Well, that was great …


I spent last week in sunny Lancaster, PA at the Society for the Study of Affect’s first ever Summer School.  Michael Richardson  (I admire his work so much!) and I co-taught a seminar on the theme “Affect // Violence // Mediation” with two groups of incredibly smart, generous, and #SSASSy participants.  I also facilitated two roundtable discussions on “Living an Academic Life” – just so grateful to everyone who shared their perspectives, struggles, accomplishments, and ideas for how to find, enter, or create compassionate intellectual spaces.

i wonder what it’s like to love your job …

… To say this is not to make a passive-aggressive complaint about mine (it is summer, after all).  Rather, to say this is to query the nature of the experience being conjured when people say “I love my job.”

Miya Tokumitsu offers a brilliant takedown of the “do what you love” mantra that seems to define the emotional imperative of neoliberal capitalism, particularly for creatives and knowledge-workers.  The problem with this formulation, she writes, is that it begets “the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate  — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.” The do-what-you-love model banishes menial-seeming work to the realm of the unloveable, taking certain types of workers along with it and compounding their chronic undervaluation.

Clearly, unequivocally, academics do not suffer in this way, even as we are carried along by the same current.  For those of us, like academics, who ‘get’ to do work that we (are expected to) love, devaluation takes place at the intersection of the two economies –material and affective — in which we labor.  Even as the kind of work that we do is idealized as culturally meaningful and personally fulfilling and hence infused with affective worth, our actual compensation often lags.  For academics, traffic in the currency of love is especially vexed, because so much of our labor is free, or virtually  free (Exhibit A: your last royalties check).  Loving what you do becomes compensation for this, and also for being regarded with derision in an anti-intellectual culture, for the ambivalence of our students, for the bureaucratic insults of the neoliberal university.  For all these reasons, I think Marc Bousquet’s “We Work” should be first-day-of-Ph.D-program required reading for everyone.

However, I want to ask a slightly different set of questions, about the actual dynamic that a person might be referring to when she claims to love her academic job.  But first, a quick detour through postcolonial theory.  In “In Terror, In Love, Out of Time,” Asma Abbas reflects on the ways that love becomes a vector for fear because it attaches us to things that might become objects of terrorism or violence, as the most devastating forms of either target our beloved objects.  Obviously, I’m writing about a radically different context, but I think Abbas’s work is helpful as a reminder of how loving something exposes us to various kinds of predations.  (Lauren Berlant’s Desire/Love might also be useful here.)  Loving one’s job — or one’s anything, really — too much is dangerous because it leaves us vulnerable to extrinsic and intrinsic forces.

To love something is to create a soft target for another entity that seeks to do you harm.  It is also to open yourself up to an internal undoing.  This is because love, fundamentally, is intersubjective.  It necessarily involves another being, some kind of interaction, even if that interaction is only imaginary or wished-for, and that interaction rewrites us, for better or worse.

But if one loves her job, who or what is the object of the feeling?  To what, precisely, is this affection being directed?  What is the implied or imagined object when one expresses her love for an academic job?  One’s students?  The act of teaching?  Colleagues?  One’s institution?  Its administration?  The pursuit of knowledge? Some vague notion of the academic enterprise?  How the work makes you feel?  The attachment to each of these objects brings its own kinds of risks, some perhaps more readily apparent than others.  For example, love for one’s colleagues risks mystifying our shared context of labor and the competition (financial and otherwise) that it fosters or rewards, and even the most well-intentioned or benevolent of institutions are mechanisms of subject-formation that operate as easily by consent as coercion.

But I think the most dangerous might be the love of how the work makes you feel.   In any of the other instances, it is possible — if logistically difficult — to detach.  We can attempt to change jobs, renegotiate our positions, coast on tenure, invest less in teaching, etc.  But to disconnect from a feeling is far more difficult.  Even as loving one’s job with this kind of meta-feeling might increase, at least temporarily, the amount or intensity of the pleasure we can derive from our work, it opens us up to new kinds of exploitations and injuries.  We work all the time to chase, restore, or preserve that feeling, toggling between frustration when we cannot access it and greed for more when we can.

