The Incredibles, Gender, and America: the Affects of Democracy?

The enduring popularity of superheroes in the United States raises all sorts of interesting questions. What exactly is being lauded in these supers and what does this lauding say about democracy, individual will, freedom, and other idealized values of our nation? I have been privy to a number of conversations around these questions on account of the smart research being done by Adam D. J. Brett, a graduate student in my department at Syracuse who is mentored by my colleague and dear friend, Zachary Braiterman.  This blog post on The Incredibles and The Incredibles II will not likely touch on Brett’s concerns, but if it does I assume he’ll tell me!

Two facets of the Incredibles films strike me at once. First, the turn away from the state in order to attend to the microdynamics of family; and second, the affective fluidity between the impossible desire to “get it right” in the family and the impossible desire to inaugurate substantive community (Gemeinschaft) in civil society.

As any reader of Hegel knows, de-emphasizing the state is a historical interruption of the assumption that the family exists as the ethical core of the state.  In both Incredibles, the family absolutely stands as an ethical core, but not for the state. As represented by government officials of various, vaguely-presented sorts, the state is not the sublation of family and civil society but appears as a weak vessel for the will of the people, poised to wither away into obscurity. The ethical impetus of the two films stays with the family for the sake of a utopian desire for authentic community (as my former student Holly White might say). To reach this impetus, the films labor first to figure out what exactly makes and secures a family (particularly the economic role of men as laboring “to provide for the family” in The Incredibles) and second to figure out the question of parenting–or, put less generously, to tarry with the social contradictions that typically glue childcare to women–in Incredibles II.

  The unexplained premise of both films is that Supers are humans who just happen to possess unasked-for, physics-defying capacities. [I have often wondered whether the choice of the protagonists’ last name, Paar, is an attempt to underline Supers’ passivity with respect to their powers. “On par” with everyone else, they possess at birth whatever the genetic process has doled out, without any “super” intervention.] The use of their unearned specialness to intervene in social catastrophes is either outright resented, as is clear in the first Incredibles through Syndrome’s monologues, or found to be simply too chaotic, destructive, and expensive. In an ironic swipe against the order-restoring Supers, the general populace judges them disorderly and cries out to ban them. Lo-and-behold, the state meekly acts on the misguided General Will and bans them.

It is hard to feel sympathy for the Supers. Though their “natural being” is cruelly repressed by social opprobrium, they still remain, well, super. The first Incredibles presents this dynamic beautifully and humorously by squeezing the hulking Bob Paar into a tiny cubicle of a heartless insurance company. The images suggest that surely Mr. Incredible himself is a better insurance policy than anything sold by the company! It seems that social repression of the Supers’ powers only hurts society; it doesn’t really hurt the Supers. Far from arcing toward a radical anti-democracy, one might read this message against the grain and conclude that grooming persons fully to be who they are born to be–whatever their inchoate gifts and skills–will more certainly ensure social democracy than any state-enforced policy enacted in response to fear or misunderstanding.

   Back to the Family. In the Incredibles the gender dynamics in the family are cis, bourgeois, and heteronormative. Helen has taken Bob’s last name, and she represses Elastigirl in order to craft a successful, stay-at-home-mom persona. The familiar plot of Hollywood family drama is blown up, however, when Helen seeks counsel about her possibly cheating husband from Edna Mode, the fashion designer and no-nonsense critic. In both Incredibles films, it is Edna who speaks the film’s central message. In the first film, Edna shrieks in disgust at the sobbing Helen and her ridiculous, learned impotence:

“You are Elastigirl! My God! Pull yourself together! ‘What will you do?’ Is this a question? Show him you remember that he is Mr. lncredible, and you will remind him who you are! Well, you know where he is.  Go! Confront the problem! Fight! Win! And call me when you get back, darling. I enjoy our visits.”

The viability of family lies here not in sublating social assimilation to state policy but in undermining the law in order truly to become who you are, that is, in relationships based on love and loyalty and that work to bolster each other in the communal task of protecting your neighbors with the skills and gifts you have.

  Many viewers supposed the gender inversions of Incredibles II to function as something like “equal time”. But really it’s more like a mirror image, with all the wonkiness that comes into play when you step through the looking glass. Helen Paar’s reincarnation as Elastigirl is the social application of the ethico-relational habits she developed as a stay-at-home mother, but without the feminine submissiveness required of her suburban persona. What habits? Those of close attention, awareness of details, a care for the integrity of space and process, a concern for the needs of the other. Recall that when Helen begs Bob to get more engaged in the family in this first film, Bob yells the desire back at her (“You want me to be more engaged?”) and then lifts the dinner table, careening the children through space. In Incredibles II, this kind of blunt action without regard for bodily context is actually given a neoliberal quantification: Mr. Incredible causes more damage and therefore costs more. If the public is to be cajoled back into favoring Supers, Elastigirl’s ethico-relational approach is a better bet. The benefits of her approach far exceed cost-savings, however.

