The Books We Own And Will Never Read

Let’s get real, be honest, face the facts: There are some books on my shelves I will never read. The reasons for this are manifold: the contents of the shelves are not static, as I keep adding to them; my shelves are disorganized, which means that many books escape detection as I inspect the shelves looking for the next book to take on; my tastes in reading have changed, leading me to steadfastly ignore an older acquisition–it just does not catch my attention; some books have not rewarded my reading attempts in the past and have been put back, perhaps to be visited again someday–but we both suspect that encounter will not happen; and lastly, most grimly, most cosmically, time is running out–given rates of acquisition, my physical and intellectual capacities, my waking hours, my many other commitments, some tasks will remain incomplete in this life, as they do in all others. Among them the reading of books we thought we would read some day.

I may have presented this as a ‘problem’ in the opening lines above, but it really isn’t. Every owner of books knows this; you buy books not just to read them but because, quite simply, books are artifacts we like to keep close by, to offer reassurance of all kinds. They are talismans, security blankets, good-luck charms, mirrors of ourselves, souls in the bodies of our lives; call them what you will, they aren’t just objects to be opened and ‘consumed’ and ‘exhausted’; not every fruitful and significant relationship with an object requires us to integrate it fully or even partially into ourselves. When we go to a museum and look at a work of art, we do not bring it home with us, we do not seek to own it; it is enough for us that we were able to experience it in some way, no matter how attenuated. When we go into the outdoors, we do not bring home the proverbial bubbling brook or dale, except by way of photographic reproduction. Our lives brought us together with these; they will take us apart. We will have had some measure of that which we saw and felt and tasted and touched; some, perhaps not all.

Books are meant to be read, of course. And an archetypal mode of pretension in our world is a kind of shallow display, a pointing in a direction we will never go. Books can play that function for those who deploy them as such; you might be able to signal erudition of a socially valuable kind by your book ownership. We should tolerate such pretension; there are worse things to be inauthentic about, and if the outcome is a room full of books for us to look at, admire, and browse through, then so be it.

My ownership of books I will never read is made easier by being a parent; I reassure myself periodically that I’m putting together an inheritance for my daughter. In a life marked by tiny failures at every step, this is one to be proud of.


Drexel University Bans Professor From Campus, Gives Alt-Right An Early Christmas Gift

I’ve signed and shared a statement of solidarity supporting George Cicciariello-Maher of Drexel University who has been placed on administrative leave by his employer, Drexel University. That statement begins as follows:

On October 9, 2017, Drexel University administrators sent a letter to Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher informing him that he was being placed on paid administrative leave, effective immediately. The reason, they stated, was based on considering professor Ciccariello-Maher’s presence on campus a significant public safety risk to the Drexel University community and to himself, after he received a number of death threats against him and his family. The threats followed Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s postings on Twitter about the shooting in Las Vegas. Prof. Ciccariello-Maher sought to answer the question: Why are these crimes almost always carried out by white men? by tweeting “It’s the white supremacist patriarchy, stupid.” The tweets unleashed the series of threats against him and his family, to which Drexel University answered by placing Professor Ciccariello-Maher on leave.

Drexel University has, by this spineless display of capitulation, sent an early Christmas gift to white supremacists and others of their ilk by providing them a blueprint for how they can silence those who might speak up against them: all you need to do is make a few death threats and the university will obligingly prevent the professor from teaching or even being present on campus. Ciccariello-Maher’s students have been denied their time in their classroom with their professor; and the alt-right can now turn its eyes elsewhere, looking for the next ‘loudmouth’ to silence. The tactical and strategic stupidity of their actions does not seem to bear too heavily on Drexel University; for now, they can hide behind the screen of ‘public safety.’ But such excuses will not wash, of course; Drexel has sought to silence Ciccariello-Maher previously as well.

