Some thoughts on affirmative action

Yesterday, we learned that the Trump administration plans to investigate “reverse discrimination” against white college applicants. As always, the very term tacitly admits that white racism against others is the standard or natural kind — and even they can’t quite bring themselves to call it “racism” without some qualifier (“reverse,” “against whites”). The attempt to root out discrimination against whites is delusional and it is bound to have negative results (if it has any results at all — it may be an empty gesture to placate the base). But at least among white commentators, it is very difficult to find a full-throated defense of affirmative action. In fact, many of the standard responses — “Trump benefited from affirmative action for whites!” — are implicitly (and I hope unconsciously) based on the premise that affirmative action is illegitimate.

I, for one, support affirmative action, 100%. I am happy for anyone from a disadvantaged group to be hired, promoted, or published over me. But no one can deny that affirmative action is intrinsically flawed on the level of strategy. It was bound to stoke a backlash, and that backlash has access to arguments that sound strong and principled to most white people. And it doesn’t even solve the root problem, which is unequal access to the resources that generate “merit” in our system.

The intervention comes too late, and in that respect it’s a symptom of American society’s tendency to try to solve all social problems by means of higher ed. I work in higher ed and it’s a great thing, but it is not up to the task of radically remaking American society and never will be. You can’t restructure the US economy using a mechanism that was originally created to reproduce and legitimate privilege. Tools can be repurposed, but there are limits.

Report from a summer faculty seminar: “The Verbal Art of Plato”

I spent last week at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., where Gregory Nagy and Kenneth Morrell were holding an intensive faculty seminar on “The Verbal Art of Plato” (you can look over the agenda and readings here). It was whirlwind tour of the many ways that Plato took up and transformed the literary models of his culture, with a special emphasis on Homer. Both Nagy and Morrell are amazing scholars, with an intimate knowledge of the texts and contexts, as well as experienced seminar leaders, and they curated a very strong and diverse group of faculty members. It all added up to a really rewarding experience that I will be processing for a long time — and I think that the true sign of their success is that even after spending a couple weeks reading nothing but Plato so I could spend a week talking about nothing but Plato, I actually want to sit down and read some more Plato with the tools they have given me.

Of the many interesting things I learned, two stood out to me as surprising. The first is that Socrates was actually the object of a hero cult, similar to what you might expect for a figure like Hercules. (Prof. Nagy’s book The Greek Hero in 24 Hours is one of many, many works available for free on the CHS website, and this article gives a more brief presentation on Socrates in specific.) The second is that much of the technical vocabulary in Plato’s philosophy amounts to an appropriation of the terminology that surrounded rhapsodic performances of Homer. (This article by Prof. Nagy provides a list of ten key terms if you scroll down.)

All of this led me to question what exactly Plato’s project is. One way I put it in discussion is that Plato is a critic of Athenian culture, but he’s also a critic of Athenian culture — he is so deeply embedded in his tradition. He transforms so many genres — rhapsodic performance, tragedy, forensic discourse, even heroic cult worship — but I wonder if the transformation is ultimately a means of preservation. And these thoughts also led me down various trails relating to my ultimate interest in Plato, which is his appropriation by Christianity and the grounds of possibility for such a move. Is Christianity really “Platonism for the people,” as Nietzsche says, a more accessible version of the kind of transformation Plato was trying to work in his own culture? I’m not ready to flesh those thoughts out quite yet, but the fact that they are percolating is a pleasant surprise after a seminar that I expected to be useful for my teaching but mostly unrelated to my research.

And ironically, I’m not sure exactly how to use the seminar materials in the classroom. I’m certainly a fountain of interesting facts and literary parallels right now, but I need to do more thinking about how to turn the insights I have gleaned from this intensive study into something that students will be able to put to work in their own reading and discussion without having to go to Plato Summer Camp.

Punching like a girl

‘The female person who enacts the existence of women in patriarchal society must live a contradiction: as human she is a free subject who participates in transcendence, but her situation as a woman denies her that subjectivity and transcendence. My suggestion is that the modalities of feminine bodily comportment, motility, and spatiality, exhibit this same tension between transcendence and immanence, between subjectivity and being a mere object. We often experience our bodies as a fragile encumbrance rather than the media for the enactment of our aims.’
Iris Marion Young, ‘Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality’

Some time last spring I signed up to take part in a boxing match. I’d been going to a boxing gym to keep fit for a while: I got sick of the cheap gym I’d been visiting, with its constantly changing class times, and its ever-worsening instructors. I got tired of taking step classes led by men who looked embarrassed to be there, in such a feminine space, who didn’t think it was important to time the exercises to the music, let alone plan them in advance. I’d never felt at home there anyway: I was always too red-faced and visibly sweaty. I couldn’t wear the sleek black leggings that seemed to be the women’s uniform because I got too hot. My hair was always a mess and I didn’t wear make-up. Compared to the other women I felt what I often feel around large groups of women, that I was failing to perform my gender in the right kind of way.

