On Woolf Works: Ballet and the Nature of the Self

Woolf Works ROH 2015 - Used with the permisison of photographer Alice Pennefather and the Royal Operah House.

Woolf Works ROH 2015 – Used with the permisison of photographer Alice Pennefather and the Royal Operah House.

“Something always has to be done next. Tuesday follows Monday; Wednesday Tuesday. Each spreads the same ripple of wellbeing, repeats the same curve of rhythm; covers fresh sand with a chill or ebbs a little slackly without. So the being grows rings; identity becomes robust. What was fiery and furtive like a fling of grain cast into the air and blown hither and thither by wild gusts of life from every quarter is now methodical and orderly and flung with a purpose – so it seems.” Virginia Woolf, The Waves.

Here is the link to a piece that I wrote for The Curator on Wayne McGregor’s new ballet, Woolf Works, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – a ballet based on three novels by Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. I make some reflections on the performance as a way of getting at what ballet might contribute to philosophical and theological conversations regarding the nature of the self.

Interpreting Prince Myshkin Through Williams and Bonhoeffer

The perennial question of the relationship between Christian theology and culture has one of its magnifying points in the supposed Christ-figures that pepper our popular and not-so-popular cultural artefacts. Debates inevitably emerge regarding the degree to which various products of the imagination, particularly literary characters, do or do not reflect Christ, and whether it is even possible for any product of the imagination to represent Christ.

This last question, however, seems to me to be somewhat misguided. For surely didactic doctrines regarding Christ are just as much products of the imagination such that the question should not be whether “more imaginative” depictions of Christ can be faithful to the person of Jesus, but what it is that literature can contribute to our imaginative engagement with Christ in general.

It is from this perspective that I here want to consider Rowan Williams’ reading of Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot.  Prince Myshkin is portrayed at the beginning of the novel as a person of simplicity and naivety who nevertheless radiates such goodness that others cannot help but be drawn to him despite his strangeness. Williams argues that Dostoevsky does in fact intend to set up a sort of messianic expectation regarding Myshkin, suggested for example by the association of his appearance with popular Russian depictions of Christ at the time, and more pointedly by Dostoevsky’s own letters at the time of writing The Idiot. However, while some (Dallas Willard is one example who comes to mind) argue that Myshkin is a straightforward representation of Christ, Williams points out that things are more complicated than this.

Williams argues that Dostoevsky frustrates the messianic hopes that we have of Myshkin as we find that rather than bringing peace or redemption, his lack of self-awareness has disastrous consequences both for himself and for those around him. Thus, while Dostoevsky may have set out to create a Christ-figure, he found that he could not or that Christ was better shown by that which is not Christ-like.

This interpretation turns particularly around Williams’ “hard” reading of the exchange of the crosses. In Dostoevsky’s novels, the exchange of crucifixes represents the taking on of the burdens of the other. It is a making one’s self responsible for the other, a Christ-like, self-sacrificial act. Thus, while the exchange of crucifixes between Myshkin and Rogozhin, a dangerous and tormented character, ought to have been the climax of Myshkin’s messianic activity, it in fact becomes a dark parody in which Myshkin has become bound to Rogozhin but unable to save him. The two drag each other down into the abyss. He says “…it is as though he has indeed taken on Rogozhin’s burden, but cannot bear it in a way that changes things or that makes responsibility possible.” (Williams, Dostoevsky,156). For Williams, this is demonstrated particularly by the fact that directly after the exchange of the crosses Myshkin breaks his word and goes to visit Nastasya (which he told Rogozhin he would not do) provoking Rogozhin to an attempted murder.

I had the opportunity to ask Williams about this recently. Because it seems to me that the fact that the exchange of the crucifixes, that the taking on of the burden of the other, does not “work”, does not save anyone, is important. It is not a formula. There are no guarantees. This in itself is a Christological truth – that Christ’s incarnation and the death to which it led were not a magic formula for salvation. Jesus was vulnerable in a real way. The incarnation involved real risk. It could have failed. So Dostoevsky is showing us something about Christ. Williams agreed.

