Why Judith Butler is Overrated

One of many reasons why Judith Butler is grossly overrated: Here’s a passage from her new book Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, followed by 2 brief comments of mine, one a translation of Butler-ese into regular English. Overall, she’s trying (and failing) to shape a theory of collective action.

“[W]hen bodies assemble [in] public space (including virtual ones) they are exercising a plural and performative right to appear … that asserts and instates the body in the modes of the political field [to deliver] a bodily demand for a more livable set of economic, social, and political conditions no longer afflicted by induced forms of precarity” [the latter’s a word meaning in a continually ‘precarious’ position due to economic, social, and political conditions. I’m not criticizing Butler’s use of this word].

a) translation: “when bodies assemble they are protesting being hurt and are demanding change.” To which i would add, “well, duh.”

b) this “theory” applies equally to a Donald Trump rally (at least, as its participants perceive it) as to a Take Back the Night rally in support of rape victims. Therefore how is this “insight” at all useful, other than allowing people who read this kind of prose to feel they are theorizing (from a safe distance) support for activists elsewhere?

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On Colson Whitehead’s new novel, _The Underground Railroad_

Three chapters of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad, were published as a special print supplement to last Sunday’s New York Times (Aug. 7). What’s so extraordinary about the novel’s vision is not that he makes the “underground railroad” metaphor literal, so that we have to rethink what it really meant. No, the really extraordinary thing is that the world his heroine Cora is trying to escape is not just slavery-time but also Reconstruction and Jim Crow and twentieth-century forms of racist science and “utopian” social management–all postslavery incarnations of racism that show up when she emerges from underground at the different “stops” on her journey north.

Whitehead’s use of fantasy/sf time-travel techniques exposes the terrifying _continuity_ of multiple forms of oppression, erasing the bright line some like to draw between slavery “then” and modernity “now.” It’s Afrofuturism for the Black Lives Matter era, while also powerfully remixing 18th and 19th century writings by Crevecoeur, Douglass, Jacobs, and others on slavery and its effects on both whites and blacks.

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Brief comments on Terry Eagleton’s latest book, Culture (2016)

See CultureCulture by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucid and concise readings of Burke, Swift, Herder, Austen, Marx, Wilde, and T.S. Eliot, among others. The book is less focused and persuasive when Eagleton traces the long and complicated dialectic between capitalism and various meanings of “culture.”

Eagleton’s own version of Marx’s base vs. superstructure dichotomy has various forms of cultural “superstructure” competing with each other and often canceling each other out. He also understands these competing versions of “culture” to be hubristic: each thinks it is the most powerful force of all, able at will to intervene into capitalism’s workings and alter its course, or free to transcend it. These various understandings of “culture” certainly don’t think of culture as secondary and determined by/complicit with economic forces and structures, as Marx did. Eagleton despairingly mocks cultural studies’ and postmodernism’s various forms of delusion in his Swiftian concluding chapter, “The Hubris of Culture,” which traces how capitalism and the marketplace have more power over our ideas of culture than ever before, basically erasing any possibility for culture to generate powerful oppositional ideas and energies, as opposed to various forms of consumerism and status acquisition.

Some quotations:
“[C]ulture has shed its innocence. Indeed, the history of the modern age is among other things the tale of the gradual demystification of this noble ideal. From [culture’s] sublime status in the thought of thinkers like Schiller, Herder and Arnold, it becomes caught up in a dangerously rhapsodic brand of nationalism, entangled in racist anthropology, absorbed into general commodity production and embroiled in political conflict. Far from providing an antidote to power, it turns out to be deeply collusive with it…. (148)

“[C]apitalism has incorporated culture for its own material ends… this aestheticized mode of capitalist production [the ‘culture’ industries, the ‘creative’ economy, etc.] has proved more ruthlessly instrumental than ever” (152). “Neo-liberal capitalism has no difficulty with terms like ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusiveness,’ as it does with the language of class struggle” (154).

“Today’s cultural politics … speaks the language of gender, identity, marginality, diversity and oppression, but not for the most part the idiom of state, property, class-struggle, ideology and exploitation. Roughly speaking, it is the difference between anti-colonialism and postcolonialism. Cultural politics of this kind are in one sense the very opposite of elitist notions of culture. Yet they share in their own way that elitism’s overvaluing of cultural affairs, as well as its distance from the prospect of fundamental change.” (160-61).