A couple of weeks ago, I made notice here of a libelous postering campaign directed at Brooklyn College’s student and faculty, which accused me of being a ‘terrorist supporter.’ The college and university administration’s response has been tepid at best. (Our chancellor’s response descended into utter banality as he merely took note of some ‘troubling posters.’) These responses seem to be driven by the worry that responding in stronger terms will stir up a hornet’s nest, provoking more unwelcome attention. What they fail to realize is that the hornets are astir already, and will not be deterred by such pablum. They will especially not be deterred if universities cower and do their dirty work for them by banning and silencing those who have provoked this attention from the right.

It should be noted that Ciccariello-Maher does not have a First Amendment defense against his private employer; he is more vulnerable than those employed by public institutions (like me.) No matter how much you might disagree with his chosen rhetorical style or content, the fact remains that a dangerous precedent has been set, thanks to an astonishing capitulation in a political atmosphere that demands the very opposite of the actions chosen by Drexel University. Drexel should immediately reconsider and reinstate Ciccariello-Maher. (If you are an academic, please sign and share the statement of solidarity linked to above.)

#MeToo Shows Sexual Harassment And Abuse Is A Feature, Not A Bug

The Facebook status is simple:

Me too. If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste, if you’re comfortable doing so.

And effective: it has produced a deluge of “Me too” statuses. The vast majority are produced by women–with varying levels of detail–though some men have also spoken up about their experiences of sexual harassment or assault (mostly by other men.) The ubiquity of this status is appalling and shocking and revealing. And the news isn’t good. As long as we have a society founded on patriarchy and sexism and a constructed masculinity where one gender (or sex) is set up as the ideal, the other is well, othered, where the superior gender is granted seemingly indiscriminate power while the inferior one is rendered comparatively powerless, where social arrangements and understandings turn sex into an ideological instrument for bodily and social control, which treats one gender’s sexuality as a sacrament and another’s as a sin, sexual assault and harassment will remain societal features not bugs. The current state of affairs–a population made up of those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment–is an eventuality foretold.

A masculinity grounded in violence and sexual superiority–in prowess, capacity, ability, virtue–is an integral part of such a system. Men must acquire masculinity or show that they already possess it by acts of violence or sexuality; it is no surprise that male icons and role models–historic and present–embody some form of violent domination or an exaggerated sexuality. (The current president of the United States rose to power on the basis of campaign that featured extensive bragging about how violent he could be if the opportunity arose, the length of his penis, and the unbridled assault he was fond of launching on unsuspecting women.) Notches on a belt can indicate both kills and sexual conquests. Male sexual virtue is matter of performance and power; female sexual virtue is grounded in reticence and inaccessibility, in zealously protecting ‘the goods.’ Assertions of will to exert sexual control now appear virtuous within this schema: the male must, if ‘necessary’, override the assertion of will by the ‘inferior gender’ and assert his sexuality, the dominant and superior one, at its expense. If violence be a tool in this ‘conquest,’ then so be it. (Of course, as many women have pointed out, sexual assault and harassment is not about sex, it is about power and domination, of the forceful imposition of a will over someone whose desires and rights are not worthy of consideration in the calculus of masculinity.)

Men do not seem to realize that patriarchy does not work for them either; the notions of masculinity it imposes on them cripples their relationships, drives them into dead-ends of despair at their failures to conform, and of course, to commit acts of violence against each other. ‘Pussies’ and ‘faggots’ and ‘wimps who can’t get laid’ know this only too well. One way in which they can redeem themselves is to turn their inward directed self-disgust elsewhere. Perhaps at children, at women, at other men.

Blade Runner 2049: Our Slaves Will Set Us Free

Blade Runner 2049 is a provocative visual and aural treat. It sparked many thoughts, two of which I make note of here; the relationship between the two should be apparent.

