I’m not angry

6 03 2017

Oh my god, I am so fucking angry.

At least once a day, every day, I am hit anew with the incredible fact that Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States, and that over 60 million of my fellow Americans voted for this. . . man, and that a good chunk of them approve of his job performance.

And I don’t know what to do about it.

Oh, yeah, I keep reading and thinking, but I’ve fallen off in every other way because it all feels too much like performing resistance and not enough actual resistance. I’m not a lawyer, can’t help with immigration; not rich, can’t afford to stuff money into empty pockets; and while I can do things, including writing (real writing, not just this blog), everything I can do someone else can do as well.

The anger is fine, anger is useful, but anger and helplessness enrages in precisely the way that will send me spinning into myself rather than out into the world, where the anger can be put to use and the helplessness dissipated. There actually are things to do, and I’m not doing them.

~~~

This is not just inward-anger: I am also angry at those fellow Americans who cannot be bothered to do the barest amount of work to educate themselves about politics and argumentation and reason and consequences. They’ll believe insane conspiracy theories and bat away any notion that logic or evidence have any role whatsoever in politics. They’ll burn the village to save it and if the village isn’t saved, well, then, at least it’s burned.

(Do I need the sidenote that political fevers cross boundaries, that bananapants may be worn by anyone who gets her march on? Fine, noted.)

I’ve said that Carl Schmitt gets something right in highlighting the friends/enemies distinction in politics, that theorists who forget this forget something essential about politics. But politics and, especially, governance, is about more than tribalism. Politics is not just war with words.

I have to remind myself of this, to not let my anger at Trump supporters transform me from citizen to soldier. If I’m angered that they can’t be bothered to perform some of the most basic duties of citizenship, I can’t forget that they are, in fact, my fellow citizens, and that I have obligations to something more than my tribe, regardless.

~~~

The anger manifested itself as moodiness this weekend as I watched the second and third seasons of The Fall.

I watched the first season around the time it came out, then just a bit of season two. This past weekend I watched the very last episode of season 3, then went back and filled in the rest. I don’t know if The Fall is any good—I admit to zipping through scenes that focused exclusively on the killer—but I did find it compelling.

Again, I was in a moody mood—had I been more upbeat I might have thought it all so boring—and there are some blind alleys, plot-wise, but I appreciated the sharper edge on sexual politics. Gillian Anderson’s Stella Gibson makes some shit decisions and is not a hero, but she is brave, and I wish I were as unflinching as she.

I think it was that sharper edge that pulled me in. As I said, I video-skimmed the killer’s story (yet another sexual-sadist-with-a-backstory who hates women) which likely had the effect of making more apparent the meanness of the culture in which he was able to kill. At one point the assistant chief constable—and one-time lover of Stella’s—attacks her; she fends him off, then, pityingly, tends to the wounds she inflicted. Later, he insists to her that he’s “not the same” as the killer; Stella agrees, then notes, “but you did cross a line.”

I don’t know why, but that exchange shivved me. I’ve never been a victim of sexual violence and haven’t had to deal with much harassment, but that notion, of having to tend to the feelings of a man who cares nothing for my own, well. Stella is tired of it, it’s clear, and all-too-practices in  maneuvering around it.

