Thesis-Building: Architecture, Alchemy and the Constructive Moment(s) of a Doctoral Dissertation

Willem de Bruijn


This paper looks back at the long and sometimes difficult process of doing a ‘PhD’. It asks how certain ‘moments’ in the building of a doctoral thesis – moments of conception, of discovery, of despair, of truth, of revelation and of jouissance – inform the building of a thesis. By revisiting these moments, the paper traces the genesis of the author’s thesis on Architecture and Alchemy and explores the metaphor of construction encountered in the work of cultural theorist Walter Benjamin.

Drawing on some of the historical sources of the thesis, in particular the emblem books of seventeenth-century alchemist Michael Maier (1568-1622), the paper argues that the above-named ‘moments’ in a PhD constitute an ensemble of impassioned investment, which can be known as the PhD-pathos. This paper, then, can be read as no more, or less, than a pathological guide to the PhD, where architecture and alchemy come into play as polar opposites in the process of construction and change that thesis-building is.

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