Academia may seem to the outsider to be a dour place, an intellectual community of humourless figures working at quaint and curious volumes. It is a place that captivates, that repulses, a place that achieves a great deal, or very little.
This is especially the case with the humanities. In that particular wing of the academy, many human dramas play out – rumours and allegations abound of odd doings and eccentric personalities. But is it a space for humour? The creators of Conceit, a subversive social media site, seem to think so. The site is a spoof glamour/gossip mag, featuring witty memes about many of the academics who operate within the academy. Conceit occupies an increasing digital media space of self-aware critique, drawing attention to the fact that the academy often takes itself too seriously. We caught up with the anonymous creators of Conceit, and asked them a few questions
Where did Conceit begin, and how long has it been going for?
Conceit began a number of years ago in a moment of postgraduate procrastination. As we sat around drinking tea outside a certain South African Department of English, we discussed the endless potential of a Heat magazine concerning the antics of academics. Considering various titles, we settled on “Conceit”, which was chosen to rhyme with “Heat” and to create a pun alluding to both the vast potential of the academic ego and the poetic “conceit” favoured by the metaphysical poets. The first cover was created in secret and pinned to the departmental notice board when nobody was looking. A number of years passed before Conceit’s second issue was published, although the conversation had continued informally through a series of silly emails throughout this time. Increased academic responsibilities over the years contributed to our desire to bring some humour to our endeavours and thus to breathe renewed life into the concept. We’ve produced an issue every month since then.
How does an issue come together?
There is always material for Conceit. Academics are endlessly fascinating. Sometimes the titles of their publications resonate unwittingly with the Heat magazine format. Sometimes we google famous academics and find amazing images: Pierre Bourdieu’s commanding index finger hovering uncomfortably close to his nostril yet again; Deleuze and Guattari often squashed up together in affectionate seating arrangements. Sometimes we think about academic incongruity: what would Derrida look like in a Speedo? And sometimes material is just there for the taking: Coetzee’s bromance with Paul Auster; Žižek’s recent marriage to a very young Argentinian model. We always try to include a South African story to keep things local, or “glocal” as a big-haired academic with potential for one of our covers might say.
These days, Conceit is conceptualised over email, as we have long-since graduated from that certain department and gone our separate ways. We bounce ideas between ourselves, before the creative genius of the team takes over and designs the cover. The final product is then shared on the Conceit Magazine Facebook page – which is dedicated not only to our covers but also to posting academic stories that we find amusing – and posted on Conceit’s Tumblr page.
Why the glossy gossip-mag styling?
Conceit is a gossip magazine about academics. The gossip is mostly fictional, and a play on names and works, but we are also interested in academic fashion, and, in particular, academic hairstyles. We feel that academics are trendsetters not simply in the world of ideas, but in their style, behaviour and attitudes. Simon During may have written a book called Modern Enchantments, but were he to extend that title to a manly cologne, we feel it would embody his je ne sais quoi.
Do you have a certain readership in mind when you put the “issues” together?
Anybody who has ever been involved in academia must recognise its potential for satire. We don’t have time to write novels, but we do have time to poke gentle fun at our institution. Conceit is a “magazine” for anyone who has loved academia, but also occasionally laughed and despaired at its capacity for pretentiousness. If you know a little about the big names and theories, particularly in literary academia, and also a little bit about South African academia, then you will enjoy (or loathe) Conceit.
What sort of feedback do you get?
We’ve had a lot of positive feedback, especially from postgraduate students. Our Facebook community increases a little each month as our covers and posts are shared. And we haven’t yet been sued, which is a very good sign indeed (although there is nothing nasty about Conceit, which relies for the most part on a play of names, titles and a series of impossible incongruities).
Is humour a necessary or desirable part of the academic encounter?
Humour is a vital part of the academic encounter. Academia has the potential to settle into stultifying seriousness, earnest hero-worship, beady-eyed assessments of the achievement of others, and a dispiriting lack of self-irony. Conceit lightens this seriousness, for us at least, and we hope for others. We would rather laugh together than compete, and so we aim to create a sense of academic community based on playfulness rather than on competitiveness.
We’d like to invite anyone who is interested to like our Facebook page and join us in not taking ourselves too seriously: start the Michael K diet, do the robo-boogie like Donna Haraway, collect the Coetzee Collective’s collectable fan memorabilia, and learn to speak to your research papers instead of your audience!