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.
Maybe it has an appeal because it disrupts the certainty of ‘ground’. Here is not the rigidity of stone nor the nationalistic implications of earth and soil. Here be m*d!
While trail running, particularly over uneven ground, much time is spent contemplating the path immediately ahead and the ground underfoot. In England in winter (and spring, and autumn … and summer) this frequently means a contemplation of mud. Mud lacks the certainty of rock, grass or dirt. The response to foot placement cannot be guaranteed; how deep is the mud, how slippery? Even in the space of a shortish lowland run off-road a variety of muds can be encountered—the slightly firmer mud of leaf-mould and earth, the sole-stacking mud of a ploughed field after rain, the cocktail of mud and slurry in the farmyard … It can become ever more nuanced—the claggy ploughed field after a night of frost begins to thaw but only the top few centimetres have softened, softened to a liquid mud that slides from the still-frozen mud lower down.
The ‘feel’ of mud will very much depend upon the geology of the area: upland or in the fenland it can be peaty, the Weald of Kent and Sussex will likely be of heavy clay, through Devon and parts of the West Midlands the mud will be red from the sandstone. In the mountains the peaty mud may sparkle with the white of quartz as a sheep trod is followed, falteringly, along a contour. Still in the mountains and uplands, it is highly likely that mud will become bog or marsh and whole areas of land will become completely unpredictable (to the inexperienced eye at least). An equivalent in lower areas may be the heavily cattle trodden fields that can produce field after field of slow-going with the added, ankle-wrenching threat of the deep hoof-pocks. Even more extreme in lowland areas are the near unpassable areas of mud flats in river estuaries and undrained fenland—Morecambe Bay or the coast of Foulness Island to give just two examples. Mud here becomes a defining feature and even finds itself mapped—the Ordnance Survey represent mud by overlapping the cyan blue pixels of water and the enmeshed magenta and yellow pixels of sand to make a delightfully dull colour, CMYK mud.
Technically, to the geologist, mud is “a mixture of finely comminuted particles of rock with water, of varying consistency.” According to the British Geological Survey mud is a ‘natural superficial deposit’ that lurks in the lower orders of geological classification alongside sand and gravel. Even here things are not clear as there is room for ‘muddy sand’ and ‘sandy mud’, ‘muddy gravel’, and even ‘muddy sandy gravel’—strict definition of these conglomerates seems to boil down to grain size distribution and ratios. Furthermore, mud itself subdivides into ‘silt’ and ‘clay’. Hmmm, ‘clay’, that sounds useful … mud with a purpose (for humans anyway). Geologically mud does not have the glamour of igneous rock, but it does feature in the process of laying down sedimentary rock … it is all just a bit slow for modern living to think about. There are surely some shady areas here, but mud appears to be a separate entity to ‘peat’ and ‘estuarine sediments’. But surely there is peaty mud; users of the Pennine Way would be quite certain of this!
It seems the English term ‘mud’ has Germanic origins (Middle Low German mudde or Dutch modde) and all etymologies suggest something wet or dirty, often both. Prior to ‘mud’ the English used the word ‘fen’ which also has swampy, marshy Germanic origins. An English-French dictionary suggests an apparently unrelated word boue, but just maybe this is linked to the English (via Celtic) word ‘bog’.
