Complaint 1/7: The Email Chain

 

 

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In an effort to begin writing, I will be posting a series of small, unedited complaints. After that, I hope to return to dead-blogging the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Dear ones,

As I’ve aged, the pleasure I take in trauma has translated into taking on too much work—a genteel form of suffering that befits my station, but leaves me thoroughly uninspired. Worse: too much work leads to breathless prose, and the internet has already saturated the world with the moist wheezing of insecure people with no time for themselves.

And so, I have decided to guard my summer writing time as if it were a loose lipped drunk in witness protection, hiding it from the authorities and well-meaning neighbours. The summer is attacked on both sides by committees and class prep. Both necessary, both bloated and intent on stealing from me what little energy I have. As is well known, the advance attack is made via the email. What is perhaps less well known is that the mid-west has augmented the attack with the Midwestern Email Chain.

The chain drags behind the email, and each link is forged out of a freakishly positive ejaculation. It goes like this. I write an email to a group, saying “I have left some old crackers and a sock in the break-room, please feel free to use them in your presentation to the provost tomorrow,” and click send. Within the hour, one of the members of the group will reply to everyone (this is key: everyone must be involved) saying something like:

“Great work, Dustin! Thank you so much! The world wouldn’t be the same without you!”

Within 15-20 minutes, another link is added:

“I love mouldy socks, this is amazing! Really proud to be part of the team!”

And then another:

“Socks are the BEST! Really reminds me of my undergrad! Thanks!!!!!!”

…,

“Oh.My.God. I love this!”

And so on. There is no harm in this–it can even be mildly touching. It is, however, a problem when you have not authored the first email, when you are a recipient of it, and, say, three or four links in a quickly building chain. It is especially a problem when you are clearly expected to participate, and yet have inherited an absolute allergy to effusiveness from your father.

Dear ones, I cannot do it: I cannot publicly say ‘good job’. I cannot join this community of praise and relentless affirmation. Taciturn dickishness is my birthright, and I cannot betray it. So, instead, I resentfully diagnose: what is behind this chain? Why is it public? Why do otherwise elegant people write with one hand trained by habit to hit Shift+1 after every sentence?

The best answer I have is stolen from a friend: all communication occurs against a background of hostility. To push back against this assumption, we have exclamations of praise and wonder. Each email translates, roughly, into:

“I do not hate you. I wish you no harm.”

And this is a good thing. I do not want to be hated, not here, and not by these people. But I cannot reciprocate, because my vanity will not allow me, and my time is running out.

A series of indefensible proposition, all true:

1) The first critique is more aesthetically interesting than the third.

2) The third critique shaped what a lot of philosophers think about art. The first critique shaped how many artists think about, and do, art.

3) Why? The claim that the structure of appearance is an appearance is fun for artists. A disaster for philosophy.
The notion of disinterest is fun for philosophy. A disaster for art.

4) The first critique is part of the early 18th century aesthetic project, where sensation (including dream and imagination) was central, and art just a privileged instance of sensation.

The third critique is an attempt at a ‘philosophy of art,’ and is very 19th century. The requires a stable of idea of art. There is no such thing, so it dissolves into a discussion on this point

5) Early aesthetics is more important right now than the philosophy of art. It deals with design, screens, cognition, decoration, and so on.

6) The third critique is a snooze-fest, other than the parts about biology.

7) Early aesthetics allows art a place (expansively speaking: it starts with poetry; Lacoon is nothing original in this sense) but is compelling because it also allows us, if we wish, to ignore the concept of art.

8) It is also compelling because it allows for aesthetics to sustain its sensuality, or carnality—from Baumgarten to Boyarin?—while also sustaining a link to cognition.

The inter-discipline and the Field

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Articles calling on academics to ‘be engaged’ appear with metronomic regularity, almost as steadily as we are asked to use less jargon, or ‘be more accessible’. The content is homogeneous but the tone differs, varying from “look guys, I’m trying to save the humanities over here” to “get a real job you punks”. All are grotesque. Not because the people calling for engagement get angry when the ‘engagement’ actually occurs (although this is annoying) but because these articles ignore a pretty basic question:

Why should academics be more ‘engaged’ than a server at taco bell, or an electrician? Are we so important? Am I so special? My mother thinks I am, but I don’t think she should be steering public policy.

I think there are two reasons for this repetitive oversight:

  1. Academic work isn’t considered real work
  2. Labourers aren’t considered real people

With (1) we have real people doing not-real-work, and with (2) we have real work being done by not-real-people. I am not sure who the real people doing real work are. Likely  CEOs, consultants, drug dealers, and other people above my station.

