Perhaps a bizarre assertion to make so early on (by which I mean I was part time in year one, so I’m technically only a year and a bit through) but I have already forgotten the exact wording of my PhD title. This, I think, is because it is going to change again, so as to better represent what it is I am doing. Stokes was up at the weekend, and he said that he honestly had little idea what I was researching, aside from the fact it involved sociology and music, which in itself is an improvement on the thought offered by some that I was a) at Leeds University and b) looking at interregional migration in the P.R.C*. As a word of warning then, this entire post will deal with my PhD so far, so if you have no interest in the overarching topic and the occasional drift towards the minutiae of the subject and the construction of a thesis, then click away now. To help you along, here is a link to a video of a gorilla playing his nuts.
So I figured it was about time to explain where I am and what exactly I am doing. At this stage, I guess beginning my second year – my official finish date is March 2013 because of the part time/full time shift….my academic year running March through March in my head…which buggers up remembering which ‘week’ I’m officially in – I have completed 3 chapters and have notes on 2 others. The total I have planned for is 8 (Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, 4 Empirical Chapters, Conclusion). In my official supervision sessions I am considered to be making ‘very good’ progress. I have known some PhD students who at the end of the first year have a scrap of paper with ‘Ideas’ as a title. For some people this is fine, but I want to get things down and in some kind of shape so I have already produced a large amount of work.
An aside – Timeline: I spent my time from Oct 2009 – April 2010 reading everything I could get my hands on, May 2010 – Sept 2010 writing the first two chapters (Intro and Lit Review), Oct 2010 – Jan 2011 revising the first two chapters and writing a sketchy methodology and from Feb until present (or April 25th to be more precise) revising the first chapter again, along with constructing a 6 month field work plan and extensive bibliography to support my May 4th TAP meeting**.
I decided to stick to the old work ethic from my Masters degree (a degree which I recommend to anyone who wants to spend money on a qualification that will in no way help exclude you from the hottest, noisiest jobs going) and write a small amount every day. My bottom limit is 500 words, so about a third to half a page. I write Mon-Fri, for roughly 30 weeks of the year, which doesn’t seem like a lot but it means I clear 75000 words a year if my low quality maths is correct – with the thesis being 80,000 to 100,000 words, this has been a largely effective way of working, though I do discard a huge amount of work. If I want to do more, I do more, but never less than 500 words (if say by Wednesday I’ve already done 2500 words, then Thurs/Fri are days to work on something else).
Before I go any further, I should probably be explicit about the topic. It started out, as you can see from the ‘About’ page of this site, looking at a rather broad topic involving the philosophical background of the term ‘hauntology’ (Derridan), which for a period of time (roughly 2005 onwards) was used to describe a number of differing musics and seems to be increasingly falling out of favour as a term. Now initially I was concerned about this vanishing of the term in favour of ‘drag’ and ‘witch house’ because the musicians I had come in to contact with, both physically and virtually, during my time working on WDT/VSTM, were part of my appeal to the University…I had access and contacts…and if the ‘genre’ or whatever you want to call it was disappearing so would my study. But then you just factor that in to the research, making sure you refer to any ebbing away and what it might mean, and everything is ok again. It becomes historical – how apt. I have ditched much of the philosophical stuff, as it was only vaguely developed by those I would term ‘hauntological aestheticians’ any way and it also appeared to bog down the more interesting aspects of the research. The focus now is on the sociology of what is essentially an avant-garde music movement. There are numerous aspects to this, and many complicated questions, not least of which involves whether or not it even is/was a movement – what constitutes one, what is a genre, where do the boundaries lie? The areas I am focusing on presently are one which are separated in to four empirical chapters; identity, cartographies/networks, technologies and resistance rituals. These four areas are distinct, but also interlinked, which makes a joined up thesis possible. Above all though, the point of a PhD is to contribute something original (my approach and topic achieve this I hope) to the field, something that is beneficial, something which has some use. Now I will not digress at this point to complain again about the conference I helped organise last year and how a PhD on 40 year old Duran Duran fans is of wider relevance to the future well-being of mankind, but my disappointment in much of it spurred me on to make my thesis as relevant as possible. I see it like this: we are in a time of rapid technological change, where the old boundaries of what is considered a subculture are potentially eroding (I would say changing but I’ll save my rubbishing of post-subcultural theory for the thesis, and in the process save you from reading it). From this, in the mid-2000s, a movement emerges, and I choose movement over genre because hauntology is not confined to one genre…as well as the theoretical issues with the terminology…, that challenges the socio-political ramblings of us post-millennial people with a confused and confusing blend of pop mixed with dubstep mixed with sound art mixed with radiophonic and/or library music mixed with failed utopian dreams of an unrealised future. Essentially I want to know why and how it works, even if it works; how does an avant-garde music movement (it certainly isn’t mainstream, even if bits of it filter down to more populist retro stylings) operate in the 21st century?
