The View from Afar

Hello All,

Today I am getting back into the blogging spirit by posting something new that i’ve been working on. I have been pondering the strange correlations between space exploration and the long history of deep revelations brought about by a view from afar. Please do let me know if you have any thoughts you’d like to share, since it is early days for a new project. I started off with what is effectively creative writing to get me started, and this is what i’m sharing with you today. It’s how I like to get the ideas flowing. I hope that you enjoy reading the extract below, and my best to you all.

The View from Afar

In 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe took a photograph that would prove to be one of the most humbling visions of terrestrial insignificance generated by the space age. The Pale Blue Dot, taken from a record distance of 6 billion kilometres from the Earth, reveals a tiny fleck of colour in an endless expanse of space. The astronomer Carl Sagan took the image as visual mantra, the central focus for the new contemptus mundi of the modern age as well as a popular monograph. The history of science has been a breeder of anthropocentric hubris and a breaker of human pride in equal measure. As breeder and breaker, it strengthens claims to exceptionality while simultaneously eroding them. The image of the dot, alone and miniscule, elicited an extraordinary and powerful affective response.

The Pale Blue Dot – Public Domain courtesy of NASA

The photograph provokes a symptomatic wavering in confidence. Sagan feels this insecurity, and presses upon the weak point. Derived through the artifice of science, his cry is vanitas vanitatis for the space age. All the strivings of our precarious history cannot cancel out certain inevitabilities. We are not so special as we were led to believe, no matter the source of our claim to exceptionality. Sagan, through science, taps into a deep well of even deeper insecurity. Thus, Sagan:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot…our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.[1]

For me, this statement is accompanied by the sound of a thousand modern dreams shattering like plate glass, confident ontological drive down the fast lane of progress violently arrested. A vision of gleaming rocket ships and scientific mastery engulfed by the endless black. In the face of such power, what is the meaning of human endeavour? For what do we strive? For the medievalist, Sagan’s depiction of the peculiar clash between visions of human importance and an ultimate insignificance in relationship to a greater power will not be unfamiliar. A man of science, pulled by the powerful rip tides of explanatory impulse, has found recourse to ekphrasis. Like Scipio dreaming above the world, Alexander the Great (or his romance persona) pulled aloft by griffins, and the would-be aeronaut Eilmer the monk glimpsing new worlds the second before falling to injurious ruin, Sagan has responded to the irresistible need to re-evaluate in the face of a radical new perspective. After all, what use is somnambulant prescience, mastery of the known world, the lost arts of Icarus, or a camera on a distant space probe if it does not provoke ontological repositioning?

British Library MS. Harley 334 f.34v – Detail of a miniature of a God creating the world with compasses. Open Access.

The age of space travel has generated a series of tropes focused upon the fragility of life on Earth, a tiny blue-green orb suspended in the blackness of the void. Only when we are able to view our tiny world from the overview perspective of space, the idea continues, are we able to truly value the precarious nature of life. Since we have been locked within the conceptual prison of our mundane life, we have been unable to fully grasp the full perspective of the world from above. There are those who have travelled into orbit and have been sharply reminded of this reality. Having returned to Earth and descended into the conflict and lack of perspective that characterises modernity, they have come to an insight shared by many through a route known only to a privileged few. Founded by a group of astronauts and cosmonauts who have gazed upon the world from above, the Overview Institute proposes to remind the war-torn world of the beauty and singularity of the Earth. In their 2012 mission statement—an appropriate title for a group of former space travelers—the Institute describes the perspective that they wish to share:

[The Overview Effect] refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere.  From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.[2] 

Medievalists may be forgiven for experiencing a moment of déja vu when reading this statement. Admirable as the sentiment may be, it is not a novelty brought about by the manifold technological contrivances of the Cold War. It is a perspective that has found new voice in the space age, but has long formed a key element of the constructs deployed to imagine life on Earth. Take, for example, the well-known example of Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, well known to medieval commentators through the commentary of Macrobius. In the dream, Scipio Aemilianus floats above the world guided by the shade of his grandfather Scipio Africanus, viewing its variegated colour, its insignificance in the cosmic schema, and its partitions:

On which [Scipio] Africanus said, I perceive that you are still employed in contemplating the seat and residence of mankind. But if it appears to you so small, as in fact it really is, despise its vanities, and fix your attention for ever on these heavenly objects. Is it possible that you should attain any human applause or glory that is worth the contending for? The earth, you see, is peopled but in a very few places, and those too of small extent; and they appear like so many little spots of green scattered through vast uncultivated deserts. And those who inhabit the earth are not only so remote from each other as to be cut off from all mutual correspondence, but their situation being in oblique or contrary parts of the globe, or perhaps in those diametrically opposite to yours, all expectation of universal fame must fall to the ground.[3]

Sagan, Scipio, and the Overview Institute all seek to place life in perspective, to different ends and framed by different epistemes, and yet each participates in a long sequence of desperate grapplings with the ultimately facile conclusion that human life has no meaning. Any indication of human insignificance is equally a claim that human actions are significant. Bleak realities engender moral reaction. The question is endlessly complex: where does the meaning reside? Meaning for whom? And perhaps, most importantly, where can we reside in order to shift our perspective, to see new meaning in old, and old meaning in new? 

[1] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, New York, Random House, 1994 [1997], pp. xv-xvi.

[2] See http://www.overviewinstitute.org/index.php/about-us/declaration-of-vision-and-principles

[3] The Dream of Scipio, see http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/cicero-republic6.asp

Five Thesis tips in Memory of Philippa Maddern

Curly Grained Wood. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Catslash under a CC0 public domain license.

Hello Readers,

It has been some time since I last updated this blog. It was started as a PhD research blog, and saw me through several years of diverse research experiences. I have spent the last few months doing fairly typical post-thesis things such as working outside of academia to make a living, pondering my past and future, renegotiating my identity, and looking ahead to new things. Two things have happened of late that have caused me to get on with the job of making this blog a place for the sharing of ideas once more.

The first is the passing of my primary PhD supervisor Professor Philippa Maddern after a long battle with illness. Philippa was a truly remarkable academic and human being who lived a full and diverse life, and touched countless people with her scholarly brilliance, wit, and advice. I am saddened by this turn of events, and wanted to write something in the spirit of a great mentor and academic hero. As a tireless supporter of doctoral students, she has passed on many invaluable tips to me which I now share below in the list form so popular on the internet.

The second event is the completion of my thesis. My final revisions are now committed, and only a labyrinthine mess of paperwork stands between me and my doctorate. My three thesis examiners provided me with kind and thorough feedback, and the revision process has been a pleasure. I now feel like the journey has truly ended and another begins, and Philippa was my guide on this journey. As a result, I feel that she would be pleased if anything I write here is of any benefit to those on the road to thesis completion.

So without further ado and in memory of Philippa Maddern, here are five research tips that profoundly shaped my thesis writing experience. These comments are not for the seasoned professional, but for those starting the journey that I now end:

1) Always begin with a primary source example

Get stuck in on page one, provide a vignette, and start your analysis. Extended framing and discursive explanation dilute the power of your material, so get it in there as early as possible. If your source material is poetic, eloquent, or beautiful, then this is all the more powerful. It is a little difficult to overemphasise how helpful this very simple advice was for me. When in doubt, follow it. You won’t regret it, I promise.

2) Show, don’t tell

Nobody will believe ambitious claims if they are not demonstrated in action early on. Guide the reader into your argument, don’t just start arguing. This links back to number one. The reader will be more likely to believe your claims if your writing, in good medieval style, is a ductus that guides them into the topic through demonstration. After all, it is education (from e ducere, to lead out). Philippa was also fond of the medieval notion of the exempluman extended anecdote designed to impress a message upon the reader.

3) Read against the grain

Philippa loved to use this term, which she inherited from Patricia Crawford, her mentor at the University of Western Australia. I think that this statement can be interpreted in many ways, but I have always taken it to mean that some of the most rewarding insights that one can glean from material come not from what it reveals, but from what it conceals. This attitude is derived from feminist theory, but is widely applicable.

4) Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell it to them, and tell them what you told them

Philippa was an avid supporter of ‘signposting’, those references to the structure of a thesis that guide the reader through it in an orderly fashion. Confusion dilutes meaning, irritates the reader, and lessens the impact of ideas. The clearer your structure, the better presented your argument. Don’t be afraid to err on the side of over-signposting, but never patronise your reader.

