i found my notebook

SONY DSC

You could probably tell that already by the way the angels trumpeted their joy down from heaven. I was about to admit defeat and resign myself to recreating all those notes from all those books…

That’s Ernie’s ‘don’t care’ face. To be fair, he doesn’t care about anything other than if he is getting a walk, when his food will appear, if that paper bag you’re holding is a toy for him to tear apart, and please don’t take his goddamn ball and throw it away from its carefully secured position again. This is apropos of nothing, I am just feeling too lazy to go and take a photo of something relevant. Also, Ernie is handsome.

Which is kind of relevant. My first lot of notes are taken from Guntar Figal’s Aesthetics as Phenomenology: The Appearance of Things. This quote really struck me: That which complements is that which allows something to be whole. The context is something like the prevalence of art being part of human culture in all its different variations from before we even developed language means we can say it is an activity that complements humanity, and as such has allowed us in various ways to be whole. I’m simplifying, you get the gist.

Some more quotes I pulled out to think about in terms of the PhD:

What speaks for art, therefore, is more than pleasure. One should rather speak of delight. Even the most serious of artworks, in all they demand of their viewers, can exhilarate in such a deep way that dealing with them affects one’s entire life-attunement. The experience of these works can even provide energy; one carries one’s burdens more lightly, one feels newly adequate to the demands of life, if anything because one has experienced that there is something beyond those demands.

And this:

To become involved with artworks is not to be informed of something, but to be touched in an originary way and displaced into a state of elemental openness: art provokes wonder – in all forms that wonder can take – from joy to irritation. If it is so, then art displaces one into that attitude that Aristotle described as the origin of philosophical observation. Art, like all astonishing things, is wondrous in its lack of self-evidence. With artworks, something is revealed that was not known without them. They displace one into wonder because they allow an ignorance to appear.

Bolded text mine. I wrote underneath this that it is a special kind of ignorance, that art is insight, though exactly what I meant by that is now anyone’s guess. Note to self, write longer notes. Still, I remain taken with the idea that art displaces one into wonder because it reveals an ignorance, something that we did not know, and likely did not know that we did not know.

I wrote down a few things about play and art also – I was interested in the play aspect because that what I feel is happening right now with the visual diary, and I’m quite interested in the idea of it as a necessity to insight, not a childish self-indulgence (I may have terribly self-interested reasons to promote the former over the latter). It’s also something akin to the idea that making is thinking? I think you need both quotes to understand something of what Figal is saying, so I have put them together. Sorry for the philosophical jargon, I have found that philosophers, like lawyers, have a tendency to try to make things super clear by being obtuse.

Once play no longer simply occurs and is played as occurrence, but instead becomes art, there is a ‘turning’ that Gadamer calls the ‘transformation into structure’. Through this transformation, play gains ‘its ideality’ … What is now experienced is the ‘truth that remains’.

While a game can be played in obliviousness and without observation of others, the ‘structure’ (the object) is there to be experienced and understood.

I thought these ideas connected well to concepts in autoethnography, and am currently working my way through the book Critical Autoethnography, edited by Boylorn and Orbe. A lot of the ideas ares kind of ordinary self-evident background; autoethnography as a cultural analysis through personal narrative, for instance, and as both method and product that speaks from, for, and to the margins.

Personal note: I was super uncomfortable with the idea of speaking either from, for, or to the margins. I’m too privileged, have too many options and resources, to feel in any way sidelined to a margin. Perhaps a career margin, but otherwise, I’m not sure where I would place chronic neuropathic pain on the margin/border/liminal spectrum. I’ll let you know when, if, I ever figure it out.

(I keep differentiating between inflammatory or mechanical pain and neuropathic pain because I find them qualitatively very different beasties and would take the former two options a thousand times over the latter. I need to explore why that is more, I think. Something to do with the shifting, ghostly, taunting and constantly constant nature of neuropathic pain. It feels separate from me somehow, visited on me, as opposed to the clearly corporeal nature of inflammatory and mechanical pain.)

Scholars have used multiple stand points to situate their stories and lives, to call out positions of privilege and expose moments of vulnerability.

Again, bolded text mine. It was the and in that sentence that caught my interest, gave me perhaps one of Figal’s moments of wonder as revealing an ignorance. Pain, as noted, makes you vulnerable, (indeed the word vulnerable itself implies a wounding), and centering an entire PhD around your own pain will most certainly engender more than a few moments of vulnerability. I’m not thrilled about that, but I realised when I read the above sentence in Boylorn and Orbe’s introduction, that I also do cherish it. I tried to think of a different word than cherish, because weird?!, but it best describes what I mean, in that I both appreciate the idea and am willing and able to defend it.

I think Figal was also describing a certain vulnerability when he spoke of those who experience art as being touched in an originary way and displaced into a state of elemental openness. What is allowing oneself to be touched, what is any kind of openness, if not also vulnerability? Perhaps you can’t experience the sensory and motor damage of repeated bouts of brachial neuritis for yourself (and lord may you never), but also, perhaps, if I am open enough, honest enough, skilled enough in developing play into structure, what is left may in some way provoke a connection, an experience, yes, perhaps even a delight. And through that delight, an ignorance exposed and an understanding formed; a complement to our respective experiences of life.

And that which complements is that which allows something to be whole.

hello, i’ve been avoiding you

I was at a wedding and visiting my sister, and also I don’t know how many times you want to hear that today things are hurting, and now today not so much. Not a great deal, I should imagine. Let us all look at The Current State of My Diary instead…

collage diary

It’s very colourful and very messy and very informal. I keep leaking watercolour from one page through to the next three pages because it’s just an exercise book after all, even if it is a fancy japanese paper exercise book. It’s not thrilled with being soaked in a bunch of water, but thanks to Frida I don’t much care and the resultant splodges are all part of the fun of the thing.

