Digital Fantastic: Finding the ‘order’ in my Personality Disorder

– Hesitation, emotions and the Digital Fantastic

Content warning: this blog contains themes including mental illness, trauma, self-harm, suicidal ideation and death. Please engage with this content responsibly. Also bear in mind that although I have a diagnosis, this in no way qualifies me to speak on behalf of others who share it. The only experiences I can speak to are my own.

When people ask me what I’m researching, I tell them that I’m studying single-player, narrative driven Fantasy video games, but that’s not entirely true. It’s roughly the type of content I’m investigating, but like most PhD researchers, I didn’t figure out my actual topic until well into my second year. Or more accurately, I didn’t realise it: the name of my blog ‘Digital Fantastic’, which I chose at the start of my PhD journey, should have been a tip-off.

To quote my own literature review:

“The Digital Fantastic is a state of hesitation that elides the binary between the digital and non-digital world via affective experiences in which the player treats digital characters (NPCs), as if they were people.” (Elvery, 2024)

It is a concept I’m developing which resituates a much contested piece of ‘Fantasy’ theory by scholar Tzvetan Todorov. I won’t go into a full explanation of my theory here – that’s what my thesis is for. This post, as usual, dear reader, is all about me. This blog is situated in the place where my research and personal life meet, more specifically, it details how my experiences have unconsciously informed my research interests.  

I have been fascinated by Todorov’s theory of the fantastic ever since I first encountered it during my Fantasy MLitt. It’s lucky that our lecturer, Rob Maslen, included the text on the syllabus, as this theory’s connection to the genre of Fantasy and its content is tenuous at best. In fact, it is often argued that it’s only lumped in with Fantasy theory because the term fantastic and Fantasy are so often conflated.

For Todorov, in its most simple form, the fantastic is hesitation. It’s a state of uncertainty experienced by readers (often mirroring a character in the novel) that arises when neither the character, nor the reader, can explain the events occurring by attributing them to supernatural forces which disrupt the textual reality, or accept them as explained by the natural laws of the built world. Todorov’s fantastic is situated in liminality: for readers to experience it they have to read in a receptive manner which simultaneously accepts multiple textual meanings and be open to the notion that these meanings are shaped by the interaction of their subjectivity with an uncertain textual reality. The fantastic refuses to set discrete boundaries: the line between fantasy and reality is blurry, and the only truth perhaps, is an emotional truth, rather than an objective one. This is why it’s observed so frequently in literature oft categorised as horror – are the ghosts real, or are they a result of characters’ distorted perceptions of reality? If the events are not real, does that make the characters’ experiences of them any less so? By refusing to give answers, the fantastic denies anyone the authority to determine which interpretation of reality is more valid than another. If you’re interested in notable textual examples, two of my favourites are  The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

I understand where Fantasy theorists are coming from when they say they consider the fantastic to be separate from Fantasy. Much of the literature we think about when asked to name works of Fantasy rely on us to buy into worlds which have been built according to a set of logical rules. World-building requires a level of certainty to work, which makes Fantasy literature more similar to mimetic literature than we may realise (for more on Fantasy and mimesis, see Kathryn Hume). The fantastic asks us to retreat from that certainty and consider a world where we cannot count on things being as they appear. The fantastic is, by nature, unsettling. It illuminates quite how tenuous the line between fantasy and reality is and asks us to consider that the way we experience reality is a matter of perspective.  When we hesitate, however briefly, we make space, in that moment, for a multiplicity of realities to exist and it is only when we act that we choose one over another. Hesitation is the dialectic between fantasy and reality: it’s how we negotiate our emotional truths with the realities presented to us, which helps us consider how to best reconcile the two. If Fantasy, as my teacher Dr Maslen, often says, is ‘the literature of the impossible’, then the fantastic is the literature of possibility. But, it is more that. The fantastic is a mode of being, one which illuminates both the uncertainties of lived experience and acknowledges its potentiality.

