Tuesday, November 10, 2015

He Ain't Heavy

The Friday before Halloween, Dawn sent Willy to school in his Marvel pajamas and a sign that said "I'm Super Willy, the Superhero." That's as good as it got. Neil Patrick Harris's family we ain't. Still, it had a certain Willy style and sass. It worked.

When a child dies, we often grieve not just for the loss of life itself but for the loss of potential, for all the things that child won't be or experience -- the prom, a wedding, their own children. Dawn remarked to me the other day that with Willy we're also grieving for everything he couldn't do or be in the first place. 

For all that we tried to give him, we couldn't give him the chance to make the winning goal in soccer, or get an A on his science project, or experience his first crush (though he was a bit of a flirt). His needs were such that we called it a win if we could just keep him fed, diapered, and properly medicated.

We did try to give him a personality. Since we had no way of knowing what or how much was going on inside that smooth brain of his, we ascribed things to him. We blamed him for things he couldn't possibly do, like eat all the Oreos or leave the toilet seat up. It was slightly less probable than blaming those things on the dog, but funnier.

We accused him of timing seizures to get out of doing things or just to make more work for us. "Anything for attention" I'd say, pretending to be exasperated. We accused him of being petulant in age-appropriate ways: "Tweens, amiright?" Another of my favorite jokes (and timing was key here) was "I know, right? It's like there's something wrong with his brain or something." 

We accused him of being grumpy with people he didn't like and of having an eye for the ladies. I used to seat him at the table to grade papers or play games. We narrated his life in the way that we wished he might be actually experiencing it, even though we knew that was probably not the case.

In light of this, it seems all the more appropriate that many of us imagine him, in whatever version of the beyond we're able to conjure, running and jumping and playing Nintendo because those were things he couldn't do in life. It's standard fare at funerals, and the images offer solace and comfort.

I don't want to make light of that. Those things are true in the best sense, in the way that they need to be true. If you thought or said or believe those things, thank you. It's touching and beautiful. I mean that.

But -- and I tread lightly here -- it doesn't quite work for me, and not because I have a less robustly kinesthetic view of what happens when we die. To me, that running and jumping and Nintendo-playing kid isn't Willy. I don't say that to be churlish or contrary or pedantic. It's a beautiful thought, but it's not the Willy I know.

Maybe it's because I came late to the party and never had cause to lament what his life might have been. I get that. I don't want to take anything away from someone else and how they need to process.

Nobody is glad that Willy had lissencephaly. It was not a gift. Neither Dawn nor I cop to a deity doling out special needs kids to parents who apparently don't have enough shit to deal with.

We never wanted Willy to be defined by his diagnosis. But he did have lissencephaly, and it was part of who he was for us. He was one of the "Liss Kids," an elite cadre.

The Willy I knew couldn't walk on his own, or even crawl or scooch down the hallway, so he had to be carried. Of course his parents scooped him up and carried him thousands of times before I ever had the chance, but that's what I remember: carrying him.

Willy had the reach that he had precisely because he had lissencephaly. Dawn and Todd made the connections they did because they were thrown violently into that world. A large chunk of the hundreds of people that paid their last respects to Willy we only new because of his disorder. 

Willy's superpower wasn't something he had in spite of his lissencephaly; it was his lissencephaly. That doesn't make it good or right or something for which we should be grateful. But it made him who he was and it made us who we are.

He needed us. Completely. He showed us, collectively, what we were capable of in the face of such abject need.

And he showed us it was okay to need. That's a superpower.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Workin' for a Livin'

It's just before 2am on a summer night and we shamble toward the entrance like a zombie horde. We mumble greetings to each other as we wait for the manager on duty to unlock the door and let us in. I've been unloading trucks at a major retailer, adding to what I like to call my "summer employment portfolio."

It's a world in which we're keenly aware of time. We're keenly aware of the fact that it's two in the morning, and most of us can tell you exactly how much sleep we got last night, a subject that lurks in much of our small talk.

We're also keenly aware of how many hours we've worked that week, because overtime is against company policy, even for crew leaders. This gets tricky on Saturday, which happens to be not only the end of the pay period but one of our busiest days.

It means that many of the strongest workers, who naturally end up working more hours, can't stay for the whole shift on Saturday because they're up against the 40-hour limit. Others "save hours" so they can help out. Either way, the attention to time is pervasive.

And we're aware of the time on each shift. We're usually scheduled for six hours, and if we're going to work more than that we have to take a half-hour unpaid lunch (another strictly followed policy), which leads to a kind of shorthand: "Can you take a lunch today?" means you're being asked to stay over, whereas "Let's break for lunch" over the PA means they expect the whole crew to stay over.

But you don't have to take a lunch, and if you don't, they can't make you stay. Otherwise, the manager on duty is in violation of policy -- which means, in the logic of corporate America, that you're the one in trouble. I'm not positive, but I suspect that you can't be forced to work past your scheduled time according to union regulations anyway.

The third possibility, "Let's go to break," indicates the whole crew is going on a fifteen-minute paid break, which means they're expecting the truck to be put away before the six hours are up and no one will have to take a lunch. Here, too, I think the union says you don't have to go home early, but nearly everyone does. There's an ebb and flow to how long the shifts run, and most people just roll with it.

It's not all like this. My other job, as a soft drink merchandiser, is a lot more fun. I actually like it. I'm relatively autonomous; I clock in and out on a phone they provide, and each night I have a route of four or five stores where I'll stock the shelves with whatever we've got in backstock. I also build displays and process orders.

No, I didn't build this, but it's awesome.
Being in and out of the same stores, I've gotten to know some of the managers and employees, as well as the other merchandisers. It's like a secret underground society of grunts on the front lines of American consumerism.

Even among vendors of competing products there's an easy camaraderie. We talk a little smack, but at this level there's far more commiseration than competition.

There's something I like about this world. It keeps me in shape, for one thing, but it's also pleasantly concrete: I'm not mindlessly pushing widgets through a chute, but I'm not trapped inside my head, either.

