A New Year’s browsing of last year’s flotsam and jetsam

A new year begins and the task of doing (and possibly finishing) a PhD continues. Phd students (me being one of them) dwell on the ‘finishing’ of our product. The pressures of everyday life leave little room to engage fully with a PhD as a intellectual project that is centrally positioned. Maybe I should not generalise my struggles so much. Let me say I struggle with this. Maybe it is just me that finds the mind space which the PhD occupies is often thrust to the edges by an overly responsible and anxious mind that prioritises ‘work’  as more urgent (as if the Phd is not also a work). What is it that individualises the PhD project and so makes it seem so selfish? Is it the fact that only I get recognition at the end or that only I stand to be judged at the end as worthy of the ritual that will have me wondering around in an academy gown and hat that is a rip off of the original medieval attire that monks probably wore when education and religion were one and the same thing?

This year I’m making a conscious attempt to change the internal mind dialogue of ‘I must do my work’, ‘I need to make enough money’ to ‘to hell with it let me enjoy this one year of exploration and if it means maxing out my overdraft well so be it. At least I’m lucky enough to have an overdraft.’ I picked rather a difficult year to tackle this project. The Rand has taken a dive and ‘the Rand’ this year is worth a lot less than it was last year. Fascinating how an object, like a R1 can decrease and increase in value while I hold the same object in my hand. Yesterday this much, today this much. Of course the diving rand represents many other conflicting narratives, opposing identities and very real outcomes that will affect many, many people’s lives in South Africa. I thought I would want to write about the Zuma Drama for my first blog of the year but the anger and agitation that engages me in these debates from time to time is sitting in a corner and thinking at the moment. The only comment I have left in me is that I was surprised (why I don’t know) how South African’s so quickly positioned themselves according to well defined political and cultural identities rather than remaining close to what this means in the world by staying close to real events that will result from the actions and decisions taken by our President. The ‘against’ or ‘with’ Zuma became more about where am I positioned and am I rightly positioned than ‘what is right? and ‘who will suffer?’ Can our identities and the way in which we position ourselves to re-live and recreate these identities be separated out from ‘the right thing to do’. I’m not sure. I’d like to think so.  Maybe what ‘the sitting in the corner aspect of myself’ is doing is contemplating how deeply we are historical beings rooted in pasts that enable and constrain us.

There is a Buddhist teaching about karma that speaks about how the higher you are in societies ranks and the more power you have the more chance there is of creating lots and lots of negative karma. One word can have the power to bring about actions that can affect millions of people. How true this is and how many millions of words does it take from how many millions of people to absent the effects of one powerful person uttering a sentence that culminates into reactions of huge consequence. And how the fragile and fickle global economic stage responds to a few words…. just a few words.

And that is all I feel the need to write about the Zuma Drama. Already we have adapted and moved on. Time is so relentless and history gobbles all that we do faster than fast these days.

The New Year is exactly 8 days old. I started it having a panic attack on a plane. Then I got down to carefully trying to place the PhD as a centrepiece in my mind. It is firmly taking root there although is rather small in size and surrounded by the daunting large shapes of other needs, commitments and obligations. These eight days have been focused on trying to gather a few extra funds together to give the PhD a little bit of a financial backing. So far so good. I’ve also started returning to the first phase of the Phd, which still remains unfinished, a review of the lineages of trans-disciplinarity in terms of emancipation and learning in the earth sciences. I spent the week reading old bits of writing like:

“Good stories are meant to be re-told. A story that is only told once is not a good story. It is a bad story, a story without tension or drama or maybe a story that is too frightening to contemplate. We tell good stories over and over again for many reasons.”


“As a social scientist, instead of telling stories of a mythical future, I tell a lot of stories of the past in order to get to the present. It is a social scientist’s task to sift carefully through the many accounts of what has been in order to gain some understanding of what is and, most importantly, what could be. When we, (and I use ‘we’ on purpose here as the story of the ‘what could be’ can never be told by one individual) start venturing into the future I am as close as I can get to my heroine writer, Ursula Le Guin.”


“Research is a slightly blunter voice than the voice of the poet but, like a good novelist, I will also be setting a scene, presenting a dilemma and, starting with the past, consider what this means for the present and our age-long battles for justice. I will be re-telling some fascinating and dramatic stories of emancipation and then reflecting on what this means for some potentially new stories that have recently begun to be told: the stories of trans-disicplinarity, change-oriented learning and post-colonial positioning.”


