Filed under: Grief, PhD chat, Subjectivities, Yoga | Tags: ashtanga, fieldwork, habitus, India, passing, performativity, positioning
Sometimes my fear of losing overrides my ability to listen. This is a lesson I should have learnt already. As I undertake the mind-numbing labour that is interview transcription, I note how as I went from one interview to the next my contribution became less and less. When my input appears it is more measured, concise, to the point.
I’ve always felt how I express myself is at odds with what I mean. This is no doubt true. And I am no doubt not alone in this. One always speaks as the stereotype of the person they think they are. Delving into the stories people tell about themselves and their losses, I’ve been struck by how we rarely say things in concrete terms. We’re always skirting, dancing in vagueness – like, sort of, kind of, thing. It’s as though words, language, is constantly failing us. Or else we’re scared that in the act of capturing we enact violence to the ‘thing’ (experiential, sensory realm) itself. And yet we understand each other, make sense of each other through these mumbles, incoherences, gestures. We talk in codes, metaphors, sounds, utterances, signs and silences – those most important silences. How we ever manage to find a space to commune and feel known by another amazes me. I often would walk away from an interview encounter carrying one impression but in the process of typing speech into words on a blank page it impresses upon me in a totally different way. Sometimes when I hear myself ask the questions that occurred to me at the time, I cannot even recognise my own thought process. The stories we tell through language are already not our own, but then they become mine as listener and researcher and in turn they become owned by the page or screen. It feels as though something seeps away in each step of this process, that messy something that’s better to edit out.
So too must we be transparent with ourselves about how we go about understanding. First of all – there is no neutral place. We’re always giving something, even in silence – perhaps especially so. Spending time in the mysore practice room taught me this. As well as the theorists before that. India has taught me this too, aggressively so at times. And again my adopted Indian family before that. I think spending a lot of time being the only white face in a room/house/temple full of brown bodies, all speaking in a language once foreign to me is an experience instructive as all the post-colonial theory I can get my hands on. Because what happens is you stop seeing difference. I started to understand a different language through listening alone. When, after some time becoming part of, I got mistaken for Indian, I don’t think it had anything to do with not seeing my white skin – that much was obvious – but a reaction to the way I had consciously and unconsciously developed a disposition, a bodily disposition that went beyond appropriate clothing or eating with the right hand. This wasn’t merely a performance – it was as though ‘India’ had tapped into something vital in me – but the process through which I on occasion managed to ‘pass’ is still elusive to me.
In the research encounter my identity became more performative as I had not yet cultivated an academic demeanour I could rely on. I was concerned people would not take me seriously but on reflection the only person who struggled to take me seriously was me. Becoming serious would mean becoming present. And never being neutral can feel like a heavy burden to bear. More so when its due to things you can’t control like being female or feeling complicit in the neo-colonial benevolence of the new empire.
Down the other end of the Skype line in another time zone my PhD supervisors tell me once again “You need to clarify your position. It’s still not clear where you stand.”
Most of the time I view myself as an outsider in the academic world, in the ashtanga world, in rooms of white middle-class people. When positioned as the one with power whether that’s when I’m using academic discourse to get people to talk to me or paying for chai and chocolate cake at the Green Hotel in Mysore with 1000rs note, it disturbs me and I seek to displace myself. And sometimes power displaces me. I’ve been thinking perhaps that’s part of what going on with sexual harassment in India. My body symbolises power but it can still be violated by your body. I can always become silenced (again).
Knowing from where we speak is the most important lesson for the critical researcher. I’d say its pretty important for a yoga practitioner too. And I will have to establish my position for my thesis as much as I loathe fixity. My supervisors tell me too that the position I will take is only a performance. But I wonder if there’s more to be said about why I understand emotionally and you understand logically and if we can describe this without resorting to gender roles.
