Everything changes but you

Dear Green PhD,

Two months a ago, I wrote to you to break up you.

I’d been so busy worrying about and trying to finish my PhD (still am by the way) that I did not have time to think of you. I thought that my lack of continual lack of inspiration was a sign that our relationship had run its course.

I thought that you had been a fun distraction from the serious relationship with my PhD.

But I was wrong.

I’ve realised that you are as much an important part of my life as my PhD. Indeed, my PhD is the one whom I’ll be with for a short period of time – just nine months to go to now. But I can be with you for as long as I like.

In fact, you’re the one whose been creatively supporting me during my research and enabling me to play with ideas that won’t make it into the final cut. Just because I was having trouble communicating with you, it didn’t mean that we were finished. Perhaps I just needed a break, which I have had.

Once my PhD is finished, all I will have with you. To quote the ancient wisdom of Take That:

Everything changes but you,

We’re a thousand miles apart but you know I love you.

Everything changes but you.

You know, every single day I’ve been thinking about you.”

Please take me back.

Pravin

Change: the universal constant

Dear Green PhD,

I’m sorry. I’ve not really paid you much attention in the last six months and I’ve totally neglected you in the last two.

I’ve been so busy worrying about and trying to finish my PhD that I really didn’t know what to say to you. I thought better to ignore you than suffer the uncomfortable silences of two months of posts.

But I know what the problem is.

We came together a year after I started my PhD. Researching and writing my thesis has been hard work, though enjoyable, and you offered me moments of light distraction to reflect. However, the deeper my relationship with my PhD became, the longer the distance between our moments together.

It wasn’t you.

It wasn’t me either.

With my PhD now close to completion, it’s just that “you and me” has run its course.

Yes, I am breaking up with you.

It’s time for me to move on and make a fresh start.

All the best,

Pravin

After the viva…Can’t stop falling in love with you

“Wise men say, ‘only fools rush in’,

But I can’t help falling in love with you”

- UB40

In the first year of my PhD, my supervisor made an interesting comment about my theoretical reading. He said that I fall in love easily. He was referring to my tendency to want to jump from one theory to another whenever I came across a new one. When I submitted my registration document, three months after initial enrolment, I was proposing to use a theoretical framework that somehow brought together the work of Hegel, Luhmann and Sloterdijk. I soon realised that it was going to be way to unmanageable and I decided to stick with Hegel. After attending a conference, I almost dumped Hegel in favour of Foucault; fortunately my supervisor emphasised the importance of committing to a particular theory. I remember making the decision that I was going to stick with Hegel as the basis for my theoretical framework come what may.

Yet somehow I managed to come away from my PhD viva with the overarching comment that there were too many theories in my thesis  – and as a result they were superficially connected by the use of metaphor rather than exposition from the literature. The irony is that I thought I was being restrained. I started with Hegel and moved to readings of his work by Jessica Benjamin’s psychoanalysis and Catherine Malabou. As far as I could see it was Hegelian. The problem is that having set a boundary, I inadvertently crossed it by looking at psychoanalysis and other work by Malabou. For some reason, I also felt inspired by my supervisor’s work and included that as well, not too mention the more minor interventions. I somehow justified it my head by saying that Hegelian dialectical philosophy allowed for it.  I ended up with a Hegel as my first wife and a philosophical harem.

So the last month or so, I have been trying to figure out which theoretical intervention are essential to my thesis, and which are just fluff. The examiners’ report has been very helpful in that regard. The problem with it is that the examiners themselves have made a number of alternative recommendations as to how I could proceed with my thesis. Perhaps too many recommendations, because I have been having trouble deciding which recommendation I should take.  So then I have to ask myself, what is the primary purpose of my research and what is the dominant idea I want to get across. I have been bouncing from one thing to the other this last month, unable to make a decision, worried that any decision will be the wrong decision. I am also seeing how much my thesis is like a ball of wall; if I try to pull on one particular strand, the whole ball comes apart. I think I am slowly figuring out my favourite theme. Oh where is my supervisor when I need him the most? More importantly, why did I decide that I wanted to have my viva the day before he goes on holiday for two months?

I said in a previous post that my PhD has been an opportunity to learn things about myself as well as my research topic. Well, I have learnt that this tendency to fall in love easily and difficulty with decision making has been an ongoing problem for me, to various degrees. I could write more on that, but I won’t out of respect for others affected. If past experience is anything to go by, I needed the shock of the viva to force me to make a decision (though I wish that the examiners had just made one or two recommendations). Once again,  as with the preparation for the viva, I think the most useful advice  comes from my dad, whom I paraphrase: “Right or wrong, the important thing is to make a decision; if it is the wrong decision, I have to work to make it right.” He said that in a different context. As i understand it though, it doesn’t matter how I decide to deal with the problem of having too many theories in my thesis; I have to be able to justify it with proper evidence.

I give the final words to UB40…

It’s been a long road…After the Viva

If you follow me on Twitter, you will probably know by now that I had my PhD viva on Tuesday 30 July. You will also probably know that it did not go exactly as I hoped. Instead of walking out with a doctorate, the examiners asked me to make amendments to my thesis, gave me up to 12 months and said that they expected the final version to be substantially different enough to require a second viva. I believe this is what is commonly known as major amendments, although the university regulations do not explicitly mention “minor” or “major”.

As I expected, the first question was “Tell us about your thesis”. My supervisor had previously advised me about drawing up a metaphorical roadmap in order to answer this question. Oddly, though, I found the most helpful tip came from my dad. As an incredibly practical, qualified engineer, who had always worked in industry rather than academia, he suggested using headings of aims, objectives, methodology, findings and conclusions. As my research is in a humanities subject, I was initially skeptical but I tried it out. With some amendments to make it appropriate to my thesis, I found it worked. As a result, it turned out to be my best question. It was downhill from there.

I can’t remember exactly the order in which each examiner spoke. I can’t even remember the specific questions asked. Indeed, I found that I only became aware that there was even a clock in the room towards the end, when the examiners had clearly stopped asking questions and started providing some feedback. (It was to my left, just out of vision.)  But what I do remember is that every question, whilst focusing on specific aspects, dealt with the same apparent problem: that I superficially connected concepts from different theories through the use of metaphor rather than a step-by-step exposition from the literature. The use of metaphor was appropriate in the context of my thesis, which was interested in the logical conclusion of the ongoing privatisation of regulation and general decentering. The problem was that I had not written that in my thesis and had not even realised that that was what I was doing until after the viva. Thus, I could not justify the metaphors. That probably sounds like I had not carried out proper research. Alarm bells started ringing in the viva itself when references were made to omissions of relevant critiques in the literature. For example, my theoretical framework is a large part on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right but I had not considered Marx’s critique. I also suspect now that I may have used one of the examiner’s own work out of context. Then, immediately after the viva, my supervisor and I were walking to a local cafe to conduct a post-mortem, and he mentioned his disappointment that the examiners did not realise what I had been trying to do. When he said that, a question came into my head: ‘What had I been trying to do?’ I suddenly realised that I did not know what I was trying to do – how, therefore could I expect the examiners to know? I did receive the blessing of my director of studies to submit, but I think that, under various pressures and due to poor time management, I may have induced labour before my thesis was ready. Liz Thackray and Jane Davis   perhaps put it best in responses on Twitter:

  • I delivered prematurely and the baby needed to stay in the neonatal unit before I could take it home;
  • The baby was fine but it needs cleaning and feeding before it can walk and talk; or
  • The baby needed major surgery.

I think that I might have had the wrong view of the viva to begin with. Beforehand, I was so keen on getting through without having to make any amendments. This was partly due to a focus on the end goal of a qualification, the doctorate, and the change in status from Mr to Dr. It was also partly due to the presence of “examiners”. I had likened the viva in my mind to a form of exam. So, when I did not walk out with a PhD, without having to make any amendments or only minor amendments, I was shocked and felt like a failure. But slowly, thanks to my supervisors, my PhD colleagues and the PhD community on Twitter,  I changed my perspective. Whilst the PhD is a qualification, it is also a piece of original research. It is perhaps misleading to refer to assessors or examiners; in reality, they are peer reviewers, in much the same way that I have peer-reviewed others’ work for publication. Given that the vast majority of PhD students are always asked to make amendments, with less than 5% getting through first time, I would perhaps argue that the viva is not an exam. Instead, the viva, the transfer/upgrade and registration are opportunities for your research to be independently reviewed by people who are not intimately involved in its development (that is, yourself or your supervisors). Of course, at the same time, the viva is also an exam, because of the possibility of failure. But, my supervisor gave the ok for me to submit my thesis and go through the viva because, despite its weaknesses, it was ready. It could have been readier but it was ready. So going through the viva and not failing or not being awarded an MPhil shows that I really am almost there.

At any rate, as my supervisor told me before the night before the viva, whatever happens, it is still an achievement to have made the journey from journalistic and policy-orientated writing to deep Hegelian philosophy.

So, I leave the final words to Russell Watson…

Reflections on my PhD

Almost a month has passed since I submitted my PhD thesis. I am this strange period of limbo: I am technically still a PhD student but I have nothing to study until just before the viva. There is a sense of plasticity; half of me is excited at having completed the text and being only one small step away from a doctorate and being called ‘Dr'; the other half resists as I restrain myself from becoming too excited until I pass the viva. Out of all my jobs and post-18 education, doing a PhD has been the longest project I have ever worked on; what’s more I came to an end of my own accord. There is also an element of sadness as I realise that the journey is almost at an end and I will have to move on. So I thought I’d write about some personal lessons from doing a PhD.

Firstly, there are some things I would do differently if I were doing my PhD again.

Get funding

I was fortunate in that my parents had said they would always pay for education, so when I found an idea I only had to find a supervisor and apply for a place. Certainly it meant I had no obligations to the university. However, I was continually aware that my parents were getting on years and the PhD is a big expense. Furthermore, I am aware that I do not have the experience of obtaining funding that my colleagues on studentships. Finally, if I had been on studentship, it would have probably been a lot easier to find teaching opportunities than it was through my own networking.

Set more deadlines

When people ask me how long it has taken me to do a PhD, I say three and a half years. Surprise, surprise, that is not completely true. It is not as if I have been working 5 days a week, 40 hours a day either researching or writing. In the last three and a half years, I have also organised events such as this, attended events and seminars, wrote articles and papers, invigilated exams and co-founded an academic journal and procrastinated. My productivity in relation to my PhD itself was like a sine wave, with peaks and troughs. What I discovered was that I was most productive whenever a deadline loomed. Without someone external implying a deadline, my brain thought I had all the time in the world. This is of course the big pitfall with the structure of the PhD. Now, one might argue that all that time gave me the opportunity to do all the other academic things. That may be true. However, I found that deadlines do not mean that everything else goes out the window, even when close to submission. Deadlines emphasise the need to manage one’s time and prioritise. Could I have completed my PhD in three years as I originally intended? On hindsight, probably yes. But I’ll deny it if asked.

Work from home or a library

I live in South London. My university is in Central London, (Oxford Circus to be precise), a one-hour commute. I somehow convinced myself that I would be more productive if I created the illusion of ‘going to the office’ every day. I stuck doggedly to this belief even though procrastination proved it to be wrong. Truth is, relatively speaking, very little of the time I spent in the office was actually spent on the PhD. Sometimes, as indicated above, there were other academic activities, but I think a good part was spent on simply web surfing. Perhaps, as well as setting myself more deadlines or targets, I should have taken a leaf from many of my colleagues’ books and also worked from home or from the library; really I only needed to go into uni to see my supervisor or if there were planned seminars and the like. I thought there would be more distractions at home but, in the office, there were just as many distractions. I did work from home in the closing months of writing up. I also found that my parents were possibly the most effective “motivator”.

 So that’s what I would do again. That”s not to say I haven’t gained enormously (and I don’t mean a doctorate – obviously I am anticipating passing my viva here). I have found that the doing a PhD is not just about undertaking objective research. It is also about doing subjective research, in the sense that it is a process of discovery about yourself. Yes, I have learned about environmental law, waste policy, Hegel, Catherine Malabou, psychoanalysis, posthumanism, feminism, etc. I have also learnt about myself. I have discovered I am a lot more conservative than I like to think. This is because I am a walking bundle of contradiction (or internal dialectic) as well as attached to people and things outside of myself (external dialectic).  In a sense, there is a dialectic between the research and the researcher. As I wrote in the ‘final word’ section of my conclusion, I projected myself onto Hegel and then Hegel projected himself (from beyond the grave, posthumously, through his text) onto me [Jeyaraj, 2013, 154-155]:

It is arguable that it is beneath the status of a philosopher like Hegel to apply his work to something as mundane and everyday as a household waste collection service. After all, he is the pivot around which the Left and the Right turn. However, if we are to stay true to his master/slave dialectic, then we must accept that, through a dialectical reversal, even a master like Hegel must humble himself and make himself a slave if there is to be a future for his mastery; otherwise, idealising him and putting him on a pedestal, away from the detritus, means that he quickly becomes irrelevant and is toppled. At any rate…Hegel’s whole philosophy was about turning humility and apparent defeat into victory. We are the masters now who depend on the labour of Hegel but, as we cannot see the body of his work, we must attach a prosthetic through our own plastic reading. In the beginning, we hover like a spirit over his text which appears to somewhat formless and empty. Through plastic psychoanalysis, we listen in to the dialectic, symbolising its operation with images stored in our own minds; as we read, we thus form the text, which then resists deformation. We say, ‘Let there be light’ and there is light. At the same time, Hegel, through his text and others’ reading of his text, projects himself onto us and reforms us in his image; we become Hegelian, with the ability to listen into the dialectic in his text but also see the dialectic outside his text. We therefore recognise Hegel and Hegel recognises us.”

Perhaps the most significant way that my PhD has changed me is that it has made my faith in Jesus Christ stronger. When I started my PhD, I had only been a Christian for 2 years, still very much a baby believer. Though I accepted them, I very much struggled with the various apparent paradoxes within the Christian faith. I was also frustrated by the way that other Christians were able to simply utter “it’s a divine mystery”. But as I learnt more about the dialectic – and no doubt through the work Jesus himself – I saw how it was possible for the co-existence of contradictions. What’s more, I saw a complexity and richness to Christianity and God that I wanted to dive into and bathe. And most recently I discovered that I did not have to choose between Jesus and my roots in Hindu culture. I am a dialectic between the two. So from a Christian from a Hindu family, I am now a Hindu believer in Christ.

Submission

My PhD thesis
My PhD thesis

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know that I have finally submitted my PhD thesis on Tuesday 28th May at 2:30 pm. I wanted to wait a few days before I posted and reflect and the only thing I could think off was an account of submission day.

