Fearing Tenure: The Loss Of Community

In ‘The Clouded Prism: Minority Critique of the Critical Legal Studies Movement‘, Harlan L. Dalton wrote:

I take it that everyone drawn to CLS is interested in specifying in concrete terms the dichotomy between autonomy and community. If so, talk to us. Talk TO us. Listen to us. We have lots to say, out of the depths of our own experiences. For many of us, our sense of community is a strength, a resource, something we struggle to hang onto, sometimes in the most peculiar ways, especially when the pull of autonomy is strongest. The day that I am awarded tenure, should that happy event occur, any pleasure that I experience will be more than offset by the extreme panic that I’m sure will set in; I will worry that I have been propelled (or more  honestly that I have wittingly, selfishly and self-destructively propelled myself) two steps further away from so much that has nurtured me for so long. Even for those of us who have revelled in the sense of connectedness that, paradoxically, racial oppression has conferred upon us, there is a kicker: we don’t have any choice in the matter. We can’t choose to be a part of the community; we can’t choose not to be a part of the community.

When I first read these lines, I was reminded of a conversation that used to recur in some of my therapeutic sessions: Why would you shrink from that which you most–supposedly–desire?

Some insight may be found in Dalton’s confession. Tenure would mean not being part of a ‘community’, membership in which, while a reminder of exclusion from another, was also a belonging in a very particular way. It meant the enjoyment of a very distinctive camaraderie, the dwelling in a state of being that had its own rewards.

I will not attempt to speak for Dalton’s experiences so let me just briefly address my own. Gaining tenure meant the end of a ‘struggle'; it meant the end of a state in which I had a very ‘clear and distinct’ goal, a terminus of achievement, one that had established yardsticks and baselines for me, calibrating my ‘progress’ and reminding me of how far I had come and how far I still had to go. I saw myself as member of a group marked by its presence in the margins, by its distance from the center, by a vaguely heroic air of struggle against economic, intellectual, and even political barriers. We were the untenured, the ‘assistant professors'; we had secured the prize of a tenure-track position, but we were still ‘battlers.’ I had trajectories to follow, and I had fellow-travelers. My lot was sympathized with; many were solicitous of the state of my journey, my distance from its destination. I was assured of celebrations and revelries were I to cross the finish line. I could look ahead and see the goal; I could feel my cohort around me, propping me up.

In the midst of all this, even as I desired that onward and upward movement, I knew what I would leave behind: a time and a place in which I was in possession of that dearest of things, a clear and unstinting purpose.

I am well-aware that a reflection like this, in the context of today’s job market, is an extremely self-indulgent one. I write it only to highlight the ironic and puzzling nature of the situations that Dalton and those in therapy might find themselves in, and of the artfully hidden blessings of even those portions of our lives that we might find oppressive and worth delivering ourselves from.

Force Majeure: Sauve Qui Peut, All The Way

The problem with Tomas, the now-disgraced husband and father who ran away from approaching danger and abandoned his family in Ruben Östlund‘s Force Majeure, is not that he was scared. Everyone was scared; his wife, Ebba, his children, Vera and Harry, were all scared. They were panic-stricken and terrified; they all reacted in instinctive, unthinking ways. Everyone ran for cover. Tomas’ instincts didn’t include taking care of his family, of course, but that is not an unforgivable crime. Perhaps that ‘instinct’ could still be instilled in him. After all, many a military leader has found that the men he commands are petrified of bullets and run around like headless chickens when shots first ring out; bravery does not come naturally to us; we have to be trained to be instinctively brave.

No, the problem with Tomas is that the selfishness on display in that act of running away from his family appears to be persistent and fundamental.

In the aftermath of his sauve qui peut moment, Tomas resolutely refuses to face up to the fact that his wife experienced his abandonment as, er, abandonment, that he left her alone with their two terrified children, that his actions might have been experienced as painful, disappointing and distrust-inducing. Instead, he is defensive and obfuscatory; he speaks of alternative interpretations of the same event; he suggests his wife’s reactions are misplaced; he does not address his children’s felt needs; he meets his wife’s disappointment and anger with a pushback of his own. He does not realize his wife is ready to forgive him if only he would admit that he had hurt her and their children.

Everything, you see, is about Tomas.