The danger of loving one’s work becomes most acute in the breach.  Personally, the the loss of love for my work often functions paradoxically to make me want to work more, as I am always certain that the next project, or the next, or the next will be the one to reinvigorate it.  So I am perpetually overcommitted and at least a little worn out or disenchanted, but still saying “yes” because some part of me reasons that working more will make me love working more.

And to the extent that I’m not alone in this pattern (and my anecdotal evidence suggests that I am not), this matters because it shows how love, and the pursuit of it, works to serve the institution’s best interest.  In the moments when we see or experience our work as something less than loveable, the illusion threatens to break, to reveal work for what it is, and all it ever was: work.  And theoretically, that revelation should make us want to work less, to take some time off for not-work.  But instead, reverses that dynamic and draws us back in more deeply, encourages us to work harder despite our circumstances being unchanged.  Of course, when we love another person, there are often very good reasons to resist the temptation to walk when they seem unloveable.  But this is not that.

Just as we can be good, or kind, to people that we do not love, I want to find an affective orientation to my work that enables me to do it thoughtfully, conscientiously, and well without ever loving it again.



empathy and the “even worse” in another photo from syria

Just over a month ago, it happened again.  Another picture of a suffering Syrian child and another chorus of certainty that this picture would be the one to awaken the global consciousness, heretofore lacking, necessary to end this intractable, sprawling conflict.

Despite knowing better, I wondered if the teary-eyed optimists were right.  But at the time, busy busy, all I could do was affix a little sticky note to the inside of my planner, as a reminder to post something soonimg_1794.

Of course, many other observers beat me to it, including the newsmedia itself, which shifted into meta-commentary almost immediately, attending far more to the viral circulation of the video and extracted stills of Omran than the story of the airstrike in which he was injured and his home destroyed.  Deviating from the conventional wisdom that graphic images of casualties (especially children) elicit more sympathy from viewers, an article in the New York Times surmises instead that “it may be the relatively familiar look of Omran’s distress that allows a broader public to relate to it.”  Accordingly, it published an curated collection of readers’ responses to the photos.  And it also provided an excursus on its decision to feature this particular photo so prominently, given the steady stream of ostensibly similar images begotten by this conflict.  Ultimately, its explanation of the image’s power is essentially tautological:

One reason the photo of Omran has tugged at so many heartstrings around the world is that the boy — with his innocent stare, just to the side of the camera’s lens — triggers in many a sometimes hard-to-come-by emotion in today’s world: empathy.

The author goes on to explain that this image is ideal for social media: gritty enough to be moving but not so much as to be off-putting.

Other news outlets make a comparison that would have been unthinkable a year ago, intimating that this photo might be more powerful than those of Alan Kurdi.  A commentary published in The Independent describes this new image as “even worse” than the photos of Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach.  But of course, when Kurdi’s photo went viral last fall, observers endowed it with a similar comparative advantage.  At the time, it seemed that this photo would succeed where previous representations of the migrant crisis – like the truck abandoned on the side of an Austrian highway with the bodies of 58 migrants decomposing inside – had failed to elicit widespread compassion.

Daqneesh became the new affective frontrunner, for as long as it lasted.

Even if viewers were legitimately, verifiably moved by the site of Daqneesh’s body, feelings are fickle, and already, there is competition.  Not from any of the countless, and largely unnamed, children featured in the grim litany of new photos from Syria, Aleppo in particular, but instead from a 6-year-old American boy named Alex, who wrote President Obama a letter in which he offered Daqneesh a place in his New York home.  Now, the top results from a Google News search for “Omran Daqneesh” belong to this quixotic show of hospitality. (I’ll write more about this, and its connection to affective criteria for American exceptionalism, soon.)

Since then, the ceasefire has collapsed and the Syrian government, backed by its Russian allies, has reintensified its aerial bombardments of rebel-held territories.  According to one estimate, 192 Syrian children died in September.

Meanwhile, spectators continued to refine their emotional appetites, while the organizations that feed them insisted that any image powerful enough to gratify them would surely work geopolitical magic at the same time.



a journey of 8500 miles begins with …


…  a layover in Newark.

I’m on my way to Hong Kong for “Imperial Benevolence: U.S. Foreign Policy in American Popular Culture Since 9/11.”  Thanks to the organizers for the tantalizing invitation!

