“All Lives Matter”

“One thing I have been paying attention to,” said a friend of mine recently as he responded to the past week’s events. “Is how much people are equating ‘speaking out’ with what others are sharing on social media. As if that somehow represents the zenith of a responsible social conscious and is the best, most serious gauge on how people feel and what they think. Like those of us who have refrained from digitally expressing outrage, condolences, etc. etc., have to apologize to the rest of the world for keeping our mouths shut and being thought fools.”

He went on to give what’s turned out to be one of the most resonant pieces of observation I’ve read in a long time:

It is embarrassing that as a culture we have decided that sharing and posting online constitute meaningful dialogue and serious commitment – even if we’re “signing a petition.” Social media is far less about “dialogue” (meaningful conversation) than it is about “monologue” (shouting your opinion into the open air). And often times those opinions are not backed by action, let alone thoughtful, consistent commitments toward alleged concerns.

Finally, he hits his real zinger:

The truth is, what we really want is pats on the back, little back rubs, call them what you will, validating our ideas. We done well, saying X is bad and Y is good.

This cut to the quick, and I mean hard, especially in light of my last post. In that post, I expressed the belief that “being capable of responding,” as David Tracy argues, places us in a situation where we should say something. Of course, the other side of the coin is that, when one has very little to say it is often best to keep silent. Silence, however, has become tantamount to complicity in the digital age, while there is no patience for the type of “speaking out” which Tracy advocates because, frankly, that kind of activism doesn’t move fast enough for the contemporary culture. At this point the single worst thing you can apparently do is decide that you’re not going to participate in the masturbatory politics of social media.

This is almost exactly what I predicate my Freshman writing courses on: the need to develop and perform strategies of wise, thoughtful engagement when our technology enables and even expects us to do the exact opposite. Believe it or not, today’s college students hate the way the public forum works, too.

But one question which I’ve failed to address, and have honestly not given enough thought to, is simply this: Where? Where does one actually find a place in which to perform the kind of measured discourse which might produce effective politics? I can list a few options: The academy, the Church, public hearings organized by the State, official debate forums… All of these fall apart very quickly. Even this platform right here proves to be a misery, because as soon as I finish this blog post, I am going to share it. I am going to ask people to read it and I will be interested in what they think. The moment that happens, an entire cultural apparatus is going to pick it up and turn it into precisely the kind of artifact that my friend decried.

Writing and critical thought themselves have, for these reasons, become a sort of hypocrisy in a culture that doesn’t want to wait for them to do their extended work. The political climate in which we find ourselves is like that of a huge frozen lake that’s begun to crack under our feet; long, cruel, spidery cracks that dare us to try something.

“Come, let us reason together,” say the writer and the critic as they explore the territory, methodically tapping their ways across the ice and looking for strong places to lay their weight.

“Get over here, you’re going to get us killed!” screams everybody else, as the ice groans under their collective ideological baggage where they’ve huddled together for familiar warmth, not thinking for a moment that this might be precisely what causes the fatal collapse.

We no longer have any patience for anything which doesn’t amount to out-and-out confirmation bias. We are, in short, obsessed with the ideological use of the products which we continually churn out into the public sphere. We have commercialized our speech and determined its value based on how well it makes us feel good about X or demonizes Y.

Philosopher Giorgio Agamben has a prognosis for all this, and it’s not good:

Contemporary politics is this devastating experiment that disarticulates and empties institutions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities all throughout the planet, so as then to rehash and reinstate their definitively nullified form.

These empty, “nullified” form of activism are precisely what you get when social media becomes “the zenith of a responsible social conscience.” We have no patience for any form of thought or identity which can’t be incarnated in the all-mighty emoticon. Our culture has collectively decided that it will use technology to evacuate communication of its content and power before promptly turning around and insisting that it’s done no such thing. “Now shut the hell up,” says Facebook, “and put this flag filter on your profile picture.”

“I’m tired of seeing Life politicized,” says Agamben. “Through terror, through the complete commodification of the human being, through racism, through capitalist structures. Identity politics. Through the Medical establishment. Even through religion.”

Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac has similar words:

People imagine that by reducing everything to immanence, everything, beginning with himself, would be given back to man; on the contrary, it meant robbing him of everything he possessed and “alienating” him absolutely. For it implied reducing everything to duration.

“The sole form in which life as such can be politicised,” says Agamben, “is its unconditioned exposure to death – that is, bare life.” This unconditioned exposure to death — the Orlando shooting, the killing of a black man in Houston, retaliatory killings of a number of police officers in Dallas — all of these deaths have exposed people to the fact that their political status is implicitly “reduced to duration,” namely the length of time for which they are useful for producing useful material. “The way in which humanism, which regards man as the supreme value, ‘gives value to man’ ends by resembling the exploitation of land or livestock.”

That is how you commodify a person, their words and thoughts: you reduce their identity to their usefulness in a competitive capitalist superstructure which is only interested in itself. The unconditioned exposure to death jars them, they begin to face down this reality and they start asking questions. They realize they have been “disfigured,” as de Lubac says, they demand a ground for their being. That is what a movement like Black Lives Matter is, in the end, all about: “Tell us we’re valuable! Tell us why we’re valuable! Show us!”

“All Lives Matter,” is the insidious response, and insidious because of this: there is nothing actually on-offer. Those who have faced down death, the bareness of their lives, have asked for something absolute, something particular, some assurance which does not reduce them to their labor, and culture has nothing to give them. “All Lives Matter,” we chant, “Black Lives Matter, Pray for Orlando, End the Hate” and the utter emptiness which those words disguise weighs them down.

Because, in the end every single statement of either solidarity or revolution spoken into the politicized sphere of social media is recast within that platform as a mere assertion rather than providing hurting, frightened people with the ground of Being which they are demanding. The public sphere we have created divides every issue into clean black-and-white, us-and-them, and paradoxically this clean division utterly erases the particularity of individual situations, it ravenously co-opts and appropriates real people into its sprawling ideological narrative.

The erasure of people and particulars for the maintenance of that narrative ultimately guarantees that all our most heartfelt prayers and protests alike are reduced to soothing coos of “All Lives Matter.” And by this, we mean that “All lives matter the same,” which is to say that no life matters beyond its capacity for production. “A capacity,” says culture with a knowing glare. “Which you have all disrupted by taking all this time insisting that you matter.”

Until there is actual content behind the assertion that life matters in all its forms, any rallying cry that “Lives Matter,” whoever’s lives they may be, will be essentially meaningless, not knowing what it wants. The words  will simply be a negative space, a canker, a weight into which we will fall and fold, “collapsed into the relative, carrying the whole of man with it.”

And, without another medium, we will still go down tweeting about how much “life matters.”

 

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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, 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.