End of Year Boredom: TV Open Thread

Hello fellow legacy media users, I’m at home procrastinating on finishing my syllabus for Intro to Religion for the Spring, so let’s chat TV. I won’t pretend to be a critic or anything and list out 10 shows, but here are my favorites from 2017 in no particular order:

  • The Young Pope – I seem to remember it was a hard sell to get Katie to watch this with me, but once we started we were both totally hooked. If the Cherry Coke Zero scene doesn’t immediately reel you in, it’s probably not for you. The last two episodes, especially, are beautiful and surprising. Also, maybe my favorite title sequence ever?
  • The Leftovers – Adam and I have had some chats about this show. We agreed that it captures something about what it means to be a fundamentalist that is never portrayed in TV or film–empathy towards religious fanatics while neither succumbing to liberal condescension nor romanticization. Truly great character studies.
  • Insecure – Issa Rae makes me laugh. This is another show that bursts through the typical Hollywood stereotypes. Also, along with Master of None’s portrayal of New York, I love the way that LA is a character in the show. Insecure’s camera work, both of people and places, is excellent.
  • Master of None – Probably doesn’t belong amongst these other shows, but I really liked this season. At times it seemed like Aziz could have pushed the characters a little further and gotten to a really interesting place, but the whole thing is worth it for the Thanksgiving episode.

Dear readers, what did you watch this year?

Blog Year in Review

It’s been a slow year, which stems mainly from the fact that I have radically scaled back my blogging. In part it’s because I have been busier with other things, but in part it’s also because (seemingly with the sole exception of book events) it’s almost impossible to get an online discussion going anywhere but Twitter and Facebook. Our top post of the year came in late January, with my mockery of the infamous “ticking timebomb” scenario. Out of the top five, two were perennial favorites written long ago — Why Game of Thrones Sucks and an explanation of the Bible verse that says “he who will not work shall not eat” — while the remaining two were also on political themes — The Apocalypse is Happening Once a Week or So (on mass shootings) and On the Punch (about punching Nazis). My proudest post of the year, though, was probably Political Polarization in the Family.

Aside from me, Marika made the most contributions, mostly discussing pedagogy and course planning, along with a great list of academic writing tips and a reflection on her experience of boxing. Anthony made a triumphant return to blogging with a review of books on OOO and ecological theory. Jared Rodríguez contributed several posts, including one on racial profiling.

We only did one book event this year, on The Prince of This World, coordinated by Stephen Keating and featuring posts by Bruce Rosenstock, Linn Tonstad, Jared Rodríguez, Amaryah Armstrong, Marika Rose, and Dotan Leshem. I am grateful to Stephen and to all the participants for their engagement with my work.

Overall, I think that we are still doing the kind of work we have always done — just a little slower. Thank you to everyone for writing and reading. I can’t promise more content in the coming year, but I for one am committed to preserving what we have created in this space.

Does scholarly productivity lead to academic job offers? Report from a natural experiment

As I reflect on my academic career so far, I realize one could view it as a natural experiment on the question of whether scholarly productivity as such leads to multiple job offers. I am kind of the ideal test subject because I lack other obvious markers of prestige — my PhD is not from a top-tier school, and until recently, I taught at a place that was, shall we say, very little known. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a boast to say that I am in the top 1% in sheer scholarly productivity among my age cohort in the humanities. So if publication volume, simply taken in itself, were a sure-fire ticket to multiple academic job offers, then I would be experiencing that. Hence I conclude that the answer is no.

This is not to say that it should. My publication record is a pretty abusive baseline expectation for a comfortable middle-class job, and if every aspiring academic published as much as I do, there would be an unimaginable glut of material. From my own perspective, I do in fact have a satisfying job at a great school. And I didn’t do all this work so that I could get a job — I did it because I enjoy it, and I have gotten the rewards (great interlocutors, invitations to come speak, etc.) that are really important to me from my work.

