welcoming a new era of Digestion; generalism and the niche
Friends, a new era of Digestable is afoot.
Two years ago, Latifah and I started sending a daily dispatch of news and gossip to your inbox. Many months after that, we cut down to three days, and added contributors. Looking back, I can’t believe how much I and we wrote. For me, the time I’d spent commuting got redirected to writing.
As the pandemic raged on, it both became more possible to do stuff (see people outside! go to stuff wearing a mask!), and people started to get really tired (us included). Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about extra noise; making stuff and sharing stuff into the void that doesn’t really get received, just adding to the cacophony of *content*.
So with this in mind—alongside the fact that next week, I’ll be going back to in person work (and therefore a commute) for the first time since March 2020—we’ll be slimming down our weekly publication schedule to one heftier Monday issue.
We hope you continue to read and enjoy this humble compilation that has shapeshifted over the last two years.
This week, I’ve been catching up on The Believer’s Dec 21/Jan 22 issue, on attention. For a few years, I have subscribed to and loved this funny publication, full of literary and cultural criticism, cartoons, interviews, and a bunch of stuff I would never otherwise encounter. It feels like the anti-algorithm; nobody’s tracking what I read or linger on, and each issue is prepared wholly without concern for what I’m interested in.
The article that’s most captured me this time is The All: in praise of generalism. The author, Ross Simonini, identifies, as I do, as a lifelong generalist—someone who practices and embodies many things/occupations/projects/skills, rather than one.
Simonini begins by acknowledging that our society (the Western/"modern" world) peddles doing One Thing as “the realization of human potential.” Unless there is one thing (one god, one job, for example), there is nothing.
When I was in grade school, I constantly felt, despite being a smart kid, that I was never good enough at any one subject. We were all encouraged to pick favorites, and to see our skill sets as divided by class. I was alright at many subjects, but I was most satisfied by moments when a text in English spoke to a phenomenon I learned about in History, or another crossover of this type. The erosion of (false) bounds between realms of ideas tickled me; being able to see these blendings and combinings was what made me feel most Smart.
Simonini goes on:
“Specialism is one of the quickest and easiest ways to identify oneself. Spend all your time in a single domain and you will become a physical expression of it. You will also be provided with a sense of a community, lifestyle, history, industry, legacy, and maybe even an archetypal personality to accompany that activity[.]”
For a few years after I graduated college, I had between two and five jobs at any given time. This certainly had downsides, but I enjoyed it: I got to be so many things, so many selves, all at the same or rotating times. And, this meant that my construction of self, community, and lifestyle was both a hodgepodge of ways associated with all my jobs, and something that I had to keep creating, constantly.
Now, as an out nonbinary person, I see that some of this constant creation is inextricably linked to transness. To be trans in a cis world is to be making and making again an identity that bureaucracy and state power has worked to write out of existence. As Simonini says, “Reduction is how people make sense of the world.” It’s also a means of social control (see monotheism, monogamy, etc).
Right away, working was easier for me than school. Any effort that requires human interaction demands a capacity for nuance, for allowance of the multiplicity inherent in being alive. Work might be divided into distinct projects, but imagine being asked to manage a project and only think about the to-do list, not the skills of your team members and the context within which the work was happening.
Further, working across skill sets is nearly impossible if there’s no shared language or understanding of what others are doing. You need to be at least a little bit of a generalist to work with people really different from you, which I think is also a part of accepting and having compassion for people who are different from you, in all kinds of ways.
A month ago, I left my only ever Full Time Job. There were a lot of reasons to do this, but top of mind was the shared disinterest I perceived in generalism—and how unable I felt to be myself, a self who is not just my Job Title but a whole other set of things, too.
“It’s easy to think about other people in terms of a single, memorable symbol, even if we know it is incomplete. It feels dehumanizing to be pigeonholed or profiled, because that kind of reduction can’t actually express the uncategorizable, slippery nature of being human.”
