The bugbear of consistency

This morning I wrote a review of Carlo Salzani’s excellent new book Agamben and the Animal, which is a kind of critical rewriting of The Open, more explicitly grounding it in Agamben’s previous work and more directly engaging with animal studies scholarship, in order to find the Entwicklungsfähigkeit of his admittedly limited and anthropocentric approach to non-human animal life. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in any of the topics addressed.

One issue that Carlo’s book brings up is the question of consistency and continuity in Agamben’s work. Most Agamben scholars maintain, almost axiomatically, that Agamben’s work is remarkably consistent and continuous. Quarrelsome person that I am, I went so far as to write an entire book arguing that his project evolves and changes over time. Ultimately it may not be very important for interpreting or applying his ideas — certainly I’m not arguing there’s some kind of radical break where he explicitly renounces earlier work. And admittedly, one point the continuists have in their favor is the fact that it’s clearly very important to Agamben himself to see his own work as consistent and continuous. After completing the Homo Sacer project, for instance, he very explicitly returned to earlier themes and even dug up some unpublished (or, in the case of Taste, underpublicized) writings from very early in his career. When I interviewed him in preparation for my book, he gave me a great line that I have quoted at every opportunity: when he reads his older work, he notices that his more recent concepts were somehow already present there, but “I didn’t know it at the time.”

Continue reading “The bugbear of consistency”

The Evangelical Mind

[Note: This essay first appeared in n+1 issue 35: Savior Complex (Fall 2019). I thank the editors for permission to republish it here in an open-access format, given its sadly perennial relevance to our political life.]

WHAT IS AN EVANGELICAL? On a superficial level, this should not be a difficult question. Evangelicals have played an outsize role in American public life for decades. They were at the forefront of the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s, when self-appointed evangelical leaders like Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition led the struggle against everything from video game violence and rap lyrics to gay marriage. They were crucial to the governing coalition of George W. Bush, himself a “born-again” Christian whose administration accelerated the trend toward delivering social services through faith-based nonprofits. Though their influence on Republican politics was briefly overshadowed in the Obama years by the less explicitly religious Tea Party movement, evangelicals have reemerged as the most loyal supporters of another popular vote–losing Republican President—this time, decidedly not one of their number, although Trump’s selection of the evangelical Mike Pence as his running mate nodded to the group’s kingmaking power.

Despite its apparent coordination and consistent program, evangelicalism seems to elude firm definition. Continue reading “The Evangelical Mind”

When the worst people in the world keep winning

Since my return to active blogging, I have been reluctant to post about politics, choosing instead to retreat into aestheticism. Today I feel I have to respond to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in some way, because I feel implicated in the decision as a former evangelical. My church and family were never particularly politically active, and I was mercifully spared the lifelong shame of attending an anti-abortion protest or harrassing women outside a clinic. But it was the one absolutely unquestionable goal — the one trump card that meant conservatives always had the moral high ground against liberals. What could possibly be more important than stopping the genocide against the unborn?

For such an absolute axiom, however, we never seemed to place much weight on it. Continue reading “When the worst people in the world keep winning”

A work of world-historical mediocrity

The painting pictured above has been hanging in our apartment for around five years. It is a nostalgic piece for My Esteemed Partner, who saw it hanging in her grandmother’s house whenever she visited. When she saw it in her parents’ garage many years after he grandmother’s death, she immediately asked if she could bring it home with her. Her parents, somewhat puzzled, agreed. From one perspective, I can understand their surprise — it’s not a particularly good painting. But I have enjoyed having a real oil painting in my home. Since I have been writing so much about the world-historical works of art I saw on my trip to Spain, I thought I might write a little bit about a piece I am more familiar with.

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Fractal Weirdness: On Pinocchio and the Garden of Earthly Delights

My main project right now is to finish up my translation of Agamben’s book on Pinocchio. Though part of me wonders why I took on a translation during the busiest year of my life, it has been fun in a lot of ways — above all, by introducing me to the original novel by Collodi, which is significantly different and much better than the Disney film. When I first agreed to do the translation, I bought two different translations, intending to “triangulate” between them and Agamben’s commentary, and My Esteemed Partner decided to read it alongside me. One afternoon, she ran into the office and, nearly in tears from laughter, exclaimed: “He killed him! He threw something at the Talking Cricket and killed him!” And that’s only the first big twist in a book full of true WTF moments.