I’ll be discussing a new project called “Imperial Cry-Faces: Women Lamenting the War on Terror.”  You can click here for an abstract.

And here’s a preview of the first couple of pages …

“It’s okay,” she says through her tears, patting the bald eagle on the head.  She has shifted her torch and tablet to the crook of her left arm, and stretched out her right to console her feathered friend, who weeps with his talons wrapped around a flagpole extended over the waves.  This crayon drawing of a crying Statue of Liberty—by an elementary school student named Eddie Hamilton from Knoxville, Tennessee—is held by the Library of Congress as part of its September 11, 2011 Documentary Project.[i]  But young Eddie was far from the only person to imagine this kind of emotional life for the cast-iron woman.  One of his classmates imagined her similarly distraught, and so did a number of political cartoonists, along with more than a few tattoo artists (as I discovered serendipitously during an internet search).  But if crying for the victims of the September 11th attacks is so necessary and so automatic that even a statue can do it, the appropriate emotional response to the wars that followed the attacks is much harder to discern.  In my current book project, entitled Figuring Violence: Affect, Imagination, and Contemporary American Militarism, I trace the currents of affection, admiration, gratitude, pity, and anger that circulate around privileged objects of sentimental investment: children, military spouses, veterans with PTSD and TBI, detained enemy combatants, and military working dogs.  Here, however, I ask a different question: who cries for U.S. empire?  Perhaps the passing of time and the balms of revenge and pre-emption have offered Lady Liberty the same comfort that she extended to the eagle.  But apparently not everyone can survey the landscape of contemporary American militarism with so stiff an upper lip.

Accordingly, this paper maps the intersections of gender, sadness, and imperial violence as embodied by the crying female protagonists who populate the American media landscape of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).  The ruthless interrogator who weeps quietly at the end of Zero Dark Thirty, the drone operator whose eyes spill over during every strike in The Good Kill, and the CIA agent who sobs theatrically all the time, over everything, in Homeland: these women do the lethal affective work of empire.  And it makes them feel bad … not necessarily bad about it, but certainly bad around it.  My goal here is not simply to analyze these representations of emotionally frail female warriors; rather, I want to consider the political and emotional complexities of their crying.  This inquiry emerges from my abiding curiosity about the role of emotion in contemporary American militarism and, more specifically, my skepticism about the capacity of sentiment to challenge it.  Marita Sturken has argued that in the aftermath of September 11th, “the paradoxical effect of the nation under threat is that modes of sentiment that might have been perceived as weakening its stature become the terrain through which it is recuperated.”[ii]  In this way, feeling bad for the victims of U.S. imperialism coexists easily with ideas of American exceptionalism, on the logic that only so enlightened a nation would be sensitive enough to lament its casualties.

Two assumptions about the act of crying, in general, inform my analysis here.  First, tears do not always lend themselves to interpretation.  Anyone who has ever tried to soothe an inconsolable child or has found themselves crying without really knowing why understands this intuitively.  Tom Lutz, in his singular volume on crying, identifies this inscrutability at the heart of the interpersonal dilemma that crying poses, because crying appears to be such an insistently communicative behavior.[iii]  Second, tears, like any other emotional phenomenon, have both individual and structural origins.  Ann Cvetkovich, in her work on depression, raises the possibility that systems like neoliberal capitalism, along with war, states of exception, and intense securitization might manifest in individual depressions.[iv]  Working from these premises, my focus here is not so much on the narrative contexts in which these female protagonists cry, but rather on how their crying might register the historical moment from which these texts emerge, and what kinds of affective pleasures and pedagogies they might offer their audiences.

