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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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“A sort of post-colonial studies joke”: Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

Do you need to read Camus before you read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation? If you read The Stranger ten years ago, twenty years ago, do you need to re-read it?


I had a Camus phase, in adolescence. I read The Stranger—and even bought L’etranger, with the ambition of using it to improve my French—as well as The Plague, The Fall, and others whose titles I don’t remember. I know that I read them, because while I bought those books new, they looked used when I gave them away. But books I read when I was a teenager didn’t stay in my brain, or at least these haven’t. Of The Stranger, I remember that mother died today, and ennui, and existentialism, I guess. Smoking. Killing an Arab because of the sun. The last time I thought about The Stranger was probably when George Bush reported reading it in Crawford, on vacation, and we all made jokes like “Ah! A book about killing an Arab and not feeling bad about it! Seems legit!”

I remember those jokes much more clearly than I remember the scene in question. I remember the fact that Camus killed an Arab because of the sun, much better than I remember the actual experience of reading the book. I don’t remember the novel as philosophy, or even as novel. Which is to say, the book I read at some point in my teenage years has been thoroughly overwritten in my memory by my sense of why that novel is significant: it’s an exemplary text in the West’s literary erasure of its colonial empire. What I remember about The Stranger is not what it is ostensibly about, but what, in retrospect, it can be seen not to be about. What I remember about The Stranger, primarily, is why I don’t need to re-read it.

Most of the reviews of The Meursault Investigation frame Kamel Daoud’s novel in terms of its retort to the novel Camus is remembered to have written, by the sort of person who is likely to read Kamel Daoud’s novel. I am the sort of person who is likely to read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, for example, because I’m also the sort of person who has forgotten The Stranger in remembering what Camus erased: Africa. But because I am a reader who is aware that Africa exists, isn’t a book which “critiques” Camus in those terms a little bit superfluous? If my primary reference point for The Stranger is already the critique that is sometimes made of this Algerian-born French writer—the “perverse arrogance” that Achebe once described as Conrad’s choice, in Heart of Darkness, to reduce Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind—then why do I need to read “a bold riposte to Albert Camus’s existential classic,” as the Irish Times calls it? And yet, if I require that critique—if I need to be reminded of the existence of Africa—am I likely to read this novel? I bet I am not likely to read this novel.

I’ve constructed this somewhat elaborate problem not to criticize reviewers for staging Daoud-contre-Camus. I don’t know how else you’d introduce the book, honestly; it’s a novel whose first-person narrator, Harun, literally tells you that he’s speaking back to Camus and correcting his wrong-telling of the past. There is no novel without this framing; the first line of Daoud’s book is a revision of the famous first line of Camus’ novel. And the protagonist of Daoud’s novel has not only read Camus’ novel, but he presumes that you have as well; indeed, the novel is narrated to a journalist in the bar who literally has a copy of The Stranger in his briefcase. Without that context, the book literally makes no sense. But just as Harun conflates Camus and Meursault in his effort to repudiate both—turning a novel into a truth claim, so he can demonstrate that it is a fiction—something important is lost if we do the same thing to Kamel Daoud’s novel. Daoud is not Harun, any more than Camus was Meursault. And the inversion of a fiction is not truth. It’s another fiction.

In her review of The Meursault Investigation, Laila Lalami suggests that “because they offer us a chance to look at the same story with new eyes, literary retellings have always been popular”:

“Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” reimagines “King Lear” on a farm in Iowa. Tayeb Salih’s “Season of Migration to the North” borrows its structure from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” uncovers the story of the madwoman in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.” But to be successful, a literary retelling must not simply dress up an old story in new clothes. It must also be so convincing and so satisfying that we no longer think of the original story as the truth, but rather come to question it.”

