On the Cutting Room Floor (Part Two)

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‘Untitled V’ © Jason Hopkins

The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part one here

As the monster undergoes changes in our society’s narratives, so too does our society’s way of telling and distributing those stories. When I suggested in part one of this post that the form and distribution of neo-historical monster mashups contributed to their posthuman nature as cultural objects, I was suggesting that, in twenty-first-century culture, globalisation and transmediation contribute to the fragmentation of meaning. Both the figure of the author and that of the subject are becoming decentred by our processes of cultural production and consumption. Much like an academic essay, popular culture is inherently relational, ‘always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other conceptual categories’.[1] Drawing on Storey’s first of six theories of popular culture, Peeren advocates the following definition:

Popular culture comprises those cultural artefacts that are seen and talked about by large audiences, whose members do not always fit neatly into a social class or any other category of social differentiation. One of the most important aspects of this definition of popular culture is that it reaches across the entire social spectrum, even if not everyone interprets its products in the same manner. […] In the end popular culture, as I regard it, is the site where the struggle between dominant culture and the cultures of marginalized social groups is most openly and indeed most democratically played out.[2]

This approach to popular culture, which emphasises its plural interpretations and relational nature, is compatible with a posthumanist framework. Like posthumanism, popular culture decentres the subject, using the language of dominant culture to ‘work through’ its influence and become something other.

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Katja Novitskova, “Approximation V Chameleon” (2013). Photo: Achim Hatzius

The first contributor to the posthumanity of popular culture is globalisation. As Herbrechter argues, globalisation ‘is inherently posthumanist because at the very moment something like “humanity” seems geographically and representationally realizable, the “referent” of this humanity disappears and dissolves into its constituent and its others’.[3] In other words, we understand the term ‘humanity’ as a concept, but whenever we try to conceptualise an example of this humanity we are forced to acknowledge that this example falls short of the concept. Our referent is always elsewhere. Over the past century the structure of the world’s population has shifted from a series of isolated local communities to a series of localised global communities. Though lack of education and access to technology still limits participation in the global community, these limits are far less pervasive than they were even ten years ago. In the capitalist world, which is also increasingly global, consumers are becoming steadily more involved with the products they consume, sometimes even dictating or appropriating their production. This complicates our understanding of the process of interpretation as taking place between an ‘author’ figure and a ‘reader’ figure.

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Likewise, transmediation and crossmediation complicate readings of texts and their audiences by splitting the same narrative across multiple media platforms. Crossmediation does this by simply transplanting a story from one medium to another – for example with both a novelisation and video game version of an upcoming film. Transmediation expands one story across multiple media, with as little overlap as possible. The Assassin’s Creed novels, for example, tell stories that are completely new, but are supplemental to the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. In this case, as with many examples of transmediation, these stories reference each other, and fans are encouraged to purchase both to obtain a ‘complete’ understanding of the narrative. Both of these processes of remediation reflect the current state of the consumer market, where audiences demand both more and more content from their favourite products, as well as more niche products. If this material is not available from the product’s producer, fans will often create it themselves.[4] This is especially true outside of the Western world, where storytelling methods are developing independently of the fixed commercial structures of the west.

The general expansion of a cultural product’s distribution and the change in its distribution method are both related to the recent and ongoing shift in our modes of cultural consumption. In the twenty-first century, the consumer is increasingly a producer/consumer (or prosumer)[5] in a participatory culture that rejects the idea of passive spectatorship. As we have seen, one result of this shift is the remix or mashup. As author William Gibson describes:

Today’s audience isn’t listening at all – it’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital […] the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries.

Even when audiences do not actively participate in an object’s creation, they often respond to that object in an active and social – though also highly personal – way, for example on social media or through fan fiction.

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For Henry Jenkins, rather than ‘talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands’.[7] This blurring of the border between producer and consumer is made possible by recent technological advances like the internet, and has wide-reaching implications for authorial supremacy, and for existing power structures in media production. As Bruce Sterling asserts in his digital remix ‘Death of the Author 2.0’:

The user-producer is a concept that speak [sic] to the digital experience and the freedoms that this digital culture allow [sic] for ordinary people to become artist and producer. This model fundamentally challenges the traditional assumptions of author, it moves away from the idea of the romantic notion of authorship, which saw authorship and cultural production as an isolated activity of a genius sitting and creating something out of nothing.[8]

Sterling’s title clearly references Roland Barthes’ comments in Image, Music, Text on the ‘death’ of the author. Like the humanist subject, the author ‘is a modern figure, a product of our society in so far as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person”’. Referring here to the same cultural process that brought us humanism, Barthes argues that authorial intention is ultimately useless as a hermeneutical tool, serving only to grant the figure of ‘the author’ (or ‘the artist’) an unrealistically pivotal role.

