White men of the left, unite!

As a white man of the left, I have observed mixed reactions to members of my tribe among subaltern groups. On the one hand, they are often appreciative, at least in principle, of white male allies and very willing to engage with them. On the other hand, white men’s participation in left-wing causes is often found to be problematic in a variety of ways, often having to do with the ongoing effects of white male privilege. There is a tendency to want to be in charge, to pose as the neutral arbiter, etc., and many white men of the left are characterized by a prickly defensiveness when critiqued by members of subaltern groups.

At this point, I feel constrained to issue a disclaimer: I have been guilty of all of these negative behaviors, and though I hope I have gotten past some of these issues, I’m sure I have fallen and will fall into my old white male ways periodically. I do not believe that any of the behaviors I am discussing are inherent to white men or incapable of being changed — hence this post does not necessarily represent a performative contradiction, etc., etc. White male defensiveness is such that this disclaimer will probably be found to be inadequate, but I have to try, for the sake of my own sanity.

To resume: I think we should be good materialists about this and ask, “Why would a white man, qua white man, affiliate with the left?” I understand immediately why a woman who is conscious of her situation in a patriarchal society would be drawn to the political left. Similarly, it is utterly clear to me why a black person would have left-wing political convictions. The same goes for sexual minorities and, well, everyone in our racist, patriarchal society — except for one group: white men. Here I don’t mean to deny that white men may also belong to other subaltern groups, such as the working class. Yet the white male leftists I’m thinking of are normally not current members of the working class (even if, like me, they come from a working class background), but have at least some form of cultural capital if not monetary capital. Why not be reasonable pragmatic centrists?

I think there are two factors at work here. The first is that such men are typically going to be those who are uncomfortable with typical modalities of white male privilege and/or those who have been unsuccessful in their attempts to participate in that regime. They may lack the peculiar social graces necessary for glad-handing and back-scratching. They may be very uncomfortable in all-male environments, or have a temperament incompatible with callous disregard for one’s inferiors. Hence another route to feelings of belonging and purpose becomes appealling — particularly one that can take feelings of isolation and marginalization and transform it into a defiant opposition to the status quo. This likely accounts for the extreme defensiveness of many white male leftists when they believe their leftist bona fides are in question, because their sense of belonging and purpose are in question along with their leftist identity.

None of this is to say that the convictions of leftist white men are less sincere simply because they are also getting some form of emotional compensation and social prestige from their affiliation. Active participation in a social movement should provide emotional satisfactions in the present as well as promises for the future. Further, I count myself as falling into this category. Due to accidents of my temperament and a childhood surrounded constantly by strong women and submissive men, I simply am not good at male bonding, for example.

The second factor is perhaps less flattering. I suspect that for many white male leftists, part of the appeal of leftist ideology is an affinity for conspiratorial thinking. I’ve written previously about the appeal of libertarianism for intellectually curious young white men, who thrill to the prospect of belonging to an intellectual elite that recognizes the simple but essential truths everyone else rejects. From that perspective, many versions of Marxism — especially the class-first, class-only variant so strongly favored by white male leftists — are a perfect fit. The romance of the lost cause surely factors in here as well.

Once again, I have to plead guilty here. Conspiracy theories seem to be in my genes, as my grandfather once took me aside to tell me about the Federal Reserve’s role in the Oklahoma City bombing and my father has been seduced by the siren-song of right-wing radio. In the link above, I confess that I bought into something similar for a time. Now, of course, I’ve figured out the correct conspiracy theory — but I can’t pretend the intellectual itch that’s being scratched isn’t fundamentally similar.

These two factors are complimentary. Both show us that our patriarchal, racist society isn’t even working for all white men. The first shows that it’s failing to provide social and emotional satisfactions, and the second that it’s failing to provide intellectual satisfaction. Neither point is especially flattering, and I anticipate some people will be really pissed off at me for writing this. But the very fact that these factors drawing one to the left are closely associated with adolescent immaturity indicate that it’s possible to grow out of them — and many white men manage to do so. It’s possible to learn that solidarity and belonging actually requires openness to criticism or else it’s too rigid and fragile. It’s possible to give up the insistence on simplistic answers by taking seriously what other subaltern groups say about their experience and being open to things like intersectionality.

In short, it’s possible to grow up — and I would even go so far as to say that only by taking the left-wing route of genuine solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed can a white man find anything like an adulthood worthy of the name.