Lalami’s own novel, The Moor’s Account, begins in exactly these terms: its protagonist (the titular “Moor”) has read the account that Cabeza de Vaca gave of the Narvaez expedition, and he writes to supplement and correct it, to tell the real story of what happened. It is fiction, but it opens up the space in which Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative becomes legible as equally fictional, just as creative. When I interviewed her about her book, I felt the need to re-read Cabeza de Vaca; as I read Daoud’s novel, I found myself needing to re-read the novel that Camus wrote in 1942, and I did. Especially when it comes to the imperial fictions that the West has been producing about its others, for centuries, re-telling a canonical story in terms of the consciousness it suppresses does a certain kind of very powerful work.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Why must I read Camus first, in order to read this book? (and if I must read Camus first, why must I read this book?) If reading this book takes me back, inevitably, to the observation that Camus has his limitations, and that’s why I read it, then there’s a tautology nested in the critique of Camus that ends up placing Camus back at the center. Camus remains the original, against which Daoud’s retort or comment or counter or supplement come to seem secondary. It feels like we’ve missed something, and maybe it’s the punchline.

It would do a disservice to Lalami’s own novel, in fact, to think of it only in terms of her imaginative revision of Cabeza de Vaca; the most interesting thing her novel does—if you ask me—is how she plays with the notion of captivity, exploring the forms of un-freedom that derive not from formal enslavement but from exile and deprivation: one can be rendered un-free by solitude and hunger, not only by chains. There is little or no economy in Cabeza de Vaca (and a scrupulous effort not to think about how where we are produces who we are), but Lalami’s effort to sketch out how macro-political waves wash across human societies and transform their fundamental sense of who they are and why is what makes The Moor’s Account vital and interesting.

By the same token, it does a real disservice to this strange and vibrant and conflicted book to think of it as primarily a retort to Camus, and to thereby frame it as a secondary literature. Maybe it’s not a literature at all? Camus is dead, but Literature is still alive today, and what seems most crucial about these kinds of literary re-tellings is that they unsettle the basis on which some stories get privileged over others. There is something radically anti-literary about this novel, in other words, and it seems as crucial to what it’s doing as any reference to Camus.After all, if Camus and his creation seem to blur together, Harun’s treatment of Camus as if he literally was Meursault is so flagrantly and blatantly wrong that it undercuts whatever pretensions this novel might otherwise seem to have to a corrective function. Harun is locked in the past, an this novel is his struggle to emerge. In place of the literary, then, the word “historical” suggests itself to me, if only in reference to the nightmare from which this novel seeks to awake. And it’s a book that would read very differently—and perhaps should—if its primary interlocutor were read to be Fanon instead of Camus.

(Next up: reading it through Fanon?)

Writing a bodaboda to Rideavism


At the Writivism festival last week, in Kampala, Uganda, a certain conversational form played itself out over and over again: I know you from the internet, it’s so wonderful to finally meet you in person! I spoke variations on that theme to various people, people spoke it to me, and I overheard people speaking it to each other. Many of the guests at Writivism had already met each other, of course—there was a small reunion of some of the Africa39 writers, for example, who had all met at Port Harcourt last year, and many of the guests came with already-assembled cohorts (the Nigerians who came together, the Kenyans who took a bus from Nairobi, etc). But bylines and facebook profiles and author photos travel much faster and farther than bodies do, those sweaty meat-sacks which lag behind struggling to catch up. When you meet people you know but don’t know, recognition is always tempered by the surprise that they are who they turn out to be. They are the person you thought they were, but they are also… more. Sometimes less. And then there’s that disorienting delay while the two parts come into focus, as your brain struggles to process the fact that no, this person is the same person as the person who wrote that.  There is a gap, a lagging behind. People are always a little bit too much or a little bit too little.

Is the work of a festival to harmonize those dissonances or to making music out of the cacophony? Maybe those gaps and surpluses are the point. Why else bring a group of Nigerians to Uganda, if not to explore what that ostensibly nominal distinction feels like in practice? “Africa” is one word for one continent, but if pan-Africanism was the thesis, nationalism was the antithesis, the vocabulary through which so much of the festival was articulated. “The Nigerian Literature Conversation.” Or maybe Writivism was the synthesis: Friendships across borders, but also clarity about where those borders still cut deep.

