Vulnerability and the Lonely Scholar

After Performance Working Group

Academic writing is a performance of vulnerability normally enacted alone. As lonely authors, we individually experience vulnerability as a lack of unicity in our work, when it is not yet congruent. Or put differently, vulnerability means allowing oneself to remain generous. Is it possible, really, to create a secure academic, or a stable text, when the processes of ‘becoming’ an academic or producing a text are inherently dialogic and collaborative?

We work within a culture in which we feel pressured by expectations to write as individuals: to differentiate ourselves from others – at times competitively – rather than collectively and on common ground. But we also work in relation to a field that has gained capital through celebrating – even reifying – its own projected radicality and undisciplined praxes. This text operates between those pressure points. It performs the possibilities and limitations of each.

As lonely scholars, we do not have a reader looking at us, but our own reflective self looking at the white page, playing the role of that mythic anonymous who we always, and never, write for. When the text is ready, we perform a gala, and invite that reader to the premiere – this is a text that wants to erase its past of being vulnerable, weak, under-rehearsed, fertile. As a collective of four working together over two years, that space-time of the vulnerable text is what informs the criticality in and of a co-writing method that we have previously described as transauthorship:

We use the prefix ‘trans-’ not to attempt a transcendence of the figure of the author or of authorship, but to attest to an experience of transmutating beyond the boundaried authorial self, towards moments of transparency, transmission, and the transit – or more definitively the circulatory movements – of ideas. Transauthorship articulates authors resonating with one another and holding a commitment to be published as a collective.1

Cursors dance and flicker on the page. We are a colour coded collective. Our names individually flashing, as small flags. The thin upright markers move across the screen in the Google doc, sometimes touching, clashing, as we each contribute to the act of writing, concurrently, together, or as together as we can be in our virtual state with one another…

…From different parts of the world we meet, regularly, to speak, to talk, to listen, to incite and to question. And also, to fail. At times this writing together is a joyful, revelatory endeavour, at other times it is tiresome and frustrating. Sometimes, it is paralysing, yet also a place that acts to hold our academic fears and tensions. When we write, we attend to each other: our impulses, tendencies, languages, and writerly habits.

[Each writes until we reach the bottom of the page. We read each other’s columns, like tomes of texts and volumes lined next to one another on a library shelf. Later, when editing, we disagree over whether to alter the texts for publication.]

Vulnus: to wound – perhaps it is a sensation (more than a sense) that I am somewhat less: an incomplete body, baring itself to the foreign (Latin). But I hesitate to be so certain, that being vulnerable intellectually is necessarily a loss, a hole. Etymologically, when loosely translating the word vulnerable in Mandarin, I am struck by the image of a pair of wings:

Specifically the wings of an infant bird, I am now acutely aware that the doubling is intrinsic to the process of becoming an adult; in my case being ‘an academic’. Those wings are not mirrored, instead they resemble a bird taking flight even though it must certainly fail. The infant takes flight, rehearsing to prevent a fall. There is much more about falling with wings, itself genetically inherited and compels the yet-to-be-bird infant to be part of a flight of birds. Later, I along with others, can perhaps take flight together.

For me, this is the moment when you begin to identify the thing that doesn’t quite tourne en ronde: the problem that interrupts what you thought the problem was. I first encountered this as a theatre-maker: it’s the part of the script that you want to just cut, or the lighting problem that you wish you could just solve with a bit of extra money to hire another lantern… And then you realise that in the resourcefulness of how to get around that problem, how to make the problem generative, you say ‘assume-toi!’ to the problem, and it becomes the bit that, all along, you suspected was key. It re-shapes the whole completely, you can’t get around it with a footnote or a blackout. But before that realisation, you feel exceptionally vulnerable to the potential for disruption of your coherence, of your argument, of your intellectual completeness. In After Performance, we have a practice, a technology, a methodology, a routine, an obsession, with turning our attention towards that problem of interruption. It’s through that method that we came up with our adjacency columns (what happens when we don’t want to speak with one voice?!); it’s how we discovered what we really meant by ensemble (but what about when you feel like you’re the stage manager?!). But this takes long nights of talking, and a collective honing of the manoeuvre of turning attention; a technology of bravery, of spirit.

