What’s the point of big ideas?

Scott Jeffery (noun):  Carbon-based biped of Earth. Has a PhD and teaches sociology. Often wonders how this happened.

First things first, I never expected to become an academic. When I was young I was told I was smart, perhaps very smart, but that never really translated into academic achievement. What I did know, even as a very young kid, was that I loved big ideas. Give me a big philosophical concept-Why are we here? What is reality? What is the purpose of art? – And I was happy as a pig in shit. If the shit was made out of abstract philosophical concepts. (Feces – Antifeces – Synfeces. The Hegelian Diarrhoealectic)

To me, knowledge was a kind of food. An idle thought, that’s like a starter, and then a theory, that’s your main course. For pudding I might have a hypothesis. Notions and conceits, they’re like a light-snack, something you might have for supper. The point is I dug philosophy and art and poetry and foreign films and just thinking and talking about big ideas. I didn’t JUST like those things, I liked a lot of stupid, ephemeral shit as well, but my favourite thing was when those two worlds collided. Really smart, stupid shit. Like Monty Python or Woody Allen or that Daffy Duck cartoon where he’s talking to the animator and keeps getting rubbed out and redrawn (by the way, it’s called Duck Amuck and you can watch it here).

My point being, I loved all that shit already. In my own time. For fun. School wasn’t a place where you learned, it was a place that distracted you from learning.

(I’m being overly emphatic by the way. I did have good teachers, great teachers even, but this is a blog post not a peer-reviewed journal article so get off my back, lady!)

So I didn’t get school. School, as any sane child knows, is boring. My entire early education was marked by could-try-harder syndrome. I don’t know if that’s a real thing, I just made it up. If I liked a project and wanted to do it then I would produce outlandishly detailed presentations like a ten-page critique of the history of censorship when I was thirteen. Of course, it helped that I had a love of horror movies, so I had an emotional stake in whether the British Board of Film classification wanted to stop me seeing splinter go into someone’s eye (which I totally did) but still, this was in the days before the internet, so a guy had to go out of his way to research that shit properly, dig?

Anyway, the point is that I never cared for being told what to do, and as such never thrived in those areas of schooling that involve you being told what to do. Which is most of it. Also, for a large portion of my teens I was fucking mental and/or drunk. So that didn’t help either.

When I got my A-levels, the point in a young English person’s life where they discover if they have the grades needed to escape their dead-end town for an exciting new life at university I ended up with a C for English and U for Theatre Studies (U means ungraded, in FUCKING THEATRE STUDIES! Who fails theatre studies?!). When my English teacher Mrs. Brown -who was always incredibly supportive of my writing (including one epic poem about a Cronenberg-like venereal disease outbreak where each section was from the perspective of a different character and each written in a different poetic form) -asked me how I had done I replied, “I got a C and a U, but I think if I do re-sits next year then I might be able to get the N and the T”. She laughed but in a way that said, “If you can come up with that joke right now why can’t you just do some work”.

Anyway, I didn’t do re-sits. I moved to Worcester and lived on the floor of a stranger’s flat; a stranger who did line-dancing and built models of the Titanic. Then I worked for a carpet-fitter and then I mostly got drunk. It was strange time.

Round 2 of my education was year later. I enrolled at college to do a HND in media production (it was the post-Tarantino 90s and every single human in the world wanted to be a film-maker). If I got the HND I could then make up for the shitty A-levels and go to university and do film studies and, you know, make films and shit. What did I know? I was a kid. College was passable, also marked by me working very hard on weird films I wanted to make (one of which, I’m happy to say, was banned from the end of course public show-reel) and not very hard on anything else. Also, I was still quite mental and drunk a lot. Less so, but only just.

Anyway, after two tears I got through college with a mediocre pass and was able to go to university in Aberystwyth. This time was much the same as the others; working hard on shit I dug (a history and analysis of the Saturday Night Live spin-off movie!) and  not working hard on anything else. Madness and drunkenness became amplified by drug use and the overall ambience of Aberystwyth, best described as “YOU ARE STANDING AT THE EDGE OF THE FUCKING WORLD”. Ah, happy days.

