Walt Disney World: A Commercial Gesamtkunstwerk by Travis American

Photo courtesy of    Time Magazine   .

Photo courtesy of Time Magazine.

I was one of those kids who went through “phases,” where one particular interest tended to elbow out its competitors and become an abiding obsession for a few years, at which point another one arrived to overtake it. The first one I remember was a hardcore environmentalist phase in early elementary school, which mostly entailed watching a lot of Captain Planet and annoying adults who drank out of Styrofoam cups. There was the slightly embarrassing Beat Generation obsession of my high school years—think denim jackets and a summer at the Duke Young Writers Program. You could make an argument that this pattern has continued into adulthood. The radical social theory era segued into the literary magazine era, and after a post-PhD existential crisis, I seem to have slid into a period centered on film & photography.  

For the most part, these different interests form a somewhat coherent constellation. Art, counterculture, leftist politics… it’s like I’ve always been destined to be a tattooed adjunct professor living in Bushwick. But for a few years around middle school, I went through an obsession whose fit is less obvious: I was really, really into Disney stuff. I checked out books on animation history and technique from the Gwinnett County Public Library, and kept them for literally years past their due dates. I inked and painted my own cels of Donald Duck and Dopey, not realizing that the process had been computerized since the 1980s. I wore out the VHS tape of Frank and Ollie, a documentary about two of Disney’s original animators.

But even more than the films, I was interested in the theme parks and the people who design them—a profession known in Disney parlance as “Imagineering.” Where the animators’ vision was restricted to a screen, the work of the Imagineers extended out into the physical world. It seemed like an altogether grander form of storytelling. Every park and every ride was a meticulously designed work of art, one that the audience was invited to explore for themselves. Whatever your feelings about them, the Disney parks are incredible technical achievement. They’re popular Gesamtkunstwerks, all-encompassing works of art that synthesize other media to achieve a coherent aesthetic end—visuals, music, even touch and smell were integrated to create a haunted mansion, or a pirate town, or even, for some reason, an exoticized version of Canada.

As I navigated the transition from childhood to adolescence, Walt Disney World seemed like a womb. The conspicuous wholesomeness and simplicity of the Disney offered a retreat from the more tumultuous feelings that were emerging within me. And by framing my interest as intellectual curiosity or even professional aspiration, I didn’t have to own up to its fundamental childishness . After all, in a really direct way, it was a fixation on the childhood that I could feel fast slipping through my fingers. This is what Disney sells everyone, I guess—a break from life’s complexities and an illusion of innocence. The parks are a hyperconcentrated form of mainstream American culture’s ideas about family and happiness. If you can pay—tickets to the Magic Kingdom are now over $100 per day per person!—then you can mainline a distilled, stylized form of joy inaccessible elsewhere. Or that’s the pitch, anyway.

This sense of scale—the aspiration of an artwork that you could live inside—has strange echoes in the Situationist International, a group of avant-garde artists & revolutionaries active in Europe from the 1950s to 1970s and most famous for helping to foment the May 1968 insurrections in France. One of the group’s bulletins describes their concept of unitarian urbanism like this:

Whatever prestige the bourgeoisie may today be willing to grant to fragmentary or deliberately retrograde artistic tendencies, creation can now be nothing less than a synthesis aiming at the construction of entire atmospheres and styles of life. [...] A unitary urbanism—the synthesis we call for, incorporating arts and technologies—must be created in accordance with new values of life, values which we now need to distinguish and disseminate.

The Disney Corporation tends to cater to the bourgeoisie rather than rail against it, but it shares the goal of constructing “entire atmospheres” with the Situationists. So, too, does it share a recognition of the power of these atmospheres. Disney understands that families will save for years to enter a carefully crafted atmosphere for just a few days, and Situationists believed that reimagining the physical space of the city could revolutionize the social order and the experience of everyday life. 

And herein lies the major difference (or, at least, a major difference). Disney World is a fully realized aesthetic environment, but it’s one that affirms a very narrow conception of how to be in the world. This way of living is profoundly commodified, where visitors dig deep into their wallets for the (very real) pleasure of being soothed. The joy that Disney offers is a sense of security that everything is fundamentally okay, at least as long as you’re within the park’s gates. It’s also strictly ordered—though you can choose to ride this ride and skip that one, you’ll inevitably wait in line to experience a few minutes of action.

