Gay Pride


I got off the 2 train at 14th Street a little before 5:00 on Sunday, and I couldn’t get out. The turnstiles were jammed with people trying to get in. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

I looked around, spotted the largest person, and followed him out, as you instinctively do in a barroom brawl when the tide turns against you.

7th Ave was clogged on and off the sidewalk, and everybody was at least boisterous, horns honking, people declaiming at decibel levels hitherto unheard, except maybe on the subway platform or on Friday nights on 16th Street. Again, WTF?

Ah, the Gay Pride Parade, but I thought it was over by now. These are stragglers, latecomers, tourists, it’s over, of course it is.

I set out with my girlfriend from her apartment near 8th Ave, on our way to Club Monaco to buy me some attire suitable for summer. We’re headed to 5th Ave and 21st Street. It’s 5:15.

As we approach 5th Ave on 17th Street, it’s pretty clear the parade is still going on. Once again, WTF? How is this possible? Turn back or swim upstream, against the current of the crowd? We decide to test the waters.

We do, and it’s delightful. Swimming upstream was never more fun. And maybe, like those salmon . . . Try to imagine a mash-up of Roman bacchanal, medieval carnival (think Bakhtin), Mardi Gras, disco inferno, and happy hour at the local bar. You’ve captured the mood, you’re there.

Everybody’s dancing, smiling, giggling, waving. The music is deafening, no, it’s penetrating, it makes my bones quiver, it makes me want to dance and sing, and so I do, I don’t care what anybody thinks, I’m carried away by the perfect delusion of this moment.

I buy some pants, some shorts, we head west across 21st Street, and then we stop and kiss on the sidewalk, both of us intoxicated by the sound of liberation. Her lipstick is smeared, my soul is unmoored, I am so in love that I’m levitating. I lose my balance, I have to yank us back into this world, this time, this place.

But it’s still warm and inviting. Like another planet.

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July 1, 2015 · 11:41 pm

Primal Scenes (Trigger Warning: Freud Ahead)


The Laura Kipnis Melodrama now requires psychoanalysis, terminable or interminable, of the most old-fashioned kind.

As you surely know, a graduate student in philosophy at Northwestern, hereafter known as G, filed Title IX charges against Kipnis on the grounds that the February essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education was “retaliation” against G’s earlier filing of a Title IX sexual harassment claim against a senior philosophy professor who (she claims) raped her.

G had previously acknowledged in court documents that she had been in a relationship with the professor, and that they had had consensual sex prior to and perhaps after the (alleged) rape. That acknowledgment is part of the public, legal record. G has not repudiated it.

But G now makes two different claims. On the one hand, she maintains that the long-term relationship with the senior professor, though close and warm by all accounts—-she slept in the same bed with him on many nights—-was never sexual. “We weren’t dating,” as she puts it plainly to a sympathetic interlocutor, hereafter known as Professor L, who has publicly taken up G’s cause in the most strenuous way, to the point of claiming that G’s narrative of events must be accredited as the truth, pure and simple. On the other hand, G insists that if the relationship did include sex of some kind, it was never consensual, even apart from the night of the alleged rape.

Is she lying? To herself, among others? Some of those following the controversy at Brian Leiter’s blog ( have said as much.

I don’t think so. To understand why, we have to revisit Freud’s concept of a primal scene as it evolved in the cases of Dora, the Rat-Man, and the Wolf-Man. For my purposes, the last case is the most important, but if you’re interested in the others, Jean Laplanche’s Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (1970, trans. 1976) is the place to start once you’ve read Freud’s “clinical” accounts. Laplanche is always riffing on Lacan, though, so maybe the thing to do is go first to The Four Fundamental Concepts (1973, trans. 1977), “The Unconscious and Repetition.”


Freud never resolved the ambiguities of this notion of a primal scene, perhaps because when he wrote up the case of the Wolf-Man between 1914 and 1918, he was still competing with Carl Jung for supremacy in psychoanalytical circles, formal and informal. So he was trying to assert the significance of fantasy, as against recollection of actual events, in interpreting the irrational utterance of his patients, and of human beings more generally, without offending everyone. As Peter Brooks puts it, Freud was still in search of “another kind of referentiality,” a different, perhaps arbitrary relation between thoughts and things, symbols and objects, language and world (like Peirce, Saussure, Stein, and the other founders of what we call modernism).

