Requiescat in pace: Christopher Alexander

Christopher Alexander is dead. Let us remember his marvelous public debate with monstrosity-builder Peter Eisenmann, which years ago gave me the courage to finally say what everyone knows in their heart: that modern and postmodern architecture is, by and large, bullshit.

PETER EISENMANN: I was reminded of this when I went to Spain this summer to see the town hall at Logrono by Rafael Moneo. He made an arcade where the columns were too thin. It was profoundly disturbing to me when I first saw photographs of the building. The columns seemed too thin for an arcade around the court of a public space. And then, when I went to see the building, I realized what he was doing. He was taking away from something that was too large, achieving an effect that expresses the separation and fragility that man feels today in relationship to the technological scale of life, to machines, and the car-dominated environment we live in. I had a feeling with that attenuated colonnade of precisely what I think you are talking about. Now, I am curious if you can admit, in your idea of wholeness, the idea of separation—wholeness for you might be separation for me. The idea that the too-small might also satisfy a feeling as well as the too-large. Because if it is only the too-large that you will admit, then we have a real problem.


CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER: Unfortunately, I don’t know the building you just described. Your description sounds horrendous to me. Of course, without actually seeing it, I can’t tell. But if your words convey anything like what the thing is actually like, then it sounds to me that this is exactly this kind of prickly, weird place, that for some reason some group of people have chosen to go to nowadays. Now, why are they going there? Don’t ask me.

PE: I guess what I am saying is that I believe that there is an alternate cosmology to the one which you suggest. The cosmology of the last 300 years has changed and there is now the potential for expressing those feelings that you speak of in other ways than through largeness—your boundaries—and the alternating repetition of architectural elements. You had 12 or 15 points. Precisely because I believe that the old cosmology is no longer an effective basis on which to build, I begin to want to invert your conditions—to search for their negative—to say that for every positive condition you suggest, if you could propose a negative you might more closely approximate the cosmology of today. In other words, if I could find the negative of your 12 points, we would come closer to approximating a cosmology that would deal with both of us than does the one you are proposing.

CA : Can we just go back to the arcade for a moment? The reason Moneo’s arcade sounded prickly and strange was, when I make an arcade I have a very simple purpose, and that is to try to make it feel absolutely comfortable—physically, emotionally, practically, and absolutely. This is pretty hard to do. Much, much harder to do than most of the present generation of architects will admit to. Let’s just talk about the simple matter of making an arcade. I find in my own practical work that in order to find out what’s really comfort able, it is necessary to mock up the design at full scale. This is what I normally do. So I will take pieces of lumber, scrap material, and I’ll start mocking up. How big are the columns? What is the space between them? At what height is the ceiling above? How wide is the thing? When you actually get all those elements correct, at a certain point you begin to feel that they are in harmony.

Of course, harmony is a product not only of yourself, but of the surroundings. In other words, what is harmonious in one place will not be in another. So, it is very, very much a question of what application creates harmony in that place. It is a simple objective matter. At least my experience tells me, that when a group of different people set out to try and find out what is harmonious, what feels most comfortable in such and such a situation, their opinions about it will tend to converge, if they are mocking up full-scale, real stuff. Of course, if they’re making sketches or throwing out ideas, they won’t agree. But if you start making the real thing, one tends to reach agreement. My only concern is to produce that kind of harmony. The things that I was talking about last night—I was doing empirical observation about—as a matter of fact, it turns out that these certain structures need to be in there to produce that harmony.

The thing that strikes me about your friend’s building—if I understood you correctly—is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.

PE: That is correct.

CA: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Jainism is one of the oldest continuously practiced religions in the world. It has three main pillars: ahiṃsā (non-violence), anekāntavāda (non-absolutism), and aparigraha (ascetism).

To practice ahiṃsā, orthodox Jains commit to vegetarianism (as well as a prohibition on root vegetables, to avoid killing plants). Many cover their mouths with cloth masks to avoid inhaling tiny insects as they breathe. Some sweep the ground in front of them as they walk, so they don’t crush anything crawling on the ground beneath their feet.

Anekāntavāda boils down to a kind of absolutist relativism, a firm belief in the inability to know or speak the truth. Of course, this is usually deployed against other people who claim to know the truth in order to defend Jainist doctrines.

