Some reflections, three years after gaining a PhD

Three years ago today, I passed my viva voce examination for a PhD in English Literature. It was one of the most exciting, thrilling, and exhausting experiences of my life. My wife, Jennifer Dawn Whitney, had recently gained a PhD in Critical and Cultural Theory, and we graduated together in the same ceremony at Cardiff University in the UK.

Since that time, my wife and I have been extremely lucky. We were both offered part-time, fixed-term contracts that allowed us to teach the next generation of literary critics, journalists, philosophers, and informed citizens. It’s been incredibly fun and rewarding, but insecure in its very nature. Now, we are at a point where our contracts are ending simultaneously, and so we are both looking for full-time posts where we can develop our own teaching and research initiatives.

Getting this far has not been easy. It has required hard work, discipline, persistence, and a generous helping of sheer luck. My wife and I were both the first people in our immediate families to go to university and achieve a college degree. As people from working-class backgrounds, we have seen how difficult it is to get a foothold on the institutional ladder. Many of our peers have access to financial support or are independently wealthy, enabling them to research and publish in their own time without needing to worry about keeping a roof over their heads or put food on the table. This financial security can allow some to live comfortably on a part-time fixed-term contract, or to pursue volunteer work or internships that will enhance their academic resume. Without this kind of safety net, pursuing an academic career can be daunting. But we are not letting that deter us.

As our contracts come to an end, we are looking to work at institutions that support the same kinds of values and ideals that attracted us to academia in the first place. We celebrate the university as an inclusive space that recognises diversity and debate. We seek to think critically about our own cultural assumptions and histories, and to reflect on what it means to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life. We also seek to prioritise teaching as a crucial part of an academic’s day-to-day life, not just to share knowledge but as an opportunity to inspire and generate discussion on the issues that matter most in contemporary culture. Wish us luck.

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Robert Doran examines how critical theory has always been a form of ethical practice
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Robert Doran, The Ethics of Theory: Philosophy, History, Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What led you to write The Ethics of Theory?

The impetus for this project was a feeling that the tectonic shift of Theory–from a hermetic-textualist to a culturally-focused and politically-driven discourse–had not really been examined. This shift (circa 1987) was simply accepted, celebrated, or lamented without any real thinking about how we got from here to there or from there to here. Thus, I wanted to reflect on how this transformation happened and what it means for us now.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about critical theory?

That it is definable in terms of some general consensus, that there is some general agreement about what it is and what role it should play, when in fact it embodies many competing and at times mutually exclusive paradigms and assumptions. Nevertheless, I think that what binds everyone (or most everyone) together under the Theory banner is the sense that Nietzsche’s challenge to philosophy (continued and amplified by Heidegger) represented a fundamental break in the intellectual history of the West. On the one side, Nietzsche contested the hegemony of scientific inquiry, which, in the late nineteenth century, had attained great cultural prestige, displacing philosophy’s traditional role as the arbiter of knowledge. On the other side, Nietzsche held that human beings make their own truth–or decide what counts as truth–and that all knowledge is therefore contingent on human projects. The concept of objective, value-neutral knowledge is thereby torn asunder, giving way to the idea that seemingly “objective” knowledge is permeated with social, ethical, and political considerations that can never be completely expunged. The role of Theory or Critical Theory is to keep pointing this out. (more…)

Rachele Dini discusses how the work of J.G. Ballard, Don DeLillo, and Samuel Beckett engages with one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time
Rachele Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Palgrave, 2016)
Rachele Dini, Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction (Palgrave, 2016)

What motivated you to write Consumerism, Waste, and Re-Use in Twentieth-Century Fiction?

Well, I’ve been attracted to remnants of different kinds since I was very little, and was obsessed with cutting up magazines as a teenager—but intellectually, the turning point for me was during my MA at King’s College London. I noticed almost immediately that the texts on the modules I was taking were unusually concerned with fragments and fragmentation. Dickens, Zola, Eliot, Elizabeth Bowen, Fernando Pessoa, Virginia Woolf, Ballard, Calvino, and of course Walter Benjamin and Adorno: physical and metaphorical waste proliferates in all of these authors’ work. In hindsight, this was to be expected since the course focused on the seismic effects of capitalist modernity, and waste is certainly one of these. But that focus on residual matter reproaching you for throwing it away, or on things not working and stuff falling apart, especially compelled me at the time, since it was the opposite in every way from the focus of my day job in market research. Market research is an industry essentially devoted to promoting the very things that leftist theory denounces: its modus operandi is to find ways of selling more. So the first spark for the PhD project that ultimately turned into this book was the conflict between the rhetoric of ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’ (to quote Daft Punk) I was accustomed to in my working life, and all of the countercultural—or simply denunciatory—writing I discovered through my studies, which called that rhetoric into question. (more…)

Michael Richardson discusses how literature can help shed new light on our understanding of torture, trauma, and affect
Michael Richardson, Gestures of Testimony (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Michael Richardson, Gestures of Testimony (Bloomsbury, 2016)

How did you come to write Gestures of Testimony?

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as President was to declassify the Torture Memos of the Bush Administration. Suddenly, the architecture of American torture was visible to an extent that it had never been before. At the time, I was working as a speechwriter in Canada for Jack Layton, who was then the leader of the New Democratic Party, and watching very closely what was happening across the border. I became obsessed with how torture was articulated and authorised, and even more so with the effect it had on both survivors and perpetrators. I’ve always understood the world through writing and literature, so I wanted to understand torture in that context too. That led me to a PhD on torture, literature and politics, and from there to writing Gestures of Testimony. (more…)

British artist Tom Harman discusses how critical theory led him to return to painting
Tom Harman installs abstract paintings at Little Man Coffee Co., Cardiff. Photograph: Rhys Tranter.
Tom Harman installs abstract paintings at Little Man Coffee Co., Cardiff. Photograph: Rhys Tranter.

When did you start painting?

Drawing and painting, for me, was what I always did and was always good at. Throughout school I only ever wanted to paint and couldn’t wait to leave at 16 and begin a BTECH in Art and Design at my local FE college. This was a great experience, at last getting to create visual material all day, every day. I was particularly interested in painting that had some form of social commentary and was influenced by the New Glasgow Boys, painters from the Glasgow School of Art such as Steven Campbell, Peter Howson and Ken Currie, as well as the big names in British painting such as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. (more…)