The internet is easy, after all, much too deceptively easy in its borderlessness. I was already facebook friends with many of the people that I met at Writivism, and there’s been a flurry of friending-ing in the days since the festival ended. It’s easy to do that. I’ve since tracked people down on twitter, and been tracked down, belatedly connecting electronically with people who hands I shook, or hugged, or simply poets whose performances were particularly electrifying. All you have to do is type and click and it’s done. But at the festival itself, when I would strike up a conversation, I found myself so often unsure whether I had already followed/friended them (and vice-versa); It is good to meet you! I would say (Do I already know you? I was afraid to ask.) Several times I thought I knew someone when I didn’t, or vice versa, and the only way to work through it was to awkwardly be awkward. Facebook makes it easy to know if you are friends with someone, and it’s rarely awkward. You’re rarely exposed.

Festivals are difficult, first and foremost, because of bodies. The primary organizational disaster of this particular festival was having it spread across Kampala, at three different venues separated by hours of snarling traffic. Bodies are the problem, even if we call that problem “traffic.” Too many bodies, and the lag in moving them to where they should go, when they don’t always want to, when they are hungry or tired or hot. There are a lot of bodies in Kampala. It’s a city in desperate need of multi-lane roads—that is, if it is to operate efficiently—and at the present time, it lacks them. (Though China is coming!) As a result, you can spend hours in traffic like it’s nothing, and although motorcycle taxis—here, called “Boda bodas”—are hardly a Ugandan innovation, there are so many of them because of the desperate need to increase the carrying capacity of over-swelled roads. If the traffic is jammed, a boda boda weaves through the gaps and gets your body moving. The price is that it exposes you: your body might be overturned and broken. An absolutely appalling number of people are injured and killed by boda boda accidents, but if you need to get where you need to get in time, you don’t have a lot of options.

In practice, this festival did not move bodies through space with anything like efficiency. And for a start: if there is one way not to organize a festival, it’s to not try to place different events at different parts of the city and then try to shuttle participants between them. You need to let those bodies find their own time and place and their own pace. You need to let them find the pathways and roads and tangents that are most comfortable for them, and to use those perambulatory digressions to find new communities. The last thing you want to do is micromanage movements in a city whose arteries are so sclerotic and unpredictable.  You’ll fail, and it will irritate people, especially when they’re hot and hungry and tired and confused. A firm organizational hand goes well with traffic that runs on time; when it doesn’t, you might find that a much looser grip gives people room to breathe. If you push them, they get angry; if you put them on a boda boda, things get dicey. What if they fall off? They are exposed.

“Boda boda,” I’m told, is a name that derives from the word “border,” and from the vehicles which people would use, in the 60’s and 70’s, to cross the Uganda-Kenya border without passing through official border crossings. It was for smuggling, or just for getting around the arbitrary lines that separated people whose lives and communities had always been complexly interrelated, and remained so, no matter what it said on maps. When Uganda and Kenya stopped being “British” in the 1960’s, the East African Community was the structure that was to lead to regional integration, but it didn’t, for lots of reasons. And while it’s a complicated, messy story, the end result was that regional connections were blocked and clotted; bicycle taxis, boda bodas, sprang up as a workaround. People find a way to get where they want to go, no matter where they are supposed to be and stay.

Festivals are notoriously difficult to write about, as an editor told me, when I was offering to write about this one. You can write a description of what happened, calling on names and panels and schedules and quotes, and you can produce a picture of the whole thing that will cohere into some kind of narrative of how it all happened. You can also produce a narrative—stripped of names and details—that will describe how it didn’t happen. I’m sort of delighted by the fact that the same person produced both narratives for the Star, in Nairobi, on the same day: The Writivism Festival 2015: Exploring all things and How to Not Organise a Literary Festival. Are these articles describing the same festival? But of course they are: festivals are difficult to write about because they are always, both, the dissonance and consonance at once, the coming-together and the pulling apart. So maybe you don’t write about them. Maybe you just go, listen, speak, and come back.