5) Always scrutinise your methodology

As anyone who knew Philippa can attest, matters of disciplinarity and technique were a source of constant interest and reexamination. Only by moving outside of the debate within a particular discipline and interrogating the context within which we make truth claims or read material can we progress as scholars. Philippa was not a fan of partisanship in methodology, and read widely and voraciously. As a result, her many years of experience culminated in a keen instinct for identifying the strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities of any given approach. Only breadth of reading and a tireless hermeneutics of suspicion can bring these insights. This can be a challenge for  a PhD student just starting out, but my advice would be to forget the notion that any book is ‘irrelevant’ to your work. Be a reflexive practitioner, to phrase it in a slightly glib social science manner.

Water as Medieval Intellectual Entity

Hello All,

I hope that this finds you well. I am certainly feeling pleased, having submitted my thesis for examination on Friday. Although I currently have no new thoughts to put up on Fluid Imaginings, I thought I would end the last phase of my life by posting the abstract and acknowledgements from my thesis. I am taking this opportunity to show you all what I have been working on and how it turned out. More importantly, this is my opportunity to publicly thank the many organisations and individuals who have made this research possible.

More soon, but for now, my thesis:

Water as Medieval Intellectual Entity: Case Studies in Twelfth-Century Western Monasticism

James L. Smith

The University of Western Australia

School of Humanities

Abstract

In this thesis, the imagery of water serves as a point of focus for an inquiry into the composition of medieval abstract space. As a ubiquitous element of human life with distinct properties and connotations across time, water touches, and has ever touched upon, both what is historically and culturally unique and what is ongoing within environmental imagination. This study examines the significance and the deployment of environmental imagery in the composition, narration, and recollection of organised thought in the Middle Ages. I argue that images of environment in systematic ecological arrangement perform a key role in revealing medieval spaces of thought.

The intellectual and imaginative uses of water in medieval thought merge mind and environment, and bind intellection and phenomenon within the spaces of the inner world. This thesis suggests that the medieval logic of these patterned spaces links us intimately to the internal structures of sense-making in a distinct intellectual milieu—that of monastic, twelfth-century, Northern European Christendom—and to the understanding of environment that it implied, be it cultural, religious, or quotidian.

In this thesis, I analyse the imagery and the rhetoric of water in various texts as a means to explore the potential meanings of water as an abstract entity in medieval thought. Through literary case studies of water in various expressive forms—diagrammatic representation, poetry, landscape narrative, and epistolary communication—I trace its existence as a thought system within the history of ideas that is both uniquely medieval and suggestive of broader sense-making patterns.

The thesis opens with the interpretation of water as complex metaphor, both in terms of its longue durée and generalised use, and in a specifically medieval context. The second chapter delves deeper into the medieval properties of water metaphor through an exploration of three key themes: the role of water metaphor in the metaphysical, salvific and intellectual world of Western Christendom, the elemental properties of water and their metaphorical resonances, and the role of water metaphor in the shaping of rhetoric.

The third chapter focuses on the diagrammatic representation of Pierpont Morgan M. 982, a manuscript leaf depicting Lady Philosophia nourishing the Seven Liberal Arts with streams of knowledge. In this diagram, it is the thematics of water that give the representation a flow of energy and a sense of motion within an imagined hydrological cycle.

The fourth chapter comprises a reading of the Fons Philosophiae, a didactic poem by the Regular Canon Godfrey of Saint-Victor. In the poem, a river system pouring fourth from a lofty mountain flows across the plains of knowledge, providing a space for the poet’s pilgrim-like persona to pass through and parse the Seven Liberal Arts, assessing the respective qualities of their rivers in a quest for their head waters in theology.

The fifth chapter interprets the epistolary style of the Benedictine Abbot Peter of Celle, a notable letter writer and Churchman. Within Peter’s letters, small parables and metaphorical flourishes demonstrate the compressed power of complex water metaphor by intermingling scripture and aqueous imagery to enliven the moral message, using the properties of water as an aide. Furthermore, the use of aqueous metaphor suggests a hydrological imagining of intellectual and epistolary community.

The sixth and final chapter explores the anonymous Description of Clairvaux, a ‘mirror’ of monastic life in which moral and salvific meanings are imbued in a quotidian account. Descriptions of the landscape, hydrological practices and moral mission of Cistercianism merge within a seemingly simple scene of paradisal locus amoenus and virtuous labour, making water the channel connecting daily experience and a grander metaphysical purpose.

