Kofi Awoonor’s “Had Death Not Had Me in Tears”

Had death not had me in tears
I would have seen the barges
on life’s stream sail.
I would have heard sorrow songs
in groves where the road was lost
where men foot prints mix with other men foot prints
By the road I wait
‘death is better, death is better’
came the song
I am by the roadside
looking for the road
death is better, death is much better
Had death not had me in tears
I would have seen the barges
I would have found the road
and heard the sorrow songs.
The land wreathes in rhythm
with your soul, caressed by history
and cruel geography
landscape ineffable yet screaming
eloquent resonance like the drums
of after harvests.
We pile rocks on terracing love
Carry the pithy cloth
to cover the hearths of our mother.

Come now you lucky ones
come to the festival of corn and lamb
to the finest feast of this land
come, now,
your lovers have unfurled
their clothes
their thighs glistening like golden knives
ready for the plunging
for the plentiful loving time
To whom shall I turn
to what shall I tell my woes?
My kinsman, the desert tree
denied us sustenance
long before the drought.
To whom shall I turn
to whom shall I tell my woes?
Some say tell the mother goat
she too is kinswoman
elemental sister of your clan
But I cannot tell the mother goat
for she is not here

New Stories

(This is a rough version of the introductory talk I’m going to give to my first class today; I’ve written it out as a kind of mental rehearsal of what I want to talk about, though in the class itself, I’ll try to be a little more impromptu and informal, even dialogic, if I can manage it. The course is called “Generating African Literature”; I’ll post the syllabus eventually).

I can’t begin by giving you a history of Africa, but one of the difficulties of a course like this is that history is really important, and we often don’t know as much as we probably should about African history. We’re going to be reading works of literature whose authors are dealing with historical events and dramatic cultural changes that you and I, most likely, have no direct experience with, and which we often don’t know very much about. So we have to start by grappling, a little bit, with all of the stuff that we don’t know.

We’ll read Things Fall Apart, for example, a book that was written by Chinua Achebe in the late 1950’s on the eve of Nigerian independence. That historical context informs how and why Achebe wrote it the way he did, and how and why his readers read it in the ways that they did. Even though it was written in the moment when the colonial state was collapsing, as Nigeria was becoming independent, it is about the beginnings of colonialism, in the 1880’s. We’ll only read Things Fall Apart, but it was originally envisioned as part of a trilogy, which Achebe had planned to span three generations: Things Fall Apart was the story of his grandfather—the generation that first confronted British colonialism—and the trilogy was to lead to the story of Achebe’s own generation, the generation who would achieve independence in the 1950’s. (No Longer at Ease is that story)

It’s easy to understand why Achebe wrote a historical novel, why the end of colonialism would prompt him to think about its beginnings. Britain’s colonial rule of Nigeria only lasted about 80 years, but it radically transformed the people and societies in the areas they conquered. We can’t do a blow-by-blow history of that transformation, but it’s important for us to have a sense of how quickly that happened, and how deep and tremendous and violent a transformation that was: in the span of three generations—about 80 years—the entire world changed for people in the part of the world we now call Nigeria, and one of the things Achebe is writing about is that transformation in scale. For Okonkwo, the main character of Things Fall Apart, his world is his village, Umuofia, and “the nine villages” of which it is a part; by the time Achebe was writing his novel, on the other hand, 80 years later, he would be a member of the Ibo tribe, a part of the colony and then nation of Nigeria, and an African, a person who lived on the continent of Africa.

Does anyone know where do these words come from?

Nigeria: Okonkwo, and Achebe’s grandfather and that generation, would never have thought of themselves in these terms. “Nigeria” didn’t even exist until a British journalist coined the term in 1897: Britain had conquered and was trying to govern broad stretches of territory around the Niger river—since rivers were the main access routes to the interior—and since the area of control was defined by the river Niger, it made sense to them to think of all the people in that territory as “Nigeria.” But no one who lived in that region before the British came would have thought of themselves in those terms.

