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.

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.

On the old saw, “Be the change you want to see in the world”

It’s as though life is a constant election. With our every choice, we signal our preference, and someone or something (public opinion, the market, etc.) registers it and acts accordingly. We don’t simply consume things — we “support” them, like we support a political candidate. I eat organic food in order to signal to the market that food should be produced organically. I patronize my local bookstore whenever possible so that the market will know that local bookstores are valuable. I debate my family at Thanksgiving dinner because every individual who adopts liberal views on political issues contributes to a more liberal tilt in public opinion.

If every decision is an election, every debate is a jury trial. Politics presupposes the jury member as archetype — the definitionally ignorant observer, disallowed from bringing in any outside information, trapped in a room with eleven peers and eager to find some kind of lowest common denominator to bring about a decision. Whatever is presented in court — the liberal nephew’s arrogance about all the fancy things he learned in college, the hurtful personal aspersions cast on George W. Bush, etc. — is relevant. Whatever is not presented at the trial — the actual content and likely consequences of public policy proposals, the broader context that might explain a vote or a remark — cannot be considered. Political consultants and corporate marketers alike play to this purely virtual juror, and both are at once overconfident in their ability to manipulate this lazy ignoramus and horrified at the arbitrarity of his or her whims.

Of course, I am always the informed voter who has the leisure and resources to make responsible decisions, while the general public is made up of the inert juror, the proverbial swing voter from Ohio who is simultaneously malleable and elusive. Indeed, whose very susceptibility to influence makes the ongoing election so unpredictable and exciting. I can always do better in my efforts to manipulate (or, more politely, “persuade”) my swing voters, always spin better, always frame better. It’s not their fault that they keep making the wrong choice, because it always comes down to my presentation, my legal maneuvering. I live but to serve, to figure out some roundabout way to induce the swing voter to make the right decision — albeit always only for the wrong reasons.

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The phenomenology of temperature perception

In the U.S., our weather reports respect both sides of the analytic/continental divide, giving us both the empirical temperature and a phenomenological account of what temperature it feels like (wind chill or heat index). This can lead to some confusion. For instance, I initially thought that it wasn’t that big a deal that temperatures were below zero — most winters, it seemed to me, there had been extended periods when it reached that low temperature. Then it struck me: while it felt like it was below zero during most of those times, now it literally was below zero.

I had experienced something like a temperature of 15 degrees below zero before, but I had never experienced it directly — after all, the temperature was a record low. When I was experiencing 15 degrees below zero, then, what was my point of reference? And now that I actually was experiencing the literal temperature of 15 degrees below zero, I found, to my epistemological dismay, that it reportedly felt like a much lower temperature. In a kind of meteorological différance, each temperature is divided within itself. No temperature “feels like” itself, but only refers to another temperature, which itself “feels like” another temperature, in an endless play of signifiers with no signified.

Kafka as muse

The fine arts course I’m teaching at Shimer is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has inspired countless works of music and visual art. It strikes me that if any more recent figure has the potential to serve as such a productive basis for art, it has to be Kafka. The Trial cries out for operatic treatment. A ballet of “Josephine the Singer” would be inspired. Imagine what visual artists could do with Odradek!

What do you think, readers?

A fashion post in tribute to Craig

I posted a couple tweets about clothing this afternoon, and since Craig expressed annoyance, I figured it would be a good idea to do a whole blog post! I joked to Craig that trying to conform to something like traditional men’s dress was an integral part of my “religious but not spiritual” lifestyle. It’s nice to have arbitrary guidelines.

Read the rest of this entry »

Radical Theology-Lite

I recently posted this comment in response to this blog post. Thought it might of interest to some readers. Note, this an edited version of my comment:

I really wish you guys would stop using the term ‘radical theology’. You have invented an entirely new genealogy of radical theology (Hegel, Tillich, Derrida and Caputo). Arguably, only Hegel belongs upon that mountain. Neither Derrida nor Caputo are proper theologians. Moreover, you’ve also enshrined Tillich, the liberal theologian, par excellence. Why is Altizer curiously omitted? In reality, what is being offered here is radical theology-lite. In this genealogy of this new tradition of radical theology-lite we are really getting a liberal theology that is in denial about its roots. Not that there’s anything wrong with liberal theology. There’s a lot of good ideas in the history of liberal theology. It is my contention that the reason why many emergent do not simply accept that they are liberal theologians is that they have bought into evangelical propaganda regarding liberal theology. Due to the fact that many people who are part of the emergent-radical camp are disaffected evangelicals, they simply cannot accept liberal theology and the mainline church. As a result, new words were made up that attempt to outdo liberal theology (see progressive, radical, incarnational, or emergent). Notice that “liberal” is always a dirty word in these circles. Liberal theology is always the convenient strawman that is created to make the new “third way” appear categorically distinct from its conservative and liberal brethren. I find the caricature of liberal theology that is operative in the discourse at Homebrewed Christianity unacceptable. In many ways, liberal theology is consonant with the radical theology-lite values laid out here: pluralism, humility, belief with doubt, an appreciation of symbolic language and political.

In response to the Subverting the Norm II Conference, Tony Jones wrote, “There are two types of radical theologians: those who want there to be a God, and those who don’t.” He is mistaken. I would argue that there is only one radical theologian and that is the one who rejects God. I was first introduced to radical theology by reading Altizer. What made Altizer, Hamilton and others radical is that they were Christian atheists. That was actually radical and Altizer grounded his atheism through a strange reading of Hegel, Blake and Milton. He didn’t equivocate with all of this postmodern posturing about language, mystery and the unknown. Radical theology was ontological.

I am curious about what is driving this rapid need to appropriate the term “radical”. It is overused in modern theology (see radical orthodoxy, radical theology, “ordinary radicals”). I am almost tempted to say that radical is an empty signifier that simply designates something as “cool”. Is this just another effort in the endless re-branding on the theological market? Is radical theology-lite simply the left-wing of emergent movement trying to buck its more conservative followers? What made the time right for someone like Caputo (upon whom this movement is clearly dependent) to capture the attention of theologians? I almost think that the desire to brand this theology as “radical” is a way to push actual radical theologians out of the market. Isn’t it bizarre that Tony Jones would act as if there are some bad radical theologians out there who don’t want to believe in God? For God’s sake, the whole point of radical theology was to proclaim the death of God! Translating that into radical theology-lite terms, we have this warped notion of Lacan’s Big Other that now is basically another way for the believer to disabuse himself of a false idol. The Big Other is bad. The God who is beyond the Big Other (who is insisting in the event) is good. It is only through ridding one’s self of the Big Other (which is possible?) that one can arrive at a purer, more “real” conception of God. The irony being that the very need to find a God beyond the Big Other in and of itself is a sign that the Big Other is still operative in the ideology grounding this theology.


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