Month: November 2013

Reading the Pope, reading the present

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The Vatican released this week Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, the Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospels”).  The exhortation is the first of Francis’ papacy.  It’s a doozy — and not only for being the most widely-read essay with more than 200 endnotes.

From this lengthy document, a relatively small segment of the exhortation (paragraphs 53-60, of 288 in total) have so far attracted the most attention in the English-speaking world. These remarks concern the “tyranny” of unfettered capitalism, the exploitative nature of “trickle-down” economic theories, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, and the increasing problem of global poverty. Much of the press reporting on the Pope’s exhortation has focused on these arguments. (See for instance articles from The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and Salon.)  The Pope’s remarks on economics have invited many inevitable comparisons to Marx — by Rush Limbaugh, among others — as well as some to less inevitable entities (Karl Polanyi, for instance, or the Oberlin College Newspaper).

The Pope’s assessment of the crises of contemporary capitalism has scandalized some and gratified many others who are glad to see the Pontiff attend to matters of present and widespread concern. Though not a Catholic, I too am engaged by the Pope’s words. I am just as fascinated by the passage that precedes these by now well-known paragraphs on the depredations of unfettered capitalist growth. Paragraphs 50 and 51, which introduce the second chapter of the Pope’s exhortation, are less newsworthy than the paragraphs that follow, though to my mind they are no less remarkable in constituting a reflection on the necessity, challenges and paradoxes involved in reflecting on the present time.

The preamble to Chapter 2 of the exhortation, “Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment,” opens with an appeal to consider the situation of contemporary life — “the context in which we all have to live and work” (50). “We” are thus brought to the scene of crisis itself, and to the condition of being “amid” this crisis, rather than a passive witness to it.  The position of immanence that Francis urges parishioners to assume is consistent with a now-famous statement from the previous paragraph: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (49).

Paragraph 51 continues in this vein by emphasizing the necessity of attending closely to “present realities”:

It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.”  This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse.  (51)

Francis prepares the ground for the argument to follow with this call to the “analysis of contemporary reality.” The implication from the warning at the end of this passage is that the agents most clearly responsible for “present realities,” those in other words most committed to the untrammeled expansion and consolidation of wealth, the triumph of free market ideology, the multiplication of capitalism’s externalities in the continued destruction of the environment, and so on, are also those least invested in undertaking such an analysis. Francis thus shares with thinkers from Nietzsche to Agamben the idea that to be contemporary is to be at once in sync and out of step with “present realities.”  The “analysis of contemporary life” requires some measure of distance from present time; in essential respects it is, as Nietzsche reminds us, an untimely [Unzeitgemässe] endeavor — “acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time.”

As it happens, the call to contemporaneity and to the consideration of “certain present realities” has a long history — both in the Papal tradition and elsewhere.  The “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times” refers, as Francis’ note informs us, to the 1964 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam suam (1964). In this text, Paul endorsed his predecessor Pope John XXIII’s program of Aggiornamento, a “bringing-up-to-date,” as “the guiding principle” of the Catholic church, as well as “the aim and object of Our own pontificate.” In the encyclical Paul VI urged the Church “to take stock of itself and give careful consideration to the signs of the times” (50).

The appeal to the “signs of the times” was one of the rallying cries of the Aggiornamento, calling the priests and laity to consideration of the modern world.  “Signs of the times” has been a phrase regularly invoked since the days of Pope John XXIII — Francis being here no exception.  The phrase is famously associated with its usage in the pastoral constitution of Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et spes (1965):

the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.   (4)

The Papal use of the phrase has its origin in the gospel of Matthew (16:3), where Jesus upbraids the Saduccees and Pharisees for being better acquainted with meteorological portents than with those of greater and more lasting significance currently passing on earth: “O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” (KJV).  

