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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.

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?

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.

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.

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