When Game of Thrones Stopped Being Necessary


(believe it or not, no spoilers for yesterday’s finale, which I haven’t seen)

I’ve been fascinated by the notion that a rape scene should be (or could be) necessary. “Episode six ending was brutal – but was it necessary?” is a common way of framing it; Vanity Fair declared that “Game of Thrones Absolutely Did Not Need to Go There with Sansa Stark,” while over at Slate, the argument is made that “this particular scene was necessary,” given the grim bargain Sansa Stark had struck. Most striking, to me, was Jill Pantozzi (the editor-in-chief of the The Mary Sue) explaining why The Mary Sue would no longer actively promote the show:

“In this particular instance, rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal). Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.”

The question (and what it presumes) is a lot more revealing than any possible answers. After all, the assertion that a violation should be necessary—that it should be useful or do some kind of narrative work—brings us uncomfortably close to the idea that rape, itself, might sometimes be a “necessary evil.” Representing a violent rape on television and the actual violent act, itself, are distinct, of course; no one would argue the parallel explicitly. Yet both sides of the argument seem to accept, implicitly, that there is a line to be drawn between when a rape scene is acceptable and when it is not. If they disagree about where to draw the line, and where this particular scene falls, there still seems to be general agreement about a general principle: rape is, all things being equal, not a good thing to show on television, but it is sometimes necessary. Sometimes it does work; sometimes the plot calls for it; sometimes, it is a good thing.

There is a larger question being subsumed here. Is violence “necessary”? Was it necessary to kill Ned Stark, Catelyn Stark, Rob Stark, and Talisa Stark and her plus one? Was Joffrey’s killing of Ros necessary? Did they have to kill off Lady, the wolf? The list goes on and on. At a certain point, we are really asking whether Game of Thrones is necessary. And the answer, quite obviously, is that it is not. It is a television show. It is many things, both good, bad, and in-between. But it is not “necessary.”

That we would ask a question like this, putting a television show on (metaphorical) trial for its life, reflects the way pop culture has become a battle-ground on which a variety of other fights are waged. Culture wars are real and consequential: we are talking about whether this show is a good show, yes, but we are also talking and arguing about some of the burning issues of our time, starting with sexual violence. And representations of violence are not, fundamentally, different and distinct from “actual” violence anyway. There is complicity, feedback, and acculturation; how we understand the world through our cultural representations of it helps create the world we live in.

Here is what I think is the real question: what kind of world does Game of Thrones imagine? What does it take to be natural and normal? In its claims to be “realistic,” what sort of reality does it urge us to accept?

First and foremost, Game of Thrones is an essentially sadistic show, and there’s a direct relationship between violence and sympathy. The sympathetic characters are the characters who suffer while the characters who suffer become, as a consequence, sympathetic. We hated Sansa until she began to suffer, for example; now she’s become sympathetic. Characters that we like, who we start to follow and sympathize with and root for, tend, eventually, to suffer and die.

For the first three books of George R. R. Martin’s trilogy, I think, you could argue that this narrative sadism accomplished something. As an entry into the genre, Game of Thrones deflated the mythologies of J.R.R. Tolkien and his many, many imitators, by establishing, over and over again, that “good” characters tend to get killed by the evil and the unscrupulous, because honor and love are, essentially, political liabilities. Nice guys finish last. When the time came to adapt it as an HBO series, it was a brilliant idea to case Sean Bean as Ned Stark, the actor who played Boromir in the Lord of the Rings movies. As a good guy who was corrupted by lust for power—as well as being a usurper who found himself seeking to displace the real king—Boromir’s complexity exposes some of the fairy-tale for what it was, and for the Return of the King to happen, he had to die semi-heroically. Boromir is an important secondary character in the Lord of the Rings, therefore, because his death enables Aragorn to return as King.

In Game of Thrones, on the other hand, there is no real King, and so the Boromir character is forced into the role. But it is clear from the beginning that kingship is just usurpation and violence. Robert Baratheon was a usurper, and so were the people he displaced, in the grand scheme of things; every king was a violent usurper of the person before them. It’s usurpers all the way down, George R. R. Martin declares, and history is written by the winners. Thus, while Ned Stark and his family are obviously the good guys, and the Lannisters are obviously the bad guys, the distinction turns out to mean nothing, or less than nothing. Indeed, good guys finish last because goodness is a liability. When you play the game of thrones, honor is a luxury that you cannot afford.

