A way out: On anger

Today someone made me angry, and I made that person angry in turn. I happen to think my anger was more justified, but my interlocutor’s was apparently more intense — after a certain point, I was inclined to mend bridges and they pointedly refused to even respond to me and then walked out of the room. And that makes me distrust myself, on a gut level. I feel exhausted.

When I walked into my class immediately after this incident, I asked if I could be open and honest and told them that something had made me very angry, which I couldn’t talk about, and which had nothing to do with them. It was initially mysterious to me that I felt the need to do this, that I was so sure it was right and necessary to do. My affect can be a little inscrutable, even to people who know me as well as these students do at this point, so I probably had plausible deniability in any case.

But as I pondered over this issue on the train, scrolling through Facebook endlessly because I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I saw that I had to let them know because no one ever told me that when I was growing up. Continue reading “A way out: On anger”

A canon of rivals

Last night, I gave a talk on the Temptation of Christ at an event for the DePaul Humanities Center. My focus was on the devil’s offer to give Christ all the kingdoms of this world, which I used as a starting point for tracing the roots of apocalyptic in the Jewish tradition and its legacy in Christianity. One point I emphasized was the intertwining of religious and political concerns in the second and third temptations, which Matthew and Luke present in a different order. I suggested that this differing order might indicate a certain interchangeability between the political and the religious.

Whenever I make claims like this, the angel of biblical scholarship always appears on my shoulder and starts saying things like: “You don’t know that Matthew and Luke knew of each other’s work! They could have both been reworking a shared oral tradition, etc., etc.” And on my other shoulder, an angel of not-caring appears, saying, “You know what? We can’t know any of that for sure. All we know for sure is the texts we actually have in front of us, and they certainly give an impression of being in rivalry with each other!”

Finally, forced to mediate between these two influences — and I’ll let you decide which is good and which is evil — I decide that the angel of biblical scholarship is right to advise caution, but that the angel of not-caring is ultimately pointing us toward something that is more interesting. I don’t have to make a hard historical claim that Luke read Matthew and decided he could do better, but it’s more interesting than hand-waving toward an “oral tradition.” It’s more discussable if you start from the premise that Luke took a look at Matthew’s Nativity narrative and said, “Wow, this is a hot mess — it needs a serious rewrite!”

I would go so far as to extend this to the Gospel of John as well. I know, I know — it probably represents an independent oral tradition (Ockham’s principle of ontological parsimony is not among the axioms of biblical scholarship), which furthermore was written by a community rather than a single author, etc., etc. People have made good arguments for that, and far be it from me to presume that I could overthrow the scholarly consensus. But again, we can’t know any of that for sure, and treating John as an attempt to “correct” the synoptics is just more interesting and discussable in my opinion.

This tendency to favor the angel of not-caring might stem from my experience in the Great Books classroom, where my goal is less to ensure students follow disciplinary guidelines and more to get them engaged with the texts as directly as possible. In that setting, gesturing toward some hypothetical entity like an “oral tradition,” which by definition we can never have access to, is a distraction from our work on the text that we actually have in front of us. When someone swoops in with that kind of #actually, experience shows that conversation gets shut down. Better to start with the bold, or even over-bold, hypothesis, which at least gets us digging through the text itself.

Actually, it would likely be more accurate to say that my pre-existing impatience with disciplinarity made a Great Books setting congenial to me — and classroom experience affirmed my intuitions in this regard.

Even the dead: On Martin Luther King Day

Walter Benjamin famously, and somewhat enigmatically, declared that “even the dead won’t be safe from the enemy if he is victorious.” The example that leaps to mind for me is Martin Luther King, the increasingly revolutionary leader who was assassinated by white America and then made into an icon of its progress. So, for instance, the National Review — a right-wing publication that was against him every step of the way — can commemorate this day with an obscene appropriation that reduces the great man to a motivational slogan:

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Similarly, the Washington Post has seen fit to mark this day by publishing a column declaring Martin Luther King a true conservative who stood up for American values. The column initially seems well-intentioned, but it’s much more about restoring the cultural prestige of conservatism in the face of Trump than about affirming King’s authentic legacy.