Aparigraha is the belief that nobody truly possesses anything, and an avoidance of greediness or taking excessive pleasure in material things. This is complicated by a curious sociological fact:

Jains are more highly educated and wealthier than Indians overall, and few identify as lower caste. Roughly a third (34%) of Jain adults have at least a college degree, compared with 9% of the general public, according to India’s 2011 census. Moreover, the vast majority of Jains fall into India’s top wealth quintiles, according to India’s National Family and Health Survey.

A meeting at work today: coworkers (well-educated young people, all) wracked with roiling anxiety about the possibility of mask mandates coming to an end, the justification for their perpetual continuance constantly invoking “protection”: the need to protect others, the vulnerable, the immunocompromised, “our communities.” The request that mask policies continue until at least September—after that, “maybe” they could be lifted. Frustration expressed that the conversation was too “analytic,” and that we truly didn’t know anything. A refusal to accept that we are probably going to get sick, and will probably get others sick, and that a piece of fabric is unlikely to stop this. (But the ascetic wants to suffer, and wants others to see it.)

Later: introduced myself to a new coworker, who immediately asked me “my pronouns.” The sweep of the broom on the walkway.


Joseph Bottum:

And yet, even as he develops such ideas in his fiction, he seems less to think them than to feel or even suffer them—wincing as they crash from side to side in his brain like dense boulders of thought. Melville was not a systematically educated man: though backward in his early schooling, he taught himself literature by devouring haphazard naval libraries during the four years of his sailing adventure. And his lack of education meant that he had only the crudest intellectual tools with which to try to break his ideas open. […] He knew the Bible well, inheriting from his church-going age an almost unconsciously profound biblical awareness that left Scripture the ground on which his mind invariably walked. But Melville had little else of the kind of general education that might have stocked his brilliant mind with anything beyond the intellectual commonplaces of his day. His typical pattern of writing is to take a hackneyed, obvious notion like the Romantic view of the corrupt city and the innocent country, and twist it into complex, awkward shapes in an attempt to make it express the far denser mood-thought he felt about the city.

Only such a crude, haphazardly educated mind could produce the bizarre marvel that is Moby-Dick. Take it as inspiration.


Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Existentialism and the Philosophy of Existence,” from Hedegger’s Ways:

Jaspers was a psychiatrist and apparently an astonishing, wide-ranging reader. When I first came to Heidelberg as a follower of Jaspers, someone showed me the bench in the Koestersschen Bookstore where Jaspers sat for exactly three hours every Friday morning and had all of the new releases laid out before him. And without exception he ordered a large package of books to be delivered to his house every week. With the self-confidence of an important spirit and the posture of a schooled, critical observer, he was able to find nourishment in any of the diverse areas of scientific research that had some import for philosophy. He was able to mesh a conscience or, better, the conscientiousness of his own thought with the awareness of his own participation in the actual research. This gave him the insight that scientific research meets up with insurmountable boundaries when it encounters the individuality of existence and the obligatoriness of its decisions.

A Response to a Response

Jared Loggins begins his response to my essay in First Thingsabout critical theorist and black studies professor Fred Moten—with an argument for indirect writing drawn from the Caribbean social theorist Edouard Glissant. “The issue at the heart of…Glissant’s Poetics of Relation,” Loggins writes,

has to do with how we relate to, read, and interpret others without reducing everyone and everything to a singular category or standard of experience. What Glissant had in mind was the colonial predicament in which black people had been rendered unintelligible, abnormal, barbaric, and therefore ripe for the forms of education, discipline, and control Westerners believed the situation called for…. What Glissant was suggesting is that it is not necessary to understand everything about the person or persons with whom we are in community. Through the practice of translation, we can come to a reasonably shared sense about what is to be done. We may not agree entirely and some of our experiences and claims may not translate over. But this is the point. We can indeed work out our shared goals while preserving our right to opacity as human beings.

It is precisely this possibility of opacity, Loggins argues, that I attempt to deny Moten in my critique of his deliberately obscure (I charge) prose. I “require transparency” of Moten, and therefore deny him his humanity.

This is one of the many failures I’ve made in comprehending and giving voice to Moten’s project—failures which include (according to Loggins) a suggestion of Moten’s racial inferiority to his co-author, an ignorance of Moten’s “material analysis” in favor of an “abstract theoretical” read of his work, and of denying critiques and contributions of black studies while eliding “the colonial origins and ongoing racial inequalities of classics as a field of study and ‘Great Books’ programs.”

