Doctoralness in the Balance:The Agonies of Scholarly Writing
in Studio Research Degrees
According to a canon that developed unchallenged for a very long time, academic research exists in fields of knowing and proof. It is identified most memorably and with the greatest severity in the physical sciences, which establish facts on the basis of observation, very often extending to empirical experiment, where circumstances are carefully created and controlled, and tests are reliably designed around an unsolved question. This method is reflected in the social sciences, which describe, quantify and model social phenomena - economic or behavioural - without experiment but with the same code of measurable rigour. The humanities, which are by and large non-quantitative and definitely present a greater kinship with the creative arts in their cultural subject matter and often in the ideological spirit of their contentions, also cleave closely to the motif of knowing and proof. Disciplines like philosophy, history and languages interpret and argue with the support of sources; a thesis in the field is held to be defensible when its conclusions and methods withstand the contrary argument.
What then is the counterpart in the creative arts? The primary motif is making; and then there is normally further supplementary material, whence a further question of 'saying what?' arises. Somehow the additional saying (the verbal accompaniment to new creative work) seems auxiliary and in some post-structural work, for example, may even present certain embarrassments. Some artists would challenge the logocentric suppositions of the other disciplines. It seems an unhappy compromise to capitulate to the terms of linear argument in language when the whole project seems dedicated to avoiding those premises. In the creative arts, the 'fields of knowing and proof' are not always as obvious as the sensual transport of the work; and it is even difficult to identify that conclusions have been arrived at. The material established through the research is often fugitive and resists a satisfactory definition. We all agree that creative work is research, for its self-evidently innovative character and generation of new concepts, forms and emotional engagement; but its disciplinary criteria suffer vague parameters.
In university life, there seems to be a seamless tradition without us, an integrity of knowing what to ask, knowing what to do and knowing what to say that perhaps reflects the mutual intimacy of reading, gleaning, judging, assaying, proving and arguing. The other disciplines have a 'natural' rapport between the various stages of searching, testing and reflecting; they are based on a designed closeness of stab and lab. You read, scrutinize, learn, find fault, make notes and gather sources critically alongside your own gestating ideas. You identify the unknown or the unspoken, perhaps even certain things unfelt by others. In this exploration, writing logically completes the journey. There is no disjunction between the 'work' and the writing, even though we know that many researchers in some technical areas are chronically dysfunctional writers.
The creative arts could almost be seen delivering the opposite framework. In research degrees, candidates complete a schismatic project that comprises (a) doing and (b) writing about doing. The two are ideally linked but nothing guarantees the link and much discourages it. The creative element is normally central and has to be granted some dignity as an autonomous entity, not necessarily connected with writing. Among some artists, the work may be perfused with dependence on an exegetical text, like a catalogue essay; but this synergy of word and image cannot be generalized. However much influenced by writing, the creative work has to be allowed an inalienable integrity.
Further, the key body of investigative work (the creative output) has fierce attachments or investments of an emotional or ideological kind and therefore contests any lure of objectivity that the other disciplines may project. When we write, we somewhat shamelessly undertake a thinly veiled labour of valorizing what has been achieved in the creative work. No one really wants to challenge the work, for this would perversely invite the examiners' disapproval; besides, as artists we are hardwired to construct arguments in our favour. Challenging the data with impartial tests is inconceivable in our field. More often than not, we create a rhetorical text to convince the reader that the conceits of the creative work are topical and necessary.
The problem is not the writing itself - the fact that we use writing when our medium is paint or pixels - as if writing is an alien medium in which nothing properly translates. The problem is equally encountered in creative writing projects, where the candidate is an expert word-smith. Our core problem is rather that of a schismatic soul. We have an exegesis to assist evaluation of creative work, to mediate between art and judge; but this explanatory text is never structurally neutral but neurotically oscillates between impulses to auto-connoisseurship and history. And because of its dubious grounding, you may notice as a reader that the exegesis all too frequently produces auto-connoisseurship of an egotistical kind and history of a bland kind. Neither is inherently critical; and neither conspicuously advances knowledge. In many ways, I feel, the problem of defining the research for the candidate is the problem of defining the exegesis.
At Monash University, we felt that the cliché defining doctoral research as 'a contribution to knowledge' was misleading and perhaps even pretentious in our disciplines. We appealed to a kind of truth to the calling. The objective in doctoral projects, we pleaded, was 'a cultural contribution of substantial significance'. This has been a very liberating declaration, which Monash as a whole received with relief and embraced warmly in amendments to the doctoral regulations. Our researchers are thus under no obligation to define their work in epistemological terms. They do not have to demonstrate a stride taken in global knowledge. But it creates other expectations and stresses on the exegesis. The work (or conceptual background) has to live on the page. It has to come to life again in order to appear as a significant cultural contribution and hence the writing cannot disappoint the high charter of the creative work. The creative material is in constant rebirthing through the text that sits beside it.
