Metaphors for the PhD

As part of a research training course, I have been tasked to consider what metaphors I would use to describe my PhD research. I don’t want to say it is a journey – a motif too cliched for someone engaging in children’s literature. I have kept this question at the back of my head for like a week and ideas keep popping up. None of them can be a perfect allegory, but each should highlight certain aspects how I perceive my PhD research.

 

PhD is an adventure in the Wonderland
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We were all probably first lured by an intriguing White Rabbit in the first place into the rabbit hole. Down the rabbit hole we have fallen into the Wonderland, an unknown land inhabited by incomprehensible creatures such as the Caterpillar smoking a hookah. We once again ask fundamental questions like ‘who are you’ / ‘who am I’ / ‘what am I doing’ / ‘why am I here’. We have to unlearn as we learn, and be prepared to abandon any preconceived ideas to acquire a new perspective of seeing things. The adventure is episodic, not necessarily linked by causality but rather a matter of serendipity (or randomness, for people who don’t feel too positive about it).  It is fascinating to wander in this new land but it can be confusing and frustrating at times. It is not a place without trouble and fear. The fear of having our heads off is always lurking there. It is an adventure without a fixed itinerary and we do not know the destination. We know when we arrive.

 

PhD is mining
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This time it is not the White Rabbit that led us into the mine. We probably are attracted by the possibilities of finding precious gold or diamond there, or at least some useful coal. Hence into the dark hole we went. Carrying the necessary equipment, we started mining. At times we might realise that we do not have the best equipment for this particular mine. After all each mine has its own unique landscape, for example with especially narrow tunnels or particularly hard rocks. So we have to get out of the mine and get hold of some more effective tools. On some days we dig out nothing despite all the effort spend. On some other days we might chance on some valuable minerals. It is a lonely process in a dark mine and we have to get out to bathe in sunlight for a balance sometimes. (The disturbing aspect: mining is a dangerous job and the casualty rate is high too.)

 

PhD is a rhizome
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Borrowing the metaphor from Deleuze and Guattari, the metaphor of the rhizome is best used to describe the process of picking up academic reading. From one scholar we go on to another because A has cited B’s work. From B we go on to C, then C to D, who might have also been referred to by A and who might also be quoting E. And so on and so forth. From one idea we are connected to another, seeing how different scholars are juxtaposing previously unrelated thoughts. From one discipline we glide to another discipline, almost another ecosystem, and yet the roots are so interwoven that we cannot completely sever one from another. Where will we end up? There is no end, unless we give up on the whole botanical system and go back above the ground – so yes we are in the underground darkness finding our ways without the privileged ability to oversee the entire network.

 

Although I tend to be dark with the above metaphors, I am rather positive that we will get something invaluable out of the adventure, or the mine, or the underground roots, that we cannot otherwise gain. After all it is not the destination that matters the most, but the adventure itself. And if we remain in the academia, this intellectual adventure will go on and on and on.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think!

The Trump-Voldemort Analogy

It’s over eventually and like it or not, we have to accept the results now. What interests me is the Trump-Voldemort analogy that people made some time ago during the campaigning period. Now that Trump is about to rise to presidency (*despite the fact that he hasn’t yet taken his oath*), it’s perhaps time to review the analogy.

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Picture from The Guardian

I have to first say that I have not been closely following the whole US election so there are probably things that I will miss regarding Trump’s positions. I must say I know Voldemort better than Trump, and hence the following will be more like character analysis than political commentry, although the two can hardly be separated, whether in the Harry Potter universe or real life.

Similarities

This analogy was sparked off when Trump articulated his plan to prevent all Muslims from entering the US. This is when people started finidng similarities between the then-presidential-candidate and the ultimate evil in the Harry Potter series.

First of all, Trump’s speech reeks racial and religious discrimination. Many articles are also announcing that Trump’s victory is the victory of white supremacy. Although he will probably not deport the Muslims residing in the US, his hostile attitude towards the racially and religiously different is clear and undeniable. Here is a parallel to Voldemort’s determination to establish a new world order with only the pure-blood by exterminating all the ‘Mudblood’. Both spread hate speech and promote intolerance.

Another parallel between Trump and Voldemort is their support of torture. Trump openly declared that ‘torture works’ and that something stronger than waterboarding was needed. His stance is ‘directly and unambiguously a violation of the internationally accepted laws of armed conflict’, according to an article on The Register. This is not unlike how Voldemort loves using the Unforgivable Curses to torture (and kill) people who are against him. The fact that the curses are unforgivable points to an agreed humanitarian standard in the wizarding world, perhaps legally backed by something like the United Nations Convention against Torture in our world.

