Thesis Re-Visited

[It’s] a popular notion, that it is exclusively suffering that produces good work, or insightful work.  I don’t think that’s the case. I think in a certain sense, it’s  a trigger, or a lever. But I think good work is produced in spite of suffering, and as a response, as a victory over suffering.

Leonard Cohen

I had the idea to read through my thesis, and post excerpts on my blog; I may still do that.  As always, I hesitate; I think that some of this work is of high quality, but I wonder how it will be received. I talked about my thesis and agonized over it for so long, that I’m not sure anything I could have created would have been worth the fuss I made about it. Then again, the only arbriter that really matters at the end of the day – my supervisor – gave me an A- on it. So I’m not really sure what I’m worried about in that regard. I suppose putting one’s work out there will always feel like an act of incredible vulnerability.

Reading my thesis in preparation for posting it reminds me of how far removed I am from the academic world; I admit that this reminder is somewhat disheartening. I’d have to read and study for months before I would become as well-versed in the theoretical language and literature as I was when I wrote the thesis. Furthermore, I don’t see myself having the opportunity to write something like that and become immersed in the acts of learning and creation anytime soon; I may not have an opportunity like that ever again.  I suppose my hesitation to post my thesis is borne from that sentiment as well, which isn’t exactly regret; I’ve just become aware that there’s a gap between where I am, and where I want to be, and I’d rather not think about it.  At the present time though, I’m a still a little too weary from the struggle to get through school to knit that yarn into motivation to go back.

Although there are ideas and passages in this piece that I wish I could have developed further, in some ways, that doesn’t really matter; what matters most to me about this work is that I finished it at all. I wrote it during a tumultuous time in my life, during which I was suffering from clinical depression and anxiety disorders. Hence, the Leonard Cohen quote above: this work is important to me for its merits as a piece of undergraduate-level scholarship, and because I see the completion of this project as a “victory over suffering.” I may always struggle with my mind, but this serves as a reminder that I can still (with a hell of a lot of effort, time, and support) complete the work I set out to do.

That’s what I’ll remember this piece for; this piece, with all of its glorious imperfection. Maybe one day I’ll regard the time of my life during which I wrote it as being “gloriously imperfect” as well.

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After thinking and writing about it, I’ve decided to post excerpts from my thesis after all. These can be found on the following pages:

Dance Macabre: Women’s Experiences in Burlesque Excerpt 1 (Introductory Chapter)

Dance Macabre: Women’s Experiences in Burlesque  Excerpt 2 (Research Methods Chapter)

Note To Self

Today I learned that if I allow myself to do the “fun”/”unproductive” activities that I actually want to do (in this case, it was writing and drawing), I’m less grumpy about the tasks I have to do in order to keep my life from falling apart (eg. maintaining my student loan).  Neat.  I can work with this.

Now what?

So the confluence  of a number of factors has created a something of a gap in my life. The factors are as follows:

Due to being sick when I had otherwise planned to update my resume and apply for a full-time job at my workplace, I missed out on that particular opportunity (I have reason to believe that I would have been in the running for the position, had I applied for it).  Although I can likely make enough money working casually to pay my rent and meet my basic needs, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll earn enough money any time soon to do that and save up the tuition I need for my remaining classes.  Consequently, I seem to have a bit of time on my hands, and I won’t be filling that time up with academic work in the foreseeable future.

So, given that:

  • I’m not working full-time
  • I seem to be able to keep the bills paid at the moment, so I don’t need to go looking for another part-time job (not yet, anyways)
  • I won’t have academic work to worry about (for the first time in too many years),
  • …and there’s a really good chance that even the cat would appreciate it if I got a life, or a hobby, or both, so she could watch the traffic outside in peace

I’ve started to consider the idea that now might be as good of a time as any to develop my “hobbies”.  I’m even entertaining the wild thought of getting into my “arts” (dancing, music, creative writing, visual arts, photography, and experimental programming) and/or teaching yoga more seriously. No shit!
I’m also kind of hoping that when I explore any of the aforementioned options, I might even stumble upon a vocation that makes me happier than academia evidently did (indulging my intellectual ambitions while simultaneously reaching the limits of my sanity and living like a pauper wasn’t nearly as fun – or fulfilling – as comic books and movies made it seem; it turns out Maslow and Marx might have been onto something, while Plato gave me false hope).