To attend to the “signs of the times” is at once, then, to scan the present and to anticipate the future. In the Catholic context, the exhortation to scrutinize the signs of the times connects the activity of reading the present to the venerable traditions of the past too (both recent and ancient).  Francis recovers some of the original urgency attached to the activity of discerning the “signs of the times” by referring to the threat of “dehumanization,” and insists on its being the responsibility of all. Notwithstanding the disclaimer that the Pope’s task is not to provide a comprehensive “analysis of contemporary reality,” the necessity of attending to the signs of times turns even the leader of the Catholic church into a bit of a sociologist. At the same time, Francis is frank (sorry) about the limitations of such analysis:

Today, we frequently hear of a “diagnostic overload” which is not always accompanied by improved and actually applicable methods of treatment. Nor would we be well served by a purely sociological analysis which would aim to embrace all of reality by employing an allegedly neutral and clinical method. What I would like to propose is something much more in the line of an evangelical discernment.  (50)

The condition of “diagnostic overload” is one remarked upon in the present by many well outside the Catholic faith. Academic readers may associate the Pope’s caution with similar assessments of the forms and disciplines of “sociological” critique in the university — among others, with Bruno Latour’s assertion that the explanations furnished by critique have, as in the title of his well-known essay, “run out of steam,” outlived their usefulness, and so need either to be reinvented or discarded entirely. I am reminded of a brilliant and beautiful remark by Lauren Berlant about the limitations of the kind of critique that humanists frequently carry out: “The correct analysis of a symptom does not reveal, produce, point to, or give confidence about the shape of its cure, which is why so much work in the humanities limps along in the phrases that follow out the description of a problem.”

Francis’ reflection on the limitations of “sociological analysis” and on the conditions of contemporary life urges us think anew about what happens when we train the eye of criticism on the “signs of the times.” If the principle of “evangelical discernment” does not seem quite adequate to the purposes of scholarship and social criticism in a secular age, I would not quite wish to resort to the luxury of condescension either. The effort to renew the project that Foucault named “the history of the present” will need — has always needed — more than “an allegedly critical and clinical method” is capable of providing.  What methods will arise in its place may still need to be worked out.

Of borrowed words on social media

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A few weeks ago, when the Affordable Care Act went into effect and Healthcare.gov was fitfully launched, I had a thought that I thought would be mildly amusing to share on Twitter: what if, instead of working with government contractors at great cost to build the plagued website, Obama had simply gone through GoDaddy? Before tweeting I did a Twitter search for “Obama” and “GoDaddy” (which, if you don’t know, is the web hosting company famed most of all for its repulsively sexist SuperBowl commercials); and, well, it turns out that many others had tweeted more or less exactly the same thought.  So I abstained from adding one more variation on what had become a hackneyed and unoriginal theme for a joke.  (I’d say, “leave the jokes to the professionals” — but then again, Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel are professionals.)

This experience, and some recent instances on Twitter of word theft (or something like it), got me wondering about the status of borrowed words on the platform and on social media more broadly.  If you search “Twitter” and “plagiarism,” you will find plenty of people dissatisfied with the ease with which words are lifted and recirculated without attribution.  Twitter’s terms of service includes a copyright policy that emphasizes “the intellectual property rights of others,” and proposes a formal procedure in cases where copyright infringement is suspected.  Spend any time on Twitter, however, and you will encounter numerous instances of (largely) unnoticed, tolerated or simply overlooked, essentially unenforceable theft — that is, beyond the predictable but otherwise quite innocent levels of banality and unoriginality (such as in the instance above) that you will witness when thousands of people comment on any passing event of note. 

It is often observed (see “Further reading,” below) that the understanding of authorship and of what constitutes plagiarism is changing dramatically in the digital age — so much so that some scholars (Chandrasoma et al., 2004) question whether we should preserve the category of “plagiarism” at all.  The transformation in the concept of authorship is understood to be taking place largely as a byproduct of what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture.”  This phrase refers to the widespread transformation of cultural consumers into cultural producers, or (as one might more skeptically put it) to the increasing indiscernibility of production and consumption in the age of Web 2.0.  A participatory culture is one in which thresholds for cultural production are low and cultural objects circulate freely, often without regard to standards of single authorship.  Included in this domain are a wide variety of digital practices such as file sharing; participation on sites such as online bulletin boards, blogs, and social media; the culture of remix and mashup, widely assisted by the easy appropriation of digital materials; and a culture of collaborative, largely uncredited work, for which Wikipedia is one obvious model.     
 
