A pause, thirteen weeks into lockdown, to think about how I’ve got on with my own academic work and changed my working methods because of the pandemic.
I realise that, in the context of everything that’s happening to us all, how I’m getting on with writing my sociology PhD might not seem to matter all that much. But it’s the work I’ve taken on and it matters to me. So this is a pause and a think that will form one of the regular ‘Interludes’ I’m including in my work about how it got done.
One cool but sunny day in April 2020, five weeks into the UK lockdown, I decided to leave the constrictions of my home and immediate neighbourhood and walk to the closed down University to see if I could get more of my work done than had been happening up to then at home. Once I got there I sat down and wrote what’s become the beginnings of this.
“When all these benches were constructed, deep in the pre-virus Christmas dark, I wondered who might come and sit on them, here at the University outside the Eleanor Rathbone Building? Especially with Abercromby Square and its Cathedral view so close by. Well I’m the answer and virus-closed Abercromby Square is the reason. The view here’s not much to write about, but the main thing is it’s a different view from my limited options over these past five weeks. I’m not planning to stop here long as it’s quite cold, but then again I might as I’m working at last. And I’ve found I simply can’t do the work I’ve taken on without getting out of the house and walking around. I’ve done my best with stoically writing such short notes as I can on the back step or in the back room at home, and that’s been better than nothing, but not much better. So today I’ve decided that my permitted walk is exactly what it would have been anyway on a bright spring day. All the way along Smithdown then through the park at Crown Street to here at the University.
And it’s weird here, but only as weird as expected. Except I expected I might be able to work in Abercromby Square. But that’s safely locked up so I’m sitting here, connected to the University’s still on wi-fi. So I’ll get on with some work now, reading utopianism, social theory, philosophy and happy to have walked myself into a better thinking space than the depression I’d dropped into in the early weeks of all this dystopia. When too much time at home had reduced me to an impatience bordering on desolation. So I’m glad to be out. Walking and thinking, sitting and writing, then walking and thinking some more. Distanced, careful, alone and disinfected even, but out and working at last.”April 2020
The context of now
Now, thirteen weeks into the lockdown, I’m writing these reflections on the allotment where I’ve done most of my work since that productive day outside the empty university. For a few weeks now the UK has moved on from full lockdown to a confusion of arrangements that are different in each member country and are now causing some public tensions, particularly here in England where the still unsafe virus levels have not stopped the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters pitching a long reviled slave trader’s statue into the River Avon. To the delight of most of us and the disgust of others. A nation dividing along predictable political lines in an uncertain present and delayed, at best, future. A time which keeps reminding me of François Hartog’s idea in his “Régimes of Historicity” that sometimes there are “gaps in time” where unexpected changes, like the Berlin Wall being taken down or the European Reformation, can unexpectedly happen. Or in this gap where, amongst much else that’s been unexpected, this thinking and writing about utopia has been feeling less like a minority interest and more like something potentially useful.
At home my partner Sarah, who conducts funerals, has been busier than ever and is classed as a key worker, though not the kind people have stood on their front steps to applaud. And me? Well I’ve got on with all this, my own work, too. Stoically and steadily, as I wrote that day outside the university, and improving noticeably as soon as I’d established myself here in this garden and adapted my methods of work to suit the changed circumstances. These new and adapted methods being principally what I’ve taken this pause to reflect on.
Pandemic places and methods
Walking to different places had been an important working method for me until the virus lockdown reduced permitted walking to once a day around the local neighbourhood. This slowed my reading, thinking and especially writing right down for the few weeks before I took the decision to take longer but still isolated walks anyway, like that one to the university. These immediately got me moving again, and before long turned into a number of routes all ending up at the allotment, where I’d then be happy to sit and work, with occasional gardening, for the rest of each day. Working here fitting right in with the suggestion from Nicole Vittelone, one of my supervisors, to broaden my theoretical thinking by including anthropologist Marilyn Strathern’s ideas about transplanting sociable theories and their thinkers between disciplines, as I then began to do in my ‘History and Genealogy of Utopia’ chapter. I also followed Strathern’s literal advice to ‘get my hands dirty’ and began working with, as well as in, the garden to turn it into a utopian place. Working in utopian places wherever possible having also been a long established writing method before lockdown made most of them inaccessible.
