The work of mourning in contemporary television

Is there a mourning trend in contemporary television? At least on cable, it seems to be a dominant theme, one whose hold is only growing. The Walking Dead and Les Revenants (which will be remade in an English-language version) focus on what happens when the dead won’t stay dead — less an abstract thought experiment than a literalization of the process of mourning — while The Leftovers hyperbolically stages the randomness and incomprehensibility of loss. Recent seasons of True Blood have been dominated by mourning in a literal way, with episode-long funerals in many cases, as might be expected from the creator of one of the most successful “high-quality cable dramas,” Six Feet Under.

Once you notice the theme, it pops up everywhere. Much of the action in The Sopranos stems from the death of the initial boss from cancer, and the elderly mobsters like Uncle Junior could be viewed as something like an undead presence, especially once he develops dementia. The title character in Dexter derives his violent impulses from watching the death of his mother, and inherits his ethical “Code” from a father who feels responsible for her death and who haunts Dexter in the present. Homeland could be viewed as another kind of zombie narrative, as Sgt. Brody unexpectedly turns out not to be dead, disrupting his family’s new life and becoming an obsessive focus of Carrie, who is haunted by the specter of 9/11. Don Draper, like Walter White, is a man who survives his own death again and again, and the most recent season of Mad Men turns him into a kind of zombie haunting the agency. Etc., etc.

Obviously death has an appeal as a “universal human theme,” but I suspect there’s something more going on here. In a moral landscape where love seems like an empty cliche and loyalty is less a moral sentiment than a license for the most immoral possible behavior, the experience of loss seems like one final bastion of something like sincerity — the one unfakeable feeling. Even better, it provides a path toward multi-layered complexity of characterization, which is hard to come by when the assumption is that everyone is motivated by self-seeking pride.

Coming at it from a different direction, the fixation on loss seems to be of a piece with our neoliberal world. The only positive goals that are acknowledged are wealth, power, and prestige, which must be sought in an increasingly narrow range of pursuits by an increasingly narrow range of personality types. In contrast with this zero-sum struggle of individuals, the only space for something like human community or solidarity is loss or the threat of loss. In a weird way, then, there may be something optimistic about the narrative of mourning on television, insofar as it’s a way of gesturing toward connection rather than competition.

(Half-formed thoughts, sure to be dismantled in comments.)

The Girlfriend’s amazing cooking system

The Girlfriend has a remarkably effective approach to cooking that could be helpful for all those busy academics out there, particularly single or childless ones. The biggest challenge in cooking for only one or two people is that it is incredibly time-inefficient — you wind up spending as much prep time as you would for a much larger meal. Combine that with the fact that we all typically come home tired, and you have a recipe for ordering in way too often.

Her system is to cook everything ahead of time over the weekend, then package it for easy reheating throughout the week. It usually takes her an hour or so, which is much less than if she were to prepare individual helpings each day. Furthermore, it tips the laziness scale in favor of eating in, because putting her allotted portion into the microwave is actually the path of less resistence compared to ordering take-out. Sometimes with things like seafood, she’ll leave part of the meal to be cooked day-of, but it still winds up being more efficient. She includes her lunches in the routine as well — usually some kind of soup or salad — which is particularly important for academics, whose options for buying lunch tend to be depressing (I can barely look at a Jimmy John’s sandwich at this point).

There are disadvantages. First of all, you’re always eating leftovers, unless you time the first round of cooking to correspond with dinner time. Second, you need to be willing to eat the same thing multiple days in a week — if you don’t repeat, you lose the advantages of scale. Finally, if it turns out that you aren’t actually in the mood for one of your meals or it doesn’t turn out like you want, you’re going to find yourself reconnecting with your local Chinese delivery person.

Is Muhammad the better Paul?

In Romans 9-11, Paul lays out what he believes to be God’s plan for Paul’s work as the apostle to the Gentiles. Though the rejection of Jesus as messiah by the vast majority of Jews seems to be a huge defeat, God is actually using it as an opportunity to achieve something even greater: extending his promises to all nations. By Paul’s reckoning, once the Jews see the Gentiles enjoying the messianic life opened up by Jesus’s death and resurrection, they will be so jealous that they will ultimately embrace Jesus. From a contemporary perspective, this view is appealing because it radically relativizes actual-existing Gentile Christianity — it is just a detour, an elaborate ploy in God’s bank-shot attempt to win over the Jews, who remain his real priority. And yet from a contemporary perspective, we must also admit that the plan does not seem to have worked out.