I will not give the suggestion of my supposed racism the dignity of a response: it is a ridiculous, groundless, bad faith accusation, albeit one that I anticipated from Moten’s defenders as one anticipates thunder after lightning. It is the obvious accusation one has to make in such a situation, the big red emergency button always within reach—I can’t even blame him for making it. But I will do my best to respond to the others.

First, on opacity. I am not encountering Moten as a man; I encounter him as a writer, a thinker, a rather public (and richly rewarded) producer of books and ideas. And the kind of opacity Loggins asserts the right to—and which I, too, regard as essential for meaningful human coexistence—needs no defense. It is implicit in the very nature of human communication: every married person knows that no matter how hard one might try, it is impossible for me to become wholly transparent to anyone else. The process of communication itself is a fun house in which thoughts and feelings are distorted by the warped mirrors of speech and gesture. “Not only is the human heart,” Arendt writes in On Revolution, “a place of darkness which, with certainty, no human eye can penetrate; the qualities of the heart need darkness and protection against the light of the public to grow and to remain what they are meant to be, innermost motives which are not for public display.” But Moten’s innermost motives were never up for question; rather, my focus was entirely upon his stature and his work. “To riff on Glissant,” Loggins writes, “I think a more appropriate standard of evaluating the radical intellectual’s political commitments is to look not just at how they say things but also at what they do.” This was, of course, the focus of my essay, and the substance of my criticism.

Implicit, however, in Loggins’ invocation of Glissant is the relation of colonizer to colonized: I, the colonizing power, am imposing a demand for transparency upon Moten, the colonial subject. Obviously I reject this assessment, and point instead to a few sociological facts (a “material analysis,” if you will): that Moten is a product of the most elite reaches of American higher education, a resounding success by any metric of assessment, the recipient of countless honors and awards. Mine is the first piece of negative criticism of him to appear anywhere, and is outnumbered by countless glowing profiles and sympathetic interviews. Call it superfluous, wrongheaded, or just plain stupid—but an expression of colonial force against the subaltern my essay most manifestly is not.

(Notice here that all of Loggins’ quotations of Moten come from The Undercommons, a work I praise for its readability. Any elaboration of his project beyond this book is done without reference to his own words: rather, the defenses of illegibility and opacity happen in rather clear prose, even while criticizing my insistence upon clarity. A curious phenomenon!)

Criticizing opacity is not elitist by nature, because opacity is not simply a “weapon of the weak”: it has often been used by elites (self-styled or otherwise) to protect themselves from the rabble. Arthur Meltzer, in his book Philosophy Between the Lines, identifies four species of esoteric writing employed throughout the entire history of written philosophy, from the Greeks through the Medieval scholastics (including the earlier Islamic inheritors of Aristotle) up to the twentieth century:

  1. defensive esotericism (to protect the philosopher from the rage of the multitude, especially in religious matters)
  2. protective esotericism (to shield ordinary people from radical ideas that challenge the ingrained prejudices of traditional political societies)
  3. pedagogic esotericism (to provide a proper method for educating future philosophers)
  4. political esotericism (an Enlightenment invention, to gradually make the populace more rational, albeit with some temporary accommodation to defensive esotericism)

Philosophers of the Ancient and Medieval world had no interest in “enlightening the masses,” and understood the activity of philosophy to be fundamentally and eternally at odds with the political life they nonetheless depended upon for the ability to pursue philosophy. Esotericism was a wall that kept the domain of the few separate from that of the many, thus retaining the dignity and integrity of philosophy while protecting the wider political community from its dangers. The moderns, on the other hand, believed philosophy to be a means of improving the estate of mankind, and subordinated the activity of the few to the benefit of the many. The earlier forms of philosophic esotericism thus atrophied, leaving only one with any legitimacy: that which stimulated the rational capacities of the hoi polloi, nudging their natures ever closer toward reason.

As might be obvious, the Ancient and Medieval approaches to esotericism were fundamentally aristocratic. Only those gifted few, who possessed not only the requisite intelligence but also the leisure time necessary for the kind of careful reading needed to detect esoteric clues, were capable of true understanding. They shored up a community of the wise few, who spoke freely among each other away from the prying eyes of the many: all others were condemned to the outer darkness of customary belief and conventional opinion. The philosophers cultivated, that is to say, opacity.

