I’ve been fascinated with the Soviet Union for most of my adult life. It started with my reading of Zizek, but eventually took on a life of its own. Contrary to the stereotypes of the USSR as a grey and static country, it is a really sui generis social experiment that lurched through a lot of very significant changes — especially at the very end. The occasion for this post is that I just finished reading Vladislav M. Zubok’s Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, which is a detailed and engaging account of the USSR’s last days. I learned a huge amount from reading this book, but as a more theoretically-oriented reader, I was a little frustrated by its “just the facts ma’am” mode. Hence I’m going to let off some steam by reflecting — very much in the mode of an enthusiastic amateur, not an expert — on the biggest can of worms of late 20th-century history: whether the USSR had to fall.
There’s a case to be made that the pandemic broke everyone’s brains. I very much include myself here. Compared to my pre-pandemic self, I feel more irritable, less resilient, more on a hair trigger generally. Everyday social activities feel intimidating and even scary. I feel more disconnected from people, more continually worried that I’ve inexplicably given offense or alienated someone. We’ve been told repeatedly that we would finally be getting our lives back again, and it never panned out and now feels like it never will. And I am one of the lucky ones! I had no childcare obligations, I didn’t lose anyone close to me due to COVID, My Esteemed Partner and I were able to keep our jobs — we even used pandemic relief and savings from no student loan payments to put together a down payment for an apartment. On paper, everything is good and fine, even better than before. But it doesn’t feel that way. The world is broken.
Obviously I’m not the only person who feels this way. The pandemic has produced a pervasive crisis of meaning and authority. The latter has been much discussed, particularly in the context of distrust and even outright rejection of public health authorities around essentially every pandemic mitigation measure. But the crisis of meaning seems to me to be potentially more serious and more foundational. Everyone is asking themselves: why am I even doing any of this? Why do I want a job? Why do we want school? Why are we so eager to get back to “normal”? What is even happening? What is any of this for?
And that is happening, it seems to me, because every aspect of our shared life is charged with a new hostility. Continue reading “The Political Theology of COVID-19”
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”
One of the few things the three great monotheisms agree on is the resurrection of the dead. All of these great Abrahamic faiths envision a day when every human being who has ever lived is re-created in order to be judged, then rewarded or punished. The afterlife is not a matter of a disembodied soul or ghost or “becoming an angel.” The joys of heaven are bodily joys, and the pains of hell are bodily pains. And the true afterlife is not the fate of the individual after death, but the fate of all human beings after the end of all earthly life as we know it. A new heaven and a new earth, bodily and material, to replace what will have become the hollowed out husk of the old — death and resurrection on the grandest possible scale.
In Christianity, the death and resurrection of Christ is supposed to be the inauguration of this apocalyptic process. Paul teaches that Christ is the firstfruits from among the dead, and it is clear in 1 Thessalonians that he expects the general resurrection to follow within his own lifetime. In Matthew, the death of Christ sparks a resurrection of some unspecified saints, as if by anticipation of the general resurrection. And no matter how much the teaching of the resurrection has been overshadowed by the fate of the individual soul in Christian piety, the expectation of the general resurrection remains very much on the books — most notably in the final line of the Nicene Creed: “And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.”
The celebration of Christ’s resurrection is also the anticipation of our resurrection — and here, by consensus of all monotheist faiths, we can say “we” and “our” in the broadest possible sense. As James Joyce (and after him, Thomas Altizer) would say: “here comes everybody.”
My Esteemed Partner and I both grew up in the Midwest and have lived here our entire lives. As we were enjoying our morning coffee amid the din of harsh winds and sirens, I turned to her to confirm an intuition: “Tornadoes are supposed to happen in the summer, right? Not in the opposite of summer, which it is right now?” She agreed with me, and yet here we are, waking up to find that tornadoes have ripped through multiple Midwestern states, killing dozens — in December.
A few months ago, my friend Anthony Paul Smith posted a couple tweets that I have continued to mull over. Responding to some online discourse worrying about the declining birthrate in the US, he wrote:
There’s something deeply, ontologically creepy about birth rate discourse and how so much is tied to the Ponzi scheme we’ve set up as a society that requires unlimited population growth to support unlimited creation of wealth, unmoored from ecological connections.
Also I think we’ve reached a stage in human development where most people don’t know what the point of the future of the human race is. Make iPhones by oppressing a majority of the world? Helping Elon Musk send a bunch of corpses to Mars for his own ego? Unlimited breadsticks?
I think the same about returning to “normal” after the pandemic. I have certainly longed for normality, but now that it’s becoming more of a reality, I’m reminded of all the annoying and boring and mildly humiliating things that we accepted as “normal.” Why were we in such a hurry to get back to this? And why — despite all the early-pandemic articles speculating that this massive disruption could be a social reset allowing us to clarify our goals and values — does there seem to be no alternative to the binary of pandemic misery or everyday normal misery?
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. Continue reading “On doing the thing”
There is no binary choice of “next Great Depression or mass death.” The government can support people while they take the absolutely necessary steps to contain coronavirus, allowing them to pick up where they left off once sheltering in place is no longer necessary. Other, smaller countries are taking measures that could be models here and wouldn’t require any new programs or political infrastructure — just pumping money through existing channels. We have the technology (i.e., money). Lives and livelihoods do not need to be destroyed.
But left to itself, the invisible hand is going to inflict a Great Depression on us as punishment for doing the right and necessary things. The invisible hand will destroy careers and businesses and whole communities full of people who did all they could to save lives. How do you expect people to sit back and take that?
The Financial Crisis already inflicted a huge system-wide economic shock on people who were ostensibly “doing the right thing” (buying a home), and that was a huge blow to the legitimacy of the system. Coronavirus is on course to do even worse. And establishment Democrats are doing their level best to guarantee that once the legitimacy of the system — not just the neoliberal order, but perhaps the Constitution itself — is destroyed, the extreme right will be the ONLY organized force in a position to pick up the pieces.
Looking at the primary results this morning, I wasn’t angry or outraged so much as sad. And there was something else in there I had trouble placing — almost a whistfulness or nostalgia, as though I was savoring the memory of that moment when I believed that a moonshot to the leadership of the Evil Empire was a feasible strategy. Ah, to be that young, that hopeful! I wish I could still be that person I was before 6pm yesterday evening! Most affecting, I think, was recalling some of my Twitter commentary, where I had bought into the Sanders narrative that mobilizing the grassroots would outweigh any chicanery on the part of the DNC. Who cares that a bunch of sad losers were lining up behind another sad loser? Who cares that another candidate is splitting the left-wing vote? Who cares that media coverage is one-sided and unhinged? At the end of the day, the people vote. And now Joe Biden is ahead in both the popular vote and the delegate count. Continue reading “What if there’s no hope?”
[Editor’s Note: The following is the second part of a guest post by David Kishik, whose The Book of Shem: On Genesis Before Abraham was recently released by Stanford University Press. Part 1 is available here.]
It is unknown when exactly Genesis was written, but we can say with sufficient certainty that it was, in the eyes of whoever wrote it, a fourth-millennium composition. Put differently, it is a product of the middle of history, or a Wednesday around noon, so to speak. From this perspective, the axis around which history revolves may coincide with the very introduction of the text under consideration, along with the singular God at its center. This three-thousand-year-old midpoint is like the apex of a rainbow: the moment when thinking about the generative beginning of the world gives way to meditations about its idle ending. At this zenith, which is older than Socrates, the world begins its slow decline.