A Thing Laid Down

Thesis (n.) – From the Latin thesis, from Ancient Greek θέσις thesis, meaning  “a proposition, a statement, a thing laid down”

Done… My thesis is done.  As I take a moment to let that sink in, allow me to try and explain what that seemingly innocuous little phrase means.

My–ultimately rejected–research proposal to UChicago last year, two years ago (Submitted December 1 of 2010) gestured with great conviction toward the sense that whatever it was that constituted “Art” had a profoundly ignored ethical component.  The proposal name dropped Heidegger, Levinas, Kant, and Hume as though by naming a sufficient number and range of philosophers and keeping my proposal suitably vague, I’d just stumble a kernel of a thesis that would get some professor all hot and bothered.  Now, the problem wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to write a clear and focused proposal, the problem was that I didn’t even have enough history with the discipline to recognize what a clear and focused argument looked like.  Yet, despite my proposal not being worth the fancy high rag-content paper I printed it on, the question of the intersection of ethics and art continued to draw me ever closer.

Fast-forward to Fall of last year when I was desperately trying to find a potential thesis adviser and you’ll find a slightly younger me sitting on the steps with Ted Cohen discussing the state of the discipline of aesthetics.  For those not reading philosophy’s top peer-reviewed journals in order to gauge whether anyone still publishes on the subject of the philosophy of art–which I assume is all of you–aesthetics as a discipline has not fared the shift from modernism to postmodernism particularly well.  To make a long story at least tolerable, I spent at least a couple of my brief meetings with Professor Cohen trying to brainstorm up a topic in aesthetics that still had the power to make someone give the slightest crap.  The result of that brainstorming was the topic of appropriation–the quoting or adapting of an existing work of art in a new work.

So sometime around Winter break I made my first feeble attempt at finding a topic that pulled together my twin interests in art and ethics and brought them to bear on the topic of appropriation.  The result was something about Hilary Putnam’s theory of language and bad covers of negro spirituals–and no, I’m not kidding.  Through four weeks of intensive revision with my preceptor and fellow MAPH students, I eventually had a proposal that I wasn’t afraid to present to one of the Rock Star Professors that I had set my cap for.

By the time the final draft of my thesis proposal came due I’d really shifted my focus away from arguing the ethics of appropriation and toward trying to provide a theoretical mechanism by which the communicability of an author’s intentions Ina finished work.   I knew that I needed to argue that an artist’s intention provided a clear and authoritative meaning for that work, but doing so would require a whole host of arguments for the encoding and decoding of intentions in language if that authorial meaning was going to constitute anything beyond a private mental concept in no way available to future interpreters of the work.  So as providence would have it, my shiny new adviser was more interested in the ethical angle of my paper than the linguistic one.

My elation at securing Robert Pippin as my adviser was short-lived as I flailed about trying to find a way into this new ethical project.  I knew–or at least believed–that in order to argue this ethical case against appropriating art I would have to first supply the whole theoretical apparatus that allowed authorial intention to even factor into interpretation and appropriation.  So I wrote treatment after treatment–three up to that point–that tried to quickly and concisely establish such an apparatus so that I could get on with the ethical argument.  However all that writing and revising was leaving me further and further behind my fellow MAPHers as they were actually able aggregate a paper–where I just continually built paper after paper only to raze them to the ground as soon as they were completed.

Yet, that was the least of my worries.  The more significant problem was that when I tried to explain what my project was about to my precept and thesis workshop groups I couldn’t convince anyone that intentional ism  was even a viable view.  This conviction that I harbored that some uses and adaptations were just wrong just wasn’t even intelligible to most of the people I spoke with.  Providentially, it was at this stage that my thesis adviser suggested that I stop trying to work up the theory to explain the intuition and just find really clear examples of that could act as guides toward what components a theory would need in order explain those feelings.

Now, I can’t sit here and tell you that I appreciated the advice at the time.  Finding examples to trigger intuitions that you feel as plainly as stubbing your toe that also happen to be accessible to a wide cross section of potential readers is no easy task.  The closest parallel I can think of is that terribly awkward point in any young relationship when the guy or girl you are madly in love with asks you what about him or her you love.    I felt these intuitions related to these convictions but just could not come up with examples that were equally affective for my readers.  Draft after draft failed my thesis workshop partners just sort of stared at me blankly or asked the sorts of questions that softly and gently suggest that you’ve lost your mind.

The breakthrough came when I thought back to my initial anger reading an article chronicling the many appropriation infractions of graffiti artist cum fine artist Shepard Fairey.  Finally I had found a way of awakening in others the intuitions that I had been wrestling with.  From there, it was just a matter of putting in the seat time.

So, while the thesis I turned in this afternoon is just thirty-three pages long, it is grounded in 86 pages of failed treatments and three additional start-from-scratch revisions.  The final version that I saved as a PDF for submission is version 32 and shares not one phrase with my first draft.  This thing has caused me restless nights of insomnia and the worst nightmares I’ve had since I was eight years old and scared of the imaginary monster that lived in a pond near my house.  I don’t feel as though I’ve moved by orderly steps through some academic journey as much as I feel I’ve taken my lumps for ten rounds with a heavy-weight contender.

I hate that little bundle of paper that represents so many false starts, moments of panic, and abiding self doubt.  Yet, I know that it is a great thesis that I couldn’t have written as well if I hadn’t already wrestled with it so hard and for so long.  I’m not so much happy to be finished as I am drained from the effort.  In a few weeks I know I’ll be anxious to take up the strings not yet tied up, but in mean time I’m just going to try to forget it exists.

Until tomorrow, when I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned about the process of writing a thesis at this level and make a few recommendations for those who have yet to take on such a project.

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