I Agree, Crispin Sartwell Is A Bonehead

Crispin Sartwell called himself the “bone-head realist” in graduate school because he resisted, nay, rejected, what he called the postmodern notions of Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty. His chosen nickname was correct. He never understood what he was up against.

From William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and others, Fish and Rorty learned how to claim NOT that there was no reality beyond our linguistic grasp, but to insist that there was no human knowledge prior to its representation in symbols, verbal and visual.

You can’t reduce pragmatist or post-structuralist thinking to the denial of “external reality” (and, corresponding to that charge, the denial of “agency”). That’s the bonehead move of so-called materialists and Marxists like Alan Sokal in the 1990s, and, if Sartwell is right, it’s the urge of our own time as well, in the new forms of what he calls “externalism” in the philosophy of mind and the “new materialism” exemplified, he wrongly believes, by Bruno Latour and Lee Smolin. (I would add the inane anti-intellectualism of “affect theory” to this laundry list of reaction formations.)

The reality beyond our representational grasp is of course a vast and unmapped terrain. And it’s not only external to us, out there in the “real world.” Within every one of us, the techtonic plates of unconscious, archaic knowledge still shift and collide. That is why Freud’s rendition of psychoanalysis, which claimed that the pleasure of fantasy is real, formative, and causative, will remain indispensable to any project of liberation, no matter how many clinically equipped professors appear to debunk his findings.

I know what you’re thinking. The law of gravity! Science! C’mon, man, if you jump off a seven-story building, you’re dead, right? Now that’s a material reality everybody can agree on, and if you don’t, well, you’re just talking nonsense. Or you’re not talking at all because you’re dead.

OK, except that the external reality of the material world as you experience it is actually constituted by the verbal and visual representations of modern science, a cultural artifact. Otherwise, how would you know anything about it? Why wouldn’t you jump off that seven-story building? Ah, right, if you were a caveman, you wouldn’t have jumped off a cliff, either . . . But why not? Because you died as a result–no, in that case you’d have nothing left to know–or because knowledge gained from your comrades warned you off that experience?

How would you know anything about the world, external or internal, absent the representations you make of it in retrospect? Sure, you experience or feel the world in all its sensory contours as a polymorphously perverse infant and child. But knowledge is different-—it’s actionable because it orients you in and to a world, external or internal, that you can change.

That, in fact, is the central principle of modern science. The only certainty in knowledge is obtained by going into the laboratory, where you miniaturize the real world of objects in motion, where you prove your hypothesis by manipulating reality.

Sartwell thinks that the return of the “external reality” repressed by postmodernism is perfectly staged by the phenomenon of global warming. It’s a laughable proposition. I’ll explain why with a story from my American history survey course of last semester.

I was arguing that there’s no difference between interpretations of the past and the past as such because the facts change as your values and purposes in the present do. A kid in the front row of the auditorium—-about 120 students in all-—begged to differ, saying that scientific practice presupposed an external reality very much like the past, which remained the same no matter what new theory or interpretation came along. There’s no values or purposes in science, he said, just observations and facts.

I responded more or less as follows.

OK, let’s take global warming, climate change, call it whatever you want, as our scientific artifact. Why is there a debate on the facts themselves, why do scientists disagree on the most rudimentary data?

Isn’t it because they have different values and purposes? Yes, nine of ten concerned scientists—-those who study the relevant data-—agree that the climate is changing for the worse. Isn’t that agreement on the facts a function of a prior consensus, viz., that the purpose of science in this domain of inquiry is to preserve the integrity of the natural environment, and with it the survival of the human species? Isn’t the opposition a function of a prior consensus on the facts, viz., that the preservation of the natural environment will exact a cost by imposing new patterns of (slower) economic growth?

And so, isn’t it obvious that the facts themselves are incommensurable products of different paradigms, different values, purposes, and thus models? Isn’t it obvious that science as such is just as “value laden” as any other form of knowledge?

“No cognition without purpose” is how Charles Peirce put it. Or again: “Matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws.” These are brilliant ways of stating, if not proving, my claim against the bonehead realist.

