doubt and the manifesto

*Note: spitting this out during a bout of writer’s block was rather cathartic. Hopefully it will be entertaining for others as well. 

Sometimes, you agree to write something because you’ve been invited, or cajoled, or downright ordered to, by someone (quite possibly a mentor or someone you owe very nearly everything to). You are invited, and maybe it’s a sunny day and you’re in high spirits and the deadline is far off and you say, yeah, that sounds fun. So you say yes. And then. And then. Time marches on. And the deadline looms. And what once seemed fun and gleaming and magical is now dreary and dreadful and dull.

To make matters worse, you’ve got an idea. An enormous idea. A potentially really good idea that you’re too afraid to mention to anyone because you want to live in the myth that it’s a field-(re)defining sort of idea that, when published, will immediately show up on Google Scholar as having been cited a billion times by everyone, including that mentor who cajoled you into writing this thing with the looming deadline. Oh right. The thing with the looming deadline. You try to refocus your attention. You try to just Get. It. Done. But the new idea is latched on to your brain and won’t budge. Later, you tell it. I’ll come back to you later. You won’t go away. You won’t become irrelevant. We’ve got time, and I’ve got a deadline.

Suddenly you find yourself inserting into the Looming Deadline ideas from the New Idea. Sometimes that makes sense. Isn’t scholarship a tapestry, a rich patchwork of interconnected ideas, you try and convince yourself. Well. Maybe. But New Idea is actually sort of irrelevant to the matter at hand, and the editors will probably think you’re off your rocker for bringing it up here. Doubt creeps in. Does this thing even make any sense? What the hell am I saying here? Why am I even talking about this? Do I need to do more research to back up this claim? Doubt’s shadow makes the dreary dreadfulness of this thing even drearier and dreadful-er.

A quick walk around the block only serves to distract more from the mater at hand rather than helping you focus. Maybe looking at some other piece of scholarship will help ignite that old academic creativity that’s been lost. Maybe, instead, you’ll get lost in a rabbit hole of previous stuff you’ve written and marvel at how much time has passed since you finished your dissertation and how long ago that mentor was your advisor and wonder why the hell you keep saying yes after all these years. No; that’s not fair. This isn’t his fault; you just need better self-control. But, really, this is beside the point. The point is the New Idea and that it might just be a manifesto and not the field-(re)defining masterwork you’ve been chasing since grad school.

Or maybe that’s just doubt talking. After all, who wouldn’t want to read a manifesto? Especially one expertly researched, written, and footnoted appropriately? This isn’t going to be some handwritten diatribe from a cabin in the woods. It’ll be the defining work of your career!

But then what?

I’m not that old, you think, and it occurs to you that if you throw everything you’ve got into one book, what’s left? What’s next? What would the next challenge be? Or would that be it? Would it be the last scholarly hurrah before coasting to retirement as that laughable frumpy faculty member who shows up at institutional conferences and symposia to ask the same, differently-worded question regardless of the day’s topic just to assure himself that he’s still relevant after publishing his manifesto two decades earlier.

Of course, all of this assumes that the President doesn’t end the world via nuclear war with Korea or turn the United States into a totalitarian dystopia where you’d be out of job anyway. No place in dystopias for idealistic academics, specialists of obscure subjects no one takes seriously.

Hm. That doubt has certainly turned into an all-consuming monster of anxiety and existential despair.

Sometimes, you agree to write something because you’ve been invited, or cajoled, or downright ordered to, by someone you love and respect. And you agree to do it, whether it thrills you to the bone or not. Setting aside the New Idea — and telling doubt to go fuck itself — you remember that your whole career is made up of these moments, moments when others presented you with opportunities, in addition to a few opportunities you seized or created on your own. There was never one big moment that defined your career, only small bits and pieces, endless deadlines, from the comps and the dissertation to the first conference papers and book reviews to full-blown, peer-reviewed journal articles and books, by god, and it is only the sum total of all of these things that will define you, even if you do get around to writing that field-(re)defining manifesto. Even that will be just another piece of the tapestry.

And it’ll have its own deadline.

The important things are to remember that your work is made possible by others (so thank them, often); and that even the dreary and dull pieces need to get done (so do them).

1 Comment

  1. Tom Barnett says:

    I randomly arrived here on a search for a “Manifesto of Doubt”. This is the manifesto I am looking for. I loved reading your article, despite it not directly fulfilling my alterior search intentions. As a sculptor and a proud doubter I feel that the Manifesto of Doubt exists already. It is contained in somewhere in a block of intellectual content, waiting to be revealed, like a Rodin carving, hewn from a block of marble that once lay deep underground. Your text, to me, revealed that we might well find that you understand implicitly the tenets of the Manifesto of Doubt, should it ever be discovered, revealed, and disseminated. Your approach embraces whatever they are. Ultimately questioning. Your view of doubt is that it is ‘dreary’, and ‘dreadful’, and yet this doubt adds depth to your thinking. It adds humanity to your predicaments. If this doubt were personified it would be a demon. It can go fuck itself you say and I would agree that it can send one careering down cavernous rabbit holes of seeming hopelessness and uselessness, seeming to waste one’s precious time procrastinating and prevaricating. However I do think that this demon, could well be(!) an angel in disguise as it improves the heart and minds skills in the craftsmanship of thought, the construction of intention, and the cajoling of questioning. On this note, it only remains for me to thank you for your inspiring text. And I will look forward to reading more.

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