That's the Good Job. At the Bad Job, once the 2am shifts get going, I stop taking lunches so that I don't get held past the six hours. Sleep is too precious. The Good Job goes until nine or ten at night, sometimes later. I get home, grab a bite to eat, visit with Dawn for a bit, then take a nap.

At 1:15 I get up, go to the Bad Job, put in my six hours, take a nap, and get ready to head to the Good Job. Lather, rinse, repeat. I'm sleeping six or even seven hours in a given 24-hour period, but never all at once. I'm keenly aware of the time.

I don't make it more than a couple of weeks at this pace. I can't take the lack of sleep. It's like all I think about is when I'll sleep next and how much I might get. I'm not doing either job as well as I want to. I swear I can feel cognition slipping away. One day I call in sick and never go back.

There is no shame in falling before a greater enemy.

I needed to quit anyway, because it was time to start course prep. Compared to the horror stories we hear about adjunct faculty (the preferred nomenclature is "fixed-term"), I'm doing pretty well: I'm full time. I have benefits. I have a two-year contract. I get to teach some interesting classes. I've never felt treated like a second-class citizen.

There are some distinct advantages, too. I don't have to attend faculty meetings. Granted, this is because I don't get a vote, but let's accentuate the positive. I don't have to advise students or sit on committees. Any publishing I might do looks good, especially since I teach writing, but it doesn't need to meet the criteria for tenure.

I say all of that to put these next observations in perspective, and to make it as clear as I can: I'm not disgruntled. I like the university where I teach and I love the colleagues and students I get to work with. I feel, in general, pretty lucky.

But my base salary is still less than what I made 15 years ago as a music minister with a bachelor's degree. Anything I publish might look good, but with a 4/4 load (four classes each semester), I don't have time to write anything. I still haven't submitted a proposal for turning my dissertation into a book (there's a publisher mildly interested) and I owe a colleague a book review for a journal he edits. I'm spending time I should be grading papers revising this blog post (which I can't really put on my CV).

Again -- I want to make this very, very, clear -- I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm not on government assistance, partially because I teach extra courses (here and elsewhere) and I get summer jobs. I feel so good about being able to get them, in fact, about being able to make ends meet, that I forget to be scandalized by the fact that I need them in the first place.

It might just be some kind of neoliberal Stockholm Syndrome, but I like to work. I like, well, being useful. I like doing things. I like the feeling of having done a good job. In some ways, I feel like it speaks to my work ethic. I'm freakishly cheerful about work, and I'm reliable. I get things done.

I'm the quintessential cog in the machine, working to support a lifestyle of consumer distractions from work. My hard work is rewarded with goods and services that I pay for by working, things that someone provides me as part of their work, for which they reward themselves with goods and services paid for with the money they get from working.

The work I do in retail involves making sure people have access to the products they use to console themselves for (or distract themselves from) the daily grind of productivity, and the work I do as an educator involves helping students get the degree they need to join that daily grind.

Part of me feels like I should be affronted or outraged, but I'm not. Neither do I feel things are as they should be and that I deserve what I've got (good or bad). It just is. I applaud efforts at reform but I'm not holding my breath for a glorious revolution.

Truth is, I'm happy. I do my work and enjoy my downtime. My wife and I are consumers, like everyone else, but we're not big accumulators. We're not interested in surrounding ourselves with things -- apartment living makes this impractical anyway -- so much as we want to collect experiences, like trying a new pub or tubing down the river or just curling up to watch Netflix.

Maybe that's just respite from a world gone slightly mad but it's our respite, and being together makes it worth it. What should the world be like? At this point, I've given up trying to answer that question. I'm not that smart. All I know is that I've got a workday ahead of me, which I'll enjoy for the most part, but not nearly as much as coming home at the end of it.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

We Are the Champions

The recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the nation is brilliant in many ways, and not just because I agree with the outcome. In fact, some of more brilliant bits I'm a little more reluctant to agree with. Let me explain.

The argument is liberal, of course, but more in the classical sense. It focuses, as it should perhaps, on individual rights. There were rights being sought, and they have been granted by the Supreme Court. Allowing Kennedy, a Republican appointee, to write the majority opinion was a savvy and sophisticated move.

But that opinion -- and this is part of the brilliance -- is a conservative one, or at least a libertarian one. It's what Kennedy could accede to, and it allowed him to come down on what many of us feel is the right side of history without coming off as a chump.

Many of my liberal friends, in the elation of victory, are posting snarky memes about not getting a gay marriage if you don't want one, or unpopulated lists of ways in which this decision will affect heterosexual marriages. It's funny stuff.

It also misses the point. However poor of a job the right has done in making their arguments, the concern for the sanctity of marriage is not about individual marriages but about about competing visions for society. To be clear, my own vision for society (to the extent I claim one) includes marriage rights for my LBGTQ friends and neighbors.

For many conservatives, however, this is a dangerous compromise that undermines the integrity of the social order. We disagree about that. But they are grieving not because they are vicious bigots who didn't get their way (though some may be) but because their fears for the fate of society have been partially realized. I might be making an academically fine distinction here, but I feel it's worth making.

The problem with the underlying logic of the decision (and the celebratory memes in its wake), however necessary that logic might have been, is that it is too fundamentally similar to arguments that those who don't want guns should simply not buy them, or that those who find minimum-wage jobs exploitative shouldn't get them. It is, in other words, libertarian logic.

By acceding to this logic, we leave ourselves with little ideological purchase against the right's economic agenda. We leave ourselves with no defense against neoliberalism. We reveal ourselves to be as weak as what passes for the left in this country seems to be: if the right accepts the neoliberal ideology without questioning its effects, the left seeks to ameliorate its effects without questioning the ideology.

I will celebrate the Supreme Court's decision, and I am celebrating it. My theoretical misgivings need not matter to the millions who are finally able to have something I have been able to take for granted. I'm just not going to cheerlead for the logic behind it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mean Time Before Failure

I went to my first demolition derby when my oldest daughter was queen of the county fair. She had to attend certain events, which meant I got in for free. The demolition derby is like the deep-fried Twinkie of live entertainment: I can't say it's good, but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable.

