[T]he question of recognizing agency is necessarily less a matter of measuring its efficacy on the machinery of government than on decoding its signs and following their interpretive trajectories… Accordingly, political agency cannot be defined a priori but only in the specifics of its emergence.
- Introduction to Ethnographies of Neoliberalism (2012)
I think my brain just exploded.
My Tumblr was hacked. Which is dumb, because… well, it’s Tumblr. In reality, it reminds me of that time someone in Pennsylvania stole my AmEx and bought groceries.
What, no speed boats?
To quote Tom Hardy in Inception, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream bigger, darling.”
This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit… One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book.
- 2nd Forward to On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2010 )
Back in college, I had an English professor who told the class to avoid using certain words when writing essays. “Just” was one such word.
"Nothing is ever just anything,” he said. “Don’t simplify.”
I’ve been hearing him in my head a lot lately, and I’ve been wondering why. Combined with the strange, if alarming dreams I’ve been having, his words tell a complicated story of what my first year in Paris has been all about: keeping secrets.
While it’s true that when you’re a stranger, people consider you with careful suspicion, it is equally true that they often naively identify you as an uninterested party. Consequently, you become the de facto keeper of secrets - the one they run to in order to vent about lives that you have, presumably, nothing to do with.
And the secrets build, creating a heavy weight of guilt that you carry around with you on a daily basis as you interact with people who, yes, most certainly do have something to do with each others’ lives and yours. When they make snap judgments, you hold back any attempt to correct their erroneous assertions.
"He’s such an asshole," they might say, referring to a mutual acquaintance who, stuck in an impossible predicament, made a difficult decision.
"But…" you’ll begin, stopping as you consider how it is neither your place nor right to divulge the details of the mitigating circumstances. Of course, they’ll look at you strangely, wondering what you know, and you’ll try to change the subject as diplomatically as possible.
Well, he thinks you’re an asshole, too, you might think to yourself in an effort to calm the pangs of guilt and helplessness. At least you’re cut from the same cloth. And besides, it’s none of my business.
But, of course, it is my business.
As I enter my rather unexpected second year of fieldwork, I find myself contemplating the many ways in which being the keeper of everyone’s secrets has made me so terribly cynical about the world. More than that, it’s made me a painfully antisocial person who, in the absence of any good faith interactions, retreats to the calm and repetitiveness of solitude.
How I wish I could enjoy the simple pleasure that comes from passing judgment and from just being in the world, instead of standing beside it.
The air feels different in Paris. It’s not like those few days in early March when the weather was lovely. No, that was just a few days. Now the trees are in full bloom, and the young ladies have even begun to wear skirts. Overly-dressed tourists pose for photos in front of buildings they have deemed historically and architecturally significant, in their professional, touristy opinions. They fill the air with their broken French and high-pitched English, drowning out the birds that signal the season is here to stay. I think one of them is even wearing… yes, denim stilettos. I duck into my favorite restaurant where the owner, a longtime friend, greets me with a steak skewer, potatoes, and a side of béarnaise sauce. I scarf it down as he smiles and comments, “Vacuum working perfectly today, eh?” I smile back and tell him my plans have recently changed, that he can count of me to be a loyal customer. Suddenly, the smile disappears, replaced by a blank stare and a sigh that trails off as he takes my plate to the dishwasher.
"Another year…" he mumbles.
Yes, Monsieur, and Paris is certainly lovely in the spring.
They had grown up inside this routine, had even begun to enjoy it, to take comfort in it, and as long as nobody there decided to break the spell, as long as nobody there decided the point out the simple fact that none of it was real, then it all seemed to work just fine for all of them.
- In Between Days (2013)
The “field” is so strange. No matter how much sincerity you approach every day with, there is always, unquestionably, the lingering knowledge that you are looking at a world that is not your own. Those around you are initially aware of this strange inability to commit, and they are right to not trust you. But, of course, with time, your disruptive presence insinuates itself into the rhythms of everyday life.
In those rare moments when I take time off from my research, I am faced with the realization that I have nothing that quite resembles a life here. So I sit alone and contemplate the life I have put on hold, and I try to keep up with it, and with the moral and emotional commitments I’ve consciously made to the people who, out of good faith, wait for my return.