So it turns out that when I grow up, I want to be an artist/yoga teacher. I get the last laugh, government/society; you’re never getting your money/investment back, nor will I ever be a role-model for poor kids everywhere that you can “beat the system” while working within it (although I’ll be damned if I don’t teach the economically/socially disadvantaged kids – many of whom also have psychological problems and struggle with addictions – with whom I work in my day job  everything I know about how to survive in it, as a person in the margins).

Once a jaded punk, always a jaded punk, it seems.

The Twilight of My Thesis

Ugh. I hate the fact that I can’t type the word “twilight” without images of sparkly vampires coming to mind. I’ve never seen the movies or read the books of the same name, but I know they’re awful because all of the real goths I know, as well as the ones on the internet, as well as legions of feminists and anti-racist thinkers, and lovers of literature everywhere have all denounced the series.  The only groups of people who seem to enjoy it are young girls and women, and nobody cares what they think [/sarcasm].  Since I don’t have the time or the inclination to read the series myself, I’ve let the opinions of the learned among us inform my own.  So it follows that the series of books/movies of the same name have ruined what was once a lovely word for me (in case I’ve lost anyone in the course of my ramblings, I’ll repeat the word here: twilight).  However, I decided to go with the phrase “The Twilight of my Thesis” anyways, because it seemed more optimistic than the first one that came to my mind: “The Dying Days of My Thesis.”  Look at me trying to re-frame things in a positive light and all.

So, that was a tangent; I’m not entirely sure what I came here to write about. Oh yeah: I miss being in contact with humans, particularly in the context of that “real world” I keep hearing so much about. You know, the one outside my head, outside of my bedroom/office even – that flesh-and-blood world which is occupied by humans that go outside and catch some of the light of the evil day star and have conversations and hold hands and kiss and fight and all of that. I can only voyeuristically participate in real life by observing the encounters of people who walk outside of my second floor window for so long before I start feeling creepy and well, kinda pathetic.

The funny thing is, I live with my sister and my fiance, two people who would (presumably) want to spend time with me if I arose from my thesis-chamber and engaged them.  So one would think that I could easily solve this problem, and I concur. However, I’m all about bitching about problems over the internet as a means of thinking through how I actually want to go about solving the problem before I do anything. And in any event, they’re usually working too, so although we all live together, we don’t actually get to socialize all that often. It’s a lonely business, this thing of trying to be a respectable adult who tries to earn their keep on this planet.

I keep telling myself that I only have a few more days of this before I absolutely have to hand in my thesis, and then I have one more paper to write before I get to enjoy my summer. And I’m pretty stoked about this, because I haven’t had a Real Summer in years. By “Real Summer”, I mean one in which I’m not struggling with unstable living situations, the depths of poverty and despair, and doing schoolwork on top of it all.  Over the past couple of years, at least three out of four of those conditions have been met; if all goes well this year, the only thing I’ll still be somewhat worried about is money.  If a full time position opens at work, I’ll be all over that shit and not even money will be much of an issue anymore.