Yesterday I was reviewing some material from ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad. Reading the whole of this vast and unwieldy document is not possible in the context of my course, so I selected portions on the religious and political background of the Arabian penninsula, Muhammad’s early life and ministry in Mecca, his work in Medina, and the events leading up to his triumph over the authorities in Mecca. One issue that will surely arise in this context is the question of “Islam and violence,” because it’s impossible to give a fair or comprehensible account of Muhammad’s life and the rise of Islam without taking into account such key events as the Battle of Badr. If commenters have any ideas for how I might address it in class discussion, I’d be eager to hear it (though I also expect that Shimer students will by and large be bending over backwards to be as fair-minded as possible and to avoid cliches about Islam, so perhaps it won’t be an issue).

One thing that struck me, amid all the undeniable brutality, is how often Muhammad chose not to press his advantage. Read the rest of this entry »

Help me with a course on the Qur’an

Let’s say I were to do a course next semester on the Qur’an only, with some attempt to achieve coverage over the whole of the text and to strike a balance between contemporary and historical commentators. Do you have any recommendations?

The experience of translating

Seamus Heany once said that the best part about translating is that you get to finish something you didn’t have to start. It’s a strange feeling, though, finishing up something for someone else — and not only that, finishing something that is always necessarily secondary and supplemental to that work by someone else. It is supplemental in the full Derridean sense, insofar as a mistranslation can become a “dangerous supplement” whose incorrect rendering replaces and obliterates the author’s original meaning.

That’s not where my anxiety lies as a translator of Agamben, however. Agamben is not a “difficult” author to translate in the same way that, for instance, Laruelle is. His writing style is smooth and straightforward, and he very rarely places a lot of emphasis on the specific resources of the Italian language (in the way that Derrida could be said to push French to the limit, or Heidegger German). My anxiety is less dramatic — I worry I’m going to make some dumb, low-level error. Nothing that obscures or distorts Agamben’s meaning, just the kind of thing that makes me look like an idiot.

There are errors of that kind in my published translations. They’re not huge, but they bother me. The worst is when I simply transcribed the Italian word “due” instead of translating it as “two.” It’s surprising in a way that something like that doesn’t happen more. When I run a spellcheck over my translation work, I notice how my spelling has been strangely influenced by Italian, and more generally how the quality of my typing deteriorates when I’m doing the relatively mechanical work of translating rather than producing material in my own name. Most of that comes out in spellcheck or at the various stages of editing and revising (whether I’m pressing friends into service or responding to the press’s copy editor). I comfort myself that some Agamben translations have more such errors than mine, and I have yet to find a translation that has none.

The worst part with Agamben isn’t the translation as such, but the vast apparatus of citations. For every source he cites, I must determine whether an English translation is extant. If so, the press requires that I base my quotations on that translation, though I must often “triangulate” between the English, the original text, and Agamben’s provided translations. Sometimes I must supply formal citations where the text lacks them (above all in classical references), and just for the sake of thoroughness, I have also taken up the habit of supplying macrons and breathings in Greek citations where the text lacks them. Agamben also loves to cite untranslated Latin, sometimes a paragraph at a time, and I must often provide my own translation in a concession to the monolingualism of the other.

Tracking down these sources is extremely time-consuming and often frustrating. The method I’ve developed is to put quotes in boldface in my draft. If it’s a long quote from a text I know to be translated, I’ll often simply put “quote” at that point in the text. If it’s a short quote, I’ll usually do a rough rendering of Agamben’s Italian just for my own convenience in tracking it down later. Then I go back after I have a full draft and fill in the quotations. Every time I do a translation I consider whether there’s any way around leaving them for the end, and I’ve decided it’s unfortunately the only way to go — tracking down quotations and translating are two fundamentally different tasks, and switching back and forth hurts the quality of both.

