The re-entry into professional life from sabbatical has been, to put it euphemistically, uneven, but as I’ve observed to several friends and colleagues, it’s been much better—if even busier—since we all returned physically to campus and started spending time with each other in person instead of demanding things and time from one another exclusively by email. (Has anyone written about the implications for “online education” of how easy, how frighteningly easy, it is to resent the disembodied subjects of email missives?) For the past two weeks, my days have been long, my sleep has been little, but I’ve enjoyed the time and energy I’ve spent with people.
Yesterday, for example, after 3 hours of meeting with students (who are all doing interesting, stimulating work of one kind or another) I managed to catch two fantastic lectures. The first was by my colleague Henry Giroux, who gave a riveting talk, “Where Is the Outrage? Critical Pedagogy in Dark Times,” to kick off the year’s Distinguished Scholar Speaker Series in Critical Pedagogy here at McMaster. Henry’s style is exactly one of the things I, for one, need in these “dark times”—it reminds me that the kinds of pleasure we manage to take in each other’s work, and company, and ideas, as colleagues and mentors and students and teachers, is not incidental or superfluous to the task of learning but essential to it. When institutional and bureaucratic rhythms leach the joy out of our occupation and rechannel it into the mundane rage that simmers below the professional surface of each workday, we’ve already been intellectually incapacitated. Henry makes me want to think more about the intimacy between “outrage”—or finding modes of expressing and collectively organizing rage rather than subjectively absorbing it—and elation in intellectual contexts.
And then I caught a bus and a train to Toronto to hear the first speaker of the year at the Toronto Eighteenth-Century Group, Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, who gave a very different, equally riveting talk on “Milton’s Hair: A (Long) Eighteenth-Century Entanglement.” I love Lewis’s work and though we’ve worked together long-distance (she’s on the ECF editorial board, and an outstanding peer reviewer) I’d never met her in person. To spend time in a room with her, and hear her read and speak, was delightful, and another occasion to think about the value of “impersonating” our own scholarship—even while thinking, as her paper urged us to do, about those parts of us that have the capacity, even tendency, to detach themselves from our persons and pursue a social and cultural life of their own, guiding some version of us into collective experience and long-term cultural memory. On the bus home I scrawled some excited notes for my Castle of Otranto chapter, on abject material and social jouissance, or, why we like to play with hair, feathers, shells, and letters. Those of you who know me well may recall that a year ago Otranto led me down a rabbit-hole about feathers, which led to my going to Europe and taking hundreds of photos of paintings of dead birds—well, Milton’s hair has led me back to Walpole’s plumes, so hang on tight.
When I go to Toronto for the Eighteenth-Century Group, I leave straight from work and don’t get to see Rooby before she goes to bed. Last night as I was reading Elena Ferrante in bed around midnight, Rooby woke up crying from a bad dream and called for her Baba from the door of her room. He was already asleep so I went to her instead, and she said, through her tears, “Mama, you’re back? What did you learn?”