 Situationist also sought a merger of art and life, where whole unitary urban environments are transformed into intentionally aestheticized spaces. But unlike Disney Imagineers, they sought neither to reassure nor to design from the top down. The Situationist ideal is something much closer to the Occupy Wall Street camp—a collaborative experiment where the space itself lends itself to new styles of living. I spent a lot of time at New York’s Occupy camp (I even wrote a little book about it), and one of its most striking features was the way it broadened one’s sense of possibility. An urban park was suddenly a place to sleep, plan, march, resist, converse, learn, and revolt. We didn’t wait in line for something to happen—we made things happen.

At this point, it’s been 19 years since I’ve been to a Disney park. While I’m sure I wouldn’t mind the hot bath of nostalgia, I’ve got no imminent plans to return. But in an upside-down way, Disney World was an early glimmer of a fascination that has endured to the present day. The parks offer a space of heightened aesthetics, more compelling than the everyday world that surrounds them. They’ve got this in common with OWS, with Burning Man, and with theories of Situationist urbanism and anarchist temporary autonomous zones, even if the ideologies behind them are profoundly different. For me, at least, I think an obsession the former led to—or at least presaged—an interest in the latter. Disney World’s business model is based on a dissatisfaction with regular life—if that life was fulfilling, why shell out for a few days in Fantasyland? Those other experiments that I’d come to later are also reactions to the hollowness of the workday world. But where Disney replicates the commodification and top-down structure of that world, these others, flawed as they may be, sought to configure the world differently.

When Life Doesn't Pan Out: T2 Trainspotting by Travis American

landscape-1483457396-t2-trainspotting.jpg

When T2 arrived at the Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, I had to talk my then-fiancée, now-wife Laura into going. She didn’t have any particular nostalgia for the 1996 original, and, frankly, an appeal to nostalgia seemed to be the movie’s main selling point. We didn’t have anything else to do with the afternoon, though, so she eventually assented.

By the time Young Fathers’ knockout track “Only God Knows” played over the final credits, we were both snotty messes. Nobody in the theater gestured to leave. It was like everyone needed a minute to pull themselves together. We hadn’t expected this. The reviews were solid (80% on Rotten Tomatoes!), but T2 mostly flew under the radar. Few of my friends bothered to see it, and I come from a punk-inflected milieu where the original is a touchstone. Still, not many movies wrecked me like this one.

It’s easy to imagine a version of T2 that was essentially a cash grab, an opportunity for Gen X and older Millennial alt-kids like me to spend a couple hours sentimentalizing. (When I shaved my head in college, a girl told me the look reminded her of Ewan McGregor in the smack-head lead role of Mark Renton. It felt like a huge complement.) But director Danny Boyle made the canny decision to make this kind of nostalgia a core component of the film. When we catch up with the main characters two decades after the first Trainspotting, they’re each a different flavor of pathetic. Jailed. Junky. Criminal. Lonely. Life—perhaps predictably—has not panned out for these guys. All they’ve got left are reminiscences about a period where even the most debauched self-destruction felt charged with meaning.

The film allows us to indulge along with the characters, but it makes a point to undercut this nostalgia at every turn. When Johnny Lee Miller’s Simon waxes about the first time he and Mark shared a needle (“Your blood flows through my veins”), Mark can’t help but check the time on his phone (“I’ve got a plane to catch!”). When Mark inevitably plunges into a new riff on the iconic “Choose Life” monologue, it doesn’t end with a crescendo, but with a sad acknowledgement that the joke “amused us at the time,” as though realizing that the real feeling behind his rant isn’t enough to keep him from sounding like a middle-aged windbag.

Despite this healthy skepticism, T2 recognizes how formative youth is, for good and bad. Mark, Simon, Spud, Begbie—it’s unclear how much they even like one another. Yet the gravitational pull of those early experiences—when they were forging themselves into the men they’d become—has bound them together in profound ways. It’s an era that needs to be reckoned with before any of them can move beyond their grossly protracted adolescence. The suicidal, still-addicted Spud literally writes his way out, putting their youth to paper to finally exorcise himself of a period that all the main characters still pine for.

Part of this movie’s emotional hold on me has to do with the moment I first saw it. Spring 2017 was in the heart of my post-PhD malaise (I write a bit about that time in my first post on this blog). I was 15 years younger than the characters onscreen and I’d never bottomed out into addiction or criminality, but I was viscerally feeling the distance between the hopes I’d had for myself of the reality of where I was. I’d spent years writing a novel that no agent seemed interested in representing. I’d limped my way to a doctorate that, it felt, qualified me only to adjunct courses for $3,600 a semester. I was disappointed and more than a little ashamed of where I’d ended up, but I couldn’t see a way out or imagine a new iteration of myself.