The act of crying, at least in contemporary Western cultures, is gendered feminine.  Lutz notes that in canonical depictions of crying, like literature or epic poetry, men cry, but predominantly about matters of state, like war, peace, and political ideals; women’s tears are reserved for the personal.[v]  Yet the films and television show I analyze here deviate from that pattern, at least partially, as all the female criers emote for reasons that cannot be reduced to individual woe (though many critics, both within the diegetic universe of the pieces and in commentaries about them interpret their crying as signs of personal weakness).  Elisabeth R. Anker’s work on the ascendance of a melodramatic style in American politics since the mid-twentieth century suggests a pervasive emotionalism in U.S. policy, both domestic and foreign.  The melodramatic style, as Anker describes it, “casts politics, policies, and practices of citizenship within a moral economy that identifies the nation-state as a virtuous and innocent victim of villainous action.”  She continues: “By evoking intense visceral responses to wrenching injustices imposed upon the nation-state melodramatic discourse solicits affective states of astonishment, sorrow, and pathos through the scenes it shows of persecuted citizens.”[vi]  Melodramatic political discourses, like melodrama itself, are driven by the affliction of the innocent and the helpless; translated onto the nation-state, they “draw upon a moral economy that locates goodness in national suffering, and that locates heroism in unilateral state action against dominating forces.”[vii]  Hence the weeping Statue of Liberty.  Conversely, the crying ladies of Zero Dark Thirty, Good Kill, and Homeland cry from positions of state-sanctioned power.

[i] Eddie Hamilton, “It’s OK,” 2001, Library of Congress American Folklife Center, AFC 2001/015: gr015d.  Available at https://www.loc.gov/item/afc911000239/.

[ii] Marita Sturken, “Feeling the Nation, Mining the Archive,” Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies 9, no. 4 (December 2012): 353-364, quot. 357.

[iii] Tom Lutz, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999), 19.

[iv] Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 11-12.  She also contends that most theorizations of these systems are too abstract to capture their emotional consequences for individuals.

[v] Lutz, 64.  Of course, when women don’t cry in situations where they apparently should, they are regarded as unfeeling at best, suspect at worst.  For example, many people have noted that Mariane Pearl (the widow of Daniel Pearl, a journalist who was beheaded by Pakistani militants in early 2002) does not cry in public.  The filmic adaptation of her story, A Mighty Heart, reflects this.

[vi] Elisabeth R. Anker, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 3.

[vii] Anker, 31.



civics lesson

Mine is not a tragic story of disenfranchisement.   Mostly, it’s about a mistake and my chagrin.  But also an unintentional affective instruction in the vicissitudes of citizenship, will, and agency.

On the day of the Maryland primary, eager to do my civic duty, I untethered myself from my laptop and headed out to vote.   I am quite thoroughly unimpressed by any of the candidates for president, but was very keen to vote in the local elections.  I’ve become deeply fond of Baltimore, and fallen totally in love with my neighborhood, and so I felt invested in a way that is unfamiliar to me, but instructive as a reminder of how it feels to want to belong to something, or someplace.  Voter registration card and ID (just in case) in hand, off I went.

voting booth
Schoolhouse Rock: Why didn’t you warn me?

I proffered my documents to the friendly election worker, who typed my name into her computer and then squinted at the screen.  She asked me to confirm my date of birth and my address.   I did.  More squinting.  And then she read aloud, pausing heavily between each word, the error message my information had generated: I was ineligible to vote in the primary because I had not registered with a political party.

Philosophically, my Independent status is a response to my profound disappointment with the Democrats and my sense that the two-party system is less than ideal.  It’s also a holdover from my time in Ohio, which has an open-primary system, so free-thinking “Independents” like yours truly can simply saunter into the polling place on primary day and request whichever ballot they’d prefer.

Not so in Maryland.  And so I left the polling station in defeat, taking the long way around to avoid the cheerful electioneers whom I had so confidently stiff-armed as I breezed past on my way in, saying I did not need their flyers because I already knew who I would be voting for.

Certainly, this failure is my fault for not learning the Maryland voting laws (and not trying to vote in a previous primary election during the six and a half years that I have lived in Maryland prior to this one – I am a latecomer to this particular civic obligation.)  And I take comfort in the fact that I am not the only person who thinks that this current electoral system, with its seemingly arbitrary variability from state to state, is a bit of a shambles.

But the thing that surprised me the most was the intensity of my own anger, muddled with embarrassment, at what transpired.  Once my ire had waned, I realized that in many ways, the experience of not voting was much  more interesting than the experience of voting would have been, affectively.

For as much as I think and write about citizenship, and argue often that it is an affective as well as a political phenomenon, I often forget-by virtue of my privilege, for sure-how it feels.