  1. What is the research project called ‘artificial intelligence’ trying to do? Is it trying to make machines that can do the things which, if done by humans, would be said to require intelligence? Regardless of the particular implementation? Is it trying to accomplish those tasks in the way that human beings do them? Or is it trying to find a non-biological method of reproducing human beings? These are three very different tasks. The first one is a purely engineering task; the machine must accomplish the task regardless of the method–any route to the solution will do, so long as it is tractable and efficient. The second is cognitive science, inspired by Giambattista Vico; “the true and the made are convertible” (Verum et factum convertuntur) or “the true is precisely what is made” (Verum esse ipsum factum); we will only understand the mind, and possess a ‘true’ model of it when we make it. The third is more curious (and related to the second)–it immediately implicates us in the task of making artificial persons. Perhaps by figuring out how the brain works, we can mimic human cognition but this capacity might be  placed in a non-human form made of silicon or plastic or some metal; the artificial persons project insists on a human form–the android or humanoid robot–and on replicating uniquely human capacities including the moral and aesthetic ones. This would require the original cognitive science project to be extended to an all-encompassing project of understanding human physiology so that its bodily functions can be replicated. Which immediately raises the question: why make artificial persons? We have a perfectly good way of making human replicants; and many people actually enjoy engaging in this process. So why make artificial persons this way? If the answer is to increase our knowledge of human beings’ workings, then we might well ask: To what end? To cure incurable diseases? To make us happier? To release us from biological prisons so that we may, in some singularity inspired fantasy, migrate our souls to these more durable containers? Or do we need them to be in human form, so that they can realistically–in all the right ways–fulfill all the functions we will require them to perform. For instance, as in Westworld, they could be our sex slaves, or as in Blade Runner, they could perform dangerous and onerous tasks that human beings are unwilling or unable to do. And, of course, prop up ecologically unstable civilizations like ours.
  2. It is a philosophical commonplace–well, at least to Goethe and Nietzsche, among others–that constraint is necessary for freedom; we cannot be free unless we are restrained, somehow, by law and rule and regulation and artifice. But is it necessary that we ourselves be restrained in order to be free? The Greeks figured out that the slave could be enslaved, lose his freedom, and through this loss, his owner, his master, could be free; as Hannah Arendt puts it in The Human Condition the work of the slaves–barbarians and women–does ‘labor’ for the owner, keeping the owner alive, taking care of his biological necessity, and freeing him up to go to the polis and do politics in a state of freedom, in the company of other property-owning householders like him. So: the slave is necessary for freedom; either we enslave ourselves, suppress our appetites and desires and drives and sublimate and channel them into the ‘right’ outlets, or we enslave someone else. (Freud noted glumly in Civilization and its Discontents that civilization enslaves our desires.) If we cannot enslave humans, with all their capricious desires to be free, then we can enslave other creatures, perhaps animals, domesticating them to turn them into companions and food. And if we ever become technologically adept at reproducing those processes that produce humans or persons, we can make copies–replicants–of ourselves, artificial persons, that mimic us in all the right ways, and keep us free. These slaves, by being slaves, make us free.

Much more on Blade Runner 2049 anon.

Childhood Crushes – II: Jennifer O’Neill In ‘Summer Of 42’

I wasn’t alone in wishing I was Hermie. Many teenage boys–American or otherwise-had the same thoughts on seeing Summer of 42, the cinematic adaptation of Herman Raucher‘s memoirish coming-of-age novel, a movie that made me laugh very, very hard during its screening and then left me silent and devastated as I walked back to my boarding school dormitory after a night out in town. (Summer of 42 was released with an ‘A’ (Adult) rating in India, which meant that schoolboys regarded it with more than the usual teen-aged salacious interest. I was able to sneak in to see it because it was showing in a small hill town where security was lax. My first reaction on watching the movie was fury at the Indian censors for their prudish heavy-handedness. Many years on, it’s clear why it got an ‘A’: the teen-aged discussions of sex and a widow having sex with a teenager would have been anathema in India.)

