“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Saturday, February 5, 2011

How to Plan a Ph.D. 5: Why Archives First, Not Methods?

From emails and from what I've been reading here and there my Ph.D. planning advice is proving somewhat useful, so here I go with another installment.

I trust that my posts so far have given you some relief and some kind of a realistic picture of what a Ph.D. is and what a Ph.D isn't. In particular, and in short, a Ph.D. dissertation is not a finished book, but a transitional object that turns you from student into expert.

Each chapter of your dissertation is a factory that builds a certain component of that expertise. Each factory is sitting atop a certain archive, which you can visualize as a mine. Your job is to discover the mines and to create hypotheses (with an emphasis on the hypo-: see my previous) that will work on the materials you find in them.

Modern students are all messed up about how to proceed, because of professionalization. I truly believe that professionalization is an ideological construct designed to INHIBIT true research, rather than foster it. Get everyone to act like a beginning assistant prof. when they don't even have a job—or a dissertation! Get everyone to think about making and pushing products. Get everyone to concentrate on essays and papers, which are very very different animals than dissertation chapters.

One symptom of this is that almost every student I talk to wants to talk method. And they call method "methodology"—because of "Anything you can do, I can do meta" syndrome. This is a telling three extra unnecessary syllables. It means we're thinking about how to how to how to, rather than WHAT. We are not thinking about objects, substances, but about Parnassian heights. And a Ph.D. is in no sense a hang glider ride from the Parnassian heights. It's more like a nasty toilet cleaning job that no one else notices or cares about. Your nose to the ground. Be a mole, not an eagle.

So when students come in my office they want to talk about posthumanism, for instance. Now this isn't even a method. It's a record-store-style label for a set of texts that use a variety of methods. But somehow they think that they can do something "posthumanist" like you can do something "Rap" or "Rhythm and Blues." No, no, no! The point is, do you love music? Do you love certain sounds? Do you love guitars? Do you love to play? Who the fuck cares what label the fucking record store puts on it, really?

Two years in, you will bitterly regret your decision to use record store labels as heuristic devices.

Instead you should focus on your archives. That is, the mines of THINGS that you will research. These can be philosophical, historical, literary—what the heck, everyone does everything now. They could be instruments, like one of my Ph.D students, one of whose archives is scientific instruments. Or maps. Or foods. Or software.

One giant reason NOT to use “methodology” as your starting point: the fickleness of fashion. Record store labels change frequently. Methods don't change much. Even old tools can be useful. Deconstruction is a method—it doesn't tell you very much what to think about, but it does tell you how to think. Participant observation is a method. Dialectics is a method. Diaresis is a method. Close literary analysis is a method. Phenomenology is a method. Annales-style history is a method. Systems analysis is a method. Logic is a method. Statistics is a method. My Ph.D. students have used all these and more. But never, ever should you base your decisions about what methods to use on their idea of your idea of his idea of her idea of posthumanism, hip hop, new media studies or heavy metal. This is to base your entire career on a non-existent Big Other. To guard against this, you should always think your archives through FIRST.

Sure, archives have ideological freight. And we're (too) well used to supposing you can't think an archive (or any kind of object) without some kind of methodological mediation. Or maybe we're hardcore correlationists who think you can't access things at all, only thoughts about thoughts about things. Sure. But in Ph.D. planning world, these are mere modes of rationalization, just giving us more reasons to become twisted and inhibited when we're thinking of our Ph.D. project. Luckily we have exited modernity (see my previous) so this kind of correlationist agonizing won't last much longer.

Also—no one ever did anything original by second-guessing the Other. Let other people decide what you did. Let the record store sort it out. Amazon.com thinks I do Nature Writing. What a laugh!

Visualize yourself in ten years. What kind of expertise do you have? What kinds of essay are you asked to write? Okay good. Now assign those domains to different chapters.

No thesis yet, not even any hypotheses. And no bloody methods! Just interesting mines. You need three or four distinct ones. Think about it.



Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Ain't everythng Nature?
Sure it is.

Timothy Morton said...

Yeah--like everything is "matter." By using Nature this way, you have just created the concept equivalent of
Vaseline: a transparent gel that covers everything to no avail.

Leaf said...

Tim, it's a real relief to learn that discovering and deciding the archives I want to mine for my own future expertise is my task in a PhD from proposal/prospectus to proper. It's emancipating and enfranchising.
Thanks very much.

Em Strang said...

Tim, I like the sound of this. I can just read stuff I'm interested in, think about it, write about it and then bundle it altogether in the form of a kind of academic journal of investigation and discovery. Thank god I don't have to write a book.