Comps, or an institutional writing life
I’ve made a new website and, again, a new blog.
For me, the tradition of making a new blog is nearly a ritual act. It’s a behavior that marks a personal tradition. Through high school, I began four or five different blogs, as though climbing my way onto a new public-facing writing platform with a new palette of colors and fonts would unlock something I’d been looking for in myself. Each post represented an act of working-it-out, whatever it was, but each new platform/title change for the blog seemed more like the turning of a narrative arc in my own self-education. Whatever it was I was working out, I was always working it out in public.
My last blog stuck with me for six years. It began the summer after I graduated from college. I would soon be starting grad school, and I felt like I needed to get into the practice of establishing a writing life outside of the coursework I would soon be wading through. Every week that summer, I composed posts on stories, novels, films, and music I had been thinking through.
an institutional writing life
As time went on and grad school swept me in its own momentum, I fell away from the practice of that extracurricular writing life. Grad school is an institutional experience, constituted by professional practices, expectations, and ambitions. It enforces patterns of labor that shape your life. Its professional ambitions become your ambitions, even if only in a formal sense. The pattern of seminars, research projects, conference proposals, publication drafts, and applications provides a form for thinking about your life—for thinking about your thoughts, about what makes them significant. The form the pattern enforces has its own narrative arc, the idea being that a grad student can make narrative sense of their grad-student life via the sense of the ending it tends toward: a job. For me, that future job meant the promise of a stable, comfortable life in which I would have the financial freedom to think my own thoughts, to work them out publicly, just as I like.
If you’re a grad student reading this, I don’t have to tell you that the job just isn’t there anymore, at least not like it once might have been. Markets change. Recessions, pandemics, “crisis management”—it all calculates out to fewer good jobs. Bad jobs are cheaper to the management; our time becomes cheaper to them. There’s a lot that could and should be said about the state of academic institutions (this will be a persistent theme in these posts, as I’ll say more about below). My point for the time being is that this is how institutions get you. They provide a vision of a reward structure that will make your labor worthwhile. There’s a narrative denouement that all this struggle is leading to. We think we have so much in common, these institutions and ourselves. We all want the same things. But the work has to get done first. So we do the work, but that work, given its professional structure, its scholarly expectations and timeframes, we sometimes lose track of what was supposed to be animating it all: in my case, a desire to think my own thoughts, and to work them out with others. To have the bread and the breath necessary for that practice. And to hopefully think something worthwhile.
So I was writing seminar papers and writing assessment comments on my students’ papers, but I was no longer practicing an extracurricular writing life. However, some of the ongoing stories of my internal life were continuing to play out underneath the formal edifice of the institutional life. At the time, I was brought back to the writing desk at home, to that old blog, by my uncompleted inquiries regarding the religious faith I had grown up with. I wrote posts exploring in more depth how and why I had moved away from the evangelical Protestantism of the first few acts of my life’s story. I also began to write posts about books of the Bible. When I look back on that period in my extracurricular writing life, that too involved a working-out of institutional forms that apply themselves to a life, my life. How much of our lives, hopes, fears, challenges, successes, and failures are inserted into our experience by the institutions that govern us? That question’s a hard one. It’s one I mean to take up, in one way or another, over and over again.
blogging my way through comps
Sometimes it helps to think about why we write. It helps to lend a kind of reason to our practice, and this reason, when we compose it critically as a part of the compositional arts of our narrative sense of ourselves, doesn’t have to be a one-to-one match of our institutions’ reasons. Whatever it cashes out to, I take it as axiomatic that, when we write, we compose ourselves as well.
I’m making a new aspirational gesture toward blogging again for a couple of reasons. First, I’m beginning the process of reading for my comprehensive exams next spring as the next stage in the professional pattern of my PhD in English. In our program, comps means reading 150-200 books and articles, divided across three big lists, in preparation for three big written exams. We write these lists ourselves, under the supervision of our committees. Though the exams themselves matter, the real objective in this process is to attain some broader sense of the scholarly fields we hope to be working in and to develop a project idea that could become our dissertation topic.