Continue reading “Punching like a girl”

A defense of the classroom

Miya Tokumitsu’s Jacobin article on lecture pedagogy is something of a mess. It does argue that lectures at their best can be engaging and community-building, but almost everything it is saying could be recouched as a defense of in-person learning and, more generally, of the traditional regime of college education (non-flexible courses, etc.). Indeed, there’s a fundamental incoherence here insofar as many active-learning methods, most notably discussion seminars, require greater routine attendance — your roommates can share their lecture notes, but they can’t bring up your points in discussion for you.

The submerged point of Tokumitsu’s argument is how neoliberalism undermines the traditional regime of university coursework in an insidiously self-reinforcing way: first it requires students to take on an unreasonable burden of wage labor during school, then it uses this very self-imposed necessity to justify more “flexible” learning methods. And I have to say, the method is effective, even at the resolutely traditional Shimer College — students there do have to work way too much, and even they have sometimes asked for more flexible formats such as online learning.

The real problem is forcing students to “work their way through college,” when college is already hard work in and of itself. The world can make do with fewer baristas and waiters while the next generation takes full advantage of the education that we are constantly told is absolutely crucial to personal and national success. It seems to me that a left-wing publication should probably find a way to make that point clearly and directly instead of obscuring the point with a frankly click-baity “contrarian” framing.

Academic strategery

The primary lecture I’m giving during my tour of the ends of the earth, “Neoliberalism’s Demons,” builds on my project in The Prince of This World. In that (still frustratingly forthcoming) book, I establish connections between key modern concepts and the theological problems that came to surround the devil, and in the various iterations of the lecture, I specify my claims further by connecting the most fully developed late-medieval theology of the devil with neoliberalism.

The interest this topic has generated made me ponder the possibility of trying to develop it into a short follow-up book. There are drawbacks to the idea, though. With a book-length treatment, even a relatively short one, I would probably have to wind up retreading a lot of the ground covered in The Prince of This World, and I’d also have to do a lot of “what is neoliberalism” exposition, which the academic world needs more of like it needs a hole in the head.

I’m now wondering if a journal article might be the more appropriate format. The idea may actually stand on its own more effectively as a shorter piece, while leading the inquisitive to The Prince of This World rather than replacing it in a dangerous supplement-type dynamic. It could even serve as the kind of thing that people could assign in classes, which would be helpful given that the book is probably not easily excerptable (or at least it doesn’t seem so to me). And best of all, I could finish it sooner, allowing me to maintain some momentum on my longer-term Trinity project rather than getting bogged down in the weeds of the vast and contentious literature on neoliberalism.

What do you think?

My Australia and New Zealand Tour

This summer, I was invited to come speak at Australian National University by Monique Rooney. Subsequently, I was able to schedule several other talks in Australia and New Zealand, adding up to a three-week speaking tour that will double as a vacation, with The Girlfriend joining me in Sydney. Thanks to Monique, Julian Murphet (of the University of New South Wales), Robyn Horner and David Newheiser (of Australian Catholic University), Mike Grimshaw and Cindy Zeiher (of Canterbury University), and Campbell Jones (of Auckland University) for their generous invitations.

I will be giving two different lectures based on my forthcoming (and preorderable) book The Prince of This World and giving a masterclass (covering my Crisis and Critique article and some selections from Agamben). The primary lecture will be entitled “Neoliberalism’s Demons”:

The devil is one of the most enduring Christian theological symbols, a figure that has taken on a life of its own in the culture of secular modernity. In this talk, Adam Kotsko traces the origin of the devil back to his theological roots in the problem of evil. One of the greatest challenges to traditional monotheism has always been the existence of suffering and injustice — if God is all-good and all-powerful, why does he allow it? The devil emerged as a convenient scapegoat, a fallen angel who was created good by God and yet freely chose to rebel. This placed the devil at the root of a theological system that used the idea of free will as a way of deflecting blame away from God and toward his wayward creatures. Kotsko will argue that the neoliberal order implies the same logic — deploying notions of free choice as a way of blaming individuals for systemic failures.

The other is entitled “The Origin of the Devil”:

The devil is normally viewed as a theological or mythological symbol, but in this lecture, Adam Kotsko will argue that the devil is equally a political symbol. And this is because the God of the Hebrew Bible is not only an object of worship, but a ruler — of Israel first of all, but also of the entire world. His first major opponent is not a rival deity, but a rival king, namely the evil Pharoah who refuses to let God’s people go. From that point forward, God’s most potent rivals are the earthly rulers who challenge his reign, from the kings who lead Israel astray to the emperors who conquer the Chosen People. This rivalry reaches a fever pitch in apocalyptic thought, which elevates God’s earthly opponent into a cosmic adversary who is eventually identified as Satan or the devil.

Detailed schedule below the fold.