Really then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that I finally realised what the topic of my thesis is when I started to understand my situation with regard to my mental health. In part, it’s a result of my improved cognitive capacity facilitated by an intense regime of medication, self-care, and the understanding of those close to me. Perhaps it’s also because I have finally gotten a little closer to understanding what causes me so many problems. The answer, of course, dear reader, as you may have guessed, is hesitation. I realised that, at times, I occupy my own little realm of the fantastic: the dialectic between myself and my emotions is very much one of uncertainty. I cannot trust my feelings, which makes me hesitate about who I am, what I value and whether what I experience is reality. The fantastic is a space that I occupy, not just in my research, but in my daily life.

So about those feels

I’ve heard that some people don’t think about their emotions much – they’re just something that’s there, something they feel. Maybe they question them from time to time, but often they’re just a fact of life, a function of being. Feelings do things.

A post on mental health blog Verywell Mind gives a brief overview of what feelings are for. Emotions are signals, they’re supposed to tell us something. Emotions can inform us about our environment, motivate us to take action, help us avoid danger, make decisions, enable others to understand us, and us to understand others. Though emotions are subjective and individual to the person feeling them, being able to understand and label our own feelings can inform us about where we are positioned in relation to the reality presented to us. Much of what we feel about things can inform us about who we are.

So, can emotions be wrong?

Of course they can, but by analysing them and checking our realities with other people, we may be able to come to some sort of compromise about how to reconcile the way we feel with the reality we’re presented with, and by doing so, form a judgement about where we stand on a given issue, which helps us understand who we are. When we consider this in relation to our interactions with other people, there may even be no objective facts, just the negotiation of different emotional truths as we all experience situations and relationships, differently. Even if we find out that we have been misinformed, it does not make the emotional experience of that situation any less real for the person experiencing it.

For example: if someone were to leave a message you’ve sent them on read without replying, you may feel slighted: what if they’re upset with you? What if they don’t like you anymore? Much of this can be solved by stepping back, curbing your emotional empathy (feels) and using cognitive empathy to try and understand the situation from the other person’s perspective. Perhaps they’re tired, maybe they’re just busy or maybe they read the message mid-task and forgot to reply to you. The feeling of rejection you experience is just a reminder that you care about the person and what they think of you, or in the case that you actually have done something wrong (like sent an unsolicited dik pic) it’s there as a warning that tells you that you should, perhaps, adjust your mode of social interaction and consider boundaries. As feminist Sara Ahmad explains, in The Cultural Politics of Emotion: “it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others”. By telling us how we feel in relation to external stimuli, emotions help inform who we are, figure out what we believe and adjust our values in response to the feedback they give us. Listening to our feelings and observing how they change when we interact with each other, brings us closer to understanding our own emotional truths.

Some people (*neurotypicals*) find it easier to listen to this feedback than others, it’s learned behaviour, automatic. For others, such as myself, understanding our emotions is a little more challenging. As I mentioned above, my whole life has been characterised by uncertainty. I have spent much of it being told that I was ‘too sensitive’, wrong to feel the way that I felt about things or to feel things AS LOUDLY and INTENSELY as I do, so instead of feeling my feelings I learned to avoid them in some of the worst ways possible. When I feel something, I don’t trust that feeling, I assume it’s not appropriate and push it away to the point of disassociation, which leaves me feeling numb and empty, which makes me panic and causes me to look for something, anything that will make me feel something and as soon as I do, I push that feeling away too because I don’t know how to deal with it – rinse and repeat. I have struggled so much to force my emotions to conform to what I perceive to be the ‘norm’ or an objective reality, that I have denied myself the experience of emotional truth. What I am coming to terms with is that I was never wrong to experience emotions – it was wrong that I felt I had to push them away. The more I ignore my feelings, the more loudly they scream for my attention, and the more severe they become, which makes me want to feel and express them even less. Eventually the screaming gets too loud to ignore and manifests as an emotional extreme.

I spill my coffee, I miss a train, I want to kill myself.