But now, after almost a full year in Paris, I begin to let go ever so slightly of the notion that I still have a life to return to in a vague, undisclosed elsewhere; and I embrace, however tentatively, the delusion that suggests I may have a life here. And with this comes the knowledge that whatever provisional commitment I make to this place is overshadowed by the commitments people are beginning to make to me.
People here offer their help in “fixing the situation,” by which they mean my temporary status. They panic when I tell them my visa is coming to an end, and they lecture me on why I can’t be so irresponsible as to let it expire. I nod, mostly out of respect, and acknowledge to myself that I am making promises I can’t keep - the same promises I made to everyone back home.
My confusion oftentimes turns into righteous anger - a defense mechanism if ever there was one. Other times it turns to panic, as I consider the absurdity of living two lives that are, each in their own way, untenable. And finally, when everything has passed, I am left with the undeniable guilt of knowing that I will always be the one to go back on my word.
Had I not been so traumatized then, I might not have written this book today.
- Introduction to Death Without Weeping (1992)
I met my good friend JM via Xanga about 5 years ago. It’s amazing to think that a random picture of a chair I took long ago spoke to her enough to reach out and say hello. And yet it did, and we met for almost every summer after that moment. We sat outside on benches discussing her penchant for cute Parisian boys who smoked too much, and we did what anyone would do: we smoked. We took silly pictures as we planned our next meeting, content with our fleeting but otherwise meaningful exchange. Then we parted ways, certain that next summer would come. And so it went until summer came and left without us.
I think one of the things that drew me to JM was that we shared a similar manic desire to collect quotes. We collected, collected, and collected without reason or explanation. And we sort of poked one another from time to time, acknowledging each other’s presence in the months between summers. Like the chair, this was our hello. We held fast to the words of others and to the lingering memory of a moment that would live forever between us, drawing us near when we least expected it.
JM’s married now, and I’m in Paris with cute Parisian boys who smoke too much. The summer’s fast approaching and I’m left to wonder if we’ll cross paths again or simply continue this elaborate duet we sing with others’ words.
Most people equate detachment with indifference - or worse, clinical coldness. Not so at all. A detached person, for example, ought to see a snake as a snake, not as a snake-plus-a-shudder. A snake-plus-a-shudder is not a snake, but something the observer added on his own. Nobody is asking you to like snakes or elevators, but any well-meaning friend would or should suggest that you see them straight before you set up any decisions in your mind.
- J.D. Salinger in a letter to Deirdre Bonifaz (1954) / “Letters from Salinger,” The Massachusetts Review 51.4 (2010): 776-78.
"Do not mistake me," he says, as though reading her mind. "My detachment is not arrogance, it is hard won."
- "Remedy" in Things You Should Know (2002)
A long time ago, someone mentioned Heidegger to me. Heidegger and his notion of “care” to be precise. And just last week, as I weaved in and out of the crowd at a disability advocacy group meeting, someone reached out and grabbed my shoulder: “Oh, hey… I’ve been meaning to tell you: Read Hegel. He’ll be indispensable.”
These encounters always amuse me, because I have nothing to offer in return for these well-meaning suggestions. What’s more, it’s always laypeople who make these remarks, and I’m left to wonder why they’d ever become interested in thinkers I once read only because I was required to do so.
So I do the only thing I can do: I try and read Heidegger. I try and read Hegel. I sort of get it, but I don’t. But, as tends to happen with life, the answer will come to me in flashes and at the most random moments. I’ll be in the middle of some crisis, lying on my bed as I try and figure out why nothing in my fieldwork makes sense: why those who should be helping are causing pain, why those who shouldn’t care sacrifice themselves for strangers, why those who fight for greater understanding are the most unkind and close-minded of all…
I wish I could find those strangers who suggest readings to me, because I want to know and experience the passion behind their interest. I know that my academic interest, and even my eventual understanding, never quite reaches the depths of their genuine appreciation for someone like Heidegger or Hegel.
To them, it is no academic exercise to know the difference between fleeting curiosity and the quality of dwelling in the depths of care.
I don’t like food. I love it. And if I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.
- Anton Ego to Linguini in Ratatouille (2007)
If I have nothing nice to say about someone, I don’t write about them.
- Response during PhD defense after I asked a newly-minted PhD about the omission of what appeared to be crucial data.