The inside is the outside: Family paranoia in America

The white middle class family in America has grown ever more paranoid over the course of my lifetime. Children once roamed free after school, but now it’s virtually a crime to leave a child unattended in public. It’s not clear to me that there has been an epidemic of child abduction or molestation by strangers. In reality, the person most likely to molest a child is that child’s own father, followed by trusted adults such as uncles or priests. The people most likely to abduct a child are their own mother and father, in the midst of a contentious divorce.

Perhaps not unrelatedly, leaving children any unstructured free time is a sure way to thwart their chances of moving up the meritocratic ladder and build a life for themselves. Strangely, though, the meritocratic lifestyle seems to be a perfect way to keep the child from growing up at all, thwarting their life chances in an entirely different way.

In both cases, an outside threat is hallucinated in order to cover up the fact that, in the precise area where the nuclear family is supposed to be protecting the children, the nuclear family itself is the true danger. How can we account for this strange phenomenon?

By the late 1960s, it was already clear to many observers that the nuclear family thing wasn’t working. Feminism was producing major changes in its practical economic structure, young people were making different demands on potential partners, and queer communities were beginning to resist their marginalization. In response to these attacks on the nuclear family, we suddenly learned that the outside world was an incomprehensibly scary place, full of men in vans and transition lenses and competitors with much better college applications, and many came to view the nuclear family as a kind of nuclear bunker. In reality, though, it remains what the Baby Boomers, for all their many faults and failings, initially perceived it to be: a prison.

Halloween: Everything that’s wrong with America?

An episode of Freaks and Geeks records the turning point. Mrs. Weir has lovingly prepared Halloween cookies, just like every year, and when the first group of trick-or-treaters show up, one of the moms shames her for her presumption. This more attentive mother has of course trained her children never to accept home-made treats — after all, someone might have slipped a razor blade into it! Only store-bought, individually wrapped candy can be guaranteed to avoid this scourge.

Literally no child has ever found a razor blade in their Halloween candy. The entire phenomenon was completely made up. A moment’s thought reveals that the very idea makes no sense. Who would even want to do such a thing? Wouldn’t it be easy to trace it back to the offender if they’re giving out their distinctive homemade candy all night long? But better safe than sorry, right?

The fictional razor blade in the Halloween candy is a kind of quilting point for all the paranoias that led to the loss of any freedom for the children of the white middle class. If they’re left to wander the neighborhood, someone might abduct them! Coming from the other direction: if they’re left with any unscheduled time, doing anything that can’t be slotted into an immediately recognizable section of the college application, their life chances may be thwarted. In either case, the parents are losing control of their activities and thereby their destiny — and only disaster can result. The helicopter parent and the razor blade in your candy are correlative phenomena.

It’s interesting, then, that Halloween has also become the most striking symbol of the white middle class’s arrested development, its perpetual adolescence. What was once a semi-formal one-night event has become a months-long celebration for kids of all ages! Especially the ones in their 20s and 30s! Lindsay of Freaks and Geeks had to summon up her uttermost resources of good-sportsmanship to play along with her mom and pass out candy, and she surely would have been absolutely mortified to wear a costume to school on Halloween. Now grown adults with jobs and fancy condos go on Halloween-themed pub crawls two weeks before the blessed day itself.

Who am I to criticize someone else’s fun, you ask? Well, if you must know, I’m a curmudgeon who was already old long before his time. I also think I’m always right. So those are my qualifications. Surely I’m not alone, though. Surely!

A matter of utmost urgency

A while back, Shimer was planning to refurbish its classrooms, and they asked the faculty whether they preferred chalkboards or dry-erase boards. I put in an impassioned plea to retain chalkboards, though I was sadly overruled in the end.

In my view, chalkboards are the more robust technology, precisely because of their simplicity. Indeed, it is unclear to me what practical advantage dry-erase boards could possibly have. Markers dry out remarkably quickly, and it’s all too easy to confuse a dry-erase marker with another kind, potentially permanently damaging the board. You need specialty chemicals to clean it, and using water can damage it and make it more difficult to clean in the future.

Obviously chalk boards require maintenance as well, but virtually every dry-erase board I have ever used, other than ones that were literally brand-new, has been in terrible condition. I’ve routinely been in classrooms with no markers or dead ones, whereas I’ve almost never been in a classroom that was completely out of chalk.

I understand the seduction of a new technology, but we as educators have decades of experience with the pitfalls of dry-erase boards. Why do we put up with it? Why don’t we agitate for a return to the old familiar regime of chalkboards, which has served us so well for centuries?

The only explanation I can think of is that businesses prefer dry-erase boards, and universities are imitating corporate fashions. Further, I speculate that businesses initially preferred dry-erase boards precisely because they didn’t have the baggage of academia. So basically, we’re imitating the shitty technology of people who hate us, and we aren’t even doing a good job of it.

