During our sojourn in place, I have found myself unable to concentrate on much of anything beyond the immediate task in hand. Reformatting my courses for online delivery — then, inevitably, reformatting them again when the first version didn’t seem to be working — has been time-consuming, trying to keep the various discussions moving has been more draining than normal in-person classes, and keeping in contact with all the students who seem to be falling behind has been more difficult and stressful. This was in a semester when I already had three fresh preps in three radically different subjects, which is fun but also requires a lot of energy to keep up with. I am normally not able to do any considerable outside writing or research late in the semester, but at this point it feels like I am completely intellectually spent. I have actually welcomed the production work on my forthcoming monograph and translation, as relatively mechanical labor that keeps me busy without taking a lot of mental energy. Without the time commitment of commuting, I have been able to keep up more with studying the Qur’an in Arabic than I otherwise would have, but that too is more a matter of just putting in the time and flipping through the dictionary and trusting that I’ll gradually get better — I am not having startling creative insights so far.
Outside of those routines, I have mostly been binging TV, walking the dog, and drinking, on average, 10-15% too much. But I have found time for two intellectual activites: resuming my reading of Thomas Pynchon, whose work I have been revisiting during break periods for the last few years, and translating short pieces by Giorgio Agamben on the coronavirus crisis. The latter has put me in the uncomfortable position of being the person most available for people to share their responses to Agamben’s articles, which certainly do not represent my own personal opinion about the coronavirus crisis and which are weak in obvious ways and in ways that his work is usually not weak. I don’t feel comfortable speaking on Agamben’s behalf or defending him, though I have sometimes found myself drawn into arguments about his pieces because people seem to be responding in uninteresting or unhelpful ways. I have never viewed myself as an Agamben disciple, and in fact a colleague once expressed surprise and concern that Agamben let me translate his work when I’m so critical. Personally, I have always felt that the very least interesting thing you can do with an author or a text is agree or disagree with them, and I see Agamben’s work as a set of tools to think with and problems to think through, rather than a doctrine to accept or reject.
Does this sound like hemming and hawing? Maybe! But I do think that the weakness in Agamben’s response to the coronavirus crisis is about more than factual errors or one-sided views, and in fact it reflects one of the most powerful engines of his thought — indeed, reflects what has made him such a perceptive critic of Western institutions. My reading of Agamben has convinced me that he has a gut-level distrust of strong institutions, of ideological conformity, of anyone professing to have a monopoly on the truth. This distrust applied to the Italian Communist Party in his youth, to the scientific establishment that sapped the life out of the projects in the humanities that so excited him in the 60s and 70s, to the democratic state and its supposedly post-ideological economic order in the 90s to today. That instinctive conviction that structures of power and power-knowledge are, in the last analysis, always up to no good is what has allowed his critiques to be so thorough-going, because he is always willing to push past the apparent “good version” or “normal functioning” of an apparatus to the rotten core that animates it even in the best of times. Is his approach one-sided? Yes. Does he miss a lot that is promising and redemptive and leave himself very little room to specify a viable alternative? Absolutely. But I personally do not read Agamben, or any other thinker for that matter, to be told what to do. He has his strengths and his weaknesses, and both have been intellectually productive for me. And because of the profound impact he has had on my life, my thought, and my career, I have translated his articles about coronavirus even though I worry that he is damaging his reputation and simply being stubborn in an unproductive way.
At the same time this has been going on, I have been reading Pynchon’s Against the Day — slowly, deliberately, trying to keep all the various moving parts together in my mind. It is Pynchon’s most explicitly anarchistic novel, as character after character gets caught up in the labor movement — which in Pynchon’s presentation is purely anarchistic, not socialist or party-oriented — and cannot resist the siren-call of anarchism. And I’ll admit it, I hear that call. I would never in a million years identify as an anarchist, because I will never identify clearly as anything, even as a follower of the guy I have done an edited volume, a co-authored essay collection, and a scholarly monograph on, not to mention translating ten of his books — using language skills that I developed exclusively to read his stuff without having to wait for the translations. We could probably have a really interesting conversation about why that is, about why I only made an effort to meet him after doing all that, just as I only made an effort to meet Žižek after I had published a book on him and spent many years thinking out loud about his work on various blogs. That is probably related to my attraction to anarchy — to the appeal, for me, of a negation or subtraction that becomes its own new kind of life.