Nothing confirms this quite as well as his tearful, hysterical breakdown during which he admits his guilt to his wife and descends into a paroxysm of crying and self-flagellation. For as he sobs and sobs, plaintively and painfully, you realize, along with Ebba, that he has turned the disaster that has befallen their family into solely a personal disaster. He is upset; he is scared; he has lost the carefully constructed aura of masculine strength and patriarchal togetherness that was previously his. But he is still too selfish to tend to his family, even in this moment. Instead, he now turns all the attention to himself with his bawling. His tears are manipulative; they are meant to stop Ebba’s anger and her dismay and turn them into forgiveness for himself, without him ever having faced up to the consequences of his actions. Soon, his children come running into the room, hearing their father crying. They are stunned and appalled; they instinctively turn to comfort him. Tomas is inconsolable and remains so; the children want their mother–who has figured out the manipulation under way in front of her–to join them. As her children call to her to join them in their comforting of their father, Ebba resists; she knows that the spotlight has been turned, away from their reactions to the incident, to Tomas, who having never addressed them, has made his running away from the avalanche all about himself, his pain, and his suffering.

That is the final insult added to injury.

Praising One Partner, Dissing The Other

Sometimes, on Facebook, an innocent will post a photograph of himself and his female partner, and be greeted with a slew of admiring comments and ‘likes’. These will often be things like ‘you guys look great together’ or ‘fabulous couple!’ Sometimes there are  comments about the wife or girlfriend’s looks: ‘X is beautiful’ or ‘X is so lovely.’ And sometimes, some comments make the same point while taking a dig at their male friend: ‘Dude, she is so above your pay grade’ or ‘you are batting well above your average here’. Or something like that. These are all friendly enough, I suppose, but I must admit to feeling a little uncomfortable about the last cluster. (Perhaps people make these kinds of remarks in face-to-face settings as well, but this behavior is more easily and often observed on social media.)

The folks making that last kind of remark are indulging, of course, in some good-natured joshing: man, you really lucked out. This commentary–which women also direct at their male friends–is a sub-species of that special way that men have of expressing affection for each other wherein they call each other vaguely derogatory names as a sign of affection. Still, I wonder, don’t these kinds of comments also ‘good-naturedly’ tell the woman she is slumming it with her partner? You know: Hey, you’re being charitable here, dispensing your favors to our ‘plain’ friend? That she could have, you know, done better? Are the folks making this kind of joke, one directed at their male friends, also as comfortable making this kind of implied remark about the woman? (Note: this kind of commentary is almost never directed at women by their female friends. No one ever, as far as I can tell, tells a woman that she has really gotten lucky by ‘snagging’ such a hottie who is so clearly deserving of someone better looking than her.) I know the folks making this kind of remark are complimenting the woman’s looks–but in an odd sort of way, really, because they also seem to be suggesting she has lost out in the ‘looks stakes.’ Despite being blessed with an abundance of good looks. So not only is she unlucky, but she also lacks judgment.

I wonder if the discomfort that I’m expressing has as its root, an acute discomfort at the idea that people ‘snag’ or ‘catch’ partners, that there is some ‘physical matching’ involved between people, so that folks with similar rankings on our scale of aesthetic appreciation should be paired off with each other, and that thus, a ‘mismatch’ in looks is notable. In a way. I get that physical attraction has a great deal to do with the initial expression of romantic interest but still, we know enough about what makes relationships work to know that there is a great deal beyond the initial ‘flush.’ Most of which has to do with our complex personalities and the way our partner addresses our most felt needs. Which only emerge, more often than not, once the initial stage of courtship is over, and are rarely known to those outside the intimate circle partners create for each other.

I don’t mean to be a pedant here, or a killjoy. I’m just curious about whether the folks who talk like this have thought about some of the possible implications of their seemingly innocent remarks.

Note: On reading a draft of this post, my wife remarked:

I feel like you touch on but don’t explicitly say something that seems the most problematic about such comments. I think the reason that the same thing would not be said to a woman is because society believes a woman’s looks to be the most important thing about her whereas they are only a minor component of a man’s overall status. You can insult a man’s looks without insulting a man, but you can’t do the same to a woman.

She’s right.

 

The Organ In The Chapel

For the two years that I attended boarding school, I was subject to a non-negotiable, uncompromising rule: daily attendance at an Anglican chapel service was required. The bell calling us to service would ring out, loud and clear and persistent; we would make our way to the chapel and file in obediently, taking our pre-assigned positions–arranged by grades. We were led through a service by one of our masters; we sang hymns, said the Lord’s Prayer; we knelt down, we stood up; we listened to the occasional ‘sermon.’ And then, as the service came to a close, and as the gathered congregation stood in silence, waiting to file out, we were treated to a short organ recital that served as epilogue.

