The dangers of using the master’s tools

Everyone knows what “diversity” means in an academic context. It does not mean making sure there is a good balance between chess players and lacrosse players. It does not refer to the desire that Republicans and Democrats should be roughly equally represented. It refers, rather, to the attempt to give more space to people (including texts) of personal backgrounds that have historically been excluded from universities and from academic consideration of their experiences and perspectives—people of color, women, working-class people, people of non-normative sexual identities, disabled people, etc. Again, everyone knows this. Anyone who does not should be able to pick up on the context clues and determine that, ah yes, this is the kind of diversity in question.

Some people feign ignorance on this question, however. They claim that there are many possible kinds of diversity and that we need to be really clear on our definition. They may say that they support diversity when it turns out that they mean they support greater representation for their pet subject or group. In other words, they take advantage of the apparent abstract formalism of “diversity” and take it literally—in a way that undermines the actual goals that everyone knows the term is supposed to serve. And there is no way to stop them from doing this. The very thing that makes “diversity” rhetorically attractive—the content-free universality that makes it such a good fit in the realm of liberal formalism—is also what makes it so gameable.

From the perspective of poetic justice, it may seem fair enough for diversity advocates to get gamed, because they’re trying to game the system of abstract liberal universalism—trying to slip in particularist demands through the back door. I personally don’t object to such gaming and even think it can be strategically necessary. But I think this is also a good example of the fact that attempts to game the system always put you up against the people who designed and benefit from the system, the people who live and breathe the system. And whatever we think of using the master’s tools in principle, in practice there remains the indisputable fact that the master is probably better at using those tools than you are.

This is where the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is so attractive. It doesn’t obsfuscate the goal through strategic abstraction. It says exactly what it wants, rather than setting up some new form of liberal proceduralism that will supposedly deliver what it wants without offending anyone. It’s unafraid of being divisive. Best of all, it’s a trap that exposes the lie of abstract liberal universality—the defensive white person who responds #AllLivesMatter is quite literally enacting the erasure of Black experience in the guise of a false universalism.

Methodists, Family Life, and Contraception: A History (by Ashley Boggan)

As some of you might know, I have been for several years a copy editor for the journal Methodist History. This peer-reviewed journal regularly has articles on the history of global missions, various aspects of the Wesley families, stories of defunct colleges, and interesting stories about preachers in the Methodist tradition, broadly defined. A few years ago I published an article in the journal on the Methodist Bishop’s declaration of Altizer’s theology as heresy.  In the new issue, I was very much impressed with Ashley Boggan’s article, “A God-Sent Movement: Methodism, Contraception, and the Protection of the Methodist Family, 1870-1968,” a link to the article is below. In particular I appreciated the fresh approach to the history of sexuality being told here within the context of the history of Methodism, particularly in the post-Civil War period, especially in light of the national press that the United Methodist Church has received in the past two years about its teachings on homosexuality.  I asked Ms. Boggan if she would like to write a guest post for AUFS to introduce her research to a wider and different audience.  Ashley Boggan is a third-year Ph.D. candidate at Drew, with a focus on American religious history, and is working as an intern with the United Methodist denomination’s Human Sexuality Task Force.  The following is her introduction to the article.

Methodists, Family Life, and Contraception: A History

When one discusses the United Methodist Church and its position regarding human sexuality what most likely comes to mind is the denomination’s current impasse regarding homosexuality.  For over forty years now, the UMC has upheld its position in the Book of Disciple which states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  However, by looking at a larger notion of human sexuality, one that moves beyond the homosexual/heterosexual binary, academics, clergy, and lay persons can learn what historical events and reasonings, both secular and theological, led to particular stances on human sexuality, why denominations still uphold these stances (or why some have changed their stances), and why many Americans hold certain (and often differing) ideologies of family life and constructions of human sexuality. Read the rest of this entry »

Can blog commenting be revived?

I frequently complain about people responding to my posts on Twitter rather than in comments. Literally everything about Twitter militates against good conversation — space constraints (made worse if including multiple @-handles), inadequate threading, near-impossibility of finding conversations later, near-impossibility of following them unless you are involved “in the moment,” etc., etc. Yet time and time again people insist on commenting on Twitter and often get angry at me for suggesting they do otherwise.