Still, I prefer the more elegant variation on the theme offered by William James: “Day follows day, and its contents are simply added. They are not themselves true, they simply come and are. The truth is what we say about them.”

But if you like, we can go all the way down this road. When Marx wrote Thesis 11 on Feuerbach, he wasn’t getting all postmodern on us avant la lettre. He was plainly enunciating the central principle of modern science: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is, to change it.”

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Grey Ghost

There have been eight Weimaraners in my family’s history since 1960, when my father acquired the first as a hunting dog—-a pointer, a retriever, a swimmer with webbed feet. They weren’t just pets, just animals, though of course we bought them and we owned them, and yes we trained them too, and, save two, we eventually euthanized them. They did our bidding, but we did theirs as well. They played leading roles in our lives.

When he was fifteen, my son said to me, “I wish I was Harry.” That was my second Weimaraner. I said, “You’re kidding. Why?”

“No, really,” he said, “Everybody’s nice to him, and except when he goes running with you, he just lays around all day. He doesn’t go to school, he doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t have to be anywhere, ever. That would be cool.” All true, I thought. But I also thought, when did utopia start looking like a dog’s life?

My first Weimaraner, Alexei, had sniffed and nuzzled and licked this boy when he was an infant, had slept beneath the crib, and had infested the poor child with fleas. But the boy had no memory of the dog’s presence in his life.

Alex was run over by a car when he was 11 years old, on Thanksgiving, 1985, while in the care of my father, when the boy was 18 months old. I was grateful. The dog was weary and impatient by that time, and I was worried about his aged responses to a sensory world that would be filled with my son’s pestering fingers.

My first wife and I acquired Alex as an 8-week old puppy in 1973, when I was in graduate school writing a thesis on early modern Russia. It was her idea. He took over my life.

I unleashed him on long runs every day in whatever open space I could find because if I didn’t, he’d tear something up—-a chair leg, a magazine, a book, a purse, whatever caught his canines’ fancy. One day, for example, he chewed his way through the library copy of volume 3 in Lenin’s Collected Works, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899).

That was the same day he took a shit in the dining room of the apartment and peed on the couch. When I came home, I thought a demented decorator had broken in to rearrange the furniture, because my heavy black lounge chair, a birthday gift from my wife, was in the dining room, fifteen feet away from its accustomed place in the living room.

The seat of the chair had been gouged out, presumably, I quickly figured, by the dog’s teeth rather than an intruder’s boxcutter, but why was it so far from home? I finally realized that with every bite, Alex had yanked the chair a few inches away from its original station, so that by the time he was done, it was in the dining room overlooking his own pile of shit.

As I stood there assessing the damage and screaming at Alex, the two cats, Tiger and Ralph, bounded into the room, wondering what all the commotion was about. For some reason, a tin bucket full of cat litter was standing under the windows. As I reconsidered the possibility that a demented decorator had choreographed all this havoc, Ralph jumped into the bucket and took a shit that went over the edge and landed on the floor.

Why did I put up with this behavior? God only knows. But here’s a guess. We acquire pets and tolerate their wayward, inexplicable behavior because we need their affective recognition of our mastery, and that requires an acknowledgement of their will, as sentient beings who can decide to love us or not. To begin with, it’s the existential impasse of the slave master, but then—-or so we like to think—-it evolves into the normal dilemma of the parent, who has absolute power over the child and yet wants him or her to become a self-determining individual.

One night, months after my separation and divorce from the first wife, I came home to find that a five-foot jade tree I had nurtured for years was gone from the front window. WTF? Alex had dragged it into the bedroom, hoisted it onto the bed, and spread the dirt evenly, corner to corner, making an organic coverlet for me. The clean-up was simple, I just folded the blanket and dumped it in the garbage can outside.

Then one day Alex chewed up several 8-track tapes, just for fun. They were my ex-wife’s favorites, so I didn’t mind. I was especially pleased that he had destroyed the sound track to Barbra Streisand’s gooey remake of “A Star Is Born.” A couple of days later, when I took him for his run in the park, I received material confirmation of his comedic purpose.

