Sunday, June 17, 2018

But Does Fiction Make Us Better? MLA 2018, part eight

This is the seventh part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven.



568: Against Empathy

There were maybe fifty people in attendance.

Joshua Landy announced that he would take it as a given that the U.S. political situation is catastrophic. What role should fiction and criticism play in remedying that? It’s natural, in the Shelleyan tradition (see also Rorty and Nussbaum) to think that fiction will help us by increasing empathy. There’s been a drop in empathy among college students of late—Sherry Turkle blames it on cell phones. But bigots do not, in fact, lack empathy! They use it on the wrong people and entities. Coates has written that “racism . . . is broad sympathy toward some and broad skepticism toward others.” Empathy advocates would say, okay, make artifacts that make us empathize with the right people. Suzanne Keene’s research shows that the empathy fiction generates makes students nicer to those in their in-group.

So what can literature do? Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Spike Lee, and Ralph Ellison all work in part by blocking empathy. Do the Right Thing is one of the great artworks of the twentieth century, but the art, not Radio Raheem, is the object of our empathy. Radio is deliberately not a positive image. The visual approach to the black characters is highly stylized, the approach to the Italian-Americans more realist: they’re the ones who get more face shots and more signs of interiority. Bigger Thomas and even Invisible Man have imperfections that make them hard to side with: Ellison is celebrating imperfection. Pilate Dead is a problematic moral center: her love leads to catastrophe. Ditto Milkman’s epiphany in the hunting scene; in general, Milkman is no great shakes and refuses to consider the effects of his actions on the women around him.

Fictions can be political without being empathy-generators. The blocking of empathy facilitates a) nuanced moral judgment, such as the ability to discriminate among categories of wrongdoing b) the capacity to step back from our representations—the Brechtian ability to recognize narratives. Spike Lee’s point is to equip us with a bullshit-detector; Harriet Beecher Stowe cannot strengthen our capacity to step back from our representations and see them for the illusions they are.

What do people coming of age today need? An understanding of politics, of law, of history . . . literature and literary studies can offer critical reasoning skills and techniques of logical argumentation. Landy ended his talk with a weird denunciation of anti-Enlightenment and anti-reason positions, and said people who cannot follow Bruno Latour’s path and change course on these issues should shut up for several years.

Patrick Colm Hogan promised to show us problems in how we think about empathy and ethics, but to argue only against the use of the affect heuristic in moral evaluation. The biases Paul Bloom identifies affect spontaneous empathy, but not the cultivated empathy that ethicists advocate. No one is urging us to use spontaneous empathy as a moral criterion (although everybody does). Ethical principles demand systematic and unbiased consistency. Cultivated empathy is a response to the biases of spontaneous empathy. The objects of right-wing empathy should get our empathy, but so should everybody else: we need to resist the saliency and group-identity biases in determining whom we identify with. Prudence entails empathy with my future self; ethical considerations are of the same sort; so we can make empathic decisions on behalf of someone’s future self or future society, and they might require inflicting or failing to relieve current suffering. We need to cultivate ethics more assiduously for generic unknown persons.

Certain sorts of narratives may reduce prejudice against outgroups. And empathy—a nontargeting but universalizing empathy—is necessary for action. Here Hogan took on the arguments in Paul Bloom’s book one by one and argued contra Bloom that empathy is distinct from the egocentric responses of emotional contagion and personal distress. He spoke of having asked a doctor recently whether his Parkinson’s would soon affect his faculties, as that would be tragic for someone whose entire life rests on complex cognitive processes. The doctor gave a brutally unempathic response, and Hogan described, using colorful corporeal metaphors, how that’d made him feel.

So what do we mean by “empathy”? A mnemonic re-experience of the situations we imagine others to be in. It simulates a target’s experience and responds to that experience with a parallel emotional stance. It necessarily occurs en route to sympathy. We may modulate our responses based on our judgment of the appropriateness or deservingness of the other’s distress. Localized emotional sharing is subject to modulate. What we need is the ethical expansion of modulation across space and time.

Paul Bloom expressed gratitude to both Joshua and Patrick for their accurate and generous readings of his book. When he first published his “Against Empathy” article, he expected a small but positive response. The amount of denunciation he got on Twitter shows that people use “empathy” to mean many many things. What Paul Bloom means is more or less the Scottish Enlightenment idea of “sympathy,” chiefly as described by Adam Smith, not “everything good” or “the capacity to judge what other people are feeling,” as his Twitter detractors variously seemed to think. There’s lots of research on how our brains in a literal sense feel people’s pain. Empathy is seen as a good, but it’s just a spotlight: remember the impact of the photo of the drowned Syrian boy. It has a narrow focus. Empathy is innumerate, biased, concrete, and myopic, even in Hogan’s refined definition. People don’t care about numbers: they respond the same way to “How much would you pay to save eighty birds from an oil spill?” when the number is changed. Our empathy is also biased toward the dominant group, the in-group, or the fandom: people were less willing to inflict or condone pain inflicted upon a man who they were told was a fan of the same soccer team they liked. Granted, all of these biases apply to all of our affective lives, but empathy’s especially vulnerable.

See Elaine Scarry on “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People”: we need to change tactics. We don’t give everybody else an imaginary weight equal to our own. We erase our own dense array of attributes, à la Rawls. Empathy has immense power: there’s a great deal of pleasure in living out another life. But does fiction make us better? What side do we take on Nussbaum v. Posner? Paul Bloom is not entirely convinced that lit scholars are much nicer than scientists or even stockbrokers. Does reading fiction improve Theory of Mind? The results of studies making that claim are fragile.

Josh and Pat are both moving toward focused empathy. And once you’ve decided what the right thing and the wrong thing to do is, you can use empathy to make it easier. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Birth of a Nation are both powerful empathic works. We can resolve to teach the right works, or teach all the works in the right way—that’s Nussbaum’s position—but there are people who are more powerful than literature professors, promulgating their own narratives. People who measure high on empathy are also high on retribution; and DJT mobilizes empathy very well. But there are other moral motivators. Remember the Buddhist distinction between empathy and compassion. Compassion is caring for somebody: in mindfulness meditation, you don’t feel suffering. In confronting the suffering of the world, the Buddhist feels bliss.

Are empathy and concern psychologically distinct? How much you empathize does not correlate with how much you care for/about people. Look at how many expressions of fear or hostility we see in a Wordle for high-empathy people versus the more positive terms that dominate one for high-compassion people.