Here’s a quick flip-through of the rest…

lol rabbit

And let us not forget my favourite bunny woman. To quote the poet Mary Oliver, You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life. I think this portrait is something about that, but I’ve lost my words. I have found, all year, that every time I try to explain, to write, to talk, I end up just sitting there empty and confused, feeling I have something to say and not knowing what that something is. I’ve started reading as many novels as I can get my hands on, as quickly as my eyes will carry me (7 in the last week*) as an antidote to this dire situation. I can feel it starting to work, ideas forming, connections being made. I was thinking this morning as I took my shower, that it amazes me how little attention psychology pays to fiction (it seems to me that storytelling has been a fundamental aspect of human behaviour since before words began), and when it does it is so often stripped of its frustrating marvelous disturbing complexity. Well, anyway. We’ve had this conversation before. Perhaps trying to understand anything necessities something of a simplifying and stripping down, and perhaps I am on the wrong side of the creative/research divide. We’ve had this conversation before too.

(PS: I hate showers, the way I have to lift my clothes over my head getting dressed and undressed tires the remaining working motor neurons in my shoulder out and sets off the ache of day-long muscle fatigue, pathetic but true. I am becoming ashamed of and grief stricken over my body, which doesn’t feel like mine at all. Everyday living is starting to wear me out, and I am just so very tired. That’s what I thought as I sat at my nieces wedding and had little to say and equally little energy with which to say it – I’m just so very tired. I am not sure how many more years I can keep doing this, in the hope things will improve. In my fatigue my world has shrunk far smaller than it should, and I have enough energy to want to be bothered by that, but not enough to actually be bothered by it. I suspect this falls into the category of things you should never say out loud.)

I had some very scholarly and useful autoethnographic type things to write about all of this, but I’ve lost the book I was using to take notes of all that kind of thing. I’ll find it again. But first, I will read another book, or take another nap, or cut out another bunny. I keep waiting for things to get better, but overall it has not. And here I am, still talking about the ups and downs of pain anyway.


*I started the project off the back of a Stephen King quote (I’m not a fan of horror fiction, but he has written an excellent book about writing). He said, If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. Simple as that.

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout. An interesting novel on how the pains we cling to as children, hold on to through adulthood, are fundamental to our identity, to our way of being in the world. A favourite quote: when iI see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk as though they are completely free from terror, I realise I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

The Return, Hisham Matar. Creative non-fiction. Hisham’s father was a senior political figure in Libya before Gaddafi’s coup, and afterward lived in exile with the expectation he would be imprisoned and/or killed. He was eventually taken from his home in Egypt and sent to prison in Libya, along with many of his male relatives. It is a book very much about exile, from home as a place and as people, and is also very much about the men of the family as the ones who are in exile, imprisoned. Hisham never finds out what happened to his father (almost certainly killed in prison, but no proof is found), and hence neither do we, and it is that longing for certainty without the possibility of achieving it that permeates the book. The horrors are not romanticised, but I think the relationships are. Understandable in a man who has spent his adult life in search of a ghost, perhaps. My favourite quote from this book is from poetry written by Hisham’s father when he was a young man: Had the pain not been so precise/I would have asked/To which of my sorrows should I yield?

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. I loved this book, I will buy myself a copy and go read over it every now and then to appreciate the nuance and the layers even more. It’s an apocalyptic novel, but from various points in time, and various points of view. It too is about relationships and identity – I think all novels are?  The title is taken from a graphic novel that one of the main protaganists wrote pre-apocalypse (she dies in the days after), which two of the survivors, unbeknownst to each other, have used in their vastly different ways as guides to living in this new and devastated world. It’s too rich and complex to condense into one short paragraph, but I think this quote used throughout the book sums it all up best: survival is insufficient.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway. I have read most of Hemingway’s short fiction, but never managed to finish one of his novels. The speed and style of 1920’s fiction can wear my social media corrupted brain right down. Hemingway was making a comment on the resilience and morals of the so-called “lost generation” of post WWI men and women within the excesses and social change of 1920’s society. He did not think them lost or immoral, just men and women learning to live in a world changed from the one they were born into. As he writes: I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what is was all about.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Bryn Greenwood. I must agree with the reviewer who said that the author foreclosed on the ethical dilemma and moral ambiguity at the heart of the book (and those who call it a romance, no, it is much more about loss than it is about love), and forces the reader into one oversimplified path she wants them to walk. Nevertheless, it is an interesting point made, that the relationships and morals of those in power often define, to their detriment, the lives of those without that power. I do wish the implications of having a thirteen year old girl as sexual being had been explored further, though. A quote from said thirteen year old: Sometimes waiting and being disappointed was good, to remind me he didn’t belong to me. Nothing belonged to me.

The Enchanted, Rene Denfield. Again, a little heavy handed in its point of view, and again an interesting point of view, affirming both the monstrousness and humanity of men on death row. Three prisoners are executed in the book, one who does not want to die, one who is desperate to die, and one who finds enchantment in living and justice in death. Rene was a death row investigator, and her compassion for those society discards in general is obvious, without denying the gravity of their crimes (the harshness of the prison system in general is part of the novel’s core). The main character is also a death row investigator, whose job it is to find information that will commute death sentence to life sentence, which in this case is complicated by the certainty of her client that he wants to die. But she is clear on her role; she does not save anyone. She only stops executions.

My favourite quote is from the narrator, a mute book-loving prisoner with both an abusive past and has committed a crime too horrific for anyone to talk much about, the one who finds both enchantment in his life and justice in his death: The books brought brilliance to my life, and they brought an understanding: Life is a story. Everything that has happened and will happen to me is all part of the story of this enchanted place – all the dreams and visions and understandings that come to me in my dungeon cell. The books helped me see the truth is not in the touch of the stone but in what the stone tells you.

