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.

No one should have to “work their way through college.” No one.

If a college education is important, both for individual life opportunities and for society as a whole, then it deserves every student’s full attention. School work is work. It’s a full-time job. One of the biggest flaws in our current higher ed system is that it forces students to take on a second (or third!) job that distracts them from their school work and keeps them from getting the maximum benefit from their one chance to go to college.

To positively require that students perform non-academic work in order to be able to go to college is both absurd and cruel. It takes the worst part of our already dysfunctional system and enshrines it in law. The only work requirement for financial aid should be satisfactory progress on school work, which is — as highly educated presidential candidates should be well aware — work.

“Building a hedge around the law” in contemporary sexual ethics

This Jezebel piece by Jia Tolentino on David Bowie’s sexual encounters with underage girls is a fully considered, nuanced discussion of a complex issue. On the one hand, Tolentino takes Lori Maddox’s account of the incident seriously and respects the fact that she doesn’t understand it as rape, but on the other hand, she is clearly glad that social mores have changed such that a similar situation would definitely be condemned by mainstream culture today. And a big part of the shift in sexual ethics is a direct reaction to the simplistic and destructive reception of the “sexual revolution” that knocked down the existing sexual regulations — which really were restrictive and worthy of being knocked down — but left the gender hierarchy and its attendant power dynamics in place. The author quotes Rebecca Solnit:

The culture was sort of snickeringly approving of the pursuit of underage girls (and the illegal argument doesn’t carry that much weight; smoking pot is also illegal; it’s about the immorality of power imbalance and rape culture). It was completely normalized. Like child marriage in some times and places. Which doesn’t make it okay, but means that, unlike a man engaged in the pursuit of a minor today, there was virtually no discourse about why this might be wrong. It’s also the context for what’s widely regarded as the anti-sex feminism of the 1980s: those women were finally formulating a post-sexual-revolution ideology of sex as another arena of power and power as liable to be abused; we owe them so much.

In discussions of contemporary sexual ethics, a lot of focus lands on the question of “consent,” and there is considerable anxiety about losing the spontaneity of authentic sexuality amid all the bureaucratic red tape (or something). This article reminds us that a lot of what might have seemed like spontaneity was deeply conditioned by power relations of which the participants were not fully aware (though we have to assume that an adult man like David Bowie was, or should have been, more aware of them than a star-struck 15-year-old).

The emphasis on explicit consent has to be situated in a larger concern to eliminate borderline situations where power dynamics can creep in unannounced. Continue reading ““Building a hedge around the law” in contemporary sexual ethics”