In a sense I have been working towards submission since my transfer (or upgrade). The consensus at the time was that I should be able to submit by April so only one month later than expected, although in theory I did have until September.

The week before, the Research Office had clearly been chasing my supervisor because he emailed me saying that I needed to give a final date for submission. (I had originally said I was going to submit at the end of March, which was the Easter bank holiday.) As I was only proofreading the text and had some “minor” technical issues to take care off such as the abstract, page numbers, tidying up footnotes, etc, I felt confident that I could submit by Tuesday 28th May. On hindsight, I probably could have taken the whole month, but knowing me, I would have let the final tasks spread out to fill the time. Anyway, there was a conference on 29th May that I wanted to attend and a podcast for the Westminster Law Review that I wanted to take part in. Furthermore, I had a whole bank holiday so, psychologically, I felt there was really no reason why I needed that extra time. I told my supervisor and he felt that my chances of submitting by 28th May were ‘favourable’.

I sent the final-ish draft to my supervisor by Sunday, 26th September, with a list of the key changes I had made and the things I still needed to do. There was a period where I wondered whether he would come back with more changes but, by Monday morning, he said I was good to go. The only part of my thesis he did not see was the abstract, which was the final thing I wrote. But anyway, by the end of the Spring or Whitsun Bank Holiday, I had  a full PhD thesis from cover to cover including appendices. It was 1 am. I went to bed, happy in the knowledge that all I had to do the next day was to print, bind and submit. I had planned in my head my schedule and felt that the last day should go smoothly. Of course, things never go quite as planned.

I had to oversleep, and woke up later than I intended. Immediately, I brushed my teeth, shaved (obviously), a quick shower and got dressed. There was no time for breakfast or to make my lunch, so I grabbed an apple, banana, a couple of satsumas and a couple of cereal bars. When I arrived at the train station, there was time for me to buy a coffee, which would effectively be my breakfast. Public transport was running fine, I think, and I arrived at the Law School Phd Office by 9 am. So timing not too bad.

Before I printed the thesis out, I decided to do a final scroll through of the table of contents and appendices. And I noticed that there was something odd about them. The text seemed a bit cramped, compared to the rest of the thesis. I realised that I had not used double spacing as per the regulations. Of course, once I rectified this, I then had to make sure that the page numbers in the table of contents matched up. This was made slightly more complicated by the necessity leaving a gap in the page numbers: I had to separately print off emails and other documents that I had obtained by Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in order to redact the personal details of the sender as per Data Protection legislation. The actual printing of the thesis went smoothly – in the previous week, I had made sure that there was sufficient paper and a spare printer cartridge.

So, by 12:40 pm, I went down to Rymans with three copies of my thesis and a copy of the redacted FOI documents. I first asked the guy at the print desk to photocopy the redacted emails. I put the photocopies into my copies of the thesis. I was ready for them to be bound by 12:50 pm. Then I realised that I had forgotten to check what the actual requirements for binding were. My first thought was, do I need to carry these three PhD theses all the way back to the office? So I took a risk and askedthe Rymans guy if he would keep them to one side behind the counter while I went to look up the binding requirements. By just after 1 pm, I came back to Rymans; but it must have been everyone’s lunch hour because there was a queue of people and the guy who I dealt with previously was serving other customers. So I ended up queuing while I tried to catch his attention.

I eventually arrived at the front of the queue. Rymans guy took my copies from behind the counter and gave it back to me. When I separated the bundle into what needed to be bound (roughly 220 pages per copy), Rymans guy took one look and I swear he went pale. His immediate response was “That’s too thick for comb binding.” I started panicking and was that close to shouting WTF. To be honest, I had no idea of the different types of the binding and the university regulations simply stated that it had to be fixed binding so that pages could not be removed. Somehow, he found some hardback binding and, through a struggle, he managed to get the three copies bound.  I ended up paying more than I should have done (£25 per copy) – I found out later from a colleague and the Research office that Rymans guy did not know what he was talking about – but by that time I just wanted to get it done and did not have time to argue.

So by 2:15 pm, I was ready to go to the Research Office to submit. Oe f course, I had to carry three heavy, in essence, books, walking a good ten minutes. As it was raining, I also had to balance an umbrella in one hand. I finally arrived at the reception and told the receptionist that I had an appointment for 2:30 pm with the named person in the Research Office, before going to sit down. For the first time, it really started to hit me that I was about to submit my PhD thesis, after three and a half years. Then I started panicking that the Research Office would reject it because I might not have complied with the regulations. But it was fine. I handed them the three copies and had to sign a form to say it was my own work and that I did not object to my supervisors attending the viva (they won’t though) and that was it. I stepped out of the building, into the rain with my umbrella, and started walking back to the PhD office. I started smiling. And I treated myself to something from Pret a Manger. I am just the second person in my year’s intake to submit.

Now the end is near and so I face the final curtain

If you reading this post, you’re probably expecting something on Frank Sinatra. I am sorry to disappoint. As I write, I have just finished the second draft of my PhD thesis (although it feels like a new first draft). Technically its not quite finished. I still have to put into the right format, tidy footnotes and get ok from my superviser but the hard bit is done. Of course I am way behind my own schedule. When I started, I was aiming for the end of my 3rd year in August 2012. This has kept being pushed back. First December 2012, then January, Easter, then i gave up on schedules.

I feel a lot happier about this draft than I did the previous one, which was more about getting it done. The irony is that I could have had a first draft sooner if I listened to orthodoxy.

Originally I had chapters of 15000-20000 words, which was normal. Then one of my contacts, whose area of research is the nature of doctorateness, suggested that I split my chapters into smaller chunks of 5000-8000 words to make them more readable to the examiner. This made sense to me. I spoke to my superviser, who did not object. So I could have had a first full draft in November. I decided to make smaller chapters. However I realised that splitting was not as simple as it sounded; each chapter needed its own introduction and conclusion something which I had already done before. So I ended up spending 2 months on restructuring before submitting to my superviser.

After receiving comments back, I ended up rewriting whole Phd and ended up back at the more orthodox-sized chapters I had originally. And I realised that, whilst there is nothing wrong with questioning tradition, it’s worth remembering that traditions don’t survive because they are inherently irrational. Indeed, following Hegel, one could argue that the negation of an orthodoxy that seems irrational is necessary in order to realise its rationlity.

So what’s my point? That there’s a time and place for doing it “my way” and its not when I am near the end.

Finally, for those of you who came to this blog post looking for Old Blue Eyes, here’s Frank Sinitra “My Way”

Christmas post: It is the thought that counts

It’s the evening of Christmas Day – presents unwrapped, stomach full and I am so tired. Personally I am content with this year’s haul. However I was disturbed to see loads of tweets in my timeline this morning from people moaning they didn’t get this or that. (Apparently iphones and ugg boots were particularly desirable.)

It does not matter what present or gift you receive or how much it costs. In a Hegelian dialectic, we exist when we recognise or acknowledge others as capable of recognising us. Whilst there is mutuality to the relationslip, there is an element of co-dependence. We desire recognition from the other through something the other can provide, and vice versa. The relationship is abstract when the self becomes aware or conscious of the other as someone/thing that is not the self, but it is realised when we not only act on that thought through our body but the other accepts our action. A relationship is therefore not just something intellectual or emotional but there is materiality. Giving presents is an expression of that materiality but when we prioritise the present over the act of giving or receiving, the relationship takes on a master/slave quality. When we receive a present, we can see that the donor thought about us. The present could be rubbish for all intents and purposes, it does not matter. However, if we think it is rubbish, it is perhaps an indication that we do not properly recognise the donor. On the other hand, the same applies if we put no thought into the present and give rubbish for the sake of giving.

Christmas of course is about a gift that God gave us. He thought of us and loved us that he gave himself in human form. The gift was about as expensive as it could get: it cost him his place in Heaven and it cost him his life in,the most painful way possible at the time. By comparison, any present we give to or receive from others is always going to be rubbish and fall short of our expectations. Hegel argued that the only way we can be content is to recognise ourselves or, as Slavoj Zizek says, to change our perspective.

The Procrastination Natio

This Christmas, I am probably entering what will be the end-game for my PhD. (I know, I have said that before, but I think I mean it this time.) By the New Year, I should have a full draft for submission to my supervisors and by March I will be ready to officially submit to the university. Actually, that deadline is as much externally imposed, because that’s when my funding runs out. You could say I am cutting it fine.

To be honest, that is pretty much my own fault. I had planned to submit by July 2012, then somehow it kept slipping back and back. I would love to say it is all because of the depth of my research. Unfortunately, that is not the case. For in the last three to four years, there were quite a few periods where I was not working directly on my PhD. Like all PhD students, I became particularly susceptible to procrastination. I was sent the following graphic recently and, in my opinion, it captures the struggle of the procrastinating student: the stress during procrastination, the rush once one is sufficiently close to a deadline, the ease with which technology facilitates procrastination and even the steps for tackling it.

Internships Infographic

Picture provided by OnlineClasses.org 

Media regulation: A Hegelian perspective

As I write, the town of Newtown, Connecticut, is dealing with the aftermath of an elementary school shooting, in which the shooter Adam Lanza killed 27 children. If that was not tragic enough, there has been one more victim, but this time at the hands of the media: Ryan Lanza, simply because he happens to have the same surname as the shooter.

According to Wired, various big name media outlets, such as CNN, Huffington Post and Slade, somehow identified Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page as the page of or for the shooter. This was picked up by social media and soon Ryan and even his Facebook friends were receiving, euphemistically, not very nice comments. Wired’s assessment was that in 24/7 news environment and a fast-changing story, media organisations were so hungry for information that they were not carrying out basic journalistic checks. But this is not a unique to the US. There have been plenty of incidents in Britain where the media have ignored or bent the law, in this case principles of journalism, for the sake of a story. The most obvious, recent, examples came out in the recent Leveson Inquiry, such hacking into people’s voicemails and taking personal, often intimate, information, without permission.

To me, these are clear manifestations of a Hegelian master/slave dialectic. A master entity, or entities, is only interested in its other – the slave – for what the slave can produce for it. The master’s life depends on the work of the slave. In this case, the slave is anyone from whom media organisations want information. The slave is valued according to how much information can be provided; the more open it is, the higher its media currency.  And, media organisations then value themselves against each other based on the quality of the information they provide. The problem is that they are not so much concerned with their relationship with the slave beyond its nature as an object of a story or provider of information. If the slave suffers adversely – or even refuses to work – it is considered a minor inconvenience at best, because there are others to take its place.

Sometimes the media justify their actions by pointing to us as readers, that we want to know. Perhaps to an extent that is true, but the question is whether we are interested in wrong information (what’s the point) or information that has been obtained at the expense of someone else’s suffering (if we are, then why have not used any of the Nazis’ research on eugenics? Just saying) Furthermore, one could question how much of the information that comes through media organisations is important, perhaps it is just another consumable. A further justification is that people who provide information have their own agenda for using the media and so it makes them fair game. We tend to call them celebrities, i.e. famous people. But the word ‘celebrity’ or ‘famous’ is becoming a broader and broader category. But, just as men (and probably still) would idealise women and put them on a pedestal, only to exploit them, so perhaps the media idealises celebrities.

The media acts as a master over people because it needs their information. The irony is that, as Hegel argued in his dialectic, the media is also a slave to people, because it not only depends on us for information, it also determines its value by how much we want its information. If we were to stop producing for it and then consuming what it produces, a media outlet or organisation would die. Or would it? On the one hand, a media organisation, by definition, mediates information between those who provide it and those who consume it. However, there is third party: those who fund that mediation of information, the advertisers and business owners. As long as media organisations can depend on the money – and PR – provided by commercial organisations, it almost does not matter that they do not think about their relationship with the public.  As long as they have the funds to exist, they do not need our information or our trust or love.

But I say almost. Just as there is a dialectic between the public and the media and the media and business, there is a dialectic between business and the public. After all, the business need the public to buy their products and/or to trust them. In this sadomasochistic love triangle, between the public, media and business, Hegel would argue that there is always a risk of dialectical breakdown somewhere. But it is that fear of breakdown – and the potential consequences – that prevents for the most part any one entity from pushing its luck too far. Sometimes breakdown does occur, but it is never so catastrophic that the system cannot repair it. There is also something posthuman about it in that now the public can be the media, those who work for media organisations or businesses can be people, media organisations are businesses, people have interests in businesses as employees, shareholders and future entrepreneurs, and so on.  But it is the creative tension in the system that actually ensures that – whatever else happens – everyone eventually recognises the right value of each other. If things went so smoothly, where would be the fun in (blogging or writing) about that?

The problem highlighted by Leveson and Wired is that media organisations ignore the law for sake of more and more information. However the media is regulated, the role of the law is to remind media organisations and journalists that they are in relationship to other entities and they have a responsibility to them. Whilst information is important, it is not more important than the underlying dialectic.

From Journalist to Academic: A Dialectic

As a fourth year PhD student, I am supposed to be in the position when I am ready to present my research to the department. If I were pregnant, I’d have a clearly visible bump, I’d be waddling and people would give up their seats for me on the bus. I’d also want to get the damn thing inside out of me. In a sense, I am ready to pop.

But when I gave a talk on my PhD research this week, it was as if I had only just done a pregnancy test. In fact, I was wearing so many extra layers that people could see I had put on weight but they did not know why. PhD research, like pregnancy and childbirth, suppose to be a beautiful process, but I had simplified it so much that I turned a baby, not even into a foetus but into a clump of cells.

In a former career, I was a journalist, and I now I blog and still do the occasional bit of copywriting. Like every other experience, it had shaped me in way that I was able to take useful life lessons. One of these lesson was: when communicating information, don’t assume that my reader or listener knows what I am talking about; indeed, it is generally a good idea to assume they know nothing. (Incidentally, I heard a similar version of this lesson in relation to driving: just assume everyone is an idiot.)  Of course, I don’t take this lesson to the extreme but I have always found it to be a helpful guide. I do not find it easy, it does require being extra-vigilant but generally others have complimented me on my comprehensive writing.

When I started my PhD, I continued to adopt this approach. It is possible that I have assessed academic books and papers based on how easy they were to understand and I generally prefer writing journalistically than in academese or in a managerial style. Indeed, I would argue that all writing should be journalistic. Indeed, I  have noticed that, in terms of structure, a news story, a journal article, a first class dissertation and a PhD thesis chapter are very similar. (Of course, a news story is more condensed.) My supervisor has now and again made references to my journalistic style of writing and to my alter ego as a blogger, then at our last meeting he said that I am writing more like an academic. To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about. My undergraduate degree was in Mathematics and Computing Science,  did not have to the three years experience of writing academic essays, and then I went straight into journalism for three or four years. So when it went back to university to study law, I did not consciously write any different. I applied the skills I learnt as a journalist. A good essay was about research and analysis, as far as I could tell. So when it came to my PhD, I did not consciously think that I  had to write as an academic. I simply applied the skills and lessons that served me well, like a habit.