Whenever I realize that I do have a desire for my life to be a little bit easier, my inner critic steals the show and tells me that I sure am one lazy, spoiled motherfucker for wanting such a thing.  Fortunately, almost immediately after that bitch has her say, a montage of every psychologist and doctor I’ve spoken to over the past couple of years runs through my mind, and they’re all saying pretty much the same thing (if not quite the way I’m about to put it): I’ve had a lot of shit to deal with over the past few years, and most people would have cracked under the weight of it all.  It’s not unreasonable to want a little bit of security, happiness, and hell, even fun in one’s life.  And although I haven’t pinpointed exactly what I see myself doing in my post-undergrad years, I know I don’t want to be scraping by financially and taking fistfuls of meds every day to keep myself sane; I want security,  contentment bourne from the circumstances of my life and my awesome coping skills, rather than pills that prevent the re-uptake of seretonin in my brainmeats, as well as fun, adventure, and new experiences.  I want to travel and not give a shit for a while (and somehow, I’ll still have money and a stable place to come home to; on second thought, I might have to compromise on the “not giving a shit” part of that). I want to have found a way to remove the last few shards of the stick I’ve had in my ass all my life, care less about what others think, and live whatever life I’m meant to live out on this planet, now that I’ve done what I thought I was supposed to do (ie, get the degree). I want be like one of the 30-something friends I looked up to in my twenties, who did the real-world thing, decided it wasn’t for them, and then found their own way in life based on life experience and self-awareness (rather than rejecting “the System” outright due to lowered expectations disguised in a cloak of idealism, which is what I feel I would have been doing if I had either decided against going to university, or dropped out; so as much as I complain about school, I’m glad I gave it an honest shot).

I guess what I really want, when I imagine my life in my thirties, is to be rid of the overwhelming amounts of stress and chaos I experienced in my 20’s, without becoming a boring, happy-sunshiney motherfucker with kids and a house, who has another breakdown when she’s pushing 40 because she doesn’t recognize herself anymore either.  I haven’t given up on the possibility of grad school yet either, I just know it’s something I’m not prepared to do right now (emotionally or financially).

Right. My thesis. I wanted to do this first to warm-up my writing muscles, and to remind myself of why I’m doing this. I’m doing this because it’s on my bucket list; it’s this thing I wanted to create and give to the world outside of all of the circumstances (outside of me, and in my head) that made it take a lot longer to complete than it was ever supposed to. It was so much harder than I ever thought it would be; however, I decided not to think of all the work involved from the outset, because I know if I did I’d scare myself and I’d back out.  I’m not going to lie; it was a lot of work! But I’d probably do it again, were I to travel back in time and be asked to make that decision, knowing what I do now.

Anyways, back to my motivations. Getting the “Honours” designation on my degree is kind of neat (and I do want to get a decent grade on this), but those were never my main reasons for taking this on. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, and I’m almost there. A few more lonely days with my nose to the grindstone really isn’t a big deal, considering all the work that’s behind me and the sense of personal statisfaction I know I’ll feel when I finish this (didn’t my mom mention that a few days ago? Yeah, she did).

Okay, my writing muscles have been engaged. Let’s get on with this.

Great Work Provocations: The Inner Critic

Every weekday, I receive a note in my inbox from Box of Crayons, an organization that develops productivity tools for businesses and individuals.  Their daily notes, called the “Great Work Provocations” consist of a phrase or two that is designed to get you thinking about your goals and work habits. Today’s “Provocation” was particularly relevant to my work situation, and it looked like this:

“We all have our own ‘inner critic’, whispering things like, “don’t try it” and “who do you think you are?” and “you’re going to be found out” and generally beating you up. Awareness that this is not the truth just a voice in your head is half the battle. What’s your critic saying today? What’s the alternative perspective?”

My critic is surprisingly quiet today, but it seems to have become louder now that I’ve sit down with the intention to actually do something.  It provokes physical anxiety and tension: fidgeting, the desire to get up and do something else, held breath, and a furrowed brow.  Today it likes to tell me that I’m wasting my time, and that I’ll never accomplish what I want to; I’ll never be a writer, and I’m certainly not a creative person.

