[The following is a talk I gave this afternoon as part of a faculty colloquium on “Radical Futures” at North Central College, part of the Intellectual Community series co-sponsored by the Faculty Development and Recognition Committee (of which I am chair) and the Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence and organized by my colleague Sean Kim Butorac.]
Since I teach in the Shimer Great Books program, I will begin with an experience teaching one of the all-time greats, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In my ethics class this semester, we were discussing Book 1 and came to a passage where Aristotle had isolated three possible human goods that seemed to be good candidates for happiness—by which he means the human good that we pursue for its own sake, with no need for further justification or explanation. The first is pleasure, which is presumably self-explanatory. The second is honor, which we could paraphrase as respect or esteem. The third is contemplation, which we could see as a form of knowledge or understanding. In all three cases, Aristotle believes, it wouldn’t make sense to ask why we are pursuing these goals. Why do you want pleasure? Why do you want people to like and respect you? Why do you want to figure things out? The question doesn’t make sense.
The list feels pretty exhaustive, but Aristotle goes on to introduce a fourth possible candidate: money. Initially it seems to fit the bill—all things being equal, no one will turn down more money. But Aristotle points out that money is not truly an end in itself, but rather a pure means. We only want money because of the things we can do with it. And this, I point out, is an area where Aristotle is out of date. He can’t imagine living a life for the sake of stockpiling as much money as possible, much less orienting an entire society around it. We can.
Continue reading “The Moral Cost of Capitalism” →
In real life, identity is a structuring principle of human experience, which is by definition neither good or bad. For individuals, it can be constraining or life-enriching — or more likely, some mixture of both. For groups, identity can be the starting point for a broader engagement with the world, an alibi to turn inward, or even a spur to active hostility. Whether its effects appear to be positive or negative in any particular case, though, it is not something we can do without — especially on the political level, which by definition requires the creation or mobilization of an identity group toward some end. Every politics is in that sense an identity politics, even on the Marxist model, which requires the members of the working class to identify with their world-historical role as the proletariat.
Everybody who thinks seriously about identity and politics knows that this is the case. The Combahee River Collective knew that it’s the case, and presumably even Slavoj Žižek knows it’s the case. Why, then, do people so frequently denounce identity politics as a blind alley, a distraction, a cynical ploy, etc., etc.? I would suggest that it’s because there are actually two things that go by the name of “identity politics.” The first, which I have described, we could call “real-world identity politics.” The second, which people mostly hate, would best be designated as “identity office politics” — i.e., how identity functions in neoliberal institutional settings, most notably universities and corporations.
Continue reading “Identity Politics vs. Identity Office Politics” →
I have only been to therapy one time. But I know a lot about therapy, because we all know a lot about therapy. Our culture is absolutely saturated with the tropes and techniques of therapy — in fact, there’s a case to be made that “therapy” is the only narrative structure with broad legibility in American culture. Whether in the extreme form of recovering from trauma or the more workaday experience of becoming a slightly better person, seemingly every story traces the arc of therapy.
And I hate it. Continue reading “The Culture of Therapy: Or, Men will literally write a whole long blog post instead of going to therapy” →
I’ve always loved newspapers. Growing up, my grandparents had a subscription to the Flint Journal. Though my initial attraction was the Sunday comics, I browsed all the sections and was following favorite columnists — like Flint-area fixture Andrew Heller — from a weirdly young age. When Flint got a Borders, I eagerly dove into the out-of-town newspapers and “serious” magazines like the New Yorker or Harper’s. I’ve been a print magazine subscriber basically continuously since high school, and My Esteemed Partner and I take the Sunday New York Times as our Hegelian weekend liturgy. More recently, I’ve begun to get the daily Financial Times as a way of lessening my reliance on social media.
Since I had an extisting NYT subscription, I also considered simply adding daily delivery. But the first Sunday I read the A-section with that in mind, I realized that having their political coverage as my primary diet would drive me insane. Continue reading “What is the news for?” →
I was reminded of this talk last night, which I gave on February 18, 2018, at Marquette University at the invitation of Gerry Canavan, and realized I had never posted it anywhere. Events in both series have overtaken some of my claims, but I present it in its original form, for the record….
Thank you, Gerry, for the generous introduction and the invitation to speak here today on this urgent topic. You already provided me with the opportunity to publish my first peer-reviewed article on Star Trek—establishing me as an official Star Trek scholar, a title I brandish proudly—and here today you have given me a fresh chance to transmute my TV obsessions into academic productivity. It was a great pleasure to rewatch all of BoJack in the last month with the ready excuse that it was for my research, a trick that I have been pulling over and over in the course of my academic career.
Of course, this form of time-laundering is not always equally plausible. My partner and I have been watching old reruns of Frasier, for instance, and there is no possible academic project that would strictly require me to watch every single variation on their relatively narrow bag of tricks. The essence of Frasier, as with most sitcoms, could be distilled into ten episodes or less without really missing anything—other than the comfortable feeling of slipping into the grooves of a well-worn routine.