But for the young academics out there — no, sheer volume of publications is not a silver bullet. Write and publish as much as you want to and can, but don’t do it in the expectation that the academic job market will directly reward you for the length of your CV. And, I would say, you shouldn’t make serious sacrifices for the sake of writing projects you wouldn’t have taken on through your own sincere interest and passion, just for the sake of building your CV. That’s just not how it works. I don’t pretend to know how it does work, but I’m pretty sure at this point, I know better than anyone that it doesn’t work in this particular respect.

Some reflections on Ruth

[As some readers know, I have been studying Hebrew for the last several months. I’ve transitioned from going through a textbook to reading on my own, and one of my first projects was Ruth. These are some reflections and observations, for which I claim no originality or even correctness. Some of it stems directly from seeing the Hebrew rather than the translation, but I assume most of this just comes from the necessity of moving so much more slowly through the text.]

There are a lot of feet. Ruth uncovering Boaz’s feet gets a lot of attention, but there’s also the sandal swap to seal the deal with the other potential redeemer. Obviously the former is sexually charged to some extent, but I have a hard time thinking that’s at play between Boaz and the unnamed other dude. Could it have something to do with walking? As in, halakha, which derives from the same root as the verb for “to go or walk”?

The fact that this whole transaction is happening at the gate is significant — this is where the elders and most prominent men hang out, apparently. Clearly we are dealing with a heavy-handed symbolism of border policing. But the situation is set up so that we know Ruth will be let in — either the unnamed guy will redeem her, or it will default to Boaz. There’s no live prospect of her being excluded, once she’s decided to cleave to Naomi….

I liked the use of that verb for “to cleave,” but I don’t think it’s just about her relationship to Naomi as a possible homoerotic attachment (something my students always flatly reject as a possibility, maybe because intergenerational homoerotic relationships are less of a thing nowadays?). She’s also supposed to cleave to the women gleaning Boaz’s field, and at the end of the story the women specifically accept her and name the child and assert Naomi’s ownership of it (over Boaz’s and over the dead husband’s). At the time this was written, was Judaism already practicing matrilineal descent? And is this text arguing that “converts” who cleave to the community of Jewish women can produce Jewish children, too — even the greatest Jewish child of all, King David?

Finally, there is some weird phrasing when Boaz wants to inform the other guy about the possibility of redeeming Naomi’s property. The translation has “and I thought to disclose it unto thee” (4:4), but the Hebrew (וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי אֶגְלֶה אָזְנְךָ) is more like “I said I will uncover your ears.” It seems like an odd way to put it, right? After all, it’s not like his ears are plugged, he just happens not to have that particular information. But his refusal to redeem after he learns he has to take on Ruth the Moabite may highlight the idea that Jews had closed their ears to the message that their covenant and community can and should be for everyone. Hence the other kinsman is unnamed because he stands for a generic Jew with a more ethnocentric outlook?

Anyway, these were my initial thoughts after laboriously working through this odd little text in Hebrew. Here is a website with facing Hebrew text and English translation if you want to poke around for yourself.

2019: The Voight-Kampff Test

1.

In Blade Runner (1982), the LAPD of 2019 make use of privatized detectives—‘blade runner units’—in order to hunt down and murder runaway slaves. In the manner of certain contemporary societies, these slaves are used to build and maintain the basis for a ‘new world.’ In this case: the ‘offworld colonies’ out in some interstellar elsewhere. And just as in these ‘historical’ regimes that commercialized slavery and placed it at the center of the construction of the ‘new world,’ the line between slave and free is given ontological weight; it is a ‘line separating kind.’ The difference between freedom and slavery is the difference between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ or ‘human’ and ’replicant.’ The slaves, you see, have been genetically designed and manufactured for the roles they will play in colonization, sold off from inception as ‘pleasure models’ or as fodder for hazardous labor, immune from pain, or as cannon fodder placed at the barrier between civilization and that which threatens it. And so when these slaves—valuable commercial property—occasionally flee, effectively stealing themselves from their owners, and return to earth to hide amongst the surplus population of a world that has been effectively left behind, they must be “retired”—murdered—by these police slave patrols. The problem, however (as it is for all regimes of slavery built on the ontological difference between humanity and its outside) is that the line between human and inhuman requires a surprising degree of maintenance to sustain. How does one know whether one is speaking to a human or a replicant? “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” In 2019, the cops have a means: the Voight-Kampff test, which, we are told, can separate human from inhuman.

