Today we compiled and submitted the final manuscript for Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, the edited volume on Agamben’s many interlocutors that Carlo Salzani and I have been working on for seemingly all eternity (in reality, at least 18 months). Thank you to Carlo and to all the contributors for what has turned out to be an excellent volume that we hope will become a standard part of every Agamben’s fan’s reference library!
It never fails. Any time someone expresses approval of a protest, a nice liberal will come along and declare that it’s counterproductive because it makes Trump (or whichever right-wing figure) look like a victim, further legitimating him in people’s minds. This cliche really came into its own after Richard Spencer was punched, but now it’s being trotted out in connection with the protesters who prompted Betsy DeVos to flee a public school. And it’s wrong-headed concern-trolling at its very worst, on every conceivable level.
First, these moves were not counterproductive. Both cases represented powerful symbolic actions, memorably and vividly demonstrating that people passionately oppose the targets and are willing to put their bodies on the line. And both actions carry possible concrete consequences — Spencer has complained that he feels less comfortable speaking in public and acknowledges that that hurts his cause, and billionaire Betsy DeVos could conceivably discover that her vanity cabinet appointment isn’t worth being constantly hassled by protestors.
Second, they do not make their targets look like victims. The punch made Spencer look like the buffoon he is, and the protestors at the public school made Betsy DeVos look like a coward.
Third, even granting that the targets look like victims, how is this legitimation effect supposed to work? I wish someone would find me the person who said to himself, “I used to oppose Neo-Nazi ideology, but once I saw that some guy got punched for espousing it, I gave it a second look” or “I was a big supporter of public schools, but after seeing that Betsy DeVos fled from five or six protestors, I now advocate liquidating them and privatizing the education system.” But they can’t, because there is no such person.
And that’s because perceived victimhood does not automatically grant authority. Sometimes perceived victimhood can be instrumentalized to reinforce authority, but it can just as easily be explained away — ask Black Lives Matter about the latter phenomenon. And claiming victim status is always risky, because you could wind up looking like a pathetic whiner and undermining your own cause. Like, say, if you espouse an ideology claiming you’re part of the master race but are scared to go out in public because you might get punched. Or if you’re a billionaire who doesn’t even try to engage with what is objectively a really, really small group of peaceful protestors. Or if you’ve been installed as President of the United States and spend all your time complaining about perceived sleights.
But this post is probably self-undermining, because by subjecting liberal concern-trolls to such a harsh critique, I’m just making them look like victims and legitimating their position.
It’s fair to say that I am a productive person, both academically and more generally. I view getting my work done as an opportunity to finally get some work done. I’ve written before about the somewhat sad origins of this productivity, which started as a survival strategy of being always above reproach. But I do mostly enjoy my symptom. Last week, for instance, I far exceeded my own expectations by finishing a talk and a major administrative task, both of which I thought would dominate much of the next week and a half — and that evening I was riding what can only be described as a productivity high.
Normally, I try to schedule things so that a project is ramping up just as another is winding down. As I was finalizing the manuscript of The Prince of This World, for instance, I was already beginning to work with Carlo Salzani on our edited volume, Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage. Every so often, though, I “clear the decks” in a situation where I am in no real position to start something new, where I can just barely keep treading water with my day-to-day obligations of teaching and doing things associated with deaning. I am living in one of those moments: all the irons in my fire for the past few months are either finished (an article based on my Australia/New Zealand talk, my Loraux translation) or tantalizingly close (wrapping up the edited volume).
Notionally, being “done” is the goal of all my labors. Sometimes I catch myself thinking things like, “It’ll be nice to be able to do things like read Proust once I’m done” — as though I could be globally done with every project and finally relax. But as anyone who has skimmed a summary of Lacan could tell you, that’s not actually how it works. I may once have done my chores promptly as a means to the end of having them done and clearing out — in the style of Cool Hand Luke — a brief respite of freedom. As a fully-baked adult, though, I have turned that fateful corner so that the ostensible goal is only a means to the means themselves. And so, “clearing the decks” could be better termed “falling off a cliff.”
That’s when it becomes clear that I still bear the scars of the original formation of my routine, which I adopted to quell anxiety and assert some minimal control over my situation. And the same reversal holds — in the absence of the defense mechanism, anxiety and a feeling of powerlessness arise unbidden, regardless of whether they are objectively justified. Right now, I have plenty of things to sincerely worry about, from Trump all the way down to the major institutional transition Shimer is going through. But I know from past experience that the surplus-anxiety released by idleness can attach itself to anything: the potential health problems of a healthy dog, for instance, or whether our landlord will renew our lease when there’s literally no possible reason he wouldn’t.
