First Chapter Down

I haven’t written much on here the past year or so because I’ve been directing all my writing energies toward the dissertation and other platforms (yes, some real publications, but also—mostly Twitter). I don’t really expect that to change much in the foreseeable future, but as I did just get to a pause point on my first chapter, and as I’m still in the research phase of my second, I have some time in November to push out a few blog posts. Since I’ve tried to make an effort to document my dissertation process on here, I thought I’d walk back through the c. first year or so of writing.

(Caveat: the chapter’s not, like, done, because I’ve come to realize that it’s never really done, just at a point where you and your advisor look at each other say “well that seems like a fine place to leave it for now, come back in six months and see what happens then.” But also: you’re not coming to a grad student for real advice, are you? Because if you are, might I suggest: literally anyone else?)

In my department, after you pass your qualifying exams, you have four months to file a prospectus. I submitted mine last December. I took January to write an article (forthcoming in Amodern early next year!) so started really writing my first chapter in earnest in February. I decided to start with chapter two, as it was marked out in my prospectus, on smell and 3D printing.

Now, I should give this away from the outset: this chapter is no longer the second chapter, but the first; and it’s no longer about smell; and for a while it wasn’t about 3D printing anymore but now it is, at least a little bit.

But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Anyway, my advisor and I decided it made sense to have a c. 25 page chunk of writing by spring break. I busted my ass and wrote a bunch of pages on a media theory of olfaction and various technologies of smell—things like Smell-O-Vision, scratch-and-sniff, and 90’s prototypes for transmitting smell over the internet. Here’s a fairly lengthy excerpt. I’m comfortable sharing it on my blog because literally none of it will ever see the light anywhere else! It’s not that I wasn’t proud of that work, but rather that I discovered that writing about smell entailed juggling a number of disciplinary conversations that I really wasn’t that interested in discussing. Smell is sensory studies, cultural anthropology, human-computing interaction. All fascinating things—but not really what this dissertation is about (though I didn’t know that at the time).

But there was a kernel of something interesting in all the smell stuff around respiration and media toxicity. Why do we surround ourselves with technologies that are demonstrably toxic? And how are those toxicities related to the project of mediation? The next draft, for the end of April, pursued these questions, writing more specifically and in detail about 3D printing. I tried to develop a theoretical notion of the “respiratory subject,” more or less ripping off David Parisi’s “haptic subject” in his Archaeologies of Touch, but that never really went anywhere. But the questions about toxicity remained interesting, and some of the writing around 3D printing forum culture has stuck around in the present chapter. April shaded into May. The chapter got longer but not really clearer. So I took the first half of June off to refocus.

When I picked the writing back up in June, it was clear that smell needed to go entirely. “Respiration” became “breath”—a much more general and generative keyword. Breath crops up across media history in a number of fascinating ways—and ways, that it seemed to me, were relatively undertheorized, and rarely connected to the environmental questions that have motivated my research. But breath is huge? So where to start?

I decided I wanted to write a chapter that was much more episodic than previous drafts, that dilated through a range of possible media approaches to breath. In a way, it was also substantiating my idea of “atmospheric media” in the first place. So I wrote pages and pages about steam engines, spirometry, wearable computing, Frankenstein, nineteenth century spiritualism, orgone, electromagnetic sensitivity disorder, Better Call Saul, and Ted Chiang’s short story “Exhalation.”

And then I cut basically all of it.

Okay, it did hurt a little! But I’ve gotten pretty comfortable at this point in treating writing like gardening: let something grow for a while to see what it does, and then prune it back. But you can’t prune something that doesn’t exist, right? (Is this how gardening works? I live in an apartment, I have no idea!)

I ended up cutting all that writing because it was inhabiting more of a history-of-computing mode than a media-theory mode. Useful work, stuff that I’m glad to have written, but not really my project. But there were a few kernels in there of a much more expansive consideration of breath, time, media, and toxicity. I kept the Karl Marx, the Ted Chiang, and brought the 3D printer back to the party.

And that’s about where I am now. I took August and the first half of September to do one more push on this new direction. (I got married at the end of September, which gave me a natural and extremely stressful natural pause point.) It’s labeled “draft 5.1” on my computer, although I have at least eight individual numbered versions preceding it. My advisor and I met last week and decided it was in a good place to set aside for a bit—I had finally found something, we felt, that was useful to take into future chapters. It still has a couple of revisions left before it’s fully “done,” whatever that means, at least for the purposes of the dissertation (he writes in supreme naivete, hoping not to eat his words in a year). But I’m proud of where I’m leaving it for now.

The Moral of the Story

This shit takes time, yo. Everyone says the first chapter takes the longest because you have to learn how to like, write a chapter. I hope that’s true and that the other three-or-so go quicker! My friends who are on later chapters or have finished tell me that there’s a feeling of profound relief and optimism about moving on to the second chapter. I think that’s true!

But mostly what I wanted to track out in this post was how many twists and turns I had to navigate in the project of figuring out what I was really trying to say in the first place. I can look back and see some natural throughlines, even in the c. 75 cut pages that preceded this draft. So yeah. I guess if you’re a current grad student preparing to work on your first chapter and you feel daunted, maybe this helps a bit?

revision history for this page