There is no ethical progress, and no strategy, in silence.

So I love–love–Freddie de Boer. There is, given the defensiveness in his writing, obviously a big slice of the American left-liberal blog-o-sphere who absolutely hates him for his politics, or for the way he expresses his politics, or for the timing of his expression of his politics or…something. But I find his engagement with questions of ethics and strategy, his resistance to the fetishization of American machine politics as the sole locus of social change in the directions of justice, his earnest, forthright, sometimes fearless articulation of his own take on various moments—I find all of it inspiring, energizing, so often just on-the-nose. The fact that he is willing to say “maybe browbeating young people isn’t the best way to get people thinking about class and intersectionality on university campuses” while also having the capacity to powerfully express the essential, powerful and sublime irrationality of human generosity in the face of a culture addicted to stories starring homo economicus, is enough to give me some hope about the future of Western civilization.

But I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about jealousy. I simply cannot understand how Freddie writes so much. He is one, maybe two years younger than me. He has published papers, other papers in the works, is almost done his dissertation. He has had to spend most of the six years of his doctorate, unlike my set-up, handling teaching responsibilities alongside his own research, plus attending to various on-campus commitments. It’s clear, from his writing, that he doesn’t succeed in his professional life by unplugging from popular culture, either. Quite to the contrary. His blog posts indicates that he is active on facebook, scouring his friends feeds for signs of the American pop-liberal zeitgeist, that he still finds time to read some fiction, that he has movies and kinds of movies that he likes.

I don’t know how he does it. But I have an inkling. Let’s set aside for a moment whether I am as smart as Freddie, whether I have his analytical capacity. Give me the benefit of the doubt for a moment that I’m a smart guy, that I can tackle and manipulate ideas with the best of them. Okay, so the question is: why am I not producing?

There are to my mind two ways to put the answer. On the one hand, I am tormented, haunted, by the breadth and depth of my ignorance. There is this old joke chart that points that the real gift of learning isn’t so much knowledge as it is ignorance: you may increase the number of “things” you know over time, but the horizon of things of which you are ignorant also expands. Getting how something works, how it really works, always seems nearly within grasp, so that just one more article, one more book, will be all that’s needed to settle the questions that you set off with. It is, beyond this, extremely hard work for the curious mind to remember that not every point of confusion can be explained or explored now; that the journey into the wilderness started with a purpose, and that tracking through it without leaving a trail may mean adventure for you, but is ultimately of no use to anyone else.

The other way of putting it is that in terms of fear rather than distraction. I often feel that the things I want to express are, if not complicated, at least a bit out of left field. It feels to me like it will be a waste of time, or an embarrassment (I can’t even spell embarrassment without a spell check), to write things online or even in publication, that I haven’t fully thought out. Objectively, I think this is garbage: the world is generally full of generous, thoughtful people who want to check their own prejudices and intuitions against those of others. It’s also laughably narcissistic: how many people would really care enough about what I have to say that the relative quality of what I put out matters? Nonetheless, it’s the psycho-cognitive situation in which I find myself.

So wish me luck. I am going to try and put out more rough drafts–more missives from the wilderness. But I am also going to try sending stuff that feels incomplete for potential publication. It’s like my masters’ supervisor always said. Academic work is an iterative process.

In the end, there is no ethical progress, and no strategy, in silence.

1 comment to Out of the wilderness

  • Catherine


    It is indeed a wonderful thing to be able to convince yourself to send/show/render public what you would still consider ‘drafts’ or not-thoroughly-completed-pieces. It is a thing, to contemplate your own ignorance and feel it expanding as you do so. It is also a thing to take chances and confront your reflexion to the outside world. As you said, ‘iterative process’ is the concept to keep in mind.

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