Maybe on some level these periods of workohol withdrawal are healthy for me. Maybe it’s okay to do the bare minimum sometimes, to sit with the fact that a lot of very important factors in my life are beyond my control. Or maybe — wow, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before — learning to relax can be my next task!
On Thursday, February 16, I am doing two events at Northwestern — a discussion of the intro and chapter 1 of The Prince of This World and a talk on political theology and neoliberalism. Details are included in this PDF flyer.
Like everyone, I mocked the tweet. Deep down, I never thought it could happen to me. Now I wish I had stopped to think things through, because I didn’t know how to respond. A terrorist had actually kidnapped my baby. By all indications, he had rigged the poor little tyke with a bomb set to go off in one hour. Somehow, miraculously, I had wound up in the same room with him. And now I faced a terrible choice: do I torture the terrorist, or let my baby be blown up, by the bomb that he had rigged the baby with, and then left the baby at some remote location while winding up in a situation where he could be tortured by me?
I couldn’t help but pause and think about the improbable series of events that had led me to this awful juncture. In a way, I was naive. As the President or CEO of a major company or important inventor or celebrity or whatever the fuck I would have to be for someone to even bother to kidnap my infant child, I had been too lax on baby security. Continue reading “It could happen to you”
There’s a lot of common advice that amounts to political due diligence: know who your representatives and other elected officials are, hold them accountable by contacting them about important matters, support more progressive candidates wherever possible, vote tactically…. There’s one possibility that comes up so seldom that I wonder if it’s even thinkable for people: run for office yourself. That would be an extremely concrete way to “be the change you want to see in the world.”
No matter how much political pressure we put on these politicians, there’s no replacement for actually being the person with decision-making power. And particularly for academics, it’s clear that no one is going to stand up for us and our values except, you know, one of us. But academics especially seem uncomfortable with the idea of actually wielding institutional power.
Part of it is surely the sense that it’s hopeless, but that may stem from an excessive focus on the federal level. Yes, we can’t jump straight to being a US senator. But the Republicans have shown over the past decade how amazingly powerful state and municipal offices can be. They are not expensive offices to campaign for — indeed, many are uncontested. Republican gerrymandering has done a lot of damage, but so has the Democrats’ failure to even show up to the fight.
I suspect it’s not just fatalism, though. For academics especially, but also for many with convictions to the left of the Democratic party, there is a serious distrust of the political structure as such, a gut-level rejection of the idea of becoming part of it. And there is also the fact that doing this seriously would mean disrupting one’s life — something that is equally unappealing whether you are thinking of interrupting the trajectory toward full academic privileges or whether you already enjoy them.
Obviously this is not something that I’m doing or planning to do in the near future. I write this post not to pass judgment, but to ask why the option of actually seeking political office seems to be so radically absent from the common political wisdom of “how to make a difference,” especially in lefty academic circles. So: what do you think?
Yesterday, a dapper Nazi was punched while giving an interview about how the white race has an inborn right to domination. (I am not naming him in an effort to shield myself from the attention of his ilk; I imagine his identity is easily ascertainable via Google, if you don’t already know what I’m talking about.) I, and many in my social media circles, exulted in this event — someone advocating outright Nazism was humiliated and silenced. It was a cathartic moment in the midst of terrifying events.
And of course, the nice liberals won’t let us have this. Continue reading “On the punch”
I remember back the last time the Electoral College delivered us an incompetent overreaching fool — one of our watchwords in those years was that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. And so, on November 9, Obama should have said, “We all know the Electoral College is nonsense, and so I am going to begin the transition process with President-Elect Clinton.” I’d rather the bit about the Electoral College be a dead letter than the emoluments clause, for example.
Is it a dangerous precedent? Not as dangerous as the precedent that the person who loses the election takes office and we all act like it’s God’s fucking will.
I have a chapter in a new book out now: Afxentis Afxentiou, Robin Dunford and Michael Neu (eds), Exploring Complicity: Concepts, Cases and Critiques (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). My chapter is called ‘For Our Sins: Christianity, Complicity and the Racialized Construction of Innocence’. The whole book is worth a read, but you can also get hold of my chapter here.