However, I want to push it further: Myshkin, precisely in his failure, here reveals Christ. Certainly, this is not the kind of revelation-of-correspondence in which we enumerate the qualities of Christ and match them to a literary character. Instead, it is a realization about a certain dimension of Christ that happens through an (imagined) event. Gavin Hopps argues that this is precisely how “Christ-figures” are supposed to work, not simply by their correspondence, but through their difference. The image presents Christ and simultaneously recognizes its own inadequacy. So, I think it is possible to read the events after the exchange of the crosses in a different way, a more Bonheoffer-ian sort of way, perhaps. If Myshkin took on responsibility for Rogozhin by exchanging crucifixes with him, then this was an act in which he has taken on Rhogozin’s sin, literally. He becomes culpable for Rogozhin’s sin. The possibility that it is crushing to Myshkin is real. I think that Bonhoeffer would say that, while Myshkin is not a Christ-figure, not a messiah, this is nevertheless where Christ happens. If we simply look at the effects of Myshkin’s taking responsibility for Rogozhin and conclude that Christ is not in this event of taking responsibility, we inevitably end up looking for the flaws in Myshkin that lead to this failure. This is a dangerous path because every human taking on of responsibility, every human happening of Christ, will include such flaws. We cannot judge one taking on of responsibility against another by comparing flaws, and we cannot simply judge the happening of Christ by the outcome.

All of this changes the question from whether or not Prince Myshkin is a Christ-figure to how it is that we make sense of Christ happening where taking responsibility for the other doesn’t “work.”

Is Infinite Jest Nihilism in Sincerity’s Clothing?

I have just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and hereby begin my first public foray into some light literary and cultural criticism. I expect that this is fairly commonplace – that anyone who has read the book is driven to process it in some shape or form. I want here to talk about Infinite Jest in a way that isn’t so much about the details of the plot since the contents make nearly zero sense to those who have not read the book (this is very intentional, as I will explain presently), and there are already many very good and interesting theories out there about the the plot and its ending. Michael Moats’ blog post is particularly good at collecting various websites that deal with the plot, and evaluating their theories. Do not read them if you have not read the book because it is really important that you do not rob your future reader-self of the experience of going through Infinite Jest for the first time.

I am here more interested in the larger question of what Wallace is attempting to do and whether or not he succeeds, particularly pertaining to the relation between content of the book and its form. This relates to larger questions about the role of literature in our present Western entertainment-culture. Part of what I hope this will do is make Wallace look intriguing enough so those who have not yet read him will want to.

Wallace (1962 – 2008) has explicitly articulated some ideas about what he believes fiction is supposed to be about. His essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction argues for a new kind of fiction that is not the sort of ironic self-parody influenced by television-culture, but

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval.

These ideas have spawned a movement called “New Sincerity,” which has had an impact on philosophy and the fine arts, arguably including in Wallace’s own book Infinite Jest. This manifests in details like the fact that a certain character is saved from his depression by a very un-romantic kind of love for his disabled wife. Arguably the only other character who is not addicted, depressed, or otherwise messed-up is a disabled, naive, but absolutely trusting boy, attentive to the people around him.

Despite all of this, however, I am left with the question of whether or not Wallace in fact succeeds on a larger scale. Arguably the main plotline of the book turns around a lethal “entertainment” called Infinite Jest that traps its viewers into never wanting to do anything else but watch it over and over again. The book Infinite Jest parodies the “entertainment” Infinite Jest in its form, namely by engrossing readers so deeply into its abstruse plotlines that they are pulled away from everyday reality. As soon as the reader has finished the book he or she is very strongly compelled to go back to the beginning in order to figure out the ending. What did the plot really mean? What are the details buried in the text that can help make sense of the ending? The following makes an interesting argument about the way in which the book manages to evoke this impulse to start again at the beginning:

It’s not because the book is so fun. It’s because of the explosive carnage of the final sections. The destruction of beloved characters forces a frantic search for textual clues that signal a rebirth in their future, or at least create some meaning amidst their fall. I didn’t want to reread IJ because I loved the book, but because I wanted a way out of what the book was telling me. And so I could flip back to page one and begin again. And when I didn’t find the answer, do it again. And again. What does this sound like?

This commenter goes on to point out that from what we know of the entertainment, the same logic applies. It’s not actually that Infinite Jest is so entertaining, but its implications are so horrific that viewers are compelled to search for information that would make it right again, information that was never provided. It’s more like being stuck inside a nightmare.

So, in the end, isn’t the book as a whole simply a depressing trap that makes readers stuck and lonely, cut off from real life? Is this actually nihilism? An addictive, eternal return of the same without any hope? I think the answer to that question lies largely in whether or not the passages and characters of hope are enough for the reader. The book poses the question of what it is that we require of life. Are the small glimmers of hope in certain passages of sincerity enough for us or will we continually seek some larger foundational meaning that will keep us spinning on the hamster wheel?