A primal scene, as it appears in the case of the Wolf-Man, From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (1918), is more construction than recollection; for it is not so much an event experienced by the patient as a story told by the analyst, a story that gives new life and new meaning to irretrievable memory traces. The retelling of the story by the analyst allows the arrangement of past “events”—-these are unspoken and unspeakable absent the analyst—-in an intelligible sequence and, accordingly, the insertion of the narrative’s subjects (these now include the narrator) in a temporal and moral order long removed from the original. Or rather, the retelling of the story by the analyst creates a new temporal and moral order that revises or replaces the causative effect of the original position, which was itself a product of narrative retrospect that would always be beyond verification.

In other words, what matters when it comes to primal scenes is not whether they actually happened; what matters is the conviction of things unseen (Hebrews 11). As Freud put it: “the patients themselves gradually acquire a profound conviction of the reality of these primal scenes, a conviction which is in no respect inferior to one based on recollection.”

He didn’t spare himself from the pitfalls of this faith born of plausible, meaningful narrative. Almost done with his story of the Wolf-Man, he writes: “There remains the possibility of taking yet another view of the primal scene underlying the dream—a view, moreover, which obviates to a large extent the conclusion that has been arrived at above.” And then again in a footnote: “It is also a matter of indifference in this connection whether we choose to regard it as a primal scene or as a primal phantasy.”


In Freud’s terms, the efforts and utterance of Professor L on G’s behalf sound like those of a conscientious analyst seeking to retell a life story, and thus reorient the dramatis personae. By the same token, G sounds like a patient whose new convictions about what actually happened between her and the senior professor are “in no respect inferior” to those once based-—and recorded in legal filings in the public record—-on recollection.

But she’s not lying, she’s found “another kind of referentiality.” Unlike the Wolf-Man, who objected to Freud’s analysis because it bracketed the experience of seduction he thought was formative in his development, G has apparently embraced the notion that there was no sexual dimension in her relationship to the professor, or, if there was, it was forced upon her. So her experience is not the issue; her narrative is.

Professor L runs a web site, and is writing a book, about sexual harassment of students by professors. Unlike almost all other observers of sexual practices on campus, she thinks this form of harassment is more significant than sexual assault among students. No wonder she has taken up G’s cause. Here is the operative sentence in her advertisement of this project, wherein she notes that she’s willing to travel to interview victims:

“Some students may not even recognize until years after the fact that a relationship previously thought to be mutual was not, in actuality, consensual.”

In such primal perspective, G’s two new claims make perfect sense. Recall that these claims are that (1) the relationship with the senior professor was never sexual, and/or that (2) if it were sexual, this dimension of the relationship was never consensual.

These claims aren’t lies. These are the inevitable results of retelling the story with Professor L as the presiding analyst. But, unlike Freud, who tried to talk his patients out of their retrospective assignment of genital significance to infantile events that couldn’t have borne that weight, Professor L has never questioned G’s claims.

That is a difference worth noting. And as we puzzle through this thicket of sexual politics, it’s also worth pondering.


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New Strings Attached

Yesterday I realized that the strings on my beloved acoustic guitar, the Alvarez cutaway (serial number 132930) I bought for $611 in 2000—-it’s my most valuable possession, if the place caught on fire, I’d scoop up the guitar, the Freud notebooks, and run-—I realized that they were ragged, frayed, decayed, they were cutting up my fingertips. I hadn’t changed them in too long.

I knew why. I’m not a musician, so the simple, infrastructural acts of caring for the instrument-—the tool that sustains your identity and your income—-don’t come naturally. In fact, they’re difficult, they’re daunting.

My old guitar teacher, Neil Nemetz of Lou Rose Music on Route 27 in Edison, New Jersey, he’s the guy who sold me his Ibanez Roadstar II, built in 1979, for a hundred bucks in 1999—-it’s worth a fortune—-would gleefully restring the Alvarez every month or so, and make a spectacle of himself as he did it in the showroom. He’s a professional musician and he has perfect pitch, as they say, so it took him five minutes to replace the strings, tune the guitar, and make the gathered crowd applaud his virtuosity.

When I moved to New York to escape everything about New Jersey, including my marriage, I was on my own, but with strings still attached. It took me an hour at least to do what Neil did in five minutes, what with the pliers and the pitchfork, and the proper winding technique. So I let the strings stay longer than they could sustain the sound I wanted.

Yesterday I was frustrated with other compositional barriers, so I said, to myself, “Who cares except you that it takes you an hour or more to change the strings on your guitar? Do this for your own sake. See what happens to the sound of the thing.”

I rummaged around and found some Gibson Brite Wires my brother had sent me as part of a birthday gift a year ago, I put the Alvarez across my lap, and I changed those strings, tuned it up, and I cried when I heard the new sound the instrument made. It took me an hour—-why not, it’s taken me a lifetime to learn to hear what’s worthwhile—-but the sound of that guitar when I was done was heartbreaking, all I had to do was play a chord and every memory of everything I had ever wanted came rushing into my throat, choking off my voice, forcing me back in time.

