Publications in your PhD

The Thesis Whisperer

I often get asked whether it’s a good idea to publish papers during your PhD. The answer is a bit of a no brainer:  Yes.  You should. But I feel like a bit of a fraud when I give this answer because I didn’t publish very much during my PhD. I was too busy trying to finish it in 3 years and writing papers seemed like a distraction. I wanted people to use my work of course, but I only wrote one paper after I finished then put the thesis in the online repository before I turned my attention to back my job – and building this blog.

On reflection, I wish I had not taken such a laissez faire attitude to publishing during my PhD. Sure, I got my degree quickly, but the chickens are coming home to roost now that I want to get into the grant application…

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On Alienation – or, the New Normal

I am sure I am not alone. I know that others exist. Out there, are disconnected kindred spirits…those who are unpopular, those who are victim to their own brutal perfectionism…however ‘out there’ poses issues for us. How does one connect with their own kind in our individualized and alienated society?

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Post-modernity and existential alienation are entwined tightly, dramatically, horribly. The weird sensation that one is the odd person in the crowd, alone and twisting against the norms, that is the stuff of the current age. Speaking to others who feel the same, I realize that I am not a bizarre abnormality – this disconcerting feeling of ‘alone’ is normal, natural, neoliberal. We are symbols of our time; isolated yet connected – connected to technologies which are supposedly social, yet even more alienating. I feel so empowered behind my sleek tech, punching words, yet who is it that is my master? Somehow, writing feels less real, not so holistic, when one considers the technological impositions…I feel like Tetsuo, the real Iron Man – realizing one’s diminishing humanity yet, in a futile, determined manner, powering on, in a crazed rage…

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The one I love likened me to Arthur Schopenhauer the other day. He suggested, with the earnestness of one who is both true and devoted, that perhaps I need to move my worldview towards Nietschean aims. Nietzsche, the architect of the absurd and the godfather of the existential, eventually found comfort in his being. He was alone, yet he knew the Ubermesnch (supermen) of the future would see his perspective. It was not him; it was the time that he was implanted in. He could not dislike himself for his deviance from social norms; rather he disliked the social norms of his time. I could learn a lot from Nietzsche. We all could.

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Feeling different to others is something that consumer culture, a strong undercurrent in society, supports. Freedom, as it is presupposed in such conditions, argues for individuality and eschewing the normative. But this severs social ties and dissolves social glue; the very things that humanity consists of. Existing in such times challenges one’s resilience. Continually being considered ‘too sensitive’ or overly introverted in a period that is viciously ruled by the brutal economic rationalism – what claims to be extroverted and social, yet is underpinned by vicious and calculating self-interest – will challenge the strongest of us. When being social tends to be driven by comparison and whether one meets yard sticks, then being social becomes redundant and unpleasant. This worsens isolation, alienation and social trust. But what can one do, within this climate? Do we dare to love and be who we are, despite being unpopular or odd? Do we try and squeeze into a more normative form?

I choose the first option; the Nietzschean caveat. Like the refrain of a cliched break-up; society, it’s not me, it’s you.

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On Suicide: Social theoretical and philosophical viewpoints

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Francis Bacon’s figures scream desolation and absolute despair. In the above work, innocuously titled ‘Study for a Portrait’, his damned figure is attired in a suit, trapped within a cube and his face is distorted almost beyond what is humanly recognizable. He resembles a terrible skull, his mortality distorted, any semblance of joy decimated. Viewing Bacon often makes me think about what drives people to suicide or madness. His visceral violence with oil paint confronts the art-reader with a total submission to all that is horrible. Since discovering his work in my late teens, I have spent hours gazing into the images, being affected. Deleuze wrote an insightful book on Bacon’s work and his figures as meat trapped in black nothingness. Bacon tears at your insides, summarizes your worst nightmares. The below painting, ‘Figure with Meat’, is perhaps one of his most famous, and philosophically explicit. Here, it is plain that humans are meat – meat that can think, feel and affect, but meat nonetheless.