Every ten yards or so, Alex would squat and shit something brown but shiny. When I caught up to him, I realized it was tape from an 8-track, and I knew it was Streisand. He couldn’t quite get it out all at once—-hence the interval stops. I lit a cigarette and stood on the tape, and yelled “Go!”

He bolted and stopped twenty yards away to squat, but then the tape was spooling out of his ass and he was running for real. He was a half-mile up the hill by the time that brown ribbon reached its end.

My favorite Alex story, though, features grilled Cornish hens. By this time everything had died except me and the dog. In fact, he had survived me by witnessing the death of my old self—-the one who was faithfully married, and had a mother and a sister.

I cooked six Cornish hens one night on the gas grill in the back yard of my Chicago apartment on Seminary Street off Armitage Avenue. My second wife, a big mistake I rectified by drinking and philandering, had invited an old friend from college days for dinner. Between us we ate three of those hens and drank three bottles of white wine.

The next morning I broke out the leftovers and made my way through most of another hen. Then, as per new habit, I drove the wife to her job off Michigan Avenue, where she worked as a kind of accountant for a company that managed a dozen Arby’s franchises. (How could I make that up?)

When I returned home, the remaining hens were gone, of course, because I had forgotten to stow them in the fridge and Alex had eaten them, bones and all. He had been careful, however, to pluck the fowl from the bowl on the kitchen table, so there was no mess to clean up. My disciplinary measures were accordingly mild. I said, “Alex, you’re such an asshole” and left it at that.

That night, I was getting ready to turn off the light when I noticed that Alex hadn’t climbed into his chair at the foot of the bed, where he always slept. He was, how to say this, addressing it intently, actually pointing as if he were about to flush a bird from the frozen corn stalks of my youth, the dreamscape where I’d once again raise the .20 gauge shotgun to my shoulder and shoot a random pheasant rising from its scant cover.

I said, “Alex, go the fuck to bed.” He broke his point, turned his head and back, but the rest of his body didn’t move. I repeated the command, which he understood perfectly well; still no movement. “What is it, what’s your problem,” I said, “Get in your chair, go to your bed, goddamn it, don’t make me get up, c’mon, man, it’s late.”

Nothing. So I got up and patted the seat of the nicely upholstered chair, saying, now cajolingly, “Go to your bed, Alex, it’s time to go to bed.”

He wouldn’t budge. So I collapsed into the chair and was immediately tilted to the right by a significant bulge below my left buttock. Once again, WTF? I got up, lifted the seat of the chair, and there was a whole grilled Cornish hen stuffed neatly into the back corner, ready for consumption.

I looked at Alex, he looked at me, and we both started laughing. His eyes danced, anyway, as I pulled the hen from its hiding place and offered it to him. He trotted off to the kitchen with it. I didn’t worry about the bones in his gullet, and I knew he wouldn’t make a mess.

“Good night,” I said, and got back in bed. I turned off the light, just listening now. He spent about ten minutes with that bird. I heard him climb into his chair.

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“White God”

Go see “White God” as soon as you can, it’s a tour de force of film-making as well as an unsettling parable of our post-human times. It’s about a dog.

My brother called me on my way out the door to see it at IFC–he wanted to tell me funny stories about Luke, his unruly 9-month old Weimaraner, the 8th of these purebred creatures who have wrecked our lives since 1960, when my father acquired one as a hunting dog.

The camera is at dog’s-eye level for most of the running time (and I do mean running), and the alternative angle is the elevated place where the original owner of the benighted dog, a pubescent girl, is learning to play the trumpet, the instrument that heralds the end of days, in a student orchestra.

Every accomplishment of civilization is predicated on a forgotten act of barbarism, to paraphrase Benjamin. No longer. Now see what is done in our name, from the lowly level where the skin is flayed, the blows are felt, the hearts are broken, and the memories might be stored.