High fantasy is usually structured around the romance of nobility, of good patriarchs that win in the end, and of princesses that get rescued. King Arthur is the root fantasy of what the “middle ages” were like that organizes this entire set of daydreams: Uther Pendragon’s son will pull the sword from the stone (because he’s the once and future king) and even after King Arthur gets deposed, the myth declares that King Arthur will return to save Britain. Tolkien copied a lot of that, at least for the parts of Middle Earth that don’t center on hobbits, and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire turns that fantasy on its head: Westeros is structured by dominance, violence, by nice guys getting their heads cut off and women getting raped. It’s incredibly derivative, but A Song of Ice and Fire’s insistence that aristocrats are evil people (and that aristocrats who are not evil people tend not to stay aristocrats for very long) is at least interesting, because it stands Tolkien on his head.

The downfall of House Stark is a pretty good tragedy, then, taking up the three books Martin wrote and published in the 1990’s: A Game of Thrones, 1996; A Clash of Kings, 1998; A Storm of Swords, 2000. The first book is built around the lead-up to Ned Stark’s death; the next two books lead up to the Red Wedding, which kills or scatters all the good guys. It’s tragedy because the end is predetermined: as long as the Starks are who they are—honorable, noble, and just—they are doomed to lose at the game of thrones.

After the first three books, however, something fundamental changed. Classical tragedy is defined by its cathartic end-point, the explosion of violence which reveals the null state of existence to be the nullification of all our devices: watching a great man return to the dust from which he came is to inspire pity and fear, Aristotle wrote, because it is terrible to see it happen to the best of us and also to know that we are next. But tragedy ends—and this is the point—so that we can all go home and go about our lives as normal, as if all of existence isn’t a meaningless horrible blip until we die. Tragedy purges the emotions by confirming the worst, and after we weep, life goes on, because what else can it do?

The Red Wedding should have been the end of the show, I think; it’s the cathartic end-point, and the culmination of the Stark tragedy. We watch, we pity, and we feel fear: we have seen that being good, struggling for justice, for family, and for love, are not compatible with playing the game of thrones. To play the game of thrones, you have to play to win; you have to kill your darlings. If you don’t, you’ll die. The Starks don’t; they die.

But what happens to this story once the Starks are all dead or scattered? Why does the story go on? Tragedies don’t usually continue after the tragic hero is dead, because they cannot, by definition, be tragedies any more. At a certain point, there’s no one left to kill. And Game of Thrones is, after the third book stopped providing source material, no longer a tragedy. The bad guys won, and if life goes on, the good guys don’t come back to life (or, if they do, it’s pretty awful). Ideed, so many of the good guys are dead that the show has no choice but to make bad guys into protagonists (how have Jaime and Cercei Lanister become protagonists, again?)

In the context of romantic high fantasy, the show’s sado-masochistic narrative engine had a moderately subversive purpose. The Starks were nobility who were actually noble, and they embodied the daydream that powers High Fantasy: the romantic belief that Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses are Good People, that being good and being high not only go together, but do so naturally. By lulling the viewer into a sense of complacent interest in the characters, engaging our sympathetic identification with their struggles, and then killing our darlings, the show plants the seeds of sympathy, allows us to watch them grow, then harvests them. Ned Stark’s death is the point; the Red Wedding is the point; horror and suspense are the point. Who will die next? No one is safe.

There is something about this experience that we enjoy, for the same reason we like watching horror movies (if we do). There is a certain pleasure in being shocked and hurt. Maybe there’s a purging of the emotions, so we can continue: we watch our greatest fears played out on television, so that we can go on ignoring them in our everyday life. People who are afraid of sexual violence are often drawn to procedural cop shows about sexual violence, for example; if we watch it happen on-screen, we can experience our worst fears in safety. And so forth.

Since this is what people like about the show, why are people suddenly, now, declaring that the show’s violence has gone over the line?