Africa: By the same token, the idea of “Africa” is an invention of the West, and an idea that only really begins during the European slave trade: over the four centuries or so in which Europeans bought and sold people of African origin, people whose black skin marked them as subhuman, mere property, the word “African” meant someone who, because they were from the continent of Africa, was condemned to be a beast of burden for white people. Africa is huge, and the idea that people from different corners of the continent are all “African”—with almost nothing in common except the way their skin color made them look different to white people—was only an idea that came into common currency after the slave trade.

(We’ll talk about “Ibo” later).

This is history. You don’t need to know all of this, though t helps if you do. But I go through it to impress upon you the fact that what it meant to be “African”—and what it meant to be “Nigerian”—was always changing, always in flux, and always contested. Before the slave trade was abolished, “African” meant slave, nothing more than property. After abolition, “African” meant something different: officially, Europe colonized Africa in order to stamp out the internal slave trade, essentially to save primitive savages from themselves by bringing them Christianity, Civilization, and Commerce, 3 C’s. For them, Africans were people, just inferior people. By the time of decolonization, which happened in the 1950’s, Africans were refusing to be considered genetically inferior, refusing to be defined by what Europeans believed them to be, and—more to the point—trying to think about what they might have been before Europeans arrived—with guns and chains and money—and began transforming the continent and its peoples beyond recognition. They started looking back, before colonialism, in order to look forward, to the time after it.

This course begins, therefore, in that 1950’s moment, when African writers were struggling to define and re-define themselves, to think about what it meant or could mean to be African, and also to imagine the role of literature in that process. To be an African writer, for someone like Chinua Achebe, was to take part in the struggle to show that Africans were human beings; to replace the stories that were told about Africans by Europeans with their own stories, new stories, different stories. And so, this is the reason why this is a literature course, rather than a history course, and why we can read these books without first learning all about the different countries and peoples these authors come from. History is the problem, the nightmare from which they are all trying to awake. And fiction—or imaginative poetry and drama—is the way they tried and try to do it, to make something new. Instead of accepting the “truth” about Africans and African history, as they would have read about it in European books, African writers wanted to write different truths, new conceptions of history.

To put it differently, “history” is always backwards looking. To understand where “Nigeria” came from, we’d move backwards, looking at the creation of the colonial state—how Europe conquered and ruled the people there—and resistance against it. To understand that, the origins of colonialism, we’d move backwards even farther, to look at the slave trade, why and how that began and what its effects were. And so forth; history is the backward glance, where you use the past to understand the present.

With that in mind, it’s important to remember that just about everything we’re going to read in this class is forward looking. History can tell you why things had to happen the way they did; why the slave trade caused colonialism, for example, and why colonialism caused the contemporary problems of the nation-state of Nigeria. I would propose to you that literature of the kind we’ll be reading does the reverse: instead of explaining why things had to be the way they are, it tries to re-imagine the world in new ways. To explain why and how things could be different.

And so, all of the people we will read are creating something new, and trying to create new conceptions of what it means to be African. They’re trying to put aside all the things that non-Africans have historically said that “Africa” meant, and so, the way to read these books is to put aside everything you know, or think you know about Africa and Africans, and try to hear what it is that the writers are saying about it, what they’re creating and imagining. It’s good to know history. But when history is the problem we’re trying to solve, a certain historical ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing; a lack of preconceived notions can be helpful in helping us learn new truths.

After all, by definition, “fiction” is untrue. We’re reading lies! Okonkwo never existed. And so, if you’re a historian, you can read something like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and quibble with aspects of how it tells the story of Nigeria in the 1880’s; you can look back and say “it wasn’t really quite exactly like that.” Or, the reverse; we can read this book and say: here is what it was like. This is a book that’s often used in history courses, in fact; where the thing we value in it is what’s true, what really happened.

In this class, we’re not going to read it that way. We’re going to think about literary writing as a creative endeavor: instead of judging it by whether or not it’s true, we want to think about how fictional stories about Africans, by Africans—precisely because they aren’t true—work to re-imagine the world, to create new stories.


