On being part of the problem

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

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I recently found out, through Evanston Now, that I am a blight on my neighborhood. I do love the moniker which has been handed to me, authorizing me to identify as a “transient academic.” And it’s terribly exciting, because I hate responding to the question, “So, what do you do?” I often feel the impulse to give a two-minute dissertation defense in order to justify my life, and as soon as I see eyes glaze over I retract and just say, “I teach.” Of course, those who aren’t interested in the ways in which contemporary literature re-imagines the credal and liturgical possibilities of Christianity in light of continental philosophy, postmodern to contemporary, are also unlikely to assess me favorably based on the fact that I teach freshman writing.

In fact, one commentator on the Evanston Now article, going (appropriately) by the name of “Jacques,” astutely demonstrates everything that is 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.

RE: As an academic, I am trained in and excel at — as does Jacques here, apparently — being insufferably obtuse on purpose.

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

The SEA’s denunciation of “transient academics” is only possible because of the ways in which it assumes and tries to preserve an idea of what the “right sort” of academics looks like, which is itself only meaningful when you have the idea of crappy “transient academics” (whatever that means) juxtaposed against it. In short, the SEA needs “transient academics” in order to maintain its own superiority complex.

That’s my translation, anyway, of Jacques’s comment, which is an example of what we in the academy (and by now everyone else) call 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.

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

Which is complicated for me, because I don’t believe that deconstruction is complete rubbish, though I think it’s an incomplete and in some ways misguided approach to the world and larger questions of Being. I have problems with deconstruction, but for different reasons than most people have problems with it.

And yet, despite this rupture in understanding between vox populi and the Ivory Tower, we have emerged into a moment in which “deconstruction is the case,” as Penn State professor Jeffrey T. Nealon puts it in his recent work, Post-Postmodernism (2012). As evidenced not merely by the comments section of the Evanston Now article but by culture at large, academic rhetoric is becoming more and more the furniture of everyday discourse, getting reinterpreted along the way. And what gets lost in translation is part of the problem, as Nealon continues:

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 (think up to about the mid-20th Century) when “truth” was written in broad strokes, 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, interpretation (or, what we in the academy call “hermeneutics” in bids to test the theoretical allergens of others) was a major mode of social resistance because it “interrupted” authoritarian claims to truth: if I can demonstrate that your “truth” is a self-reliant product of history, of social forces, that it can just as easily be reconstrued 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, frankly, despite its ironic redeployment even from the mouths of babes, deconstruction has, in fact, done its work: we are so thoroughly aware that truth claims are specious, so many castles built on sand, that pointing this out has ceased to be an act of social resistance and has instead become a tiresome exercise in stating the obvious. Our entire culture, down to our economics and politics, now takes plurality and indeterminacy as its starting point.

This would be great if it did, in fact, result in a democratic meritocracy of ideas freed from the controlling hegemony of a dominant ideology, but this hasn’t happened, not remotely, in fact we now have a bunch of splintered ideologies all self-authorized in going to war with one another inside the public sphere of cooperative tolerance we pretend we live in. But that’s a rant for another time.

So before I ramble irretrievably away from the point, I’ll say it plainly: we have no faith in discourse anymore. Deconstruction did not teach us how to be hospitable to one another, as Derrida arguably intended, but rather it taught us that we are factories of violence precisely insofar as 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, that obfuscation becomes an act of self-defense or, at worst, an act of preemptive intellectual terrorism, to the point where even sounding academic signals that you’re not interested in actually having a conversation.

So what do we do about that?

I just got back from California after attending the Western Conference on Christianity and Literature this past weekend. The theme of the conference 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” is going to involve a particular idea of what that ought to look like, oftentimes to the exclusion of others. For some, such as Thursday night’s keynote speaker, “shepherding language” involved what Nealon elsewhere calls “a wholly untenable and manipulative fall back into tradition.” I’m sorry, but after the death of discourse, there is no way to simply go back to someone else’s ostensibly “plain and simple” way of doing things. Rather, we seem to have been trying to teach ourselves “how to avoid speaking.”

For the rest of us, though, there was a concerted decision to speak up anyway — a refusal to avoid speaking. Our second keynote, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, has become one of my favorite people; in general, but particularly in her articulation of her refusal to avoid speaking: how to speak without certainty, how to insist on the desire to communicate, in a world that is going to automatically be suspicious, and equally so, of both clear speech and obfuscation as thinly-disguised acts of power and violence. For McEntyre, “restoring faith in words” doesn’t involve rediscovering that faith, but remaking it, re-investing it, actually speaking “in good faith.” If Richard Kearney has prescribed “anatheism” as a return to or rediscovery of God “after God,” then perhaps McEntyre is proposing, though not quite in these terms, a redefinition of analogy — ana logos, a return to words after the death of words.

That’s what I plan to do here, anyway. I am a third-year doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. I am currently studying for the comprehensive exams which will define my specialties, of which there are three: 1) the Catholic imagination in the modern novel, 2) Postmodern literature and philosophy/theory, and 3) the 21st Century novel “after Theory.” According to plan, this will culminate in a dissertation on how religious authors in the past fifteen years have used the novel form as a space in which to re-imagine the possibilities of religion, and re-articulate their own religious identities, in light of the challenges of postmodern philosophy and politics. I have called postmodernism the “gauntlet” through which religious identity must now pass in today’s world, but one of my professor’s Andrew McKenna, has insisted on calling it a “guillotine.” He’s probably right.

This, then, is my negotiation with the guillotine. Just as I believe literature serves as a space for re-imagining the sacred, so I plan to use this blog as a space in which to practice ana logos, returning to language, documenting my journey through the rest of my doctorate and being as conscious as I can to not let my thoughts slip into the trappings of higher academia, at least not before their time. This is the place for me to talk about the things that matter to me — God, art, politics, being human — and to practice talking about them as though I were talking to a systems engineer (my best friend), a mental health counselor working in crisis intake (my wife), the senior pastor of the small Evangelical Free Church I attend, or even my mother-in-law …

Especially my mother-in-law.

This is, simply, my attempt to write “without footnotes.” Or, well, not exactly. Quite the opposite, actually.

These are, in fact, all my footnotes.