In T2, I saw characters, far more broken than myself, coming to terms with where they were, and groping their way forward. The urgency and hope and expansiveness of youth had faded, but they were still there, sorting out how to continue being in the world. I don’t know how this movie will play for me in another phase of my life, one where I’m not feeling as vulnerable or broken. I could imagine it seeming mawkish or self-indulgent. Honestly, though, I don’t care. It was there when I needed it, and that’s enough.

The Happy Nihilist’s Anthem: Leftöver Crack's "Soon We'll Be Dead" by Travis American

Photo by  Spaz Tacular .

Photo by Spaz Tacular.

Kids in their last semester of college are prone to grand theorizing. They’re approaching a Life Moment, an inflection point where they cease to be pure potential and start to become a defined, specific version of themselves. Ideas have a special draw at that moment. Without much concrete life experience, abstraction is all you’ve got. And with decisions suddenly foisted on you, there’s a tendency to flail for anything that might help you cope with the new terrain.

That was the case for me, anyway, and for my roommates in an off-campus house we’d christened the Kremlin. (We were ironically-inclined leftists before that blossomed into a full-fledged generational trait.) Probably sitting around the kitchen table, Niral and I spun one such theory about competing approaches to nihilism. We took it as a given that life had no inherent meaning, partly because of philosophy & literature & all that and partly because we were angsty post-adolescents. As we saw it, this bedrock belief in nothing left us with two options—“sad nihilism” and “happy nihilism.” Sad nihilism meant  despairing at the meaninglessness, at the revelation that the universe has written us no great story or offered us any sense of destiny. Happy nihilism accepted the same premises, but framed them as a burden relieved rather than a cosmic tragedy. Without any destiny to fulfill, all that’s left is to build lives and communities that matter to us, and to care for one another as we do it. 

It was PBR existentialism, so it’s probably fitting that “Soon We’ll Be Dead,” by the junkie crustpunk outfit Leftöver Crack, became the happy nihilist anthem. The song is a collaboration with the World/Inferno Friendship Society, whose accordion and string section provide a defiantly merry tone even as LC’s Scott “Stza” Sturgeon and WIFS’ Jack Terricloth spout bleakness like: 

I'll pass out at dawn
And dream of friends gone
As the morbid embrace warms over my face
And soon we'll be dead, our brains and our heads

The song is inarguably dark, but it doesn’t feel that way. With a melody as jaunty as an Irish drinking song and a big group of half-talented backup singers belting out the chorus, lyrics that read as bleak on the page hit the ear as a communal celebration of mutual support. Even as we’re all “tarnished and scarred” and left wondering “when did life get so hard,” a pointedly collective “we” can gather to “drink to auld lang syne with fortified wine.” At its core, it’s a humanistic vision, where people build relationships in the face of—and in spite of—life’s pain and, ultimately, its brevity.

Across albums and through at least three different bands, it’s a thematic concern that the lead songwriter Sturgeon has returned to again and again. Mutual care in a fallen world is explicitly or implicitly celebrated in “The Broken Branches,” “Vicious Constructs,” “Drowning Out Another Year,” a cover of Blackbird Raum’s “Last Legs,” and, maybe most articulately, in “Empty Lives.” In that one, Sturgeon screeches with palpable pain about his dead friends, his guilt, his mistakes, and, yet, a “will to survive / with an inborn devotion.” Then there’s the refrain, where Sturgeon and his band offer hope for a way forward:

I'd say to you "just try to change"
Empty lives can fill again
We're not doomed by any fate
And it can never be too late

In lesser hands, it could sound syrupy and hackneyed, but here, in that guttural growl, it feels sincere and hard-won. It’s one of those musical moments that continues to give me chills even though I’ve heard it literally thousands of times. Still, though, “Soon We’ll Be Dead” got there first for me, and I listened to it so relentlessly at the end of college and the beginning of the thereafter that my friends jokingly (I think?) asked if I was okay. I mostly (I think?) was, but the song helped me deal with the parts that weren’t. It still does.