The first questioner in the audience said, Paul, I love most of your work, but why do you have to go to compassion? Affective routes will always lead us to biases: we need impartiality, universality, and systematic thinking. Not all personal experiences and emotional responses. Paul Bloom replied, ha, most people ask why I needed the “rational” in “rational compassion,” not why I needed the “compassion”! The reason is that you need motivation. A descriptive theory of what makes people do good things. Moral motivation could be wrong about future shame and future guilt. Something something Smithian about concern for your reputation.

Another questioner said that in the Buddhist tradition, to have compassion is to be suspicious of narrative and to be detached from all personal notions. Does fiction produce empathy that leads to harm? Landy said, the movie Adaptation and Beckett’s trilogy chip away at our idea of narrative, but yeah, that’s true of most fiction. A third questioner made an observation about irony, which may be constitutive of the literary, and asked whether the uses and abuses of irony apply to the Nussbaum v. Brecht narrative? Landy opined that romantic irony in Do the Right Thing is the Brechtian drive.

A fourth questioner noted that there’s a gap between examining empathy in the literary and in your life. The paradox of Kurtz . . . what is entailed in identifying empathy within the literary domain? What would be entailed by looking at empathy outside the literary? What case could be made for a connection? ‘cause the case has not been made for an analogy. Paul Bloom remarked that there’s plainly overlap: seeing someone’s hurt isn’t too different from hearing a story. But! Empathy in fiction and journalism is always mediated and rhetorical: it judges what’s worthy and what isn’t. Hogan asked, literature as general training for empathy? Or as specific training for seeing a specific group as human? We have some evidence for the efficacy of the latter, not so much for the former.  Landy replied that the result of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the South was a hardening of racist attitudes and a literary backlash, which included the work of Thomas Dixon. People’s responses are wildly variable—Not so wildly, said Hogan: there are statistical tendencies.

A fifth questioner asked, what about when the ethical response is that you cannot walk in the shoes of the other? Vide Sontag. Paul Bloom said, even if empathy were a good way of making moral judgment, we’re incompetent at it. We are very bad at knowing what it’s like to be in a situation unlike our own. Look at these absurd Disability Simulations that are supposed to help people understand what disabled life is like. Hogan replied, those are problems with the falsity of the simulation, not problems with the empathy.

A sixth questioner said it’s part of our style as literary critics to be detached. How would I write as a critic, if I were to empathize? Hogan (I think it was) said, there’s a literary genre that’s supposed to inspire compassion in its audience: what about tragedy? Paul Bloom said art can move us in a great many different ways. Lalita Pandit Hogan said, Tragedy makes a distinction between emotional contagion and empathy, between pity and catharsis. Paul Bloom said, when Trump makes you feel for Kate Steinle in order to mobilize xenophobia, he’s telling you a story: that’s not emotional contagion. Patrick reminded us that Plato said you can’t be good soldiers if you’ve seen tragedy, ‘cause then you’d pity the enemy; and that’s what Aristotle is refuting. Some questions arose about whether ethics come first or last.

Another questioner brought up Berlant on sentimental citizenship and how empathy is used to uphold the status quo and liberal individualism if we don’t think about power relations about about who’s being sympathized with. Paul Bloom agreed that empathy favors the needs of people in power. A final questioner asked, Can’t compassion fall victim to the same pitfalls as empathy? Paul Bloom said, Not to the same extent. Hogan objected that universalizing does not mean projection.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Your Human Worth Is Greater Than That: MLA 2018, part seven

This is the seventh part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, and part six.

411: 1968 – 2018: The Movement, the MLA, and the Current Moment

There were about twenty people in the audience, most of them well over sixty.

Paul Lauter spoke of how, when the MLA convened at these very hotels in 1968 (the Hilton and the Sheraton, now the Americana)—the year of the Tet Offensive, Chicago, Johnson’s abdication, RFK’s assassination, etc.—he had organized a thing, a disruption of professional norms . . . there were many threads of activism going on: the No Chicago campaign made its presence felt, Chomsky got to speak against the war in a large auditorium, and Louis Kampf was arrested for hanging radical posters on the hotel walls. The MLA Radical Caucus was established, and many unexpected events enused: there was a motion for a Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, there was fundraising for the arrested poster-tackers . . . although their resolutions against the war somehow did not bring the war to a halt, they succeeded at democratizing education and diversifying the canon and the faculty, and presaged the MLA’s fights against the crapification of academic labor. 1968 produced changes that affected all our lives.

Ellen Schrecker tried to place the events of ’68 and the context of that era’s radicalism. In 1965, a group organized an annual socialist scholars’ conference; in ’68, a group of young scholars organized the New University Conference. Most of the action took place within the disciplines and within old or new professional societies. For example the Sociology Liberation Movement published Insurgent Sociologist magazine. The Review of Radical Political Economics and Radical History Review are still around . . . there was Anthropologists for Radical Political Action, various groups in psychology, Science for the People, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Committee of Concerned Asia Scholars (mainly radical grad students demanding that faculty take a stand on the war). Radical students and faculty proposed resolutions within their fields and at their home institutions, while the Establishment in each field strongly opposed “politicizing” their disciplines. Many of these radical groups were interested in interdisciplinarity, in Marxism . . . were skeptical of “objective scholarship” . . . emphasized moral and ethical issues in their fields . . . opposed the post-WWII wave of quantification. In some fields, scholars struggled to figure out how to combine their scholarship and activism. Some compartmentalized, some gave up academic life . . . and less radical individuals entered the fields when those fields became successful, so the disciplines’ radicalism faded.

Frances Smith Foster could not attend: after having waited eight hours at the San Diego airport, she and her fellow passengers were told that nobody was getting into JFK so the flight was cancelled. In her paper, read by Joan Hartman, she said that Sankofa is a belief that one must retrieve from the past what’s useful for surviving the present and founding the future. That Faulkner line was right about the past. And re-memory is different from, and more important than, memory. Nell Painter Irvin says that what we can see depends heavily on what our culture has told us to look for. The MLA admitted its first African American member in 1884. The two first African American members, however, stopped attending in 1897.

In 1968, Houston Baker, unaware of the Alternative Convention that was going on, saw only one other person of color at the official MLA. He came to understand the racism at that convention thanks not to internal critique of the organization but to his students. Foster felt similarly objectified by white male scholars ten years later. “Naming the Problem that Led to the Question”—Nellie McKay understood the problem well: opportunistic white scholars, white students being steered away from African American studies, a shortage of black scholars being produced. Consider Maynard Mack’s conclusion that the 1968 MLA Disruption revealed “the profound mistrust that was there to divide us” and his call for unity and communication, versus Lauter, Kampf, and Ohmann’s accounts of their failures and successes. Foster’s paper ended with some moving final lines on what remains to be done, which I was unable to take down.