There was my initial enthusiasm, my feeling of purpose as I set out on this civic errand. This feeling was pronounced, but I can’t quite specify its origin or orientation – a reminder, I guess, of how the abstract notion of citizenship can inspire us to act on motivations we might not be able to articulate.  I was eager to participate in the political life of my community, even as I knew, rationally, that my one lonely little vote was not going to make a difference.  And yet.

Because I am so used to exercising my franchise, and accustomed to the state’s recognition of my citizenship, my first reaction to the election worker’s pronouncement of my ineligibility to vote was noncomprehension.  I was befuddled, and heard myself asking repeatedly for clarification.  The election worker fidgeted nervously (though I don’t think I looked like someone about to make a scene) and asked if I wanted to “talk to someone.”  No, thank you.  My confusion reflects, I think, what happens in the space beyond the state’s matrix of intelligibility and recognition, where rights and procedures become incompatible.

And then I was embarrassed.  By my own lack of preparation, but also, and more sharply, by my (inevitable) failure, the foolishness of my attempt.  I imagined the election workers and the other, successful voters, shaking their heads and chuckling once I was clear of the elementary-school gymnasium.  I was reminded how exclusion from the body politic feels, and how ludicrous demands for inclusion can suddenly seem when they are denied.

By the time I got home, I was angry, but diffusely and aimlessly, stomping mad at the whole ridiculous system.  I Googled the laws governing Maryland primaries just to be sure I wasn’t the victim of bureaucratic incompetence.  Nope.  Not this time.

So I remained angry until the election results came in, and somehow the revelation that my hypothetical votes would have been inconsequential made the whole thing more palatable, a cold resolution to the abiding conundrum posed by the relationship between individuality and the democratic process.

And now my dilemma is whether to declare a party affiliation so I can vote the next time around, a possibility that strikes me as disingenuous and expedient in equal measure.





Je suis …

As governments all over the world were lighting their architectural landmarks in black, yellow, and red in a temporary display of supra-national affiliation and social media users were applying the same wash to their profile photos, a different kind of response was also coalescing.

Sometimes accompanied by the image of frites giving the finger, “Je suis sick of this shit” provided a wry alternative to the effusive proclamations of honorary and self-appointed Belgian-ness afforded by the more familiar “Je suis Brussels.”  In a recent essay, Pamela Druckerman, an American ex-pat in Paris, cast her vote for this version of solidarity .  For her, this “Je suis” captures the exasperated sadness that attends the too-familiar rituals of fear, hand-wringing, and gradual return to normal following terrorist attacks in Europe.

I want to offer a different endorsement, on the grounds that this “Je suis” points to a more ethically durable, and substantive – stay with me here – response to such atrocities than the tamer, sweeter “Je suis”es that preceded them.

Following the 2015 massacre of staff at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and concomitant spate of attacks, supporters worldwide renamed themselves, proclaiming “Je suis Charlie” at protests, on placards, in cartoons, and across social media.  Subsequently, the form of the”Je suis” declaration would be recycled many times over, with every new atrocity.

A double entendre that could mean either “I am” or “I follow” (though my hunch is that the preferred meaning is the former, and the one more likely to be understood by the non-Francophone world), “Je suis” is surely a compelling acknowledgment of one’s capacity to be changed, elementally, by the encounter with violence.  “I am” is a way of identifying with the victims; “I follow,” a more active verb, professes a willingness to reorient oneself toward them.

Either way, however, I want to suggest that “Je suis Charlie” model presents a too-narrow way of responding to these events.

My concern is not so much that “Je suis” loses something in the endless repetition, though there is good reason to be wary of anything that is too readily hashtagified, condensation indicating that whatever thing is more brand than substance.   Indeed, more than one person has tried to trademark it.

Rather, it seems to me that the original “Je suis” makes a specious claim to victimization and overstates the “Je suis”-er’s capacity to ameliorate the suffering of those who were directly victimized.

After all, relatively few people worldwide actually are Charlie, or Paris, or Beirut, or Brussels.  We might increasingly have the sense that we have the potential to become any of those entities, that we are vulnerable, perhaps even likely to encounter violence on that scale. But to claim rhetorical authority on those grounds risks displacing attention off the actual Charlie, Paris, Beirut, Brussels and onto the person making the proclamation and evincing anxiety they might some day be on the receiving end of a “Je suis” promise.

