The last day of summer vacation

Tomorrow I have my first faculty meeting of the fall semester, making this the final day of summer vacation. Aside from a certain Unfortunate Incident involving unwanted online attention, it was a good one. It was obviously dominated by my work on The Prince of This World, the full manuscript of which is now under review. Finishing it was a big milestone in my life, but it was more than just checking something off a list — I enjoyed the work. And given that I had enough time to pace myself appropriately (3-4 hours of concentrated writing a day, max), it also provided a steady background for a very “civilized” lifestyle. I struck a good balance between semi-random reading and getting my sci-fi fix (I’m about halfway through Babylon 5 currently), for instance. Though we didn’t take any major vacations, we took advantage of The Girlfriend’s unexpected car ownership (the last vestige of the Minneapolis episode) to take a weekend trip to Milwaukee and several day trips for outdoor activities and/or visits to various brewpubs.

I also worked on piano in a more sustained and focused way than I have in many years. Yesterday I had a major breakthrough on my Schubert piano sonata, finally getting the most intricate new material to an acceptable level and playing through the whole first movement in one go. Much of what I have left to learn is a repetition of previous material in a different key with small variations, and it was gratifying to be able to sight-read passages that had taken weeks of hard labor on their first incarnation. It felt good to work on something that was purely an end in itself, with no greater purpose or goal.

At the same time, I did check plenty of things off the list. With my big translation submitted and the book under review, my decks are cleared in a pretty radical way. And over the last couple weeks, as a kind of cool-down exercise, I wrote an article on Star Trek that is quite literally the last piece of writing I’ve promised to anyone. My “writing” time for the next few months will therefore be dominated by responding to reader reports, answering copy-editing queries, and correcting proofs — a suitable accompaniment to my labor as a mid-level functionary at Shimer. In so many ways, becoming Associate Dean this year marks the end of a long class-aspirational journey for me: I’ve emerged from a working class background to become middle management. And as an added bonus, I am now, for the first time ever, a member ex officio of a committee. Oh, the policies I’ll draft! The data I’ll analyze! The resolutions I’ll propose!

Progress report

This is the first summer I’ve had in a long time that didn’t feel like a state of emergency in some way — both financially and in terms of my self-imposed academic work. I’ve submitted my translation of The Use of Bodies to Stanford and got some very positive feedback from Agamben. This provided a boost to my liquidity as well as my ego, and in general it cleared the decks of a project that I had been expecting to take up much of the summer.

As for the devil book, I’m also ahead of schedule on that, and I now expect to have a full manuscript ready before the fall semester begins. It’s perhaps not surprising that it should be going fast, given that I’ve written, lectured, and taught over most of the material multiple times over the last several years. What has shocked me is how weirdly leisurely the process feels. I spend 3-4 hours writing or revising most days, and it is steadily coming together. Some days I even feel like I haven’t done much, but then I think, “Oh right, I wrote that section.” The whole atmosphere seems very out of keeping with the objective importance of the project.

All of this makes me glad that I didn’t wind up taking a leave for the fall, because I don’t think I could have made very good use of the time. Even assuming I went slower on the book, I’m not sure I would have been able to keep up the momentum necessary to get started on a whole new project. As it stands, I’m looking forward to focusing on teaching and on my new administrative role as associate dean next semester, without taking on any major new research or translation work. I may go to AAR, but I definitely won’t be presenting.

Overall, I’m a little creeped out by how calm and settled I feel. But not so creeped out that I’m not enjoying it.

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

Regimes of feline visibility

Foucauldian cat

For a long time, we have been accustomed to talk about cats. They wander the streets, they live in our homes, and they populate the internet in the form of images and videos. While the latter is admittedly a new phenomenon, it does nothing to shake our firm opinion that cats have existed from time immemorial.

In reality, the cat is a recent invention, which only came into existence within the last two decades. This is not to say that animals with certain identifiable anatomical and physiological features did not exist prior to the late 1990s. Doubtless, people kept these creatures as pets, employed them to hunt mice, left food out for them. Yet what we know today as cat is an unheard-of innovation, which has shaken the entire Western episteme to its core.

