Laudatio Dina Friis

Theorising Ambiguity: telling deliberately equivocal stories

Leiden, 22 June 2022

Dear Dina,

This afternoon, we have discussed with great pleasure methodological challenges, expectations, temporalities and positioning of your work, and enjoyed the engagement with your work.

It is a slightly overwhelming feeling that I stand here and give my very first laudatio as professor, because this is an exceptional PhD. So I understand a little better why professors deal with this kind of thing by pulling out some platitudes, like

-there are perfect dissertations and finished dissertations

Or one I use regularly:

-no one does it alone, but everyone does it their own way

The second part certainly applies to you! The first part may be much less true for external PhDs. And even less true for you. This is not to dismiss the wonderful friends who talked to you about the PhD over coffee or helped you proofread the final manuscripts, and the support of all your loved ones who kept faith in this project with you and never doubted you would finish. But it is the case that you pursued this work without the institutional and professional context that 99.9% of PhDs can rely on.

You were registered as a PhD in Leiden a decade ago. The last time we saw each other face to face was in 2013. Since then, you have worked on your own on the project, with the occasional consultation with Paul and I via Skype. We have all had enough of a taste of lockdowns to imagine the challenge of this kind of prolonged working from a distance!

This means that this dissertation and this degree are especially worthy of our admiration and appreciation. And because it was such a long and lonely and at times also lovely road, I want to look back with you. To help us get a sense of these 11 years, and here, I am fully a participant in the kinds of just so, post-hoc narrative creation that you raise in your dissertation,

I came up with a number of phases:

In the first phase, you were Penelope. Weaving away, making progress, but then undoing her work. There were certainly 4 or 5 complete versions of the first three chapters. You would write, be interrupted by a major life event, and return when things allowed, only to find that, now, you really knew what you wanted the dissertation to be about, and starting all over.

And I don’t mean rewriting, I mean writing again, from scratch. 

You were instoppable in this, and blew all advice to build on what you already had to the wind. With firm determination, you would start all over and do it right this time. You were really indomitable in this. There was no convincing you that a chapter should not be 84 pages long.

But looking back, again as you describe in your dissertation, I now get it. This was in an important way your writing space, your experimental lab, where the labour of writing and rewriting and writing again brought you to some of the insights in your book.

Then there was the olympic wrestling phase. At the point where you felt you had identified the main points you wanted to address in your dissertation, you also identified some opponents. This turned into wrestling matches, where you would pick a scholar and a central work in their oeuvres, and wrestle them to the ground, poking your intellectual fingers into all their soft spots, kicking their white underbellies with steel-toe boots, and not letting go until they begged for mercy. This was not pretty to watch—nor easy to read. Gradually, you accepted that you could also end these matches before they gave up the ghost, help the opponent up and shake hands.

Then things got lighter and started to flow. In this phase, I see the scholar at her desk.

One turning point was a meeting that from memory I will date to two years ago. Paul and I had read through your latest version of the first three chapters, indicated that they also contained the beginnings of chapters 4, 5, and even of a conclusion. That is how I remember it, but of course, we know that I am doing all kinds of network cutting and post-hoc classifying to come up with this narrative…

 In the course of this meeting, Paul noted that, actually what you were trying to do, was to theorise ambiguity. You wrote about this in the generous acknowledgements too. This phrase resonated with you.

Douwe Draaisma, professor of the history of psychology and number 1 influencer in our collective understanding of memory, has often said that no one looks out the window as much as writers do.

That holds for you too. In one of our follow up email exchanges, you wrote

Theorising ambiguity.

I’ve written it on a wall, a wall I look at through the window, from my desk when I write

That was the moment I knew. I knew you would finish this dissertation—it was there, you could see it, literally, the writing on the wall.

And now, Theorising Ambiguity, is written on this cover. And your wisdom, experience and expertise are recognized and celebrated today Dina, among your peers, friends and family. Here, in the heart of this academic institution.

To echo your stellingen,

the features that manage to temporarily unite people are unpredictable

I am deeply grateful that I could temporarily be united to this project. Your determination and unique sense of purpose were both the driving force and the challenge. I seriously doubt that I will ever meet anyone who can equal your dedication to intellectual pursuit. Paul and I are so so proud that you will bear this title and we hope that it will help you to follow your dreams and ambitions. 

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