“Awkwardness as a Way of Life”: My lecture for the Architecture Department at UIC

Teaching music

I have frequently been called upon to teach the intro to fine arts course at Shimer College. It is a challenging course because it falls outside the “read books and talk about them” model that professors and students alike are most comfortable with. Talking about art and music in an intelligent and collaborative way requires a different set of skills than talking about texts, a problem that is compounded by the fact that many people believe those skills are an occult discipline that is unattainable by most — especially in the context of music, with its complex theoretical apparatus. In the worst case, you get some students making up narratives to go with a classical piece, other students (those with some musical performance training) trying unsuccessfully to explain basically what the sheet music probably looks like, and a critical mass sitting in sullen silence because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say.

My approach has been to sidestep the technical terminology to the extent possible and focus instead on giving them obvious things to listen for. Read the rest of this entry »

What I’m working on this semester

Having just finished a major project, this semester I’m using my writing time for smaller things. I’m working on expanding my theory on Coates and Augustine into a proper academic article, which I hope to be in a position to submit to a journal by the end of the month. I also have some revisions to do for an article comparing the concept of “canon” in scriptural traditions and in Star Trek.

Later in the semester, I’m going to be participating in a conference at Loyola University Chicago, where I’ll be giving a paper on Agamben and serving as a respondent for Thomas Altizer. For the former, I propose to flesh out a critique of The Kingdom and the Glory that I briefly lay out in The Prince of This World, and my intention is to write that up as a proper article and then condense it down for the conference.

I have also been working with Carlo Salzani on an edited volume centered on Agamben’s relationship to his sources. Over the course of last semester, we solidified our list of contributors, and now the proposal is under review — so I guess I’ll be “working on that” in the sense of “waiting to hear back.” Also Agamben-related: The Use of Bodies comes out in a few weeks, and at some point in April I should be doing a discussion session on it with Northwestern’s Paul of Tarsus Interdisciplinary Working Group. Watch this space for details.

And what, dear readers, are you working on this semester? (Thanks to Melanie Kampen for reminding me to include the discussion prompt.)

Deflating the Magical President Myth: Take 2 on Sanders vs. Clinton

You all have convinced me that my thought experiment yesterday was excessively pessimistic. It’s unlikely that Sanders could both win the nomination and enter office with the Democratic establishment seething with resentment against him (the role of the superdelegates alone ensures such an outcome is extremely improbable). Hence let’s say that the worst-case scenario of a Sanders presidency that turns into an utter fiasco is off the table.

Everyone seems to concede, however, that barring a massive change in the dynamics of Congressional races — a massive change that I actually think is more likely than conventional wisdom would grant — Sanders’ room for maneuver would be limited. His control of a crucial veto point would at least ensure that activists wouldn’t have to waste time rallying against obviously stupid stuff, and his ability to staff the executive branch could make a big difference (credit to Stephen Keating for both links). Nonetheless, the widely shared view even among Sanders supporters is that he cannot possibly fulfill his supporters’ most optimistic expectations.

And that may be a very good thing. What has made me hesitant on Sanders is my memory of Obama’s supposedly transformational mass-movement and its consequences. Yes, yes, this time we have a real progressive instead of a centrist with great rhetorical skills. And if we can finally, against all odds, get the Right Person into the most powerful office in the land, then that will definitively prove that the presidency is not enough. It will break the myth, which everyone on the left who has any investment in electoral politics keeps falling for again and again, of the Magical President.

I said in my last post that it would perhaps be better to concentrate on consolidating power at lower levels so that a progressive president could be most effective — an aspect of my argument that virtually everyone ignored, by the way — but not only is that not an either/or, it may be only a both/and. Only the disappointments and failures of the Right Person can open up the possibility that the movement will actually focus on building a broader power base instead of focusing exclusively on the presidential moon shot. By contrast, a Sanders loss leaves open the space of fantasy that electing the Right Person as president would have fixed everything….

Among all Democratic politicians, Sanders stands the best chance of creating this kind of mobilization as well. He’s not afraid to say that politics is about conflict and that there are real enemies who need to be defeated — hence he is more likely to blame Republicans rather than “Congress” and to forcefully make use of his guaranteed media access to help promote that end. By contrast, a defeated candidate would struggle to maintain anything like the national platform Sanders now has.