This is undeniably a systemic problem, and systemic problems have systemic causes. I have two possible causes in mind, which have been suggested to me by multiple sources in my frequent complaints about this phenomenon:

  • Technological obstacles tied to the hegemony of cell phones: Despite the difficulties surrounding Twitter as a conversational tool, it is nevertheless much easier to post a tweet from your phone than to leave a blog comment. Working with online forms in the phone browser is cumbersome and error-prone, and the multiplicity of blog services makes it difficult to imagine a single app that could solve this problem. In other words, an obviously inadequate format like Twitter could only triumph because the problematic nature of blog-commenting on a phone makes it the least-bad option.
  • Changing expectations about online space: Tools like Twitter and Facebook allow us to experience the Internet as increasingly “our own” space, cultivated and curated according to our own preferences. A blog, by contrast, is the author’s own space, where you don’t have control over the content posted (it could be deleted, for instance) nor over who you will be in dialogue with. Hence there is a natural bias in favor of keeping the conversation on your own terms, which in many online circles is strengthened by explicit attention to the power dynamics at work when the less-privileged enter into spaces controlled by the privileged (for instance, a white guy’s blog comments).

I have resigned myself to the secular decline in blog commenting, only insisting on blog comments vs. Twitter responses if it’s something where I want a ready reference (primarily book recommendations). Blog comments do seem to me to have obvious advantages over Twitter especially, and even over Facebook — greater public accessibility, for instance, and easier categorization for later reference. (And here I’ll admit that my principled refusal to use Facebook — I only signed up for an account in order to gain access to Spotify and never check it — may be artificially biasing me toward blog comments as the natural alternative to Twitter, even though Facebook is also free of Twitter’s space constraints.)

As a blogging veteran of over a decade, however, I have to admit to the sad truth that blog comment conversations are seldom good enough that the availability of easy archiving and public access is a significant consideration. In all too many cases, it may even be advantageous for the discussions to be lost in the sands of time! In any case, it’s clear that those unique qualities of blog comments, which are well-known to most online discussants, are insufficient to overcome the other disadvantages (technological, habitual, political) that blog comments bring with them in our current situation.

And so, in a possible performative contradiction, I ask you readers: can blog commenting be revived? Should we even want to?

What is Star Trek’s vision of politics?

[Cross-posted from The Daystrom Research Institute, with some revisions.]

I see politics in Star Trek — thinking of politics broadly as the sphere of relationships involving power — as having two conflicting levels. On the one hand, the starship itself is a fairly authoritarian environment, characterized by a strict hierarchy of rank and command. Captains are open to deliberation by their senior officers, but they make the final decision. Sometimes this has bad effects, as when the captain is taken over by an alien, etc., but by my count, there are many more stories where we are expected to be very anxious or upset about the idea of the captain’s authority being usurped.

On the higher level, we are almost never given a reason to trust Starfleet admirals or the Federation as such. At the level of those larger organizations, it seems, there is a tendency toward entropy and corruption. Perhaps we’re to think that the absence of a clear, urgent mission allows people to indulge in empty careerism rather than sincerely using their skills to the best of their abilities.

When it comes to large-scale political events, then, most often it’s not the official leadership that is pushing things in a good direction. If we’re going to get a good outcome, it has to come from people “on the ground” (so to speak), often in defiance of their superiors. So we see Sisko coming to earth and almost immediately uncovering a conspiracy that had been unfolding for a while — presumably if he had not shown up, the “inside job” attack would have had its desired effect. Similarly, in Enterprise the foundation of the Federation seems to hang on the actions of Archer, T’Pol, and Shran, more than on their official leadership (who are feckless in Archer’s case and often malevolent in the latter two).

The ideal outcome, it seems, is for one of these authentic people to become the political leader — Archer becoming president of the Federation, the various “liberal” leaders who emerge out of the Dominion War, etc. — but it’s notable that we never actually see their leadership in action. Chancellor Martok is a happy ending, full stop, and we don’t have to see his inevitable compromises with the already existing factions that, while perhaps chastened, surely remain powerful in many ways.

The dark side of this reliance on “free agents” to counter institutional careerism and inertia is Section 31. On one level, we can ask why their acts of “going rogue” are supposed to be different and worse than the routine insubordination we see from captains — and the show certainly leaves things ambivalent, insofar as they “get results” despite their nefarious means. Perhaps we can say that the lovable rogue captains are embracing the ideals of the Federation while Section 31 is advocating its raw existence and political power — but aren’t the latter a condition of fulfilling the former? I don’t think we get a good answer to this question at the end of the day, and perhaps Star Trek’s general conception of politics (institutions suck, brave individuals are the ones who get things done) leaves it unequipped to do so.