Positioning oneself is all about becoming part of a structure that is recognised. The habitus cannot exist without the field (Bourdieu). That’s why the entrance fee is through learning the language (and that’s not just about words). We reach our limit in structures that reject us on things that either we cannot or choose not to change. Its here we fall back into the space between the idea of ourselves that finds room to move through performing and passing and what stands still, caught up against weighty structures. That’s why I always start with stuckness. Why don’t people recover from loss? What happens when you’re deemed as failing to capture the dream of the ‘good life’? Why can’t they/we speak? Trauma is often considered to be a result of not having a story. But the voices in the stuckness have always been speaking clearly its just that the world is poorly equipped to translate. What if we all developed the capacity to listen to each other even in the midst of prejudice. Might then we find relief in the stuckness and find space for flourishing to exist in and alongside the messiness.
Filed under: PhD chat | Tags: death, fieldwork, grief, interviews, loneliness, PhD, positioning, research, vulnerability
I’m finally reaching the end of a challenging year. This second year of the PhD I have spent planning and carrying out fieldwork. I have travelled miles around the country, I have met a host of different faces who shared with me their stories. Stories about how it feels to lose the person you love, stories of how to recover and how to fail, stories about how to help and support flourishing. I’ve encountered great generosity, I have encountered disinterest and rejection, I’ve been blessed with luck and chance and been challenged by obstacles and blockages.
If I could do it all over again I would do it differently. I procrastinated away months due to fear: fear I wasn’t ready, fears over my ability, fear I wouldn’t find the data I needed. I faced many ethics committees and bureaucratic hoops to jump through. I learnt research was a lot about unanswered emails and phonecalls and fruitless journeys into forms and admin. I learnt a lot of people really don’t care about your little project or they just don’t get it.
If I could do it over again I would do it differently. But I’ve realised I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. And I’ve got so angry at it all. Angry at the process you have to go through. Angry at the loneliness – angry at the loneliness most of all. I accept now that the isolation and loneliness is an inextricable part of the PhD process, but its not an easy acceptance. Because its preposterous really. And many people will not understand what I’m trying to say. And there lies the seed of the loneliness: no-one can understand what it feels like to be me in this research.
I have written in the past about researching your own life and the crises and freedoms it can bring. It was a hideously painful article to write, but more painful was the research experience from which the article was borne. The PhD experience has been different after clearing those cobwebs, but still the research encounter has left me feeling heavy and burdensome. I left interviews feeling much heavier than I began. I would go home and curl up in my bed with a fuzzy mind. I started to feel tired before the interview would begin as though in anticipation of the burden I would be carrying home later. It was such a long journey to access and find participants by the time it came to meet and speak to them, I was already exhausted.
The burden though was not something given to me by the participants – sometimes it was – but it was me too taking something from them. I was over-identifying, putting myself in their shoes. What if that happened to me? What if I lost the person I love most? How would I live? Being able to feel is what allows me to enter the world of my participants. This is essential to capture their story. And yet in the process of entering, becoming immersed, it is easy to lose oneself and boundaries as a researcher. I couldn’t tell where my stuff ended and where their stuff began. I was reliving my past through them and I was imagining a future that hasn’t happened through their telling of their past.
But when it became too much about me I was no longer listening to their story. Empathy is a delicate balance of which there are no clear guidelines. It was an ongoing negotiation that only became easier when I became more confident in my capacity as a researcher. Even if that confidence was a performance, the maintenance of composure provided a boundary through which I could control what I let in and what I didn’t. It was a filter of sorts, a necessary one because it protected me from taking it too personally, and it protected my participants from me distorting their stories.
People always want to know why you are doing the research you are, what are your motives, what is your reasoning. I am still searching for the right answer to that question. I haven’t quite measured my distance from my research object, I don’t know how I stand in relation to it. Sure its personal. But its also pragmatic. Its contradictory and conflicting. There’s no easy way to describe that relation.
Undertaking the fieldwork for this research has put me in a vulnerable position professionally, mentally and emotionally. Professionally it pushed me into situations I wasn’t at all comfortable and so I avoided and avoided and nearly gave up. It pushed me to very unpleasant places that I can’t look back and simply say I am glad about because it helped me grow. I think there may have been nicer routes to learn the same things. At times I have wondered why I was inflicting such a situation on myself for so little return. I can’t blame it all on any one thing. It was everything all together, and having no control over emotions that would make me come undone again and again. I made no sense to those around me a lot of the time.