Continue reading “Fractal Weirdness: On Pinocchio and the Garden of Earthly Delights”

The Good Kind of Nationalism (and other scattered thoughts)

When My Esteemed Partner asked me which country I wanted to visit next, I answered without hesitation: Spain. My reason was equally clear: I wanted to see Las Meninas in person. I fulfilled that goal on our first full day in Madrid, and the remainder of our trip was full of world-historical artworks: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Picasso’s Guernica, Berg’s Wozzeck (an amazing performance at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu), and the artwork pictured above, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. I have wanted to see that amazing church since I learned of its existence in high school Spanish class, and it did not disappoint. More even than the Bosch, it felt like an artwork that I could never exhaust, like every square centimeter was saturated in meaning.

Continue reading “The Good Kind of Nationalism (and other scattered thoughts)”

The Suburbs

The first album we listened to after getting home from Spain was The Suburbs by Arcade Fire — because, as I explained, all of America is the suburbs. This came home to me as we stepped on board the CTA Blue Line after spending a week riding the Madrid and Barcelona Metro. I love the CTA, and I’ve heavily relied on it for well over a decade of not owning a car. Coming back from Europe, it seemed dirty, clunky, and non-functional. And it was immediately brought home to me how much the train, even in one of the most transit-rich cities in the country, is a consession and an afterthought. Our tracks passed over multiple huge expressways before settling into its route literally between the two sides of an 8- to 10-lane highway. To walk to the stops, you have to cross an expressway interchange and then cross a bridge four lanes of traffic wide. In other lines (and other parts of the Blue Line), stops are more integrated into their neighborhoods, but this kind of pedestrian-hostile design represents a strong pluarlity if not a majority of stops.

And the cars themselves! So many cars! Continue reading “The Suburbs”

That blog you like is going to come back in style

Writing is my favorite thing. It’s the way I think through ideas, the way I communicate most confidently, the way I express myself most fully. I am never as durably happy as when I am in the midst of a writing project that’s going well. In the last year or so, though, writing has felt more and more like a burden and a chore.

Continue reading “That blog you like is going to come back in style”

The real reason the Democrats won’t stand up for teachers against anti-CRT and “groomer” attacks

[Note: I wrote this piece at the invitation of a major publication, but they ultimately rejected the submitted draft. After a couple failed attempts to find it a new home, I am publishing it here, mainly out of respect for the time of my interview subjects, but also because I think that — whatever it faults as an op-ed — the basic point I am making is true and important.]

At a time when the pandemic has prompted a new appreciation of the work teachers do, we have also witnessed a sustained conservative attack on teachers and public schools. Beginning with the crusade against so-called “Critical Race Theory” and escalating in the recent attempts to squelch discussion of homosexuality and trans issues, state-level Republicans have increasingly sought to police teacher’s speech and micromanage curriculum.

These measures have been accompanied by a campaign of outright demonization against teachers, accusing them of indoctrinating children, seeking to make white children hate themselves, and even implying that teachers who speak with students about homosexuality or trans issues are pedophiles who are “grooming” our nation’s youth.

These increasingly unhinged and dangerous attacks have been met with virtual silence among Democrats. A recent viral speech by Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow, who forcefully denounced Republican Senator Lana Theis’s attempt to tar her and other Democrats as “groomers,” has only highlighted most elected Democrats’ failure to push back on a campaign of racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

What is going on here? Certainly part of the problem is Democrats’ habitual cowardice in the face of culture war attacks. But I believe the response in this case goes beyond political tactics. There is a deeper dynamic here, an ideological commitment to the view that teachers are not to be trusted. The recent Republican anti-teacher legislation puts a new, distinctively conservative spin on a decades-old effort to undermine the qualitative work of teaching through relentless quantitative assessment. Again and again, Democrats have joined their Republican colleagues in undermining teachers’ ability to function as the caring professionals they are.

Continue reading “The real reason the Democrats won’t stand up for teachers against anti-CRT and “groomer” attacks”