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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Just a little different

This is the second-to-last day of my Australia-New Zealand trip, and the day of my final lecture on the theme of “Neoliberalism’s Demons.” I would like to repeat my thanks to Monique Rooney (of Australian National University) for the initial invitation and the help coordinating my trip, Julian Murphet (of the University of New South Wales), Robyn Horner and David Newheiser (of Australian Catholic University), Catherine Ryan and Bryan Cooke (of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy), Mike Grimshaw and Cindy Zeiher (of Canterbury University), and Campbell Jones (of Auckland University) for helping me to extend my stay by hosting me at their institutions. All the events have been very lively and well-attended — apparently the audience for weird arguments associating neoliberalism with Satan is bigger than one would have thought!

In many ways, undertaking such a big trip was a stretch for me. I am a homebody by disposition, and it has also taken me a long time to get over a personal history where travel was almost always something for me to endure rather than enjoy. So living out of a suitcase for nearly a month, with no practical “escape route” if I wanted to bail out ahead of time (other than a 24-hour ordeal which would also be hugely expensive), feels like a major life achievement. There are further frontiers — most notably, traveling outside the Western world — but at this point, I don’t think I can claim to be intimidated by travel as such.

One strange thing has been the many small differences. On the surface, Australia and New Zealand are much like the US — above all in the shared language. When visiting Belgium or France, I expected things to be very different and somewhat incomprehensible simply because of the language issue, but I found that it constantly took me by surprise here. I still instinctively watch for cars in the wrong direction, though I have made progress since Canberra (where I may have had some actual brushes with death), and our one driving outing was not exactly an unqualified success. Even stranger, though, was the fact that my incompetence seemingly “reset” every time I moved on to a new city. In Canberra, I had figured out that Australians have “reverse” air conditioners that do heating as well, but when I arrived in Sydney, I was in a near panic because my hotel room only had air conditionining (and hence no heat, in American terminology). And it’s definitely been odd to be continually served an uncanny imitation of “my own” cuisine at half the restaurants, due to the trend of “American food.”

The best part of the trip hasn’t been the destination — though I have seen some truly awesome natural wonders — but the people I’ve met. Everyone has been extremely friendly and generous, making me feel welcome in this foreign land. I don’t know whether I’ll have any occasion to come back to this part of the world, but if I do, I will look forward to seeing all the many new friends I’ve made here.

What I’m actually doing this semester

I had big plans, which have not come to fruition. Rather than writing the first article mentioned in my previous post, I spent much of my time debating about whether to write it, ultimately deciding not to. My goal of writing a conference paper “as an article” has met a similar fate — I went back and forth on it, began collecting related articles, marked out my Spring Break as the time I would write it, and ultimately decided not to.

It’s becoming clear that I have just been unwilling to let myself have a break. The last two years have been extremely productive — I wrote Creepiness, compiled Agamben’s Coming Philosophy with Colby Dickinson, taught a graduate seminar over and above my regular teaching load, translated The Use of Bodies and Pilate and Jesus, completed The Prince of This World — and as time wore on, I became less and less able to actually stop and rest.

The last two days, I finally gave myself full “days off,” where I didn’t do anything “productive” aside from answering e-mails, and I realized that it had been at least a year and possibly two since I had allowed myself that luxury. My attempt over the past couple months to force myself to take on unnecessary work, apparently just for the sake of it, had produced no tangible results other than to leave me feeling guilty and irritable and unsatisfied.

So what am I going to do this semester? What I have to. Depending on how it goes, I may even extend that rule into the summer.