What has changed, I think, is that tragedy has become pornography. Not literal pornography, of course, because very specific forms of gratuitous sexual titillation have been consistent throughout. Put some boobs on screen is one of the boxes each episode needs to check off, and consistently does. But what is the point of evoking terror and pity by hurting characters like Sansa or Cercei? Watching Ned, Catelyn, and Rob die was horrible not only because they were good people, but because we were watching the patriarchal fantasies of Good Kings dying with them. They represented something, the possibility of a return to the way things should be: the tragedy was coming to realize its impossibility. The Starks were the tragic heroes, because, from Ned on down, their heroic qualities were what doomed them, made their deaths inevitable. George R. R. Martin’s innovation was to suggest that “Goodness” is a tragic flaw.

After writing three books in four years, Martin lost the plot; since the Red Wedding, basically, he’s written two books in fifteen years, and they’re a hot mess. He’d written himself into a corner, and it will be interesting to see if HBO can write him out of it. I suspect he’s totally stuck, and here’s why: one way to end the thing would be with the Return of the King (google “R+L=J” if you want to know how it could happen), which would make A Song of Ice and Fire into a tragedy with a happy ending. But a tragedy with a happy ending is not a tragedy, and this is Martin’s dilemma: if the King returns, and all is well that ends well, then we have returned to the narrative that he so devilishly skewered in the first three books. If we watched a nightmarish horror, in which good guys finish last, we’ll wake up to discover that it was all a dream: actually, good guys finish first!

This might be how it ends; tragedy might become fantasy again. I hope not. I hope the White Walkers destroy the Seven Kingdoms and also that the peasants string up all the aristocrats and collectivize agriculture and establish a socialist utopia. That’s my fantasy, different than the one the crypto-royalists seem to cherish. But in the meantime, it’s spectacle without a purpose other than the pleasure of watching it. The show must go on because that’s what television does.

In other words, it is melodramatic pornography. It will have a happy ending, whatever happy means in that context. We will see some kind of visually satisfying spectacle of (dragon) riding and (sword) thrusting and a lot of sound and fury will go into making going-through-the-motions look like it signifies something. We will agonize at the violence and we will thrill to ecstatic thrusts and entanglements and betrayals, but because it happens to characters we barely care about, it will be cheap, easy, and forgettable. We’ll consume it, clean up, and move on. But it will not be necessary, because there will be no purpose to it. And that’s why we’re suddenly knowing it when we see it, as Supreme Court Justice Potter once famously described pornography; nothing is at stake anymore, and nothing can be at stake. The only suspense to be found is an artificially deferred gratification, since we all know where this is going, and it’s fun, but, you know, that’s it.

Pornography is titillation without a purpose, defined by the fact that it isn’t necessary. Whether he admitted it or not, Justice Potter in Jacobellis v. Ohio determined that The Lovers was not pornography, because there was artistic intent (it was a French film in 1958, after all). Game of Thrones was, when it was Tragedy, doing something Artistic-ish. Now it’s just True Detective, a veneer of Artisticish-ness that uses a fairly ludicrous storyline to cover up the fact that it’s not really going anywhere or doing anything. Art gives you permission to watch what would otherwise just be pornography, and we could be titillated by Game of Thrones when we could see that it wasn’t just television, but High Drama on HBO. We could enjoy the trappings of High Fantasy when we could tell ourselves that we were watching it be critiqued and subverted. Now that it isn’t, we’re suddenly feeling a bit icky about watching snuff porn.

Recrimination and Ruined Hope


This is a guest post from Rei Terada, one of my favorite thinkers, and a piece which–in view of its timeliness and pertinence–I was delighted to be able to host. 

