on being behind

My calendar is a masterpiece.  I keep up on birthdays and pay my bills before they’re due and go to the doctor regularly and spend small fortunes on preventative maintenance. I’ve never been responsible for missing a flight.

I reckon that none of this would come as a surprise to people who know me at work.  As a professor, I’m punctual and reliable.  My classes begin and end at the appointed minutes.  I generally respond to student emails within a day.  I return graded papers promptly, and sometimes earlier than promised.  During my short stint this semester as an interim department chair, I handily kept the proverbial trains (and most of the meetings) running on time.

But otherwise, I am so behind.  When someone asks me how I am, “so behind” is an increasingly common answer (along with “fine” or “tired.”)  This behind-ness is concentrated heavily in my research agenda.  Of course, I meet deadlines in all but the most extraordinary circumstances, and sometimes even then.  But I still have this sense of being off, of lagging, of inertia, of delay.  Relative to what, I’m not sure.  Maybe nothing. But it’s there, and insistent, nonetheless.

Admittedly, outside the realms of obligations and have-tos, I’m often running late.  I text en route apologies for my tardiness.  I scoot into the yoga studio moments before the teacher hangs the “class in progress” sign on the door.  If restaurants and salons didn’t have grace periods on reservations and appointments, I’d have to do a lot of rescheduling.

But my experience of “behind” is different.  “Late” is concrete and quantifiable.  “Behind” is abstract.  “Late” is preventable with basic adult skills like time management and learning from past mistakes.  “Behind,” at least as I experience it, does not have a behavioral fix.  Lateness is basically a function of the laws of time and space, of their constraints.  Behindness, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to do with logic.  Instead, it’s a backward-looking perception of all that I didn’t do, and should have done, while time passes, heedless of my agenda or efforts.

I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.  With my research agenda.

I’m not alone in this, I don’t think.  My academic pals voice similar complaints.  “I am totally caught up on everything,” said no academic,  ever.

A couple of years ago, I read Sarah Sharma’s remarkable book, In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics.  Sharma develops the idea of “power-chronography” to capture the saturating overlay of power onto time in the domains of labor, embodiment, and social life. It would be absurd to compare the work that I do to that of the taxi drivers, for example, that she studies extensively; my situation is much more comfortable, far less precarious.  But all of the people that she describes in her book have jobs that vex their experiences of time.

Professor-ing has its own temporal idiosyncrasies.  We get a lot of breaks and time “off,” but this also means that we make a lot of transitions.  The interval between writing a thing and seeing it in print is yawning, and variable.  Every semester, in the classroom, we start from scratch.   Our workflows depend, in fundamental ways, on the whims of dozens of 18-year-olds.  Set arbitrarily to a 5-to-7 year cycle, tenure clocks tick, or get stopped.

In various ways, academics talk a lot about our time.  We extol the virtues of winter and summer breaks or sabbaticals, lament how fast they seem to go.  We note, appreciatively, the relative flexibility in our schedules.  We lament or humble-brag about how busy we are.  We evaluate ‘work-life balance’ and our allocations to each side of the hyphen.

These are all relatively tangible things.  “Behind,” on the other hand, is not.  Experiencing oneself as “behind” is, I think, central to the temporal experience of academic work.  It arises at the intersection of whatever psychic characteristics predispose us to pursuing this career and the practices of the institutions where we enact it.  In my own life, it underpins writing guilt (because if I was working instead of enjoying myself, maybe I wouldn’t be so behind).  It inspires me to say “yes” when I should probably say “no” or “not now” (because it’s more appealing to agree to a new project that I’m not behind on yet).  It prevents me from appreciating what I do accomplish (because the focused effort required to finish one thing left me even more behind on everything else).  And so “behind” perpetuates itself.

And I’m not sure what to do.  I work to capacity most days, while still endeavoring to preserve a life that is tolerable and meaningful outside my office.  So  I think about those workplace renegades who, finding themselves hopelessly deluged with email, simply zero out their inboxes with a wild “Select All” and “Delete,” on the assumption that if there was anything important, the sender would write again.   Theoretically, I could do the same thing with my calendar, tear out those old pages full of their undone to-dos.  Clearly, none of them were absolutely essential or really time-sensitive, so I’m not sure what I’m holding on to.  But somehow, I can’t bring myself to do it.

So I work suspended between my past expectations and hope, endlessly deferred, for a future in which everything is current, and I am always right on time.

“it might be, it could be, it is …”

Right around this time last year, I wrote about the affective pedagogy embedded in the work of loving the Chicago Cubs, how it might condition a fan to a form of hope disconnected from optimism and expectation.  And I mused that such an orientation might provide a meaningful alternative (really) to forms of forward-looking attachment that leave us perpetually disappointed, individually, and turn us into grasping subjects of neoliberal capitalism.

This year, everything looks different.  Not the neoliberal capitalism part: that’s still there. But the Cubs part, yes.  Last year, the Mets swept the Cubs in the NLCS.  This year, the Cubs are holding their own in the World Series.  This postseason, when people talk about ‘underdogs,’ they are emphatically not referring to the Cubs.  Crazy.

