ON OBSESSIONS AND THE EVOLUTION OF CRITICAL THINKING
Sabine Meyer is interrogating the process of critical thinking, handling distance in research, and the quest of finding the right material.
In her filmmaking course on Masterclass, Jodie Foster suggests that „an obsession is a signifier worth exploring.“1 In the context of her teachings, this was a seemingly small remark. Yet, it resonated strongly with how I experience my approach to working and writing when I took that course one year ago. It has also chipped away some more of the internalized constraints I have long felt in terms of engaging with material on a scholarly level.
I am equipped with an obsessive nature, and as I type this, it still creates a weird sense of vulnerability given the stigma and pathology of the concept of obsession. People who know me intimately are well acquainted with this inherent trait of my personality. But articulating it on a public, and more so, scholarly platform still feels somewhat risky, however experimental its approach is. At the same time, it constitutes an organic step at this point in my academic existence, connecting and aligning many loose threads of thought.
Two years ago, as we launched this blog, I wanted to contribute some musings on critical thinking, or rather, how to think critically about critical thinking. Critical thinking had been my unquestioned modus operandi for many years. It collapsed as I was exploring methodologies outside the scholarly realm by auditing an acting masterclass in New York City in March 2020. It was a massive collapse, and the dust hadn’t even begun to settle when the initial blog post went up here three months later. I started a couple of drafts but never finished them. It all needed to marinate, as I like to say.2 It still is marinating, but some of it is ready to be verbalized in this framework, where we are free to explore the at times very messy process behind the alleged astuteness we aim to put out into the world.
All of this occurred amid an ongoing post critique wave in the humanities. Obviously, it’s not a thrilling realization that your epiphany really isn’t all that revolutionary after all and that others have had it way before you. Academics aren’t exempt from vanity. Of course, I was familiar with Susan Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation and her observation that the focus on critique can obstruct our ability to see, hear, and feel–and you can always lure me with a call for reveling in the “erotics of art.”3 I only truly practiced that in my private consumption though and didn’t fully translate it into my scholarly approach. Talk about a lack of integration. By then, I was surrounded by colleagues, who were deeply inspired by the current philosophical and theoretical offerings. Still, I couldn’t really land in that stream of thought. I read a little post-this and post-that, but didn’t feel a sustainably organic connection to where I was at–still sitting in my critical thinking rubble, trying to make sense of this painful collapse (it wasn’t to be the last one in that process).
I came to understand that–at least in terms of methodology, theory, and work processes–I had lost much of the ability to just immerse myself in something, to take it in before I take it apart. I wasn’t even consciously aware of it until that point–that in itself was shocking. While I had consistently applied my critical tools, it had never even occurred to me to interrogate the critical thinking process itself. It took me a few months to come to terms with that realization. Eventually, I returned to that acting class, this time as a participant and not on the sidelines (in pandemic zoom fashion, of course). I was determined to surrender and immerse myself into a process and a methodology. I had something to prove.
First, I chose a monologue from Ibsen’s Bygmester Solness (The Master Builder), later one from Almqvist’s Drottningens juvelsmycke (The Queen’s Tiara). Both are very close to my heart. I was terrified. Obviously, I’m not an actress and being surrounded by trained performers didn’t make me feel too hot going into this process. Switching back from teaching to student position wasn’t easy either. They both have their own anxiety traps–you just tend to forget the ones from your student days. So, I fervently pursued that project, but heaven forbid, anyone would see the magnitude of my multilayered obsession. Yet again, in critical thinking fashion, I tried to fabricate distance with the hope of keeping my vulnerability to a minimum. Did it ultimately keep me safe? Not so much. Instead, it created a gap between me and my material, between me and my process. I still hadn’t managed to consolidate a new thought process. I had to let it sit for a while–marinate more.
MIND THE GAP
Over the course of the past few months, some of these thoughts settled, others remain unresolved. I kept recalling a conversation I had with Stefanie von Schnurbein many years ago about the way we choose research subjects. How close are they allowed to be to our core? What level of distance needs to be maintained? I remember us agreeing that some themes or texts are simply off limits because they cut too close to who we are. It made perfect sense to me, at the time: Distance creates critical oversight, detachment allows for an objective analysis. Of course, these concepts have long been contested, but to a certain extent, they are still engrained in many of the scholars I know, me included. And that gap between us and the material keeps us safe from giving too much of ourselves away.
