Advent 4 Sermon: “Come, Lord Jesus”

This is the draft of this coming Sunday’s sermon at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Dallastown, PA.  I took a few ideas from John Vest’s sermon, “Who Are You?” and some things I’m working through in Catherine Keller’s new book, The Cloud of the Impossible, which I am reading to follow along with the next AUFS book event. The lections are Exodus 20:15-21 and 1 John 1:1-2:1a.

Christmas is finally here. Well, almost. The excitement is everywhere, and I will tell you it has been a little nuts in my house the past few weeks. But there is something just magical about Christmas.

In our reading today, from 1 John 1, the author writes that “If we say we have fellowship in [God] while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true,” and “[i]f we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  Finally, a famous line of scripture:  “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Read the rest of this entry »

My year in review

While it was horrible for the world at large, 2014 was an amazing year for me personally. I rang in the New Year wandering the streets of Paris, and I’ll end it in The Girlfriend’s new apartment in Minneapolis, where she has secured a job that uses her recently-completed graduate degree. In between, I travelled more than I ever have in a single year, visiting great museums in Paris, New York, and London. I lived in San Francisco for the summer. I lectured at Harvard and Birkbeck. I wrote Creepiness and put together a co-authored essay collection with Colby Dickinson entitled Agamben’s Coming Philosophy (which was finally submitted to the publisher this morning). I got through a first draft of half my translation of Agamben’s Use of Bodies. I taught the primary source material for my devil project twice, once at Shimer and once at Chicago Theological Seminary. I expanded my teaching competency to include Islam. And of course, I watched a ton of Star Trek.

As I often do, I’ve tried to set things up to “clear the decks” by the end of the calendar year. So far, I’ve finished up all the writing I’ve promised for this year, and this week I’ll finish the grading for my CTS class and have the final faculty meetings for the semester. After that, it will be a matter of holiday obligations and getting ready for The Girlfriend’s move — and trying to find a couple hours a day to begin reconnecting with the translation, which has fallen by the wayside amid the end-of-semester rush.

My hope is that next year won’t be so frenetically busy. Teaching an extra class on top of my full-time load at Shimer was a challenge, and not something I’m likely to attempt in the near future. I have a few talks scheduled (all either on Creepiness or the devil) and have agreed to do a book review (on the devil) and an article (on Star Trek, since now I’m bereft of a pop culture project), but I’m mostly trying to leave myself free to complete my two big projects: the Agamben translation (manuscript due August 1) and the long-promised devil book. It seems doable, especially since I’m looking at another monastic summer (in Minneapolis this time), and may be able to arrange a monastic fall as well.

In any case, next year at this time, I should have the good fortune to be in utter listless despair, facing the yawning abyss of freedom. Maybe I can even go into workahol detox. “Lord, make me non-obsessive — but not yet!”

Remember the West?

As I was reading Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible for our upcoming book event, I was reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim from What is Philosophy? that philosophy is about the creation of concepts. That is clear enough in the early fragmentary efforts of the pre-Socratics, who often wear their poiesis on their sleeve by adopting a poetic form for their conceptual inventions. Almost immediately, however, the creative element is covered over or denied in the Socratic-Platonic claim that we only ever remember what we most authentically know. Socrates covers over the construction of his arguments by insisting at each step of the way that what he’s arguing is what his interlocutor somehow already knows — most astoundingly in the Meno, where he presses the uneducated slave into service to prove what he already knew all along. Knowledge always has the structure of a prequel, which comes after and yet claims to be coming before.

In the excellent article on Shimer College that I’ve been relentlessly linking, our approach is characterized as “Socratic.” In the sense that our classes proceed via dialogue, this is true. It may also be true in other senses, as certain faculty members make a point of disrupting any consensus or conclusion, in the spirit of the early Platonic dialogues.

What worries me, though, is the thought that we may be Socratic in the sense of creating “the Western tradition” as its own prequel. A curriculum based in the classics often legitimates itself by reference to seemingly neutral criteria like “influence” — how could we ignore Plato or Augustine or Descartes, given how influential they’ve been? Whatever the merits of what came after, they can only be fully understood once we’ve grasped the sources that make them possible!

In this view, the task of the curriculm is one of remembrance: of our heritage, of our sources, of our roots. Yet the primary outcome of any curriculum is not to reflect influence but to create it. We may gesture vaguely at all the other exciting texts that our classics will enable them to grasp more fully, but we are not requiring them to read those things. What we are actively producing is a group of students who will take certain texts as a point of reference, who will read other texts as part of a tradition in dialogue with those supposed “sources.” The very act of requiring these “classics” enshrines them as authoritative, as definitionally more important that the other texts that we don’t have time for — the course is already packed!

