Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair

As most readers probably know, I have spent the last ten weeks in San Francisco, as The Girlfriend has a short-term job out here this summer. Due to a combination of financial constraints, the nature of our accomodations, and my very deepest personality traits, the summer has been more monastic than usual. Most days, I have had close to twelve hours to myself between The Girlfriend’s work and commute. While I’ve enjoyed getting to know the Bay Area better and while I assure you that we’ve hit some key highlights (Golden Gate Park, Angel Island, Berkeley, Oakland, wine country…), I imagine that for quite some time I mainly will look back on this summer as the most productive of my life. Since today was my last “working” day (and I shipped my books back home earlier this afternoon to make sure of that), I thought I’d share the highlights:

  • I drafted, thoroughly revised, and submitted Creepiness to the publisher, and the text has now been copy edited and finalized. We’re still looking at potential back-cover blurbs, but things seem to be moving at a faster pace than for the previous two volumes.
  • Just as I was finishing that, I received final proofs for the Italian edition of Agamben’s Use of Bodies, of which I have now produced a draft translation of the prologue, first major division, and first “intermezzo” — amounting to approximately one-third of the total text. I anticipate completing bibliographical work and doing some initial polishing on this segment before the semester begins, and hope (perhaps over-optimistically) to complete an additional third per semester this school year.
  • Colby Dickinson and I worked to assemble a co-authored collection of essays on Agamben, which we are in the process of revising in dialogue with a publisher — this naturally has to wait until I’m back in Chicago and can meet with Colby face to face to complete.
  • I have drafted and revised a proposal for The Prince of This World: A Demonic Reading of Christianity, the frequently mentioned “devil book” I’ve been planning for several years. I’m still waiting for feedback from another reader, but I anticipate being able to submit this by the end of the month.
  • I developed a new course on Islamic thought for Shimer, covering a range of primary texts from Muhammad to the late medieval period — an almost totally new area for me, and something that was long overdue.
  • I led a six-week discussion group over two early works of Agamben, Infancy and History and Language and Death, at the Bay Area Public School, which was attended by a really solid group of young autodidacts, as well as recording an interview over Agamben’s work for KPFA in Berkeley and facilitating the completion of Stephen Keating’s directed reading over Agamben.
  • And last and probably least, I reviewed a journal article and a book-length manuscript.

On a more personal level, having over the last couple years watched all of the “modern” Star Trek series, I also completed a thorough study of the areas of the franchise least familiar to me: the original series, the animated series, and the movies. And given that I had the chance to play housewife this summer, I also took pride in taking my turn at cooking for The Girlfriend for a change.

And of course, in the spirit of my crazy CTA project, I got what I consider to be very good “coverage” on BART, “getting” 10 stops (with at least one additional stop planned for tomorrow).

Did Obama get played in 2008?

[NOTE: Earlier this summer, The Girlfriend and I watched a lot of House of Cards and Scandal, so that must be kept in mind in reading this post.]

It’s easy to forget now, but in the summer of 2008, it really looked like John McCain would win. Only after the financial crisis really began in September — an event that apparently none of our political elites foresaw — did Obama’s victory become a fait accompli. It’s also easy to forget that when it comes to delegates elected by the people who voted in primaries, Obama and Clinton were pretty much in a dead heat. The deciding factor was the Democratic “superdelegates,” i.e., the party leaders who get to vote for the candidate of their choice at the convention regardless of primary results. Clinton could have won if the superdelegates fell in line behind her, but as the convention approached, more and more broke in favor of Obama.

With all these facts in mind, I’ve begun to wonder if Clinton, facing the prospect of an uphill battle against one of the most respected politicians in America (another thing that’s easy to forget!), calculated that it was better to let Obama be the sacrificial lamb against McCain and live to fight another day — either 2012, if McCain reaped the whirlwind from the Bush disaster, or else 2016 — and so “released” her superdelegates to Obama. This might also explain why she didn’t insist on the VP slot, not wanting to be tarnished by a defeat.

As it turns out, though, the whirlwind came more quickly than anticipated, resulting in Obama accidentally getting elected.

Other summer projects

My two major projects for the summer — my Islam syllabus and Creepiness — are now basically done. There will be further work on both (continued background reading on Islam and the process of editing on Creepiness), but they will no longer require the kind of sustained effort I’ve put in so far. I had been anticipating spending all summer working on both, along with the translation of The Use of Bodies, but there have been delays on finalizing the Italian text that have meant that particular project is on pause for now.

In the meantime, I have a few things to work on. The most exciting is a collection of essays on Agamben that I’m putting together with Colby Dickinson, which will amount to a two-person edited volume. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reading each other’s contributions (which have mostly been previously published or presented at conferences) and giving some feedback, as well as putting together a proposal. I’ve also promised a couple pieces for a reference work on the doctrine of the atonement and hope to complete at least one (the shorter one, which is due in early fall), and I need to write up a syllabus for my Theology and Politics of the Devil course at CTS (for which I’ve “assigned” myself some fresh reading). Finally, I’d like to rework my Birkbeck talk into a sample chapter for The Prince of This World and put together a prospectus for a publisher. And until I head back to Chicago, I have the weekly Agamben reading group that just started.