One more similarity between the two is their division of people into the successful/powerful and the loser/the weak. Rather than uniting people of different backgrounds, abilities, temperaments and beliefs, such kind of success/power discourse only serves to divide, because this discursive existence is dependent on the perpetual presence of a ‘loser group’ as opposed to the successful/powerful. Instead of empowering everyone and respecting differences, this only encourages people to strive to become the successful and leave others behind.

Differences

Rowling, in response to the Trump-Voldemort memes, wrote this on Twitter. Is Trump really worse than Voldemort? Perhaps.

One big issue with Trump that we can hardly be unaware of is his sexist attitude. It seems like he is so deeply rooted in sexism that even his daughter cannot rescue him. He just kept letting inappropriate comments slip. Voldemort, although a male, makes no gender-related remarks. This simply is not his concern. What we might notice, however, is that the Harry Potter universe is also very much male-centred. Basically all the important characters are male: Harry the boy hero, Dumbledore the male mentor, Voldemort the male nemesis, Fudge and Scrimgeour the two male Ministers of Magic. Females can at most occupy the deputy position: Hermione, McGonagall, Umbridge. It does look like a world in which Hillary Clinton has a thin chance to rise to presidency / minister position.

Another difference is that, in contrast to Voldemort, who possesses magical prowess and knowledge, Trump appears a lot more ignorant. If we take a look at Trump’s statements on scientific issues, we will be appalled by how anti-intellectual he can be: proclaiming global warming to be a hoax, and complaining there are no vaccines to cure autism (which obviously is not a physical issue but psychological). See here for more – I’m not sure whether everything quoted on this page is wrong, but some of them definitely reflect Trump being ignorant as any layperson can be, and yet he was speaking as a presidential candidate. Voldemort, on the other hand, knows what to do to resurrect to power, and has a very well conceived plan to take over the Ministry, the press and the school. (In this regard, I’m actually not sure whether it’s better that Trump’s ignorant than being knowledgeable and evil.)

Yet another difference which, once again, I’m not sure would make Trump better or worse than the Dark Lord, is his ability to inspire public support. Voldemort only attracts supporters because he is in power. The relationship between the Dark Lord and the Death Eaters is based on interest and fear only, with the exception of Bellatrix Lestrange, who genuinely admires Voldemort. A lot of the Death Eaters like Igor Karkaroff actually panics when their Dark Marks burn, indicating the return of the Dark Lord. Even Lucius Malfoy has no loyalty to him but only dreads avenge. Trump, on the other hand, has real public support. He has got at least half of the United States to back him, and unlike Brexit, there don’t seem to be people voting for Trump but not actually expecting or even wanting him to win. The problem with this is, if he is indeed comparable to the historical leaders like Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong, who also gained wide public support in their respective countries, we might actually witness another historical mistake made by the mass. The mass might even carry out all the racist and sexist assaults without the actual endorsement of Trump’s government. All the worse, because Trump is going to be a US president in the 21st century, consequences can be direr and more worldwide. For a more detailed analysis, please read this.

I sort of think Donald Trump might not be as ideologically pure as Voldemort. My thinking on Trump is that he feels like more of an opportunist – I don’t know know how much of this stuff he’s saying he actually really, really believes.

— Daniel Radcliffe, video here

Compared to the extremely vague adjective ‘bad’ used by Rowling, Radcliffe gave a more detailed response, which I think is a very apt observation. Here is a super long list of contradictory statements made by Trump and we can never be quite sure what he will do in the coming four years. On an optimistic note, all the crazy things that are quite against the American (and indeed universal) values he suggested during the campaigning period might not be realised after all. He might just act along the realisitc and practical line. In contrast, Voldemort, as a fictional character, is flatly evil. As Radcliffe pointed out, he is ideologically pure, purely evil. He is the symbol of all that is undesirable, the externalised form of the darkness within everyone of us, the shadow that we fear: racism, intolerance, hatred and so on – to be vanquished at the end by our fictional hero.

After all, the reality is a lot more complex than the novel series which very much resembles the fairy tale genre. The real world is no fairy tale and there is no guarantee of a happily-ever-after ending. Yet, fairy tales (and children’s literature in general, if you like) teach us what we need in face of adversities. Instead of projecting the evil figure onto the president-to-be, it might be more useful to think of vanquishing the Voldemort within us. After all, if President Trump was indeed the Dark Lord, this would only be made possible because of the Voldemort residing in us.