The issue of what work the exegesis should do may never be solved by reference to abstract definitions of research or creative arts, no matter how well steeped in the authority of other disciplines. This would be an approach of the Mandarins, for in referencing innumerable venerable academic virtues, it could well fail to reference experience. We now sit atop a considerable little mound of doctoral submissions-some brilliant, some premature, some overworked and some dire-upon which analysis can begin; and this observational argument is much likelier to yield helpful insights into the construction of exegetical essays than a whole phalanx of a priori ingredients for high rigour. Rather than a supplier-driven approach, a reader-oriented approach is called for.
Another key motif recommends this approach. Method in our field is not universally generalizable. The most interesting elements that you might forcefully promote to one researcher you would never whisper to another, for it would manifestly not apply; it could corrupt the intention or mess up the natural flow that the individual project indicates. Method in our area is best handled on a case-by-case basis; there is nothing paralleling scientific method. Each candidate establishes a method proper to himself or herself; and the applicability of any given discourse to candidates can only be seen on an individual basis. To formulate a method, and hence an exegetical framework, would risk dragooning the candidate into unworkable disciplines. As with negative theology (in which the pious scholar can tell you what God is not but would never presume to tell you what he or she is) (1) it seems prudent to emphasize what to avoid rather than what to include.
For these reasons, it has occurred to me that the most useful appreciation of what an exegetical essay should achieve may arise out of avoiding the numerous methodological pitfalls that litter the field. In this paper, therefore, I wanted to enumerate some of what I consider 'the sins' of exegetical writing; for I find that consideration of these 'sins' yields systematic insights into the structure of the task. There is a difference with the faults and omissions that might crop up in other fields, which might be characterized as errors (sfalmata); for the peculiar wrongheadedness that I want to identify is a fault (hamartia) of a kind that became theologically burdened, in later Hellenistic times, with implications of guilt. The list that I want to cover comprises indulgence, blandness, inconsequentiality, evasion, pretence, naivety, inconsistency, problematic ideology, poor structure, uncritical writing, the unpoetic and pomposity. I would like to devote the rest of this paper to treating each with a paragraph.
In all these shortcomings that I want to discuss, however, the one that I would not include is that the text fails to explain the work. I do not see it as at all obligatory to furnish a key to the meaning of the creative work; and this requirement should not be considered part of the rigour. Further, though in general each and every sin is equally wrong, none is unpardonable; and at any moment we may allow ourselves to be seduced, for a peculiar charm in the work may sustain a degree of presumption in the exegetical commentary. Numerous caveats of absolution must be described alongside each description of sin.
The critical is a faculty that requires a more sustained analysis. In essence, however, the uncritical means lacking curiosity for the criteria of judgement. It could mean a failure to see that the favourite themes or tropes of the research or text could be at issue, could be seen as conceits or otherwise thin or plain old platitudes. When authors are cited, the uncritical could mean a failure to see associations and values embedded in style, genre, imagery; it could be a failure to observe the bias or the tendentious character of cited texts. The inevitable result of uncritical writing is a boring and unstimulating outcome.
It is possible, in conclusion, to aver that some positive features should be present in an exegetical commentary. It is all too easy to extol antonyms for all of the sins above and call for clarity, vivacity, imagination, insight, perceptiveness, great knowledge, originality and the rest. Why not? These features, when found, nearly always accompany creative work of the most inspired kind. They are hard to bundle into one document; but the symmetry of creative work and exegetical text is a hard task-master. The exegesis must reflect the same qualities that are present in the creative work to effect the rehearsal and rebirthing that was suggested above. In truth, it is not an easy labour; but it is rewarding for candidate and reader alike; and the great consolation for all the pains is that neither the student nor the examiner needs to explain the ultimate meaning of the creative work.
Associate Professor Robert Nelson is Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Art and Design at Monash University. He has a PhD from LaTrobe Uiversity in Melbourne. He has consistently exhibited in both group and solo exhibitions in Melbourne and regional Victoria. He has published widely in journals, catalogues and anthologies, including Art Monthly Australia, Craft Victoria, Artlink and others. He has published feature articles and criticism in The Age and poetry in various magazines and catalogues.
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