And so, knowing that there would be people who were not familiar with my particular theoretical framework, I decided to dumb down so to speak. I did not think of it like that, I simply wanted to make my research easy to understand. But there is a difference between simplifying in writing, where the reader has something to refer on paper, and orally, where all explanation has to come out of the speaker’s mouth, with or without the help of Powerpoint slides. Unfortunately, I found that I could not do justice to Hegel in a few slides, so I decided to speak only. Furthermore, like a journalist, I focused on one particular thread in my research. Unfortunately, this was the most unHegelian thing I could do. I ignored the dialectic between the different aspects of my research except the most basic of original Hegel and household recycling.

Throughout my PhD, there has been an underlying creative tension of the Hegelian dialectic between myself as a journalist and myself as a (potential) academic. In a sense, my PhD is a synthesis between what I knew as a journalist and what I am supposed to be learning as an academic. But, according to Catherine Malabou, that means that I was relying on a habit of journalism (what I know) and at least consciously resisting an aspect of academia. However, I was also submitting to academia as well, because I found that – by surprise – I was able to understand books in my third year that I could not understand in my first year. The dialectics between resistance and submission is plastic, in that both clearly were shaping it and it was resisting deformation . But then, there is an explosive quality to plastic as well. In my talk, I entered a situation where the need to submit was as strong as the desire to resist and I think I had a major explosion (or implosion). Perhaps I was have been applying the paradigm of journalism to situations where I should have been applying the paradigm of academia (whatever that is). Sometimes it worked and where it had not, I had put the failure down to something else. so, Thomas Kuhn argues, it was only when the conflict between two paradigms were sufficiently great that I reached a point of what Malabou calls le voir venir (To see what is coming). It was like a prophecy given by the Ancient Greek gods warning what might happen if I did not change course. The problem is how? What does say with regard to journalism and academia?

Being accountable for my PhD

My summer was, on the whole, very busy. Aside from two weeks off to watch the Olympics and two weeks over the period of my sister’s wedding, I have been holed up in the PhD office since June writing the final chapter of new material. My goal was to send my superviser the three main chapters for review by the time he comes back at end of September, and I did it.

I felt pretty good and can actually see the end of my PhD in sight. So, with my conclusion and introduction remaining, I formally started the writing up year. My superviser and I have previously discussed having a full first draft by Christmas – I said before, he suggested to use the holiday time. So not much longer to go. The trouble is, so far this month, I seem to have backslidden back into procrastination.

So today, with this blog post, I reaffirm my commitment to have a full first draft by Christmas (whatever that means). I will also be making this commitment on #phdchat and to my church homegroup. 

Being accountable for our time I have found is important. Otherwise, it is quite easy to waste time. Social pressure gets a bad wrap these days, but we cannot avoid it or eliminate it. Trust me, I’ve tried! Even Hegel – yes, him – says that true existence depends on (mutual) recognition by another person we see as equal. We care about what others think. Can you imagine what this world would be like if we didn’t?

The Radicalism of Nick Clegg’s Apology

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime minister, is actually quite radical in apologising for breaking the liberal democrats’ key 2010 manifesto pledge of not increasing tuition fees.

On hindsight, the pledge seems like just another crazy election promise that a governing party cannot keep. Yet, at the time, it was also something that was so easy to believe. Furthermore, the Libdems were neither the Tories nor Labour, so it was easy to believe that they could be different. So there was a lot of disappointment when they turned out to be more of the same. (I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.)

Clegg’s apology shows an awareness of a dialectic between resistance and change that is characteristic of Hegelian philosophy. in the opening chapter to my PhD thesis, I make the point that the only effective liberalism is conservative or incremental. It always looks to the future but lives from moment to moment. It would therefore take a brave politician to promise just a little bit of change. I disagree that the LibDems would have had to be “absolutely sure” that it could meet a manifesto commitment but a dose of realism regarding what’s possible would have been nice.

There is nothing wrong with aiming high. As my mum always said, if you aim for the sun, you’ll at least hit the moon. The problem is that sometimes if you only tell people you’ll hit sun, the moon can seem a bit of a disappointment.

Anyway, according to Hegel, we never actually know that we have reached our goal until we have. History is always written and rewritten after the event. Given this uncertainty, the most sensible option is to go in that direction one step at time. I would argue that many of our economic, social and environmental problems are perhaps a consequence of going too fast. Perhaps the reason why our economy isn’t growing is because the rest of the system is trying to catch up.

A loss of realism could be seen in other government policies too. For example, in the referendum campaigns for the Alternative Vote, both sides justified their positions with wild claims, when in reality the change was a small increment to greater representation. Discussions over the Royal Family also get a bit strange when they go beyond one of values to one of economic benefits. No doubt the same will happen with the referendum on Scottish independence. But at the end of the day, History does show and will show that we have always gradually been moving to a point where every individual will be  mutually recognised and acknowledged by other individuals and no aspect of a person will be suppressed.

Who is your PhD for?

It may sound like an odd question, even presumptuous to ask who my PhD is for. I’ve always justified my choice to do one on the grounds that I love research and I found a subject I wanted to explore. (Why do people act environmentally friendly – answer, we always do.) In other words it was all about me. But if that were true, then I know from my own experience that I probably would have got bored. I have only been able to sustain interest in the most mundane of activities by looking beyond myself.

My experience is supported by a number of philosophers and scientists. Hegel’s philosophy in a nutshell is that a person can have a full existence not only if it lives for itself but also lives for another. Freud says that while pleasure comes from the release of tension, ultimately ending in the final release and death, our instinct for life goes beyond the pleasure principle. According to neuroscience research, neurons survive when connections are made to other neurons.

The question is, who else is my PhD for?

The immediate and obvious answer is that my PhD is created for my supervisers and viva examiners. After all, at the end of the day, I don’t want to have nothing to show for the time and money (especially as its not my money). So even though it is my research, I don’t think I have ever rejected any of the guidance or recommendations provided by my superviser. And I do have one eye to what the examiners will read and how I might justify what I have written, to the extent that I have cited my intended examiners’ work.

But if that’s all my PhD is for, it would probably be pulped after viva instead of being available in the library. instead, it becomes another brick in the wall of knowledge, waiting for others to build on it. So my PhD is for other researchers.

But I don’t intend that my PhD collects dust in an academic library, hoping that someone finds it. After all, if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one around, does it make a sound? Similarly, as Hegel argued, does my research exist if there is no one to at least acknowledge or recognise it. One of my favourite metaphors for doing a PhD is pregnancy and childbirth, complete with labour pains; why would I not want to show off my baby? not just at conferences and in articles, but a book,this blog and other social media channels. My PhD started life as an environmental problem. Well, I do think it may or may not suggest particular policy actions. I hope its not presumptuous of me to think that my PhD is for society.

Finally, before I started, I prayed that whatever I produced from my research would not contradict the Bible. As far as I can see, God has answered my prayer. Indeed, my research has given me a greater understanding of many of the paradoxes in christianity. Furthermore, Hegel’s philosophy is obviously influenced by christianity and one cannot deal with him without dealing with the spirituality, which is heavily interwoven in it. So in the end my PhD is for God.

What does a PhD and an Olympic medal have in common?

I have been distracted by the Olympics the last week or so and, as I watched Team GB scoop up medals, I noticed certain similarities between a PhD student and an Olympic athlete. (Of course, in its totality, doing a PhD is nothing like an Olympic sport.)

One could argue that it takes 3-4 years of intellectual training and gymnastics to produce a thesis. But it all comes down  to your performance in the viva, which I understand to be a stressful and nervewracking experience. Of course, there has to be something to defend, so the time and commitment to research and write and learning to be a researcher are one’s training for the viva. Indeed, Professor Vernon Trafford argues in his book “Stepping stones to achieving your doctorate” that preparation for viva begins on day one of the PhD programme, just as training for London 2012 arguably started when Beijing 2008 ended.

Submission is therefore qualification to take part in viva, which is where the real testing begins. Our thesis is subjected to real examination and only those that are strong enough get the medal of a PhD. As in the race between Victoria Pendleton and Anna Mears or in the individual showjumping, it comes down to discussions between the examiners and we’ll get either gold (no amendments), silver (minor amendments) or bronze (major amendments). Of course, we’ll train and hone our skill through conferences, articles, teaching and so on but without the PhD, nothing else really matters.

At the end of the day, we have to have confidence in our thesis as the athletes do in their ability. our success depends on our own entourage too. Unfortunately, we can’t look to the atmosphere of the crowd in the viva, but I guess we could simulate it beforehand using social media.

There are probably other parallels I could draw. But there are two key differences: an Oympic career is usually over by the age of 40 (unless you are a showjumper) but a PhD can be done at any age and it can often mean the start of something new. Also we get to wear funny costumes (again, like a showjumper).

If you can think of any other parallels between a PhD and an Olympic medal, please comment.

Why I don’t object to a plastic bag tax?

Despite recent calls from  environmental groups for a plastic bag tax in England, the UK government’s reluctance to legislate for it is a sign of its dominance over us.

This application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle in this instance makes complete sense. As the user of single-use bags, the individual is also the producer of bag waste. So, as with household waste, the state has recognised the importance of changing behaviour. A number of local authorities (Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Halton Borough) have seen an increase in recycling rates as a result of reward-based incentive schemes run by Recyclebank and others (Bromley, Barnet, Islington) have had success by imposing fines on people who do not separate recyclables from waste. Similarly, when the Welsh Government introduced a 5p charge for single-use carrier bags in October 2011, a study carried out in conjunction with retailers revealed that bag usage fell by between 40-96%, depending on what was being bought. Furthermore, it claims that the fall was even greater than it was in England where some retailers do charge for single-use bags. These figures on their own seem to suggest that a single-use bag charge does have the desired effect of changing individual behaviour. After all, no-one likes to lose out, even if it is only 5p.

But negative and positive incentives (or law in general) do not change behaviour per se. Well, as Hegel would point out, it does and it does not. Of course, the rational consumer does not want to lose 5p. But, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have argued, there is no such as thing as a purely rational individuals – homo sapiens (human beings) are not the same as homo economicus. That is perhaps why, in their book Nudge, they distinguish incentives from the more relational nudges, which are tools that the content architect (or lawmaker) uses to change the content architecture or environment. Libertarian paternalism indicative of a father as traditional metaphor for the state,  raising the metaphorical child (household or individual). But in reality, according to Hegel, the relationship is more like a mother and father, where both the state and non-state actors are responsible for the protection of children, or future generations. (Indeed, when Hegel said that ‘the real is rational, and the rational is real’, he was indicating it is rational to be real or relational.) Therefore, a nudge can be viewed as a physical act of the state, which interacts with the body or environment individual to which the individual responds. If an incentive were purely a rational instrument, everyone would have responded to a single-use bag charge equally in all circumstances. But, in keeping with libertarian paternalism, the single-use bag charge does not take away a space for opposition.

I would argue that incentives, such as a plastic bag tax, are nudges precisely because they are changes to the environment to which the individual responds; that is, they are rational because they are relational. As a result, the plastic bag tax is not the only thing in the environment which would call for a response; whether an individual chooses to take a bag depends on the prioritisation of environmental factors (or nudges). The Welsh government’s data showed that bag usage depended on what was bought and where. The food service sector recorded a smaller reduction than retailers because the product is less likely to require bags. In other words, a nudge is about an ability to respond, or be responsible in a particular situation. But, the significant reduction in single-use bags – in some contexts, as much as 95% – suggests that there are or were situations when individuals were using single-use bags when they did not really need them. If this is the case, then using a plastic bag is more than just simple behaviour; it could be argued to be a habit or even an addiction, which we think we need even when we don’t and holding on to it can be damaging. In other words, we have a responsibility to the environment but we do not know we are able to respond to the environment. Even if we we can recognise our responsibility on an intellectual level, our ability to respond is based on how much the content architect allows us to respond.

The state, in this respect, is not only a metaphorical father and content architect but also a doctor specialising in addictions trying to make us better. The physicality of a nudge is like the swallowing of medicine. An incentive – whether positive or negative – is like a spoonful or sugar to help the medicine go down. The problem is that sugar is also addictive if we become accustomed to it. Government research into incentives for household recycling found that incentives only led to an increase in recycling up to an extent. The Greater London Assembly has cast doubts on the effectiveness of incentives in the long-term – we either get used to the loss or want more and more – and there is a lot of psychological research which supports this.  Making it more difficult to have something – and ultimately going cold turkey – is arguably just as effective at encouraging desired behaviour. According to House of Commons research, over 59% of local authorities have reduced residual waste collection, which has led to an increase in recycling, because households were forced by a changing environment to think about what to do with their waste. Similarly, when WH Smiths stopped handing out plastic bags automatically to customers, it saw a 12% fall in bags handed out; because customers had to ask, they had to think about whether they needed it. It was as if WH Smith and councils had been feeding an addiction before. Incentives are not necessary to change behaviour but it definitely speeds up the process. Anything that helps us come off a drug can only be a good thing but to stay off, the drug has to be removed. In that sense, the UK government’s reluctance to adopt a plastic bag tax is only enabling our addiction and keeping us weak. It denies us the opportunity to be grown up and responsible; it does not mean that we have to do always comply – not use a plastic bag – if it is not appropriate to situation.

What’s the story of your PhD?

In writing up my PhD, the question my brain seems to ask the most is not “where do I go from here?” but “how do I get to where I want to go?” It seems to want to create the narrative or story first, before I have done the reading or research. Having come up with what it thinks is the story of my thesis does it then ask “well, is there research to make this story believable or viable?”

Of course, if there wasn’t, then the story would be rewritten accordingly. Nevertheless, my biggest worry was that I was being self-selective in the data collection. But I think the anxiety made me more vigilant and thus more willing to explore alternate storylines. Indeed, I often find myself becoming surprised at the direction that the research took me. When I transferred from PhD candidate to student status, me assessor noted that my surprise was evident in my writing, which I hope indicates that I have been prepared to change the narrative when the data changed. I guess that if my brain was expecting one answer, and the data pointed somewhere else, surprise is a natural response.

