Night(mare) in Michaelmas*: or, an academic Halloween tale

Jana Bacevic


Halloween, as the tradition goes, is the time when the curtain between the two worlds opens. Of course, in anthropology you learn that this is not a tradition at all – they are all invented, it just depends how long ago. This Halloween, however, I would like to tell you a story about boundaries between worlds, and about those who stand, simultaneously, on both sides.

  1. Straw (wo)men

Scarecrow, effigy, straw man: they are remarkably similar. Made of dried grass, leaves, and branches, sometimes dressed in rags, but rarely with recognizable personal characteristics. Personalizing is the providence of Voodoo dolls, or those who use them, dark magic, and violence, which can sometimes be serious and political. Yet, they are all unmistakeably human: in this sense, they serve to attune us to the ordinariness – the unremarkability – of everyday violence.  

Scarecrows stand on ‘our’ side, and guard our world – that is, the world that relies on agricultural production – against ‘theirs’ (of crows, other birds, and non-human animals: they are, we are told, enemies). The sympathy and even pity we feel for scarecrows (witness The Wizard of Oz) shields us from knowledge that scarecrows bear the disproportionate brunt of the violence we do to Others, and to other worlds. We made it the object of crows’ fear and hatred, so that it protects us from what we do not want to acknowledge: that our well-being, and our food, comes only at the cost of destroying others’.

Effigies are less unambiguously ‘ours’. Regardless of whether they are remnants of *actual* human sacrifice (evidence for this is somewhat thin), they belong both to ‘their’ world and ‘ours’. ‘Theirs’ is the non-human world of fire, ash, and whatever remains once human artifices burn down. ‘Ours’ is the world of ritual, collectivity, of the safe reinstatement of order. Effigies are thus simultaneously dead and alive. We construct them, but not to keep the violence – of Others, and towards Others, like with scarecrows – at bay; we construct them in order to restrain and absorb the violence that is towards our own kind. When we burn effigies, we aim to destroy what is evil, rotten, and polluting amongst ourselves. This is why effigies are such a threatening political symbol: they always herald violence in our midst.

Straw men, by contrast, are neither scarecrows nor effigies: we construct them so that we may – selfishly – live. A ‘straw man’ argument is one we use in order to make it easier to win. We do not engage with actual critique, or possible shortfalls, of our own reasoning: instead, we construct an imaginary opponent to make ourselves appear stronger. This is why it makes no sense to fear straw men, though there are good reasons to be suspicious of those who fashion them all too often. They do not cross boundaries between worlds: they belong fully, and exclusively, to this one.

Straw men are not the stuff of horror. Similarly, there is no reason to fear the scarecrow, unless you are a crow. Effigies, however, are different.

2. Face(mask) to face(mask)

Universities in the UK insist on face-to-face teaching, despite the legal challenge from the University and College Union, protests from individual academics, as well as by now overwhelming evidence that there is no way to make classrooms fully ‘Covid-secure’. The justification for this has usually taken the form ‘students expect *some* face-to-face teaching’. This, I believe, means university leadership fears that students (or, more likely, their parents, possibly encouraged by the OfS and/or The Daily Mail) would request tuition fee reimbursements in case all teaching were to shift online. A more coherent interpretation of the stubborn insistence on f2f teaching is that shifting teaching online would mean many students would elect not to live in student accommodation. Student accommodation, in turn, is not only a major source of profit (and employment) for universities, but also for private landlords, businesses, and different kinds of services in cities that happen to have a significant student population.

In essence, then, f2f teaching serves to secure two sources of income, both disproportionately benefitting the propertied class. In this sense, it remains completely irrelevant who teaches face-to-face or, indeed, what is taught. This is obvious from the logic of guaranteeing face-to-face provision in all disciplines, not only those that might have demonstrable need for some degree of physical co-presence (I’m thinking those that use laboratories, or work with physical material). The content, delivery, and, supremely, rationale for maintaining face-to-face teaching remain unjustified. “They” (students?) expect to see “us” (teachers?) in flesh, blood, and, of course, facemask – which we hope will prevent the airborne particles of Coronavirus from infecting us, and thus from getting ill, suffering consequences, and potentially dying.

That this kind of risk would be an acceptable price for perfunctorily parading behind Perspex screens can only seem odd if we believe that what is being involved in face-to-face teaching is us as human beings and individuals. But it is not: when we walk into the classroom, we are not individual academics, teachers, thinkers, writers, or whatever else we may be. We are the ‘face’ of ‘face-to-face’ teaching. We are the effigies.

3. On institutional violence

On Monday, I am teaching a seminar in social theory. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, this would mean leading small group discussions on activities, and readings, that students have engaged with. Under these circumstances, it will mean groupings of socially distant students trying to have a discussion about readings struggling to hear each other through face masks. Given that I struggle to communicate ‘oat milk flat white’ from behind a mask, I have serious doubts that I will manage to convey particularly sophisticated insights into social theory.

But this does not matter: I am not there as a lecturer, as a human being, as a theorist. I am there to sublimate the violence that we are all complicit in. This violence concerns not only the systematic exposure to harm created by the refusal to acknowledge the risks of cramming human beings unnecessarily into closed spaces during the pandemic of an airborne disease, but also forms of violence specific to higher education. The sporadic violence of the curriculum, still overwhelmingly white, male, and colonial (incidentally, I am teaching exactly such a session). More importantly, it includes the violence that we tacitly accept when we overlook the fact that ‘our’ universities subsist on student fees, and that fees are themselves products of violence. The capital that fees depend on are either a product of exploitation in the past, or of student debt, and thus exploitation in the future.

When I walk into the classroom on Monday, I will want my students to remember that every lecturer stands on the boundary between two worlds, simultaneously dead and alive. Sure, we all hope everyone makes it out of there alive, but that’s not the point: the point is how close to the boundary we get. When I walk into the classroom on Monday, I will remind my students that what they see is not me, but the effigy constructed to obscure the violence of the intersection between academic and financial capital. When I walk into the classroom on Monday, I will want my students to know that the boundary between two worlds is very, very thin, and not only on Halloween.

*Michaelmas, for those who do not know, is the name of Autumn (first) term of academic year at Oxford, Cambridge, and, incidentally, Durham.


Photo by Nikola Johnny Mirkovic on Unsplash

Jana Bacevic is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Durham. Her work is in sociology of knowledge, epistemology and social theory, and political sociology. She tweets at @jana_bacevic

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