Being and Time of PhDs

by Daniel Hartley

The most fundamental experience of writing a Ph.D. is the horrifying passage of freedom  into necessity. It is that constant pattern whereby a sentence or a paragraph which was scribbled down spontaneously, off-the-cuff, half-heartedly, one eye on the page, one eye on Facebook, a sentence which was in its very essence provisional, non-final, incomplete and imperfect, slowly, over time, out of sheer brute necessity, becomes final, complete and perfect. An imperfect perfection for which you will be held responsible. By which you will be judged.

The judges mistake your essential inauthenticity – the emptiness-towards-fullness which time drags out till death – for an ontologically complete, fully (impossibly) self-conscious intentional act. They take you at your word. If only they could hear the perfect words inside your head, the finished ones which you yourself have never even heard, but which you sense, which you know, are in there, awaiting inscription. The book you have written has come, but this other Book, the one inside your head, is the Book-to-come, the Book that never comes.

And yet you are responsible. You take these words that lie lifeless before you on the page, your objectified essence that never felt essential in the first place, and you claim them as your own. Like a blind date with the ugly duckling, you make the best of a bad job. Smile at the passersby as you wonder where the better-looking sister has got to. You accept that unless you start to write like Derrida, this feeling of potentially-having-been-avoidable mediocrity is here to stay. You buckle up for the ride.

The more you write and the more time goes by, the closer the gap between provisionality and necessity begins to feel. You start to train yourself mentally to write in the future anterior: this sentence will have been final. You live the present via the projected judgment which the future will bring. The distance between freedom and necessity can never be entirely bridged; or, rather, it is always-already bridged, yet time itself prevents the immediate experience of this ‘always-already’. You develop a certain temporal boldness, you tarry with the clock-face and dance with the hours. You limit your expectations, increase your self-discipline, work harder and learn to wager. It is the wager of writing: he who dares loses. But he who has foreseen this loss and said yes to it wins.