Ten Books For Your Summer Reading

It’s summer! Hopefully this means you have a little down time to read books you might not otherwise. Though it is literally my job to make such recommendations, I thought I might do so here for free, as well. I’m focusing on independent presses for a couple of reasons, but I’ll spare you the sermon. Short version: big publishers get plenty of publicity already.

  • Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Kintu (Transit Books) — It’s a big, dense book. But, alas, such is life! Quit your whining. It’s worth every page, this one. I love enormous stories where the coursing, cursed bloodline of a family tells the story of something so much larger. Makumbi’s book is a story about Uganda, true, and while she is definitely not interested in Anglocizing it for you, it’s one of the achievements of the novel that neither is this compromise necessary.
  • Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (Sarabande Books) — I can’t say enough good about this essay collection. There has been some talk about how maybe the internet has wore out the essay-form for a bit. That’s probably bunk however you spin it, but Passarello rips it to shred and feeds it to birds (who surely should know better than to eat paper). Anyway: this is the best new essay collection of the year. Come at me.
  • Mathias Énard, Compass [trans. Charlotte Mandell] (New Directions) — Another big book, I’m sorry. And, yes, it is one of those books — long, semi-florid sentences; self-obsessed male narrator; West reflecting on East. Somehow, though, Énard more than pulls this off. I’ve liked everything of his I’ve read thus far, but this feels like what he’s been building toward. Kotsko, especially take notice of all the music in this book. Compass has tapped into something very special, and I suspect it’ll be one we’re talking about for some time.
  • Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet [trans. Jerónimo Pizarro & Margaret Jull Costa] (New Directions) — You probably have heard of this one. Maybe you even own one of the translations. I don’t know … there’s just something about this time and place that begs for us all to return to Pessoa’s classic. The quintessential example of the book that took a lifetime to write, and has been a lifeline for so many.
  • Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives [trans. Minna Zallman Proctor] (New Directions) — Another book from New Directions. They’re always solid, but they really hit a good stride this year. This is a very slim collection of essays about three writers — De Quincey, Keats, & Marcel Schwob (more on him in a second) — but its so mighty in its effect and sheer style. A perfect length to hole up with you for an afternoon or evening at the bar.
  • Marcel Schwob, The King in the Golden Mask [trans. Kit Schluter] (Wakefield Press) — Speaking of Schwob, I can’t tell you how happy I am that Wakefield Press (and translator Kit Schluter) are making him more readily accessible in English. Vicious and sublime, dark and hallucinatory, reading him for the first time somehow leaves a mark on your subsequent reading. A master storyteller, whose influences you feel and influence is felt … even if too rarely identified as such.
  • Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (Graywolf) — This is somehow Soldier’s first book of poetry. It’s staggeringly good. I’ll leave her to describe it: “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation—and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” Every word of this is woven into her debut collection. Whereas will be rightly lauded with awards come fall.
  • Ibn Khālawayh, Names of the Lion [trans. David Larsen] (Wave Books) — Probably a curious choice, but I think many of you will really dig this. A cult classic you couldn’t get your hand on for years, this is David Larsen’s English translation of the 10th-century Arabic lexicographer Ibn Khālawayh’s list of names of lions. Larsen is a poet himself and an Arabic scholar, both of which shine through in his introduction and stellar notations throughout the collection. He notes that Ibn Khālawayh would in no way have regarded his intent as poetic, but there’s no denying that something poetic is happening in Larsen’s engagement with his work.
  • Leonora Carrington, The Complete Stories (Dorothy Project) — During a time that is too-often-to-be-useful called “surreal,” it’s helpful that so much actual surrealism is coming back into print. Leading the charge is Leonora Carrington. Here you have debutante’s swapping roles with a wolf, both of whom are hungry for something different; a rocking horses suffering its fate; and, naturally corpses. It’s weird to call Carrington “a joy,” and yet indulging such weirdness also feels perfectly appropriate.
  • Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida (Coffee House Press) — I’m delighted that this debut novel has been garnering such great reviews. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, it’s hard to deny it is a perfect vehicle for storytelling. Goal-oriented monomania . . . it drives the athlete as much as it does any Ahab. Gabe Habash has crafted a really special book. One of the best sports novels I’ve ever read … and surely one of the year’s best novels, period.