To share ignorance; to share learning and profess against the habitus of the professorial know-it-all. To be able to engage with processes of distributed cognition. Produce collective value out of being intellectual shareholders in an economy of working trans-personally. Thinking vulnerably removes the onus from the head of the one that emerges and distributes it among those who come together to think, to write, and to express their incommensurability. The individual scholar, the young promise of a rising star, is obliterated in the face of a constellation.

It is OK to be known as a potential – it is OK to be open to be wrong.

I am constantly faced with the paradigm of standing alone on the stage of the academic podium – it is as if by standing alone one would perform the masquerade of forgetting the conversations that took one there.

To profess to not know in today’s knowledge economy, and as one graduates from their doctoral degree, seems to be an act of making oneself vulnerable. And yet is it not also an act of maturity, of confidence? One might claim there is indeed ‘capital’ attached to the practices of not knowing, as a mode of delay is permitted so that slow scholarship can be attained, and the deeper layers of raw vulnerability that embody and shape the way we think, feel, and perceive, come to allow new states of knowing through experience, which can then be shared. To share that raw intellectual vulnerability incites a process of exposure and giving of oneself to others, to be held and supported, so that our own truths can be aligned, and then re-calibrated, via our collectivity and adjacency.


Vulnerability for us, more than something to be solved, is itself a fabric of potential creative interactions. We work through vulnerability and against lonely scholarship. Vulnerability, as a method, offers a basis from which to address perceived fragilities and instabilities associated with our discipline. Yet, the labour of maintaining a state of vulnerability with others also demands a certain privilege and commitment to sustain, not least because it takes time and resources, but also because the more open you become, the more prone you are to being irritated. Ideas often get entangled in the micro-social meshes that are established, which are not necessarily devoid of loopholes – one of which might be the need to perform self-affirmative gestures, to strengthen the cohesive forces holding the group together.

We often find ourselves in conversations where one or more of us opens up personal and work-related anxieties: daily, in text-messages, to give one example. These types of digital environments are increasingly becoming a constituent spatialisation of friendship and family, as various forms of migration reduce the spaces of conviviality to the size and font of a now predetermined screen. The digital interface extends our faces and bodies in situ, while pointing out that there are still fingers that type, erase and are inevitably limited when we try to concentrate for hours on a single piece of writing. Collaborative writing digitally performed, then, highlights both our physical limitations, as well as the flights that we can make across time and space, albeit slowly.

Thinking critically through vulnerability makes us think of the congruence that our way of working holds with the processes of theatre-making. Theatre and performance are our common shared frame and language for understanding the world, and ourselves, within it. When we interchange ideas, languages, feelings, our cursors dance and play on the screen – they engage in a repartee – and those ideas are slowly choreographed into one piece of collaborative writing. Attending (to) theatre is not necessarily an antidote to our feelings of vulnerability, rather theatre is a place to pay them significant attention, and recognise their agency. Returning to the theatre’, both in remembering our last experience and in collectively returning to a critical anchor, enabled us to focus on an experience imbued with affects and meanings.

[We decided to return to theatre as a way of finding common ground – paradoxically, because our geographic and temporal distances mean that going to the theatre together is one of the most important things we can never do. We each wrote about the last piece of theatre we saw, in columns, until we had all reached the bottom of the page. Alvin saw a very contemporary European canonical work (Beware of Pity by Complicite and Schaubühne Berlin). Felipe saw a piece of Malay dance-theatre at Singapore’s national performing arts centre, The Esplanade. Matt saw the Oxford Christmas panto, Cinderella. Ella saw a fringe production of Oscar Wilde that didn’t quite work.2 We read our writing together. We decided to show you only fragments of that writing:]

We tell simple truths of sights, sounds, feelings, opinions. The senses are re-engaged and we become vulnerable and something of our more natural, uncensored inner critic falls out into our columns. There’s always a sense of haunting: of memories ghosting the texts, of spirits possessing the body, and of digits encoding the past. Though I can’t quite put my finger on it, there is a sense of risk, of walking on the tightrope, while holding hands in the middle of the thin air.