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Cover image from Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’

As with so many of the ‘deaths’ ushered in by poststructuralism, the death of the author has never quite been realised in either academia or popular culture. Even in popular music, where the success of the ‘vocal artist’ is more and more a team effort,[10] the figure and power of the author lives on.  Remix (along with other forms of participatory culture) fulfils Barthes’ description of the author in a way other texts still struggle to do: as ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture […] the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them’.[11] Though Barthes would not have been familiar with remix culture at the time of this description, it strongly evokes the remix ideology.

For Barthes, efforts to ‘decipher’ texts in an authorless world become meaningless.[12] Without authorial intention, there can be no inherent meaning. As Gunkel asserts in response, this means that ‘the objective of the reader, listener, or viewer is not to unearth and decode some secret meaning situated outside of and just below the surface of the text, but to engage with the material of the text itself, to disentangle and trace out its various threads, and to evaluate the resulting combinations, contradictions, and resonances’.[13] This new objective, which resonates with the aim of the critical analysis approach to texts, is increasingly popular in contemporary criticism, and vital to any analysis of remix culture.

Into this world monsters emerge, perfectly suited to play to the needs of the posthuman era’s prosumer. They symbolise the other, but also the self and the self-as-other. Their identity is mutable. Monsters are heavy with the weight of history, and rich with historical meaning. Their use in everything from folk tales to breakfast cereal marketing makes them endlessly versatile. They have come signify nothing, and thus are capable of signifying everything. They are the ideal posthuman vehicle, always elsewhere.

[1] John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 5th edn (London: Pearson Longman, 2001), p. 1.

[2] Esther Peeren, Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture: Bakhtin and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp. 21, 23.

[3] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 142.

[4] Consider the example of Susan Byles’ performance on Britain’s Got Talent in Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2013), pp. 9–16. The network failed to spread the video widely themselves, but fans did so on their own terms, clipping parts of the broadcast and sharing them on YouTube and other social media. This represented unintended and unplanned publicity for the network. See also Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2012).

[5] See Jenkins, Ford and Green, Spreadable Media.

[6] William Gibson, ‘God’s Little Toys: Confessions of a Cut & Paste Artist’, WIRED Magazine, 2005, para. 11–12 <http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html> [accessed 14 January 2015].

[7] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 3.

[8] Bruce Sterling, ‘Death of the Author 2.0’, WIRED Magazine, 2007, para. 1 <http://www.wired.com/2007/09/death-of-the-au/> [accessed 27 January 2015].

[9] Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 142–143.

[10] David J. Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking? Authorship, Authority, and the Mashup’, Popular Music and Society, 35 (2012), 71–91 (p. 20).

[11] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 146.

[12] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 147.

[13] Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking?’, p. 86.

On the Cutting Room Floor (Part One)

06d2fef7e9046462ca9e7b2cea2fcec1The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part two here

As the name implies, posthumanism is a cultural and political impulse that essentially attempts to imagine forms and identities ‘beyond’ the human. As with many contemporary critical movements, however, there are multiple streams within posthumanist thought, and it is important to define which one we mean when applying the term to neo-historical monster mashups. There are at least three broad definitions of the term ‘posthumanism’, with three very different emphases. The first definition is tied to technology and the internet age.[1] As a discourse that emerged during the late twentieth century, posthumanist culture was sparked by the increasing tendency of the media to liken the human body and brain to a machine.[2] This metaphorical mechanisation of the body was intensified by the explosion of internet usage, networked culture, and the formation of what Marshall McLuhan has termed the ‘global village’.[3] The extent to which these technological developments actually altered the way human bodies and narratives interact is ultimately less relevant than the degree to which posthuman discourses came to dominate the technology discussion, but there is no doubt that both recent technology and our reaction to it have altered the way we perceive ourselves as individuals.