I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. It had to be messy and heartbreaking. I had to feel isolated from the person I love the most because it was a journey I had to take alone. And it feels sad, but in that sadness is a purpose. Just as in the stories people so generously allowed me to listen to, the sadness has a purpose. The purpose is in writing a story that hasn’t been told. And its a story that can’t be told from outside. So whether it pains me or not, its a story that has to be told from the vantage point of the liminal space of the researcher. And that’s okay because in the space of liminality all types of things can happen. There’s possibility and alternatives in the liminal space even if there’s no certainty and stability. That’s how things happen: just close your eyes and take a leap. But if you can, I ask, keep holding my hand as I venture down the rabbit hole.
I’m getting myself around this year which is somewhat unheard of. I am very excited to be speaking at the following conferences this year (maybe more to follow…). If you’re interested come and have a listen!
Titles of papers and conferences:
23-25th April: ‘What does it mean to recover?: Negotiating recovery in grief and bereavement’, The British Sociological Association Conference, Leeds.
5-6th June: ‘Navigating the liminal space of grief’, Between Spaces and Places: Landscapes of Liminality conference, Trinity College Dublin.
7-8th July: ‘Recovery and getting over grief: Or ways of being human that were never sovereign’, Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane conference, University of Sheffield.
Here’s the full abstracts:
‘What does it mean to recover?: Negotiating recovery in grief and bereavement’, BSA, April.
The use of the term ‘recovery’ has become increasingly popular in mental health care and policy. The notion of recovery began as a radical movement that critiqued the paternalistic nature of health care and sought to reclaim power back to the patient or service user. Though the initial move towards recovery sought to bring acceptance to living with an illness and to broaden the notion of recovery outside of medical requirements; as recovery has been co-opted and incorporated into mainstream practices, the radical demands have gradually coincided with, or diluted by, a government agenda of autonomy and individual responsibility. Similarly in literature on grief, recovery has gained interest yet what recovery from grief entails remains contested. Current theories tend to conceptualise grief as a psychological phenomenon to be overcome, often through the use of psychotherapeutics. Yet the controversy over the omission of the grief exclusion in the fifth edition of the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders revealed how competing definitions of grief persist with little consensus on whether grief should be considered a ‘natural’ process or as potentially pathological. In this paper I suggest that investigating what it means to recover first requires looking at the ways in which people who are seen as ‘failing’ to recover are managed and treated. In doing so I will argue that though the definitions of recovery from grief remain contested, there are theories, policies, and practices that seek to guide people who are grieving towards a vision of successful recovery.
‘Navigating the Liminal Space of Grief’, Between Spaces and Places, June.
It is often claimed that one’s sense of being in the world is disorientated at the event of loss. In this paper I seek to suggest that people who have been bereaved enter into a liminal space. Describing grief as a liminal space is to suggest that the boundaries that previously provided a secure understanding of the world and sense of self have, following bereavement, become destabilised or permeable. In my doctoral research I am exploring the role of the different places and people that populate the liminal space of grief. Following Tuan (Tuan, 1977, p.6) I am here distinguishing between ‘space’ and ‘place’. A place has a degree of permanence; it is secure and familiar. For example, the cemetery or the mortuary which have been the focus of research into death and landscapes, are physical, sanctioned ‘places’ in which death or grief come to inhabit, whereas ‘space’ has no set boundaries. Grief then is not simply something that comes to inhabit a place or something to be relocated, but is a place people transition into. Thinking of grief as a space of liminality can prevent against seeing grief as an extraordinary experience but rather as a rite of passage in which normative modes of living are suspended. Grief as a liminal space also sets out a social space in which grief is placed in the mundane, everyday aspects of living a life. It is not a phenomenon that exists purely in the psyche but in relation to other people, ideas and institutions. By viewing grief as a liminal space, grief is not taken for granted or presumed to possess a natural or normal process but can be seen to be constructed in different ways, in interaction with and being attached to historically specific contexts and discourses.
Tuan, Y.-F. (1977). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. London: Edward Arnold.
Recovery and getting over grief: Or ways of being human that were never sovereign. Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane, July.
