An Example of a successful PhD proposal

Esther Peeren

Project Description:

a) b) c) Type of Project/ Central Aims and Issues/Methods

My project aims to establish an account of the performative formation, assertion and subversion of gender identities in contemporary popular fiction and television. Profoundly interdisciplinary, it will integrate linguistic philosophy (Mikhail Bakhtin), feminist political theory (Judith Butler), social anthropology (Pierre Bourdieu), and the analysis of a corpus of popular novels and television programmes. Gender identities will emerge as socio-cultural constructions that are plural, always in the process of becoming and always to some degree susceptible to resignification. Moreover, they will appear as products of discursive and bodily performativity.

The foundations for my theory are found in selected works by Bakhtin (Toward a Philosophy of the Act, 1919-1921, and “The Problem of Speech Genres”, 1952-1953), Bourdieu (The Logic of Practice, 1980, and Ce que parler veut dire: L’economie des echanges linguistiques, 1982), and Butler (Gender Trouble, 1990, and Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, 1997). Originating in different academic disciplines and socio-historical contexts, these theorists’ approaches vary greatly. As my project will focus on gender identities, it is particularly important to note that only Butler’s work consistently addresses this issue (Bakhtin does not examine gender at all and Bourdieu only introduces it in La Domination Masculine, 1998). However, all three put forward a comprehensive, anti-essentialist theory of identity as socially constructed in and through performative language and corporality. My project will contrast and develop their work to establish a modified theory of performative gender identities (female as well as male), concentrating on six crucial aspects of identity formation, assertion and subversion.

In six chapters, each aspect’s theoretical exploration will be correlated with an analysis of its function in two television series (Sex and the City and Ally McBeal) and two genres of popular fiction: popular women’s fiction (Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City and Four Blondes and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) and so-called ‘lad lit’ (Nick Hornby’s About a Boy and High Fidelity and Mike Gayle’s Mr Commitment and Turning Thirty). These series and novels were chosen because their actions predominantly revolve around the formation, assertion and (to a varying degree) subversion of highly influential contemporary gender identities, specifically that of the ‘lad’ and the single thirty-something woman. As such, they elucidate many of the theoretical issues and complexities governing these processes.

The first chapter of my project concerns identity practices and will establish gender identities as socio-cultural constructions founded on the cultural imposition (over time) of linguistic and bodily practices or dispositions, which are continually reproduced through repetitive inculcation. Specifically, I will seek to incorporate Bourdieu’s concepts of the habitus and ‘le sens pratique’, Bakhtin’s notion of ‘social purview’, and Butler’s work on repeated bodily stylisation/performativity. With regard to my chosen corpus, I will ask how male- and female-gendered practices and dispositions appear in the texts and images as constituting and asserting specific male and female gender identities.

The second chapter deals with identity differences. It will define identity as stratified on the basis of differences, both collective (social groups or classes) and individual (one individual’s multiple affiliations). It will integrate Bourdieu’s concepts of field and capital, Bakhtin’s notion of speech genres, and Butler’s notion of gender as a specific instance of social stratification, which, in individual women, intersects with numerous others (i.e. race, class, profession, nationality). This last notion of individual identity as plural (which is addressed by Butler and Bakhtin, but largely absent with Bourdieu) will be central to my theory. In the novels and television programmes I will trace the function of gender as a central principle of social differentiation and the role played by speech genres, field-specific capital, and intersecting loyalties in the formation and assertion of gendered identities.

The third chapter examines identity struggles. Here, I will argue that the assertion of gendered identities is never straightforward, but always involves a struggle for recognition and validation with the power to control social and discursive meaning as its highest stake. Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘struggle for the sign’ (between speech genres, between centripetal and centrifugal forces, and between authoritative and internally persuasive discourse) will be fundamental. Bourdieu’s work will be used to theorise the dominant position of the state and its institutions in this struggle (by distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate discourses they deny excluded social groups the discursive authority to assert their identity). Finally, Butler’s focus on the social repression (abjection) of gender and sexual identities outside the dominant cultural norm will introduce the gender dimension into the theoretical framework. Of my corpus, I will ask how social and discursive struggles influence the formation and assertion of the presented gender identities (i.e. whether and how these identities are challenged, dismissed or supported, either institutionally or by rivalling social groups).