The empirical chapters deal with this overarching question by posing a series of additional questions that feed in to it. Here is a brief précis of what each chapter deals with:
The chapter on identity, simply put, looks at how the movement identifies itself. This involves the policing of borders/boundaries, a duty undertaken by musicians and aestheticians/critics¹, the maintenance of a definable categorisable aesthetic, and the historical development of hauntology in a wider narrative of avant-garde music (despite some professing otherwise, it is definitely not ahistorical) which involves an interesting dichotomy between the constructed history of rhetoric and the more objective history within several avant-garde traditions.
The chapter on cartographies and networks looks firstly at the spread of the movement, and the locations it uses/abuses before moving on to see how these places are linked and, if so, which networks have developed to perpetuate this. How do these networks operate and what spaces do they occupy? It will also look at the historical development of networks in relation to other music movements.
The chapter on technologies refers back to the chapter on networks to an extent, but further develops arguments about the relationship between technology and socio-cultural concerns, discussing the use of specific technologies with musicians as well as charting the historical connections with specific technologies of avant-garde movments (minimalism, Musique Concrete etc.)
The final chapter, on resistance rituals, looks at the relationship between the avant-garde and more populist cultural concerns in a more general sense, with reference both to specific instances collected in the field work stage, but also the ways in which the two perpetuate difference and/or attempt to bridge gaps from time to time. As the more astute of you may have noticed from the paragraph size, identity and cartography are more fully formed, because they are the sections I am presently working on.
The methodology is difficult. I am a qualitative researcher and I have no interest in providing statistics to back up my research, largely because I feel there are fundamental methodological problems with the construction and interpretation of quantitative studies. Fair play to those who use numbers and tables (and there are a sizeable number in the department) but it doesn’t fit this study. I am producing what could be termed a classical ethnographic study. I am going to places and recording my experiences. I am taking notes, I am interviewing, I am recording, I am creating a treasure trove of all the various media associated with the movement, and from this, along with the theoretical tools I am deploying, I hope to answer the questions I have set myself as well as the wider concerns within the discipline, which is what gives the research its relevance; why is the avant-garde still important in the 21st century and why is it underrepresented in sociology? However, writing a methodology prior to going to the field to find out what works and what doesn’t seems a little pointless…yet it is required. It’s sort of a cyclical situation, whereby I need to decide on methods prior to going in to the field but do not know which ones are effective yet because I haven’t tried them out in the field. So test runs are where it’s at.
I feel at this point, I’ve said what I wanted to say, and will save more for another time. Writing this post has been a cathartic experience. It came out in one, and I haven’t felt the urge to rewritte it, which sort of confirms that I have a fairly good grip on what it is I am doing – and I know some former PhD students who were part way in to Year 3 with still only the faintest idea of what it was they were doing and why – which is heartening. Additionally, having an accurate record of what I thought at any given time is useful in terms of viewing my progression in future².
Between now and October, which is I believe the rough time of my upgrade³ I am going to be starting my fieldwork – beginning with Netaudio in May and then various visits around London, Brighton, Leeds etc. throughout the summer – in an effort to complete my first empirical chapter to support my upgrade. The chapter will be on cartographies rather than identities (don’t ask why it’s not in order), and will be accompanied by some maps I have made (so again with the combining-elements-of-my-real-life-with-my-academic-one…though at this stage the two have blurred in to one all-encompassing blob [I realised whilst rambling on to Stokes that my experiences teaching undergrads may only be of interest to me, and that contextualized ‘funny stories’ are not the same as ‘funny stories’…I should make more of an effort to separate these things before I become even more of a bore]) as well as discussions on how physical and virtual networks function, their relationship with music movements, an so on. I’ve mentioned that already though. I like pictures with a key at the side, covered in initially incomprehensible lines. I’m going to stop now. I’ve said enough.
* I was, in 2007, but that was a long time ago now, and I will maintain the position that throwing a considerable amount of funding away in favour of pursuing something I genuinely love was the right thing to do.
** TAP stands for Thesis Advisory Panel…whereby I present my work thus far in a semi-formal way to my supervisors and another departmental academic unfamiliar with my work and justify what I’ve done and why I should continue.
¹ For those who are interested, this term is adopted from Howard Becker’s Art Worlds which I am using as a touchstone.
² My youthful questioning in the ‘About’ section is now ditched in favour of actually finding out some answers that don’t end in nothing, besides presenting a series of more obscure questions.
³ Again, for those who are interested, you start out studying for an MPhil, and then around about 18 months to 2 years in, when your project has some balls – or not – you either upgrade to a full PhD/DPhil, or you accept an MPhil and complete the project at a lower level. However, the MPhil is seen, as far as I’m aware, as a badge of failure…ultimately you didn’t make the grade for a PhD. My mum said how it would be nice to add the letters to my name after I upgrade (I have no intention of not making the grade, hence the huge amount of work I am putting in), and I explained that although it is another qualification, it’s not one I want to advertise.