What is the alternative perspective? I could say that I am a creative person; I’ve had quite a few ideas already today, which is why I was motivated to sit down and write in the first place. They weren’t specifically related to my paper per se, but I did think of ways to organize the information I was reading yesterday, and I could draw connections between concepts presented in multiple texts. I even thought of ways to relate my “academic” reading to a more enjoyable text on BDSM.  This text, The New Topping Book by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, has been particularly thought-provoking, since it’s one of the few books I’ve seen that frames BSDM play in a quasi-feminist ethos, while admitting (and delighting in) explorations of one’s “dark side” in a coherent manner.  The dominant discourse on kink/BDSM seems to be characterized by gender essentialism and post-feminism, so this was a refreshing take on the subject.

Now the voice inside my head is chastizing me for taking a little while to get my thoughts on that book out there, and is once again criticizing me for procrastinating and wasting my time. To which I say, “How am I wasting my time? I’m starting to think about the topics I want to explore in my more “serious” writing, in a low-risk format. That seems like a great idea to me.”

In the meantime, my body beckons for sustenance, so I’m going to call a “time out” on this internal battle to deal with that.

The Death of the Lover.

I just saw a production of Miss Saigon for stage, and I am trying to work through my reactions to it. The first act played as an ordinary “waiting for your prince” drama, except with some racist/anti-communist overtones as well. The second act seemed to problematize the first; it played like a Greek tragedy in that all of the characters seemed less like racist/gendered stereotypes, and more like ordinary people who were trying to do the best they could with the information they had, in a situation that could not add up to a happy ending. In the end, I appreciated the efforts to problematize some of the patriotism evident in the first act and some of the gender stereotyping (even if some of the racism wasn’t really dealt with; I seem to remember something in my sociology text about Vietnamese Canadians protesting the way they were portrayed in a Toronto production of Miss Saigon, so I don’t think I’m too off the mark when I suggest that that the racialized characters were stereotyped).

I alternatively identified with and despised the heroine; she falls in love with an American GI after inspiring him with her innocence after he had resisted being corrupted by the seedy underbelly of Saigon. He promises to return to her so they can consummate their love and live happily ever after, even proving his masculinity in the face of her racialized betrothed. She waits for him; after singing many songs about how he (and another man/boy, their son) is all she lives for, she bravely (?) speaks of her hopes for her future, and the redemptive power of their love. She waits for him; at one point I thought to myself, “let me know how that works out for you,” anticipating that she would somehow sacrifice her life while hanging on to something that would never materialize. In the end, it never does because her man convinces himself that he can start over with his American wife (whom I also identified with, as the “other woman”). Our heroine sacrifices herself through suicide; in the closing act the main characters hang their heads as Scylla and Charybdis look on. Who didn’t see either outcome occurring?

Of course, this is a (fairly straightforward and underdeveloped) critical/feminist analysis of the play. What most struck me was how almost all of the women in the play were either sex objects or victims; the racialized women (and men) simply had even fewer choices than say, the American GI and his wife. While some would say “that’s what happens in a war,” I would say, yeah, it does – but why does this have to happen at all, and how does the play perpetuate the idea that This Is The Way Things Have To Be? What bothered me the most was the heroines’ insistence that “love would conquer all,” although I am not certain if the play ultimately endorses or questions ideologies of Romantic Love. Although most of the play seemed to be trumpeting the redemptive powers of love (and American idealism) in the face of corruption, the death scene in the end could be read as a confirmation of this ideology (she dies, but their love lives on in the child that is saved) or refutes it (look what happens when you believe in this sort of thing). Similarly, by portraying an American GI as a hero (and the betrothed as easily corruptible and power hungry) the play seems to be lamenting the “tragedies of war” without really criticizing the Americans’ role in constructing this tragedy in the first place (while the Vietnamese, on the other hand, are either corrupted or “pure” and in need of the American’s “salvation,” which is where the charges of “racism” apply. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that I think the Vietnamese were entirely in the right either; some “leftist” interpretations of the Vietnam war – as one of Imperialistic aggression – are problematic/overly-simplistic as well). On the other hand, even our hero makes calculations that the play positions as selfish (while the married couple want to blindly start over in the US with Kim’s child, the “chorus” – the GI’s friend – warns them that they are being selfish by choosing to forget about our heroine Kim).