An Artist of Ideas: Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" by Travis American

walterbenjamin37.jpg

Like a lot of the people—or, I guess, a lot of English majors—I first encountered capital-T Theory in college. As a term of categorization, Theory is broad almost to the point of uselessness. Its various schools of thought—post-structuralism, Western Marxism, psychoanalytic theory, semiotics, and on and on—are like hydra heads just as apt to snap at each other as work in concert. But for a student with certain pretensions, Theory presented something like a coherent image. It’s nerdy, but, like, sexy nerdy. It projects—or at least, I thought it projected—intellectual heft, political radicalism, and a playful libertinism all at once. Just look at its rock stars. Michel Foucault was a leather daddy who called a Death Valley acid trip “the greatest experience of my life.” Frantz Fanon wrote books with titles like Toward the African Revolution, and then went and literally made revolutions. Dowdy, old-school Philosophy had, I dunno, Kant? A guy who Wikipedia says was known “for his modest, rigorously scheduled habits, which have been referred to as clocklike”? I’ll give you one guess as to which side the callow 20-year-old me wanted to align with.

All that is to say that I liked the idea of Theory more than I liked grinding through its actual ideas. A lot of its seminal texts are borderline impenetrable, full of words I didn’t understand and arguments I didn’t follow. Reading Baudrillard or Foucault or Judith Butler was like panning for gold, sifting through a muddy river of words to occasionally find a little nugget of insight, which I’d then hold aloft and show off as ostentatiously as possible. (Campus publications printed both my critique of Ice Cube’s gender essentialism and an analysis of the Greek scene titled “The Postmodern Frat Boy.” Yeah.) Deep down, though, I wasn’t convinced. The old guard—the clocklike guys in the powdered wigs and their analytic heirs in university philosophy departments—comes at you with these walls of logic. Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason feels like a perfectly crafted machine. Derrida, on the other hand—what even is Derrida?

I kept with it, though, and started a master’s program at NYU where those nuggets I’d salvaged were the currency of the realm. I wasn’t sure what kept drawing me to this body of books that I didn’t even like reading. Was it the satisfaction of working through something hard? The desire for a more imaginative way of processing the world than other, more systemic intellectual fields offered? Or was I just a poser, running toward the radical and weird because it made me feel cosmopolitan or avant-garde? In the second semester of my program, I took a class called “Major Texts in Critical Theory” that finally unlocked things for me. Or rather, one of those major texts did the unlocking. As you cannily deduced from the title of this post, it was Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

Benjamin was a German Jew at a time and place where that combination deadly, for him and many others. In September of 1940, he attempted to flee to the US from his adopted home in Nazi-occupied France, but his party was turned back at the Spanish border. His hopes of escape seemingly dashed, Benjamin killed himself. “Theses,” written earlier that year, was his last major work.

Given the historical moment and Benjamin’s situation within it, the essay’s apocalyptic tone seems wholly appropriate. Its structure—18 numbered theses and two lettered postscripts—might suggest a tight, logical argument, but Benjamin offers quite the opposite. Each thesis is a funnel of dense mystical language where, as Susan Sontag put it, each sentence “had to say everything before the inward gaze of total concentration dissolved the subject before his very eyes.” To put it mildly, this makes his intended meaning difficult to divine. Smart people disagree about whether “Theses” constitutes a renunciation of historical materialism—the Marxist understanding that history is determined by material conditions rather than ideas, deities, or the will of Great Men—or an attempt to redeem it.

I’d always seen this kind of ambiguity as a weakness of Theory. Why couldn’t Benjamin just say what he meant? He’s a fantastic writer, after all. Poetic, even. Maybe it was this realization—that each thesis resembled a cryptic prose poem—that made me start to think about the essay differently. Unless you’re someone who sucks, you don’t complain about poetry not saying what it means. It means in a different way. And so I started to think that maybe Benjamin does, too.

Benjamin wrote “Theses” at what was perhaps Nazism’s high tide. Hitler was still extending his domain, and to the disgust of the Marxist Benjamin, the Soviet Union had entered into a non-aggression pact with Germany. (The Nazis reneged the year after Benjamin’s death with their 1941 invasion of Russia.) And the spread of totalitarianism entailed the destruction of people and communities who didn’t fit within its vision. Benjamin writes:

Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. […] Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. […] There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.

By my reading, he’s suggesting that the big stories that countries and societies tell themselves—"metanarratives” in the theoretical parlance—are inherently authoritarian. They are able to offer an illusion of continuity only by strategically obscuring the conquered, by “tread[ing] over those who are sprawled underfoot.” Benjamin felt that he would soon be among the sprawled, and this, I think, profoundly shapes his understanding of how history can and should be interpreted.

