On Generosity and Obligation

I am returning, at last, to the thoughts I was exploring in my recent posts on Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community (post 1 | post 2), and I’m starting to wrestle this morning with the big one: obligation. Thinking about community as a strategic rather than an idealized concept, community in its pragmatic coalition-building sense, leads me to consider the work required to create and sustain communities. If the kinds of communities that I am seeking in trying to imagine a more generous relationship not only between the university and the publics that it engages but also, crucially, within the university itself are first and foremost voluntary communities—self-organizing, self-governing collectives based in affiliation and solidarity—what exactly can we be said to owe those communities? Do those communities and our relationships to them impose obligations on us?

This question about obligation came up early on in the review process for Generous Thinking. For some readers, my suggestion that “we” (meaning, in this case, those of us involved in and committed to the life of the university) have obligations to one another and to the world evoked a sense of noblesse oblige, a condescending assumption that we bear gifts that we must bestow upon the less fortunate around us. For others, the notion of obligation seemed to erode the idea of generosity itself, undermining individual commitment with a sense of requirement. Several commenters wanted me to replace the term, but I remain convinced that it’s the right one, though I’m still working on explaining why.

Obligation as I intend it is not connected, except etymologically, to noblesse oblige. In fact, I’d argue that noblesse oblige is a particularly self-aggrandizing form of voluntarism: we may feel that we have to give to those in need because of our station or privilege, but that “have to” is one we can easily walk away from; the commitment is entirely self-selected. The obligation that I’m focused on, that I hope that we can consider in the context of generosity, is one of which we cannot absolve ourselves. As Francois Lachance pointed out in the discussion, “obligation” derives from the Latin obligare, “from ob- ‘towards’ + ligare ‘to bind’.” That is the sense of obligation that I want to explore: that which binds us together, that which we cannot walk away from without doing grave damage both to ourselves and to the fabric of the whole.

That isn’t to say that we don’t have choice, as members of voluntary communities, about whether to fulfill those obligations, or that there isn’t agency in the kinds of generosity I’m hoping to foster. But I remain convinced that we do bear actual obligations toward one another deriving from our common presence in a space, an institution, a community. We owe one another recognition as members of that community. We owe one another attention to the concerns we bring to that community.

In the course of the discussion of Generous Thinking, I started wondering where my use of “obligation” in this sense began, and so searched my notes. The term popped up in several key locations, including Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism:

So there are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. (25)

These two strands, for Appiah, exist in an ongoing tension: we bear obligations that bind us together; we take seriously the differences that mean we must be allowed to go our own way. That individual, agential freedom does not relieve us of our shared obligations, but nor does the nature of our obligations eliminate the agency that all of us bear in our own lives.

This tension also appeared in my notes in Lewis Hyde’s consideration of the debts that participation in a gift economy creates. Hyde cites Marcel Mauss on the “three related obligations” that mark gift economies: “the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate” (xxi). Hyde winds up at moments treating the notion of obligation in a fashion much closer to the reading of my commenters—as a requirement that a gift imposes upon us, an imposition that we attempt to remove by passing on—but it’s also a relation that sustains the entirety of a community. There is, I think, something important to consider in this connection between obligation and the gift, especially if we are to seek alternatives to the neoliberal economies in which our institutional and personal lives are otherwise embedded.

Most compelling for me, however, is the use that Bill Readings makes of obligation in The University in Ruins. In attempting to define a path out of the morass that the University of Excellence has landed us in, Readings turns repeatedly to the notion of obligation and its connection to community. His goal, he notes, is “an anti-modernist rephrasing of teaching and learning as sites of obligation, as loci of ethical practices, rather than as means for the transmission of scientific knowledge. Teaching thus becomes answerable to the question of justice, rather than to the criteria of truth” (154). That connection among obligation, ethics, and justice leads to his commitment to dissensus and his sense that “the condition of pedagogical practice is, in Blanchot’s words, ‘an infinite attention to the other’” (161), an ethical obligation that cannot be discharged. And an obligation whose infinitude is created in no small part by our being-in-community; “the obligation of community,” he notes, is “one to which we are answerable but to which we cannot supply an answer” (187).

