What is a Dissertation? // What is an Education?

BoyPoolRhizome by Mark Ingham

I think I stumbled on this article through Leiter Reports – but don’t quote me on that. I’ve got a Feedly library dedicated to philosophy feeds which I go through on occasion, and this particular article caught my attention. Here’s the full text, and I recommend you go and read it.

Essentially, Bharath Vallabha wanted to write a very different kind of dissertation – something non-linear, closer to Wittgenstein’s ‘web’ approach to writing. Unfortunately, due to the constraints of the education system and some internal decisions influenced by the commotion caused, this approach proved difficult and was ultimately shelved. I felt for Vallabha, as I’d struggled with something similar during my MA, and I wanted to respond to something in his lengthy post that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable:

[…] but about the sociological fact that I wasn’t seen as a genius, and so I couldn’t write the way Wittgenstein did. The more I thought about my prospectus, the more Wittgenstein’s hypocrisy became clearer to me. He leveraged his being categorized as a genius to be in academia without in any way taking responsibility for improving academia or even thinking about how others might continue on his path. Seen from this light, the special halo around the Investigations started to seem rather different; that it seemed unique because it was unique, literally unreplicable because the kind of leverage Wittgenstein was able to have as an academic was no longer possible.

When reading the article for the first time, I paused at the end of that first sentence; ‘[…] I wasn’t seen as a genius, and so I couldn’t write the way Wittgenstein did.’ I didn’t read on for a while, I just hung there with the full stop and though about it. It just feels like the completely wrong way to approach academia, no? I found myself wondering then whether the way in which Wittgenstein’s Investigations was written should be considered a ‘style’ or a ‘process’. A process, surely? But this idea of not being able to write the way Wittgenstein did, of hesitation within academia as to how to approach (or whether to allow) such writing, potentially secures it more as a ‘style’, doesn’t it? And that’s wrong.

I can’t put this all into words as solidly as I like, since I’ve been on the lookout for a copy of Investigations for an awfully long time and have only really encountered the text in segments online. Like Heidegger, or Deleuze and Guattari, I’ve always had this idea that Wittgenstein’s Investigations can only really be understood in it’s wholeness. It’s a text that – like many postmodern and modernist texts – applies its theory to itself; the way it is written acts as an example of the philosophy. The problem with these texts is that they often spawn an area of study which is rarely furthered, and more often picked apart (but also occasionally appreciated by) more traditional and longstanding theoretical approaches.

 Sylvano Bussotti, Rhizome
Sylvano Bussotti, Rhizome

A personal example would be my review just last week of Fitterman’s No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself. which I initially approached from a traditional reading and reviewing standpoint. I realise that ‘traditional reading and reviewing’ is rather a vague way of putting it, as no doubt we all approach a text with different interests, context, etc and focus on separate things in the text, but I think we can agree that there tends to be a vaguely standard structure to these things – is there a rhyme pattern, what’s the rhythm, what is the author trying to say, what is the tone, is that tone balanced, is it meant to be balanced, etc. Fitterman’s text chucks most of that out of the boat, due to the way in which it’s written. You can say the same thing of House of Leaves, or Lot 49 – texts that resist the act of reading in different ways in order to make a point.

These new areas of study are like saplings. They’ve come to root in an area already dominated by fully grown academic ‘trees’, which sadly block the sunlight from the saplings leaves, and suffocates the new plant in various ways. These new trees occasionally grow and flourish, but those that do tend to be the ones launched further across into the open area at the edge of the woods; first held out from a long sturdy branch of another theory, and then nurtured by wind, rain and sunlight. They tend to grow tall, to reach as high as they can, whereas the Wittgenstein trees, and the Derrida trees, are more like bristly bushes on the forest floor (okay, I’m starting to push this metaphor a bit, eh?).

Om Yggdrasil, by Lorenz Frølich
Om Yggdrasil, by Lorenz Frølich

What I’m trying to say is that some academic institutions actively resist fresh engagement with contemporary theories, and can even suppress them. I’m not saying that Vallabha’s studies were suppressed – but he himself points out the non-institutional nature of Wittgenstein’s writing, and how the hierarchy of the university system resists continuing this mode of study:

In the normal scheme of things, the hierarchy was supposed to be: Wittgenstein, Goldfarb, me. But how can Goldfarb be my advisor if he places himself below Wittgenstein while I place myself along side Wittgenstein?

And later;

Wittgenstein wasn’t interested in the least in how philosophy could function or survive as a profession (he was undeniably a hypocrite in this regard), and he pursued and wrote his ideas accordingly. This is hardly a model for graduate education. For all of Goldfarb’s, and Cavell’s, emphasis on taking seriously Wittgenstein’s way of writing, as academics they could never take this non-institutional nature of Wittgenstein’s writing too seriously.

Here is perhaps the source of my discomfort – that it ‘is hardly a model for graduate education’. We so readily see education as a means to an end these days. We go in one door and come out the other with a degree and tens of thousands of pounds of debt, and we think, ‘now we get a job, now we pay off our debt’ etc. It’s a dangerously linear process, and for the past few years from the final year of my BA, through my MA, until now, I’ve been wondering what is the true function of an academic institution? Is it to further knowledge? Is it for money? It all seems horribly jumbled up, and when I read stories about institutions being unable to adapt to new modes of thinking because of the danger they could pose to the structure of the institution itself, I feel a curious mix of emotions. Of betrayal, mostly.

Anyway, this is more of a ramble than a coherent response. I’d have liked to also rally against the concept of ‘genius’ and how modern interpretations of genius react against the idea of a genius being a person, and emphasises more the idea of genius as a thought process, or gift. That would lead to an interesting re-interpretation of Vallabha’s thoughts!

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