On dancing with the shawl, faux pas, and being chiselled through research training

El mantón, the flamenco shawl, refuses to do my bidding. It refuses to levitate in the air in front of me, in order to then fall softly on my chest – like it levitates in front of my teacher and then falls on hers, right under her collar bones and covering her entire wide-open arms. When I swirl it, instead of floating graciously through the air around me, it twists like a rope. Instead of landing on my shoulder and draping it in the nonchalant, royal manner, like it does my teacher’s, it hangs awkwardly and drags behind me like a tail, on which I invariably trip.

The shawl gets stuck in my rings. If I remove my rings, it gets stuck in my fingers. It gets stuck in the hair band which I wear on my wrist. If I remove my hair band from my wrist and use it to pull up my hair, it gets stuck in my pulled-up hair. It gets stuck in the buckles of my shoes. It gets tuck in the smoothly polished nails hammered into the soles and heels of my shoes, so smooth that even a nylon stocking wouldn’t get stuck in them – but the shawl does. It gets stuck in the floorboards.

There is a moment where we, holding the shawl in front of us, toss the ends, one by one, in such a way that they wrap around our arms, so that we can then bring the shawl up, wearing it on the front, draping the chest. I have practiced a million times tossing the ends so that they wrap around my forearms tightly, but whenever I do it in the choreography, this moment always takes me by surprise, I rush it, and the shawl hangs too low, so that I stamp on it during the footwork.

From all this messing around with the shawl my footwork itself collapsed. What I was chuffed to be able to do a couple of classes ago, now has been lost, because all the attention has gone into taming the wild, inexorable beast of the flamenco shawl.

And this is exactly, to the very last word, how I feel about my first year of research training.

Nobody comes to PhD research unprepared. Before we get to this point, hundreds of pages have already been written during under- and postgraduate studies, dozens of assignments submitted, which means dozens of smaller research designs executed. This is what we enjoy doing and are probably good at – otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

But when the moment comes when I need to flip the ends of the shawl around my arms (read: produce a piece of research, however small, which makes any sense), it takes me by surprise.

As I read hundreds of pages, I watch researchers perform their choreographies. I listen to their voices, as they are unfolding their polished, perfect arguments. Like flamenco dancers, in broad, smooth movements they unravel their shawls, draping them like this and like that, showing off the intricacy of the embroidery and the sheen of the silk. They throw them in the air and catch them. Every bend, every pirouette is well thought-through and perfectly executed. Their research problems are well justified. Their research questions are informed by their theory. They produce their data in months and years of devoted labour. Their empirical evidence talks back to their theories in meaningful ways. They seem to be saying something. They do it so effortlessly that it seems easy, like breathing.

Until you bring up a blank white sheet on your laptop. And then it’s not like breathing at all. It’s agony.

You get bogged down by the definitions. The way you thought things were defined turn out NOT to be defined that way at all. The papers you had read and were planning to cite, at closer inspection, are like stereograms, those three-dimensional visual puzzles – and what you suddenly see is not at all what you had seen before. They don’t help your argument. The parts of the argument you planned to support with citations à-la ‘surely-someone-must-have-said-something-along-these-lines’ fail, because you can’t find anyone saying anything along these lines – they all say the exact opposite, or something much more nuanced, which doesn’t fit where you want it to fit. You realise that everything you read before you had misread and misunderstood.

The theory doesn’t make any sense anymore. All those concepts which seemed so charismatic and exciting suddenly become painfully sharp, stabbing at you, sticking out and poking in different directions. You realise that you have no idea how one part of theory hangs together with another, and whether you can use them together or not. In the end, you feel like you have taken a mammoth and pulled it by sleight of hand into some very small, very fragile glass phial, and now it is sitting there very uncomfortably, threatening to burst it into pieces any moment.

And the interviews. The most painful thing. As I think of the interviews I conducted, I blush, and my ears burn. I relistened to my interviews many times, and the more I listened, the more I was befuddled. I thought I wasn’t a complete beginner at interviews; I had taken three (not one, not two) courses in anthropology at Uppsala, I used the interviews in my Master thesis, I interviewed people later for my NGO research. Somehow, at the point of beginning my PhD, I managed to go below the beginner level. (My flamenco teacher has Beginners 0, Beginners 1 slow tempo; Beginners 1 fast tempo; and Beginners 2. Is there something like Beginner Negative?) What can possibly go wrong in a Zoom interview? I logged in wrong and couldn’t record it, so I had to log out and log in again, while my interviewee was patiently sipping their coffee. I confused myself and my interviewees with the definitions I conjured out of thin air. I myself created the discourse I later on attributed to them. I made my introductions too long. I interrupted them, repeatedly. I got distracted by someone ringing on the door. Above all, I didn’t listen to a single word they said – or listened through some thick filter, like many layers of cotton wool and gauze wrapped around my head.

