It’s been a week and a half since I’ve been back after my cross-country drive with my dear friend. On that journey, I wrote about not doing philosophy, taking a break from the seriousness of it all, and allowing myself to stay grounded to the everydayness of life outside of academic philosophy. Upon my return, I knew that I would have to get back to business. With less than a month before I start my summer teaching, it is time for me to actually put together the structure of arguments and chapters for my dissertation. But, alas, in the past week and a half, I have not.
Despite my desire to be productive with my reading and writing, and despite the fact that the ideas I will work through in my dissertation have been resurfacing in various forms over the past few years now, for some reason, I can’t bring myself to actually do it. Writing this prospectus is hard…This is the ultimate form of writer’s block. I haven’t even started writing it. So, much like I’ve done before, I have decided tonight that while I keep to the insomniatic schedule that screams as a poor excuse, “I’m still jet-lagged and on west coast time,” I might as well write about my current process. At least it’s something.
My advisor has, as usual, been very supportive. She previously described to me the experience of writing her prospectus as a “semester of floundering.” To me it feels like desperately seeking guidance in an open field with no structure to direct or even limit the moves that you could make. Strange that limitations would be welcome, and yes, it feels a lot like floundering.
I keep telling myself that getting into it is probably the most difficult part of the whole writing process, especially since it requires that I make claims that I can’t yet fully support. I have to suggest my arguments about embodiment, affect, psychosomatic phenomena, oppression, bodily practices, resistance, transformation, and the role of philosophy in all of this without even having done sufficient research to back them up. Not only does this go against my training, but it also quickly brings up the anxieties related to not yet knowing enough (Oh, the imposter complex strikes again. Hello, old nemesis. I haven’t seen you in a while!). Of course there are a thousand more books out there that I can read, and hundreds of other people have written on the topics in question. In fact, whole disciplines are dedicated to understanding the biochemical capacities and physiological processes of our human bodies–yes, my dissertation is looking in these directions–but unfortunately, right now I could probably better convince more people that I’m interested in being a presidential candidate for the GOP than I could intelligently speak about these sciences.
Nevertheless, I know I need to do it. So in between cooking adventures, eating binges, and long conversations with friends and neighbors, I have tried to think about how I would put all of this together in a book-length manuscript. During one attempt this week, the farthest I got was to writing, “Do I really have to delve into psychoanalysis?” “Do I really need to deal with the unconscious?” “Do I really have to address Truth?!” How daunting! Especially because the answer to all of the above is most likely, “Yes.”
So naturally, I started to feel a bit worried and overwhelmed. I started to wonder, how am I actually going to do this? I know that I can do it, but HOW?? And then tonight, just as I was getting ready to get myself out of the house and meet up with some friends, something occurred to me.
I’m not ready for this.
I think it is the case that some kind of fear forms the root of my hesitations and blocks…It’s not necessarily a bad fear, but an anticipatory fear, one that feels a lot like the sort of fear I remember feeling when I was learning how to snowboard. I would take my time while strapping in, making extra sure that the boots were perfectly snug, knowing full well that right when I stood up I would have to attempt to carve out a turn. But learning how to carve is tricky. You catch a lot of edges and fall a lot, and if you stiffen up and hesitate for too long, you start gaining speed and end up rocketing down the hill without any control. When you inevitably catch an edge anyway, with that increase in velocity, the fall only hurts more. Eventually, and with practice, I was able to relax more, bend my knees more, throw my hips more gracefully, and carve pretty effortlessly. Eventually, and this is to be expected, that initial hop up onto the board wasn’t so intimidating, even if a tiny little tug in my tummy still remained. And eventually, once I got the hang of it, I was able to really enjoy the feeling of gravity pulling my on my body as I would glide over the snow.
This analogy is the best way for me to relate my current feeling of not being ready (sorry if you’re not a snowboarder and the example doesn’t resonate in your belly, too). I’m not ready to hop up and get right into the prospectus. All of this time so far (for nearly the past month!) has been me diligently brushing the snow out of my bindings, putting my gloves on…going through the minute motions of getting ready, all the while finding ways to avoid feeling the real fear of standing up.
But, thank goodness, in addition to realizing that I am not yet ready to do this, I think I have also finally realized a part of why I’m not ready to do this: I’ve been thinking about this project, what I need to do, and what’s ahead all wrong!
I’ve been envisioning myself undertaking the task of sifting through various unknown disciplines and topics–like neuroscience and evolutionary theory, just to give gratuitous nods to other contenders in the ring–all in the hopes of teasing out threads that I can hopefully string together into a compelling narrative about how oppression works on and through our bodies, right down to the physiological dimensions of our affective experiences of discomfort and dis-ease, and how philosophy is a bodily practice that can similarly work as a means of resistance by affectively captivating us through episodes of passion, joy, and enthusiasm. While that may be a pretty good summation of my thesis statement (which is actually not that bad for it being the first time I have written it in such a way AND given that it’s nearly 5:00 am), I know better than to think that this is all of what I am going to be doing while I write my dissertation.
From reading my most influential philosopher role models and from my own experience of writing papers thus far, I should know better than to assume that I could have a very solid idea of the ultimate form of my dissertation. One thing that I can be sure of is that my thesis statement will likely change. As I continue to go about the research and the writing, the arguments that I craft are almost certain to change. Perhaps even drastically. And, of course, I WILL CHANGE. The very process of doing philosophy, especially in the very involved, rigorous, and dedicated way that I am going to have to assume over the next 16 months, is a process that engenders new insights, new questions, and lots of growth and transformation.
If you are brighter and sharper than me, then perhaps you already realized for yourself that this is the very sort of change and transformation that I have been talking about for quite some time now. If nothing else, I have already indicated it a couple of times above in this post alone. However, so far, as I have been picturing the dissertation in all of its potential, one of the most important elements of it was missing: me. It’s not just piecing together a puzzle, I’ll be the one doing it, and I will be just as much as involved in the process as will Nietzsche. Furthermore, and much like snowboarding, I think that doing philosophy is a bodily practice insofar as it will require for me to be present with my own sensations, affects, and feelings as I proceed. But writing the dissertation will also require that I take up new routines, position my body in new locations, develop new habits, and carry all of that in my body. And needless to say, as I continue going about my day to day, I will also encounter lots of other life experiences that will challenge me, inform my opinion, reshape my thoughts, and influence my arguments…and me. None of these things can be anticipated in their specificity, but that I will encounter them is about as sure of a thing as I can imagine. The greatest hope is that, much like snowboarding, there will be even more pleasure and enjoyment in the process than there is frustration while learning.
When I think about the task of writing my dissertation in this way, my worries about not knowing enough and hesitations from needing to do more research make a lot more sense. They are there because I don’t know enough. I need to do more research. But it is also the case that I will do those things. That is point of the project. Recognizing this, I can already feel those anxieties begin to dissipate.
It also means that rather than reading more books and articles right now at this moment, the real preparatory work for me to do is on myself. I’ve been intellectually preparing myself for my dissertation over the past couple of years through classes, selecting topics for my seminar papers according to my philosophical interests, and, lucky me, almost all of the books on my comprehensive exam lists related to these issues of affect, embodiment, oppression, and philosophy. Now, then, I need to get myself ready for a project that is going to change me. I don’t know what writing this dissertation will entail, but I know it will be an experience in its own right. And soon, I think I will be able to step up to it.
Tomorrow (or rather, today) is the first day of this new process, but for now, I must get some rest as the birds sing their morning songs.