doctoral research, human animal hybrids

Innovative ways of using doctoral research – David Cameron & the pig’s head scandal

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Not much separates the human from the non-human animal. And humans have never been comfortable with this obvious familiarity, hence the strongly enforced distinction between species. The great taboo of bestiality blurs this separation and fractures the boundaries. No surprise then that the recent allegations of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s student initiation ceremony involving a sex act with a dead pig has set the British media ablaze.

The allegations are disclosed in Lord Michael Ashcroft’s new unauthorised biography Call Me Dave. The Daily Mail – which is serializing the book – called the initiation event into the Piers Gaveston Oxford dining society “obscene”, ‘sordid” “outrageous” and “debauched”.

I found the news coverage fascinating because in my doctoral research, I explored the human animal hybrid in science fiction and the question of what makes us human and not animal is an ongoing philosophical concern.  Sexual exploits with animals (whether confirmed or denied, real or imagined in Cameron’s case) touch very deeply on our anxieties of what it means to be human. When it comes to bestiality, as I explored in a chapter “loving the hybrid” in my PhD and subsequent conference paper and book chapter (in “Forces of the Erotic: Past and Present Transgressions, Transformations and Bliss”) cultural concerns about species identity should not be overlooked.

The notion of species purity is one that has been strongly enforced by religion. Despite Darwinian notions of evolution, much of our culture operates on the assumption that humans are qualitatively different from other animals. This is what makes advances in biotechnology so challenging for many people. As we absorb the animal into us, via pig insulin or, as with former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a bovine heart valve, where do we draw the line at ‘us’ and ‘them’?

Donna Haraway’s more recent works, The Companion Species Manifesto (2003) and When Species Meet (2008) focus on human relationships with companion animals and the expansion of ideas from “A Cyborg Manifesto”. With current biotechnological experiments to create hybrids, we are confronted with the vexed question of how far interventions into the human genome can be carried out without changing a human into a different species.

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Yet in spite of the fact that our relationship with animals even in this era of intense factory farming has, ironically, never been so intimate as a result of biotechnology, concern about the future of the animal is conflicted, with the majority of people making emotional decisions on which animals they feel should be eaten, protected, experimented on or kept as pets.

I would argue that the fate of transgenic animals whose organs are currently being used in xeno transplantation does not rate so highly in public consciousness because, like the animals we are eat, they are seen as sacrificial, as a means to benefit humankind. But it is one thing to sacrifice a pig and walk around with its insulin or transgenic organs. It is another matter to have sex with a pig, or even engage in an initiation rite in which your genitals are placed in a pig’s mouth. And so we come to the media coverage surrounding David Cameron and the pig’s head.

The Guardian was hard pressed to get excited enough to even find an adjective to describe further revelations that Cameron joined friend James Delingpole at his room at Christ Church College, Oxford and “smoked cannabis occasionally while listening to Supertramp as part of a group called the Flam club.”

No, the inference seems to be, a little dope dabbling is a fairly accepted, if not mandatory part of undergraduate life, even for someone who is now Prime Minister. Not so acts with a dead pig involving ‘privates’.

While there are allegations that Ashcroft dished the dirt because he was passed over for a significant government job, the fallout has gone beyond simple embarrassment and humiliation for the PM and entered into the realm of animal rights abuse.

According to NME, Morrisey, a highly regarded UK musician, has issued a joint statement that he claims is also sent on behalf of animal rights group PETA.

The statement reads, “No, boys won’t be boys – not when it’s sexual perversion and also involves a vulnerable victim of slaughter, a feeling being who lost his or her life and then was used for a prank…A prime minister is supposed to protect the most vulnerable.”

Indeed, one of the problems with bestiality is the issue of consent. Can an animal ever consent to an act of intercourse with a human? There is the issue of power imbalance, for a start.

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Any encounter where one party can be legally skinned, made into a handbag and also eaten is not on an equal footing in the bedroom. But if one partner is dead, then the issue of consent surely need not apply.

Other taboos, such as necrophilia step in. But the fact that the pig was dead when Cameron allegedly stuck ‘a private part of his anatomy’ in the pig’s mouth doesn’t seem to be the issue. The uproar about this allegation surrounds the taboo of bestiality, not necrophilia. By demanding that human beings do not engage with animals in sexual acts, the act of prohibition defines the differences between the species.

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Humans have long had a great fascination for sexual activity between creatures of different species. In his 2001 paperHeavy Petting philosopher Peter Singer argues that instances of sex across the species barrier are so frequent “it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.” No mention of the animal’s dignity.

We live in an era when many former sexual taboos, such as inter-racial sex and same sex relationships are far more visible and socially acceptable in the Western world. Sado-masochism and bondage have left the hushed back rooms of sex shops and hit the bestseller lists, through works such as E.L James’ Fifty Shades Of Gray.