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Freedom and Fate in Game of Thrones, “The Door”

For Game of Thrones fans, please don’t read this until you’ve seen Season 6, Episode 5 (“The Door”).

Normally stories about time travel dramatize the power of human agency, our potential ability to know and intervene in past events and therefore change the future. These stories seem to be about the struggle for human freedom, not being sentenced to an immutable Fate. (Some examples are Back to the Future or, on a more profound level, brilliant parables about slavery such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Of course many other examples of time-warps in story-telling could be cited.)

But warg time-travel in Game of Thrones, Season 6, Episode 5 (“The Door”), suggested the other, scarier possibility of time travel: your Fate is already written and it can neither be changed nor understood by you until the moment when you must live out your destiny. Time travel can allow you to see your destiny but, like the Medusa’s stare, such a vision will paralyze you.

When the stable-boy Wyllis has his warg vision of the future (remarkably like an epilepsy attack), he repeats to himself the one phrase that embodies his adult Fate: he has to “hold the door” against the White Walkers’ armies of undead, allowing Bran and Meera to escape while sacrificing his own life. Though it’s a heroic self-sacrifice, Wyllis’ vision of his future is so traumatic that when he awakens from his vision he looses speech and understanding and can only repeat a cryptic or garbled version of his battle-cry. His one word is his Fate, and “Hodor” becomes his name. Hodor appears to have no idea what that word means, much less what his future holds. Yet on some deep level he reenacts that future moment’s pain again and again each time he says his name: we now have learned the “memory” of his death is buried in his name. It’s the revelation of that traumatic pain, as well as his heroic last stand, that made so moving the final installment of Hodor’s story.

Doesn’t this kind of time travel seem deeply deterministic? Like the Greek parable of how the gods erased our memory of our future Fate and mercifully gave us Hope instead. Bran too may be traumatized by his warg visions, by the ways in which (in his dreams at least) he understands that he was responsible for Hodor’s death. How Bran’s guilt and painful knowledge will influence his future actions will be fascinating to see as Season 6 unfolds. (And of course we can’t know from the books: the TV show’s now gone off-script into a future that George R. R. Martin hasn’t yet written.)

Obviously many characters who believe they can seize and control their destiny prove to be deluded: consider Stannis. But Thrones also offers up numerous stories that tempt us to believe that heroism means remaking your identity, sacrificing yourself for others’ needs, and changing the path of history—Jon Snow and Daenerys, for instance, particularly now in Season 6 after they have both emerged reborn from apparent icy or fiery deaths. Yet even as we thrill with their new power and growing confidence, it’s hard not to wonder whether their Fates too are already written and completely hidden from them. One of the reasons why we keep watching is to find out.

With characters like Cersei and Tyrion, Sansa and Arya/No One, the Fate/Freedom conundrum is just as hard to parse. Being driven by revenge has given Cersei a powerful sense of purpose in Season 6. Or does her anger control her, though now she’s better able to disguise it? Sansa’s confrontation with Littlefinger—one of the most powerfully written and acted scenes in all of Season 6—certainly makes us feel that she’s moved decisively past the delusions of her “innocence” into an adult world where she will now be a clear-eyed leader. Her story too will be fascinating to see unfold.

As will Tyrion’s. Is his new confidence that his destiny is to bend the arc of history toward justice deluded or righteous? Both Grey Worm’s and Missandei’s skepticism at Tyrion’s chutzpah (is there a Valyrian word for this?) certainly should give us pause.

Arya’s hidden Fate is perhaps the most ambiguous and intriguing of all, at least for those of us who believe characters don’t have to have armies at their command to be important. All of the major characters in Thrones arguably have split identities—but Arya’s split self/selves is really tricky to map. She’s currently at least two people, not one: whatever future self or selves she’s about to become, but also (despite her repeating—like Hodor?—that her new name is “No One”) because it’s clear Arya still retains and hides her Stark identity, her sense that she has her own revenge and reunion plot to pursue.

So, do plots about time travel in Game of Thrones amplify our sense of human freedom and responsibility? Or do they pretty much shut it down, proving that our Fates are already written? Revealing glimpses of the past and future, do warg powers paralyze or free?