The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood. If The Enchanted was about the humanity in the monster, The Natural Way of Things is about the monster in humanity. Again, it makes its point vividly and heavy handedly, but in this case it is purposeful, more of an allegory in the way that Lord of the Flies is an allegory. Feminist horror, I heard one reviewer describe it, though I think that is minimising what the book was trying to say, which I think is mostly this, a protest against women as ‘other’ to men (that is, men are people, women are women): In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

 

hello, its sunday

frida-161 2I’ve been reading Frida Kahlo’s diary and realised I’ve been diarying all wrong. Hers is such a random mix of all the things, and her drawings not perfect, or even, often, very good (her paintings on the other hand are genius). The stream of consciousness words seem nonsensical to me (I believe she was categorised as a surrealist, but I don’t think she fit any tidy category), and she seems to use whatever art material is lying around, letting ink bleed through pages, and even including a few doodles. A lot of doodles.

It’s a cacophony of moments without editing, or thought to an audience, and as such is rich and vibrant and interesting. Perplexing also, and confusing; a snapshot into the mind of a passionate woman with passionate views. I don’t understand a lot about her, the times she lived in, the relationships she chose, but even so, in her diary I can see her. The randomness, the mess, the nonsense, the doodles, are an integral part of that, not a superfluous aside to that.

frida-kahlo-diary 1

Note to self: have more courage, be less boring.

I like how Tennessee Williams phrased it. Make voyages. Attempt them. There is nothing else.

bloody gremlins anyway

made thingsThe three blankets on the left were all made during periods of postgraduate study over the last couple of years, periods I was in significant pain for one reason or another; a ruptured ligament, the first brachial neuritis occurrence, negotiating the disturbing after-effects of the first brachial neuritis occurrence. Looking at them I can remember so much of what I was feeling, what I was doing, the stories I was listening to, and the way each meditative consoling stitch wove itself into some kind of safety net, a softer landing to an unexpected fall.

We hardly use them. There is not much need for wool blankets in Auckland, not even in winter, so rather than cover beds they hang over the backs of chairs, hide fraying fabric, and occasionally, every now and then, just once every very little while, when someone is sad or unwell, the closest blanket will be pulled down from its resting place and enlisted as sentinel nurse to keep said patient a little warmer, a bit more comfortable. Mum-made blankets are sometimes infused with a little bit of that kind of magic.

Mums are also good for driving you places. I spent two hours straight in my sexy mini-van traipsing all over Auckland yesterday, an hour the day before that. I avoid it where possible, because pain, but Warren is in Denmark and these commitments were very really not avoidable. Predictably, the pain gremlins have not been kind to this parental generosity, throwing their burny stabby little darts at me as hard and often as they can all day. Some darts fall straight out, others hook right into the flesh and poke at me for hours. There’s one that’s been hanging off the underside of my upper arm since lunch-time, the fucker.

An hour (or less) into this kind of a day and all I wanted to do is Make Something to take my mind of it. Making things always has that quality to me, it’s why I spent half my Master’s thesis crocheting granny squares. I think it is my version of pulling a mum-made blanket off the back of an armchair to wrap myself in when I need some comfort. But first I would have to clear all the mess off the desk and find the right materials, and …

… sigh. To quote my dear, and actually very persistent, middle child, too hard, give up. I stayed in bed with my smarty smart phone instead. I looked through a Pinterest board of mine, the one where I put ideas of some things I might want to make in some mythical spare-time someday, a monostrosity of a gargantuan thing that had reached over 500 different possible projects. Yeah. That’s so not happening. I spent the next two hours culling out ideas I actually never would make, ideas that would now be physically hard to make, ideas where I fell for a pretty picture but there was really nothing of substance behind that pretty picture, and far too many WTF ideas that had me despairing over past-self and her absolute lack of any kind of modicum of good taste. I eventually reduced that list to just 24 projects, each one with a specific reason to be there, a specific place in my house or wardrobe where I would very much like it to be, please and thank you.

I thought of Julia when I was looking through so many screeds of ideas (I’m so sorry you died) and of how her cancer diagnosis became a catalyst to creating a sense of self she was proud of, how the temporal fragility that diagnosis brought with it became a strong motivator to break out of the confines of an ill-fitting persona.  I thought of how she had done much the same thing, metaphorically, to her life, reduced it to the people and places and haircuts that she most loved and needed, and in that reduction opened herself up to living so much larger, louder, more abundantly-er.

Nothing so dramatic here: this pain is, well, a pain, but it’s not going to kill me, or even maim me particularly. It’s more like a worn circuit in one (albeit significantly large and  kinesthetically central) part of my body, where the damaged wires connect sometimes, and sometimes they don’t, and you can never tell what time will be which, or for how long, or even where, because there are so many downstream connections dependent on the damaged buggers.

It is also psychologically isolating and socially disconnecting; it can even disconnect me from myself.  The reasons why and how are complicated and multifaceted, and let’s just take it as read for now that I find this to be true. I might even call it, reserving the right to be completely mistaken, my central defining experience of this neuritic pain.

Which brings us back, again, again, to making things. The idea I had of crowd sourcing materials for the creative aspects of the doctorate was a way to counteract that isolation, already pronounced with the autoethnographic methodology. But I’ve been thinking about it, and thinking how disconnection and isolation are so central to my experience (currently – it’s such an uncertain, moving-target kind of disease that I hesitate in making any kind of definitive statement about anything), that I think I was wrong to force connection where there is none. I think the isolation is really important to understand and explore and come to terms with when trying to understanding pain as a phenomenon, and I think I should embrace it theoretically, methodologically, creatively. As with the pain itself, if I have to live it, I might as well try to understand it.