  Once again, it is the encounter with Edna Mode that reveals the film’s true message. Bob is exhausted and despondent and, let’s face it, jealous of Elastigirl’s public regard. Edna poo-poos  Bob’s self-pity. She tosses her message back to Bob, over her shoulder:

“Done properly, parenting is a heroic act. …Done properly.”

The message here, I think, is not just that men need to up their game and learn to competently perform the household and childcare tasks that have been women’s purview for centuries, but that in learning these tasks they need also to learn a different manner of relating to others: to children, to neighbors, to lovers, to train tracks and tall buildings and anything else that has been materially wrought, brought into the world, and cared for.

To sum up by repeating my premise: the desire of The Incredibles and Incredibles II is profoundly democratic, perhaps even isonomic in the manner theorized by Kojin Karatani. The desire is, in short, for an open, caring civil society that soon will not need state machinations to bind it together. The desire is for family structures that cultivate deep attention and deep caring for others, an attention that bolsters each person’s unique skills and gifts, and a care that translates into support, protection and understanding. The desire is for the affects of this kind of family to broaden fluidly into a social context so that we feel ourselves a rule of the people, or an equal norm of the people, even while recognizing that each of us has different, unasked for, proclivities that need nurture, attention, and practice. That the two films focus on Bob Paar is a not-so-subtle indication that this ethico-relational comportment for the collective crafting of social community is hardest for those in dominance: for whites, for the middle classes of sufficient economic stability, and especially for men.

Impossible desires. Incredible.


The Affects of Parenting


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One of the phrases that affect theorist Sara Ahmed truly dislikes is the hackneyed plea of parents, “We just want you to be happy.” Though Ahmed’s books are like daily meditations for me (a paragraph a day keeps feminist anger at bay), I have disagreed with her analysis of this cultural cliché since I first read it, and not just (I think) because those hackneyed words have rolled, many times, off my own lips.

My disagreement is not with Ahmed’s careful analysis of homophobia and of the violence wrought by heteronormative parents who question and too often reject their children’s gender and/or sexual non-conformity. My disagreement lies in feeling, from my own orientation as a parent, a different correlation between words and temporality. As Ahmed knows so well, our lives pummel through non-teleological trajectories that we both do and do not forge. She puts it best when she talks about feet and paths:

“Take the phrase ‘a path well-trodden.’ A path can be made by the repetition of ‘being trodden’ upon. We can see the path as a trace of past journeys. When people stop treading, the path might disappear. On the one foot: we walk on the path as it is before us. On the other foot: it is before us as an effect of being walked upon. A paradox of the footprint emerges. A path is created by being followed and is followed by being created. We can use a path insofar as we do use a path. Can here is a consequence of doing. If we can because we do, then we do can rather than can do” (Living a Feminist Life, 45-46).

What this passage implies to me, though Ahmed does not stress it, is that a path spools out in front of our feet even as it is our feet that (re)make the path. The heartbreak of the generation gap is the expected but still painful heartbreak of your children veering away from the stories and rituals and principles and assumptions that have–quite materially–formed the spoken and unspoken walkways of family. It is a child’s rejection of the parents, of the past, of the old ways, and it’s ok, it’s expected. But it hurts. Sometimes, the phrase “I just want you to be happy” is a temporal band-aid, a cognitive scramble to bide time while the affects catch up. So much–so much–of being a (white, bourgeois) parent is training one’s bodymind into twenty years of hypervigilance on behalf of your child’s safety, material and emotional needs, and opportunities for the future. Because of this long duration, the hypervigilance becomes an unthought but deeply habitual path. It spools out into the future in ways that far exceed rational capture and yet are deeply felt. And it’s only after your child tells you that their path will be quite different–it literally is only then, when the geography of that path spooling into the future bursts into a million uncharted pieces, that its endearing and calming topography also comes into blinding, retroactive clarity. “I just want you to be happy” is a phrase thrown into that explosion, a phrase that, at least for me, attempts to clear the air of that bursting detritus, to perform a basic trust in my kid’s ability to step where they need to step, and to assert that come what may, I will be here for them. No matter what. My hypervigilance has to ease up and get redirected, but it will never not be the path that I walk.

  Pixar’s latest short, Bao, screened prior to the new Incredibles II film, touchingly illustrates my reflection on Ahmed’s phenomenology of parental path-walking. The Chinese-American boy is imaged as a little dumpling, a bao who is carefully and tenderly cared for by his competent Chinese mother. She attends to his food, his growth, his play. She establishes rituals with him and protects him from harm.

  Even so, of course, the boy becomes a teenager and pushes his mom out of his life. The emotional honesty of this short is intense and rare. The last shot–which I cannot find online–shows the mom and grown-up child sitting on her bed, sharing buns as they did together when he was young. They sit eating side-by-side, not looking at each other but looking out in front of themselves; tears stream down both of their faces. The healthy and inevitable veering of the next generation into autonomous adulthood is also sad, an irrecuperable loss of a closeness and tenderness that materially and affectively fed both parent and child for many, many years.