Sarah Chinn then spoke on the theme of “Moving without The Movement.” Let’s take a detour out of the MLA and on to the college campus. How well did the political experiences of ‘68—and did the political experiences of ‘68—inform future students?

The ‘80s are now regarded as a vapid ideological wasteland marked by a dearth of progressive engagement. Sarah remembers them as a maelstrom of political organizing, but also the lack of a “Movement.” Indeed, ‘80s activists wondered how all of the disparate programs of the ‘60s could have constituted a single Movement. Much of that Movement was male-dominated, insensitive to nuance on racial issues, ambivalent about gay liberation . . . but they did see all the oppressions as connected. Talk of “The Movement” seemed wholly foreign in the ‘80s, and its clear sense of purpose seemed weird, as did its veterans nostalgic generalizations. And what had The Movement achieved long-term? Believing in The Revolution just broke people’s hearts: it seemed better to focus on specific goals and issues.

The divestment movement defined Sarah’s first two years in college: endless meetings, the campus shanty, the arrests . . . it became the seedbed for her later activism, with CISPES, or against ongoing segregation in the U.S.; it taught her to back up arguments with research. But! She had no longterm interaction with older activists, except for veterans of lesbian feminism, from whom she learned about the thriving feminist scene: “These women wanted to teach us, and we wanted to learn.” This was very different from the presentism she saw in anti-apartheid activism, where little connection was made to past anticolonial struggles. How, as activists, do we succeed and fail at conveying lessons to people who come after us? 

In 1968, Dick Ohmann was mad as hell. About the war, racial oppression, the stodginess of the MLA . . . he hardly had a systemic critique or strategy, but he and his cohort achieved many successes without a plan, as well as two . . . nonsuccesses. The “job crash” of 1969 led to a job-seekers’ caucus . . . but fifty years is a long time for a crisis to persist. Remember that we’re one industry that has not bounced back from the ’07 recession: the number of tenure track jobs is down by 60% from just before that crash. In 1971, MLA membership exceeded 31,000; in 2016, just over 24,000, while undergraduate enrollment has grown by 150%.

The context of college education has dramatically changed, and not in ways that portend well for arts & sciences. We’ve seen the degradation of university labor’s process and product. In today’s terms, the humanities and social sciences are hard-pressed to compete in vocational education. Once-robust fields like law and medicine are becoming similarly etiolated—see Radical Teacher 99. This degradation of labor and worker-control that has happened since WWII, led by the Coorses and Waltons and Kochs, has established the neoliberal social order that has little room for such 1968 ideals as inclusivity, the common good, or social planning. The successes of 1968 led to the Culture Wars of the ‘80s, and the free marketers and culture warriors and evangelicals triumphed.  We need to look squarely at how we lost while winning since 1968.

An audience member asked, What are the lessons going forward about what we can do today. Ohmann replied that capitalism has a great capability to swallow everything up. Chinn said, We learned there were thins we can win. Someone (Ohmann?) added that liberal embrace of multiculturalism was a terrible mistake and we thought the Culture Wars would pass . . . we could not believe that this issue was important to people . . . in the ‘60s we had the sense that we could just keep going and be confident the revolution would come: we haven’t grappled with heartbreak and we haven’t transmitted techniques of resistance.

Schrecker observed that The Movement came out of the civil rights movement; Chinn said the only equivalent movement today is Black Lives Matter, which reaches into people’s lives. An octogenarian woman behind me, about whom more anon, congratulated Paul Lauter on his award and said, there’s a genuine disagreement about what constitutes the curriculum: the Culture Warriors are not being disingenuous. The Culture Wars concerned the nature of the education of the elite. Allan Bloom was serious. And she added that the transgender movement is another important “bridging” movement that also reaches into people’s lives.

Ohmann said, yes, but now the Culture Wars are focused on PC. And he fears that movements are going down the road of identity politics (Audience member: “Dick, I never thought I’d hear you agree with Mark Lilla”). Another audience member thinks we should have made composition a central part of our mission rather than foisting it on adjuncts. David Laurence spoke of the untrustworthiness of projections about higher education. Twenty (?) years ago, enrollment decline was supposed to be the great threat to higher ed, but it turned out to be inflation.

Louis Kampf, in the audience, said we need to be less ambitious and to question whether literature, composition, and the humanities have this great transformative power. In 2016, many of Kampf’s dear friends and colleagues and family in the radical community declined to support the nomination of a candidate who, despite some very disturbing shortcomings, was the only chance progressive had and instead gambled on the dream of a revolution and voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary, thus contributing to Trump’s victory. So Louis hesitates to answer, “What should we do.”

Chinn sought to rebut Kampf by making a claim for the transformative power of the humanities, especially in public institutions. We see over and over that as soon as POC gain access to a social good, it is either taken away, costs more, or is devalued. Look what happened after CUNY instituted Open Admissions: within six years, free tuition disappeared. Ditto the humanities: as soon as marginalized people claim the humanities as a transformative site, it’s devalued, as if only when it belonged to the elites was it worth something and when it belongs to nonelites, it’s no good. Look at how Wall Street has soared this week, and yet, when NYC is broke, there’s austerity; and when NYC is flush, there’s austerity. The fact that right-wing legislators are saying don’t sit with Shakespeare (Du Bois reference intentional), just become good little worker bees, is the very thing to which the humanities say no, your human worth is greater.

Lauter said that was the theory behind what we were doing with the Heath Anthology, and we were more successful with diversity than with addressing the culture of a working class world. When Lauter directed the Servicement’s Fund, reaching the GI’s was the most important part of opposing the war within the U.S. Can we do that work within the framework of institutions of higher ed?

Octogenarian woman behind me asked, why did state legislatures start to disinvest from higher ed in the ‘70s? And what is happening in the community colleges? Joan H said, all the technical fields now have so many requirements that the amount of required humanities keeps shrinking. Ironically, the Culture Warriors thought that students could be corrupted by three hours a week in one semester. Speaking of community colleges, an audience member said that the state limits literature courses and faculty are discouraged from teaching literature. CC students may bring very limited energy to the humanities.

Vince Leitch spoke out against the adjunctification of the disciplines and said it’s a mixed blessing that the university is so flexible. The country’s sought since the 1880’s to exterminate the Left. Faculty predominantly identify with management, not labor. And remember, The Movement was spontaneous, not organized—like Occupy, not Black Lives Matter. And what became of Occupy?