I knew little of the organ and the music it produced; I knew even less about the many pieces I heard. Still, my body and my aural senses knew what they liked, and there was little doubt that the organ recital was the highlight of the service. I knew the master who played, up above in the loft that held the choir, was a short and stocky man, with hands like little cudgels. (Rumor had it Mr. Paul had been a boxer in his school days, and was still capable of landing a fearsome slap or box to the ears of the insolent.) I could imagine him bent over the keys, his fingers busy at work, the ‘pipes’ towering over him, his feet working the pedals, sending out those notes, sonorous, commanding, filling the spaces of the chapel and my imagination.

My musical tastes, as I indicated, were not too sophisticated. Still, I acquired an early favorite: Bach‘s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. (I had first heard it on the soundtrack of Rollerball; when I first heard it in the chapel, I was curious and excited enough to find out more about this melody that had so intrigued me.) Mr. Paul, our organist, only played it occasionally, and every one of those occasions made the proverbial hairs stand on end, my skin prickling.

I was not a religious person then; indeed, I had lost whatever little religious belief I had in the years following my father’s death. I participated in the chapel service because I was required to; I was used to being subjected to school discipline, so mouthing the hymns and prayers and going through the motions of rising and kneeling in unison came easily to me. It was all a bit of a performance, and I was well aware of it. We were in chapel for no longer than fifteen minutes at most, and though I chafed occasionally at the service’s constraints, I put up with it, much like I did with all the disciplinary codes of this highly structured home away home.

But that little organ recital did not fail to induce an emotional response in me; it made me look forward to the service, if only its end. (Of course, the organ accompanied our hymns too, and thus, in them as well, I found much stirring within me.)

Mr. Paul often practiced in the evenings; on some those occasions, I, along with a friend or two, would sneak down to the chapel and treat ourselves to a free concert, standing outside the back wall. These were short, for our days were tightly scheduled. But they were memorable; I could see the Himalayas towering ahead, the well-groomed gardens of the campus laid about. And through the walls, I could hear that mighty instrument, an accompaniment to the sacral, but also capable of uplifting the profane.

Paying Attention To The Muses’ Visits

In The Year of Magical Thinking–a book on which I will write a bit more anon–Joan Didion quotes her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, as saying that having a notebook handy–to write down a thought, an idea, filed away for future reference and deployment–was the difference between being able to write and not.

There is much truth in this utterance of Dunne’s.

A couple of years ago, when I started blogging here, I would find myself thinking about blogging topics as I walked to and from work (or my gym). On those occasions, I would wait till I got home to scribble my thoughts on a notepad on my desk. But sometimes, those thoughts were too fleeting to survive; I would, with some dismay, and often, mounting panic, rummage in my memory stores, seeking desperately to find that little flash of inspiration that had suggested itself as such a fertile avenue of written exploration. Bizarrely enough, it took a few months before I started to do something about this state of affairs.

Unsurprisingly enough, I relied on a technical aid: the ubiquitous smartphone. I began making tiny notes on a ‘scratchpad’ on my phone, quickly writing down, misspellings and all, the fragments of whatever thought had crossed my mind as I rode the subway and read a book. I hoped to return to these later. Sometimes I did, and found the seed was still a viable one, and I would turn it into a full post. Sometimes, on re-inspection, I found a mere incoherent ramble, a passing fancy that would not bear the weight of writing on it.

I did not just write down ideas for blog posts, of course. On some occasions, a tactic for resolving a  sticky section of writing in a book project would suggest itself to me–‘get rid of the section on X‘ or ‘move the bit about Y to the end of the chapter’–and a way out of an impasse would become crystal clear. Again, here too, on actually sitting down and confronting the text, my assessment of the worth of the putative brainwave could change; my visit from the muse had not been as fruitful as I had previously imagined.

There are times, and I always pay for them, when I forget the wisdom of Dunne’s observation, and I am too lazy to pull out my phone to write down my supposed inspiration. I cannot be bothered to put down my book; my phone is in my backpack; the subway is too crowded. Whatever the reason, I reassure myself I will make notes when I arrive at my destination. But I almost never do. And thanks to a peculiar transience associated with such thoughts, they do not survive and persist. Irate at my lack of attention, they move on to more attentive and grateful minds. I call out again and again, but they are gone, leaving not even a wispy trace in their wake.  There is no way to call them back again, except perhaps to get back to work.

Naguib Mahfouz On Forgetting And Habit

In Naguib Mahfouz‘s Autumn Quail, Isa, the corrupt bureaucrat whose long, slow, and painful decline after a purge following the 1952 revolution in Egypt the novel tracks, brings back Riri, a woman of the night, to his home. The next day,

He woke up about noon and looked with curiosity at the naked girl sleeping next to him. Recollections of the previous night came back and he told himself that as long as oblivion and habit still existed, everything remained possible. [Anchor Books, 2000, pp. 374]

Many a student of human nature is puzzled by the subject of his study. Why do humans behave as irrationally and self-destructively as they do? Why do they hurt the ones they love? Why can they not learn from their mistakes?

