I first heard of this strange abstraction during my first year of college. In my second year, I met lonely seniors in the college library working on what sounded like an impossible project. When you are a second year in college, “thesis” still sounds terribly “esoteric.” By my third year I thought I had everything figured out. Then everything changed this past summer when my research on Sweden (I’m a Swedeaphile) hit a dead end. When my senior year started, then, I was terribly nervous I wouldn’t come up with a new project. Waiting for inspiration was like loitering in front of an elevator that will not come.
At Occidental College they call this dreaded project “Comps.” The word is short for “the Senior Comprehensive Project,” but it is the equivalent of what other schools call “the Senior Thesis.” It is among those tasks required of all graduates. The format varies by Major. Some “Comps” take the form of videos, slideshows, or art installations. Those sound more fun than they are, and end up causing their makers a great deal of trouble. More often the “Comps” take the form of great big papers that consume the imaginations, weekends, and aspirations of Occidental College Seniors.
The shortened form “Comps,” to my recollection rhymes only with other innocuous sounding words like “Chomps” and “Stomps.” Hence, no one ever answers the question “What are you up to tonight?” with
“I’m working on my comps.”
Instead, they say, simply, “Comps.” There is no possession of this elusive “Comps.” Indeed, the project eventually comes to possess the student. At least that is the case in the earlier stages when everyone is very excited about their project. In my case, I talked about it for months beforehand..
I was going to do my comps on something to do with Narcissism and politics and how Narcissism was making American politics miserable.
Eventually I happened upon the American historian and Social Critic Christopher Lasch in a chance conversation with a visiting history Professor. Lasch wrote a book in 1978 called The Culture of Narcissism. It’s a terrific book and you should read it because its still relevant. Be warned, though, that there is probably no one who agrees with Lasch on every point. His position is too unique; the book is arguing from a position somewhere between Freud, Theodor Adorno, and Russell Kirk, if that is even possible.
Whatever the matter, I have been hooked Lasch’s writing for months. It didn’t matter that I was skeptical about his particular brand of Freudian psychoanalysis when I read the book in January, or that he often suggested much which I disagreed with. What fascinated me was his consistency in demanding more out of American life than both the left and right are willing to give. Unlike the other people whose books I had read on culture and narcissism, Lasch’s argument historicized the emergence of our ‘narcissism’ and explained how deep the trouble goes. Indeed, his critique was sourced in a wider discontent with enlightenment and liberalism itself. This topic is, of course, one that I found preposterously attractive, if only so I might disagree with such a position more effectively.
My “Comps,” became, at the recommendation of my favorite Professor, a study on Christopher Lasch’s critique of twentieth century America. I even settled on a title to effect of “Christopher Lasch Against the Social Invasion of the Self.” Somewhere around the middle of February, though, I started wandering from the topic and reading books that weren’t on any class syllabus and had only been referred to by Lasch. This is my vice, but it gives me the chance to learn. For instance: There are a great many thinkers from the twentieth century whom I believe will probably be recovered after an abusive neglect. Lewis Mumford is probably one example, along with a modified Lasch.
That’s another blog post on another website though. Taking four classes with comps was not wise, and their topics surely contributed to the confusion. These classes were rather taxing, but also terribly interesting: Conservative and Libertarian Political Thought; Marx, Freud, and the Frankfurt School; Constitutional Law; Affordable Housing in the U.S…. these are all hobby horses of mine. Still, they did not make for an “easy” semester by any stretch of the clock.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I finished my “Comps.” The project wasn’t anywhere near what I would have liked it to be… yet then I received some very good news via email last night. I passed comps! This means that I am now one step closer to graduation. Stay tuned to see what happens next.