The world is full of vernacular language-domains that are difficult, if not impossible, for the uninitiated to penetrate. This is the nature of human community-formation: every inside entails the exclusion of the outside, every “us” implies a “them.” It is perfectly sensible that a community that feels its boundaries to be under attack would defend them, shore them up against the threat—and in many cases, would be completely justified in doing so. But the justifiability depends upon the nature of the community. A government, colonial power, or other elite caste employing brutal force to impose legibility upon its subjects—as Glissant explains, and a dynamic that anthropologist James C. Scott has likewise devoted his career to exploring—should disgust us; but groups of subjects and citizens demanding transparency of their government, colonial power, or elite caste—demanding legibility and transparency, in other words, and the destabilization of their rarified vernacular language-domain—should not.

Academics, of course, do not always wield political power. But one’s position in the academy does grant power to shape the intellectual life of the university, and often of the country at large. In the academy, prestige enjoys a reciprocal relationship with attention, engagement, and assignment; it is, in other words, a kind of celebrity, albeit one within the bounded, selectively permeable domain of the academy. And it is justified, however tired a gesture, to criticize Ivory Tower illegibility, and suggest that perhaps there is a better way of doing things—especially when such illegibility is explained as part of a plan to make a better world (rather than, say, just the kind of thing philosophers do to keep themselves from being persecuted, in utter indifference to the living conditions of the many).

Part of what initially drew me to Moten concerned certain similarities in our respective biographies. Like Moten, I was a smart and sensitive kid in a working-class home; like Moten, I went off to college (though Marshall University instead of Harvard) after high school and dropped out after my first, largely unattended year. (He went finished his degree and continued to Berkeley; I became an anarchist crustpunk hopping freight trains between summit protests, a dweller of the vernacular intellectual world of American radical counterculturalism.) Like Moten, the taste of the neoliberal university I eventually got left me, simultaneously, ever hungrier for understanding and revolted by the material reality of academic existence under neoliberalism’s aegis: permanent precarity and indebtedness, “publish or perish,” the demands for productivity and professionalization, the totalizing anxiety of competition, etc.

Sometime in the early 2000s, while squatting an abandoned house in San Francisco, I briefly formed a reading group at an anarchist bookstore on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, alongside a factory worker and high school teacher. I joined a few of Aragorn!’s legendary discussion groups at Berkeley’s Long Haul, mostly of strange zines he discovered and translated during his travels around Europe. I fell in love with avant-garde literature (Balestrini, Bolaño) while living on a farm in southern Kentucky, and (Kertész, Perec) while working in a breakfast restaurant in Lexington; with Adorno and Benjamin became my friends while I worked at a bar in Lousiville. Perhaps the single most influential book in my life is a book called Nihilist Communism, written by two former UK postal workers and passed (much like The Undercommons) between friends in America, which disabused me of a whole host of assumptions central to the psychology of leftism, most notably of the question of agency, and reminded me that politics must be in the service of, say, birdwatching. Long before I reentered and was eventually reshaped (into a person who writes, mostly) by the university, I had been a fringe learner of fringe texts in fringe spaces (the most irritating occasional visitors of which, without fail, were graduate students with heads full of theory). These things matter to me more than any university classroom ever will.

Which is to say that my essay did in fact propose a “material” course of action to counter the wretchedness of the neoliberal order and the rapacious, degrading neoliberal university, one just as oriented toward the realization of a “different world” as the black studies that Moten and Loggins craft from their respective campuses. Allow me to repeat myself:

We can escape the shallowness of modern life into the narrowness of ethnic groupings or the ranks of a mythical revolutionary subject; or we can turn away from all this faction and folly and strive for the freedom and togetherness in the light of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good. We can build thieves’ dens that feed upon and wage war against the university; or we can build communities that prize learning and edification for their own sake. And we can speak of the need to “refuse an exclusive and exclusionary ontic capacity or to move outside the systemic oscillation between the refusal and the imposition of such capacity”—or, perhaps, we can discover the freedom found in speaking simply, the generosity of an earnest question, and the joy of fellowship with no scorn or condescension.