I had wanted, at some point in the Q&A, to connect some of the comments to the old trope of “Politics are intruding upon our pastoral, hitherto conflict-free university” that was raised in opposition to war protestors in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in opposition to queer and anti-apartheid and anti-weapons research protestors in the ‘80s, in opposition to grad student unionization in (and since) the ‘90s, and in opposition to student calls for sensitivity in the present. I am glad I didn’t, because I would have decried Catharine Stimpson as the major proponent of the view that grad student unionization was destroying the delicate horticultural relationship between students and the faculty; and Stimpson, it turned out, was that octogenarian woman behind me.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Adaptability, Accountability, Vulnerability: MLA 2018, part six

This is the sixth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five.

390: Disability Issues in the Profession: Negotiating between Theory and Best Practices

Notwithstanding the generic title, the panel was about disability and foreign language learning. Twelve people were in the audience, maybe sixteen max: a lot of people left early on and then some arrived. The panel opened with Elizabeth Hamilton, who’d collaborated with Tammy Berberi on an essay in the Building Pedagogical Curb Cuts anthology and on Worlds Apart? Disability and Foreign Language Learning. Why, she asked, should language educators lead in accessible pedagogy? Because we know culture, diversity, and stories; we engage nuance and perspective and audience and voice; our programs are poised for leadership, and our methods are already multimodal. Universally-designed options become moments for metacognitive awareness. Think about the bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, seen in this image with Daniel Barenboim. Labeled a “child of thalidomide,” he was unable to meet the requirement to play the piano in order to be admitted to the conservatory, so instead he had to seek private study, found great teachers, and became a big name.

Heidi Soneson directs the study abroad program for the University of Minnesota and facilitates access to study abroad for students with disabilities, which takes empathy and attention to the four modalities of language-learning accommodation: flexibility, inclusion, access, and accountability. She explained Universal Design and then talked about how her office considers which programs can accommodate the needs of a disabled student. Factors include size of class, rigidity of testing, duration of travel, pre-arrival preparations, nuanced problem-solving, and the ability to adjust. On the inclusion front, countries “more advanced” in terms of disability law may be worse for students: the Senegal program, it turns out, is more flexible than a location in France. Re: duration, it turns out that a longer program might make fewer unfeasible demands than a shorter one.

Considering access, one asks what benefits the host nation provides. Montpellier offers accommodations for mobility-impaired French university students, but the University of Minnesota’s center there needed to be remodeled for access. Accountability is paramount: full disclosure in a timely manner on the part of the student, etc. etc. At this point, overloaded with material to absorb from all these panels and the book exhibit, I started drifting off and thinking about Senator Kamala Harris.

Benjamin Fraser began his presentation by citing Corbett O’Toole on the necessity of disclosing one’s connection to disability. Fraser is not disabled. He knows ASL, he’s worked with Deaf scholars, he has a brother-in-law with Down Syndrome, intellectual disability, and epilepsy. He’s concerned with the disconnect between the strong social model and its application to the lives of actual cognitively disabled people. There are classics about the representation of physical disability and its centrality to communication and history, but. We must stage an encounter between the strong social model and the medical/clinical approach to cognitive disability. We have to talk about “function.” As Bérubé points out, it is real; but it can never be a meaningful measure of human worth.

Recalling Elizabeth Donaldson’s paper, Fraser cited collaborative self-representation involving autistic and cognitively disabled and mentally disabled creators. Fraser can’t answer the question elicited by reading Titchkosky [would that I had written that question in my notes!] but can cite three interesting programs. There are course sections at East Carolina, capped at 14, that only serve students with documented need; there’s the REACH program at the College of Charleston, which promotes language learning for the intellectually or neurocognitively disabled. What if colleges sought to collaborate with organizations like Creative Growth, where the sculptor Judith Scott worked? What changes and collaborations must we introduce in order to make contact with and include the cognitively disabled?

Tammy Berberi was unable to attend; her frequent collaborator Elizabeth read her paper for her. States of Insecurity, it told us, are nothing new: the U.S. first asserted English-only paranoia in 1795. But now we have the mental health crisis on college campuses. Look at the recent Chronicle of Higher Ed report on anguished college students. There’s a mental disability epidemic, as reported in the Chronicle’s video, “Facing Anxiety.” 42% of Berberi’s students are the first in their families to attend college. Many think they cannot or should not finish a degree. Five years ago, inspired by Cathy Davidson, Halberstam made a plea for Unlearning What We Know. Hegel’s and Ricoeur’s notions of recognition are present in Alexandre Jollien’s account of his adventures inside an institution for children with CP, “In Praise of Weakness.”

How, then, can I invest the classroom with a sense of presence and intention? Mindfulness through regular contemplative praxis develops one’s capacities, compassion, and openness to new experiences, promoting neuroplasticity and language learning, lowering students’ affective filter. Studying another language, in turn, develops emotional flexibility, improves executive function, reduces impulse-control problems.

Although French theorists have long spurned identity politics, group identification is necessary. Both Stiker and Kristeva highlight openness and vulnerability. Kristeva, discussing “the battle for the dignity of the disabled,” suggests “inscribing vulnerability at the center of the political pact”; Stiker advocates “the right to simply be as one is, and to be accepted on those terms”; these principles align well with Mindfulness Intervention. Berberi knows the opposite of these values when she sees it—a syllabus full of rules and of consequences for violating them, one full of helicopter teaching. Her own syllabus contains a disability statement with three parts, covering due date issues, attendance issues, and participation issues in interesting ways.


My notes on the Q&A are a little sketchy. Someone asked a question about Boaz Keysar. Another person asked about the treatment of disability in other countries, and Elizabeth replied that disability studies and the U.S.-influenced disability movement are having an impact but inclusion in the K-12 educational system is not well-understood. Someone asked advice about putting together a book about teaching canonical literature from a disability perspective; I and other respondents suggested she look at the work of Finger and Bérubé, and talked about Berberi’s and Quayson’s experience of trying to persuade old-school academicians that canonical literature is full of disability. One auditor pointed out that Bérubé has a TED talk on these issues. Finally, someone asked about dealing with multiply-disabled disadvantaged students; Heidi said, you have to think about the individuality of disability—what does the student want and what are their needs.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Whose Bodies Are Salvageable? MLA 2018, part five

This is the fifth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here is part one. Here is part two. Here is part three. Here is part four.

303: Blackness and Disability: A Special Issue of the African American Review

Twelve years ago, I attended a “Disability and Blackness” MLA panel that included only one black presenter. So it was a big relief to see that this panel contained as many black scholars as white scholars. Except that thanks to weather conditions, only half the panel was able to show up; so there was only one black presenter present. 