Like other teenage boys, I had enjoyed this story of boys trying, clumsily and hilariously, and succeeding in mixed fashion, to lose their virginity; there were cliches aplenty, but they were bawdy and crude and surprisingly tender too. Looming over it all, over this scene of wartime homefront innocence, where life struggled to carry on as usual in the face of impending catastrophe, there was the beautiful, gentle, affectionate, friendly yet inaccessible Dorothy–played by Jennifer O’Neill–waiting for her soldier husband to come home from the Second World War. Hermie has a crush on Dorothy, from a distance, one seemingly destined to remain as remote worship, but by the end of the movie, thanks to tragedy, they have drawn together, and consummated their relationship in an encounter never to be repeated. The final scene, when Hermie emerges from Dorothy’s bedroom to find her quietly smoking on the porch, where she bids him good night and farewell, established her as a forlorn figure, destined to be lonely and lost in a world suddenly made infinitely crueler. When Hermie informs us he never heard from her again, their ‘romance’ such as it was, further immortalized O’Neill for me.

For weeks afterward, I found myself morose and downcast, wondering what happened to Dorothy. I told myself again and again, she was only a character, but I could not bring myself to believe it. This sorrow, this melancholy, this painful longing I felt; this told me she was real. Surely, such real emotions could not have imaginary, fictional subjects? Somehow, I had become Hermie–without the satisfaction of ever having been kissed on the forehead or lips by Dorothy, having danced with her, or ever being lucky enough to offer some kind of comfort to her when she needed it. I was a teenaged boy–all of fourteen–so it was unsurprising, perhaps, that ‘Summer of 42’ affected me the way it did. But for all that, there was something fragile and tender about Dorothy, something about tragedy meeting longing, that cut through everything and went to the depths of my immature heart.

O’Neill, unlike the first subject of this series on childhood crushes, has devoted herself to an activist cause I cannot get behind; she is now a pro-life crusader. My nostalgia for the past finds no support in the present, a small blessing not to be discounted. In any case, in this story, the character dominates the actual person; I missed Dorothy, but I did not ‘transfer’ my crush to the actress. (Something that happened with Nafisa Ali, and accounted for the greater longevity of that crush.)

Robert Talisse On ‘Too Much Democracy’ And The Public-Private Distinction

Over at Aeon Magazine Robert Talisse worries that “our social lives” are being “tyrannised by democracy” because “choices about mundane matters…are all deeply tied to [our] political profile…social worlds are shaped by the travails of contemporary politics” and builds to the conclusion that “there is such a thing as too much democracy,” that “we must reserve space in our shared social lives for that which is not political.” Because the “saturation of civic life by democratic politics crowds out the fundamental bases for community and social cooperation….we must cultivate a…civic friendship,” by engaging “with each other on matters that are not political,” by talking with each other “about matters of substance that are not at all political.”

Roughly, let us not structure our personal lives and spheres by the political, by democratic politics, revolving around the expression and instantiation of political preferences; rather, let us let the political emerge from a set of personal micro-interactions, cultivating along the way, the ‘civic friendship’ that should underwrite a viable democracy. Talisse thus insists on reserving an exclusively personal space, free of politics, one from which the political—‘democracy’—would emerge; at least in this way, Talisse’s analysis reinforces an older public and private distinction. Here is the personal, and here is the political; the twain shall meet but on the terms dictated by the former; the latter is not permitted to ‘tyrannize’ the personal. (Incidentally, we might ask whether the problem that Talisse points to is specifically a problem of democracy or of any political system in which the personal is infected by the political?)

I agree with Talisse that the social world–as it is visible in his formulation–is structured by politics but I think we get a narrowly framed picture of what this structuring is like if we think of this only in terms of political preferences i.e., I’m picking and choosing my friends and family and acquaintances based on their and mine political preferences and tastes. For instance, my socially constructed race and gender, and my materially constructed class has a great deal to say about what my social spaces and thus, what my social interactions, are like. This is not a matter of my political preference; I am placed into certain social spaces by these attributes of mine, and those are determined by larger social materialities. Furthermore, I am susceptible and vulnerable to legal control in differential ways, depending on my race, class, and gender, resultant in a vector of social placement and comfort; this susceptibility is only partially determined by political preferences.