If we are going to build and sustain communities, then—not romanticized communities, but rather communities based in solidarity, communities based on non-market relations of care—we need to be able to think about our obligations to one another, about our relationships to our voluntary communities beyond voluntarism. Coming full-circle to Joseph: her association of community with the structure of the non-profit, which deploys private philanthropy as a replacement for public commitment to the common good, underscores not only the voluntarism at the heart of noblesse oblige but also the political and economic sources of it: I am generous with what I have—I choose to be generous with what I have—precisely because we are no longer committed to one another as members of a shared social structure. Instead, the shift of responsibility for the public welfare toward private entities displaces our obligations to one another in favor of individual liberties and, I think, leaves us queasy about the notion of obligation altogether.

What I’m trying to explore in considering generosity as a potential ground for rebuilding the relationship between the university and the public good, then, is in part the force of the commitments that we make to one another, but commitments that are based in an ethical obligation that endures beyond and outside individual agency. It’s a commitment that we must continually make the choice to renew, but an obligation that persists regardless of our choice.

I’m still wrestling with all of this as I revise the manuscript, but the notions of community, solidarity, and commitment to the public good with which I’m working seem defined by the unresolved tensions in the relationship between generosity and obligation. As Readings says, we are left “with an obligation to explore our obligations without believing that we will come to the end of them” (190). This is where I’m trying to linger. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

“In the book Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King, Jr. told the citizens of this nation, with prophetic insight, that we would be unable to go forward if we did not experience a ‘true revolution of values.’ He assured us that

‘the stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing”-oriented society to a “person”-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.’

Today, we live in the midst of that floundering. We live in chaos, uncertain about the possibility of building and sustaining community.”

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994)

“To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

“You know, the question isn’t whether we’re going to have to do hard, awful things, because we are. We all are. The question is whether we have to do them alone.”

Kate Braestrup, in Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living

Not-Running

Over the years, I’ve posted a lot here about running, from chronicling my marathon training to pondering my deep ambivalence (if not flat out reluctance) about the act. Like writing here, I’ve stopped and started and stopped again, and issued myself new directives to get going once more.

This is a different sort of post, in which in which I am trying not to make myself do anything but instead to accommodate myself to the current situation, and to motivate myself to make as much of it as I can. It’s attempting what Tara Brach describes as the start of a process of recognition and acceptance, a moment of looking around and saying, “Oh, it’s like this.”

The situation is this: my left knee has been acting up for the last several months, mostly in a mid-grade way but at a couple of points acutely enough that I took to my bed with an ice pack, pretty worried that I might have actually damaged something. I finally persuaded myself to go see a sports medicine doctor and get it checked out. And of course, just like when you take your car to the mechanic, it wouldn’t make the noise. Or, rather, it did make the noise (“wow, that’s a lot of crackling,” my doctor said) but it didn’t hurt, it didn’t stick, it didn’t threaten to buckle. So she pushed and prodded and said that there didn’t appear to be anything structural wrong with it, and she sent me off for x-rays.

Which, as I should have known to expect, showed a bunch of arthritis. She sent me a prescription for physical therapy, and she advised me to lay off the high-impact exercise, at least for the time being. “I’m not saying you can’t run ever again,” she said. “But for now.”

My physical therapist, however, was a good bit more solidly in the running-is-over camp. And I’m finding myself there as well. It’s partially because the thing going on in my knee seems to be degenerative, and as the PT said, it can’t be reversed or even really stopped. But it’s also partially because it gives me permission to stop bashing my head against that particular wall. Deciding that running is over lets me stop feeling bad about not running, and about not wanting to run, and it opens up some space for me to focus on doing some other things.

So for the last few weeks I’ve been all about the stationary bikes at my gym, and I’ve even taken a few spinning classes. (I’ve also been advised to back off on those until we strengthen things around my knees a bit — but that feels like something to look forward to.) And I’m doing my PT and working with a personal trainer to try to strengthen more generally.