All of that maneuvering, all of those thickets and brambles, the constant need to pick burrs out of one’s hair and ignore the scratches and kick aside the rocks and duck the swaying branches and just get on with it. I’m not Stella, not by a long shot, but I felt a rather intense sympathy for her—a sympathy which morphed into empathy—that I didn’t when I first tuned in.

~~~

My reaction to The Fall made me think of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,  which was, apparently, initially titled Men Who Hate Women. (I didn’t love the book, thought the Swedish movie adaptation better, and didn’t read or see the second and third installments.) I once thought that first title a bit of a joke, a kind of over-the-top absurdism.

I don’t anymore.

No, no, #NotAllMen. But while I recognized almost immediately how shook I was by the acceptance of racism as manifested in Trump’s victory, only now are the quakes from the misogyny moving through me. I’m mostly over the shock of the racism; I’m just beginning to come to terms with how much women, as women, are despised.

Again, I thought I knew, thought long consideration—decades-long consideration—gave me clear sight. But, again, so much I didn’t see that was always right there.





It’s all too much

3 08 2012

The point is that evidence can be unreliable, and therefore you should use as little of it as possible. . . . I mean, people don’t realize that not only can data be wrong in science, it can be misleading. There isn’t such a thing as a hard fact when you’re trying to discover something. It’s only afterwards that the facts become hard.*

~Francis Crick

It’s no surprise that Crick is a theorist, is it?

I quite like this quote, and (I think) used it in my dissertation, but it also makes me nervous.

First, why I like it: It puts theory first, forces you to think of the evidence in terms of a theory in which it makes sense. If you let the evidence go first, you may end up hiking into a dead end, both because you’re misinterpreting the evidence as evidence (i.e., taking as fact something which is not, yet) and because you miss other bits because you don’t have a way of seeing those bits as something which matters.

But this is where the unease kicks in: Theory can mislead, as well. Thomas Kuhn noted this in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his arguments on paradigm shift, although Max Planck had the pithiest observation on this phenomenon: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

So, theory leads, and theory misleads.

Richard Rhodes, in his magisterial The Making of the Atomic Bomb, ticks off any number of discoveries which were missed by those with the most data because they weren’t able to see the data correctly.
The most well-known story is that of Frederick Smith, who didn’t discover X rays:

. . . not so unlucky in legend as the Oxford physicist Frederick Smith, who found that photographic plates kept near a cathode-ray tube were liable to be fogged and merely told his assistant to move them to another place. . . . Röntgen isolated the effect by covering his cathode-ray tube with black paper. When a nearby screen of fluorescent material still glowed he realized that whatever was causing the screen to glow was passing through the paper and the intervening air. If he held his hand between the covered tube and the screen, his hand slightly reduced the glow on the screen but in the dark shadow he could see its bones.

So is this a case of theory leading, or misleading? Or is this a third case, where a willingness to follow the evidence led to a hitherto overlooked phenomenon?

My guess: all three. Physics at the turn of the century was in the start of a creative tumult, a half-century active quake zone of discovery: old theories cracked under the pressure of irreconcilable data, new theories upended the known world and brought forth phenomenon which had previously hidden among the unknown unknowns, and all of this piled up and into the felt urgency to explain not just this new world, but a whole new universe.

There was too much of everything, a glorious and disorienting plenty on which one of the finest collection of minds in human history feasted; is it any surprise that pursuit of this course meant that dish was neglected?

All of this is a long way of saying I’m having a bitch of a time trying to make sense of my foray into medieval history. I don’t have a theory, don’t have a direction, and while I’m unbothered by—hell, actively defend—a certain amount of dilettantism, I’ve wandered enough to have become frustrated by my wanderings.

I’m not too worried, though. As frustrating as frustration is, it works for me, (eventually) crowbarring me out of my “it’ll come” complacency and into a “go get it” activity—which is to say, I’ll come up with a theory which will guide me to look at this, not at that.

I’m not doing the [kind of] science Crick did, so his observations on the process of discovery don’t necessarily translate across the fields, but he is right that if you’re going to find anything, it helps to know what you’re looking for.

(*As quoted in Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation)





The heaviness, the heaviness

17 04 2011

Family farms are amazing places.

You notice the barns, first (there’s always more than one barn), and, in Wisconsin, they tend toward the standard red. There’s usually a big barn, thirty or forty feet high, and then a smaller one, maybe around 20, 25 feet, and maybe another outbuilding, used for the farm equipment; there’s often a chicken coop thereabouts. If there’s not a silo, then there are a number of large cylindrical containers, and it’s not unusual to find a gas pump on the property.

The family farms I knew were dairy farms, and the milk-barn, where the cows went into their stalls twice daily for milking, tended to be low-ceilinged in the stalls area, although where the hay was kept there was, actually, a loft.

The farm house looked big from the outside, but it was usually quite cozy inside. The first floor would have the kitchen, a den, then maybe a formal living or dining room; the parents and kids’ bedrooms—and on these farms, there were usually a lot of kids—were on the second and third floors. Depending upon how large the family was, the younger kids would share rooms, and the older ones might have their own, or, they were all shared, divvied up by sex and age; maybe there were two full bathrooms.