As these examples show, we certainly exercise many choices in structuring our social spaces but many of our spaces are structured for us; for instance, many school children in the US today grow up in a society that is far more sharply segregated than it was in the past. They have not chosen their schoolmates based on their preferences; their mates have been chosen for them. How free then is their educational attainment and their subsequent economic and physical placement in a particular city neighborhood?

So, I would suggest that while Talisse is right in pointing to the importance of the micro-personal interaction as a basis for larger politics and political formations, it is not clear to me that this suggestion will result in the kind of democracy-or-politics-free space desired. Those spaces of micro-personal interactions will be structured by class, by race, by gender: working class black folks are going to spend, in the US, most of their personal time with other working-class black folks; and middle-class white women are going to spend their personal time with folks very much like them. Now, it is a consequence of materialist (or feminist or critical race) analysis that these kinds of class (or gender or race) placements do determine political preferences in interesting and significant ways, so in fact, it turns that even these personal spaces are politically structured. Indeed, it is not quite clear whether even in the domains of the romantic or sexual such structuring can be avoided. The activities that Talisse suggests could be made the basis of a civic friendship–mundane social activities all of them–are quite plausibly viewed as being infected thus. And perhaps that is as should be is we understand politics as a community wide movement towards a common goal, a project of inherent plurality that implicates even the minor personal interactions.  The personal is indeed political.

The Self As Prison

In his review of Charles Simic‘s The Lunatic: Poems and The Life of Images: Selected Prose Phillip Lopate makes note of Simic’s “cultivation of awe,” his “opening himself to chance, that favorite tactic of Surrealists” and makes note of this pronouncement:

Others pray to God; I pray to chance to show me the way out of this prison I call myself.

I have written here about the difficulties and myths of ‘self-improvement’; one of the possibilities suggested by those difficulties is a terrifying species of realization, of self-discovery, perhaps the most terrifying possibility of all: that we want to change, but find that we cannot, and this knowledge of our inability to do so does not in turn bring about a corresponding diminution of the desire to change. (Hannah Arendt has written of the perennial “wish to escape the human condition;” we may also wish to escape our own personal version of that condition.) We are now locked in a hell of our own making, locked into an eternal ‘repetition compulsion,’ doomed to spend our days like a not-cheerful Sisyphus, one not reconciled to his fate. We wish to change; we find that the combination of this world’s arrangements and workings and our own capacities and inclinations and limitations do not permit such a change; we retreat, defeated time and again in our attempts to transcend ourselves.  We find failure and disgruntlement each time; but rather than accept defeat and ‘go home,’ we, unable to reconcile ourselves to this state of affairs, to the distance now revealed of a bridge too far, persist.

There is nothing noble or heroic about such persistence now; we are not possessed of an amor fati, we do not ‘own it’; we seek to distance ourselves from ourselves, but cannot. We are not reconciled to our being; we are tormented by ourselves, by the bars for this cage we have constructed on our own. Time on the couch does not help; we are urged to construct a narrative of our life that would make sense of the state we find ourselves in, and simultaneously suggest an onward path; we find ourselves unable to write this tale, to take the first step on a new road. And if we do, we find a familiar character populating that myth, we find familiar roadblocks. We are dogged, at every step, by ourselves.

Our ambitions, which almost always outstrip our abilities and capacities, may bring us to this pass; so might the ambition of others. This world’s orderings might suggest routes and journeys that are not for us to undertake. They require us to be not ourselves, and we cannot change.

This a terrifying state of affairs; all too many of us find ourselves in this state of being. Hell is here, on earth. It is not other people; as John Milton’s Satan had noted,

A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
What matter where, if I be still the same

Hell can be, and very often is, just us.