Two things struck me. One was the sheer noise, from the PA announcer to the sound of crunching metal to the roar of the cars themselves, most of which just had straight pipes poked through the hood into the exhaust manifold. Mufflers are for sissies.

The other thing that struck me was how much some of these cars could take before they stopped running. They were getting smashed into by other drivers deliberately trying to take them out, and yet for all the damage they often managed to remain functional longer than I expected. 

Teams of backyard mechanics patched the cars back together between heats. You could see the sparks from the cutting and welding torches they used in their automotive meatball surgery. Parts were replaced -- or bypassed -- to get the cars ready for the next onslaught. One of the winning cars could only go in reverse by the time the tournament was over, but it won regardless.

Most of us experience our cars as more fragile than that. The difference between "functional" and "street legal" is salient here, as is the fact that most of us don't have crews patching us back together after every trip. We're not smashing our cars into each other on purpose, for the most part, but our damage threshold is (practically speaking) much lower.

As a power-commuter (I make a four-hour round trip twice a week for my main teaching gig), I am constantly aware of the things that might go wrong and render me unable to get to work or back -- or worse, stranded somewhere in between. In the past year I've been pretty lucky, but that's after replacing one car and spending $5,000 fixing another.

The simple fact is that things break. Hard drives and other products are given something called an MTBF rating, which stands for Mean Time Before Failure (or Mean Time Between Failures, depending on the kind of system). Failure is a given; the only variable is how long before it happens.

This is true of everything. Relationships die. Families disintegrate. Civilizations crumble. Climates destabilize. Stars go supernova. I used to joke with my more theologically-minded friends that my eschatology -- my vision of the end times -- is "everybody dies." 

The body-as-machine metaphor is problematic for a number of reasons, but the body is nevertheless a complex system that will eventually experience the catastrophic failure we call death. "On a long enough timeline," says the narrator of Fight Club, "the survival rate for everyone drops to zero." 

I think about this sometimes when I'm feeding Willy or giving him his pills. He's got a brain disorder; there is something profoundly wrong with one of the most vital of bodily organs. This has led to the failure or at least the compromise of other systems -- and yet he is still very much alive. Dawn was told he might not make it past two years old, and we just celebrated his eleventh birthday. 

Willy's situation is, at least statistically, more fragile than most of the rest of ours. The next seizure could be the one from which he doesn't recover. The next feeding could be the one that his body stops assimilating in the slow spiral of degeneration. The next virus that gets passed around could be the one that ends in a lethal bout of pneumonia, to which he is susceptible. 

But it's a difference of degree rather than kind. We're all fragile in this sense. I could die tomorrow of an accident or an aneurysm, and Willy would outlive me. Or I could have any number of things go wrong and live on in defiance of the odds, as Willy has. Bodies are weird and unpredictable.

St. Benedict adjured his monks to meditate upon their own death. That sounds morbid, but it's probably good perspective. Everybody dies. Of course we have preferences about the timing, but beyond the statistical advantages of staying healthy and minimizing risks, we don't really get much say. 

In my own nod to the Buddhist recognition of impermanence, I tend to expect that things will break, that plans will go wrong, that my attempts to budget will get wrecked. That everyone dies. This isn't pessimism. I'm not negative or morose. In those moments I have to confess that, deep down, I'm probably a nihilist, I always make sure to qualify it: "but I'm the happy kind."

This doesn't make me a pessimist any more than my expectation that good things will happen makes me an optimist. Of course good things will happen. They have. They do. Ditto bad things. I like it better when the former outweigh the latter but again, apart from statistical advantages I have no control over that. 

If the universe doesn't owe me anything, then I can't be disappointed when I don't get it and I can't afford to be triumphalistic when I do. The good things that happen are either the consequence of things I hope I'm smart enough to repeat or they're random happenstance. Bad things are either the consequence of things I hope I'm smart enough to avoid or they, too, are just happenstance.

I'd like to beat the odds, but I might not. Not everyone can or the odds would be different to begin with. I'm okay with that.

Everybody dies.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Share the Land

One of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it –  or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.
-The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I sometimes joke that I'm not smart enough to run a country and I'm suspicious of the whole enterprise. It speaks to my discomfort with dogmatic certainty as well as to my vaguely anarchistic inclinations. In fact, I'm suspicious of both democracy and capitalism, though I don't really have a viable alternative for either. I'm not smart enough to -- never mind, I already gave the punch line.

In college I was a libertarian. I wasn't exactly a Republican as such -- that would have been too passé, I guess -- but definitely on the right, and the religious right to boot. I was an evangelical Christian attending Bible college in the wake of a Reaganite hangover we still haven't slept off. I listened to Rush Limbaugh and read articles from the Cato Institute. 

I ate lunch regularly with a group of guys and we playfully called ourselves the Dead Horse Society because we covered a lot of the same material in our conversations. We fancied ourselves "radically conservative": conservative, but edgy. We joked that we were "intolerant by choice," lest some muddle-headed liberal have pity on us by thinking we couldn't help it. When Clinton was elected, we symbolically drank grape Kool-Aid. This was also a joke, of course, but I can still say we literally drank the Kool-Aid. 

There's a certain frat boy quality to this strand of right-wing populism. Limbaugh -- and I know he's not exactly  a libertarian, but there's some overlap -- is a blowhard but he's also an inveterate jokester. Some of it's a passive-aggressive schema in which the frat boy conservative can say outlandish things and then claim it was just a joke and we all need to lighten up.

Some of it, though, is a genuine sense that everyone really does need to lighten up. The answer, for the libertarian, is simple: limit  government to the protection of borders and property rights (make it small enough to be drowned in a bathtub, the saying goes), let the market do its thing, and everyone will be free, happy doing what they want to do -- because under libertarian governance, they can! Party on, Wayne.

There's also the attraction of a kind of ideological purity that can cut through the partisan bric-a-brac and clear out the cobwebs of complicated political thinking. Even better, it has the benefit of being really hard to falsify. No one's really going to try it, not even the Republicans, and to whatever extent it is tried libertarians can claim anything good as evidence that it works and anything bad as evidence that we didn't take it far enough.