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In her interesting, and well-written, autobiography porn star and entrepreneur Jenna Jameson made a contention that stuck with me. Suicide is an act that anyone can commit, an idea that flashes into one’s mind in a moment of desperate depression and hopelessness. Society tends not to see suicidal ideation, or the act itself, as something capable of anyone at any given terrible moment. Rather, it has built a discourse that demonizes the act, making it an oddity or exception; and by extension, alienating the suicidal, their friends and families. Social theory, sociology, philosophy and psychology have numerous approaches to better frame how we can understand what is both an individual, and social, act. Emile Durkheim saw suicide as a social act. He concludes that there are four kinds of suicide. Egoistic suicide, which is an act committed due to an individual’s alienation from collective consciousness. An example of this would be an individual who did not feel a social connection to their community or had few social bonds. The second typology was Altruistic suicide, wherein an individual commits suicide to conform to the ideals of society. The act of suicide in war by Japanese soliders – Seppuku (ritualistic suicide via self-disembowelment) – can be regarded as an example of this. Durkheim’s third type was Anomic suicide, which relates to an individual reacting to a society in turmoil. Economic ruin could be seen as an example; such as in the case of high suicide rates in The Great Depression. The fourth kind of suicide is Fatalistic suicide; a more individually focused act where in an oppressive situation, the person chooses to die rather than to continue living.

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Durkheim’s social theory of suicide gives us a sociological explanation of how an individual can be driven towards taking one’s own life, one that varies from psychological frameworks that argue for abnormality. Philosophy also considers suicide not to be an act that only few are predisposed to. Albert Camus, one of my favourite philosophers, argues that suicide is rejecting one’s freedom and fleeing from the absurdity of reality in hope to attain an illusion of meaningfulness. He argues for one to accept absurdity, in its full strangeness, and seize fulfillment in whatever one does, no matter how banal. His ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ illustrates this beautifully – Sisyphus is forever damned to roll a rock to the top of a hill everyday, only to have it roll back down. But within this absurdity, Sisyphus learns to find pleasure in the futile.

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Sartre also argues against the act of suicide, arguing that the absurdist sees life as condemned to end in death, yet revels in this. Hermann Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf’ calls those who live on the social margins, the introverts squirming with despair, as ‘suicides’ that live without actually dying. Harry, the protagonist, is thus ‘a suicide’ due to his suicidal ideations with no intention to carry out the act. Existential philosophy tends to avoid moralizing suicide, unlike Utilitarian approaches, which contend that suicides cause social suffering for those left behind and Immanuel Kant’s humanist argument that what one does needs to be considered as what they think everyone else should do. However, of most interest to me, is David Hume’s approach to suicide. Hume theorizes that suicide can be considered a ‘duty to self’ if it is rationally considered and all options are investigated. Knowing that this position was controversial, he left this essay to be published after his death. It was brave of Hume to dismantle morality from suicide; he was one of the first to do so. The below William Blake illustration, ‘The Woods of Self-Murderers’, has a value-laden title and the two men both lived in a similar era (mid-1700s).

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The above considered, suicide can be seen as a human act against individual suffering. However, moving towards understanding, and away from moralizing it, risks flattening what is a devastating grieving process for the social circle of the dead. In those dark moments, we need to recall love and how such action may affect, and destroy, those we treasure. Kant’s concept of living how you would suggest others to do is important here. Thus, suicide is social, not an abnormal psychological event to be dissected postmortem and individualized into a rational term that falls within a dusty diagnostic text. It is ethical, because perhaps the suicidal do understand their options and outcomes, especially in the case of the terminally ill. And without trivializing those dark thoughts, it helps to see them as fleeting, human and wholly normative.

Canto

The Girl, Part 2: The Bad and the Beautiful

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Lana Turner is another Golden Age star who fascinates me. Whereas Monroe seems approachable, warm; Turner is, by comparison, aloof, cool. Both women endured substance abuse issues but Turner’s were made far more public, her image tainted and darkened by partying and recklessness. In the beginning, Turner was a wholesome sex symbol, sold to the public as a ‘girl next next door’. In the media, she was The Sweater Girl – a moniker bestowed upon Turner due to the alluring tightness of her sweater across her chest. She despised this idiotic name and sought to shake it. She refused to be the clown, she rejected being accessible, touchable. But it was Louis B Mayer who is credited with transforming her into pure glamour; furs, diamonds, cashmere. However, he was just restoring her image, much like how a beautiful antique needs a layer of grime removed at times.

