Who speaks?

Who am I? It is one of the basic existential questions that human beings have been asking themselves since they became able to call themselves human beings—Homo sapiens sapiens, the being who knows that she knows, who is conscious and aware of her own consciousness. Each of us must answer it in her own way, to the extent that it troubles us.

But it is also one of the questions that people come to this site to have answered. People, I imagine, who have come across something I’ve written, students tasked with critiquing some study I’ve done, or delegates attending a conference I’m at.  They wonder who is speaking, and it is a reasonable question—up to a point. I answer it on the ‘about’ page that every website needs and in the 100-word biographies conference organisers ask for. In this neoliberal world, where people are commoditised, a freelancer must be ready to stand in the shop window, if not the auction block, in his best clothes. We’ve all got an elevator pitch now.

But that is not who I am: at best, it’s what I have done. I gave a more personal account in Bread and Salt, because the book is so concerned with the identitary interrogations the strong impose on the weak, but even that is not who I am. It is a small part of where I come from, a response to the questions I’m asked about my name and origins.

Who I am, even in the limited sense that this question can be legitimately relevant to my work, is complicated by the gap between ideas and reality. Occupations are simply ideas that help us organise and understand reality. If we mistake them for reality, we inevitably have to start manipulating that reality to fit our ideas, like Procrustes stretching or cutting people to fit his iron bed. Reality is always far larger and more complex than our ideas.

For instance, take the possibility that I ‘am’ an academic. The signs (evaluators prefer the more scientific sounding synonym, ‘indicators’) are ambiguous.

Signs that I am an academic:

  • I have Honorary Professorships at two universities (or perhaps one—I think the other has just lapsed);
  • I’ve done peer reviews, AHRC assessments and my work is included in the Research Excellence Framework;
  • I’ve published in academic journals, given lectures and seminars and examined PhD candidates.

Signs that I am not an academic:

  • I don’t have a university post or salary;
  • I’ve never done postgraduate study;
  • I don’t call myself an academic.

The underlying problem is confusion between doing and being. I have often performed an academic’s role. But I am not an academic in the way that I am male, a father or have brown eyes. Doing academic work is a matter of choice and, perhaps, of performance standard. The essentialism that defines—and limits—people by what they do or don’t do mistakes ideas that help us interpret the world with underlying realities.  It is also lazy.

Western culture has lost much of its confidence in authorities since the 1960s. We are insubordinate. We want to know why we should listen to Professor A, or Minister B. We have rightly emancipated ourselves from cap-doffing respect for our ‘betters’.  But we seem unwilling to take responsibility for the freedom we have won, which means making our own judgements about who to trust, and living with the consequences. So we behave like surly teenagers, demanding credentials and resenting those who present them. Are you an academic? Who says so? Prove it.

We want to police the world according to our own expectation and demand to see the identity papers of all persons of interest, who, as in the world of policemen everywhere, are often just those we mistrust because they might have some power we don’t understand. And not accepting your rules, your authority, your interpretation of the world can be a frightening power.

We feel entitled to our opinion—which we surely are—but then mistake what we believe for what is true. My opinion about community arts practice might be worth listening to, because I have spent many years working in the field. My opinion about the structural viability of a bridge design certainly isn’t. The right to an opinion is only the right to be wrong.

We want freedom without the work that freedom entails. If we are going to make our own judgements, rather than kowtowing to the Brains Trust, then we had better be ready to put in the work that comes with it: finding out, learning, making judgements and, above all, thinking—with hearts as well as minds.

Something is not good because an artist, even a celebrated artist, made it. The criteria for judging the value of a work should not be situated in a taxonomical convenience that cannot be consistently defined or applied. Nothing is true or false because of who has said it: a liar can speak truth, a good person can repeat a lie.

Do not look to the person to judge whether an act is justified. Look at the act.

Who am I? Does it actually matter to you, beyond curiosity? Better to ask yourself, if you are interested in what I have to say at all, how much of truth, value or meaning it holds.

  • There’s a mirror image of this post, with one salient difference, on the Regular Marvels site.


  1. Hello Francois, great article, thought-provoking. There’s a very relevant discussion in Arendt’s The Human Condition on the difference – and confusion – between ‘who’ and ‘what’ a person is (section 25, from p181 in the 1998 Chicago edition) which might interest you. ‘Who’ is the individual “living essence” revealed through action and speech – a unique, unfolding story. ‘What’ is the set of characteristics, qualities and achievements, possibly shared with others, through which we try to name and stabilise an identity (I’m paraphrasing very roughly). Your piece makes me think that to be a thinking human being is to demand the right to be an ever developing “who”, whereas we are constantly pressured by others to fix ourselves as a “what”. We also exert this pressure in turn – very naturally – in our efforts to get a handle on other people and the world. How many of us dare allow other thinking beings their essential fluidity and intangibility?

    1. Thanks Jon; I don’t know Arendt much beyond ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ but this sounds very interesting. I’m interested too by your perspective on the ‘who’ and the ‘what’. It raises echoes of things I once (thought I) knew about existentialism and freedom, but have largely forgotten. On the other hand, ideas that make sense become part of us, so we push them a few inches further on, in some mutated form that is our own.

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