This is not, as Loggins suggests, a “retreat into the psychic life of the mind.” This is a concrete praxis of living well with others, sans bullshit, without pretensions to utopian schemes for the radical transformation of a society—a society that has time and time again proven stubbornly resistant to such schemes. It is strategy within the limits of agency. Friendship is real; fellowship is real; every conversation is an opportunity for collaboration, for a genuine act of thinking-together that can occasion a radically new thing in the world, something nobody could have predicted. To deny this is to deny the spontaneity and capacity for action that is the very essence of human existence. In the presence of a true friend, with whom one (per Aristotle) “has eaten salt together,” one of the rare generous minds (per Kojève, to Strauss) from whom one can actually learn something—who gives a shit about the neoliberal university?

So it is obvious—to me, at least—that none of the desirable things need exist there. The university is not a prison; you are not obligated to “struggle against it”; it can quite easily be escaped, and less easily—but still successfully—ignored. It is not the only place from which intellectual work could possibly be done. (What greater insult to all of those who read and think and conspire with no connection to it at all?) People gather and think together in churches, libraries, living rooms, break rooms at their job. Walk into a coffee shop (or, as Chris Arnade has detailed, a McDonald’s) in nearly any mid-sized city in America and you’ll likely bump into a group of people earnestly and thoughtfully studying the Bible. As I noted in my essay (and which Loggins interprets as some kind of dogwhistle), the democratic West—that is, the actual regime and culture we inhabit; the worldly theater in which our lives play out; and the tradition of which every American, like it or not, is an inheritor—has a long history of vernacular intellectualism being done by all manner of people at the edges, one that—despite the triumph of entertainment, that great soporific of the mind—has never stopped.

Which is, ultimately, my point. The Undercommons, as conceived by Moten and Harney, has no room for those who have never stepped foot on a college campus. It is predicated upon acceptance: it takes for granted the byzantine apparatus of standardized testing, entrance essay composition, and application submission, rituals utterly foreign to the world I came from and which most people I’ve ever known simply don’t want to mess with. And it is, despite its own self-conception, aristocratic. The type of opacity Moten and his fellows deploys constitutes a group not of beleaguered racialized subjects striving for a better life free from oppression (that hated “floating signifier” again!), but of professional artists and academics building out their own vernacular intellectual world of the art gallery, faculty office, and lecture hall.

I am not against this in principle. Many of the writers most important to me believed to be participating in something like this—but despite their efforts, their work fell into the hands of fringe readers and thinkers who found in their researches serious attempts to think through those fundamental questions and problems that bear upon all human beings regardless of time or place, questions whose urgency is often most poignantly felt by those sitting at the bottom of the world’s hierarchies. Questions like: What is a human being? How should one live? What is the proper relationship between self, community, and world? What is justice? What is God? The posing of such questions in frank, direct terms is an invitation to anyone who wishes to think through such matters to do so. It is a way of inviting into the ranks of the few—those who wish to pursue philosophia, a life devoted to the love and pursuit of wisdom—any from the many who are interested in, and capable of, reasoning together.

Updating one’s underdog consciousness in light of unexpected success is difficult, and I know the challenge well: going from frustrated, underemployed PhD reject to somewhat-widely-published essayist and future philosophy graduate student over the span of two years has left me with serious existential whiplash. I have a good friend who regularly chides me that the chip I continue to bear on my shoulder is increasingly unnecessary and counterproductive: with success comes responsibility, and the need to accept criticism as a sign of being taken seriously—that is, of success. (She advised me against writing any more about this; I am stupidly ignoring her wise counsel.) It is hard to know how use such responsibility prudently, and how best to speak honestly and truthfully about oneself and the world. But one who has achieved such a level of success—even that as meager as my own—should nonetheless, I believe, be oriented by such a sense of responsibility. And dissembling about, or deliberately mystifying, one’s success and level of influence is a kind of intellectual sin.[1]

Liberté, egalité, and fraternité are no longer especially sexy or compelling ideas for Americans (however urgent others elsewhere continue to find them), and thus my original essay perhaps failed on the level of persuasion. Fellowship has no revolutionary subject; one cannot easily convene an academic conference at Columbia University on what it’s like to talk to a friend. The True, the Beautiful, and the Good have long been less seductive than salaciousness and militancy. It is always an absurdity to make public arguments for, in Ivan Illich’s words, “a place where fools can gather.” But I’m glad to be absurd.