I drifted away from this thinking and largely grew bored with politics, but my sympathies grew more and more liberal [while I often use that word in its broader sense in which the entire American political system is liberal or neoliberal, here I just mean "opposite of conservative"]. The problem is that I never really liked being a joiner, and as much as I was (and am) sympathetic to the issues, I don't care for liberalism as a discourse community.

For one, liberals seem to have a tendency to be preachy and sanctimonious. Conservatives like to think they have a more realistic grasp of the world and how it works, and can be dismissive and condescending about it. Liberals, for their part, seem to think they're better people, and they're no less condescending or dismissive.

I see the same things among liberals that turned me off from conservatism: the us-vs.-them mentality, the straw man fallacies and ad hominem attacks, the ideological entrenchment, the in-group posturing. Politics and religion seem particular fertile breeding grounds for these weaknesses in human thought, which is probably why we're not supposed to bring them up at dinner. 

This is not to say that there's no discernible difference between the major parties or that favoring one over the other is always reducible to mere in-group bias. While liberals and conservatives might resort to the same rhetorical shortcuts and Republicans and Democrats might be scrambling over one another to kiss corporate America's ass, there are significant differences in their respective agendas, and those differences matter. I sometimes joke that I can vote Democrat and be disappointed when they don't live up to the promises they made or I can vote Republican and be disappointed when they do. 

So I bristle at the temptation on one hand to narrate those differences in stark, apocalyptic terms and the temptation on the other hand to cynically dismiss them in "a pox on both their houses" fire-them-all-and-start-over fit of  hand-waving. The system is weird and dysfunctional and it doesn't seem to attract the kind of people we'd really like to see running the country, but, like family, it's what we've got to work with.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

By the time I got interested in politics again, it was Christian anarchism, which really is a thing. I've written about the theological side of that journey here, and about anarchism here, so I don't want to belabor those. The short version is that I ended up an anarchist by virtue of a pacifist ethics, and I glommed onto that ethics via a particular understanding of Jesus, an understanding that is predicated on a belief in the Resurrection that I no longer have.

Now, to be completely fair, there are ways of being an anarchist that don't involve being a pacifist, but I wasn't interest in those. And there are ways of being a pacifist without believing in the Resurrection, but I wasn't interested in those, either. For that matter, there are ways of being Christian don't involve being pacifist or necessarily believing literally in resurrection, but -- you guessed it -- I'm not really interested.

Like libertarianism, anarchism can useful for pushing away from the usual partisan divide and for its ideological clarity. It's somewhat common to think that the right and left meet at their extremes in these two political viewpoints but the economic divide between the two is too significant for that to hold. Anarchists share the libertarian disdain for the state but add to it an equal or even greater suspicion of capitalism.

In fact, the things that libertarians need the state for -- protecting borders and maintaining property rights -- are anathema to most anarchists, and many anarchists I know would give a passing nod to the usefulness of the state (especially if the capitalist milieu is not going anywhere soon) for providing a safety net and putting the Keynesian brakes on the market, which makes libertarians break out in a rash.

One way of describing the difference between liberals and conservatives, then, is that the latter embrace the neoliberal ideology without questioning its effects while the former seek to mitigate the effects without questioning the ideology. Push far enough to the right, and you get the libertarian goal of an unfettered market. Push far enough to the left and you're getting rid of capitalism entirely.

This push to the left doesn't have to be anarchism, as such, but after the "death of Marxism" it comes up more than, say, a push for state socialism. Regardless, this is not the extremes coming back around to meet again so much two radically different socioeconomic visions sharing certain superficial political contours.

To put it more colorfully, in my Christian anarchist days I'd be much more likely to compromise my pacifist ideals and punch a libertarian in the face than anyone else on the political spectrum. I'm just keeping it real here. I used to joke that libertarians were white guys who didn't have the money to be Republicans or the balls to be anarchists.

Bad Ted.

So what's the problem? The problem is that I'm really, really bad at believing in things. I have a history of finding something interesting to believe in, thinking it to be The Thing that I might be able to really dig into, and then believing it so hard that I break it, like Lenny mauling the puppy to death in Of Mice and Men. I don't mean to; it just happens.

Anymore I just don't bother. I really am a bit of a nihilist, epistemologically speaking. I'm the happy kind, though: more Nietzsche's "passive" than "active" nihilist, with some absurdism thrown in for good measure, which probably helps to explain my fondness for Hitchhiker's. 

It's not that I don't think meaning exists or can exist; it's just that none of it is inherent. We create it. We make shit up. We have to, of course, and we also try to hide that fact from ourselves, but we do it.

So I find anarchism interesting but I don't really believe in it, not enough to risk anything. But I can't say I believe in liberalism, either. I'm good at questioning and critiquing things but I don't have a comprehensive constructive vision. Voltaire ostensibly said "I may not believe in what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." I'm more like "I may not agree with what you have to say, but at least I won't kill you for it." That's as far as I'm willing to commit.

I can't say I believe in America, though I'm willing to admit that for an educated middle-class white guy like me, it's a pretty nice place to live. I'm not sure I believe in democracy or freedom, but they seem like nice ideas when we're not killing people and claiming them as the reason.

So, to recap: I'm skeptical of everything, but my sensibilities are liberal. This is fitting since I live in Ann Arbor, and it probably just makes me an example of Richard Rorty's "liberal ironist," and thus probably not as interesting as I thought I was. I can live with that.

In fact, the epistemological nihilism I'm willing to confess to should, by all rights, default to a kind of pragmatism, and Rorty himself is a good example of that. The problem with pragmatism, though, is that everyone thinks they're being pragmatic, and it's hard to get good data that's not ideologically pre-spun. I'm back to not being smart enough to run a country. Or maybe I'm just chronically prone to overthinking it.

At least I'm fun at parties.

