Desire Lines: Variations on an Introduction


My PhD thesis begins in a rather unconventional way – with an introduction in numbered sections, from 1-14. I called my introduction ‘Desire Lines: Variations on an Introduction’ because I wanted to introduce two of the key concepts that drove my research forward.

Firstly, the variations on an introduction part of the title. Many of you will know that I was originally (in a former/other life) a musician, so in part this is a secret nod to that time of my life. ‘The Carnival of Venice’ by J.B.Arban was one of my favourite pieces to play on the cornet or trumpet – in fact I played it in my final recital for my music degree. For those who don’t know, the Carnival of Venice is an ‘air varie’ or a ‘theme and variations’. The theme is relatively simple and melodic, and then each variation fits more and more notes around this theme. It is a piece used by performers to ‘show off’ their technical ability and cycles through double tonguing, triple tonguing, flexibility over large intervals and the requirement for fast finger work.

To capture the heart of a theme and variations, the theme must always sing through underneath all of the fancy technical dexterity on display. Or to think of it another way, the variations are multiple different ways of looking at the same theme, of hearing the same theme. So my variations on an introduction are doing a similar thing. I got to the end of my thesis and then foolishly tried to write a conventional introduction, the way I imagined a PhD introduction should be. It was pretty terrible. I wrote my variations in the same space or frame of mind as I write poetry, letting the words flow out, letting one numbered section spark off the thought of another, circling around the idea of an introduction, around all the things that need to be introduced.

The introduction as it stands now has fourteen sections which cross the boundary between academic writing, lyric essay and poetry, sometimes from one section to another, sometimes between sections.

If I wrote out what is in the image above as prose, I have to add multiple punctuation marks.

If choices are threaded through the body of a text, if the text is not a body but a landscape? If the text is a landscape there must be paths. If there is one path, there is always another. If text is a landscape with paths running through, then reading is a form of travel. If reading is a form of travel, readers must be travellers. Some of them will know where they are going. Some will be lost.

If text is a landscape, if reading is a form of travel, if readers are travellers, then the text is a journey in itself. If the text is a journey and a landscape, if all landscapes have paths, if each path is a choice, a desire, if this text has its own desires, there are bodies within it – yours and mine. We may find ourselves meeting somewhere inside.

The first time I posted the image of these words up on social media and it got shared in various places, someone on a friend’s wall asked who the poem was by. I was taken aback to hear the text described as a poem – even though writing it out as prose, I can see how important the white space is, how it invites readers to make their own punctuation, to read some of the text as a statement, some of it as a question. I can see how the white space elevates and makes more important these questions about agency and the multiple ways we have to encounter a text.

Still, I think of the text more as a lyric essay than a poem, a lyric essay that draws heavily on poetic techniques, such as the use of white space. Except on the days when I think maybe it is a poem which is drawing on the freedom of prose writing to say exactly what I mean without worrying about being too obvious or not poetic enough.

At one level, it doesn’t really matter what it is. At another, it means everything that I cannot quite pin down what I have written to fit one thing or the other.

In a creative-critical PhD, the creative work should respond and be engaged with the critical work, and vice-versa. Should the critical work not also be transformed by the creative work, making academic prose more lyrical, more poetic, less certain? I know that I wrote poems in response to my critical reading, poems about noticing things, poems about looking and what we choose to look at.

Right at the beginning of this blog post that is trying to transform into a lyric essay, I said that the title ‘Desire Lines: Variations on an Introduction’ held two key concepts for me, and then I forgot to introduce the other one which is the idea of desire lines.

Tomorrow, I am running the third and final reading drawing from my thesis. Or at least the third and final one for a long time. My thesis is a reader-directed text, consisting of fourteen sections of prose, seven groups of poems and four individual poems. The thesis is a reader-directed text. It consists of fourteen sections of prose, seven groups of poems and four individual poems. Although it can be read in a linear fashion, and will make sense when approached in this way, the reader is invited to make their way through the thesis by using a series of textual signposts (or questions) to follow desire paths/lines through the text, deciding as they go along what they would like to read next. The live event seeks to replicate this through the use of polls.

Here are Variations 5, 6 and 7 which take different looks at desire paths, what we choose to look at and how we move through texts.

Extract from ‘Desire Lines: Variations on an Introduction

Variation 5:

At the beginning of this process I thought that the readers of this thesis would create their own desire path, or desire line through the text. Defined by Robert McFarlane in his ‘Word of the day’ on Twitter as ‘paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning’ (Bramley, 2018) these paths of desire would generate new meanings, new interpretations, a new text. Now I realise that the paths of desire are my own, traces of my thinking, my reading. My desire paths weave the creative and the critical together, and then pull them apart. They invite the reader to think about how they move through a textual landscape, and why they move in the way they do.

The easiest path is to read in a linear fashion, from beginning to end. This is the path of least resistance. If a reader chooses to follow a desire path, to move back and forward through these pages, through this text, then they become implicated in the text, through their choice of what to read next, or what not to read. When the reader follows my desire paths, creating their own desire path in turn, they may produce something the writer cannot control. The text becomes what Roland Barthes calls a ‘text of bliss’ – a text that:

            imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of
            boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions,
            the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with
                        (Barthes, 1975:14)

Variation 6

Instead of a desire path, call it a sightline, a line of sight. If it is true that ‘[W]e only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice’ (Berger, 1972:16) then by making choice implicit in the text, readers are forced to confront and question what they choose to look at or not to look at. This shift away from authorial control will allow a collaboration to develop between the reader and the text, where the reader actively constructs the texts and narratives rather than passively consuming them. 

John Berger argued that ‘[t]he meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it’ (Berger, 1972:29). This thesis argues that this is also an accurate way of understanding how texts communicate, particularly poetry, where the placing and ordering of poems can be extremely important in the way readers interpret and understand the wider narrative of a collection. The ordering of poems can give a different narrative arc or trajectory to a collection.

The desire paths through this text, these sightlines will not give it a different trajectory, or a different arc. This text will not finish in triumph if the reader picks one path, or in despair if they look the other way. Instead, think of it as an unfolding, where each sightline, each desire path gives the reader a different view on the one that came before and the one that is to come. Think of it as a circling back round.

Variation 7

In the poem ‘Monument’ by Elizabeth Bishop, the reader is asked to look again and again at the monument, described in painstaking detail. Bishop asks us:

Now can you see the monument? It is of wood
built somewhat like a box. No. Built
like several boxes in descending sizes
one above the other…
                                    (Bishop, 1983:23)

The first time I read this poem, I felt as if I was walking round and round the monument, seeing it from every angle, without really seeing it at all. If this thesis could transform into a single poem, it would be this one. Imagine this text as a monument. Imagine sexism as a monument. Imagine female desire as a monument. Now climb inside, crawl underneath, sit on top and look at the landscape which surrounds them both, the paths that lead to them, the sightlines, follow the lines of sight. Imagine this text as a poem.

Quotations in the above post (in the order that they appear) are from:
Bramley, E. V. (2018) ‘Desire paths: the illicit trails that defy the urban planners. The Guardian.
Barthes, R. (1975) The pleasure of the text. New York: Hill and Wang.
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of seeing. London: Penguin.
Bishop, E. (1983) Complete poems. London: Chatto & Windus.

To buy a ticket for ‘Poetry and Everyday Sexism’ head over to Eventbrite here. The event is hosted by the Manchester Games Network and is taking place on 13th January from 7.30pm-9.30pm. Tickets are £5 (£2 for students)

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