That is, in a way, how I view my own relation to my evangelical upbringing, and it is certainly determined by the evangelical conviction that it is possible, somehow, to get past all the bullshit and just do the thing. That is what evangelicals are offering, at the end of the day, and it is a message that has great appeal for white Americans, who are of course eager to be free of the baggage of history and simply live. In this, Pynchon is a deeply American author despite (or — isn’t this always the way? — because of) his deep distrust of all actually existing American institutions and his profound awareness of the rolling disaster of American history. My evangelical mind resonated profoundly with his vision of Trystero’s silent empire in The Crying of Lot 49, a kind of inverse community of losers whose very rejection by the wider society constituted a more livable social bond — and in fact, I even wrote a paper entitled “A Plain Account of Christian Paranoia,” in which I tied the promise of the Wesleyan movement (which was at the root of the Church of the Nazarene, which provided the host body for the variant on the virus of evangelicalism that was to determine the path of my life) to Pynchon’s vision of a shadow society, just barely discernable in the interstices of ours. Which is to say — even at that late date (when I had formally left the evangelical church), I was trying to find that redeemable impulse, that source of attraction.
I have talked a lot about what was bad in my evangelical upbringing, and that is indeed the appropriate emphasis. But there were moments that were good — moments of authenticity that made me sympathize with the impulse at least. One night jumps out at me. It was a Wednesday night prayer service, at some odd time of the year when the church was running on a skeleton crew. There was no youth group or choir practice, just the service. Inevitably — even though there was nary a new face to be seen anywhere — there was an altar call. And something strange happened: everyone responded, even me, who was normally such a laggard in such matters. We all gathered at the front of the church, at the altar, and we didn’t just individually pray, but had a discussion about the church as a community. Some people shared a deep sense of injury at being excluded or made to feel inferior or unimportant, and my sense was that the targets of this critique actually listened and actually apologized in a heartfelt way. I may have been naive about the proceedings, because I was only in junior high at the oldest, and I certainly don’t know whether it made any long-term difference in anyone’s behavior (ours was definitely a cliquish and status-conscious church). But it made an impression. For hours, we all sat and talked authentically, like human beings, about important things. Was this the Holy Spirit? I remember telling some kids at school about it the next day, not to “witness” but more just to process it, and they had no idea what I was talking about. They were typically sarcastic: “Oh my God, you were there for hours? I would have told them to shut up and go home!” Maybe so, maybe so. But maybe, even in that most toxic and hypocritical environment, something real had happened. Maybe that was what it was all supposed to be about. And I cannot believe how long I was able to keep going on the sense that it had really happened at least that one solitary time.
There is something within me that still wants to get past the bullshit and just do the thing. It is my strength and my weakness as an educator, I think — my conviction that any group of smart people who know how to read can sit down with some shared material and make some kind of progress, without gimmicks or games or sticks or carrots, just by talking to each other like human beings. When it works, it really works! And when it doesn’t, I guess my teaching evaluations are still okay. A critical mass of the students at least respect the gesture, even if it doesn’t turn out like I pictured it. It probably also informs my decision — which is in some ways strange — to remain unmarried to the woman I love and want to spend the rest of my life with. It is not the only impulse that structures my life. I do have a great attraction to the affordances of routine and structure, albeit more as a shelter than as a positive good. The best routine, the best structure, is that which never becomes an end in itself — certainly never becomes a punitive apparatus — but that creates the necessary space for us to cut through the bullshit and do the thing.