as a sociologist, or something akin to one, i always begin with definitions. what, precisely, am i talking about and what are the people i’m talking about talking about? how am i establishing the contours and boundaries of the concept(s) i’m deploying, and how are my subjects doing similar work? how, in other words, are these notions being operationalized with regard to the larger point i’m trying to make?
operationalization is a fishy little thing. i’m quickly looking at wikipedia. it tells me that operationalization is ‘a process of defining the measurement of a phenomenon that is not directly measurable, though its existence is indicated by other phenomena. it is the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make the theoretical concept clearly distinguishable or measurable, and to understand it in terms of empirical observations.’ okay, wikipedia. i’ll take it.
i’ve done well with fuzzy concepts over the past six plus years that i’ve been telling people that i’m doing a doctoral degree. mostly, i’ve done well at keeping concepts fuzzy. and the fuzziest concept of all is my actual dissertation, or thesis, or whatever it is that i have(n’t) been working on for the better part of my adult life. you’d think that by now i’d either have gotten used to people asking me how my ph.d. is going, or else finished it so people could ask me some new question (i.e. ‘how’s your postdoc’ or ‘how’s your full-time job’ or ‘how’s your wife and kids’ or ‘have you found a hobby yet?’). the truth is: i haven’t gotten used to it. it’s probably become my least favorite question anyone can ask me at any given time. it’s also generally the way most people start off their conversations with me.
the other truth is: i have very little to show for my efforts since i packed up and moved to another city, in another country, in august of 2007. i can’t really even remember the number of times i’ve resolved — to myself, first and foremost, but also to my supervisor, to my parents, to my friends — to do such and such a thing by such and such a date: to finish that pesky first chapter draft that has been mostly written for the past three years but that just last month i finally decided i was entirely changing the theoretical underpinning of (and have still yet to actually go and do this), or to finally reply to that email requesting my submission for the yearbook published by the center i was in residence at in europe for a single month in the autumn of 2011, or that other email asking me to detail how i spent the $5000 travel grant i was awarded with to help me do my fieldwork in 2012.
at this point, it seems like everything is half a joke and half a lie.
it’s laughable. it’s damn near disgraceful.
what have i accomplished? well, i’ve lived in — wait, let me count them — five different apartments in one city in one country, four in another city in another country. i’ve cavorted with a handful of women for durations of between one month and eight years, only to abort each of these relationships upon realizing that, not only was i unhappy with them being consistently unhappy with me, but also that i was just unhappy; i probably could have done without this one telling me she wanted to kill herself within our first week of hanging out, or that one telling me that i’m doing too much yoga and that it’s going to ruin what we have together, but i stuck around because i was working on being a more ‘understanding’ person, which was essentially an excuse for me to justify other peoples’ shitty behavior (and i suppose letting me work on my own) while at the same time giving me a million and one reasons to pour all of my emotional energy into anything that wasn’t my doctorate-in-the-making. fighting and fucking. fucking and fighting.
in the meantime, i’ve practiced yoga for thirty days in a row, twice. i’ve made countless 400 mile journeys in my car to attend friends’ birthdays and family dinners. i’ve flown thousands upon thousands of miles to sleep on old friends’ floors and couches while i was in town (olympia or amsterdam or baltimore) to give presentations to rooms filled with tired and bored looking people who had no idea what i was trying to say — how could i expect them to, really, when i myself had very little idea — and to ask people questions that i probably already knew the answers to but needed to hear from the horse’s mouth in the interest of having solid ’empirical observations’ to prove the larger point i am trying to make.
until now, i haven’t really made that point. seven years in the making, and i have no point. or rather, i have a point, but it seems to be a low one. the lowest? i’ll call it a nadir. a nadir that has seemed to persist, indefinitely. come to think of it, i think that’s the definition of permanence.
i’ve called this blog permanent nadir for this reason.
of course, i also know that nothing is really permanent. life is a succession of fleeting moments and permanence only takes form in the narratives that we tell ourselves. lows only stay low as long as we allow them to, assuming we have any agency at all. my uncle, who’s been having an OCD-inspired breakdown for the better part of the past year, said to me last summer: ‘i don’t know what to do. it’s not stopping.’ the feelings don’t stop; they come, and they come, and they come. i told him what i thought to be the best and only advice that i have for basically any situation: ‘breathe through it.’
i talk a lot, to a lot of people. i was on an airplane two days ago and i told the very nice couple from detroit sitting next to me a great many details about about a very brief and recent episode in my life. the woman looked at me and said ‘gosh, this sounds like a woody allen movie.’ i replied: ‘it does, doesn’t it? but it’s not a movie, and it doesn’t end.’ is it permanent? probably not, so long as i remember to breathe.
permanent nadir is an experiment in breath-as-word, an attempt for me to breathe through things — some things more than others, perhaps — and especially those things that seem low and permanent, like the malaise that has accompanied the hole i have dug for myself since i started my ph.d. in september 2007.
i have energy, and drive, and desire. i also have primary and secondary literatures, and interview transcripts, and ’empirical observations’. what i don’t have a lot of is… time: just about five months to summon these things from their restful slumber and thrust them into overdrive so i can clearly define that which i need most to be doing right now — sitting down every damn day and writing out my ideas — which will, in turn, define the shape of my thesis.
for as long as i can remember, i have always started papers at the beginning, with an introduction. then, once i’d finished — in college, this was usually after 12 or 14 hours of sitting in my deceased grandfather’s favorite chair surrounded by piles of books and articles, eyes glazed with a sleepless haze of adderall and shitty deli coffee — and just before i’d get dressed and rush to the subway to run to school to attend the class where everyone had to hand in their paper on time, without the promise of extensions, i’d quickly go back to the beginning and completely rewrite everything i had started with. i never knew what i was doing at the beginning, anyway. rewriting the introduction was always the most gratifying part; a celebration of the performative aspect of writing: its ability to open up a space in one’s mind and one’s heart where they could work out what they really believed to be true about the relationship between narrative structure and plot in william faulkner’s the sound and the fury or the ethical implications of legally-mandated nasogastric feeding of anorexic patients. or whatever.
it is my hope that, in five months time, i can come back and revise this introduction and that, in the interim, i can use permanent nadir as a tool to write about the terror that writing has wrought upon me for as long as i haven’t been writing.