From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

Bestiality, however, is still not a topic that is openly discussed or deemed appropriate for even mainstream erotic fiction. Much less a politician’s dirty laundry.

The reaction on Twitter to the pig’s head allegations reveals one overwhelming fact – people find the idea of sex acts with a pig hilarious. According to The Conversation, one reason why #piggate played so well on Twitter is that making jokes about David Cameron and pigs allows us to turn the tables on the privileged and powerful.

However, while this may be the case, the humor is revealing in that it mostly speaks to our use of the pig as a product of consumption, or one that is in someway ‘unclean’. The Tweets may joke that we can no longer really trust where our bacon comes from, but none mention just how smart pigs are. A paper published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Comparative Psychology reveals that pigs have been found to be mentally and socially similar to dogs and chimpanzees.

In an age of biotechnology and genetic manipulation, the possibilities for the merging of the human and the animal can now occur at a molecular level. From pig cell insulin to transgenic animal organ transplants and chimerical eggs that are almost human, the boundary between the human and the animal is becoming increasingly blurred.

Historically, human society has evolved in close proximity with animals, and it is therefore not surprising that our myths, folklore and fiction have embraced the animal and our relationship with it. Fantastic beasts intertwining the human and animal are part of the history of the human imagination, in spite of the strongly enforced distinction between human and animal.

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In the 21st century, however, the primary socially acceptable literary outlet for this taboo is in “fantasy bestiality”, featuring mythical beasts such as dragons and satyrs. Paranormal genres allow readers to indulge in bestial sexual fantasies that are unspeakable within the wider community. These manifestations of bestiality do not entail a wider acceptance of these practices. According to Susan Squier “xenogenic desire” between species in literature can give expression to desire while simultaneously deauthorising it as ‘only fiction’.

DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THIS BLOG:

Online Opinion: Species Purity Alarm: David Cameron & the Pig’s Head 

RMIT Blog Central: When Species Meet: The Media Response to the Pig-Gate Scandal

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Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues

Bouncing back post doctorate: what’s it all about, Alfie?

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The post-doctoral slump is a reality fuelled by the inevitable intensity and narrow focus that are par for the course of the four years, and certainly the last six months – and indeed the last 100 days – of the endurance effort of higher education. The trick is overcoming the malaise.

A writer I know dubbed this “PhDitis”. Readers have debated my dust and dog hair anxiety on Twitter. Friends constantly ask whether I have “bounced back” yet. There has been some concern I might actually be depressed rather than simply post-doctoral.

I can see their point. Readjusting to life without the ever present doctorate hovering over me is taking some time, especially as it came on the back of two previous years of academic intensity with the Master of Arts in creative writing by research.

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While I am not actually depressed – far from it – there is that nagging question that keeps coming into focus. What’s it all about, anyway?

Why did I spend all this time doing the doctorate?

A friend wrote to me the other day, assuring me that not only are PhDs are all consuming, but “somehow we think they make a difference. The result for me  was the journey rather than the end product that counted.”

I am not sure this is what I wanted to hear, at this point! Surely my doctorate will make a difference? And yet, as I do a head count of those around me with a PhD, only a few are working as academics in the area that they actually studied.

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As for me, I am a writer, and I wrote before I enrolled in university, and I wrote through the course often on things unrelated to what I was studying. Even eight months before I handed in, I wrote 30,000 words of a new novel totally unrelated to hybrids in science fiction. It is set in Lisbon in 1930 and concerns Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s meeting with an intriguing Australian modernist painter.

So why do a doctorate? And now it’s over, what’s it all about, Alfie?

Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1965 theme song to the movie “Alfie” (originally starring Michael Caine) might be about a feckless womanizer, but the lyrics are also rather apt for the post doctoral slump.

In this 2012 version, Stevie Wonder performs the theme song “Alfie” (including brilliant harmonica solo) in as a tribute to Hal David and Burt Bacharach as part of the “In Performance at the White House: Burt Bacharach & Hal David: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song”.

what’s it all about Alfie 
is it just for the moment we live
what’s it all about when you sort it out Alfie
are we meant to take more than we give 

Indeed – what’s it all about? The journey? The discipline? The determination? The permission to remove yourself from the world and focus on one thing? I think it is going to take me more than a few weeks to figure out the answer. What I can tell you is that from my experience, and those who have been through the doctoral mill, is that it is a quest that changes you.

The trick is realizing not everyone around you is on the same parallel universe of doctoral intensity. They do not necessarily share your tunnel vision. For instance, when you say that maybe the late Margaret Thatcher was a cyborg in a way that relates to Donna Haraway’s ground breaking essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” that observation might only make sense to you. And your doctoral supervisor.

