Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I Could Have Been a Dog

why do a PhD/ when you could be a dog?

Julian Stannard

It occurred to me during last night's bout of my not-infrequent insomnia that it's now over three years since I passed my PhD viva and that, moreover, since getting through this exam my CV has developed in ways which I wouldn't have expected it to while I was writing my thesis. In fact, it makes me look rather Humbert Humbert-ish: TEFL teacher, postdoctoral fellow, associate/ adjunct tutor, FE tutor, proofreader, ghostwriter, study skills co-ordinator, copywriter, journalist. That's less than a third of a decade's worth of work, although those who know me will be aware about the extent to which these roles have overlapped (the last four items on the list are more or less current). Having had this thought, it further struck me that, in relation to many of my doctoral peers, I've been lucky: I haven't been totally unemployed for longer than a month or so, I've held a faculty-level position, and I've been privileged in that all of the work I've done has been gratifying on some level. Yet a certain discomfort prevails, and I've been racking my brains trying to work it out.

To all extents and purposes, my lack of secure academic employment seems to be caused by my rather problematic relationship with research publication. It isn't that I keep on trying and getting rejected - it's that I'm extremely unmotivated by trying in the first place. I have one paper coming out soon and a book chapter in the pipeline (I think); beyond that, I've submitted absolutely nothing to journals, nor have I attempted to publish my (increasingly motheaten) PhD thesis. While in academic employment, I've tended to con myself into thinking that teaching well is enough - and, given the Bartleby-like attitude to research 'obligations' held by some of the more venerable members of Lit departments, it clearly once was - and, while otherwise employed, I've been liable to wonder what the point is of this form of publication altogether.

It probably hasn't helped my cause that my political attitude towards my work has altered fundamentally since I completed. When I submitted my PhD proposal in 2003, I was a bushy-tailed advocate of what I now recognise as the worst kind of reterritorialising, American postmodernism. What I saw as 'the political' in literature seemed grey and limiting; I partook instead in an entirely clich├ęd celebration of lacunae and aporias, a celebration which failed on every level to identify what might be political about non-meaning. I think the fantasy that each text has the capacity to eradicate its own political implications as a facet of its own (highly desirable) quality of infiniteness was a common one among starter postgraduates even as late as the early 2000s; I can only offer as a defence the fact that I briefly discussed an anxiety about this inverted idealism at the beginning of my Introduction. As this detail suggests, it was only during my final year of study - with the Credit Crunch and Cameron looming - that third-hand de Manisms began to look rather unattractive. Since then, I've been carrying a fair old weight of doubt about the general worthwhileness of a project that still carries the traces of these ideas (a project, furthermore, that, in order to lay claim to critical honesty, must incorporate an analysis of what was attractive about third-hand de Manisms in the first place).

A second, also political, rationale for failing to make headway with my research lay, or lies, in my unease about the wider project with which I was involved. I'd been encouraged to submit my thesis proposal as part of an exciting effort to get a 'neglected' set of authors 'recognised', a mission statement which, to twenty-two year-old ears, sounded noble if not completely radical. In retrospect, the critical reinvestigation of late modernism in Britain has been, by and large, rather disappointing. On one hand, it has constantly strived to 'rescue' figures from the allegedly tainted grasp of experimental modernism, delivering people as different as Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Sutherland to the safe, tea-and-biscuits world of Englishness Studies. Jed Esty's A Shrinking Island was a core work for this rather dubious movement, which seems to have garnered some extracurricular impact through Alexandra Harris' Romantic Moderns, a text which seems to me to offer a striking embodiment of the cultural logic of Big Society. On the other hand, the work of 'rediscovery' seems ultimately to have served in the creation of new markets for publishers, who relish the opportunity to give us 'Vintage Hamilton' or 'Vintage Taylor' with some atrocious parody of Vanessa Bell splashed across the cover. In short, it feels at the moment as if the only way to participate in my field at the moment is as a scorn-pouring naysayer, churlishly refusing such self-regarding 'redefinitions of the canon'.

All of the above probably gives the impression that I'm rather uneasy with participating at all in Literary Studies in the form it currently takes in UK HE institutions. This is, on some levels, a reasonable assumption; nevertheless, there's still a sense that something rather fundamental is missing as long as I'm not participating. I wonder about the extent to which this is to do with the experience at the core of the PhD process, which is a form of training which - I believe actively - seeks to introduce an epistemological break into one's life. The first year of a PhD seems more or less designed to fill the candidate with the conviction that they will be incapable of completing the thesis: thanks to supervisory eyebrow-raising and the occasional glimpse of the exhausted final-year student, the finished article becomes inflected with the sublime qualities of Everest or Mars (the annoying PhD Comics contributes to this mythology). To compensate for this, one either quits or sets about an obsessive redressing of their 'ignorance', a process which entails not only learning everything there is to learn about the research topic in question but subjecting every notion - literally incorporating everything from John Berger's views on Picasso to what to have to supper - to critical assault. By the end, you probably have a PhD, but you've also become rather distanced from people who (understandably) want to be able to drink a cup of tea without going through some abstract intellectualisation of the china industry.

I want to be critically rigorous: I've accepted it as a kind of double-edged outcome of the initial - not too well thought-out - decision to do a PhD. But, once you encounter any situation in which the ability to slice and splice ideas isn't making money, you're perpetually haunted by the sense that someone is going to turn around and say 'and look where it got you!' I try and explain to my family that I say what I say about Downton Abbey because I've been trained to do it, just as an electrician is trained to spot faulty wiring; however, the instant I lose a financial justification for having had this training is the moment at which I open myself to allegations that my points are entirely 'subjective', that we're 'all entitled to our opinions', and other such commonplaces of essentialised relativism. There's been plenty of discussion about the financially-precarious positions PhD students find themselves in after completing theses; I'd venture that there is a direct correlation between this and a genuinely-precarious sense of identity. I can't find the exact links, but K-Punk has written some fine posts over the last few years on the anxiety many feel about performing intellectual work in a society which audits itself on purely financial terms. It's probably this I'm trying to get at: in this climate, how do you rid yourself of doubts about the value of writing critically if the activity is not being financialised in some way? How much good work is strangled by the sludge of 'subjectivity'?

Most likely this is all a pep talk to persuade myself to properly pursue a project - not necessarily, or not entirely, academic - this year which goes beyond the short bits of journalism I wrote for the TLS and The Quietus in 2011. Blogging regularly would be a start: I disappointed myself repeatedly by my inarticulacy in the face of subjects that would once have triggered a kind of writing reflex (this Quietus piece was a last-minute attempt to redress this). No promises, though, either to myself or others.

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