The fourth chapter concerns identity acts. Focussing on gender identities and agency, this section will examine how individuals and collectives exercise (some degree of) control over their identities. My view of gender identities as tenacious socio-historical constructs implies a limited (but not absent) concept of agency, with individual and collective actions confined by powerful social and discursive constraints. Because of the essential indeterminacy of the linguistic and bodily sign, no complete control over acts and their meaning is possible, not for the dominant and not for the dominated. All three theorists reflect this limitation. Butler configures agency not as autonomous intentionality, but as a highly ambivalent opportunity located in the margins of power and restricted to practices of reiteration (repetitive signifying). Bakhtin emphasises the open-ended nature of all meaning and restricts discursive agency to the ambivalent practices of discursive selection and dialogic orientation. Bourdieu presents agency as confined by the individual’s involuntary ‘doxic submission’ to the conditioning habitus, expressing itself not in free acts, but only in bound strategies. I will integrate these views and further illuminate the possibilities and limits of agency in relation to gender identities by analysing gendered identity acts in the selected corpus.

The fifth chapter focusses on identity resignification, examining the different subversive strategies proposed by the theorists and in the novels and television programmes. I will argue that Bourdieu’s concept of subversion is severely limited, particularly in relation to gender (predominantly due to his anthropological viewpoint and materialist focus on the production system). However, his work on performative language does assign some subversive power to the practice of semantic resignification. The resignification of (gendered) language and practices is also the main subversive instrument proposed by Bakhtin (reported speech and parody) and Butler (parody, mimicry and subversive reiteration). The problem with all three theorists, however, is their failure to distinguish adequately between subversive and non-subversive resignifications. The precise factors determining the success or failure of an act with subversive intent remain unanalysed. My analysis of the use of resignifying strategies in the selected corpus will demonstrate that the (in)efficiency of subversive practices depends on many aspects outside the control of their agent (i.e. the audience, the historical stability of the original practice and the time and place of the act). Particular attention will be paid to the role of these aspects in relation to the attempted resignification of traditionally negatively gendered identity-labels (i.e. ‘bitch’, ‘slut’, ‘gay’).

The sixth and final chapter introduces a new aspect to gender identity theory, not present in the work of the theorists: identity chronotopes. I will argue that the performative formation, assertion and subversion of gender identities inevitably includes an element of time and space (where and when does the act occur?) that requires consideration. A performative act’s spatio-temporal location will influence its form, content and result. In the case of subversive acts, particularly, their timing and place will often determine their success or failure. A modified version of Bakhtin’s theory of the literary chronotope (cf. “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel”, 1937) will add a unique spatio-temporal dimension to my integrated theory of gender identities. In relation to my corpus, the concept of the chronotope will provide a way of analysing not only the novels and television programme’s intratextual time/space, but also the spatio-temporal position of their media in social reality. I.e. when/where are they published/broadcast, when/where are they read/watched, when/where are they discussed, how have they expanded spatially into films, Internet sites, etc.? Thus, popular fiction and television will themselves be considered as chronotopes establishing, asserting and subverting gender identities in different manners, with different scopes and different degrees of success.

d. Objects of Research

My primary objects of research (theoretical works, novels and television programmes) are listed in section 3a. Naturally, I will study other pertinent works by Bakhtin, Bourdieu and Butler and relevant criticism (cf. the works listed in section 4a). I will seek to expand my insight into the theory of performativity by examining, among other critical works, Jonathan Culler’s “Fortunes of the Performative”, John Austin’s How To Do Things With Words and Tzohatzidis’s Foundations of Speech Act Theory. In relation to the novels and television programmes, I will identify and examine relevant reviews and articles from journals, newspapers and magazines. Additional texts will be added as my research proceeds.

e. Chapter Planning and Workplan

There will be six central chapters (as outlined in section 3a), an introduction and a conclusion, where I will present my own integrated theory of gender identities. I have already undertaken a significant amount of research on the theoretical works of Bakhtin, Bourdieu and Butler, and expect to produce provisional drafts of the theoretical parts of the first four chapters within the first year. In the first year I will also select the specific episodes of the television programmes I will use, and begin analysing these as well as the novels.

