Status anxiety

From most perspectives, I’ve lived a charmed life. I live in a city I love, with an amazing partner. And miraculously, I’ve somehow managed to be employed full-time in academia since finishing my PhD, despite graduating into the Financial Crisis, and as a result, I am now much more materially secure than I could have imagined during the dark days of grad school. I’ve had a really unique and diverse teaching experience, and I’ve had enough time to do the writing and research I am interested in. My writing has opened up a lot of great opportunities, including international travel (to the point where I may eventually be able to “get” every inhabited continent).

In short, I am living the life I want to live and have always wanted to live. My main source of legitimate anxiety is whether I can make it last for the long term. And that ties into another, possibly less legitimate anxiety — over status. On the one hand, I currently have more job security than most professionals in most industries. On the other hand, I am working in the one industry that purports to offer a select few near-total job security, in the form of tenure. That job security is, in the ideology of academia, tied very closely to professional status and prestige. Hence it is difficult to keep those two elements separate: the desire for tenure as one of the few forms of genuine job security in the world and the desire for tenure as a kind of earned recognition of my personal value as a teacher and scholar.

Continue reading “Status anxiety”

The last stage of writing is decathecting.

Going over my Agamben manuscript yesterday, I found myself unaccountably depressed. More than most of my other books, this was purely a labor of love. I don’t think I need to establish my expertise in Agamben at this point, nor do I especially urgently need to add another item to my CV. I wrote it because I had done the chronological read-through project, because I had the opportunity to meet him, because it just felt like time. And as I was going through the text, there were so many layers of good memories — of the first time I read the texts, the reading groups I had done, the chronological read-through itself, the events in Toronto and Prague where I tested my ideas, my conversation with Agamben, the vacation to Venice it made possible, and the writing process itself. The latter was sometimes a struggle, as I was pushing myself to complete the manuscript over the course of an abbreviated summer vacation, but it was also a joy, as I continued to find new creative connections.

All those good memories and associations, though, only served to highlight how much of a slog the editing process was and how little connection I felt to the intellectual energy and excitement that had gone into it. And it strikes me that something similar happens every time I put a book out — getting it out the door means losing that connection to it as a living process. An intellectual adventure runs aground in trying to make sense of formatting requirements and filling out forms. The production process only redoubles the alienation, as copy-editing, proof-correction, and (above all) indexing reduce the manuscript to gibberish in our own minds, a pile of potential errors and clarifications and oh my God why did I use this stupid concept so often.

In the cold light of day, I recognize that this process of decathecting is necessary — even a mercy. It helps us to let go of the project and hand it over to the reading public, who will make of it what they may. And it gives us permission to be done, at long last, as we realize that, even if this book could in principle be improved, we are not in any condition to make those improvements. We only really know we’re finished when we can no longer bear to look at the thing.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —

Out walking the dog this morning, I thought about the church across the street from our building and reflected on how totally absent church has become from my life — even as an absence. For a long time, probably longer than I like to admit, not going to church felt like a positive act, and Sunday morning still felt “different” somehow. I would often do something to mark it negatively, such as listening to a Requieum mass (God being the deceased). Now our Sunday routine is different from other days — we get the print NYT, My Esteemed Partner does cooking for the week, we normally have homemade pizza for dinner, and there are certain TV shows that feel more like Sunday shows for whatever reason — but it doesn’t seem like a replacement for church.

This process went faster with prayer before each meal. For a long time it felt weird not to do it — I had to pause somehow before eating, even after I’d forgotten why. Now it feels very strange if someone wants to do it, even if they don’t draw attention to it and silently pause before they start to eat. Obviously the fact that I eat multiple meals a day made it easier to get used to the absence.

In the most formalistic terms, neither of these things — regular community time with people who share our values or taking a moment of thoughtful gratitude before eating — is necessarily bad or harmful. In fact, both sound pretty good! Am I still letting my upbringing spoil both? Is the next step in the process that I figure out a way to reaffirm both in my own terms? Or — more likely — does it just not matter?

Guilty Pleasures

Last summer, I decided to treat myself on my birthday and get an NES Classic Edition. This miniature gaming system returns us to the world of the original Nintendo, complete with a couple dozen classic games and — crucially — authentic controllers. I went through a phase of downloading videogame emulators in college, which enabled me to play every single system that ever existed (including the Sega Master System, TurboGrafx-16, and Coleco Vision), but the Nintendo experience never felt right without the original controllers. I was, as they say, between projects, and so I spent a couple afternoons working through old favorites — especially games that I had loved but never finished when I was a kid.

Chief among my targets was Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. I played that game so long and so hard that the save-game battery actually ran out. It was the first game I had experienced that felt open-ended, as though the next person you talked to or the next square you walked across could hold untold secrets. It was also incredibly demanding for a young child, with enemies that depleted your experience points if they hit you, caves full of monsters you couldn’t even see until you gained a special power-up, bonuses hidden on arbitrary spots on the world map, and complex mazes that often required you to backtrack (at risk to life and limb). I got Zelda 2 prior to the original Zelda, and to me, the latter never fully lived up to its successor — though I realize that I am in the minority here. In fact, when I have mentioned Zelda 2 in social media threads, people have often expressed bafflement that I could even tolerate the game.

Continue reading “Guilty Pleasures”

The Messianic Turkey

Thanksgiving is turkey pardoning season. For decades now, the U.S. president has been ceremonially releasing a lucky turkey from its fate as a family dinner. It is a bizarre custom, and NPR reports that it has its roots in an attempt to distract the public from the Iran-Contra scandal, which had raised questions as to whether Reagan would pardon members of his own administration who had been caught up in it. George H.W. Bush formalized the ritual, and it has been with us ever since.