I looked at those 24 projects on my Pinterest board, I looked at all the blankets I have made, and I thought they told a little bit of a story of a woman who finds solace in her pain and isolation through creating objects that bring both her and other people some kind of pleasure or utility. A woman who is not always at home in her own gremlin-stabbed body, who is trying, instead, to find more of that home in her surroundings. A woman who cannot articulate her pain experience who instead articulates her longing, who hopes that, perhaps, in accepting her current isolation, in reducing possibility to the things she most wants to do, make, understand, she might open herself up to living so much larger, louder, and more abundantly-er too.

That’s a more honest project, data set, call it what you will. It’s what I already have done as a response to pain, what I am doing, and what I would otherwise quietly continue to do. I.e. if I’m already going to make them, I might as well make use of them.


PS – I’m going to wait until I’ve been at this project for longer before deciding on a final creative project to bring all the elements together, the above is more of a data set for interpretation – I’ll blog what I make and why I made it, as I go. I think I have been trying to map the creative landscape in far too much detail for so early on in a project.

I mention this because you would be forgiven for wondering, my dear imaginary reader, what happened to the portraits, to the zines, to the graphic novels, to the animation, to any semblance of creative continuity. What happened, and where you will find the continuity, is that they became bricks on the path that brought me here. I am completely convinced that all this confusing mucking about is a vital part of the process. (Either that, or I’m just thick and take longer to get to where everyone else would have started from; don’t answer that). It’s unsettling to spend this kind of time in the chaos of creative research design. Unsettling, rewarding, kind of fun, and an excellent way to construct a path from the known to what has not been imagined. (Um, yes, I absolutely did just quote my very own actual self). I could march through my doctorate on the original planned script and without detours, and it would likely be good work with useful contributions, but what it wouldn’t be is reflective of me, nor would it be as uniquely appropriate to the particular research I am doing as I might wish.

Let me put it another way; creating something new requires doing something different, and what motivates me as a student, as a researcher, as an artist, as a Megan, is creating something new.

.

an autoethnography of meaning and pain

For once my silence here is not a sign of anything being wrong or lack of work behind the scenes; on the contrary I have read and gathered so many research articles and books in order to write a new proposal that it became clear I would soon have to just stop and get something down or I would have amassed enough time, ideas and resources to write the PhD itself.

So, let’s see if we have enough to build a doctorate upon, and let’s begin with my favourite archaic word:

merry-go-sorry (n).

A tale that evokes joy and sadness simultaneously.

I took my son to the doctor’s recently; nothing serious, an ingrown toenail turned septic and in need of an antibiotic. I try not to overuse such things, annihilation of mankind looming from growing bacterial resistance and all, but his toe was twice the size it should be and difficult to fit into a shoe, so needs must.

During the inevitable wait before we could be seen, we found an article about a series of archaic words that some archaic word researcher wanted to resurrect. They were brilliant. Betrump! Slug-a-bed! Peacockize! When I came across merry-go-sorry and discovered what it meant, I knew I had found a central organising idea to build my research around. Because I would like to, as a hastily scrawled note in my composition book attests, challenge the traditional binary of what is normal and what is pathological, particularly with reference to the embodied experience of pain.

I can bear any pain, as long as it has meaning.

– Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Here’s a fun fact: the meaning people ascribe to the experience of physical pain is not a well researched phenomenon. The biological processes behind it, sure, researched up the wazoo. Pain causing illnesses, like arthritis, cancer, fibromyalgia, and the depression, anxiety, social isolation, occupational challenges that are commonly associated with these illnesses are also a well-discussed thing. But the meaning of pain in and of itself? Not really.

And it is hard to give it a meaning beyond ‘ow’, ‘bloody hell’, or ‘fuck fuck fuck’, when you are in the moment. As Jennifer Esposito’s brilliantly titled article would have it, “Pain is a social construction until it hurts…”  She also goes on to say that “bodies matter and the meanings of bodies are always contextual, but in pain the body can be one’s entire experience.”  Perhaps this is the difficulty, the reason our knowledge of meaning and pain is so meagre, because our experience of meaning when in pain is meagre too. As a character in The Handmaid’s Tale says: “But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh.”

But Svenaeus writes that physical pain is both an experience of bodily suffering and emotional suffering. His argument is that pain is an experience of being acted upon, whatever the root cause of the pain might be, and it is that sense of being acted upon, a kind of physical violation, that brings the emotional suffering. And when the pain is chronic, the pointlessness of the violation, the lack of meaning behind it, makes the world, and our bodies themselves, a more difficult place in which to be. To paraphrase: chronic pain sufferers are never quite at home in their own skin.

However, if Brandon is correct that the body is personal and, as such, is an interactive part of our concept of ‘self’, then there needs must be some kind of meaning ascribed to our experience of pain, even if that meaning is something we remain largely oblivious to. Or else the absence of meaning could, I suppose, contribute to a destabilising of our sense of self ? In short, and to sum up a lot of overwhelming theories and thinkings, there is much work to be done here and I am your woman to do it.

Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going

― Rainer Maria Rilke

You’ll have to take it on faith for a minute that this quote has something useful to do with autoethnography. Or else I could just tell you? I’ll just tell you. What it reminds me of is Dashper’s idea that a good autoethnography is not ‘lazy’ research, but takes a considerable amount of reflective mental work, and Frambach’s inference that autoethnography has more to do with being vulnerable than being self-absorbed. Which is important, the vulnerability I mean, because it suggests the possibility that investigating something as complex and personal and disempowering as chronic pain could be more robustly prodded and poked at when that vulnerability also comes from a position of power. I like Panszcyk’s statement that “the same vulnerable body can also be the body of power”, where power means, in this instance, the ability of autoethnography to claim the space to construct one’s own ‘self’, to take the storyteller’s position. Think Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column, for instance. In this way, the very subjectivity of pain becomes a strength, and will allow both time and depth enough to develop possible theory in this underdeveloped theoretical space.