Incarnation and the Child of/in Crisis: The Keys, the Cuffs, and the Racial

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

–Matthew 16:19

Pagans and infidels are bound by the power and judgement of the keys, because those who do not believe have already been judged.

–Augustinus Triumphus, 1214-13381

On May 8, anno Domini, 2017, the NYCLU released a report detailing the “outsized role” that NYPD police officers play in the “extreme racial disparities” evident in which NYC public school students are given summonses, arrested, and “unnecessarily handcuffed.”2 3 The data indicates that in 2016, 99% of NYC public school students handcuffed in “child in crisis” incidents were coded as Black and Latinx. The so-called child “in crisis” is a student designated by NYPD police officers, school administrators, and safety officers as “displaying signs of emotional distress.” The student is handcuffed, removed from the classroom, and then remanded to a hospital setting for a psychological evaluation. An “actual” crisis, psychological, or otherwise is not necessary for the initiation of the “child in crisis” operation, simply the belief of/in one, so determined by the adjudicating authority.

The framing offered by the NYCLU locates the “problem” in the extremity of the racial disparities. The elimination of racial excess and “unnecessary handcuffing” are the stated aspirations toward keeping “students and staff safe.” In the words of NYCLU Advocacy Director Johanna Miller, “the NYPD should not treat schools as places to hunt for students they believe committed a crime off of school grounds. Students should never be afraid to go to school.” The hunters should be made to abide by the permitted bounds, the warren of their fair game limited to the gates of public schools, lest crisis grant them permission to transgress in the pursuit of safety. The “problem” is a paradox. Crisis is ever present not in the figure of the “child in crisis,” but the ever present, yet constituitively foreclosed racial crisis, and it’s incarnations, the children of crisis. We are offered an account of “the problem” from the formation that institutes the conditions under which “the problem” emerges. An account that names “excess racial disparity” as the evil, forecloses the extension of this “solution” as but another operation of authority. Racial disparity becomes that which must be overcome in the pursuit of grace, yet the life of grace is racial.

Authority is the anima of the police and all that constitutes the legible and illegible life of the crisis. Domination obscures itself as a condition of its institution. Never in question, the decisions issuing the distinctions that render crisis legible are also the resources that extend the possibility of resolving conflict within it’s dominion. Authority is emancipation, so gleaning an essence of legitimacy from the peformative transcendence of its adjudication. Crisis is Racial Life. That what might have been a child is now annihilated, consumed in the sacramental performative act of binding evil. Hancuffed, there by the grace of god goes race.

Jared Rodríguez is a Doctoral Candidate in African American Studies at Northwestern University. Their forthcoming dissertation, Apocalyptic Blackness: The (Im)Possibility of Political Theology in Four Chapters, offers an account of the Christanity of Anti-Blackness and Racialized Modernity.

  1. Wilks, Michael. 2008. The problem of sovereignty in the later Middle Ages: the Papal monarchy with Augustinus Triumphus and the publicists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pg. 414. Original Latin: Pagani et infideles potestate clavium ligati sunt et iudicati, quia qui non credunt iam iudicati sunt. Translation mine. 
  2. Anno Domini is Latin for year of the/our Lord (Christ). 
  3. City School Safety Data Shows Handcuffs Used Disproportionately On Black And Latino Children, https://www.nyclu.org/en/news/city-school-safety-data-shows-handcuffs-used-disproportionately-black-and-latino-children 

Agamben translation update

I have completed a full draft of my translation of Agamben’s Karman: A Brief Treatise on Action, Guilt, and Gesture. A lot of work remains to polish and whip it into bibliographical shape, but that is all mop-up. The Italian version does not seem to have been published yet, so this could wind up being one of the smallest gaps between the original and the English translation in the history of Agamben (not due to anything I did, just coincidentally).