Loggins concludes by suggesting that my objection to pseudo-radical academic jargon is a kind of bourgeois hatred of messiness, that my appeal for clarity from star intellectuals is a kind of disgust reaction to the “noisy chorus of the undercommons.” I hope, at this point, that such an accusation appears laughable. I am, however, indifferent to “abolition”: the universities, increasingly eager to liquidate their philosophy, literature, and humanities departments, are doing a good enough job at this without my help. So climb down into the noisy chorus of our undercommons—among the mothers preparing dinner to audiobooks of Victorian literature; truckers whose cabs are filled with the sound of literary classics and history podcasts; bike couriers with GEDs and shelves full of Kierkegaard; autistic computer programmers with a passion for Vitruvius; soldiers reading Hegel in communes full of exiles; Dominican immigrants in New York discovering Plato in a pile of trash—and ask them the purpose of their studies, and one suspects they’ll reply in unison: “wisdom.”

Peter Handke:

The house of strength is in the other’s face. Here and now is the festival of gratitude. So let it not be said of you that you failed to take advantage of peace: let your labor work wonders—pass it on. But only those who love pass it on: love just one—that suffices for all. In loving you, I awake to myself. Even when most can’t be uplifted, be upliftable. Avert your eyes from the bestial two-legged creatures. Be real. Follow the caravan music. Walk until the vanishing lines emerge from the confused tangle, so slowly that the world becomes yours anew, so slowly that it becomes clear how it doesn’t belong to you. Yes, always keep your distance from power that parades itself as power. Don’t complain that you’re alone—be even more alone. Pass along the rustling. Describe the horizon, lest the beautiful dissolve into nothing again. Describe life-images to one another. What was good deserves to exist. Take your time—and be creative: transform your inexplicable sighs into mighty songs. Our art must aim to cry out to the heavens! Let no one talk you out of beauty—the beauty we humans create is what shakes us to the core.

[1] An excerpt from an interview I had to cut from the First Things piece:

Observer: Power is obviously an enormously loaded concept. What’s it like to receive an award like the MacArthur grant and ostensibly accrue more social and literal capital?

Moten: I’ll answer in kind of roundabout way, because there was this other thing, I think it’s ArtReview or Art-something, and they have a “Power 100” or a “Hot 100.” But they don’t really talk to you about it; they just put you in it. You have no choice. And what I found is that I have no idea what that actually means. I don’t know what it means to have power, or whatever the kind of power it is that I supposedly have in the art world seems very different than the kind of power that an artist would have or that, you know, a big curator would have or gallery owner or somebody like that. So, it’s not that I’m saying I don’t have it; I just don’t know how, what it is and how it works, you know?

I hope that if I were ever given nearly a million dollars and admitted into the ranks of MacArthur “geniuses,” I’d have a much better answer to this question than “Well, I don’t know.”

Rolling On

On the way home from work: a lighted third floor window of a darkened building, the warm sound of a violin. In the age before ours, I could project myself into such a room by means of the imagination: the ascent up the staircase, the light pouring out the slow crack of the door as the music grows louder, and the stranger I would meet inside were all waiting at the other end of a daydream. Things, however, have changed. Passing the window and its music, the pictures no longer came to me, and I could feel only a dull thud as my mind crashed into piece after piece of the intricate architecture of prohibition that characterizes life in the Covidian megalopolis.

I have never been one for big cities. I came of age in Huntington, West Virginia, a postindustrial piedmont town in a river valley with a few hundred thousand people and little to do. The city was largely residential, and of the few shops downtown even fewer were interesting, so I spent my teen years wandering the streets as if they were paths through a forest: the endeavor was primarily physical and aesthetic, meant for observing the world and wearing myself out. Hardly anyone walks in a city like Huntington, so wandering offered the benefit of solitude. I ruminated on inchoate teenage thoughts while hiking up hills in Ritter Park, discovered strange new neighborhoods tucked in hollers at the edge of town, and rested my legs near the banks of the Ohio River. Perhaps because there was nothing to do and nobody was watching, so much felt possible: the city felt more like a natural than a social object, and I took to it like a fisherman to the sea.