I think the kind of pain I experience is also a potential strength for an autoethnographical methodology. It’s an unusual presentation of an unusual disease – a recurrence of brachial neuritis is the official diagnosis. It’s rare for it to occur, rarer to recur, even more rare for it to affect both sides of the body, and is diagnosed only half as often in women as in men. I’m one in a million! No-one knows the etiology (its thought to be autoimmune but not entirely?) and prognosis is so varied that there is no certainty about what the future holds. Hopefully the nerves will slowly heal over the next few years and I will carry on mostly as I always was, but the more it recurs the more likely that at least some nerve damage is permanent. I’m through the worst of the latest recurrence (we are on incident #3) so am not currently in excruciating kill-me-now type pain all of the time, hallelujah, but still in various amounts of pain at various stages of the day. Every day. It can be sharp and fierce, or dull and insistent; burning, aching, tingling, needling. There is also, of course, the potential for contrasting this kind of neuropathic pain with the arthritic pain I am also long acquainted with, and as I still have urticarial vasculitis, and as one might throw the intense itching that comes with that into the vast realm of pain experience if one were so inclined, then we have a veritable smorgasboard of pain experience to ponder.

On a personal level, eff that. But as a researcher, erm … cool! Because the rarity doesn’t make it necessarily irrelevant to the common experience, but the variety and intensity provides an opportunity, if done well, to be an interesting exemplar. As Ms Sally Denshire would have it, autoethnography can be a “vehicle for talking to each other”, or to quote Carl Rogers, and I probably shouldn’t, What is most personal is most universal.”  Where there is honesty without self-indulgence, I think that can be true, and I think it’s the principle behind the deep resonance we find through all ages in the best examples of all kinds of art. Perhaps when we stand in something like the Sistine Chapel, watch Adrian Lester perform Hamlet, or experience the Palmerston North Boy’s High School students farewell to a beloved teacher, amongst a very few examples of an eon’s worth of creative brilliance, we read something different into it than the person standing beside us, whose understanding is different again from the person standing beside them. The difference is not the point here, the resonance is: I think of it as a powerful echo that reflects back to us some aspect of who and what we are based in our shared and common humanity. That is, an important source of knowledge.

Because you knew the conversation was going to turn to art at some point, didn’t you?

What do you think an artist is? …he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.

― Pablo Picasso

A bit dramatic, our Pablo, and something of a misogynist prick, but undeniably genius. I used this quotation of his for two reasons; the idea that art is political (isn’t everything?) and that it can be an instrument of war. Figuratively speaking. I want to use the artistic imagination in this particular research  project to quite purposefully cross and extend academic boundaries, to externalise experience, to reflect the interconnection of self and body in the interconnection between artwork and onlooker. I would like to introduce an element of humour, as previously mentioned, some merry to the sorry, which seems to me to also be a potentially useful method in which to oppose what I feel can be the false dichotomy between health and illness, pain and joy, loss and possibility. So … not so much war as a gentle challenge in one small research project in one small university in one small corner of the world. Still. A gentle challenge worth the making.

Graphic memoir is a possible vehicle for the kind of interplay between these ideas that could be useful for my stated purposes. It has a well established place in medical and literature research, with a small showing in the social sciences, and there are even actual real life examples of actual real life people who have written one as part of a PhD project.  Pedri calls it a “reflector narrative”, and states that the combination of both drawing and writing obscures and confuses the distinction between thinking and seeing, which, in turn, impacts a viewer’s emotional investment. Sundaram suggests the genre by nature allows the presentation of multiple selves, supports a refusal for “linear progression from diagnosis to cure”. And those kind of linear narratives … they’re just not what this research is about. This pain I live with is messy and uncertain and part of daily mundane life; also peculiar, exceptional, unexpected, weird. Cyclical perhaps, but definitely not linear.

I’ve read a few graphic memoirs by now, none so moving as the first, and while I agree with the argument that the visual/textual interplay in this kind of literature can do all of those above stated things, after a while something fell flat. I began to find them, forgive me, a little boring.  The main difficulty seemed to me that they are just too focussed on the narrated self, in a way a straight memoir can’t be, and I found that a little repetitive, and more importantly, disconnecting. It left no way in for me as a reader to connect with the story, a problem I wrestled with in making the collages for the Master’s thesis. I was being told what an experience was, not invited to imagine myself in that experience. There were exceptions, but it is hard to do graphic memoir well in this sense, I think. To be fair, I think memoir in general is hard to do well.

The other difficulty for me was a lack of texture and colour and depth in the visuals. The two dimensions of comics work well in a strip format, but I found them monotonous in a book. Especially in book after book. That’s a personal response and not a general indictment, but it’s a personal project, so, yeah. But there is still so much good in the idea, and it is still true that drawing is one of the few things that doesn’t trigger more pain (thank you, drawing), so I was reluctant to ditch the idea entirely and finally came up with the best idea in the whole universe – cut-out animation! I’ll draw a film!

(Like this, sort of, but probably less clever, more collage-y, and with a lot more words).

I think that a cut-out animation has all the same theoretical and methodological strengths attributed to graphic memoir, but with motion. And motion is both visually dynamic and most definitely central to my experience of pain.

Also, I’ve always wanted to put an animated video on YouTube…

Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.