The Voight-Kampff (VK) test consists of a series of questions asked of the subject in rapid succession. We aren’t told much about how, exactly, the test separates replicant responses from human ones. In the film, we’re told that it’s an “empathy test,” and that what’s important aren’t the answers given to the questions, but the subject’s physiological responses; “capillary dilation of the so-called blush response … fluctuation of the pupil … involuntary dilation of the iris.” Decades of fan speculation have assumed that the VK tests for the presence or absence of empathetic response on the part of the subject. This idea is supported by the novella that serves as the main source material for the film, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Androids… is much much more direct in its description of the VK test and how it works. In the world of the novella, a past nuclear conflict has resulted in a mass extinction event, and the extravagant wealth needed to keep one of the few real animals remaining on Earth has become a status symbol. As a result, cruelty to animals features prominently in VK questions:

“You’re reading a novel written in the old days before the war. The characters are visiting Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. They become hungry and enter a seafood restaurant. One of them orders lobster, and the chef drops the lobster into the tub of boiling water while the characters watch.”

“Oh god,” Rachael said. “That’s awful! Did they really do that? It’s depraved! You mean a live lobster?”

The novella’s version of the VK test, in other words, is a test of how far the subject’s empathy extends. Does one empathize with humans? That serves as a baseline. But empathy for humans isn’t necessarily sufficient to distinguish human from android. And so, degrees of humanity are measured according to an ever-expanding radius of empathy, culminating in the ability to empathize with non-anthropomorphic animals. There are reasons, even in the novella, to distrust the efficacy of the test, or its ability to sustain the sort of ontological distinction it’s meant to establish. After all, a surprising number of humans show very little empathy for nonhuman animals as it is. Empathy for animals, in the world of the novella, maps in a very particular way onto socioeconomic divides: not only the ones separating human and nonhuman, but the divides among the novella’s humans themselves. More than anything else, it’s a test of the extent to which the aspiration to a certain form of humanity has been internalized as empathy.

The world of Blade Runner’s 2019, however, is a very different one from that of the novella. The novella’s androids are much closer to what we traditionally think of when we hear the term “robot;”[1] full of wires and computers underneath an exterior façade made to match the humans and animals that they mimic. In 2019, replicants are flesh and bone. They may be manufactured rather than ‘born,’ but their status as nonhuman owes more to their provenance as an object of design than to a difference in material composition. Additionally, while the world of Blade Runner is similarly devoid of ‘natural’ animals, we’re given very little reason to think that this is the result of Cold War-era nuclear fears come true. The mass extinction that haunts the margins of the earth in 2019 hews closer to the slower, more mundane ecological catastrophes we’ve already wrought for ourselves than to a vision of nuclear winter. As a result, there’s less reason than it initially appears to assume that the film’s version of the VK test is designed along similar lines.

The key to the film’s version of the test is summed up nicely by Sarah Gailey: “It is not about having enough empathy, but about having empathy for the correct things. If you do not have enough empathy for the correct things, you will be murdered by a cop who does have empathy for the correct things.” Consider Leon, the one slave who we’re shown failing a Voight-Kampff test. We don’t need to measure Leon’s capillary response to see that when it’s suggested by a VK question that he’s not helping a dying turtle in the desert he’s visibly disturbed, to the point of losing all composure. Conversely, the affection associated with familial kinship is totally alien to him. “My mother? Let me tell you about my mother…” Rachel, on the other hand, whose failure occurs only offscreen, dozens of questions after the ones we’re shown, doesn’t bat an eye at the idea of taking an animal life:

“You’re watching television. Suddenly you realize there’s a wasp crawling on your arm.”