Friday, November 14, 2014

That Smell

There's some significant internet buzz about semi-nude photos of Kim Kardashian, particularly one of her backside. I'd call it much ado about nothing, but judging by the photo it's much ado about quite a lot. The photo shoot's title, "Kim Kardashian Breaks the Internet," appears to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The buzz is, for the most part, not flattering to Ms. Kardashian, ranging from denunciations to parodies to "Why is this okay when _____ isn't?" pretensions of moral outrage to catty comments about Photoshopping (which may well be true). Kanye West is not spared, either: one meme has a picture -- almost a mug shot -- of West with the caption "Here's that picture of Kim Kardashian's ass everyone's been talking about."

Stay classy, Internet.

In one sense this comes with the territory. Kardashian, like Paris Hilton before her, is the quintessential person famous for being famous.

Life in the spotlight brings all kinds of attention, and while I suppose the old adage that there's no such thing as bad press rings true, not all of that attention is savory. Live by the photo-op, die by the photo-op, as Rush Limbaugh (himself no stranger to the pitfalls of celebrity status) used to say of Bill Clinton.

Some gawk, some mock, some take the opportunity to (perhaps a bit too) loudly proclaim their lack of interest and/or familiarity with all things Kardashian. The Kardashians and their ilk allow us the opportunity to perform our identity.

It's not exactly schadenfreude -- there's no real misfortune involved for us to take pleasure in -- but we do get to congratulate ourselves for not being that kind of person. They offer us what Robert Scholes calls cultural reinforcement: the opportunity to be confirmed in our ideological positions and reassured as to our membership in a collective cultural body.

The Kardashians, et al. wash up onto our cultural shores as the flotsam and jetsam of our own self-absorption, the detritus of our vanities, the lingering purple haze of our collective narcissism. They might be the family members we'd just as soon not have show up at the family reunion, but they're still us.

We look, and then we make a big show of looking away. We're like the kid who's too cool for fart jokes but is nevertheless fascinated by the smell of his own flatulence.

Every driver thinks they're making autonomous decisions and yet traffic constellates into mathematically predictable patterns. The most popular station in most metropolitan areas is the country station, but nobody likes country. Advertising must work on someone, because it certainly doesn't work on us. And Kim Kardashian is famous.

Because none of us cares.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Tell Me Something Good

[A talk presented at the 3rd annual English Studies Conference at Central Michigan Univerity. The theme was "Authority, Autonomy, Anarchy," and I was asked to give the keynote. The talk includes bits of my dissertation as well as things I've written on this blog.]

At the end of the first chapter of Ursula K. Leguine’s The Dispossessed, the protagonist, Shevak, travels from the inhabitable moon on which a group of breakaway anarchists had formed a collective to the home world to conduct academic research. His arrival is quite controversial due to the animosity between the two groups, and at the end of the first chapter he tells his hosts, “You have him. You have your anarchist. What are you going to do with him?”

I would begin my talk this afternoon the same way except that I am no more an anarchist than Barack Obama is a socialist. The truth is, I don’t have the guts for revolution, I don’t have a flair for the theater of protest, and I don’t have the fortitude for social experiments in anarchist polity. I have an academic interest in anarchism, and a philosophical sympathy for anarchism, but on a practical level I’m just another boring white middle class liberal.

I'm reluctant to call myself an anarchist partially because I don't want to be one of those people who co-opts a sexy sounding word because it supposedly has some kind of cachet. Partially, too, because it is a deeply misunderstood designation, owing not a little to all those people who like to co-opt sexy sounding words because they supposedly have some kind of cachet.

I'm not saying that people whose political thinking doesn't go much beyond Dead Kennedys T-shirts and a predilection for shouting and breaking things aren't anarchists, but they might be making things confusing for anarchists who construct their politics a little differently. I don't want to be that guy.

I say all of this not to distance myself from “those people” – many of whom I have a deep respect for – but to allay your fears that I’m going to indulge in anarchist proselytizing or peddle anarchist propaganda. “That’s good,” you might be thinking, “because isn’t anarchism a state of lawlessness and chaos in which everyone does what they want and the strong prey on the weak in a kind of Mad Max dystopia?” 

The answer is no: you’re thinking of Congress.

“Anarchy” does carry those connotations, however, and some make a distinction between “anarchy” in that sense and “anarchism,” which describes the political philosophy, whereas the purists want to wrest the word from those connotations entirely. Suffice it to say that while it would not be impossible to find people of a mind that lawlessness and chaos are underrated and should be given a chance, that really doesn’t describe anarchism either in the historical sense or in terms of present-day anarchist discourse.

Anarchism as we know it begins in the nineteenth century, though anarchists often claim a more august pedigree. Kropotkin saw an evolutionary case for anarchism, arguing that “mutual aid,” and not just competition for limited resources, shaped our evolutionary journey. Anarcho-primitivists similarly see hunter-gatherer societies as proto-anarchist, going so far as to call into question civilization itself. Christian anarchists – yes, that’s a thing – see the original Jesus communities as an analog to anarchist collectives and tend to read the Old Testament through something of an anarcho-primitivist lens.

Anarchism as such, though, is usually traced to Mikhail Bakunin, a contemporary of Marx who shared of a lot of Marx’s concerns and was part of the First International. He and Marx agreed that private ownership of the means of production led to oppression and that collective ownership would eliminate class stratification and thus poverty, but he disagreed with Marx’s assumption that such ownership would have to pass through the state apparatus on the way to a classless society. I’m glossing a lot here, but Bakunin didn’t buy the idea that the state would wither away on its own and thought it was probably going to need some motivation in that direction.

19th century anarchism was concerned with class, but didn’t see class as the only dangerous hierarchy; it saw the state in the same way,  especially since the presence of the state would almost certainly result in a defacto governing class. Bakunin wasn’t alone, either: Kropotkin, and Proudhon in Europe and Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker in the US had similar ideas, and women like Voltairine de Cleyre, Lucy Parsons, and Emma Goldman would add early critiques of patriarchy to the mix.