Reading Laura Kipnis’s “My Title IX Inquisition” prompts the need to consider student-faculty hostilities in a more historical and relational light. Kipnis’s article details how she has become the target of student protest and Title IX retaliation complaints. She had published an essay, written in what she calls a “slightly mocking tone” arguing that new codes ruling out consensual erotic student-faculty relationships “infantilized students while vastly increasing the power of university administrators over all our lives.” For Kipnis, complaints of retaliation against her appear misplaced because she had never been accused of harassment and therefore had nothing, in her view, to retaliate for; as she saw it, she had simply published an opinion about a matter that did not directly concern her. Thus, Kipnis discusses student hostility primarily as a threat to her academic freedom. She laments a “climate of emotional peril” and “collective terror” on campuses, where “there are a lot of grudges these days” (“My TItle IX”) as well as the capriciousness and opacity of the officials investigating her.

Lauren Leydon-Hardy, who is a member of the department from which the Title IX complaints against Kipnis have issued, has written from her perspective. I would like to step back from the particulars of this and any dispute, however, to connect some otherwise unconnected elements of the larger situation.

Everyone seems to agree that this kind of conflict is new, as is its expression through rhetorics of vulnerability and institutional instruments such as Title IX and codes of conduct. Indeed, this trend has developed in the aftermath of student protests over privatization and other crises, and needs to be considered in conjunction with them. The protests began in California in 2009, then spread with the help of Occupy in 2011-12. They encompassed tuition increases, exploitation of workers, institutional anti-blackness, and police brutality, among other issues. Over the course of events (remember?), campus police arrested, beat with batons, pepper-sprayed, fired projectiles at, and on at least one occasion drew a gun on student protesters. University administrations harassed students with conduct charges for protests and prosecuted them in county courtrooms for political speech. There were people whose lives were seriously damaged by frivolous criminal charges.

During all this, the overwhelming majority of faculty remained distant and passive. I’m not aware that Laura Kipnis was ever moved to editorialize about the plight of students who fought for political expression during these years; few feminist faculty were, despite their avowed beliefs. Jennifer Doyle, in notable exception, observed in 2011 that student protesters were labeled “violent” no matter how restrained they actually were (I should add that Doyle has a detailed position on campus sexual politics that I do not mean to conflate with my thoughts on campus politics in general). When Berkeley campus police attacked students standing on a lawn with linked arms, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau responded by trying to argue that the students were “not non-violent.” After police pepper-sprayed seated students at UC Davis, Chancellor Linda Katehi was reported to be afraid to leave a campus building because students were gathered outside. A strange spectacle was staged in which Katehi, ashen with an imaginary distress that reversed the actual direction of the violence, was escorted by police to her car as funereally quiet students lined her path. Doyle wrote of the “increasing force directed at protesters who have sought ever more dramatic ways of demonstrating that they are angry–but not violent. Shouting? Too violent. Standing? Violent. Sitting down and chanting? Still violent. Finally, our students are on the floor with their mouths shut . . . [That] leadership has produced a situation in which the most effective protest has been silence should give us all pause.” Such phenomena form a matrix for the protest trope that Kipnis dismisses, students with “mouths taped shut (by themselves).” Or as Kipnis puts it–attributing the source of the problem to students–”open conversations are practically impossible” (Kipnis, “TItle IX”). Yes, they are.

After this attempted reduction to immobility, and after officials like then-UC President Mark Yudof repeatedly equated political speech with hate speech, thus closing the conceptual space for objection, how can it be surprising if anyone concludes that casting university problems in the terms of hate speech–the only terms it recognizes–might be an effective tactic? It is darkly logical to use the very codes of conduct and safety in the name of which the university represses protest to turn the tables, even as the fact that that is so sinks in with disappointment and resentment. Returning the rhetoric of the university to itself cannot perform autonomy, but constitutes a bitter reflection on its unavailability.