Thus the turkey pardon is associated with the president who ushered in the neoliberal order and was confirmed by his successor, who presided over the transition to the “new world order” that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was the historical moment in which the U.S. President effectively became the global sovereign, unchecked by the counterweight of the Eastern bloc.

Giorgio Agamben teaches us that the fundamental activity of sovereignty in the Western political order is the production of bare life through the inclusion-by-exclusion of natural life or zōē. And it is certainly the case that the U.S. as global sovereign has consigned ever-increasing populations to the status of bare life, above all in the assertion of the power to carry out drone strikes anywhere in the world based solely on the president’s own decision.

In this context, the spectacle of the turkey pardon appears ironic or even parodic. At a time when the president can put virtually anyone to death based on his sole discretion, without any need for a legal trial or judgment, he also extends mercy to an animal, “including” it in the legal order by declaring its exemption from guilt. Yet what could this possibly mean? The turkey is not legally accountable for its actions and hence incapable of committing a crime. A pardon is not only superfluous, but incoherent. There have been cases of people who have maintained their innocence and therefore refused a pardon because it would imply a previous legal guilt. Yet the turkey is not even innocent — it is absolutely foreign the regime of guilt and innocence. To the extent that it is condemned to death, it is not for any kind of crime, but solely as a result of its de facto appeal as a human foodstuff. And even when it does have this strange encounter with the legal order, it does not generate new legal facts (aside, perhaps, from a transfer of ownership to the relevant wildlife sanctuary). Certainly it does not constitute the turkey as a legal subject with rights. Someone who killed the pardoned turkey would not be a murderer, but simply a jerk.

The encounter between sovereignty and the natural life of the turkey is thus a failed one, and therein lies the turkey pardon’s messianic promise. The ultimate sovereign prerogative of the presidential pardon falls idle in its application to a subject who is incapable of guilt or innocence. As against the “zone of indistinction” that opens up between law and life in the sovereign exception, here we have a separation of the two orders without any overlap — a law that is inapplicable, and a life that is simply lived, in blissful ignorance of the legal order. In the messianic kingdom, we will all, in a sense, be the pardoned turkey that is left to live out its life in peace.

There is no personal pan pizza

The Girlfriend and I have a running joke about winning a personal pan pizza. During our childhoods, that was always the iconic, go-to prize for any kind of contest involving kids. Imagine the luxury, from a kid’s perspective. Kevin from Home Alone captures it well: “A beautiful cheese pizza, just for me!” You never get to pick the toppings as a kid, or at least there’s never enough of the toppings you want. In my house, we would always order one with sausage, pepperoni, or both and one execrable monstrosity with ham and green pepper (my mom’s preference). One half of the toppings correlated to one quarter of the family, who tended not to eat a lot anyway — and so I would be stuck with leftover ham and green pepper the whole rest of the week. I experimented with different methods of picking off the green peppers, but before or after microwaving made no difference. It was tainted. The gross green pepper juice had soaked into the cheese somehow, leaving green pockmarks. And years of experimentation revealed there was no “sweet spot” of microwave time that would leave the pizza warm and the ham non-rubbery. It was a struggle.

I remember vividly when I was in line for my first personal pan pizza. I was in sixth grade, and our class was doing a kind of trivia contest over a set list of young adult novels. Reading was basically all I did at that point, so I felt like I was a slam dunk. The actual contest was a big deal. We took multiple days of class for it, and it was a double-session language arts class. I showed up to my first round and answered my first question: which novel features this plot point? I knew the answer without hesitation — but I was disqualified, because I left off the initial “the” from the title. I spent the next several days at my desk, reading, occasionally glancing up at the people still competing for the personal pan pizza.

I don’t know if I even felt disappointed. There was something about the whole proceedings that I just didn’t believe, going in, and losing on a technicality felt right somehow. Better that I lose now rather than get closer and lose then, right? I had done all the work, read all the books, even taken detailed notes, all without any real sense that I would ever win.

Continue reading “There is no personal pan pizza”

Packing up my mind

A few days ago on Facebook, Jason Read compared packing up your house with creating a systematic philosophy: when you start up, everything is so perfectly organized, but by the end you’re throwing things wherever they will fit. We just moved this weekend — my entire library is pictured above, in cube form — and I have been thinking a lot about that analogy. It seems to me to work on a lot of levels.

Most notably, the point of packing up your house is not to have a final account of your belongings. In other words, the goal of packing is to make it easier for you to get somewhere else. There is something satisfying about imagining everything in its perfect and predestined place, but aside from the intrinsic appeal of organization, the real goal there is to make unpacking easier, almost effortless — or in other words, that you will have developed concepts that can effectively guide action.

After a certain point, of course, an excess of systematicity can become a problem: it slows you down on both ends, as you misguidedly dwell on the packing process and then waste time explaining the beautiful seamless rationale to those assisting you. Similarly, on the philosophical level, too all-encompassing an account can be paralyzing. Take Hegel, for example — if you read his work and ask, “What do I do now?” the answer is mostly, “Keep reading harder to make sure you get how everything fits together.” The same problem doesn’t arise with something simpler and more rough-and-ready like existentialism, where it doesn’t take long before you can start thinking about your life in terms of the basic concepts. (Similarly, in theology, Karl Barth’s vast system can easily become an end in itself, while Paul Tillich’s more broad-strokes approach is much easier to apply — something I find myself doing a lot despite not being much of a Tillich “fan.”)

Obviously simplicity isn’t an unalloyed good — existentialism might be more like jumbling everything together into boxes and sorting it out when you get there, which is a suitable approach for the dorm rooms of those who most enjoy existentialism but less helpful for a more fully-developed adult household.

I could probably extend this metaphor sooner, but the more systematically I develop it, the less room there will be for others to riff on it.