According to neuroscience research, the brain is designed to look for the most plausible story based on the subjectively known evidence. it is apparently the most conducive to survival if one considers something that looks like a lion and sounds like a lion to actually be a lion, unless proven otherwise. This of course emphasises the importance of doing research, because red berries appear to the caveman to be nice to eat unless they know that the neanderthal next door has died as a result. Nevertheless, there is clearly an inherent conservatism in the brain that is about the conservation of the body and progression or radicalism is a consequence of necessity rather than a default setting. This tension between conservation and progression is highlighted in the philosophy of Hegel, particularly in the reading by Catherine Malabou, that is characterised by plasticity, a capacity to be formed and to resist deformation. When I write, it is like a moment of le voirvenir, to see what is coming, that exists between what went before and what comes after.

I wonder whether the need for a story is why I have always resorted to the narratives of other stories – Oedipus, Thelma and Louise, star trek, Hamlet – and to a phenomological method. After all, narratives are a way of simplifying and ordering a mass complexity. After all, the creativity of the brain is limited only by the information stored. There is nothing in a story that is extraneous and my superviser and anyone who has reviewed my work have always asked “why is this sentence/paragraph here?”.

I also believe that my PhD is a way of ordering experiences that went before.

Dream account: from beetle to butterfly

Ok Freud, figure this out. I just had another weird dream. I am in my room tidying up. I lift up something, forgetting that there is a beetle which I caught earlier. It starts scurrying all over the place until it comes to my  bedside lamp. It stops on the vertical neck and opens up its shell. what then happens is a conversion into a rainbow coloured butterfly gradually but in a compressed timeframe. I rush to open the window. Then I grab to pieces of card. I gently toss the beetle-butterfly towards open window. But I am a bad shot and it gets caught on window frame and slices in two. Top half goes out, bottom half needs my help to do so.

if u know anything about psychoanalysis, what does this dream mean? Answers in comments please.

My conscious mind is already seeing the life and death instinct, with a final breakdown. Perhaps its the writing, cutting, rewriting of my PhD thesis. But it also reflects how I am shaping the plasticity and it is shaping me. it started of as something small, insignificant yet fascinating. Then one day it starts opening up to reveal something beautiful. I am in a rush now to finish and submit, but the thesis will always need me to develop it.

NCIS and the Oedipus Complex

Picture of someone dreaming

I woke up this morning with the strangest dream in my head. Somehow, I developed a final ever episode to the TV series, NCIS. Sort of. This episode, which involved Jethro Gibbs leading his final investigation, “answered” the key “question” that has persisted throughout the series: Why does Gibbs have a particularly special relationship with Abby, the forensic specialist, the most un-Gibbs person ever?

I have always thought that Gibbs saw Abby as a substitute for his daughter Kelly, who was killed as a child. Well, in my mind’s final episode of NCIS, it turns out that Abby actually is Kelly. In my head, obviously, Gibbs’ wife  got a divorce and moved with Kelly to Wiltshire, England. (Why Wiltshire, I don’t know – the only reason is that it came up in a conversation with someone else about something else a few days ago.). Gibbs is so distraught that he feels as if he has lost his wife and daughter for good, as if they have been killed. He obviously tried to fill the whole by continually remarrying and divorcing but it was never quite right. [It is interesting that in one particular case, he says to the murderer who killed his wife for cheating that if there's problem with your wife, you divorce her, don't kill her.] Somehow, Kelly, as a child, saw some pictures of a crime scene and decided that she wanted to work in forensics. Along the way, she changed her name to Abby and became a goth and, completely by coincidence, ended up working at NCIS.

Which begs the question, if Gibbs’ wife and daughter were never actually killed, then who did Gibbs’ kill? The back story to the series, mainly seen through Gibbs’ flashbacks, is that they were killed by a major drugs cartel based in Mexico in revenge for the younger marine Gibbs taking out someone in the cartel. Unfortunately, I woke up before my mind could reconcile my fantasy version of NCIS with the actually script. I do like the notion of Abby as Gibbs’ daughter but I think its more likely that she is a substitute for his daughter.

I have always believed, and neuroscience supports this, that the subconscious processes data after the conscious has given up on it. But the last time I saw NCIS was Wednesday night, I had the dream on Friday night/Saturday morning. I have noticed in the last few weeks of episodes that there seems to be a progression towards a points of moving on, as if we are coming towards the end of the series for good. Or maybe it is just the thoughts of coming to the end of my thesis that are predominant in my conscious mind and trying to tie all the loose ends together and answer the questions. In the process, it tried to answer the ‘Gibbs/Abby’ question in NCIS.

The connection with my phd is that my theoretical framework is based on a psychoanalytic reading of Hegel, where Freud’s Oedipus Complex – or at least my critique on it – plays an important part. In the Oedipus story, Oedipus fulfilled a prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Freud takes the Oedipus story as a metaphor for the development of a child, in Freud’s case the boy. When the boy is born, its closest relationship is with the mother. It has to separate itself from the mother – be abandoned – in order for it to grow independently. After disidentifying with the mother, it makes up for the loss eventually by identifying with the father. In Freud’s theory, the boy desires to replace the father but it can only do so by killing him, something which, like Oedipus, it shies away from (the incest taboo). Because the mother is inaccessible, the male seeks a relationship with another female. Freud deals with the development of the male but the feminist critique of his theory is that it applies the female as well. In my NCIS dream, Kelly is separated from her father and Gibbs desires another female to fill the hole left by his wife. Of course, none of the women he subsequently marries can match up to his wife – they don’t even have the same hair colour as her. Well, except perhaps Colonel Mann. Is they only person who can fill it a substitute daughter? Perhaps, in the process of pulling the threads together, my brain was remaking the Oedipus Complex with modern-day TV characters.

Responsibility to defend my thesis

The Good Samaritan by George Frederic Watts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What does it mean to be responsible?
I found out this weekend that trying to explain/defend my thesis to a lay person is far more challenging than defending it to an academic. But I strongly recommend it.

My thesis is: “The purpose of law is just to remind people of their responsibility and not specifically to change their behaviour.”

When I stated this thesis to a couple of guys from church, practitioners in engineering and software development respectively, it led to the following paraphrased questions which, for whatever reason, I have not been asked in an academic setting.

(1) Surely law is suppose to change behaviour from undesirable to desirable otherwise what’s the point?

Yes, one of the consequences of law could be a change in behaviour. But I would argue that it is a question of causality. Behavioural change is a potential consequence of a law but that is only because the law has reminded the person of their responsibility. In other words, the influence of an external force such as law triggers something inside about  what someone should do. But, just because someone is being “told” what to do, it does not automatically follow that they will do it. There can be other factors, both internal and external, that can either make it easier or more difficult or more or less preferable to behave in a certain way. So, what one does is usually the result of an internal discussion. Of course, the longevity of the law points to its success at leading to changed behaviour but that is not the same as directly causing it.”

(2) So law is about making people feel guilty?

No, the idea of generating guilt stems from a misconception of responsability. The law reminds people of their ‘response’ ‘ability’, that is their ability to respond to the needs of others, the environment, etc.  In other words, one has responsibility to others to the extent that one is able to respond. So, in the hypothetical example that was posed to me, if I am standing on the bank of a river or lake and I see someone drowning, in principle I would have a responsibility to jump in and save them. But, of course, if I cannot swim, I cannot be held responsible for that. If a phone, I could be responsible for calling the emergency services (perhaps). But if the battery is down or there is no signal or I am out of money, I cannot be held responsible for that. And so on. the point is, I am only responsible to do whatever I can do in the circumstances of the time. This is a version of the Good Samaritan law (love your neighbour as yourself).”

My particular area of specialism is environmental law, in particular household recycling. If the authorities want me to behave in a certain way – be responsible by recycling – in a specific situation, then the onus is on them to make it easier for me to do so. Yes, they need to provide an appropriate number of receptacles which are emptied at an appropriate frequency. But does the physical environment in which I live make it more difficult for me to  recycle or put the bins out? What can I do to make it easier and what can they do? Am I able to buy enough products in recycled packaging and how do I know it can be recycled? This is  an extension of the political philosophy known as libertarian paternalism. But, the state’s role is not just about influencing behaviour or nudging  whilst enabling freedom of choice, it is about empowering the individual to be a responsible or moral being.

Do you understand what my PhD is really about?

That’s been the most difficult question I’ve had to deal with during the course of my PhD. Honestly, how do you explain something really complex to people who don’t know anything? Usually, I waffle on about recycling and incentives and through in something around relationships until they go away. But lately I’ve been trying to prepare for my transfer from MPhil/PhD to PhD and I just could not get my thesis abstract quite right. Eventually, my supervisor suggested to write an abstract as if for the layperson, like a blog post. And it worked. So, I am curious now, how comprehensible is my thesis abstract? Please let know what you think.

In my thesis, I argue that a post-humanist approach to environmental law can be developed from a reading of Hegel. Society is ultimately made up of networks of individuals-in-families. Hegel calls the force that hold society together (mutual) Recognition but Jessica Benjamin reads it as Love. The conservation of society comes from the self’s responsibility to (or ability to respond to the needs of) others who depend on the self in the present and the present generation’s responsibility to future generations. Through Catherine Malabou’s reading of Hegel, the family based on marriage and procreation represents a plastic future that is not just a distinct entity from the present but exists simultaneously and is continually transformed by and into the present. This is reflected through the expansion of human civilisation. This means that to be human is constantly changing over time to include whatever is in its environment. In other words, to be human is to be post-human – the human self is its environmental other. The totality of relations between individual humans and their environment is reflected in the relationship between society and the environment. If law is an expression of the self’s responsibility to the other, then all law is arguably environmental law.

Therefore, I argue that law can be nothing more than an aide-memoire of the responsibility and dependence of the self and other. This can be seen from analysis of EU and national waste legislation, local authority literature, government and NGO reports and journalistic articles. The government recognises the role of individuals-in-households and the importance of changing household behaviour to reduce waste and increase recycling rates. This corresponds with the Hegelian family as the basis for society. But there is a debate regarding the limit of the law. On the one hand, the household is the untamed environment of the state; on the other hand, it is protected from the legal environment. Local authorities have an array of different household waste and recycling policies, such as incentivisation, co-mingling and the frequency of collections. The evidence indicates that the more invasive the policy into the running of the household, the more the household is able to reduce waste, increasing recycling and also prevent waste. This demonstrates that when the legal environment is brought inside the household, it reminds the household not only of its responsibility to the state but also of society’s responsibility to the environment.

So, since all law is environmental law, the marginalisation of sections of society is akin to the landfilling of waste. Previously, the household could buy products and dispose of waste by sending it into the environment and forgetting about it. Similarly, sections of society (individuals-in-households) arguably make use of other individuals-in-households until they do not need them any more. This master/slave dialectic is reflected in various ways, including age, socioeconomy, race, physical ability, sex, etc. Hegel argues that this relationship is always one step before breakdown, so perpetuating the imbalance. But since the human is post-human, the relationship has a plasticity that indicates that wasted communities are recyclable. However, through law, their wasting can be prevented because recycling is Hegelian Recognition. I argue that this will result in a more equal society, with an aspiration of a zero waste society. In other words, social equality does not come from the creation of rights (alone) that require resources to enforce them but responsibility that requires a sense of agency or subjectivity.

PhD, blogging and procrastination

It’s been a month since my last blog post, but it feels like an eternity. Furthermore, tweeting has gone way down too.  But I guess that’s what happens when real life takes over. Truth is, as useful and creative as social media can be, it can also be a major source of procrastination. A bit like talking on the phone with friends.

I knew that when I started the ‘Not a PhD Thesis’ blog, I was not going to put myself under the pressure of updating it every day. But I still managed to write something at least once a week, often more. Often, it was a way of taking a break from my PhD. And often it was a way of exploring ideas within my PhD and the application of theory to practice. So I never expected to go so long from the field. It’s been a month, but in internet time, that’s forever.

As I said, real life (well, offline life) took over. Soon after the start of 2012, it hit me that I in my third year and into the end game of my PhD. My plan, when I started, was to submit this July. As I’ve progressed, that date has slowly slipped back, to August, then September. In my fourth year, I enter the official writing up stage. For the first six months of the fourth year, I don’t need pay any fees. Given that I don’t pay my own fees but someone else is paying them, it made sense therefore that I effectively have until April 2013 to submit my thesis. (Otherwise, what they expected to pay goes up.) I am pretty sure that I don’t need to wait until next April and I’m not sure that I want to wait that long, so I am resolved to submit by December/January, which I think is doable. The only thing is that I have not even transferred/upgraded to PhD status yet, which I should have done last September. (Most of my colleagues have not transferred either but that’s besides the point.) Once I transfer, then I am can go for the PhD, otherwise I might have to settle for the MPhil – frankly, after three years, that would feel like such a waste of my time, not to mention a waste of my sponsor’s money. So the last two months, my only goal has been to complete all the documentation for this deadline, including writing and finalising two chapters. I finally got this done last Friday and I should be able to submit the documents within two weeks. Just need supervisers’ signatures.

I am now ready to move onto chapters three and four. The great thing is that I’ve effectively written half my thesis (not including introduction and finetuning). All of sudden, an 80,000 word thesis is no longer on the other side of a canyon. I feel like Thelma and Louise mid-air over the top. Yes, I know that we don’t if they made it across but that’s what faith is for.

According to the Procrastination Equation, I am an impulsive being. Blogging and tweeting did become forms of procrastination. They had more immediately fulfillable rewards plus, while it was important that I succeed, the expectancy that I would be able write 80,000 words was low. Indeed, the only way I’ve been able to force myself to write was by reducing the ‘delay to reward’ and ‘expectancy of success’ to 1,000 words a day. That worked to an extent. But, the last two months, not only was I focusing on 1,000 words a day, I also added an extra deadline of the end of March and just put loads of pressure on myself so that no meeting that deadline would feel like the end of the world. It also helped that at the time when I wanted as much time as possible to work on my PhD, I also got a number of opportunities to engage in teaching and this reduced the time available and added to the pressure. It was a both good and bad timing, because it forced to me to focus. So, having achieved my goal within my deadline, more or less, my expectancy of success has gone way up on two counts: word count and duration.

I can relax a little a bit now but not too much. I am still an impulsive being. So I have to find ways of overcoming it either. Fortunately, my most immediate research tasks is more reading and, since the weather is expected to be good for the next few days, I can decamp to the park. (Yes, I know, it’s hard life doing a PhD sometimes.) But that’s not always going to work, when I am writing up or researching online. In those times, I find that I have to schedule blocks of procrastination to get it out my system before I start work for the day, at lunch time or at the end of the working day, or sometimes I just have to resist.