The basic is idea was that we were evolutionarily predisposed to egalitarianism, that this was in some real sense our destiny, and that a combination of education, worker discontent, and the inexorable forces of history would soon usher in a new age of true freedom and equality. What we might call “classical anarchism” is very much a product of the Enlightenment and 19th century humanism. They weren’t necessarily alone in their ideals; they were just very particular as to the telos or goal of those ideals as well as the means to get there.

History is not exactly kind to anarchism. The new age does not arrive as such. The Revolution never comes. The liberation of human subject is never fully realized. There are pockets of anarchist resistance and experiments in anarchist polity as well as an anarchist thread – what we might call a black thread after the anarchist black flag – that runs through leftist movements in general, from the Paris Commune to the American labor movement to the Spanish civil war to student movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

Anarchists were involved in the ultimately unsuccessful uprising in Paris in May of 1968, which is in some ways The Day the Music Died and the time when philosophy started to get really interesting. By this I mean the sense in which the events of 1968 marked a crisis in the left as we knew it and gave rise to shifts in Continental thought that we’ve come to know as postmodernism or poststructuralism. This is important because of where anarchist theory has been heading for the last fifteen years or so.

Since the 1999 “The Battle in Seattle,” anarchism has garnered attention from both the media and the academy. The WTO protests were part of what is sometimes called the “anti-globalization” movement. “Postanarchism” is the name attached to the attempt to theorize the relationship between this movement and emerging forms of anarchism that seem to characterize it.

This term does not mean to be done with anarchism, or that anarchism’s moment has definitively passed, but instead denotes the introduction of poststructuralist and postmodern critiques into to anarchist theory. It is often contrasted to the “classical” anarchism of Bakunin, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and others.

Whether this is a truly a break from these thinkers or a continuation of their thought is a topic of debate among postanarchist thinkers, as is the usefulness or accuracy of the term "postanarchism," but is enough for our purposes to note that postanarchism is critical of the humanism and essentialism of modernist anarchist discourse.

Postanarchism is also is markedly different in how it conceptualizes the state and its place in political theory. Todd May borrows language from Michel de Certeau, and calls this a difference between “strategic” and “tactical” thinking. In strategic thinking, May explains,
The variety of oppressions and injustices that pervade a society and the possibility of justice are located in a single problematic; if that problematic is properly analyzed and the right conclusions for intervention are drawn, then justice, inasmuch as it can be had, will be had….[This reduction] lies at the core of strategic political thinking. All problems can be reduced to the basic one; justice is a matter of solving the basic problem.
Whether that basic problem is seen to be ownership of the means of production as with Marxism or the state as with classical anarchism, postanarchism questions the strategic calculus by which a single site becomes the focus of resistance.

Tactical thinking, by way of contrast, assumes power to be multiple and fluid, requiring more creative responses. Saul Newman points out that contemporary radical politics is working more and more outside the state rather than strictly against it. Postanarchism sees the state as a problem, but not the problem; it rejects the logic that would make any single point of resistance primary or central.

One reason for this shift, besides the influence of poststructuralist thought, is the changing role of the state in contemporary politics. Both postanarchism and the anti-globalization movement have come about as a response to neoliberalism, in which the state is no longer the primary political actor. 

Wendy Brown argues that the designation “neoliberal” describes a repudiation of certain aspects of Keynesian economics in favor of a more radically free market – the Chicago School of economics run amok. But she points out that this is not merely economic. It has an ideological and political component as well: “Neo-liberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; rather it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player,” she writes.

Responses to neoliberalism are mixed. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe neoliberalism as a global empire and call for an equally global multitude to rise up in resistance. Slavoj Žižek issues a new Marxist – even Leninist – call for socialist revolution. The response on the streets has been, as Graeber argues, largely anarchist.

Postanarchism tends to emphasize the ethical component of anarchist theory. It is not necessarily pacifist – at least not on the personal level – but it is to some extent predicated on an ethics of nonviolence. Newman argues that violence is “an authoritarian, sovereign relationship, something that violates the autonomy of the other” and that nonviolence should be the ethical horizon of an anarchist politics. 

In “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology,” Graeber points out that violence forecloses on dialog: if I hit you over the head hard enough, he explains, I don’t need to bother getting to know you or even having a conversation with you. I can get what I want from you without securing your consent. The postanarchist attempt to make this nonviolence comprehensive leads to a critique not only of neoliberalism or the state but also of other forms of radical resistance, including some elements of classical anarchism. To abolish the state outright, for instance, would be to foist upon millions of people an anarchism (or anarchy) that they did not choose and for which they are not prepared.

Richard Day’ speaks to this in Gramsci is Dead. After pointing out that “there is no single enemy against which the newest social movements are fighting," Day identifies neoliberalism with hegemony, which he defines as “a process through which various factions struggle over meaning, identity and political power." Neoliberalism, he claims, is seeking and achieving hegemony on an unprecedented scale. The significant question for Day is: how can we fight it? His answer is worth quoting at length:
The obvious answer is to try to establish a counter-hegemony, to shift the historical balance back, as much as possible, in favor of the oppressed. This might mean a defense of the welfare state in the global North, or a continuation of the battle to enjoy its benefits for the first time in the global South. Or it might mean attempting to establish a different kind of global hegemony, one that works from ‘below’ rather than from ‘above.’ [Here I think he has Hardt and Negri in mind.] To argue in this way, however, is to remain within the logic of neoliberalism; it is to accept what I call the hegemony of hegemony. By this I mean to refer to the assumption that effective social change can only be achieved simultaneously and en masse, across an entire national or supranational space. Marxist revolutionaries have followed the logic of hegemony in seeking state power, hoping to reverse the relationship between the dominated and the dominators. Liberal and postmarxist reformism display the same logic, although in a different mode—rather than seeking to take state power, they seek to influence its operation through processes of pluralistic co-operation and conflict. What is most interesting about contemporary radical activism is that some groups are breaking out of this trap by operating non-hegemonically rather than counter-hegemonically. They seek radical change, but not through taking or influencing state power, and in so doing they challenge the logic of hegemony at its very core.
It is not difficult to see here the similarity between Day’s “hegemony of hegemony” and May’s “strategic” thinking. Simon Critchley describes this non-hegemonic impulse as “neo-anarchism," and in terms that are similar to those of postanarchism. He offers a three-fold typology of political response. One he calls “military neo-liberalism,” which roughly corresponds to Day’s hegemonic, “neo-Leninism,” which is counter-hegemonic. [Here he is probably referring to Zizek.] The third response is neo-anarchism, which takes up what he calls an “interstitial distance within and against the state,” which is non-hegemonic. What makes it neo-anarchism, Critchley argues, is that it “does not hope to achieve the classical anarchist dream of society without the state.” It is an anarchism that functions more as critique than blueprint.

