It’s been two and a half years since I last posted something here. Ironic, given the tens of thousands of words sitting in a beloved thesis.tex document, deep in the inside of the machine somewhere. Partly, academic writing has a way of killing the ability to just play with words. Everything needs a claim, evidence, warrants. It’s a fun game, but it’s also a very specific one, which treads all over trying out different ways of saying things. Which is all just a longwinded way of saying sorry for not writing and a promise to do better.
This September marks the start of my fourth (and in the UK system, final) year of the PhD. Which has been, well, an adventure. A long climb from the anxiety and (self) humiliation of first year, to becoming more comfortable with the idea of being a part of a community that – at its best – is really just trying to work things out about the world.
In my case, that’s trying to understand something about what it means to do journalism in and of conflict. Specifically, the conflict in South Sudan, though there’s good reason to think that much of what makes it hard to be a journalist there is what makes it hard to be a journalist in similar places elsewhere. And what motivates people to do it may not be all that specific to this part of the world. It’s meant dozens of interviews, weeks of transcription and months (and counting) spent labouring on thesis.tex.
It’s also been a journey in learning things about myself as much as about the people I ostensibly ‘study’. Most striking (if, in retrospect, obvious) was precisely how physical and emotional the entire experience has been. Pre-fieldwork, I’d naively thought I’d basically worked out much of what I needed to know in order to think about journalists and journalism in South Sudan beforehand. And was then blindsided by just how much things which weren’t theory actually came to matter.
You get hot. You get tired. You make friends. You fear the Media Authority.
You sit on a bed in a container in the Malakal protection of civilians site on day three so tired that you fall asleep trying desperately to write fieldnotes about a day in a place that’s left you so tired and overstimulated and overwhelmed that you’re unable to function. So you make bullet points. You reconstruct the next day at breakfast, drinking Red Bull in something that calls itself the Hard Rock cafe inside a UN base, inside a sand-walled compound where a few thousand UN troops are engaged in the banal, daily task of stopping the government and its militas murdering thirty thousand civilians who’ve had to make a home here for the last five years.
How do you think about that context appropriately? How ought you to feel about it? And what do you do with all of that?
You make fieldnotes. You help the journalists you’ve travelled with, because the importance of what they are doing outstrips what you are doing. Which is watching them chronicle the story of a town the government has committed war crimes in, so that there’ll be something that stands like a tiny fist shaken at the world to say “you can’t ignore this. This happened.” You make more fieldnotes as you go. Just as tired, every night. Because if you are watching and helping, then you’re going to have to rewrite your methods chapter, because you are doing a different kind of thing. And that different kind of thing has different epistemological rules. And. And.
And then, at some point, you’re back on your way home.
I can still remember the music I was listening to as the plane took off from Juba. Carrying a tiny hard drive that felt like it weighed the world. The relief at finally getting to go home, decompress and tell thesis.tex all of what I’d seen and what it all meant.
But what did it all mean? It was the strangest thing to open fieldnotes.tex back in a little flat in London and see just how much more than theory sat in those tired pages. Sometimes reading those notes produced just the subtlest hint of a nervous twitch. Other times it was clenching my jaw, grinding teeth for days. Once, at least, it was much more.
Feelings, feelings everywhere.
All of which is to say it’s been an unexpectedly physical act to write. I’ve kept a list of all the music I’ve been listening to at important moments over the last couple of years as a way of summoning the right kind of ghosts when it’s time to sit and write. Like a human tuning fork, I’ve found I write better when I do the initial work to get my head right. Not just analytically, but affectively.
Beyond all the things I want to write, how do I want to tell the story of what I’ve seen and heard? A question which prompts asking how ought I to write all of this? Phrased differently, what is the purpose of this writing? And given the answer to that, what would the purpose(s) I decide on require of me? There’s a language that thesis.tex has to be crafted with, of course. But what more do you do with those words? How to weave into them something of the forty-two degree days in Malakal, hibiscus tea in hotel gardens, orange dust from scooting the roads past Juba’s single, lonely mountain?
What started as a fundamentally rational project has become a far more emotional one. Which is not to forgo warrants, evidence, and the world that comes with them. But to realise that understanding anything about the world requires noticing how we are physically and emotionally entangled with it. Ethnography of any kind is not simply a matter of recording the game playing of rational agents. It’s feeling something of how the world presses itself onto people, and people in turn react to it and in it. Sometimes with deliberation, sometimes out of sheer joy. Or anxiety. Or exhaustion. And feeling the world press itself – particularly in its extremes – is to be pressed on.
I write the thesis and it writes me.