“My power is made perfect in weakness”: On institutional breakdown

One point from Hardt and Negri’s Empire has always stood out to me: namely, that institutions typically become more powerful as they break down. The most familiar example is the university, which has in many ways squandered its cultural credibility and has even actively victimized some of its key constituencies (student loans, adjunctification, pervasive rape on campus). Yet the demands we make on the university are ever-increasing. It’s as though the very breakdown of the university highlights the fact that we need “something like” the credentialing role it performs to make modern society manageable — and so we settle for “something like” the university (i.e., the actual-existing university).

One can see the same dynamic at work with contemporary capitalism. Clearly the economy is not working, yet the very injustice and discontent it breeds highlights the benefits of having an apparently impersonal mechanism for distributing economic rewards, lest we degenerate into a post-apocalyptic hellscape of survivalist anarchy. During the government shutdown, I started a series of tweets jokingly predicting absolute social breakdown if the U.S. defaulted, and many of my readers seemed to be deeply disturbed by them — it felt a little too realistic that the social bond in a highly individualistic nation with a lot of guns lying around may turn out to be more fragile than we’d ever imagine. The same holds for the U.S. Constitution. It is widely acknowledged to be highly irrational in its design, and yet the idea of “rebooting” seems unthinkable to most Americans.

If institutions make their demands more strongly felt precisely when they’re failing to deliver on their promises, it seems that the reverse would also hold: we are more able to reform our institutions when their hold feels less urgent. I imagine that much of the strong regulation of capitalism during the Cold War era came from the existence of a living, breathing alternative to the free market — even if the Soviet model did not seem desirable compared to the US model, everyone could tell that the USSR was not a post-apocalyptic hellscape. During the financial crisis, by contrast, it was commonplace to hear people say that if a key financial apparatus broke down, we simply “wouldn’t have an economy anymore.”

Similarly, as I was saying yesterday, in a world where every area of life is increasingly saturated with cutthroat competition, there doesn’t seem to be any alternative to the traditional family as a space of meaningful relationships — and hence people persist in propping up the model and even want to expand it to previously excluded populations, even though it winds up being a costly and painful situation for increasing numbers of people.

Since I can’t figure out how to wrap this post up: “hence the need for full communism is all the more urgent.”

Why bother? On family obligation

This year, we are taking a year off from Christmas. The Girlfriend and I resolved at some point this summer that we would not travel to see either of our parents over the holiday — a choice made easier by the fact that it was my family’s “turn” for Thanksgiving this year and her family was planning on coming to visit us at some point — but she felt we couldn’t simply sit at home if we were skipping. We needed an excuse, and hence we planned a trip to Paris, which various considerations led us to reschedule for New Year’s. Hence we will wind up sitting at home on Christmas, in our own apartment, in the city we’ve chosen to live in, doing the kinds of things we enjoy doing.

For me, the lack of travel for Christmas almost overshadows the trip to Paris. I’ve hated Christmas at least since I was a teenager, and I’ve dreaded traveling home since college. I don’t like the long drive to Michigan, I don’t like being in the suburbs, I don’t like feeling like I have to hide a lot of things about my life — aside from the occasional game of ping-pong or Mario, I derive very little pleasure from any of the proceedings and am constantly counting down the hours until I can get back to my actual life. I can’t imagine that I’m adding much joy to my family’s holiday, either. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt judged or looked down on by their fancy academic son from the city, or at the very least can tell that I’m systematically minimizing my time there.

I realize this all makes me a terrible person. I’ve come to terms with that. What has been bothering me in the last few years is: why do I still do it? Why did it take the elaborate excuse of a European vacation to embolden me to skip out on Christmas when I have been longing to do so for literally decades at this point?

Hence while my attitude is idiosyncratic and extreme, I think it does open out onto more general questions of family obligation. I can understand why close-knit families have been the historical norm, and I understand that they continue to provide a valuable support network for many people, especially people who are raising children. Yet it seems as though there are social forces at work in contemporary America that render the whole thing an increasingly empty gesture. For increasing numbers of people whose families are geographically dispersed, the obligation is still there, but it carries with it none of the benefits. The holiday season is the clearest example: millions of people are traveling, at great expense, at the most physically dangerous time of year to travel — all so that they can navigate an emotional minefield, always threatened by the possibility that the fragile adult relationships between parent and child will revert to more familiar and humiliating patterns.