In this paper I will argue why grief is an instance that allows for the recognition of the non-sovereignty of being human. Within a contemporary western neo-liberal context, being human is often presumed to involve having control over decision-making and responsibility for our choices. This is reflected in the rhetoric of mental health recovery where recovery is synonymous with being a functional citizen. To fail to recover is to refuse the normative fantasy of the ‘good life’ and to be read as problematic or as a troublemaker. In grief, the failure to recover is commonly associated with the failure to let go of an attachment to the deceased, described as ‘melancholia’ or in contemporary psychiatric diagnosis: ‘complicated grief’. However, contrary to the rhetoric of recovery, the failure to ‘let go’ of the deceased and the capacity for grief to make us come undone might alternatively be understood as an occasion that reveals how sovereignty is unsettled by affective experiences such as grief. If grief has the potential to inject some incoherence and ambiguity into our sense of self and sense of sovereignty by highlighting the complexity of attachments and relationality, what does this mean for how we think about the human?
Sometimes it would seem that doing a PhD is possibly the most terrible life decision you can make. And it is often from my fellow PhD students especially those coming to the end of their thesis, in the begrudged ‘writing up’ stage, that this sentiment emerges. As the newbie in my faculty (only 6 months in) my beaming smile at the outset of my studies was soon replaced for the cynical grouchiness of my colleagues. It seems it is in the nature of the PhD student to be persistently fed up with all that is offered to them. As a small mandatory requirement all students in my faculty are requested to be on campus for one day a week. Instead of realizing this to be the minimal demand it is – er we get to work from home in our pyjamas the other 6 days of the week?? – we moan as though it is the biggest affliction on our lives.
As someone who has worked in retail for many years struggling to get a funded studentship (applied 4 times, did one year self-funded whilst working and dropped out), when I finally got a fully-funded PhD place, I relished everyday I didn’t have to stand in a shop and smile at people and feel undervalued, and I also cherished having got to the age of 28 and yet again successfully avoiding the 9-5 office life which to me has always felt like a fate worse than retail. So to counteract the dreary cynicism we PhD students have I want to list and celebrate the many amazing aspects of being a PhD student. But first let’s face up to those con’s of doing a PhD:
1) It’s actually fucking hard. It’s hard to get a funded PhD place and it’s hard to sustain it and it’s hard to finish in three years.
2) You feel pointless 90% of the time. As a PhD student you are in some bizarre limbo, neither fully fledged academic but neither totally unworthy of attention. You are always fighting to get your voice heard.
3) Other people, namely non-academics, make you feel even more pointless. “So what do you actually do?” and “That’s sounds pretty easy” and “Is that all you’ve done?” and “So, what?” are all comments spoken by the sort of un-informed cretin who thinks that work means travelling to a place and travelling back everyday wearing formal wear and talking about figures and spreadsheets. Sometimes, in the work-life of a PhD student it takes three weeks to write two questions. It just does.
4) You are very poor all the time and subsequently continually hungry all the time.
5) Social life evaporates rapidly due to aforementioned poverty when everyone gets sick of your sponging. Not to mention the gulf that emerges because no-one understands nor cares why you cannot just hang out whenever they want: “But you don’t have a job?!”
6) Small matters of high probability of significant mental disturbance, poor dietary habits, hygiene becomes slack.
7) Admin BS. The life of a PhD student involves a considerable quota of admin BS. ‘Skills profile’, probationary assessments, quarterly reviews, meeting notes and so on and blah, the research councils and REF and their professionalization of academic work means even PhDers are not immune from the paperwork circus.
Ok so now on with the good stuff!
1. FREEDOM FROM THE BOSSES. You are your own boss. Aside from the aforementioned admin BS, a few hoops to jump through, but for the most part (95%) you structure your own agenda. After all it’s your research the university is funding and supporting, the other 5% is a small price to pay.
