Fear of missing out: AAR/SBL highlights?

For a variety of reasons, including lack of conference funding and lack of any actual desire to attend, I am missing this year’s AAR/SBL conference, much as I missed last year and the year before that. Yet I can experience all the most exciting moments through you, my readers, if you share them in comments below!

Self-undermining behavior

This semester, all my classes have been grouped together so that I’m done teaching by 1. This may seem to leave a wonderland of free time for writing and research, but experience tells me that is not the case. While I enjoy Shimer classes a great deal, I am an introvert and hence I am usually exhausted by the end of three back-to-back 80-minute sessions in which I have to be “always on,” both intellectually and socially (to help manage the dynamics of the class). Serious creative work is out of the question by that point — sometimes even reading on the train ride home feels like a struggle.

Early on, I realized that translation was a much better fit for my mental headspace after class. I was pleased with this, because it allowed me to put otherwise dead time to a good use other than doing laundry. For the first half of the semester or so, I made significant progress on my translation, putting me well ahead of the pace I needed to get it finished on time.

So naturally, at a certain point I decided that I needed to try to force myself to write on those afternoons. The result would be that I would squeeze out a paragraph or so, but spend most of the time hovering on Twitter. Then I would be frustrated with myself and despair of ever finishing the writing project in question.

On one level, I understand why I made this switch. Due to my extra CTS class, I only have one free day this semester, so it makes sense to try to find other windows for writing. Yet the project that I’ve been so prioritizing is not due until a week after classes end — and since I’m not traveling for Thanksgiving, that is a full week I have free, during which I can very easily finish the piece. I then have another piece due a couple weeks after that, but again, I will have a much more open schedule.

In the end, I think I just became obsessed with being “done” with my overwhelming amount of work for the semester. But even that would have been self-undermining, because history teaches me that when I don’t have a project to work on during break periods, I quickly become listless and depressed. So the net result of this totally gratuitous prioritization of a project that could easily wait is that I have needlessly halted progress on my translation, generated a trivial portion of the article (which could have been achieved in an afternoon had I chosen more hospitable circumstances), and ranted a lot on Twitter.

What about you, readers? Have you found yourself caught in self-undermining cycles lately?

Book announcement: Agamben’s Coming Philosophy

Colby Dickinson and I have been offered a contract by Rowman & Littlefield to publish a co-authored collection of essays entitled Agamben’s Coming Philosophy: Finding a New Use for Philosophy. The book gathers together both previously published and new work by both of us, including a co-written introduction and conclusion. As one might expect, given that Colby is the author of Agamben and Theology and I am the translator of several theologically-oriented works by Agamben, our primary focus is on Agamben’s use of theology — not just in terms of explication, though there is a healthy dose of that, but with a view toward what it tells us about his project and about the possibilities for future philosophical and theological work it opens up.

We will be submitting the manuscript in mid-December, and currently a June release date is anticipated.

(Unrelatedly, the release date for Creepiness has been set for late February.)

Weaponized Relativism

Thinking critically about thinking about religion is fraught with misdirections. I’ve been reflecting on a post that Steven wrote last week highlighting the way that individuals are able to combine a ‘default cultural relativism’ with a ‘high level of dogmatism.’ He does an excellent job of outlining how a student has combined contradictory arguments:

(a) how you describe God is a matter of personal opinion and what you want God to be like; (b) Christians who did not believe in a literal six-day creation and a young earth were guilty of a totally illegitimate ‘pick and choose’ approach to their faith.

How to account for this contradictory logic and its bloody repetitions? And it is, to be sure, a repetition. Talal Asad has identified this logic at work in the doctrine of secularism–especially in the discourse on “Islamic terrorism” and its supposed existential threat to the West: (a) The Qur’an is posited to be absolutely binding upon Muslims. (b) Christians and Jews may come to various interpretations of the Bible. Asad states that “On the one hand, the religious text is held to be determinate, fixed in its sense, and having the power to bring about particular beliefs [and subsequently actions]–rendering readers passive. On the other hand, the religious reader is taken to be actively engaged in constructing the meaning of texts in accordance with changing social circumstances–so the texts are passive.” Perhaps Steven’s student has been watching too much Bill Maher. The six-day creationist is absolutely passive in his or her relation to the Bible, and yet, somehow, they seem to keep finding ways to apply the Bible to all these new scenarios. It seems that the brave atheist has found an enemy internal to the West against which to deploy the orientalist logic.