Any trees on the property were near the house, or maybe there’d be a small stand to mark the edge of the property or on some spot where crops wouldn’t grow. Two-lane highways might cut through a property or serve as the dividing line between families; shoulders were gravel and often pitched steeply toward a ditch. If you came upon a tractor driving on the shoulder, you still had to swing wide around him, as the tractor usually trailed some equipment that spread across both lane and shoulder. It was rarely a problem; there’s not much traffic out on those country roads.

And there’s the smell. It’s almost always smelly on a farm, but it’s a clean smell, of manure and hay and dirt and animal, the kind you get used to and reminds you, simply, of country.

I’m thinking of one farm, in particular, as I write this, but it was the thought of another which prompted this post.

Jon Katz at Bedlam Farm posted on a 4-H visit to his mini-farm, for the kids to watch his farrier take care of his donkeys. Katz notes (correctly, I think) that urban and suburban parents today are over-protective of their kids, but that In farm areas, most families can’t afford to do that and don’t believe in it. In this and many other posts, he celebrates the hard and necessary independence of those farm kids.

Such hardy independence, however, has its risks.

As I read Katz’s post, all I could think of was RW. R. was in my brother’s class (two years ahead of me), and oh, was he a honey. He was popular with the guys, very popular with the girls, close to his younger sister J, who I later knew through theatre and track.

Word was she had to be sedated at his funeral.

R. was hit in the chest with a piece of farm equipment, and, being out in the country, was far from any hospital; by the time the ambulance got there—word was it got lost on its way to the farm—it was too late.

I think he was sixteen.

R. likely wasn’t doing anything on the day he died that he hadn’t done before, and, at sixteen, was certainly old enough to be doing anything that needed doing on that farm. He was one of those kids that Katz and I would both admire.

But as much as Katz wants to thrust the sweat and peeling paint and oh yes, the smell, into his viewers’ understandings of the family farm, as often as he cautions that there’s no such thing as a “no-kill” farm, as much as he wants us to see the hardness and the beauty of these places, the admonitions themselves often serve to turn that hard beauty into its own kind of light.

There is light there; he’s not wrong to see it. But not everything hard is beautiful and not everything beautiful is light, and sometimes what matters most of all falls beneath a heavy sight.





I’m lying by the road/because she cut off all my clothes

2 06 2010

Enough, already. Enough.

Enough with the rules, with the regs, with the rights and wrongs and victims and perps and goods and evils and innocent and damned. Enough.

No, I haven’t deliquesced into a moral puddle on the floor—I’ve got a fan in the window—or lobotomized myself with an icepick*. And I’m as cranky and squint-eyed as ever.

But I’m also finally, finally beginning to understand what Caputo and Vattimo are getting at with their radical hermeneutics and weak theology and the utter necessity of resignation.

A resignation of a particular sort, I hasten to add, one which begins rather than ends inquiry.

Part of this understanding began amidst my adjunct teaching, when I gave up punishing students for handing in work late. Just get it done, I now say. The work matters more than the date.

I could do that because the terms of my contract are clearly defined: I’m paid for x-number of hours, full-stop. I’m not trying to get tenure, not trying to impress colleagues with my dedication to departmental norms, not trying to impress students with how ‘hard’ I am. To get paid, I simply need to fulfill the terms of my contract.

But since I don’t get paid that much, I had to ask, So, why am I doing this? I’m doing this because I like it, because I think it matters, because I think the students should know this, because there is something more in the material itself.

I’m a pretty good teacher—not great, but not bad. But because I am finally learning to clear out the bureaucratic hedges which have occluded my pedagogical sight, I’ve given myself the chance to offer those students a glimpse of . . . of. . . of knowledge, of questions, of human being beyond those hedges.

Ahh, crap, this all sounds. . . woo, and I am most definitely not a fan of woo—metaphysics!—nor am I trying for some kind of vagueness as a way to avoid the hard edges of being. I do, after, still follow rules, still bitch when others don’t (is it really so hard to put your trash in the can?), and still impose rules on my students.

But the rules are provisional, practical in the most rooted sense of the term: as means to ends, not ends in themselves. Will this paper help the students learn something? Yes. Will punishing them for handing it in late serve any purpose? No.

And I’m lucky in my ability to dissolve some of these rules: I don’t have 150 students and two TAs who have their own work. Perhaps if I did I could work out something else, but, honestly, had I gone the tenure-track route at a large school, I almost certainly would have not only left those nice hedges alone, but planted a few more. The point, then, would have been to get tenure, and everything else would have been shaped to serve that purpose.

That’s not a rip on tenure-track faculty—some of my best friends have tenure—but a recognition of how one’s necessities get ordered, how my necessities would have been ordered, and without me quite realizing it.

Perhaps I would have come to it, eventually; perhaps, after earning tenure, I would have thought, Okay, so what was all that for?

This is what Vattimo means by nihilism: the shedding of the unnecessary, the recognition that almost nothing is necessary, so that one is confronted with the question, Now what?

I have resisted this, largely because I like the sharpness of edges, because I do hold to my allegiances, and because I not only do not want to let some people off their hooks, I actively want them to remain on the hook. I think there is a distinction between clear thinking and obsfucation, between teaching and manipulation, and between domination and liberation.

But these are, in the end, practical skills and political positions, and, as much as they matter, there is still that question beyond them: What for?

I don’t have the answers, don’t know if I even know what these answers would look like.

But, still, I am giving up: there’s too much to see.

(*Yes, there really was a type of lobotomy performed with an icepick: the transorbital  lobotomy. I’ve got pictures!)

h/t: J., for the 3pm walkabouts. . . .