2. You don’t have to see people every day if you don’t want to. NO SMALL TALK EVER AGAIN.
3. You can work 9am-5pm, or 5pm-9am, or 9am-12pm and then again 6pm-8pm, you make time your own.
4. Never have to commute again. Or get squashed with all the suits on the tube. Aside from meeting supervisors every couple weeks and the odd faculty meeting and events (normally with free lunch 😉 ), you don’t have to go outside. Except for food which you can’t really afford anyway, a weekly trip for bread, vegetables and peanut butter and you’re sorted.
5. No I don’t feel like showering today, and that’s okay.
6. I was going to get dressed today, but nah.
7. Friend calls: whoops pressed ignore.
8. Friends calls again: ‘So I’m near your place, I can come over in 20 minutes?’ ‘Umm’ (a bowl of pasta is on my lap and I haven’t yet got round to putting on underwear, its 3pm), ‘Sure’.
9. Yeah I’m gonna take a break. WHENEVER I WANT.
10. It’s sunny outside, better take those books to the park. Working and sunbathing, loving life.
11. Just gonna have a cloud-staring break for half an hour.
12. I can listen to whatever music I want. At whatever volume. And sing along. And dance. Oh yeah.
13. Aside from those few that like to make you feel small and pointless, people think you’re really clever. “So what do you do?”, “Oh I’m just studying for a PhD”, “Oh wow I couldn’t do that!” (blushes) “Ahem well yeah I am kind of a genius…”
13. The limbo of being a PhD student is not just sometimes unnerving, it is also it’s beauty. You don’t have to be categorized. You’re creating something. You’re outside of that world of work with its set hours and scheduled lunch breaks and enforced uniforms. Initially this is unsettling. To go from working full-time in a retail setting: no time for anything, to be around people all the time, becoming brain dead, just a smiley robot – to days with only books for company, days where I had to organize my own time, days I would spend totally alone with little or no contact with friends or the outside world, was terrifying. I literally had anxiety attacks. But slowly new patterns form. Spending a lot of time alone is inevitable when undertaking a PhD. But this isn’t isolation. I realise I don’t feel lonely because I have the minds and thoughts of the writers and philosophers I am reading with me (spoken like a true book nerd). Also you sort of melt into the quiet. Living in bustling East London I am never too far from noise and people. But the quiet of an empty library or your desk becomes a special place – scary sometimes yes – but that is why we chose this path. Or at least it should be. If you do a PhD just for the status or career options (in the current academic climate a PhD won’t get you far anyway – especially not in terms of money – you should know this!) then you will come stuck pretty quick. I chose a PhD not for the prestige being a Dr might one day bring me, but because it gave me space and freedom, even if this was sometimes coupled with relative poverty and hunger. The space and freedom to unravel a question I had been pondering for many years. A question that was both personal and collective, part of me and yet so much bigger. The quiet is not scary then, its just life with all the trivialities emptied out. It’s space pure and simple, and it’s yours.
14) This time will never come again. What other opportunity will grant you this space and independence? I have heard many a senior academic reminisce on their PhD days, as if they would do anything to reclaim that intellectual and professional freedom again. But now they have too much to lose. The PhD is in many ways a bizarre relic, one of many academia loves to retain as part of its tradition. And though many revisions are added to the process, at heart I like to see it as a creative endeavour, an art form all of it’s own. Who know’s what will happen after? Everyone loves to ask “So what are you going to do with it?” because as we know degrees are just things we collect in the race to get up the ladder to career and wealth. But education is an end in itself. Perhaps I should have visions of ‘changing practice’ or saving lives or becoming some esteemed thinker. But I don’t. I’m just in this journey right now. And it’s actually kind of amazing.
Filed under: Academe, PhD chat | Tags: academia, adulthood, ageing, birthday, childhood
In the aftermath of my 26th birthday, I feel an ever more present and pressing demand that I should start acting in ways more appropriate to belonging to the 25-35 age bracket. I have been wondering, should I adopt more mature music tastes? (i.e. less Kylie), should I finally learn how to drive, and should I really find childish Iphone apps so amusing (e.g. hours spent playing with fat/bald/freak/ginger booth)?
Thing is though, I still feel like a big child most of the time, and yet it seems the people around me are all getting younger, rubbing their 21st birthday celebrations in my face (and more upsettingly these people see me as old).
