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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