Of course, those things aren’t really what I’m upset about. The extreme emotions I experience about trivial things stem from an emotional truth, but through repression and avoidance have become divorced from their context and arise as perceptual distortions. Experiencing these distortions makes me trust my emotions even less. The dysregulation of my emotions means that they don’t always give me accurate feedback, which makes it hard to identify the ones that do. It’s not something within my control: I try my best, but my brain just works a little differently and I don’t yet have access to treatment that would help me. Whenever I manage to identify that I may be experiencing a disproportionate emotion I try and remind myself that I might be angry, or upset, about something that has already happened. Maybe it’s something I have not processed, do not understand, or I am experiencing a reaction that was once accurate to a past situation, but does not apply to the current scenario – except when it does. It is also important for me to try and learn when I am allowed to feel upset. I try and observe situations from the outside, test my reality and treat myself as I would treat a friend.

Still… It’s difficult to understand what I’m feeling about anything most of the time, but little by little, through a lot of hard work and failure, I am starting to listen to myself, create boundaries and police them a little better. My recent diagnosis has proved a useful tool to help me better understand why I might feel the way I do sometimes.

If I am triggered by something specific like a scene from a movie, or a situation I perceive as threatening, then what I’m upset about is probably in relation to my PTSD, as unfortunately, I have experienced trauma.

If I am triggered by a seemingly innocuous interaction with another person, it is likely that I am struggling with an aspect of my Borderline Personality Disorder which makes me doubt them, doubt myself and doubt the interactions between us. I experience emotion as a constant state of hesitation. Sometimes, experiencing hardship seems easier than living through a ‘normal’ day because at least then I have a reason to feel as loudly as I do – but it doesn’t work like that. More often than not, when something bad happens I feel numb; I push those feelings away because I am scared of what feeling them will do to me. They always, however, come back to haunt me.

Having emotional dysregulation makes it difficult to know who I am and what I believe. I spent many years silencing myself. I never allowed myself to have an opinion or express a feeling in public for fear of saying something incorrect or behaving in a way that was inappropriate – the shame I experienced (often disproportionate to the action) was so painful that it wasn’t worth the risk. I also tend to isolate myself, because getting to know people that I might hurt, or might hurt me, is a risk. I have reinvented myself numerous times, worn countless faces and taken many names. I allowed myself to be treated in ways I would now consider unacceptable, because I had no way of judging my emotional boundaries. It’s also easy not to care about how people treat you, when you don’t feel like a person yourself. I hid myself away in a place where I didn’t have to feel anything or be anyone.

Then I found Glasgow, returned to my studies and by studying Fantasy I finally started to come to terms with my reality. I gained recognition for my work and my sense of humour. I started to feel like I had something to say, to contribute. I started to talk to new people honestly, for the first time in years, and started posting on social media. Interacting with others allowed me to test my reality, and the reality is, that despite my difficulties, a lot of what I think, and feel, is valid and does matter. Over the past year I have gradually stopped the majority of my avoidant coping mechanisms to improve my physical and mental health so that I can focus on my research. I also knew that the things I was doing were increasing the chances that I would die a premature death. I had a moment of hesitation, and in that moment of hesitation I asked myself a question: is life really worth all this pain? In the middle of all my uncertainty, I had a moment of absolute clarity and I answered myself: Yes. My emotional truth is that I want to live. Little by little, I stopped avoiding life and I started living. I stopped running away from myself and turned to face all of my feelings. I started to feel them.

I am still uncertain about who I am and how to deal with my emotions, but I do know that I love to work and I love to write. I don’t know whether it’s apt, or ironic, that the only thing I’m certain about is my research on hesitation and The Digital Fantastic.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to my editor Marita Arvaniti for her continued hard work, support and honesty.

Thank you to my partner Ollie, who helps me to feel brave enough to feel my feelings.

Bibliography

Ahmed, S. (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Second edition). Edinburgh University Press.

Gilman, C. P. ([1892] 2017). The Yellow Wallpaper. Wisehouse Classics.

Hume, K. (2014). Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. Routledge.

Jackson, S. ([1959] 2009). The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Classics.

The Important Role of Emotions. (n.d.). Verywell Mind. Retrieved 9 December 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/the-purpose-of-emotions-2795181

Todorov, T. (1975). The Fantastic: A structural approach to a literary genre. Cornell University Press.

Digital Fantastic: PhD Life is a Fairy Tale

On early PhD life, demystifying the APR and becoming a cliché

Hi all!