I guess that sounds like a lot. The problem is that no single one of them is either as lengthy (or as fun!) as Creepiness or as urgent as the Islam syllabus, so I can picture myself wasting a lot of time deciding which to do first — and then repeating the procedure when I finish whatever I finally settle on and need to move on to the next thing. Somewhat more pathetically, experience teaches me that when I don’t have an overarching project to work on during the summer, I become bored and depressed. That’s one major drawback of being such a productive person: workahol withdrawal can be harsh.

Posted in boredom, to-do lists. Comments Off

Why am I not a vegetarian?

It’s a serious question. I seem like just the kind of person who would be vegetarian, demographically speaking. I’ve even gone through periods of my life where I was functionally vegetarian much of the time and could easily have made the transition. Why not, then? Do I have a principled reason, or just a series of post-hoc rationalizations? Or is it something in between, something in my temperament that makes me resist taking the plunge?

First possible reason: a general distrust of very abstract moral principles, such as a blanket prohibition on “killing.” Read the rest of this entry »

Summer plans: An open thread

As I mentioned a while back, I’m going to be spending the summer in San Francisco. I arrive at the end of the month, and in the meantime, I’ll be very busy with faculty meetings, the Birkbeck conference, and preparing our apartment for the subletters. Indeed, I’ve been so focused on getting through this hectic stretch that I’ve given very little thought to the presumably more pleasant and open days to come — as I’ve told a couple friends, my unconscious presupposition seems to be that I’ll die on May 31 and thus I need to get my affairs in order.

In order to begin envisioning the future, I hereby indulge in one of my favorite hobbies: reflecting on tasks I need to achieve. Read the rest of this entry »

The cruellest month: On Academic Seasonal Depression

It’s only this year that I’m starting to consciously acknowledge how difficult this time of year is for me. Every year, without fail, I go through a major depression during the month of May (though the worst was actually during what was laughingly called “Spring Break” in between the winter and spring quarters at Kalamazoo College). The problem seems to be that I’m mentally very ready for the semester to be over and excited to have the opportunity to focus on my own work, but that I’m not actually ready to do anything else. If I weren’t mentally exhausted enough from the semester itself, the drudge work of grading at the end ensures that I’m not really in any shape to begin major research projects, etc.

Hence I enter into this dead space, where I feel adrift and without purpose. At the beginning of this transition, I at least have a negative relationship with a telos, insofar as I feel anxious or even guilty that I’m not yet taking advantage of this precious time to do work — but when I really “hit bottom” is when even that lack is suspended, when I admit to myself that I neither will nor can achieve anything. I’m simply an inert mass, good for nothing but playing 2048 on my phone with old Star Trek episodes playing in the background.

In this regard, I’ve come to a new appreciation for Shimer’s strange end-of-semester practices. For us, the semester “ends” but fails to end three or four times — we have the end of classes, then “Writing Week” (where students do a comprehensive exam or else work on an independent project), then a week of final conferences (where students meet with their professors to discuss the semester), and then faculty meetings (of varying length and intensity). I initially experienced this as an obstacle to all the heroic feats of research and translation I was surely primed to carry out, but now I am coming to view it as a more natural and humane transition out of the semester. I’m using it as an opportunity to pick off a few smaller projects — a short translation, expanding a talk into a book chapter, revising a previous paper for my Birkbeck talk.

This year, things are further complicated by the fact that I’m moving to San Francisco for the summer, as The Girlfriend has a summer job out there. Hence the end of faculty meetings also marks the end of my normal Chicago life for the time being, and as I’m winding down my Shimer duties, I’m also slowly winding down my Chicago apartment — slowly selecting which books I want to take, thinking about what to put in storage and what to leave out for the subletters, etc., etc. In a couple weeks, we’ll be travelling for a weekend vacation with her parents, which will double as an occasion to hand off The Dog to them for the summer. The following week, I’m travelling to London for the Birkbeck conference, and when I return, The Girlfriend will have already left for San Francisco. And at the end of that week, with all my faculty duties discharged for this year, I’ll close the door behind me on what is now someone else’s space and go do something completely different.

St. Patrick’s Day: The Most American Holiday

St. Patrick’s Day plays a crucial role in the American holiday calendar, bridging the gap between the post-Christmas “TV event” season (Superbowl, award shows, etc.) and the summertime “grilled meat” season. More importantly, though, it seems to me that St. Patrick’s Day expresses the fundamental nihilism at the heart of American life. The sole purpose of the holiday is drunkenness — indeed, it is a celebration of drunkenness for its own sake. The completely phoned-in requirement of green clothing makes even the abomination of adult Halloween look like a rich and meaningful tradition. The reference to Irish culture — consisting of excessive drinking and the color green — is not so much a parody of Ireland as a parody of the very idea of a cultural heritage as such.

As we walked by the local “Irish pub” at 10 this morning, I pondered all those people with their drinks and their green t-shirts, and I thought: “This is it. This is all there is — utter nothingness.” When the end comes, we will all be bloated with cheap beer, wearing our green t-shirts, watching the asteroid strike or cataclysmic flood or nuclear detonation on big screen TVs, screaming, “Wooooooo!!!” And half of us won’t even tip.

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