This thesis provides a contribution to a new understanding of environmental imagination and knowledge visualisation in twelfth-century monasticism, coupled with insights of wider relevance to the study of relationships between water and intellectual culture. By revealing links between the shaping of inner space and the composition of word and image, it enables a reading of primary sources and textual media rooted in the imaginative processes of their creators. The intellectual entity of water, through metaphor, becomes an image of the vital principle, the vis naturae or élan vital, in intellectual life. Furthermore, this intellectual life is ordered through a fundamental pattern of organised distribution, a flow of life source to its manifold manifestations.

***

Acknowledgements

I would like to begin by acknowledging everyone who has given me the inspiration and advice to finish this PhD thesis. I would like to thank my mother Diane for her unceasing support and patience during these last four years, and my family in Australia and the United Kingdom. This thesis is also dedicated to the memory of my grandmother Margaret and my aunt Carolyn, long supportive of my academic career but sadly no longer with us. I would like to thank my girlfriend Debs for cheering me up and for believing in me. It was during the course of this thesis that we came together, and it was through her kindness, humour, and advice that it was completed.

The list of friends that I have made, enjoyed the company of, worked with, argued with, built with, and experienced PhD life with is too great to list in full here. They span the globe, and have made my life, and my thesis, richer. I would especially like to thank (in no particular order) Chris Lin, Rebecca Rey, Colin Yeo, Phil Kierle, Brett Hirsch, Ruth Morgan, Aisling Blackmore, Imogen Forbes-Macphail, Charmaine Fernandez, Andrew Broertjes, Danau Tanu, and Jo Hawkins of UWA for enriching my academic and personal life during my PhD. I would also like to thank Jane Héloïse-Nancarrow and Kats Handel in particular for their friendship, both individually and together with their fellow PhD students at the University of York. Finally, I owe a great debt of gratitude to my school friends from Helena College for keeping me in touch with the comings and goings beyond the academic world.

The encouragement, advice, and inspiration that have shaped and nourished both this thesis and its author came from many, for which I am eternally grateful. I offer special thanks to my supervisors Professors Philippa Maddern and Andrew Lynch for their generous advice, careful reading, rigorous interrogation of drafts, and personal support. I offer my thanks to the staff and students of the school of Humanities at the University of Western Australia for their assistance in matters personal, professional, and practical.

I offer particular thanks to the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, the Perth Medieval and Renaissance Group, the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotion, the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, the Postgraduate Student Association, and the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Western Australia for providing frequent and well-conceived opportunities for inspiration and training. I would like to thank all of those who have generously supported my doctorate and career, with special thanks to the Australian Research Council. I would like to thank the Graduate Research School, the School of Humanities, and Convocation at UWA for travel funding. I also would like to thank the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, the Centre for the History of Emotion, the New Chaucer Society, and the George Washington Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute for conference support.

Finally, I am pleased to thank the many overseas members of the academic community who have enriched this thesis over the years. I offer thanks to the staff and students of the university of York for their hospitality and support for the duration of my 2011 Worldwide Universities Network exchange to the United Kingdom. I also offer thanks to new friends from the medievalist community of the United States for their insights, collegiality and hospitality during three conference visits to Kalamazoo, Portland, and Washington, D.C. in 2012 and 2013.

Thank you, one and all.

A Postgraduate Blog: the end of the life cycle

A Wordle of my Thesis Draft

A Wordle of my Thesis Draft

Hello All,

Sometimes we blog, and sometimes we are silent. Recently, I have been thinking about the periods in my postgraduate life when I have used this blog the most, and the times that I have used it the least. I started Fluid Imaginings on the tenth of September, 2009. At the time I was full of new ideas from the first few months of my thesis research, and was longing for somewhere to share them. The blog served admirably in this respect, and I have often gone back to my old posts to remember ideas partially forgotten, to recapture old insights.

Wherever I went, the blog followed, ready to help me express my latest thoughts, both to myself and to others. It found new life in 2011 when I was on exchange at the university of York, helping me to articulate a new phase of more complex ideas that I was struggling with. This fed into new drafts of my thesis, and helped my creative process immensely. By 2012, I was blogging about conferences, fresh insights, and thoughts about postgraduate life, the matters that concerned me at the time.