Those asking us to engage request nothing less than that we cease our nonsense and start doing real work, work that matters—like dealing drugs or raiding pension funds. It is a request that we justify ourselves properly. It is also the request that we grow up, admit that academic work is useless, and work towards the common good.

But, what is the justification for our not-real-work? For academics even one-half a generation before me, it was The Field. The Field was a beautiful thing, as this recently discovered dialogue between a Beautiful Soul and an administrative Philistine illustrates:

               Philistine: Why are you studying ancient Ugaritic tax invoices?

               Beautiful Soul: To advance The Field.

               Philistine: Why recreate Diderot’s path home from the brothel?

               BS: The Field of brothelology demands it.

In this golden age, there were an unstable number of Fields (History, Literature, Biology, Phrenology, and so on) which were both spaces to be cultivated, and forces to be advanced.

Of course, no one has ever known where one field ends and the next begins, and most things can’t be understood if you aren’t willing to wander across multiple territories. But The Field allowed you to justify your work without appealing either to making money or improving society. It was a fantasy, but one that gave legitimacy to many wonderful things. Now it is gone, and money and the greater good are the only legitimacy we have left.

Clearly unable to make money, humanities professors are thus supposed to improve society, to be useful, and advance social justice. Which we should. Hell, we should also advance economic justice. But–and this is the trick–everyone should do this. I have about as many opportunities to advance the cause of justice with my work on Mendelssohn as an electrician does when she considers who to apprentice next. That is: some, but not much.

In any case, the Fields are gone, and we are interdisciplinary now. Older curmudgeons ask how we can be inter-disciplinary if we have never studied in a Field. For some reason, this doesn’t bother me. I just read and write, and I assume that’s what people like me have always done. But I do not like enforced inter-disciplinarity; every funding application I write stresses how inter-disciplinary I am. And this is true. But I dislike knowing that these words must appear in either the first or second paragraph, or I will never be funded. Because my work is housed in and protected by actual departments, and mandatory inter-disciplinarity weakens them. And my work is still half-justified by the fact that it might help people in a understand things, and better their work in their little field, or gardens. But the Fields are all gone, gardening is for the rich, and I am running out of justifications.

A hamster’s thoughts on his first child

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There is a thing called ‘sleep training’ that parents are ordered to go through after producing a child. It goes like this: for the first few months you just replicate the womb, but outside of your bodies. You sit in this grubby amniotic-apartment, and quiver over a tiny little fragment, a creature whose fragility is so intense you assume it must be eternal. In this window of time, babies, sometimes, die in their sleep, and no one really knows why. Unknowns birth superstition and arbitrary sacrifice, and so you sacrifice your most precious possessions, your sleep and sanity, to appease the god of SIDS (Sudden infant death syndrome). According to Wikipedia, the chief symptom of SIDS is “Death of a child less than one year of age.” That is the symptom.

After three months, the chance of this happening reduces, but, if you’re me, you still live in near-total fear, as the child-fragment becomes more of a child-slug: totally inept and useless, but quasi-independent. The womb becomes a normal room, albeit one with a baby in it. After 6 months, the slug evolves into something like a self-rolling log, and it is now safe to push it into another room while you sleep, and watch it roll around on what is called a ‘baby monitor’: a device that transforms a normal semi-bourgeois room into a lo-fi horror movie, replete with rustling sounds, haunting cries, chaotic artifacts, and glowing eyes. Bad film equipment conjures ghosts, and the ‘monitor’ conveniently positions these ghosts right around the cradle, where they belong. After a full year there is, thankfully, no danger of SIDs, because if a 366 day old baby dies in her sleep, they call it something else. (Unless it’s a leap year).

Six months into this process, you ‘sleep train’ a baby. From the womb to the room, to the chamber down the hall: you put it in a crib, sing it a Yiddish worker’s anthem, and let it cry itself to sleep while you watch it flail on the ghost machine. It is terrifying, but it is necessary, or so I am told.

I once thought that the necessary was the non-contingent. I now know this to be false: the necessary is what Google tells you to do. Montreal Lemmy, a.k.a. ‘Cube,’ has taught me the spiritual value of the path of least resistance. I once looked at people on this path with contempt, but I have joined their docile number, and willingly. Google determines the direction of this path, and so Google is, functionally speaking, the third parent in this home. When I am unsure which way to turn, I go to my laptop, enter my search terms, and submit to the results. I rarely get to the bottom of the results page before I have taken up my marching orders.

And so, sleep training. Here google and the doctor speak in a single voice, and the Cube has been exiled down the hall.