In such a culture, it is generally agreed, plagiarism — though never a wholly transparent concept to begin with — loses some coherency in many teaching and learning contexts.  Like other cultural objects of sound or image, texts can be manipulated, appropriated, “remixed,” drawn from multiple sources, and collaboratively altered or produced.  If the 21st-century author is better understood as a collaborator with others and with systems of texts rather than an isolated individual producer of wholly original content, perhaps plagiarism has exhausted its utility as a concept.  Chandrasoma et al. go so far as to suggest that “students and staff do away with the notion of plagiarism altogether” (172), to embrace instead a more open-ended and context-dependent distinction between “transgressive and nontransgressive intertextuality.” 

Let us provisionally accept this substitution, ungainly as the terms are, and agree to consider tweets not as subject to plagiarism so much as to acts of transgressive and nontransgressive intertextuality.  Were I, having performed a Twitter search beforehand, to have gone ahead and tweeted a lame joke how Obama should have commissioned the Healthcare.gov site from GoDaddy, my act (I presume) would be one of the nontransgressively intertextual sort.  No authorial rights were harmed in the making of this (hypothetical) tweet.

Consider some other examples of borrowed words on Twitter, however, and the line between transgressive and nontransgressive use becomes more difficult to define and defend.  Example one: some weeks ago, a joke (provenance unknown) about Miley Cyrus and Home Depot

circulated widely on Twitter — so much so that its frequent circulation without attribution became a widely-circulated complaint in its own right. (for instance here: https://twitter.com/themerchdude/status/377955577592549376). Later, the “original” jest was modified to become a joke about Marina Abramovic: 

Having circulated thus far widely and without attribution as a joke about Miley Cyrus, had the format of the joke acquired the status of a meme, making it subject to legitimate (nontransgressive) reappropriation?  If that is the case, was its nontransgressive intertextuality only acquired by repeated unattributed recirculation of the earlier tweet?

Example two is an ostensibly more clear-cut case of plagiarism, in which a tweet in September by Twitter user @angry_prof

was in November tweeted word-for-word without attribution by @GradElitism:

https://twitter.com/angry_prof/status/401543931164639232
What followed was like an episode from a modern-day academic morality play: an initial reply from @angry_prof, followed by a series of incensed and condemnatory tweets from users including @CrankyStudent, @[Shit]AcademicsSay, and @ResearchGosling — like @angry_prof and @GradElitism, all of these anonymous (as far as I know) accounts. What one witnessed in this case was a situation, both bizarre and I think only bound to become more frequent in time, in which at stake was the right of one anonymous account to own and be credited for words that had been purloined by another.  (Not knowing the creators of either account, I can’t exclude the possibility that @angry_prof and @GradElitism are accounts operated by the same person.) The charge of plagiarism or of “transgressive intertextuality” in this instance represented a case in which the claims of copyright were asserted, but independently of the individual legal persons which copyright exists to protect in the first place.  

It is hard to say how much Twitter is an engine of such transformations in borrowed language or a mirror that reflects changes taking place in the culture at large. At some level, of course, what these instances point to is nothing new: language is a common property, belonging to everybody and nobody; ideas are at base social, coming into being in relation to other words and ideas, and largely dependent for their intelligibility on what has been previously said and thought.  What Twitter and other forms of social media may make visible (for better or for worse) is the frivolity of any effort to “own” our words when language was never ours in the first place.