What we’re increasingly finding is that the tradition that the “Western” elements of our curriculum help to construct is not welcoming to all the people we want and need to welcome. And what I hope we’ll be able to do in the coming years — what we’ve already begun to do by revising the Humanities capstone course, which is now arguably the most diverse course in the curriculum — is to shift from a mode of remembrance to a mode of open, avowed creation. We need to create a tradition for the kind of community we want to be, in order to produce the kind of student we want to send into the world.

That may mean reimagining a lot about how we construct our courses — by theme instead of by historical genealogy, for instance, so that Machiavelli can talk with Sun Tzu and Lenin without any presumption of “influence.” In some ways, this would represent a return to the more ambitious construction of the Great Books as a “great conversation” about the big questions rather than a historical sequence. We’d have to recognize that some of the authors had not previously been in conversation with each other — but what’s to stop us from bringing them into conversation and making them talk to each other as they talk to us? The risk is an easy eclecticism, but perhaps the Great Books model needs a swing of the pendulum in that direction to counteract its exclusivist tendencies.

It will certainly mean letting go of certain treasured texts to make room for other voices. And it may mean selecting texts that from a Western perspective seem more secondary, for the sake of creating more productive dialogue with other traditions. It’s hard for me to imagine ditching Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, since it is such a uniquely polyvalent text standing at the crossroads of multiple genres and traditions. Yet the reason for retaining it is not that “it’s been influential,” but because its intrinsic properties make it a convenient relay for dialogue with many other texts.

Admittedly, in some areas of the curriculum a more or less traditional Western framing may be the only pedagogically practical method. I’m thinking in particular of the classical traditions of Western art and music, which have the virtues of being relatively continuous and more or less finished — but the point of that focus wouldn’t be simply to highlight the “all time greats,” but to think systematically about what a tradition is and can be, and what it looks like for a tradition to be spent. This is only a speculative example, but the principle I’m trying to get at is that the Western framing can never be regarded as the default, but must be positively justified, with an open admission of the limitations that it imposes.

There is a utopian element in Shimer’s pedagogical model, and I think that the curriculum could be shaped in a more utopian direction as well. In a certain sense, the naysayers to my more inclusive vision are correct — there is no global, inclusive tradition, and that lack must be acknowledged. Yet an inclusive community of collaborative learning can serve as a testing ground for a global, inclusive tradition to come, an experiment in constructing a new and more hopeful tradition of and for the future, rich with surprising connections, in which the past is precisely not as we remember it, but has become new.

Paperback for Deleuze and the Naming of God

Apologies for the self-promotion, but I thought that readers may be interested in knowing that a paperback version of my Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence will soon be coming out. In other words, this book has become relatively affordable. It is now available for pre-order.

Reviews of the book that I am aware of are available online by Alex Dubilet at Parrhesia and by Joshua Ramey at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Jon Bialecki has reviewed the book, together with another on an overlapping topic (LeRon Shults’ Iconoclastic Theology), at Religion and Society (behind paywall, though feel free to contact me at danielcbarber(at)gmail.com).

Shimer College in the Guardian

A few months ago, Shimer College received some decidedly unwelcome publicity: Ben Miller, writing for the Washington Monthly, named it the worst college in America. This prompted Jon Ronson, a reporter for The Guardian, to visit Shimer and investigate whether it really deserved that designation. The result is an amazing portrayal of Shimer’s work and what it means to the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends who devote themselves to it.

My hope is that this story will overshadow the original study that prompted it (and in the article, Ronson cites Miller’s regret that his methodology — based solely on economic criteria and likely distorted by Shimer’s very small sample size — wound up singling Shimer out in this way). Already the story has been linked approvingly by Neil Gaiman:

This is especially exciting because being a fan of Neil Gaiman is one of the most reliable indicators of being a good fit for Shimer! Why not apply today or — if it’s too late for you to enjoy a Shimer education yourself — support our work?

Remarks on Tactics for White People Joining the Protests Against White Supremacy

This post requires a few remarks to frame it and in some sense to disempower it. First, while I have been involved with different coalitions and have participated in protests every year during my adult life, I do not claim to be anything more than just another body on the street standing with other people. I am not an organizer, I am not a leader, and though I think about things a great deal, I don’t know that my theoretical work has ever been of much use to anyone who is organizing and leading these coalitions. I know where my strengths lie (teaching, academia) and I do my best to affect the community I am a part of (the department and university I teach in and the discipline I work within). All of this means that I invite people, especially Black theorists, Black activists, and other theorists/activists of color to push back against what I say, to share wisdom, and, if they feel it worth their time, to add their voice to the conversation (if one starts).

