Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The fragility of the scholarly identity, or 'what the hell is my PhD about?'

So there I was, with 12,000 words I had poured out over a few weeks, after months of deepening my understanding of the literature on cosmopolitanism. When I commenced this PhD, many moons ago, I wanted to understand how our interactions with many cultures' foodways disrupt and transform our identities. I wanted to hold 'authenticity' under a bare, swinging lightbulb and interrogate it until it confessed its sins, including false ones. I thought I'd start to understand why some people are heavily invested in food as community and nurturing, while others are motivated by a desire to distinguish themselves as sophisticated, knowledgeable and gourmet. I wondered how in the world I could find out what 'really' motivates those who are interested in food. This led me to delve into the huge body of (mostly 'white') cosmopolitan theory, which fortunately led me further until I discovered the wonderful diversity of writing on cosmopolitanism by those from the 'centre' and the 'periphery', men and women, across a multitude of disciplines.

And that's where I went astray. I am undisciplined and easily influenced, so what should have been a foray became a mission which turned into a thesis plan. Cosmopolitan theory is important to my thesis, but it is not my thesis. In reviewing the literature in that one area of import, I got lost, and one of the things I most lost was my own sense of authority. As I filled my empty-pitcher head with expert theory, I totally lost my mojo. As much of the writings are sociological and anthropological, I also started to worry about my 'sample size', and suddenly proposed to interview dozens of households multiple times across Melbourne. Grasping for a piece of masculine authority to 'say something important' (and general) about Melbourne, I forgot that I began with a much more modest yet complex proposition, to map narratives of situated identity negotiations around food and foodways.

Fortunately, Ken threw me a lifeline back to the boat of me. Admittedly, his toss was forceful and I might have drowned before I could catch hold, but I'm now safely back on board. And what lovely sailing there is ahead. I love my PhD. It's about people, and food, and stories. It resists generalising. It argues that there isn't a simple, normative identity that either resists or replicates itself around certain foodways. Rather our interactions, our engagements with food and foodways are always a negotiation, a transformation. Sometimes we are accruing cultural capital and not much else, others we might only be accruing calories and still others we might be feeding ourselves and the world, one meal at a time. I don't want to 'test cosmopolitanism' like it's a competition (thanks, Jean, for reminding me of that). I want to map its banal instantiations, absences and desires. I certainly don't want to speak with the cold authority of the good empiricist, but rather with the dreamy confidence of... well, me. Thank goodness I'm back. :-)

1 comment:

Zoe said...

I don't envy you the PhD part, but the reading and thinking and talking (and no doubt eating) sounds marvellous.