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In the past week, I caught up with my writing partner and friend Caroline, who handed in her doctorate in creative writing about three weeks after me. We met with a mutual friend at a preview of the new musical King Kong that debuted in our home town. I started to discuss the mighty ape in the context of my doctoral research, while Caroline, who had immersed herself in Roland Barthes work so thoroughly she admitted “it felt like I slept with him in the end”, was a similar basket case.  “Things have meanings,” she intoned, as we pondered the model of the Empire State Building in the foyer of Melbourne’s grand Regent Theatre, and sipped our Jungle Juice cocktails, joking about the glowing phallic tip of the tower where the blonde heroine would be marooned with the hulking beast at the climax of the musical. We looked at each other, realized we were over analyzing the celebratory evening out, me with my hybrids, her with semiotics – and shook our heads and laughed at ourselves.

We are both in a strange post submission-pre examination limbo, not sure how what identity to wear. A little like Bella in Twilight after she changes into a vampire and has to learn to act human again.

That’s the thing about doctoral study, you forget how to mentally slouch.

In the interests of this blog, I pressed Caroline for more details on how she felt after handing in. The news, dear readers, isn’t good. “I feel awful!” she said. “Just terrible anxiety about what I did or didn’t do and if it was good enough.”

I know that feeling.

We are expecting fireworks or at least a warm glow and all we get is nausea. And it doesn’t get easier. It takes time to adjust to the new reality of the post-doc world. Or at least, the odd limbo of the submitted but not yet examined state.

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A few days later, Caroline hopped onto a plane for Europe to present her doctoral research at a conference, which is what I will be doing in September. When she returns to Melbourne, she’s thinking of dancing and cooking lessons to get into a different head space.

Readers of my blog know my views on cooking. My miserable efforts in the kitchen only got worse with the stress of the doctoral deadline. At the lowest point, every single thing I made was so inedible that my children begged me not to bother. I recall tossing a particularly rubbery but oddly slimy omelete into the puppy’s bowl to be greeted by a look of canine disbelief. My eldest son sniggered. “The dog has some pride,” he said.

Not one to take anything lying down, much less a post doctoral slump, I wrote a list of all the things I could do to pull myself out of the hole (that didn’t involve chocolate). Like a Surrealist whose hand automatically moves apart from the rational brain, my fingers clenched a pencil and wrote “go back to the gym”.

Yes – physical exercise. The ancient Greeks of course, believed in a healthy mind and body and this one has sadly only been taking the puppy for daily walks.

In Fay Weldon’s 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil, the drab heroine – as an act of revenge – undergoes a complete body transformation via plastic surgery in an effort to look like her partner’s new lover. Her plastic surgeon however, doesn’t know what to make of her:

 “You could learn a language,” he suggested, worrying for her.

“Why should I?”

“You may want to travel,” he said, surprised. “Afterwards. People often do. They like to show themselves off.”

“Let them learn my language,” she said.

“Well it would be something to do,” he repeated. She made him feel forlorn, as if he were the servant of her desires, and not their master. “There’s a lot of waiting around in this business. Besides, surely improvement of the mind is a good thing, for it’s own sake?”

“I am here to improve my body,” she replied. “There was never anything wrong with my mind.” (Fay Weldon, The Life and Loves of a She Devil, p 215)

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It has been 18 months since I entered a gym and I made a commitment to myself to go back so I could get reacquainted with another part of myself – that part that doesn’t involve sitting down for hours and just writing. Or reading. Friends know I never undertake anything lightly – intensity being my middle name. My diary is now full of yoga, Zumba, Body Balance and Pump classes.

And – at my mother’s insistence – line dancing.

Talk about getting out of the comfort zone. Apparently two years ago I had assured my mother that as a show of gratitude for all her help with the children while I was studying, I’d go line dancing with her after I submitted.

Before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” that time has come.  I am more than a little apprehensive about my first class next week – not because of the music (they don’t dance to country anymore) or the clothes (ditto cowboy boots or hats) but because of the demanding level of endurance required. These classes go for three hours! If I am having problems getting up from my keyboard now after a one hour Zumba class, what will three hours of line dancing do to me?

Still, being physically exhausted is a good way of getting out of a mental slump. And as my mother (who takes classes every day and often twice a day) says, there could be a book in it. Mind you this is always what she says when she wants me to do something I don’t want to do.

And it’s got to be better than cooking classes.

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, PhD completion, Publishing academic research

Savage remarks cut deeply: The Eddie McGuire Fallout

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A few weeks ago, I submitted my doctorate in creative writing. One of the requirements is showing evidence of original contribution to knowledge. I am analysing the human-animal hybrid in science fiction – and writing a novel about it. My work explores the abuse and exploitation of the Other – those who society deems should be banished or marginalised.