While commentators have observed the mostly “left” politics of the current friction, they haven’t got beyond seeing it as a contradiction. “It’s astounding how aggressive students’ assertions of vulnerability have gotten in the past few years,” Kipnis writes (“My Title IX”). In fact, aggressive vulnerability is neither a blind contradiction nor supposed to be celebratory. It can mean different things in practice, without those things’ implying that it is anyone’s model of what meaningful remediation would be. Last quarter, UC Irvine’s Chancellor Howard Gillman derided student legislation against the use of national flags in student government space, then failed to object as racist insults and death threats to the students poured in. Students demanded that Gillman take issue with lack of civility against them, for a change, until he eventually succumbed to pressure in a belated op-ed. These claims of vulnerability were indeed “aggressive” in a way that complicates the picture of exaggerated sensitivity and absence of worldly realism. Where there are death threats, there is certainly vulnerability. At the same time, the protesting students were not, in my witness, at all cowed by racist threats, nor did they crave the loving kindness of an administration they perceived as corrupt. They were politically aware people who refused to be set back, and they pointed to their involuntary vulnerability to highlight the uneven application and would-be convenience of civility. The university’s official culture finds itself in a double bind of its own making. Given the demolition of options all around–the closure and threatened closure of programs, funds, access, time, and expression–that double bind is the impoverished shape of the remaining political space. It is a “right-wing” form, often but not inevitably used for “left” purposes (insofar as one can use that liberal vocabulary). It deploys university administrations (at best, parts of them against other parts). It’s airless, tense, and unsatisfying to inhabit, for anyone. It’s a form of damage. But whose signature is on it?

I’m not unsympathetic to Kipnis’s experience of administrative persecution, its protocols “under-explanatory in the extreme” (Kipnis, “My Title IX”). Rather, it sounds all too familiar, like what people lower in the hierarchy, people unlike myself, often experience. Faculty continue to sound oblivious to the conditions in which others in the university live. Kipnis’s original essay contends that “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around” (“Sexual Paranoia”; my italics), and at length this turn-about seems to be much of the problem. It’s shocking to Kipnis that due to the animosities, “a tenured professor on [her] campus” might now lie “awake at night worrying” about losing her job (“My Title IX”); but the novelty of the experience suggests that the tenured professor does not lie awake worrying about others’ losses, and doesn’t find them intolerable. “If a graduate student can publicly blast her own university’s president, mock his ideas, and fear no repercussions, then clearly the retaliatory power that university employment confers on anyone — from professors to presidents — is nil,” Kipnis writes (“My Title IX”). But as soon as the graduate student does not arm her criticism in the legal obligation of Title IX, it doesn’t hesitate, as Kipnis leaves unmentioned, to treat her as a thing to be persecuted or ignored. Although Kipnis is sorry that “adjuncts, instructors, part-timers,” don’t have academic freedom, her immediate concern is not to get it for them. It’s that the situation not get worse by consuming her own, for “the idea is that once you’ve fought and clawed your way up the tenure ladder, the prize is academic freedom” (“My Title IX”). Here as elsewhere today, the concept of academic freedom can be appropriated to justify and obscure social discriminations. This defense of meritocratic freedom for the few (i.e.: of non-freedom) culminates in Kipnis’s “refus[al] to believe that students get to dictate what professors can or can’t write about, or what we’re allowed to discuss at our Faculty Senate meetings.” But isn’t the deeper question why students should be excluded from deciding what their relations to professors are, i.e., why they should be excluded from governance? Malcolm Harris’s interpretation of vulnerability claims against syllabus choices–that they “are a red herring in a wider fight” and “a way students have found to use language to lodge a complaint against the canon”–is closer to the mark (“Western Canon, Meet Trigger Warning”). The current state of things suggests that academic freedom can be developed only when it ceases to protect an inside from an outside; until then, there will always be a legitimate motive to attack what people are using, in practice, to protect themselves from the experience of others. Recrimination in the language of the university is the image of a ruined hope that things would be different. Many things would be better, but the ruin is not the invention of the mirror.

On the other side of the defense of hierarchy is not a new world with less hostility–not now, anyway. Sexism and/or racism arrive from within the activist/student milieu as well as from the hierarchy, and the former does not have much habitus to offer. Overworked, angry, underslept communities are not, in the extramoral sense, reliable places to live. In such places, hostilities continue to fly. Yet, they are what they are whether or not faculty manage to live above them, and their conditions and the forces that maintain them remain the issue. As long as that remains to be realized and altered, there is point in dwelling in the damage. I don’t see how “academic freedom” is or will have been possible unless everyone takes up residence on exposed ground.