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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: The Best Laid Plans of PhD Students

Saturday, May 31, 2008

I like to think that I am a fairly well-organised person. I try to be punctual for meetings; I take a dull pleasure in establishing arcane filing systems for my emails; I synchronise my online calendar with my phone to ensure I never miss an important appointment or birthday. I hope that something of this aspect of my personality shows in my prose, as I also delight in correcting every last stop and comma, and perversely enjoy conforming to the rigours of MLA style.

But, as is evidenced by the scores of poets and writers institutionalised in literary history, writing is a schizophrenic activity. The impulsive Byron can produce some of the most perfectly contrived metrics in English verse; conversely, the scrupulous yours truly finds his writing refuses to stay trim. One morning I awake bursting with inspiration; the next, mind and page are a literal blank. Sleepless nights and restless dreams give rise to expansive Xanadu's of prose; hours of attention in the library yield nothing. Reconciling my writing personality with my more fastidious one has been a challenge for me, in my PhD years, as the months since Christmas (and since my distant previous entry in my Postgraduate Diary) have evidenced sharply.

Over the vacation, I attended a workshop on planning for completion. This explored the practical timetable of submitting titles choosing examiners and getting the thesis printed and bound, and also the intellectual planning required for writing up, honing abstracts and proof reading. Duly, after the workshop, I poured procrastination into the coloured bars of an Excel project planner.

I would devote March to the four conference papers I was giving that month; April and June would be focused on writing the Introduction and Conclusion chapters; three months at the end would be set aside for proof reading; and the three months between Christmas and March would provide ample time for me to write a brief chapter on The Matrix, the final part of my thesis's body.

But over the months since Christmas, that brief chapter became greedy. It swallowed contextual thinking on philosophy and religious allegory; gulped down postmodernism; fatted itself on phenomenology; and then it demanded more. More on the history of Artificial Intelligences in cinema. More on postmodern simulacra. More on representations of Cartesian deceiving demons in fiction.

By March - when I had to break off to write my conference papers - that simple, final chapter had become a confabulatory hydra, chattering about Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and about disincarnate intelligences in early science fiction, and about androids in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and about replicants in Ridley Scott's adaptation of the former, Blade Runner, and about how these different texts (the first two from 1968, the latter from 1982) illustrated the move to postmodern grounds for science fiction which The Matrix then occupies, and about how postmodernism has been conceptualised by Frederic Jameson as the product of late capitalist logic. By April, when I had beaten it into a shape suitable for showing to my supervisor, the beast was 30 000 words long, and I had not even started on The Matrix.

My carefully laid plans thus became horribly corrupted. But - and here is the thing that is both frustrating and thrilling about writing and research - the mutant that unexpectedly now constitutes a third of my 100 000 word limit has made the overall project far stronger. The fact that I was not able to predict I would cover this ground from the outset implies that I have inadvertently uncovered cultural connections and currents that will, because so unexpected, probably lend my research some originality. And, on reflection, it only took three months to write; that is to say, a third of my word count took one twelfth of my three years. Why, writing must be almost becoming easy.

Nevertheless, it is only with hindsight that I can be so positive. The last few months have been a dark and agonising period in my research career. Things now, though, are looking up. When I finally got around to it, the chapter on The Matrix only took three weeks to write, probably because the time away made me realise just how redundant many of my notes were, and to construct an argument based on just a couple of premises. The body of my thesis, though punctuated with "xxx" that mark gaps I have to fill, is now generally complete. I can even afford to take five days off, on a camping trip which I delight in planning to the last detail...except the weather.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:05 pm


Blogger Shane said...

I feel your pain! It would be nice if the best laid plans could just stay that way, and lead to project-managed paradise, but it seems that that is not to be for any of us. I like your optimistic take on all this - and I have to say that deciding to spend more time on a chapter must really be a sign of healthy flexibility. At least that is what I tell myself...

5:08 pm  

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