The Strategy of Hibernation

I saw a funny tweet yesterday:

I’m sure we all felt that on Friday, though A-plot/B-plot alignment was likely not as satisfying as on a typical Mad Men episode.

For my part, I felt considerable dissonance, as I hit a major milestone Friday afternoon: finishing a full draft of my translation of Agamben’s book Pinocchio: The Story of a Puppet, Doubly Commented Upon and Triply Illustrated. I have some bibliographical and editing mop-up work to finish next week, but reaching the final page of the translation was definitely a good feeling. In fact, I was riding a high, somewhat guiltily, all Friday evening, even as I continued to channel equally sincere anger into my tweets.

The fact that the text I was translating was a detailed commentary on a children’s book — and one that most American readers know only through a bowdlerized Disney version — heightened the irony. All along, I’ve been joking that if Agamben can write about Pinocchio, then I can write about Star Trek — which is the project I plan to work on during my self-declared sabbatical from freelance work and invited academic contributions. (And to indulge in my habit of finding meaning in random synchronicity, Pinocchio will be my tenth Agamben translation and the Star Trek study will be my tenth single-authored book.)

More in specific, I plan to write about what I’m calling “late” Star Trek, the post-2000 stuff, starting with the ill-fated prequel Enterprise, that has mostly failed to have a broader cultural impact and that most fans dislike. Though I tend to think the fans are being a little unfair, at least with much of it, my goal is not to vindicate “late” Star Trek but to use it primarily as a case study for the “franchise” style of storytelling that dominates contemporary mainstream culture. At its best, it can be an unexpected reinvention and revival of classic characters and tropes for a new context. At its more common worst, it becomes a recursive exercise in asserting that the new material is “real” Star Trek (or whatever) and therefore mandatory for all true fans to consume (preferably over and over for the rest of their lives).

In other words, it’s a study in how capitalism shapes and distorts the dynamics of cultural transmission. And I’m increasingly realizing that cultural transmission is my real “research agenda” — underwriting my interest in the Bible and Christian tradition, in the Qur’an, in the notion of the Great Books, and in political theological genealogies, including those involving neoliberalism. And as a person who has chosen on principle to remain childless (with the full, enthusiastic agreement of My Esteemed Partner), I find that it is cultural transmission that I really, finally care about.

That is my libidinal investment in the future, why I want the human race to endure: so we can keep reading and talking about the Iliad, or Pinocchio, or Star Trek, or whatever, and so we can keep creating new and different things, both from scratch and out of those old materials. And a symptom of the fact that conservative, and especially conservative evangelical culture, has no future worth having is that they don’t care about those things, that they don’t care about making a more beautiful and interesting world. Their dream world where we keep entrapping women to produce more white babies, where we burn down the planet to support our “way of life” (which consists of traffic jams, tacky drywall houses, and bad fast food), where everyone stands ready to kill everyone else at the slightest provocation is not a world worth living in. The fact that many people believe it is, that they think it’s worth fighting and dying and killing for, that they think it’s worth pledging their fealty to the shittiest grossest stupidest man on earth — it drives me to despair. We have been given such a profound gift in our humanity, and these people hate everything that makes human life worthwhile.

Does that mean that translating a book about Pinocchio or writing one about Star Trek is an act of resistance, or a profound political statement? No, it does not. Obviously. Anyway, if you want to keep thinking about these ideas, you can read this older, better blog post.

One thought on “The Strategy of Hibernation

  1. Re: your penultimate paragraph: Part of what exacerbates the feelings of frustration and despair that come with watching the ascendant right wing is my conviction—probably shared by others who are masochistic enough to spend their time thinking about such things—that they won’t actually be fulfilled within their own dream world. That is, we aren’t being beaten by a different species whose way of life and flourishing is simply incompatible with our own; we’re seeing the “success” of a dog who will not even enjoy having the car he is fervently chasing, and will not listen to the analysis of anyone who knows him better than he knows himself.

    Living under a ruling class that strictly benefits in an explicable way from exploitation is one thing, and besides it’s been the fate of most humans who have ever lived (at least in the anthropological record). But the utter uselessness even to the oppressor of many aspects of oppression is hard to bear, psychologically. It’s unnerving to witness people eating, and burning, the seed corn in order to build a universe that will fall apart two days later anyways.

    Yay for Pinocchio writing and Star Trekking and more blogging in general.

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