  Adrián Orr’s Niñato (2017) is carved out of the same parental problematic, but in a temporally and affectively different part of the family path-making and path-walking, prior to the children’s break-away to a different orientation. Set in contemporary Madrid, Niñato is shot tightly in claustrophobic sequences that refuse to pan out to establish a room or a full body or even a two-shot of the characters speaking in the scene. The spatial suffocation so closely matches economic suffocation that the one tips easily into the other. A man, his parents, his son, his sister, and her two daughters all live in a small apartment. The man and his sister can’t afford to pay for school lunches, so they walk the children to school, then home for lunch and back to school. To be available for this to-ing and fro-ing, they must work at night.

  Even this short description enforces too much linear narrative on a 70-minute film that dwells more on the long and futile morning battle of getting three kids up and clothed and out the door and the long and frustrating battle of getting the kids to do their homework than on any traditional story arc. There are rare moments when we see the brother/son/father smoking, snatching kisses with his lover and rapping on stage–and all of these moments are shot in tight, fragmented shots, in dark rooms, and often with the backs of the characters facing the screen. The film oscillates between long sequences of whining kids and little forward motion and these brief, almost stolen, moments of adult work, desire, and relationship. The oscillation cunningly conveys the affects of exhaustion, self-limitation, and open-ended obligation that are endemic to parenting during the precarious labor forces of the twenty-first century.

  Niñato, then, shows the affective hardening, the embodied and emotional endurance, that forms the frame and ground of the tender paths of parenthood sentimentally imaged by Bao. Let me be clear: I am not romanticizing parental sacrifice. The brother/son/father is the title character, Niñato, the “little kid”, played by David Ransanz. He is as petulant and short-fused as his tween son and nieces. He still expects his mother do to his laundry! Yet, even so, he is there for the kids. He is getting them up, getting them dressed, fed, and off to school, getting them home for lunch and back to school, getting them through their homework. To do this, to orientate oneself primarily to the needs and obligations of the children in your life year after year after decade, is to find yourself on a sturdy path that you (re)make with every step and that exceeds and eludes your rational control. You cannot keep your affects from spooling out into a felt and unthought future. And often, you cannot help saying what is both desperate and obvious: “I just want you to be happy.”

Exercise 2: Interrogating one’s mots d’ordre

We were told to write down our clichés, that is, the words or phrases we hear ourselves saying all the time. Since I don’t typically think of myself as a self but as a context or a relationship, I was stuck for a few minutes. But then I thought, well, “I am not a self” is a kind of cliché that I carry in my bodymind, even if it’s not something I say very often. It then occurred to me that the stage of verbal repetition for me is pedagogical: classroom, reading group, or one-with-on mentoring. Instead of cliché, I thought I would do well to jot down all les mots d’ordre that tend to come out of my mouth on the pedagogical stage.

For Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the function of language is not to signify, to represent, or to convey meaning, but to promulgate “order words.” The phrase mots d’ordre is often translated as watchwords or slogans but since I am a major switching point of power in the pedagogical scenes that call me to the stage, I prefer the literal sense of order or command. Deleuze and Guattari write that “Information is only the strict minimum necessary for the emission, transmission, and observation of orders as commands. …Language is not life; it gives life orders. Life does not speak; it listens and waits. Every order-word, even a father’s to his son, carries a little death sentence–a Judgment, as Kafka put it” (A Thousand Plateaus, trans. B. Massumi, p. 76).

Deleuze and Guattari here suggest that by gridding human interactions with order/s, language creates channels for thought, action, and affect. Language creates incentives to think and feel in certain ways and thus not in other ways. As such, order-words become an efficient technology for plugging bodies into predictable, controllable circuits in harmony with what Foucault theorizes as disciplinarity or governmentality.

All of this points to why pausing for some minutes to consider one’s clichés or order-words is such a productive exercise. The exercise requires us to remember the staging of these precious mots: the where, when, with whom, and why. The why is especially thrown into relief because it seems pretty clear that an order-word arises when I want to stop, coalesce, or torque the direction of a classroom conversation. In other words, the “why” of an order-word can be generative and can enact a productive tension, but most often it’s a powerful tool for shutting down and redirecting what is being thought/felt.

The slogan I wrote about is “liberal individualism is toxic and false.” It’s a good slogan and a horrible scholarly assertion. It arises on the pedagogical scene whenever a student’s manner of talking evokes things like privacy, choice, and agency that are owned, possessed and consciously managed by a body that is itself bounded and separate from other bodies. This bland, insistent frame that so many students cart into the seminar room with them so often feels to me like a refusal to ratchet down the analytical focus in order to see/hear/feel all the ways in which a self, a bounded body, also has loads of holes and seeps into its surroundings in very unbounded ways.

But of course, part of what is so frustrating is that this “refusal” has been inculcated simply by years of living as a subject in the United States. The students speak out of an established distribution of the sensible, as Rancière would put it.

And of course, at one level of analysis, it remains crucial to assert the integrity of a body. Sexual and gender politics against assault, rape, and harassment are just the most obvious examples here. Advocacy around reproductive health, maternity leave policies, and the right to carry or not carry what lies inside my body are others.

