Who decides?!

In my previous post, I advocate excluding harmful ideas (my example is white supremacy, but I would include Holocaust denial, climate change denial, and others) from the public sphere. Whenever this kind of suggestion comes up, it is inevitable that someone will ask, “Who decides?!” This comment is not meant to open up a discussion along the lines of “Well, maybe we could form a committee, etc.” No, it’s meant to shut down the discussion altogether, because presumably the idea of some particular human agent being in charge of such decisions is utterly intolerable. No one, no one could possibly be trusted with such power!

This response is, to put it simply, stupid. In reality, all the institutions we could classify as the public sphere — the media, universities, etc. — are run by particular human beings who make decisions about what to publicize and what to exclude. So when I suggest that Charles Murray should be excluded from the public sphere, I mean that universities should not invite him to speak, respectable publications should not include or discuss his work, publishers should not offer him a book contract, etc.

None of this constitutes oppression. No one has a “right” to speak at Middlebury College, or be published in the New Yorker, or get a book contract from Simon & Schuster. When Milo’s book contract was revoked, a lot of people were wringing their hands, because if the publisher could revoke his contract, they could revoke anyone’s! And a chorus of non-idiots pointed out that we already live in a world where that can happen. That’s just what it means to have a publisher — they make decisions about what to publish.

And none of this requires any kind of legal or political intervention in violation of the First Amendment. All it requires is for universities, editors, and publishers to take their responsibilities as custodians of the public sphere seriously. In the case of Middlebury College, the administration served its responsibilities poorly by allowing Charles Murray to be invited. The students — who are also a part of the university, with a personal, reputational, and financial stake in its integrity as an institution — did everything they could to correct the administration’s error, and they are to be commended.

Is student activism a sustainable way to make such decisions in the long run? Probably not — and that’s why administrations need to wake up and stop making stupid, irresponsible mistakes in lending the university’s legitimacy to people. The best of all possible outcomes would have been for student protest to be unnecessary, because he wasn’t invited in the first place.

The Genius of C.L.R. James: A Small Example

Having just finished teaching The Black Jacobins, I wanted to pay tribute to C.L.R. James’s genius by pointing to one short passage — namely, the first two sentences of the fourth chapter of that book:

The slaves worked on the land, and, like revolutionary peasants everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors. But working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar-factories which covered the North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time, and the rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared and organized mass movement.

In the space of a few lines, he demolishes the traditional Marxist view of slavery as some kind of pre-modern holdover, as well as the privileging of the industrial proletariat in the narrow sense. The plantations were already factories in the relevant sense, and far from representing an antiquated anachronism, the slaves in San Domingo were the most advanced by far of any group of workers in the world — making them the natural agent of revolution. And a few lines later, there comes the kicker: “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy.” Far from being a primitive superstition or a necessary opiate, the syncretistic religion improvised by the slave population was an integral part of their revolutionary movement.

This all happens elegantly and organically, without picking theoretical fights or dropping footnotes. James presents his major theoretical innovations as though they are the most obvious thing in the world.

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.

Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage: Manuscript submitted!

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!

On making them look like victims

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.

Workohol

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!

It could happen to you

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”

The Undiscovered Country: Actually running for office

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?