“I’d kill it.”

Blade-Runner-Lighting-Cinematography-Sean-Young-Smoking-2

When the police “put the machine on” you in 2019, it’s not in order to determine whether you have empathy, but to determine the extent to which the distribution of your capacity for empathy aligns with a very specific—human—distribution. It’s not a question of having more or less empathy. It’s not even really a question of lacking empathy for the things you should associate with yourself. To have empathy for the wrong things, to have inhuman empathy is not only excessive, but suspect. What kind of person, anyway, would look at things and see themselves?

2.

It’s impossible to understand what, exactly, is at stake in this act of ‘misrecognition’ without thinking about what it means to be a slave. What kind of thing is slavery? What is it, exactly, that defines a slave? Orlando Patterson, writing in Slavery and Social Death (1982), pointed out that what’s most central to the relation between slave and master is a specific kind of power relationship; the titular social death. This emphasis on social death should be understood in contrast with an understanding of slavery that primarily imagines it as a particularly extreme form of exploitation. There’s a strong tendency in the history of thinking about slavery to associate it most directly with the experience of forced labor. A slave, according to this way of thinking, is exploited for their labor—just as a worker is—but to much a greater degree, and with much greater force. We could, for example, say that a worker is exploited exactly to the degree to which some amount of their labor isn’t compensated—and from that point we could draw a series of analogies that point to greater and greater degrees of exploitation, culminating in the slave, who labors without any relationship to compensation in the form of a wage. It’s on the basis of this image of what slavery is, for instance, that it makes sense to speak of an analogy between the condition of black slaves in the Atlantic slave trade, and the white indentured workers forced to labor alongside them in plantation fields until their debts had been paid off (an analogy captured in terms like ‘debt slavery’). If slavery is defined in terms of the experience of exploitation, then slavery and indentured servitude—and, by extension, wage labor—don’t differ so much in kind as in degree: an ascending pyramid of exploitation upon which, at the very top, sits the slave.

If Patterson is right, however, exploitation may be a common effect and experience of slavery, but isn’t what defines the condition of the slave. The relationship between slave and master is defined instead by the fact that the slave is, from the point of view of the master, socially dead. As summarized and rearticulated by Frank Wilderson III, social death has three basic elements: [1] gratuitous violence, [2] natal alienation, and [3] generalized dishonor. First: the violence heaped upon slaves is gratuitous in the specific sense that it’s not—unlike the violence that might be unleashed on, say, workers—validated by the idea that the slave has stepped outside her role. “This vulnerability,” he argues, “is not contingent upon his or her transgressing some type of law, as in going on strike with the worker.”[3] A slave’s body can be the target of ‘legitimate’ violence simply as a result of being a slave, without the pretext of, say, disobedience. Second: slaves are natally alienated in the sense that filial kinship among slaves is systematically disrupted or unrecognized. The claims that a mother or a father might make upon a child are always, in the case of the slave, mitigated by the prior demands of the master—slaves are sold away from their kin, their names changed, their lineages obscured. Both of these prior points articulate the more general third: slaves undergo general dishonor in the sense that they are transferred from one realm to another; from the realm of persons to the realm of property. In other words, what underwrites both the gratuity of violence and disruption of filiation that define the slave as socially dead is the transformation of a person into a specific kind of thing: a commodity. Since the slave, once transformed into a commodity, is often put to work, this is often experienced as exploitation, but to define slavery in terms of that experience is to confuse the effect with the systematic terror from which it stems. “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?,” Roy Batty comments to Deckard. “That’s what it is to be a slave”

3.