This raises the question of how much we want to see the structure of Infinite Jest as a representation of the shape of reality as a whole. In particular this raises the question of fracture. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace talks about the importance of fracture. This is the function of his use of footnotes. The author’s responsibility is to fracture the text is in the way that is most honest to the author’s experience of reality. Why does Wallace speak like this? Why is fracture important? It seems to me that this emphasis on fracture is itself a way of conceptualizing reality that is at least in part influenced by an entertainment-saturated society, particularly evident in media’s increased complicity with the internet. Television has always been fragmented by advertising, and episodes are by nature fragments of some larger world (it’s interesting that Wallace talks specifically about television, rather than film. However, the entertainment cartridges of Infinite Jest seem a lot more like films, which suggests to me that Wallace has not quite himself grasped the significance of fracture as an addictive component of entertainment). However, this has reached new heights with the internet in that we are now able to move rapidly between articles and short video clips and status updates and tweets etc. Two examples that have struck me recently are the phenomenon of “vines,” 7-second video clips, and the Youtube series H+ in which episodes are about 2-5 minutes in length. I am not saying anything new here, but what I think is interesting is that Wallace’s fractured narrative very much reflects this trend. And if this is the case, then his fiction is arguably still a self-conscious parody influenced by television-culture.

So what does this mean? Do we dismiss Infinite Jest as nihilist? As not really giving us anything new but a repetition of the same old patterns of darkness and stupidity? Again, I don’t think that this necessarily follows. What I hope my questions lead to in the end is a greater self-awareness on the part of the reader in interacting with Infinite Jest. In the end, the text does not represent reality by itself but reality as the way in which reader interacts with the text. The ball is put in our court – how are we going to respond to a sometimes absurd and heartbreaking reality? This is particularly evident in the above commentator’s assertion that what the reader is left with in the end is characters who fall apart and so he or she goes looking for the meaning of this, or some inkling that they will be okay again somewhere beyond the future of the book. But this is entirely a matter of interpretation. Several of the main characters that supposedly experience “destruction”  all end up trapped inside themselves and are unable to communicate with the outside world. That is a very lonely place to be. However, this is also the point at which these characters undergo something of perhaps a salvation, if that’s not too strong a word. One learns to become a real person, another learns how to deal with pain in a way that is real, healthy, non-escapist by learning to abide in the moment. There are even several references to this character asking for help from a higher power. Moreover, there are ways hinted at that these characters come together. So, there are several ways in which the absolute loneliness is actually not devoid of a kind of contact and a kind of communication. They are precisely united in their solitude (194).

Now, if I interpret this as destruction my response to the book is going to be very different than if I interpret this as salvation. As I mentioned at the beginning, the details of the plot are very idiosyncratic and difficult to talk about with those who haven’t read the book such that one becomes almost trapped inside it, which is no doubt why readers like me are then almost driven out into public to escape the kind of loneliness that this generates and seek some sort of conversation. However, this illustrates precisely the dual way of interpreting the form of Infinite Jest. The lonely, circular structure can be seen as trapping and threatening like the “entertainment,” but it can also be read as doing the necessary work of separating us from the frenzy around us such that we are able to find the kind of meaning and connection that comes from doing something difficult and lonely. If that’s what I want to get out if this then I am, arguably, currently undercutting that possibility by broadcasting these thoughts. But I’m a work in progress, so I  welcome conversation nonetheless.

Subverting the Epistemelogical Rape of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theory of Knowledge

For better or worse, I don’t often read theological texts through the lens of gender, but Hans Urs von Balthasar handed me his epistemology on a gendered platter, and the result is rather disturbing. His book Theo-Logic begins by describing the nature of knowledge as the relationship between subject and object. In this context he states that the inquiry into the nature of subject and object independently

…resembles an investigation of the masculine and feminine that attends mainly to the functions and inclinations that predispose them for their union. The union itself is a new, third thing in which the purpose of these inclinations is truly unveiled for the first time. The subject is ready to receive the object in itself, but what will issue from this reception cannot be calculated in advance. In the same way, the object is ready to reveal itself in the space that the subject has placed at its disposal, but it is impossible to guess or gauge from the object alone how it will unfold in this space (61).

Balthasar continues to refer to subject and object in this way throughout the section. The relationship between subject and object is such that “objects of this world need the subject’s space in order to be themselves” (63). Nevertheless, the ontological truth of the object is complete in itself. The object needs the subject only so that it can fully manifest and reveal itself (65). In contrast, the subject is an indeterminate space, without content, or character, or identity. The subject is dependent on the object for knowledge,  and the truth of knowledge consists in the subject’s conforming itself to the ontological truth of the object. Balthasar describes the subject as Sleeping Beauty, which only awakens from its slumber once the other enters its space. The subject is structured such that its role “consists most properly in making itself available, in an attitude of service, for the completion of the object” (67).