The presidency isn’t omnipotent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful, and as the commenter protoplasm elegantly argued, you learn to exercise power by actually exercising it. Sanders has proven effective in exercising power in the unfavorable circumstances of the Senate, so why not be optimistic that he would do his level best as president?

So there you have it: an opinion ventured, then changed through constructive dialogue. Remember this day, because it is the first and last time it will ever happen in our lifetimes.

A thought experiment on Clinton vs. Sanders

[Editor’s note: Comments have convinced me that this scenario is excessively pessimistic.]

Let’s grant from the outset that both Clinton and Sanders are “electable,” particularly against the crew of fools and mediocrities that the Republicans have to choose from. Let’s even further stipulate that either one of them would definitely win easily, to stay within my strictures against electability-based strategic voting. Finally, let’s assume that both of them maintain Obama’s modest progress on the environment, hence contributing to the literal survival of the human race. What does the situation look like the morning after?

On the one hand, you’d have the status quo. I see no evidence that Hillary Clinton would make things materially worse than they have been under Obama. She may be slightly more “hawkish,” but she’s also a craven opportunist — hence we’re not likely to get the Iraq War redux. On domestic policy, she’d probably continue to cut the same kind of discouraging deals with the Republicans, with the occasional micro-achievement to brag about.

What about the Sanders morning after? You would have a Democratic candidate who has never officially been a Democrat and has effectively run against his own party. His most significant policy proposal so far would be to undo the one major achievement of his predecessor and replace it with something totally different. Party leaders at every level have openly mocked this proposal, including the powerful House leader, Nancy Pelosi, whose political skills will be absolutely crucial to keeping the Democrats united and extracting concessions from the Republicans. Sanders’ most natural ally, Elizabeth Warren, has been unwilling to go so far as explicitly endorsing him.

It’s not unthinkable that the mainstream Democrats would support Sanders enough to avoid Trump, then hang him out to dry. They would be bad people for doing that, and in an ideal world, they would not be in a position to. Yet we have the system we have, and part of that system is that an effective president needs the support of his party. And if the Sanders revolution results in four years of government shutdowns, debt-ceiling scares, and recess appointments, will it have been worth the huge amount of money and energy it will take to grind out a victory against Clinton? For instance, that nurses’ union that gave a million dollars to Sanders — is that really the best use of their money when there’s so much organizing work to do?

And do we have any sense of how Sanders, who has been relatively sheltered as a popular small-state senator, would react to such sustained opposition, how he operates under conditions of brinkmanship? For instance, is it possible that he’d go along with a repeal of Obamacare in order to force the issue on single payer? I hope that’s a ridiculous suggestion, but jumping straight to single payer when there’s an obvious fix to Obamacare that could take us there — the apparently forgotten public option — is a strange tactic. Or could conservative Democrats join forces with the Republicans to create a veto-proof majority that would cut Sanders out of the equation altogether?

If we were voting for dictator, yes, I’d be 100% behind Sanders over Clinton. If Sanders is secretly plotting with sympathetic generals to suspend the Constitution and rule by decree, then this analysis obviously looks a lot different. But if he’s planning to operate within our baroque system of government and within the party system, I think there’s a serious risk that a desperate “Hail Mary” straight for the presidency could end up backfiring and discrediting his cause for a generation.

Could it perhaps better to spend a little more time in the wilderness, harnessing discontent at Clinton’s “not as bad as it could be but definitely not good enough” to continue building a movement that can actually exercise power?

This is all a thought experiment. It’s not an argument in favor of supporting Clinton — in fact, if I’m right, that will take care of itself. And it’s possible that the six-month-old pro-Sanders movement will turn out to be just the movement we need, though I have never seen an explanation of the mechanism that will turn mass mobilization into legislative success within the actual existing system. I certainly haven’t seen a roadmap to Democratic control of Congress, much less control by Democrats who would actually support Sanders’ agenda. I understand the appeal of the Sanders gesture, but it would take a huge amount of money and person-hours to make that gesture.