In terms of real-world politics, it all seems hard to map onto our experience. The central concept that we’re going to get liberal outcomes (Federation ideals!) from authoritarian structures (quasi-military command structures!) is, to say the least, difficult to find evidence for in the real world. Institutional inertia and corruption are of course real, but so are transformative leaders, even if they are relatively rare. I chalk it up to an attempt to be all things to all people that leads Star Trek to embrace mutually contradictory ideals — but at the same time, I would wager that most of us embrace contradictory ideals at the end of the day, in some cases the very same contradictory ideals Star Trek does. Its very simplicity may thus make it a more useful tool to think with than the faux-sophisticated House of Cards, for instance.

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?

Book recommendations: On the Qur’an

It is likely that I will be offering a course on the Qur’an again next spring, and I’m already planning on working my way systematically through the text one or more times before that (likely in different translations). I’ll obviously never have the instinctive command of the Qur’an that I have of the Bible, but it would be helpful in class if I could more readily make cross-references, etc.

Toward the same end, I would like to read at least a handful of additional books on the Qur’an and on Muhammad’s life and the time period. My main sources on the Qur’an as such so far have been Wadudi and Barlas — because everyone’s research into religious scriptures should start from the feminist critique! — and I’ve also worked my way through most of Hodgson’s imposing tomes. I’m already planning on picking up Kermani’s God is Beautiful, which should keep me occupied for quite a while.

And here is the question: what books on the Qur’an and its historical setting should I prioritize? (And please, please respond in comments rather than on Twitter, so that I can use this post as a reference.)

On moralizing television criticism

I’ll get straight to it: I didn’t like this Jacobin article on The Americans by John Carl Baker. It’s not so much that I disagree with its point, though I do. What I object to, more fundamentally, is the very procedure: the attempt to find something insidious and ideological to disqualify the show. That’s hard in a show that sympathetically portrays devoted Communists who routinely murder and steal to undermine America. But Baker manages! See, because Elizabeth critiques consumerism, and so the show must be for austerity — apparently for its own sake, in the author’s estimation, even though it’s clear that Elizabeth is not a principled ascetic but is instead devoted to a transcendent Cause — and I guess because austerity is bad, we should be kind of pro-consumerism?

How is this in any way a response to the show? How does this help me to understand what’s going on better? I would submit that it doesn’t. It holds the show up to an artificial standard, finds it wanting, and sets it aside. If we enjoyed it, we’ve been duped into “supporting” something bad. Ideology got us again! My objection to this procedure is twofold. First, of course television is ideological. That’s not some brilliant insight, that’s the very nature of television. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that television is enjoyable in direct proportion as it’s #pureideology. Second, is it really the case that we even have at our disposal some standard for the right way to do it? The confidence with which judgments are pronounced leads me to believe that there must be some kind of handbook that these benighted producers are callously setting aside in order to produce their “problematic” fare.

In my view, it’s inevitable that a show will be “problematic.” A broken society creates broken TV shows. There’s no “right way” to portray people who object on principle to capitalism in a capitalist society. There’s no “right way” to represent blacks on television in a racist society. There’s no “right way” to portray women in patriarchy. What is available is more or less interesting ways, more or less promising ways. And every TV show of any quality does hold some promise, some hope. It’s not just that a spoonful of utopia makes the ideology goes down, because the spoonful of ideology is also what makes the utopia palatable.

At this late date, the ideological portion of The Americans is the overall tone that these are heroic but tragically doomed figures, fighting a futile battle — it never would have worked. And the utopian element is that Communists are magic, able to take on multiple forms, utterly omnicompetent. Could I do all that, if I were somehow “unplugged” from the capitalist apparatus, if I could somehow approach it as a foreigner and opponent rather than a native? (And here the problem of what to do with their daughter becomes an interesting one.)

All of what I just wrote in that last paragraph is a sketch, and perhaps it’s simplistic or limited or — God forbid — “problematic.” But I hope it points in a more interesting direction, gives you something to watch for, rewards your attention to the show rather than castigating you. To have even a chance of doing any of that, you have to let the show be a show — which means to be #pureideology while also being something different or more, at least if it’s worth your attention — rather than rendering it a symptom of something we already knew anyway.

As the man says, les non-dupes errent.


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