The tyranny of trying to grasp an idea.

Over the last few days I have been trying to think about what I am going to write for the next term paper.  Oh yes, it has come round again.  The intolerable agony over whether or not I can write the blasted thing, the endless whinging and obvious mental imbalance induced by the mental stress I place myself under when I realise that I need to get going with writing another piece.  And all those joys only materialise once I have completed the task of settling on what I want to write about.  This is possibly more agonising that what comes after, but at least occurs over a more protracted period.

Strangely enough, despite feeling increasingly anxious about trying to fix on the topic for the next paper I find myself more motivated to read and study tonight than usual.  I have had trouble motivating myself to sit and study for long periods this term.  Last year I was quite happily sitting from 5:30pm to 10:00pm (after work) trying to work through the weekly texts and readings.  This year I have, instead, opted more for a tactic of attrition, sitting down for shorter periods more frequently to tackle the reading.  I don’t know which is better, but I was starting to wonder where the motivation to just sit and plough through had gone.  I think it is partly that I haven’t been able to allow myself to get that caught up in the studying. I was suffering too much anxiety relating to my day job and simply couldn’t cope with any more anxiety/nervous engagement in my studying.  However my working life has now calmed down and I find myself with the compelling task of writing another paper.  It is compelling, I really want to do it.  The prospect of choosing a subject that I find interesting, that I want to write about and making it my own in the process of writing about it is so exciting.

Going back to feeling anxious about the paper, I don’t think it is just a feeling of wanting mental peace by getting it out of the way that motivates me.  That would be the obvious answer and it certainly would make some kind of sense.  I have suffered so much anxiety and mental unrest during the process of writing the last two, not least as a result of truely not knowing if I was capable of writing the damned things.  It is, however, more than a need to get back to mental equilibrium that motivates me. If that were all it was then I would have given up the MA by now.  That would be a much better way of relieving the tension.  The tension, however, seems to be caused by a feeling of challenge.  It is the challenge of it that spurs me on. Not just the challenge to fulfil what is asked of me as part of my programme of study though, again that is too simple an explanation for the torture I end up putting myself through.  Again, I am quite capable of deciding enough is enough and leaving it be.  No, the challenge is far more personal than that.  Once I have some inkling of a potential subject for the paper I have to pursue it. I have to know if my intuition that I might just have something intelligible to put down on paper and in some way illuminate the random connections that occur in my mind is in any way reasonably founded.  So far that has been how it starts, I have some vague notion or some connection that I make idly during a seminar or while reading.  It appeals to me for one reason or another, fits in to my existing framework of experience while still posing enough questions and confusions to prevent me from knowing exactly what I am doing immediately.  As I explore the idea further I find out which assumptions were ill founded, compare it to other things I have been reading and discover more connections, gain a deeper insight and realise how naive many of my first thoughts on the topic were and finally (almost as if by magic) end up with a coherent thesis that  seems to sum up something that I didn’t quite know I was thinking, but there it is in front of me.

Undoubtedly my motivations for studying are informed by a not insigificant degree of self absorption.  I concede this without being particularly proud of it, but not ashamed of it either.  I don’t claim to be doing any thing great for humanity, I am just doing something I enjoy because I want to.   I find something extremely satisfying in this process of trying to grasp an idea that seems to spend an awfully long time at the edges of my consciousness.  The process of grasping or groping towards an interesting or useful idea has some kind of hold over me.  It holds me in its grasp long before I get to make any tangible progress myself.  I find it fascinating to be so motivated and compelled towards an aim that I can’t even quite make out.  I also find myself fascinated by contemplation and reflection on the process by which I am learning and manage to somehow put it together to make a coherent argument about something. It still feels surprising that I have come as far as I have through this MA.  I trust more that I can do it now, but I still don’t understand how or why.  I suppose that is why I often describe it in terms of forces or processes that act upon me, (e.g. the idea grasping me, or being subject to ‘the tyranny’ of trying to do something) because I really have difficulty conceiving of it as something that I do.  It feels much more like something that happens to me or that I happen upon.

Anyway, the subject I am trying to organise my thoughts around at the moment is some kind of comparison of Adorno and Lacan.  I am sure there are some similarities there.  The Lacanian notion of the Real that can never be directly accessed and the Adornian notion of the constellation that is organised around some invisible centre that can only be illuminted by the correct configuration of the constellation.  Admittedly it might be a little tenuous, but I am determined to find out why I think they are similar.  Even if I am wrong and I have to conclude they are completely different.  I am trusting my instincts here though and I think there is something interesting or productive in this intuition and I want to find out what it is.

Limits and beyond

It has been far too long since my last blog post.  I have thought about this blog several times since the last post, but with no real impetus to sit and write.  The last few months have been challenging in a number of ways for me.  Despite having a break from studying over the summer, I still have not had much of the time for contemplation that I was anticipating.  I have been busy with coping with a very stressful working life in my day job and putting rather a lot of energy in to a (now not so) new romantic relationship.  Both have been pretty scary in fact!  There have been other random bits and pieces taking my time and attention as well, all of which meaning that I haven’t seemed to get a minute to myself.  I have managed to resume my study this year, although I was worried at one point that I simply wouldn’t have the mental wherewithall to do so.  In fact, I have found that making time for study and making sure I am mentally and physically capable of studying effectively has forced me in to better habits while also giving me an escape from the stresses of my day job of late.

