I used to be a graduate student in the humanities. It was terrible. Never ever do that. Never.
When you’re in graduate school, the point of your work, your research, your papers, whatever you want to call it, is to create knowledge. And what this means, is that your work should bring into being something new; something that argues or pushes other’s arguments to a new place. In short, your research must be unique.
And beyond your teaching responsibilities, that is the point of academics. Professors and scientists exist to create new knowledge, to write new books, to think up new and interesting ideas.
And yes, that is very much what they do.
And yes, it’s kind of terrifying.
I mean, how do you bring something “new” into this word. In grad school, I’d scour papers and source texts, scan through hundreds of books, hang out in the library flipping through bounds and bounds of periodicals for hours at a time. And that whole time I’d be searching for this new thing.
And you know what, in the end, I’d end up coming up with something new. And you know what else, by that point that bump of newness will seem so infinitesimally small I’d wonder why I even went through the exercise.
I mean, really what you end up with most of the time is just a slightly altered understanding of someone else’s thought. An ever so small twist on existing understandings.
Is that really new?
It didn’t really feel new?
The Quest for New
Why am I telling you this? You probably don’t care about academic research, and maybe you shouldn’t. I don’t know, I don’t know you.
But to be clear, the process I outlined above has more or less lead to every social/scientific/political/economic breakthrough ever. So, it pretty clearly works. And while in the moment, my ideas seemed insignificant in the scope of things, most research kinda does. Occasionally, this process of incrementalism can bring about a cataclysmic uprising of awesomeness.
Sometimes, moving in this direction really does create something profoundly and obviously new. I’m talking about those seminal works, be it philosophy or art.
It’s for this reason that the process of knowledge creation can be informative when thinking through your own work, craft, and process.
I mean, we all want to bring something new into the world. But how can we do that in a way that seems meaningful without also be intimidated or stifled by the scope of that process?
What is Unique
So like I said, the biggest problem I had with my own work in this process is that what it produced didn’t “feel” unique or new.
This thought used to haunt me in graduate school. I mean, you’d read these super prominent texts by theorists, and the things in them, and you’d say to yourself THIS, THIS thing is unique. It would get you excited! Like that first time you listened Kid A. Unfortunately, it was buttressed on either end by blah. The same old papers rehashed a million times over (read Nickleback).
I mean, when I think unique, I think of something that’s never ever, ever been done before.
But what really makes something unique? And better yet, does that alone make it good?
Take a few minutes to google image some avant-garde sculpture or sound art and tell me what you think? I mean, it’s unique, right?
Really, it’s not hard to be blistering unique. That kind of in your face difference fills the halls of most of our high schools. The problem is that while different, it’s not really accessible, so it doesn’t feel new in that grandiose way.
This is why when you listen to music year over year it never seems to change, but if you compare music from 1918 to today, you’d immediately understand how different it is.
So maybe unique isn’t really what we’re talking about here. Maybe by unique, I don’t mean different, but I mean something that truly pushes the medium forward. Something that’s both different and absorbing, but accessible enough that we can recognize its amazingness.
The Truth Behind Boring Work
So here’s the point, peeps. There’s a quantity issue to art.
What do I mean by that?
Well, if want to make something that is both unique and accessible, we have to baseline. And typically, what that translates to is a whole lot of work in the area of the known, with an eye to your own boundaries.
So really, while I was disappointed in the quotidian nature of the work I did in grad school, in a certain light it was fundamentally necessary. I had to slog through the process to understand the process. To baseline in the way that knowledge was created.
The true spark comes in next. Being dissatisfied with what I was producing was equally important. Granted, I ditched school before this really ever manifested itself. But, the dissatisfaction was the understanding of my own boundaries, and wanting to push beyond them.
Craft is important. This is the process we go by producing and processing something. Equally important is Art. That is the process by which we push the boundaries of our process to bring something new into the world that is unequivocally and essentially made from ourselves. It’s the point we bring what makes us human to the occasion.
It’s this merging of these two that we can truly be unique.
Sorry it took me so long to get to the point here.
Keep on going, peeps.