The text brings together a lot of familiar themes in a new way, and it includes some quite unexpected references to Buddhist thought (which ultimately seem to be doing much the same work his account of the Myth of Er from Plato’s Republic). I think it will help people to get a little more purchase on Opus Dei, which is one of those texts that seemingly fell onto the philosophical scene with a great deadening thud, and also some of what he’s trying to do with responsibility and guilt in Sacrament of Language — but tying the themes from both texts more closely to his concern with law (which is, additionally, more obviously “relevant” to contemporary life than either liturgy or oaths). So out of the small trickle of tiny books I’ve translated since The Use of Bodies, this feels like probably the most significant text.

The nihilism of the “Republican overreach” strategy

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Democrats want people to suffer. They conceive this suffering as educational, teaching people a valuable lesson about not choosing the smart, sensible party. Yet there is an undeniable element of jouissance when we see liberal Twitter luminaries and respectable columnists declaring that Trump voters deserve what they get. That’ll teach them!

This demand for suffering is different from that of the Republicans, who want people to suffer as an end in itself. Democrats hold out the prospect of redemption, of becoming a meritocratic college graduate regardless of your background, of joining a diverse and hopeful ruling class. But if you unaccountably choose not to do so, despite all the nudging of incentives, then you deserve what you get.

This strategy appears to be reaching a terminal phase. First we have the evidence that the Clinton campaign encouraged Trump’s candidacy because they viewed him as more beatable. Surely, faced with the omnishambles of Trump, the American people would eat their vegetables and keep their date with history by electing Hillary! Even if this strategy had worked, however, it would have done incalculable damage, filling the airwaves with racism and boasts about sexual abuse, giving a lunatic an unlimited public platform to incite violence, and all the while coming up against the media’s deep-seated desire to normalize whatever comes out of the two major parties. Creating a world in which Trump is possible, in which he is one of the options on the table, is not worth it, especially for what would have turned out to be a demoralizing four to eight years of divided government at best.

Now they are doubling down. There are rumors that the Democrats are not going to “go nuclear” on the American Health Care Act — “going nuclear” being their term for the fillibuster, which the Republicans deployed for literally every bill, nomination, and request for a bathroom pass throughout Obama’s term. [CORRECTION: The “nuclear” option refers to using procedural means to halt all business in the Senate; if the bill qualifies for reconciliation, no fillibuster is possible. I still maintain my broader point and think they should in fact do the “nuclear option.”] In a context when the House Democrats spontaneously broke out in song to celebrate Republicans’ self-inflicted wound, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they want to allow this abomination — which will quite literally kill people — in the hopes of reaping electoral rewards. Even as a political strategy, this makes no sense: Wouldn’t it help their case if they could say that they had done everything they could to stop it? It’s as though they don’t want to take the risk of actually stopping it, because they view the death and deprivation and arbitrary cruelty that will follow in the wake of the Republicans’ demolition of the Democrats’ only tangible achievement of our young century as a necessary step to electing more Democrats.

This is the point where you remember that the lesser evil is still evil.

Politics and Persuasion

Approximately every two weeks, I go on a mini-rant on Twitter about people pointing out Republican hypocrisy. The most recent occasion was a juxtaposition between two tweets from Newt Gingrich, one praising the special prosecutor and the other freaking out over him. Clearly, the two tweets were saying different and incompatible things. That is indisputable. The deeper truth here, though, is that someone spent part of their finite time on earth reading, studying, and screen-capping tweets from Newt Gingrich, in the apparent belief that this would produce some kind of political result. I mourn for that person’s lost time, for irreplaceable moments of life that they will never get back.

And why do I mourn? Because Newt Gingrich just kind of “says stuff.” We all know this. He says whatever seems helpful to his personal ambitions and those of the movement with which he is aligned. Often, this takes the form of saying things solely to piss off liberals. He is not making an argument. He is not striving for consistency. He is not even really trying to persuade people of anything, at least not in a sense that would be familiar in a classroom, for instance.

Arguing against self-serving bullshit is worse than a waste of time — it degrades the very idea of debate. It spuriously grants bullshit the dignity of an argument. You can’t debate with Newt Gingrich because he’s not debating. He’s fighting. And though he is a political non-entity right now, he led a nationwide movement that just about strangled the Clinton presidency to death (and arguably made a second Clinton presidency impossible by spreading crazy accusations and conspiracy theories). So at this late date, for people not to know what Newt Gingrich is, for people to approach him as though he’s a potential dialogue partner even in the minimal mode of pointing out that he’s not — it’s upsetting.