I have been asked by those outside the academy what relevance my research has when I am not even investigating anything “real”. After all, human-animal hybrids don’t exist except in fantasy, fiction and mythology. And then Australian media personality and President of the Collingwood Football Club, Eddie McGuire, opens his mouth, linking Australian Rules Footballer – the dual Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes – with the new musical King Kong, only five days after a 13-year-old girl called the indigenous player an ape at a match at the MCG.

Suddenly, I find my work is indeed relevant beyond the page, beyond the doctoral submission. My research material becomes shockingly, sadly pertinent. Maureen Duffy’s 1981 novel GorSaga, about a scientist who impregnates a gorilla with his own semen to create a hybrid, follows Gor Bardfield through his troubled life where no one knows his species hybridity but they do know he is different. And when someone is different, a human trait is to brand them as Other, and the ultimate Other is – animal:

You’re very dark, Bardfield. Are you a blackie?”
“He’s very hairy. He’s a monkey.”
“He’s a black monkey.”
They gathered around, pointing and shouting. (Duffy, GorSaga, p.123-124)

Media commentators have gathered in force to support or decry McGuire’s words (and subsequent apology) in the past week. Columnist Andrew Bolt devoted a page to supporting McGuire: “…I am ashamed I helped a vile mob to punish McGuire more than is remotely fair, pushing him to tears.” (Herald Sun, June 3, 2013) The headline: “Sorry Eddie” neatly turning the story away from the victim of the racial attack. In his article, Bolt beseeches Goodes (and anyone else unfortunate enough to be the brunt of a racial abuse) to turn the other cheek.

However, McGuire’s comments cannot be so easily dismissed. It matters that he used the words he did. It matters how we respond to them as a society. In her 2011 Pilgrim Award acceptance speech from the Science Fiction Research Association, feminist theorist Donna Haraway argues:

“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.”

How we as a country debate the Eddie McGuire fallout matters a great deal. For his were indeed savage remarks. The exhibition Human Zoos at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris last year highlighted the brutal meaning behind likening people to apes. Others – people not like us – were viewed as those on the margins of humanity, existing on the borderline of the animal world, hence “wild” or “savage” beings. Human zoos displayed those deemed different or other as savages, objects of prurient curiosity under the guise of science. The exhibition of imported Others was a profitable industry. A photo-card from Austria in 1890 depicts an “Aborigine Troupe” on display.

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Indigenous Australians were exhibited in public theatres and scientific laboratories across the United States and Europe from 1884. Only three were still alive when they were displayed in France, represented in photographs that were intended to present the Other as inferior but civilisable. At the end of the 18th century, Dutch naturalist Petrus Camper’s anatomical drawings were used to lend weight to a theory of racial hierarchies based on aesthetics. At one end was the ideal (white) person, at the other (non-white) end, according to Camper, were those who resembled monkeys.

In 2008, former international footballer Lilian Thuram, the most capped player in the French national team, put his name and profile behind the Liliam Thuram Foundation, which educates against racism. On the website, the stark and simple message is one that Eddie McGuire might do well to read – along with his supporters. “We are not born racist, we become racist … Racism is an intellectual and – above all political – construct.”

In his preface to the Human Zoos catalogue, Thuram wrote that “even today, for many communities, the best way of defining themselves is to oppose themselves to others: ‘They are like that and we are not’. Are we not capable of enjoying self-esteem without denigrating the Other?”

Perhaps it is telling that McGuire’s comment was not a well thought-out one, but one that by his own admission was “a slip of the tongue” (AM with Tony Eastley May 30). According to French philosopher Gaston Bachelard “thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.” If this is the case, then McGuire’s subconscious remark reveals we have a long way to go before we stop thinking of “us” and “them”.

Australia’s own Thuram, football great and The Long Walk founder Michael Long, has suffered racist remarks on the field. He told Herald Sun chief football writer Mark Robinson that the only way forward is with education: “By saying ‘ape’, where did that girl get it from? It came from someone else, it had been passed down in their history.” (Herald Sun, June 1, 2013)

Melbourne is home to a sports museum. We have the venerated hide of the celebrated Australian racehorse Phar Lap on display at the Melbourne Museum. Perhaps we should take a leaf from Europe and accept that as a nation, the time has come to reflect deeply on our past without the fear of being branded a “screeching New Racist” (Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, June 3).

If a seasoned media personality such as Eddie McGuire can make such a devastating and casually reckless remark about a fellow human, perhaps the rich, powerful and influential of our land could get behind a collective push to establish a museum that specifically celebrates diversity and is responsible for holding as confronting and challenging exhibitions about our own country’s past as the one on Human Zoos.