Better to stay “in the zone” of translating, I say, so as to get a full draft as quickly as possible. And sometimes I can really, really be “in the zone.” Those days can be satisfying, albeit in the weird way that intensive data entry is satisfying. I feel like I’ve accomplished a feat, but I weirdly don’t have anything to show for it. This is not to say that I don’t benefit from doing these translations. I get paid, and I also get the credibility of an “expert” on Agamben (or on certain texts of his), with the invitations to speak and write that go along with that. But at the end of the day, the person who really has “something to show” for my work is Agamben, who is after all the author of the text.

The best I can hope for is to be invisible, not to draw undue attention to myself through mistakes or overly aggressive translation choices. My fondest hope is that my translation will “hold up” after three or four close readings, at which point anyone wishing to go further would have to turn to the original Italian in any case. My nightmare, of course, is that I’ll wind up one of those accursed translators everyone hates (like the poor guy who did Adorno’s Negative Dialectics) or that one of my translation choices will later be regarded as having set back the scholarship by a generation (like the translation of Freud’s Trieb as “instinct”). I’ve probably already avoided the former, and the latter seems intrinsically unlikely given Agamben’s writing style.

And yet, and yet… I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, panicked at some translation error I’ve surely made. The feel of those incidents is not like a social anxiety dream (like where one shows up naked to school), but like one of those “work dreams” — the kind where you’re waiting tables and discover you’ve completely neglected one for an hour. That’s what it is, at the end of the day: a job. It’s a relatively cool job, one that helps me keep on top of my language skills, but it’s still a job.

This fall

This week, I’ve been settling back into my Chicago apartment and mostly letting my brain rest after the brutal monastic discipline of this summer. I’ve also had a couple meetings at Shimer, which has got my mind starting to churn on my teaching. I think it should be an interesting semester. At Shimer, I’m teaching two sections of Humanities 1: Art and Music (something like “intro to fine arts”) and an elective course on Islamic thought, and I’m also doing a graduate seminar at Chicago Theological Seminary based on my devil research. It strikes me as a good balance — I get a chance to solidify a course I taught for the first time last year (Hum 1), do a new course in a new area, and rethink an old course in a new setting.

On Hum 1, I’m teaching in parallel with my colleague Aron Dunlap, and we both agreed that we needed to make the class more rigorous. Students have sometimes not taken it seriously, in large part due to their skepticism that fine arts are a “real” academic topic, but also in part because we sent the wrong message with the workload. So we’ve beefed up the reading and (more crucially) the writing requirements. We’re hoping that the need to write a paper on the materials will help to add an element of urgency and focus to the discussion. To compensate, we’ve cut the previous element of requiring students to do brief “conversation-starter” papers, an assignment that is often very helpful in other classes but never seemed to work as intended in Hum 1. Another element I’m excited about is that all the sections are scheduled during the Art Institute’s hours of operation, so that we’ll have multiple class sessions that will meet directly at the museum.

While I’m going to be doing more teaching than I’m used to, I’m hoping the CTS devil course will feed directly into my writing due to the ability to incorporate a lecture element into the course (an option unavailable to me with the Shimer version I taught last spring). Being in Hyde Park every week should also be helpful as I work on the complex bibliographical elements involved with my Agamben translation. Another nice element is that my Shimer classes are all bunched together in the morning, so that I should be able to keep working steadily on the translation in the afternoons.

In addition to my teaching, I’m going also to be presenting at a conference on core curricula at religious and secular schools hosted by the Association of Core Text Colleges and giving a talk and a seminar session on Zizek and religion at Portland State University.

Overall, it should be pretty busy — so much so that I can’t really “see” beyond the end of the semester, if that makes sense. So if anyone has recommendations for TV shows to binge-watch starting around December 15, let me know.

Why a Star Trek film would never work

Making a Star Trek film was always a strange project. Both the original series and Next Generation were meandering affairs, with few clear villains and many episodes with confusing premises. The movies have been many different things — sometimes fan service (Search for Spock), sometimes glorified children’s fare (Voyage Home), and sometimes little more than a way to give paying work to series regulars (The Undiscovered Country, Generations, Insurrection, Nemesis). There are films in the franchise that attempt to do essentially a really long episode with better special effects, above all the first (The Motion Picture), which closely followed the plot of an original series episode (“The Changeling”). And sometimes they’ve been embarrassing indulgences (The Final Frontier). At their best, though, they have combined a clear villain with a conscious awareness of the questionability of the undertaking.

Read the rest of this entry »

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