I wanted to write about this today because it feels a bit emblematic, capturing something about how I’ve been trying to approach change over the last few years, finding ways not to fight the things that can’t be fought, ways to hold onto the meaningful parts of the past and to let go of what cannot be. It’s a mode of being in the world that I’m trying to bring to my work as well: recognizing, for instance, that whatever writing I’m doing is likely to go way more slowly than I want it to, and that my wanting it to go faster won’t change that. And that recognition — “Oh, it’s like this” — is the first step toward figuring out how to make the most of the slowness.

I have just had one of those moments in which writing about the reasons I’m having trouble writing the thing I’m trying to write just made the thing I’m trying to write become far more clear. As in previous such instances (c.f. the opening of the authorship chapter in Planned Obsolescence), the problem being explored in the piece of writing and the problem of doing the writing are pretty intimately intertwined. Someday I would love to remember that before my anxieties about why this thing is so hard to write become quite so pronounced.

The NEH at 50

The National Endowment for the Humanities is celebrating its 50th anniversary today. I’m joining many scholars, writers, filmmakers, educators, and countless others online today in thinking about the ways that the NEH has supported the work that I do, and my ability to do it.

I’ve been the grateful recipient of two Digital Humanities Startup Grants from the NEH, one of which enabled the colleagues I was working with to build MediaCommons, and the other of which supported a collaboration between the Modern Language Association and Columbia University Library’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship in building CORE. What’s crucial about these projects, in my view, is that each focused not on the production and publication of a specific research project (though there is enormous value in and need for support of such work), but rather on developing the means of supporting many other scholars in doing the work that they want to do. I hope, in that way, that these two projects help further the endowment’s goals in, as President Obama phrases it, working to “shape a future of opportunity and creativity for all.”

What is also important to note, of course, is that both projects that I had the honor of being involved with were primarily social in their orientation — MediaCommons sought to create a community among scholars in media studies, and CORE now explores the possibilities that are created when an open-access repository is connected with a networked scholarly community. This community orientation is not at all incidental to the projects, or to the endowment: the NEH has sought from the outset to connect the humanities with the American public. I am honored to have had the opportunity to play a small role in that enormously important project.

Must

There are the things you know you ought to do, that are hard to do, in part because the “ought to” of them is pretty abstract, especially when they are surrounded by so many other pressing, concrete demands. For me, a whole lot of stuff has long fallen into that category, and particularly things that have to do with taking care of myself. I ought to eat a little better. I ought to drop that five pounds. I ought to get more sleep. I ought to exercise more regularly. I know all of those statements are true, and I really do try to do the things they urge, but it’s often easier to let those things drop when competing demands arise.

And honestly, when don’t competing demands arise.

But I’m finding myself squarely in front of one of those moments when the world sends a no-kidding message: That “ought to”? You should maybe interpret as “must.”

Last week, right near the end of the DH conference, I started getting some pain in my left shoulder. I’ve got some kind recurrent tendonitis in both my shoulders, and with all the hauling of suitcases and carrying around of laptops, I figured I’d triggered it, which promised an aggravating few days ahead.

A week later, however, things had not gotten better. In fact, they were much worse: the pain was no longer localized in my shoulder, but was radiating both up my neck and down my arm. My small stash of Aleve was running out fast, and weirdly, given the range of things you can buy OTC here in Paris, naproxen is unavailable without a prescription. So R. talked me into seeing a doctor, and got a friend to make an appointment for me.