The term posthumanism has also been used in a utopian (or dystopian) sense by the popular media, critical theorists, and transcendentalist movements, and is better referred to here as ‘transhumanism’.[4] Transhumanism represents the theory that, as a result of technology, the human as we know it will someday cease to exist, either because of the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), or because humanity will modify itself to such an extent through technological or genetic manipulation that it will no longer be recognisable as human. Because this definition of the posthuman is often apocalyptic, and is also aggressively anthropocentric, critics have struggled to deploy it productively. It suffers from the same paradoxically utopian and nihilistic self-absorption that postmodern theory also falls into from time to time. Focusing on the end and the deconstruction of objects, theories, and metanarratives leads us to overlook the way such an approach often re-creates the problems it highlights,[5] and strengthens the hold these things have on our culture.

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The third use of the term posthumanism, which relies on Enlightenment concepts of humanism, is linked to cultural criticism and the humanities.[6] It is the most recent of the three definitions, and its boundaries and methodologies are still underdeveloped, but it is also the broadest and most flexible (and therefore the most theoretically useful) way of describing posthumanism. Steven Best and David Kellner provide a useful definition of this branch of posthumanist theory in their Postmodern Adventure (2001):

Classical humanism articulates a notion of the self as an ahistorical given, whose timeless essence and nature is that of a rational mind, ontologically distant from its body, in possession of free will and timeless truths. By contrast, posthumanism – in the form of poststructuralism and postmodern theory – immerses itself in history, social relations and institutions, and embodied reality. […] Posthumanism dismantles the dualistic opposition between mind and body and makes the ‘truths’ available to reason partial, limited, and context-bound.[7]

In other words, this third branch of ‘critical posthumanism’,[8] as Stefan Herbrechter terms it, represents the recognition that classical ideas about what it means to be human, many of which are still very much with us, may privilege Western identities and cultures, and may also limit our understanding of ourselves and our cultural products. Critical posthumanism tries to imagine and formulate the human from a perspective outside of this classical, ahistorical approach.

The desire to move ‘beyond’ classical humanism in this way potentially creates the same problems as transhumanist theories. How can we imagine something completely outside the human, when our entire experience is framed in human terms? And how do we safeguard against creating either a dangerously narrow or a uselessly broad definition of the human in our attempts to outline its opposite? Using a past that is technically both unalterable and behind us to move forward is a complicated endeavour, particularly in a time so obsessed with declaring that past dead and buried. As Esther Peeren asks, ‘[w]hat particular move does the beyond indicate in an age so preoccupied with the temporality of the post and the after that every day seems to see the announcement of yet another death?’[9] The danger inherent in working within any of these ‘post’ fields or categories is becoming entrenched in the very things they prefix. In opposing all modernist metanarrative, for example, postmodernism risks becoming its own metanarrative. Likewise, attempts to move beyond colonialism can have a secondary colonising effect on those the postcolonial critic aims to speak for. Absolute rejection of the centre only serves to outline it more sharply.

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Aimee Mullins in Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER3.

In postmodernism’s deconstruction of Western culture, where no one metanarrative can dominate the discourse, non-Western metanarratives are inadvertently negated, transforming postmodernism into a colonial force.[10] In deconstructing the Western subject and arguing that no one person can really embody the human, we (those in positions of power) can likewise indirectly prohibit others (those on the periphery) from contributing to the discussion. In calling for the embrace of all things radical, other, or monstrous, we risk simply re-drawing the borders between ‘us’ and ‘them’, rather than making those borders permeable.[11] Posthumanism should not become another metanarrative of technological progress, but rather a framework for critiquing our assumptions about who ‘we’ are. The impossibility for humans to ever truly move beyond the human should not stop us from trying.

