On belief

The standard liberal objection to religious motivations for political action is that they are unquestionable and not susceptible of disproof, so that they cannot form a part of the ongoing rational dialogue that should ideally characterize the political process. Indeed, the “special relationship” that secular liberalism posits between religion and violence is based precisely on the fact that religiously-motivated actions are not motivated by reason and hence are arbitrary and unpredictable — i.e., violent.

In one of Zizek’s weakest books, On Belief, he claims that liberals are actually the “believers” in this sense. He doesn’t back up this claim very effectively, choosing instead to indulge in misleading, “provocative” violations of liberal pieties, yet I think we can see that the core insight is there when we notice that the signature gesture of our ruling classes is to present themselves as the mere vessel of impersonal, ineluctable forces. Powerful, impossibly wealthy businessmen have no freedom of choice, as the market determines everything they do. Politicians are similarly guided by what is “politically possible,” irrespective of the range of options their office should theoretically give them.

Obviously it is human to try to beg off responsibility by pointing to forces beyond one’s control — but surely never before in history has a ruling class so thoroughly legitimated itself as constrained by forces beyond its control. It’s as though the one qualification for political or economic power is the ability to divine the messages coming from these powerful occult forces that guide our lives. Any actual deliberation about what should happen is radically foreclosed by this stance: indeed, proposing to debate openly about the shape of our shared life is painted with the same brush of fanaticism as in the liberal critique of religion, except this time the label is “populism” (a catch-all term that completely ignores the unmistakable differences between right- and left-wing principles and priorities).

I would venture to say that back when societies were structured according to religious principles and everyone basically believed in God, a political or business leader who claimed to be a direct channel for God’s will would’ve been regarded as either insane or dangerously disingenuous. Re-label “God’s will” as “the market” or “the politically feasible,” however, and no one bats an eye.

I’d further claim that in settings where religious authority factored significantly in the political process, debate was actually much more vigorous — just compare the Talmud to the editorial pages in a mainstream newspaper, for example. That’s because everyone recognized that the sources of religious authority, as was fitting for something from a divine source, were difficult for us mere humans to understand, so that our conclusions about God’s intent were almost always subject to error and reinterpretation.

Not so with the contemporary impersonal deity who inspires our ruling elites! It’s always right there in the numbers, in black and white. There’s no room for interpretation or debate, unless that means using more sophisticated (and hence reliable!) mathematical tools — at the end of the day, all you need is a literal interpretation and you’re good to go. No religious fundamentalist can possibly be as closed off to alternatives as the secular liberal fundamentalist armed with absolute mathematical necessity.

If you see something, say something: On academic representation

A couple years ago, I was invited to contribute to a reference volume. I was honored to be included and eager to have the chance to demonstrate my expertise on the topic. Yet as I looked at the proposed table of contents, I noticed a problem: no women. I told the editor that I did not feel comfortable contributing to a volume with such a lack of diversity.

I have never mentioned this incident publicly, out of fear that I would come across as boasting about what a Nice Guy I was. Yet as I was talking about writing up one of the pieces, The Girlfriend insisted that I must say something, because what happened next may surprise you: the editor admitted it was a problem but said that he simply didn’t know where to begin in fixing it. I didn’t know anyone personally who would be a good fit, but I recommended he look at a very diverse edited volume on the topic and contact the editor. Within a few months, the entire contributor roster had been revised.

If the story had stopped with the first paragraph, it would be hard to recommend my course of action — a pointless act of martyrdom that would only lead to a “worse person” (someone unconcerned with such matters!) being invited to take my place. Yet it doesn’t seem to be a likely outcome. Even people who are not “directly” concerned with diversity are surely aware that a conspicuous lack of it will cause protest and embarrassment. The earlier they’re able to correct the problem, the less inclusion will look like a patronizing “tokenism.”

