The time it takes: A reflection on academia and activism

Dr Erika Teichert

What can academia add to activism? Can academia add anything to activism at all? Or, perhaps, the question ought to be: should academia want to add anything to activism? In my research, I often ask myself these questions.

Focusing on the context of Latin America, I study how human rights activists use visual culture to mobilise their claims in the public sphere. As part of this work, I have often interviewed activists: I have visited their homes, seen their personal and collective archives, and shared stories with them about how we see the world before us. The generosity of the people I have met along the way has always moved me. The activists I have been lucky to encounter and talk to have been open and giving with both their archives and experiences. Regardless of the kind of human rights issue they represented, and how intimately affected they were by these, they always gave me the sense that their embodied knowledge and experience belonged to and in the public realm. Activism, after all, only makes sense in public. In my conversations with activists, academia was often understood to be part of that public sphere, despite its potential flaws in access that we face. Is it important, then, to think of ourselves in this way, as being, first and foremost, part of a public?

Faced with their openness, I have often asked myself what my research was able, or unable, to give back. The art of activism is often made for and in the moment: it responds to the urgency of the claimants in the now. Time, perhaps, is a fundamental difference between academia and activism. Academia responds to a different kind of time-frame, it is produced in the service of an extended temporality. While such is the nature of our research, the long application processes for funding and publishing are a further inescapable reality that places us in a different temporal plane to activists. As a result, we are potentially asking questions in our research that align with this inescapable reality in our profession, but that drive us away from the urgency of the moment. Is our timescale of doing things as academics sitting uncomfortably with the immediacy that activism has conquered in the last decade or so, especially amidst a globalised social media? Do we need to find ways to align ourselves with the activist temporality in order to research activism?

Further to this, what does it mean to produce academic research around a time-sensitive issue? Do the expectations or pressures in our profession place limitations on us in this sense? As I now venture into researching visual culture produced by activists who are responding to the climate crisis in different ways, time, or the lack thereof, is increasingly becoming a more prevalent theme in my research. While I do not pretend to offer solutions here, I do suggest we do not shield ourselves from these questions. In feminist methodological fashion –especially when faced with pressing, fast-moving realities– we do have a responsibility to be vulnerable to the potential difficulties of what we do, regardless of whether we decide to challenge them, work with them, or perhaps discover the kinds of questions that our timescales serve best.

Nevertheless, does academic research necessarily owe a response to the activist politics we study? And is this question one of time, or ethics? As academics in a post-structuralist tradition, we have moved away from thinking in a binary logic. In fact, we are, I think, quite suspicious of binary terms: it is in between categories that our minds feel comfortable, logical. Activism, on the contrary, commits, one way or another. The message is simplified in the service of political change and the ideal for the future. We are, in a way, speaking in different languages. Different ways of writing, after all, beget different ways of thinking. The challenge, I suppose, is in discovering the ways in which thinking differently can become a shared thinking; a shared responsibility over the public in common that both academia and activism belong to.

Everything takes time. It takes time to produce and publish research. It takes time to think of other creative ways we might communicate our research to others. It takes time to consider and navigate the ethics of what we do, especially when it involves others in other contexts. It can also take time for activists to see fundamental transformations through the work that they do in any given moment. It takes time for awareness to build, for a law to be passed or for perceptions to change. Can we make the time it takes count?