Tim Lyle began by describing the structure of the new disability issue of African American Review and then read a paper by the absent Anna Mollow called, or perhaps relating to a longer work called, “Unvictimizable: Toward a Fat Black Disability Studies.” The paper began by talking about Eric Garner and the pattern of victim-blaming associated with every death of an unarmed black citizen. Congressman Peter King and Pantaleone’s other defenders added to the blame the fact that Garner was fat. Tamir Rice was described as overweight and we were told that “His size made him menacing.” Terrell Day’s and Barbara Dawson’s size were similarly blamed. Fatphobia and ableism work with racism to support an ideological double-bind. This is not a new invention: the discourse of protection combined with the idea that black people are unvictimizable created similar tropes as far back as slavery.

The new racism pathologizes black suffering. Black people are still stereotyped as undisciplined and unable to control their appetites. We need a methodology that takes note of the imbrication of racism, ableism, and fatphobia: all three combine to create a discourse in which black lives are seen as expendable. Different fields and movements each theorize fatness, blackness, and disability in different ways but don’t talk enough to each other.

Tim Lyle’s own essay addressed HIV/AIDS in black women’s writing, focusing on Pearl Cleage’s What Looks like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. Why was it met with such cultural approbation, and why were folks who discussed it talking only about Ava and not Eartha? Both have HIV! But Ava earns her legitimacy in opposition to Eartha: Ava ends up the unthreatening, safer, healthier, productive citizen, no longer an outsider or a threat. Her story relies on the abjection of the queer black bodies. Eartha refuses to rehabilitate and falls out of the narrative almost completely. The novel overlooks the particularities of the infected black body—what has to happen to legitimate the person with AIDS? Treichler called the problem “an epidemic of signification.” Queer and disabled bodies are often excluded from the conversation.

Sarah Orem’s talk was not a description of her contribution to the AAR, but it was relevant to her cultural history of activism on the part of homebound individuals. So what about A Raisin in the Sun? It’s about capitalism’s disabling and deadly impact on working-class African Americans. Activism is generally figured as demanding energy and presence in public, but Hansberry doesn’t ask disabled women to practice bold self-advocacy; she asks others to recognize what disabled black women are up to. Look at different characters’ responses to Ruth. Mama’s response to Ruth’s fainting demonstrates the pressures on middle-class black women to seem put-together all the time. Beneatha has a different idea from Mama’s about what Ruth is suffering from—that “acute ghettoitis” carries a lot of meaning. Beneatha recognizes that Ruth needs a doctor, the doctor she has been moved to become. Note her attentiveness to physical fragility. The play rejects the norm of rugged, self-reliant individuals in favor of interdependence.

Dennis Tyler spoke of the relevance of Black Disability Studies to the conference’s “States of Insecurity” theme. His contribution to the journal issue focuses on the Jim Crow regime and the work of James Weldon Johnson. He asks, what was Jim Crow designed for and outlines disability as a conduit for oppression, marking the uneven distribution of citizenship. Tyler first examines Johnson’s personal encounters with Jim Crow, then how disability and stigma work in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. In his memoir, Johnson cites an instance of how disability is encoded in Jim Crow. A deputy in the Jim Crow car says of a disabled white man there, “I can’t bring that crazy man into the white passengers’ car!” The Jim Crow car is what Mitchell and Snyder would style a Cultural Location of Disability. Jim Crow figures both blackness and disability as threats that must be segregated. We lose vital information if we don’t consider blackness and disability together.


Robert McRuer asked Sarah, what about the space of the liquor store in Raisin? It seems like a pharmakonesque poison/cure. And that three-day drinking binge—is Walter rehabilitatable? Sarah’s reply invoked the question of Walter’s manhood and its relevance to Mama’s opposition (on the basis of disability politics) to the store, and also noted that the store is a semipublic space in opposition to the domestic spaces the women operate in. Dennis asked, yes, which black bodies are salvageable?

Liz Bowen asked, what do people think about Jasbir Puar and the state-imposed debilitation of a population? How does the concept of debility apply here? Dennis said, What does debility offer that disability doesn’t? Look at the historical and theoretical and legal understanding of disability. The historical definition has always considered the societal component. Tim also has strong views on Puar: he said, “I don’t want to touch that question” but added that there are culturally specific understandings of disability and that we should look at Sami Schalk’s contribution to the issue.


Anna Hinton asked about how respectability politics have always been a barrier to disability politics, as have class-based divides. Are things improving? Sarah suggested that Brittney Cooper talks about the productive side of disability politics but acknowledged that respectability politics are shot through and through with disability, so sure it’s a barrier. Tim said he tried to acknowledge the progressive things that Cleage’s novel does, but at that historical moment it can only go so far. Cleage was trying to save black lives in the mid-‘90s, and there’s a crisis of imagination: she can’t imagine unapologetic and unpenitent HIV-positive bodies.  Tyler credits Brittney Cooper and Candace Jenkins for appreciating the way respectability politics have allowed certain black women to survive. Lavelle Porter, from the audience, pointed out that Cleage does open up the problematic of innocence and disability: the novel criticizes the “almost-a-virgin” narrative of the “innocent victim” of AIDS. Tim said, yeah, that’s there early in the novel; but Ava has to lose some of her spunk as she gets closer to a heteronormative life narrative.

I had to hit the restroom; when I returned, Dennis was talking about ideology and I Am Not Your Negro. Julia Miele Rodas noted that Dennis had talked about vulnerability and about ingenuity, and she wanted to consider stigma. When she teaches disability studies in an overwhelmingly POC environment, she encounters immense resistance—lots of “I don’t want to go there.” Dennis observed that much of the nineteenth-century discourse was about black people being too disabled for freedom rather than talking about the ways the system has imposed disability on your body. Sarah said she was teaching Women’s Popular Literatures at a large state school, and all the black women were like “Please don’t make us read Beloved again.” It seemed as if it was too close to home and traumatic. Tim explained that he’d taught “HIV/AIDS and the Color Line,” and students react very differently to Cleage’s novel vs. Marlon Riggs’s documentaries. They could talk about the domesticated milieu of Cleage, but no one wanted to talk about the boldly HIV positive bodies in Riggs. What happens, he asked; why do their bodies drop out? Look at what Cathy Cohen has to say in Boundaries of Blackness. We have to get at some of the logics that determine who’s represented.

After the Q&A, I mentioned to Hinton that Anna Mollow and Jennifer James on the first Blackness & Disability panel a dozen years ago had made relevant points about respectability politics.