But I am told—or have maybe just picked up in books and movies—that megalopolis has long emanated a different kind of pervasive and ever-present sense of possibility, flowing from the bustle of commerce and the spirit of civic togetherness nourished by parks and squares. This sense of potential has long driven young people to leave the comfort and familiarity of their old lives behind, hurl themselves into financial and social precarity, and move to where they know not a single friendly soul, all on the whiff of a promise. I hear stories of the bustle and spirit of the Hyde Park of yore—but in the Chicago of today, lived beneath the aegis of the pandemic, it has been decidedly snuffed out. On pause, maybe. But still, there is nowhere to steal into out of the cold, no opportunities for spontaneity or following one’s curiosity, no opportunities for chance encounters with friendly strangers. The public world has been broken apart, leaving only private lives conducted in parallel. Even at work, my coworkers hover strangely far away from each other, like social workers afraid of their client’s smell. Entering a shop means strapping a lie to your face, showing heretofore sensitive information to a stranger; often it’s unlawful to enter if you haven’t made an appointment online in advance. Chicago is one of America’s many testing grounds for the absolute domination of the protocol, the total regulation of human life according to the dictates of managers. Consider the always-increasing specificity of the ubiquitous signage, from “Please wear a mask” to “Customers must wear a face covering over their nose and mouth at all times unless eating or drinking.”

But unlike the Huntington of my youth, there’s no opportunity here for genuine solitude. This city is full of people, but hardly anyone speaks to one another—the mask and the smartphone form a synergy of antisociality. It’s the biggest city I’ve ever lived in and the loneliest place I’ve ever been. Add to this the undeniable danger of South Side Chicago, where the rate of violent crime has spiked to levels unseen in decades: nearly everyone I know knows someone who has been mugged; a few, someone who’s been rendered a corpse. In the protests and riots of last summer, at the same time police were kicking people out of public parks and maintaining barricades to keep bikers and joggers off the lakefront, every single grocery store and drug store for miles around Hyde Park had been looted, making prescription medication and basic necessities impossible to obtain for weeks. But there’s also a vague, heavy feeling that it’s illegal to say any of this out loud, or to admit that for much of the past two years living here has been scary. As bodegas were being torched across the city last year, neighborhood phone and clothing stores were raided in smash-and-grabs, and entire neighborhoods were systematically plundered, my wife and I sat in our apartment and wondered: What next? When will this end? Will it?

So I looked down from the window, continued my journey home, and enjoyed the last remnants of the violin’s song as it faded in the distance. Several silhouettes passed and disappeared into the night. A man walked by smoking a cigarette and the acrid smoke was like a message from another age, bringing a sense of nostalgia and reassurance. At the end of Moby-Dick, Ishmael says of the wreckage of the Pequod sinking into the darkness of the ocean: “all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Deep in my bones I know that every day bring less chance of walking this back, that the bad parts will keep getting worse—but sometimes catastrophe is an opportunity to start again from the beginning. Until then, I guess, we’ll just have to keep rolling on.

What is College?

For Mattie—hope this helps

College is a whole lot of things, most of them bad. Your classmates will be going to college for three main reasons. First, because of the vague feeling that they are supposed to, implanted in them by teachers, parents, and television shows. The desire, in other words, for “The College Experience.” Second, because they believe it will help them make money, either affording them upward mobility into a higher economic bracket or, if they’re already well-off, giving them the means of staying in the upper class. Third, sports.

These three reasons for going to college translate into three of the main purposes of college, especially big state universities (like the University of Memphis). Here are a few things you might say college “is for,” on account of these reasons. First, as a very expensive recreation center for teenagers, a place for pursuing the youthful pleasures of parties, drugs, and sex. Second, as a workforce training center, producing a vast array of different kinds of managers and technicians. (Most “practical” skills—carpentry, plumbing, how to work an X-ray machine, etc.—are taught at community colleges and other kinds of training centers; these are great programs and the pursuits they train are noble. 4-year colleges and universities, on the other hand, mostly produce people who become lawyers and professionals with titles like “Associate Project Developer.”) Third, a multi-billion-dollar sports entertainment complex that has nothing to do with—and in most cases, is actively hostile to—the academics of the institution.

Universities have a bunch of other purposes, however: a collection of high-level research institutes for experimental science, mostly physics and neurobiology; a feeder for the exploitative academic publishing industry, which slaps multi-hundred-dollar pricetags on books and articles while paying the authors nothing; a money laundering operation where billions of dollars of federal loan money (not to mention all the foreign capital provided by international students) are soaked up and transformed into who knows what. Smaller liberal arts colleges have less of the first of these, but just as much of the second and third. Spend any time on a big university campus, however, and you’ll be surrounded mostly by these kinds of activities. Genuine learning is a minority position.