At present, Thrones’ plotlines and character tensions are ambiguous enough that we can’t answer these questions—and that kind of suspense is one of the marks of good story telling. But maybe too it’s the job of good stories and their endings NOT to give us either/or answers to the fate and freedom questions I’ve said stories pose.

I leave you with one last thought: when Bran returns to the distant past in “The Door,” he doesn’t intervene; he just watches and gains knowledge. It’s when Bran wanders in his warg vision in the *present*—accidentally giving away the presence of himself and his friends to the White Walkers—that Bran does deadly damage, damage that in future he’s going to have to try to repair. Or was that his Fate all along? What understandings of his (and our) freedom and fate will come through “the door” at the end?

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On David Bowie’s Bluebird

Re David Bowie’s “Lazarus,” from his brilliant final album, Blackstar, the New York Times has this to say: “The song is a man in total distress, and then finding a way out, in his imagination, so he could still be alive, in freedom, as a bluebird. It’s the message of the whole show.”


Here’s a question. Could Bowie have known Charles Bukowski’s famous poem “Bluebird”? Probably? Listen to this brilliant reading of Bukowski’s short poem by “Tom O’Bedlam” on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVdpfhsj6uI

Bukowski’s earlier poem heads in some different directions from Bowie, exploring what macho male identity tries to kill or hide. But both CB and DB use the bluebird to signify the beautiful and the immortal in us–

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On Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, 1962 and 2015

My recent essay on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, comparing it with Amazon’s 2015 The Man in the High Castle‘s 10 episodes. Summary: Amazon’s adaptation of Dick’s novel is a brilliant transformation of it just right for America’s flirtation with fascism in 2015 (Trump, Cruz, et al).

The novel was unusual for Dick but unleashed a decade of great writing by him: it’s an experiment in counter-factual history, imagining what might have happened in the U.S. if Japan and Germany had got the A-Bomb first and won World War II.

When you click on the link below, this .docx file containing the essay will download to your computer, stored in your download folder:


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on Valeria Luiselli’s novel The Story of My Teeth

Christina MacSweeney, translator and collaborator. (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2015).

An insouciant blend of Gogol, Calvino, and the metaphysical conundrums of linguistic sign-theory, this novel is one of the funniest books I’ve read in ages—in part because it’s so deadpan and, in the end, as you might have guessed, so sad. Did you know that Mexico City has a street named Disneylandia? It does, and this tale takes us there. Most fiction labors too heavily to pass as Real. This fabrication convinces because it makes the Real utterly strange—a sparkler entrancing us until it goes out and reveals we’re in darkness.

The tale’s hero-victim and consummate con-man: Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, known as Highway. Here below are two brief samples, the first in Highway’s voice, the second in the voice of a young writer who ghost-writes Highway’s “autobiography” after his death. Except that then I guess the “voice” in the first is not only Highway’s but the writer’s too. It’s a mystery.

“This is the story of my teeth, and my treatise on collectibles and the variable value of objects. As any other story, this one begins with the Beginning; and then comes the Middle, and then the End. The rest, as a friend of mine always says, is literature: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics. I don’t know what comes after that. Possibly ignominy, death, and, finally, postmortem fame. …Some have luck, some have charisma. I’ve got a bit of both.” (5)

“Highway died in the Buenos Días Motel, next door to the bar, in the company of three gorgeous ladies after conducting an allegoric auction that finished, as an encore, with an imitation of Janis Joplin singing “Mercedes Benz.” I received a call from the concierge the morning of his death and immediately went over there with El Perro. We honored his last request and scattered his ashes at the feel of the fiberglass dinosaurs in the median strip of a street in Pachuca, the Beautiful Windy City [in Mexico]…” (158).

Peter’s note: yes, those dino statues exist; they’re in El Dinoparque de Pachuca, Hidalgo. View it on YouTube here.

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“Open Carry” Dildo Protest over Concealed Carry Gun Law, UT Austin

In August 2015 UT Austin student Jessica Jin organized a satiric “open carry dildo” protest. It was open to male and female students, UT employees, alums and any others. The protest targeted a new law (Senate Bill 11, signed by the Texas governor) authorizing UT students who have a permit to carry concealed weapons on most areas of campus, beginning in August 2016. Hundreds of protestors signed up and participated, walking around campus with dildos hanging from their belts or sticking out of their backpacks #CocksNotGlocks Campus (DILDO) Carry Facebook Group.