– Orson Scott Card

Though I remain a bit isolated by current circumstances, i.e. driving places still kills me dead, I have been keen to find a way to connect the research to the wider community without having to kill myself dead. There is always the context of past research, of art and literature and all those kinds of cultural and historical connections that I will need to make and discuss. But I mean something more personal than this too. The online world is a natural habitat for loners and recluses and me, and no, I’m not going to trawl blogs again. But. I do know a lot of clever women through the internet, artists and craftspeople and the odd anaesthetic nurse. I thought it would be a good idea if I could elicit material from whomever might want to contribute materials to the project, something along the idea of them sending me a small piece of fabric or magazine page or whatever they might fancy as useful to help create the world of the animated film. Nothing big, nothing that won’t fit into a letter sized envelope, or even a digital file that can be whizzed through the ether, preferably something worn or broken, hopefully colourful, and definitely meaningful in some way to the sender in terms of their understanding of my research. Jennifer Bartlett says that the body has (is?) an unstable materiality, and I want to reflect and investigate that idea somewhat in the animated artwork in part through the precarious nature of crowd-sourced materials. Crowd sourced materiality – that’s a thing, right?

I am planning to use Instagram and Facebook to  elicit this help because it’s where I still maintain those connections, and I am also going to post in both those places at least some of the visual diary I will be keeping in order to examine and analyse my own experiences in more depth (said diary starting next week, um, yep definitely). I found during the Master’s research that this blog was too removed for some of the more immediate and emotive reactions I had to the research, too edited and editable, and I censor myself a great deal more when I write than when I draw. I think that a daily visual log will not only be an excellent source material in terms of capturing my experience with more spontaneity and emotional honesty, and thus be useful data to analyse, it will help communicate the heart of the research itself to the people who might want to contribute. This will in turn, one hopes, ensure their contributions are not random but part of an ongoing conversation between us all around pain and meaning.

An assemblage of people offering an assemblage of materials to create an assemblage art project, embracing and extending the idea that assemblage/bricolage/collage can be a possible “ontology of the social“. Some days I am just too clever for my own undies.

And some days I am not clever at all. Okay, most days. Okay, bewilderment is my resting state. But that’s not a problem because bewilderment has its roots in the word wilderness, and the wilderness is uninhabited, and a doctorate is meant to wander to uncharted places, and you know it’s time to quit writing when you start justifying rambling fancies through rambling etymologies.

I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.

-William Stafford

I’m not sad anymore. I don’t feel defeated and like there is no room for me in the academic landscape, indeed I can see it could really use this kind of research, even if it doesn’t know it. I am not happy for the stupid neuropathic chronic bloody pain, but I am excited for the opportunity to make use of it in a complex, messy, colourful and theoretically imaginative doctorate. With moving pictures! Materiality, health, embodiment, art, craftsmanship, mythology, identity, artefacts, shadows; all my favourite things are still here, with so much more to discover besides.

I am kid-at-christmas level excited for that discovery.

a placeholder, just in case

Like I said, given the choice I would stick to what I’ve already started, so that’s still Plan A (or B, or C, I lose track).

But, if I do have to think about years of managing neuritis I may have found a reasonable solution that will not only allow me to finish the PhD, but give me the mental energy to carry on with some marking and tutoring, both of which are also important to me. It isn’t the solution I was going to write about yesterday (but includes a lot of the best elements), because after I wrote that post I just kept thinking – if drawing doesn’t exacerbate the pain and helps me feel mentally much better, I should really find a way to draw?

collage gn

So I went searching this afternoon and found that graphic memoirs, especially illness memoirs, were a thing. Who knew? There is some research done on different aspects of these kind of narratives but (having only spent a few hours on it so far, don’t quote me) a wide open space right up through the middle of them to conduct further research. I am wondering about a combination of analysis of other’s work, and drawing a memoir of my own research (and how it came to be my research) to sit along-side that analysis. There could be a lot of different aspects to it, looking at visual storytelling as a research method, how illness is represented in these kinds of books, the point of representing illness in these kinds of books, and as a possible way to translate academic findings into something more accessible. To name a few.

This quote from Quesenberry and Squier, 2016:

Ultimately, our sense is that graphic memoirs of disability, illness, and other types of difference share many characteristics with more traditional, exclusively textual life writing forms, though in graphic life writing the visual dynamic—involving the connections and disconnections between the verbal and visual—produces specific engagements with disjunction, complexity, and the ineffable.

I don’t know about you, but the words disjunction, complexity and the ineffable get all my artsy researchery goosebumps going.  And yes, it’s kind of the Master’s thesis redux, where blogging is swapped out for graphic memoir, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s building on what I already know and making use of what I have already done.

Also, drawing.

Other Things to Like About Plan H (or D or E, F, G, I lose track):

  1. I could further the research on the idea of small freedoms that I introduced in the Master’s thesis. I think it’s a really useful idea in all different kinds of resistance, and I didn’t get to explore or explain it in enough depth. I could look into that more here.
  2. It allows for the possibility to include humour*. I find a difficulty with a lot of memoir, and research, and illness narratives in general is how seriously they take themselves. Life is funny, even when it’s hard, and sad. I think so. Super Adequate Woman thinks so. It would be very satisfying to bring some element of humour into my research.
  3. It could also include ideas of the beautiful awful, the social gaze, protest art, to name a few of the previous incarnations of Ideas I Have Had. They can all be part of both researching and creating a graphic memoir. In Search of The Green Man has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
  4. Oh yes, and mythology! I was so keen to use mythology in the Master’s but never could quite make it work. It could work here.
  5. As above, it very much ties in to the book that got me all excited about artifacts of loss in the first place. In the interment camps, the Japanese American’s used what was around them to create art and crafts to brighten their tiny homes, to bring some joy into their lives, to feel more human. I can see this as a way to use what I can still do (again, yes, let’s hope it’s temporary etc., and so forth) to contribute to the field of critical health psychology, and bring some joy into my life while I am doing it; a creative artifact of my own loss. Did that make sense? I will be able to explain it better when I’ve thought about it more, but I know there is a link there. Oh, probably they are both examples of small freedoms inside the generally restrictive world of habitus. All my roads seem to lead to Bourdieu.
  6. I probably haven’t explained what it is about the current research that I feel unable to do? It’s all the travelling and the interviews – the thought of driving all over town and giving the kind of sustained and empathetic attention the participants deserve – it sounds pathetic, and I loathe writing it, but as things stand I’m not up to being able to do all that very well. The driving alone will kill me.