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Turner was seen as disagreeable and stubborn; she was trouble. She was married eight times.  She went out often with men and did not sleep with them. Throughout her life, she endured long periods of celibacy, she saw sex as uninteresting and trivial – she preferred courtship and romance. She was intensely private…yet there was a darkness within her that we can relate to, a trembling desperation for excitement and danger. Her connections to the Los Angeles underworld, via her relationship with the violent and jealous mobster Johnny Stompanato and its grisly ending with her daughter stabbing him, were scandalous and reveal much about how Turner lived.

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Film historian Jeanine Basinger notes that Lana was not a popular baby name in that period – and as much could be said for Lana herself. Her brooding beauty wrapped in lush furs intimidates men and women alike, she is an incandescent goddess on top of a baroque ice throne. I am sure Lana relished the soft silky furs, the cool weight of pearls against her skin and the fragrant champagne filled nights – but I wonder…how alienating must it have been for her? Behind the impenetrable beauty, she must have endured indignities, minor or major, intrusions, prying…media, men, the studios…the only comfort for her was the liquid paradise of the bottle.

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Lana herself said, “A gentleman is simply a patient wolf”. I feel that this reveals a glimpse of the woman she was. She was cynical, brilliant, stiletto-sharp. The unpopular and stubborn woman knows that people will talk. She does not care; she sees the double standards and hypocrisy within society. I am pleased to see that most pictures of Lana are unsmiling. I always want to know…why do they want us to smile?

The Girl; Or The Feminine Social Mask

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Even previous to the proliferation of print media in the early 1900s, images of women were used to symbolize and narrate ideas, values and stories. As cinema expanded into a global pastime, public fascination with the stars grew. The studios assisted this fascination via the creation of gossip and fanzines, often engineered towards constructing glamour for their stars and promoting upcoming films. In the case of the female stars, their stories and images gave both men and women a site for fantasy. Sure, men could aspire to talk like Tyrone Powers and perhaps even use Brylcreem to slick their hair in a similar fashion, but the ‘look’ of the male star was not thrust into male consciousness as something to be aspired to or re-created via right consumption. On the other hand, women were encouraged to colour their hair like the stars and utilize cosmetics and clothing to create selves that resembled the silver screen beauties. Images of the popular stars became iconic – ideals that circulated socially, creating myth and fantasy. It is interesting to note that Marilyn Monroe grew up idolizing Jean Harlow, using the studio-mediated fantasy of Harlow to escape her loneliness and poverty. For Monroe, celebrity symbolized acceptance, something she seldom experienced in her childhood. Born to a mentally ill, and mostly absent, mother and an unknown father, Monroe moved between foster families. Although nothing overly horrible occurred in these homes, the sense of being unwanted bore down on Monroe, seeing her emotional development freeze. Thus, Monroe, is best seen as a melancholy little girl.

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Monroe’s vulnerability is recognizable to most women. The desire to be wanted, loved and seen in the fullest sense. Monroe was introverted and bookish, a dirty secret many women harbor in a society where women are meant to be for others. Her charisma drew people to her and at times, stardom overwhelmed her. Fame was irony for Monroe – people adored her, yet those closest abused her and belittled her. She was seen as difficult by studio professionals, despite other actresses, such as Elizabeth Taylor, making far more audacious requests. Men saw her as the ultimate fantasy, as constructed in some of her films – made for their pleasure and attuned to their needs. Monroe says, in her autobiography: “The truth is, I’ve never fooled anyone. I’ve let men sometimes fool themselves. Men sometimes didn’t bother to find out who and what I was. Instead they would invent a character for me. I wouldn’t argue with them…when they found this out, they would blame me for disillusioning them”. This characterizes an inherent problem of femininity. Our faces, affects, postures, smiles, bodies, clothes and all the other accessories combine like hieroglyphics to construct a social character for others to read. But these texts do not have clear meanings, so when they inevitably collide, resentment, bitterness and disappointment boils to the surface.