But then I said, to myself, “Oh for Chrissakes, get over it.” I started singing along with the Alvarez, and we sounded good. At any rate we were in tune–good enough.

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Jury Duty

I’m so desperate to get out of the Jurors Assembly Room (1121 at 111 Centre Street) that I use Yelp to find the nearest bar, to which I will flee as soon as the clerk announces we’re free to go to lunch at 12:30. The Whiskey Tavern, two short blocks away.

I order an IPA and a bowl of chili, and start reading David Palumbo-Liu’s screed at Salon on the Laura Kipnis Melodrama. I begin composing a response when a guy comes in, sits down next to me, asks the bartender for a shot and a beer. I have to look over because who does that anymore? He’s 20-something for God’s sake. Where did he learn that?

Then he puts his reading on the bar. Celine. I can’t help myself, I say, “Jury duty sucks.”

He says, “How did you know?”

“That’s serious reading, you need that if you’re sitting all day in the courthouse.”

“Yeah, I’m on a jury already.”

“You didn’t postpone?”

“No,” he says, “I’m gonna spend my 40 dollars a day here.”

“Well, you only get that if you’re not employed.” I’m being diplomatic.

“Oh. Oh, well.” He orders another Rolling Rock.

“What’s the job?”

“Software engineer,” he says. “I work for Fact Set, I write code for financial planning, like if you’re a mutual fund manager or something.”

“Why Celine?’

He looks at me quizzically; he wants to know why I ask.

“The violence, and the whoring,” he says.

“There is that.”

“Yeah,” he says, “and there’s the fact that they come for you when they need you. I mean, only when they need you. He was a doctor. He got seriously fucked around.”

“Well, yeah, because he was a fascist, among other things.”

“Yeah, but not much of one,“ he says. “Pretty lame. Anyway, he’s visceral, like Bukowski. I like that.”

“Yeah, visceral. No doubt about that. He wrote like shit. Both of them, I mean.”

I turn back to my reading and composition.

“My father was a plumber,” he says. I realize he wants to tell his life story. I acknowledge, to myself, that somehow I’m good at eliciting this kind of utterance, the cryptically autobiographical kind that demands my response as verification.

I want to say, “I don’t care,” but I don’t, I just wait.

“They only called him when they needed him,” he says, “and they fucked him around, like he was a servant or something. I went to Columbia. Nobody’s gonna do that to me.”

I relax, I say, “We all do our time. Not much of a choice, you know? It’s when we’re not bound by the past that we say ‘anything is possible’ and do stupid shit. So be careful out there.”

I finish my chili and escape the Whiskey Tavern.

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Like Paranoia, Piety Strikes Deep

David Palumbo-Liu is in high dudgeon (thank you, I’ve always wanted to say that about someone). He wants us to know that, unlike Laura Kipnis, David Brooks, and other backward types on campus and off, he takes the side of victims of sexual assault and harassment. He congratulates himself for this virtue several times in his Salon piece, and accordingly accuses Kipnis of lacking it: she is clearly indifferent to their plight, he says, even makes light of of it.

No? He doesn’t actually say that? Here’s the third paragraph:

“Since its publication in February of this year, Laura Kipnis’s essay, ‘Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,’ has not ceased to create controversy. Kipnis, a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University, asserts that new rules against faculty-student dating are playing to students’ exaggerated and self-destructive feelings of vulnerability, and attempting to legislate the sexual lives of adults. If students get hurt or harmed as a result of their liaisons with their teachers, Kipnis tells them to consider it a ‘life lesson.’ Thanks, Prof.”

To which there are only two rational responses: learn to read, or go fuck yourself. As Professor Palumbo-Liu himself notes, Kipnis recommends severe punishments (“chemical castration”) for sexual predators and oppressors on campus and off. She never suggests that student-professor sexual relations are normal, or normative. Why, then, this egregious misreading of her argument?

You’ll have to ask him.

It gets worse. Professor Palumbo-Liu stops making sense when he gets to what he treats as the literary or rhetorical part of the argument (for the record, he actually asked somebody on my Facebook page to define melodrama for him, I guess so he could muster this silly response).

“Kipnis seeds her essay with plenty of accusations [against whom, in particular?], ranging far and wide across a lot of terrain. But it would appear that, according to Kipnis, the most egregious thing those deeply concerned about sexual harassment and assault on campus are guilty of is the sin of being melodramatic. . . . If melodrama is a sin, or a symptom of something not psychically right, then Kipnis is just as prone to using melodramatic rhetoric as anyone. And that is a huge problem when we venture into the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus-—for many of the modes of expression that people use to help draw attention to these critical issues often end up in fact drawing attention away from them.”

