertoire of necessary and repetitive activities that precede ‘performance’—activities that are ignored, elided, and generally taken for granted because of their necessity and repetitiveness.” As long-time friends, sports fans, and mediocre athletes who have often practiced together, we consider a range of practice-related sites: drills, pre-game rituals, dissertation writing, comprehensive exams, the academic job market, and our (middling) jump shots. Ultimately we ask whether sports practice, in its often-deferred promise of improvement through the production of habit and bodily comportment, might help us better understand the complex pleasures and disappointments of ascending toward academic careers.

I’m very proud of this dialogue and very happy to have had the chance to collaborate with Dylan. We’ll also be presenting a panel together at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies this weekend in Montreal. It’s called “What was the Database” and it also features a paper by Kate Eichhorn.

How we work: the micropolitics of rhythm, computer, post-it note

I love this photo of Jim Henson, writing in his eames lounger. What would be, for me, the most awkward pose in which to write, works for him. His feet are propped up not just on the chair’s ottoman, but also on a shelving unit, which suggests that he’s put the chair in that place, just so. I like that Henson wrote this way because it’s eccentric and wonderful, must like his muppets. There is purpose to the artist’s strange ergonomic.

A while ago I went to see Matthew Kirshenbaum give a talk about his forthcoming book Track Changes: the Literary History of Word Processing. As part of this project, Kirshenbaum is “cataloging the first computers or word processors for as many authors as I can reliably ascertain.” During the lecture he showed slides of writers working at these computers, and though Kirhshenbaum’s interest is in the type of machine and its interface, I was brought in by the rest of the desk, the room, the choices of where things are placed, how the space is lit, what time of day of it is, what they are drinking, wearing, small choices that add up to a whole habitus, the spaces, practices, and routines that construct our sense of value and our place in the world.

Annie Leibovitz, Susan with Karla Eoff, West 24th Street, New York, 1992

The images that illustrate Kirshenbaum’s project were what lead me to start cataloguing instances of “feminist computing” here. This ongoing project is about an old-school concern for the personal-as-political. What Victoria Hesford describes as the “micropolitics of vaccuming and sexual intercourse”—to which I would add “choice of post-it notes”—, which become “sites for feminist resistance,” acknowledged in their political charge instead of being written off as unimportant because of their everyday character.

Recently I went to hear Julie Maroh, creator of the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), speak about her practice and her new book. She talked about process a lot, and my favourite question asked her to describe her daily routine—what do the banal habits of working look like for her? She talked about mornings spent drinking tea at her desk while responding to email, afternoons of drawing or writing (rarely both activities in one day). She talked about going grocery shopping in the mornings. Staying up late to work. And then days when she feels like she accomplishes nothing at all, a frustrated feeling I want to learn how to let go of.

The small ways that we choose to work matter. What gets left out of conversations about art and labour, or about academia and precarity, is what this work actually looks like: what the rhythm of a day feel like, and how small habits and tiny practices become major ways of dealing with the ways that capital diminishes the steps that go into doing this kind of work. Steps like making a pot of tea to drink in your ridiculous chair.

“Swimming is just an extension of breathing; this is how I keep my head and heart well”

Last week I read Ann Cvetkovich’s new book Depression: A Public Feeling (2012), half of which is a memoir of the two years during which she finished her dissertation and started her first job. I loved it for many reasons, some of which are intellectual engagements. But I think what will stick with me most from this book are the parts about swimming.

Cvetkovich writes about swimming as a “utopia of everyday habit”: a repetitive, physically engaged practice through which we build new worlds that show us ways out of political depression, via ordinary, everyday routines. The full text of Cvetokovich’s mini-essay on swimming is here (PDF).

Swimming is something I’ve always loved and have always done, but swimming lengths became a regular practice a few years ago when I was getting over a running injury. I think a lot about why I swim, and, unlike the other activities I do, it has very little to do with “getting exercise.”

For me, the pleasure in swimming comes from having to move in and out of the world. Underwater there is a singularity and a solitude that is utterly unlike the aloneness I experience at my desk, facing a word document like this one. I’m so physically engaged in moving through the water well, and with rhythm, that I let my mind wander. The nagging voices of imposter syndrome, an overdue article, a stack of marking, or a proposal I’m nervous about are quieted by the ways in which my body has to be completely engaged. And then I come up for air, in the world and aware of others in the pool for just long enough before I’m back with the quiet. In this way, swimming is a repetitive break with the pressures of capital and the thousand tiny anxieties that can make this kind of job hard to bear.

This oscillation is one of the meditative aspects of swimming that Cvetkovich expresses so well:

“Swimming is just an extension of breathing. I can keep moving without really thinking about it or exerting a lot of effort. Moving lets me off the hook a little bit. I can space out and let my mind continue with its obsessions because my body is carrying on, and carrying on without me. Exercise becomes an opportunity for sanctioned dissociation, and swimming is such a graceful way of moving that it seems okay to let my brain do whatever it wants. I’m sealed off from the rest of the world in the womb-like space of the pool.”

My friend cheyanne, who I’ve had the joy of swimming with in lakes, pools, and quarries, has written of swimming in a similar way. Hers is also a love story, charming because it’s so simple—sort of like swimming:

“I once fell in love with a person from Hawaii, a child born into water and who, to this day, is happiest there. In an attempt to conjure their love for me, I taught myself to swim, experimenting with how to orchestrate my breath and my body in tandem. It has been a while now since then, and I am still in love, and these days we swim together. Something beautiful happens in the space between taking breath in and bubbling it out underwater. It’s simple and yet it requires all my attention. In that precise focus, my mind is still. This is how I keep my head and heart well.”