If I had to venture a theory, I’d say it’s because the family bond, for all its faults, is the only durable bond available. We live in such an atomized society that nothing else has the opportunity to arise and fulfill those same functions of support. The only viable supplement is religion, which connects family units to a broader community — and again, though increasing numbers of people find traditional religion unappealling and even damaging, no alternative has arisen that can reliably produce bonds of support and obligation within and across generations. So we are thrown back on these outdating and restrictive social forms all the more, because their breakdown only highlights the fact that there is no alternative to them. And even when we try to create alternatives, we wind up aping the old forms, putting together atheist churches or, more commonly, groups of old friends that are “like family.”

What we need is the excuse of the trip to Paris, but on a society-wide scale. I might not even be joking.

Marriage and meritocracy

I want to begin by saying that the Supreme Court decisions today in favor of gay marriage are an unambiguously positive thing, a step forward for justice and equality. While I am skeptical for various reasons of the gay rights movement’s strategic focus on “inclusion” issues (such as gay marriage and gays in the military), it is my duty as an ally to defer to those directly affected when it comes to setting priorities, and I am very glad to see that the movement has had such a string of successes in recent years.

What I want to talk about in this post is not meant to reflect negatively on the movement and its priorities. Instead, it is an effort to think through the conditions of possibility of this victory. Conservatives are correct that the legalization of gay marriage changes the meaning of marriage — it really does, and in a good way. What is perhaps less noted is that this success presupposes a prior change in the meaning of marriage, or rather a series of changes over the course of the 20th century. Despite the claims of the traditionalists, marriage has actually been a very dynamic and fluid institution in modernity, serving a wide variety of functions and providing a momentary solution to a range of social, political, and economic conflicts. I don’t intend to account for the entire complex process here, but suffice it to say that marriage is constantly evolving — and in fact, much more momentous changes than the acceptance of gay marriage have happened in the last 100 years (most notably, the routinization of divorce).

In recent decades, marriage has taken up a new role with the emergence of a self-confident meritocratic elite under neoliberalism. Read the rest of this entry »

Our broken market in parenting

Meritocracy has long been one of America’s most cherished principles. It informs the structure of our educational system, which at its best tries to ensure that the most talented students get access to the resources they need to succeed. Yet doesn’t the social mobility provided by education come “too late,” as it were? Before arriving at school, children are exposed to more or less random differences in the distribution of resources, simply by virtue of who their parents are. Talented students may be mired in a stimulus-poor environment, while the mediocre children of the rich receive, by virtue of a kind of genetic affirmative action, a wide range of educational opportunities that will ultimately be wasted on them. This so-called “system” of parenting prevents pure meritocracy from being achieved, meaning that there can appear to be a moral imperative toward market-distorting redistribution of wealth.

To remedy this standing offense against human freedom, I propose that we apply market principles to parenting. While there is currently no getting around the need to be physically born to a particular person, we can minimize the element of randomness by providing infants with parenting vouchers in proportion to their innate talents (as indicated by an appropriate standardized testing regime). Better parents would naturally be able to command higher prices on the parenting market. Thus the more talented children could then be matched up with wealthier and more socially prestigious parents, promoting the deserving child’s life chances and also making sure that the social and economic resources of their parents are not squandered. Children who were never going to contribute significantly to society could be given to less capable parents. If some kind of error occurred in the placement process, the educational system, as the engine of social mobility, would be able to correct for the problem — though presumably the system would improve over time, so that eventually even that correction would no longer be necessary.

Plato already recognized that something like this type of system would be necessary for a truly just society to emerge, namely, one in which each is rewarded for his or her own merits. While there is a considerable sentimental attachment to our current system, I think we all need to recognize that until our broken market for parenting is repaired, we can never be completely sure that those who are rich or poor truly deserve to be in their respective conditions.