The difficulty is: it has not been so terrible. After a song or two, the little guy sleeps more soundly than I do, and clearly misses me far less than I miss him. Apparently, he didn’t need my comforts as much as I needed his, and he now sleeps without my fearful interruptions. I, of course, remain petrified, and wake up to every monitor hiss and crackle, staring at his night-vision-ghost body on a tiny digital screen, secure in the knowledge that I am marching on the road towards clingy, emotionally demanding, parenthood.

 

 

Conspiracy and the Hamster Wheel (2/2)

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This year I plan to follow the advice of my friend Erik: keep the hamster wheel turning, with the least amount of effort possible.

The wheel must be well oiled, and it is oiled by dull repetition. I have no illusions about ‘writing every day’ as the best writers do. I am too anxious, distracted, and vain for that. But I can at least use the hamster to excuse my errors, weakness, and lack of energy.

“Energy”, is not a normal resource. It’s not that I wake with 10 units of energy, and if I use 5 on writing, have 5 left for the rest of the day. Energy is odd: if I use too much, my work becomes thin, perhaps playful, but meaningless. If I use too little, my work becomes thick, unreadable, too much in a small space. Between diarrhea and constipation there is the consistency we all desire: the soft but cohesive daily shit. That’s what I want my writing to be.

Here is some shit I think about conspiracy theories. I tried to articulate it on Erik Davis’ lovely podcast, but it didn’t work as well as we had hoped. Podcasts are far harder than I would have thought. He has been kind enough to suggest that we try again one day, on the subject of skepticism. In the meantime, I want to keep the hamster wheel turning, so here are the things I wanted to say, but didn’t, or did, but poorly.

Thoughts on conspiracy:

Opening assumptions

  1. Conspiracy theorists are not stupid.
  2. Conspiracy theorists are more ‘on our side’ than cynics, even if the cynic is a better conversationalist. The cynic is excellent at predicting things, provided nothing changes. The conspiracy theorist is better at predicting things when they are in flux. Both are inadequate.
  3. Conspiracy theory is arrogant, because it is incomplete critique. The conspiracy theorist knows that all information is suspect, but is magically exempt from the cycle of poisoned data.
  4. In this sense the conspiracy theorist is like the 20th century figure of the gnostic: transformed by knowledge. They have a secret, and this secret has changed them. They are no longer part of the world.
  5. Almost no one will admit to being a conspiracy theorist. This is largely unmentioned in the literature, and a major distinction between conspiracy theorists and groups they are compared to. You can productively compare a conspiracy theorist to a millenarian Christian, but the millenarian identifies as such. The conspiracy theorist does not. In this sense, they mirror the ‘men behind the curtain’, who would never admit that they are actors in a conspiracy.

Methods

  1. The term ‘conspiracy theorist’ is not only derogatory, used to dismiss as critique as quackery, it is also unclear. It is best defined ‘as we go,’ not in advance.
  2. Conspiracy theory is social. Conspiracy theorists form communities and subcultures, which provide intimacy. Oddly, they rarely act as communities. Conspiracy theories may have a political effect, but one sees far les political action than you would expect. 25% of Americans once believed that 9/11 was an inside job—you would expect riots, but there were none. Perhaps because conspiracy tends towards fatalism (‘there is nothing you can do, it’s all controlled by the Jews/Illuminati/lizards, etc.). More to the point: conspiracy theory, while quasi-communal, is about individuals knowing: what matters is that I know x, and this knowledge elevates and frees me. Once systems hit a certain complexity, there is no freedom in individual knowledge: collective problems require collective action. The conspiracy community is communal only intellectually. It is thus ripe for manipulation. It mirrors elements of the university.
  3. The true/false distinction matters when examining these communities. Often social theorists study groups without asking “are the things this group believes, true?”. Such questions are considered invasive, or ‘not the point’. I study some tribe (be they Anglicans, college students, or conspiracy theorists) and report on ‘what they believe’ and ‘how this belief structures their tribe’. I, most emphatically, do not ask if the belief is true. This is a terrible mistake. One of the most striking things about (some) conspiracy theories is how obviously untrue they are, and yet, they are believed. How is this possible? What sort of group requires that we believe that the earth is flat and run by lizards? The fact that this is clearly false is exactly what stands in need of explanation, not academic agnosticism. To not ask ‘is it true?’ is to miss what’s going on.
  4. There is a link between Critical Theory, and Conspiracy theory, but it is not one of permission (where critical theory opens a relativist crack that conspiracy creeps through, or postmodernism is to blame for the rise of Bannon and Alex Jones). It is not the case that Latour and Foucault opened the door for relativism. All the permission granted by critical theory, postmodernism, and so on, was granted long ago. Read Sextus Empiricus.
  5. If anything, permission for conspiracy is granted by the hypernomian impulse, not the sceptical or critical one. Those who believe that the law is ‘created’ or embodied, by the exceptional, are far more likely to engage is conspiracy than either law abiders or law breakers. The conspiracy theorist is not a relativist: the conspiracy theorist thinks that truth is formed by two things: extraordinary powers (lizard people or the CIA) who create the false truth, held by the many, and extraordinary insight, which allows you to break out of the false truth, and see the real picture.