To Conceptualize a Habitable World: MLA 2018, part four

This is the fourth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here is part one. Here is part two. Here is part three.

146: Posthumanist Disability featured only two papers, because Dan Goodley could not make it thanks to a family trouble. About 25 people attended. The first paper was delivered by Michael Lundblad and Jan Grue, author of Disability and Discourse Analysis. They spoke of how Harriet McBryde Johnson in “Unspeakable Conversations” is unwilling to engage with Peter Singer’s thoughts on animals and animal ethics. Now, Lundblad is unhappy with Singer as a representative of animal ethics, but he and Grue are interested in animal justice and in the intersection/cooperation between movements. Jan has a background in Scandinavian disability politics, which presupposes a high mutual interest between disabled people and the state but has corporatist and conformist elements: its goal is that disabled people be Fully Intergrated. Whereas U.S. disability studies emphasizes disability identity as being at odds with the state, Scandinavian society embraces compulsory normativity. Think about the Norwegian Minister for Integration’s recent “Here in Norway, we eat pork, drink alcohol, and show our faces.”

The “classic impairment groups” are a fairly small subset of disabled people; the disability world needs more coalition-building. Finding a voice has been hard—we’ve seen a lot of “speaking for” and of silencing marginal voices. Singer, following Henry Sidgwick, thinks ethics should adopt a universal point of view (vide Practical Ethics) and ignores particular lives. A position such as that of HMJ, an actual disabled person speaking out, is still a rare thing in Scandinavia, where disabled people are supposed to disavow their particular bodies and experience. HMJ also raises problems with coalition-building, which would necessitate being able to speak for others.


There have been decades of critiques of Singer—Animal Liberation came out in 1975—and a wide range of animal studies, raising questions of voice and speaking. There are all kinds of beings whose voices don’t register as Normal or Human: consider how to respond to nonhuman voices, needs, wants

[here I left the room for twenty-five minutes in order to look for water and caffeine. Grue was still speaking when I returned but, having failed to remedy my headache, I didn’t get much down]

. . . . naming our enemy, which would include neoliberal arguments, Big Data, and the View from Nowhere, which is in fact the view from a putative center. If the goal is to seek acceptance of one’s vulnerability, one may want to go beyond one’s species . . .

See also
http://www.hf.uio.no/ilos/english/research/projects/biopolitics-of-disability-illness-and-animal/ for more info on Lundblad, Grue, and Goodley’s work in progress.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson wanted to give some historical context for how two opposing and intertwined forces, liberal eugenics and individual human rights, present us with a conflict. The Old Eugenics of 1883 – 1946 entailed a negative eugenics, founded on ideas of the Best and the Worst, and ultimately the destruction of those unworthy of life, culminating in the euthanasia projects of you-know-who. More recently the emphasis has been on a positive eugenics that sought to improve the reproduction of the Best. People, contra Arendt’s principle that “Political regimes ought not to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world,” sought to reward the reproduction of the worthy. Savulescu says we have a moral obligation to create children who have the best chance of the best life. Medical science and technology carry out the new eugenics in the name of the autonomy of the parent-as-patient. These principles increasingly standardize human communities and eliminate diversity.

Consider Singer’s frank “We think that some infants with severe disability should be killed.” Eugenic selection creates a culture of intolerance and violates the common good. Human rights covenants starkly contrast with the eugenic ideals of The Best and The Worst, for all that their implementation always falls short of aspiration. Human rights conventions assigned disabled people the status of human subjects—the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities affirms that every human being has the right to life and commits to the equal, not differential, worth of people with disabilities. Vide Habermas’s anti-eugenic argument in The Future of Human Nature and Michael Sandel’s Case Against Perfection. We seek a political rather than a pathological understanding of people with disabilityes. “To conceptualize not merely a habitable body but a habitable world,” as Nancy Mairs wrote. There’s a lineage from Arendt to Harriet McBryde Johnson, whose work makes a case for the right to life of people with disabilities, a claim in opposition to the ideals of “choice” promoted by the utilitarian philosophers of conflicting liberty-interests.

In the Q&A, Liz Bowen pointed out that nobody’d mentioned Sunaura Taylor. There’s no one way of speaking; we don’t have to be speaking for nonhuman animals. Taylor has a lot to say about coalition-building: what would it mean to get to a place where atypical or nonverbal bodies can thrive. Michael replied that the longer version (wow) of this talk addresses Taylor’s book and raises questions of how different voices address desire and pleasure. But he has difficulties in Taylor’s insistence on Liberation. She does a great takedown on Singer, but her We must conclude that everybody has to be vegan kind of tries to do Singer one better. Michael is partial to Donna Haraway. Jan said, look at the grounds for how we treat various beings—our criteria for rationality and communication. RGT suggested that we should, in making these narratives, try to leave Singer out of it as much as possible. He has to end up where he ends up—as do Parfit and McMahan—because they read disability as the emblem of suffering and unhappiness. [I would add that the bottom-line analysis, the emphasis on cost and money, in Singer and in some of McMahan also makes their conclusions inevitable]

Asked about her Old and New Eugenics classifications, RGT said she gets the categories from Daniel Kevles. Medical and legal practice privileges parental autonomy and doesn’t even recognize the autonomy of disabled people. RGT is alarmed about how “liberty interests” are leading us all to become normates. Elizabeth Donaldson asked why we need the idea of autonomy? And why don’t we consider people who do messy things with reproductive technology, things that are not in line with eugenic ideals of The Best? RGT said she was just being descriptive, and it was through human rights that we were able to get anywhere up to now: autonomy, especially patient autonomy, is extraordinarily important.

The following day, McRuer recommended that we read Crystal Parikh for a positive view of human rights discourse that answers posthuman objections.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Can Cissexuality Be Treated? MLA 2018, part three

This is the third part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here is part one. Here is part two

90: Trans Studies and Disability Studies had maybe thirty people in attendance. Cass Adair began by saying he was struck by the overlap in trans and crip chronologies. Six years ago he was diagnosed as a “chronic transsexual,” a wonderful oxymoron in which one term implies stasis and the other implies change. “Chronic,” Kafer notes, signals both temporality and disability: temporality is tightly bound with both the medical and experiential accounts of disability. Now, it is impossible to access medical services if you don’t confess to having always been trans. Transphobic and transpositive discourses both disavow the acute transsexual! All transsexualism must always-already be chronic. In the discourse Adair will call Transchronic One, birth-assigned sex is immutable: “God doesn’t make mistakes.” In the attempted corrective, Transchronic Two, we have the Born This Way schema. Gender identity is fixed and permanent. So that fits the diagnostic criterion of duration.