Recent months of 2013 have been an Autumn and, in the most recent months, a winter of blogging for me. I have felt that my creative energies were tied up in other endeavors, and have felt little desire to write in this format. I find myself at the ultimate stage of my candidature, preparing to submit my doctoral thesis at the end of November. The Wordle above captures the thousands of words that have poured forth from mind and through keyboard, caught and quantified in a single image. These words are not for blogging, but they represent another mode of self-expression. I am caught up in the process of writing and of contemplating my future, and have felt little need or desire to share these thoughts here.

At this stage, I begin to feel the stirring of new life for Fluid Imaginings. With spring comes new shoots. As my thoughts move through this bottleneck and into a new era of post-PhD life, I sense that a new love for blogging is growing within me. After my thesis is submitted, I can imagine overhauling this page, converting it into a space for my ideas and interests far beyond the narrower scope of recent years. I have noticed that the months following the completion of a PhD are often a time for those who have not previously maintained a blog to begin expressing themselves online. I think that this is an excellent time to begin and love reading the many excellent posts of friends and colleagues at this stage of their career and life, but am equally grateful that I have had a rich and exciting time blogging as a postgraduate student.

This post is something of a eulogy for Fluid Imaginings the postgraduate blog, but also an indication of my growing sense of enthusiasm for another Fluid Imaginings, the future blog as-yet unblogged. If I have any advice to give in this post, it is this: do not see your blog as a demand on your creative energies that must constantly be used, but as part of the waxing and waning of emotions and creative impulses that go hand in hand with the life of a scholar and a writer. All blogs I follow have waxed and waned, and many have ended. Many more have sprung up to replace them, and many more will follow. A blog is more than a medium, it is a repository of a writer, a vault of hopes, dreams, inspirations, and anxieties.

In the future, this blog will endure in a new form. For now, it is quiescent. My love of blogging remains throughout these cycles, and will continue with me beyond my life as a PhD student. The subtitle of my blog reads ‘Reflections on and of Academic Life by James Smith’, and this quality will remain. What this sentence means in the future is as yet unclear.

Until then, be well.

James

Delving the Digital Sack

During the Second World War, the French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac fought long and vigorously to argue for the fundamental moral incompatibility of Roman Catholicism and National Socialism. His involvement with the French resistance came in the form of the so-called ‘Spiritual Resistance’ of Churchmen against Nazi ideology and the Vichy government. He was involved in the publication of Témoinage chrétien (Christian Witness) a samizdat-style anti-Nazi journal for the devout resistance.

After several of his colleagues were captured and executed by the Vichy regime,  necessity forced de Lubac into hiding with only the clothes on his back, and one other item that has always stuck with me. A sack. Full of bits of paper. On these pieces of paper were literally hundreds of transcriptions and notes from Latin manuscripts, an invaluable corpus that would eventually go towards the publication of his famous multi-volume work Exégèse médiévale (Medieval Exegesis) between 1959 and 1965. Given the incredible degree of inter-connectivity and facility of association demonstrated by this weighty piece of scholarship, I cannot help but think about the sack. When in hiding during the later years of the war and back in safety in the post-war years, did Henri de Lubac shape his new scholarship based on the order in which he extracted the tattered scraps from his long-suffering sack?

I have a sack of my own, but it is a sack in concept only. It also benefits from many traits not possessed by de Lubac’s repository of knowledge gifted to me by fairly common and yet borderline miraculous developments in information technology. Let me describe it for you. The sack is made up of the hundreds upon hundreds of citations, snippets, clippings, and articles that I have thrown rather haphazardly into Evernote since I began using it in 2009. The beauty of Evernote is the ease of acquisition: whenever I read an article or find a piece of information that interests me, I clip it using the Google Chrome web clipper. Down and down these digital artifacts go, spiraling into the chasm of my cloud-based hoard.

I confess that although Evernote offers many organisational features, I prefer to keep my classifications very loose: ‘primary sources’, ‘primary source citations’, ‘literature’ and so on. I was determined to be organised when I began, but like an office worker with a messy desk, I quickly lost my enthusiasm for filing.