Diagnoses

  1. Conspiracy theory almost never goes far enough.
  2. In terms of critique: conspiracy theory does not critique itself. ‘The media’ may be false, but why are my youtube videos true? A possible solution: They are both ‘false’, in different ways. The conspiracy theorist judges, but escapes judgment. They see the game, but escape it in a ‘gnostic’ manner. They claim to question everything, but do not question if this is even possible. (It isn’t—everyone has things they cannot question, and no one knows what those things are).
  3. In terms of emotion: conspiracy theory is too comforting. It presumes that someone is in control. It asks ‘who profits?’ (always a good question) but then assumes that the person profiting arranged the situation they are profiting from. This is often false: the profiteer is an opportunist, a flexible being able to exploit a number of situations. This does not require that they arranged the situation, just that they were ready for it. The conspiracy theorist likes the idea that someone is in charge: “daddy may be abusive, but daddy still runs things”. Daddy is just another huckster.

Cautions

  1. Insofar as there is a solution here, it is to ask the conspiracy theorist to go further. Conspiracy theory, when it is not a mere grab for power, is often an incomplete desire for critical education and intimacy. These are urges worth fostering.
  2. What will not work is bullying theorists to accept ‘reason’ (itself often little more than an ideology,) ’sanity’ (which in this case is just liberal consensus), or ‘science’ (presented as a monolith of facts, and not the exciting and confused web of inquiries that it is). Conspiracy theory is a poor way to wed thinking with politics, but it is worse to pretend that there has been no wedding.
  3. What will not work is seeking to deprive them of the media conditions that make conspiracy possible. Too much blame is placed on the internet. This is nonsense—the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were widely disseminated long before facebook.
  4. It is true that nothing is as it seems. But this realization changes nothing. Helping the conspiracy theorist recognize the weakness of pure knowledge is a good start.
  5. Michael Barkun is the best writer on conspiracy theory. But he overemphasizes the importance of millenarianism. More or less everything is millenarian right now.

 

Erik’s podcasts are worth checking out–he is one of my favourite public intellectuals.

You can find one of his websites here.

over-remembering

Dear ones
I have dropped the ball, again, and am picking it up with a perfunctory writing, the goal of which is 500 words on whatever comes. My mind is simultaneously buzzing and dull. I am in the midst of Very Serious Things—the growth of this little grub, a student undergoing a terrifying collapse, and the approaching death of someone dear to me—and they are very heavy things, but they are hollow. There is no depth to be had from them, just exhaustion.

At times like this I am tempted by bars. The sugar energizes,  the alcohol batters down defenses, and you can expand: it’s easier to write after a few drinks. And the expansive effect is greater when you’re ‘out’. But I’ve descended into middle age, the stage of life where you try capture and replicate public stimulation in the privacy of your home—like the ‘home theatre’ that crushed the 90s living room. And so, rather than go ‘out’, I try to mix drinks in my kitchen, for which I have strange bitters in artificially aged bottles, sugar cubes in a little yellow box, spices to be ‘muddled’, a wooden baton cut for this purpose, measuring glasses, and, most important of all, a 20$ jar of maraschino cherries. These are perhaps the most desperate and decadent things I have ever purchased. They are delicious, but reek of enervation, because we all know that no matter how well you do it, mixed drinks are better had while ‘out’.

And there is a very nice bar in Dayton, where the old-fashioned is better than anything I could possibly mix at home, the building is gorgeous, the service lovely, and, because Dayton is always inches from economic collapse, I can afford it. The bar is like a memory of prohibition, from the music, to the waiters, to the carefully preserved décor. Nothing detracts from the place’s vision of the thirties–it’s perfect. And so of course I cannot bear it. I go there, and even like it, but I cannot be a regular in a place that so perfectly recollects something.