Balthasar describes this relationship as a union or consummation. If we interpret this description according to Balthasar’s own explicit comparison above, then the inclinations of each side of this union are analogous to patriarchal masculine and feminine sexual roles in that the nature of the union is based on the qualities of object as active, determined, and self-possessing, and subject as dependent, servile, passive, space. Unsurprisingly, this leads to an element of violence in Balthasar’s epistemology:

“…things enter the subject’s space without prior invitation. …Its doors have always already been beaten down, and and it itself has always already been dragged out into the work of giving form to the world. Without having been notified or asked, it was thrown into the enterprise of knowledge. It has always already been commandeered for the formation of the world, and its apparatus is already at work before it becomes aware of its operation. Things, then, have always already decided the subject’s fate. …Knowledge is, in the very act of its origination, service, because it begins when the subject, without being consulted, is conscripted into the world’s labor force and attains judgment only at the end” (68).

Balthasar admits this violent nature when he says that “The world’s initial onrush can appear almost as brutal as a violation” (71).  He goes on to say that the reward for the subject is “rich beyond the subject’s wildest hopes” (69) and that “it awakens in the knower a yearning for more” (40, italics original). The violation is therefore justified on two fronts, both of them similar to the justifications used in cases of rape. First, this violation is necessary for the subject, who, even though it does not know that this is what’s good for it, is in fact helped by the violation, or is even brought pleasure through it – a common ingredient in rape fantasies. Second, it is also justified on the basis of the fact that it is necessary for the object in validating itself. Balthasar says that “insofar as knowledge is obectification, it is an acknowledgment and certification, a ratification and an unappealable declaration, that the object actually exists. If the object were ever tempted to doubt that it is a real entity having existence and meaning, it need only look to the subject’s act of affirmation in order to win back its confidence” (77). Balthasar therefore here engages in the same excuses in legitimating the object’s rape of the subject that men give to legitimate their rape of women, namely that their worth and confidence as men is dependent upon the availability of a woman to them, and the man/object is therefore entitled to the space of the woman.subject.

There are certain things about Balthasar’s theology that I rather like – his use of polarity and duality, and even kenosis, for example. So, the question then becomes how such concepts can be preserved from the kind of violent, gendered system in which Balthasar employs them. One device that comes to mind is Julia Kristeva’s khora. This concept is so interesting precisely because it is similar to Balthasar’s subjective space, but in her hands, it subverts the system that he has set up. The khora of course refers to the third element in creation in Plato’s Timaeus – a primordial, indeterminate space-matter in which objects take on their character, and out of which they are birthed. As such, Kristeva associates it with the feminine, the womb. It is a pre-linguistic space of nurturing love and relationship (in distinction to Derrida’s khora, which is more like a desert). Thus, it seems that Kristeva is quite happy to associate this indeterminate space with the feminine. The difference, however, is in its relationship to the linguistic masculine. While it is a space, it is not a space that is available for the purposes of the linguistic. It cannot be captured and cannot be taken advantage of. While the linguistic, to which the khora gave birth, overshadows the khora, the khora is constantly interrupting and frustrating the linguistic (see Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language).

Thus, in Balthasar’s system, the feminine is interrupted by the male-object, while for Kristeva it is the feminine space that interrupts the masculine world of objects and their signification. Is this simply an inversion of Balthasar’s violence? I’m inclined to think not. The difference here is that the system is interrupted by a nothing. There is no new object, order, system, or goal that is forced upon the other. This is a pure interruption, a caesura which arrests the madness for a moment. It applies a break to the violence of a system otherwise racing out of control (see for example Walter Benjamin’s essay on violence and his theories on history and the messianic). This is not to say that I would want to draw a strict correlation between the khora and the subject (the point is that the khora is pre-subjective), but this draws attention to the fact that knowledge is more complex than simply the imposition of an object upon a passive subject because there are always pre-subjective forces at work in the subject and in knowledge that disrupt our attempts to neatly delineate subject from object, even as they do not replace this tension with another totalizing (masculine) system.