Relatedly, to claim an shared identity  based on a sympathetic understanding of tragedy is ethically shallow, but also profoundly, and problematically, contingent.  Roughly a year after the attacks on its offices, the editors of Charlie Hebdo encountered the limit of “Je suis Charlie” solidarity in the form of Alan Kurdi.  Making an astute but gauchely provocative observation about the fickleness of European sympathy for migrants, Charlie Hebdo ran a cartoon envisioning an adult Alan Kurdi as a “groper” terrorizing women, a drawing that included an inset of the photo of the dead boy on a Turkish beach.  The cartoon provoked an instantaneous, and almost uniformly hostile, reaction, as people all over the world took to social media to question whether they wanted to “suis Charlie” after all.  This revealed that the loyalty elicited by the attacks was conditional, and the pledge to be or to follow only in force until another, more sympathetic victim came along.

On the other hand, “Je suis sick of this shit” represents a more ingenuous and durable claim.  “Sick of this shit” clarifies the translation of “suis,” so that the only logical meaning is “I am.”  Without the semantic ambiguity that could also imply “I follow,” this “Je suis” is meaningfully passive, and underscores the relative helplessness of the speaker to remedy the situation of the victims.  It marks the simple fact of existence, and co-existence with them, as well as with the threat of another attack.  Declining to promise action, it names an affective orientation and, in the process, accurately marks the limits of of the individual’s agency.

To greater or lesser degrees, anyone aware of the attacks that inspire us to “Je suis” could plausibly be “sick of this shit.”  This identity is not tied to a particular place,  not predicated on someone else’s suffering, and does not lay claim to victimhood.  Largely unfettered from national affiliation, it is a cosmopolitan refusal of both defeat and jingoism.  Inclusive without being presumptuous, it wobbles-as many of us do in the aftermath of such attacks-between capitulation and resistance.




time off / be productive

Being on sabbatical is not as uncomplicated as I expected it to be.  I mean, it’s fantastic. And the thought of how I will eventually not be on sabbatical is almost too unbearable to entertain (and yet, there it is, every day, when I look at my calendar).  But it also amplifies all the various forms of utter lunacy  mental anguish that rattle around the interiors of pretty much every serious academic I know, including me.

It took me about a month to figure out that sabbatical is hard (and here is the point where everyone who is not on sabbatical starts feeling stabby) because it’s this massive contradiction: Time Off to Be Productive.  Okay.  And like all contradictions that originate in institutions, it’s left to individual subjects to negotiate them with virtually no guidance and a keen awareness of the stakes of getting it wrong. So I’ll work on that.

So far, my negotiation has taken the form of really acute, and generally fruitless, writing guilt.

No writing guilt here …(Pablo Picasso, “Femme Ecrivant,” 1931-32)

But it’s also increased my skepticism of all the gestures that institutions and other academics make toward “work-life balance.”  Right out the gate, I’d like to suggest that, as a concept, work-life balance is a crock (and I was so cranky when I Googled that very phrase and discovered I didn’t invent it).  And insofar as institutions advocate it with an eye toward increasing productivity, it’s a little too cozy with neoliberal imperatives to work for me as an aspiration.  “Work-life balance” is essentially a soft mandate for employees to work out structural tensions, contradictions, and responsibilities themselves, shouldering all the risks associated with failing to do so, while sharing the benefits of success with the institution.

Too often, I think, academic “work-life balance” becomes just another thing to fail at, and so it devolves into an unfunny punchline about ‘getting to choose which 60 [or 80, or whatever] hours a week to work.’  Academics, I think, can rightfully aspire to more than that.  But so few of us do.  On the other hand, the people who do seem to manage that balance become objects of envy or skepticism to the rest of us poor fools who are groping around for it … and on the rare instances when I seem skate into it (very temporarily), it feels like a dirty secret.  In the absence of good models for how to achieve that balance, I often just default to work, because that’s a thing I know how to do, should always be doing.