The Procrastination Equation, as developed by Dr Piers Steel, is a formulaic and psychological way of understanding our dialectic nature as individuals, and the dialectic nature of the world. Catherine Malabou says that we are plastic – we can be formed by others as well as resist deformation. In other words, our plasticity (developed from the philosophy of Hegel) as individuals is our susceptability to change and our capacity to resist- or our propensity to procrastinate. It’s not just PhDs we procrastinate on but on everything we do or have to do – from paying our bills to tackling climate change.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I will stop blogging, but it might be I don’t blog as often I used to. After all, I can’t stop my propensity to procrastinate, but I can make it work for me instead of against me.

For more on the above and other ideas to tackle procrastination, I strongly recomment ‘The Procrastination Equation’ by Dr Piers Steel.

Facebook IPO: What would Hegel do?

I am pretty sure that the investment potential of Facebook is underpinned by the theoretical knowledge of Hegel. Having studied him for the last two years during my PhD, I am pretty sure that Hegel, that German, 18th century philosopher known as the father of the modern state would not only be one of Mark Zuckerberg’s closest friends, he probably would have found Facebook. Except that he would have called it something like Recognition or Dialectic. He would be an avid blogger – quite handy when wars across Europe and/or financial hardship are making it difficult to publish – and made pretty good use of wikis. It would have been interesting to see something like the Phenomenology of Mind promoted via Twitter but I am pretty sure he would be a Networked Researcher.

So when I read Mark Zuckberberg‘s letter to potential investors as to what they should know about investing in Facebook, I could not help thinking that Hegel would be proud. Both Hegel and Zuckerberg emphasise the foundational importance of relationships. The essence of Hegel’s philosophy is Recognition, where each self-consciousness (i.e. human being) exists in and for itself in that it exists for another self-consciousness, that is ‘it is only by acknowledged and recognised’ (Phenomenology of Mind). In The Bonds of Love, the feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin argues that Recognition is so central to our existence that we often take it for granted; she says that near synonyms include ‘affirmation, validation, acknowledgement, knowledge, acceptance, understanding, empathy, taking in, tolerance, appreciation, sight, identification with, find familiar with and love’. Hegel is so bold as to argue that society, though an extension of the family, starts with a unity of individual consciousnesses of oneself held together by a feeling of love. ‘The first element of love is that I will to be no longer an independent self-sufficing person and that, if I were such a person, I should feel myself lack and incomplete. The second element is that I gain myself in another person, in whom I am recognised, as he again is in me. Hence, love is the most tremendous contradiction, incapable of being solved by the understanding.’ (Philosophy of Right). It is difficult to argue that Zuckerberg would not have sympathy with that view. He describes Facebook social mission as starting small, ‘with the relationship two people':

Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.

His stated aim for Facebook is to help people connect, share information and build those relationships, whether it’s with small circle or half the world. What’s interesting is that he then goes on to what appears to be an ultimate agenda of rewiring ‘the way people spread and consume information, believing that ‘the world’s information infrastructure’ resemble the social graph – a network built from the bottom-up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date’. This way of transmitting information is not dissimilar to what the growing body of neuroscience demonstrates about how the brain works, points out the French Hegelian philosopher Catherine Malabou (What should we do with the Brain?). In other words, how we individually process information, neuron by neuron, would seem a logical way for how we relate to people, convey information and how societal change is achieved. A key element of a neuron though is that it does not easily connect to other neurons – Malabou calls it explosion – and bonds only become stronger gradually over time. It’s also why we take time to drop habits (The Future of Hegel). Zuckerberg says:

As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use. This makes it easier to discover the best products and improve the quality and efficiency of their lives.”

Malabou develops Hegel’s notion of plasticity to emphasise the tension between our resistance to and our susceptibility to change. As can be seen from Zuckerberg’s approach, it’s a conservative (incremental) approach to achieve a radical or progressive goal of ‘a stronger economy with more authentic businesses that build better products and services’ and better government that responds to its citizens. And let’s be honest, the big problems that put us off companies and politicians is poor customer service, marketing that we just cannot relate too and products that just don’t meet our needs.
This brings me on to the ‘Hacker’ way, which Zuckerberg defines as ‘building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done’. In many ways, I would argue that Hegel was a hacker. Certainly, his key text, the Phenomenology of Mind, published in 1807, was something that had to be finished quickly because of financial pressures and concerns about war. In a continent dominated by Christianity, he certainly tested boundaries, with his philosophy taking in or recognising ideas from Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Indeed, in my view, by focusing on Recognition, he is arguing in favour of seeing beyond the illusion of self and other to what connects the two.  And, studying and then writing during the French Revolution, he was always a strong liberal; however, he recognised that liberalism could not be imposed from the top-down but could only be achieved gradually, incrementally, in a bottom-up or peer-to-peer fashion, much like the ‘continuous improvement and iteration’ of Facebook’s Hacker Way. Indeed, Malabou suggests that the What Should We Do The Brain? is a critique of a neoliberalism that has distorted the science of the brain and that we really ought to be reading more Hegel. And this is of course why it’s not enough to just read one text by Hegel or even only what he wrote. Whilst his philosophy is premised on their being such a thing as perfection, he describes history as being the development of progress towards perfection. Costas Douzinas points out in The End of Human Rights that the Hegelian Spirit, which was the underlying driver of the change in the word, has never grasped the totality. It goes back and forth between this world and the spiritual dimension and each time it understands a little more about the world. Each moment of time is a little more understanding. Hegel never said that anything that’s gone before is perfect, because the Spirit won’t know perfection until it understands everything. In other words, as Facebook hackers would say: ‘Done is better than perfect’.
The original aim of this post was to argue the relevance of Hegelian philosophy to today’s world. But then, as a true believer, I would say that. More importantly, having read through Zuckerberg’s letter, I am pretty sure that there is a theoretical basis to Facebook’s mission (and social media in general). Hmm, I wonder if I should put my money where my blog post is.

What’s in a Name? (Leader of the Wise Men)

US birth certificate
Our names are recorded on our birth certificates

Names are amazing and beautiful. They are relatively small, just a handful of letters, but they are our very first label. They form the basis of our identity and yet are probably the only part of our identity that we do not have any control over. Well, that and our genes, but people won’t generally be asking for a blood test as a matter of course.

This post was inspired by a conversation on Twitter with @rellypops, otherwise known as Narelle. I hope I don’t embarrass her by saying that I thought her name was very beautiful. The funny thing is that if she had not contributed a post to my other blog, I would be thinking she was a guy, based on our earlier conversations. Although on hindsight, Narelle doesn’t sound like a guy’s name.

So, as I was saying, I generally find names to be amazing. In my view, they are the second gift to us from our parents (the first being life). But whatever the reason our parents chose our names, I think God was inspiring them somehow because our names are an indication of our destiny. Of course, with a name like Pravin, I might be a bit biased.

The story of how my parents decided on my name is, er, interesting. Actually, it’s quite mundane. My mum was flicking through some of my dad’s professional membership magazines (he was an engineer). Apparently, she saw the name Pravin in one of the magazines. The story became more interesting when I asked what my name meant. (Actually, I’m not sure whether I asked or whether they just told me.) Apparently, according to them, my name means ‘Leader of the Wise Men’. Talk about ego booster.  Of course, this may have been a little poetic licence, because when I googled my name years later, all I could find for a meaning was ‘expert’, although it could be argued that an expert is a leader of wise men in a way. (Ok, yes, I am biased.)

I have to be honest the meaning of my name did have an influence on me. I did focus more time on academic study, as opposed to social relations, because I wanted to live up to my name. (My academics at school and degree level perhaps didn’t make me leader.) But I also started creating my own narrative. I remembered how, when I was younger, whenever I played a role in the nativity at school, I was always one the wise men (usually the one who brought myrrh). In a another school play, I was a grand vizier. When I played Vashistha in the Ramayana for a tamil community association play, it was not lost of me that Vashistha was the leader of the wise men. Then, from my shortlived career as a journalist to my current role as a PhD student and blogger, perhaps that thought of being some kind of an expert is there, subconsciously.

Hegel
Hegel - Leader of the Wise Men?

Perhaps its partly why I am drawn to the dialectical philosophy of Hegel. In The End of Human Rights, Costas Douzinas describes as a totalising philosophy that is meant to encompass all philosophies, a sort of theory of everything or logos. Hegel himself was very much an interdiscplinary scholar. In the introduction to J B Baillie’s’s of The Phenomenology of Spirit, Baillie said that Hegel sought to incorporate all the philosophical theories of the past by “giving logical continuity to what in appearance was mere historical sequence, and by showing that his own distinctive principle of synthesis was at once the presuppositions, the outcomes and the completion of his predecessors”. He saw that his principle of synthesis could only be vindicated completely if it contained “every fundamental type of experience in which mind had been historically realised”. In a sense, one could argue that Hegel sought to be a ‘leader of wise men’, although it is up to us to decide whether he was or not. But what’s interesting is that being the leader didn’t mean coming up with his own thing from scratch but humbly recognising the work of others and building on that. The leader is, not the first in line but the last or the follower and is no-one without those who have gone before or standing underneath. It’s like Isaac Newton saying that he was standing on the shoulder of giants.

Now I haven’t really had any wider discussions with many other people about their names, usually because they don’t know. But my dad’s name, which in Tamil culture is my surname, means ‘King of Victory’. Out of respect, I don’t want to go into to many details but I can see how that is an appropriate name for him. Indeed, names must mean something when even God places a value on the names we are given. The first woman was called Eve because ‘she would be become the mother of all life’ and it is our mothers who give us life by carrying us in the womb, giving birth, breastfeeding and nurturing us. (If we think about the use of ‘eve’ now, it refers to the day before, just as our mothers came before us.) God renamed Abram as Abraham (Hebrew for father of many) because he would be ‘a father of many nations’. And then of course, there is Joshua and Jesus, Hebrew and Greek respectively for ‘God saves’, and both them did end up saving people. The irony is that, at the time of the Roman Empire, Jesus was a pretty popular name in Palestine (understandably) – the man who was freed by Pontius Pilate in place of Jesus – was Jesus Barabbas, a convicted murderer. This suggests that a lot of people perhaps do not live up to their (God-given) names.

So what would it mean for me to live up to my name of ‘expert’ or ‘leader of the wise men’. From Hegel’s example, to be a leader means to be a follower and to recognise that you cannot do things on your own, that you need other people.  Certainly, this is what Jesus told his disciples – the first shall be last and the last shall be first. But what does it mean to be wise. Was Hegel a ‘leader of wise men’ or just a very knowledgeable one? After all, a philosopher is Greek for wise man. Is it presumptuous of me to think that it is God’s will for me to be a the leader/follower of philosophers? This is a really difficult. This is the first time I’ve really sat down and thought about the meaning of my name and what it means. Perhaps God told me right from the very beginning what he wanted me to do. I remember being asked at the age of six what I wanted to be  when I grew up and I said that I wanted to be scientist that invents a machine that converts grass to spaghetti (hey, I was six). However, since my degree, I have not gone down the science route. Or have I? If one thinks of the original meaning of science as ‘knowledge’, then surely a student and journalist are both seekers of knowledge, i.e. scientists. And, according to the Book of Proverbs (in the Bible), the beginning of knowledge is the fear/reverence of the Lord. In other words, taking my name in full, my destiny is to be ‘a follower of God’ and ‘Jesus’ (who is the King of Victory). It was never my intention that this post would end like this but I think I can actually say ‘I found my destiny’. Now, I just need to see it through to the end.

Did I not say that names are amazing?

Reading the Riots: An Environmental Problem

Landfill
Clearing away the waste

The UK riots during the summer were the result of people who perpetually felt outside the law, according the research by The Guardian and London School of Economics and contrary to the government’s assertion that it was solely down to criminals.

One of the starker statistics of the newspaper’s ‘Reading the Riot’ series is that 85% of 270 people who took part in the riots attributed policing as a “significant cause”. Indeed, 75% said that they had been repeatedly stopped and searched but there was also a less tangible general anger towards the lack of respect shown by the police. In other words, for the vast majority of rioters  – and perhaps they represent an even larger silent group – law and the state were not about their protection but about their oppression and alienation.

If we take the riots as a series of crimes, then the first instinct is to condemn them. But, in his reading of Hegel, The end of human rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century, Costas Douzinas suggests that crime is in fact a cry for help by the offender. ‘The essence of crime is the criminal’s demand to be recognised and to be respected as a concrete and unique individual against the uniform coercion of the legal system.’ (p277). It is the failure to recognise people as beings who deserve respect and dignity that ultimately pushes them  into alienation and then to trangress the law. (I don’t want to say this true of all criminals but certainly this could be said for many of them.) Of course, a thief often steals to meet unfulfilled needs but the law has a tendency to force people to fit into a certain mould. Crime then becomes a way for the individual to have a voice. Given the link between identity and property, it is surely not surprising that many of the crimes were acquisitive in nature (even if they did verge on the bizarre in some cases).

This lack of recognition or respect by the law can be seen clearly in the way that stop and search powers are applied disproportionately to black people and how the whole ‘War on Terror’ discourse has targetted Muslims (and arguably people who look as if they are Muslim). But the Guardian/LSE research shows that race was just one of a number of contributing factors, including poverty, unemployment and lack of education. What they all shared was a general sense of alienation and of not being a ‘part of British society’.

What happened is that whole swathes of the population have been pushed out into the environment (so to speak) of British society. There are a core group of decision-makers and direct beneficiaries at the centre and everyone else around the edges. Perhaps the Occupy movement captures this thought best with the distinction between the 99% and the 1%. (I think it’s probably more than 1% who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo but as a slogan it’s pretty catchy.)

It was interesting that phase 1 of the ‘Reading the Riots’ research was published in the same week as the end of the climate change conference in Durban. One could argue that when the riots happened, like climate change, the environment came back to bite society on the arse. And, like climate change, it wasn’t those in power who were the victims but other parts of the environment.

In the battle against climate change, recycling and renewable energy are seen as the solutions and creating waste the problem. Perhaps the problem that led up to the riots (and other forms of alienation) is that people are treated as waste and not valued as a ‘part of British Society’. When we throw things away, the state (in the form of the local authority) collects it and disposes of it at landfills or buries it. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. The problem with waste is that it is never cut off from society. Pollutants will still get into the soil and the air and affect us. That’s why the law imposes an obligation on local authorities to provide recycling services. Whilst the analogy isn’t perfect, perhaps this is how the 1% sees the 99%: resources and waste of their money and power.