While popular culture is becoming more posthuman, especially in terms of how it treats its others, so is the academic culture that increasingly seeks to interpret it. This can be seen in the emerging ‘posthumanities’, or, more specifically, posthumanist cultural studies. The cultural studies (or critical and cultural theory) approach, considered by Herbrechter as a catalyst for the increasing interdisciplinarity seen in academia, ‘takes advantage of the newly “discovered” readability of the entire world [invited by postmodernism], which is seen as proof of its “constructedness” and “arbitrariness”. On the other hand the democratization of culture and cultural change became cultural studies’ main objective’.[12] This process of the democratization of culture, reading it from perspectives based on the constructed and arbitrary nature of language, has paradoxically resulted in both an increased division of cultural studies into multiple disciplines, and the establishment of cultural studies as its own detached discipline. It has also initialised a new search for the source of meaning, particularly in the humanities. Often the result of this process is the establishment of a new canon, or of a ‘trendy’ cultural studies that prioritises the latest popular culture. For Herbrechter, the task for a ‘posthumanist’ cultural studies would instead be ‘in coming to terms with the loss of meaning and loss of reference in culture’.[13] It is here, within a posthumanist framework, that the mashup can best serve as a useful cultural object.

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Monsters, which fill the roles of both inhumans and superhumans in human culture, are central figures in posthumanist theory. Contemporary monsters are often interpreted as the breakdown of a natural order, and as such the monster is ‘the bodily incarnation of difference from the basic human norm’.[14] It thus traditionally forms the limit of what is defined as normal or transgressive.[15] Where the nineteenth-century monster often points to a geographical and physical other, the twenty-first-century monster signifies the posthuman breakdown of the unified self, and of the ‘other’ within.[16] For scholars like Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway, monsters are the site where the very concept of the human collapses.[17] This collapse is not a binary opposition, delineating where contemporary monster narratives diverge or detract from unifying concepts of the self. Instead, as an examination of neo-historical monster mashups can help demonstrate, the ‘othering’ of identity through fiction and humour in present-day monster texts allows for the creation of an ‘excentric’ space:[18] neither wholly at the centre of power and the normal nor entirely on its margins. Now more than ever, the creators and audiences of these cultural objects (many with degrees in literature and history themselves) are aware of the academic discussion surrounding the figure of the monster. Neo-historical monsters carry the accumulated baggage placed on these nineteenth-century monsters by more than a hundred years of critical examination, but they also create space for a re-interpretation of this baggage.

What does posthumanism and the collapse of binary oppositions mean for the monster? On the surface, it means that the pleasure/horror response that the monster generates in the reader becomes unbalanced. With the advent of the twenty-first century, the horror of the vampire and of Gothic itself have been weakening dramatically, largely because, as Fred Botting puts it, ‘the use of horror relies on an increasingly fragile and insubstantial opposition between human and Gothic monster’. As Herbrechter highlights, this also works towards posthumanism’s goal of deconstructing the human:

The entire ghostly ontology (or hauntology, following Derrida, 1994b) suddenly visualises how ‘teratology’ – the creation of monsters, the representation of monstrosity, inhumanity, animality, objectification, fetishization, but also spiritualization and religion – can be used to inscribe and uphold a system of differences and hierarchies, supported by a mystical notion of human ‘nature’ with its insistence on uniqueness and exceptionalism – a ‘device’ which sanctions and perpetuates processes of inclusion and exclusion.[20]

In other words, as the border between human and other becomes ever more blurred, the same monsters that were used to uphold a humanist hierarchy can also be used to rethink such a system. Posthumanism (and contemporary theory) conceives of a new way of looking at the monster that is linked to twenty-first-century conceptions of identity and global culture. If posthumanism ‘emphasizes the complexity and interrelatedness of human and nonhuman forms of agency’, as Adrian Franklin suggests, the imagination of otherness becomes vital. If the nonhuman is central to our understanding of the human, not only as our opposite, but as something that also shapes us in return through various complex processes, we would do well to re-think the place of nonhuman figures (like the monster) in our cultures and our politics.

In exploring how monster mashups create these parallel discourses and contradictory affiliations, I hope to provide one answer for why these monster narratives have become so prevalent in twenty-first-century culture, as well as how they reformulate nineteenth-century humanist ideas to fit present-day posthuman perspectives. For Herbrechter, the ‘entire effort of posthumanist critical and cultural theory […] goes into the construction of a post-realist and post-phenomenological form of hermeneutics and a post-subjective form of agency’.[22] All of these concepts (realism, phenomenology, subjectivity) are centred in classical humanist ideology. By combining texts from the humanist nineteenth century with posthuman figures and forms, the neo-historical monster mashup is able to directly interrogate this ideology. Not all neo-historical monster mashups can strictly be considered posthuman at a narrative level, but posthumanism represents the cultural context in which these texts have gained popularity. As I will demonstrate in part two of this post, the form and distribution of many neo-historical monster mashups further argues for their status as ‘posthuman’ texts. In this way I will be using posthumanism as a lens through which to read monsters.