Those of us white guys who are in dialogue with women and minorities in our scholarly work know that it’s not a matter of “eating your vegetables” so that you can get the dessert of all the exciting white dudes — a more diverse set of interlocutors makes academic dialogue more interesting and improves our own work. We shouldn’t selfishly keep that goodness to ourselves, nor should we allow academic publications and conferences in which we play a part to be mired in monochrome mediocrity. In an ideal future, of course, this kind of inclusiveness would be the normal course of events — but in the meantime, it’s regretably often the case that white guys more easily gain a seat at the table, and they need to use their power for good.

New JCRT

A new issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory is out, featuring my review [pdf] of Less Than Nothing.

Fear of the Future: Rehabilitating the “Temporal Cold War”

The film First Contact marks a decisive turning point in the Star Trek franchise’s approach to time travel. Previously, the emphasis was always on preserving the past, which had led to a glorious future. Even at great cost — as in the classic episode “City on the Edge of Forever” — the timeline that had produced the optimistic semi-utopia of Star Trek had to be restored. That emphasis on future greatness continues even in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, whose somewhat contrived plot centers on the hard lesson that present short-sightedness (such as letting whales go extinct) can affect the future in ways that might not even make sense to us now (such as an alien force that had befriended the whales laying waste to earth when they can’t find them). Even if Voyage Home marks a shift, it’s still within the same basic frame of rehabilitating our own accidental behavior in the past.

The new element in First Contact is the malevolent intention of the Borg in disrupting our timeline. A completely unpredictable force, which at that point in history humanity had had no dealings with, blasts out of the future and takes over — and while Captain Picard et al. are able to set things back on the utopian path, humanity’s great hero, warp-drive inventor Zefrem Cochrane, knows that his discovery and fateful voyage were part of a conflict between two mysterious powers from the future.

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Peer review: What’s the alternative?

In what is increasingly becoming a tired schtick, Rebecca Schumann rehearses the most inflammatory cliches about academic practices — in this case, peer review. David Perry’s response reflects my own experience: I’ve had a generally good experience, but I’ve heard about friends who had a much harder time.

Schumann suggests that anyone submitting to a journal should be required to do a “constructive,” timely review of an article for said journal before their piece will be considered. The gap here is that the same editors who let people get away with harsh reviews are going to be in charge of assessing the required reviews — why would we expect anything different? It’s also striking that the solution to the badness of peer review is to get more people to do peer review (especially in the case of the “crowd-sourced peer review” solution she also discusses). Yes, I agree: the solution to the problems of the system is a good version of the system without the problems.

I would like to gently suggest that there are factors other than the badness of reviews themselves that contribute to the bad reputation of peer review. First, it makes sense that an increasingly high-stakes “publish or perish” mentality would lead to a higher volume of lower-quality material. Many articles that I’ve reviewed struck me as simply needing more incubation time — including the time and distance necessary to say, “Okay, so I’ve done all this exposition… but what am I trying to say here?” Students who let the deadline sneak up on them are not the only ones turning in “papers in search of a thesis.” And in some cases, I honestly think the editor should have simply rejected the articles out of hand without involving me. It’s not the author’s fault, but I can understand being irritable when you’ve volunteered your free labor and your input isn’t actually warranted.

Second, the high stakes involved amplify people’s usual defensiveness of their own work. This may lead to an overdiagnosis of “harshness” of tone and an exaggerated suspicion of the reviewer’s motives — isn’t it a little convenient that peer reviewers are so often presented as promoting their own work and viewpoints? We’re all willing to call bullshit when blog commenters say that we’re just afraid of how right their views are and can’t tolerate dissent. There’s always going to be something uncomfortable about getting criticism of one’s work from an anonymous source — I mean, I was sweating bullets when a very close friend was reading my draft of Creepiness, and I can’t imagine how nervous I would have been if it were a total stranger — and while some reviewers may come across as unduly harsh, maybe you wouldn’t read it that way if you knew them personally. The disadvantages of anonymity go both ways.

So here’s my proposal: get rid of the anonymity. Turn the process into a genuine dialogue between peers rather than a high-stakes, up-or-down evaluation by some random person. You could even require people to do some peer review on their own beforehand and submit a signed statement from one or two readers along with the piece. To make sure people aren’t constantly relying on the same two people, you could make it a norm for CVs that your initial reviewers are included in the listing for any peer-reviewed work. If you want an independent assessment, have a named peer reviewer respond to the full package.