I think “work-life balance” reflects a similar incommensurability to that embedded in Time Off/Be Productive.  Which is not to say that sabbaticals are a crock.  Sabbaticals are marvelous and necessary and I am so grateful for mine (really).  It’s just that they refract the dilemmas inherent in neoliberal approaches to academic work, filtering them in more gently but also, I think, more insidiously.  The experience of Time Off to Be Productive aids, I think, in the formation (or buttressing, if you were already there – I was, for sure) of subjectivities that internalize, and indeed run on, the demands of productivity.  And in the absence of an institution that metes out reprimands for failing to do so, I do that work on its behalf.  Of course, I can’t fire or un-tenure myself, but I can antagonize myself with unrealistic expectations, denial of true rest or time away from work, and nonstop internal chattering about squandering my time and generally being a failure.  Done, done, and done.

With a few extra moments to reflect on my attitudes and behaviors, and maybe those of the people around me, afforded by my Time Off, I can see a bit more clearly the costs of Being Productive.  Too often, “work-life balance” amounts to a thin compromise, tiny corrections to make unreasonable expectations (some, but not all, self-imposed) more humane and, perversely, more sustainable.  Things like avoiding email after certain hours or on weekends, setting boundaries around time invested in students, giving oneself permission to say ‘no.’  That’s the work side, and even those commitments erode, whether by incessant demands or the difficulty of establishing new patterns when so many others benefit from the damaging ones we usually maintain.  On the life side, maybe it ends up being time for family and friends (but set rigidly aside and often spent calculating opportunity costs of missed work).   Efforts to get more exercise or prepare healthier food (but postponed until we’re too tired or overwhelmed to enjoy them).

Of course, I am well aware that my tenured life is relatively cushy, and that these kinds of problems are derivatives of tremendous privilege.  And all of this grousing underestimates the extent to which academic work can be fulfilling, energizing, even restorative.  But I don’t hear many people talk about it that way, and I’m not sure how many of us experience it in those affirmative registers.  Except on sabbatical or over the summer, maybe.  Which is a problem.

More to say on this, surely, but it’s my sabbatical and I need to get back to work.



all the best,

My very favorite tweet on Shit Academics Say:


Funny because it’s true, of course, butt it suddenly strikes me as very odd.  Look how illuminating social media can be!

I suspect that most of us academics have our own taxonomies of email closings.  I do.

“All the best,” is my go-to: administrative, scholarly, pedagogical.  In the absence of strong feelings about the recipient or the content of my email, I use this.  And I think that might be a problem (about which more below).

I recently tried “All my best,” for correspondence with a person to whom I was especially grateful.  At first, it made me feel really sincere and human.  But then it made me feel promiscuous.

Speaking of sincerity, it turns out that “Sincerely,” is the one I use when I’m not feeling particularly sincere.  My instinct is to use this for an email that is stern, serious, maybe a little cold … this is for those where-is-your-paper? queries and gentle reprimands of wayward students.  It’s for those circumstances when wishing the best seems disingenuous or inappropriate, but conveniently ambiguous (it can be read as “I sincerely hope you have not turned your paper in because you got mauled by a bear” or “I sincerely wish you’d turn in your effing paper.”)

And when my reprimands are not-so-gentle, I dispense with the closing altogether.  The austere “-Prof. Adelman.”  I’m not sure what the “-” signifies in this instance.  Maybe a withholding or subtraction of “the best” that I previously might have bestowed.

On the other hand, when I’m corresponding with a colleague (including those I know well, or respect, or genuinely like), I say even less: “-r.a.a.”.

Taken together, this reveals that the people to which I wish “the best” are those for whom I have least invested in seeing that come to fruition.  Excepting the “-r.a.a.” crowd, it appears that I am most honest with the “-Prof. Adelman”-ers, for whom I express no good will at all, just a neutral affirmation of my own textual existence.

My only other habitual deviation from “All the best,” is “Take care,” which I use quite selectively, most often in professional contexts for students in some kind of crisis.  But this, too, is curious, for at the precise moment when they might actually need the best given to them by some external magic, I instead imply that they might want to fend for themselves.  What I am really intending with “Take care,” is to use my professorial authority – such as it is – to encourage them, give them permission, to prioritize their own well-being in a difficult period, but it’s a curious way of communicating that.

This bit of introspection makes me wonder about how variations of “Best” became hegemonic in academic corresponding.  I have a vague recollection of making the switch myself (though I can’t remember what I used before it), sometime in my later years of graduate school, but I’m not sure why, other than a sense that it was the right thing to do, a subtle way of performing my apprehension and mastery of the subtleties required to be a credible academic.

