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.

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.”