I know there were other things I wanted to briefly note, but I’ve hit my concentration limit and have forgotten them all, and none of this might ever be needed in any case. I’ll close the laptop now and pop off for a cup of tea and a bit of Netflix. I’m expecting to hear from the neurologist again this week, and once I know what she has to say about next steps, I can decide whether to jump the current ship or just keep rowing.

Supervisors willing, of course*.


*eff everything croppedI made this graphic in photoshop one day when I was at my worse and couldn’t even sleep, before I was prescribed suitable pain relief (which I have had to stop for a while so I have the thinking ability to mark essays, because I tried to mark a few last week and just couldn’t tell what was good or bad about them, despite being sure I would be able to. Essays are easy! Bugger that to all damnation. So, now the pain is creeping back – Scylla and Charybdis, etc.) She (I forgot what name you gave her, Veronica?) still makes me smile, every time I look at her.

**I think I can hear Kerry grumping*** at how I am wasting time writing about all this palaver when I could be getting on with the research we’ve already started. Fair enough too. It’s just – I’m sad. Not depressed, not anxious, not panicking. Just very sad. And this cheered me up enormously, so a Sunday afternoon well spent, I think.

***My apologies if I can’t. I’ll write out the sentence ‘I mustn’t put words in my supervisor’s mouth‘ a thousand times in penance. Well, I won’t, but I could download the Dragon software you suggested and recite them instead if you like.

for veronica, because it’s been a while

29 August 2017 (10 of 23).jpgIt’s been a very long while. A disconnecting kind of long while, where ideas are lost and threads broken. But Spring has arrived and popped her sweet little face around my front door and reminded me that if there is any good time for new beginnings, for starting again, for re-starting, it’s Spring.

I’ve been both idle and busy, and in a state of distracting pain or terrible fatigue, depending on whether I am taking my current gazillion drugs for pain relief or not. I find it hard to function in either case; more precisely I find it hard to think. It’s hard to Ph.D. when you can’t think. It’s hard to do anything when you can’t think*. A lot of what I like about myself has been tied up in my ability to think, and not being able to do that very well has been, without an ounce of exaggeration or self pity**, desolating.

collage equals the wind drawinggetting herself together polaroisExcept for drawing things. I can draw without pain or fatigue for hours at a time, lose myself in the dance of line and curve, colour and movement. It’s deeply joyful and a place where my otherwise dumb-head thick-brain can still flourish. Which is odd, because drawing was always my least favourite art activity before now. Life, eh? What a twisty-turny mess she can be.

But you can’t draw a Ph.D. (or can you?) and even if I can fully recover from, significantly improve, or just learn to work around this current state of zombie-being, I’ve already lost months to whatever currently anonymous disease this is, and I can’t afford to lose many, any, more.


green man2
Megan’s neck

Enter the Green Man.

This is an MRI scan of two of the inflamed nerve roots in my cervical spine, the C6 pair. They are the worst two of eight inflamed nerves, but that is not the point of this story. The point of this story is one of my friends thought this could be a picture of a mustachioed goat, and the other chimed in, no! That, my dear, is a Green Man!

green man
Actual Green Men

I didn’t know what a Green Man was and so I asked Uncle Google who told me of the Green Man’s widespread mythologies spanning thousands of years and various cultures , all of which might be summed up with this one idea: Green Man brings birth from death, renewal from desolation.

Huh.

And I have one inside of me.


remaking memoryI didn’t look at the author’s name when I started reading this book but I made a bet with myself a few pages into the first chapter that they were almost certainly male and white, which, according to the author’s picture on the back cover, they most certainly are.  It wasn’t so much the central idea of the book that made me think so, a critique against standards in autoethnography and memoir, some of which I wholeheartedly agree with, it was the sense of unironic condescension I found in the way he writes this critique: “…the battle is with autoethnography and memoir as these have become deployed in the idle, the self-deluded and the faux.”

Goddam those faux! And the navel gazing emotions that muddy the pristine waters of clear information. Also, mediocre artists, writers, post-graduates and the plebs who think their ordinary stories worth our time and attention, let them eat cake whilst keeping their self-deluded mediocrity away from all of the rest of us, where even are the standards anymore?

I may have turned mildly pissed-off bemusement into fury when he started using as an example the evils of the ‘near-manic’ rise of the ‘Momoir’ – “… in many cases empathy is skewed into the type of contemporary indulgence that every day is a victory over the travails of ordinary life”. Keeps your hands off the keyboards, ladies (unless you are Susan Sontag), we are not interested in your stories of the diapers.

I am interested in your stories of the diapers, and I think that the travails of ordinary life can be the site of some of our hardest won victories. (But of course, I would. I’ve never done anything to earn the right to memoir, having never accomplished anything noteworthy***).

I agree on – advocate passionately for – the need for craftmanship in research. In all areas of research. And I can also agree there is a danger for both autoethnography and memoir to turn to self-indulgence, even, horrors, badly written navel gazing. But I think this author may have mistaken the ordinary for the mediocre, and I found it hard to listen to what he had to say over the continued smell of meritocratic asshattery.


superadequate

Look, the thing is, I don’t know if I’m going to get better, I don’t know if I can Push Through and Carry On this time. I just don’t. I’ve been struggling a great deal, one way or another, since the middle of my Master’s when the neuritic problems first showed up. I just want to sleep. Sleep, and draw, and moan a bit because what’s a pain for if not to moan about? And sleep. I really don’t know what to do about any of it anymore, other than invent comic heroes through which to laugh at myself, which, I must say, was a really very excellent thing to do.

