Most of this blog is about my writing life. These days, it usually means I’m writing speculative fiction—and I like it that way. I haven’t written anything scholarly in a long time and I don’t expect that will change.
Every once in a while different strands of thought and circumstance come together to goad me into writing a post that deviates from the norm.
This time I’ve been pushed by the recent Ebola scare, the imminent arrival of Fall semester, and some discussions/articles about ABD status I’ve seen floating around.
School, Degrees, the ABD Blues.
This is one of those self-analysis sections, so feel free to skip to the next bit.
So, yeah, I’m one of the sad ranks of the ABD. For non-academic folks, this means “All But Dissertation.”
In practical terms it means I have a Master’s degree.
In addition to Master’s coursework and a thesis, I did all the additional coursework for a PhD. I took and passed three qualifying exams and their oral defense. But I did not finish the dissertation. In my case I made it about ¾ of the way through and then quit.
I didn’t finish for a number of reasons. Not all of them are cool. Procrastination and laziness took their toll. I got a full-time teaching job. I prefer classroom work to research and I had a chance to teach—at a place that (at the time) made me feel like I was putting my personal convictions about class, equality, and the importance of education into direct practice. I wanted to make a difference in the world. I was tired.
The other part of the decision came from my inability to overcome a loss of heart in the project, in myself, and in the process. I know, I know. It’s an excuse. Lots of people feel it and they manage to push through. It takes true dedication.
I didn’t have it.
The thing is…literary analysis can easily become a kind of bloodsport. It’s really quite easy to tear something up—to point out flaws in a text or argument, to unearth assumptions and expose issues. Outrage can feel good. Crying bullshit is satisfying.
It’s kind of like writing bad reviews. In the old days, writing an unfavorable review was always a lot easier for me than writing a glowing one. Snark is fun and lends itself to easy jokes and turns of phrase. I still get into that mode from time to time and it isn’t always a bad thing, but I also fear getting stuck because it often doesn’t lead anywhere.
I think of Donald Sutherland’s character at the end of the Body Snatchers movie when I get involved in analysis that stops at the “I SEE SOMETHING WRONG HERE AND I MUST POINT IT OUT” stage. It’s the easy part.
The hard part is to build, to do something with the observations and analysis, to make a change. Without that forward focus, it’s in danger of becoming just another layer of screaming and negativity.
I didn’t want to participate in that or cultivate those qualities in myself and I became frustrated with my slow progress in the other direction. Some people manage just fine, but it was difficult for me. It still is.
And then there’s that weakness thing again.
I do enjoy reading primary texts and well-crafted research. I like creating academic arguments…but I don’t much like writing it. I think that says that I’m not cut out to be a scholar.
That’s handy because these days I’m all about writing my own stories and teaching introductory literature/composition courses. It’s awesome.
But it doesn’t always feel great to occupy the in-between state. ABD is many ways…nothing. In some circles, it’s shameful. I don't like to own it because ABD feels like it says “LOSER” or “WEAK.” It means regret and lost time. In other places it doesn’t even register as a thing.
Sometimes it feels like getting a second reading on a story for a market you admire. It feels great to get a tiny lift out of the slush, but if you get a pass instead of a publication---well, it still amounts to a No. The analogy doesn’t quite work, but there’s something in that emotion that feels similar to me.
Most of the time I’m comfortable with my choice. I gained a lot of knowledge on my path. Grad school let me build on a strong undergraduate foundation. I sometimes wish I’d stuck to my original concentration on Creative Writing instead of moving into a literature concentration during my B.A. days, but I’m happy where I am and I needed all those tools and tidbits to fuel what I’m doing now.
But sometimes, I feel a little like Rodney Dangerfield. You know, the whole “no respect” thing.
I need to channel my inner Aretha instead. Heh.
Sorry if that came out all whiny, pretentious, and defensive.
So, what does this have to do with Ebola?
My abandoned dissertation topic was about disease and narrative. Ebola was one of the main focal points of the work and my reading. So aside from the general interest in the news and the emotions about the current situation…I’ve also been thinking about that old project.