I grew up listening to Harry Caray call Cubs games, and he often narrated the flight of a long fly ball in anticipatory, increasingly exuberant stages: “It might be … It could be …” and then, if the shot cleared the outfield ivy, “It is!  A home run!”  Of course, most broadcasters of that era had such signature lines (my second, charmingly nonsensical, favorite is from Baltimore: “Go to war, Miss Agnes!”).  But it strikes me now that there is something essentially Cubs about “It might be, it could be, it is.”  To the extent that this triptych still resonates for Cubs fans, I suspect that the affective structure I wrote about before, and all of its promise, remains.  img_1863

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Rich Cohen reflected on a lifetime of Cubs disappointments, and speculated that so much might have been different if he’d grown up watching a winning team.  “Maybe,” he wrote,  “I’d have learned to cherish my fellow man and take yes for an answer and accept all the love that’s been showered on me.”  He also suggested that if the Cubs keep winning, Cubs fans will start losing their identity: “being a Cubs fan always meant something and now will mean something else.”

But I’m not sure that affective histories dissolve so quickly.  It’s true that Pollyanna-ish observers might take a still-very-hypothetical World Series win as a sign that good things inevitably come to those who wait, or some other such rubbish.  And it’s also true that lots of ballpark fans have been waving signs proclaiming that the Cubs, and Chicago, “deserve” to win it all this year.

I, too, am enchanted by the story of this postseason, mostly because it makes me feel like things could be other than they are, or have been, like something new is possible.  But “could be” is all I can count on, and really all I want.  “Could be” is the glittery essence of possibility.

And possibility forms the core of this affective magic.  It’s not the same as likelihood or even probability.  Possibility lives in might be-could be suspension.  Caray’s gruff singsong was not “It might be … It will be” or “It might be … It must be” or “It might be … It should be.”  Just might, and then, a few fractions of a second later, a little more surety but still no promises: could.  The very literal-minded might say that such subjunctive hedging is necessary because Wrigley Field is unpredictable, what with the wind and all.  Sure.  But that’s not really the point.

Sometimes, Caray was wrong: might be, could be, isn’t.  But that inaccuracy is as much a part of the field of possibility as other, jubilant, instants of rightness.  Possibility, at its most radical, entails unpredictability.

Contemporary systems of threat-assessment and risk-management expressly target unpredictability (see Louise Amoore’s The Politics of Possibility for a brilliant analysis of this phenomenon): in security, in markets, in human behavior.   Their preferred modes are anxiety, prediction, and preemption.  They cannot abide the space between “could be” and “is.”  Far too risky.  Just an inkling of “might” and they activate, begin engineering the unexpected away.

Obviously, sports fandom operates on a different, and arguably trivial, register.  But at our present, and wearisome, juncture, I’ll take an alternative wherever I can find it.  The Cubs have made it this far; we’re well past “might” and holding our breath in “could.”  “Is” would be awesome.  But if it doesn’t happen this year, there’s always next, or the one after that.

Possibility is endlessly renewable.  And to dwell in it, even for a few weeks in the fall, is to refuse the twin certainties of “won’t” and “will” and all the potentials and pleasures they foreclose.


on this, i have no quibble with garrison keillor

So I happened to be in the car today, with the radio on, just as the day’s installment of Writer’s Almanac was winding down.  I caught the very end of the featured poem, and Garrison Keillor’s signature closing: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”  And I was thinking about how much I love that advice, even though liking Garrison Keillor might be a little complicated, particularly as a way of framing a writing life.

I love that “be well” is first, how that placement intimates that being well is a precondition for doing good work. I love how there is no conjunction to modify the relationship between the first two instructions.  It’s not “Be well, BUT do good work,” which would imply that there is an inherent or necessary incompatibility between these two aspirations.  Despite what we often learn in graduate school: there isn’t.  And if we act as though there is, one or the other thing will inevitably suffer, probably the first, because (at least in my experience) the to-do list is way more durable than the body.  Relatedly, it’s not “Be well, OR do good work,” as if there is a trade-off.  Neither is it “Be well, AND do good work,” which – to my mind, at least – would instrumentalize being well purely into the service of work, like “Be well, SO THAT YOU CAN do good work.”  Just two simple imperatives, coexisting comfortably, with the space between them reminding us that sometimes being well requires taking some distance from doing good work.

“Keep in touch,” though, has always struck me as opaque.  For a long time, I assumed that G.K. was inviting me, all of us, really, to keep in touch with him.  In retrospect, probably not.  But the absence of an object is puzzling.  Even when he explains this signature line, G.K. doesn’t mention this last bit.  Keep in touch with whom?  Or what?  Maybe the answer is anybody, or anything.  Maybe: after you’ve taken care of yourself, after you’ve done your good work, maybe look up, and around, and see what, or who else needs your attention, and invest judiciously enough in the doing of your good work that you have something left for whoever, or whatever, that might be.



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.