King was never mainstream. Even the nice liberals worried that he was going too far, moving too fast. The gains he made came after his movement had, through great sacrifice and suffering, undeniably shown up the ugliness and violence of racism. He didn’t proceed by appealing to our best instincts, unless it was by the indirect route of holding up a mirror to our very worst instincts. And now he’s become a tool for asserting white righteousness and, more often than not, shaming the very people who uphold his legacy of protest that is non-violent but far from peaceful — because it reveals the war that has always been at the heart of our sick society. Indeed, other than MLK Day itself, I am struggling to remember a time when his name has been evoked other than as a weapon against organizers in the black community.

Even the dead will not be safe. They kill the man, then kill the legacy — by actively blinding themselves to it.

Politics as Weather

Wake up, check the weather, and dress appropriately. People do it everyday. Sure, some climates, like that in the UK, are unpredictable and change throughout the day. That 20% of rain means it’ll probably rain at some point and that’s what the expandable umbrella tucked in the bottom of a bag is for. There is no way the weather will pass without affecting those who live under its regime, so the rain will soak some, the sun will burn others, pollen will enflame the nasal passages, and so on. There is not much one can do, in the end, to escape the weather.

For some time this is how I have related to politics. It’s probably a bit too pastoral an image for some and it certainly is not heroic. But it does capture something of the reality.  I get online in the mornings, no longer muttering fuck after months of intense therapy to confront and accept my anxiety, and I read the posts of those who know. Everyone appears to know what’s probably going to happen, or why it happened, or what we should to stop it. It would be interesting if it wasn’t so pathetic. Knowing is important; knowing is power. I think of this scene in that (admittedly rather poor) documentary about Negri where he looks at a picture of his younger self behind bars in some Italian dock (as if placing defendants in a cage isn’t prejudicial). He says that, speaking of his merit, he never lost the intelligence (a word he settles on after rejecting the word “hope”) to understand everything that was happening to him, despite the contradictions. That intelligence is not on display on social media chatter about the state of politics. My own understanding is perhaps idiosyncratic, but I have no less faith in my intelligence for knowledge than any of the intelligent people I follow. The energy to speculate may be lacking. Frankly it feels like it might make me ever stupider if I expended it.

So, I treat it like the weather. My anger hasn’t gone away, but it’s anger at the storm blowing out of paradise. And how do you fight a storm? You weather it, learn to escape it, to find places of refuge, to shelter others from its violence with your own body. But the time to affect the climate for good, to change the weather, is long past.

 

Mark Fisher

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Mark Fisher. Mark was one of the pioneers of theory blogging and para-academic independent publishing. I learned a great deal from his blogging at K-punk, where he wrote incisive political commentary and undertook bold philosophical speculation, and he blazed a trail when he published Capitalist Realism, which brought the Zero Books series (now succeeded by Repeater Books) to international prominence. He supported a lot of us in this corner of the blogosphere, and I personally owe him a debt of gratitude as his recommendation helped make the publication of Awkwardness and its sequels possible.

Mark was truly a model of how to pursue a life of public intellectual engagement for a generation of young thinkers.

Long-term goals

For the past couple months, I’ve been working on a couple projects that fulfill long-term goals. I’m going to finally have a published French translation on the books, which I have been hoping to do ever since I was thwarted in my attempt to publish the Derrida translation I did as my masters thesis. And I’m getting tantalizingly close to completing an edited volume, which hasn’t been a major ambition of mine but feels like the kind of thing every academic should do at least once.

This put me in mind of other longer-term goals that I have had in mind for a significant period:

  • Learning to read biblical Hebrew and classical Arabic — I bought all the books for Hebrew many years ago, but the can keeps getting kicked down the road. More recently, I was told that Hebrew would be a good stepping stone to learning Arabic, and being able to do at least some minimal “compare-and-contrast” work with the original text of the Qur’an would be cool.
  • Teaching a Natural Sciences course at Shimer — I really enjoyed the opportunity to take Shimer’s chemistry course as part of my training, and I’ve taught some evolutionary theory in an interdisciplinary course, so I think I could make a go at our lower-level Natural Sciences curriculum. I almost got to do the chemistry course this semester as an overload, but it turned out to be more practical to let one of the traditional science faculty do it. (A next step beyond this goal would be to teach the whole Shimer curriculum, but realistically speaking, the upper-level science courses are really hard.)
  • Gaining teaching competence in a non-monotheistic tradition — Being pushed to teach Islam a few years ago was a really great experience that stretched me in a lot of ways. While I hope I get to continue deepening my knowledge of Islam through teaching, it would also be an interesting challenge to take a step further out of my comfort zone of monotheistic/prophetic traditions.