Edit 12/31/2013

I wanted to record two responses I received to this post. Quite a few readers, mostly from anonymous or pseudonymous accounts, came forward with further instances of plagiarism by one Twitter user mentioned in the post, @GradElitism. Quite unexpectedly, then, a piece on the difficulty of distinguishing between collaboration and plagiarism in social media generated, for a time, a heated reaction against the predations of one social media user. I asked @GradElitism to contribute his or her end of the story; along with a few other users, I was blocked by the account.

From Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), I was reminded that women and persons of color are often the victims of plagiarism on social media through the unauthorized borrowing of words by people in positions of authority and/or privilege. Lee pointed me to a recent case in which Twitter user @FeministaJones created a popular hashtag (#RacismEndedWhen; see the first use of the hashtag below) that was subsequently appropriated by some news media outlets without attribution to its creator. Loose standards for attribution on social media make it easier to get away with theft of this sort. As Lee (and Sarah Kendzior, see below) observed, real issues of power are involved here too, where words from marginalized individuals and groups are appropriated, and their voices marginalized still further in consequence.

Further reading 

Ranamukalage Chandrasoma, Celia Thompson, & Alastair Pennycook, “Beyond Plagiarism: Transgressive and Nontransgressive Intertextuality,” Journal of Language, Identity, & Education 3.3 (2004), 171-193.

Nicholas Diakopoulos et al., “The Evolution of Authorship in a Remix Society,” HT ’07 (September 2007), 1-4.

Lea Calvert Evering & Gary Moorman, “Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 56.1 (September 2012), 35-44.

Henry Jenkins et al., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009).

Trip Gabriel, “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age,” The New York Times (August 1, 2010). 

Debbie Wheeler & David Anderson, “Dealing with Plagiarism in a Complex Information Society,” Education, Business, and Society 3.3 (2010) 166-177.

“Simple and complex and kind of magical”: the rolling jubilee

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[T]he event is neither substance nor accident, neither quality nor process…And yet it is not something immaterial either; it is always at the level of materiality that it takes effect, that it is effect…Let us say that the philosophy of the event should move in the at first sight paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incorporeal.

– Michel Foucault, “The Order of Discourse”

The Rolling Jubilee, a project of Strike Debt launched November 15, 2012, celebrates its one year anniversary today.  Its founding on this day marked the first year anniversary of the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park.  The anniversary of the movement has been widely and justifiably celebrated this week, here and here and (by one of its architects, Astra Taylor) here.

Reviving the Judeo-Christian tradition of Jubilee, in which debts were periodically canceled for the community, the Rolling Jubilee represents an innovative and highly successful project in mutual aid. Astra Taylor calls the Rolling Jubilee concept “simple and complex and kind of magical.”  Working through the secondary debt market where “distressed,” unpaid loans are bundled and typically bought by banks and collection agencies for pennies on the dollar, the Rolling Jubilee has, with $400,000 in donations, purchased and canceled nearly $15 million in medical debt.  The money travels from unknown benefactors to recipients whose distressed debt happens to be included in the bundled loans that are purchased by the Rolling Jubilee.  By these means, almost 2700 people so far have had their debt burdens lifted.

Like most or all charitable projects, the Jubilee concept is simple at its core. Part of what makes the Jubilee “complex and somewhat magical” has to do with the advanced nature of the market systems in which it participates. With origins in ancient religious practice, the Jubilee intervenes in the complex credit mechanisms of 21st-century financial markets. Most charitable acts , moreover, involve a simple donation from one hand to another. But it is difficult to say precisely where or in what event the Rolling Jubilee consists (this is one reason why it is a Rolling Jubilee, defined by its ongoingness). Is it in the collection of donations from thousands of people? in the purchase of bundled debt from the banks? in the notification of those whose debt has, at random, been abolished?

This last stage, in which the beneficiaries are notified that (a portion of) their medical debt has been canceled, is often taken to be the highlight of this complex process. (To mark their anniversary today, the Rolling Jubilee has announced another major debt buy, in Austin, Texas.) The letter that Strike Debt sends to debtors on this occasion bears a simple subject line: “Balance Abolished.”