In the second year I will complete a provisional draft of the fifth and sixth chapters (the chapter on the chronotope will be the most innovative part of my project and will take most time to develop). I will also finish my analysis of the corpus.

In the third year I will integrate the corpus analysis with the theory, revise the latter on the basis of the findings in the former, and produce complete versions of all six central chapters and the conclusion.

The fourth year is reserved for the introduction, revision and the finalisation of my conclusions.

All my previous degrees were completed on or ahead of schedule and I am confident I will be able to finish my project within four years.

In the course of my project I may decide to spend time at a foreign university to advance my research and gain fresh expert input. Conceivable options are the University of Oxford, where I would benefit from the insights of my M.St. supervisor, Dr. Lois McNay (who has written extensively on Butler and Bourdieu), and/or the University of Sheffield, where the Bakhtin Centre is located and where I spent time as an exchange student in 1998 under Prof. David Shepherd (director of the Centre). I will also actively seek publication of sections of my research as they develop, and identify and attend relevant conferences to present my material. Professor Butler’s projected visit to ASCA will obviously be of great benefit to my project.

f. Connections of the project with the work of the supervisors

Firstly, my project, with its focus on the performative formation, assertion and subversion of gender identities, relates to Prof. Dr. Mieke Bal’s Performing Culture project (within the ASCA programme of Structure and Story). The notions that utterances produce events, that identity is formed through social role-playing, and that the performative speech act is always dialogic (i.e. requires the participation of an interlocutor) will be central to my project. Furthermore, Prof. Mieke Bal’s interest in interdisciplinary research and cultural interpretation, of which my project will be an example, is evident from her influential book The Practice of Cultural Analysis: Exposing Interdisciplinary Interpretation.

Secondly, my project can be linked to the Identities project Dr. Inge Boer has developed under the ASCA Transnationalism and Multiculturalism programme. Like her, I will propose an anti-essentialist notion of identity that takes into account the multiplicity of an individual’s affiliations and their changing nature. Moreover, my project, like hers, will deal not only with theoretical accounts of (gender) identities, but also with their function in popular fiction and television.

Thirdly, my project will connect with the work on gender and popular culture undertaken by Dr. Joke Hermes. I expect that her work in Reading Women’s Magazines: An Analysis of Everyday Media Use and The Media in Question: Popular Cultures, Public Interests will prove a vital reference for my analysis of gender identities in fiction and television.

g. Qualifications of the Candidate

In June 2000, I graduated with distinction from the interdisciplinary Master of Studies (M.St.) programme in Women’s Studies at the University of Oxford. My dissertation, entitled Feminism and Bakhtin: A Discussion of Theoretical Possibilities (supervised by Dr. Lois McNay), focussed on the revolutionary implications of Bakhtin’s views on intersubjectivity, agency and power for contemporary feminist theory and politics. It will form an important starting-point for my proposed project with ASCA. In August 1999, I completed a cum laude degree in General Literary Studies (Algemene Literatuurwetenschap) at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. My scriptie, supervised by Prof. Dr. Bernhard Scholz and entitled The Literary Asylum as Valorised Building, Social Institution and Chronotope, combined an exploration of Bakhtin’s theory of the chronotope with detailed analyses of the spatio-temporal organisation of six novels. It will serve as a critical source for the section on identity chronotopes. In March 1998, I finished, in only three-and-a-half years and undertaken concurrent to my ALW degree, a cum laude degree in English (Engelse Taal- en Letterkunde) at the RUG. My scriptie, supervised by Dr. Carolyn Jursa-Ayers, was entitled Plots of Madness: The Literary Representation of Female Insanity in the Twentieth Century. Relating the representation of female madness in five novels to literary and socio-political theory, it demonstrates my ability to successfully combine theoretical exploration with corpus analysis.In addition to my academic activities, I have always taken an active part in student life. Throughout my time at the RUG I participated in student politics (see my c.v.) and at the University of Oxford I organised speakers for several New College Women’s Lunch Meetings. Since my graduation from the University of Oxford, I have been engaged in temporary work, travel, and a significant amount of preliminary research for my project. This proposal is a revised and expanded version of the proposal that led to my acceptance as a PhD-student by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (due to funding difficulties I will not be taking up my places at these institutions).



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