The cat’s genealogy is not to be traced through the familiar apparatus of the zoological chart, which would place the feline genus among the mammals. Instead, we must turn to the series of shifts in the technological field that, while small in themselves, converged to create an entirely new regime of feline visibility — an epochal shift that would bring these private household animals into the public sphere for the first time, constituting a radical new concept of cat within whose horizon we still in some way live.

I am speaking, of course, of the deployment of the camera phone. What must be called the camerafication of the cell phone was at first doubtless a marketing gimmick, an attempt to distinguish certain phones from others by providing a differentiating feature that was meaningless and even useless in itself. Who, after all, had any need of a camera on a day-to-day basis? We ask this in all innocence, as though the camera was a familiar tool. We behave as though we can trace a steady development of the camera from its earliest “precursors” over a century ago, through to the handheld model, the Polaroid, the disposable camera, and its digital model. What we are accustomed to view as a gradual accretion of “features” and “capabilities” on a tool whose concept and nature remain constant, is in actuality a history of ruptures, breaks, disruptions, unexpected redeployments — of which what we could also call the phonification of the camera is only the latest and surely not the last.

It would require a quasi-infinite investigation to detail all the many shifts in the history of that related but not identical technology that we call the “picture” — all the discourses surrounding the distribution and visibility of pictures, the power-knowledge that invests their production and dissemination in the form of family albums, newspapers, old shoeboxes, bulletin boards, magazines, and all the other apparatuses that provide us with access to what we know as “pictures.” The decisive step in our genealogy of the “cat” is the deployment of “sharing” in the digital realm.

With the advent of “photo sharing services,” wholly new forms of display opened up, entire regimes of the ocular. And what did we share but our very cats. Those animals that had once been a byword for isolation — and here one would need to trace the vast and complex history of the deployment of the “cat lady” in the field of discourse — were now sharability itself. The cat as we know it was born.

We are the first generation to castigate ourselves for taking so many photos of our cats. The appeal of the figure of the “cat” is seemingly irresistible even as it seems trivial or even risible. The cat is put forward as our savior from boredom — at work, during lectures, on the subway — when in reality the entire technology of the cat is a deployment and production of boredom. And even when we finish reading this blog post, it is likely that we will turn to yet more pictures of “cats.”

Moving furniture

When I was growing up, my mom ran a furniture and decorating store with my aunt and grandma, and all three homes became showrooms in themselves. There was naturally a much more frequent churn of furniture in my house than in the average household, and my mom was continually trying to think of new arrangements. As my sister and I got older, we were consulted about the arrangement in our own bedroom, but by that point both of us were too used to continual change to really resist the process altogether.

I carried the habit with me to college, rearranging my dorm room every few weeks (and initially keeping up the weekly thorough cleaning schedule that had been forcibly inculcated into me as well). I was thwarted in sophomore year, when the dorm rooms had built-in furniture that offered no flexibility, but they introduced restackable furniture my junior year, opening up bold new possibilities.

As I’ve grown older, it seems like less flexible arrangements have been the norm. My office at work is shared, and I’ve tried both of the plausible arrangements and determined that only one of them really works. At home, Chicago apartments tend to be very long and narrow, limiting the number of feasible options. My current apartment has been basically the same arrangement for an unprecedented three years…

Until now! The Girlfriend’s now-averted move to Minneapolis has led to the purchase of new furniture that we need to either incorporate or switch out. More tanatlizingly, one of her coworkers is moving and has offered us up to five new bookshelves, offering us the possibility of expanding book storage space while also getting rid of The Girlfriend’s big IKEA bookshelf (a white monstrosity made up of little square cubbies instead of proper shelves), a goal I have long treasured in my heart.

The prospect I find most appealing is the conversion of the dining room — often a more or less wasted space in a Chicago-style apartment — into a library. For the first time in my life, all my books could be in the same room, allowing me to take them in at a glance. This has naturally led to thoughts of a re-sort that would render a logical arrangement immediately legible — even though past experience tells me that that way lies madness.

A conundrum that occurs to me even now is what to do with my class books, which are currently all at school and which form their own category based on my use of them even as they obviously belong to a range of categories in themselves. Do I bring them home to most fully actualize my goal of taking in my full library at a glance? Do they properly belong to “my library” at all? Wheels within wheels….

What about you, dear readers? How do you organize your books, your living space, your working space (the latter two tending to overlap heavily for most academics)?