Why Binge-Watchable Serial Drama is Not a New Genre

In the Poetics, Aristotle devotes significant attention to two modes of storytelling: tragedy and epic. The former is a self-contained, naturally unfolding story, which Aristotle views as the best form of narrative art. He is so fascinated with tragedy, in fact, that he claims that epic is basically trying but failing to be what tragedy is — it wants to be telling such a taut, immersive story, but it gets distracted by a need to bulk out the text with inessential episodes.

In my view, Aristotle misconstrues what epic is trying to do. The episodes aren’t a distraction, they’re the whole point. The overarching story provides a narrative and thematic frame for the episodes, allowing multiple stories to come together into a larger, cohesive whole. The frame narrative is necessarily sparse and even boring, as Aristotle’s famous reductive summary of the Odyssey illustrates, but it’s necessary to keep the episodes from being purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments.

At its best, binge-watchable serial drama is trying to be an epic. Within each season, we have an overarching plot that makes room for several narratively and thematically related episodes. The story of Don Draper’s secret identity gives us a window into the worlds of Peggy and all the other beloved supporting cast, just as Tony Soprano’s quest to become the undisputed boss opens up a narrative world full of fascinating characters.

I’ve written before about Main Character Syndrome, the phenomenon of viewers becoming bored and even resentful of the main character of the framing narrative, and I believe that the fundamentally epic structure of binge-watchable serial drama explains why that is such a constant pitfall. It’s a difficult balance to keep the framing narrative thin enough to allow for rich episodic side-trips but compelling enough that you don’t get impatient with it. Arguably even Homer fails on this point — once it comes time to settle accounts with the primary story of Odysseus coming home to claim what’s his (the beginning of book 13), it feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room.

The balance is easier to strike within a single season, as the Mad Men and Sopranos examples make clear. As the narrative is indefinitely extended, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain tension and interest in the framing device, and the whole enterprise threatens to devolve into a soap opera — a sequence of purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments. Even in the best case, each season must perform a “retcon” to reopen the completed stories of the previous seasons and make the new larger whole feel cohesive. In my opinion, Mad Men was more successful at this than The Sopranos, but the seams are always going to show to some extent. Again, we could see Homer as falling victim to this same problem with his attempt at a sequel to the Iliad — a problem that becomes all the more difficult when Virgil steps in as the show-runner for the third season.

In short, then, binge-watchable serial drama is not a new narrative genre. When it’s done well, it’s epic, and when it’s done poorly, it’s a soap opera. An epic show may devolve into a soap opera, and I suppose it’s conceivable that a formless soap opera could really get its act together and pull off an epic season. I can’t think of an example of the latter, though the former is well-attested.

What’s increasingly getting lost, however, is the art of the self-contained episode — all the moreso now that movies are trying to reinvent the wheel of serialized TV drama instead of sticking to their more natural competency of self-contained stories that at their best reach the coherence and dramatic tension of tragedy.

Against strategic primary voting

I’ll vote for literally any Democrat in the general election, up to and including Satan himself or even Rahm Emanuel. But I just don’t see the benefit of “strategically” voting for a candidate I disagree with in the primary, due to some belief in “electability.” That is a purely speculative property. I don’t have the information necessary to decide that, and maybe no one does. Barack Obama sure seemed unelectable for a lot of common-sense reasons, but lo and behold, he actually got elected.

In any case I don’t trust the people who are trying to convince me of their personal theories of “electability.” Too much American political discourse takes place in those weird speculative meta-levels, where we’re supposed to choose the person we think other people will choose, or the person who will protect us from someone else. Every living American adult should be aware of the blackmail involved in the latter — and should be familiar with the disappointing results. Saving us from the worst looks an awful lot like the worst itself sometimes.

And again, we do not and cannot know for sure whether someone will actually win the election or protect us against the worst. What we do know for sure is each candidate’s policy proposals, and I think we should vote based on what we know instead of on our hunches about what other people (whose political preferences we don’t share or really understand) will think about the candidate at some future date.

The presidential candidate isn’t just a presidential candidate — they’re the leader of the party, who sets the agenda. Voting in the primary means voting on the direction of the party. If the Democratic Party is going to ask our opinion on that, we should give it to them sincerely, instead of psyching ourselves out through some ill-conceived 11-dimensional chess.

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