I’ve been posting most of my online writing to the New Inquiry these days–with a handful of exceptions–but since people still hitch me to the post of ye old wordpress web-log, I’m re-posting my ZZ’s best of 2012 list here, a year which felt like it happened in the passive voice:

Some films were reviewed:

Some books were written about:

Some television was watched:

And of course, a lot of writing on higher education was done:

In an election year, some America stuff happened:

As Occupy was ended, the violence of the state was considered:

And the intersections of speech and forbidden speech:

Finally, A Breather was taken.

Everything is Different Now, maybe, or not

I asked twitter what counts as “post-9/11″ American literature, with or without the “American.” This is what they and I came up with:

  • Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1906)
  • Don DeLillo, The Names (1982)
  • Hanif Kureishi, The Black Album (1996)
  • Suheir Hammad, “First Writing Since” (2001)
  • Orhan Pamuk, “The Anger of the Damned” (2001)
  • Salman Rushdie, “Yes, This is About Islam” (2001)
  • Arundhati Roy, “The Algebra of Infinite Justice” (2001)
  • Ward Churchill “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” (2001)
  • Wells Tower, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” (2002)
  • Granta 77 “What We Think of America” (2002)
  • Amiri Baraka, “Somebody Blew Up America” (2002)
  • Spike Lee, 25th Hour (2002)
  • Slavoj Zizek, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real” (2002)
  • William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003)
  • Donald Rumsfeld, occasional poetry. (2003)
  • Michael Muhammad Knight, The Taqwacores (2003)
  • Tom Junod, “The Falling Man” (2003)
  • David Foster Wallace, “The Suffering Channel” (2004)
  • The 9/11 Commission Report (2004)
  • Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (2004)
  • Tony Kushner, Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy (2004)
  • Battlestar Galactica (2004-8)
  • Brian K. Vaughan, Ex Machina (2004-2010)
  • Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins (2005)
  • Wes Craven, Red Eye (2005)
  • Interrogation Log of Detainee 063 at Guantanamo Bay (2005)
  • Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
  • Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Sightseeing (2005)
  • Frédéric Beigbeder, Windows on the World (2005)
  • Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone With Lungs (2005)
  • Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2005)
  • Erik Saar and Viveca Novak, Inside The Wire: Inside the Wire, A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo (2005)
  • Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006)
  • Alfonso Cuaron, Children of Men (2006)
  • Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (2006)
  • Jess Walter, The Zero (2006)
  • Jonathan Raban, Surveillance (2006)
  • Max Brooks, World War ZAn Oral History of the Zombie War (2006)
  • Laird Hunt, The Exquisite (2006)
  • Nell Freudenberger, The Dissident (2006)
  • Ashis Nandy, “The Other 9/11″ (2006)
  • John Updike, Terrorist (2006)
  • Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children (2006)
  • David Hare, Stuff Happens (2006)
  • Don DeLillo, Falling Man (2007)
  • Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (2007)
  • Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (2007)
  • Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
  • Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah (2007)
  • Sinan Antoon, I’jaam (2007)
  • William Gibson, Spook Country (2007)
  • Phillip Roth, Exit Ghost (2007)
  • Verso, War With No End (2007)
  • Pankaj Mishra, “The End of Innocence” (2007)
  • Yasmina Khadra, The Swallows of Kabul (2008)
  • Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight (2008)
  • Martin Amis, The Second Plane (2008)
  • Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (2008)
  • James Marsh, Man on Wire (2008)
  • Coen Brothers, The, Burn After Reading (2008)
  •  Chris Adrian, A Better Angel (2008)
  • Nadeem Aslam, Wasted Vigil (2008)
  • Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008)
  • Joseph O’Neill Netherland (2008)
  • Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (2008)
  • Neill Blomkamp, District 9 (2009)
  • Armando Iannucci, In the Loop (2009)
  • Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City (2009)
  • Chuck Palahniuk, Pygmy (2009)
  • David Finkel, The Good Soldiers (2009)
  • Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (2009)
  • Amitava Kumar, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb (2010)
  • Rachel Zolf, Neighbour Procedure (2010)
  • George W. Bush, Decision Points (2010)
  • William Gibson, Zero History (2010)
  • Lorraine Adams, Harbor (2010)
  • Lorraine Adams, The Room and the Chair (2011)
  • Amy Waldman, The Submission (2011)
  • Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs (2009)
  • Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men (2011)
  • Lavie Tidhar, Osama (2011)
  • Edmund Caldwell, Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant (2011)
  • Daisy Rockwell, Little Book of Terror (2011)
  • Lavie Tidhar, Osama (2011)
  • Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2011)
  • Jarett Kobek, ATTA (2011)
  • Kathryn Cramer, “Am I Free To Go?” (2012)
  • Sam Thompson, Communion Town (2012)
  • Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
  • Poetry of the Taliban (2012)
  • Tabish Khair, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (2012)
  • Rowan Ricardo Phillips, The Ground: Poems (2012)
  • Teju Cole, Open City (2012)
  • Azadeh Moaveni, Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran (2012)