The autoimmunity of planning

I am a very routine-oriented person whom life rarely allows to fall into a stable routine. I compensate for this by planning. Planning is central to my strategy for overcoming my travel anxiety, for instance — if I spend enough time imagining myself on the trip, the steps required, the ideal things to pack (for me it’s a kind of game to pack the absolute bare minimum required), etc., then the trip becomes part of the plan, and suddenly not going on the trip is the disturbing break with routine.

Planning is also how I manage to get non-teaching work done during the semester. For me, the biggest obstacle is the sense that I shouldn’t even bother trying because I’ll never finish whatever I start. But if I plan it out, I’ll see that over three weeks if I spend Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I’ll get X done, and that can be almost as good — almost — as the monasticism of summer. With the time that remains in this semester, for instance, I’m currently thinking about how I can do revisions of the portions of my translation that I’ve already completed, draft at least one more section, revise the devil chapter I’ve done, and write at least one more chapter. There seem to be enough nooks and crannies in the semester that I’ll be able to do most of this.

The problem comes when I overdo it, when I invest too much intellectual energy in studying the calendar. At a certain point, I turn the corner and instead of enjoying a calming exercise in realizing how much time I (perhaps unexpectedly) have and how under control everything is, I begin treating the whole list of priorities as a single complexly articulated task — one that must be completed in toto before I can ever know rest or freedom again. This leads to self-undermining behavior as I attempt to get everything done much sooner than I need to, just to get it out of the way — things like trying to force myself to write when I’m drained from teaching, a pointless endeavor that results in no actual writing and significant stress and anxiety.

I know someone is going to come along and say I should learn to relax. I promise I do know how to relax. I almost never work evenings or weekends. Even at my most monastic, I take naps during the day, go for walks, watch some TV over lunch. I take days off, I indulge in TV marathons, I get drinks with friends. And you’re all familiar with how much time I spend dicking around online, which is not always relaxing but is mostly fun. You just don’t hear much about that side of things, because the first rule of relaxing is that you don’t elaborately plan out your relaxation. Nor is it the case that I experience all my goals as a huge burden — except when, as described above, my methods for juggling a variety of tasks backfire and produce what Derrida might call auto-immune effects. I’m enjoying my symptom for the most part.

Does any of this resonate with you, dear readers? Do you have your own bizarre strategies?

My new career in Star Trek hermeneutics

Gerry Canavan recently turned me on to The Daystrom Institute, a Star Trek subreddit devoted to the most intricate possible examination of the franchise. As my life has been in turmoil the last couple months with The Girlfriend’s move, etc., I have found myself ever more drawn toward the comfort food of Star Trek and have become a prolific poster there — even winning a “Post of the Week” and getting a promotion to Ensign! (Yes, it is that nerdy.) Here are some of my greatest hits thus far, most of which are focused on Enterprise since I’ve been rewatching it:

Here’s a page with some of the all-time greats from the subreddit.

Posted in Star Trek, The lighter side of AUFS. Comments Off on My new career in Star Trek hermeneutics

Time Travel in the Greek and Hebrew worldviews

Much has been made of the contrast between Athens and Jerusalem, but it has seldom been noted that these two worldviews represent significantly different approaches to time travel. Now obviously they do not include time travel in the full sci-fi sense, but both do include messages from the future in the form of prophecies, and these messages from the future do affect people’s actions in the present. (The closest Star Trek analogy may be the infamous “Future Guy” from Enterprise, who can relay messages without personally intervening in the past.)

From this perspective, Oedipus is fundamentally a time-travel story, and it results in a predestination paradox insofar as his very attempt to “change the timeline” by avoiding the horrible prophecy directly results in the fulfillment of the prophecy. In the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, we might look to the story of Jonah, where the prophetic message from the future actually causes a change in the timeline insofar as Ninevah repents.

While prophecy doesn’t always result in an alternate timeline, one gets the sense that within the Hebrew model of time travel, the possibility of changing the future is always “on the table” in a way that it definitely is not within Greek temporal mechanics. That might help us to understand why Jonah flees from his prophetic task — he likes the current trajectory that leads to Ninevah’s destruction and doesn’t want to divert it. And when he’s moping in the end, it may be because he finds it objectionable that God would bring about a happy ending using an unwieldy plot device like time travel.


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