I dug in the closet in the study and found a copy of the proposal I wrote so long ago. It felt like I was looking at a different person. I remember that the project and my argument evolved during writing so the proposal isn’t an entirely accurate representation of the work I did on the diss, but I still found interesting pieces. The general area still attracts me even if I probably wouldn’t agree with all my thoughts from that period.
And yet, there’s a lot about disease narrative that hasn’t changed from the late 90s. I thought it might be fun to share a bit of the old document.
Take it away, Past Wendy…
June 30, 1999
Project Proposal Part One: Overview
Ebola, Lassa, Hanta virus, Marburg, Mad Cow Disease, Machupo, AIDS.
Diseases, especially emerging viruses, are the new “monsters” that haunt our imaginations. They are widely publicized by the news media, films, and bestsellers, and have even been used in the ad campaign for the 1999 NCAA basketball tournament.*
The rhetoric used in the texts is often inflammatory. The tone tends to be apocalyptic. Fictional narratives of bioterrorism and of uncontrollable epidemics that herald the end of the world are abundant. They are found next to texts of science “fact in fiction”: the adventures of those who study viruses in the field, of the laboratory specialists who search for causes and cures, and other accounts that use the techniques of fiction to describe real outbreaks. The texts of epidemiology, virology, public health and related sciences are also a strong presence in the current atmosphere that continues to fuel interest in emerging viruses.
As “authoritative” texts, as scholarly inquiries, these texts of science would seem to be a source of reason. However, despite the learned tone, the texts still use metaphors and images to communicate—and often these literary choices are aligned with their more lurid counterparts in the media. Given the volume of material that continues to be generated, I believe that a fear of contagion is permeating our culture.
I am interested in the representations of lethal infectious or contagious diseases and how these representations operate in our culture. The fear of epidemic disease appears to be, in part, a manifestation of a desire to protect constructs of security, order, and epistemological certainty.
The relationship of disease to anxiety about social change and stability is not new. Leprosy, syphilis, rabies, small pox, yellow fever and the plague are among the host of diseases that have links to cultural anxiety. Throughout history reactions to disease have involved measures such as quarantine, exile, the shunning of a particular area like a marsh, and the casting of blame onto “foreign influences.” Is there, then, something different about the fears surrounding today’s emerging viruses? Scientific and medical advances have led to a complacency that is now assaulted by diseases which have not been “solved” or cured. At the same time, many fear that science will create an ultra-lethal virus that will eventually destroy us all. In addition to scientific changes, the speed of information and saturation of images through the modern mass media make even remote outbreaks appear to be immediate threats. This sense of immediacy is not entirely unjustified as the modern use of international transportation makes possible the rapid transmission of disease from one continent to another.
That fast trek across the globe involves more than the crossing of time zones. Borders of all sorts are crossed: political, cultural, ethnic, racial, and territorial. When border crossings appear to threaten health, another dimension of transgression and anxiety is added to an already complicated set of issues. Health issues have their own territories. Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, writes of the experience of becoming ill as travel from the territory of the well into the unfamiliar realm of the sick. She talks about the gulfs that separate the two. Once marked with contagion, it is difficult to return to the country of the well: the borders are policed.
The concept of borders is important for my inquiry. Borders mark territories: countries, ecosystems, cultures, or bodies. What does it mean to cross boundaries, then? New experiences, contacts, and rules of conduct, all of which may be exciting or threatening. The crossing may result in a mutually beneficial relationship or it may destabilize both the traveler and the territory. Borders can frame the familiar and mark anxieties about the penetration of the familiar by the alien.
I am concerned with how the depiction and attempted maintenance of borders figure into current representations of disease. I plan to study the relationship by comparing disease narratives to (post)colonial narratives. During my reading, I noticed that much of the language and images used to describe viruses and their pursuit echoes imperial texts of colonial expansion and control and postcolonial resistance. Many of the tropes of the explorer narratives and cataloguing expeditions of empire are used in disease narratives as well. Epidemiology is described in terms of mapping, hunting, tracking, information gathering, travel away from safety into threatening, foreign, primitive, or corrupt environments. Viruses appear to struggle for dominance and attempt to colonize bodies. Communities must be protected from the contaminating influence of the Other.