If you ever stayed in London and took the tube on a regular basis, you will remember that constant pesky request to “mind the gap“. You can mind it in two ways, obviously. I always made sure to keep it there. For my larger writing projects, such as the M.A. thesis and the Ph.D. thesis, I chose subjects that touched upon my surface but didn’t penetrate so deeply that the boundaries between me and the material would completely dissolve. And don’t be mistaken, I was positively obsessed with the works of art and the people I wrote about. They became part of my fabric, but only glimpses of that are perceivable in my actual writing.
In her recent book, Hooked: Art and Attachment, Rita Felski encourages us to make our affective investments visible, especially since we are so adept at theorizing and exhibiting those of others.4 That has allowed me to integrate many of my loose thoughts, academic quests, and the discussions I have had over the past few months. (So, for now, I may have found a post critique muse after all. I am currently reading as much of her work as possible – obsessive much?)
One thing I have been discussing with colleagues on our joint lunch breaks lately is the shift in available research fields, especially when one has a keen interest in marginalized communities. It is a necessary transition. Individuals and communities, who have never had adequate access to forming an academic narrative, must be able to lay claim to their own historiography, their own representation. Still, there is a pull to pursue these questions–maybe exactly because they touch something in me, but don’t cut too deep. That distance is a privilege inherited from a long history of anthropological practices–not everyone has been afforded such a privilege though. It is a complex development, obviously, that requires much deeper discussion than what I can provide here. Being aware of the growing imperative to refrain from colonizing certain research fields, however, has had a revelatory effect on me: More than ever, it forces me to finally face that gap.
WHAT COULD I WRITE ABOUT (AND A RETURN TO BARTHES)
So, what’s there–in that ominous gap? Is there gold to be found? Will I fall? Will I hurt myself? It may be a scary place to go. What could I possibly write about now? The latter is not a new question. For well over two years, I have been struggling to find the right material and concept for my habilitation thesis. I tend to be good at helping students funnel their interest into an appropriate subject for a paper. And previously, the inspiration for my own larger pieces of writing came to me organically–I didn’t have to hustle to find them.
I actually had a habilitation project for a while, I wrote proposals for grants, I tried to find a way in through a methodology that would excite me–yet I never truly connected with it. It was too far away from who I am. I didn’t want to spend years of my life with it. So, I came back to my previous projects–what kept me hooked and engaged there? It was my obsession, my ardent pursuit of knowledge, my excitement of touching material artifacts, and not least my identification with characters or historical individuals. Total immersion.
Now I was on a quest: Where could I find that project that ignites my obsessive nature? I kept looking. That’s nice. That’s fun. That’s interesting. That’s twisted. But was it nice, fun, interesting, and twisted enough? None of the contenders were. Eventually it dawned on me, that the thing that kept coming up was obsession itself. Maybe that is exactly what I should write about. There is an abundance of it in literature, in the performing and the visual arts. It is deeply intertwined with the establishment of cultural canons. And last, but not least, it’s a very prominent and permanent tenant of my personal researcher-material gap. Is it a terrifying place to go? Absolutely. Will I run the danger of making my scholarly work look unscientific and self-serving? Probably. But then, what scholarly work does not run that risk. After all, Roland Barthes rallied for the birth of the reader. Maybe, I’ll finally take him and Susan Sontag by their word and accept that invitation beyond the act of interpretation.
- Foster, Jodie: „Exploring the Big Idea in Film“ (3). Filmmaking. MasterClass 2019. 00:04:30-00:04:34. [↩]
- I stole that marination analogy from the movie Kissing Jessica Stein (2001). [↩]
- Sontag, Susan: „Against Interpretation“. In: Sontag, Susan: A Susan Sontag Reader. New York 1982, 95-104, 104. [↩]
- Felski, Rita: Art and Attachment. Chicago 2000, 3. [↩]