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.

What I’m working on this semester

Having just finished a major project, this semester I’m using my writing time for smaller things. I’m working on expanding my theory on Coates and Augustine into a proper academic article, which I hope to be in a position to submit to a journal by the end of the month. I also have some revisions to do for an article comparing the concept of “canon” in scriptural traditions and in Star Trek.

Later in the semester, I’m going to be participating in a conference at Loyola University Chicago, where I’ll be giving a paper on Agamben and serving as a respondent for Thomas Altizer. For the former, I propose to flesh out a critique of The Kingdom and the Glory that I briefly lay out in The Prince of This World, and my intention is to write that up as a proper article and then condense it down for the conference.

I have also been working with Carlo Salzani on an edited volume centered on Agamben’s relationship to his sources. Over the course of last semester, we solidified our list of contributors, and now the proposal is under review — so I guess I’ll be “working on that” in the sense of “waiting to hear back.” Also Agamben-related: The Use of Bodies comes out in a few weeks, and at some point in April I should be doing a discussion session on it with Northwestern’s Paul of Tarsus Interdisciplinary Working Group. Watch this space for details.

And what, dear readers, are you working on this semester? (Thanks to Melanie Kampen for reminding me to include the discussion prompt.)

The approaching horizon

For the past several months, my ultimate horizon has been the winter break, when I will complete revisions on The Prince of This World and submit the final manuscript. There are presumably things that will happen afterward, but it’s difficult for me to picture anything beyond that momentous, attachment-riddled e-mail to my editor.

Now I have completed my grading and am working my way through the last volume that my reader reports recommended I consult. I still have duties at Shimer, but I can devote most of my energy in the next couple weeks to finishing off what amounts to the biggest single writing project of my life so far. And weirdly, I’m looking forward to the process. Revisions are a painful part of writing, but I think I have enough distance at this point that the emphasis doesn’t fall on destroying the work I completed at such great cost, but on improving and clarifying what I’ve done.

The question will be what comes next. Late this summer, I was dreaming big dreams about diving straight into the next project (on the Trinity). That likely will be the next project, but it’s clear in retrospect that it would have been impossible to make substantial progress while getting into the swing of my altered duties at school and stressing out about the review process on Prince of This World.

The fantasy, I think, was that I would somehow be able to remain “in the zone.” And what stands out to me now is how different “the zone” is from the normal run of things, how seldom I really have time to spend honing and grappling with my own ideas. My job is to help others hone and grapple with their own ideas, and much of my day-to-day writing is reactive rather than self-determined. All of that is worthwhile and meaningful in its own way, but it’s not “the zone.”

The last day of summer vacation

Tomorrow I have my first faculty meeting of the fall semester, making this the final day of summer vacation. Aside from a certain Unfortunate Incident involving unwanted online attention, it was a good one. It was obviously dominated by my work on The Prince of This World, the full manuscript of which is now under review. Finishing it was a big milestone in my life, but it was more than just checking something off a list — I enjoyed the work. And given that I had enough time to pace myself appropriately (3-4 hours of concentrated writing a day, max), it also provided a steady background for a very “civilized” lifestyle. I struck a good balance between semi-random reading and getting my sci-fi fix (I’m about halfway through Babylon 5 currently), for instance. Though we didn’t take any major vacations, we took advantage of The Girlfriend’s unexpected car ownership (the last vestige of the Minneapolis episode) to take a weekend trip to Milwaukee and several day trips for outdoor activities and/or visits to various brewpubs.

I also worked on piano in a more sustained and focused way than I have in many years. Yesterday I had a major breakthrough on my Schubert piano sonata, finally getting the most intricate new material to an acceptable level and playing through the whole first movement in one go. Much of what I have left to learn is a repetition of previous material in a different key with small variations, and it was gratifying to be able to sight-read passages that had taken weeks of hard labor on their first incarnation. It felt good to work on something that was purely an end in itself, with no greater purpose or goal.

At the same time, I did check plenty of things off the list. With my big translation submitted and the book under review, my decks are cleared in a pretty radical way. And over the last couple weeks, as a kind of cool-down exercise, I wrote an article on Star Trek that is quite literally the last piece of writing I’ve promised to anyone. My “writing” time for the next few months will therefore be dominated by responding to reader reports, answering copy-editing queries, and correcting proofs — a suitable accompaniment to my labor as a mid-level functionary at Shimer. In so many ways, becoming Associate Dean this year marks the end of a long class-aspirational journey for me: I’ve emerged from a working class background to become middle management. And as an added bonus, I am now, for the first time ever, a member ex officio of a committee. Oh, the policies I’ll draft! The data I’ll analyze! The resolutions I’ll propose!

Progress report

This is the first summer I’ve had in a long time that didn’t feel like a state of emergency in some way — both financially and in terms of my self-imposed academic work. I’ve submitted my translation of The Use of Bodies to Stanford and got some very positive feedback from Agamben. This provided a boost to my liquidity as well as my ego, and in general it cleared the decks of a project that I had been expecting to take up much of the summer.

As for the devil book, I’m also ahead of schedule on that, and I now expect to have a full manuscript ready before the fall semester begins. It’s perhaps not surprising that it should be going fast, given that I’ve written, lectured, and taught over most of the material multiple times over the last several years. What has shocked me is how weirdly leisurely the process feels. I spend 3-4 hours writing or revising most days, and it is steadily coming together. Some days I even feel like I haven’t done much, but then I think, “Oh right, I wrote that section.” The whole atmosphere seems very out of keeping with the objective importance of the project.