My experience of the French medical system is not the point of this post, but I should note how good it was: I got an appointment with a very good doctor for the very next day. She discussed the problem with me, did an examination, explained her diagnosis, and wrote me three prescriptions. The cost of the examination, for someone who was for all intents and purposes uninsured, was 50 euros. The cost of the three prescriptions, 15 euros. The doctor also said I should go get an x-ray, which I’m going to do while I’m here, both because I’m here for another three weeks and because it’ll be cheaper to pay out-of-pocket for it here than it will be to handle it through my insurance back home.1

What I need the x-ray for is more to the point of the post: the doctor diagnosed me with a pinched nerve in my neck, almost certainly produced by une arthrose — cervical osteoarthritis.2

My first response to this was annoyance. I am way too freaking young to have arthritis in my neck.

My second response was something much more akin to terror: if it feels like this in my mid-forties, what will it feel like in my sixties? My eighties?3

And following fairly quickly on the heels of that was a fairly predictable conviction: I have got to start taking better care of myself.

What this means, however, is turning all those ought tos into musts. In particular, I must make more time for more regular exercise, to become as strong as I can in preparation for whatever the coming years are going to bring my way. And this is going to require two things of me:

First, I must reprioritize. It’s useless to say “I have to get more exercise” when my calendar and my to-do list simply cannot take more being crammed in. Something, in other words, must go — and it can no longer be the things that have always seemed too (literally) self-centered. What that something will be, I’m not entirely sure — but I am starting to recognize that where ambition or accomplishment gets in the way of basic physical health and well-being, maybe it deserves a little more critical examination.4

And second, I need some kind of accountability, a means of ensuring that I actually follow through on what could turn out to be no more than a whole lot of good intentions, particularly once the pain fully recedes. So I’m hoping that maybe my internet friends will help hold me to these changes, and maybe even come along for the ride. If you use Runkeeper, I’m kfitz there. I’ll try to post some here about how I’m doing as well.

I’m determined to be that wiry little old lady still running in the park when I’m 80. And I’m weirdly grateful, I think, for this last week-plus, which has made abundantly clear that that absolutely is not going to happen without some really determined decision-making on my part.

Attention

Yesterday was a lovely, quiet Saturday. I got up early, went through my morning routine, and then went for a walk in the park. I did laundry, I had lunch, I took a little nap. I spent part of the day with the book I’m currently reading (Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, if you’re curious), and then in the late afternoon started listening to a series of lectures from a Oxford U general philosophy course. The lecturer is really quite good, and the narrative he presents quite compelling. I’m listening to this course, in part, because one of the more woeful gaps in my education (of which there are many, alas) is labeled “philosophy”; as an undergrad, I let the introductory formal logic course — which you had to get through in order to be admitted to any further courses — deter me, and so I have embarrassingly little grounding in the history of many of the ideas I want to be working with. I’m hoping that this series of lectures might at least give me enough of an overview so that I know a bit more about what it is I ought to know, but of course I’m certain that I won’t really know much of anything without taking on a more systematic, thorough course of reading.

This seems obvious, and yet what’s painful about it is all bound up in what Tim Parks and Corey Robin have lately written about: an increasing difficulty with actually doing the reading I set myself to do. I find myself lacking both for time (of which I seem to have precious little) and attention (of which I have less and less). Whatever the reason, it feels increasingly difficult to sit still and read much at all of late. I can’t tell how much of that difficulty is the technology-assisted monkey mind described by Parks — constantly looking for the next bit of incoming information, the next thing to click — or how much of it might be the distractions provided by other parts of my life, or (what I most fear) how much of it might simply be an aging brain. Would my attention span be shrinking even without all my surrounding technologies, in other words, or are the technologies interfering in my attention in the ways that I sometimes fear?

I’m working on some practices (a little meditation; a little bit of writing time in the early mornings) that I hope will help me better develop and maintain the ability to focus my attention on what’s in front of me, rather than constantly grasping for the next thing. But as I started pondering this problem in a bit of journaling this morning, it occurred to me that there’s another side to the question of attention that I hadn’t really connected here before. And it may be that they’re only connected by a sort of linguistic coincidence, but it nonetheless seemed significant.