By examining the narratives in comparison to (post)colonial texts, I hope to learn more about the ways in which projects to maintain superiority, to increase and categorize knowledge, and the attempts to protect the Center from the threats of the Other, are involved in contemporary narratives of disease. Similar kinds of issues and fears are addressed and thus I wish to examine the operations of the associations raised by colonial images and primitivist discourse.
It is my intention to explore the relationships between issues of culture, security, and epistemology as they are manifested in narratives of disease. To do this, I want to examine the similarities between disease narratives and (post)colonial narratives to explore the history of responses to uncertainty. (Post)colonial issues in disease narratives give us insight into the role landscape and territory play within the matrix of interaction. My project will be an attempt to “map” relationships, so to speak.
I will examine how disease narratives represent the ruptures of illness and destabilization and how disease narratives contribute to cultural anxiety about dissolution and contagion. While I address these issues I also would like to do some “border crossing” of my own by problematizing normative assumptions. The questions that will guide me in that endeavor are: how are borders “policed”? Who or what is kept out? Public health measures do work to save lives and to contain disease outbreaks. However, information about disease, its carriers, and its victims are sometimes misinterpreted or misused by a population. In such cases, the identification of an individual or a group as infected is one that can lead to (further) oppression and act not so much to protect the Center, but to distance and disable the periphery (the Other). Still, the margin manages to resist and answers the challenges within narratives of its own.
. . . .
From the Conclusion section:
The conclusion will attempt to synthesize the project through a final discussion of borders: physiological, geographic, personal, cultural, and epistemological. If the disruption constituted by disease and fear of epidemic assault those borders, then they also assault security and “normality”.
Rewriting narratives of disease can constitute a reclamation of territory and voice. Indeed, it may be a step toward redefining the security and ”normality” of borders. The conclusion will highlight and reassert how the project relates to those ideas.
The comparisons between the struggle against disease and the struggle against empire will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of the form of current representations of disease.
*The series of commercials appears to trace an epidemic. Men in anti-viral “space suits” conduct experiments with altered blood and monitor athletic sites. The image of the contest brackets closes each commercial and in this context, the configuration looks like alien genetic structure—a virus. The series concludes with a decontamination scene: mounds of athletic shoes are ready for burning. However, a young man carries off a pair; an act which promises to lead to another outbreak of “March Madness.”
Back to the present...
That’s the Project Overview. I won’t bother to include the chapter overviews or any of the actual dissertation (all ¾ of it).
Here are some of the primary texts I worked with:
Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition diaries
A Passage to India E.M. Forster
Dracula Bram Stoker
“The City of the Living” Wallace Stegner
The Drowned World J.G. Ballard
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman Angela Carter
Dust Charles Pellegrino
The Stand Stephen King
She H.R. Haggard
Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
Yellow Jack Sidney Howard
The Calcutta Chromosome Amitav Ghosh
The Invisible Invaders: Viruses and the Scientists Who Pursue Them Peter Radetsky
Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC McCormick and Fisher-Hoch
The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance Laurie Garrett
The Disease Detectives: Deadly Medical Mysteries and the People Who Solved Them Gerald Astor
Virus Ground Zero: Stalking the Killer Viruses with the Centers for Disease Control Edward Regis
Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues Frank Ryan
Virus Hunter: Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World C.J. Peters
The Hot Zone Richard Preston
Deadly Feasts Richard Rhodes
The Andromeda Strain Michael Crichton
The Brown Girl in the Ring Nalo Hopkinson
A Scientific Romance Ronald Wright
The Time Machine H.G. Wells
The Almanac of the Dead Leslie Marmon Silko
“Fever” John Edgar Wideman
Angels in America Parts One and Two Tony Kushner
So. There you have it. A proposal is a tricky beast and I was trying extra hard to punch particular points. It’s a bit stilted, but I’m still kind of proud I attempted the project. I’m still interested in those questions.
But these days I’m much happier exploring them by writing fiction.
If nothing else, my jaunt to the past has reinforced that conviction. I love writing. I don't have a problem completing projects I'm dedicated to. Whew.
If you read all the way through—congratulations! I wish I could give you a prize. Instead, I’ll thank you. If you skipped most of it and decided to check out the end—welcome! I understand and it’s cool. Thanks for checking out the blog.
Now that I’ve purged some angst and renewed my enthusiasm for disease narratives and fiction…I’m out of here.