I can’t be bothered to demand that MLA abolish itself

I like the MLA and I enjoy job interviews; I like seeing old friends, and meeting new ones, and I enjoy talking about job interviews with them. Complaining about the MLA is always a good bonding experience, and commiserating over our depressing collective and individual future is something that brings together my class of precarious graduate students. If I am offered an academic position, I will look forward, each year, to joining with new and old friends in some forsaken strip-mall convention center and finding new problems to commiserate over. But if MLA collapses into the dustbin of institutional history, I might be  first in line to throw a shovelful of dirt on the casket.

“Disruption” is usually a code word for privatization, after all, or its stalking horse: when we anticipate “disrupting the classroom,” what we look forward to will be a mode of pedagogy that is cheaper and more profitable, and almost certainly worse for the students involved. I’ve made this case elsewhere, so I won’t rehearse it here. But it’s a fate I want to avoid because it will be worse for those involved.  In the sense by which education is a good thing, I believe it will become a worse thing.

“Disrupting” the MLA, by contrast, will take a thing which is terrible, by many standards, and make it… well, how much worse? I’m really not sure. MLA and its convention have value. I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing my friends, I’ve been at some great panels (amid the many stinkers), and if I get a job at a school where I’ve interviewed, I will certainly be glad that I did. Going there gets me excited about the profession, and I do value that. But I have also paid through the nose for that value. When you make $15k a year, and your future employment prospects are murky, it’s pretty hard to drop a thousand dollars on plane tickets, hotels, overpriced food, and all the other hidden costs that are involved. One must buy a nice suit so you look like you deserve the job that will allow you to pay for that suit, and nine out of ten people who buy that suit and interview for that job, will not get it. They will simply pay to look like they deserve a job that does not exist for them.

I’ve been lucky; generous friends and family have shielded me from having to pay a full price I’m not sure how I would afford. But most people do pay that full price. And at the most basic level, MLA exists because of the money that job candidates spend as a category, this money that many or most simply cannot afford. Those job candidates fill the hotel rooms that feed the convention’s profit margin, directly subsidizing the ability of the convention center and participating hotels to give MLA a rate that it can afford to pay. Your dues are not nothing—and even paying the reduced graduate student rate is a kick in the teeth—but the cost of the hotel rooms is where the Sheraton gets the money it needs to profitably host the conference. Every lazy tenured professor that gets up and delivers a paper they’ve barely written and hardly prepared—and I’ve seen quite a few in my time—is able to do that because of all the hotel bills that subsidize the convention.

What would happen to the MLA if every single search committee switched to Skype interviews? I am opposed to online education—in at least many of its potential forms—because I think it will be cheaper *and* worse. But would universal Skype interviews be worse enough to justify not absolving all future job candidates of the debt they will accrue applying for jobs they won’t get? It’s a little cheaper for the search committee, and that cheapness would come at the cost of the ability to ascertain whether candidates had achieved appropriate levels of personal hygiene, dress, and conversational grace. It would also impede their ability to judge the things you can judge about a person when you have a spirited and high-stakes conversation about literature, pedagogy, and themselves. These are not nothings. These are somethings. But they are very expensive somethings. And if every job search doesn’t require ten candidates to fly to MLA and stay in an expensive hotel room—if every job search instead conducts the first set of interviews over Skype—they will, collectively, save nine out of ten job candidates the many hundreds of dollars that those job candidates would have spent on a job they wouldn’t have gotten. That’s a lot of un-bought plane tickets and un-bought hotel rooms, a lot of suits un-purchased and un-laundered, and a great many graduate students, adjuncts, and postdocs who can instead spend money on things like rent, food, and not being in debt.

