I Just Checked In To See What The Thesis of my Thesis is

by zunguzungu

Ah, juvenalia… On the blessedly rare occasions that anyone asks me about my master’s thesis, “submitted to the Faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences of American University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in Literature,” I observe piously that while the process of writing it taught me a tremendous amount, the final product was an absolute trainwreck, and I’ve pretty much believed that story. People tend to assure me that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as all that-including people that have actually read it, or parts of it-and they tell me I’m just being dramatic. And it turns out I am. On re-reading it, I discover it’s not all that bad. There’s some fairly smart stuff in there, and a lot of the stuff I was first thrashing through there still animates the basic core of my dissertation now. It has its problems, which I’ll get to in a moment, but it’s not an embarrassment, as I had somehow convinced myself it was.

Why I had, in my mind, built the damn thing up to a towering inferno of badness, a monument to the silly things I once thought and believed, and the ridiculous idiocies which I’ve since put behind me? Well, there’s a narrative of growth in that gesture: the more you build up how bad you were at something in the past, the more you can establish that you’ve superceded that past self. The worse I can exaggerate my master’s thesis as being–goes the psychological logic–the more I must have grown since then, the more momentum I’ve built up as a developing writer, indicating how good I’m going to be in the future. It’s a reassuring narrative to tell oneself.

But it’s also reassuring to look at the thing and discover that there’s good stuff in there. The argument I made about Heart of Darkness is, I still think, more or less right and at least takes a creditable shot at sidestepping the sterile Achebe vs. Conrad dynamic that has so often made discussions of race in that novel uninteresting. The reading of Camara Laye’s Radiance of the King is pretty solid, and brings in some intertexts that I don’t thing anyone has ever written on before, even if what I then go on to do with that genealogy is quite lukewarm. The reading of Octavio Paz’s The Blue Bouquet still seems competent, even suggestive in ways I didn’t really recognize at the time. And the things I did with Mia Couto’s Under the Frangipani is still, more or less, what I would do with it now, if I were to try, though I’m a little more aware now than I was then of how much I didn’t understand in that novel. As you can see, I’m still trying to narrate that thesis in ways that build myself up; I’d do so much better now, I tell myself, because I’m so much smarter than I was then. Hopefully that’s not altogether untrue–I have been in grad school for four years since then–but it’s not really a very interesting problem either. So let me try to put subjectivity aside.

Looking as objectively as I can at the thing, it’s not hard to see why I was so frustrated then, why I tried to forget it for years, and why the memory of that frustration made dwelling on its terribleness so attractive for me. There are some very basic reasons why the thing never came together, why the moderate strength of the individual pieces never cohered into a strong whole. For example, the title was-it makes me cringe to reveal- “The Incorporation of Difference as an African Response to Cartesian Epistemology: An Examination of the Self and Other in Conrad, Paz, Laye, and Couto.” What a bad title; it lacks pizazz, it doesn’t explain itself, it uses big words unnecessarily (and unhelpfully), and it just plain says very little. I know what it was trying to mean, because I wrote the thesis, but a title probably shouldn’t require that knowledge as a prerequisite.

So what does it mean? Well, here’s the first sentence from the abstract:

“Examining the manner in which African and Western writers defined their societal identity by articulating the self’s relationship to a societal other reveals that the radically different context in which their societies experienced that other manifests itself in the distinctly different paradigms of societal identification that we find in African and Western literature.”

Quite a sentence. What I was trying to say was really quite simple: “otherness” is related to how social identity is conceptualized, and African writers and Western writers have tended to conceptualize society differently. Literature is a good illustration of that tendency, and so I went on to read a painfully unfocused set of texts to try to illustrate that different people in different places did, indeed, do things differently because of those differences. There’s a certain tautology in that, if you care to tease it out, and that tautology is part of the reason I had such difficulty figuring out what my actual argument was: it was both startlingly obvious and deeply important that different people are different, but I couldn’t seperate these two facts from each other, much less avoid going beyond a banal and unhelpful term like “difference.” This problem, in turn, left me deriving obvious truths (people see the world differently) from fairly subtle nuances in the writing (the peculiar ways that Paz does what he does). I derived the texts, in short, from the thesis, instead of the reverse process: instead of letting my argument grow organically, I tried to hammer each of the texts into a naively broad and over-general argument about the “West” and “Africa” that the individual readings were each, in their own way, calling into question. There was a certain anthropological desire animating the project-and a naively adapted “base and superstructure” paradigm about cultural production and social origin that I would avoid like the plague now-that kept me from doing anything other than proving my own foundational premises.

Or maybe not. Those books are each, in their own particular ways, very strange, and to use them to illustrate any general principle about “the West” or “Africa” is more than a little bit silly; the very particular strangeness of each of them, in fact, would be the best argument against the utility of such categories, taking the idea of the exception proving the rule in far too literal a manner. Exceptions help define the rule, but precisely what they don’t do is prove it: instead, they illustrate the things a rule has to ignore in order to maintain the fiction of its own truth. To put it another way, the readings I did for each of those texts illustrated–in practice–the impossiblity of what I was trying–in theory–to prove: the difference between “African” and “Western” literature. The first sentence of the first chapter was this masterpiece:

“Distinguishing the guiding principles of African literature from the Western literary tradition has been one of the most important tasks of critics of African literature, from the initial emergence of African writing to the present.”

It’s a true sentence; it more or less has been. But I don’t now think it should be, and writing that thesis was my first practical experience of why. While the fictions of each of these writers do take the problem of identity as a point of departure, they become useful fictions at least in part because they illustrate the distance between theory and practice. You can’t read Conrad or Paz without starting from the question of their “Westernness,” but neither can you stop there. Both Heart of Darkness and “The Blue Bouquet” simply cannot be adequately accounted for by those terms, nor does calling The Radiance of the King and Under the Frangipani “African” do anything but reinstate the sorts of opinions you probably already held before you read the books.

These are not rules we can dispense with, of course; they’re the conventions we’re stuck with and its only by abiding by those conventions that it becomes possible to play the game. Perhaps it’s like pretending that set of vocal sounds actually are the thing they signify: it isn’t true, but if we don’t suspend our disbelief, we can’t communicate. By the same token, considering what kind of “Africanness” emerges from The Radiance of the King helps us understand some of the ways that “African” has meaning in practice, but simultaneously argues against the theoretical coherance of that practice in any real sense. Precisely what doesn’t get you into the guts of a novel like that, the things that makes it what it is, is the presumption that it comes into existence as a manifestation of some underlying cultural ethos.

Looking back at the document now, I see that I put myself through a lot of convolutions in fighting against this problem–which manifest in a bad title and a bad thesis–because I simply wasn’t able to dispense with the idea of “culture” as determinitive. But, seeing that, I’m now inclined to look at one of the most obvious flaws of the whole piece, its larger structural incoherance, with a lot more sympathy. It makes a kind of claim, about a particular set of texts, and then it goes about choosing the worst possible examples for proving that claim, examples which implicitly disprove the category that frmaes the entire the argument. That’s a flawed argument, certainly, and I realized that then. But I’d like to think that I chose those texts less out of inexperience than out of some kind of dissatisfaction with the thesis I was ostensibly trying to advance.

In any case, the upshot was that I discovered something important in the writing of it: that there was something fundamentally wrong with the argument I was trying to make. The thesis itself didn’t recover from the shock, exactly; the best thing you can say about it is that it reads like a scientific paper whose data has disproved its hypothesis. In the sciences, they value that kind of discovery. Maybe we should too.