In the end, although our hero does fall victim to hubris, yet I am not sure that admitting to the individual soldiers’ moral failings adds up to a criticism of the US’s role in the war in and of itself; the fact that Vietnamese are never really portrayed as anything but helpless or corrupt puts doubt into my mind that this is a critique of “the US’s involvement in the Vietnam war” or just “the tragedy of war” itself. My gut feeling, and the bit of analysis I have done, leads me towards the latter conclusion. I suggest that our hero’s moral failings make him a hero in the sense that Achilles was – his “humanity” is there to make him seem like someone to whom the audience can relate, but it is not a vulnerability that calls the American’s involvement in the war itself into question.

I kind of want to go back to my reaction to the play’s endorsement/possible questioning of ideologies of romantic love; although I was critical of portrayals of communists as mindless and racialized “others” as victims, my reaction to the idea of “love” in the play was definitely coming from a more emotional place. I initially dismissed the relationship between the American GI, Chris, and the heroine, Kim; in one night of passion they fall in love and dream of building a life together. Oh please, I thought to myself; although I could appreciate how one could fall in love in an obviously desperate situation, I was already thinking that their long-term prospects were pretty grim. To compare possible outcomes, I submit the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. For those who don’t know the film, our hero from the wrong side of the Berlin Wall is a beautiful young boy with an abusive mother and few prospects in life. He falls in love/lust with an American GI, and goes through a sketchy sex-change operation so he can marry the GI and leave Berlin. Hedwig ultimately finds her/himself abandoned in a trailer park, confused about her gender identity, and betrayed by the American dream when she finally arrives in the USA (no doubt, this film is playing with the ways in which gendered relationships are portrayed within more “conventional” films about war; this more cynical/critical reading of the American imperialistic wars and relationships between the genders definitely suits my sensibilities a bit more). However, when I realized that my reaction to Miss Saigon had something to do with my own experiences with Romantic Love and was not entirely made on intellectual grounds, I decided that I would consider the possibility that our heroine’s death could be read in a few ways (although there is definitely a reading I favor).

I’ll discuss the emotional reaction soon; this reaction notwithstanding, my final verdict on “gender in Miss Saigon” is similar to that of my (underdeveloped) analysis of race. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that a film that generally portrays women as helpless victims who need to be saved by American men and only find a sense of agency when they align themselves with men is *actually* trading on gendered stereotypes and re-enforcing ideologies of romantic love instead of problematizing these. I do believe that the original play was made a number of years ago, before it was so common to portray gender roles and relationships in an “ironic” or cynical fashion (Hedwig does this brilliantly, IMHO); for that reason, my “straightforward” reading seems to be the more plausible one. Considering the other possibility (as I said I would), it seems to be a bit of a stretch to imagine that the death scene in the end is suggesting that women shouldn’t wait for their hero, when most of the dramatic and emotional content of the movie comes from her longing, not any sense of agency she might have. It would be a different movie, if say, she tried to start over in the same way as her man did (granted, I am not entirely sure what her options would have been in that situation; maybe waiting for him was her best choice, and my underdeveloped feminist analysis should therefore rest in peace as well). It is difficult for me to imagine that this play isn’t saying anything about love that hasn’t been repeated again and again within Western culture – and like Romeo and Juliet, they do find themselves together in the end, if briefly.

