or else / just because

The last time I posted, summer hadn’t even happened yet.  And now it is so over.  I lost track of time a little bit.  And I ran out of my words.

The past five months or so have been unusually deadline-intensive (and we aren’t done yet): a logorrheic scramble that included the submission of the full draft manuscript for my second book project.

Most people who write insist that it’s a naturally cyclical process, that periods of being stuck will be followed by stretches of productivity … that give way, eventually, onto new deserts of wordlessness, which in turn lead to insights that beget the next profusion, and so on.  And that’s pretty much been my experience, though I don’t yet have the confidence to sit through the dry spells with poise, equanimity, and faithful anticipation of the return of my words.  Mostly I pass those seasons in torrents of profanity, interspersed with sniveling.

Professionally, I was super relieved when my creative mind finally got unstuck after months of feeling disordered and cottony.  This dislodging happened with just barely enough time left for me to meet my various and sundry writing commitments with the delivery of products that were reasonably complete and not too embarrassing.

But the urgency of these commitments artificially accelerated my progress back to writing.  This was not a steady and natural movement back into the circuit that links my ideas to hands to words on a page.  It was necessary and desperate.  The resultant work was decent, maybe even better than that in places.  But it did not, does not, feel quite like it is mine.  It feels familiar, but vaguely, as if composed on my behalf by someone who knows me very well.

Writing from the vantage of or else begets a particular kind of alienation.  I tend to idealize writing as the luxury part of my job, the part of my work that bears the least resemblance to general understanding of what “work” entails.  Especially now that I’m tenured, writing is the work that I “get” to do, at least theoretically.  But it doesn’t feel that way.

It’s hardly a revelation that work is supposed to indistinguishable from pleasure under late capitalism, and that this is a problem.   This affective blurring at the intersection of desire and necessity is part of what makes neoliberalism tolerable, and it’s particularly (though not uniquely) acute for academics.

But the work/pleasure nexus has been iterating itself differently in my writing practice lately.  Finding myself somewhat disconnected from the content, yoked to deadlines and editorial predilections rather the exploration and refinement of ideas, writing feels less like intellectual pleasure and less like creative work and more like mechanical habit.

Yeah, it was kind of like this.

After I submitted my manuscript draft I exhaled.  And then thought about how I was now freer … to do more work.  And not really any work in particular, no long-neglected pet project or some experimental new venture.  Just: work.

This kind of productivity is not the opposite of writer’s block, except in the most functional terms.  It’s a different kind of incapacity, to think for the sake of thinking, to write just because instead of or else.  Hence the long stretch of quiet in this space, and elsewhere in my life.

I have a few more commitments to satisfy, a few more writerly have-tos in the coming weeks.  And, now that I think about it, a handful after that.

Despite this, I want to reclaim just because writing.  At the same time, I want to insist on the difference between work and not-work.  This distinction is important, I think, for personal, mental hygiene reasons, but also political ones.  It’s a privilege, surely, to be able to enjoy one’s work.  But work itself is not the privilege.  And there is a cost to misrecognizing it as a pleasure.

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.




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.



in defense of talking about the weather

In “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes talks about the weather or, more precisely, talks about talking about the weather.  For farmers to talk about the weather, he says, is reasonable, because it bears directly on their actions and their labor.  His subsequent analysis implies that for the rest of us to talk about the weather is to partake of a bourgeois pseudo-physis, because for non-farmers, talk about the weather is merely descriptive speech without meaning or relevance.

Here I encounter a dilemma.  I’ve often had the feeling, particularly in my recent rereading of his gorgeous, gritty Mourning Diary, that Roland Barthes knows me better than I know myself.  But I kind of love talking about the weather, and so I’ve been trying to figure out the mechanics of that pleasure.

The big almost-story here on the East Coast this week was the possible approach of Hurricane Joaquin.  It turns out that if we had listened to the European meteorologists and their generally superior modeling systems, we would have known days ago that there was no reason to worry.  But even when the menacing forecasts are given with uncertainty and in the language of “low confidence,” they still have a power and a draw, compelling us to check the weather apps on our phones (I have four), to stay up later to watch television meteorologists prophesy on the news, and to even, occasionally, look up at the sky.

Of course, those of us—like me—who have the incredible privilege of living in sturdy houses and cities with solid infrastructures (by global comparison, even creaking, dilapidated Baltimore is more than adequate in this regard) thus have the privilege of speculating about severe weather without too much fear for life and property.

Those of us—like me—who do not encounter the natural world through our labor, for whom outdoors is primarily a site of voluntary recreation, who generally have the option to stay in if we prefer to, often see, rather than feel, the weather.

From space:
from space

In views that are abstracted and disproportionate:abstracted

And riotously colored:


The people who engineer those meteorological visualities for the public make them pleasurable.  They illustrate the weather lavishly for us.  Our access to these phenomena is intensely mediated, dependent; in this regard, Barthes’s description of our alienation from the natural world is astute.

But this mediation (I think) grounds us more firmly in the natural world, contextualizing us anew within it every time the map refreshes on the screen. To watch the weather is not so much to disconnect ourselves from the world but to access it through a different sensory register, the one we must shift into when we encounter phenomena beyond our reach, our ambit, our defiance.  Certainly, it is possible to talk about the weather idly or emptily.  But when we talk about the weather in anticipation of something extreme, it can also be (I think) a confession of our limited capacities—to know the natural world or to change it—and an invitation for others to keep our humble company in that elemental powerlessness.