Professor Palumbo-Liu thinks he’s ridiculing Kipnis here, but he’s actually hoisting himself on his own petard. He starts the essay by praising mattress–bearing protestors as “effective attention-getters.” Now he announces that they’re diverting attention from the “real issues.” But what are those issues? Sexual harassment and assault, of course.

Then he plunges deeper into the rhetorical mess of his own making. He says that Kipnis’s insouciant style has actually diminished the effect of her critique of campus culture-—and this after 90 days of public, angry, litigious debate about the content of her argument, an effect most of us would like, for good reasons, to have on political discourse. (The complainants now insist they were objecting to the “factual inaccuracies” in the February essay when they filed Title IX charges, which is itself an evasion of what Palumbo-Liu insists are the “real issues.”)

“I appreciate Kipnis’ attention to the issue, and her passionate investment. And I defend her right to speak and write about these issues without being censored or pilloried. What I am deeply troubled by is the way her rhetoric, meant to provoke, ends up obscuring whatever value her critique might offer and clouds the issue.”

There’s that issue again. How exactly does it get clouded by the rhetoric? Meanwhile, I still want to know about those accusations. Where are they? Against whom are they made? The investigators hired by Northwestern have dismissed the accusations of retaliation by the Title IX complainants. So I’m not getting it.

“No one is considering for a moment if Kipnis’ accusations [again, what accusations?] actually have any validity. And that is partly her fault. While Kipnis insists that these are not phantom issues [the issues of assault and harassment], the melodramatic mode of expression she chooses to use leeches them of substance and seriousness. She wants to have her cake and eat it too. And she does it by placing an awful lot of weight on the term ‘melodrama.’”

Hello? I’m still not getting it. First you’re befuddled by melodrama, and now it’s her fault that you are? This is beginning to sound too familiar. Maybe you want a trigger warning attached to rhetoric, very Platonic of you. And then, aha, here’s the deal-—just as her accusers complained because she didn’t write enough about them, Professor Palumbo-Liu has a standard of factual sufficiency to uphold:

“Kipnis never tells us what a ‘bona fide harasser’ might look like. Without providing us with any working definition for this central term, we are left without a clue as to what constitutes ‘real’ sexual harassment in her opinion.”

But then Kipnis doesn’t have to offer her opinion, because the actually existing codes carry exact definitions of sexual harassment—-she’s assuming we’ve all consulted our faculty handbooks on this question and proceeds with her argument, as if we’re all adults with some earned understanding of our workplaces.

Professor Paumbo-Liu concludes by missing the point entirely.

“Let’s leave Title IX aside for the moment. What many feel is really most important is to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the first place. And that is my major objection to Kipnis’ writings on the subject. . . . I wonder if she has spent any time with survivors of such harassment and violence, and one in every five college students can expect to be one. And that is a fact.”

And? Perhaps that is a fact. It has nothing to do with Kipnis’s essay, because, as the Columbia case illustrating Palumbo- Liu’s own essay strongly suggests, the real issue of sexual harassment or violence on campuses is a matter of sexual relations among students, not between students and professors.

And there is more to say about the logic of Professor Palumbo-Liu’s argument. It operates under the unspoken rubric of aiding and abetting the enemy. It’s the same inane logic that permits the gleefully malevolent Amanda Marcotte to claim that Kipnis’s concerns about Title IX merely amplify right-wing criticisms of the welfare state, and to suggest further that Kipnis has disarmed feminism as such by criticizing its new incarnation on campuses.

Kipnis never proposed to dismantle Title IX, and never diverted our attention from the issue of sexual harassment or assault. Instead, she asked whether the new structure of feeling on campus could let independence, individuality, insurgent ideas, or sexuality itself grow and thrive. Her troubled answer was, probably not.

Call that structure of feeling whatever you want, it’s real and it’s formative. To question it may well validate the claims of libertarians and right-wing critics of the university as a secular city devoted to knowledge for its own sake.

But to leave that structure intact, beyond reproach, is a much worse offense. For to do so is to cede our futures as intellectuals—-students and faculty alike—-to those who make a living by policing the boundaries of thought. It is to accept the bureaucratization of our imaginations.

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An Edifying Exchange

I can report that most of the emails Laura Kipnis has received about her recent Title IX ordeal have been supportive. By far. One interesting twist, though, is the split on the right wing of the political spectrum–where some celebrate her for fighting what they call “political correctness,” and some denounce her for creating what they perceive as the strange new world of campus activism. Here’s a lovely example of the latter. Read from the bottom up, of course, where you will see why this correspondent uses a pseudonym–or whatever he calls it.