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Screencap from Cole Drumb’s short film ‘PostHuman’

[1] For an extensive look at this definition of posthumanism, see Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, ‘Introduction: Posthuman Bodies’, in Posthuman Bodies, ed. by Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995); N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Chris Hables Gray, Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age (London: Routledge, 2001); Herbrechter, Posthumanism.

[2] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 18.

[3] Cf. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964).

[4] Theorists I would classify as transhumanist (whether in a utopian or dystopian sense) include Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002); Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[5] See the concept of ‘working through’ humanism in Neil Badmington, ‘Theorizing Posthumanism’, Cultural Critique, 53 (2003), 10–27. Also Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005).

[6] Key twenty-first century texts that contribute to this ‘critical’ and philosophical school of posthumanism include Posthumanism, ed. by Neil Badmington (New York: Palgrave, 2000); Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002); Neil Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within (London: Routledge, 2004); Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Herbrechter, Posthumanism; Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).

[7] Steven Best and David Kellner, The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 195.

[8] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 3.

[9] Esther Peeren, Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture: Bakhtin and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 1.

[10] Cf. Ziauddin Sardar, Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1998).

[11] For a deeper analysis of this phenomenon, see Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within.

[12] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 143.

[13] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 144.

[14] Rosi Braidotti, ‘Mothers, Monsters, and Machines’, in Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, ed. by Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 59–79 (p. 62).

[15] See Fred Botting, Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008).

[16] This is not to say that nineteenth-century texts cannot also be read in this way, but in the twenty-first century this is the norm rather than the exception. See Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Social Feminism in the 1980s’, in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. by Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 190–233; Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within; Andrew Hock-soon Ng, Dimensions of Monstrosity in Contemporary Narratives: Theory, Psychoanalysis, Postmodernism (New York: Palgrave, 2004); Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism?.

[17] See Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the College De France  1974 1975 (London: Verso, 2003); Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’.

[18] See Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 5.

[19] Fred Botting and Dale Townshend, Twentieth Century Gothic: Our Monsters, Our Pets, Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, 2004, p. 4.

[20] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 29.

[21] Adrian Franklin, ‘Posthumanism’, ed. by George Ritzer, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 3548–50 (p. 3548).

[22] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 13.

10 Things You Learn While Writing a PhD

© Mateusz Kapciak on FreeImages.com
© Mateusz Kapciak on FreeImages.com

It’s a deadline week for me, meaning I’m quite fed up with writing in general, and writing about academic things especially. Fortunately, it also roughly marks the halfway part of my thesis funding, meaning that instead of writing about my research, I can write a bit about my research process and progress. In another 1.5 years I will be expected to have finished a book, of roughly 80,000 words, about this thing I call the neo-historical monster mashup.

What have I learnt so far about writing a PhD in the field of English literature, and (because this is a blog about popular culture) how can I best fit it into a somewhat arbitrary, clickbait-style article?

1. Everything is arbitrary; or, you can define something pretty much however you want, as long as you’re aware that you’re doing it, and make that clear in your thesis. An overwhelming amount of how you actually put your thesis together, from the ground up, will be dictated by the discipline you happen to be working in. This is especially noticeable if you happen to be in an allegedly ‘interdisciplinary’ field. I’ve spent a lot of time so far trying to fit things into multiple frameworks, before finally deciding just to pick one and stick with it. In retrospect this seems obvious, but I don’t think it’s something that’s really emphasised (or problematised) enough.

2. You don’t necessarily do that much writing. Don’t get me wrong. You write a lot. But even given how much you write, you spend most of your time thinking and editing. It’s as much about what you do when you aren’t working as what you do when you are. I discovered this during a period where I was forcing myself to write every day. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your thesis is stop writing entirely for a couple of weeks, and only take it up again when you have something specific to write. Your subconscious will carry on working in the meantime, and when you get back to writing, everything will suddenly seem much clearer.

