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.

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!

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?!

Danaë and Ambiguity

Titian - Danae with Eros

In my fine arts course this week, we did a unit on the myth of Danaë, which is admittedly only briefly mentioned in Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphosis but has exercised a durable fascination on painters. It’s a strange scene to picture: Danaë is locked away in a futile attempt to avert prophecy, and Zeus impregnates her in the form of a shower of gold. I showed them several of Titian’s varied responses to the theme, along with paintings by Corregio, Rembrandt, Klimt, and Picasso, so we had a good balance between seeing an individual artist’s evolving responses as well as the ongoing dialogue among artists about the significance of this bizarre story.

The Titian above is a relatively restrained version. Danaë appears virginal in her pure white sheets, and indeed she even clutches at her sheet — a gesture that will be further elaborated. The presence of the figure of Eros suggests some kind of participation or complicity on Danaë’s part, some sense that this is an erotic event for her. Yet Eros’s back is turned to Danaë and he is looking at the cloud that represents Zeus, so we could read him as indicating Zeus’s trademark unilateral approach to love. In other versions, that suggestion becomes almost heavy handed. Take this one, which can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago:

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Orientalism and non-translation

One thing that has stood out to me as I have undertaken my recent crash course in Islam is the sheer number of Arabic terms that are left untranslated. At times, even a dedicated student like me became bogged down in technical terminology that was left in Arabic even though it seemed as though there were suitable translations for most terms. The one that sticks out to me the most is falsafa, which is a kind of adaptation of the word “philosophy” into Arabic pronunciation. One could certainly understand the point of emphasizing that Arab philosophers kept the Greek term — but, then, you know, so did we. That insight could be conveyed in one sentence, and the term could be straightforwardly translated as “philosophy” after that point.

There are other more ambiguous cases, and I don’t want to adjudicate every one. Taken together, however, the mass of untranslated terms gives the impression that Islamic thought is somehow radically incompatible with Western languages and thought-patterns. Again, falsafa is a great example, because it makes Arabic philosophy seem like this bizarre foreign pursuit — when in fact they are quite literally drawing on the exact same sources as Western philosophy. That’s an extreme case, but in general it’s not as though Islamic thought is radically and incomprehensibly different from Western thought. In addition to its use of Western philosophy, it draws on the same monotheistic and prophetic heritage as Christianity and Judaism. I’m inclined to agree with Norman O. Brown, who claims in The Challenge of Islam that Islam is a reinterpretation and reappropriation of “our” Western traditions — and hence the “least foreign” foreign tradition out there.

Perhaps that very proximity is what creates the pressure to exoticize and obsfuscate Islamic concepts by leaving them untranslated a disproportionate amount of the time. And while some might argue that keeping the Arabic words is an attempt to maintain the differing layers of meaning, etc., in practice it most often serves to simplify the concepts. Take the concept of jihad — to a Muslim, it has many meanings that are generally in the ballpark of the English word “struggle.” If we translated it as “struggle” instead of leaving it in Arabic, we might understand how the concept could in some cases include something like violent resistence, while conceding that most of the time it would refer to the believer’s spiritual struggles. But once we’ve decided that jihad just means “holy war” — and what’s more, a particularly nefarious, specifically Islamic form of “holy war”! — then to most Western observers, it sounds like misleading apologetics when a Muslim tries to tell us what the term actually means for the average Muslim’s spiritual life.

When I pointed out the jihad example on Twitter, Adam Roberts responded that perhaps we could translate the term as Mein Kampf — and I think that’s actually a great example of the use of foreign words to exoticize, in this case defensively. It’s as though Hitler’s “struggle” in life is a specifically German phenomenon that could never be duplicated among sound-minded Anglophone people! The retention of the German title of Marx’s Das Kapital (with obligatory mispronunciation of Kapital as though it were a French word for good measure) serves much the same purpose of defensive exoticization. Never mind that Hitler had many sympathizers in the US and UK, never mind that Marx wrote Capital with England in mind and drawing primarily on English-language sources — it’s all foreign gibberish that we can never understand!