It’s Herbert Spencer and Jack London made flesh, but not human. The fittest species survives by hunting down its former masters, tormentors, and keepers, terrorizing a whole city with its uncanny military capacity, outthinking and outflanking every barrier, led by a charismatic mixed breed, the outsider banished by the girl’s father. He’s the dog who–or is it that?–endures because, as the man who trains him to fight in the ring says, “You still have a heart.”

I’ll see it again, as soon as I can recover from this time. The star of the film is played by a real dog named Luke.

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Easter Sermon

My text today is from the book of Ed Faulkner, who, having cracked open a can of Bud at 9:30 AM on Easter morning 1969, said: “Big day for you Christians, get the fuck up.” He uttered these immortal words on Spring Break, in Biloxi, Mississippi.

He was my fraternity brother. We called him “Big Stinky” because he never figured out how to apply soap to his armpits. He might as well have been a barnyard animal, a pig fresh from the sty—-you knew he was approaching before you heard his footsteps because his stench was so powerful and repellant.

The sorority girls loved him, though, an attraction I didn’t understand until, years later, I read about pheromones and heard women say they had slept with boring or stupid men because they smelled right.

I once asked him about what he accomplished in the shower. I was sitting opposite the stalls thinking about going back to bed instead of going to class-—I thought that every morning—-when Ed walked in swinging a soap on a rope as if he were David warming up for Goliath, or, better yet, an Irish cop twirling a nightstick.

I said, “Big Stinky, what do you do with that soap? You don’t smell anything like it.”

He said, “Fuck you, Livingston.” He and I were good friends, by the way, as well as frat brothers. I realized then that he understood why we called him “Big Stinky.” He knew he smelled bad.

Over the hiss of the shower, I said, “C’mon, Ed, you don’t smell like the soap, that’s all I’m sayin’. The rest of us do. How does that happen?”

He said, “Fuck you, Livingston.” He’s a stranger to his own body, I thought. At the time that struck me as odd-—Ed was a good athlete who had been recruited from a high school in rural Illinois to play basketball for the godforsaken college we attended in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He had a great jump shot he launched from almost eleven feet off the floor, arms fully extended from his 6’ 4” frame, and at around 220 pounds, he could mix it up underneath the basket.

But there it was. In his mind’s eye, his own body was foreign territory. As I think about it now, I have to wonder if his stutter—-the worst I have ever witnessed-—had already convinced him that there was nothing to be said about what his body would do because it was an external mechanism, a machine that would go of itself. He couldn’t represent it in words, so he couldn’t attend to it as it were an object entrusted to his care.

I’m borne back to these ancient moments because, on the eve of celebrating the resurrection, all I can think about is how the ritual occasion is impossible, even inconceivable, absent embodiment, absent incarnation. Unless we believe that Jesus lived and breathed and desired like every other human being, as someone located in and limited by his body, his death has no meaning and his (alleged) ascension becomes a formality—-a foregone conclusion.

As always, I look to Hegel for some guidance in these matters, because he was first a theologian and then a philosopher and finally a social theorist, but he never relinquished his faith. And by faith I mean what Saul of Tarsus did: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11.1)

Reason or self-consciousness was an achievement of the human species, according to Hegel, rather than a natural endowment, a given. Human beings have to struggle, and so to make a history for themselves, in overcoming the irrational impulses, the passions, that determine the contours of everyday life. But they don’t “rise above” these passions by repressing and mutilating them—-no, they incorporate them in the project (or, to be less teleological about it, the process) of self-consciousness, making reason and desire indissoluble moments rather than mutually exclusive modes of apprehending the world.

You can’t think as a human being unless you’re embodied. In fact, it’s when we treat our selves as bodies, as things to be perceived from elsewhere, that we begin to have thoughts: it’s then that the subject-object distinction becomes knowable and malleable as a dimension of your own existence, not just a difference between you and the external world (your parents, to begin with). But your embodiment, your desire, is composed of impulses that reason must, and does, countermand.

So to attain self-consciousness, you have to know that your body is both the condition and the limit of your rationality. You’re divided against yourself. But reason doesn’t cancel or ignore the embodiment that gives you life and an incentive to think; instead, it changes the cognitive status and social meaning of your body. It changes the future.

