Searle to Foucault: ‘why the hell do you write so badly?’ and he replied ‘look if i wrote as clearly as you do, people in Paris wouldn’t take me seriously…In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.’
John Searle on a conversation with his friend Michel Foucault
Last week felt like my first real week of procrastination, until Friday. Sometimes, when you’re wilfully not thinking about your subject you can achieve a great moment of clarity. Mine came after reading a Randall McGowen article¹. I cannot explain how enjoyable it is to read something that makes a clear and strong argument. Academic papers can so often be clouded with technical language that is intentionally obsfuscatory and it makes any attempt to assess their argument twice as hard (possibly the intention). After getting irritated by several of these articles McGowen’s lifted me from my gloom and helped me formulate, what I think might be, my first serious argument for the thesis (more on this later, weeks later as it’s still germinating!). It is worth mentioning that Foucault, the subject of the clip above, is one of the seminal thinkers in my area of study.
On the subject of clear writing, please allow me a moment of self indulgence. I started this blog, back in May, with the intention that it would help me focus my thoughts and learn to write again, at first I debated whether to make it public or not. In its short span it has been far more useful and satisfying than I ever imagined. According to the stats for last week, my blog and new page were the most read pages so far. It is the knowledge that i’m not just talking to myself that makes this fun to do. So, I wanted to say thank you very much to everyone who has taken the time to read it and offer advice or just say ‘I enjoyed that’ and if you didn’t like it, thanks for not telling me.
Since the blog began it has had just under 800 visits for 13 blog posts (750 more than I was expecting as my estimates were based on me and my family clicking it once a week). People have read it in Canada, America, Singapore, Japan, Amsterdam, New Zealand and even in Uganda (thanks Rocca?) where capital punishment is still in frequent use, which makes the importance of its study seem all the more relevant. I really hope you continue to enjoy it and to read it over the next 2 and a half years of my study. Thanks.
Seeing that this is a blog of thanks, I must mention my girlfriend the wildflower as she has very graciously put up with my dramatic change from someone who whines about work related issues to someone who now references public execution and punishment in every conversation he has. Even our TV viewing has changed, gone are the endless Grand Designs repeats (she hated them anyway) and in is anything even mildly related to imprisonment, punishment or execution, of which there’s been a huge amount recently. In fact, only last week we were watching a Pink Floyd documentary and I couldn’t stop making links to execution and my study, but with lyrics like this who can blame me.
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
Pink Floyd – Time
One new and exciting sideline that I want to bring to the blog is shameless product placement. Last week I was contacted by someone pointing out a real ale that was named after one of the people who was hung in the North East in my period, William Jobling. I mentioned him in this earlier blog. The ale is by Jarrow Brewery who do a great pint called ‘Rivet Catcher’ and is called Jobling’s Swinging Gibbet. As a real ale fan I would now like to take this opportunity to shamelessly accept a free Keg/Box of it in exchange for this mention – I may even chuck in a free review. On a more serious note, it shows the inherent cultural fascination with death and public punishment that we still name our beers after such a macabre punishment.
So, that’s enough ‘off subject’ rambling. The reason I am being reflective is mainly because my first PhD review is looming. After 4 months I have to present a written document and 10 minute presentation to 6 Senior Academics finalising my programme of study, methodological approach and proof of its originality . To anyone outside of academia that just means, what i’m doing, how i’m doing it and why its justifiable to do it (in that order). Completing this document and preparing this presentation has brought two things to mind. Firstly, how much i’ve learnt in a short space of time and secondly, how little I still know. Doing a PhD is something that I’m finding is not for the weak willed, I have very quickly had to adapt my will! If you’re not careful you can be swamped by the scale of what you have to do. One new, interesting little question in your head can result in a new area of study that will keep you in the archives for three months. The key is self discipline and accepting what you can achieve in the time allotted. You’d be amazed how little that is in 3 years.It is with that in mind, that my document has dramatically extended the scope of what i’m looking at and its focus (I’m from the school of offering advice rather than taking it myself).
I have applied to extend the period I am looking at from 1750-1880 to 1750-1900. I have also sought to move the focus away from solely the last dying words of people being executed to the whole spectacle, reception and evolution of capital punishment (of which the speeches will be a key part). For the eagle eyed this may mean I need a new web address. But, what I’m learning is that the PhD is a constantly evolving beast. The more you read and learn, the more you realise where the gaps are in the literature and what questions need addressing – these are often not the ones you first thought. In fact it would be supremely arrogant if a question you had proposed for a 3 year study never once changed it’s scope across the life of the project – accepting what you don’t know is the key to making great work.
1. R.McGowen., Civilizing Punishment: The End of the Public Execution in England, Journal of British Studies, Vol 33 Issue 03 pp. 257-282
Distraction 1: Steve Fielding and The Executioner’s bible. This week I came across a BBC News article on the speed of the execution procedure in the UK in the c20th. As with all these articles, I usually track down the experts and email them, one thing my minor media training has given me is the knowledge that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. The expert in question was Steve Fielding and by a bizarre coincidence I had two of his books on order. I have since been sent fascinating information by Steve on a number of things relevant to my study and am sure he will be a fruitful source of information. I can only hope at the end of my three years, that I can be as helpful to anyone tentatively inquiring on the subject as everyone has been to me. In the meantime, given that i usually include music, I found out that Steve has played in many bands and currently plays bass guitar with the legendary 70s punk rock band The Boys. It appears this blog’s distraction section is getting a rather punkish theme. I have picked this track as the event name ‘Punk and Disorderly’ fitted nicely with the theme of this site.
RIP David Bentley: Regarding people I have tried to get in touch with. I recently came across David Bentley’s ‘Capital Punishment in Northern England 1700-1900’, which was immensely helpful for a brief overview of punishment in the region. I emailed him only to find that he had sadly passed a few years ago, so this blog post is dedicated to him.