We should not be suprised that there are enemies both internal and external. The brave atheist will be disappointed to hear this, but at the end of the day they are just being a good Christian. However, what if the literal six-day creationist and the brave atheist come together in the same room? God knows they love a good debate that goes back and forth for hours. I remember countless youth group lessons devoted to training for these opportunities.

These debating sites are not just in college dorm rooms or online forums. They also include the U.S. Senate chamber, the Palace of Westminster, and CNN roundtables. In those rooms the debate over contradictions no longer matters. Relativism is fine–nay encouraged–as long as we are safely dealing with the internal thoughts and intentions of subjects of the Western political project. We can amicably disagree over matters of religion because we have isolated a secular plane upon which we translate our private motivations into common cause. ‘Separation of church and state!’ Believe anything you want privately, but in public you must believe in the secular. Nevertheless, when it comes to foreign policy, the mandate is clear: abandon our bold binary and present a unified front against the Axis of Evil. Those others have not attained to the height of human culture: privatized relativism. Better bomb them until they do.

The uncomfortable origins of ‘Afrofuturism’

The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined by Mark Dery in his article ‘Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose’. I finally got round to reading the piece recently; as you might infer, it’s not my area of expertise, so it’s more than possible that someone has made these observations better than me, before me. But I thought it was worth writing about: firstly because I was so taken aback by how uncomfortable it was to read, as a white person who’s minimally aware of the many perils that beset the work of white people like me writing about black culture; and secondly because after a throwaway comment I made on Twitter, Mark Dery took it upon himself to sealion me, and demand that I explain in detail my critique of his work:

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I’m doubtful as to the sincerity of this demand – the Panopticon is, after all, a tool of discipline rather than reflection. But as a scholar of Žižek, one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes the most ethical thing to do is simply to take a person at their word.

‘Black to the Future’ opens with a conundrum: ‘Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounter with the Other – the stranger in a strange land – would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?’ Why is it that African Americans are not producing the sort of culture that Mark Dery, a white guy, thinks they should be producing? Dery does at least realise that if there’s an answer to this question he can’t figure it out on his own, and so the bulk of the article consists of interviews with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose. Most of the words are not Dery’s own. It’s not clear how closely the text itself hews to the original interviews, but on the account that Dery himself gives, the bulk of the analysis the article contains is Delany’s, Tate’s and Rose’s. They’re fascinating, smart, insightful interviewees, with a lot to say about the relationship between black culture and science fiction. Dery? Not so much.

For someone who is so sure about his competence to assess the contributions of African American science fiction, Dery is remarkably unreflective about his own position in relation to the people he is interviewing. African American culture which engages with technological, sci-fi and futuristic imagery and concepts is a ‘largely unexplored psychogeography’ towards whose exploration Dery himself is taking ‘a first, faltering step’. That’s right: Dery, a white guy, is positioning himself as bold explorer into a largely unknown region populated by people of colour. A voyage into the heart of darkness, if you will. This ‘largely unexplored’ region is so unknown, so previously unthought, that Dery must appoint as his native guides an author and literary critic (Delany), a musician, producer and cultural critic (Tate) and a Professor of Africana Studies who is ‘currently at work on a book on rap music and the politics of black cultural practice’ (Rose).

Dery is right, however, that his first steps into this region are faltering. His unfailingly gracious interviewees spent a truly remarkable amount of time gently correcting the assumptions which underlie the questions he asks them. It’s excruciating:

Dery: One thing that intrigued me about your brief essay [on cyberpunk] is that you made no mention of the orbital Rastafarians in Gibson’s Neuromancer. I find that curious.
Delany: Why should I have mentioned them?
Dery: For me, a white reader, the Rastas … are intriguing in that they hold forth the promise of a holistic relationship with technology.
Delany: You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing presentation of a powerless and wholly nonoppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction; but maybe that’s just a black thang…Your question is indicative of precisely what I was speaking about in the essay you cited: the interpretive idiocies that arise as soon as a book is lifted out of its genre and cut loose from the tradition that precedes and produces it.