It was interesting that the David Cameron claimed he used his veto against the plan amend the Lisbon Treaty to solidify closer fiscal union in the Eurozone in the interests of Britain. What he considered British interests was in fact the interests of (not even the whole of) the Conservative Party and its backers and, more debatabely, the City. He even told Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarchozy that the EU and the ECJ do not belong to them, suggesting possible legal action. So, once again, the power elite in Britain sees law as a way to maintain the status quo. The irony, according to many commentators and politicians,  is that maybe Britain itself got pushed into the environment.

Protests, plastic bullets and plasticity

As I write, there is a possibility that we won’t get through today without London police using plastic bullets on students and protesters. But, of course, being someone pretty immersed in the works of Hegel and Catherine Malabou, I just had to give some thought to the plasticity of those bullets.

By way of a disclaimer, I would like state that I am wholly anti-weapons of any kind, particularly in the hands of people in authority and as instruments of fear, power and security. So plastic bullets and baton rounds are no more justifiable than guns and metal bullets. (When I tweeted on the subject of this post, I found myself in a hole.)

In Hegelian thought, plasticity is the character of the dialectic. Something is plastic if, on the one hand, it gives form (shapes) and, on the other hand, receives form (is shaped). But it also points to the contradiction between resistance and change. One the one hand, something is plastic if it can be moulded (receive form) but, having been moulded, it resists deformation.

Plastic bullets have obviously been shaped, that is unfolded from a universal concept of plastic into something determinant (bullet-shaped). But what is it that they shape? Their purpose, apparently, is to disperse crowds (i.e. protests), or at least, to influence their direction in which the crowd is going (i.e. away from the bullets, police and protected areas). But the protest is arguably more plastic than the bullet. It can be unfolded out of the universal crowd into a determinant group of people and, in response to environmental factors, it can change form, disperse and come together and still be a protest. Indeed, it is has been observed in previous protests that ordinary members of the universal crowd can get caught up in someway with the protest and police have not always been able to distinguish between the two.

But plastic bullets are plastic because their whole raison d’etre is that they resist deformation. Indeed, it is the basis for the fear of pain that they engender. Unfortunately, it is this apparent plasticity that also gives them the capacity to do more than just hurt, which is why there is a concern. They have been known to kill and maim.

There is also a certain plasticity in their function. When they are in the baton round, they are plastic bullets, at least potentially. After they are fired, they become actual bullets. But once they have either hit or missed their target, it is no longer a bullet. Its purpose loses form and dissolves into the universal detritus (waste). But their capacity to resist deformation means that they can be recovered by the police and reused by the bullets either at different protesters or at a different protest. So plastic bullets are, in a sense, reusable and recyclable.

I have to be honest, as a researcher in environmental law, it’s nice to see the police taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. But at what cost? Recycling in general is important for the environment and there is a certain plasticity to it – the continuous formation and deformation and formation. But just as recycling feeds into a culture of consumption, surely plastic bullets, despite claims of responsible use, will make it easier for the police to be more casual in their deployment, knowing that one plastic bullet can be used many more times than a metal bullet. How many times are the police looking to use it? It’s difficult to conceive of British authorities going the way of the Syrians but I don’t really want to finish the sentence.

 

Recycling: Information, not Incentives

PhD Graduates
Sometimes it feels like you need a PhD to recycle

For my PhD, I am looking at the impact of incentives on increasing recycling rates. So far, I have focused on Windsor and Maidenhead Borough council which launched the first incentivised household recycling scheme in the UK, operated by an American company Recyclebank.

Let’s cut to the chase. According to Windsor and Maidenhead’s own data, offering incentives – reward points to redeem at local businesses – for recycling does increase recycling rates. In a sense, this is not really surprising. Who wouldn’t want to be paid for doing the right thing? Particularly in the current economic situation, anything that helps with running a household can only be good thing.

And yes, the notion of incentives does recognise that we are not purely righteous beings, that we do have a selfish side. The problem with incentives is that it only focuses on our selfish nature, when the real barrier to recycling was that our righteous side is not being massaged enough.

According to the Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP), the problem with recycling rates is not that most people aren’t recycling but that most people aren’t recycling enough. Most of us are convinced of the argument for recycling, but we’re not provided with either the information or the environment that will help us to recycle, and so we resort back to what we know – the residual waste bin.

Today’s edition of Dispatches, the cleverly-titled ‘Britain’s Rubbish‘, provided examples of how information overload is leading to paralysis. There is no industry standard for recycling labels – seven were counted – and facilities for unusual types of plastic packaging may not always or easily be available. I know that my own local authority states that it cannot recycle Tetra Packs, even though the packaging themselves say that it can be recycled. And what about bottle tops? They don’t have any recycling labels, even though the bottle does. What do I do? Put it in the green bin anyway or throw it in the brown bin.

Another problem is food waste, where two-thirds of what we throw away is still edible. There are three different dates which appear on packaging – ‘Best Before’, ‘Sell by’ and ‘Use by’. The latter ‘Use by’ was found to be a conservative industry estimate, although this is understandable in light of health and safety – in fact, a lot of food is still OK to eat 10 days after this date. ‘Sell by’ dates, which has been the subject of recent government guidelines to phase it out, is more an indication to the supermarket as to when to reorder and restock.  And, of course, it is possible that consumers buy too much in the first place, under pressure from the array of special offers.

Without information clarity, it is not surprising that – even though we believe in the importance of recycling – we can find it a challenge to figure out quite which bin to put stuff in, especially if there are bins for different type of recyclable packaging. The residual waste bin is the devil we know. It has been argued that mixed recycling, where we throw recyclables into one bin, is convenient and the solution to contamination. The problem is that the sorting is carried out by machine and technology, which look for certain criteria, so things are always missed. Although self-reported recycling industry rates are 3-4%, the Environment Agency say that it is closer to 11%. While mixed recycling collections might help the government achieve the headline target of 50% by 2020, 15-20% of that may still end up back in landfill.

Mixed, or co-mingled, recycling may be convenient, but it means that councils are not able to profit from a proportion of what’s collected. In times of public sector cuts, they could do with all the money they can get. Household sorting or even kerbside sorting would actually be more beneficial for councils and their constituencies. But that can only work if the information provided is clear.

What I found particularly interesting from the Dispatches documentary is that mixed recycling collections could actually be illegal, because the EU’s own rules stipulates that separate collections should be carried out for different types of packaging. This is the subject of a Judicial Review claim at the moment.

Of course, the lack of information clarity can also become an excuse for laziness on the part of the consumer. In the documentary, when one woman with a fair number of kids, agreed to be deprived of her residual waste bin, she was forced to think about how she could reuse or recycle. In the space of three weeks, her residual waste went from 13 kg to just 5 kg. So perhaps the residual waste bin is like a security blanket. This raises a question about the government’s latest policy to provide a fund to help councils provide weekly collections.

Finally, in one scheme run by a charity, the residual waste was collected in a seethru bag, so that people couldn’t hide behind the lack of transparency of the black bag. In other words, concern about what others would think and peer pressure was a big motivator.

In encouraging incentivisation, the government is right to recognise that we are complex individuals who don’t always do what’s right. We are creatures of our environment. However, it fails to take into account that, despite our flaws, we still remain moral beings who want to do what’s right. We just need the right environment.

An alternative view of sustainable development

The problem with the UK’s proposed planning reforms is not the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The problem is the definition of sustainable development itself.

The draft National Planning Policy Framework uses the usual definition of sustainable development, that is, a balance between the needs of the society, environment and economy.

The problem with this definition is that it is based on the notion of the economy as an entity that is separate from society. If one is going to treat the economy as somehow separate, then one has to ask the question why sustainable development does not include the law, science, theology, etc as separate entities or systems.

It is indisputable that there is a dialectical relationship between society, i.e. human beings, and the environment. When society expresses or describes the nature of its relationship with the environment, it is recognising that the two are connected. That language of recognition is made up of different dialects.

Law is the expression of the relationship in terms of obligation, economics in terms of value (cost and benefit), science in terms of cause and effect and so on. In environmental law, this is demonstrated in the preventative, polluter pays and precautionary principles respectively. All dialects are part of this one language of recognition and, like American, Canadian and Geordie English, society speaks in all dialects depending on the context.

The point is that one dialect, while distinctive, cannot be separated from the rest. So, in the common definition of sustainable development, there is a preference being given to one particular dialect – economics. It’s a bit like giving priority to Queen’s English. A goal of sustainable development would therefore mean that society sees its relationship with the environment as primarily one of cost and benefit.

On the other hand, how can you achieve a balance between two entities and the method of communication? In other words, sustainable development as defined in this way is impossible.

A more realistic definition of sustainable development would be one that seeks balance between society and the environment through the economy, law, science, etc.

This post is a summary of a part of the first chapter of my PhD thesis

Not a student, not quite staff

Being a PhD student sometimes feels like being in limbo (or, purgatory, if you are Catholic). Technically, we are students, in the sense that we pay tuition fees (unless you are lucky enough to receive a studentship) and we come out with a qualification at the end of it. But there the similarity between PhD students and the rest of the student body ends.

Now, I am going by my own experience at University of Westminster and my conversations with my colleagues, so I apologise if I am assuming too much. Unless you are assisting with teaching, it is unlikely that we will interact with undergraduate or other postgraduate students. Indeed, we will interact mostly with other PhD students or academics or researchers, the latter being paid. We are not required to attend classes or lectures as such, except for perhaps a few methodology seminars in the first year which might help us decide on a theoretical framework.

We don’t get “personal tutors”, we get supervisors – but we are not employees. Of course, it is our responsibility to manage that relationship. We perhaps have one formal deadline a year – registration in the 1st year, transfer in ideally the second year and final submission – but these dates are as fluid as the writing of our thesis. That’s not to say that those deadlines aren’t important, not least because it helps to crystallise the research done so far and to shape your ideas.

The Research Office at Westminster has often emphasised how we are more than just students, we are in fact trainee researchers who may or may not work in academia afterwards. PhDs are regarded as academic qualifications, but perhaps they ought to be seen as professional qualifications because they are effectively the minimum criteria one needs to be an academic researcher or lecturer. In that case, there is an argument that doing a PhD is akin to a training contract that might be done  by someone hoping to qualify as a solicitor or barrister or accountant or a company trainee scheme.

Perhaps universities do subconsciously recognise that a PhD student is not quite a student by the provision of studentships in exchange for limited teaching work. This almost sounds like a contract of employment. Unfortunately, there are not available to everyone. But the payment is for teaching work, not for being a researcher.

An alternative, unstudentlike name for a PhD Student would be Doctoral Researcher and this sounds like a good job title. Or one could go for the more professional-sounding Trainee Researcher. Either way, there is a case for making PhD Students into university employees, with a salary (that is comparable to a trainee solicitors).

But there are disadvantages to PhD Students as employees. Employees are agents of their employer, so the university could hold any intellectual property rights to research, unless a clause was written into the contract. Why would they do that?

Furthermore, being an employee would increase the financial and legal obligations of the university. Studentships are already hard to come by and they are offered within a particular research area. Surely offering Trainee Researchships would simply narrow the sort of PhD research done to what the university is interested in. It would most likely lead to the exclusion of people who currently have a greater degree of freedom over their research.  After all, why should university pay people to do whatever they want?

Plus, as employees, we would probably come under all the usual targets and the bureaucracy that one could reasonably expect. And this would no doubt undermine the current freedom that PhD students do have.

As much as I would love to be paid trainee researcher, on balance, I realise that being a PhD Student is also completely different to being an employee.

 

 

 

Public sector cuts, rioting and the Oedipus Complex

The recent riots in England were the result of the violation of incest taboo, in the form of the government’s public sector cuts.

A sizeable proportion of the cuts directly affect young people, who made up a sizeable proportion of the rioters. Writing in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee wrote:

Let’s reprise where cuts have fallen hardest. Nearly a million young unemployed, a shocking one in five out of work, rises to more than 30% in places like Middlesbrough. The young will suffer for it all their lives, as research shows most never regain their footing, destined to a life in and out of low-paid work. Connexions, the service that picks up the lost and gives careers advice to all is cut to shreds: over 30% cut already, professionals replaced with cheaper staff. Just when young people most need help on what school subjects to take, on BTecs, HNDs and apprenticeships, the government is replacing careers advice with an online service, with no one to question their choices and prod them forwards. The disastrous abolition of the educational maintenance allowance will make many wrongly opt out altogether. Add in the future trouble stored up in the cuts to Sure Start, teen pregnancy prevention, anti-gang or other early interventions and prospects look bleaker still.

In what Ucas calls “the most competitive year ever”, remember how 20 years ago anyone who could scrape together a couple of passes found a place on some university course somewhere, with little to pay. Once students pay the whole cost, the value of that degree needs to be cashable. Creeping credentialism means anyone without a degree competes at a disadvantage with graduates for jobs that never needed a degree before. Serious apprenticeships may look like a good alternative, but more people apply for precious BAE or Rolls-Royce places than for Oxbridge.

It is ironic that one of the government ministers forcing through these cuts is David Willetts, the Secretary of State for Innovation and Skills, as the one responsible for universities. In his book, ‘The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole Their Children’s Future’, he writes how the baby boomers have so concentrated wealth, adopted a hegemonic position over national culture and so failed to meet the future generations’ needs that they have broken the “intergenerational contract”. The baby boomers, represented by the current and recent governments, have acted like Oedipus’ father, Laius, who, when given a prophecy that his baby son would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother, arranged for him to be abandoned to die. Rather than live up to his parental responsibilities and protect the future, he chose to cling on to power by killing his child.

Of course, the pro-cuts lobby (whether Labour or Conservative) put forward the argument that spending has got way out of control and we need to sort our debts out, just like any household do. That sounds logical. But, surely, when households make cuts, the parents will first look to impose restrain on themselves before they even begin to think about reducing provision for the children. (Or am I just too middle class?)

But, the prophecy given to Laius did come true. Oedipus – against his wishes – did grow up to, first kill his father – in an argument in the street – and then marry his mother. Off course, he didn’t know they were his biological parents. But it was the father who had breached the intergenerational contract and focused on their own needs in the present. So, in keeping with contract law, the child is entitled to revoke it. If the present generation is going to think about its own interests more than future generations, why should the next generations not think about its own present interests too. After all, when you lose hope in the future, all you have is the present.  What the rioters did through their looting was to take what the baby boomer generation. just Oedipus took possession of his father’s wife.

The solution? Somehow the generational difference between the present and future generations need to be reinstituted. I would argue that only the present, baby boomer generation, who are in power at the moment, can do that. The problem is that it would involve a major redistribution from them to the younger generation. Will they finally take their parental responsibilities seriously?

Is losing weight similar to writing a thesis? (via The Thesis Whisperer)

If there’s only one thing that you read during your PhD, make it this one. I found it to be the most helpful and motivating when I came to start writing up and it completely changed my attitude. The weight loss is a different story, unfortunately.