Never underestimate the power of cultural diplomacy – or the impact of sport in helping shape public opinion. This is not simply a story about Eddie McGuire or about how sorry he feels, or about whether or not Australia is a racist country. As Thuram explains, he has encountered racism wherever he has been. It is foolish to think that Australia is immune.

* This blog was first published at RMIT Blog Central

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, doctoral deadlines, Frankenstein, parenting and study, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, University life, Writing strategies

Time’s up: crossing the doctoral finish line

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I had replayed the scene in my head many times – actually walking into the shop and getting my exegesis and novel printed up as per the regulation temporary binding – three copies in total for the examiners – and then delivering them to my supervisor. But in truth rather than joy or elation, I felt sick with exhaustion. Still, it wasn’t me who burst into tears on seeing all the copies snug in the plastic bag, ready for delivery right slap bang on the due date – it was a colleague!

“Why are you crying?” I asked. “You should be happy I am finally handing in.”

“But for as long as I have known you, you’ve been doing this doctorate,” she said. “It’s all I ever hear about – it’s like it is part of you.”

I was given the most lovely pot of pink flowers from a student (thanks Yvette!) to congratulate me on handing in. But it still didn’t feel real until I received the longed for text from my supervisor, who hand delivered the bundles of joy (more like writhing mutants) to the Graduate Research Office, after the Dean’s sign-off: “All fine. Well done! Time to relax”. 

When I came home tonight, late after teaching, my teenage son said “well, what now, mum? You can’t tell me you’re going to do another one?”

“No way,” I said. “If you do it right, one PhD is all you need. And I don’t have the energy for two!”

“Well – what are you going to do?”

Well, tonight – sleep! No one staggers to the end of the finish line of a doctorate without being totally shattered, no matter how much support they have. I am humbled by how everyone has come through behind Team Evelyn – from practical support with proof reading, copy editing, helpful academic advice, simply endlessly listening and the friends and family who have helped out by organising diversions and play dates for my kids so I could work in peace, it has all been enormously helpful. And never underestimate the importance of a cheer squad in boosting morale. There’s a reason the home team has an advantage. That boost is the wind beneath one’s wings. Maybe this blog post should be titled “It takes a village to do a doctorate”.

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I started 100 days to the doctorate as a way of doing what I do best –  writing for an audience. Trained as a journalist, where I worked in the cut and thrust of the newsroom of Australia’s largest selling daily newspaper for a decade,  it is second nature for me to put my words on the line. To share the experience, the words, the journey.

By blogging about the manic end of the doctorate, I aimed to articulate [to myself!] what was going on. The last 100 days is the culmination of four years of finding one’s way. Of nudging into the academy, learning names and faces, getting it wrong, stumbling, learning the language, getting it right and then, taking one’s place at the table – well, at the very end…down at the bottom of the table.

Over the past four years, I have blogged extensively about my work, and those ideas have ended up in conference papers that in turn morphed into the exegesis and into journal articles. I have done the ‘working out’ in public, and that has been a very useful step in owning the work, and in seeing myself as part of the academy.

Ah, writers. We sell ourselves short in the academy, I think. Yet here is the thing – a lot of those in the humanities would like to be writers, in fact. And one of the most important things I learned from feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s work was her love for words, narrative and SF. But the Creative Writing doctorate is a strange and demanding beast, as much a mutant I think as the mutants I have been researching. We have to create a compelling work of fiction, and an exegesis that ticks all the boxes for academic research. There is much to write about this process, and indeed, I do so in a chapter of my exegesis, so it is still too raw and fresh to write about it here.

So – for now – there is a hiatus, of sorts, as the doctoral submission goes to the examiners – and I wait.

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As Mary Shelley wrote of her hopes for her novel Frankenstein: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. ”

I also hope my hideous progeny, my exegesis and novel about hybrids, mutants and monsters, passes the test. 

Not that my youngest son will have any of that. He threw himself into my arms tonight and declared “it’s Dr Mummy!” which is very sweet. I told him, “no, not just yet – a few more hoops to get through first, one way or another.”

“But – it’s in, right? You got it in on time?” he asked.

“Yes, darling – mummy got it in on time.”

“Great!” He gave me a big hug. “Can my friend come over for a sleepover on the weekend now I don’t have to be really quiet the whole time so you can study?”

Maya, the hard, driven CIA operative in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden, had no idea what to do with herself after her quest ended.

I know exactly what I am going to do with my time. It’s like that when you are a mum – I have a couple of Scout badges to sew onto my son’s shirt, a whole backlog of domestic tasks to tackle, a journal paper to submit in a day and a book I am co-editing due in three weeks. Then – there is the bigger ‘tomorrow’ to embrace.

But at least I will sleep tonight knowing I reached that most prized of a doctoral student’s many milestones (except for actual graduation) and that is the timely completion.