This would have to be a decision that was made collectively, of course; if half the universities conduct Skype interviews and half of them do it the old-fashioned way, a two-tiered hiring process takes shape, a new hierarchy of academic respectability (though is it new? Maybe we’re already there). It might become a point of pride for schools that can afford it to conduct interviews at MLA, and people who can’t afford those interviews won’t apply for those jobs, won’t also wander into cutting edge panels, network with new friends, etc. Moreover, if it isn’t system-wide, it’s more of a savings for the interviewer than the interviewee. A friend was told by a hiring committee that they had switched to Skype interviews to save money for job candidates; he did the Skype interview with them, and then he flew to MLA to do his other interviews—his fourth year on the market—and saved exactly zero dollars on the ticket he had bought and the room he had reserved months ago.

I’m not going to go around calling for a collective switch to Skype interviews, because “calling for” a huge change in a profession I haven’t managed to join—yet? or am I wrong to pretend that I haven’t joined?—is sot of an absurd rhetorical position to assume. And others have made such calls before, and will in the future. But I am in the part of my career where I still pay an arm and a leg and receive a few trinkets in exchange, so I enjoy the trinkets while my attention is drawn to the arm and the leg, and then grumble about it. If I advance to a position where my school flies me to a new city each year and pays my hotel bill, I imagine I’ll probably enjoy the good parts and endure the unpleasant parts (like interviewing a dozen job candidates in a cramped hotel room). But I wonder if I’ll also forget who pays that cost in my place, were I to acquire the position from which I could theoretically call for change? Or would I just enjoy being on the top half of the pile? If I had some kind of voice in the MLA, would I call for its abolition? I won’t waste my breath on having an opinion here; I’m just enjoying having a good grumble. As someone once put it—who was that guy again?—institutions are usually not very interested in solving problems that will make themselves unnecessary. And maybe next year will be the year I’ll register early enough to get the early registration rate.

Published Elsewhere!

Last week, Jacobin ran my review essay of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, entitled Lincoln Against the Radicals.

And today, Inside Higher Education ran my article critiquing Clay Shirky’s advocacy of MOOC’s in higher education.


Tarzan’s White Flights: Terrorism and Fantasy before and after the Airplane

In honor of Gilad Sharon’s statement, yesterday, that the point of attacking Gaza is a barbaric display of dominance, “A Tarzan-like cry that lets the entire jungle know in no uncertain terms just who won, and just who was defeated,” I’m posting my American Literature essay on Tarzan and the deep history of aerial bombardment here:

“Tarzan’s White Flights: Terrorism and Fantasy before and after the Airplane”

The argument is built on the coincidence that Edgar Rice Burroughs started writing his first Tarzan novel a month after the first use of aerial bombardment against “primitive tribes” in North Africa, and the ways the original Tarzan’s “death from above” style blends an American enthusiasm for racialized lynch mob violence with a British desire to take gunboat diplomacy into the skies:

R. P. Hearne’s 1910 Airships in Peace and War, for example, suggested that “in savage lands the moral effect of such an instrument is impossible to conceive,” because “[t]he appearance of the airship would strike terror into the tribes.”…The airplane, as Hearne imagined it, would “enable an expedition to be made with astounding rapidity [and] create the most terrifying effect on savage races, and the awful wastage of life occasioned to white troops by such expeditionary work would be avoided.” And in 1910, Major Baden F. S. Baden-Powell had predicted that airships would be a great asset in “savage warfare” because “the moral effect on an ignorant enemy would be great, and a few bombs would cause serious panics.”…The dream was, almost without exception, that creating nightmarish terror among natives would make it unnecessary to actually exert costly military force. As a British official claimed in 1914, “[I]n a few years aeroplanes or airships will be used in West Africa . . . . They would be invaluable against the hill pagans, and the terror caused by them would probably do away with bloodshed.”