That’s how Hegel retells the story of the resurrection in The Phenomenology, anyway, as a godless journey that nevertheless redeems the suffering imposed by the slaughterbench of history.

Ed Faulkner couldn’t make sense of this story because his body appeared to him as mere limit, an externality he couldn’t speak for, or do anything about. Its expiration would only prolong a silence he had felt all his life. Of course he was an atheist. The conviction of things not seen means nothing to those who are strangers to their own bodies.

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Laura Kipnis Melodrama

I post this at the blog because I realize that Facebook doesn’t reach as far as I thought. People like Chad Pearson, of all people, seem unaware of the class implications of recent controversies over academic freedom. This saga begins with Laura Kipnis’s piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, dated February 27, which created enough buzz to become “The Laura Kipnis Melodrama” at New York Magazine a week later, in an article by Michelle Goldberg, and which has now spilled out as a Title IX complaint against Kipnis at Northwestern University. “Today” here means Monday the 23rd.

___________

I introduced the Laura Kipnis Melodrama to my classes today at Rutgers-New Brunswick. The results were surprising, fascinating, and edifying, in that order.

In both classes, I started by asking, “So what do you all know about ‘trigger warnings?’” In the first class, ‘Historiography: The History of History,’ a 300-level course, mostly juniors, nobody had ever heard of them except the women. I know, it sounds sheltered.

But then I asked, for no reason, “How many of you have jobs?” Everybody. Hmm.

So then I told them to haul out their laptops or phones, go to the New York Times Sunday Review from yesterday, read the piece by Judith Shulevitz, and tell me what you think is going on.

Too much silence ensued, so I explain the back story—-Kipnis’s essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the mattress-bearing protest against her on Northwestern’s campus, the follow-up Nation piece by Michelle Goldberg, and the Title IX-inspired petition now filed against the benighted professor.

Then I ask, “Do you think there’s a difference between elite institutions like Northwestern and a public university like Rutgers? A difference determined by class—-OK, the social origins of the student body?”

The students uniformly nod, they know where they come from, but they’re appalled, and they quite eloquently defend the professor’s right of free speech (academic freedom as a principle is not something they know or care about, which, to be honest, is true of me as well).

I keep pressing them on the possibility of predatory professors, but they keep fighting back, saying, more or less, that “we don’t need your protection”—-in this instance, “your” meaning the boss, whether the teacher or the dean or the provost.

In the second class, ‘Modern Social Theory,’ another 300-level course, it gets even more interesting, because there are three ardent libertarian-anarchists, two ex-cons (one of them a veteran), a wannabe cop who once worked in the Title IX office at Rutgers, and a representative cross-section of political personalities in between, balanced evenly between males and females.

We start the same way, but three of them have already read the Shulevitz piece and linked back to the Kipnis CHE essay. Everybody has a job except the ex-cons (because they can’t). Here, too, the students silently acknowledge the class difference implied by the evidence Shulevitz adduces, but again they’re appalled, left to right, and not on their own behalf. Or they’re bewildered. After the former Title IX employee reads the Rutgers code aloud for us, everybody is at least offended by the powers wielded in their name.

One of the women says, “I never heard about this until right now, this ‘trigger warning’ thing.” Another, she who wants to be a cop, says, “You don’t call it that at work, but it’s the same thing, you can’t make people experience what makes them crazy, or, I don’t know, just vulnerable. Weak. Something.”

PTSD enters, stage left and right. Everybody’s got a friend who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who now plays video games and paintball knowing that the triggers are waiting. We talk about how words have power that is sometimes equivalent to that of weapons and other material forces, so for the moment we’ve boarded H.M.S MacKinnon. The conversation subsides, we’re all sitting there wondering where we go from here—-how to get off this deck and get a different view of the horizon.

Then the quiet woman who didn’t know about trigger warnings says “Feminism has been hijacked.” And from the back of the room, one of the ex-cons yells “That’s exactly what she says!”