I just wanted to add a little note to let you know that this blog will be ‘rona free. I hope that it can give you a few minutes of distraction during a difficult time.

Love,

Gabe xoxox

P.S. I’m technically an English Lit researcher, so the PhD experience I’m talking about in this blog is primarily an arts one. Also, it’s just my opinion and often hyperbolized for the sake of comedy! You probably won’t agree with everything I have to say, nor should you! It’s all in good humour (or supposed to be)! Please read my disclaimer, but there are no trigger warnings today!

OK. I think I’ve covered my ass.

We hide | Cute animals, Funny animals, Animals beautiful
Phew! That was close lads.

Are you sitting comfortably?

If not TOUGH LUCK, because it’s time to begin…

Once upon a time, in a tall ivory tower, a message was sent to all of the scholars in the land. This message comprised of three letters:

A P R

The scholars were all in a flurry. They could be seen scrambling for papers, ingesting impossible amounts of a mysterious brown beverage and weeping into their books, most of which were upside down. If approached, the scholars would beg to be left alone and if pressed seemed capable only of mumbling those cursed three letters over and over again:

A…P…R…”

Friends and family who were wise thought it best to leave the scholars alone. The wisest of them even left tributes of food at their scholar’s door and some would even send etchings of cats in an attempt to ease their burden. They wanted to help. The problem was that no one knew what ‘APR’ even meant…

Well friends, I am here to explain it to you. It’s time to demystify the jargon and reveal the arcane secrets of the APR process…

If Sorting Algorithms Were Pokemon - Monique Tuin - Medium

(For my colleagues who know what an APR is: first of all – I’m so sorry, we’ve TOTALLY got this, second of all – please join me for a session of masochistic mockery as I recount the details… )

For those of you who were wise enough to choose a sensible career path, APR means ‘annual progress review’. It’s that time of year when PhD students must discuss their work with a panel comprised of their supervisors + someone new who will provide helpful insights into our projects – or proceed to beat us about the head with our own misguided words.

Alan Rickman Slapping GIF by Cheezburger - Find & Share on GIPHY

As much as they like to tell us that it’s not a test, it is a test. PhD researchers must submit a specified number of words of their project (around 7000 for UofG English Lit researchers – look, I know it used to be 10K, please stop bitching about it) alongside a few forms including an especially fun and not at all irritating box-checking activity called a Researcher Development Log. We complete the paperwork to prove that we’ve been doing things other than our research such as organising events, attending research development training courses and ‘networking’. The whole thing is an elaborate charade designed to help the university pretend that it’s teaching us skills which are applicable to ‘the outside world’ so that it doesn’t have to feel bad when we can’t get a job in academia after graduation…

JUST KIDDING GUYS. 

Of COURSE doing an arts research project teaches us valuable skills that helps us secure later employment. 

OF COURSE bureaucracy is useful part of developing reflective research skills and not a waste of time. 

OF COURSE the research development training courses are always of the highest quality and contribute to our employability. They’re not at all designed to help us check the more obscure boxes of the researcher development framework.

OF COURSE the researcher development framework is intrinsically useful and not something that universities must use to shield themselves in order to justify the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which is no longer deemed useful by wider society because it’s difficult to commodify…  

OF COURSE we understand the benefits of this process. 

Of course we do. We get it. I swear.

Actually, I’ve heard that APRs can be genuinely useful: they’re rare a chance to talk about our work with people who understand it and the process can be a bit of practice for our viva – a much more formal interrogation meeting us researchers must complete at the end of our projects. The reflective logs also give us time to think about all of the hard work we’ve been doing outwith our projects and consider how this has developed our professional skills. If we’re lucky we might even get a little pat on the head to acknowledge our hard (often unpaid) work.

Pats head GIFs
mmmm serotonin

YUP! Us layabout, late to rise, work from home skivers actually DO things you know. Even lit students can’t just sit around looking at books all day anymore. We have to make IMPACT (whatever the fuck that means) and take part. We have to be do-ers; as a misanthropic introvert I feel as if I was grievously mis-sold this lifestyle… The agony. (Press f to pay respects in the comments please!) 

