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.

white-rabbit
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.

homes away from home

IMG_1516
Home is where you make it, I guess? (The Goldfish Market in Kowloon)

Recently, it occurred to me that, to the (very limited*) extent that I believe in human goodness, I have encountered it most when I am traveling, especially when I am traveling abroad.  Whether in the form of serendipitous connections with other visitors who are following similar itineraries or the helpful local who comes to my aid as I am puzzling over a public transit map, most of my trips have been animated-and occasionally saved from ruin-by the kindness of strangers.  Of course, it hasn’t all been roses (thinking here of the guy in the Old City of Jerusalem who tried, in the span of about seven minutes, both to steal my wallet and persuade me to marry him in exchange for a whole heap of shekels).  And I’m sure I’ve given offense innumerable times through bumbling ignorance.

But in reflecting on my best experiences, and struggling to categorize the wash of feelings they elicit (relief, gratitude, even joy), I’m beginning to wonder if they provide a tiny peek into what it feels like to receive hospitality, which I’ve been thinking about more intently for the last few months, particularly because it figures in this paper I’m hashing out.

Drawing extensively from Judeo-Christian traditions of kindness to strangers and the imperative to share one’s home and resources with them, as well as a Kantian approach to cosmopolitanism rooted in the finite roundness of the earth, hospitality is an openness to others that forms the core of any ethics of responsiveness to them.  (Derrida contends that the notion of an ‘ethic of hospitality’ is redundant to the point of being “tautologous.”[i])  Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou argue that “The ethics and politics of hospitality … require, dispossession: the dispossession of the home … and the dispossession of the owner’s identity as master of the home.”[ii]  Hospitality is, in short, a radical willingness to share my stuff with strangers.

On the other side, a need for hospitality is a vulnerability rooted in placelessness: a need for somewhere to sleep, something to eat, someone to be kind when I am displaced from my usual circuits for accessing those things.  Of course, I have only encountered these needs in small, temporary, and privileged ways as a volitional traveler.  I don’t / can’t know how desperation would change the experience of receiving hospitality, whether it would amplify or subsume the positive feelings that such shows of generosity or compassion elicit.  And despite hospitality’s fundamental orientation toward otherness, we don’t hear much in the scholarship from the others at whom hospitality is directed. Even in the original parable of the Good Samaritan, which provides a fundamental template for hospitality, we don’t hear anything at all from the man who receives his help.

Of course, I’m not sure what value or effect such knowledge would have.  And it’s possible that the pleasure that we might derive from the knowledge that our hospitality made someone else feel better, profoundly and elementally, might incentivize (and thus undermine) hospitality by making its exercise self-interested.  On the other hand, perhaps a lack of curiosity about how hospitality feels to its beneficiaries evinces a lack of concern with them, or an expectation that they will be happy for whatever they get.

For my part,  my micro-experiences of hospitality have heightened my appreciation of its stakes, the outsized impact that even a small expression of generosity can have.  I find it bewildering when someone, particularly a stranger, is kinder to me than they have to be. And maybe that astonishment is a merciful wage of the precariousness of finding oneself far from home.

*With apologies to my yoga teachers for my recalcitrance on this front … it’s not you, it’s me.

[i] Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (New York: Routledge, 2002), 16.

[ii] Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, “Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 161.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

… which is not to say that opacity is better …

Just published a short piece in The Conversation about transparency, spectatorship, and the detainee photos released by the DoD two weeks ago.

https://theconversation.com/dod-detainee-photos-raise-disturbing-questions-about-transparency-54518

It’s a little uncomfortable to critique transparency, especially because I think the argument is so easily misread as a defense of secrecy or tacit endorsement of the conduct being pictured.  But part of the problem with the discourse of transparency is that it equates the act of exposure with the work of protest, so that arguments against exposure start to look like advocacy for what is being exposed.  From my perspective, the most urgent task is to find an alternate path toward accountability, one that detours widely around the question of what is happening ‘in our names.’  The difficulty of thinking about accountability in the absence of transparency reveals the extent to which the framework of transparency has itself become hegemonic.

please don’t do this in my name, either

My name, apparently, has been besmirched again.   And so has yours, if you’re an American citizen.  198 more times, at least, once for each of the abuse photos released yesterday by the Department of Defense.  This is part of the logic underpinning the ACLU’s long struggle for the release of a large cache of photos documenting the mistreatment of prisoners by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The common refrain is that Americans are entitled to know what kinds of harms have been perpetrated in our common name.  In turn, this implies that the photos have been released on my behalf.

And I don’t want that.  I have been arguing fowarningr years, in various ways, that Americans do not own these photographs, have no substantive entitlement to see them, no matter how incensed they might be by the content.  If anyone has a claim over these images, it is the people who are pictured within them.  Absent any indication that those people authorized the online release of these images, I don’t feel I have a right to see them.

This places me in a predicament.  I don’t have a right to see them, but I do feel an ethical (and intellectual) urgency to make a claim against this form of transparency, and in order to know what I’m talking about, I need to look.  And I have, and so exercised the same sort of sovereign authority – howsoever remotely – to exercise my interests, and felt obligations, over the rights of the detainees.  The choice not to look might be a principled one, but it doesn’t do anything to redress the harm either of the abuse itself or of the release of the photos.  In this way, by establishing looking and not-looking as functionally equivalent, the release of the photos nullifies them at the site of their reception, short-circuiting any politics of spectatorship.

 

apparently even the pentagon needs a snow day

There should have been a story today about new photos of prisoner abuse by the U.S. military.  This should have been the denouement – albeit partial, as apparently there were over 2000 photos in question – to a legal fight between the ACLU and the Department of Defense that started in 2004.  Today should have been the day that the Department of Defense finished ‘processing’ the photos and released them.

But (blame it on Jonas) not.

The American media is apparently not super interested in this latest chapter of the long, long story about torture photos.  I learned about the impending release yesterday on Al Jazeera.  The longest story, and most durable link, I could find was on Russia Today.  There was a quick mention, since disappeared, was on Yahoo! News.  So I’ve been depending on Jameel Jaffer’s Twitter feed for updates.  And the latest is that the DoD needs more time, because of the snow.

SnowStorm_Via_NASA

I can understand the ACLU’s exasperation.  I get the argument about transparency.  A court order is a court order, and to the extent that we all benefit when the DoD follows the law, there are reasons to demand timely compliance.

For my part, however, I don’t see much reason to be enthused about the release of these new photos, and the victory for the crusading forces of transparency that they seem to represent.  Not because I agree with the President’s contention that the photos should be kept secret because they pose a danger to American military personnel.  I am not in a position to assess the accuracy of that prediction.

I have a different objection: to the veneration of ‘transparency’ and the implication that it serves as a meaningful, and harmless, redress for the people whose abuse will be made public in these photos, and for the fact of the abuse itself.  I’ve argued elsewhere that the mandate of transparency in the Global War on Terror often settles on the bodies of the most vulnerable.  When the government complies, whether begrudgingly or voluntarily, with a call to be more transparent about its detention and interrogation practice, the result is often hypervisibility of the detainees themselves, on terms set once again by the state that holds them captive.

Whether or not the DoD is being ingenuous in its explanation for the cause of this delay, this workweek will end without any new photos for us to gawp at.  It’s a tiny, and not catastrophic, encounter with the recalcitrant temporality of the state, a feeling with which its detainees are presumably quite familiar.

Maybe the interim affords some time to mull over the complex ethics of transparency, the claims of entitlement upon which it rests, its limitations, and its costs.