“Who’s she?” I ask.

“Laura Kipnis,” he says, triumphantly, waving his phone, “I’m reading her thing in the, uh”—-he peers at the phone—-“the Chronicle of Higher Education!”

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Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways

Two convicted felons who’ve spent seven years apiece behind bars, one brilliant, homeless man fresh off the Newark psych ward, and an ex-jock who read Foucault in high school. That’s the enrollment in my undergraduate independent study on social theory this semester. Why am I having so much fun with them?

Turn that question around. Why are we bored by normal behavior? What draws us to the deviants, miscreants, and malcontents? I’ll make it personal: why have I gone out of my way to teach in teach in two maximum-security prisons and a juvenile correctional facility? What makes me think I’m doing good by seeking out the criminals?

What makes you think so? Is it just another symptom of believing in a “New World” as the site of redemption, where all the sins and all the suffering of the past take on meaning enough to make the present bearable?

Don’t worry, I’m not invoking the specter of American Exceptionalism, the phrase some of us use to congratulate ourselves as we denounce 18th-century preachers, 19th-century politicians, and 20th-century policy-makers for exempting this part of the world from the laws of motion that regulate the rest of it. They never even wanted that exemption, contrary to what famous historians believe, because that would have placed “America” outside of any scheme of civilization, providential or not. And look, the very idea of exceptionalism was a European invention (think Spengler, Heidegger)—-only lunatics have ever believed that the US was unique rather than indispensable.

But there’s a difference here worth pondering. I have long believed that to understand the contours of American history was to understand the cutting edge of modern times, where you could hear the sawblade of human nature bend and whine as it bit into the slaughterbench that is human history. It’s on this same edge where you also feel that all those preachers and politicians and policy-makers have been so many criminals—-lying, thieving, conniving thugs and bullies who have by now forced the world to live by the law of the jungle, not even the laws of war.

What, then? What do we do with our commitment to these criminals, these deviants, miscreants, and malcontents who rule our American dreams?

When I worked as a bouncer and then a bartender, I could spot “the trouble” as easily as a dermatologist recognizes a rash. This diagnostic experience helped me later, when, as a stupid drunkard with a death wish, I wanted to start fights in bars (believe me, it’s pretty easy).

The trouble is the type who stares at you when you glance at him: he’s the guy who says “Fuck off” when you say “Excuse me,” and he’s the one wants you to know he’s not getting out of your way. He’s got a vibe, he radiates the energy you try to avoid because you know it’s dangerous to your health—-because you know his death wish is contagious.

But you gravitate toward him, don’t you, and not just to monitor his behavior on behalf of your customers or your friends, no, you go there because you want the risk he represents. He’s perfectly predictable in this narrow sense: you know that, any minute now, he’ll do or say something preposterous, and all hell will break loose.

Once upon a time he was a warrior, an implacable brute living up to the expectations of a world ruled by the sword. Then he was a pirate, the guerilla warrior steering a factory afloat on the still fluid periphery of civilization. And then a Robber Baron. Now he’s a mere criminal, the man defined by the law as a surplus of affect. Or, if he can write code, he’s the dropout, the underdog, the entrepreneur who defied the expectations of polite society and finally sold his idea to the venture capitalists from his parents’ garage.

The thing is, the man who breaks the rules and lives is the man we admire, and sometimes even treat as a hero. Why? Because he’s the man who overrules and outlives the formal logic of tragedy—-he’s the man who defies fate but is not crushed by the reach of his ambition. We used to say he outwitted the Gods. Now we say he got away with it. Either way, he doesn’t die even though he’s broken the law. That’s the last remaining difference between the tragic hero and the criminal. The criminal outlasts the law.

Since the Europeans invaded America, it’s been hard to tell the difference between the hero and the criminal, the saint and the sinner, because the development of capitalism actually requires thievery, chicanery, and piracy—-oh, and “creative destruction.” Gangsters R Us.