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Matthew Yglesias asked in an article for Slate whether the money that went to abolishing the distressed debt would not be better given as cash to the needy.  Setting aside questions about the financial efficacy of its model, however, it is not difficult to perceive that the Rolling Jubilee operates on an altogether different principle than that which Yglesias proposes as a potentially better alternative.  For the abolition of debt is neither a gift nor a charitable donation, not exactly.  Debt abolition “merely” removes an pre-existing obligation.  Something has not been given, therefore, so much as it has been taken away; more precisely, what is given is the taking away, the removal of a debt burden.  In the YouTube video that Strike Debt produced to promote the campaign, one of the participants in the Rolling Jubilee describes its action in these terms: “Instead of collecting on the debts we buy, we’re going to abolish it. Poof.”  As Auden famously describes the action of poetry, then, the event of debt abolition “makes nothing happen.”

As a teacher and scholar of poetry, I encounter many instances of this strangely agencyless agency, both in the poems we read and in the minds of those who engage with them.  Maybe I am attracted to the Jubilee because it operates in a similar way, “simple and complex and somewhat magical.”  Maybe I am attracted to both for the way that they make visible something about the occult and insufficiently understood nature of events themselves.

In “The Order of Discourse,” Foucault describes the event as having effect on both material and immaterial planes.  Just as the historical event must be seen at once as a singular phenomenon and as part of processes of much longer duration, so does the event considered in itself appear to be a divided and contradictory thing — something not entirely present as positive substance, but whose existence and material effects are beyond doubt.  It is for this reason, Foucault insists, that “the philosophy of the event should move in the at first sight paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incorporeal.”

The Jubilee is consistent with an understanding of the event as operating on jointly material and incorporeal planes, with effects (however obscure) in both domains.  Perhaps we cannot say exactly what it is; but it is not nothing either.

That the Rolling Jubilee “makes nothing happen” is often adduced as a point against it. Those skeptical of the Jubilee model observe (here, for instance) that the amount of debt abolished does not come close to any statistically significant figure; it is not so much as to make a dent in the nation’s multi-trillion dollar debt burden.  Not amounting to much, the event of debt abolition is, however, not nothing. The Rolling Jubilee has so far relieved a debt burden for thousands of Americans.  Perhaps more important than this, the disappearing of debt has made widely visible as never before the secondary debt market and the predatory mechanics of debt collection.  “[S]imple and complex and kind of magical,” the Jubilee is an exemplary (historical) event in that regard.  As the movement marks its one year anniversary, I am eager to see what nothing it has still to make happen.

You can donate to the Rolling Jubilee here.

November 15, 2013

Of pleasure problems (and Louis CK)

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“There is a host of arguments in these feelings” – William Wordsworth

     I have been working on a project about beauty that attempts to restore to view the mixed and conflicted character of this aesthetic category. The beautiful is conventionally identified with feelings of unmixed pleasure on the part of the spectator, in marked contrast to the sublime. If pleasure is regarded — by Gilles Deleuze, among others — as a domain where affective intensities are neutralized, the beautiful is typically conceived as a refined and uniformly mild expression of pleasure. Yet in experiences of the beautiful, feelings of pleasure and displeasure frequently operate in unison; the feeling of pleasure in beauty regularly appears in conjunction with sensations of irritation, discomfort, or displeasure inseparable from the pleasurable circumstances that call the experience forth. 

     One of my goals in examining such moments to arrive at a new and more adequate account of the relationship between affect and the subset of affective experiences we call “aesthetic.” To this end, the project situates the beautiful in relation to a larger category of what I call “pleasure problems.” The pleasure problem refers to circumstances in which the predictable functions or operations of pleasure have been impeded, arrested, suspended, or set aside. These are often circumstances where pleasure takes on a problematic aspect, though the pleasure problem may with equal likelihood represent conditions in which pleasure emerges, improbably, from problematic circumstances. 