The toxicity lies in the success of this way of thinking/living subjectivity. Liberal individual claims a blanket and unargued connection between bodily integrity and the possessive individualism (C. B. MacPherson, 1962) that has been so thoroughly naturalized by white male patriarchy and every single iteration of capitalism (the body that sell his labor power on the market of industrial capitalism, the body coddled by the niche markets of consumer capitalism, the entrepreneurial self [Lazzarato] of late liberalism [Povinelli]). My order-word arises like a sucker punch to dismiss this claim in shorthand when really any seminar should take the time to respond to this ideological smirk. The claims of liberal individualism signal a broad, diffuse, and agonizingly powerful set of norms, assumptions, practices, that thinkers should pause with and dwell into, instead of trying to block their power with the thin blade of an order-word.

The core of my frustration, as anyone who knows me knows, is the quick default to individual “choice”. Each situation is distinct and boringly the same, but the rapid assumption of choice ignores (or denies) the thick webs of social structure and the layered currents of history, memory, trauma, shame, and hope that orient, mold, and guide the perception and selection of those choices. On the other hand, humans clearly do in fact make choices and simply are responsible. Choice and structure, action and memory need to be uncoiled and stretched out so that we can see how history and obstinacy, social oppression and personal generosity work in tandem (or in tandems of tandems).

My thanks to L. Berlant and K. Stewart who designed and delivered this critical practice exercise.

An exercise in worlding: Affective attention (yearning attunement)

It is my first Airbnb experience, but that’s another story. I step down the uneven stairs and slip around the unlocked gate to the sidewalk of an uncertain neighborhood; I am heading (I hope) toward a deli I found on Google. Two birds flush up from the tree behind the building. I watch them rise, dip, and pitch toward and away from each other. Spring. Love is impulse is affective proximity is nesting is sex is love. Spring. I can’t tell if they are robins or starlings because the sun is at the wrong angle for anything but dark forms to hit my eyes. No color.

My eyes dip down to the trashy roadside, the disrepair of the buildings, the overgrown patches on the road’s shoulder, and they catch the rhythm of the dandelions’ wispy afros bending in the breeze. It is cool, the air, cooler than June ought to be. But where do these “oughts” come from? Why is cut grass prettier than these dandelions and their natural beat?

  I look up and see an elder occupying his front porch like a neighborhood institution. He nods his head to me, a slightly smaller bend than the dandelions. “Good morning,” my voice rings out in its best Southern singsongy Christian lilt. Where did that come from!? Before I can answer the surprise of my inner self, another man ambles down porch steps across the road in front of me. He is thin as a needle and wears jeans with brightly-embroidered back pockets. I try to catch his eye but my throw slides off of him like a sigh. His gait is lop-sided, labored. Back on the other side of the street, I see a white girl unlocking her bicycle, health oozing out of her fit limbs and correct cycling gear.

The man and I, but not together, are walking toward a liquor store. Its neon light is already trying to lure the moths, the goths, the sots, the “drinking shortens your life but it’s the bad years it takes away anyhow” sorts. Then he then I (but not together) veer left and right into the deli. I lose his embroidered pockets but I see his smile. The manager behind the counter is uncertain of this unknown me. She’s like a big, ripe plum, barely moving but so lovely. The waitress is efficient and full of blessings. Bless you, honey. You have a blessed day. “You too,” I respond, that singsongy church voice popping up from my past now twice in half an hour. She pauses and looks at me. “HE is GOOD, chil’.” “Oh, I KNOW, ma’am; thank you!”

I exit toward the conference, toward the experiments in critical practice that is the reason I am here, and see a COGIC sanctuary across the street. Ah, I think. As in, Ok, I see. But, really, who knows what I see or know, even in my knowing? I feel the presence of this place in its new-to-me’ness and I feel an openness, a juxtaposition, that has been granted me (or my white skin, which also oozes health and other goodies). I wallow in the local culture, I want my wallowing to be attunement. Love is impulse is affective proximity, even without the nesting or sex. Love. I am content with attainable attentiveness, and I am grateful.

Kore-eda’s Family Films and the Affective Mesh of the Everyday

The Movie streaming site Mübi gifted me this week with two Hirokazu Kore-eda films, Still Walking (2008) and Like Father, Like Son (2013). I have been a fan of this director for years, based on the only films I’d had a chance to screen: Mabarosi (1995), After Life (1998), and Nobody Knows (2004). In the religion and film course I used to offer regularly to undergraduates I nearly always assign After Life. I find it pairs perfectly with passages about memoire involuntaire from Swann’s Way and with ritual theory that unpacks how rituals anchor identity not just by the repetitions that thread us affectively into specific memories and histories, but also by the cognitive and practical labor of a representation that coalesces and channels affect-laden memories and commitments.

Both Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son center on the cis, heteronormative family structure, and both yield a central place to children. Unexpectedly, however, the focus on children is not a focus on futurity or even on the endurance of blood or repetition of the bloodline. Each decidedly disturbs and upturns such assumptions about what (who) a family is and does.