In human society mud does not fare too well, it is seen as an inconvenience, it is dirty, it is something to be got rid of, filtered out. It muddles (yes, the same etymology). The purpose of this survey is not to dwell upon these inconveniences (otherwise history could be called upon to tell of wars lost due to mud, engineering feats scuppered or, possibly, contrived due to mud, health issues worsened by mud, etc.). The muddy vernacular building material ‘cob’ is one positive among many negatives. Despite this glimmer of hope, if things are muddy they are not clear and clarity is key; apparently. It might be thought that culturally mud would be little valued, at first glance maybe but look more closely: there are some obvious examples when mud is used as subject or material, but it also frequently gets a slightly-more-than passing mention or representation. Richard Long is an obvious user of mud (his loyalty to his ‘local’ River Avon mud is of especial note); his mud drawings, often vast in scale, have become some of his signature pieces. On canvas, the war paintings of Paul Nash serve as a fine example of mud depicted—two-thirds of We Are Making a New World (1918) is formed of mud and churned up soil, likewise The Menin Road (1919). The monumental canvases of Anselm Kiefer must also be mentioned—just look at those stubble fields of slushy, stodgy, impasto paint-mud in works such as Die Milchstrasse (1985-7). Somehow in the paintings of Benjamin Williams Leader mud is made more chocolate boxy; mud is given a romantic gloss in paintings such as Evening after rain, Worcestershire (1896) and the ‘slippery ooze’ of February Fill Dyke (1881).
John Constable, through his rural upbringing and his appreciation of the Dutch School and Thomas Gainsborough, whilst not celebrating mud certainly did not shy away from it—it is frequently, quite literally, foregrounded—but, ultimately, light and weather were more crucial to his work. More contemporaneously, the Land Art movement had encounters with mud, mud was a medium and a prop; think here of Charles Symonds’s Birth (1970) and various works by Ana Mendieta. Here, perhaps, there is a proximity to creation myths; another strand of culture that should be acknowledged: Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, Inca (to name just four of many) cultures all reference the use of clay in creation or miraculous birth myths. With the artists of the Land Art ‘movement’ there is often a reversal of this process as the artist is absorbed back into the mud and soil; acts of anti-creation, mortality and futility?
In literature it seems certain that Shakespeare, with his rural Warwickshire heritage, must mention mud a time or two in his works and certainly Thomas Hardy was no stranger to the possibilities and subtleties of “the mud of Mellstock Leaze” and beyond. John Clare is another likely acquaintance with mud. And the Bronte sisters must have known a thing or two about mud. Seamus Heaney certainly revelled in mud and dirt (albeit often peaty mud)—despite only wielding a pen between his finger and his thumb, Heaney did not mind getting his pages dirty. Ted Hughes in his upland wanderings encountered marshy boggy mud and sodden fields which he divined for elemental and mythical inspiration. In Rain (1973), mud takes on more than just a scenic setting part, it permeates the poet’s words almost as much as the rain itself; the words flood down and are held by the ‘brimming world’ in ‘a shine of mud’.
And today’s litany of nature writers must have waded through acres of mud but have many paid it proper attention? It seems likely that Mark Cocker and Kathleen Jamie would not overlook the inspirational possibilities of mud.
Music does not seem a positive adopter of mud, despite the sonic qualities of the medium. However, these qualities were embraced by filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky although mud is not given any positive spin here, it merely (pun intended) helps create a dank, rotting forlorn atmosphere. [Note to readers: The English glam rock band Mud should not be considered here] Maybe there is a lost Ralph Vaughan Williams symphony to mud, he seems a composer most likely to consider mud as musical subject despite the airiness of much of his output. Although he is On Land, Brian Eno moves close to mud in Lantern Marsh.
In clay, mud becomes too refined and as pigment mud is too dry. Mud holds a turbid middle ground of indecision and uncertainty. It could go either way. But why should it, can mud just not waver eternally in its own state(s) of becoming-earth or becoming-water or becoming-art? Maybe ask Martin Heidegger, surely his Holzwege were muddy.
Well, that’s just the initial scrapings from a run through mud … some of the above granular deposits will be further examined, new ones flushed out. Something will be made of mud.
a fragment in itself is whole; wholly broken … apart
held together(apart) in its fragmentary, isolatory wholeness
Latin frangere “to break”
only ever fragmentary for ‘total’ re-presentation is absurd
the fragmentary whole is absurdly whole
whole: Proto-Germanic haila “undamaged”
damaged goods, damaged words, words damage
sticks and stones
words torn away; blown in the wind
an exposure of sorts