The time-bomb intensity of the race to the end that is 100 Days To The Doctorate comes to an end – but I will keep blogging weekly with updates to share the story of what is next on the academic journey – and what I learned in the past four years – and also, what I wish I had discovered earlier. Yes, it is easy to be wise after the event. 

So, what am I thinking of now?  Just like President Bartlet at the conclusion of my favourite TV show The West Wing.   I am thinking of – tomorrow.

 

Academic conferences, Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Doctoral companion species? The Creative Writing project and exegesis

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Just as I have spent the past four years exploring the hybrid in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries – so I realized that the actualized Creative Writing doctorate also existed outside the binaries. 

Throughout the exegesis I have come to realize the hybrid stands slightly outside the human, never properly human or animal, never allowed to fully participate in the human community – or the animal pack. Never human enough, never animal enough. Actually, that’s how I felt growing up – never Greek enough, never Australian enough. A hybrid.

Although they spend the days fighting, at least my cat and dog can play together as well. And the cat can always run away. Take one good swipe at the dog. Or both can retreat and bury their differences. Not so the human-animal hybrid in science fiction. There is nowhere to go.

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It’s the same with the Creative Writing doctorate. The novel and the exegesis have to get along, play nice, and find some common ground. I can hear myself getting increasingly frustrated, saying – “for goodness sake, the damn exegesis has to let me spend some time with the novel – enough already!” And still it demands! Doesn’t it realize it is a hybrid – unable to exist without its other half?

Yes, I am at that “I am so sick of it, I can’t read another word” stage of my research. I have even begun footnoting in my dreams – and worrying about whether I am getting the damn referencing system correct.

In my exegesis, I argue that the hybrid exists in both human and animal categories simultaneously, challenging but never destroying either category. The great fear for the human characters is that the animal within the hybrid will harm them. The good news is, this happens in my novel as well. Or it would. If I ever get time to do the final edit. And, as I have discovered this is the fear writers have when they start the Creative Writing doctorate.

A relatively new higher degree, this doctorate isn’t taken seriously by those who have decided that a/ writers should never undertake a higher degree, and b/  it isn’t like it’s a “real” doctorate anyway as it is “just writing”. Add the fact that I am doing mine on beings that don’t actually exist…well. You get the picture!

That actually fits with my research. By the 21st Century, in science fiction the hybrid’s danger is acknowledged to be its human side. As illustrated in this scene from the 2009 movie Splice, where the scientists examine scans of the newborn hybrid Dren and ponder her potential threat:

Elsa: Not all animals have predatory elements.

Clive: There’s the human element.

That brings me to Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto. Here, Haraway argues that dogs are not about oneself. They are dogs – not a projection, nor the realization of an intention, not the telos of anything.  (The Companion Species Manifesto: Dog, People, and Significant Otherness. 2003. Prickly Paradigm Press – p 11).

This makes more sense to me now I actually have a dog. I small, joyful, mess creating, life enhancing puppy. Finally asleep in his basket at my desk. He likes to keep an eye on me long into the night.

A friend told me when I got the puppy that things I never expected to get destroyed would. I could batten down the hatches as much as I liked, but things would happen I couldn’t control.

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

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So, what’s that got to do with the Creative Writing doctorate?

Maybe sometimes we need to look at it for what it just is. Just a dog. Just a thing in its own right and not an end to anything. I think those of us in the thick of it know this, and are too caught up in it and too darn tired working on it to fight the popular opinion that challenges us as to why we are doing it. After all, no one asks why anyone does a doctorate in a science related subject, do they? But somehow, many people do not think it is valid to study – and write – fiction in higher education. But I didn’t start this doctorate to learn how to write – I can do that, thanks. I did it because I wasn’t about to do one in architecture, philosophy or bioethics. Writing is what I do, and that was the dog I was going to study, so to speak. I wanted to push that writing boundary as far as I could, challenge myself and stretch myself in my area. And I don’t feel I have to justify this.

I do argue, however, that many creative writers embarking on a doctorate in Creative Writing fear the “other half” of the work required. They imagine they are “either” a creative writer “or” a researcher, and often feel they do not have the academic language or research skills required to merge the two together. Even those in the media have queried whether this doctorate should be allowed to exist – much the same way that creation of scientific hybrids are debated. 

Will they be good for the community? Or destroy humanity as we know it? Yes – by that I mean both the Creative Writing doctorate, and scientific chimeras. And, while we are at it – fictional hybrids.

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The fear many writers have is that their academic research will harm them, make them less creative, and take away their spontaneity. This is one side of the hybrid dominating the other. Yet it is interesting that unlike, for instance, the skills needed to be a professional tennis player that are seen to need coaching and training, writing is viewed as a gift from God – (quite mythological) a skill that can’t be taught. If you don’t have it, you can’t learn it. But those in higher degrees in creative writing would argue otherwise.