Is losing weight similar to writing a thesis? This post was written by Dr Emma Kimberley, research forum facilitator and Keeper of the Graduate School Media Zoo in the David Wilson Library at the University of Leicester. In this post Emma tells us some of the lessons she learned from losing weight and how they helped her with her PhD. In the writing-up phase of my PhD, at the same time as my word count was going steadily upwards I was trying to decrease another important life-statistic. I jo … Read More

via The Thesis Whisperer

Reflections on writing up (a chapter)

I always thought that my working style on my PhD was to write up as I go along. Since my superviser suggested a few weeks ago that I should put a temporary freeze on new reading and produce my first chapter, a theoretical framework, I have realised that making notes and playing around with ideas is not the same as writing up.

I know that writing a thesis is not about the number of words. But having 80,000 words cited in the university documents was overwhelming. Indeed, even having my supervisor mention 20,000 words or so for a chapter still seemed quite a lot. Then I read a blog post on how writing a thesis is a bit like losing weight – instead of kilograms counting, you are word counting. (I am sure it was The Thesis Whisperer but I can’t find the actual post. It’s possible it was tweeted.)

With losing weight, trying to go from, say, 87kg to 60kg is an unsurmountable task. But celebrating every time you lose 1kg makes losing weight so much more motivating. Instead of thinking “still got some way to go”, you think “I’ve done well”. But the important thing is not to think about losing weight, just live, get on with what you have to do and don’t eat too much.

So, with writing up, I didn’t think about trying to get to 20,000 words. I just wrote what I could. Before long, I got to almost 2,000 words. After that, I noticed that I was going over the 1,000 barrier every day – 2,000, then 3,000, then 4,000 and so on. So I made that my daily goal. That means that I can write 20,0000 in 20 days. That’s less than a month. All of sudden, it seems very doable.

Let’s just hope, by the end of the month, I will have lost enough weight to fit my first chapter under my belt.

Doe
Doe, a deer: the beginning according to Julie Andrews

I should add that the other challenge I found was knowing where to start. So I followed Julie Andrew

s’ advice that she gave to the Von Trapp children when teaching them to sing: “Let’s start at the very beginning, the very best place to start.”

I have also found that the act of writing isn’t necessarily linear. I have gone back and forth, fleshing out thoughts here and moving paragraphs around there. And, maybe this isn’t the right way to go about it, but while I have put a freeze on new reading in general, it doesn’t mean that I don’t actually do any new reading. In many ways, writing up gives a direction to my research that perhaps wasn’t there before.

The Big Society is the Parental Society

If there’s one good thing that has come out of the riots and looting in English cities this week, it’s that it has brought out the parent in society.

The shock, outrage, fear and heartbreak at the destruction did not result in a society that wallowed in self-pity and impotence, wondering when a paternal state was going to come and sort things out and make things better. In fact, if anything, society, local communities, found that there was very little point depending on the state, whether police or politicians, which only proved itself to be as vulnerable and fragile as a little child.

Instead, come Tuesday morning in London and later in other cities, members of local communities were out in force cleaning up the mess, offering support to victims and the emergency services, protecting neighbourhoods from further looting. A number of social media initiatives, such as @riotcleanup on Twitter, sprang up to work with councils and the police to find out where ordinary members of the public could go to help out. ‘Local’ didn’t just mean your neighbourhood or borough, but even your own city and, for some, county.

Next to the parental society, the vague pronouncements, unsatisfiable promises and unthinking diagnoses of a “sick society” and “broken Britain” from politicians seems absolutely childish. Indeed, I would argue that calling society sick or broken is an insult to every person who got knee deep in broken glass (literally and metaphorically). I might also add that the looters’ own justifications for their actions made them sound more educated than the politicians.

This is what the Big Society is about. The reference to size is superficial, in that parents are bigger than their young children. But it doesn’t mean a retrenchment or shrinking of the state. Instead, for children to be big like their parents means to take on the responsibilities of being an adult and being a parent, which includes holding their own young children to account. A Big Society is a Responsible Society, not one that is absolutely dependent on a childlike state.

It was ironic that the police were practically pleading for parents to find out where their kids are and to bring them in. Whether this worked or not is unclear but it perhaps it was an indication as to the proper relationship between society and the state.

The Evanescence of Philosophy

It’s been a while since I last found literary treasures in philosophy, which is ironic given that I waxed lyrical about the beauty of specific words that philosophers, including Hegel, use in their treatise. Maybe, something does get lost in translation from German to English, which turns out not to be quite a narrow-minded language. After all, you have one word ‘love’ which describes a plethora of emotions, where, for example, in Greek, there would be four words.

Anyway, in finally getting to grips with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Mind – which was surprisingly easy to understand considering the author – I came across the word ‘evanescence‘. It means “an event of fading and gradually vanishing from sight”. That’s how Hegel describes the satisfaction of ego’s desire. Sounding like ‘effervescence’ and its hissy sound, the very word captures the very wispy nature of that satisfaction. Anyone who has struggled with any addiction will know what I am talking about.

Indeed, one could argue that translating texts from the original language leads to an evanescing of the literary gems. It’s not really a grave robbing, more of a well-intentioned opening up that exposes the precious stones to the elements.

So, Evanescence is a perfect name for a rock band, in an industry known for fast rises and slow, painful deaths. Let’s hope they don’t live up to their name.

Have you come across any interesting words in your theoretical reading? Why not comment…

University of Westminster – Forward Thinking (via PENh.D – Excuse me, do you have a pen I could borrow?)

Yeah! My first contributed post, flying the flag for University of Westminster and their array of promotional stationery. Whoever said that the pen wasn’t mightier than the sword ought to be impaled on said pen and sword and be asked which was more painful – purely in the interests of research obviously.

University of Westminster - Forward Thinking Todays pen post comes from Pravin Jeyaraj. Pravin blogs at ‘notaphdthesis’ and tweets at @notaphdthesis. As I am doing a PhD at University of Westminster, I happened to have pen lying around somewhere. I can’t remember the exact situation where I was given it, but it was probably at enrolment or one of the university research training session. What’s odd is that the university’s main colour is red, but the pen is light orange, with white writing. … Read More

via PENh.D – Excuse me, do you have a pen I could borrow?

From paternalism to parental society

Two days ago, I wrote about how the Tea Party’s resistance might be a good thing for America. Not necessarily because of the policies they espouse (that’s not what this post is about). The Tea Party in the US and the anti-cuts coalition in the UK are in fact two sides of the same coin, that coin being the rising up of society through mass grassroots movements to remind government where they come from and what their purpose is.

As I wrote before, the state has traditionally been seen as paternalistic, with responsibility forlooking after a childlike society. This view still resonates today, with current political philosophies such as libertarian paternalism. A father is still a father, no matter how easy going he is. In the feminist critique, however, the alignment of the state with one particular gender has created opposition. Most obviously, this has been between the sexes, but,  where the feminine has come to represent the uncivilised or irrational, this also means between races, socioeconomic groups and between man and the environment. These ‘others’ of the white male have always been subject to oppression. It is this inherent gender polarity, says Jessica Benjamin in The Bonds of Love, that is the problem.

By eliminating gender polarity, the question becomes no longer who is the mother or who is the father but who is the parent. But we are not talking about an ungendered parent, but one who is bisexual or bi-gendered – that is, one who has attributes that have traditionally been identified as male and attributes traditionally identified as female. The important thing is that it is the parent who begets the child. So, if the state is the parent, say, who does the state beget. Does the state create society?

Benjamin argues from her psychoanalytic feminist perspective that the child identifies with the father in order to differentiate itself from the mother. Before this, from the child’s point of view, the father essentially doesn’t exist. In other words, the child created the father  then gave up power to him. This is the obvious flaw with the notion of a paternal state.

Yes, the environment (Mother Nature, say) can be said to have ‘given  birth to’ human beings in an evolutionary sense – according to how God designed the system, obviously – but it is the forming of societies that led to the creation of the state to govern societal relations. So, in reality, society is the parent of the state, with the responsibility to make sure that state behaves well (whatever that means).

The problem in many Western liberal democracies has been apathy in society. Voter turnout has often been quite low and this has allowed to the state to get away with proverbial murder, whether it be the Iraq war, the undermining of civil liberties, massive over spending and borrowing, large scale public sector cuts and lax regulation of the financial services industry, to name a few. But what the Tea Party movement, the anti-cuts coalition, the ‘Stop the War’ protests in 2003, the larger than usual turnout in the UK General Election followed by the forming of coalition , show is the importance of a powerful society, standing up for what it believes to be right and keeping government accountable. This is the parent’s job in relation to the child. When the parent can’t be bothered , children think they can do anything they want or they live in a fantasy world.

The state is the eternal child.

This doesn’t mean that the state doesn’t lack any power at all. As any child knows, parents can be out of touch with the times, so children do need to ‘educate’ parents as well. But obviously a child cannot respond to the parent in the same way that the parent responds to the child. But what’s important is that there is a dialogue or dialectical relationship between the parent and the child, the society and the state, where anti-thesis and thesis come together to form a synthesis, but even if they don’t, both understand the other better.

But even more important is that parents cannot be like children and children cannot be like parents. The Tea Party caucus can be the parent as part of society, but it cannot play that role if it is in government. There is a reason why the government is made up of ministers and secretaries, they have to take the more deferential or submissive role of a child. But this redefinition of the state/society relationship also means that we must abandon the idea of Montesquieu‘s three branches of government. Really, the legislature and the judiciary should rightly be seen as the highest levels of society, since their role is to keep the executive in check and acting in accordance with societal values.

Perhaps the parental society is the true Big Society – big, because it’s about not being a child anymore, it’s about growing up and taking its responsibilities seriously. It has nothing to do with a retrenchment of the state in terms of services provided. No, a small state is one that acts with the humility of a child towards the society that created it and gave it life.

Additional thought

Perhaps the current democracy movements in the Middle East are also an example of the dialectic between paternalism to parentalism. In which case NATO’s intervention in Libya must be like the reality tv show Supernanny, who comes in to help the despairing parent. So, it’s still questionable then.

The Erotics of the Debt Ceiling

So, according to the general gist of the media coverage, there’s just under a week to go to financial armageddon. If the US government cannot get Congress to agree to a lifting of the debt ceiling, it won’t be able to service its debts and pay its bills and…well, to be honest, beyond America, I am not entirely clear on the next bit.

I am actually kinda curious. A bit disappointed that Greece hasn’t defaulted yet, given that all the pundits are talking about the exposure of European banks. It’s a bit like a disappointing porn film. Maybe it’s just my sado-masochistic fantasies LOL. The thought of the world’s biggest economy defaulting on its debts is…well, let’s just say that SOMETHING has to go down ;) I guess you could say that the Democrats want to keep it up with a good hand job. The Tea Party, on the other hand, want to service it with a good whipping (and you thought they were the ultra conservatives). Honestly, how’s a country to decide.

On the other hand, when the choice is between being masturbated by Hilary Clinton verses being whipped by Michelle Bachman dressed in black rubber, it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

On a more serious note, I suppose one could say that national debt really is a type of phallus – you know what they say about countries with massive debts, my debt is bigger than your debt, that sort of thing. Perhaps it is penis envy on the part of governments with smaller debts that masquerades as concern for the regional or world economy. I don’t know. But whether it is ‘penis envy’ or concern, it is arguably in response to the criticisms from the wider society, including the markets and the media. This isn’t in itself a bad thing.

The state has traditionally been seen as paternal. It still resonates now, particularly with current political philosophies such as libertarian paternalism and the nudge agenda. In this respect, therefore the paternal state is asking the maternal society (represented by Congress) to, well, I think you get the picture by now. But this whole gender polarity is perhaps a part of the problem.

Where does the state come from, for a start? It is born out of or created by society. Indeed, as per Jessica Benjamin’s psychoanalytic feminist critique of paternalism, it is people forming larger and larger groups that set up a system to govern their relations. Society only identifies with a rational, paternal state to disidentify itself from Mother Nature. So, in reality, therefore, the state is the child of society, yet the child has been given the power to dominate the parent.

Now of course it is up to the parent how they bring up the child, but if the child does something wrong, then it is surely the responsibility of the parent to discipline. This of course is the basis of the accountability of governments to the people and society. As much as it pains me to say this, perhaps the Tea Party may have a point (god, I feel so dirty, especially after the sado-masochism). Barack Obama has likened the national debt to a credit card bill. Well, I am not a parent, so may be one who is can tell me whether, if your child maxes out the credit card, do you ring up the company to increase the limit?

Imagining my PhD

Well, ok, sometimes I do sit and wonder what it would be like to actually complete my thesis, submit it, get my doctorate and get it published. I do imagine what it would be like to be a bona fide, published academic. But that’s not what I mean by imagining my PhD.

To be honest, it has become plainly obvious to me how much doing research is not just about actually reading books and reports, collecting empirical data and doing experiments. There have been so many times where making the connections and developing a theoretical framework has come out of doing nothing, or at least doing something seemingly unproductive and totally unrelated to my PhD.

I can remember instances where I am going home on the train, after a day of really struggling with something theoretical. I am thinking, staring into thin air – not the pretty girl in front of me with the low cut top and nice legs, stop it – or reading some novel and all of sudden I have an ‘Archimedes’ moment. No, it doesn’t mean that I run naked down the aisle of the train, shouting ‘Eureka'; I just found inspiration for my research in something as unconnected to it as a bath or playing with toys.

On another occasion, I came to grips with Hegel’s master/slave dialectic because I was able to make connections with a random news story about addictions that I read in the London Metro that morning. Sometimes, I have even been sitting in a sermon on Sunday, listening to the pastor teach, and instead of feeling convicted or encouraged about my walk of faith, I’ve thought ‘Of course, that’s what Hegel [or Catherine Malabou or Judith Butler] was talking about’.

In fact, I have become very much aware that my reading of philosophy has just as much been influenced by own subjective experiences and the enotional baggage I acquired before my PhD.

Maybe this should be a question, but I think these moments of non-research are an essential part of the research process. But, then it becomes difficult to say what research methodology I am using. In a sense, one could argue that I am using a dialectical method based on the synthesis of research and non-research. But then surely all research must be dialectical. I guess this is to be expected. After all, our brain doesn’t turn off, when we finish working for the day. Much like a broadband connection, it is always on. So, it can be argued that we researchers are always working. And, often, it feels like we are.