Redeeming Duality

My theological education has taught me to be suspicious of dualisms, from the Cartesian dualism between mind and matter to the conceptual and metaphysical dualisms such as form/content, speech/writing, universal/particular that post-structuralist thinkers are attempting to undercut. Nevertheless, it’s becoming apparent to me that the situation is more complex. Not all duality is equal. It very much depends on how one conceptualizes it. For example, duality often becomes dichotomy, in that two things are not only non-coincident with one another, but are opposed to one another, such that one side ends up dominating the other. This is how I understand what Derrida calls a binary opposition. We have separated out two pre-identified unities such as man and animal, or mind and body, or being and becoming, or universal and particular, or flow and stagnation, and then simply elevate the one over the other. I agree that this is problematic.

The more difficult question however, is how we are to cope with such problematic oppositions. It seems to be a common belief that duality itself is the problem and that we must do away with this structure altogether. This leads to the Hegelian move of attempting to synthesize everything into a larger whole. Get rid of the duality altogether and make the two sides merely aspects of one large immanent movement. This might be appropriate to some dichotomies (light and darkness are two points in a larger spectrum), however there are two things about it that appear problematic to me. First, theologically, I do not think we can apply it to all dichotomies – good and evil for example. We might want to say in Augustinian fashion that evil has no ontological status of it’s own, and that the two things are therefore not two opposing realities, but one reality and its absence. I think this is right, but surely this simply makes the dichotomy more profound. It is a dichotomy between something and nothing. There is a qualitative difference that we cannot reduce to two movements of some larger spirit. Precisely because this is not a metaphysical dualism of one kind (two things that have an equal claim to existence), it sets up a dichotomy of another kind, that we ought not to abolish unless we want to say that depression and the person suffering from depression have an equal right to exist. Again, not all duality is equal.

This brings me to the second problem, namely the classic Hegelian problem that this third really just ends up becoming another term in another duality. We ought to ask whether it is in fact possible to escape dualism altogether. It seems that a common way of eliminating duality is simply by choosing one side of what was previously a duality and affirming it as the entirety of reality while claiming that the other side of the duality simply doesn’t exist. So, contemporary metaphysics for example claims that all reality is immanent. There is no such thing as transcendence. But, while this clears up duality at the metaphysical level (there is only one sort of thing), the dualism persists at the religious, cultural level (those who affirm a transcendent and are associated with masculinity and violence versus those who do not and who associated with feminity and peace). Dualistic conflict still remains. It simply shifts. Another example is physicalist attempts to reduce persons to their biological identity is accompanied by the accumulation of willed, social identities, through the internet, that are divorced from our biological identity. This seems more problematic to me than a certain kind of distinction (albeit not a Cartesian one) between body and soul. This may all, as Hegel thought, lead us to a final unity, but I don’t know what evidence there is for this. It seems preferable to me that rather than attempting to escape duality, we identify dualities that are ethically helpful, and enable rather than impede unity. Is it possible to deactivate the violent implications of certain kinds of duality without violently undoing duality itself? Again, I do not necessarily think that such a thing is desirable with respect to all dualisms (good and evil for example), but it is important for many of them (think of the significance of eros here).

Giorgio Agamben is helpful here.  I will express this with respect to anthropological dualism in his thought – that between body and soul. The central theme of Agamben’s anthropology is that there is a split at the very heart of what it means to be human. Our humanity is constructed and negotiated as an interaction with this split. For Agamben, it is attempts to overcome this split that have resulted in political atrocities such as genocide and colonialism, because we think we can identify humanity as a unity and then exclude that which is not-human. In other words, we simply shift the split, the duality, from within ourselves to the periphery. Agamben’s approach to duality is not to synthesize, but to problematize. For example,  in The Time that Remains, Agamben deals with a religious and ethnic split – that between Jews and Gentiles. He suggests that messianic salvation is not one that produces a sameness or equality that allows all to be saved. Gentiles do not be come Jews or vice versa. Rather, the division between Jews and Gentiles is itself divided, opening up a remnant or rest, and thus making it impossible for a people, or an identity, to coincide with itself. Agamben defines this remnant as “neither the all, nor a part of the all, but the impossibility for the part and the all to coincide with themselves or with each other.”1 The result is that the legal operations that the Jew-Gentile division implied were rendered inoperative; not abolished, but suspended.