As I started writing about my concerns about reading and my seemingly diminishing attention span, it hit me that this is the kind of thing that in the not-too-distant past I’d have written as a blog post, that I’d have shared almost reflexively. I felt little to no inclination to do that today, and so I started wondering what has changed. Is there something else different in my relationship to attention — not just the attention I pay, but the attention I seek, or more generously to myself, the attention I want to bear? One can read throughout my posts here since spring 2011 a series of not entirely successful attempts to work through my sense that my new position required (or seemed to require, at least) a reconfiguration of my public presence, my sense that I was at times a little more visible, a little more exposed, than might in the new order of things be ideal. There have also been, across that same period of time, some changes in the climate that have made working ideas out in the open feel a good bit less easy than it once was. But whether the changes are predominantly internal or external, the result is that I’ve become reticent about thinking in public — and that’s a not just a shame but in fact a pretty painful irony, given that thinking-in-public is both the source of whatever impact my work has had and the thing that I was hired to support.

In that support role, though, I’ve retreated somewhat behind-the-scenes, and I find myself somewhat reluctant to share the things I’m working on, in part because I get so very little time to work on them that all my ideas feel desperately under-baked. But the combination of what feels like my shrinking attention span and my reluctance to be public with my thinking have me more than a little worried about how (in fact whether) my work might proceed from here. I am hoping to find some strategies this summer to get myself past both of these hurdles, to work my brain in ways that help to grow my attention span again, and to re-develop my bravery about drawing attention to my work as it happens.

Being Wrong

Intermittently over the last year, I’ve found myself fumbling around an idea about critical temporalities. That is: ideas keep moving, keep developing, even after you’ve locked them down in print or pixels. You continue developing your own ideas, one hopes, but the others who encounter your ideas also develop them as well, often in very new directions. And given how much critical development takes place in the negative (demonstrating the fundamental incorrectness of previously held ideas, as opposed to building beside or on top of those ideas), the conclusion I keep being drawn back to is that everything that we are today arguing will someday be wrong. 1

On the one hand, there’s a bit of a lament in this: the half-life of an idea seems desperately short today; the gap between “that’s just crazy talk” and “that’s a form of received wisdom that must be interrogated” feels vanishingly small. How nice it would be for us to linger in that gap a little longer, to find there some comfortable space between Radical Young Turk and Reactionary Old Guard. To get to be right, just a little bit longer, before those future generations discover to a certainty just how wrong we were.

On the other hand, there’s a perverse freedom in it, and the possibility of an interesting kind of growth. If everything you write today already bears within it a future anterior in which it will have been demonstrated to be wrong, there opens up the possibility of exploring a new path, one along which we develop not just our critical audacity but also a kind of critical humility.

The use of this critical humility, in which we acknowledge the mere possibility that we might not always be right, is in no small part the space it creates for genuinely listening to the ideas that others present, really considering their possibilities even when they contradict our own thoughts on the matter.

Critical humility, however, is neither selected for nor encouraged in grad school. Quite the opposite, at least in my experience: everything in the environment of, e.g., the seminar room made being wrong impossible. Wrongness was to be avoided at all costs; ideas had to be bulletproof. And the only way to ensure one’s own fundamental rightness was to demonstrate the flaws in all the alternatives.

As a result, we were too often trained (if only unconsciously) in a method that encouraged a leap from encountering an idea to dismissing it, without taking the time inbetween to really engage with it. It’s that engagement that a real critical humility can open up: the time to discover what we might learn if we are allowed to let go, just a tiny bit, of our investment in being right.

If time inevitably makes us all wrong, maybe slowing down enough to accept our future wrongness now can help us avoid feeling embittered later on. The position of critical humility is a generous one — not just generous to those other critics whose ideas we encounter (and want to contradict) today, but to our selves both present and future as well.

It’s no accident that I’m thinking about this today, on the cusp of a new year, as I try to imagine what’s ahead and look back on what’s gone by. It’s a moment of letting go of what’s already done and cannot be changed, and of opening up to new, as yet unimagined possibilities ahead. I wish for all of us the space and the willingness to linger in that moment, even knowing how wrong we will someday inevitably have been.