     The larger project draws mainly on writing in aesthetics and poetry from the long eighteenth century. But there is a much longer tradition behind the blended quality of pleasure and pain in experiences of the beautiful — and one needn’t look two hundred years into the past to find an illustration of the pleasure problem either. For a contemporary instance, we can look to the opening sequence from a 2011 episode of the sitcom Louie (season 2, episode 6, “Subway/Pamela”). 

     This episode delays the opening credits and reverses the typical sequence, beginning with Louie emerging from a comedy club rather than descending into one. Louie is shown walking down the stairs onto the subway tracks where a handsome young man in a tuxedo is playing violin. (The piece, as I learned from the internet, is “Csárdás” by Vittorio Monti [1904].) Louie tosses a bill into the violinist’s case as he passes and leans against a girder to watch him. The man playing the violin is beautiful; the piece he is playing is beautiful. 

     As he watches the violinist, an older, heavyset man laden with large plastic bags descends the stairs onto the platform. The man lays out a plastic sheet on the tile floor, removes his shirt, pours soapy water over his head and proceeds to bathe himself with abandon. The man’s appearance on the subway platform is preposterous; his condition would be heartbreaking were it not for the obvious relish (and obliviousness) with which he scrubs himself. We see the man’s body, pink, wet, and glistening, as he reaches down behind himself to soap between his ass-cheeks. The violinist and the homeless man occupy the same visual plane; in one shot (shown above) we see the back of Louie’s head as he looks on at both. 

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    Critics noted of this scene how in Louis CK’s New York City, the beautiful and ugly, romantic and repulsive, are yoked together in visual proximity. Were Louis CK a sociologist of aesthetics in the Bourdieuian vein, one could read the sequence as pointing to beauty’s silent dependence on an extruded material remainder. The repulsive, shirtless man operates in the scene as the unavoidable background from which the beautiful man and his beautiful music springs. In this way is the beautiful conceived as emerging from a background of negativity, of poverty and privation, even as our unmixed pleasure in the beautiful somehow depends on us being blind to these conditions. Once you admit those conditions into your field of view, beauty ceases to be wholly pleasureable.

     While I detect the elements of an aesthetic theory here, it is not Bourdieu’s. In an interview Louis CK described the genesis of the scene: “The violin player, I came up with because a woman played violin at my daughter’s school concert, and I almost cried just from hearing the music, so I kind of dreamt up that sequence.” This scene of emotion recollected in absurdity converts a beautiful memory into an occasion for laughter by juxtaposing it with something absurd and repulsive. But then too, to get at what is involved in a pleasure so intense as to make one feel like crying, one would have to imagine how the beautiful could produce feelings of discomfort or displeasure. Louie depicts this proximity of affects even before the old man’s entry. In successive shots, we see the stages of Louie’s response, from the clenched and exhausted facial expression many wear in the subway — 

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to a pose of relative contemplation. His face softens. 

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In the shot just prior to the old man’s entrance, Louie’s head appears once more in tighter close-up. His face momentarily contorts; the expression is a wince, an expression of emotion, even of pain. 

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Later, shifting his view between the beautiful violinist and the homeless man, Louie again winces, with a face that signals strong discomfort and disgust. Before the entry of the homeless man, however — a wince. The wince of “pleasure” precedes and anticipates the wince of disgust.

     That the scene unfolds entirely from Louie’s perspective (a perspective that, as the second sequence of the episode establishes, may be wholly imaginary) is not incidental. In the interview, Louis CK says: “The whole subway episode was supposed to be an entire episode of me observing and not talking to anybody. I wanted to do a whole episode that just shows me scratching in my notebook and looking at people, and seeing things happen.” The sense that what is seen in the episode is seeing itself explains why all traces of the female are erased (the biographical context of a woman playing violin at his daughter’s school) in favor of the homoerotic (a man observing men) or the intrasubjectively narcissistic (a man contemplating two separate and ludicrously juxtaposed externalizations of his own aesthetic response).

