On Sunday I had the deep privilege of attending the funeral of Joyce Canaan. This was a service of celebration led by Joyce’s family who were held in the embrace of her friends as they carried her body to rest in the earth, whilst her heart, soul, dignity, courage, faith, perseverance, care and love are carried through us into new spaces and times. I have never been to a more beautiful and dignified funeral; one which celebrates the individual in the collective; one which enables a fuller and deeper engagement with the lifelong process of mourning; one which reminds us of the pain we are collectively able to bear, and the love we are collectively able to share.
I first met Joyce in 2013 at a critical pedagogy conference that she was keynoting in Edinburgh. For some time I had been reading her work at the intersection of neoliberal higher education, critical pedagogy, protest, developing alternatives and critical hope. At this conference I was speaking about the relationship between technology and the proletarianisation of academic labour, alongside our options for resistance. Her questions to me were also an invitation to conversation – what might we do to move beyond the current state of things? Is another world possible? It was only later that I realised we had been on the same marches and had tried to avoid the same kettles, and that she, like I, was probably ‘a thug’ in the eyes of the establishment.
Her questions formed an opening far removed from others who have asked me subsequently to describe this new world I wish to see, as if we already have the answer. Joyce refused to occupy this fatalistic position and instead saw that we must be indignant about and refuse injustice, and in the moment of refusal, we must also prefigure and then ask questions about how we reproduce our world. In my own thinking and practice, Joyce’s invocation to think prefiguratively has been transformative, and rooted in years of struggle against the same white, male, heterosexual, ableist voices that have brought us to the brink. Joyce helped to open my heart to the violence of silencing, and in the process to the range of voices and experiences that empower our collective search for alternatives.
Joyce amplified my engagement with alternatives from the margins, howsoever these are described, through a rich description, analysis and connection with narratives of dispossession, rooted in the material of our individual and collective identities. As she fell ill, I had the great pleasure of being able to help her prepare her chapter for our edited collection on mass intellectuality and democratising higher education. She was writing about the educational experiences of the Brazilian landless movement, from her first-hand engagement. She was writing about the problems of interpretation and meaning between the marginalised (in this case in the global South) and those with power (those seeking to reinvent life experienced from the global North). She was writing about new forms of critical engagement between people and their material existence, in order to generate knowledge that could challenge and abolish power.
It was a joy to be able to help her finish this chapter, and to be acknowledged in its notes. It was only later that I made the humane connection between our engagement on this writing and why I felt drawn to visiting Joyce as her cancer took hold of her body. It was in several visits to her home and her time in the hospice that I realised what a gift our relationship was to me. This may have developed had she not been ill, or had we met earlier. However, I am not left with the regret of this as a missed opportunity because of the visceral sense of solidarity and justice that flowed between us. This was the sense of being held in a relationship and of being heard. She told me that whilst we had not known each other very long she felt that she knew me; for me this is rooted in the dignity of listening, and the empathy and compassion that emerges where there are tendrils of separate existences that share certain characteristics. It had solidarity at its core. Those visits to see Joyce felt like seminars, as we discussed the crisis of higher education, the alienation of academic labour, and the spaces for critical hope. They felt like moments of breaking bread with a friend, as we discussed family, love and life.
Even whilst she was in the hospice, Joyce was fighting to understand the opportunities for a cooperative existence, which were only ever amplified for me in witnessing the number of people who wanted to sit with her and her family at this time. The last time I saw her in the hospice, she spent the first hour sleep as I tried to understand what it means for us to sit with each other at every stage of our lives; for us to understand our mortality. After she awoke, we spent two hours together and I cannot remember for the life of me what we discussed. What we discussed is irrelevant – the only thing that matters was the relationship, and the connections through that relationship that continue to sustain me. The other relationships, which in-part through Joyce, continue to sustain me. As I reached the door of the ward at the hospice something in my soul overtook me and it became very important to turn and tell her “I love you”.
Over the months that I came to understand Joyce a little more fully, I came to see a cussed, argumentative, wilful, courageous, faithful, anti-fascist seeker of justice, who was so devoted to her family and friends. She struck me as someone who was full of humane contradiction; a woman who reminded me how flawed we all are, and how beautifully human that very fact is. Always challenging in her indignation, she was also a reminder of the possibility for dignity.