Continue reading “My Australia and New Zealand Tour”

On the acceptance and rejection of conference proposals

Today is the deadline for program units of the American Academy of Religion to accept or reject all proposals. As someone who has made many proposals over the years, I know that the process appears opaque. I am currently serving as co-chair of the Theology and Continental Philosophy group and for several years I was a member of the steering committee for Bible, Theology, and Postmodernism. Hence I thought it might be helpful for those receiving their notifications to get an inside view of the decision-making process.

The first point to consider is that, as with almost everything in academia, programming units typically receive many more proposals than they can accept. We had three sessions to fill this year, which equals out to 10-12 papers, and we had nearly three times that number of papers to choose from.

A second complication is that no paper is an island — programming groups prioritize some type of coherence or thematic unity in a given session. A middling proposal may wind up getting chosen because it fits neatly into a possible grouping, while a great proposal may be rejected because it doesn’t fit with any of the other proposals. A pure “grab bag” session is possible, but they tend to be poorly attended, which can have consequences down the road for the number of sessions a group is allocated or even for the group’s continued existence.

Coming at the problem from another direction, there is no silver bullet. Conventional wisdom holds that it is better to submit a full session proposal rather than an individual paper, as this saves the committee work. As a committee member, I don’t see that as an overriding concern — it’s not that much work to cobble together a session out of individual papers, and sometimes ready-made sessions give the impression of being united by “me and my friends” more than by a substantive shared project.

Similarly, aiming squarely at the CFP is no guarantee of acceptance, either, because there’s no guarantee that there will be enough proposals to make a session on any given topic listed. Going “off-book” feels risky, but if you’re working on something you know to be an up-and-coming trend in a particular disciplinary space, your topic may well get more proposals than any particular CFP item.

In terms of the proposal itself, it can be hard to hit that golden mean between overly simple exposition and excessive ambition. In this particular round, several of the papers that wound up getting accepted seemed like they could be overambitious, but the ones that we rejected seemed impossible — weaving together Derrida, Deleuze, Zizek, and Chomsky to create an entirely new mode of resistence to capitalism (not a real example, but not too far off), or something like that. I don’t understand people’s compulsion to write conference proposals that would be difficult to tackle in a dissertation. At the same time, a paper that is too neat and tidy is unlikely to generate much discussion.

I want to leave you with one concrete piece of advice, though: don’t just copy and paste the abstract into the proposal and hit submit. It makes the proposal look lazy and slapdash.

I am happy to take questions.

An academic confession

It’s that time of year again — the time when people start getting offers for the increasingly rare TT jobs. This morning I read some great reflections on Facebook from James Stanescu and Eileen Joy about this dubious season, which I can’t link but want to credit, because they set my mind down some familiar paths.

My confession is that I did not get one of those positions. I selectively apply every year. It’s not that I have any particular desire to leave Shimer, where the teaching is truly unique and fulfilling. The reasons are more utilitarian: I don’t have tenure yet, and I work for a small and therefore inherently fragile school, which exclusively offers degrees that students and parents are told every single day by the national press that no one wants or needs.

The uncertainty bothers me, probably more than it should — but not enough that I do a full nationwide search every year. I’m too selective, and so it’s probably my fault I didn’t get anything. I should have been willing to uproot my life in Chicago to go to some remote rural hamlet where I would have no friends and where my partner could not find work.

Still, this year felt like it might really be the year, like lightning might strike and Solve the Problem, making me Set for Life — and, if I’m being honest, the year when I might get The Recognition I Deserve. I’m a prolific author who has had interdisciplinary influence. Without any research support, I have produced a university press book. There are full professors at R1 universities who will write glowing recommendations for me. I am arguably the primary translator of one of the most influential philosophers alive. I have an international reputation. And yet it feels like I’m clinging onto a position at the margins of academia.

It hurts my pride. And if the worst were to happen, if that perch were to collapse and let me tumble out of academia altogether, my gut reaction is not to worry about how I’d make my living or how I’d ever find fulfillment in my work — no, my first thought is about my pride. If I somehow fell out of the bottom of academia, I would feel humiliated and ashamed. Just thinking about the possibility turns my stomach. I worry about how I would manage it if it actually happened.

Objectively, this is not rational. The Girlfriend points out, rightly, that it’s not my fault that my chosen profession is apparently being phased out. Yet it feels like my fault, very deeply. It feels like it’s personal to me, like it’s a repudiation of me, like everything I’ve done could be swept aside and treated like it’s nothing — by people who will enjoy the privileges I have objectively earned and who will never have to give me a second thought.

Sometimes I wonder why people timidly go along with the marketization of everything, with the ever-tightening noose of austerity. And then I look at myself and how thoroughly needless competition and artificial scarcity have penetrated into my most intimate experience of my own self-worth. Maybe there’s a reason why the university is ground zero of neoliberalism — because we academics are the ones who most deeply believe in meritocracy and salutary competition, because we took something that didn’t need to be a contest and made it into one.

And the more it doesn’t work, the more desperately we need to believe that we will be the ones to outrun the boulder this time, that if we just ratchet up the achievements one more level, we’ll finally get the recognition we deserve. But we all know in our heart of hearts that it will go to some ABD from Harvard.