     But what Louie sees is nothing special. He is an ordinary guy, an Everyshmuck; his representativeness as White/professional/middle-aged/divorced/a father is repeatedly emphasized in the show. The scene in other words presents an extravagant image of contrast in order to display something about the everyday perception of beauty. It illustrates how, before the sight of a beautiful person playing (beautifully) a beautiful piece of music, one cries — or winces. 

     The excellence of Louie consists not simply in how imaginatively it represents absurd and improbable scenes of contrast. It is great too for the ease with which it makes visible qualities not typically subject to empirical verification. I’m interested in how this scene articulates a principle I’ve wished to trace more broadly: that to problematize pleasure is a way of visualizing a property of pleasure itself. To problematize an experience like that of beautiful is no more than to ask questions of it — not because the experience is itself so frail (it is not), but because nothing is more natural than to call it into question. Where one seeks pleasure, one finds pleasure problems.  
 

A brief dispatch from Boston’s Adjunct Action Symposium

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Yesterday I attended the Adjunct Action Symposium (the symposium theme, “Higher Education in the New Economy”), held at the Boston Public Library.  This was the second such event in 2013; the first was in April, under the high ceilings of Boston’s JFK Library.  The crowd was somewhat smaller than in Spring, but still big enough at its peak to fill a large conference room in the basement of the Library.

The atmosphere at this event felt somewhat different to me from the last time. If in April the room was suffused with the exciting sense of possibility, with new connections made and plans being hatched, yesterday’s meeting was quieter and more focused. Begun in the wake of the April meeting, union organization is now well underway at several Boston-area campuses. At Tufts, adjuncts won a recent resolution to organize by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Bentley, a four-year business college in Waltham, also recently voted on a resolution, though the outcome there was less promising:  the resolution to unionize on campus lost by 2 votes (98 for vs. 100 against).  With some 1400 adjuncts, Northeastern University was described by someone as “the jewel in the crown” of adjunct organizing in the Boston area – which probably also explains why Northeastern administration has hired the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis to prevent a union from being formed on its campus.

One hears a litany of all-too-familiar concerns at these events: about the economic burdens of adjunct life: the exorbitant cost of living in the Boston area; the skyrocketing cost of health insurance; the challenge to keep groceries in the fridge and bills paid. The pressure of student debt is a persistent topic of concern (as it obviously is too for the vast majority of the students that adjuncts encounter in the classroom). Adjuncts want, most immediately, more pay – a livable wage. They want space on campus in which to work. They want benefits, of health insurance especially, and a budget for essential work-related expenses (such as computers and support for their maintenance and repair). They want job security: renewable contracts guaranteeing long-term or consistently longer-term employment; advance notice for teaching appointments. They wish, most broadly, for equality: a role in faculty governance; a stake in the curricular or operational decisions of the department; the respect and support of their tenured peers. 

As pressing as are the bread-and-butter issues of economic survival as an adjunct, one hears more at these events about the considerable emotional burdens of life as a contingent faculty member: the exhaustion of the “road scholar” who has to divide his or her time between two, three, or more different schools; fear and anxiety associated with the precariousness of the economic situation, of employment at will; feelings of shame, the persistent sense of not having succeeded at what is essentially a lottery, not primarily a system that rewards merit; uncertainty about how to deal with the material conditions of one’s own employment – whether (for instance) to speak frankly to the students about the contingent status of one’s employment; feelings of invisibility – to administration, to tenured faculty and to each other. “Adjuncts are spectral figures,” Doug Kierdorf, a historian at Tufts said, often disconnected from the life of the university. These are symptoms hardly unique to contingent employees of the university, of course, but they are felt as acutely by this group as by other members of a growing contingent, casualized, just-in-time labor force in America and elsewhere in the world.