A case for creative PhDs

In the current zeitgeist, more often than not the word ‘research’ is equated with the word ‘science’. This, I suspect, is the reason people often ask me, ‘You’re doing a creative writing PhD? Is that even a thing? How is it research? What’s the point of that?’

I find it difficult to answer these latter two questions, mostly because the questions themselves are deceptively complex: they’re abstract questions about knowledge production and value, and more often than not the people who are doing the asking aren’t actually interested in meta-disciplinary discussions about research and writing. We need to get interested. As Donald Trump ostensibly steers us into a ‘post-truth’ world, it’s becoming increasingly important that we think about how knowledge production is more than just a straightforward process of proving facts. We need to think about it as a flexible and dynamic tool, in order to better understand the world as it is, and to dismantle the recent contradictory breed of knowledge production.

At this juncture in history, research is conventionally perceived as an act geared towards proving something. Research, as a concept, becomes less narrow if you transpose the word ‘prove’ for the word ‘produce’, because knowledge isn’t necessarily just a fact proven; it’s also something that structures our perception of social and political realities and correlative ideas of justice, and something that opens us to the world in a multitude of intangible and strangely tangible ways.

What’s important to remember is that research is a verb and knowledge is a noun. That is, research is the thing you do, and knowledge is the thing the research produces. Not all knowledge is the same and not all knowledge does the same thing, because research, as a practice, can be – indeed must be – infinitely varied.

Think, for a moment, about the world as a mess of elements that mesh, diffuse and wander through time and space. Matter forms relationships that never cease to unfold and change over time as discrete forms emerge, die and mutate. This is something philosopher Elizabeth Grosz terms the ‘chaos of materiality’ – ‘the whirling, unpredictable movement of forces, vibratory oscillations that constitute the universe’. Grosz suggests that humans utilise broad disciplinary techniques to enframe, however arbitrarily, chaos in order to render it, or extract from it, something consistent, composed and liveable. Drawing upon Deleuze and Guattari’s seminal work What Is Philosophy?, Grosz contends that:

philosophy invents concepts to create a consistency from chaos, the arts frame or compose chaos so that sensation can be created and proliferate, and science functions to slow down chaos in order to extract from it limits, constants, measurements – variables it can use to generate predictabilities.

Figured as such, philosophy, art and science are understood as verbs rather than nouns: they are not the knowledge produced but the acts that do the producing. The distinction between philosophy, art and science then, lies not in what each discipline is, but in how each discipline acts upon chaos: in how each discipline produces knowledge and, relatedly, in the types of knowledge that are produced.

The purpose of creative or artistic research is to produce a knowledge-type that allows readers/viewers/listeners to experience a composition of the world in an imaginary and speculative or animal and bodily kind of way, often simultaneously, to open the readers/viewers/listeners to a world that is simultaneously not of themselves, and of themselves. Think about how you feel when you hear a piece of music that stirs something in your belly and throat; think about how you feel when you read or view a piece of fiction that paints a picture of a world or moment or character so sublime or terrifying or mundane you can’t not be affected, you can’t not respond intellectually, emotionally and/or physically. It might seem unhinged from reality but, still, it is real. This is art; this is a knowledge type, which has been produced through painstaking research – research in terms of form and style, and research in terms of content. While artistic content is often closely related to and draws upon the findings of science and the concepts of philosophy, its formal aspects – how it acts upon materiality and what it produces – are in most cases, entirely distinct. Which isn’t to say that a single composition cannot shift between disciplines, only that in those shifts the composition acts in specific ways.


Donald Trump, in his ‘war on facts’, is in the process of conjuring an infectious and exclusive philosophy in this Deleuzian sense of the term. He’s drawing upon the reactionary and age-old conceptual oppositions of us/them, in/out, man/woman (and so on and so forth) to create a consistency out of the chaos of changing political circumstances, a changing natural environment and a changing world order, with the hope of creating some kind of performative reality.

I suspect one of the reasons many people aren’t quite buying his claims is that he’s wielding his philosophy as a tool to fight both science (think, say, climate scientists) and philosophy (take, for example, certain media outlets or those who advocate for minority rights) that challenge his worldview, in a way that confuses the distinct functioning of each discipline. Trump claims that the various phenomena and causes and effects proven and charted by scientists are actually ideological or philosophical constructs to further the agenda of the left. At the same time, he claims that the ‘left agenda’ – itself a philosophy that dares to dream of an inclusive and post-racial society; that believes that men and women should be treated equally; that demands that women be in control of their reproductive rights; that trusts in science and seeks to find a way to deal with climate change and its effects – is itself some kind of insidious falsehood, as if a philosophy can be such a thing.  Philosophy can be inherently problematic, but not a lie.

Trump hasn’t got to art yet and, bar taking control of production and censoring artists, I’m not sure what he can do with it because you can’t control how art makes people feel, and, through that feeling, think and know in peculiar ways.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, in our pursuit of knowledge and in the war that must be fought for truth in the current milieu, science alone won’t do – science alone can’t win – which is why research needs to be so much more than just science. Science can make findings and repeat its findings, shouting them in the hope people will pay attention. It can remind us that Trump’s lying when it comes to climate science (as many other powerful people with vested interests are wont to do) or when it comes to the size of his inauguration crowd.

Philosophy can call out this damaging use of hierarchical conceptual oppositions, and both philosophy and science together (in the guise of different methodological approaches to history) can remind us what, precisely, those oppositions are capable of doing. Philosophy can also remind us that his ideology is not a reality, and philosophy can draw its own concepts from chaos and through them imagine and structure a more inclusive perception of being and the world.

Art also has a distinct and important role to play: it causes us to imagine and it makes us feel. Art can unite us in speculative horror and, thus, connect us in an urge to not settle for the world in which we’ve found ourselves, to not let ourselves and our capacity to imagine be blunted.

Let’s keep producing politically engaged art.


Image: Detail from Guernica, by Pablo Picasso.

Erin Hortle

Erin Hortle is a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. Recently, her work has been published in Kill Your Darlings and Island. She is partway through a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Tasmania.

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  1. Interesting in its positioning of the irrationalities of the era. There is no alternative to a “a post-truth” miasma than the pursuit of tactical and engaging art. Many of the untruths of today will be revealed soonest but only when artists turn fully to their arts and not when they run around for grants-sponsored projects. Thanks fir sharing your insights.

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