Bad Versions, p.s., Abstraction

I appreciated the reading and comments of my previous post, and wanted to respond a bit more formally — though also perhaps too tangentially. The operation that my criticism tried to indicate is one that often seems to be associated with the need for and power of abstraction. For my part, I don’t have any a priori complaint about abstraction. In many ways, I think it’s central and essential. The question, though, is that of how abstraction is articulated, or even spatialized.

In the operation I was criticizing, abstraction tends to serve as something like a common space, one that is, at least in the last instance, able to remain exterior to the differences that intractably appear, or that appear to be intractable. The demand for emancipation has a normativity or universality that — regardless of how this demand has been misused or perverted or functioned for domination, etc. – is, in the last instance or in its essence, capable of (and necessary for) resisting or overcoming these differentiated modes of domination. This, in any case, is how the operation seems to work. And abstraction is then the means by which this essential value of normativity or universality is indicated or expressed. In other words, regardless of the variegated differentiations that embed and/or are embedded by domination, there remains the capacity of abstraction, understood here as the capacity for the differentiated to encounter one another in a manner that is ultimately or in principle free of the determinative differentiations. Read the rest of this entry »

Why would men minimize or dismiss street harrassment?

By now, everyone with an internet connection is aware of the appalling video depicting a woman being harrassed on the street over 100 times in a single day. What’s striking to me is the reaction on the part of men who presumably would never participate in such overt harrassment. On the one hand, we get the by now familiar #NotAllMen approach, with one unfortunate tweep asking why no one notices the many men who didn’t harrass the poor woman. On the other hand, though, there are a variety of approaches to minimizing the harrassment — basically claiming that everyone is blowing it out of proportion and the woman should simply shrug it off.

Again, I’m willing to stipulate that all the men I’m describing would never actually harrass women on the street. Further, it’s clear that many men are absolutely desperate to believe that systemic patriarchy is actually just a matter of individual behavior on the part of men who they are not. We can see this in the claims that Islamic society as such is irredeemably sexist (whereas in the West, it’s purely a matter of individuals) or in the stereotype that only ethnic minorities or working-class people (i.e., not the enlightened) participate in such harrassment.

Why this investment in explaining it away, then? Why not simply scapegoat the harrassers? I think here we’re dealing with an unconscious acknowledgment that they are complicit with the structure that enables street harrassment. Even if they aren’t going to engage in such crass behavior, all these men are clearly going to be doing things that are along the same basic continuum. “Checking out” women, commenting on their appearance in conversation — are these not basically subtler versions of what the street harrasser does? Simply dismissing street harrassment as completely unacceptable opens up a potential slippery slope!

Even more, every heterosexual man benefits from a situation in which every woman is constantly reminded that she is regarded as a sexual object. There is considerable ambient pressure for women to adapt their appearance to male expectations, which results in a better aesthetic experience for men. Women even internalize these pressures, dressing in broadly man-pleasing ways “for themselves,” because it makes them feel more confident or put together — and if that doesn’t work, the fashion industry is happy to nudge women in that direction insofar as women’s clothing is by default more form-fitting and revealing than the equivalent garment for a man.

Everything conspires to push women toward making themselves visually pleasing for men, and the street harrasser is only the most visible symptom of this general trend. There is certainly something regrettable and uncouth about their behavior, but at the end of the day, they’re on “our” side. We may not agree with their tactics, but we share the same principles — and so we can opportunistically denounce them (in order to make our objectification techniques seem more acceptable by contrast) or explain them away (in order to naturalize the order of which they represent the outer fringe). In the last analysis, though, the street heckler is covered by the equivalent of a “no enemy on the left” principle. After all, without those brave men out there on the front lines every day, women might forget they exist to be ogled by men!

Call for Papers: New Encounters in French and Italian Thought

Some readers might be interested in submitting something to an upcoming conference I have a hand in organizing at Villanova. Please note that we accept both abstracts and papers from both graduate students and faculty.

20th Annual Conference Sponsored by the Philosophy Graduate Student Union (PGSU)
March 13-14, 2015
Villanova University

New Encounters in French and Italian Thought
Keynote: Jason E. Smith

The negotiation between French and Italian activists and intellectuals in the mid-twentieth century opened a field of theoretical experimentation, the effects of which pose a challenge for contemporary politics. This encounter materialized through various collectives, traversing the neat intellectual and practical boundaries of the academy. Whether through the images of intellectuals in the streets, or through radical activist groups extending from the Situationist International to Tiqqun, the laboratory of French and Italian thought poses a constellation of conceptual weapons that remain vital for any contestation with the state of things. These implements have been successful in intervening within contemporary struggles on the level of theory, practice, and the construction of history in the present.