The biggest boost about starting studying again this year has been the notable increase in my confidence in my ability.  I didn’t manage to do all the background reading and dissertation planning that I intended to do over the summer.  Somehow though I have returned to study and a new module with a feeling of familiarity with the rhythm and flow of studying, feeling far better prepared in terms of background knowledge and generally much less at sea than I was this time last year.  I have a much better grasp of my limitations and also my strengths.  I couldn’t believe I had any strengths this time last year, its amazing to feel like I might just have some idea what I am doing!  I already have some kind of conceptual framework that seems vaguely relevant.  The really important thing about that is it gives me a platform (even if a very makeshift one) from which to evaluate and compare what I am reading and learning, something to try and assimilate what I am experiencing too.  It matters little how valid the comparison turns out to be, but having that starting point prevents me from freezing up right at the beginning and constantly worrying about not taking anything in.  That frees more of my mental energy to contemplate what I am reading, to form my own opinions on it and to engage in useful discussion with others.  I am starting to think about my next term paper and also thinking about my dissertation.  I will have to post about my ideas for both here as they develop.  In short, I am feeling excited and hopeful about the year ahead without nearly so much of that horrible niggly feeling that somehow it is all a mistake, me being allowed to study for this MA, and that someone will realise just how much of a fraud I am before long.

The module this term is all about literary theory and practice, specifically with reference to American postmodern literature.  It is fantastic – I am being forced to read all kinds of interesting work that I would never even have known existed (philistine that I am …).  Attempting to use literary theory to construct a reading of a work of fiction is not something I have ever set out to do before, it is something new to me.  However I am enjoying the challenge.  Getting to participate in a group discussion about a particular text is mentally stimulating and broadening, not to mention absolutely fasctinating.  It never ceases to amaze me that in a group of people (even a small group) there are so many different approaches or perspectives on any one thing.  It reinforces my belief that to productively understand anything it always helps to garner a number of opinions.  In honesty, as a human being I filter what I absorb through my own biases and interpretations so it is only ever going to be a tiny part of what is potentially available.  However, to consider just some small parts of these varying interpretations and ideas can create such a richly textured and nuanced dialogue about just one text.

I have learned that human beings inherently select different parts of a text to focus on.  They then interpret those different parts, with their individually placed emphasis in differing ways.  They each form different hierarchies of meaning, explanation and value.  Each different framework sets a different scene for exploration.  Somehow though it is still possible to communicate meaningfully about a text.  This is not restricted to reading texts though. I have encountered this at work, in the context of finding solutions to problems.  Each different person brings something different to the discussion.  Mediating all those different viewpoints is not always easy and I suspect it is impossible for one person to synthesise them all.  It is generally beneficial to gather many different opinions though because, inevitably, other people point out what you have missed/discounted as irrelevant/failed to understand.

This is all feeding in to my growing understanding of how we read and how we write.  I think this is what I want to write my dissertation on.  It is a subject close to my heart, as I have struggled over the last year to figure out how the hell I am supposed to make sense of these hideously complicated philosophical works or how I am supposed to find some ‘hidden deeper meaning’ (well it might as well have been hidden to me when I started out) in a literary text.  I have had to work hard to figure out how I am going to make sense of it all and what even the point of struggling is.  Mainly out of self preservation I have tried to maintain a reflective attitude to this struggle.  I have made notes about how my reading strategy has developed over the year. I have celebrated my experiences of triuph and those eureka moments when suddenly things click in to place and I understand something.  Or at least I think I do.  This has prevented me from going mad.  It has also given me my own unique insight in to my process of interpretation and assimilation.  I am quite proud of my journey and I would like to find a way to write about it in a structured and formal way.  That is, after all, why I started the MA – to learn new things, to try gain awareness of/confront some of my deeply rooted assumptions and biases and to learn about how I can and want to differently encounter the world.

The title of this blog post is not just arbitrary, by the way.  They rarely are and are quite frequently some kind of expression of what has been provoked by the reading for my most recent seminars.  I don’t think that organising my thoughts around a topic in this way is at all bad thing.  Its like using a coat hook, it is something to hang thoughts on and stop them from floating about untidily and unhelpfully.  By way of (conscious) explanation of this particular title, I have discovered that limits can be really, really useful.  Once you become aware of the limits in/of a particular context you then know the space you have to play within.  By definition, a limit also allows some sense of what lies beyond.  If you have no (awareness of?) limits you also can’t be aware of any beyond.  It seems self evident in much contemporary thought that there are limits in thought, in understanding, in apprehension of the world and ourselves, in any way a human being cares to try and make sense of the world.  That means there is also a beyond, so many possibilities of beyond depending on how the limits are characterised.  So many different ways of approaching the matter at hand.  I find it useful, albeit slightly paradoxical, to reflect on what a liberating concept that is.