However, check out the comments section to this October 10, 2015, Houston Chronicle article covering the event and its aftermath. Would #malehysteria be too strong a tag for many comments? It’s not just that lots of comments boast that their gun will be stronger than any, um, dildo. It’s also that the Chronicle website will allow the nefarious word “dildo” in its article but NOT in the online comments section. The newspaper tries to protect its readers, conceal-carrying the dangerous word. So it is that we read pro-gun and anti-women rants filled with d****o or even strings of *****, sort of like bullet-holes I guess. #AmericanGunhoodAtWork

PS: in the illustration accompanying the Houston Chronicle article, note the red tip of the damnable protest weapon poking out of the student’s backpack.

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Some quick thoughts on current debates about higher education

Everyone Thinks the Current State of Higher Education is Awful. Who is to Blame?
Daniel W. Drezner, The Washington Post, 14 August 2015.

This article summarizing some current debates about higher education is worth reading. In the U.S. we’re definitely in danger of harming higher education and therefore our future—even as other nations are trying to copy our “liberal arts” model of education. The piece summarizes two different analyses of what’s wrong and what should be done, and each one has some valid points. Since the author is rather vague about his own position, though, let me be less vague about mine. (I’ve been a college teacher for over 30 years.)

Yes, “protecting” students in the name of education is a contradiction in terms. Students need safe spaces, however; it’s valid to request them (you all had some; think back). But the classroom should NOT a safe space. Or, rather, it’s a place where students and teacher can explore the really difficult stuff with support and help, so that they can understand why we all make mistakes and why we’re in the fix we’re in. In short, like any good story, class discussions have to move into dangerous spaces in order for us to grow. But heroes need trustworthy guides as well; they can’t do it all on their own. This is particularly true when the scary stuff discussed involves race, gender, sexuality, the ways in which power and evil work in the world, and other such topics.

Yes, the consumer model (and the neoliberal market) is in danger of taking over academia; it shows up everywhere, including when students talk about “shopping” for courses and administrators discuss whether or not things are “cost-effective.” It’s driven by debt worries, the economic crisis, people thinking they have to sell skill sets, and by know-nothing state legislators, governors, and others who have for decades systematically cut back on financial support for universities and colleges and for the students who want to attend them.

What’s the alternative? First, show how even from a “market” perspective current trends are disastrous. Companies want graduates who can think critically and resourcefully as they identify and then solve problems. They want to hire people who find and respect relevant facts and won’t be fooled by false solutions (that’s why we try to teach “critical thinking”). We need a more diverse (and diversely trained) workplace, given how the population is changing—and a generation of students not so burdened by debt that they will be afraid to take employment risks and confront injustice when they encounter it.

Second, one of the best and most engaging ways to teach character—which is toughness mixed with tenderness, morality mixed with openness towards others—is via a study of history and of imaginative works of art, literature, and performance. There’s never any guarantee that students will be transformed by such study. (Nazi officers loved listening to Brahms in the concentration camps, so we are told, probably to reassure themselves that they were civilized.) But the best that people have thought and said when they were faced with tough choices has a transformative effect on students—I’ve seen it again and again. It makes them able to IMAGINE more deeply and more daringly. Societies need citizens with powerful, empathic imaginations. Societies that don’t know how to grow these are soon rotten. Check out writer Neil Gaiman’s great statement about this, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming”

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on Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library. Published 2005 but written early in his career; translated into English 2014 by Ted Goosen.