  In Still Walking, the beloved son died years ago saving another, weaker boy from drowning. His brother–disaffected with his elderly parents and haunted in his own way by the lingering worry that he, too, is a weaker boy–refuses to follow his father’s professional or domestic footsteps. His work has to do with art and music, and he has married a young widow who already has a six-year-old son. In Like Father, Like Son, the mother of a wealthy couple dotes on their only son and longs for her husband to be more emotionally engaged with them, while another family–composed of a boisterous, merchant-class mom and pop and their three children–seems to have an excess of love and play to counterbalance their lack of economic stability. The premise of this film is that two baby boys were switched at the hospital at birth, the only son of the wealthy couple, and one of the two sons of the working-class family. The hospital recommends that they switch the boys soon, before they begin elementary school, but what is stronger, what is more true: blood relations? Or six years of intimate being-family with one another?

  I am always impressed with Kore-eda’s quiet cinematography and patient storytelling, and these films are no exception. Each in its own way brought to mind the two affect theorists I will see (I hope) this weekend in Chicago, Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart.  Still Walking grinds down into the everyday. It grabs us with its attention to the chatter between mother and daughter over how to make a traditional dish, with the flurry of cousins darting through the dining room where the adults are trying to be civil with one another, with the rituals of family altars and cemetery visits, and with its distracted camera that drifts over landscape and through windows even as the characters continue to talk.

Kathleen Stewart writes in Ordinary Affects that “The ordinary is a shifting assemblage of practices and practical knowledges, a scene of both liveness and exhaustion, a dream of escape or of the simple life. Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies and emergences. They’re things that happen.”

What we notice, in watching Still Walking is that it is the daily accumulation, charge and discharge, and sedimentation of these ordinary affects that materially make a life, a family, a history. What we notice in it, and in Like Father, Like Son is the tight coil of the past within the beating pulse of the present. As Lauren Berlant notes in Cruel Optimism, “If the present is not at first an object but a mediated affect, it is also a thing that is sensed and under constant revision, a temporal genre whose conventions emerge from the personal and public filtering of the situations and events that are happening in an extended now whose very parameters (when did “the present” begin?) are also always there for debate.”

The present is not an object–and not a moment–but a mediated affect. That sentence perfectly captures what I think Kore-eda is up to in these two films.

Salary Compression and Anti-Maternality in the Academy

  A number of sociological studies have proven that women in academia fall behind their male peers by (1) getting married and (2) having children. Claire Cain Miller’s 2014 article in The New York Times, “The Motherhood Penalty vs the Fatherhood Bonus” clarifies that the penalties women academics face on account of so-called private, domestic choices (to get married, to have children) are not matched by a neutral field but instead men are rewarded in their careers for the same so-called private domestic choices (to get married, to have children). This argument is spelled out in gruesome detail in Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, co-written by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas H. Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden (Rutgers UP, 2013). Mason has summarized the book’s argument in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Men, for instance, tend to occupy tenure-track jobs and more men obtain tenure than women. Though universities are under fierce pressure to increase faculty diversity, their attempt to satisfy this pressure does not threaten men’s dominance in secure, tenured positions. As Colleen Flaherty researched for her 2016 article in Inside Higher Ed, “most gains for underrepresented minority groups have been in the most precarious positions. That is, not on the tenure track.” Women and non-white faculty, that is, are hired into adjunct positions.

Not only do presumptively private choices (marriage, children) adversely affect women’s getting a job, getting tenure, getting published, and getting promoted, but the professional experiences of men and women are strikingly different. Cassandra M. Guarino and Victor M. H. Borden’s research, published in Research in Higher Education (Volume 58, Issue 6, pp 672–694), surveyed over 19,000 faculty members before concluding that “women do more service work than their male colleagues” (cited from a summary of Guarino and Borden’s paper by Lara Rutherford-Morrison.  I know this well myself. When I had far too many advisees, I was never thanked or offered service or teaching reductions. Nor did any of my colleagues or superiors ever initiate a conversation with me about why so many graduate students ended up as my mentees (I assure you I did not stand on a soapbox and solicit them. Many asked me in desperation. Many asked me through tears). 

I write all of this because I woke up furious this morning about the standard academic response to salary compression. It is said, it has been said to me, I have heard it said blithely to groups of mostly female graduate students: To remain current in your salary–to not fall prey to salary compression–you simply have to apply for other jobs, get an offer, and then negotiate a counter offer.

Simply what? Look at the graphic I’ve attached to the top of this post. Add another child, a husband always away on work, grading, class prep, committee work, and five to ten graduate advisees and that was me, every day. (It is well known that part of what is killing working women in all fields is the so-called second shift of domestic work.) When, where, and how would I ever have found the time, energy, or mental acuity to apply for another job? And what if I had done so, received an offer, and my institution had not countered? I could never have moved my burgeoning family or my husband’s career for a few thousand dollars per year raise. I could barely stomach the thought and energy involved in changing childcare arrangments.

Thus, dear readers, I conclude that salary compression is yet another example of the academy’s anti-maternality, that special and specific form of misogyny that refuses to acknowledge all the studies to which I gestured in my opening paragraph, much less institute policy changes to ensure that women who are not only professionally punished for their so-called private choices (marriage, children) but also professionally punished for doing more service work than men might at least have a shot at a fair and equitable salary without having to play Russian Roulette on the job market with that one milliliter of energy they have left.