“Re-telling stories of emancipation may remind us of the purpose of emancipation and the reasons for questioning the production and generation of knowledge. It may remind us of the reasons for developing pedagogies for emancipation that draw on the dialogic (Freire, 2000) and search for a ’third space’ (Bhabha, 1990) of collaborative interaction. It brings us back to the reason why we say that the generation of knowledge is integrally linked to cultural -historical spaces and that ’cognitive justice’ (Vishvanathan,2005) is as vital for emancipation as is an attainment of a human right.”


“Anger, for Freire, is a response of love for to be angry we have to care very deeply about something. Often in my work I forget that beneath all the maneuvering between the need to make a living, the desire to be recognised, the negotiations between different people’s drives and responses there is a deep feeling of love. All the long words, all the ism’s and ‘ologies’ can seem quite dry and sometimes ineffective, maybe even unnecessarily confusing and dense but if we look deeply enough into the roots of these theories and ideas we may find the anchor to an ethical position and often that ethical position leads us back to love. If this is not the driving force or if this strong human condition is denied then, I would argue, we have lost our way.”

I like this last bit of writing because it reminds me that a PhD is or could be an act of love. I was having a chat with a fellow PhD student a few days ago. He’s doing a PhD in English literature. His New Year slogan for himself and his PhD is #hitthegroundrunning2016. More importantly is his re-kindled love for what he is doing. He exclaims, “I’ve forgotten that the reason I’m doing this PhD is because I deeply love Ondaatji’s work.”

I have also discovered that I’ve done quite a bit of work on unpacking Max-Neef’s trans-disciplinary lineage in amongst all the work that got abandoned sometime in October. It has definitely been a week of sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of last year. I have found that I spent quite a bit of time trying to unpack Max-Neef’s position on reason and what this means for emancipation. From the paragraph I’ve included below it looks like I found his position confusing, even disempowering. I look forward to re-engaging in this conversation with him in the next weeks.

“Intuition in the form of a thought process drawing on multiple knowledges that have already been experienced may guide the scientists to consider a hypothesis but proving this hypothesis is always done methodologically based on an ontological position of how the world works. This cannot be replaced with a methodology of intuition. A methodology of intuition may not lead to emancipation but to another form of disempowerment. If we leave our references behind then how do we trace our way back to reality (whichever reality we want to engage with). The reality Max-Neef starts us with is the human world of structure and agency where power is played out and powerful and inequitable discourses dominate. What is needed in this world is people with an ability to know the world as it is, in other words to understand the structures which keep inequality in place and which keep the blatant abuse of the planet in place. The structures I mean are those which lead to an event where a leading climate change scientist breaks down in tears as she describes the fate facing our world due to climate change and still the cogs of the great capitalist machinery move on. In Max-Neef’s strong trans-disciplinarity’ it is unclear how a methodology based on intuition will lead to the kind of emancipatory movements we currently need in the world. His theory is a noble gesture but in terms of learning and knowledge generation for change it seems lacking.”

… and the last few days I went back to Foucault’s Genealogy and attempted another read of Bhaskar’s ‘A Realist Theory of Science’ as a first attempt of articulating my approach to reviewing the trans-disciplinary lineages. To my surprise Bhaskar is easier to read this year and more importantly, as I read the introduction by Hartwig, I felt that stir in me that this work is more than a brain game. The genuine work of a ‘philosopher for emancipation’ as Hartwig called Bhaskar is there. What this means this morning is slightly dulled to me. I’m still too overcome with the divisions in South Africa to consider what is really meant by emancipation. What I am sure of is that it is not linked to identity although our identity may influence the way in which we enact or fight for emancipation. There is no emancipatory identity. It feels more like there is a process of emancipating and I do believe the moment of emancipation – the moment when an oppression is put to rest and something in the world changes. I will end with a sentence I found amongst all the bits and pieces from last year that made me smile. I’ve no idea why it makes me smile nor do I have any idea why I wrote it or what it has to do with what I’m trying to explore but to start the year off with a smile seems a Nice Thing to Do as Winnie the Pooh might say.

Dust is good for thoughts that have already been thought. It is our job as the living re-searchers to blow off the dust and rethink these great thoughts into a new and different world.”

Finally a heartfelt thank you to the wonderful people from WWF who helped me fathom a proposal for the second case of my PhD.

Signing out from land PhD.


Bhabha, H. (1990). The third space: interview with Homi Bhabha. Identity: Community, culture, difference, 207-221

Bhaskar, R. (2013). A realist theory of science. Routledge.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Max-Neef, M. A. (2005). Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecological economics, 53(1), 5-16.

Tamboukou, M. (1999). Writing Genealogies: an exploration of Foucault’s strategies for doing research. Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education, 20(2), 201-217.

Vishvanathan, S., & Sethi, H. (1998). Foul Play: Chronicles of Corruption, 1947–97.

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