Forgive me, readers, for I have been paralysed. It’s been 8 months since my last blog post. A result, you may surmise, of me working terribly hard on my PhD here at Aberdeen University. I’ve done some hard, but also quite a lot of stuck, confused, enthralled, delighted and overwhelmed. The blog has suffered, partly out of priorities, but also not being sure what to say and fear of appearing a fool. Fear of foolishness is a long-time shadow but hasn’t stopped me before. I have been advised, by some, not to mix academic and ‘general public’ - don’t mix pics of ms. doggy and gender theory. It will do my academic credibility damage and my confidence is fragile.
But, it feels wrong to discard and sterilise. This is still my blog, folks. It’s not my academic brochure but I would like it to be that too, maybe.. And I would like some of my history to be available to non-historians. And I would like to tell you about Aberdeen, Juno and miscellany. Plus, I don’t actually know to what how far I want to go with academia. Becoming anything, let alone anything else, is rather daunting, after the decades-long quest to expunge the conditioning.
The PhD process is excitingly expansive but at the same time it is a straight-jacket in form. The blog has more breathing space. Another problem has been that I’m just opening up new areas of enquiry.. and feel I need to be in a position of mastery in order to write. Certainly for academic purposes there is a rigour (which I love btw, nerd that I am) but the blog isn’t necessarily that kind of format. For some reason my twitter account shows Victorian train stations rather a lot. I like that the blog evolves - but it’s not what you do, publicly at least, in academia. It should be more polished with full referenced and stand on its own originality. It shouldn’t be hesitant, nor in the early stages of clarity, and certainly not personal.
Slightly-defensive-justification-that-things-aren’t-going-to-change-much, over. The blog will continue to be morphous and varied.
So, whatsitlike? For all the above protestations to feeling I have to change my blog, the research journey has shaken my foundations. That yr 1 has coincided with my Brexit-stained shock may also be a factor. I think it all started with Bourdieu, and then research I’ve been doing into the history of emotions, plus gender theory thrown in for good measure. I’m much more sceptical about ideas around authenticity, ethical living, liberal politics, ‘true self’ - the latter being so uncomfortable to write, of course, it needs quotation marks. History helped me early on, in late childhood to get some perspective on my excessively religious upbringing and see the cultural and political as defining influences on religion. I cleverly replaced my childhood religion with a new ethical-living one. You know: human rights, artisan bread, organic living, free trade, the arts and so on. This was fed by the usual Guardian/Radio 4 familiars alongside cool muted-toned very unglossy magazines about food and travel and whatever, as well as a good dose of indignation and irony.
From Bourdieu I learned that I was very successfully banking up lots of cultural capital, as I snootily disdained people who amassed economic capital. This intellectual, ethical and cultural ‘knowing’ made me feel ‘good.’ Maybe not though. What about all those people who don’t do that shit, or care about that shit, and even, God Forbid, voted Brexit. I think I want to understand a bit more and judge a bit less. Bourdieu would say that I’m building up this capital to dominate those with less capital, be it cultural, social, or economic. Is it all an arsenal? Maybe it is. Maybe my ethical products were very strong cultural symbols of a certain elite group. Think Goop. Despite a lack of income I can’t say I’m not part of an elite. Of course, my PhD is filling up the cultural coffers no end. The answer, according to Bourdieu, is reflexivity. Which, in blog post speak, I’d say, is an exhortation to practise humility. But, reminder to self not to be nausesatingly apologetic for those priviledges.
So, having revealed a whopping level of arrogance, my social history, cultural theory, gender theory and history of emotions research has put the spotlight on the extent to which we are socially conditioned. The awareness was always there but the extent is the shocker; the pervasiveness. It’s hard to not fall into it; it’s what we learn in order to find an identity to navigate with. For gender and performativity see Judith Butler, for emotions see recently published How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. Much of this work is interdisciplinary - which means, for example, a mix of history & anthropology, or science and psychology.
God, you’d think I never went anywhere earlier than the 20th century with all-of-the-above. But, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the 18th century, and my beloved archives at the Special Collections Centre. What is it about archives that is so exciting (err.. to me)? If you love archives, you will love, Arlette Farge’s delightful, dare I say, sensuous book about working in archives: The Lure of the Archives. I guess it’s the intimacy I feel when I hear someone’s voice when reading their letters, written in their own hand, with all the physicality of the paper, the post mark, the way they wrote addresses, signed off, and so on. I love reading these letters between India and Aberdeen in 1815, when letters took up to six months to arrive. I’ve got fabulous spirited letters from ‘Aunt Helen’ who berates her nephew on marriage and ambition. A great read is Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter; a good start for the earlier period I’m studying.
It’s delightful to wonder around history, historical theory but there is so much that it’s dangerous too. This volume makes for uncomfortable times, however. I’m learning to sit with confusion on many levels, suppressing the feeling of overwhelm. You can’t read it all - you have to somehow find a way to enjoy the search. It’s also a three year project in which 3 months can vanish very easily. And, the half-formed ideas make the writing of blog posts a little daunting. But, the rawness of the process is also interesting to write about, and that’s what I want to try and convey.