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.

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