It is a fantasy that has endured; that U.S. imperial strategists in 2003 named the first bombing campaign in Iraq “Shock and Awe” only demonstrates the extent to which the utility of airpower is still, explicitly, its ability to create terror from above. However, while hopeful military thinkers in the teens created the imaginative terms through which fictions of racialized airpower would be articulated for a century to come, technologies get defined both through hopeful fantasies and also through practical use. When the RAF first deployed airpower on a large scale—in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq—they hoped it would provide the perfect solution to two different problems: on the one hand, a surge in Arab “intransigence” after World War I, and on the other, the need to quell it cheaply, since postwar demobilization of the exhausted military made resources for colonial policing extremely scarce. The fantasy, then as now, was that airpower could deter Arabs into passivity by terror, a bloodless imperial pacification that would proceed by playing on the savage inability to control their own fear, the same “wonderful moral effect” the Italians had hopefully imagined themselves to have produced in North Africa in 1912.

But the interesting part of the essay, to me, is the ways the film Tarzan’s run away from this legacy, as racial violence goes out of style in the 1930’s.

For further context, you may also find these interesting:


“It has been fully contained, but it is not yet extinguished”

“Residents in Richmond. North Richmond and San Pablo. Are advised to shelter in place. Go inside. Close All windows and doors. Turn off all heaters. Air conditioners and fans. If not using the fireplace. Close fireplace dampers and vents. And cover cracks around doors and windows with tape or damped towels. Media news networks will continue to carry updated emergency information. Stay Off the telephone unless you have a life threatening emergency.”

Remember. Remain indoors. Take shelter in your home. Keep duct tape on hand. In case a refinery explodes. Have a home. The homeless have only themselves to blame. Take shelter in a Community. Without refineries. Do not go out in public. Stay off the Phone. Close your windows and await instructions. The people of Richmond. Have only themselves to Blame. Trust. It is Important that you do not politicize a tragedy. Do not politicize a tragedy. Do not politicize a tragedy. Do not politicize a tragedy. Do not politicize a tragedyThe fire is contained.

Latent Productions, incorporated

Even though I’m vigorously pounding out The Dissertation these days — which will be subtitled “Maureen O’Sullivan totally pwns Joseph Conrad” — a bunch of stuff that I did or worked on before The Great Hiatus began is now bubbling forth, so please be welcome to greatly enjoy the following productions of my and other people’s intellectual labor:

First! A video that I recorded with Catherine Cole and Kwame Braun as part of their “Take Five” project — which they describe here — and which basically consisted of giving me Ansel Adams’ Fiat Lux book of photographs (which the University of California commissioned him to produce, of the University of California, in the 1960’s) and telling me to warble on camera about five images which struck me as interesting. Then, they edited it to make me sound a lot more coherent than I was:

Second! I sat down with J. A. Myerson at the Free Speech Cafe the other day, and we chatted about student protest, the releasing of pepper spray to maintain safety, and the general beating of students until morale improves. He used some of what I said as part of an amazingly syncretic report for Citizen Radio on the student debt bubble and related sins. You can listen to it here; Myerson’s segment begins right around the 30 minute mark, and it’s worth listening to in its entirety.

Third! On Monday, the New Inquiry’s “Police” issue will be dropped onto the world, and nothing will ever be the same again. I have a contribution to it called “Dumb Computers, Smart Cops” which will attempt to connect constitutional history, police beating student protesters, and mad robots that want to destroy the universe into a single narrative. You can subscribe here for a miniscule $2 and receive the whole magazine in .pdf form sometime tomorrow, though my essay will also be up tomorrow on main The New Inquiry site as well.

A Breather

So, last Saturday, I was sitting on a street corner at 3rd and Jackson, typing some notes into my MacBook while I waited for some friends to arrive; the cafe I had been working in had just closed, so I was finishing the thing I was doing while I waited. In that ten minute window, I became the victim of a crime that I’ve since learned is quite common in Oakland: a kid, about 19 or so (and pretty well dressed), snatched the laptop out of my hand and ran around the corner, where his friend in a getaway car was idling. I tried to chase him, but of course couldn’t catch up; I got a look at the license plate — something like “601z159″ — and it was a silver sedan, but that approximation will not get you much, and my laptop has probably already had its memory wiped and been resold by now. It was over very quickly.