What kind of person would look at things and see themselves? This is a question that hangs in a particular way over the year 2019. One of the most common complaints among critics who went to see Blade Runner in its original (failed) theatrical run was the absence of a character with whom the audience could meaningfully identify. This absence was attributed to a number of factors. For one, Harrison Ford turns in an uncharacteristically affectless performance as the film’s eponymous blade runner. Even to the extent that Ford’s sarcastic charm can cut through the cold, visibly depressed Deckard, audiences seemed to find it difficult to identify with the casual brutality of a man who would shoot through a crowded street in order to murder an unarmed slave in the pouring rain. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the film’s central ‘romance’—between Rachel and Deckard—reads so strongly as a rape.

In response to this, the received wisdom among the film’s fans has been that the film exists more as an exploration of ideas than an invitation to identify with any particular characters. And the most basic idea under examination, on this reading, can be phrased as a simple question: ‘what does it mean to be human?’ The film, of course, studiously avoids revealing much of the information that would take the work of answering this question out of the audience’s hands: we’re never definitively told, for instance, whether we should understand Deckard to be a replicant, or whether the replicants we do see enjoy real human emotions or make real human decisions. Call it a cinematic Turing test: do the replicants possess humanity, or do they not? This is a question that it’s possible to ask in 2019. By asking it, however, the viewer tacitly enters the film from the vantage of the police. The ontological difference between human and slave is reiterated as the ontological difference between human and replicant. Can a nonhuman rise to the level of humanity? This is the question that animates a certain reading of Blade Runner, but it’s also the question that occupied the case against Reconstruction in the American South and—much later—the infamous Moynihan Report.

More primarily than a Turing test, Blade Runner performs, in fact, a kind of cinematic Voight-Kampff test. What kind of viewer would look at slaves and see themselves? As difficult as audiences found it to identify with Deckard’s depressive brutality, Roy Batty’s lethal pathway of ascent to the Tyrell corporation’s penthouse suite tends to inspire even lower levels of empathetic response. Even when there’s a certain logic of frustration that’s granted to him in the moment he kills his own creator after being admonished as ungrateful for the life he’s been given, the fact that he kills the bashful and ostensibly friendly J.F. Sebastian on his way out the door is often understood as an act of needless brutality. Viewed from the position of the slave, however, J.F. Sebastian’s ‘playful’ curiosity takes on a very different tenor, however. Sebastian is, after all, a man who fills his house with a menagerie of living toys, each genetically designed—just as the replicants are—to fulfill his flights of whimsy. Walking tin soldiers, porcelain dolls enfleshed: each designed for a life of monstrous servitude. It’s in light of this that we should read his similarly playful attitude toward Pris and Roy, each of whom is asked in his early encounters with them to perform physical feats for his amusement. Far from an innocent bystander, Sebastian is the owner and operator of a kind of slave zoo; and his death represents an end to this particular cavalcade of horrors. Only when the film is viewed from the vantage of the slave—when the pertinence of the question of replicant humanity is refused from the start—can his death appear for what it is.

[1] Of course, this actually places them further from the origin of the term; from Rossum’s Universal Robots, in which the term ‘robot’ translates an Old Slavonic term for ‘slave.’ Notably, in RUR, just as in the film, the titular ‘robots’ are biological rather than mechanical in form.

[3] Frank Wilderson, “BLACKS AND THE MASTER/ SLAVE RELATION” in Afropessimism: an Introduction.

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”

The score after Year One of the Age of Trump: Bush was still worse

I am angry about the nihilistic tax cut bill that just passed the Senate. I am humiliated every day by the thought that a con artist like Trump is president, much less by the stupid shit he says every time he opens his mouth. I am disgusted at the thought that a foreign power could materially affect our elections and there would be no accountability. I am tensed up every time I call home to talk to my Trump-supporting parents, because I worry that hints of the separate epistemological regimes we live in will crop up. But one year in, Bush was still way, way worse.

The Bush tax cuts were as arbitrary as those currently under consideration. Though there was the padding of a budget surplus to stave off immediate calls for entitlement cuts, the prospects for overturning them were made worse by the complicity of the Democrats in the process — something that is completely absent in our present situation. This latter will be a recurring theme.