But I do think there might be a way to create a research project that ties all the things I have done toward this PhD already, in a way that will mean if I stay a drugged-up dumb-head thick-brain for the next few years it won’t slow or halt the research. A project that takes the idea of portraits and the social gaze, of shadow objects and familial relationships, of the beautiful awful; that uses and furthers some ideas in my Master’s, and pokes big old fun at the navel gazing of self-indulgent memoir in a way that both embraces and subverts creative methodologies, and makes use of the Green Man in my neck and all his promise. One where the whole of the last year becomes useful and relevant, rather than something to regret and put behind me. Yes, even the self-indulgent navel-gazing embarrassment that was my Summer of Prednisone Anxiety.

Such a creature exists. I’ve even met her, and she’s epic. Perhaps super-adequate. In any case, definitely good enough.****

You’ll have to wait for another day for a better, more detailed, summary*****. This post has already taken weeks longer than it should, and now I have essays to mark, and my nerves are fucking killing me.


sunset

But still, in conclusion and PS: I really don’t know if this is a sunrise or a sunset on my currently much-too-brief academic career; only time will be able to tell me that. I hope sunrise. But for now, for today, the more important thing to understand is that Winter has once again rolled over into Spring, and if there is any good time for new beginnings, for starting again, for re-starting, it’s Spring.


*But you could concentrate long enough to write a blog post? Well, yes. Ish. It took over two weeks though.

**Okay, sure, maybe a few ounces, here and there.

***A quote I stole from said author, who is quoting another author, but we’re all just being mostly tongue-in-cheek, such a laugh, hahaha!

****My preference would be to stay the current course, actually. And maybe I can, it’s just taking forever for answers so I am starting to think I need a back-up ready to go in case this pain is going to stick around for a while, that’s all. 

*****Much sooner than another three months, I promise. Next weekend. Let’s make a date.

a (very) brief encaustic history

collage ancient encaustic

As modern as collage is, encaustic is equally ancient; used by Roman era Egyptians in the first few centuries A.D. to create funerary portraits that they would then fix to an enshrouded mummy. These are three examples of many that have been found (images taken from the British Museum), the beeswax and resin used in the process provided their remarkable longevity. If you don’t expose encaustic artwork to excessive heat or freezing temperatures, they’re reasonably indestructible.

flag

Encaustic is not a popular contemporary fine art technique, though it is enjoying (I read somewhere) something of a revival. A famous example is Jasper John’s mid 20th century iconic Flag (above), or his equally famous, and I think supremely unsettling, White Flag (below).

white flag

I’ve never seen either in person, but I would very much like to, so that I can see for myself the collaged pieces of newspaper and other quotidian detritus he used as background before painting on the wax.

flag detail

Here it is in closer detail. I love that. Though I suspect if a female artist had done it, it would have been categorised as craft rather than art, but I’m just a little bitter because 44 years of living as a said female does that to you on some days. It’s a fabulous piece of art. I believe it is also a more fragile one than the ancient encaustic examples because Jasper did not mix resin into his beeswax, oops.

I like that as a technique it was developed to enshrine portraits of the dead, and I like that it will leave me with my own set of reasonably permanent research relics that my children will then have to decide what to do with after I am gone; their inheritance a story of other people’s ghosts.

Apropos of nothing, I have set myself a task of reading half a novel tomorrow. Over the course of my Psychology studies I’ve lost something of the concentration span needed to enjoy novels, especially the more literate ones, and it’s to my regretful loss – Kerry once asked me if I read everything, and my current reply would be that I used to. I did make the rookie mistake of asking my much more literate friends for a recommendation, however, and now have an enormous book mountain sitting next to my bed. Bummer that I also have a new semester about to start.

some more examples

collage encaustic 2

These lean more toward encaustic photography than encaustic collage in general, which would work too. The key, for me, is the shadowed, ghostly layer the encaustic process adds. You could get it with digital effects, but it wouldn’t have the same textural quality, the same feeling of both time and memory layered over the original moment, or object, or relationship.

I’m signed up to a 2 day workshop in August to learn the process. Also this coursera course, courtesy of Kerry (say that ten times fast), and I now have (did I say?) the bare bones of the first article I need to write sketched down. It will be about this process, about creating method rather than imposing it, and not just a theoretical argument on why that’s important, or at least useful, but also how that can work at a pragmatic level.

encaustic collage

In my imagination, a rather messy and disturbingly random little place, there lives a shadowy idea of how to represent shadow objects visually. It requires found objects, and photocopies of photographs, and beeswax, and painting, and it ends up looking something like this:

IMG_2679-1009x1024
Alanna Sparanese

 

leah mcdonald
Leah MacDonald

 

subterranean
Lisa Kiros
ingrid blixt
Ingrid Blixt

It’s perfect. It’s a type of collage, which relates it to my earlier thesis work and to all the implications collage had as a form of visual communication there, but it also has a ghostly opaqueness and a greater material physicality that speaks more to this specific thesis.  It’s a highly flexible medium, and, I think, a highly storied one.

Also I get to paint a little bit…

I see a series of encaustic collages grouped together on a wall in an exhibition as a type of visual essay, with perhaps other sensory memories included; a scent, or a song for instance, and again, only where it is an important part of the story. I am keen to add in sensory memories if/when I can, because reasons; and no, the zines are not forgotten, and yes, it will all work together, but more on all of that later – right now I have to drive two children to work. Again.