A pessimistic prediction on the Supreme Court partisan gerrymandering case

I am not optimistic that the Supreme Court will rule partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional. This is not only because the majority is Republican and the phenomenon benefits Republicans, though that is also a factor. Basically, I think Constitutional logic and neoliberal patterns of thought will make it impossible to overthrow.

First, there is no Constitutional principle that requires the courts to guarantee the viability of the two-party system, much less to seek rough parity between the two parties (as “fair” maps would do). The Constitution was designed under the assumption that there would be no permanent parties, and our legislators remain much more entrepreneurial and autonomous than in a classic parliamentary system, even with increasing partisanship and party discipline. The only question that is Constitutionally accessible is whether the system is rigged for individual legislators.

And that brings us to neoliberal logic. Wendy Brown has shown how deeply neoliberal thought patterns affect Supreme Court arguments, even on seemingly non-economic matters. And Will Davies has demonstrated how the romance of entrepreneurialism has affected neoliberal thought on anti-trust. Whereas the early neoliberals were strongly in favor of anti-trust laws, the Chicago school — which actually had the most direct impact on legal and policy thinking on anti-trust — maintained that as long as some kind of “disruptive innovation” (to use the term somewhat anachronistically) remained conceivable, there was no reason to break a monopoly. I imagine the same reasoning will carry through to the topic of maintaining competitiveness in the market for legislators: as long as it’s conceivable that someone could come along and dislodge a given legislator, the demand for competitiveness is satisfied.

And if we accept the focus on the individual legislator, they’re not even wrong. The same party that has engaged most in partisan gerrymandering has also proven to be most susceptible to primary challenges — so a mechanism for replacing undesired legislators already exists and is fully functional. Yes, it’s hard to replace a Republican with a Democrat, but from the Constitutional perspective, there’s no such thing as a Republican or Democrat, there are just individual members of Congress.

This is not the outcome that I want, but I think it is the outcome that is most likely. If they do overturn partistan gerrymandering, I predict that the reasoning will be either very vulnerable to challenge, very narrow in its possible application, or both.

The apocalypse is happening once a week or so

When people open fire on crowds of strangers to let off steam, that’s a sign that you don’t have a society anymore. Crime is bad enough, but it at least follows a certain rationality — the motives are anti-social and dangerous, but legible. Terrorism is a step beyond normal crime, but again, there is some ostensible goal that the terrorist group is pursuing, albeit with tragically misguided ends. But something like a mass shooting isn’t even terrorism. It is sheer nihilism. It is violence as an end in itself, as the pure expression of a rejection of one’s fellow human being.

At this point, it is part of the ritual of a mass shooting for the shooter to be declared “troubled” or “mentally ill,” and then the liberals all point out that this happens every time and is a reductive explanation, etc. Yet there is a moment of truth in the individualistic explanation, because the systemic cause of the systemic problem of mass shootings is precisely a toxic individualism that, when thwarted, can find its way to a destructive annihilation of the other — any other will do.

We can also call it toxic masculinity, insofar as it takes the least desirable traits stereotypically associated with manhood — isolation, lack of empathy, rage — while completely discarding the more desirable traits like loyalty or duty. Surely it is no accident that only men — and almost always white men — participate in this nihilistic anti-ritual, but there is a false universalism in pinning the problem on masculinity. This is not always or even often how men behave. In fact, it is only in contemporary America that they have come to behave in this way at an epidemic level.

Call it toxic Americanism, then. That will allow us to include the ritualized non-response within the broader phenomenon. Systemic effects have systemic causes, and one of those effects is the utter refusal to take any steps to remedy the problem. Our political leaders are so enamored of the romance of gun ownership that they are willing to sacrifice dozens of us per year on the idol of the Second Amendment. Here I count all our political leadership — the Republicans who love their guns and the Democrats who spent the last couple decades attempting to placate the gun lobby (which refused to take yes for an answer and used every Democratic victory to prompt even more stockpiling of weapons). As ever, the choice between Republican and Democrat is that between active and passive nihilism.

As a result of this toxic Americanism, every one of us is potentially collateral damage of the distinctive form of aggrieved masculinity that America is producing in ever-greater quantities. And it is becoming clear that no amount of collateral damage will be enough to prompt action. The Las Vegas shooting claimed at least 50 lives and injured 200 more — an unimaginable loss that happened for literally no reason. Does anyone even remotely imagine that any action other than the ritual allocation of “thoughts and prayers” will come of it?

I am not being metaphorical when I characterize the mass shooting and its aftermath as a form of ritual. In a sense, it has become the baseline ritual of American civil religion — a ritual enactment of the dissolution of society, a ritual evocation of the apocalypse. Admittedly, this ritual has become so routine that we only bother to carry it through at the national level when the victims become particularly numerous (as at Las Vegas) or when the targets produce a special effect of horror (as a Sandy Hook). But it is of a piece with all our other distinctive observances: the rituals of blaming victims of disaster, of formally excusing police violence against the innocent, of brutalizing protestors with no legal or rational basis other than the demand for absolute submission. All of those ritual observances point toward the mass shooting as nihilistic violence in its purest form, with no claim to legitimacy or justification — a nihilistic violence that we collectively refuse to stop or even impede, because we don’t even remember what it might be like to be part of a society anymore.