Even if the performance we each remembered was ostensibly the finished product – the culmination, not the process, of creation and rehearsal – returning to it reminded us of the longform durationality of theatre-making. The experience of spectatorship is an insight, an invitation, into the processes of meaning-making that constitute performance. Slipping back into the pleasure of that invitation encouraged us to think of this publication as a text-in-progress. Writing encapsulates, albeit in a different medium, the duration it takes to create something for an addressee. Even beyond our transauthorial process, its durationality extends when we let it go, entering into the editorial process. Instead of presenting a finalised text for you to read, we open our process of writing in order to exhibit ourselves while doing so, and, on the same account, highlight the effects and affects of vulnerability that as writers of performance we often feel, yet hide, in the comfort of the published essay. The text above illustrates the texture of our incomplete ideas.

[We wrote a theatre piece (? or conversation?) We just wrote – one sentence after another, putting one foot in front of another without looking up, without looking forward, without having destination, having direction. (Does this convey our intentions – or does it erase our vulnerability?) Over time we forgot exactly who wrote what. We decided not to edit for publication.]

We often erase our writing anxieties, preferring to obscure our innate vulnerabilities through tacit acceptance of scholarly conventions. We fill our memory lacunae, writing in voices we were trained to write in, whether it is about theatre discourse or a discourse on theatre, or as storytellers. It is a constant in theatre and performance training that the trainee is pushed to a state of vulnerability: one must open oneself, the masters often say, in order to become a professional expressive body. And thus, when people ask me, I tell them I have three degrees in ‘being stupid’ now, and that I am proud of it. But if we follow the analogy of the Master/Guru, of being trained in order to reperform the rubrics of a good academic performer, then this future Guru is at risk of outperforming and/or underperforming those expectations.

But this is part of the reason that we keep ourselves soft, that we develop the habits of self-critique; a professor once told me that we have two tasks: to allow ourselves to feel, to respond emotionally, and second to reflect on that emotion and articulate it as if with distance (he called this the studium and the punctum).

We are staging a dialogue here: but…but…. And this is precisely the form that we wish to tend towards, as we predicate that in training ourselves to erase our vulnerability, we risk obliterating the conversational nature of academic work, and of knowledge. What would happen if the immediate reactive words of the academic were not ‘but… but…’, but (like theatre-makers), were ‘Yes!… and’: would we be vulnerable to not being critical enough (or perceived as such)? Or perhaps we would be performing our role as ‘critical storytellers’ with greater aplomb! “Just write!” my supervisor once told me – so I just continue telling stories. ‘Quantity before quality’, Matt once told me that someone once told him. ‘What you can write in a paragraph, write it in a sentence’, Alvin once told me that his supervisor told him. Every paragraph you write must start with a sentence that defines the topic of thought and argument in that paragraph, my third and final PhD supervisor suggested. Something we’ve all seemed to agree on every now and then is ‘put the conclusion at the top of the page, and write the essay again’. But we also seem to agree on something above: that there’s always an addressee for us to tell the story to.

Something I worry about sometimes is that my brain works in formally associative ways – as we have done here, gathering things: should we be more analytic as a collective, and how would ensemble thinking support analysis over association? Or can we bring the storyteller in us forward, who knows that to remain imperfect, vulnerable, stuck and facing a challenge without necessarily knowing what to do next, is the referent that our audience needs to feel and see to know that we are still one of them. What is the poetics of the critical endeavour of a phenomenon that for millennia has always been made in association?


After Performance is a research collective founded in January 2015. Its members are the theatre-makers and researchers Felipe Cervera (National University of Singapore), Alvin Eng Hui Lim (NUS), Ella Parry-Davies (King’s College London and NUS) and Matthew Yoxall (Chiang Mai University). The group works consistently over distance using online platforms, and has held international workshops in Singapore, London, Melbourne and Hamburg.

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  1. After Performance Working Group, ‘After Performance: On Transauthorship’, Performance Research 21.5, 35-36 (2016), p. 36.
  2. Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity, Barbican, London, 11 February 2017, dir. Simon McBurney. Zulfadli Rashid, Siti Aisyah Kamin and Nur Afiqah Moktar Siti Aisyah Kamin, Deruma, The Esplanade, Singapore, 26 January 2017, dir. Azi Juhari (Azpirazi & Dian Dancers). Steve Marmion, Cinderella, Oxford Playhouse, Oxford, 8 January 2017, dir. Steve Marmion. Oscar Wilde, Salome, Hoxton Hall, London, 10 February 2017, dir. Anastasia Revi.