Wednesday, December 01, 2004


What We Talk About... II

To continue on this topic of talking about work. First, congratulations to New Kid for immediately catching the Raymond Carver reference of yesterday's title and for mentioning it. (There is also a great Old 97s song called "What We Talk About" on their album Fight Songs that carries with it the same dark edge as it alludes to the Carver story - worth checking out.) I chose that title for the post intentionally because really, when I talk about my work I am talking about love - or what has been the most enduring and stable "love" of my life thus far - and, maybe more importantly, I think that the Carver story offers an apt way of thinking about the way that I talk about work, because at the heart of Carver's story (I think) is silence. These characters overtly talk about love, and Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist - a specialist in matters of the heart, one might say - but ultimately the superficial definitions that the story provides never really provide a satisfying answer to exactly what it is we do talk about when talking about love. Is love the obsessive love of Terri's ex? Is it what Mel has with Laura? What Mel feels for his kids from his first marriage? The love that Mel watches between his two emergency room patients? In some ways, what the reader is left with at the end is the feeling that although we all believe we feel "love" it's impossible to articulate a clear definition and we don't really know fuckall about it and that's why even when we talk about it we can't really talk about it. (And yes, this is a reductive reading, but as I'm blogging I'm giving myself permission to be reductive.) In other words, this "love story," is actually pretty fucking dark. Or there is a dark undercurrent to the seemingly mundane conversation that the story records.

So, how does this relate to me and talking about work? Well, I think that part of the problem is that I can never articulate in a sound-bite sort of way what my work "really" is. New Kid mentioned this in her comment to my post yesterday - that part of her reticence to talk about work at first stemmed from not really knowing what her work was. Well, I felt that, too, especially when I was just beginning my dissertation, but what occurs to me now is that even though I know what I'm working on, I feel like any synopsis I give to other people is somehow false - that I can't pin down for them in a clear and articulate way what exactly it is I'm doing or why it matters. I can say when somebody asks, "What does your research focus on?" that I work on literary porn or the novel or sex in books or whatever, but that, while true, isn't entirely true. It, like the definitions of and anecdotes about love in Carver's story, only barely scratches the surface and doesn't give a clue as to how much it all means to me. While this is less true when I talk about other parts of my work that are not research, it can be true when I'm talking about what matters to me as a teacher as well. I feel like no matter how much I say I never really get it right, and so I'm embarassed to reveal things about that part of my life to all but those who are closest to me. Or, rather, I'm embarassed to reveal how I really feel about those things or the parts that mean the most to me because somehow in doing so I'm afraid I will lose them or that they won't be kept safe? I'm not sure if this makes any sense, but bear with me. The point is, it's terrifying to me to talk about the things that really matter in my work in most situations - especially during the time that I'm doing the work; it gets better once I believe I'm "finished" with a project - and that terror comes from the fact that I feel like talking about those things is deeply personal. Similarly, I can blab all day long about sex stuff on the blog, but it's a rare day when I actually discuss, just as one example, any feelings I might have related to Freud (if you haven't noticed). And what really matters, I suspect, would be that stuff that I don't say.

So why not just say it? Well, I think this relates to the "personal" thing. In her comment to my first post this week about my blog not being "academic" New Kid (and yes, you should all thank New Kid for this post because it's basically a big long-winded response to her) mentioned that she thinks work in the humanities is more personal/internalized than work in the social sciences (with, of course, the caveat that she could be wrong about that). Well, with New Kid's caveat in place, I think I want to talk about this division as if it's a true thing. Of course in the social sciences or sciences one's work might relate to something one personally cares about - for example, one might work as a cancer researcher and have been inspired to do so because one has some personal experience with the disease. But in the humanities, what's weirdly on the line in one's research is who one is in a very real way. It's not that work necessarily comes out of personal experience - like my cancer researcher example - but what you choose to study and write about oddly communicates something very personal about who you are. Or it can. I guess it might not for some people, but for me it does.

All of this focus on sex for me has got to be bound up in the fact that I was raised Catholic and in the fact that (although this is sort of a weird thing to connect to my work) I knew from the time I was a very small child that my parents got married because they "had to" - i.e., I was at the wedding, albeit in utero. All of the messages I got about sex were related to pregnancy and sin and giving things up in life as the price that one pays for sex, especially if she is a woman. Sex has consequences, and pretty negative consequences at that. And so, I grow up, I read theory and criticism and novels, I read stuff about sexuality and gender, and all of a sudden I'm writing a dissertation about sex. And the problems I'm working out - although superficially they are about the literature I'm writing about - are really my problems. What is the relationship of the sex I have to my identity? What is the relationship between sexual pleasure and gender, and if I experience pleasure from certain things does that make me a "bad" feminist or wrong in some way? Is it possible to have sex without consequences (Erica Jong's "zipless fuck," for example). I could go on, but you get the picture.

And so if these are the things I'm really asking - if I'm using my work to think about these deeply personal things - the work then becomes a part of the personal things and a part of my non-professional identity in a way that I don't think it would if I were a cancer researcher. In other words, the personal doesn't just inspire my work - the personal is both the inspiration and the effect of the work - there is no before and after. The work is a vehicle for the personal just as much as a personal is a vehicle for the work, I guess. (An interesting side-note: when things in my personal life are rockin' I tend to let research totally fall by the wayside. I don't think this is a coincidence.)

Ok, that's all I've got in me to write today about this. But it's good to think through it, I think. In my next installment of this stuff, which may or may not come tomorrow, I think I've got to talk about how the talking about work is entirely bound to intimacy stuff for me.... I don't know, we'll see.

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