I figured that comps reading would be a good time to get back to blogging, since it would provide a more concrete way of working out my thinking about these texts. I’m taking notes and writing summaries, but it takes work to articulate links across these different pieces. For me, that work has only ever happened when it happened in writing and in discussion with others. Unfortunately, comps is a lonely process. We make our own lists, and we’re the only ones reading them. Even my friends in my cohort are working on other kinds of things. In terms of concrete experience, reading for comps means spending hours alone in your room, trying to flesh out a project that exists for no one but yourself. Eventually, it will exist for the four members of your committee as well. It’s kind of a bleak way to think about the hundreds of hours of our lives we’re cashing in on this.
So, I’m blogging my way through comps as an exercise in articulating thought and as an exercise in thinking in less lonely ways.
And then the further reason is that older one: I want to hold on to what is extracurricular about writing, even if it overlaps a curricular project. Because, frankly, I can’t rely on that promise that all this lonely work will lead to the reward of a job anymore. This being the case, it becomes imperative for those of us in this position to find a sense in what we’re doing that exceeds the institutions we’re doing it for. Because if we don’t have a reason for writing that can make sense outside of the limits of our labor and the value it makes, then what’s the point? It’s not even going to help us make rent anymore.
my project, in overview
I’ll conclude with an overview of my project so that you can know a little of what to expect here. The things I’m reading these days (most of them, at least) come from my three comps lists.
For our department, the first list—the “major area” list—is usually a body of literature that we mean to write and teach about. This is often a literary period and/or nationality, such as “English Romantic poetry” or “post-1945 American fiction.” In my case, I chose to focus on the forms of theory and philosophy that often happen in English departments and that inform some of the ways we think about literary texts. For this reason, my major area list is called “Critical Theories of the Social and the Political.” It includes philosophical works that, in one way or another, define what is meant by “the social” or “the political,” or even “the cultural,” but might also theorize what it means to do “critique.” I picked works from a generally Marxist genealogy, but including Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, as well as a few non-Marxists who these theorists are nonetheless in conversation with.
For the second list—the “theory and methods” list—we are supposed to identify the methodological fields in which we hope to operate, to get a sense of how literary and cultural criticism is done in those fields and how we might contribute to them. My theory and methods list is conceived a bit more broadly than one specific field. I call it “Subjectivity and the Practice of Critique.” I compiled a set of sub-lists, each representing its own set of critical practices, of ways of thinking critically about culture and cultural theory. That list begins with the cultural studies of the Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools, and continues on with a variety of more recent approaches, including post-colonial/decolonial theory; Black studies, Afro-futurism, and Afropessimism; and feminism and affect studies. The thing that unites all these very different approaches is that they’re all doing cultural criticism. I hope to see both how methodologies of critique vary given different political and social values driving a critical practice and how the idea of subjectivity gets defined in all these different practices. So I’m treating these less as theories and methods I might apply in my own work and more as objects themselves to map conceptually in their relations to the social and the political. (It’s vague because I’ve only just begun to think it through.)
The last list is our “special topics” list, in which we begin to identify a set of core concerns that our dissertation project might take up. My third list is called “the institution of the university.” It includes works, first, that compose a kind of “intellectual history” of the university as an idea and as an institution. This history goes back, briefly, to the Middle Ages, then up through the 19th century from Germany to America, and then tarries for a moment in the American Cold War context. The list then includes works from three recent scholarly fields that have gained traction: critical university studies, decolonial university studies, and abolitionist university studies.
My goal in designing my lists this way is to think, first, how practices of cultural criticism emerge out of conversations in (leftist) political philosophy. What are the underlying philosophical and political-economic premises that define these approaches to cultural criticism? Or, to put it more plainly, why does criticism matter, socially and/or politically? I then hope to see how that question gets expanded or complicated by thinking about the institutional nature of cultural criticism—the fact that a lot of this kind of thinking happens at the university. For instance, if criticism is meant to work toward undermining capitalism, racism, and imperialism, are those projects themselves undermined, in some way, by the governing structure of academic institutions that have historically reinforced (and actively profited from) labor exploitation, enslavement, and imperialist expansion through warfare?
Big questions, broad questions, vague questions. I don’t know where the reading will take me, but these are the kinds of things I’m thinking through. If you follow along here, it’s the kind of themes you’ll see show up. But fair warning, I get distracted by a lot of other things, so you might see a wayward post here or there about pulp fantasy novels, the history of paint pigments, the Bible, etc. It’s a big world. There’s lots of things to be curious about.