Think about your high school history book. If it was anything like mine, it was essentially a recitation of how we—“we”—got from there to here, allowing, as Benjamin puts it, “the consequences of eventualities to run through the fingers like the beads of a rosary.” It shows history’s winners swinging, Tarzan-like, from vine to vine, while those on the jungle floor are passed over in silence.

This is decidedly not the kind of historical project Benjamin wanted to engage in. Seeing such narratives as inherently selective and false, he proposes a radically democratic approach to the past. History shouldn’t be a plod through a museum of victor’s spoils. Instead, it should be a search for the useful, where everyday people—the “working class” for Benjamin—can pick up the shards of what has been and wield them like weapons. Don’t accept the history you’ve been sold. Find the glints of the past that will help you fight for the future. Benjamin:

To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. 

Viewed in this light, Benjamin’s obscure style makes sense. He’s incredibly reluctant to tell you what to think, a compunction that the clocklike analytic philosophers didn’t share. Our friend Kant was happy to tell you what to think about history—that you should celebrate the bloodthirstiness of the conquerors. “Thanks be to Nature, then,” he wrote, “for the incompatibility, for heartless competitive vanity, for the insatiable desire to possess and rule! Without them, all the excellent natural capacities of humanity would forever sleep, undeveloped.” Kant speaks in declarations. Benjamin speaks as a poet, using his own words and the art of others to approach the truth obliquely, letting you find your own meaning. He quotes the mystical poetry of Gerhard Scholem, cites the plays of Bertolt Brecht, and, in the essay’s most famous passage, he meditates on a painting by Paul Klee.

Narrative has no place here, because in this context, narratives are authoritarian. They are the tools of the ruling classes, in which meaning is dictated from author to reader. Narrative tells you what happened and why, foreclosing the reader’s ability to participate in the meaning-making. Benjamin sees narrative as something to be defied, to be compressed to the point that it collapses in on itself. Poetry is democratic. Painting is democratic. Mysticism is democratic. Each exists outside of time and exempt from the temporal chain of causality that characterizes the historicist tradition. As each thesis is impossible to distill into one true or articulatable meaning, the responsibility for interpretation falls on us, the readers. We wrestle with Benjamin’s theses alone in our minds, outside of the jurisdiction of the ruling classes that perpetrate the violence of history, just as Benjamin wrestled with Scholem’s lines and Klee’s paint. In its rejection of the nonmaterial, historical materialism divorced itself from the mystical tradition. Without that influence, leftists cordoned themselves off in the narrative realm, creating counternarratives of exploitation and revolution that, while became as oppressive as the stories they were meant to counter. I read “Theses” as Benjamin’s attempt to restore the liberating atemporality of mysticism to the historical materialist tradition. He is gesturing at a mystic theology that has no need for god.

I came to understand Walter Benjamin as an artist of ideas. And through him, I was able to find what was good in Theory. Maybe its characteristic style—so often so difficult—is chosen for a reason. The style cannot be separated from the arguments presented. The best Theorists are meaning in a different way, one that’s closer to literature than to the clocklike analytic philosophers. Let their words wash over you, then struggle with them and see what you get. The results will vary from person to person. Just as you’re likely to get something from a painting that I don’t, you’re likely to take something from Benjamin that never occurred to me.  

This isn’t, of course, to say that all Theory is good. (What even is Derrida? What even is Avital Ronell? For me, at least, not much.) Not all poems or paintings are good, either, and you and I are likely to disagree on which are and which aren’t. That’s kind of the point. What Benjamin taught me was a different approach to history, to philosophy, to scholarship. He trusts his audience. He expects us to rise to his challenge and meet him halfway. He wants us do to the hard thing, to think and grapple and make up our own minds. And at a time when every news cycle comes with a million pundits and tweeters clamoring to tell you what to think, “Theses” serves as a powerful call to defend your own mental landscape.

Vacation's Over by Travis American

The realization kind of snuck up on me. I knew that it’d been awhile since I’d written any criticism, journalism, or literary non-fiction, but I’d just kind of framed it as a vacation from that part of my brain. Vacations, though, don’t usually last three-and-a-half years. My last substantive essay—this one, about mentors and death and the gray languidness of Berlin—was published in 2015. The last time I really thought in public, Donald Trump was still a joke candidate. 

