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!

Pacing myself

I’ve been thinking lately about which projects I choose to undertake.

For instance, I look at the two projects I’m wrapping up right now — a translation of Nicole Loraux’s “War in the Family” (the essay Agamben discusses at length in Stasis) and Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, the edited volume on Agamben’s sources. In the former case, I saw the opportunity to get a published French translation on the books while contributing to the field in a material way. In the latter case, I felt I had a good idea, I had never done an edited volume before, and I had a highly capable co-editor (Carlo Salzani, one of the hardest-working men in academia). Both were “might as well” kinds of things. I was in no position, either intellectually or practically, to embark on a major new research project before The Prince of This World had even appeared, so they seemed like good ways to bide my time. One benefit was that they were one-off projects — I am not going to begin a career as a major Loraux scholar (nor indeed as a French translator) or a serial editor of volumes.

Continue reading “Pacing myself”

The Trouble with Thanksgiving

It is my considered opinion after 36 years of experience that Thanksgiving and Christmas are too close together. There are many reasons to complain about the timing of the two holidays — the burden of traveling twice during the most dangerous and delay-prone time of the year, for instance. What I want to focus on is the academic consequences. Put simply, the existence of Thanksgiving wreaks havoc with the academic calendar, particularly on the semester system. There is just no non-awkward way to schedule around Thanksgiving, and the existence of Thanksgiving typically prevents the occurence of a week-long Fall Break, which — let me tell you — would be nice.

I propose that we move Thanksgiving to the second Thursday of October. It is not usually snowing anywhere in the continental US by that point, whereas Thanksgiving tends to be the time of year (at least in the midwest, where the crucial hub of O’Hare is located) when you get the first big snow storms. Travel will therefore be safer and less stressful. Everyone will also be happier and calmer, knowing that they’re not staring down the barrel of another family visit within four weeks. Indeed, it would rationalize the mainstream American holiday system by providing four quarterly opportunities to travel and visit family (Christmas, Easter, any number of mid-summer get-togethers, and New Earlier Thanksgiving).

This schedule creates a natural mid-semester break. And if adopted soon, that break would occur next week. Let’s get to work. I don’t think it’s too late.

My youthful experience in reading without understanding

This may shock you, but when I was a child, I was a bit of a nerd. I enjoyed comic books, sci-fi, and fantasy. At a certain point I put such childish things behind me and began reading Serious Literature, but I think that I benefited a great deal from my early passions. They taught me the art of jumping into a story in medias res and not worrying so much about catching every single reference.

It’s probably clearest in comic books, where most of the characters have intricate storylines stretching back for decades, overlapping with other characters in various ways. The current writers were accountable to this long and unwieldy tradition — in fact, even if the continuity was “reset” in some way, it had to be accounted for within the existing continuity (much as the new Star Trek movies take place in an alternate timeline of the original series). Footnotes to previous issues were a regular feature, and I always enjoyed the arcana of the letter columns where readers would ask tough questions about how the current plot fit with what had happened before. In fact, I was especially attracted to Green Lantern, a series with a sprawling cast of dozens of characters spread across the entire universe and a history presumably extending to the beginnings of life itself.

Now it is not the case that I really had to go back and read the whole run of a given series to understand what was going on, much less the entire “universe” of comics. Continue reading “My youthful experience in reading without understanding”