On Sunday, I went with a friend to Laney flea market, and watched as lots of people’s stolen laptops were resold. Mine (serial number C02GM6RYDV13) was not among the fifteen or so 2011/2012 Macbooks that I saw being passed from hand to hand in exchange for big wads of cash; presumably if you arrive at 7, when the flea market opens, you’ll see the thieves arrive to sell the laptops to the dealers, who were doing a busy business at 8:00, and were mostly done by 10. I don’t know that those computers were stolen, of course, but I also don’t know that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Chances are good, either way.

I bought that laptop in a moment of unusual financial solvency, a moment which has passed. Last Thanksgiving — on “black Friday” believe it or not — I bought it with money I had made writing this article for Technology Review, a bit of freelance writing that paid me nearly half a normal year’s total income (Thank you Jason Pontin and Technology Review!). I spent the rest of it paying down some debts, and that money is gone now. I have no savings with which to replace that laptop, and I probably won’t. The New Inquiry pays its writers as generously as they can, and I can’t emphasize enough how happy I am to write for a publication that prioritizes paying its writers over its editors (name another publication where management mostly works for free and revenues go to pay for labor? I’ll wait.) But TNI’s pool of subscribers isn’t (yet?) at the point where they can pay me anything like enough to defray the cost of being a human being in the world, even in the Oakland part of it.

Thanks to the kindness of a friend, I now have a year old, new-to-me chromebook that I can use for internet and portability, and I also have the six-year-old Dell laptop that the Macbook replaced, a tank of a computer whose battery and wireless card no longer work, but which I can still use for word processing. With any luck, that machine will keep me afloat for a while. But much worse than simply the loss of the laptop is the fact that I lost parts of my dissertation which I hadn’t fully backed up. Here, I can save you the trouble of stating the obvious: “Aaron, back your computer up, so this doesn’t happen.” Done! But the fact remains; lots of it wasn’t. It’s an eerie feeling to realize that documents I’ve labored over may be being erased, right now, never to be seen by anyone again. I wrote 1500 words on Foreign Policy magazine’s failed states index, and that’s gone; I had a written much of an essay on California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. But the dissertation is the important thing. The most important parts were backed up, but lots of it wasn’t.

The breakdown isn’t important, though. The point is this:  I’ve been set back, significantly, on the work I need to do on my dissertation, and my deadlines haven’t changed. So to catch up, I will need to make up that time and that work some other way. If I’’m going to replace the stolen computer, I will need to do more outside work to make the money to do it, which will cost me time and energy. And since I will need all my time and energy if I’m going to get back on track, I’m probably not going to replace it, at least not any time soon.

The calculus is quite simple: I have more to do, and less to do it with (though if anyone wants to kick in a few bucks to defray the cost, a WePay tip jar is here, or PayPal here).

One of the great and terrible fallacies of our time is the idea that you can “do more with less,” or even that you can do the same with less. The managerial notion, for example, that it is possible to cut away the resources a person or institution has without thereby degrading that person’s or that institution’s ability to do their job is a fiction, but a useful one. It’s a way of making it someone else’s problem to make up the shortfall. If funding to a government agency or university is cut, and the workers there are told to “do more with less,” they will try to do the things they already do, but they will do them more cheaply and worse. If an employee is told to get the same job done, but she is given less to work with in doing so, she will either do a shittier job of it, or she will have a shittier life as a result of having no other choice but to work harder and longer and be paid less. In other words, great ideological energy goes toward making us overlook what is simple and obvious: the cost of doing something will always get paid somehow. Either it will be done less well, or the cost will be shifted from the managers of the system, who give the orders and have the power to enforce them, to the people who have to do the work and make up the difference with extracurricular, unpaid time.

