26 October 2011

Performing the Dissertation Process, or Dancing with the Texts

I’m starting tonight’s entry with a digression. But I promise that it fits with what I want to write about.

I’ve been watching the UK version of ‘Being Human’ (there’s an American version as well, based on the earlier UK series). It’s about a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost who live together and are giving ‘normal’ life a go. It is easily one of the darkest programs I have ever seen. And what makes it so dark most of the time isn’t the fact that they are all something other than ‘human’, whatever that means. Rather, it’s the things the show tells us about how humans would react to these folks if they existed that is truly uncomfortable.

I bring this program up because all of the main characters must constantly perform being human. One of the characters in particular, the Werewolf named George, has a lot of difficulty performing, especially when it comes to his relationships with women. Let me be clear before continuing. George’s approach is pretty horrible, and the difficulty isn’t the women themselves but his belief that he must perform the role of the aggressive man who gets the girl. George is by his nature submissive. He can be kind, thoughtful, sensitive, but he is just as often narcissistic and hateful, perhaps even more so. He has a violent streak that cannot be explained by his lycanthropy. And he hates what he doesn’t understand, which includes not just women but himself. In fact, having written this about George, I’m not certain why I continue to watch the show. If I had to guess, I’d say there is something compelling and realistic about the dark side of all of these characters. Humanity really isn’t very pleasant when put in stressful situations, a point that George makes on one episode as he is consoling the ghost Annie. In addition, each of the main characters, even George, is trying to be something 'better', though they all continue to fail spectacularly.

George’s fixation on performance has had me thinking about how I perform my own life. I decided to explore this in my morning writing session. I won’t go into all of the various ways I think I perform on a daily basis here. But I do want to write a little bit about how I think I have been performing my dissertation process up to this point. I was thinking if it would be possible not to perform as I attempt to shape my close readings into a chapter. And the truth is that I find it very difficult not to do so. The particular way I have decided to go about writing my dissertation-- training myself to write every day, to not worry about how much I’ve written, to stop thinking of what I’ve written as ‘good’ or ‘bad’--is very much a performance, though one that is markedly different from the type of performance I had adopted for most of my academic life. But I also don’t think this type of performance itself is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And it has the advantage that I am letting the material I’ve read direct the kind of performance I’m giving. I’m not going to say that makes the performance more 'organic' or something like that, since the point of all this is to radically break from the narrative of what I have thought a dissertation should or shouldn’t be. But I do think this approach leaves the performance open ended. It allows me to continuously ask questions and accept that many of the questions do not have answers (or that they have more than one) rather than pigeon whole myself into something that feels like a 'lack' or an 'absence'.

I think imagining the dissertation process this way may help to alleviate some of the pressure and anxiety I have been feeling lately. If I feel that I am replacing one kind of performance with another, then at least this type of performance entails having a dialogue with my texts rather than giving a monologue about them in which I force some kind of preset ideas and attitudes onto them. It’s a kind of dance in which the texts lead me just as much as I lead them. It centers on both myself and the texts as partners working together rather than subordinating one partner to the other.

No comments: