The Work of Reading in the Age of Technological Distractability

Corey Robin confesses that he rides the subway for hours in order to be able to focus on reading. I have to confess that I once tried it, getting on a Brown Line train in Chicago that would take me around the Loop and back home again with no effort on my part — and it didn’t work. I couldn’t focus. I learned then that what made me so much better at reading on public transit was the fact that I was “redeeming” time that would otherwise be wasted.

Over the years, another trend has emerged in my train reading: there are certain types of texts that I can seemingly only read on public transit. Secondary sources, course texts that I’m not excited about, articles I’ve agreed to review — anything that I have difficulty motivating myself to read, I can nonetheless get myself to read if I take advantage of the “redeeming time” effect on public transit.

This is all well and good during the school year, when I have long commutes most days. During the summer, however, it begins to present problems. I travel much less frequently, and in any case, whether I’m working on writing or translating, I very strongly prefer to work at home — I’m not sure if I’ve ever written a usable word in a coffee shop. Sometimes I try going to a public place to read in order to take advantage of the ambient “social pressure” to look busy. There’s only so much coffee I can reasonably drink in a day, though, so I often prefer to go to a bar instead. This strategy obviously has its own potential downsides, but there are also times when the presence of someone who seems to want to talk to me can produce remarkable focus and discipline.

I’m not sure that the presence of the internet is the decisive factor in my difficulty with reading. If I’m reading something really compelling, I don’t really care who’s criticizing me on Twitter. In fact, sometimes it seems like the problem is that I take too much trouble to separate myself from the internet. Often when I’m reading at home, I go to the living room, which is at the whole other end of the house from the office where my computer is. If I get the urge to “check,” I have to get up and go to the office, and there’s always the danger that I’ll find a half hour has passed.

If I just let myself check my phone to confirm that nothing was really demanding my attention, maybe I’d be better able to focus — in fact, maybe I’d be able to simulate the ambient distraction of public transit, where I can always look up from my book and see who got on the train, or which stop we’re at, or who just started yelling. In short, perhaps my problem with reading isn’t distraction as such, but putting excessive pressure on myself to focus.

But in any case, I don’t read as much as I’d like, and I’m sure none of us do. Or do you? What do you think, dear reader?

Maimonides and Dawkins

I’m currently working through a bunch of Maimonides’ texts for a paper that I’m writing and have been reminded how brilliant he is when taking shots at his opponents. In “Helek: Sanhedrin, Chapter Ten” he lists three possible ways of reading aggadah, and I couldn’t help but procrastinate make contemporary comparisons.

Maimonides first names those that attempt to follow the teachings of the sages literally. “They believe that all sorts of impossible things must be. … The members of this group are poor in knowledge. One can only regret their folly.” Though they are no doubt reading wrongly and “humiliate” the sages, it’s hard to blame the masses too much–hard unless you’re a preacher, whom apparently he could not stand. Preachers, he says, should just admit that they don’t understand much. My teen years spent sleeping through church feel vindicated, as apparently preachers have been annoying for at least 800 years.


RAMBAM looking pensive

However, the real jabs come for the second group. There is a group that is so stupid that they think that the sages should be read literally and therefore dismissed. Really, the audacity of these people: “They imagine that their own intelligence is of a higher order than that of the sages, and that the sages were simpletons who suffered from inferior intelligence. The members of this group are so pretentiously stupid that they can never attain genuine wisdom. … They regard themselves as cultivated men, scientists, critics, and philosophers. They are more stupid than the first group; many of them are simply fools. … If these fools had worked at science hard enough to know how to write accurately about theology for the masses and for the educated, the real meaning of [the sages] would be clear to them.”

Obviously, Dawkins, et al came to mind here: “philosophers” who, thinking they are so obviously smarter than thinkers of the past simply because they were born later,  end up sounding like fools. Thankfully, Maimonides has some advice for people like this: “when, in some of your hours of leisure, you leave off drinking and copulating–collect yourself and reflect, for things are not as you thought following the first notion that occurred to you.” Hmm. About that…

Living in the prequel

Over the last year, The Girlfriend and I invested a truly appalling amount of time in a full viewing of all the contemporary Star Trek series (Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise). Neither of us regard the JJ Abrams films as canon, and so for us, the Star Trek franchise effectively ended with a prequel — and since completing it, I’ve become strangely fascinated with the idea of living out a prequel. Partly this stems from my general habit of over-enthusiastically identifying patterns (an inheritance from my conspiracy theorist grandfather and right-wing radio fan father, presumably), and yet there is a sense that a certain phase of my life is ending over the next couple years: The Girlfriend will finish grad school, I will complete my biggest evaluation at Shimer, and I will hopefully be wrapping up major projects that have defined my life since I finished my PhD (finally doing the devil book, completing the pop culture trilogy with Creepiness, translating the last volume of Agamben’s Homo Sacer series). It’s somehow more aesthetically pleasing if this unit of time announces itself as a unit in superfluous, purely formal ways, echoing back to various beginnings.

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Unpacking my school bag: An open thread

My school bag always contains the following items:

  • Two pens
  • A Moleskine notebook
  • A folder which itself contains the following:
    • Instructions for signing onto the wi-fi at the University of Chicago library
    • A periodic table
    • Syllabi for current classes (if applicable)
  • An umbrella
  • A canvas shopping bag
  • A durable plastic shopping bag (in case I need to carry something wet, I guess)
  • A phone charger (combination USB and wall plug)
  • Headphones
  • Ear plugs
  • A miniature tape measure
  • A glasses repair kit
  • Business cards
  • A magnetic Shimer nametag
  • A conference name-tag lanyard (clip-style, not necklace-style)
  • A toothbrush (but curiously no toothpaste)
  • Dental floss (currently two miniature containers)
  • Emergency back-up chapstick

I think it’s safe to say that I always leave the house prepared for a wide range of contingencies. How about you, readers? What do you carry around in your school bag?

Time travel plots: With particular reference to Star Trek

Time-travel plots seem to fall into two broad categories. The first is a variation on Greek tragedy, where the very attempt to change past events actually itself causes what it was meant to prevent. (I like to tell my students that Oedipus Rex is actually the first time-travel plot.) The second is not so fatalistic — it turns out that you really can change the past, but normally the way the plot works out is that everyone decides that the best thing is to try to change things back the way they were. (The movie Primer is a bit of an outlier, but I think that it basically falls into the second category, insofar as it’s a cautionary tale about unintended consequences and hence implies that simply leaving well enough alone would have been preferable.)

In the latter kind of plot, the writers have to face a metaphysical decision, namely, whether the time-travellers retain a kind of “pointer” back to their original timeline. If they do, you can see phenomenon like the character starting to “fade out” as the odds of their ultimate existence decrease (perhaps most famously in Back to the Future). If they don’t, then they simply exist in their new time-position alongside everything else, and so there is less room for paradoxes like changing the timeline so that you never actually went back in time in the first place, etc.

This brings us to Star Trek. Generally speaking, it seems that the approach to time travel across the franchise has been in the second category on both counts — you really can change the timeline (though you shouldn’t), and you simply exist in your new time-position without any kind of “pointer” to where you came from. They also take a kind of Hegelian approach to the issue, focusing solely on world-historical events. There is no “butterfly effect” problem to deal with — as long as the broad outlines of past history go the right way, history turns out like it should. You can see this on several Deep Space Nine episodes, such as the one where Sisko stands in for the peaceful protestor who changed everyone’s perceptions of the internment camps for the unemployed and the one where they go back to the Tribble episode of the original series.

And yet sometimes they break these implicit rules, as in the episode where the DS9 crew encounter a human colony made up of their own descendants and face the choice of whether to duplicate the accident that sent them 200 years into the past — or else their descendants wouldn’t exist! As far as I can tell, this isn’t how it should have worked. The versions of themselves who travelled back in time simply existed in that timeline, and they don’t “need” their later counterparts to travel back again.

Of course, I may be attributing too much coherence to their approach to time travel given how massively nonsensical the Next Generation series finale was.

What about you, readers? What do you think about time-travel plots?

How I spent my summer vacation

My summer came to an abrupt end on Monday, when Shimer College held its annual all-staff meeting — which was followed by two days of faculty meetings. In this brief window before classes start up next week, it seemed appropriate to reflect on this past summer, which was one of the most intellectually fruitful of my life. The main feature was a faculty seminar at the University of Chicago, hosted by Eric Santner under the auspices of DAAD. I spent the weeks leading up to it reading a huge amount of Marx and Freud in German, and the Freud reading continued, to the point where it took on nearly addictive qualities.

The seminar was very fruitful in a lot of ways — getting to see how a senior scholar thinks through his next writing project, seeing what my peers were working on, getting to present my work to a diverse interdisciplinary audience — but for me the biggest benefit by far was being induced to carry out a sustained, intensive study of Freud. This in turn proved surprisingly helpful for formulating my devil project, as well as the final volume of my pop culture trilogy, Creepiness. In the weeks after the seminar, I wrote a draft introduction for both projects. Both will require significant revision, but it felt amazing to get a concrete start on both after talking about them for such a long time. I hope to be able to finish Creepiness over the course of the school year and write at least one further chapter of the devil book to set myself up for next summer.

Two other notable achievements: I rewatched all of Mad Men (including the most recent season) and I finally bought a much-needed bookshelf and imposed some kind of order on my books for the first time in over three years. We also took a trip to St. Louis, where we thoroughly explored the City Museum with all the gusto of young children — and all the muscle soreness of old people.

Now I’m finishing up on my preparations for my long-planned elective on Heidegger’s Being and Time (PDF syllabus) and for Humanities 1: Art and Music (PDF syllabus). I plan to put my newly refurbished German skills to use reading Sein und Zeit alongsideside my course and to use Hum 1 as a pretext to make more visits to the Art Institute, the symphony, and the opera.

What about you, dear readers? How did you spend your summer vacations?

My ridiculous project

For the last five years or so, I have had an ongoing project of trying to visit as many stops on the Chicago “L” system as possible. I have developed a series of rules for myself in this regard:

  • Sincere usage: I cannot go to the stop simply for the sake of checking it off my list — there must be a good-faith destination for my trip.
  • Transfers count: As long as it’s part of a good-faith trip, getting on or off at a certain stop always “counts” (whether the stop is my final desination or I’m transfering from a bus or a train).
  • Stations, not lines: There is no need to attempt to arrive at each station via all the lines that serve that station (a requirement would make completion on the Loop Elevated all but impossible).

This evening, I reached a major milestone: completion of the Purple Line. I had despaired of ever getting “sincere usage” of the South Blvd. stop, which serves a primarily residential area — but then it turned out that the Dean of Shimer College, who had a get-together for faculty this evening, lives two blocks from the stop. Here is a map documenting my progress as of tonight (black dots indicate stations I’ve visited):
My greatest achievement in this project thus far, which is unlikely ever to be equaled, came in connection with the recently-opened Morgan stop on the Green and Pink Lines, serving the West Loop. The Girlfriend texted me one day asking if I wanted to meet at a restaurant in the West Loop, and I agreed — and when I checked to see if the Morgan stop would be available, it turned out to be the very day it opened. “Sincere usage” on day one!

If anyone has suggestions for plausible destinations at stops I have not yet used, I’m all ears. I’m particularly curious about Racine and Addison on the Blue Line, which seem to be my most notable gaps within the regions I’ve achieved good coverage in.

My grading lexicon

Over the years, I’ve developed a kind of personal jargon for grading papers. They are little metaphors or turns of phrase that I use in an attempt to get at common failings of student writing in an economical and somewhat humorous way — not to make fun of them, but hopefully to get their attention more effectively. Here are three of the main ones:

  • Paper in search of a thesis — this describes a paper that starts with a vague or tautologous thesis (e.g., “the authors are similar in some ways, but there are also important differences”) and only comes to a more concrete position in the conclusion, after working through the material. While an inductive approach has its virtues, it seems to me that this type of paper is a second-to-last draft handed in as a final draft — once they’ve found their thesis, they need to put it at the beginning and then focus their exposition on it.
  • The silo effect — this is a typical feature of a “paper in search of a thesis.” It describes a tendency in comparison-contrast papers for students to summarize one topic, then summarize the other, without any immediately apparent connection between the two (e.g., each exposition has a parallel structure, each refers to the other).
  • The “and another thing!” style of organization — papers suffering from this affliction have no real flow or overall organizational scheme, abruptly moving from one topic to the next. Often the word “another” will literally be present in most or all of their transitions. While it can’t always be avoided, a transition that can do no better than “another” in order to make a connection is basically an open seam.

How about you, dear readers? Do you have any similar shorthand phrases for common pitfalls?

The time that remains

I realized early this summer that the end of this calendar year would represent a major clearing of the decks in terms of my academic obligations. Some of the finishing touches of my translations may filter into early January, but those are basically done, and I also had to work a couple articles and a conference paper into the mix. At this point, I only really have two near-term writing obligations left for this year, and I thought you, my readers, might be amused by them:

  • An article for Speculations on Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology (the topic was open, and I am planning on focusing on the effects of the movements’ blog-based natures on their reception — arguably marking my first foray into “digital humanities”)
  • An entry on Milbank for the forthcoming Zizek Dictionary

I can think of no better way to round out the year.

Posted in academia, The lighter side of AUFS. Comments Off

Always the low price. Always.

In the midst of one of my Twitter rants, it occurred to me that the Walmart slogan is actually really menacing, and I proposed that someone should find disturbing images and label them, “Always the low price. Always.” Since I’m procrastinating on revising an article today, I thought that someone should be me, at least at first. I encourage all of you to make your own and share them!

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