I was reading some Adorno a while ago, and this excerpt (from the meandering essay “Motifs” in the collection Quasi una Fantasia:
Among the most infamous phrases used to defeat changes in musical consciousness is that of the ‘trendsetting or pioneering work.’ A work of art legitimates itself historically only by virtue of its uniqueness and intrinsic validity. Only works which have truth and consistency can impinge on the historical process. The specific work can never be reconstructed or deduced from the historical totality; on the contrary, the totality is contained within its most minute cell. But by substituting a connection with the presumed course of history for insight into that unique concrete arttefact the critic defects from the work and escapes into a future which, as often as not, turns out to be the past. If a work points in new direcions it raises the hope that it will not be necessary to expend too much effort on it, since it is nothing but a stopping point along the track which will surely lead into the Grand Central Station of the great platitudes.
The same critique can probably be applied to other disciplines as well. Information Theory lives in the shadow of Shannon’s landmark 1948 paper, and sometimes one feels that Shannon was Moses coming down from the mountain, to hear people talk about it. It’s not often situated within the historical context or phrased as part of a particular line of thought or collection of concerns. This not to downplay Shannon’s contribution to the field, of course, but it’s more an observation of the post-hoc discussion of his works. Other papers are sometimes accorded a similar status — the Ahlswede et al. paper on network coding may be an example. This is different from papers which have beautiful results, although often the two go hand in hand. Do these pioneering papers really come out of the blue? It ignores the connections between that work and other related ideas that have been floating about.
There’s also a niggling notion that your PhD thesis should also be one of these “trendsetting works.” What’s being ignored again is process. Is a thesis the culmination of work, a demonstration of your potential to do interesting work, a document of “what I did in grad school,” a proposal for a new avenue of research, or…?