Pacing myself

I’ve been thinking lately about which projects I choose to undertake.

For instance, I look at the two projects I’m wrapping up right now — a translation of Nicole Loraux’s “War in the Family” (the essay Agamben discusses at length in Stasis) and Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, the edited volume on Agamben’s sources. In the former case, I saw the opportunity to get a published French translation on the books while contributing to the field in a material way. In the latter case, I felt I had a good idea, I had never done an edited volume before, and I had a highly capable co-editor (Carlo Salzani, one of the hardest-working men in academia). Both were “might as well” kinds of things. I was in no position, either intellectually or practically, to embark on a major new research project before The Prince of This World had even appeared, so they seemed like good ways to bide my time. One benefit was that they were one-off projects — I am not going to begin a career as a major Loraux scholar (nor indeed as a French translator) or a serial editor of volumes.

The other major idea I’m kicking around initially seemed that way, namely, publishing my Australia/New Zealand talk on the devil and neoliberalism in some form. The whole trip was something of a “might as well” — I had this idea to present the ideas from my book in a way that’s especially relevant to contemporary concerns, I had an opportunity to do some travel I would likely never do on my own, etc. Attempting to publish it initially seemed like a way of clearing the decks on that particular project, until some of the research I did on neoliberalism convinced me there was something bigger to say than I could say in an article. Not only that, but I felt that working through the problems I was pondering in this connection might lay the groundwork for my “next big project” — a genealogical study of the Trinity.

So now I intend to write a book on political theology and neoliberalism and have even gone so far as to draw up a proposal to send to my editor. This is more than a “might as well” project. In fact, it combines the two other main motivations that guide my work process. The first is the simple consideration of an idea for long enough that I feel I must make use of it. This is what happened with Why We Love Sociopaths and, eventually, Creepiness — though there was no apparent need for me to write either of them, I had basically been living with the ideas for so long that I just had to put it out there. (By contrast, Awkwardness was a “might as well” project.)

The second, and presumably most important factor, is the sense of contributing to some bigger, overarching project — namely, the Trinity idea, which I see as building on some of the ideas I put forth in The Prince of This World. The strange thing about this motivation is that it actually produces the least visible output. During all the years I was pondering the concepts behind The Prince of This World, I wasn’t churning out journal articles with shorter studies of individual texts and concepts, etc. From a lot of perspectives, that is probably exactly what I should have been doing, instead of producing a ton of totally unrelated stuff that renders my CV illegible to any traditional department. If I were in a traditional department rather than a teaching-centered position that requires no research of me, I likely would have followed that wiser and more legible path. Instead, I was giving the occasional talk, teaching courses on the devil, even writing an invited article when push came to shove — but I was mainly just saying that I was working on a book on the devil.

And lo and behold, it turns out I was — as demonstrated by the fact that you can buy it wherever fine books are sold. And a big part of the way that I managed to get it done, it appears in retrospect, was through structured procrastination — which is to say by repurposing all those apparently unrelated projects as steps toward the long-awaited devil book. Hence when I spent a summer writing Creepineess and putting together my book of Agamben essays with Colby Dickinson, I was doing it so that those projects would be out of the way, freeing me to finally work on the devil book.

Now I am perhaps moving into a new phase. As I conceive it, the book on political theology and neoliberalism does, after all, contribute more directly to the “next big project,” both methodologically and conceptually. I may even be so bold as to try out an article or two on the Trinity before turning directly to the book form — just as soon as I clear the decks of the edited volume, and the translations (not only Loraux, but another one by Agamben), and maybe some ideas I’ve been kicking around on the concept of the prequel….