Working in the garden also had another effect Marilyn Strathern might have expected, I began to slow down. Not to slow down my reading or writing so much, but certainly my thinking. I became more content than at any time during this PhD or the MA that preceded it to think more slowly. To stay with a piece of thinking until I understood. Even if I had to go and hoe the weeds, do the watering and then some digging. I’d keep saying to myself, like a mantra “This will take the time it takes.” Taking the time meaning that I took over a month writing that History chapter. Reading, re-reading, making notes by hand of four different philosopher’s thoughts (Strathern, Kumar, Foucault and Hartog), then fashioning the notes into an imaginary discussion between them about utopianism that’s now completed and included in my work. A fictional discussion, and a method of doing it, which I think might have changed how I’ll do much of the rest of my PhD work. Because taking all that time made me realise utopianism seems light on theory. Something I’m further investigating in the literature review I’m now working on. Another thing that’s going to take as long as it takes.
And I’m taking advice as I go along in a new way too. Having regular remote Zoom conversations with each of my academic supervisors, Paul Jones, Nicole Vitellone and Cheryl Hudson, as well as continuing weekly conversations with my principal PhD colleague Abi O’Connor, that I would say are more focussed than we might all have managed in our busy university, where there’s always somewhere else to be rushing off to, and always the constant push to get on and get stuff done. This taking of time generally, then, getting work done in ways that might not have turned up were it not for the lockdown, has been a major shift.
Though there have been losses too. Like the happenstances only true sociability can bring. Suggestions passing in a corridor or across a lunch table of “Did you see this, have you read that?” Those chance encounters where ideas come from, ideas that don’t necessarily keep ’til the next Zoom conversation. Another huge loss being the library. More happenstance really. Picking up the wrong book by accident, that turns out to be the right one really. Not the sort of chance any algorithm can replicate. Though I have gone and got downloads from the library, I’ve been much more grateful that my choice of real books on the sudden final day when we all had access, bringing away as many books as I could carry, has so far turned out to have been an accurate estimate of the ones I’ve most needed. Or maybe I’ve focussed more on what I have, because they’re all I have? More slowing, more focussing.
Other method thoughts? The integration of my PhD writing and my blog has increased. These ‘interludes’ so far all contain some writing that began within published blog posts. I also wrote a sociological series of lockdown observations called “Home Life During a Pandemic” for the nine weeks of full lockdown that aren’t in my PhD yet, though this interlude itself could be taken as the tenth episode of that series. And here it is, published.
Another writing method, or more correctly perhaps a tool, that I enjoyed making up and using was the “Possible Ending.” An imaginary piece (imaginary cover below) about how this whole work might end up, that I may very well use again to imagine my way through any of the blockages to come. As I will the suggestion, from my supervisor Paul, to sometimes adopt an adversarial approach. To take the opposite view from where I might be stuck and see where that takes me.
And there’s music. Still accompanying most of my writing and creating the sense of being in my writing place, in this new place, that I need. There are times like now when the music of the numerous birds in the trees around me here is all I need. But mostly I listen to what’s now a self-compiled library of thirteen, and growing, mostly classical playlists. With occasional musical breakouts when I feel the need for a different stimulation. Like the full day of Kraftwerk the helped me with my first serious day of Strathern reading. A Trans-European pollination of ideas.
The end of the interlude
So the support’s been great as has this allotment. Made even more utopian over these last couple of weeks by a whole new bed of plants brought back from my first visits since lockdown to Port Sunlight. A bringing together of two of the utopian places I’m studying. Being at this one, effectively my university campus for now, has slowed me down in a good way and helped this become the place where I’ve not merely got my work moving again, despite the dystopia happening all around, but restructured my thinking to the point where I’m feeling more confident and adventurous about where I could take all this next. Happier to take risks and even get lost sometimes while I continue this looking for utopia. Here in what Sarah and I are now calling the Sunlight Garden.
Back to the second half of the literature review then.