© Kyryl Lakishyk on FreeImages.com
© Kyryl Lakishyk on FreeImages.com

 

3. Inspiration strikes at strange moments. During the middle of your grocery shopping? Sure. At 2 a.m. in the morning? Why not? In the bath? Every time. It pays to have a notebook (or a note-taking app on your smartphone) handy at all hours.

4. Your supervisor is an incredibly important factor in how well your thesis work goes. Is he or she interested in your work? Too supportive? Not supportive enough? Do they read your work regularly? How extensive is the feedback they give, and what kind of feedback is it? Are they experts in your field, or do they actually know very little about what you’re trying to say? Often, your supervisor will be the only person besides you who is really involved with this body of work. If they don’t point something out, no one will. And they are too good at pointing things out, you may head in a direction that you’re not happy with. Fortunately, my own supervision experience has been largely positive. My supervisor is present when I need her to be present, and happy to let me go my own way the rest of the time. Not all of my fellow PhDs have been so lucky.

5. A lot has been written already. And you haven’t read any of it. This is something you’re vaguely aware of while you do your MA, but that comes more sharply into focus when you’re trying to make an original contribution to the field. This is especially true, again, if you’re working on  an interdisciplinary subject. In addition, your MA may have taught you how to quickly digest novels, poetry, comic books, films, and cultural theory, but what about philosophy, theology, photography, sociology, computer science, and archaeology? There are whole worlds of academic writing out there, overlapping slightly but never quite touching, and each is written in its own particular way, with its own particular conventions and vocabulary. And the possibilities for linking them to your own work are endless.

© Johanna Ljungblom on FreeImages.com

© Johanna Ljungblom on FreeImages.com

 

6. There’s also a lot that hasn’t been written. Sometimes you will start looking into a particular topic, only to discover that very few people actually seem interested in it. Or worse, no one actually seems to conceive of this subject in the same way that you do. I actually keep a list of these topics, in the event (hah) that I am ever given the chance to write a second or third monograph, but it can be exhausting to realise that instead of relying on someone else’s theoretical framework, you may just have to come up with your own. On the bright side, it makes you feel like your own research will make a more original contribution, once it’s finished.

7. Sometimes you need to be dumber. Yes you may be highly intelligent, and yes you may be able to juggle many complex topics simultaneously, but that’s not always the best way to approach your subject. Less is sometimes more when it comes to thesis writing, and you can always say a lot about very little. Adding that extra theorist, no matter how interesting their work or how relevant it is to your subject, can sometimes get in the way of your message. Additionally, saying something in a complicated way does not make you seem smarter. It is always to your advantage to be as simple and concise as possible – often that will already be complicated enough.

© Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com

© Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com

 

8. There is never enough time. This item is related to the previous one. No matter how well you plan, and how many weeks you give yourself to polish that draft you’ve been working on, you will never reach a point where you feel like you’ve said everything you have to say, or even really said it properly. For that same reason:

9. You often don’t feel like you’re working at all. This is, of course, not so because you aren’t working, but because something about brain work makes time go at once very quickly, and very slowly. Add teaching to the mix, and you can easily feel a week stretch into something that feels more like a month. I’ve easily already written upwards of 80,000 words in the 1.5 years, but if you ask me how far I’ve come in terms of finishing my thesis, I still feel like I’ve only started. A lot of those words will be rewritten, reframed, or simply discarded, which can be frustrating even if you know that writing them helped you to get to this point in the first place.

10. Finally, you discover the ways you had of working before starting your PhD are all wrong for (and unsustainable in) academia. I was never a marathon worker or thinker, and I did well at university without having to spend hours making notes, looking up terms, and re-reading texts. I would fit all my work into a few days a week, when I felt like doing it. As a result, I never properly built up a lot of the skills and tolerances I now feel would actually benefit me in academia. You just can’t muster those intense bursts of work that I used to thrive on for any sustained period of time. Here, everyone is a good student, but what you essentially need to grow into is a person who can maintain a consistently high level of surprisingly diverse work, indefinitely. That’s a whole different story.

© Jeroen Visser on FreeImages.com
© Jeroen Visser on FreeImages.com

Naturally this is all based on my personal struggles, and some of these lessons won’t apply to other people, or other academic disciplines. What do you think? Does this reflect your own PhD writing experience? Will my paradigm shift again completely over the second half of my degree? Leave your thoughts in the comments.