Sayyid in the SCTIW

Our event on S. Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate is kicking off on Friday and readers interested in an appetizer can find his review of Cotton, Climate, and Camels over at SCTIW. A small sample:

The same conflict between ideology and knowledge can be seen in the so-called culture wars in US academies. The significance of these campus culture wars is more than just an account of a bloodless game of thrones that characterizes academic careers (who is promoted, who has been tenured, who blocked who, etc.), for the battle lines are drawn between those who want to promote the idea of a self-contained Western canon and those who want to decolonize it. Those who want to imagine something that transcends the Western order of things are very often admonished not to worry about the color of cats but to focus on catching mice. In other words, an “ideological” critique is invalid and the academic should undertake research and teaching that adheres to the old verities and virtues of academia, that is, disinterested pure knowledge easily accessible and unencumbered by obtuse postcolonial or postmodern thought, the assumption being that academic knowledge, done properly, would be an uninterrupted tale of a world that goes from Plato-to-NATO.

Find the rest here, and tune in this Friday for more disruption of the Plato-to-NATO pipeline.

Help me with a course on Medieval Europe

Next year I’ll be co-teaching a module on ‘The Making of Modern Christianity: Medieval and Reformation Europe.’ I’ll be taking the medieval section of the module (I can’t tell you how glad I am not to have to teach Luther). I want to use the module to look at a number of important themes from that period: changing forms of empire; the emergence of race; the role of Islam and Judaism in forming European Christian identity; transformations around gender, sexuality and the body; struggles for control over knowledge, power and property that made possible the later emergence of industrialisation, colonialism, and capitalism; and, crucially, the role of Christianity in all of the above. I’m trying to figure out how best to do that around some of the key events of the period: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the trials of witches and heretics, the emergence of monasticism and then the universities, the Investiture Controversy, popular piety including pilgrimages, cults of the saints and relics, that kind of thing.

So, help me out! What has gone well or badly when you’ve taught in this area before? Which primary texts are great for reading with small groups and which are horrible? What are the best and most interesting books on the period (500-1500ish)? I’d especially appreciate recommendations of primary or secondary texts that are written by people of colour, texts on the relationship between Christianity, Islam and Judaism in that period, interesting accounts of the role of the emerging university and any discussions of ideas of empire in the Middle Ages written with an eye to the development of European colonialism.

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A Few Thoughts on Discipline and Punishment in the Classroom

With the end of the Spring semester just a few weeks ago I have finished three years of teaching at my current institution. During our third year here we have to finish a third-year pre-tenure review, which I found to be as unenjoyable an experience as you might imagine by that name. While I found some of the process confusing and ultimately unmoored, that doesn’t appear to be an indictment of my institution in particular and seems to be the norm generally for these sorts of bureaucratic exercises. Really though I suspect the impetus behind these reviews comes from a good place and I was encouraged by some of my colleagues to approach it as a moment of self-reflection. Some of that should be a way to acknowledge for yourself the good things you’ve done over the course of the three years, but it also offers a place to consider weaknesses to work on in the coming years. I’m sure that all of this is not unproblematic and there are nefarious neoliberal tropes underlying all of it, but I am also very committed to becoming a better teacher and found this a good way to make use of the required bureaucratic exercise. One thing became clear to me as I read over my students evaluations and those of my more established peers: I am not a very good disciplinarian in the classroom and more importantly I do not know how to work on that within the pedagogical framework I have tried to construct.

First, I hate nothing more than begging. Those who have in the past contributed to online fundraising efforts may find that surprising, but by begging I don’t mean virtual panhandling. Asking for money from people willing and able to give is simply asking. They don’t have to and I do not hold it against them if they feel their money is better spent on other things. Begging in the sense I mean it can only take place within a situation that is effectively governed by a contract where one of the parties only carries out their obligations because they are required to. I mostly teach courses that students take to complete their general education requirements and while they have signed up to a liberal arts education most students resent what is required of them to attain a liberal arts education. When I first began to teach in the US I did find myself wanting the students to like the classes and it felt like I was begging them to. I got over that pretty quickly as it just feels pathetic and embarrassing. But I didn’t give up because I trusted in the contract, I gave up because I saw the (not very good) Hannah Arendt biopic and realized how many of the students I come across could easily become camp guards (or may become part of the prison-industrial complex) after graduation. I began to read a lot in critical pedagogy (mostly works by Friere, bell hooks, and George Yancy). And that work has been really useful and I’ve come to be very happy with the direction of my teaching. But when it comes to dealing with issues of discipline and punishment in the classroom I’m a bit lost. In fact, when I take punitive measures against my students for using their cell phones in class or not attending or even doing something really stupid and unambiguous like plagiarizing I feel like I am back in that position of begging them. It feels like I’m begging them to care about the work, to care about the class, to care about becoming a more interesting person, to care about what’s being said in class even when it’s the boring but necessary parts.

