a lost preface (part y)

It is two years since I submitted my doctoral thesis; two years in which I continue to think of my PhD most days. It is a process of mourning, I think. The thoughts are mixed in their forms: sometimes they present an amorphous, idling presence; on other occasions the thoughts are more focussed, concentrated in a specific element or aspect of the thesis (both its physical form and its textual content—although I prefer not to discern this divide); and sometimes there is a simple questioning along the lines of ‘what was that all about?’. The thoughts frequently tend to the negative or critical … apathetic at best. Maybe these thoughts feed off of my general experience of the PhD, it was not, on the whole, a positive or enjoyable undertaking. However, there were aspects to the study, the course (particularly in the first eighteen months of the three and a half years) that were stimulating, enjoyable. I met, and got to know, a few great people (students, supervisors); this helped things along. I learned a lot but have subsequently forgotten even more. Carrying out the research was fine to good too (especially in the open air of upland mid-Wales) and even the writing had its enjoyable periods; it was the rest of it that tarnished the exercise. This is not a criticism of hard work required, it is the unnecessary other stuff; people throwing their hierarchical weight around in grey seminar rooms and offices of grey buildings … all very dull, and frustrating.

This pre-occupation is not healthy or hugely productive and so I thought the best way to employ (exorcise) it would be to (begin to) write a reflective (that should probably be ‘refractive’) preface. The lost preface, the preface that could have been. To try and salvage something from those forty-two months of study, of research and the subsequent fretting. At worst this will be an exercise in placing flowers at the grave of some interred words. At best it will produce some more words to add to the original eighty-odd thousand. In the most unlikely scenario, it will be a great bit of writing and will make complete sense of what the PhD was. A flicker of optimism remains.

I never set out to become an expert in something, although I do admire (envy?) people with such forms of honed knowledge. The PhD would be an extension, a continuation, of my part-time MA but now full-time and so, with more focus and attention. It would be an exploration, practice-led in some form (to be determined as things proceeded), of a nominal theme that would evolve through study. I was relieved of this naïve vision early on with a heavy dose of bureaucracy that was really an exercise in illustrating lack of trust and understanding. Downhill from there really. Enough of that. I learned that a PhD signifies an unique/original contribution to knowledge and that analysis and rigour are key tools or concepts in doctoral study. As is methodology. These three terms fell into the melting pot of my research. The very context of my performing doctoral study early on became a key understanding of my role (to me at least) I now realise most fully. The study was context-specific much in the same way that I had become used to working site-specifically as an artist through various professional projects.

As things progressed it became apparent that writing would be the practice of this practice-led PhD. This caused problems and confusion, possibly exacerbated by the fact that this writing-as-practice was being undertaken as the practical element of a practice-led Fine Art PhD. Although, from conversations with those in English faculties I think writing-as-practice was even more restricted on creative writing courses. The core of the problem is the desire by many for the practical and theoretical elements to be, at the very least, distinct, but, preferably, separate. I never did really understand the history of this need, but it is probably related to the ‘problem’ of practice-led doctoral study and historical loopholes to avoid hard work (rigour, analysis, etc.) … to simplify things somewhat. There must be issues of required parity present—to compare ten academically-written theses is fine but how to compare three academically-written theses, three portfolios of paintings, three musical compositions, and a suite of performances? And so, more so than originally intended, the study became an exercise in testing limits. Of exam boards, of definitions, of process, and so forth.

The submitted thesis was produced as a landscape-formatted, horizontally bound body of words which extends many metres in length (well, 238 A4 pages at 297mm wide but shortened by the curvature of the binding process to something like 200mm in width … which is 238 x 200mm = 47600mm, so that’s 47.6m fully extended). It is a horizon of words, horizon in both landscape and geological/archaeological senses. The thesis celebrates thinness, slightness; this horizon is a surface of words … the words are surface deposits … superficial deposits (another nod to geology and to my current interest in mud). Can something superficial be the output of an expert? But this was not about trying to trick the examiners, etc., rather it is an attempt to shift the shape of what a PhD can be. It quietly attempts this and it is not a model for others to replicate. This ‘shape’ also provides a shortcoming that I was aware of at the time but becomes more nagging with time—some of the topics for research became quite cursory as the knowledge was used to construct a gauzy superficies of words. The research moved laterally rather than vertically. This unfortunately means that knowledge was gained from sources more broadly available and these tend to favour Western, white and male opinion and presence. A particular reading of history prevails in these sources

Although writing became the practice and how the barrier between practice and theory could be permeated became an aim, it is now clear that a key outcome of the submitted work and the performing of the study was unwritten (at least in the precise, verbal sense) … unrecorded. This aspect went without commentary (to borrow a term from music composition PhDs), it was maybe down-played and underexamined (especially by me). The idea of performing a PhD can appear disingenuous, this is not what I intended rather, as things progressed, it became conceptually near-impossible to extract PhD student from the assemblage of doctoral study; the best way to even try this was to monitor and record a ‘performance’ … of course, even this monitoring became part of the performance. A PhD of falling into rabbit hole after rabbit hole.


searching for the right kind of mud

Went looking for mud today. With the recent high levels of precipitation not a difficult chore it might be thought. But there does appear to be such a thing as mud snobbery: too wet, too dry, too leafy, too sandy. Is it mud to be collected for some studio use? Or, is it mud to be photographed? For future reference, the two activities do not combine well … decide upon one or the other.

Perhaps the brief glimpse of good estuary mud at Cley yesterday had raised expectations.
An expanse of lovely smooth saltmarsh mud of a good consistency; definitely wet enough to be mud but not too wet that it is muddy water. It was most likely polluted with agricultural run-off, but otherwise looking very ‘clean’. But forget that mud. Today was the mud of field edges and footpaths. In places the leaf mould was not rotted down enough and water was running down the path in a stream, especially where the soil is most sandy or the mud has been worn away to something approaching bedrock.
But, at the far side of the afternoon’s loop, where two fields meet, a culvert keeps the stream below ground, a farm track crosses and a lot of water collects. Trying to photograph this corner, the mud becomes sky; on this bright, pre-Spring afternoon, the blue sky and white cumulus light up the rutted mud of the field corner almost enough to deny there is mud there.
Memories of the hill suggest that there will be more mud there. Move on with collecting a sample. But once again, the footpath mud is too leafy, too grassy or just too wet; too much like water lying on the surface. Eventually though, at the field edge where the ploughing finished a suitable looking mud presents itself for collection. For studio use in some way. But the tools of the trade are lacking, a trowel is too large or the collection pot is too small. A lesson learned for another time. That, and not to bring all sorts of other technical paraphernalia when wishing to collect mud—well, at least expect a tangle of straps and muddy gear.