Turning 26 I sense a gulf between what I presumed I would be/feel at 26 (based on others expectations) and how I actually feel and act now as a 26 year old. This disjuncture I feel, is one of the great deceptions of adults to our former child selves, that while we may imitate some adult like posturings we remain on the whole little different from when we were ten years old. Thus in turn fostering the illusion that there is an identifiable evolution from childhood to adulthood, after which you should know how to drive, understand about taxes and only listen to blah ‘credible’ indie music.
Yet I feel I have merely devolved, with adolescence and my early 20s being a diversion into experimenting with dumb ideas and making wrong choices with the wrong people, and simply returning back to my 12 year old self.
There is one profound difference in being an adult though which is the both terrifying and joyous realisation that while as a child you simply did as you were told, as an adult you actually have some authority over your own life and your own choices. This can be a tough responsibility to handle as evidenced on a daily basis as I wander through Goldsmiths campus and survey my fellow students, who with their unkempt hair, ridiculous clothing, diet of microwave meals, (and don’t get me started on hygiene habits) appear unable to make decisions over even the very basic of tasks.
However there are also more fundamental questions that one has to tackle, particularly when life starts to go a little awry. As a child if bad things happen to you, you endure it, because you have no choice or power to control events. Yet I found this sense of powerlessness lingered as I entered into my adult years.
That was until last week when I had a moment of clarity in my Cosmopolitan haze in which I admitted that all my discomfort and melancholic temperament could possibly be a result of forcing myself down a path that was not right for me. I then began to wonder, is there not another way to live? A life more full of hap, and less full of drudge? And further I realised that this life, this freedom, was accessible only through myself, if I wanted my life to change I simply had to learn to make choices.
This realisation also came after reading this which propelled me to question whether I really wanted to continue pursuing a career in academia. I no longer felt I was cut out for the competitiveness, the long arduous hours, the fact you have to study for so long with an ever decreasing chance of obtaining any form of job; and the very real fear of being 35 and still without a permanent university post. I looked at my future and I saw suffocating dismalness and worsening dress sense and bad hair choices (which unfortunately appears to happen to all female academics).
Voicing my concerns has meant I have recieved a mixture of genuinely good advice and well meaning but ultimately unhelpful suggestions. Some suggestions have been that I should simply endure it, that this is simply part of the process, as if my expectations were too high. But is it really preposterous to propose the idea of perhaps you know, being able to enjoy what you are doing?
I also found people asking me “Well what would you do?” – almost as though people in academia cannot imagine a world that exists outside their own. The self-involved bubble of academia had previously been a welcome cushion from the harshness and mundanity of the ‘real’ world, but I had begun to find the world of academia just as harsh and mundane as the world ‘outside’.
The truth was I didn’t really have a reply to “Well what would you do?” because in leaving I didn’t feel like ‘doing’ anything at all. “I just want a simple life” I told my supervisor, and she looked at me with I believe genuine empathy, but also perhaps a little pity for my childish naivety.
Academia had given me so much, it has made me who I am, it has been in my life since 19, and now I was asking – is this it? What would I be without it?, what would I mean, what would life mean, and what would become of me?? My academic achievements are so integral to me as a person, take those away and I actually haven’t achieved much at all. So considering leaving would involve a re-evaluation not only of what I would do with my time but something far more fundamental to my sense of self.
As the years pass I also recognize there are some things I will never achieve. This is not always a negative but it certainly involves a sense of loss, as you have to let go of some of your childish longings and hopes. Ageing becomes a continual process of losing, a grieving of the time and possibilities that will never be.
And so I am left with no delusions of transformation, of finally blossoming, of spouting the false rhetoric of ‘life-changing’ narratives (re Eat, Pray, Love), but the underwhelming acceptance of the banal and appallingly ordinary contingencies of this life I am living through.
This is not as gloomy a picture as it sounds for what is left is the challenge: the challenge of living within a politics of the hap. What form will this take? I have no idea.
But surprisingly, I feel optimistic because this time, I choose freedom.
*ALSO THIS WEEK* I attended a fantastic lecture by my academic hero Nikolas Rose, and my belief and faith in academia was once again rekindled.