Yes, there is potential for abuse with this system, in that it could amplify “old boys network”-type effects — but my #slatepitch position is that many of the cruellest and most pointlessly time-consuming aspects come from pretending that the profession is an impersonal meritocracy and feigning ignorance of the importance of reputation and social networks.

On Zizek’s plagiarism

A former student wrote to ask what I thought of the recent evidence of plagiarism in an essay by Zizek. I replied that Zizek’s own explanation of the incident, which can be found here among many other places, struck me as plausible — indeed, I’d add now that it isn’t hugely different from what traditional academics might ask a research assistant to do for them.

Overall, I’d call this unintentional plagiarism due to laziness, rather than actually trying to pass off someone else’s ideas as his own. If he turned in the essay for my class, I’d give him the chance to rewrite.

Sorry: Another one of those “thinking out loud” posts

I apologize if these posts about future plans are too self-indulgent. Perhaps they could be viewed primarily as a way of coping with my own anxiety, and thus you should feel free to skip them. Hopefully there is some value, however, in seeing how I think through my long-term planning.

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What if the gates of hell did prevail against it?

A theological hypothetical for all those armchair ecclesiologists in the audience: what if literally every Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishop suddenly died before they were able to ordain any new bishops? How would apostolic succession be preserved or “retconned”? Would Anglican orders suddenly turn out to be “good enough”? Would priests be upgraded to bishops? Is there already a contingency plan hidden in the depths of the Vatican?

A clarification on comments

Yesterday I went through a familiar cycle: someone posted a generic right-wing comment, I deleted it, and then I got caught in an e-mail dispute over my intolerance for dissent, etc. It should be clear from our comment policy that we don’t aspire to be an open forum embracing “free speech” for its own sake. Our comment threads are curated discussions that we wish to keep focused and productive.

In the case of generic right-wing comments, the best result is that the comment would be ignored, whereas the most likely result would be that certain readers would go down the rabbit hole of trying to argue with someone who’s clearly never going to concede even the smallest point or, more importantly, offer us anything but endless repetition of views that we’ve all heard a million times because they saturate all of public life. In short, there is no upside to allowing such comments and considerable downside.

Even worse than the initial waste of time (and considerable frustration!) such a discussion would produce, there’s also the fact that a blog comment becomes a permanent part of the post. Everyone who ever came across the post would be implicitly invited to relive yet another pointless argument over right-wing talking points. People do not consider this factor enough when complaining about restrictive comment policies — your free speech does not require me to permanently enshrine your views as part of my blog post. Feel free to respond in any other forum! Complain about me on Facebook! Start your own blog devoted to denouncing my close-mindedness! Tweet snarky remarks! The sky’s the limit, really.

I have no control over your ability to express yourself in general, nor do I aspire to such power. I do, however, have a choice about the viewpoints expressed and the tenor of discussion on my own blog posts, and I will not apologize for exercising it. And indeed, I think there’s widespread and growing recognition that the implicit norm of making every internet forum a completely open forum has been actively destructive of genuine discussion. Hence I have every reason to hope and even expect that AUFS’s more aggressively moderated approach will increasingly be the norm rather than the exception online — where comments are not simply turned off entirely. And for this development, about which they will surely complain to the high heavens, all the entitled, (mostly) right-wing assholes who have turned almost every internet forum into a replay of the same fruitless arguments have no one to blame but themselves.

“All Our Yesterdays”: Days of Star Trek past

The penultimate episode of the original Star Trek series (TOS), “All Our Yesterdays,” has an interesting premise: an alien race faces certain destruction as their sun goes supernova, and instead of escaping into space, they use time travel to escape into their own history. On some level, it’s a parable of the original series itself, which was ostensibly exploring the depths of space, but found various ways to explore humanity’s past (including in some cases the writers’ own present). Viewed from our present perspective, though, it seems more a parable of the franchise as a whole, a franchise that keeps putting off its own demise by escaping into the past of the franchise itself.

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