Updated Critical Reading Worksheet

Thanks to everyone who commented on the last version of my close reading worksheet, now re-named a critical reading worksheet after it turned out that “close reading” is its own specific kind of thing, and tweaked a bit in response to suggestions from lots of people. In particular, I’ve added some questions to encourage my students to think about what they’re bringing to the text, and to notice their own reactions to it; and some questions which will hopefully get them thinking about the structure of the text and (where relevant) the argument. I think in future I might try to expand it to give some examples of paragraphs from academic texts which show the kinds of critical engagement that might result from asking each of these different questions, but this is the version I’ll be using in my teaching this year:

Continue reading “Updated Critical Reading Worksheet”

On the very idea of an “edited volume”

I received word recently that the editor and contributor copies of Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, the volume I co-edited with Carlo Salzani, would be coming out soon. I am excited for it to be available, because I think it will serve as a very useful reference volume for readers of Agamben who want to get a handle on his many interlocutors. And I am also excited to have my own hard copy, because that will mean that this project, which I have been working on to varying degrees for around two years, will be officially completed.

When I told The Girlfriend that I was excited to get my copy of “the edited volume” soon, she asked for clarification as to what project I was referring to. It isn’t that she doesn’t know about it — she was privy to every petty detail of the process, with special emphasis on the handful of things that didn’t go according to plan — but that the term wasn’t very intuitive to her as a “civilian.” Getting this outsider’s perspective, it struck me as a weirdly undescriptive term: why don’t we call it an “essay collection” or, in my case, a “reference volume” or something like that? Why highlight the one aspect — the “editing” — that jumps out least to readers, who are presumably interested in the work for its content, regardless of who recruited contributors and worked directly with the press?

And then it hit me: we call it an “edited volume” because of where it would fall on the CV of the academic(s) who will gain the most prestige from the exercise. It’s not about what’s inside the “edited volume” or what people are after when they consult it — it’s about whose name is on the cover. And my proof of this is that there is one case where we designate an edited volume by another name: a festschrift. In that case, the greatest prestige goes to the person in honor of whom the festschrift is presented, not the editor(s), and so its status as festshrift overshadows its status as an edited volume for naming purposes.

What’s the point of university?

I’m teaching my first Great Christian Thinkers class on Friday, and because it’s meant to be a course that orients my students to their degree as a whole and we’re opening on the theme of ‘What Matters Most?’, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the purpose of university; both what they want to get out of their degree and what a range of other people and institutions might want them to get out of it. I’ve pulled together some short extracts for them to discuss as part of the session, and thought they might be of interest to others: you are welcome to borrow and/or adapt these at will. Continue reading “What’s the point of university?”

The Political Theology of Ecclesiastes

Why is the Teacher so depressed? When I was a teenager, the existential angst felt natural and obvious. Returning to the text as an adult who will be teaching it in class, I felt less secure. It seemed almost like an American arthouse film from the 70s, with everyone railing against an unspecified “phoniness” to which there nonetheless seemed to be no alternative. Compared to what is everything “vanity”? This is the only world, the only point of reference we have — what would it even mean for it to be meaningless?

And then it hit me: this isn’t the only point of reference, because this very “secular” text makes strategic reference (unlike Esther, for example) to God. Ecclesiastes is the lament of a man who can never be God, who lives in a world that God set up to remind you that you can never be God. The more he seeks for power, wisdom, and permanence, the more obvious it becomes that he can never be as all-powerful, as all-knowing, as eternal as God is. Indeed, the more he pushes the boundaries of what is possible for human beings — it is no accident that this text is traditionally attributed to Solomon, the pinnacle of human achievement in the Hebrew biblical tradition — the more reminders he gets.

Hence the continual advice that we should eat and drink and enjoy our toil. It’s not that those things are great or enjoyable. We are not dealing with an edifying message that we should “live for today.” The reason we should embrace fleeting pleasures and make the most of our subordination is that then we will not have to live with any painful reminders that we are not God.

In The Prince of This World, I claim that the political theology of the Hebrew Bible sets up a rivalry between God and the earthly ruler, and Ecclesiastes is arguably the only place that we see that rivalry from the first-person perspective of the ruler himself. Hence if Pharaoh is the primal root of the figure of the devil as God’s permanently humiliated rival, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is the root of the philosophical despair of Milton’s devil, who knows for a fact that he can never defeat or replace God, but nonetheless feels compelled to keep trying — because for all his diagnoses of vanity, we never hear that the Teacher follows his own advice and abdicates the throne to become a simple laborer.

No one who has seized upon that hopeless hope can ever give up the quest to be God. Once that insane, impossible thought has entered one’s mind, there is no choice but to embrace the futility and humiliation and pain as a protest that becomes its own pleasure and satisfaction. Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven — and better a world in which I can cast God as an illegitimate, arbitrary despot (in the very canon of Scripture!) than a world in which I cannot be God.

Pedagogies in the Flesh

pedagogies in the flesh

Palgrave Macmillan just released Pedagogies in the Flesh: Case Studies on the Embodiment of Sociocultural Differences in Education. The volume contains over 30 short, true stories, anecdotes, vignettes, illustrations, what have you, as well as a preface by Freirean scholar Antonia Darder. I contributed a chapter titled “Black Counter-Gazes in a White Room,” which explores three classroom experiences in which students of color challenged white normativity. Overall, Pedagogies in the Flesh “presents a collection of vivid, theoretically informed descriptions of flashpoints–educational moments when the implicit sociocultural knowledge carried in the body becomes a salient feature of experience. The flashpoints will ignite critical reflection and dialogue about the formation of the self, identity, and social inequality on the level of the preconscious body.” The volume received excellent reviews by Emily Lee, Charles Mills, Mariana Ortega, George Yancy, and others.