But if transness can be cured through medical intervention, then it is acute. How do you categorize someone “with a transsexual history”? Medical intervention into “gender dysphoria,” as the Post-Transsexual Manifesto observes, produces trans people who have been programmed to disappear, negating the idea that a trans person is something you can be in time.

The themes of the lesbian hipster ex-druggie transsexual roadtrip novel Nevada include the dichotomy between being “done” with transition and still being trans: it takes on the problems of the cissexist and the anticissexist discourses. Hormonetime is a trans crip temporality. The contrast between Maria and Piranha highlights questions of class and ability. Maria has a wild and kooky road trip; Piranha doesn’t have the option of bottom surgery, thanks to her poverty and chronic pain. Transness gets stuck or accelerates in time based on one’s access to capital.

Elizabeth Skwiot began her talk on actively making trans and disability studies visible by talking about passing. Most work on passing addresses race. But (vide Butler’s 1999 preface to Gender Trouble) we should recognize their difference. There are four ways theories of racial passing are inadequate when applied to gender. At this point, I had to go to the bathroom. I hope the rest of Skwiot’s talk addressed when and how “passing” is valorized in the trans world and how disabled people are stuck between imperatives to pass and imperatives to disclose. But all I learned is that very few male scholars seem to know how to flush. Push the button on the toilet, guys!

When I returned, Luke Kurdyashov was wrapping up their talk on Autistic Gender Nonconformity: Navigating Narratives of Pathology. They had interviewed a number of trans autistic people and autistic advocates whose experiences serve as a rebuttal of the Expert Wisdom that use autism to pathologize trans identities or vice versa. Nearly all had found the discovery that they were autistic to be liberating; most perceived some relationship between their autism and their transness, connecting their autistic perspectives on social norms with their nonconformist understanding of gender. Autistic experiences and understandings of gender can be empowering and transformative.

Moderator Cindy Wu asked Cass, “What is chronic cisgenderism? And does it also need medical intervention?” Cass replied that chronic cisgenderism is also “God doesn’t make mistakes”; but in fact, the way we gender people varies over a lifetime. An audience member suggested that “chronic cisgenderism” acknowledges that cisgenderism could cause a subject pain. Another opined that Women’s Studies is very good at asking about the violent enforcement of, and suffering caused by, gender normativity. A third audience member asked about the confusion of identities, of categories of people with categories of feelings, saying that gender dysphoria is widespread and nobody is cis, really: everybody’s unhappy with gender, often chronically, whether or not they address it by changing category. Cass replied that NB’s in his audience have remarked that they identify as acute transsexuals, and that reveals problems in our ideas of identity: what of identities without duration or identities that people claim for themselves without the imprimatur of another person or outside criteria.

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An audience member asked about chronicity as pain and its relevance to noncompliant patients, people who skip their hormones: denial of the situation makes it more central—you never feel more diabetic than when you skip your insulin. The social model does not account for pain or embodied experience. Cass responded that Maria gets “teenage pleasure from fuckin’ up her life” in Nevada: there’s a Fight Club logic there, of feelin’ pain to feel real. Another question was asked about Bad Kinds of Transinclusivity and also about sliding erasure, or covering—the trope of saying “We’re not that.” Luke pointed out that ABA developed as part of the Feminine Boy Project at UCLA. Rekers and Lovass developed both, but somehow only Rekers was condemned for his project of curing homosexuality: Lovass someone got off. Luke made a connection to how the TERFs and the Christians say “Those transsexuals are recruiting our Vulnerable Autistic Children!”

A questioner with mental disability asked about the severe gatekeeping that occurs when a trans person has any psychological issues. The panel replied, yeah, there’s a lot of “We should treat the real problem and then they won’t be trans anymore.” A questioner asked about the guy who said “You cannot be trans if you’re gay” and whose AIDS gave him credibility to talk about such issues. The panel’s reply considered how the Wrong Kind of Transsexual is associated with trade, AIDS, and/or other unsavory practices—is not homonormative. Addressing the questioner with mental disability, Cass said, you learn that have to answer questions about whether you’re suicidal with “I am suffering a lot, but not suicidal.” Because being in enough pain to be suicidal proves your dysphoria but takes away your right to consent! That’s the right answer in other settings too—at universities, for example, where if you’re suicidal they’ll expel you.

"We Fell into Patriarchy": MLA 2018, part two

This is the second part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here is part one.

69: Queer Faith, Queer Love
[yes, it was Panel 69, I’m not making this up—jbl]

This was one of the many panels the membership of which was altered by severe weather. Kris Trujillo was stuck in the air, and Eric Selinger was attending by phone. About 20 people were in the audience.

Carrie Shanafelt began her talk on “Jeremy Bentham’s Queer Christ” by addressing the current thinking about queer sex. Queer sex, it is said, is Defiantly Useless in the face of the order in which sexual desire serves to perpetuate patriarchy. Queer scholars in the tradition of Lee Edelman refuse to instrumentalize pleasure; in the wake of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s God Between Their Lips, they assert that the queer subject is put beyond discourse. In a friendly addendum to the monasticism of queer discourse, CS wants to present an excerpt from her Bentham project. All this uselessness prompts the question, What is utility? Utility to what end? In Bentham, the end is not economic productivity or bare life or the bourgeois order: it’s the greatest happiness for the greatest number, among whom Bentham explicitly includes women, disabled people, people of color, and sexual minorities.


Bentham approaches queer sexuality from a great many angles and in less-than-flowing prose: he says he wishes for a great literary author like Beckford (then in exile for sodomy) to help him convey his ideas. He finds himself mobilizing an excess of methodologies to defend sexual freedom. Bentham’s Not Paul but Jesus, as published, is 500 pages refuting Paul and dismissing such Pauline ideas as the antichrist, asceticism, and self-denial. But Bentham originally intended for it to include more Jesus, depicting Jesus as a champion and practitioner of queer sex. To Bentham, Christ is a prophet and apostle of noneconomic pleasure, Who’s entirely at odds with colonialism, patriarchy, and empire: He encouraged His followers not to surrender their capacity for pleasure to those institutions. The religion of Jesus has been perverted into a religion of self-denial used for dominance, which saddened Bentham much as the results of the U.S. and French revolutions had saddened him by ultimately creating new small dominant groups.