The American complicity with crime runs deep because rapid change is normal in this part of the world—-here crisis becomes the rule, not the exception. So if it’s true that “any incipient trend will first be felt as crime by reason of its conflict with established values,” as Kenneth Burke claimed in 1937, in the heyday of gangster movies, then the difference between criminals and heroes becomes pointless: they break the rules, they get us beyond the status quo, they urge us to expect more, they might as well be the revolutionaries we read about in college.

Or the outlaws from 19th-century dime novels.

But here they are, these deviants, miscreants, and malcontents. Seth shot a man to death, Mark killed a man while driving drunk—-they’ve both been reading David Harvey since they were locked up—-and then there’s Al-Zamar, the most brilliant student I’ve encountered in forty years of teaching, who has spent two of the last four weeks in the psych ward at UMDNJ in Newark, and who lives, if that’s the right word, in a homeless shelter. Their comrade in texts is 19-year old Michael, who went to Ridgewood High and wrestled heavyweight his senior year, also with Michel Foucault. Like me, he keeps looking around the room, wondering how he got here.

I do pinch myself from time to time. I do wonder how I got to be a professor, a guy who reads and writes—-and talks-—for a living, knowing that when I was 20 years old, I had a gun to my head. The question I ask myself is, how did you get so lucky?

There’s no good answer, not in this part of the world. Some of us become criminals, some of us become heroes. The rest of us get by.

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Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter New Jersey

Yesterday morning I drove to work from my girlfriend’s apartment in Chelsea, so I went down 7th Avenue to the Holland Tunnel instead of taking my usual route over the George Washington Bridge. For some reason, probably because the snow has mostly melted but nothing green has yet sprouted, maybe because I never understood the state of mind that is New Jersey—-I lived there for twenty years—-crossing over on the Newark Bay Bridge felt like entering Hell.

I abandoned all hope, even though I was headed for New Brunswick to teach Augustine’s Confessions. For all I could see were monuments to fossil fuels—-this state is already a gruesome tableau of what drove us to extinction. I was back in the Field Museum of Natural History at the age of eight, looking at a badly lit diorama showing how cave men killed wooly mammoths. I was, as then, identifying with the animals.

Remember that roughly two-thirds of New Jersey is unfit for human habitation—-between the Great Dismal Swamp and the Pine Barrens, there’s little respite and no room—-but it’s still the most densely populated state. Also that there are more registered automobiles than licensed drivers. And that if you add up the miles of pavement that make up the Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, plus Route 17 and Route 1 (the original Interstate), you could cover every inch of Massachusetts in concrete (a public works project fit for Scott Walker’s first term).

So what did I see as I descended on the far side of that decrepit bridge? A thousand acres of parking lots, dozens of warehouses and loading docks, many hundreds of containers stacked seven stories high, five airplanes taking off from Newark in the space of ten minutes, and maybe a half million automobiles. Most of the cars I saw were driverless, covered in white plastic, waiting in lots the size of Texas ranches or already loaded onto trucks for local shipment, but they’re nonetheless bound to choke these skies.

Remember that it’s only after this, a bleak vision that would, I hope, tax the stoic skills of Tacitus himself—-it’s only after I descend from the Newark Bay Bridge and turn south onto the Turnpike—-that the oil refineries rise from the marshlands on my left and the squat white oil tanks begin to crowd the same fluid grounds to my right.

It’s only then that I begin to think about Augustine and the change of moral climate he brought by writing The Confessions, by living up to the challenge of the New Testament, by acknowledging that the world was, in fact, disintegrating, and even disgusting, but still insisting that hope wasn’t merely a matter of faith in the time to come—-the return of the messiah-—but of faith in the here and now, in the comrades from an inchoate, subterranean social movement that hadn’t yet coalesced around any single program, idea, ritual, or purpose, except this: every one of us, every slave, beggar, whore, and thief is the equal of our so-called betters, the men of wealth and power who lord it over us, and not only this, we are the equals of God himself, we can now begin to imagine ourselves as self-mastering, so that the external discipline of forced labor, or the worship of a remote deity, now becomes our choice as human beings.

The absence of faith is a mental nullity. When you place it counts as much as where.

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