Secondly, while this is a post directed at a certain white reaction to protests, I do not think these protests should be about the white reaction to them. I have written this post simply because it would seem strange to write about the Black community or what the appropriate Black response should be, when I am not embedded within that community nor a major dialogue partner there. It seems to me that, while I would hope for a future in which ideas can be shared without some unconscious or unintended white centering, today is not that day. So, it is not my intention in writing this that it be about white people as such. If I could summarize what I write below it would simply be: “white people who want to show solidarity, stop worrying about purity and just show up, keep quiet, and listen.” It’s a message not to the tone deaf white folk of the intelligentsia or the brocialists itching for another photo op where they look badass screaming at a cop, while making other folks who aren’t ready for that confrontation unsafe. It’s a message instead for those who feel a bit paralyzed by the recognition of their privilege and an attempt to help them see that such paralysis is still caught up in that structure, still a form of narcissism.

So, with that said, here are some thoughts that strike me as sound for white folks who are engaged in a certain amount of handwringing about how to participate in protests and other actions regarding the recent reaffirmation of America’s structural racism. Some may feel that their presence is not wanted at these protests. That may be true to some extent, but there is a kind of way of being absent even in your presence and some of the tactics outlined here may be a form of becoming-imperceptible in terms of one’s whiteness and the effects it may have on the coalition of protesters. For one thing seems very clear: coalitions are needed in these protests and these coalitions should be led by Black people. And lucky for you, whatever city you are in it is likely that leaders and activists from the Black community have stood up. So you should go. You should do what they ask. And when you do go and you do what they ask, simply don’t make it about you. Don’t be concerned about your feelings. Whether those are feelings that get hurt if you hear “mean things” being said about white people or it is your own anger which drives you to try and confront the cops if and when the Black leaders have called for non-confrontation. If such confrontation happens, it gets messy, and if you can put yourself between activists of color and the police, you should do that. And if Black activists tell you not to do something, then don’t do it.

Simply put, our individual white guilt doesn’t help shit. But, maybe your body being there can. So put your body there, but mostly stay quiet. Recognize that this is not an exact science and that you might screw up. It also strikes me for white people who are committed to listening that you are going to find there are a lot of views on the ground that don’t match exactly what is said on your Facebook or Twitter. For example, some Black participants at the recent Philly protests said that we were bothering the folks in the neighborhood and so they weren’t going to march. Others started chanting “all lives matter”. In each case it was a very small group, but regardless in each instance it was not my place to challenge their ideological correctness. Whereas I would have and you should if that happens with white participants. Don’t put that responsibility on the Black activists to do all the work, but do your best to educate these white participants and encourage certain practices foremost amongst them to just shut the fuck up and listen while they’re on this march.

At bottom, to get past this handwringing, you need to trust. Just trust your Black comrades. It’s the whitey in your head that makes you worried. Whether it’s worry over if you should be there or worry that someone isn’t going to say or do the thing you think they should. Know that there is a lot of noise right now. A lot of click bait, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of people working out their power best they can through the mediums available to them. But to know what to do, talk to the activists who organized. Ask what they want. And then follow. That’s the tactic for now. If you don’t like the overarching strategy you have to form a relationship, and go to meetings, and be open to disagreement while inhabiting a disempowered place that will make you feel uncomfortable. But taking up that space at meetings is going to be far fraught. More fraught with the haunting spectre of  reinscribing white supremacy and white centeredness than going to a protest. And the only way to deal with that, to disempower that whiteness, is make yourself available.

‘Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?’

In March of this year an email was sent to Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology at Imperial College London. It was written by Martin Wilkins, his line manager. In the email, Wilkins states ‘I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.’ Wilkins goes on to say ‘Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI . . . Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance’.

Grimm’s track record is impressive. He has a string of grants to his name, including one for £135,000, and over seventy publications.

Not enough, it seems, for Imperial.

Stefan Grimm was found dead in September this year. An inquest into his death is ongoing.

In an email which he asked to be circulated prior to his death, Grimm states ‘Grant income is all that counts here, not scientific output.’ He adds ‘What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine’.

Imperial College are conducting a review of their procedures to see if ‘wider lessons’ can be learnt. But there is no need for a review. There are no new lessons to learn. If you turn universities into businesses, you have recruited a highly motivated labour force, who have internalised all sorts of models of self-sacrifice and self-blame. And eventually, you will grind people down. We all know this. As Kate Bowles writes over on Music For Deckchairs:

Put more simply: throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.

They will give you their health, their family time, the time they intended to spend on things that were ethically important to them, their creativity, their sleep. They will volunteer to give you all of this so that you can run your business on a shoestring, relative to what you intend to produce, so that you can be better than the business up the road. They will blame themselves if they can’t find enough of this borrowed time—other people’s borrowed time—to hand over to you.

No internal review of bullshit HR procedures will tell us anything. Because the whole HR game is based on the premise that, as Catherine Malabou puts it, ‘anyone who is not flexible deserves to disappear’.

What can we do? There is no short answer, which bypasses the need to organise, to build solidarity across and beyond academia, and to raise our own consciousness of what we have become. To find ways to refuse to play the game. To stop being ‘on’ all the time. To support each other to live and think proudly.

Otherwise, the last line of Grimm’s final email will be our only epitaph: ‘One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.’

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