Happy Wednesday.

The Spell of Student Power in the Neoliberal University

 I could start this story in 2014, or really in any semester leading up to this one. But I am not the Daily Orange, the Syracuse University student newspaper that should win this year’s college equivalent of the Pulitzer for journalism for its amazing reporting.    Let me jump into the middle of things–a “townhall” in the campus chapel last night, convened by SU administrators. The idea was to listen to student demands and provide a controlled forum for responding to them. The following is a small expansion of a series of Tweets I sent out this morning.

  The students demanded to be treated as equal partners in this parlay. The meeting was delayed as they reached a compromise. The administration would facilitate the discussion and respond to questions, but the students would be allowed to open the meeting and read their demands (listed in a petition that had been circulating on social media for most of the day).

  Here are the incoming Student Body President and President-elect. This, dear readers, is the comportment of leadership. The savvy and poise and mutual regard shown by these students signal the power of a new, national youth movement that is angry, passionate, and impatient for the historical patterns of structural oppression to change.

  This is what leadership looks like. Two of these young adults are sophomores. I am impressed and daunted by their laser-sharp focus and determination.

  Ms. Johnson read through the petition, which she crafted out of multiple conversations with students, faculty, and staff. All members of society are encouraged to sign this petition, which can be found here.

The students continued to frame the meeting by having representatives stand silently with signs. Here they are:

Stop asking what we want when we’ve told you concretely, with a timeline.

  They kept the focus off the personal and on the need for structural change. Emotions ran high, and the students insisted that this emotional expression not be suppressed and not be interpreted as mere personal experience. Anecdotes are refractions of ingrained patterns of the structural hate, bias, disdain, and disregard that gets condensed in the too-familiar terms of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and settler colonialism.

  Students resisted the neoliberal, corporate tactic of endless energy and time-sapping committees and “talks.” You know what we want, they said. Now is the time to act and to provide regular, transparent updates on your actions.

I am impressed and I stand in solidarity.

At 55, I sense constraints on the administrators of SU that the students, perhaps, have no reason to know or to acknowledge right now. This movement is not about business-like compromise, however. Leave that to the Trustees. These students are angling to dam the global tide of what Patricia Clough calls “prefascist populism.” They are proving the worth of their Humanities classes, pointing to the ways in which the history of white supremacy and ableism anchors down in policies, building plans, police profiling, syllabus exclusions, and, yes, jokes. They are hungry for justice, not in a violent vicious sense but in that human way that we all feel and that pushes us to reach out for meaningful friendships, for collegial/peer relations built on deep listening and mutual regard, for the intimacy of shared purpose, for compassion, and for love. The last student who spoke, Ray, pleaded with the administration to treat students as persons, as intellectuals, as people who want to leave Syracuse University and be the collective force of change for the good. His voice was not angry or full of pathos. Honestly, what moved me so deeply was that his voice was full of that yearning lack that we recognize from Dickens’s writing about orphans, or from Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Depression-era poor: he was speaking a desire he cannot not feel into a context that probably cannot satisfy it.

Altered Carbon: The Revenge of Descartes and the Death of God (reprise)

 Altered Carbon 2018), the 10-episode Netflix series based on Richard K. Morgan’s book by the same title, is slick and sadistic. Critics have rightly parsed its Bladerunner aesthetic, but I see more than Ridley Scott in its strategically plotted mise-en-scène. I see the Manichaean politics of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the struggle over resource extraction and the revolutionary resistance of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the ethical quandaries of advanced A.I. technology’s of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the digital feats of Gibson’s Neuromancer. If you have read and watched twentieth-century science fiction, then producer Laeta Kalogridis and the episode directors of Altered Carbon want you to feel the familiarity, the correctness, of this humanoid future. This is your world, it seems to say; settle down and soak it up.

Evidently, I did soak it up, since I couldn’t stop watching the show, but I have to confess that I watched it with my hands over my eyes, peeking out from the gaps between my fingers. The series is relentlessly violent: sexual violence, lethally violent sexual fantasies, suicide, murder on the streets, fighters paid to kill or be killed for audience entertainment, “virtual” torture in realistic “constructs” that enable torturers gruesomely to “kill” a victim over and over and over, psychopathic revengeful murder of an entire family (including the children, whose bodies, oddly–considering all of this unapologetic gore–are discreetly tucked behind a sofa and showing only their bloodied calves and shoes). I am sure there’s more. The violence is over the top.