Anyway, all of this APR stuff and bullshit useful reflective exercises made me think about the start of my own PhD. Not just the research project, but the experience in general. Honestly, I feel really blessed to be doing something I love, but at the same time I have faced difficulties, I have journeyed-

Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered

No, it’s fine. Really. 

My research is my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, especially as I’m one of the lucky few who is actually paid for my work. I can’t overstate the fact that I am incredibly privileged to have the means to do what I love as my job. (Thank you to the University of Glasgow: you have been the Sugar Daddy that I always wished for. Please don’t get mad at me for teasing you… I do love you so!)

it was love at first stipend payment

So early PhD life has been going pretty well, aside from one thing… I’ve become a cliché. I mean, I’m practically a walking meme: I’m that weeby-smol-big-tiddy-goth-girlfriend-sarcastic-millennial that never grew-out of emo music, eats avocado and had a mid-life crisis (well, a quarter-life crisis, now that I’ve quit smoking – going 44 days strong – gib congratz in the comments please). For some reason being a PhD student cliché is even more awful because I SWORE when I saw the sad posts and memes that I would avoid every trap and be my own person. Alas, clichés are clichés for a reason: they’re lived experience converted into shorthand. Although we cannot entirely understand a cliché until we experience it, they are stories that are there to guide us. 

Just like fairy tales.  

My first chapter (and APR submission) is about fairy tales, well, fairy tale video games. It has been an especially challenging start because I burnt my whole life to the ground and was extremely mentally ill folklore is such a dense topic, full of long intersecting histories and counterhistories.  Situating my research within the field seemed like an overwhelming task. That was until I found Jack Zipes. Jack Zipes uses Dawkins’ theory of mimetics to define fairy tales as MEMES. Now, if you’re my facebook friend (in which case I’m so, so sorry) then you know that memes are things I can get behind (or on top of, or underneath).  Now, I’m going to hit you with this theory rather gently so I don’t accidentally self-plagiarize (and because we don’t have a safe word).

Kink Spank GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Basically, Zipes describes a meme as a ‘a unit of cultural transmission’ that must be ‘relevant’ in order to be replicated. 

I’ve outlined what this means in this extremely fancy and SCIENTIFIC flowchart down here:  

 *See the annotated bibliography for sources that more fully explain the concepts below.*

The short of it is that ideas become memes if people find them relatable enough use them to communicate something to other people about themselves. As a meme comes into contact with individuals, it mutates as the teller shapes it in order to make it feel more relevant and more personal. If the meme remains relevant to enough people, it continues to proliferate. Fairy tales are stories which have persisted, remaining relevant enough for their continued use as a means to communicate with each other about ourselves in relation to society.  For something to become a meme, or a cliché, it has to have been true for a long enough time to continue spreading, and versatile enough to be adapted from teller to teller and generation to generation….

I was a fool to think I could escape. It’s extremely tiring to understand how painfully average one’s existence is, BUT at least I had those memes to help me when I was facing difficulties… They reassured me that I was… normal?  

Me? Normal. 

Well, OK then.  

IF YOU SAY SO. 

What I’ve come to learn is that PhD life isn’t just one fairy tale, it’s pretty much all of them.

Fairy tale: Rapunzel

The story of a princess shut away in a tall tower by her witch of a stepmother.

Book tangled rapunzel crown lila bored bed cama rubia GIF on GIFER ...

Reality: tangled up at home

We are both the princess and the witch.

The nature of our work means that researchers often end up shut away at home. There are some provisions on campuses for researchers to work, but unlike many corporate workers, only a few of us are allocated desks or an office to work in. When we’re not attending events and meetings, we likely have the freedom to create our own workdays, so those of us who like to work from home are fortunate enough to be able to. It’s a personal choice for me as it’s cheaper and easier just to stay inside (plus, Pixel is great company).

Fairy tale: Cinderella

Forced by her stepmother to work all day whilst her family go to the ball without her.

Cleaning gif 19 » GIF Images Download

Reality: ‘when you do something you love you’ll work every day of your life’ (Ruth EJ Booth, 2020)

Being our own bosses and working from home means that it can be difficult to separate work from leisure time. For at least three and a half years our work is never done. Nothing can ever be truly finished until our submission date. Many researchers are also unfunded, meaning that if they’re not financially supported by their families they often have to get another job on top of their research: very few of us have fairy godmothers (funding/rich parents/sugar daddies).