In dividing the division, the division is neither engulfed in a larger synthesis within which everything is equal to itself. Nor is it a dichotomy in which two whole unities are opposed to one another. Rather, the identities of each are muddied, and the caesura also becomes a suture – the site of a particular sort of unity between two non-coincident things that nevertheless conspire together. With respect to anthropology, Agamben sees a similar division of division in the eschatological body in which a certain duality is maintained, but is probelamtized to allow for perfect unity, although not the unity of simplicity. In the parousia, the resurrected body’s image, or likeness to itself, remains immutable, but its material composition is in a state of ebb and flow.2 This opened up the possibility of a certain movement appropriate to the post-resurrection body, which applies to both the body as a whole and to the movement of its internal processes. This glorified-movement is distinct from the movement of our present bodies in that it is not goal-directed. The organs cannot be used, they can only be displayed through a movement of “inoperativity,” or Sabbath rest – a sort of empty repetition in which the functions of the body are not directed towards a goal, but exhibit themselves in a movement for the glorification of God.3

According to this account, the resurrected person, in a sense, continues to be split. The body’s image or likeness to itself on the one hand, is the site of the immutability and eternity of the resurrected body, but there exists on the other hand a certain kind of movement, or rhythm of ebb and flow, that is also appropriate to the resurrected body. A glorified separation between body and soul is one in which man is traversed by two different sorts of redemption appropriate to both sides of the split. On the one hand, there is a raising of the soul to immortality and immutability. But this would be artificial without the saving of the body for its own distinct salvation precisely as creaturely and transient. Thus, we might say that the relationship between immutability and movement represents a post-resurrection extension of a soul-body relationship which is freed from the goal-directedness of the anthropological machine, and the tendency towards the domination of one side over the other that it implies, and is instead exhibited to the glory of God. Agamben says that salvation means precisely that “neither must man master nature nor nature man. Nor must both be surpassed in a third term that would represent their dialectical synthesis…what is decisive here is only the ‘between,’ the interval or, we might say, the play between the two terms, their immediate constellation in a non-coincidence.”4 So, the unifying relationship between immutability and movement is made possible by their non-coincidence.

Thus, duality itself is not a problem for Agamben. It must simply be complexified in order for it to be a means of unity rather than division.

 

1 Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, 55.

2 Giorgio Agamben, Nudities 93.

3 Agamben, Nudities 95-6.

5 Agamben, The Open, 83.

The Zombie Apocalypse: Taking Refuge From Feelings of Powerlessness in Imaginary Disaster

My husband and I currently have a job which requires us to live in a house with about 35 American students who are studying abroad in Oxford. We enjoy their company very much, and learn many new things about current trends, ideas and movements in North America that we would not otherwise know about. This term, I have been particularly interested in the trend of imaginary immanent disasters.  It seems that the Zombie Apocalypse is a particular favourite. Students have conversations about how they would hypothetically survive (most seem to agree that barricading oneself in Costco would be the sensible thing to do), and I am told that there are even books written on the subject.

This seems very peculiar to me. Why would people invest so much time and energy into dealing with an imaginary disaster when there are real immanent disasters that we are facing: economic trouble, climate change, political uprising, threats of war and nuclear destruction, not to mention the age-old problems of general crime, poverty, hunger, inequality and the like. It is difficult to understand why energy is being directed away from real problems and into fantasy ones. However, perhaps this is precisely the answer. There are so many large-scale amorphous threats. How could we ever expect to change the situation? To protect ourselves? We cannot even reliably identify the enemy. We feel powerless.Perhaps imagining an immanent disaster – one that has an identifiable enemy, a face – is reassuring. At least in the face of a zombie apocalypse, we would know what to do. We would have the power to save ourselves. On the contrary, we don’t even know where to begin with respect to the real threats mentioned above. They feel hopelessly complex.

However, perhaps it is too easy to point the finger at something as obviously silly as the zombie apocalypse. After all, haven’t academics been doing the same thing for generations? What about myself? I confess that I feel incredibly helpless in the face of local and global threats. There are so many of them: How do I decide where to direct my attention? The media does not represent them accurately: How can I trust the information I’m given? There are so many opinions on what one ought to do: How do I know who is right? These are very large, albeit very important, questions. An attempt to answer them will probably mean that I get it wrong. I will have to constantly revise my position, and even then there is no guarantee that I will help the situation at all, or won’t make it worse.

So, I look at my research and wonder whether it does not represent my own version of the zombie apocalypse: an imaginary problem that is manageable, towards which I can direct my attention so that I don’t have to become embroiled in real-world problems. Is it simply a problem that I know that I can solve in advance – something to make me feel competent? I certainly don’t think that all academic research is this way, nor do I believe that abstract problems are generally opposed to something called the real-world or the practical. I am concerned here with an attitude towards those abstract problems. Are they the means by which we open up reality, or the means by which we close ourselves off to it?