This jumble has had unexpected effects. Anecdotes often circulate about the unexpected innovations that arise when someone with a messy desk links two unexpected pieces of paper. Others lament the fact that digital storage does now allow this. Not true, I tell you! Whenever I am starved for ideas, I search for random words pertaining to my topic. Gems of primary source material, articles, pictures, blog posts: all of these things emerge from the darkness of the sack, often completely forgotten. Like an office worker constantly rearranging their junk and making unexpected discoveries, the chaos of random digital hoarding meshes perfectly with the precision of computer search strings. Disorder and order in perfect balance.

My advice is this: if you are going to hoard your digital content messily, put it somewhere searchable, a sack where you can reach in and grab new morsels of long-forgotten lore. Apple users are blessed with the excellent Searchlight feature, which turns one’s whole hard drive into a giant sack. But to my mind, nothing is better for hoarding and retrieving than a sack full of data. As I near the completion of my thesis, I continue to marvel at how precise Evernote is when looking for a remembered piece of information, and how open to random discoveries when one does not entirely know what one is looking for.

My plan is to just let the sack grow and grow, to continue to feed it until it becomes a personal treasure trove.

At the Breaking of the Net

A Fisherman prepares his net – Wikimedia Commons.

Hello All,

I would apologise for having remained silent for too long, but I feel that my delay in posting has resulted in something important that I would like to share. Although I feel that this post is aimed more at those just starting out in academic research, I hope that more experienced readers might see something of themselves, or of those whom they know, in this post.

To put it succinctly, this post is about limits. As a researcher, a thinker, one is required to cast a net into the unimaginably vast seething mass of data that is human knowledge and its discourses. We cast our net, made from the woven strands of all that we have read with the craft of our personal artifice, and we seek to haul insights, wet and gleaming with novelty, from the deep. As Novalis wrote in the 18th century, “Hypotheses are nets: only he who casts will catch”. The bigger the net, the bigger the catch. But how much can a mind truly be expected to catch, how large a surface area can our inquiry have before insights start to slip away?

This thought has been troubling me of late. As a generalist by inclination, I stubbornly spurned the advice so often given to PhD students to ‘just focus on your thesis’. “I will cast my net as far and as wide as I want, thank you very much!” was my internal response. This approach has yielded many benefits, for I have entered debates and been involved in presenting papers and writing articles that have shaped my core thesis, enriched it with new and strange fruit. It is good to be a generalist, and the intellectual rewards have certainly vindicated my decision. The time of the PhD candidature, I feel, is not a time to become complacent, to limit oneself. I would argue that this applies even in the case of attempts to create depth of expertise, for to my mind any sufficiently ‘deep’ delving of a topic should raise so many questions as to create a practically unlimited supply of possible tangents.

And yet, there is only so much time, only so much experience, only so much reading in any one head. Becoming flexible and spreading into diverse topics of inquiry is rewarding, to be sure, but it is important to never forget a simple fact: we are flexible and plastic, but one can only spread attention so far. I have found that a state of extreme extension is the situation within which I feel most challenged and most engaged, where ideas teem and combine in a manner that I find exhilarating. And yet this is also the point where the net your mind has cast, despite all of its gains, is at greatest risk of breaking. It is easy to rationalise this overextension, for it does not result in failures per se. Indeed, the more things ‘on the go’ the greater the yield even when many projects do not work out. ‘Fail early and often’, as the Research and Development people say.

All the pressure of deadlines, possibilities, time constraints, financial obligations, speculations etc. create a great pressure cooker within the mind. It needs a valve through which to release. This is much easier to achieve post-PhD, for the constant cycle of short term projects makes it easier to play the boomerang game, always experiencing the relief of a completed task ‘cast out’ balanced against the reward of a completed project ‘returned’. And yet for a PhD student, the candidature is a bottleneck inhibiting the release of projects: there is one overarching project that must be seen to completion, the likes of which the writer has never experienced.

The trick, I feel, is to know when you have cast too far, overextended the net. In the phantom world of proactive deadlines, it is hard to tell in advance just what one has committed to, what is a true deadline, and what is a self imposed deadline. This is by no means an argument for complacency. Cast wide, and cast well. But it is important, for the sake of one’s quality of life and sanity, to know when the pressure has become too great. What can be let go? When have you set yourself an unrealistic goal? Only here, at the edge of overextension, can you find your true potential and also your greatest fear. A low-level, omnipresent, groundless, sense of anxiety emanates from the cognitive dissonance that is overextension. You both know that you have to do many, many things, and know that you do not really have to do them. You are driven to do them.