Perhaps because they forget; perhaps because they are compelled.

If memory can be so constitutive of identity, then forgetting gives us the chance to make ourselves anew. Forgetting ensures pain and joy once experienced are consigned to the past, and cannot act as guides to the future: they cannot inhibit, they cannot impel us to repeat a once-experienced pleasure, they cannot make us shrink from the venue of an older disaster. The burnt child fears the fire, but the forgotten fire provides no instruction for action when a flame is encountered again. Then the child becomes the moth; our expectation of its behavior is reconfigured. We may too, pass by a previously experienced domain of pleasure, now strangely reluctant to sample its joys again; we have already buried, pushed out into oblivion, memories of our times within its confines. We carry on, unaware that we have foregone an opportunity to experience that which once enthralled us so. This blithe ignorance may take us elsewhere, toward experiences and interactions, which are provocative of novel responses from us.

Habits, conditioned and impressed, sent deep into the innermost recesses of our being,  continue to drive us on too. They may become more than mere regularities in behavior; they may appear as instincts, innate and congenital. We may mark out zones of catastrophe, and expect no one will venture into their precincts, but the persona habitually conditioned to push open its doors and enter will continue to do so. And habits may send us, again and again, long after the shocks and the pleasures of the new have worn off, seeking old exaltations and ecstasies, hoping they will be as productive of joy as they once were. The resultant inevitable disappointment, so clearly visible to the observer, and which should seem to act as inhibitor, does not have that effect; the habitual commissioner of acts continues to do so long after all assessments of his actions as reasonable have ceased.

Forgetting and habit send us on into this world as a curious mixture of the new and the archaic. Such a creature is curiously open to possibility while simultaneously entrenched in older ways of being. The interaction between the two can be productive of much that might appear initially implausible.  ‘Everything remains possible’ indeed.

A Most Irritating Affectation

The most irritating affectation of the modern intellectual is to pretend to be technically incompetent. I exaggerate, of course, but I hope you catch my drift. Especially if you’ve encountered the specimen of humanity that I have in mind. (Mostly on social media, but often in person too.)

The type is clearly identified: a clearly intellectually accomplished individual–perhaps by dint of academic pedigree, perhaps by a body of public work, or just plain old clearly visible ‘smarts’–claims that they are incompetent in modern technology, that they simply cannot master it, that their puny minds cannot wrap their heads around the tools that so many of their friends and colleagues seem to have so effortlessly mastered. (‘Oh, I have no idea how to print double-sided'; ‘Oh, I have no idea what you mean by hypertext’). They are just a little too busy, you see, with their reading–good ol’ dead-tree books, no Kindles or Nooks here!–and writing–well, not on typewriters sadly, but word processors, for some change really cannot be resisted. Rest assured though, that they have to call for help every time they need to change the margins or fonts or underline some text.

This absorption in old-fashioned methodologies and materials of learning thus marks them as gloriously archaic holdovers from an era which we all know to have been characterized by a greater intellectual rectitude than ours. While the rest of us are slaves to fashion, scurrying around after technology, desperately trying to keep up with the technical Joneses, our hero is occupied with the life of the mind. So noble; such a pristine life, marked by utter devotion to the intellect and free of grubby mucking around with mere craft.

Why do I find this claim of incompetence to be an irritating affectation? My suspicion is easily provoked because I do find posturing in all too many places–as I did above in expressions of faux modesty, sometimes called humblebrags in the modern vernacular, but here, I think, is the rub. Those who profess such incompetence merely outsource the work of learning the tools we all learn to do our work to us. They are unwilling to put in the time to learn; they are too busy with their important work; we are not for we have, after all, shown that we have time to spare to learn. We should help–it is now our duty to aid their intellectual adventures.

A claim to incompetence should not be occasion for cheer, but it is. We are, after all, ambivalent about the technology that so dominates, regulates, and permeates our life; we are, all too often, willing to cheer on evidence that not all is well in this picture of utter and complete absorption in technique. We applaud this disdain; we wish we were so serene, so securely devoted to our pursuit of knowledge. We are also, of course, clapping wildly for a rebellion of sorts, a push-back against the creeping march of technology into every corner of our lives.

I think we can find better heroes.

Note: I’m willing to make some concessions for those over the age of fifty, but anyone younger than that bragging about their technical klutziness needs a rhetorical kneecapping.