The thing is, when students aren’t interested in taking responsibility for their education then it isn’t clear to me what the response should be from the perspective of critical pedagogy. What kind of ways can we think about accountability without lapsing into punitive thinking? Is the classroom an appropriate space to think through these sorts of prefigurative ideas? Or is the classroom too overcoded by the same carceral logic as the wider society? These kinds of questions are even more pressing for me because of how many first-generation college students I have in my classrooms and many more who are products of a society that has not prepared them for the kind of work that I ask them to do.

“Oh my God, you HAVE to watch that!”

It’s impossible to mention The Wire to someone who hasn’t seen it without them bristling about how everyone says they have to watch The Wire. There’s a similar defensiveness around Mad Men, as people seem to think that if they disagree about the quality of the show, they are subject to social sanction.

I don’t doubt that such things occur. At the same time, the dynamic reminds me of omnivores who constantly rail against the self-righteousness of vegetarians and vegans, who are constantly trying to shove their ideology down the omnivore’s throat, etc. I will admit that I have indulged in such rhetoric before, and I was stopped short when a vegetarian asked me: “When has that actually happened?” I had to admit that proselytizing meat-shunners are indeed rare, to say the least. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually met one. No vegetarian has even told me, other than in internet arguments, that I should adopt their dietary preferences. I’ve dated and lived with vegetarians and been free to carry on my meat-eating ways without interference in all cases.

So where does the perception come from? My theory is that meat-eaters systematically exaggerate expressions of vegetarianism or veganism into moral accusations against those who follow other dietary regimes. Simply stating that they do not eat a certain thing sounds like a judgment on those who do. Again, such accusations are vanishingly rare in my experience — most non-meat-eaters go out of their way to draw as little attention to that fact during an actual meal as they possibly can, precisely because they are human beings who understand basic courtesy, etc.

I suspect that a related form of defensive anxiety is going on with the perceived oppressiveness of demands that one watch The Wire or effusive praise of Mad Men. In reality, saying “you must watch this” is an expression of enthusiasm rather than a literal demand. I suspect that the defensiveness around The Wire centers specifically around race — people worry that they will be perceived as racist if they don’t want to watch a show with a majority-black cast.

I don’t really have a theory for Mad Men, but I want this to be a safe space. So I’ll say this: I like Mad Men a lot. I think it does interesting things formally and aesthetically, things I’ve never seen in television before and doubt I’ll see again. But I understand that it’s not for everyone. It’s slow, it’s set in an off-putting milieu, and it often seems to withold the typical satisfactions of television on principle. It’s okay not to like it. It also might not be a form of speaking the truth to power to point out that while all those sheep love it, you never got into it.

Totally called it

In my forthcoming book on Agamben co-authored with Colby Dickinson, I include an essay that indirectly discusses The Use of Bodies, arguing that rereading The Time That Remains in light of the entire extant Homo Sacer series could be a good substitute for the book itself while everyone waits for me to finish translating it.

At the time I wrote that essay, and at the time that I compiled the collection with Colby, the actual epilogue to The Use of Bodies had not been finalized. Now that I’m translating the last few pages of the final text, I feel compelled to declare: I totally called it. Mere pages from the end, Agamben recapitulates his arguments from The Time That Remains about inoperativity and the “as not.” In fact, at the risk of overdoing it, it is arguably the most extended discussion of any single thinker in the epilogue — even the segment on Benjamin is shorter.

Creepiness in Star Trek

As a kind of coda to Creepiness, I have published a guide to creepiness in Star Trek at the Daystrom Institute. Drawing on an extensive comment thread on the topic, it includes obvious choices like Barclay or Neelix, as well as many others. But surely we missed some, to whose special creepiness you can pay tribute here.


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