This brief tale reads like an allegory of reading itself, the Library as emblematic of the world. But it feels sharply different the twentieth century’s most famous allegory of reading, Borges’ “The Library of Babel.” Both Borges’ and Murakami’s fables are suffused with an unspeakable melancholy. But Borges’ tale is an expansive parable about infinity—and the hubris of pedantry—told by a wry ancient sage. Murakami’s uses a child’s poiny of view to describe a descent into hell, a story not about books opening doors but about being a labyrinth that narrows and narrows your choices until you’re entrapped in its inmost cell underground, forced to read in a “reading room” presided over by a tyrant, a little old man behind a desk with “black spots dott[ing] his face like a swarm of flies.” And in that room all your worse fears come true. You are a frightened boy who just wants to borrow some books and return home to the comfort of a dinner cooked by your mother. But you have a ball and chain shackled to your ankle and must sit and read in the dark, memorizing books at the old man’s command. Even worse, you learn that afterwards he will devour your brain and all its contents, including absurd information about tax collection that you’ve been forced to study. Is reading really just about mind control and punishment, combining vampirism and surveillance all in one?

Of course, the boy’s situation is not without some wacky and whimsical moments, shafts of light that heighten the darkness. “Don’t you think that’s awfully cruel?” asks the boy, describing his situation. “Speaking from the suckee’s point of view, of course.” Companions also appear, a man in a sheep costume who seems like a jailor but who also wants to run away; then a girl pushing a tea-cart full of treats. She can speak only in sign language and may or may not be the sheep man in yet another disguise, or a being dreamed up by the boy in his desperation. She warns him against hard-and-fast conclusions. “Just because I don’t exist in the sheep man’s world, it doesn’t mean that I don’t exist at all,” she says.

Which leads to the tale’s second allegory of reading: “ ‘I get it,’ I said. ‘Our worlds are all jumbled together—your world, my world, the sheep man’s world. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t. That’s what you mean, right?’” Somehow we have to try to communicate across the gaps. Reading about Ibn Armut Hasir, the author of a book with the scintillating title of The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, the boy becomes the tax collector and even experiences the world through his senses, seeing a crescent moon floating over Istanbul, hearing a distant flute, meeting his three wives. But this is a brief illusory moment of beauty, almost a kind of bait to make the boy forget imprisonment.

The boy eventually plots an escape with the help of his two new friends. But the old man has anticipated their every move, a minotaur waiting murderously at the heart of the labyrinth. Here’s the third allegory of reading: in reading, like dreaming, we confront our deepest fears. “That’s the problem with mazes,” the boy tells himself, to keep his terror at bay. In the boy’s case, it’s of a black dog who bit him in the past and has now apparently killed his favorite pet bird: the dog now stands before him next to the old man, anger in its green eyes.

What happens next I won’t give away. But it presents a fourth possibility for reading—that it gives us “powerful wings” after all, and through it we can discover new powers. But not without a horrible cost: when the boy wakes from his dream, the world seems greatly diminished and he can think of nothing but his losses. He’s plunged back into endless darkness that seems even worse than that of the cell in which he was imprisoned. And more isolated, eternally so: “how it feels to be alone, and the depth of the darkness surrounding me. Darkness as pitch black as the night of the new moon.” The Library has become a nightmarish place of estrangement. The boy vows never to return. His original joy seems now completely gone, replaced by a paranoic convinction that reading is tyrannical and isolating, with the protagonist frightened and alone. That’s a fifth outcome for reading that haunts the tale’s ending.

Or is the true Library now entirely within, its darkness and mysteries not necessarily only negative? The tale’s most haunting sentence comes in its middle, from its depths: “Like a blind dolphin, the night of the new moon silently drew near” (opening of chapter 18).

I’m struck by how different Murakama’s devastating little parable is from another tale about being spirited away, namely Hayao Miyazaki’s famous animated film Spirited Away. That tale also deals with parental estrangement, terror, imprisonment, labyrinthine spaces that constantly change, domineering tyrants, and constant new challenges. Yet though both possess moments of wonder and whimsy, how animated (excuse the pun) and hopeful Miyazaki’s masterpiece is in comparison to The Strange Library. Its protagonist, a young girl named Chihiro, grows up emotionally through her adventures to become a leader unafraid to confront and outwit tyrants. She makes friends easily, even with frightened little lumps of coal, and eventually each of these new friends helps her with their special powers, just like in old fairy tales. Miyazaki and Murakami share a sense of the powerful presence of spirits just under the modernist sheen and pace of contemporary Japanese life: the job of their plots is to usher us into those portals to another vision of the world. But in the end Miyazaki’s is a profoundly more social and optimistic vision, one whose driving force is transformation, not abandonment.

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