On being part of the problem

In which I attempt a renegotiation with what it means for me to be a writer.

I recently found out that I am a blight on my neighborhood. I love this moniker: the “transient academic.” It’s exciting to have something to call myself, about 6 months out from finished PhD. Whenever anyone asls, “What do you do?”, I feel the impulse to give a two-minute dissertation defense that justifies my existence. But as soon as I see eyes glaze over, I clam up and say, “I teach.” Though, anyone not interested in how contemporary literature re-imagines the credal and liturgical possibilities of Christian theology in light of continental philosophy is also unlikely to be impressed that I teach freshman writing.

One commentator on the above article from Evanston Now, going (appropriately) by the name of “Jacques,” astutely articulates everything wrong with me and what I do:

For the time being setting aside — for the sake of my readers’ patience and with a certain respect for the limits imposed on my discourse by the conventions of the “internet comment thread” — the crucially important problematic of transience which threatens to undermine, even as it makes possible, the very discussion on which we have embarked, as well as the difficulty that besets any attempt to delimit a “right sort” of academics, that is, that the category’s own purity can only be established by certain exclusion that inscribes it necessarily and from the very beginning with its other, the group which provokes such anxiety within a certain discourse that claims the authority of the Southeast Evanston Association, even as said Association attempts to disown that discourse, is almost certainly (within the horizons of the present discussion, respecting the form in which it was initially proposed, with all the presuppositions and limitations it entailed) those philosophers (still so numerous, alas, and who enjoy an especial prominence in this country) who are still attempting to shore up various forms of positivism and logocentrism.

In other words, as an academic, I am trained in and excel at — as does Jacques here —  being insufferably obtuse on purpose.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Let me demonstrate:

The SEA’s denunciation of “transient academics” is only possible because it assumes and tries to preserve an idea of what the “right sort” of academic looks like, which is itself only meaningful when you have crappy “transient academics” (whatever that means) to compare them to. The SEA doesn’t really want to get rid of “transient academics” because it needs them to maintain its own superiority complex.

That’s my translation of Jacques’s comment, which is an example of what the academy (and by now everyone else) calls deconstruction. In my little note, I’ve tried to give an example of what deconstruction does. But Jacques, facetiously, has zeroed in on how it sounds.

The sound of deconstruction has achieved its own ironic sort of social life and capital. Nobody knows what deconstruction means or does or what it’s about, but speaking in deconstructive registers makes the same point, no matter the content: “I am smart enough to sound smart enough to know what I’m saying is garbage.”

This is complicated for me, because I don’t believe deconstruction is complete garbage. I have problems with deconstruction, but for different reasons than most people have problems with it.

Despite this rupture in understanding between everyday life and the Ivory Tower, we see that, at present, “deconstruction is the case” —  so put by Penn State professor Jeffrey Nealon in his book, Post-Postmodernism (2012). As evidenced not merely by the comments section of the Evanston Now article but by culture at large, academic rhetoric continues to become furniture for everyday discourse—a sort of White Elephant gift that we shove into the corner and laught at once in a while. Glaringly, the world and the academy seem to be talking about completely different issues. Take, for instance, Nealon’s commentary on the liberal academic politics of “resistance” and “interruption”:

For interruption to function plausibly as a mode of resistance to truth, the primary social and theoretical ‘problem’ logically has to rest in a social system that does whatever sinister work it does through the desire for totalization. 

Nealon is arguing that there was once a time, not even that long ago when “truth” was inscribed by the status quo as an act of domination: truth means one thing and one thing only and that happens to be what I say it means. Under such circumstances, according to Nealon, criticism and interpretation were major modes of social resistance because they “interrupted” authoritarian claims to truth: if I can show that your “truth” is a product of history and social forces, that it can just as easily be re-construed and reinterpreted to serve another agenda of “truth,” then I have stopped your totalitarian effort in its tracks. That is precisely what deconstruction does: it takes the piss out of the “Word of God,” in whatever form that takes, by reading it against itself — like a chump.

So what’s changed? Well, for one, our sitting President is so good at interrupting himself that we are left with very little to do. Despite its ironic redeployment even from the mouths of babes, deconstruction has done its work. We are so thoroughly aware that truth claims are specious that pointing this out has ceased to be an act of social resistance and has become a tiresome exercise in stating the obvious. Our culture, down to our economics and politics, now takes plurality and indeterminacy as its starting point. Hell, interruption is a form of marketing now.

This might be more encouraging if we also lived with a meritocracy of free ideas, but this hasn’t happened either. Instead, we see splintered ideologies going to war with one another inside the public sphere of cooperative tolerance we pretend we live in. According to Rita Felski, we are so trained in suspicion that it’s become part of our social muscle memory, to the point where we have no faith in conversation anymore. 

Deconstruction did not teach us how to be hospitable to one another, as Derrida arguably intended. Rather it taught us we are factories of violence precisely because we are linguistic animals. We are so sure that every utterance is a power-play in disguise, designed to interrupt us and lock us down; obfuscation becomes an act of self-defense or, at worst, an act of preemptive intellectual terrorism. Even sounding academic signals you’re not really interested in having a conversation.

So what do we do about that?

A few years ago,  when I attended the Western Conference on Christianity and Literature in California, the theme was “Shepherding Language: Restoring Our Faith in Words.” This is a good and noble pursuit, but as Jacques pointed out regarding the Southeast Evanston Association, “shepherding language” will always involve a particular idea of what that ought to look like. For some, such as one conference keynote speaker, “shepherding language” involves what Nealon elsewhere calls “a wholly untenable and manipulative fall back into tradition”: the brute insistence that there is a “plain and simple” way of doing things that has become obfuscated and overcomplicated. I don’t think anything has given the lie to that attitude quite like the information age; there are far too many things being said too quickly. Any “right way” of speaking is going to be drowned out in a moment. If there is so much text, then why add any more?

On this note, Marilyn McEntyre has become one of my favorite people because of her refusal to avoid speaking. She speaks without certainty, insisting on the desire to communicate in a world that will automatically be suspicious of both clear speech and obfuscation. For McEntyre, “restoring faith in words” doesn’t involve rediscovering
that faith but in remaking it, re-investing it, and speaking “in good faith.” If Richard Kearney has prescribed “anatheism” as a return to or rediscovery of belief in God “after” one has lost faith, then perhaps McEntyre is proposing a redefinition of analogy: ana logos, a return to words after the death of words.

That’s what I hope for here, anyway. I am a fifth-year doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. I am currently finishing a dissertation on three religious authors— Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry, and Eugene Vodolazkin— and exploring how they each “anatheistically” articulate beliefs in divine power and sovereignty, despite the fact that such things have been critiqued three ways to Sunday. In my comprehensive exams, I found myself saying that postmodernism was the “gauntlet” through which religious belief and identity have to pass in today’s world. One of my professors, Andrew McKenna, has insisted on calling it a “guillotine.” He’s probably more right.

So I’m conversing with the guillotine, and practicing ana logos: returning to language, documenting my journey through the rest of my doctorate and after, being as conscious as I can to say things in ways that matter. I talk about God, art, writing, politics, and being human. I practice talking about such thing as though I were talking to a systems engineer (my best friend), a crisis counselor (my wife), my pastor, or even my mother-in-law …

Especially my mother-in-law.

This is my attempt to write “without footnotes.” Though, I suppose I’m doing the opposite.

These are all my footnotes.