But what, really, is the substance of “All the best,”?  Of what does the “best” consist?  And does the definite article preceding it imply that there is a consensus about what “the” best is, or presume that I and my correspondent are in agreement on this matter?  Do I have the authority to distribute it?   And is anyone really entitled to “all” of it, whatever it is?  Have they earned it simply by reading to the end of my message?

I’m wondering about the imperatives behind “All the best,” both affective and ideological.  It is a tiny, reflexive expenditure of affective effort from me; to prove I am a credible academic, I demonstrate that I wish the best for anyone who crosses my path, regardless of whether it’s true or I know them at all.  Moreover, it’s a way of partaking, I think, in the fantasy of the ‘good life’ that Lauren Berlant and others have critiqued of late, and perhaps also of locating it within the sphere of academic work.  It’s a three-word replication of neoliberalism, while the fragmentary nature of the phrase, without verb or actor, implies that one might simply call “the best” into being by force of will.



Dear Cubs, Thanks for the Affective Pedagogy

Watching the Cubs lose to the Mets last week for the fourth and final time, I was more profoundly disappointed than I expected to be.  I wanted to have a reason to watch the World Series, but not only: I wanted to believe that things could be different, that the stars could align in new ways, notwithstanding curses and patterns and decades of the same frustrations.  The game ended just before midnight and as I sat on the edge of the couch reflecting, blearily, on this compounded disappointment, I felt a little knot of sadness constrict in my throat, and then felt it unravel almost immediately and almost completely at a single thought: wait ’til next year.

“Wait ‘Til Next Year” captures the abiding essence of what it is to be a Cubs fan (lovingly visualized in a plucky  documentary by that very title), but it also suggests a way of drawing sustenance from  a hopeless-seeming world, in which the stars cling stubbornly to familiar configurations.

Having recently been up to my ears in affect theory, it’s hard not to think about this doggedness in terms of Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism.”  According to Berlant, “the affective structure of an optimistic attachment invovles a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world become different in just the right way.”  This kind of cruelty, she writes, supplies “the ‘hard’ in a hard loss”; the loss is costly in itself, made more damaging by its violation of the optimistic attachment underpinning it, while that optimism makes the loss more catastrophic yet by compelling a renewal of that fantasy.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 13: A detailed view of the shirt of a Chicago Cubs fan prior to game four of the National League Division Series between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on October 13, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

But I’m not sure that’s what is happening here.   Instead, “Wait ‘Til Next Year” is a gently expectant futurity, unattached to any specific outcome.  The “next year” is perpetually renewable – there will always be a next year, and any next year could be the next year that we’ve been waiting for, or not, but okay – there will be another after that.  The open-endedness of the timeframe means that no one is making any promises, and so offers a way to look forward with minimal risk of disappointment.  And then there is the pleasure of the waiting itself.  The uninterrupted string of next years since the 1908 World Series has conditioned a form of waiting that can be an end, or achievement, in itself; there is no plausible telos other than another next year (guaranteed) and the sweetness of re-encountering that undangerous hope anew.

In this way, I find the “Hey Hey!” and “Holy Cow!” (or “Holy Mackerel!” depending on one’s preference) with which local announcers and fans greet any good Cubs news to be particularly evocative.  These nonsense exclamations, rooted in Cubs history but untethered from any actual signification, suggest a capacity to be surprised, delighted, an openness to a happy event but no reliance upon it, really, to sustain that hopefulness.   753472a28393a574b945ae89162c1d94

Of course, the cruelly optimistic attachments that Berlant considers are much more damaging (to formations like neoliberal capitalism or heteronormative family forms), much weightier than sports fandom.  But undoing those kinds of attachments, if it is possible at all, takes practice, and that practice might take the form of lingering, waiting, in quotidian forms of fulfillment and despair, expecting that each will follow the other as surely as next year will follow this.

Feeling good about feeling bad about Aylan Kurdi

aylan kurdi (cropped)

Everyone has been talking about the photos of Aylan Kurdi, and I have been wondering why that might be.  Considering the experience of looking at the photos, I suggest that these very difficult images actually make emotional and intellectual work of spectatorship relatively easy.  So I published this piece in Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture to think this through.