On Tue, Jun 2, 2015 at 1:39 PM, Laura Kipnis wrote:

Drop dead.

On Jun 2, 2015, at 10:21 AM, Jean-Baptiste Jourdan wrote:

> Professor –
> You were more than happy to exercise left-wing power on your and your movement’s behalf, and have now discovered reasonableness and the importance of free speech and due process only because you are now targeted. I spent too long at Cal amongst your kind to not know that.
> Nothing you speak of is any different from what has been obviously happening in universities around the country for years now.
> As a tenured professor at one of these universities, you have participated directly in these earlier oppressive tactics and knowingly and intentionally participated in them, including ensuring that grad students and new professors have the right views.
> To note that is not, as Rod Dreher warned against “taking pleasure in watching left-wing feminists devour their own.”
> It’s recognizing the difference between the true victims and the outrage of an oppressor high on the power of a victorious ideology who has found herself suddenly off-side.
> I was once very much like you, very much. Something happened that was a shock to my system that forced me to reflect. While, given the tone of your writings on this ordeal, I don’t have much hope that this will happen to you, it’s possible.
> All I can say is grab that little flickering flame and run to it. Believe me, the future you will thank you for it.
> “Jourdan”
> ps: I’d explain why I use a psuedonym, but I think you already know very well why. Well, now at least.

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Break Your Mother’s Back

The Wild Olive is a funky grocery store on 125th Street between Madison and 5th Ave. It’s pretty tiny, it specializes in organic meats and snacks (kale cookies, aack), and it smells like somebody’s smoking weed in the back room. I don’t know, maybe it’s the incense the guy next door burns on the sidewalk to alert you to the T-shirts he’s displaying on the cyclone fence, all of them featuring Che, Malcolm, or Michael Jackson.

Whatever the source, it smells better than any grocery store in the neighborhood—-better than the Whole Foods on 124th will when it opens—-and it’s a friendly place. The deli is always crowded because the sandwiches are massive, the cole slaw is wonderful, and the guys behind the counter are genuinely funny as they go about their business, making you think they must like what they do for a living.

Yesterday I walked over there to buy some wild shrimp to make ceviche, something I haven’t done in years: a different kind of dinner for my girlfriend, who hasn’t been here since I bought my Latin Percussion drum, another new departure. On my way there, I noticed a homeless guy resting on a stoop between Lenox and Marcus Garvey Park (Mount Morris Park to those of Jamaican descent, go figure).

He seemed real tired. If I didn’t know he was homeless—-I’ve seen him sleeping under the scaffolding that hovers over the S.A.D. Deli, you read that right, or on the handicapped ramp to the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 123rd and Lenox (originally a Dutch Reformed church, built in 1886, a limestone monument)-—I would’ve said he was depressed. He was bent over, sagging, banging listlessly on the Obama phone he held between his legs, holding it far enough away to read the digits or the messages, whatever he couldn’t see.

I wanted to stop and ask if I could help him with the phone, or the larger problem that clearly plagued him, but I didn’t because I felt I’d be intruding on a private moment. Maybe he was talking to his children, his wife, his brother. I passed on, crossed over the park, and started revising my shopping list, because you never know what The Wild Olive has in store.

It wasn’t crowded, I got the shrimp and tomatoes and cucumbers I needed in no time, also bought some ham and bacon without nitrates (Applegate), and visited the deli for comic relief. There I impulsively acquired a quart of cole slaw and some risotto, accompaniments for the spectacular ceviche I’d be preparing.

On the way back, I was thinking I’d get some miniature Coronas for my girlfriend—-she likes light beer heavily seasoned with lime-—at the S.A.D. deli, and I was just turning onto 123rd, headed west, when I saw the homeless guy heave himself off his rest stop, still drooping, pretty shaky. I didn’t mean to catch up to him, but he was moving slowly, of course he was, he’s homeless and he’s depressed about something other (more?) than being homeless.

Then I fall in behind him because I can see that he’s dancing, he’s adjusting his frail, shuffling gait to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk—-he’s mincing his steps, side to side, back and forth, longer stride, whatever it takes to make sure he lands inside a square, not on a boundary.

I follow him most of the block, and I do it step for step, because I know what he’s trying to prevent, some catastrophe that’s already happened, the disaster neither of us is able or willing to remember. Finally he gives up, exhausted, he steps into the street, bearing his three duffel bags and my bad faith.

Me, too, I can’t do it anymore. I duck into the S.A.D. deli to buy those Coronas.

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