The research, while pulling you away from the creative, deepens your involvement with it. The images in this blog were taken from a tapestry at the Ashmolean Museum last year when I was in Oxford to take part in two conferences related to my doctorate. I think they perfectly illustrate the doctoral battle for creative writers – one part trying to dominate the other, the exegesis trumping the novel, and vice versa. Yet while I went to Oxford to present my academic research, it caused me to explore new areas in my creative project. The impact of that trip is still resonating in my work, in the exegesis and the novel and other interesting ways. I am going back in September 2013, to present the final chapter of my exegesis, on the erotic nature of the hybrid at the Exploring The Erotic conference.   I see this as an invaluable experience. Getting feedback on your ideas and research from your peers – indeed defending your ideas and research to them – pushes forward your work and gets you used to taking your work into the public sphere. 

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My creative project came into being as a hybrid. It was based on a short story I started writing several years ago at a bioethics conference in Queensland, where I was presenting a paper for my MA in Creative Writing. I was listening to a paper about the perils of xeno transplantation – the use of animal parts in humans – when the voice of my protagonist Ariadne came to me. It was one of those creative moments when you realize that something has clicked. As a science fiction/crime writer – itself a hybrid genre, I felt a deep resonance with the idea of xeno transplantation and hybridity.

The short story that resulted was Xenos, a “hard boiled” speculative crime thriller (this is itself a hybrid of cross disciplinary genre) that won the Dorothy Porter Innovation Prize in the 2007 Sisters In Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards and has become a middle chapter of my doctoral creative project. The short story has been published in Scarlet Stiletto – The Second Cut, available in ebook.

So there you have it – my doctoral creative project sprung to life like a mythological character, plucked from the centre of my Masters research, a hybrid from the start. A direct result of my academic research. Which part of the hybrid dominated?

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral misery, Frankenstein, horror, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

My novel is a cyborg! Adventures with my Creative Writing PhD

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The PhD in Creative Writing makes demands of writer that simply getting down and dirty with the novel does not. Despite the fact that many newspaper columnists howl that writers should simply write, and higher education is no place for them.

I am reflecting on this at the end of a week that was going to be devoted to writing thousands of words of the doctoral novel. And while I have done that, I have realized some things about my writing method, and the demands of the creative writing doctorate, that perhaps I should have known, but do now.

This doctoral novel is a cyborg. Considering the topic of my exegesis, I should have known that it was never going to be a straightforward week of just the novel. Such binaries from someone immersed in the theories of Donna Haraway! Indeed – what on earth was I thinking? Out with this binary aspect approach to both the novel’s structure, and to the Creative Writing PhD.

Yes – my novel is a cyborg. This PhD is a cyborg.

It is better suited to analysis using the semiotic square by A.J Greimas  – this useful concept of narrative theory was provided by author Antoni Jach at his fiction masterclass that I have been attending. According to Louis Hébert, Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski, Greimas’ semiotic square is a means of refining oppositional analyses by increasing the number of analytical classes stemming from a given opposition from two (life/death, for instance) to four (for example, life, death, life and death (the living dead), and neither life nor death (angels) to eight or even ten.

 So, my novel Almost Human is not just about the human and the animal – by mapping the key semantic oppositions I have the following; science-nature; change- stasis; evolution-devolution; …and many more besides.

I am exploring the chimera as a cyborg character in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries. So why do I insist on torturing myself with such binaries about the writing process?

Let me explain.

My exegesis is an exploration of the manufactured human-animal chimera in science fiction, and I am investigating Haraway’s 1985 cyborg manifesto and taking what I hope is a unique approach to using it as a creative writing tool and method of understanding the cyborg-chimera. In this case, applying it to the manufactured human.

In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway develops a set of criteria for cyborg existence. According to Haraway, a cyborg is a hybrid that challenges the distinction between the organic/technological systems, human and animal life forms, mind/body and male/female. Calling the cyborg “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction”, Haraway points to the fact that cyborgs have both a real and imagined context.

While Haraway uses the ironic metaphor of the cyborg to suggest a new way of constructing ideas of feminism outside traditional ideas of the women’s movement and politics, in A Cyborg Manifesto she sets out detailed theories about “the cyborg incarnation”.

I have seen people’s eyes glaze over at this point – so I won’t go on about it here. Suffice to say my research thrills me, but then so does creative writing. But when the two come together – that’s when the sparks fly. Creative sparks, to be sure, but also those little flints of retina fire migraine sufferers will know as the aura. The portent of pain.

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The PhD in Creative Writing is a strange beast, demanding two different parts of one’s brain at once – the free form, associating, creative, fiction writing side, and the logical, deductive and analytical side that researches and writes the exegesis.

