For the third session of The Seminar, we turned our attention to the role and practice of the ‘literature review’; and more broadly we discussed the practice of reading in academic research and writing. We looked at a couple of examples of literature reviews, published in book and journal article form. Our main focus – in the first half of the session – was the opening chapter of Ranjani Mazumdar’s Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City (2007). This is a book that is written primarily for a film studies audience, but draws upon literatures of Indian political history and also critical theory, particularly the writings of Walter Benjamin. We didn’t really want to get too involved with the ‘content’ of the book, but rather consider its form as a literature review. The chapter doesn’t list a great many books, but it does demonstrate the way key literatures can be handled to draw out the specific intentions and framings of the author’s own research.
A couple of paragraphs in, Muzumdar offers a dense, comprehensive paragraph that can be said to encapsulate the entire ‘project’ of the book:
Bombay Cinema attempts to enter the complex world of popular cinema by bringing together a range of cinematic practices and the urban experience. My purpose is to engage with the dynamism of popular cinema in the country’s sprawling metropolitan life. The city as a concept remained a crucial absence in much of Indian nationalism’s history. The nationalists instead invested in the imagination of the village as one of the secure sites of citizenship, reflecting the social base of anti-colonial mobilisation. The interesting feature of Bombay cinema is that it has never been at one with the nationalist prioritization of the village. While cinema also looked at rural life, it is the urban experience that has dominated its landscape. The coming together of cinematic practices and the urban experience offers a useful way of transcending the imaginative limits imposed by nationalist narratives on culture. (Muzumdar)
There are a number of concepts and lines of enquiry that are raised by this single paragraph. We might want to challenge what is meant by the suggestion of an ‘urban experience’ and the ‘city as a concept’, but nonetheless, we can recognise a determined project to examine the screen life of Bombay cinema with a political, historical and sociological reading of India. There is a clear sense of an interdisciplinary approach. The author is concerned not only with ‘cinematic practices’, but also key concepts such as nationalism, citizenship, and colonial history. All of these areas of interest will need to be reflected in the literature review. Partly, as a means to define the key terms of reference. It is notable, later in the chapter, the term ‘globalization’ is used, yet it is not explained. We can infer a general understanding of the term, but it is a complex and loaded term, which ideally in a research project needs to be properly contextualised and argued for. Muzumdar does draw reference to a number of key texts, particularly in relation to the cinema and the city, and Indian nationalism. A number of her references to modernist writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin are really crucial to a definition of the urban experience, and its collision with the screen. These references are well worn, not least in film studies. Muzumdar, however, argues the geographic and cultural context of Bombay cinema lends originality to the research. She uses a very neat phrase to get around the problem that her work is both squarely situated in an established (and much researched) area of film studies, yet equally offers its own individual import:
Bombay Cinema is in many ways both a departure from and an addition to the previous work on cinema and the city, while at the same time bringing a perspective from India (Muzumdar)
I would suggest in writing a thesis, this sort of formulation is worth holding onto. It is a line that is clear, confident and carefully contextualised, helping to navigate the need to situate your work in existing scholarship, yet offer something genuinely original. It is perhaps also worth noting how the use of the book title, Bombay Cinema, gives the author further authority; they are presenting you with a project that is articulated in the writing, but also is bound as a book in your hands. A PhD thesis won’t necessarily be able to play off a title like this, but there are ways of characterising your research beyond the stock phrases of ‘in this research’, ‘in my study’, ‘ this dissertation’ etc. Your research is a ‘project’, it has a life beyond being a technical document.
Of course, by making a close reading of Muzumdar’s chapter – particularly in terms of its form – we did highlight a number of potential problems. Indeed, examining anyone’s writing at ‘sentence level’ will reveal all sorts of complexities and issues. Nonetheless, the chapter helped illustrate a point: while academic writing can appear at times to be dense and intense, there is a clear process of drawing together established concepts and ideas, along with new inflections and directions. Muzumdar’s chapter, for example, develops a complex, layered account of India, Indian cinema, urban experience, nationalism, modernism, and globalisation. It goes without saying one has to concentrate when reading this kind of work. To use a phrase from Philip Davis, who recently published Reading and the Reader (2013), we have to engage in a form of reading that is of ‘immersed attention’. It is a very active process. (You can hear Philip Davis talk about his book on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week)
The idea of reading as a deliberate and rich process was beautifully developed by Professor Ryan Bishop, who joined us for the second-half of the seminar. Ryan suggested we think of reading during the PhD (and other research activity) as a means to ‘dwell’; and not least because, as we develop our careers beyond the research degree, we get increasingly get less time to read. We might say, not only should we occupy ourselves with reading, we also need to occupy reading! Yet, Ryan’s point was more nuanced than this, suggesting ‘it is as important to have a text dwell in and with us as it is to dwell in and with a text’; adding that we might at times ‘believe we read the text (and therefore control it), when the converse is also true (texts shape us and we become otherwise)’. Keeping this to mind – and with a brief allusion to slow cooking – Ryan played out a certain ethics of reading, and gave some great tips in maintaining a measured and engaged practice of reading. Here is a brief summary:
- We are ‘reading’ all the time, whether it is a book, a space, a person, a situation, and that all these instances will provide different readings depending on your point of view, the context, the time etc.
- Read first kindly, then re-read with a critical eye. In other words, first seek to understand a ‘text’ according to its own terms, before then challenging those terms. This allows you to make sense of a text and its context, which can, for example, aid writing up a literature review where it is useful to show the progression of ideas, even where those ideas are at odds with your own (or those of the texts you are more aligned with).
- What you don’t read is as important as what you do read! We have to make choices about the books and texts we read and don’t read. It is useful to develop different modes of reading, fast and slow. You can skim a range of texts to understand a broader context, or indeed to satisfy yourself that certain references are not necessary for your work. Conversely you have to commit yourself to reading key materials at a slower pace.
- Keep track. Reading needs to be an active process, and that includes keeping some records of what you’ve looked at. As your research develops you build an impressive bibliography, which will function both as a simple, technical list of materials, but also as an ‘archive’ of your research.
- Write your way to thinking… A key line from Ryan’s is that we can all be readers should we wish, but ‘it is impossible to write (at all, not to even write well) without reading. It is through reading at all that we can even start to write’.
The seminar began by examining the literature review as a distinct element of one’s research, but perhaps more importantly what it reminds us of is the intricacy of both reading and writing. Read/Write: Together they form a virtual ‘space’ that opens up thinking. We can know what we want to write and put pen to paper, but our thoughts will be informed by a practice of reading. We can also surprise ourselves in our own thoughts as we write. Again, however, this writing is a product of distilling reading and engaging in an ongoing practice of writing. If you find you can’t get started with writing, try reading first. And if the reading starts to then feel like it is slowing you down, it might be time to try writing again. And so it goes on…
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