It’s not just that I have an allergy to nostalgia, and it’s not just that I don’t ‘get’ jazz: there is something terrifying about these memory-places that fill the mid-west. I am not put off by the fact that they are simulacra: I think I’m scared they might be real. Why not only remember part of it, or scar the memory by playing contemporary music, or allow the waiters to ditch the dress coats? Allow us to forget something. There is no place for me in 1930s America, no place for most of us, so why recreate it?  I have known several queer conservatives who long for a political order that excludes them. This is often described by their leftist peers as ‘self-hatred’ or ‘internalized oppression’. That may well be, I cannot say (although who doesn’t hate themselves, and who hasn’t internalized some oppression?). But I can say that this practice spreads far wider than these obvious cases. People say that Plato would have been thrown out of his ideal Republic; perhaps, I don’t know–I haven’t read that book in over a decade–but I do know that looking around in this bar, I see several people whom a slightly more realized memory would ask to leave. Perhaps this provides them with a kind of pleasure, but I don’t care for it. And so I will avoid this well-remembered public space, and hide at home with my cherries and self-contempt.

Obviously, this is an undeveloped insight, but I promised myself 500 words, and that is what this is. Next up, more on conspiracy theory literature. And then, what you have all been waiting for: a detailed critique of mid-western email practices. I know you cannot wait.

 

The war on Christmas, sewage, and buildings made out of time

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I do my best to avoid learning from my students, but this week I slipped, and accidentally figured out why people fear the war on Christmas. Christmas always seemed impregnable to me: heavily padded on both sides with weeks of defensive shopping and singing, the day itself full of gifts and drinks, seemingly invincible. But I was wrong: because Christmas belongs to a calendar, and the calendar is on life support.

Teaching Americans the Jewish calendar—any religious calendar—is difficult: students don’t ‘get it’—why it matters, why people have fought so viciously over it, why people warp their lives to accommodate the moon, or events that didn’t happen. Received teaching wisdom goes something like this:

Americans live in the Christian world, and the Christian sense of time, like a fish lives in water. Time actually begins with the birth of Jesus: we start counting years when he’s born, and before he appears, time actually goes backward. BC, AD, these notions are so much a part of the American psyche, that they cannot see anything else. Therefore, to teach them another calendar, you must first break them of the habit of seeing Christian time as ‘natural’

This sounds good, but isn’t true. It is true that calendars govern a community, deciding its rhythms, controlling how it breathes. But it is not true that Americans live by a Christian calendar. Here, in the land of the free, there is no calendar at all. As Marx should have said: Capital cannot abide a calendar. Here, every day is more-or-less the same as any other: the pace might slow on the weekend, but Saturday and Sunday are pretty much indistinguishable from weekdays; some things might be closed on Easter (which is, I believe, the only ‘serious’ holiday left) but nothing is ever allowed to grow too inconvenient.

And inconvenience is the mark of a holiday. Abraham Heschel taught me that holidays are like buildings, buildings made out of time. And Israel taught me that these buildings are a pain in the ass.  A holiday is like a structure whose bricks are hours and events. And this building is always inconveniently located.

When I moved to Israel, my plumbing backed up, and sewage flooded back into the kitchen. The landlord and repairman suggested that I stop flushing toilet paper, and take comfort in the fact that the sewage was my own. I am difficult to comfort even when not treading shit-water, and replied as you would expect. After exhausting the few Hebrew curse words I knew, I switched to English ones, and after we had both implied some pretty horrid things about the other’s paternity, it was decided that the plumbing would be repaired, and the sapling, which had taken root in the pipes, removed.   But not now. Why? Because it was August, and to think that work could be done before the holidays were over was ‘crazy’. I pointed out that the holidays were weeks away. They again pointed out that I was ‘crazy’. And they were right. If the work was unfinished before the holidays began, nothing could be done: because a real holiday is unmovable as stone.

And so, when my wife-to-be arrived in Jerusalem, I lifted her bags over the tube that carried our shit into an open sewer grate, the lid half-propped onto a bright orange PVC pipe for all to see. This exposed shit pipe, the embarrassment it bought me, and the danger it posed for my neighbours, taught me the true meaning of the holidays.

There is nothing of that here in the States: holidays are to be enjoyed. And once you have decided that holidays are to be enjoyed, they are done for. Because holidays—while occasionally enjoyable—are frustrating; if, in the name of pleasure, you subtract the irritating elements from a holiday, it will shrink to a fine point, until all that is left is the blind insistence that this is to be enjoyed. And then, the only really enjoyable thing left, the logical move, is to skip it. So I propose that future holidays should be celebrated with sanctimonious social media posts, advertising the pleasure we take in non-participation.

‘This year, I’m just spending time at home with my introverted cat and a mild social anxiety disorder that I’ve managed to make a fetish out of, drowning in nostalgia and illicit carbohydrates’, until the calendars fall, and all the days are exactly the same.