Bentham is trying to understand the reason for homophobic violence—vide Paul Kelleher’s Making Love on how love became more heteronormative in c18 literature—and points out, We don’t gang up to attack drunks: their pleasure costs money, which entitles them to enjoyment. Queer sexual pleasure somehow becomes associated with love, luxury, and an excess of pleasure; but if it were a luxury good and fit into the capitalist order, Bentham observes, no one would begrudge it. Unlike Old Testament prophets who tended to use miracles as witnesses to the Lord’s power, Jesus instructed His followers not to tell anyone that He had lessened their suffering: let’s not force pleasure to stand for something else—let it be an end in itself [Here Shanafelt delivered a great final line that I did not manage to take down: my notes just say “great final line”—jbl].

Rev. Justin Crisp, the panel’s token theologian, spoke of “Joy and Jouissance: Mystical Theology and the Ecstatic Politics of Leo Bersani.” He observed that most early Christian thought about sex is notable for its astonishingly low expectations. Like queer theory, it dissociates sex from intimacy. The patristic thinkers find the good of sex outweighed by the sin or the incontinence associated with it: look at Augustine, for whom even marital sex bears the mark of sin. Sex, they teach, is not capable of fostering the kind of intimacy that Christ has with his Church. Couples should have as little sex as possible: look at Joseph and Mary, according to the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The Eastern church also perpetuates this stigma against sex: Gregory of Nyssa says God did not originally intend, before the Fall, for us to reproduce this way and as it is, it just propagates our mortal forms and ultimately adds to the number of corpses.

Queer theory shares the antipastoralizing attitude of Christianity. Sex to Freud and Lacan is not about a union with the other but is something more solipsistic: “There is no sexual relation.” What are its effects on the subject of pleasure? For Bersani and Laplanche, sex = masochism, the shattering of one’s ego and fantasy of unity via confrontation with a jouissance . . . it is a mode of askesis! Christians and psychoanalytic scholars reduce sex to pleasure and notice how much disciplining has been required to make a discourse in which it is instead all about reproduction. Consider Tertullian on ejaculation! Both the Christian and the queer theorist see pleasure as a threat to the self. Of course, they have different feelings about that self: Augustine likes it, seeing the self as manifesting reasoned sovereignty over the will. And we know Bersani’s so not into that.

St. John of the Cross identifies pleasure as problematic not in that it overwhelms the self but because, in pursuing it, we value attachment and possession, as “Dark Night of the Soul” suggests. These are the root of the spiritual sins: he enumerates all the self-denials that are made in the service of egoism. Active asceticism reinforces the very self that must be destroyed for our union with God. Life makes ascetical selves of us all. The jouissance shows sex as an act of dispossession rather than possession. It’s compatible with other ascetic techniques that help us prepare ourselves for grace. Theology opens up a range of ways jouissance can be experienced: ego-based agency, for example, is destroyed in a transcendent jouissance. The progressive Christian’s usual YAY SEX approach has an alternative, uniting two forms of sexual pessimism.

Eric Selinger’s “Abundant Life and Metafictional Aplomb: Deployments of Christianity in Queer Popular Romance Fiction” looked at the genre that’s marketed as “M/M romance by straight women for straight women” but that is in fact by two bisexual women, a gay man, and an asexual individual who’s unsure about this whole gender concept. One of these novels, Alex Beecroft’s False Colors, contains theological arguments between two self-punitive 18th century sailors: “Would a good God have created an appetite within us but forbidden us to satisfy it?” Beecroft’s Blue Steel Chain actively disaggregates the generic features of queer romance novels listed by [Roche?]. Invoking Christian discourse, it subverts the association of intimacy with sex. Whereas Beecroft identifies as a “committed Christian,” Alexis Hall styles himself a blasphemer. The hero of Hall’s Glitterland is felled by mental illness and poststructuralism. He and romantic love both have to be redeemed by a Saviour in the form of an “idiotic glitterpirate from Essex.” The novel makes overt and oblique allusions to Scripture as well as to Shakespeare, Philip Larkin, C.S. Lewis, et alia. Hall celebrates the use of dialect, and Christian discourse here is to some extent just another lexis.

A member of the audience asked Reverend Justin, Was early Christian sex-pessimism an aversion to the act of intercourse, to bodies, or to pleasure? Justin said, Pleasure is that which the ascetical life is supposed to extinguish. Augustine thinks that the chariot of the passions has run away from its driver. Pleasure coincides with concupiscence and therefore sin.

Another asked Dr. Shanafelt whether “this Bentham” was accessible to 19th-century readers. She said no, it’s from just-released notes and drafts. There were quite a few published Bentham works that suggest these points, but no it was not. And if you’re interested, the Bentham project is still seeking help in transcribing millions of words and deciphering his terrible handwriting. The newly-published stuff is very very messy, but some of it is so powerful that Shanafelt, reading it on a friend’s porch, fell out of a hammock. His concern with the rights of women and of sexual minorities is remarkable; his radical attention to people who are not himself is amazing.

A guy in the audience whose demeanor had reminded me of Narrative Medicine maven Rita Charon asked about the panelists’ reductionism, specifically the liberatory potential of reducing sexuality to pleasure, citing a “spiritually curative orgasm” such as appears in that one painting of Saint Teresa: is there a difference among these ideals of liberation? Shanafelt said Adam Kotsko had just blogged that morning about how the punishment of Eve is “And your desire shall be to your husband”: heterosexuality is a curse. “We fell into patriarchy,” Not-Rita agreed. Shanafelt paraphrased Bentham saying We can’t claim that two political equals desiring to have sex with each other is harm, especially when we don’t even claim that heterosexual intercourse is harm. Justin said he was trying to make a critique of the liberal Christian take on sex that’s analogous to the queer critique of foregrounding marriage rights, but he’s in favor of freedom to rather than freedom from. What we see in Saints Teresa and John is freedom to feel joy. But he admitted to liking prayer more than sex as a route to this jouissance.

A question was posed about affective experience beyond psychic organization. What about Tomkins and views that assert the primacy of affect? Affect as characterized by intensity, as opposed to pain/pleasure? I mean, it’s not as if we lack pleasure under late capitalism. Justin replied that he’d been thinking hard about Bersani’s attempt to synthesize the late Foucault and early Freud, and a move into the space of affect could be very productive. Eric suggested that the asexual hero of Blue Steel Chain may be going back to that line in Genesis that Augustine said was not about sex but about the societas of the married couple. Then he asked his copanelists, There’s been a lot more talk about sex and pleasure than about the “love” in the panel’s title: why is that? As the panel’s time slot came to an end and I departed, someone was asking about coming-out narratives and whether this is not a good discursive moment for love and whether there’s F/F Christian romance fiction . . .