Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Revision nausea (and a BONUS rant about cultural studies)

Ugh. Every time I'm feeling inspired about actually finishing the damn dissertation, I make the mistake of sitting down to revise a chapter. That's when the nausea hits.

Tonight it's Chapter 4, as I've once again put off the deadly Chapter 2. The revision for Chapter 4 involves a complete reframing of the chapter because, as Fantastic Adviser wrote, "It's overly narrative and at times jumps from one interesting tidbit to another without a clear mandate."

So, basically, Chapter 4 is a 35-page blog entry. Wheeeeee!

I've come to the conclusion that through the process of earning a Ph.D. in cultural studies, I've lost--and had to regain--the facility for interpretation that served me so well as an English major and MA student.

A bit of history: My undergrad English department actively discouraged work in (what I think of as) high theory, saving deconstruction and psychoanalysis and such for a junior seminar that was completely optional and which I eschewed in favor of taking more creative writing seminars. I thus arrived underprepared for my MA program in English/Creative Writing, which required me to take some seminars in lit with Ph.D. lit students. In that environment, I observed that one must take a piece of literature, run it through some theoretical filter, and call the resulting hamburger meat a seminar paper. It wasn't for me.

So I started an American Studies Ph.D. program in the middle of nowhere, and I really liked its methods and, yes, even its theories, but romance drew me back to California after a year. I sought an American Studies program in California, and--this cracks me up in hindsight--I figured cultural studies would be an expanded form of American Studies.

Instead, cultural studies as it's practiced here seems to be all about critique of whatever text is at hand. There's very little interpretation going on--rather just more applications of Theories of Righteous Indignation to texts that themselves are critiques of other texts. The intertextuality, really, is mind-boggling, and one longs, after a couple years of this stuff, for essays on material culture. (Of course, there is fun to be had; I recall watching Alien v. Predator with some cultural studies buddies and having an enlightening conversation about race, gender, and colonialism following the movie.)

Anyhoo, now that I'm writing a dissertation about SPECIFIC people in SPECIFIC institutions, I find I've had to learn all the necessary (historical) research methods and interpretive skills the hard way, through trial and a helluva lot of error. And in so doing, I've come full circle, back to the kind of textual interpretation I undertook in my undergraduate days: I'm bringing my personal experiences (as person-in-the-world and as reader, rather than as scholarly critic) to these women's letters and publications. Fantastic Adviser is keeping me honest throughout this process, questioning my logic and even challenging me when I draw on Donna Haraway's work twice in the same chapter. ("Is that really necessary?" she asked. In response to my invocation of Foucault: "Oh, Trillwing. Don't do this.")

My point is this: I wonder if my process of writing this dissertation wouldn't have been easier if I had just skipped all those seminars in cultural studies and gender theory. What if I had just trusted my skill as a close reader of texts, as someone who's pretty damn good at understanding the intersections of individual lives with American cultural phenomena? What if my mind hadn't been cluttered with standpoint theory and situated knowledge and mobile subjectivities?

I'm not condemning cultural studies, or even cultural studies as it's practiced at my institution. But I do wonder whether my own journey through the dissertation might have been more enjoyable if I had followed the paths of a discipline rather than an interdiscipline.


Sharon L. Holland said...

"Theories of Righteous Indignation"
Good turn of a phrase.

i just recently found your blog, though now I don't remember how. My process has been the opposite of yorus - my academic training has been strictly historical, and all the critical theory has been something I picked up on the fly. It is equally frustrating, I think.

ArticulateDad said...

Ahhh! I'm with you there.

As if I needed any excuse... I was turned off on Derrida at the beginning of my doctoral program, when two of my colleagues (a couple years ahead of me and apparently jealous of my new kid status with our mutual advisor and spiritual leader Dr. TassePlein) chose to gang up on me mercilessly during a department-wide research colloquium, when I was first coming out with my research agenda.

Their efforts were intended to deconstruct everything and anything about the fundamental questions I was seeking to ask, as if to say, you can't even ask that, man... you can't get there from here... so, why don't you just give up, and crawl back under that rock you came out from, so nyaaah!

The two of them would take jaunts together to lectures by Derrida wherever he was expounding on the unfathomability and utter complexity of life and thought and toilet paper rolls. I tried reading some of his stuff at one point, once I had reconciled with those two colleauges, intent on facing my demons, but wound up just as turned off as before.

Like you, I suppose, High Theory is just not my bag.

Breena Ronan said...

I have found that the best way to deal with high theory crap I don't understand is to look everything up in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy -
The fact that the entries are more clear than the originial philosophers supports assertion that academics write opaquely because they are insecure.