All of this makes me glad that I didn’t wind up taking a leave for the fall, because I don’t think I could have made very good use of the time. Even assuming I went slower on the book, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep up the momentum necessary to get started on a whole new project. As it stands, I’m looking forward to focusing on teaching and on my new administrative role as associate dean next semester, without taking on any major new research or translation work. I may go to AAR, but I definitely won’t be presenting.

Overall, I’m a little creeped out by how calm and settled I feel. But not so creeped out that I’m not enjoying it.

Regimes of feline visibility

Foucauldian cat

For a long time, we have been accustomed to talk about cats. They wander the streets, they live in our homes, and they populate the internet in the form of images and videos. While the latter is admittedly a new phenomenon, it does nothing to shake our firm opinion that cats have existed from time immemorial.

In reality, the cat is a recent invention, which only came into existence within the last two decades. This is not to say that animals with certain identifiable anatomical and physiological features did not exist prior to the late 1990s. Doubtless, people kept these creatures as pets, employed them to hunt mice, left food out for them. Yet what we know today as cat is an unheard-of innovation, which has shaken the entire Western episteme to its core.

The cat’s genealogy is not to be traced through the familiar apparatus of the zoological chart, which would place the feline genus among the mammals. Instead, we must turn to the series of shifts in the technological field that, while small in themselves, converged to create an entirely new regime of feline visibility — an epochal shift that would bring these private household animals into the public sphere for the first time, constituting a radical new concept of cat within whose horizon we still in some way live.

I am speaking, of course, of the deployment of the camera phone. What must be called the camerafication of the cell phone was at first doubtless a marketing gimmick, an attempt to distinguish certain phones from others by providing a differentiating feature that was meaningless and even useless in itself. Who, after all, had any need of a camera on a day-to-day basis? We ask this in all innocence, as though the camera was a familiar tool. We behave as though we can trace a steady development of the camera from its earliest “precursors” over a century ago, through to the handheld model, the Polaroid, the disposable camera, and its digital model. What we are accustomed to view as a gradual accretion of “features” and “capabilities” on a tool whose concept and nature remain constant, is in actuality a history of ruptures, breaks, disruptions, unexpected redeployments — of which what we could also call the phonification of the camera is only the latest and surely not the last.

It would require a quasi-infinite investigation to detail all the many shifts in the history of that related but not identical technology that we call the “picture” — all the discourses surrounding the distribution and visibility of pictures, the power-knowledge that invests their production and dissemination in the form of family albums, newspapers, old shoeboxes, bulletin boards, magazines, and all the other apparatuses that provide us with access to what we know as “pictures.” The decisive step in our genealogy of the “cat” is the deployment of “sharing” in the digital realm.

With the advent of “photo sharing services,” wholly new forms of display opened up, entire regimes of the ocular. And what did we share but our very cats. Those animals that had once been a byword for isolation — and here one would need to trace the vast and complex history of the deployment of the “cat lady” in the field of discourse — were now sharability itself. The cat as we know it was born.

We are the first generation to castigate ourselves for taking so many photos of our cats. The appeal of the figure of the “cat” is seemingly irresistible even as it seems trivial or even risible. The cat is put forward as our savior from boredom — at work, during lectures, on the subway — when in reality the entire technology of the cat is a deployment and production of boredom. And even when we finish reading this blog post, it is likely that we will turn to yet more pictures of “cats.”

Moving furniture

When I was growing up, my mom ran a furniture and decorating store with my aunt and grandma, and all three homes became showrooms in themselves. There was naturally a much more frequent churn of furniture in my house than in the average household, and my mom was continually trying to think of new arrangements. As my sister and I got older, we were consulted about the arrangement in our own bedroom, but by that point both of us were too used to continual change to really resist the process altogether.

I carried the habit with me to college, rearranging my dorm room every few weeks (and initially keeping up the weekly thorough cleaning schedule that had been forcibly inculcated into me as well). I was thwarted in sophomore year, when the dorm rooms had built-in furniture that offered no flexibility, but they introduced restackable furniture my junior year, opening up bold new possibilities.

As I’ve grown older, it seems like less flexible arrangements have been the norm. My office at work is shared, and I’ve tried both of the plausible arrangements and determined that only one of them really works. At home, Chicago apartments tend to be very long and narrow, limiting the number of feasible options. My current apartment has been basically the same arrangement for an unprecedented three years…

Until now! The Girlfriend’s now-averted move to Minneapolis has led to the purchase of new furniture that we need to either incorporate or switch out. More tanatlizingly, one of her coworkers is moving and has offered us up to five new bookshelves, offering us the possibility of expanding book storage space while also getting rid of The Girlfriend’s big IKEA bookshelf (a white monstrosity made up of little square cubbies instead of proper shelves), a goal I have long treasured in my heart.

The prospect I find most appealing is the conversion of the dining room — often a more or less wasted space in a Chicago-style apartment — into a library. For the first time in my life, all my books could be in the same room, allowing me to take them in at a glance. This has naturally led to thoughts of a re-sort that would render a logical arrangement immediately legible — even though past experience tells me that that way lies madness.

A conundrum that occurs to me even now is what to do with my class books, which are currently all at school and which form their own category based on my use of them even as they obviously belong to a range of categories in themselves. Do I bring them home to most fully actualize my goal of taking in my full library at a glance? Do they properly belong to “my library” at all? Wheels within wheels….

What about you, dear readers? How do you organize your books, your living space, your working space (the latter two tending to overlap heavily for most academics)?