Suffice it say I failed the final year and had to retake it and still ended up with a Third. Not too hot.

My point is that I never expected to be an academic. The route here has been circuitous, slow, erratic and largely a matter of chance and good fortune. In fact, about a thousand miles from a carefully considered career plan where A-Levels lead to BA lead to MA lead to PhD. When I finally left university I did a series of shitty jobs, none of which required a film studies degree. I have made yoghurt, bread and packed meat (that’s not a euphemism). I’ve stacked shelves, packed boxes, pulled pints and cleaned  hospitals. The only job that might be said to require a film-studies degree  was working in a video shop, a grand institution that has largely gone the way of the dinosaurs, but that’s a topic for another post.

So here’s the thing, the reason why I did end up becoming a lecturer and doing a PhD, despite all the biographical evidence suggesting that I was destined for a life of doing jobs I hated and going mad and just smoking fields of cannabis all day. All this time I still kept up my personal projects; drawing and writing. And all that time I was working on theories; big, mad, towering theories of everything. I didn’t know where I was going with any of this, but I kept going none the less. This all coalesced into a novel, and then a graphic novel and then a trilogy of graphic novels with the last one being a Fighting Fantasy style interactive book and then a book again but this time about the links between superheroes and the occult and then one day…

One day I was going to be thirty soon and I had no idea where the last ten, twenty years had gone. Where was I going? What was coming? It was a bad scene, man. I was working behind the bar and a friend of a friend who happened to be a proper academic type who was Doctor and did lectures and everything like that was asking about the book. I explained it to him and he said it sounded “academic”.

It occurred to me that maybe it did. And that maybe, furthermore, this Academia place might be just the place where a chap who thinks he’s going mad from being obsessed with big ideas might find a home. What did I know? I was a kid. Anyways, back at university I found myself, doing an MSc in Applied Social Research in the hope that I could then get someone to fund me to write a book for three to four years. And that is how I saw it; I was writing a book. A scholarly, referenced book for sure, but still a book. Having a PhD or being called Doctor was essentially of no interest whatsoever.

That might sound disingenuous but it’s true. I’d already spent years feverishly pulling ideas together. I did have some, less than stellar formal education but most of what I knew was autodidactic. By the way, that doesn’t mean I thought I had nothing to learn. Back in the ‘wilderness years’ my position was that my big, crazy theories were pure because they were untainted by the phallogocentric bias of academia which was just an ideological state apparatus and shit, yeah?! Fuck The Man!

But I was older now, and I was arrogant/delusional/quietly confident enough to think that my ideas had value and were of use. I reasoned that getting a PhD might serve as a better tool for spreading these memes than me smoking bongs and scribbling scrawled notes and diagrams on the backs of envelopes. Still, something is lost in translation. The thesis is not the wild, sprawling beast of a book I imagined in y fever-dreams. It was reasonable, scholarly and measured. I mean, it was still about superheroes as a way of thinking about human enhancement technologies and philosophical Post/Humanism, but it was linear and respectable. Which is kind of sad.

 

The other thing that got lost in translation was me. Or a version of me. Scott Jeffery the verb transformed into Scott Jeffery as noun: Academic, lecturer, clever-clogs. When I was just some dude who worked behind the bar who had some wacky notions about superheroes and magic and science and whatnot, that was fine; we could have drink and smoke and discuss all kinds of crazy big ideas. But nowadays  people sometimes perceive those wacky notions through the lens of me being an academic, so suddenly they appear difficult, literary, abstract. Which is actually kind of a pain in the ass. Now I guess some academics love people thinking they know a whole bunch of stuff more than them. But my working epistemological premise is that non-one really knows shit about anything. I want to talk about these things with people who haven’t studied them because they affect them and because they can bring a fresh perspective. Granted, it makes me pretty terrible at small-talk (I always was) but it’s not intellectual elitism so much as intellectual excitement.