It’s this idea of anarchism as critique that I’m most interested in. Another reason I don't really embrace the moniker is that I don't think an anarchist society is practical. I don't mean to say that "anarchist society" is an oxymoron -- one of the horrible clichés people almost instantly reach for – but that a) there's no way we're ever going to get enough people behind the idea to make significant progress toward it; and b) it seems like the sort of thing that would be all too easy to fuck up if we did. In this I find myself siding with Jacques Ellul, who likewise distinguishes himself:
The true anarchist thinks that an anarchist society—with no state, no organization, no hierarchy, and no authorities—is possible, livable, and practicable. But I do not. In other words, I believe that the anarchist fight, the struggle for an anarchist society, is essential, but I also think that the realizing of such a society is impossible.
I'd quibble with Ellul that anarchism is really about no organization or no authorities, but the opportunity here is to recognize that anarchism and other forms of resistance to Empire are nevertheless parasitic upon Empire as the thing they need to kick against – which is the point of the Matrix trilogy if one can get past the first film. There is no pristine or primordial anarchist site that has been obfuscated by Empire; there is only the negative space that is always already defined by Empire. True anarchists may not agree with this, but I think they can nevertheless help us to see it.

What this suggests is that if anarchism isn't practical, in conventional terms, it is a least practicable, in small communities and small ways. In fleeting and furtive moments. In the refusal to wield power or the decision to use power outside of approved channels to help those with no access to power. Accepting the mantle of leadership can be a way to occupy the place of power, which might be seen as necessary, in order to give power away. It's a little like having an anarchist mayor in Reykjavik; it sounds oxymoronic, but it's not, necessarily.

Another illustration that comes to mind is an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the story, an unfamiliar ship docks at the space station in need of repairs. The ship's lone operator, of a previously unknown species called a Tosk, manages to strike up a friendship with the station's chief engineer, O'Brien, but also gets in trouble for snooping around the weapons stores (for which he refuses to offer an explanation) and lands in the brig.

Eventually another unknown alien vessel comes looking for the Tosk. They are not the same species, and it turns out they are hunting the Tosk, not in a law enforcement or bounty hunter kind of way, but in an English-gentlemen-out-with-the-hounds kind of way: the Tosk is their prey. The Tosk are bred, in fact, to be exciting quarry and honored for their cunning in evasion. The captive Tosk is bound by social custom to be the hunted, and in getting caught alive (facilitated, of course, by his being held in the brig) he faces humiliation. The station is prepared to hand him over to his pursuers.

O'Brien is scandalized by this; he realizes that the Tosk was interested in the weapons as a possible hedge against his pursuers, and finds the idea of hunting a sentient race repugnant -- but the Prime Directive (which, in some ways, represents the logical outworking of liberal "tolerance") prevents him from interfering with the social customs of these other races. The Tosk could ask for asylum but he refuses; it would only be further indignity and a violation of his code. He would rather die with honor than evade his fate, even though the means for that evasion are available.

O'Brien takes things into his own hands and launches a plan to help the Tosk escape. The plan succeeds, and the Tosk is freed, in not in O'Brien's sense of what freedom would be, but to continue the hunt without further loss of honor. O'Brien, however, must be reprimanded for violating orders – for violating the Prime Directive, in fact. He is called into the station captains's office for a dressing-down. As he accepts his reprimand, he pauses to admit puzzlement over one aspect of the plan: at a crucial point at which he was certain it would fail, the force field system he thought would stop them was curiously slow to engage. The captain, Sisko, says suggestively, "I guess that one got past us," and the two exchange a knowing look.

The Tosk's escape is a violation of the law but not of the social code by which the Tosk lives. He cannot accept asylum but he can accept O'Brien's offer of outlaw justice. He is restored not to freedom as we might think of it but to the life for which he is bred and to which he seeks to return. Sisko is required by the law to reprimand O'Brien and does, but in the process it becomes clear that he not only secretly approved of O'Brien's actions but also played a role in making sure those actions were successful. He was occupying the place of power, and maintaining the pretense of power, but he was also giving it away.

Of course, there are ideologies and social constraints that are upheld, to a certain extent precisely through this violation of the law (Žižek would have a field day with this), and in no sense are O'Brien or Sisko enacting an anarchist society or articulating an anarchist theory. But they are working in the negative space of empire to offer aid to the oppressed on the terms of the oppressed. It is a fleeting anarchical moment. It critiques the present order at precisely the point where that order cannot account for the complexities of the sociopolitical situation at hand. And that’s the problem with massive – in this case galactic – social structures: they aren’t supple enough to deal with life as it is actually lived. 

This is related to anarchism’s critique of fixed hierarchies. Anarchism is not opposed to leadership or structure or even authority. What it’s critical of is any authority that isn’t contextually situated. Most of us reject hierarchies based on race or gender, even though we still live in a society in which white men disproportionately hold power, and we’re largely blind to hierarchies of class even though the white men in question are also ridiculously wealthy, probably because we’re suckers for the myth of equal opportunity.

Anarchism is critical of any authority that cannot justify itself. Just as we find unconscionable the idea that one race should rule over another, or that one gender should be head of the other, and give lip service to the idea that one class should be lord over another, anarchism would also question the idea that one might govern on the basis of being able to get elected, or manage on the basis of being able to impress the hiring committee.