The optics of this violence both shock and dull the viewer, and channel that weird attraction-repulsion humans have to gore. It also comports to the inert unimportance of a body’s matter. Bodies, in Altered Carbon, are mere “sleeves;” they are as inessential to a person’s thinking and being as a piece of clothing. In general, humans rely on clothes for temperature regulation, social propriety, and as a limited means of marking affiliation, status, and proclivities. But humans are born naked and we first express ourselves with a naked cry. In Altered Carbon bodies are precisely like clothes: they regulate movement, skill sets, and social propriety and status, but the essence of a self is a “cortical stack”, a small disk inserted at the top of the spinal cord. Rich humans can pay to back-up their stacks and clone their sleeves (indicating an unnecessary but affectively convincing attachment to a body and not just any body). Murder victims can be “spun up” and asked what happened–if that is, the victims are not newly religious and therefore refuse to pursue more than one life, that is, more than one “sleeve.”

All of this is difficult for this ardent phenomenologist and Foucaultian to swallow. Humans are not our brains; it’s closer to the truth to say that our brains are our bodies, with all of the history and feeling that lie in them. The premise of Altered Carbon seems a cold and even sinister revenge of Descartes’s mind-body dualism, rendered here in a masculinist guise that promises the living out of every horrifically violent sexual fantasy without any bothersome culpability because, after all, the body you have just tortured and fucked to death can be discarded, a new sleeve swung down from the inventory and the “stack” newly implanted. “If you’ve got the money, honey, we’ve got the disease” –but without the dis-ease, and without fear of legal redress.

There is much more to say about all that, but I want to move on. Unsurprisingly, the series’ premised advances in human technology are not oriented toward reducing poverty and alleviating suffering, but rather ensure the rich can get richer, trample the poor flatter, and preen and purchase their way out of accountability. (The ending, which I won’t spoil here, might suggest otherwise, but I don’t believe it for an instant.) The rich live off-world in ethereal, gleaming towers. They keep rooms of clones in frosted pods, and oodles of back-ups to their “stacks.” In other words, the series posits the ultimate sublation of religion and capitalism: the rich are immortal and virtually omnipotent–just like the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim deity of old. Is it irony or only banality to note that the only thing these immortals can think to do with their immortality is to indulge in bodily pleasure, turning from the fleshpots of their making only long enough to think through and ensure the continuance of their wealth. “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in” money.

The sentimental fulcrum of all of this is the male protagonist’s, Takeshi’s (Joel Kinnemann), flashbacks to his troubled childhood and the memory of saving his sister, Rei (Dichen Lachman) from an abusive father. Much is promised in this fold of the plot. I am drawn to it by how memory of a particular embodiedness sustains a desire to feel and be that body again. I sense in this plotline an alternate ontology: implications about what it is to be human that revolve around shared stories, shared struggle, shared meals, shared friends and enemies. You know, all that stuff of human history and human literature.

It rings false and hollow, then, that Rei morphs into something more like a harpy than a fellow-traveler. I don’t understand the affectscape of the ending of Season 1, the emotions Rei declares and executes. I have wracked my brain to remember an apt evocation of Greek myth. Perhaps, after living so many centuries, Rei really has become something like Takeshi’s mother (Jocasta?) or wife (Medea?).

Or perhaps the critics of Laeta Kalogridis’s Bionic Woman were on to something. The shortcomings of Rei’s characters are of a piece with the inability of this series to portray women convincingly as anything other than lovesick or sexually available.

The Anthropology of Becoming and the Abstractions of Ethnography

  João Biehl and Peter Locke, the editors of Unfinished: The Anthropology of Becoming (Duke UP: 2017) gather a stellar set of anthropologists around the lens and method of unfinishedness. The editors advocate an affective attunement to what they enticingly term “the ethnographic sensorium” (p. 1), a scholarly orientation that foregrounds “a radical analytical openness to complexity and wonder” (p. xi). It may seem odd but is nonetheless true that the common term of “becoming” evokes the uncommon and collaborative work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Biehl and Locke nicely explicate how these French thinkers* generate a concept of becoming around affective intensities, power relations, and subjectivites that coalesce from numerous threads and, also, never quite congeal into full stability. Here is a sense of “identity” that better fits our everyday experiences, in which fragmentations, dissolutions, and unbearable uncertainties twine right alongside more durable patterns of self and world. Biehl and Locke’s anthropology of becoming is not only about rethinking subjectivity and ontology, however, but also promises to figure a form of writing that “sits with” (as my student Rebecca A. Moody would say) the persistent destabilizing of being and identity in the face of lived life (p. 8). Put another way, Biehl and Locke attempt to honor the collaborative work of anthropology by encouraging scholars to write in and with the fluidity of just those categories that traditional anthropology spent years trying to grasp, delineate, and settle. This is anthropology without closure, a scholarly focus on the unfinished. What does it look like?

Unfinished ethnography, Biehl and Locke tell us, commits to

  • “the plastic nature of human-nonhuman interactions” (p. 5)
  • “a dynamic interpenetration of past and future, actual and virtual” (p. 6) and
  • “an attentiveness to the unknown, both as a critical feature of people and material worlds and as a productive force in research and conceptual work” (p. 6).