A proposed variation on the theme of the workaholic dad who doesn’t understand the true spirit of Christmas

Over my visit home for Christmas, I saw snippets of several movies focusing on the theme of the workaholic dad who doesn’t understand the true spirit of Christmas. One widely-known example is Jingle All the Way, in which the former governor or California [sic] stars as a father seeking to find the hottest toy of the season on Christmas Eve, having shirked his duty to buy it earlier. The movie opens with him making sales calls and missing his son’s karate event as a result — simply part of a broader pattern, we are meant to understand. I didn’t wind up seeing the ending, but I assume that Arnold was ultimately made to submit to the totalitarian demands of Christmas.

What I’d like to see is a movie in which workaholic dad sits his son down and says, “You know what? I’m not really interested in your karate thing or what specific toy you’ve decided you want for Christmas. Read the rest of this entry »

Overheard remarks

In connection the directed reading over Lacan that I’m supervising, I recently read Jonathan Lear’s Freud, which I assigned to make up for the fact that we can’t literally do the ideal thing to prepare for the reading of Lacan, i.e., read all of Freud 14 times in German. Lear spent some time on Freud’s dream of the botanical manuscript, the interpretation of which hinged crucially on something Freud’s father said about him, in his presence, but not to him: “He’ll never amount to anything.” I recalled that Bruce Fink had also reported the importance of overheard parental declarations in psychoanalysis — and the fact that the crucial declaration may not even be about the child himself or herself (for example, if Freud’s father made the same declaration about the neighbor boy, but Freud had misunderstood it as referring to him), an idea that for some reason struck me as deeply tragic and meaningful.

A chain of associations opened up. For instance, once when I was in grade school, I decided that I should become a spy and hid under my parents’ bed and listened to an odd conversation. Read the rest of this entry »

The fantasy of fetal personhood

Most debates about abortion begin from the assumption that the fetus is a more or less isolated entity that can be considered in itself, that it is an individual. We talk about when this entity has “life” in the relevant sense, what its rights are, etc., completely ignoring the distinctive trait of fetal life: that it is radically dependent on, and indeed takes place entirely within, an autonomous human being.

This framing concedes the debate in advance, placing the fetus in the series of other entities with human DNA that were belatedly recognized as being entitled to full human personhood, with the attendant rights. Read the rest of this entry »

I can’t believe I read the whole thing

It’s been a long time since we’ve criticized one of Milbank’s interventions, and his seemingly infinitely long piece on gay marriage may present a good opportunity.

On one point, we agree: “In effect, if marriage is now understood as a lifelong sexual contract between any two adult human persons with no specification of gender, then the allowance of gay marriage renders all marriages ‘gay marriages.’” Yet the conclusion he draws from this is strange, involving an idiosyncratic definition of “clear-thinking”: “Given such a situation, were it not for the space afforded by canon law (namely, the possibility of church marriage) a resort to cohabitation – which has hitherto been understood as ‘common-law marriage’ – would be the only logical path for clear-thinking Christians.”

The questionability of the traditional family

It’s well-known that when you put people in a position of power over others, some of them will abuse that power. There are ways to try to minimize this effect, for instance by dividing power or multiplying means of supervision or surveillance — but there’s no way to avoid it entirely. If enough cops pull over enough people, odds are one of them is going to take advantage of someone sooner or later, no matter what evaluation or management procedures are in place. The same goes for every situation where there’s a power differential. You can hope that the people in power will be good and responsible, and you can do as much as possible to make sure that only good and responsible people are selected for the job or that the structure of the institution incentivizes good and responsible people — but at the end of the day, people are people, and abuse of power is all but inevitable.

With this knowledge in hand, the model of the patriarchal family makes absolutely no sense. Read the rest of this entry »

Gay marriage and birth control: Why not?

A question that is often asked of those who oppose gay marriage is, “Why do you care?” After all, no one is proposing making gay marriage mandatory. What your neighbors do in the privacy of their own bedroom should be their business, etc., etc.

All this is true. But what changes when gay marriage is allowed — or even when homosexuality becomes a publicly affirmable preference — is not what goes on in the privacy of their own bedroom. Homoerotic encounters have occurred in basically all known human cultures, and honest conservatives (starting with Plato) have acknowledged that this is more or less inevitable. What disturbs opponents of gay marriage isn’t so much the gay sex as the public acceptability of gay relationships.

Read the rest of this entry »


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