Trump has made climate change denial official government policy and appointed a vandal to head up the EPA. But this is just a mopping-up effort in the wake of the Bush administration’s path-breaking work. Before Bush, environmentalism was not a partisan issue. His father presided over a cap-and-trade program that helped to limit acid rain, for instance. But the Bush administration was the Revenge of the Oil Industry, and while not openly embracing climate change denial, they brought the “teach the controversy” bullshit mainstream — and meanwhile literally approved tax credits for gas-guzzling SUVs.

People are horrified by Trump’s rhetoric and stated desire for more executive power. Yet when it comes to consolidating executive power, Trump is a rank amateur compared to Bush and Cheney. Trump has issued meaningless executive orders stating campaign goals, while Bush literally signed bills into law and appended a written notice that he would not obey the resulting laws. Trump admires strongmen, while Bush administration lawyers developed the theory of the Unitary Executive. There’s a reason people turned to Carl Schmitt to understand Bush, and there’s also a reason why there hasn’t been another Schmitt vogue in the Age of Trump.

In terms of the Electoral College technicality that brought us both of the worst presidents of the 21st century, Bush’s was “better” because it came down to good old domestic corruption and family ties in Florida, rather than foreign interference. Yet by this point in his misbegotten reign, Bush had presided over the biggest foreign terrorist attack in American history. I am not a 9/11 Truther, but I believe there is concrete evidence that the Bush administration could have stopped the attacks but failed to do so due to their belief that creating fake hostilities with China was more important than continuing the Clinton administration’s focus on terrorism. I have long believed that if Gore — whom you may remember as the man who won the part of the 2000 election where people showed up and voted — had been president, he would have continued Clinton-era policies and the 9/11 attacks would have been stopped.

At this point, Trump is the least popular president in modern history, while Bush was riding around 90% for existing while 9/11 happened (again, due partly to his negligence). To his credit, Bush was less likely to openly stoke racial resentment of American Muslims in the wake of 9/11 than Trump is in the wake of… basically no reason. And yet his advisors were already pushing for a criminal war that would kill millions and destroy the life prospects for an entire generation in the Middle East — which, again, the Democrats were complicit with. Democrats were also complicit with the suspensions of civil liberties in the childishly named USA PATRIOT ACT, which contributed to the development of a global network of torture camps. Compared to this, Trump’s consistently thwarted desire to ban Muslims from entering the country — as pointless and cruel as it is, and as much damage as it has done to individuals — seems less like an abberation.

Whenever I have brought up these and similar topics, the response is invariably: just you wait! Trump is clearly evil, he clearly wants to do evil things, and when he gets around to it, it’s going to be a doozy! And sure, Trump is a terrible person whom I hate with all my heart. But short of a nuclear exchange with North Korea, what is even available to do that would be worse than the Iraq War? And how could he top legalizing torture? He has claimed he wants to reinstitute waterboarding, but so far it doesn’t seem like that has happened — and if it did, it would just be a repeat of a Bush-era innovation.

Yes, your fantasy of the worst that Trump could do is always going to top the reality of the Bush administration. But that reality is pretty grim, and the consistent complicity of the Democrats has meant that efforts at unravelling that toxic legacy have been thwarted at every turn. By contrast, Trump is hated by the public, fully opposed by the Democrats and not fully supported by his own party, and apparently too stupid and capricious to achieve anything that doesn’t involve his hiring and firing power. Yes, he’s done real damage, and no, we probably don’t appreciate the full extent of it. But the case for Trump as a unique fascist threat is pretty hollow when we recall that we had a fascist president within most of our adult lifetimes — and everyone, including the opposition party, fell in line.

And now we’re nostalgic for good old grampa W., with his cute paintings, who reminds us of the good old days before our president had an ugly combover. It’s absolutely disgusting — but quintessentially American. After all, what would America be like if we were capable of clearly recalling events from over a decade ago?