a few words

Month: July, 2012

On Mark Regnerus and Research about Same-sex Child Rearing

I am on the fringes of a few circles in which there has been some flapping about “thought policing,” “witch hunts,” and “inquisitions” over the case of a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Mark Regnerus is being investigated by his university over questions of scientific integrity following an article he published that included data showing that adult children of same-sex couples have more emotional issues than children raised by heteronormatively “standard” couples.

I’m not really writing here about my stake in issues of academic freedom, or about the best way to characterize the investigation, and any comment I might make about the scientific integrity of the data would be speaking way, way outside my expertise. Rather, I’m writing about some of the assumptions that seem to underlie both sides of the conversation, assumptions that I noticed myself conspicuously not-sharing from the moment I read about the story.

Perhaps it shows just how long it’s been since I drank the critical-theory humanities kool-aid, but my first response upon reading about the whole thing was to wonder why people are so cranked up over this data in the first place. Both the de-bunkers and the defenders seem to share the premise that data of this kind (if not this data) could really show us whether same-sex couples ought to be raising children or not. Science will peel back the veil on nature and we’ll (finally) see for certain what sort of familial arrangement is most conducive to healthy children. That’s a falsely constrained and reductive view of “nature” and the “natural.”

The results of the study at hand just don’t seem all that surprising to me, given that our broader cultural context contains a lot of adamant voices insisting that same-sex couples raising children are not only statistically rare, but morally aberrant. Why should we expect kids to grow up without some maladjustment to society at large when, minimally—assuming that they aren’t bullied or otherwise excluded—their default awareness of the “way the world is” includes the knowledge that a significant segment of mainstream culture believes that their home and the love shared by their family is verboten? Or, on the other side, why should we be surprised when a study shows that growing up in a stable home with two parents grow up to be better adjusted than kids raised in less-stable single parent homes—irrespective of the orientation of the parents?

If it feels as if I’m being dismissive about the discipline of sociology generally, that’s not at all my intention. On some level it’s the nature of our cynical politics that wherever science touches down in issues such as this, it functions (for either side) largely as a political bludgeon, something concrete to lob at one’s ideological opponents. I get that. I think that the point of my frustration with the heat in this conversation is directed at: a) people’s expressions of surprise and anger that data like this should exist; and b) people’s convictions (whether stated or not) that data of this sort is not only a measurement of how things are, but is capable of telling us what we should do, how we ought to arrange our society. There seems to me to be a measure of pretense in the former, and a measure of backwards thinking in the latter.

“Call the Super—the faucet is leaking, and there are missiles on the roof!”: Olympics Edition

So far, coordinated dissent has been specific: bus drivers went on strike to demand a bonus for transporting an extra eight hundred thousand passengers; protestors gathered in Trafalgar Square as part of a global day of action against Dow Chemical’s sponsorship; and East London residents resorted to legal action to try and stop the installation of High Velocity Missiles on their building’s roof. Last week, bus drivers accepted a new offer of a £577 bonus to recognize their increased workload; Dow Chemical is still sponsoring the events; and the High Court ruled in favor of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), agreeing that a tower block was a suitable site for the missiles.

The missiles, put in place as part of an air security plan to protect the Olympic site from terrorist attacks, cover most homes in East London: residents within range must like it or lump it. In an article for The Guardian, Stephen Graham, author of Cities Under Siege, places the missiles in the context of a larger “total security” operation, which will leave a legacy of its own: “The security preoccupations of the Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian, and speculative urban planning efforts that otherwise would be much more heavily contested–especially in democracies.”

Via: Guernica, The Grand Project of the Olympics (Natasha Lewis)

So, this story demonstrates excellently how a planned event can serve as the trojan horse for all sorts of public security policy changes that, inevitably, do not go entirely back to “normal” afterward. The military may remove the missiles from the roof, and the “dispersal zones” may not become a permanent part of crowd-control and the restriction of public assembly in London. But London will have been a place where, in order to feel safe, society was subjected to a quasi martial-control for a time. At the next sign of instability, those measures are all the more ready-to-hand if needed.

The story also contains a heckler shouting “You prick!” at everyone’s favorite big society thinktank guru Philip Blond.