Things are different with BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty. These are not shows that are designed to be watched half-attentively. They reward rewatching and reward analysis. Continue reading “Animated Nihilism: Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, and the Strange Fate of the Adult Cartoon” →
During my self-sabbatical, I have been using my commute time to read books that I have been vaguely meaning to read for a while. One of those was Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. I enjoyed it — and may even blog about it some day — and decided to continue on the track of “obsolete social criticism” by reading Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. I somehow expected it to be a, well, one-dimensional diatribe against postwar conformism, but I have found it very energizing — even moving. Perhaps it’s just landing differently because my brain is finally starting to heal from burnout, but I think it has a lot to say to our neoliberal moment and to the perpetual “crisis of the humanities.” For this post, though, rather than doing a book report or review, I want to focus on one of his simplest yet most powerful points — namely, what exactly he means by “one-dimensional” — and how this pushed me to rethink some things.
Continue reading “One-Dimensionality and the Uses of Transcendence” →
In the wake of Trump’s Electoral College technicality, I wrote this post about the Democrats’ decision to treat Trump as a normal president as much as possible. My basic point was that they want to preserve institutional continuity for its own sake and are willing to pay a very high substantive price to avoid outright collapse. I have found this argument to be of continuing relevance over the last several years, as the fundamental deadlock of American political culture has not changed. But more recent events have left even the most cynical side of myself wondering what Democrats believe they’re doing.
Continue reading “What does a Democrat want?” →
One of the oddities of American society is that in most cases you never know what something is going to cost until you are actually charged. The prices marked on the items on the shelves and on the restaurant menus are never exactly what you are going to wind up having to pay. The reason is that sales tax is only added into the cost when you complete your transaction. Growing up, this felt completely natural, if annoying, because it kept me from planning out exact change in advance. The first time I visited a country where the tax was already incorporated into the listed price, I couldn’t believe we would do it differently.
The reason, of course, is ideological: they only add in the tax later so that you feel that the tax is an extra imposition. Every American has to deal with a slow grind of daily annoyance at sales taxes, and any increase in taxes is immediately visible. Obviously this measure didn’t cause the US’s pathological tax-phobia — the very rationale for the Revolutionary War was largely to avoid taxes — but it certainly helps reinforce and reproduce it on the level of everyday practice.
On the level of policy design, it’s a minor feat of evil genius. And I think that left politicians should push to imitate it by proposing that profit margins be treated the same. The price on the shelf or on the menu should include the costs of production, distribution, and marketing. Only when you get to the cash register is the profit margin added onto the price. We get to know how much of our purchase price is going to fund public goods — why shouldn’t we also learn how much of it is enriching stockholders?
Continue reading “The profit surcharge” →
[Note: I wrote this piece at the invitation of a major publication, but they ultimately rejected the submitted draft. After a couple failed attempts to find it a new home, I am publishing it here, mainly out of respect for the time of my interview subjects, but also because I think that — whatever it faults as an op-ed — the basic point I am making is true and important.]
At a time when the pandemic has prompted a new appreciation of the work teachers do, we have also witnessed a sustained conservative attack on teachers and public schools. Beginning with the crusade against so-called “Critical Race Theory” and escalating in the recent attempts to squelch discussion of homosexuality and trans issues, state-level Republicans have increasingly sought to police teacher’s speech and micromanage curriculum.
These measures have been accompanied by a campaign of outright demonization against teachers, accusing them of indoctrinating children, seeking to make white children hate themselves, and even implying that teachers who speak with students about homosexuality or trans issues are pedophiles who are “grooming” our nation’s youth.
These increasingly unhinged and dangerous attacks have been met with virtual silence among Democrats. A recent viral speech by Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow, who forcefully denounced Republican Senator Lana Theis’s attempt to tar her and other Democrats as “groomers,” has only highlighted most elected Democrats’ failure to push back on a campaign of racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
What is going on here? Certainly part of the problem is Democrats’ habitual cowardice in the face of culture war attacks. But I believe the response in this case goes beyond political tactics. There is a deeper dynamic here, an ideological commitment to the view that teachers are not to be trusted. The recent Republican anti-teacher legislation puts a new, distinctively conservative spin on a decades-old effort to undermine the qualitative work of teaching through relentless quantitative assessment. Again and again, Democrats have joined their Republican colleagues in undermining teachers’ ability to function as the caring professionals they are.
Continue reading “The real reason the Democrats won’t stand up for teachers against anti-CRT and “groomer” attacks” →
[NOTE: I do not support assassination. Aside from the fact that I personally am a wimp and a coward, I believe that political change will be more durable and legitimate if it is seen to emerge from within the existing political system. The purpose of this post is purely analytical. Ultimately, it’s about trying to account for mass shootings as a phenomenon.]
We are constantly told that our nation is more divided than it has ever been. That’s obviously bullshit. Leaving aside the Civil War — in which our nation was so divided that people literally lined up with rifles to murder each other by the thousands — the turn of the 20th century was marked by labor militancy and left-wing agitation, and the 1960s were a period of mass protest and reactionary violence that far overshadows the present day.
One symptom of that deeper conflict was the prevalence of assassination as a political tool. Continue reading “The Assassination Gap” →