My monograph The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England is finally available as a physical, actual thing. As the product of over six years work (three in a PhD, three and a half out), I find the prospect difficult to relate to in a straightforward manner. The monograph began life as my PhD thesis, but was rewritten from scratch during the two years following my graduation. As such, the book traces a personal journey from postgraduate student to where I am now, but it is rightly intended for public consumption and scientific critique. I’ll write properly about what’s actually in the book at some future date, but here I would like to reflect on some of that process.
I never really celebrated or recognised the events of thesis submission or passing my viva, because at the time I found it difficult to connect with the thing. The thesis, such as it was, felt ugly, too personal, too imperfect. It was the swollen product of three years immersion, which were for the most part enjoyable, but they were besmirched in the end by the unwelcome prospects of unemployment and the difficulties and anxieties that closing a relatively secure stage of life typically brings. The book contract, as I held it there in my hands on the morning of the 19th March 2013, was something I grasped with a measure of intimidation. Though I was overjoyed to receive it, I felt it would be premature to celebrate. Besides, at the time, being unemployed, I felt somewhat alienated from the world of academia. The words and paragraphs over whose construction I had deliberated during the final year of my doctorate now sounded trite and repetitive, even annoying. I took a certain pleasure in their utter deletion. Perhaps at least that was some form of minor daily celebration as I embarked on several months restructuring, redrafting, reanalysing, redrawing and redacting.
As an archaeologist with anthropological leanings, I cannot help but regard a PhD as a rite de passage, but one that remains frustratingly open. For the vast majority of graduates, there is no immediate welcome into the realm of the initiated. You have your preliminal separation from the world, and the middle liminal phase certainly goes on for some time. The postliminal phase, however, the stage of incorporation, is found wanting. Of course, I celebrated submitting my PhD in my own way. To my memory, I went home and had a cup of tea, physically and emotionally exhausted after trekking from Weston Park to the admin offices with a copier paper box full of thesis volumes. But the viva and its uncertainties were still to come. When the examination arrived, it was a highly rewarding and valuable experience. I went to the Red Deer afterwards for a few drinks. I called my family and a couple of close friends. But because of the corrections I still had to submit, however minor they may have been, there was no complete closure. By the time I submitted them, the whole thing had become so removed from everyone else’s attentions that it started to become removed from my own. I had other things to worry about by then. Again, my graduation was enjoyable because I got to spend the day with my family and some friends. But it lacked sincerity and meaning. The University gave me a branded mug and sent me on my way. The PhD candidate embarks on their initiation in companionship, but they leave it by themselves.
Now that’s a fairly trite anecdote dressed up in pseudo-sociological clothing, but the point I am trying to make is that a piece of substantial work like a monograph comes along with a personal and academic biography. Recently I’ve been writing and thinking about the emotional and aspirational processes of materialisation (here and here). There is a strong emotional force that drives us to make inescapably ephemeral things material and, perhaps optimistically, permanent. Books for me seem to be compromises between knowledge and communication. They do not constitute that knowledge, they’re a reiterative product of it, frozen at some arbitrary point in time. Turning knowledge into a material object isn’t necessarily all about power, economics, and curricula vitae, it’s also driven by an emotional impulse to verify and stabilise fragile, dynamic and often quite opaque meanings into a (relatively) permanent avatar, an entity that will survive and extend the existence of the author.
Every book also has a material history. Behind me there’s a filing cabinet. Within it there are 2,075 pieces of A4 paper, each illustrating an individual artefact, carefully labelled and set out at the proper scale. As I look up to the shelf on my left I can see a set of black ring binders, some now buckled to the point that opening them results in a shower of polypropylene pockets, each containing a record sheet. They are marked ‘group 1’, ‘group 2’ and so on, with labels printed out during a fit of especial zeal at some point in the summer of 2010. Beneath that there’s the thesis itself, brooding away. Over to my right there’s another shelf straining under the weight of two volumes of a spiral-bound reprinted thesis, complete with my own, largely derogatory, marginalia, and two sets of marked-up proofs from the publishers. I’m probably going to have to throw much of this out at some point, but that goes against some deep instinct to preserve. Finally, just in front of me (my hands reach over it as I type this), lies the monograph. Years of work and personal biography wrapped up in an aesthetically pleasing package, offering perhaps another stage of closure for the PhD. I find that an odd thought, but in the main it is pleasing I suppose.