This interrelationship between indignation and dignity, played out across society and with those closest to us, never simply emerges from a single life, rather it flows between lives as moments of love and solidarity. Joyce’s funeral demonstrated this fact. The humanist celebration of her life, led by her family, was an absolute joy to attend. A celebration in word and with song; a celebration of memory and adversity and hope; a celebration of cartoons in Chicago; a celebration of “fuck Banner Theatre”; a celebration of climbing hills; a celebration of demonstrations and protests; a celebration of being a partner, an out-law, a grandmother, a friend.
It felt so important that her natural burial was undertaken by those who loved her. That we could each take turns in laying her to rest. The sound of the Earth hitting her coffin as her family and friends sang and shovelled was heartbreaking just as it was energising. The ownership that we took of her body, and the deeply spiritual nature of the moment, mirrored the deep interconnection that her life had with so many others. It was a beautiful moment of dignity, respect, justice and peace. I cannot imagine holding and caring for someone you love in any other way. I cannot imagine being more in touch with one’s own soul, whilst holding those of others, as we collectively suture our broken hearts in the act of both burying and releasing our love. I thank her family for this – the demonstration of their strength, perseverance, love and care was natural and normal and every day. To witness this, and to be accepted as a part of it, was such a gift.
It feels important to me to write this not only to honour Joyce and our relationship. It feels important to write this because her work and her practice brought me to share a very spiritual place with several people who have also been inspirational in my own life and work. Mike, Sarah, Gordon, Joel, Elio and Alpesh have each and collectively been with me in the struggle for a better world, and in prefiguring more humane ways to engage in education. It was a privilege to share Sunday with them, and to be reminded of our shared humanity.
On Monday I found out that my monograph on academic alienation had been published. I like to think that Joyce would have wanted to read it, and to challenge me about my own position and preconceptions, and to call me out about my interpretation of power and privilege and what to do about it. And I would have told her to fuck off because I don’t know. And then we would have discussed it. I know that she would have done this from a position of care, faith and love, and so would I. Because relationships are complicated, but there is always critical hope.
In reflecting on the intersections in time of Joyce’s funeral and the publication of my book (happenstance, I know), I have been forced to consider my own sense of self and self-identity. My friend Michael asked me whether I was pleased with my book, and wanted to use it to help change the world. I rather scornfully said that the book was written for me, so that I could be heard, and that I didn’t care if it was read because the world is fucked and what could I do? I’ve been talking about this stuff for years, protesting for years, doing voluntary work for years, and the world is still borked. Moreover, after a decade in therapy I am tired of fighting. So all I can do is be a good man on an everyday level, and mourn the fact that my writing won’t change anything because collectively we lack the will.
But this isn’t the case, and I apologise to my friend who pointed to the light, although I couldn’t see this until Sunday. I have been forced to consider how I accept myself in the world and how I am connected to others. I have been forced to consider whether this is a closing of sorts – of old and unhelpful ways of thinking about myself rooted in an unkind past – a past in which I was unkind to myself. I have been forced to consider whether this is an opening of sorts – of recovering what I want to keep about myself, and reflecting on the kind of person I want to be, flaws and all. I have been forced to consider how we might believe that another world is possible, and to prefigure it.
Perhaps this is what the commune of the living and the dead teaches us.
Postscript: my friend Gordon noted that I always have a soundtrack for things, and he is right.
There is a collaborative Spotify playist here.
My initial soundtrack for all of this is as follows.
King Creosote: Bats in the Attic
Sufjan Stevens: There is No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross
LUMP: Late to the Flight
Mogwai: Ratts of the Capital
Bon Iver: 33 “God”
Bon Iver: Calgary
Bon Iver: re:stacks
Jon Hopkins: Everything Connected
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Jubilee Street
Let’s Eat Grandma: Falling Into Me
Everything Everything: Ivory Tower
Floating Points: Peroration Six
The Future Sound of London: Plazmatical
Underworld: Two Months Off
James Blake: I Need a Forest Fire
Massive Attack: Unfinished Sympathy
PJ Harvey: The Whores Hustle and The Hustlers Whore
Pulp: I love life
Queens of the Stone Age: … Like Clockwork
Sharon Van Etten: Afraid of Nothing
Alison Kraus: Down to the River to Pray