Most people like the idea of ‘excitement’, but  intellectual excitement is something lots of people find weird. As the entire history of my interactions with other humans throughout life has proven. Here are some phrases I hear on a fairly regular basis:

“Can’t we talk about something simple?”

“Why do you always have to go so deep into things?”

“People need what I do [insert practical job here] no-one needs theories”

“It’s just Spider-Man, Scott. It doesn’t have to mean anything

Now I don’t think I’m going too far or being too controversial to suggest that is close to racism. Nah, I’m just kidding. But it is a weird double-standard. Can you imagine if ‘smart people’ went around saying, “you’re conversation doesn’t intellectually stimulate me and I am bored”? Maybe they do, I don’t know, but I don’t because that shit is rude so, you know, don’t be rude to me just because I suggested that Ghostbusters reflects the Reaganite economic ideology of the 1980s.

See, thinking about a film or a book or society or you or the universe in a theoretical or ‘intellectual’ way doesn’t diminish it, it makes it bigger, more interesting. And some shit, like politics, history or society is shit you should be thinking about anyway because you live in one. But I’m not going to come round to your house and make you think about those things because that would be way too intense and I really don’t have the time or resources.

So to sum up: for years I was feral lunatic ranting about the posthuman evolution of man into god-like beings. Eventually I found myself in academia which I feared and loathed and it did indeed tame my wild ideas into a coherent linear sustained argument of 80, 000 words that no-one had made before in the history of man (seriously, that is what you get a PhD for doing), and I also ended up lecturing and teaching myself.  Sadly that means no-one wants to hear my ideas anymore because they think they are all academiccy and hard so I have to disguise them as jokes and sneak out at night to do stand-up.

But I guess this is what this blog is for, and often what my stand-up is about, trying to make big ideas accessible. Maybe that’s a stupid and wanky thing to want to do but, you know, this world is a lunatic fairground, and we are all carnies. I have no idea what that means, I just made it up, but the smarter we are. the more informed we are, the better placed we are to make big decisions, whether those are about Scottish independence or whether it’s okay to insert bio-luminescent jelly-fish genes into human foetuses so children will be safely seen on dark nights (#voteyes).

You could go read my thesis, or someone else’s thesis on Post/Humanism, but you might think, “FUCK THAT ACADEMIC  BULLSHIT! THAT’S BULLSHIT! I’M NOT READING THAT BULLSHIT!” And I can’t say I would blame you, though I might ask you to turn the volume down a bit. My own experience of the world(s) of education has been fractured and ambivalent too. But ideas don’t just belong to “academics” or “intellectuals” or “Stephen Fry”, they belong to everyone. So why not watch me doing some stand-up about those same ideas in the video below instead?

And then go and read the thesis. Seriously, it’s here.

 

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About Scott Jeffery

Hello humans. I am Dr. Scott Jeffery. I do the following things (in no particular order): Research into Post/Humanism and Transhumanism and superheroes (seriously, I’ve got a PhD and everything) Stand-up comedy Compulsive rumination I blog about these things (plus occultism and all kinds of other lovely, strange topics) at NthMind. I also write regular short film reviews at Filmdribble. I can be contacted via twitter (@sjzenarchy) or at sjzenarchy@gmail.com. View all posts by Scott Jeffery

One response to “What’s the point of big ideas?

  • Ewan

    Much interesting and making laughing with noise. Academia can be like a greenhouse growing new forms of unusual vegetables. Some of which can break out and insinuate their fronds and tendrils into extra-greenhouse culture. Which reminds me of a great image of Angela Carter’s – “The ominous calm of a sentient vegetable.”

    On the lower slopes of Mount Academia, I’m looking forward to an SQA markerbot to be developed for National 5 English. The kind that’s sensitive to linguistic nuance. Nuancebot. Then I can go outside in May.

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