What about you, readers? Do you have any very long-term goals that you keep in the back of your mind?

Obama’s last, best gift

In recent days, some people have been joking that Obama should resign a few days before the end of his term so that Biden can say he was president. In some iterations, this is a way of subtley screwing over Trump, who has already received gifts addressed to the “45th president” and a brief Biden interregnum would make him 46th.

I of course support this plan, but I think it could be taken a step further: Biden should also resign the day before Trump’s inauguration. This would make Paul Ryan President, and since it is not permitted to hold two government offices at once, he would have to resign his House seat. Presumably he could win again in a special election, and he could technically be elected Speaker again even without being a member of the House, but reopening the question of who should be Speaker could throw things into chaos.

There’s a certain poetry to it, insofar as one of the highlights of Biden’s vice-presidential career was screwing with Paul Ryan in the debate. I also like the idea of potentially derailing, or at least complicating, Ryan’s career by giving him what is so clearly his ultimate goal: “You’re an ambitious young man, clearly you want to be president — well, here you go!”

Critique of Judgment

Presumably we have all seen The Social Network, or at least heard of the primal scene of Facebook that it stages. One night, a bored Mark Zuckerberg uses his ability to type really fast to set up a website to judge the hotness of the women of Harvard. It proves so popular that it threatens to bring down Harvard’s entire computer network. Here was the kernel of Facebook, with a foretaste of its worldwide success.

While it has evolved into something far more complex than its “hot or not” roots, Facebook is still a technology for passing judgment. The zero-level gesture of engagement with Facebook is to click “like,” a positive judgment that was recently diversified to allow one to express a range of judgments corresponding to the range of emotions we learn to name in kindergarten. People have found many other uses for it as well — it is, after all, a flexible discursive medium — but the core functionality remains that of passing judgment. It is the easiest thing to do on Facebook, almost effortless.

Continue reading “Critique of Judgment”

Varieties of atheistic experience

There are three varieties of atheism. Only one of them is actually interesting.

  1. “Matter of course” atheism — this is the position that belief in God is clearly superfluous, both for explaining the natural world and for developing a coherent moral code. It’s not a matter of deep conviction, hence not very interesting in itself.
  2. “Smarter than you” atheism — this is the worst kind, represented by the New Atheists. It goes beyond “matter of course” atheism by supposing that atheism can be a positive doctrine that must combat benighted religious doctrines. It always threatens to veer toward racism, because when they notice societies where atheism has failed to make major inroads, they start to wonder if there’s something… intrinsically wrong with them, you know, as a group.
  3. Protest atheism — this is the only kind worth discussing, because it calls the God of monotheism to account for the injustice and suffering in the world. Interestingly, from my perspective, it continues along the path laid out by monotheism itself, which is grounded in a demand for a divine principle of justice. Protest atheism holds onto that demand while pointing out how monotheism itself failed to deliver on its own promise.

“Smarter than you” atheism sometimes incorporates elements of protest atheism in the form of a moral or political critique of the effects of religion. But that aspect is grounded in the basic assumption that religious beliefs are false and therefore holding them makes you stupid — meaning, as a corollary, that you do stupid and destructive things. By contrast, the smart atheist, free of the blinders of religion, has arrived at the best and truest way of life: secular liberal capitalism. So the end result of being really smart, unlike those religious freaks, is conformism, leaving us to wonder whether all the harsh rhetoric and college dormroom “gotchas” were worth it in the end.

Protest atheism, for its part, always threatens to collapse into “smarter than you” atheism when suffering and injustice become steps in a disproof of theistic beliefs rather than representing a genuine and heartfelt outrage. Even so, protest atheism at least preserves the sense that the world is not as it should be — and unlike the impoverished social critique of “smarter than you” atheism, it does not scapegoat some particular group or belief system (“If only we could get rid of those idiot religious people, we could have our utopia of reason!”). This scapegoating instinct is another element in the elective affinity between “smarter than you” atheism and racism.