In praise of slipperiness, in praise of generalism: embracing this multiplicity allows us to be more human. It allows us to be freed of a single, oversimplified identity, and, I believe, more willing to challenge structures of power and control—which we must do urgently.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
When I graduated from college in 2017 I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t let myself do the same thing for more than 4 years. As this column demonstrates, I have some wide ranging interests and the idea of devoting myself to one thing to the extent that I can’t also explore all my other interests freaks me out. I’ve been largely successful at this point, even dodging out of a decently paid nonprofit job where most of my coworkers were so cozy they had worked in the same department for their entire careers. But here I am in the midst of a four year research project into the incredibly specific topic of fertilizer history in postwar Ireland and… enjoying it?
Academia essentially functions as a series of niches. You dive into the research people have already done to find a specific topic or perspective no one has explored and then you write into that gap on the shelf. There are a whole bunch of problems with this. People get stuck in their particular silos of knowledge and become less and less flexible as they build a body of work. Whole groups of academics working in a similar direction end up with their own little pocket universe, their own reality where, for instance, the historical perspective is the best or even the only way to understand a topic. And the same old research topic doesn’t stay fun forever. My advisor and so many of the professors I’ve met with tell me to savor these early moments of exploration. They go on about how they miss the days when they could just be researching freely and seeing what is out there to discover. My response is always to reassure that, if they really wanted to, they could just dive into something new and different, but once your livelihood is built around being the mycorrhizal fungi/pasture plant mutualism gal, it becomes harder and harder to try something else.
Though falling into a niche is scary to me and a lot of people, academia can make it fairly easily and even comfortable. This happens because as long as you can prove you’re contributing something unique, not even particularly useful or interesting, academic communities generally grant you the freedom to go about your research in whatever way you like. Once you’ve staked your own territory and are working away at some research project there isn’t anyone who is as knowledgeable or even interested in the topic as you are and so you make the rules. Moreover, if there’s funding to be had and you can prove that you’re the singular expert in, let's say early modern north atlantic cod fisheries, all that funding flows directly into your pocket.
So here I am plugging away at my Irish fertilizer niche with the possibility of a postdoc and then an assistant professorship and so on if I keep building this silo around myself, four years seems like a blip when thinking of how long I could be writing and reading about how fertilizers have come to displace interspecies systems of nutrient cycling. And in this moment I love being able to read old newspapers and check out 70s government documents discussing what the land and farmers need, but I know that joy isn’t forever, and that my interests will inevitably shift with time.
Beyond diminishing satisfaction, working at a niche becomes less and less useful and relevant once you get too deep in, and no one wants that, including the university. The stock solution is “interdisciplinarity,” getting people from different niches and disciplines to work on the same issue from different perspectives, like the program I’m part of which combines researchers in history, botany, ecology, and engineering to tackle the issue of agricultural pollution. These partnerships are fruitful, it's nice to get a coffee with someone who can look at the same landscape but see entirely different things. But interdisciplinarity doesn’t actually break down niches, it only builds bridges between them. Though my research is part of an interdisciplinary project, my degree will still be conferred by the department of history and my dissertation will ultimately be a history paper. Even if my colleagues and I were to write an interdisciplinary paper, the subject-oriented nature of academic publishing means whatever we would write wouldn’t fit into any journal with a significant readership. And, of course, I’m still in my silo. I have a window into someone else’s silo but I still can’t see outside.
So what’s my one weird trick to combatting the academic niche blues? Stealing from the university. I don’t mean taking the cookies from a seminar you didn’t attend, though it's not a bad way to get some extra calories. I mean squirreling away the intangible parts of university work, the knowledge and ideas and unstructured time in the library, to use for non-academic or even anti-academic practices. I get this idea from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, which describes this hidden place within a university, the Undercommons, where Black, queer, and other marginalized folks seek refuge from the oppression and expectations of the outside world and the university itself.
In my head, the Undercommons is a shadowy underground bar buried beneath the grass outside my building where folks of color, poor folks, refugees, and queerdos speak quietly or share a knowing nod across the room. In Harney & Moten’s telling, these folks go about their daily responsibilities, contributing to the university by teaching and writing a paper, putting another brick in the silo’s wall, but in small moments throughout the day, steal down a secret trapdoor out of their niche to write radical unsanctioned work, chip away at the university’s foundations to make space for an unknowable future, and to dance and daydream in the undiscovered expanse of the field. So how do I deal with my niche? I only pretend to have one.