It is also possible, of course, to fetishize foreign-language terms as an attempt to appreciate or respect a foreign tradition — or earlier stages of one’s own, as when educated Christians treasure isolated New Testament Greek terms as precious talismans of the unparalleled genius of Christianity. Even if the motivation is “positive” in these cases, though, the effect is still exoticizing and obsfuscating. And just as with the “negative” deployment of the strategy, the stakes are most often political rather than scholarly or intellectual.

But enough of my blathering — what do you think, dear readers?

Plagiarism and self-plagiarism: A defense of Zizek

Detractors of Zizek have lately attempted to discredit his work on procedural grounds. The more serious accusations are related to plagiarism — including the famous case of the paraphrased white supremacist book review and now a more recent incident involving quotes in his book Violence. When the story broke, I offered a weak defense of the first incident, which seems to have been genuinely inadvertant. On further reflection, though, it seems to me that Zizek was using his friend’s material in the same way academics use material from their research assistants — and I doubt anyone checks over every detail of a research assistant’s work, because that would miss the point of having a research assistant. The second incident was literally just a copy-editing error, which could happen to anyone.

At this point, I anticipate some readers would say that, even granting these incidents were unfortunate accidents, Zizek’s frenetic over-production makes them more likely. And this brings us to another set of trumped-up complaints about his supposed “self-plagiarism.” Apparently he needs to write things fresh every single time he publishes, or else he’s doing something akin to the most serious ethical violation in academia. As I once ranted on Twitter, the concept of “self-plagiarism” is incoherent, given that he’s passing off his own ideas as, you know, his own ideas. There are reasons to object to the repetition, of course, but virtually every author who has written a large amount has “self-plagiarized” at some point — I will certainly confess to this horrible sin.

And now, the goal posts move yet again: the fact that Zizek repeats himself shows that he has nothing new to say. To that I’d say: okay, why don’t you try synthesizing Lacan and Hegel in pursuit of a unified theory of ideology, subjectivity, and ontology! Such a mammoth intellectual project will necessarily require intensive labor, working and reworking concepts and arguments. Sometimes similar examples are bound to come to mind in various contexts. Sometimes it will seem that a previously written passage can’t be significantly improved upon and can simply be reintegrated into a new whole. Everyone who’s met or talked to Zizek knows that he works obsessively, often skipping out of social engagements to get back to his room and write. His intellectual project is what is most important to him, and the amount that he is producing is realistic given his lack of teaching commitments and administrative work.

In essence, Zizek’s procedure here is no different in principle from that of Husserl, who wrote and rewrote voluminous drafts and was continually “introducing” the project of transcendental phenomenology. The one thing that has changed is that Zizek is publishing his drafts as he goes. Perhaps it would be better in some way if he would wait longer between publications, but you can’t blame a non-traditional academic for sticking with the method that gained him enough notoreity to elbow his way into the philosophical conversation despite his lack of a traditional position. You can’t blame him if publishers are willing to print the latest incremental updates to his project as he produces them, nor can you blame him if enough people are willing to buy the things to make it economically viable.

Nor, indeed, is it the case that he is simply repeating himself over and over. There is development and change over time, for those with the patience and investment to watch for it. If you don’t have the requisite patience or investment, you are under no obligation to keep reading his stuff, just as you’re under no obligation to paw through all of the Husserliana, or all of Lacan’s seminars, or all the iterations of Hegel’s lectures on philosophy of religion, or…. The fact that you’re tired of Zizek and don’t want to bother anymore isn’t proof of his intellectual bankruptcy — indeed, if you use your own understandable fatigue and wandering attention as grounds to discredit a major thinker and dissuade people from taking him seriously, then maybe someone is intellectually bankrupt, and it’s not Zizek.

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