If I have learned one thing from these thoughts, it is that this problem can be managed with an almost surgical application of pressure to the one commitment that was one too many, the infinitesimal straw that caused such woe to the camel. If you can do this, then the pressure relieves, and clarity returns. Only once your mind has ceased to fly or to fight, once the pressure is gone, is there the space to truly consider where the net must fall, and yet to cast it once more is to immediately begin the cycle once more.

This may seem strange, but I both love and detest the wrangling of mental energy that comes at the breaking point of the net, the feeling that one more task will break you, but one fewer will disappoint you. My advice to any others feeling this pressure is this: the problem is not the ocean, it is the net. The only control we have is the manner in which we weave it, deploy it, and manage its catch.

A Letter from Seclusion

The Turnhout Begijnhof, Toerisme Vlaanderen

The Turnhout Begijnhof, from the Toerisme Vlaanderen website

Hello All,

It took me a very long time to get around to writing this post, but I have decided to break my silence. I have been enjoying a different pace of life and adjusting to a very different set of activities and responsibilities, and for some reason this impeded my ability to write for Fluid Imaginings. I have thought of doing so many times, but the time did not seem right. Today I thought that I might write a little about the possibilities and peculiarities of taking oneself away from it all in the ultimate stages of thesis submission.

I have been living very peacefully for the last few weeks in Turnhout, a small city in Flemish Belgium close to the Dutch border. I am interning as a publishing assistant in the English language division of Brepols, a publisher that many medievalists will be familiar with. Brepols is housed within the Begijnhof of Turnhout, a former community for religious women to live together in common piety now converted to a home for retirees and UNESCO world heritage site. My current room is within the building occupied by Corpus Christianorum, creators of Greek and Latin critical editions, and current stewards of a vast library of Latin and Greek texts. My room, and its twin, are named for great monasteries of the medieval Eastern and Western Christian worlds, Subiaco in Italy and Studion in Constantinople.

This is my place of seclusion until September, when I return to Perth and submit my thesis. There are many advantages to this situation: Brepols has a library of its extensive collection of books, I have somewhere quiet to work, the surroundings are peaceful (I can hear birdsong from my window this very minute), and I am learning new skills at the same time in my editing duties.

There is a peace and pervasive air of scholarly life to this place that I have found to be good for me. Many people spend precisely this period in their PhD in comfortable environs close to supervisor, administration, and source material, but I can recommend a sharp break as a good inspiration in stressful times. I would like to stress, however, that there are certain things that one absolutely needs to finish a PhD: support, security, company, and certain resources. I only chose to do this internship because I was confident that I could continue to have these things, with the added benefit of cross-training and an adventure.

As promised, some thoughts on my circumstances. Just before PhD completion, there is a powerful urge to flee, to do something else, to move on. This is somewhat easier to overcome in familiar surroundings, but once you have fled a little to another country, momentum pushes you to flee further, into something else entirely. If you have changed this much, moved contexts this much, then why not go further? I find myself struggling to keep attached to my PhD while simultaneously spreading myself out in new directions. I am invested in and enjoy my research, but have always seen my doctoral studies as a chance to learn more about myself, to build myself, to cultivate myself. How far should one go in this pursuit? Does the ultimate end of such a process during PhD, especially in  these uncertain times, grow one out of desiring a doctorate?

Yes, and no. Yes, because the person I want to be, the professional I want to be, the academic I want to be and the doctor I want to be are all different now to when I started. I have said in a previous post that we in the Humanities are pluripotent in our uselessness, and I feel that opportunities like this internship continue to grow my possible, latent ability to make a mark on the world, to be something, to do something that I am proud of. No, because I can imagine so much more than I once could. If one ‘goes rogue’ close to submission, then it forces self-reflection about that it is that causes you to do what you do. Inertia will not carry you to submission if you break it. If you continue to redefine your context, then you must continue to re-justify your life choices to yourself.

I feel that this experience will temper me in my conviction about everything I have done thus far, or force me to reassess my desire to do certain things. Absence from the lull of campus life makes one think very carefully about what it is to be a PhD student, what it is that a PhD student does, and what comes next. I will continue to write on this topic as time passes, probably in a stream of consciousness like this one.

Until then, Be Well.

James