Every poll asking gamers to rate the best videogame character is topped by Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. But is Gordon even a character, let alone the best that games have produced? This question hinges upon what we mean by 'character', of course. The argument that Gordon qualifies – despite his lack of a clearly recognisable personality or identity – rests on the assumption that a player-character should be an empty shell for the player to inject themselves into… Trouble is, player-as-Gordon has precious little choice because his world consists solely of puzzles to solve, things to crowbar, or things to kill. So if this is the relevant criterion, it doesn't seem like Gordon has the substance to back up his claim to supremacy with any kind of legitimacy beyond popular mandate.
Last week I had the viva for my PhD by Publication. Although I spent some time preparing for cross-examination, it was not something I'd been particularly worried about, mostly since I'd been utterly slammed with teaching prep, timetable juggling, and even some ill-timed consultation work. This was perhaps for the best, since it kept me adequately distracted in the run up to the main event.
I'd heard from other PhD candidates that the viva was gruelling, but I was unprepared for just how drained it was going to leave me. They challenged me primarily on the areas of my previous work that I knew were weak, sometimes painstakingly driving home the point in a manner that seemed to border on excess. I think, perhaps, this is the role the examiner is supposed to adopt. Still, I was disappointed that the exchanges were not more productive - there were even places where complaints were raised so generally as to leave me uncertain if I was being indicted on a substantive issue or merely chastised for straying into academic domains outside of my core expertise. It is no exaggeration to say that Imaginary Games saved my bacon by being in itself of a standard appropriate to a doctorate.
After a short recess to lick my wounds I was called back to face my examiners. They declared that I had passed with 'non-major corrections', and before we departed pointed out that I was now entitled to call myself 'Doctor Bateman'. This should have been a victory, yet it felt so much more like defeat. After all, I'm still not done with the work since a new version of the thesis that binds together my publications needs to be submitted. I found it hard to see this as anything but another step towards the conclusion, and took little comfort in my technical claim to being now a 'real fake doctor' (in so much as the term 'doctor' is generally understood in the medical sense).
For a week since passing the viva, I've felt flat. Like so many aspects of my life, my doctorate leaves me conflicted and unable to accept it on its own terms. I have read too much Ivan Illich to uncritically accept a professional rank accredited by other professionals forming a closed circle. I do not like the implication that 'we' (I can no longer say 'they') have greater knowledge or more right to be heard. Yet of course the reason I originally looked at getting a PhD by Publication was precisely to secure my platform and thus improve the appeal of my books. It is no comfort here for me to say that I willed this because I wished to be heard, not in the expectation of making money (no-one gets rich writing philosophy!). I am acutely aware that any advantage I have earned is bought at the cost of the continual risk of marginalization facing those voices outside of a rather insular global academic institution.
I am happiest about the viva when I see it in anthropological terms. Like an adolescent proving himself to his tribe by enduring hours of ritualized pain - hung, perhaps, upon hooks by my nipples - the intellectual ordeal of the viva is my rite of passage into the tribe called 'Doctor'. And after all, no harm was really done to me beyond a bruise to my ego. Yet it is strange: I know nothing more now than I knew before, save for the phenomenal experience of the viva itself. How can this ritual confer upon me anything but formalities?
I do not fool myself into thinking I can change the academic machine, although I cannot help but strive to do so. I am particularly critical of the extolling of blind peer review in all disciplines as a beneficial practice - a ritual oddly close to the viva in some respects, although one even less likely to lead to productive discourse. This word 'discourse' was much in evidence within the viva, yet the odd thing about the academic fraternity is that it's procedures and rituals are far more likely to suppress dialogue than encourage it, if only because behind the mask of Examiner - and even more so behind the mask of Peer Reviewer - the power relations encourage neither communication nor honest inquiry.
The broadly positivistic belief that out of the furnace of peer review the cold facts emerge is not a claim sufficiently substantiated in the literature. It is assumed rather than proven. It functions as a ratchet that locks down the status quo very well, but does so by excluding new ideas with brutal efficiency. It is possible to view this as beneficial, provided one's faith in objectivity is strong, but I have somehow managed to lose this without falling into Nietzche's abyss of nihilism. The truth isn't 'out there', but that does not mean nothing is true.
So I am a doctor, yet I am also disappointed with myself for becoming thus. My achievement, such as it is, sharpens my uncertainties about what I should be striving for. I can only hope that the unseen and unknown consequences of this event will lead me to something that will instil some greater sense of worth in this situation, something more than the bragging rights of becoming a doctor just 18 months after becoming an academic. I want this to be more than a badge, another stamp in my collection. But of course, it is up to me to make that happen.
Alas, no blogging for a short while as I’m swamped with prep for the new semester and my PhD by Publication viva next week. Comments on older pieces are always welcome, though!