The Divinanimality of the Logos and the Curse of Human Uniqueness

I’ve been working today, editing my essay for the Divinanimality volume, coming out later this year through Fordham University Press. Here is a favorite paragraph from the essay—one of the most explicitly theological paragraphs I’ve written in years. In context, I’m making an argument for rethinking the significance of the Incarnation for thinking about the human-animal distinction:

On this understanding, the Logos of God is no longer the Master Signifier, the keystone that anchors the logos of self-reflective human thought and speech in a stable economy of meaning. Instead, relative to the logos of humanity, the Logos of God is negatively transcendent. God’s Logos is the charged silence over which humanity finds itself interminably babbling. The logos of humanity can find no entryway into the Logos of God; it tries to speak its way over a communicative abyss rather than being immersed in the silence of divinanimality. The unsettling eyes of animals—whose gazes have so little regard for human discourse—are unsettling not because they lack meaning but because they convey an excess of meaning that cannot be borne in language; they are icons of the mystery of the zōē of God. The living silence of the divinanimal Logos offers (or threatens) to swallow whole the logos of humanity—and no one can guess what kind of new zōē might emerge from this end

The paragraph and the paper in which it lives grew out of this post from a few years ago (see mom, blogging is good for something!). One of the broader contributions that I hope to make through the essay is the argument that despite their many differenced and disagreements, Derrida’s and Agamben’s texts on animality and politics are not only mutually illuminating, but have a kind of convergence. So, it’s an effort to read The Open and Homo Sacer alongside The Animal that Therefore I am and The Beast and the Sovereign—all in the context of John’s prologue.

What the Hell is a “Readflow” Anyway?

One of the inherent perils of life as a graduate student (just mentioned) is that, if one is going to get anything done, ever, one must be self-motivated, self-starting, and self-disciplined enough to do so. One of the major speed-bumps to all that good self-direction (at least for me—maybe all the other grad students are different [hahahahaha!]) is the very “interwebs” upon which you read these words.

Given that I spend a significant amount of time reading items of interest that I stumble across, or that others flag for me, Alan Jacobs’ post on his “Readflow” got me thinking about ways in which I could focus, direct, and use my internet reading time a little bit better than I do. The neologism itself sounds a little bit too self-consciously “tech-saavy” for my taste and smacks a bit of corporate-speak, but the concept has stuck in my mind nevertheless. Maybe that says something about me.

I do already use Readability to filter out ads and to save longer pieces for subway travel (or other more convenient, less work-oriented time), but I think that I may start using it as something of a cache and clearinghouse. I like the idea of having periods of “more focused distraction” in which I read the bits that have come up and either share them or file them as appropriate. Pinboard looks useful for the tagging and retrieval features that are lacking in Readability, but the added step of tagging individual pieces in a separate window sounds like more hassle than I’m going to commit to reliably.

This blog, too, may be more deeply integrated my reading process—at least for pieces that are not only worth sharing, but also spark a few comments. I know—what the internet really needs is one more guy spouting his opinion—right? Well, no one is forcing you to listen.

And if others have habits or patterns of reading that have proven useful, I’d like to hear about them as well.

On Stolen Laptops and the Banal Perils of Graduate School

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.

via A Breather — zunguzungu.wordpress.com

One of my favorite blogger-commentator-mandolin playing-manic-superheroes is drastically re-focusing his life after getting his computer stolen in the midst of writing his dissertation. But his explanation for his hiatus gives an excellent picture of the sorts of scars and troubles that one can expect from “the life of the mind”—at least the part where the mind is in grad school. My strategy (if one can call it that) of late has been more or less resignation. There are lots of kinds of “work” in the world, and I’ve chosen a good path with its own unique challenges. Graduate school—and academia more generally—has changed me in many ways, and many of them not for the better. But it’s good work, I’m at least reasonably proficient at it, and anything else I could do would likely only carry a different set of scars and neuroses. There is a kind of existential tyranny that can be overcome by thinking about a “job” rather than a “career.”

Postscript: If you’ve appreciated Aaron’s writings, you can pitch in to buy him a new laptop.