On going viral

One year ago today, I went on one of my Twitter rants about higher education in America. Along the way, it morphed into a rant about the disproportionate burdens we put on young people, as crystallized in the following tweet:

I’m not sure how it happened, but this tweet “went viral.” Within a day or two, it had over 10,000 retweets — unimaginably more than any tweet I’ve done, before or since. After a couple weeks, I was hearing from my students that a screen capture of the tweet had been posted on Tumblr and Imgur, with hundreds of thousands of pageviews. Since then, people have developed more elegant images with the quote. There are also slight variants from people who preferred not to use the retweet function, as well as many plagiarized versions.

Clearly nothing I ever write will have such widespread impact as this tweet. Not even close. And that feels very strange to me, because in my mind, it’s not a particularly good tweet. Certainly good for a brief chuckle, but if I were to compile a “greatest hits” list, it wouldn’t make my personal top ten by far. Of course, part of that might stem from the experience of virality itself. Within a couple days, I went from being excited to being profoundly sick of having this tweet thrown back at me every few seconds. When it comes up in conversation, I find that I can’t actually make myself recite the tweet out loud, opting instead to get out my phone and show them (an easy task since it’s almost always been retweeted or favorited within the last day or so).

I’m also not sure if I’ve received any benefit from this. Blog traffic has been flat this year, my book sales appear to be unaffected, and there hasn’t been a flood of applicants to Shimer College begging to study with the bathroom tweet guy. I did get a huge boost in Twitter followers, doubling my count within a few weeks — but after that initial burst, I returned to the same “slow and steady” growth curve I had experienced before. I’m not sure if any subsequent tweet I’ve written has even broken 100 retweets.

It’s all very inscrutable.

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.)

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).

Read the rest of this entry »

“White men” as a curriculum

It’s always easier to design a syllabus with only white men — a particularly potent instance of the way Sara Ahmed teaches us to view “white men” as an institution. An inclusive syllabus is a struggle. You can anticipate the dismissiveness, the uncomfortable silence, the angry rejection. The syllabus filled with white men, by contrast, is calm. Their debates are all well-known, and they’ve all staked out positions that have their valid place in the intellectual firmament. They are precisely debates — ritual exchanges of well-known positions and evidence, rituals that we must reenact. After all, those debates have been so “influential”! You don’t have to agree with them, of course, just be able to give an account of them. Such soothing neutrality. Such comfort and familiarity.

Who would want to disrupt this equilibrium with arguments that don’t already have their pat answers, with positions that haven’t already been incorporated into the repertoire of reasonable options? Why gum up our political discussions with questions of how we structure our households, how we act in our most intimate relationships, how we go about excluding and corralling some so that others can feel comfortable and safe? The pushy interloper’s positions don’t seem to belong to the set of familiar toys we know how to manipulate. They don’t seem to allow us to take up our accustomed stance of studied neutrality, don’t let us assess them from afar by clear rational standards everyone would agree on. We’re trying to have an intellectual debate here, and the pushy interloper insists on asking us questions about how we live our lives. Worse, they seem to be insisting that we change our lives — and not in the uplifting way of that Rilke poem!

The endless conversation: who could want to bring it to an end? Who would dare interrupt it? Better to tell, once again, the story of how secular tolerance solved the problem of religious conflict while leaving room for the exploration of spiritual truth. Better to review the three ethical options: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Better to trace the progress of those scientific and artistic and literary traditions in which white men have been in such intricate, intellectually satisfying dialogue over the centuries.

To bask in the influential and the great — who would turn away from this to pick a fight, to document a struggle, to leave no room for neutrality? Why would we turn away from the influential and the great, from the guaranteed payoff of quality (well-attested!) and prestige (well-deserved!) to risk our world enough and time on texts that almost certainly are not the very best, and that surely can’t dream of the level of influence of the greats. And where would there be room, when we already know for a fact that they must read Homer and Dante and Plato and Aristotle and all the names we all know how to name in the syllabus we could all sketch out in five minutes or less if pressed? Surely you would never ask us to deprive one of these great and influential texts of its rightful place in service of a divisive partisan agenda.

So much easier, then, to reproduce influence under the guise of neutrally, objectively responding to it. After all, we already know the correct liberal positions we’re supposed to have — a skill we demonstrate when we ignore or explain away passages in which the influential greats contradict them. We all know that one must transcend those merely time-bound elements to reach the universal truths, whereas the texts you’re asking us to include do just the opposite, openly wallowing in the merely particular, the concrete, the historically conditioned. Don’t we enter the seminar room to escape from all that? And aren’t we glad of it? Isn’t it calm? Soothing? Comfortable?

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