This is not to say that politics shouldn’t be about persuasion, but persuasion isn’t about winning the argument. In fact, winning the argument can often make people hate and distrust you. (See, for example, the last forty years of US politics.)

Trump shows us there just shouldn’t be a president in the first place

The existence of a chief executive officer of the state introduces a conceptual problem: how can you enforce the law against the person who has the final say on law enforcement? It is not possible for this enforcement to come from within the executive itself, because that would introduce an infinite regress problem — the only person who could enforce the law against the president would be a meta-president, and who could take action against the meta-president who failed to enforce the law properly, etc., etc.? The legislative and judicial branches technically “check” the behavior of the executive, but the Bush era shows how easy it is for a motivated executive to elude both constraints: by issuing “signing statements” declaring the intention to construe laws in counterintuitive ways, for instance, or by either ignoring court orders or carrying out illegal activities in places where the courts do not have jurisdiction. Both restraints are fatally weakened by the necessity that it is precisely the executive branch that must carry out the law and the legal judgments — putting us right back where we started.

The congressional power of impeachment is the only effective check on presidential action, but it presents an almost impossibly high bar to removal. Only in the most extreme circumstances will there be a 2/3 majority of the Senate willing to actually remove a president, even leaving aside partisan loyalties. The fact that no president has ever been impeached and removed from office should show that the impeachment power is all but a dead letter. (Nixon is not a good counterexample — he left office on his own terms and was pardoned by his successor, avoiding all legal consequences for his crimes.)

The only answer is not to have a president in the first place. An executive with its own independent popular mandate is a disaster waiting to happen, especially when the path to impeachment is so arduous. Even worse is the fact that there is no provision for a special replacement election, making it virtually impossible to remove an entire administration.

The parliamentary model, where the executive is a creature of the legislature, is the solution to this well-known problem. Any government that does not maintain the confidence of the majority of the legislative can be removed through a simple vote, and elections can generally be called at any time. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to imagine the US heading in a more parliamentary direction, due to the huge obstacles to amending the constitution — we can’t even get rid of the Electoral College, for God’s sake! — and so the most likely constitutional evolution will be to continue along our current path toward more and more dictatorial power for the president.

Trump’s foolishness and incompetence might slow that progress, just as Nixon’s betrayal of trust did, but we cannot realistically expect that even the successful removal or resignation of Trump would lead to a full reversal. If anything, his unique personal qualities could further reinforce the legitimacy of the presidential regime as such, as long as a “normal” candidate occupies the office.

Help me plan an introduction to Augustine-and-essay-writing

I’ve inherited a first year course called ‘Great Christian Thinkers’, which has two parts: in one semester the idea is to help students understand what’s expected of them in the transition from school to university (high school to school, maybe, in US parlance?) by going through the process of writing an essay about Augustine together over the course of a semester. The idea is to do a mixture of practical and theoretical introductions both to academic work and to Augustine as a foundational figure for Western thought. The second half of the course will look at a range of important Christian thinkers, hopefully applying some of the lessons of semester 1 to the texts we’re reading; I need to work out at some point who I want to include in my canon, but have a little longer to make those decisions so am putting that on the back burner for now.

I’ll have a mixture of theology and philosophy students in my class, so need to try to pitch the classes in a way that will appeal to both. I’m hoping to find some fun exercises to make some basic study and essay-writing skills interesting, and to somehow balance giving the students an introduction to Augustine and some of the secondary literature on Augustine with trying to think about some of the fundamental questions they’ll want to bring to the texts they read over the course of their degree (what’s the role of gender in the text? What are the basic metaphors and how do they shape the argument? What key binaries are at work and where do they start to collapse? What’s the relationship between the social and historical context and the texts we’re reading?) So I’m looking for general advice and suggestions, but especially helpful would be:

  • any recommendations on books, activities or guides covering basic study and essay writing skills
  • your favourite Augustine texts (that are suitable for first year undergrads), both primary and secondary
  • any ideas about things you wish *your* students had learnt early on in their degree