Phrases like these show us that Biehl and Locke are resisting the perception that anthropology is stagnating in old paradigms. Indeed, they write in explicit response to George Marcus, who has bemoaned the fact that since Writing Culture (co-edited by Marcus and James Clifford in 1986), “There are no new ideas and none on the horizon” (48). The bullet-point list I extracted above from Biehl and Locke’s  “Introduction” is thus nothing short of marching orders for scholars of the contemporary world. Figure out a way to write, they seem to be saying, that illuminates, solicitously and tenderly, the epistemological black holes in our relations with other people, the questions we can never quite bring ourselves to ask, the answers that don’t quite match the question, the conversations that never flesh out to anything like a felt knowingness.

I find all of this tremendously exciting both conceptually and as a scholar tasked (in both senses) with writing the world I sense and the world I think. My excitement persists even as the experiment fails…as I think it must fail because the structure of academic language works against the best hopes for this anthropology of becoming.

My real concern, however, is discursively bound and frustratingly resonant with age-old debates about reality and abstraction. I refer to the places where Biehl and Locke show their commitment to ethnography in light of its apparent ability—unlike philosophy (p. 29)—to ‘get at’ something real (p. 44), something that is “actually happening” (p. 51) to “actual” people (p. 57). I take exception to this unexplained appeal to reality and actuality for two reasons.

First, it is unclear to me that the abstraction of months of research into a relatively short narrative in a book chapter (as is the case with the research proffered by the book’s contributors as well as editors) is, um, actually all that different from the abstraction of experience and analysis by a philosopher or cultural critic into a critical text. At any rate, I would want to hear more about these different abstractions and why one is perceived so automatically to accomplish something the other not only does not do but cannot do (p. 29). Also, it is unclear to me how talking to people can step cleanly out of the bog that is the (always-becoming) human, with its singularities (Badiou), its non-transparency and non-self-knowing (Freud), and its conscious and para-conscious angling to sequester and circulate power for itself and its agendas (Nietzsche). Unless, that is, one talks hundreds and hundreds of hours with hundreds and hundreds of people, and then (of course) one is dealing with the patterns of big data and not the intimacy of ethnography.

Second, it is clear to me that the tender attention to precarity given and articulated by the anthropologists in this text is bolstered by statistics, empirical studies, and social science institutes. In other words, the encounter with “actuality” does not stand alone but is given signification and context with data that is precisely not actual but accumulated and processed. The only aspect to criticize in this fact is the absence of its acknowledgment and theorization. The gathered anthropologists here are high caliber and persuasive, just the kind of scholar who could take on a theorization of how narrative and data combine in ways that devolve to something ‘more real’ than other kinds of scholarship, and they might even convince me. Maybe.

For now, I would wager that ethnography is not any closer an encounter with the real than is philosophy or cultural critique but rather deploys abstraction and marshals evidence and context differently. By all means, and despite my small jab, this collection is worth reading, worth teaching, worth considering. I read quite a bit of ethnography, and this is the first one that has riled me enough to blog about it.


*Deleuze and Guattari resist the title of “philosopher” since it refers to a stable set of thinkers that D/G’s collaborative work labors to upend and bastardize.

What in the Hell is The Death of Stalin?

I love what Zachary Braiterman writes here about Death of Stalin, which I screened with him a week or so ago.
The category of “grim parody” comes to my mind. Anthony Lane situates it in the long tradition of British “grotesque”. When he writes, “every gag is girded with fear. The humor is so black that it might have been pumped out of the ground,” I resonate strongly with his affect. This is the humor of rotting corpses; it’s like slipping on a decaying eyeball instead of a banana peel.
It is not a genre that works for me. I could not keep up the pretext that this was comedy–similar, I think, to my inability to pretend that rollercoasters are anything but sheer terror (I do not take pleasure in sheer terror). I felt “Death of Stalin” exacted a high cost for my occasional chuckles, as if in some Zizekian point about the horror of pleasure.
Film form played a huge part in sustaining this affect. Iannucci borrowed heavily from the dramatic logic of Shoah films–keeping the camera *just* off the mass murder but keeping focus on partial shots of eyes and hands, and medium shots with sotte voce asides that make it very clear what is happening, and to whom. I thought it was brilliant of Iannucci to start the film in the sound-proof but full-glass recording booth at the back of the orchestral hall. The tight shot/reverse-shot exchange between the terrified head producer and his calculating flunky after a terse phone call from Comrade Stalin beautifully and compactly shows the film audience what it feels like to endure amid a social precarity of silence, secret, sheer unpredictability, and the disempowered’s absolute transparency to power (the recording booth might as well be a cell of the Panopticon).

jewish philosophy place

Death of Stalin

Wow! What in the hell was that? And what was it supposed to be? The Death of Stalin was billed as a comedy, but that’s not what it was. Sure there was slapstick, jokes, and one-liners, and bumbling idiocy. But that is not what propels the film, which is not funny, not really. Nor, frankly, was it really about “the death of Stalin,” with whom the film is done relatively early going in. Post-genre, The Death of Stalin mixes comedy into horror, into satirical farce, into the cinema of cruelty that was socialist realism. Slapstick is the least of the film. Not about the death of Stalin, the telos of the film lies in the execution of Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s head of the secret police and chief executioner, the burning of his corpse, and the disposal of the ash. The mirth is mirthless.

How one gauges the comic in all this will…

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