This is repost from 2019, when I decided to serialize my Masters Honours thesis (don’t worry, it’s not as bad as you may fear)
For some months now I have had inner prompting to put my Social Ecology Masters Honours thesis on this blog. It has been something I have resisted, because I do not have fond memories of the experience of writing it. I had in mind that it was a poor piece of work, contaminated by adverse experiences, and one that barely scraped through the marking process.
I have tried to read a lot of theses, and I have rarely succeeded. They are mostly boring and badly written. That is a pity because so often the content should be fascinating. When I read George Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranomal I was astonished by the depth and variety of academic works he referred to. So much fabulous research lost to us because there has been no will to make it accessible. I am not pretending for a moment that my efforts are in the same class as the outstanding PhDs he wrote about.
I completed my thesis after 8 years of struggling to write it. I won’t go into details about the personal circumstances. It is sufficient to say that against my better judgment in early 2008 I was persuaded to submit rather than quit. I subsequently was obliged to do a rewrite after my paper was sent to an academic whose work I had dealt with harshly. My university was wreaking havoc upon Social Ecology school and the quality of my supervisors diminished radically, leading to that cock up.
The title of my paper was An inquiry into animism as a source of meaning in response to radical and disruptive non-ordinary experiences.
In April that year I came down with a nasty dose of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which put me in hospital for 10 months. From my discharge in February 2009 to my return to work in late September the same year I rewrote the paper and resubmitted.
Writing the thing was such a trauma that I had not revisited it since. By trauma I mean that I went through an existential hell processing the ideas. It took me over 18 months to formulate what my research question was. For many months nothing worked as an idea, and yet I felt compelled to persist. The ‘penny dropped’ in a manner I describe in one of the thesis chapters, and which I will not preview here.
What started out as an intellectual exercise became a strange kind of personal initiation journey. I can’t describe it any other way. The fact that it was supposedly a formal academic exercise seemed to be irrelevant. This was more personal and much deeper than that. I can look back now, still, on ways the university failed to support me, and that still rankles. But really all it did was create the context for a formal game. It set rules I agreed to play by.
It was the exercise of having to account for what was really a fundamental existential crisis for me within a set of rules that made the thesis writing business such a drama – and so valuable. I grew up in a game playing culture, and I was pretty adept at most of the games I played. Good games are a test of character as well as game skill. The thesis, for all the shitty failings of the university, was a good game.
I had the intellectual goods. I could write well enough. What I hadn’t anticipated was the existential storm that was about to engulf me. I can look back now, a decade later, and see how copping the GBS was actually a proper follow on. For many people that is going to sound like complete madness. As a consequence of the GBS I am left with residual disability that means I cannot walk without aids (at the moment Canadian crutches) and my manual capacity has turned to crap. But disability has transformed my life. True, it has taken away a lot of things I had. But it has given me stuff I didn’t have and needed. It has been character building in a serious way.
The link between animism and disability will not be obvious. Indeed it may be no more than my quirky interpretation. A sudden and acquired disability completely disrupts your normal relationship with the material world. For 3 months I was in an Intensive Care Unit on a respirator. I was paralysed from the neck down and that left me conscious and inhabiting a large lump of inert flesh. It was pretty obvious to me, in this state, that I was not my body. I inhabited an imaginal world that was more real that what I could see through my waking eyes.
I had become a giant baby in physical terms. As my recovery progressed I had to rediscover how to be in a body in the physical world. After I was mercifully discharged from hospital I engaged in long daily routines of physiotherapy on the back verandah at home. The year progressed into autumn and then winter. I struggled to handle a camera again and took photographs of the seasonal transition in my garden. These images still affect me deeply. The home screen on my iPhone shows the very first photograph I took when I was finally able to visit my favourite open garden at Mt Wilson in the Blue Mountains. That was in the autumn of 2010.
The world spoke to me in moods and colours that affirmed to me a loving embrace. I cannot adequately convey that experience of perilously navigating the garden’s walkways on my crutches. A few of the images do a little justice to my sense of deep immersion and communion.
As I reformatted the chapters for the blog I recovered memories of the final stages of the rewrite. I had forgotten how much of my personal journey I had exposed. I had confessed my perilous encounter with psychiatry as I struggled to comprehend the tsunami of paranormal events flooding over me. I revealed entries from my journals and diaries that charted the trauma of uncontrolled paranormal experiences.
I had survived the insult of GBS, and I didn’t really give a damn. I wrote fearlessly. I had to defer my rewrite because of the GBS. After the resubmit I got a terse letter confirming I would graduate. It was as if that was all that mattered. There was no feedback. No comment. It was as if nobody gave a damn, save that I was not yet another fail to finish. I had done enough to give the university sufficient grounds to give me a passing grade, and it cared about nothing else.
I was exhausted. I had escaped hospital, done the rewrite and had returned to work. I thought I had done a lousy job, and nobody had said anything because that would not have been kind. But now I have had a chance to revisit what I wrote I can see I did a decent job.
This isn’t an intellectual paper. It is an account of an existential drama. It is about how one knits experience into a cultural discourse in a way that preserves membership and sanity. This is a paper from the heart, not just the head.
There are 85 pages all up. I won’t post them all at once. There are 4 chapters and a conclusion Chapter One is accompanying these introductory remarks. From it I have excised the Methodology, which is an important part of a thesis for academic purposes, but it is utterly boring if you have no compelling reason to wade through it. However, if you have a perverse interest in it, let me know I will send you an untouched version of the chapter (I write this confident that nobody will do that).
I will, post the other chapters progressively. I hope to intersperse them with other posts for anybody who does not have the stamina for such a read. Can you block, copy and paste from the blog into your own document?
So why bother put up the thesis? Animism is kinda what I am about, as the blog name suggests. This is the reason why. There have been some great discussions on podcasts recently and a great forum discussion on the Skeptiko site that reminded me that you really can’t approach animism from a purely intellectual angle. That forced me to yield to the promptings to do something with the thesis chapters.
You gotta get your hands dirty. I hope those who endure the read are inspired. Actually it’s not too bad. In fact, at the risk of sounding like a helium head, some of what I write is pretty damned good – at least that’s what I tell myself, so I can post it without too much anxiety.