Fairy tale: The Golden Goose

Everyone wants to pet the pretty, golden goose, but they quickly change their minds once they are stuck there.

goose knife cute weird untitled goose game...
fucking honk

Reality: if one more person tells me to play more video games, i’m going to fucking stab a bitch

People say that it’s a good idea to study what you love as that passion makes the project more intrinsically motivating, however, disciplines such as Game Studies and English Literature often require us to cast a critical eye over our objects of study. To see its flaws. When you spend all day picking literature or video games apart, it can be difficult to disengage the critical mind and enjoy it after hours. Studying something and enjoying it are VERY different things and require different mindsets; switching between the two can be challenging. This is detrimental as not only does it become more difficult to enjoy ourselves, but often, there is an expectation that PhD researchers should be broadly knowledgeable about their subject areas, when actually specializing in a subject is the antithesis of general knowledge.

Note: losing interest in leisure activities is also a symptom of depression which can be difficult to identify if it’s high functioning. Any researchers out there struggling to disengage from work should consider having a check-up – I did!

Fairy tale: Little Red Riding Hood

She was supposed to follow the path to grandmother’s house, but was distracted by a wolf…

Red Riding Hood GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Reality: sidechicks – hot or a heavy burden?

Most of us have chosen to study something we love. Our projects are like spouses: we adore them, but the road is long and after a while the novelty and excitement wears off… Sometimes it’s all too easy to venture into the woods and get distracted by a tasty little side project! Side projects can be great and sometimes they can even support and reinvigorate your relationship with your research – however, it’s important not to neglect your main squeeze.

Fairy tale: The Three Little Pigs

Built their houses of straw, sticks and bricks – only the latter house survives the wolf’s wrath.

three little pigs | Tumblr
“I’ll huff and I’ll puff,’ said the wolf, “and I’ll blow your-“
“-do you promise?” interrupted the pig.

Reality: we are the wolf, reviewer three built their house of bricks

To be competitive in the academic job market, researchers have to get published! In order to have our work published (an honor that is largely unpaid, by the way) we have to go through a process called ‘peer review’ in which other academics read our work and leave comments. Many reviewers, such as those who take part in Press Start journal are considerate, knowledgeable and leave constructive feedback. Some are reviewer three. Reviewer three knows only destruction. Fuck you reviewer three – did you even read the paper? (The answer is almost always no.)

Fairy tale: Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin span straw into gold for the miller’s daughter, later returning to claim her first born as his reward. He would only relinquish his claim if she guessed his name correctly.

Rumpelstiltskin GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
“Say my name.”

Reality: impostor syndrome

Researchers are the Miller’s daughter and our thesis is Rumpelstiltskin.

One of the biggest PhD realities is that despite our years of training in academia, none of us feel like we know what we’re doing. Experts aren’t born, they are made, and experts are only human. We can’t know everything! Please don’t expect me to know and remember every game every made – most of the time I can’t even remember my way home!

I Have No Memory Of This Place GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

It’s likely that we know a lot about a very niche thing, so when questioned broadly, some of us must seem like frauds (sometimes it makes us feel like frauds too). Furthermore, during the process of becoming an expert, we have to trawl through so much research and write so many terrible drafts that sometimes it feels like we’re the miller’s daughter spinning piles and piles of straw in the HOPE that it turns into gold.

And just like the miller’s daughter, we are always searching for that illusive name… The TITLE of our project. We often begin our work with a clear idea of what we want to investigate, but the more we work, the more we learn and the more the project changes. “Speak my name!” Our thesis cries before bursting into flames! Our projects should change – that’s the point. If we already knew what we needed to know, we would have our doctorates.

On a darker note, like Rumpelstiltskin, the PhD is capable of stealing our children if we let it. Kind of. OK, this one is a stretch, but for a lot of women, PhDs take place during childbearing years. Although many people are capable of both completing research and having a family, sadly, some feel as if they must choose one or the other.