Under the inheritance of this tradition, this conference invites submissions from the interstices and margins of recent French and Italian philosophy. Possible paper topics include feminist recapitulations of post-workerism, the theoretical legacy of biopolitics as it is taken up in Agamben and Esposito, and the ongoing challenges for theory and practice posed by social movements extending from Latin America to the Mediterranean in the wake of events such as Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation.

Other topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Post-Althusserian philosophy
  • Decolonial challenges to eurocentric thought and strategies
  • Wages for Housework and care economies
  • Realism and contemporary ontologies
  • Re-interpretations of the Gramscian legacy
  • Philosophies of life and the problem of vitalism
  • Lacanian psychoanalysis and its heritage
  • French and Italian receptions of Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx
  • Affect theory and imagination in cultural productions (e.g. film and media)
  • Collective organization and social ontologies

The Philosophy Graduate Student Union at Villanova University welcomes graduate students and junior faculty to submit any of the following to be considered for our conference: paper abstracts of 250-350 words, papers of approximately 3000 words (including co-authored work) suitable for a 20 minute presentation, or proposed panels. Authors of accepted abstracts should send completed papers by March 1, 2015.

Please send submissions, prepared for blind review, by December 21st, 2014 to

This conference is committed to accommodating people with disabilities. Conference participants and attendees are encouraged to contact the above email address to discuss accommodations.

On helpful feedback

Early this summer, I reworked a talk I had given into an article for an edited volume. The topic was one I would feel confident listing as an “area of specialization,” and when I completed the changes (which involved considerably expanding it from its original form), I was proud of it — I felt I had made a real step forward in my understanding of said topic and presented it in a way that would be helpful to others.

One idiosyncratic feature of this particular volume was that the editor had asked that the authors act as “peer reviewers” for each other’s essays. When I heard of this scheme, I had a deep sense of foreboding, anticipating that the result would be for all the authors to be overwhelmed by nitpicky criticism, but I held my tongue. After all, the scheme might work — it might even produce a more coherent edited volume!

When the review of my essay was completed, my worst fears were fulfilled. I was indeed overwhelmed by nitpicky criticism. Between the reviewer’s remarks and the editor’s attempt to give a sense of their own priorities for revision, the total amount of feedback amounted to ten single-spaced pages. At one point, it was recommended that I cut an entire section of my essay (amounting to at least a quarter of the extant text) to expand upon things the reviewer and editor felt were more interesting and important. And needless to say, I was not engaging with the secondary literature nearly enough.

Fortunately, I had another possible venue for the piece, so I simply withdrew from the volume without much lost labor on my part. Yet the profoundly discouraging experience of getting a firehose of criticism for a piece I was pretty happy with stayed with me. I put off editing the piece for the new venue until the very last minute, absolutely dreading the major surgery that it would surely require. When I finally sat down to undertake the dreaded task, however, I found something surprising: I was still basically pleased with it. There were points the editor and reviewer had criticized that were certainly worthy of addressing, but I felt I could adequately respond to those critiques with a few clarifying sentences and additional footnotes. There was no reason for me to feel so insecure about the piece, no need to dread returning to it.

It seems to me that “feedback” in academic contexts often plays out like this, making huge demands on our time and our emotional resilience without doing much to actually improve our work. We academics as a group are very good at passing judgment, but not very good at reading each other’s work and genuinely helping each other out. A lot of that stems from fundamentally arbitrary standards — for instance, not every single piece of scholarship needs to engage with every other relevant piece of scholarship, and there are often very good reasons to make a stylistic and rhetorical decision not to deal significantly with secondary texts at all and instead to focus directly on the primary sources. That kind of arbitrarity is a symptom of a deeper impatience and lack of sympathetic imagination, so that we can’t think our way into what the author is attempting to do and how that project might be better served, rather than transformed into something else we happen to like better.

I can anticipate the objection that we are all so pressed for time, but the hegemonic forms of “helpful feedback” in academia are already hugely time-consuming — and, perhaps even more important in a field legendary for imposter syndrome, they are also hugely emotionally draining. Even if I hadn’t had the alternative venue, I always have the option of saying, “Screw it, I’ll just post it on the blog” and knowing I’d get at least some readers. Not everyone has that advantage, however, and a needlessly discouraging reader report could easily lead them to believe that no one could possibly give a fuck about what they’re saying and they should just give up. Or if they don’t have the option of giving up, in light of “publish or perish,” they wind up defacing their work to respond to the arbitrary complaints of someone who may not even really grasp what they were trying to do in the first place.

Surely there must be a way of helping each other with our research and writing without actively degrading the quality of our work and destroying our self-esteem. Right? Right?!


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