Who am I writing for? Who should I be writing for?

This is the first entry in a new category of posts on this blog: ‘Research ponderings’. I intend these posts to be places where I try to feel my way through some of the perplexities I encounter while working on my research. This will be helpful to me in its own right, but what will of course be even more helpful is if fellow researchers read my ponderings, and are kind enough to offer any words of guidance they might have. I will try in each entry to stick to a particular problem, or at least a tight cluster of them, and avoid lamentations concerning intractable states of affairs.

I’m at an exciting stage in my research leave. The reading I’ve been doing is connecting lots of dots, and giving me lots of new thoughts. Articles are forming themselves in my head, and even splitting into multiple articles as the issues I’m dealing with clarify.

Anyway, here’s one of the things I’m trying to think through…

I want to write an article that uses the insights of phenomenology to offer new tools for the close analysis of screen drama. My problems are all variations on the same theme: the things I want to do to make the case I want to make are somewhat at odds with the demands of research as I think it is understood in contemporary academia.

1 I want to offer a small set of central phenomenological concepts in straightforward language, so that the concepts are accessible to the uninitiated, and open enough to function as broadly-applicable analytical tools.
This means that either I don’t get into the differences between, say, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, and run the risk of looking under-read, or I do get into the differences but then afterward retreat from them to do something more general, which means that I’ll waste time and the reader’s patience on a literature review.

2 I want to use phenomenology differently from the way it has been used in film studies in recent years.
Broadly speaking, film phenomenology tends to be densely theoretical, and used principally as a tool to explain the medium as a whole, not to distinguish between the effects of different instances of the medium. Again, I could spend time laying this out, but the same problems as above would apply.
To make things worse: I risk looking regressive because what I’m advocating is in many ways closer in spirit to the use of phenomenology, or phenomenologically-inflected ideas, by critics in the 1950s. I’m wanting to use phenomenological ideas primarily to analyse the drama and the worlds of particular films – ‘traditional analysis’ – rather than to bring into focus the complexities of the viewer’s relationship with the medium of film.

3 In short, I want to i) offer tools to the discipline as a whole, not ii) refine the tools, knowledge and debates of a small niche within the discipline.
Is ii) a contemporary definition of research, and i) a contemporary definition of scholarship? I hope not, but I do wonder. Is the way to go to appeals to ideas like the ‘ordinary science’ of a discipline and the desirability of the constant refinement of it. There’s a strong case to made along these lines in film studies, where a lot of criticism carries on after the theory actually being presented in a particular work has knocked off for the day, and where the routines of the discipline call for textual analysis to be a part of works written by people who are happy to pick up whatever analytical tools others in the discipline offer to get the job done, whether that job be, say, exploring the style of a particular director, or interpreting the ideological significance of a particular group of films.
And now we get down to the heart of the matter. If these tools are being offered to the discipline as a whole, they ought to be presented in the journal that most members of the discipline read. But isn’t that precisely the kind of journal that is most likely to look for work fitting definition ii) above, rather than definition i)?

Comments welcome!


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