And that’s the danger. It is quite easy, because I am doing something I love, to overdo it. If we are doing too much active research, pretty soon I suffer from information overload. My brain can be like a call centre. At some point, all the incoming calls just keep getting added to the queue and no matter how hard the brain works, it can’t deal with the backlog. A good call centre, I have noticed, will from time to time post a message telling customers that there is a backlog and they can’t take any more calls and to try again later. This is why those periods of non-research are so important…it allows me to actually process the information I have received and to action it. This is the imagination.

1st Subscriber: Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Yes, after nine months or so of writing this blog, I have finally got my first subscriber. And so the lucky winner of the ‘Not a PhD Thesis’ First Subscriber prize is Dr Sarah-Louise Quinnell. (Yeah, I was going to make the usual joke about being my first but, since she’s a bona fide academic – as opposed to a wannabe like me – I figured it might come out the wrong way.)

And so, her prize is the opportunity to massage my ego. When I asked her what it was that drew her to Not A PhD Thesis and why she subscribed, she replied:

I like to read a range of PhD students blogs. I am interested in what people do and do not share. It also provides a record of how peoples thoughts change and how, like yours shows, you start writing about one thing and then move on to another. Its fascinating to see how people’s work evolves and how they present it. I’ve become a lot more productive reading and writing blogs.

I like the mix of philosophy and religious based critique in your blog, even though i am not at all religious. They are very thoughtful and well connected. The one I most liked recently was ‘Doing a PhD: Labour of Love‘ as I can certainly identify with that idea!

The grat thing about PhD student blogs and tweets is they bring together such a diverse group of people who may not have met in real life and allow them to exchange ideas and thoughts which is fantastically enriching.”

Of course, it would be remiss me of tell you something about Dr Quinnell. She has just graduated with a PhD from Kings College London for her thesis, ‘Building Capacity for Bio-safety in Africa: Networks of Science, Aid and Development in the Implementation of Multi-Lateral Environmental Agreements’. She blogged about at The Life and Times of an Aspiring Academic. However, in the course of doing her PhD, she developed an interest in the use of social media for academic research. She is the Managing Editor of PhD2Published, a online resource of PhD graduates looking to publish their thesis, and she had just launched a new blog, Networked Researcher for the purpose of supporting and promoting the use of social media in academic research.

Dr Quinnell can be contacted on Twitter on @sarahthesheepu and @phd2published.

Literary treasures in Philosophy

Reading the work of philosophers that are over 200 years old (and dead) – in my case Hegel – is any amazing opportunity. There are so many things that are published nowadays – in print and online – so there is no shortage of contemporary writings and ideas. It is quite easy to think that anything written before, say, 2000 – with few exceptions – is out of date. When one enters the hallowed walls of academia to do a PhD (at least in the humanities), one finds access and encouragement to actually wallow in the ideas of people such as Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, Plato and talk about with people who are similarly inclined. (In case you are wondering I didn’t experience this as an undergrad or Masters postgraduate, I studied mathematics/computing science and journalism respectively, the practice of which has very little need for philosophers.)

Of course, as many people who have tried reading Hegel will know, he is not the easiest person to get to grips with. But, in addition to the ideas contained within, it is amazing the use of specific words – such as ‘sublation’. This week, I have been trying to figure out Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, with a view to figuring out my theoretical framework for a PhD in environmental law. And, in the text, Hegel describes one of the characteristics of animals as “interrupted intussusception

I won’t go into the context of the word but I just had to look up the definition: “a medical condition in which a part of the intestine has vaginated-” WTF? Invaginated? Maybe, this just my (dirty) mind, but this sounds interesting. An invagination means “to fold inward or to sheath”.

Have you come across any interesting words in your theoretical reading? Why not comment…

 

 

Doing a PhD: Labour of Love

A number of married friends have recently been blessed with the birth of kids. So the discomfort and the pains of childbirth have been somewhat on my mind (although not in the same way). In a sense, I have been going through a pregnancy of sorts in the process of doing a PhD/doctorate.

The moment of conception of my thesis occured two and a half years ago, after five years of trying. Since then this life been growing inside me, and I have been living on a diet (or feast) of theoretical knowledge and empirical data. This food is not always easy to swallow and sometimes it requires a lot of chewing over beforehand.

Pregnancy examination
My supervisor checks the progress of my PhD Baby

As much as I am enjoying feeling it grow inside me and looking forward to cradling the bound document in my arms, sometimes I wish I just could get rid of it and get on with the rest of my life. This research does feel like a pregnant pause. But then, the baby gives a little kick, just to remind me that he (or she) is there and I have a flash of inspiration or Archimedian moment, where it all makes sense. Indeed, the gestation of a PhD is a series of Archimedian moments.

But at some point, hopefully a year from now, I will have to get this baby out of me and write this damn thesis. But, as much I can imagine what it might look like when I am lounging in the park, as soon as I sit down at the computer it refuses to come out. No amount of pushing and grunting. And now I just want an epidural (make of that what you may). I just hope it doesn’t cause any damage.

The freedom of the open (academic) waves

One of the best aspects about doing a PhD is the immense amount of freedom – freedom to plan my own time, to plan my research as I see fit, to decide (more or less) on what I read and what workshops and conferences I attend and so on. I have certainly never experienced such freedom in my own life before – even unemployment can seem like a prison – and, from what I hear from academics, I will never experience such freedom ever again. Also, as someone who is completely self-funded and not reliant on a studentship, I don’t have any obligations to the university. So what I get involved in is totally up to me.

And yet, there is such a thing as too much freedom. With my time stretching out in from of me like a boundless ocean, everything I do to traverse it seems so miniscule. Yes, there are days when the winds of motivation and inspiration have been pretty strong and, by the end of the day, I feel like I have covered a vast distance. When those days come along, I unfurl the sail and let the wind carry me and I get on with all those tasks that I have been putting off, with the occasional nudge of the rudder to stay on course. But, the truth is, I never know when those days are going to come along. More often than not, there is nothing more than a light breeze – or I am in the middle of the Doldrums. So, all my energy is spent rowing forward, and praying for the winds of change.

When there is no wind, then the sight of the endless ocean itself almost feels like it’s blowing me backwards. Now and again, I’ll see a coastline of some island – the impending deadline of a paper or university admin report or an interesting workshop or conference – and I’ll set my sights on that, because then the distance doesn’t seem so vast. I push back any thought that after the island, it will be back to endless waters.

But, you know what, I wouldn’t give up this adventure for anything – not money, not sex, not power, not even the opportunity to meet a real extra-terrestrial. Because, ultimately, I am like Christopher Columbus crossing the Atlantic. Every centimetre I move, every word I write, is a centimetre, a word, closer towards an undiscovered continent (or, more likely, island). I may still be within the geographic area of the map, but at some point I will get to where there be dragons. Then, I’ll place my flag in the ground.

Atlantis
Atlantis, the undiscovered continent? - sometimes it feels as if I'll never get to the end

Education and exams

So we are into exam time again and there will no doubt be complaints of how standards have fallen when results come out in August. I can remember that that was the narrative when I received my A-level results 15 years ago. But Rosamund Urwin makes the point that falling standards – if they can be proven – are neither here nor there when it comes to explaining the year-on-year improvement in results. The reason why people appear to be doing better than they used to is because of the pressure on schools to ensure that they rank well in league tables. Urwin wrote:

“My friends who are teachers say their profession now studies marking schemes obsessively and point to a greater emphasis in lessons on exam techniques and on showing pupils how to revise. Most are sad, thought, that secondary school has become so assessment-orientated, that so much focus is on league tables and targets.

Unsurprisingly, then, many of my peers describe their former schools as “exam factories”, churning out the As with little attempt to foster passions in a subject or to encourage wider reading. Some also felt so spoon-fed up to 18 that they were ill-prepared for independent study at university.”

I can remember my experience of learning A-level French. There were two particular set texts that we studied in French and the exam did involve writing discursive essays. But I think the teacher had already identified the ideas and themes of the books and the discussions we had stayed within this framework. When I put forward my own thoughts, I felt like I was shut down, not just by the teacher but by the rest of the class too. Now, perhaps, my thoughts were complete crap but there was no attempt to discuss them.

Indeed, one could say that the effect of the tendency in schools to train students to regurgitate from memory is longer term than the three years of a degree. I am finding that, while doing a PhD, my brain is automatically regurgitating what I read and I have to consciously make a point of thinking critically about the text. It’s not a skill that comes naturally, so I have to train myself all over again.

What makes a man?

I’ve spent the last couple of days at a conference for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers working in the area of law, gender and sexuality. I was presenting a paper on the impact of incentives on the relationship between society and state. But the whole conference was fascinating – every speaker had something interesting to say. But I think this is going to be one of those events which could change my life.

One particular speaker spoke on research that she is doing concerning the treatment of children who are born intersex, that is born with genitalia and/or secondary sexual characteristics from two sexes. The parental response, understandably, is to push for ‘corrective’ surgery that makes the child into a ‘normal’ boy or girl. I found this presentation particularly challending because it went to the heart of  the most basic label by which I identify myself. Am I male because that’s how I was born or because I brought up that way? What is it that makes me a man?

In Genesis 1:27, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”.

This is often taken by Christians to mean that God created two sexes, male and female, and that, along with other verses, he intended for marriage to be between a man and woman only. Now, with sexual orientation being based on sexual attraction and feelings, I can see how easy it is to argue, rightly or wrongly, that sexual orientation is a choice. But, with intersex, we are talking about an actual physical condition which can be seen and touched. It is difficult to argue that God did not create people as intersex. In other words, there are people who are created male and female. So, I wonder whether Genesis 1 could be reinterpretated to mean than individual human beings comprise attributes that are commonly known as both male and female. If that is the case, then it is difficult to argue that marital relationships can only be heterosexual in nature.

Remaking the world

Given the times that he wrote in (late 18th to early 19th centuries), it is not surprising that Hegel does not have much to say about the environment. Not too mention frustrating if one is doing research in environmental law. But, there are hints of a connection between humanity and the environment. At the beginning of The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate, he says that the hostility of the environment (represented by the Flood of the Bible) was a result of man’s hostility to it and each other. As part of my phd thesis, I am using a psychoanalytic feminist reading of Hegel to develop a dialectical account of the relationships between society, law and the environment.

It is a lot easier to see that the environment affects the way we live than the effect we have on the environment. Of course, the most obvious manifestation of this effect is in pollution. But, apparently, scientists are saying that we are moving into a new geological epoch, the Antropocene, where we are literally making the world in our image (i.e. rotten to the core).

In a sense, geoengineering isn’t something we do to solve the problem of climate change. It is the cause of climate change. Instead of being radiated back into space, the carbon dioxide remains trapped near the planet. That’s a hell a lot of energy, and it is expressed as ice melting, water heating, increased cloudcover, etc. Reinsurer Munich Re said that “the only plausible explanation” for 2010’s catastrophes, the drought, heatwave and fires across Russia and the mega-floods in Pakistan, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere was partly global warming.

I don’t even know what to call this post

It’s been a whole week since I have last posted. The last few days have just been so hectic, with the last minute arrangements for an academic symposium last Friday. But I must say, everything worked out really well. I was amazed at all the positive comments I received afterwards and during the weekend and it really made it all worthwhile. Not that that’s why I organised the event but it’s good to know that others got something out of it.

I now need to finish a paper that I am presenting at another workshop this Friday, so I am not going to blog too long now. But, as part of the paper and my PhD thesis, I try to create a model for describing the relationship between society, the state and the environment,  by using feminist discourses to draw a line from Hegel’s philosophy to the UK government’s definition of household. Obviously, I am not going to going into too many details for the moment but this has helped me to see the Hegellianism of East 17 (or, more specifically, one of their songs).

 

A cult of science?

Most Fridays, I attend an academic group at university that discusses the philosophical foundations of law and finance. Yesterday, we looked at why people believe they experience the paranormal or supernatural. One of the things that the lecturer in charge talked about was how, after the second world war, anthropologists went off to remote islands to study the indigenous people and found them worshipping the remains of aircraft (so called ‘cargo cults’). Apparently, the thinking was that these people saw something fall out of the air to the ground and, quite reasonably, concluded that if it has happened once, it can happen again. The whole belief system was premised on the idea that something would happen in the future because it happened in the past. To me, that sounded very much like science – we observe things happening in the past and develop a theory that say that those things will happen in the future.

So, when I stumbled upon this critique of the dominant climate change science narrative by activist teacher Denis G Rancourt, I was already in the frame of mind to read objectively.

On the gargantuan lie of climate change science

In all of human history, what was believed and promoted by the majority of service intellectuals (high priests) in each civilization was only created and maintained to support the hierarchy and the place of the high priests within the hierarchy. To believe that the present is any different regarding any issue managed by our “experts”, whet … Read More

via COTO Report

Now, I have always believed in the importance of protecting our environment and I am not ready to given up my membership of the climate change camp. Indeed, to a science worshipper like myself, Rancourt would probably a heretic. But he does highlight a particular problem in the way that science is presented.

Up to 500 years ago, the Bible was published in Latin. Unfortunately, the masses could not understand Latin, so they had to rely on experts (priests) to read the Bible and interpret it for them. Similarly today, scientific papers are published in a their own scientific language – which can be understood by other scientists – but not by the masses. It then requires several levels of interpretation for us to understand. I am not suggesting there is anything sinister in this.  (On top of that, much scientific findings cannot be afforded by ordinary people.)

As a result of the translation of the Bible from Latin into the languages of the people in the Reformation, anyone could read and understand God’s Word. Of course, the experts and other people are still needed as quality control, but basically one does not need to have studied theology. Yet, if I wanted to read, for example, a paper on climate science, it would read like gobbledygook (sic), as my scientific education stopped at GCSE. Of course, I read the articles in the newspapers and watch the engaging documentaries on TV but all this is second-, third-, even fourth hand.

Now, I am not suggesting that there is necessarily any hidden agenda on the part of certain interests to hide the truth. But we were clearly meant to understand how the world worked. Yet scientific papers seem to write in their own version of Latin.

The same criticism could be made of academia in general. I could go to Waterstones and pick up a popular book on philosophy, but it is quite difficult to get hold of the original material (or at least English translations of the original material). I had never even heard of Hegel until after I started my PhD, now I think he is the greatest guy in the world. Yes, his work can be difficult to read, but I am slowly getting to grips with his philosophy directly. And it makes a big difference to reading it firsthand. But I daresay that I would even be in this position if I wasn’t at university.

Coming back to climate science, everyone throws around this figure of 2 degrees as some kind of target. And I have no reason to doubt what they say. But I get the feeling that there is all this focus on numbers and data, as if somehow not staying within the limit is the answer to the world’s problems.

Ok, I don’t really what the point of this post is. I don’t have a conclusion. Perhaps someone can provide one for me.