It’s cool Rumpel, if i ever have a kid then you can keep it. lol

Fairy tale: The Little Mermaid

Gives up her voice in exchange for legs.

The Little Mermaid Ariel GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Reality: losing our voices

It’s a common stereotype that PhD researchers have no social lives because our work takes up so much time. What we don’t talk about are the social dynamics of the job. Except for organizing the odd event, there’s little incentive to work as a team. Outside of term time, we can go for days and weeks without speaking to anyone (at least I do, if I’m lucky). It’s easy to forget how to communicate like a functional human, especially if you don’t have a cat to talk to.

We have cohorts and are encouraged to bond and help other researchers, but sometimes this can exacerbate things. Sometimes (not all the time and not everyone) researchers have a way of accidentally pressuring each other. Even though logically we know that our projects are unique and we work in varying ways at different paces and have very diverse circumstances (full time/part time, family/single, funded/unfunded, supported by family/self-sufficient, etc) a lifetime of comparing grades to ‘be the best’ so that we can join a PhD programme in the first place has made it difficult to speak to each other about work without somehow feeling the pressures of competition.

Many researchers are so overworked and so stressed that spending time together may not produce the chillest of vibes. To make matters worse, those of us in similar fields will be competing for the same few jobs when we finish….

But hey, I’m just antisocial anyway. Maybe let’s forget about being competitive and go for drinks when the world has healed? (´。• ᵕ •。`) ♡

Fairy tale: The emperor’s new clothes

Two weavers promise the emperor an exclusive set of threads: in reality, he’s just naked. Everyone pretends he’s dressed until a child points it out and shatters the collective lie.

Emperors New Clothes GIFs | Tenor

The reality: we are fragile monarchs of very tiny kingdoms, please appease us

We’re all pretending that our arts qualifications are leading us somewhere and that we’ll get something out of it at the end. Our loved ones are complicit in this elaborate lie: “But you’ll have a doctorate,” they say. “You’ll get a job easily,” they say. The harsh reality is that the letters are about as useful as the emperor’s new clothes these days.

We’re not just naked, we’re also also fucked.

Just please don’t mention it to us.

WE KNOW!

Fairy tale: Hansel and Gretel

Lured in by the promise of gingerbread and nearly cannibalized.

Mean Lisa Simpson GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The reality: cannibalized by the system

Have I mentioned that there are scarcely any relevant jobs for PhD researchers after graduation? To be fair, we were warned. Senior academics are quite transparent about the state of the academic job market, but we enter the gingerbread house knowing how fragile it all is because it’s fucking delicious and maybe, just MAYBE, our particular gingerbread house won’t have a witch inside. Or perhaps if there is a witch inside, she’ll magic-up a contract for us that isn’t precarious.

But what about the happy ending?

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According to Tolkien (because we CAN’T talk about Fantasy without mentioning Daddy), one of the most important functions of fairy tales is ‘the Consolation of the Happy Ending’.

They are there to make us feel better because life is beautifully flawed and full of disappointment.

So you see, PhD life is a fairy tale. It just so happens that it’s the shit bit at the beginning, rather than the good bit at the end.

Just kidding!

Researchers! How would you describe your experiences using fairy tales?

Annotated Bibliography 

For mimetics: Dawkins, C. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Some fairy tales (gruesome): Grimm, J., Grimm, W., & Mondschein, K. (Eds.). (2011). Grimm’s complete fairy tales. Canterbury Classics.

More fairy tales (cutesy): Perrault, C., & Betts, C. J. (2009). The complete fairy tales. Oxford University Press.

Apparently Pratchett talks about a lot of this stuff, but I haven’t read it yet – it’s a cheerful book and I’ve been depressed: Pratchett, T. (1997). Hogfather: A Discworld novel. Corgi Books. 

For a happy ending: Tolkien, J. R. R., Flieger, V., Anderson, D. A., & HarperCollins Publishers. (2014). Tolkien on fairy-stories. HarperCollins Publishers.

Relevance theory: Wilson, D. and Sperber, D. (2008). Relevance Theory. In The Handbook of Pragmatics (eds L.R. Horn and G. Ward). 

Fairy tales and memes: Zipes, J. (2006). Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Routledge.