There’s a sense in which we get this kind of critique from The Office. Michael Scott is hilariously inept, and yet the system keeps him in place. He almost magically manages to keep his job, and there’s an extent to which the employees go along with it because they’ve learned to manage him. There’s an element of sticking with the devil you know, but there’s also an element of a very tactical response to a dysfunctional power dynamic – the practice of everyday office life.

Anarchism is predicated not on the individualistic and often juvenile pronouncement that you are not the boss of me, but on the ethical conviction that I am not the boss of you, and I certainly shouldn’t expect to be in charge of something or be listened to simply because status, station, or privilege. Rather, I should expected to be listened when and if I have something worthwhile to contribute and I should expect to be followed on the basis of being able to take others somewhere they want or need to go.

This even has application in the classroom. David Sedaris tells a hilarious story about a gig teaching a writing workshop. As he tells the story, he was hilariously inept, and his challenge was to get through each class session without the students discovering he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Eventually, when asked who he thinks he is to tell the students how to write their stories, he has an epiphany: “I’m the only person in the room,” he tells them “who gets paid to be here.” He loses all credibility, however, when they ask just how much he was getting paid.

It’s a funny story and Sedaris is a great humorist. But he knows, and we know, that getting paid to be in the room is not a legitimate source of authority. At least we should know this. We can’t deny that our authority in the classroom comes from the system itself – that would be naïve. But it is equally naïve to think that it is enough. Our de jure structural authority becomes a legitimate de facto authority when we demonstrate that we are competent, that we have something useful to offer, that we are credible.

If it seems obvious that anarchism would critique authority, it seems less obvious that it would critique autonomy as well. Postanarchism is a response to the linguistic turn, the idea that we don’t have access to mental states but only to language. We only know what the words do. If our worlds are linguistically constructed and mediated, then the question of autonomy becomes problematic. Theorist Todd May takes this farther in The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism:
Poststructuralism dissolves the subject/structure dichotomy by substituting for both a concept that might be called “practices.” What is of interest to the poststructuralist is neither the constituting interiority of the subject nor the constituting exteriority of structures, but instead the interlocking network of contingent practices [like language] that produces both “subjects” and “structures.” Whether these practices are founded upon a metaphysics of forces, as is the case with Deleuze and the Lyotard of the 1970s, or rejects metaphysical grounding, as do Foucault and more recent Lyoyardian writings, they remain a multiple, diverse, and contingent network of events, effects, and influences that defies such dichotomies as above/below and inside/outside. Subjects and structures are sedimentations of practices whose source cannot be discovered in a privilege ontological domain but that must be sought, rather, among the specific practices in which they arise.
May goes on to connect this specifically to anarchism, suggesting that what was going on in poststructuralism was continuing the anarchist critique in the wake of he calls the failure of Marxism.

My point is that an anarchist critique cannot stop at a simple binary in which authority is oppressive and the human subject must be emancipated as an autonomous agent, but must question the individualism that undergirds our assumptions about autonomy. This, in a roundabout way, is also a critique of the liberal theories – meaning “liberal” in its broadest political sense – on which Western democracy and capitalism are based. If we are not, as it turns out, independent rational actors (and here even cognitive science suggests that we are not), then the very premise of Western society is called into question – it doesn't get much more anarchist than that.

It also keeps us from falling prey to simple libertarianism, which is predicated on the same faulty social ontology. One of the reasons I think contemporary anarchism, or postanarchism, is somewhat less strident in its anti-state rhetoric is that such rhetoric plays too easily into libertarian sentiments. Getting rid of the state is not the answer, especially if that means leaving us at the mercy of the vagaries of the free market. 

Capitalism is demonstrably not a viable meritocracy, and without regulation it offers no hedge against an owner class amassing wealth at the expense of a worker class making as little as the market will support and paying as much for goods as the market will support. It is a kind of divine command ethics in which the market is God. Today’s left, such as it is, wants to ameliorate the effects of neoliberalism without being willing to interrogate its ideological framework, whereas the right wholly accepts the ideology without interrogating its effects.

Instead of authority and autonomy, then, perhaps we can think in terms of agency – at least it begins with ‘A’, right? [The conference title was "Authority, Autonomy, Anarchy."] If there is no central locus of power that we can either abolish or take hold of, but rather a web of intersecting lines of power in which we’re always already caught up, and there is no static, essential human subject to be liberated but rather the product and intersection of practices, then perhaps we can see the task of anarchist critique as one of interrogating those lines of power and opening up new avenues for agency, new lines of flight, new forms of life. Not life forms – let’s not get that sci-fi just yet – but new ways of living and having agency.

So where does this leave us? First of all, as you might have noticed, we kind of already know this. We are already shifting away from teaching the canon or standard written English as fixed forms demanding our adherence and homage. That is to say, we teach them, but as responses to specific contexts. The conventions of academic writing are just that – conventions. I tell my students there are no rules of grammar; there are conventions, based on the way we’ve actually used the language, that vary from situation to situation and to which we might want to pay attention if we want to be taken seriously. We’ve already made the linguistic turn that anarchist discourse has just caught up to in the past fifteen years.

Second, in literature and cultural studies (and there’s a journal called Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies) we might look to anarchist theory as tool for exploration. Making the structures of power visible is the condition of possibility of interrogating those structures. We might look to anarchist theory as something of an umbrella term for the various investigations of power with which we are already familiar. Or we might not need to – the anarchists aren’t going to come after you if you don’t.

Third, we might let the anarchist critique question our own assumptions about and pretensions to authority. It might encourage us to recuse ourselves of presuming to be in charge of others, and to substantiate our claims to authority in those situations where we are in charge. We have authority precisely to the extent that we have credibility – ethos, if you will. 

In the classroom it means that our authority comes not from the fact that we get paid to be in the room, or that we have an advanced degree, or that we were able to pass our certification, but from our ability to help students learn the things they need to learn, to help them cultivate the practices that will allow them to contribute to their worlds. As authors, it means that our authority comes not from an ability to put words on a page or get them published, but from our capacity to say something worthwhile – to, in the words of Stevie Wonder (made famous by Chaka Khan): 

“Tell me something good.”