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The feminine social mask is heavy with preconceived ideas. Subtexts of pornography, domesticity and stereotypes underpin each mask. Expectations are placed upon women to fulfill roles they never asked for or considered – and at times, we wonder how all our other attributes are marginalized into nothingness as the focus on our appearance gains precedence. Then we may question whether we invite the male hands that linger, fondle or touch. We will be discussing big thoughts, scientific theories or philosophical musings, caught in the furious hot stream of the moment; or we will be ankle-deep in white daisies, at the foot of an elm, enjoying the sun on our skin – and then, from nowhere, the sex thing is an unwelcome and horrid explosion, a hard slap across the cheek. It occurs to us…we are The Girl.

That Gum You Like is Coming Back in Style: Why I am (Predictably) Super-Excited for Twin Peaks 2016

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I just completed this quiz and I got ten out of ten, making me a certifiable ‘Twin Peaks Geek’.  Unsurprising, considering that I am one of the many who has been under its hypnotic spell for about a decade now. It is difficult to explain exactly what makes one fall in love with this show. Is it the mystery that the owls and woods are not what they seem (to be)? Is it the beautiful femme fatales, such as Audrey Horne – dressed so innocuously yet enacting her own special brand of trouble? Or do Lynch and Frost excel at what Stephen King exemplifies – exposing a seamy dark underbelly in America’s middle class and then adding a heaped dose of the supernatural and mysterious?

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For me, it is a combination of this and more. The characters, such as the eponymous hero, Special Agent Dale Cooper, are fleshed out and compelling in their complexity. Cooper is not your average FBI cliche, with a special interest in Tibet and unique methods to solving crime. The surreal dream sequence in Episode Three and Cooper’s reaction to it (to call the Sheriff and insist that his information can wait until the morning) underscores how Cooper is a different kind of law enforcement. And Sheriff Henry S Truman is also an unusual example of a Sheriff in such a story, with his laid-back yet firm approach and secret romance with the owner of the mill. One only has to watch Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me to get a rather extreme dose of the usual law enforcement narrative in usual FBI/local law interactions.

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The first season of Twin Peaks was pure magic, full of riddles, beauty and enthralling characters. The narrative was well-paced and the viewer was immersed in this odd little town, following Cooper in rapt attention as he peeled back the superficial layers of normalcy to reveal the dark that lurked behind. The second season, despite a promising start, started to lose its momentum. Laura’s death was solved (due to US network ABC) and in the void sprung bizarre stories, such as James’ tryst with a rich woman out of town and an odd, and boring, plot where a young woman has a romance with old powerful men. Not even Windom Earle, with his diamond-like mind and eccentric evil, could save the show. The final episode ends with an interesting cliffhanger where Dale Cooper’s good guy status is compromised:

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I am also a fan of Stephen King’s television shows (such as Under the Dome and Haven) yet somehow, they do not compare to Twin Peaks. Haven, which is also set in a small town plagued by ‘troubles’, initially showed promise for me yet it was not dark or brooding, positing its wrongdoers as ‘good’ individuals possessed, rather than flawed or even evil human beings committing terrible acts. It leans towards saccharin happy endings and as the seasons rolled on, the characters lose their initial depth. Under the Dome also suffers from similar issues, however the grey morality of Barbie, the unlikely protagonist, adds texture to the show. But plot-holes and unlikely coincidences (and that weird underground place that appears towards the end of season one) has seen my interest in this show wane. The first season of Pizzolatto’s True Detective reminded me of Twin Peaks, with its beautiful iconography, dark characters and deliciously Lovecraftian ending. I am reading Galveston right now and anticipating the next season of TD, which I guess will tide me over until 2016, when Lynch and Frost will give us nine more episodes of Twin Peaks.

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I am an impatient person. Two years is a maddeningly long time for me. I have the two seasons on BluRay and I will watch them with new delight as I anticipate what Season Three might offer us. Laura says to Dale in the Red Room; “I’ll see you in 25 years…” and she has kept her promise. Laura’s duality of dark/light makes this exciting. Will it be the demonic Laura, who let it burn, or the Laura who seeks good and believes in angels?

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