Dery: Why, then, would black youth be alienated by SF signifiers for high technology?
Delany: The immediate answer is simply that the sign language is more complicated than you’re giving it credit for.

Dery: Wasn’t there an elitist, if not crypto-right, slant to [science fiction] literature from the very beginning?
Delany: Once again, that sounds to me like a simple historical misunderstanding about the history and tradition of science fiction … I’m not even sure what you could be referring to.

Dery: Why has there been so little overtly gay SF?
Delany: There is, of course, a whole bibliography full of gay science fiction … And there is a considerable gay fandom …. There is at least on annual gay science fiction convention … And the gay programming that regularly, today, turns up in other science fiction conventions is almost always among the most crowded, standing-room only event.

Dery: Why hasn’t the African-American community made more use, either as writers or readers, of science fiction?
Tate: I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.

Dery: I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an inherent dichotomy in hip-hop between a displaced people’s need to reaffirm a common history and the quintessentially American emphasis on forward motion, effected through technological progress. Don’t these contradictory impulses threaten to tear hip-hop apart?
Tate: No, because you can be backward-looking and forward thinking at the same time.

It’s clear that Dery simply hasn’t done the work required to be a good interviewer. He asks his interviewees about areas of culture in which, as they make clear to him, they have no interest or expertise. Many of his questions draw not on Dery’s own observations but on work that has been done by other people. The article ends with the final interview: Dery writes no summary, and makes no attempt to sketch out a map of the terrain in whose exploration he describes himself as a pioneer. What’s interesting about the article, one of Dery’s best known works and the reason why his name is so omnipresent in discussions of Afrofuturism – a phenomenon which he both names and claims to have discovered – is precisely how little work he does. A great deal of intellectual labour is visible in the essay, but almost all of it is undertaken by Delany, Tate and Rose, who not only tolerate Dery’s ill-informed and – let’s be honest – occasionally racist questions, but offer smart and insightful accounts of the areas in which they are, after all, experts.

There’s so much in here that I want to reflect on, to digest, and to be formed by intellectually. But I can’t cite this work on the part of Delany, Tate and Rose without citing Dery himself. What’s worst about ‘Black to the Future’ is that Dery has found a way to identify an area of black culture, declare it unknown territory, and, by appropriating the labour of black creators of both culture and critical reflection on that culture, has ensured that this terrain has come to bear the name that he chose for it.

The tradition of the oppressed

As the governor of Missouri declares a state of emergency in anticipation of a ruling on the murder of Michael Brown, I’m sure many of us were put in mind of the famous quote from Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule.”

Last spring, I was teaching that text in a course where we had previous spent a week on James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, and Benjamin’s quote became immediately intelligible in terms of the black tradition in the United States. For the black community in America, there has never been a “normal” baseline experience from which emergencies are exceptions: unfortunate but episodic deviations. Rather, it has been a rolling emergency, interrupted by brief windows of relative promise. And from this perspective, perhaps we can understand the enigmatic “real state of exception” that Benjamin calls for — because from the perspective of white power, those moments of promise are the true emergencies that must be shut down at all costs.

And miles to go before I sleep

This has been the busiest semester of the busiest year of my life. Every time I think I’m “over the hump,” I realize there’s another mountain of work. By the time the semester ends — a semester during which I’ve taken on a teaching overload — I not only need to complete my grading (including grading for Shimer’s first-year comprehensive exam, as a kind of bonus) but write two articles on which I basically haven’t even started and also put (hopefully!) finishing touches on my co-authored book on Agamben with Colby Dickinson.

Then over the winter break, I need to finalize a syllabus for my Qur’an course, a task that will include a lot of tedious detail work to make sure I cover the whole text in some kind of compromise between chronological and thematic order, and start getting up to speed on Shimer’s Social Sciences 4, also a new prep for me. In addition, I need to make at least some progress on my big Agamben translation, hopefully getting it to a place where I could send a major section to an Italian colleague who has agreed to look over it.

Then, of course, I need to actually get started on my long-promised devil book, presumably striking while the iron is still hot after having taught the material twice in the last calendar year (once at Shimer, once at CTS).

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