And then, when you try to look at your material through the theory, or even just make some rudimental analysis of what it is you heard (after listening to it twenty times in recording – thank God of Technology for the recordings), everything you end up saying is trite, inane, and feels like you just pulled it off the wall, rather than laboured in some weeks of processing.

And then you receive feedback. The feedback from people who are ‘on your side’ in all this – your various instructors, who kindly, gently, with the lightest of touches show you the outline of the sculpture-in-the-making (the quotes below have been fictionalised).

‘Tatiana, your draft was overflowing with interesting and insightful ideas. But, at the moment, your use of Lacanian categories is unclear.’ ‘Presently the relation between the post-structuralist theory and the phenomenon you are describing is a little imprecise.’ ‘And by the way, can you please provide the reader with the definition of what you are talking about?’ ‘The concepts of A and B are mixed up in your questions’. ‘I agree, more or less, with your conclusions, but I don’t see how the material you collected has led you to them.’ ‘You are a bit psychologising here, Tatiana.’ ‘You are a bit jumping here.’ ‘The words you are using here are a bit too strong. You need to tone them down.’ ‘The words you are using here are a bit too vague. You need to be more decisive about what you want to say.’ ‘You need to wait with this’. ‘Too early to draw these conclusions.’ ‘Gradually unfolding – but too little focus on A, B, C, D and E. Also you are forgetting F, G, X, Y, Z and W. And your definitions of P and Q are somewhat blended [read: completely deluded and incorrect]’.

The other day I took my ‘gradually unfolding’ research design (IRL, i.e. printed on paper) and crossed out every single word from my research purpose and questions. And then I put some of them back. And then I crossed them out again. After half an hour, the first page of my research design was completely black with ink. I put a picture of it on Facebook and watched comments from fellow artists (‘Looks just like my brain’, one said). As I was sitting at my kitchen table, contemplating my bruised research design, I was responding to an email from one of my supervisors. I said: ‘Thank you very much for your comments. They have been very helpful in sedimenting my research design’. I typed the word SEDIMENTING very slowly and deliberately, relishing every letter of it, and then I pressed ‘Send’. If this is sedimenting, thought I, what would reactivating look like? (Hello and welcome back, Laclau.) Nothing, not even my supervisors’ comments can rescue a research design from crumbling into fine dust on a Wednesday morning.

And this brings me to dust. Any social practice which has canons is like the practice of sculpture. You are being chiselled. You come into research as a shapeless rock, in order to, piece by piece, be cut into what you are supposed to be as a researcher. And, hopefully, polished, in the process producing fine clouds of dust, and amply so.

The same as in dance. I have a portrait of my teacher on my wall, where she is painted in a yellow dress, her head thrown back, one arm stretched over her head, the other rounded. Sometimes guests ask me, is this you, Tatiana? – and I laugh. It would take many years of daily sculpturing, chiselling, and clouds of dust if it were ever to become me.

‘You are swaying too much’, says my teacher. ‘It’s the other hand, Tatiana, you need to move the shawl to your other hand.’ I have no idea how to move the shawl to my other hand, without dropping it or covering my face with it. ‘You are too high up, you need to be heavy’, says my teacher and hands me the chair, for me to lift it above my head in my outstretched arms, and stamp, stamp, stamp.

The footwork of research is the writing and rewriting, torturing out words, deleting whole pages of words which seemed to have flowed so effortlessly but which make no sense later. We do it, trying at the same time to negotiate the shawl (theory, philosophy), so that it floats in the air, held up, as if by magic, by the footwork’s rhythm. Entering this art form, you fill your days and your computer screen with not more than a series of faltering faux pas.

As I am being sculpted in my flamenco class, so have I sentenced myself to four years of being chiselled by research training. Perhaps one day I will be able to say something which makes sense. Perhaps one day el mantón will float, weightless, in the air, to then fall with all its heavy embroidered weight on my chest, exactly under my collar bones, where it needs to be: breathing, alive.

Is any of this familiar, and if yes, what is your equivalent of el mantón – a formidable element you struggle with?

2 thoughts on “On dancing with the shawl, faux pas, and being chiselled through research training

    1. Thanks Hugo! Yes, it’s really cool to see that Twitter post… 🙂 Good luck with getting yourself out of rabbit holes – or enjoy spending enough time in them 🙂


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