Looking back, I can tease out a few reasons for the long hiatus. Burnout is the most obvious. In early 2016, I defended a doctoral dissertation about—ahem—critical journalism. In addition to editing the now-defunct Blunderbuss Magazine and writing pieces of my own, I was also researching little magazines like Jacobin, n+1, and The New Inquiry. After I crawled across the finish line and collected my diploma, I was exhausted with the whole business. Even as my creative identity was still wrapped up in Blunderbuss, my interest in actually running it flagged. It was a bad combination, contributing to an unnecessarily long decline up until we formally disbanded last year.

It wasn’t just burnout, though. I wasn’t just tired. Familiarity had bred something approaching contempt. I was increasingly turned off by the prevailing styles of public discourse and discussion, or at least the ones that dominated the corners of the internet I frequented. I deleted my Twitter account because all the point scoring and pile-ons left me resenting even the people I agreed with—even myself. In a trend that’s only deepened since I dropped off the map, art and culture writing tended toward the enforcement of moral orthodoxies. As Wesley Morris ably articulated in the Times last year, for understandable and even righteous reasons, professional and lay critics have tasked themselves with separating the good from the evil, the okay from the not okay. Morris describes the results:

So we wind up with safer art and discourse that provokes and disturbs and shocks less. It gives us culture whose artistic value has been replaced by moral judgment and leaves us with monocriticism. This might indeed be a kind of social justice. But it also robs us of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art. It validates life while making work and conversations about that work kind of dull.

I cosign the whole passage, but that last sentence hits me the hardest. Criticism-as-progressive-catechism might be, in its way, ethically sound, but it’s also tedious, even boring. At its best, criticism (and, for that matter, art) offers insight. By my measure, he rigorous application of predetermined rules isn’t an especially promising way to find it. It produces prefab criticism. Watch a movie’s trailer, and you can probably outline the Slate think piece.

Not all lefty commentators subscribed to a tone of militant solemnity. Chapo Trap House, arguably the torchbearer for a more freewheeling mode of discourse, benefits from a sense of humor. But the podcast retains an absence of doubt and a belligerent negativity, which together create an impulse to destroy and humiliate. As with the moralizers, there’s a case to be made for this approach. But as with the moralizers, it’s not a style of discourse that appeals to me.

Neither of these teams was my team, so I didn’t see a place for myself in the game. I went back to writing fiction, where ideas can be approached obliquely. And more than anything, I turned to photography, where I could make stuff without saying anything at all. It was liberating to work through images, where I didn’t have to claim an opinion and defend it with certitude. (Besides, with so many people already taking on that mantle, was there anything new for me to contribute?)

Still, though, I have ideas about things, and I miss the way writing helps me give those ideas shape and texture. I feel dumber when I don’t write. So lately I’ve been thinking about what kind of commentary or criticism would be congruent with my interests and approach. The first year of my PhD program was meant to be Robbie McClintock’s last as a professor. Feeling appropriately reflective, Robbie taught a class called “My Canon.” His syllabus was made up of works that were formative for him, and he conceptualized the course like this:

Contentions about The Canon do not interest me. Each person, I believe, has a life-long engagement with an emerging canon, uniquely [their] own – other persons, cultural works, places and institutions, challenging problems – matters that appear imbued with a charismatic, compelling authority towards which a person reaches out with aspiration and hope. And for me as an academic, my canon has consisted largely of major texts, which over the years I have felt I must engage, struggle with, and try to appropriate into my understanding of my work and of the circumstances impinging upon its pursuit. 

He essentially invited students to join in as he processed how he became the person he did. To my regret, I didn’t take this class. I didn’t know Robbie yet, though we’d go on to teach together when circumstances drafted him out of retirement. His project, though, appeals to me right now. By its nature, it demanded engagement with works that he finds meaningful. It’s personal, but it also looks outward, to the ideas and perspectives of others. It’s unconcerned with providing a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and more concerned with understanding how a certain work can shape you, for better and for worse.

 On this blog, I’m going to try to do something similar. Each post will be a consideration of a book, movie, image, idea, person, or event that somehow had a significant influence on me. Consider it an intellectual or creative autobiography, delivered in installments. Where Robbie’s course was a meditation on a long and esteemed career, this project is me at 33, cleaning out my mental attic and dusting off whatever might be useful going forward. I’ve spent a few years as something like a recluse, and this is me, somewhat tentatively, writing my way back into the world.