My final verdict? This is a play about the power of love between a man and a woman in the “modern” setting of the Vietnam war (making a critical analysis based on race possible); yet it doesn’t seem to be offering any ideas about love that we haven’t seen before. It suggests that Love has the power to “redeem” the corrupt or emotionally damaged, yet in order for it to persist someone (usually a woman) must sacrifice herself for the other (others have noticed that this “self-sacrificial love” is a very “Christian” form of love as well; I will not get into that reading in much detail, simply because I don’t feel like I have the background in religion to make a compelling case for interpretation as well. I bring that reading up because it is definitely related to the gendered analysis above inasmuch as some readings of the Bible can be said to be responsible for some of the ideas we have about gender now).

For the time being I am going to hold off on getting to involved in analyzing the “emotional” aspect of my response to this play. However, it is probably obvious to anyone who knows me that my cynicism towards Romantic Love is not entirely unrelated to my own experiences believing in the self-defeating ideas the heroine of Miss Saigon held. In short, I believed that I also sacrificed a bit of my life as I held on to something that would never materialize. I appreciate the play for being honest about what that belief will do to a person of any gender, even if it doesn’t suggest any alternatives (ie, holding onto the idea that someone is going to come along and save you is probably going to end up in a wasted life – metaphorically or literally – and a broken heart). Quite honestly, I really liked the ending (and the entire second act) because although it wasn’t obviously critical, ironic, or cynical, it did seem to call the purpose of the war and at least some of the American’s idealism/hubris into question (even while trading on racialized and gendered stereotypes). Quite honestly, while death is a Romantic ending as well (and it is Romanticism I doubt), I preferred that to another possible ending (the GI and the heroine move to the USA and live happily ever after). Quite honestly, I would have thrown up or laughed uproariously if that had happened, and no one would have wanted that.

To a certain extent, I don’t expect to see a love story that plays into my sensibilities and thinking on Love because I think most people want to believe in True Love, even if I’ve rejected the possibility. A story that casts doubt on the possibility of “True Love” would be a story so depressing I wouldn’t even want to watch it (at the end of the day, even I want to think I experienced it, even if it was painful and ended terribly). I write about these issues because I am time and again reminded that I have become deeply cynical, and even I am surprised by this. I am starting to think that my own experiences with Romantic Love changed me in ways that probably aren’t reversible, and that’s a bit of a scary thought. At the same time, as a Canadian woman who is not trapped in a war, I realize that I have the opportunity to analyze my past and make choices. I don’t have to re-live victim scripts; although I am severely emotionally fucked-up, I hesitate to claim that I am a “victim” per se (if only because I realize that I am fucked up; a realization that lends itself to the possibility of agency, even if I have no idea about what to do about it yet. That’s probably why I’m looking for answers in plays and movies, come to think of it). At any rate, it is ironic (or inevitable?) that the ideology of Romantic Love has taken yet another female victim (even an unwilling one), and I realize that experience and my subsequent rejection of this ideology informs how I see and act in the world (including how I analyze media). If I were a modernist thinker, I would say something about this experience indicating the existence of some sort of paradigm, but I am not arrogant enough to think that my situation has much to do with that of actual Vietnamese women. Of course, I may have a bit in common with the “Vietnamese Woman” as constructed through hegemonic discourses (but only the “woman” part, not the “Vietnamese” piece); to the extent that women are constructed through these discourses as passive victims, I could be occasioning some sort of “survivor identity” in a misguided, artificial act of resistance (I’m sure there is a Lacanian analyst out there who has come up with one that applies to me).

At this point, I should be applying my critical thinking skills and my tenuous grasp on post-modern thought to my assignments. For anyone who might be hoping for it, this means I am not going to do any more probing into my emotional state (at least, I won’t be writing anything I care to make public). Part of my “act of resistance” (or, alternatively, evidence of complicity with a victim script) is a disavowal of anything approaching vulnerability. What I’ve said here is about as good as it gets in terms of any “willingness to be human.” I could write something about an unwillingness to be vulnerable indicating an internalized sense of misogynist self-loathing; alternatively, I also suspect that my entire analysis and the feminist perspective it articulates may be an example of slave morality, in the Nietzschean sense. However, those are pieces for another time.