ideas to play with 1: the thesis as Linus blanket

Researchers often come across interesting ideas that have no immediate purpose. The ideas are engaging, but you don’t know where they are going or how they might come in useful. These kind of ideas often spark an unformed, half-way connection/explanation/theorisation. They are almost something, but not quite.

I think that it’s always worth hanging on to these emergent notions. You never know when they might find a home. I have a file on my desktop of bits of thoughts. They range from quotations, titles and phrases to slightly more expanded texts where I’ve partially worked with an idea and then stopped, unable to take it any further. I’ve decided to post a few of these incomplete concepts, partly to see whether they have any resonance with other people, and partly to see if, in the posting, I get any further with them. So here goes this little experiment in thinking-in-progress.

A while ago I fell over some writing on transitional art works by Anna Dezueze (2010 – a chapter entitled “Play, ritual and politics: transitional artworks in the 1960s”). According to Dezeuze, transitional artworks are those which seek to create a ‘something’ between an object and a viewer. She says that when a viewer interacts, either physically or through the imagination, with an object, then a something inbetween is created. The something inbetween is neither the object nor the viewer, but is in fact a fleeting, ephemeral art work. The work itself is not art. The viewer is not art. Art is created in the interaction, the transition, between the viewer and the thing.

Now in order to explain the idea of transition, and a transitional object, Dezeuze went to the work of the psychologist Donald Winnicott . Among other things Winnicott studied small children as they separated from their mothers. He examined transitional objects in the processes of this mother-child separation, saying that a much-loved toy or blanket could be thought of as a transitional object. On the one hand it was controlled by the child, and they therefore thought it was part of them. But at the same time the toy or blanket was also an independent object, able to be seen as a separate thing, able to be given away, able to be shared, able to be lost. In giving the transitional object away, the child is able to see themselves as a separate being. Winnicott argued that the developmental process of separating from the blanket-toy-object mirrored and actually helped the child’s emotional/developmental process of growing up, moving away from their mother and becoming independent.

So to the art object. This is what I think Dezeuze might be saying. The inbetween-ness that happens between art object and viewer, the fleetingness of the ‘art’, can be understood through the notion of a transition from one state of viewer being to another… and the art object that is involved can be seen as a transitional object that assists this shift. The actual moment of inbetween ‘art’ may be fleeting, but the viewer becomes something/someone else in the process of viewing it and leaving it behind.

When I read Dezeuze, I immediately stopped thinking about art and started thinking about the thesis. Well, as you do. Well as I do anyway. Can a thesis be a transitional object, I wondered.

So, in no particular order, my thoughts about the thesis as a transitional object are:

1. There is something in the idea of research as a transitory thing – it happens between the text and the reader. The thesis as a transitional object, the research that is brought into being, brought into life in the moment of reading. There is no research until the thesis-object is read. It ceases to be research until it is read again. And the thesis reader is changed by reading it.
2. There is also something in the idea of the thesis as a much loved or loathed toy or blanket. The thesis as something that is controlled by the researcher, is part of the researcher themselves. And of course, the thesis as a separate object that is read, commented on, passed and failed. The thesis-toy- Linus blanket that some researchers are really ready to get rid of, and the thesis-Linus blanket that some researchers don’t want to part with, and feel a great loss when they do. The thesis as transitional object between the nearly institutionally approved scholar and institutionally fledged scholar. The thesis that when given away changes the thesis writer…

However, maybe the idea doesn’t work at all. After all, the child hasn’t made the blanket or toy, and the viewer hasn’t made the art object in the same way that a doctoral researcher makes a dissertation. The viewer ‘shift’ may not be the same as a maker ‘shift’.

And maybe there is also a less-than-helpful link to notions of childhood and to the idea of apprenticeship. It’s not unheard of for doctoral researchers to feel infantlised by the process of supervision. That’s insulting and not something that I want to do. And it’s not uncommon for the metaphor of apprenticeship to obscure the kind of reciprocity than can occur in supervision. I don’t want to do that either. So maybe I need to dump the idea.

Nevertheless, something about the idea of the thesis as a transitional object resonates with me. A half formed idea… A possibility, a notion to be played with further.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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3 Responses to ideas to play with 1: the thesis as Linus blanket

  1. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Waw! Really a waw read, thanks.
    A transitional “link” between two that creates a new art form. Liked that notion for sure.
    I think most of us have something similar to your desktop file. I have an ongoing file + I recently started using a small audio recorder and I find it very helpful (although time consuming when relistening to my thoughts!).

    I think we have a lot of emerging ideas, PhD related and what not, but actually to scribble them down is an effort and eventually we lose the ideas and abandon them. However, some recurring ones keep floating inside, urging us to just get them out of our system.

    Thanks again for yet a great read Pat.

    “able to be lost” <—- this line & its location in this post was so powerful -to me- by the way.


  2. jgriffen says:

    Pat – This idea resonated strongly in me. I am in the midst of advanced qualitative reserach in preparation of developing my doctoral proposal. The question of it’s not really research until it is read makes sense to me. We are told over and over that the point of qualitative research is “meaning-making.” I’m not sure where I am heading with this, but the notion of making meaning so it will want to be read and thus be research is a loose thread. Thanks for another insightful, “make me think” post!


  3. Jane S says:

    My own research field is Classics / classical studies but, in the course of PhD thesis writing, I’ve used this concept of the creation of a ‘something’ in the space between author and readers or hearers with reference to ancient Greek (originally oral) epics, e.g. The Iliad etc.
    It’s not a static ‘something,’ it’s often created anew each time, as with a live theatrical performance. It’s frequently ephemeral. However, in any dialogue or interaction, even between different genres, the ‘something’ is brought into being – whether artistic, cultural, philosophical or religious. One of the phrases used by Herodotus is *hodous logon* (the path of words) to describe the storylines of history. The metaphor is a meaningful one: it connects.

    I also agree with the hoarding of bits ‘n’ pieces. The practice sometimes gives rise to subconscious connections in the mind which suddenly miraculously surface!


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