I’ve not even really finished my comps. In my department, they are split into two parts: first, would-be PhD candidates write three essays based on their three area lists; second, assuming they pass the first leg of the process, they move on to a brief oral exam that follows up on those essays. I’m currently between the two.
I’m not so much interested in commenting on the structure of the exams in my department, in meta-theorizing the utility of comps in today’s academy (though I obviously and implicitly have thoughts on both of those subjects), nor in recounting anything much about how I prepared for and executed them with regard to content and discipline. I won’t even try to hazard explaining “what I learned” from them in an intellectual sense, because I’m not so sure what my answer would be yet.
What I am certain I learned from my comps is that letting go of the omnipotent fantasy of absolute knowledge is both harder than I had expected and absolutely necessary to survival as a would-be academic. Confession: in the honeymoon, post-creative, blissful stage of having had just completed my freshly-minted and committee-approved reading lists, I actually sat and stared at them for what seemed like hours on end, repeating the totally neurotic mantra in my head that I was going to read every single book, every single page, every single word, and that I was going to “know” “everything” on my lists.
Okay, it seems objectively disturbing to me now, re-reading that sentence. I admit I might have been a bit more of a latent case-study in knowledge-as-obsessional-neurosis than most, but I’m also more convinced than ever that the academic pursuit of knowledge and its production cannot be disassociated, for many of us, from a certain fantasy of the power that would accrue from achieving some imagined threshold of absolute knowledge. I know that, for me, at least, I learned from a young age to see knowing things as my strongest form of power. No matter how awful I felt otherwise about my lonely, existential self in the wider world, I was certain that my fantasized special, exceptional capacity to understand how things work, to analyze why other people are mean to me and others, or why no one ever seemed to get me growing up, was a way of mobilizing a pretty repressed revenge on them.
I’m not diagnosing myself with a pathology of learning, though; in fact, this sublimated agression has manifested itself over recent years as a voracious capacity to read, research, and write at lightening speeds, one which is responsible for most of my professional accomplishments. Okay, it has also manifested as, variously, paralyzing anxiety, and consistent end-of-semester burn out. Hence, I’m somewhat surprised, but happy to report, that what I learned from my comps had much less to do with the content of my lists as it did with how to relax my pretensions to absolute knowledge. It didn’t take too long into the process of reading to realize that I would never read all of the books on my lists, that I would never read every page of the books that I did read, and that I would never remember all of them, let alone “know” them in any absolute sense.
What I did start to find was that, the less I forced myself to consume knowledge, the more I just sort of read without a telos, the more I would find my unconscious doing all of the hard work for me. It went something like this: I would have spent about a week and a half reading in a specific area (let’s say, biopolitics, for instance), without almost any sense of what I was getting out of it; then, I’d be alighting from a subway station, walking up to street level, and all of a sudden a crystallization would pop into my head (oh, Foucault means that “security” as an apparatus intervenes into already-in-process phenomena to optimize them!). After the first few times this happened, alarming me, I realized that I was actually letting concepts, texts, and ideas digest on their own, or rather, unconsciously, so that what “I” ended up “knowing” about them was whatever I feasibly had the available brain time to figure out. And so I ended up with a nice little collection of things to say in my comps essays without the stress of forcing it too much.
I’m not sure what the take-away from this is (Always interrogate the subject of knowledge production? Go to therapy while prepping for comps?). All I know is, I am glad I learned my lesson now and not at the end of a burnt-out dissertation.