I say all this to explain why the theft of my laptop — and the loss of a significant amount of work on my dissertation and on other things — means I’m going to stop blogging and tweeting for a while. I don’t have the resources I need to do my job the right way, and the fact that it was a snatch-and-run theft rather than a funding cut doesn’t change the basic logic of the situation. Rather than “do more with less,” and keep waking up at 2 a.m. in a panic over undone things,  therefore, I am going to do less with the less I have. Rather than fool myself into thinking I can just make it up magically, I am going to be realistic, and revise my plans and expectations according to my diminished pool of resources. I’ve lost time, work, and money and I need to make up the work without the money, so something’s got to give. In administrationese, I have to Be Realistic, and “being realistic” means deciding which of my priorities I am going to eliminate.

I spend a lot of time on twitter, which I value. Gone. I spend a lot of time writing blogposts, and trawling the internet. Also, gone. At least for the duration, I can’t spend time and energy doing this. There just isn’t any left over. I’m paid enough to be a graduate student, but not enough to be much of anything else, and if I’m to have any hope of getting a job better than the month-to-month, hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck existence I currently enjoy, I need to get eight months worth of work done in the next four. I’ve got to do that, and only that.

If you are reading these words, I want you to understand how much I appreciate that you are, how much it means to me that a decision of mine, like this one, would be of interest to anyone other than me. It means a great deal to me. If you’ve read this far, thank you. The academic world frustrates me by the extent to which we labor on writing that such a very few people will read, and that’s why I have a blog. It’s a way of doing a more capacious, more open version of intellectual labor.

But: having this kind of precarious existence means the privilege of spending so much time and energy writing for free about whatever I think is important is only one disaster away from becoming unaffordable, and I am one disaster past that moment.

There are greater tragedies in the world than this, obviously; losing one’s laptop and parts of one’s dissertation are the worst thing that can happen to a graduate student, but I’ve been joking to people that being a graduate student is already one of the worst things that can happen to a person, so the glass is half-empty either way. There’s a certain amount of truth to that: this experience has forced me to think about ways I can interface with the world not through a computer screen, and that’s important; I’m going to make this experience into something healthy, a way to re-focus my intellectual energies. But it’s also kind of a bitter joke. Being a graduate student is much more stressful and anxious than people often realize. The psychic and physical toll you pay is significant (there are those costs again!), and the end (when you face the seemingly non-existent employment prospects) can be rough. I tell people starting out that they should expect to fuck up their backs, to maybe need or go on some kind of anti-anxiety medication, and to spend their twenties intimately aware of the price of peanut butter. Your ability to be a graduate student for the next 7-10 years will be totally contingent on finding new strategies to keep yourself healthy.

But, of course, all of this only makes graduate students a lot like most latter day American workers: a paycheck away from missing rent, physically damaged by the work they do, and often waking up at 2 in the morning consumed with anxiety about the future. Like most people of my generation, it can be hard to imagine doing the things that my parents saw as the good life. That doesn’t mean I won’t have a future endowed with health insurance; that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to financially support a family, that doesn’t mean I won’t be able to “have it all,” as they say. Statistically, a person with an advanced degree like mine is still way ahead of the median American worker, and I’m well aware of that fact. But at the moment, I look at my bank account, I look at my job prospects, and I look at what I’ve got on my plate, and it makes me tired just to try to figure out where all the time and energy is going to come from even to get to the place where something good can happen.

So, for the time being, the next few months, maybe the rest of the year — depending on how the dissertation comes — I’m not going to cannibalize body and mind to do more with less. There’s a certain kind of politics to this choice, maybe, but the main thing is just an honest account of my situation, and an effort to make an actual choice, rather than coast along on momentum. Writing this blog and having you read it has been a real privilege, but it’s one that I don’t think I can afford any longer. I will lack the time and energy to put together the Sunday Reading posts each week, so the great Jane Hu has kindly agreed to do it in my stead. I’m going to hand my twitter password over to a friend and ask them to change it, so I can’t log on (and believe me, that’s what it will take to keep my addiction in check; I haven’t yet gotten up the courage to do it, but I will, soon). I’m not going to blog for a while and I’m going to try to chill out on the internet in general, try to read a few books and maybe go outside every once in a while. Feel free to drop me a line, aaron AT thenewinquiry.com.

UPDATE: Thanks to the generosity of a really humbling number of people, I now have enough to replace the computer, and then some  (over $2k in total). I don’t have the words to express my gratitude, so thank you will have to do.


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