But here is the thing – one needs to thread into the other, like Haraway’s Cat’s Cradle – except with “exegesis” and “creative Project” instead of “companion species”

And why should this intermeshing sit quietly within the confines of a chapter in the exegesis? No, this tug-of-war, this process, it’s not theoretical, it is actual. Theory-practice – it is a Cat’s Cradle.

The novel wants to break out – the writing process unbound – and jump from insight in research to dialogue on page. I had thought I would spend the whole blessed week on my creative project but it wasn’t to be.

I ended up with both files open, novel and exegesis, and worked from one to the other – here, an intense few hours, there a brief pitstop, and back and forth, like a busy worker bee cross pollinating between the two.

It achieves nothing except guilt to confess that despite my best intentions, I didn’t spend the entire week on just the novel. I made very good and interesting progress with it, but just as I do not spend all my time engaged in my doctorate – and what doctoral student does just that, anyway? – I could not concentrate on “just the novel”.

There was a deadline for a journal article that is actually a chapter in my exegesis. Back and forth I went – article, novel, article, novel…and back to the exegesis.

As I worked on the journal submission, I’d be struck with an idea for the novel.

I also had a climax scene and ending to write for the novel. While I am very satisfied with the results, it did take me to some places I wasn’t sure I was going. Somehow my characters ended up in the recent bushfires in NSW that threatened the site of Australia’s top observatories. That’s the great thing about fiction writing. It’s the ultimate in time travel. Your mind is the Tardis. It can go anywhere, back in time, forward into the future, off to other dimensions and parallel universes.

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All this travel around Australia was part of my protagonist’s race to hide her daughter from harm…before the teen kills and eats anyone else. (Well, I am writing about shapeshifting chimeras…)

And maybe I wouldn’t have gone for such a strong mother-daughter ending, but for a remark from someone in my writing masterclass. He said: “your novel is about how to love, really, and not just about monsters and mutants.”

It really struck me – he’s read many chapters now that I’ve workshopped, and sometimes,  you are not consciously aware of the subtext. You are writing for character, pace, plot and voice, the other things sweep along underneath like a subterranean river. Another experienced writer can step back, read away from your messy creative process, and see clearly. The wood for the trees.

It is the chance remarks from those who know your work that suddenly link everything in the Creative Writing PhD like a cosmic thread. They join, and you follow the path – and there you are, in an unexpected place. Like Siding Spring Observatory.

I wasn’t sure exactly how I ended there, but maybe my subconscious mind knew better than me, having set the penultimate chapter in a remote motel in country NSW. Once I realized where my characters were heading – into the path of the on coming bushfire – I used my own experiences for sensory layers over the narrative.

I’m a city girl, but you don’t have to live in the bush to know what the edges of a bushfire are like. While Australian cities cling to the coast, the ferocious blazes send smoke, falling ash and fear onto us all. Every country has its Achilles’ heel of natural disasters – bushfire is Australia’s. I know many who have been badly burnt, I’ve reported on many who have died. I fear the bone dry countryside in the height of summer. And as a writer, it is the fears we draw on when we trawl our nightmares for inspiration.

I use a lot of mythological references in my novel. When my protagonist leaves the man who betrayed her in a heap in the observatory, and flees with her daughter, the fact that he may rise again from the ashes – like a phoenix – it is quite fitting. And very like a horror movie. My style indeed. Bring it on!

I recall interviewing a very successful and well known Australian author who said she doesn’t write a word without knowing the outline of every single chapter down to who says what.

When I was a working journalist on a daily newspaper, I never recorded my interviews because I would then have to listen to it all over again and transcribe – a daily paper is a pressure cooker and there isn’t the time – I took shorthand and quickly got the feel for what to quote, what to paraphrase and what to observe and report.

I took that approach to fiction writing. For a long time I felt like I had to obsessively plot out everything if I was going to be a real fiction writer. How I tortured myself – while actually churning out the writing, I hasten to add!

IMG_4404But the creative writing doctorate is a cyborg – it’s a boundary transgression between the exegesis and the creative – one informs the other, and demanded a different approach from me.

It’s a game of ping pong, with the ball of ideas hitting one side of the table and then the other, transferring images, words, phrases, ideas along the way.

Luck, chance, serendipity, nightmares. You can set your logical mind to plan the nuances of a novel, and maybe even write it all down before you begin, but 70,000 words is a lot of world to remember in your head, and sometimes, things you imagined for your imaginary world get lost in the fog of other words. Especially if you are doing deep research, as I am, into how so many of the literary tropes about manufactured monsters have evolved in science fiction since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Besides, if you let go of pre-conceived ideas about the writing process, one result of immersion in academic research while writing a novel are the threads that emerge from the sub conscious mind. Along with the most surprising plot twists.