On going viral

One year ago today, I went on one of my Twitter rants about higher education in America. Along the way, it morphed into a rant about the disproportionate burdens we put on young people, as crystallized in the following tweet:


I’m not sure how it happened, but this tweet “went viral.” Within a day or two, it had over 10,000 retweets — unimaginably more than any tweet I’ve done, before or since. After a couple weeks, I was hearing from my students that a screen capture of the tweet had been posted on Tumblr and Imgur, with hundreds of thousands of pageviews. Since then, people have developed more elegant images with the quote. There are also slight variants from people who preferred not to use the retweet function, as well as many plagiarized versions.

Clearly nothing I ever write will have such widespread impact as this tweet. Not even close. And that feels very strange to me, because in my mind, it’s not a particularly good tweet. Certainly good for a brief chuckle, but if I were to compile a “greatest hits” list, it wouldn’t make my personal top ten by far. Of course, part of that might stem from the experience of virality itself. Within a couple days, I went from being excited to being profoundly sick of having this tweet thrown back at me every few seconds. When it comes up in conversation, I find that I can’t actually make myself recite the tweet out loud, opting instead to get out my phone and show them (an easy task since it’s almost always been retweeted or favorited within the last day or so).

I’m also not sure if I’ve received any benefit from this. Blog traffic has been flat this year, my book sales appear to be unaffected, and there hasn’t been a flood of applicants to Shimer College begging to study with the bathroom tweet guy. I did get a huge boost in Twitter followers, doubling my count within a few weeks — but after that initial burst, I returned to the same “slow and steady” growth curve I had experienced before. I’m not sure if any subsequent tweet I’ve written has even broken 100 retweets.

It’s all very inscrutable.

Halloween: Everything that’s wrong with America?

An episode of Freaks and Geeks records the turning point. Mrs. Weir has lovingly prepared Halloween cookies, just like every year, and when the first group of trick-or-treaters show up, one of the moms shames her for her presumption. This more attentive mother has of course trained her children never to accept home-made treats — after all, someone might have slipped a razor blade into it! Only store-bought, individually wrapped candy can be guaranteed to avoid this scourge.

Literally no child has ever found a razor blade in their Halloween candy. The entire phenomenon was completely made up. A moment’s thought reveals that the very idea makes no sense. Who would even want to do such a thing? Wouldn’t it be easy to trace it back to the offender if they’re giving out their distinctive homemade candy all night long? But better safe than sorry, right?

The fictional razor blade in the Halloween candy is a kind of quilting point for all the paranoias that led to the loss of any freedom for the children of the white middle class. If they’re left to wander the neighborhood, someone might abduct them! Coming from the other direction: if they’re left with any unscheduled time, doing anything that can’t be slotted into an immediately recognizable section of the college application, their life chances may be thwarted. In either case, the parents are losing control of their activities and thereby their destiny — and only disaster can result. The helicopter parent and the razor blade in your candy are correlative phenomena.

It’s interesting, then, that Halloween has also become the most striking symbol of the white middle class’s arrested development, its perpetual adolescence. What was once a semi-formal one-night event has become a months-long celebration for kids of all ages! Especially the ones in their 20s and 30s! Lindsay of Freaks and Geeks had to summon up her uttermost resources of good-sportsmanship to play along with her mom and pass out candy, and she surely would have been absolutely mortified to wear a costume to school on Halloween. Now grown adults with jobs and fancy condos go on Halloween-themed pub crawls two weeks before the blessed day itself.

Who am I to criticize someone else’s fun, you ask? Well, if you must know, I’m a curmudgeon who was already old long before his time. I also think I’m always right. So those are my qualifications. Surely I’m not alone, though. Surely!

Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair

As most readers probably know, I have spent the last ten weeks in San Francisco, as The Girlfriend has a short-term job out here this summer. Due to a combination of financial constraints, the nature of our accomodations, and my very deepest personality traits, the summer has been more monastic than usual. Most days, I have had close to twelve hours to myself between The Girlfriend’s work and commute. While I’ve enjoyed getting to know the Bay Area better and while I assure you that we’ve hit some key highlights (Golden Gate Park, Angel Island, Berkeley, Oakland, wine country…), I imagine that for quite some time I mainly will look back on this summer as the most productive of my life. Since today was my last “working” day (and I shipped my books back home earlier this afternoon to make sure of that), I thought I’d share the highlights:

  • I drafted, thoroughly revised, and submitted Creepiness to the publisher, and the text has now been copy edited and finalized. We’re still looking at potential back-cover blurbs, but things seem to be moving at a faster pace than for the previous two volumes.
  • Just as I was finishing that, I received final proofs for the Italian edition of Agamben’s Use of Bodies, of which I have now produced a draft translation of the prologue, first major division, and first “intermezzo” — amounting to approximately one-third of the total text. I anticipate completing bibliographical work and doing some initial polishing on this segment before the semester begins, and hope (perhaps over-optimistically) to complete an additional third per semester this school year.
  • Colby Dickinson and I worked to assemble a co-authored collection of essays on Agamben, which we are in the process of revising in dialogue with a publisher — this naturally has to wait until I’m back in Chicago and can meet with Colby face to face to complete.
  • I have drafted and revised a proposal for The Prince of This World: A Demonic Reading of Christianity, the frequently mentioned “devil book” I’ve been planning for several years. I’m still waiting for feedback from another reader, but I anticipate being able to submit this by the end of the month.
  • I developed a new course on Islamic thought for Shimer, covering a range of primary texts from Muhammad to the late medieval period — an almost totally new area for me, and something that was long overdue.
  • I led a six-week discussion group over two early works of Agamben, Infancy and History and Language and Death, at the Bay Area Public School, which was attended by a really solid group of young autodidacts, as well as recording an interview over Agamben’s work for KPFA in Berkeley and facilitating the completion of Stephen Keating’s directed reading over Agamben.
  • And last and probably least, I reviewed a journal article and a book-length manuscript.

On a more personal level, having over the last couple years watched all of the “modern” Star Trek series, I also completed a thorough study of the areas of the franchise least familiar to me: the original series, the animated series, and the movies. And given that I had the chance to play housewife this summer, I also took pride in taking my turn at cooking for The Girlfriend for a change.

And of course, in the spirit of my crazy CTA project, I got what I consider to be very good “coverage” on BART, “getting” 10 stops (with at least one additional stop planned for tomorrow).

Did Obama get played in 2008?

[NOTE: Earlier this summer, The Girlfriend and I watched a lot of House of Cards and Scandal, so that must be kept in mind in reading this post.]

It’s easy to forget now, but in the summer of 2008, it really looked like John McCain would win. Only after the financial crisis really began in September — an event that apparently none of our political elites foresaw — did Obama’s victory become a fait accompli. It’s also easy to forget that when it comes to delegates elected by the people who voted in primaries, Obama and Clinton were pretty much in a dead heat. The deciding factor was the Democratic “superdelegates,” i.e., the party leaders who get to vote for the candidate of their choice at the convention regardless of primary results. Clinton could have won if the superdelegates fell in line behind her, but as the convention approached, more and more broke in favor of Obama.

With all these facts in mind, I’ve begun to wonder if Clinton, facing the prospect of an uphill battle against one of the most respected politicians in America (another thing that’s easy to forget!), calculated that it was better to let Obama be the sacrificial lamb against McCain and live to fight another day — either 2012, if McCain reaped the whirlwind from the Bush disaster, or else 2016 — and so “released” her superdelegates to Obama. This might also explain why she didn’t insist on the VP slot, not wanting to be tarnished by a defeat.

As it turns out, though, the whirlwind came more quickly than anticipated, resulting in Obama accidentally getting elected.

Other summer projects

My two major projects for the summer — my Islam syllabus and Creepiness — are now basically done. There will be further work on both (continued background reading on Islam and the process of editing on Creepiness), but they will no longer require the kind of sustained effort I’ve put in so far. I had been anticipating spending all summer working on both, along with the translation of The Use of Bodies, but there have been delays on finalizing the Italian text that have meant that particular project is on pause for now.

In the meantime, I have a few things to work on. The most exciting is a collection of essays on Agamben that I’m putting together with Colby Dickinson, which will amount to a two-person edited volume. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reading each other’s contributions (which have mostly been previously published or presented at conferences) and giving some feedback, as well as putting together a proposal. I’ve also promised a couple pieces for a reference work on the doctrine of the atonement and hope to complete at least one (the shorter one, which is due in early fall), and I need to write up a syllabus for my Theology and Politics of the Devil course at CTS (for which I’ve “assigned” myself some fresh reading). Finally, I’d like to rework my Birkbeck talk into a sample chapter for The Prince of This World and put together a prospectus for a publisher. And until I head back to Chicago, I have the weekly Agamben reading group that just started.

I guess that sounds like a lot. The problem is that no single one of them is either as lengthy (or as fun!) as Creepiness or as urgent as the Islam syllabus, so I can picture myself wasting a lot of time deciding which to do first — and then repeating the procedure when I finish whatever I finally settle on and need to move on to the next thing. Somewhat more pathetically, experience teaches me that when I don’t have an overarching project to work on during the summer, I become bored and depressed. That’s one major drawback of being such a productive person: workahol withdrawal can be harsh.

Why am I not a vegetarian?

It’s a serious question. I seem like just the kind of person who would be vegetarian, demographically speaking. I’ve even gone through periods of my life where I was functionally vegetarian much of the time and could easily have made the transition. Why not, then? Do I have a principled reason, or just a series of post-hoc rationalizations? Or is it something in between, something in my temperament that makes me resist taking the plunge?

First possible reason: a general distrust of very abstract moral principles, such as a blanket prohibition on “killing.” Continue reading “Why am I not a vegetarian?”