Which brings me to the fourth reason for going to college: actually thinking about, reading about, learning about stuff. Despite what you will hear from almost literally everybody, these activities are good for their own sake. There is no reason for learning beyond the fact that done properly, it contributes to a richer and deeper life. Learning about the important things is tough, and often necessitates a teacher, who at the very least can help you figure out what and how to learn. But for many (if not most) professors, teaching is just part of their job, and their real focus is on “research”: writing articles and books about whatever subject they are supposedly an “expert” in. This is usually not their fault, but has to do with the way the academic job market works: professors are demanded to “publish or perish”; in many cases keeping a job depends upon publishing articles and books and has little to do with their skills as an educator.

But in most of these institutions, there exists some dedicated professor—or group of professors—who cares about asking questions that pertain to the permanent problems of being a human being: how we should live, how we find meaning in the world, how old books might help us see these problems and find ways to solve or at least understand them. These professors care about the art of teaching, and their interest in students and their willingness to engage in discussion rather than just lecturing distinguishes them from the other group of indifferent researchers. This fourth purpose of college is the one of least interest to most students and professors and the hardest to actually pursue at a school—but is the most valuable one. And the places that still carry out this kind of learning are precious and rare.

One term you’re likely to run into when talking to people about college is “The Humanities.” This is usually referring to a collection of academic disciplines that concern “the humane sciences,” which is what we used to call the study of things outside the purview of such “natural sciences” as biology, chemistry, physics, etc. Academic disciplines and majors lumped into “The Humanities” usually include English, creative writing, theater, history, philosophy, Western Classics (the study of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations), anthropology and archaeology, religion, various languages, etc. Hardly anyone can really articulate what “The Humanities” are for anymore, and if you ask, nine out of ten answers will have something to do with making the world a better place or challenging stuffy old understandings of the world that we don’t like anymore. But however noble these goals might be, they still miss the point.

“The Humanities” are important because they allow for focused, disciplined inquiry of what it means to be a human person—not just as an organism, as the biologists might have it, but as a thinking, feeling, loving self, who must make decisions about how to act both individually and with others. They provide room for questioning the ways we live today, and regard anything human beings have ever done—writing, art, ways of building, methods of burial, whatever—as potential sources of wisdom for how we might live otherwise. The ethos of the Humanities can be summed up by a famous aphorism by the second-century Roman playwright Terence: “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” A twelfth-century manuscript on astronomy may be just as valuable to our understanding of human life as the ruins of a prehistoric city, or a style of clay pot construction in ancient Crete, or a quietly brilliant book published 50 years ago by a relative nobody. Different fields have different focuses, and some demand more disciplinary narrowness than others. But they all agree that human life as it is lived is something to be examined, and that carrying out this examination makes our lives richer.

Obviously these kinds of investigations can happen elsewhere than in a college or university: there are countless brilliant readers, writers, and thinkers pursuing these kinds of researches all over the world who have no affiliation with any institution of higher education. But there are some colleges where smart and gracious professors have dedicated their lives to preserving a space for this kind of inquiry. These places are not necessarily the “best” schools: Harvard, Yale, and all the big fancy Ivy League universities are, and have been for a long time, mostly places where the upper-class get the credentials they need to stay upper-class. But there are lots of little schools, and little departments in bigger schools, around the country doing a very special and valuable thing that would be of benefit to you. And these are places where you will also find yourself among other people on the hunt for the truth, with whom you can talk, think, plan, and forge lifelong friendships that keep the fire of learning lit forever.

Hopefully this lends a bit of clarity to an otherwise very confusing subject. I love you, I’m insanely proud of and excited for you, and I’m so lucky to be able to help you navigate this next chapter in your life.


They all agreed that the age was gray and dull, and time felt cheap and endless, as if continually extruded out of a machine. The men were sad and listless, too scared to admit their loneliness for fear of breaking their own hearts. They watched boxing matches, played video games, and gave themselves extraordinary chests with barbell exercises and strict dieting. But nobody was happy. And the women wrote essays about love and breakups, and others about women writing about love and breakups, and cried alone or with one another about their lives not living up to what they imagined. They bought expensive little dogs and wore skin-tight leggings and hated how much they loved the attention from ugly strangers. All of them agreed—the women and men both—that someone needed to do something, but nobody could say just what.