I’m writing a book. Well, I’m actually writing two books, sort of, but I’m not ready to talk about any of that right now. Mostly, I want to talk about failure.
In the process of looking through notes of projects past for one of these books I’m working on, I came across the second revision of my dissertation. Following my grad school career, I re-wrote, almost from scratch, my dissertation for publication twice. It was twice rejected. Following the second rejection, I decided it was time to let that one go and move on to other things. I was as happy as one can be with the dissertation; I was less happy with my re-writes. I had the sense that I was cramming too much into them. The immediate years following graduation were an awkward time for me, academically, and while I know I produced some good work then (or at least did some good research that lead to better work down the road), I don’t think those dissertation revisions were my best work. Not by a long shot.
Nevertheless, skimming over some of the stuff I wrote for that second revision, I had that moment of, “huh, there’s some interesting bits in here. I wonder if I could revisit this, spruce it up, and see if I can resurrect it from the dead.” That thought was short-lived. I then looked at the peer review feedback I got when it was rejected and was reminded how much work would be required to do the resurrecting. Pro tip: once you’ve let a project go, don’t go back and read the negative criticism. It’ll just depress you.
I’m a believer in failure. By that I mean that I think there’s some value in working your ass off on something, putting it out there, and then falling on your face. You might learn something. You might discover what you’re capable of and what you’re not. You might be able to take some of that and pour it into another project.
But let’s be honest. It also blows.
I really have no sense of what being a “success” in this field would look like. I recognize that, from a certain point of view, I have some sort of success. If anything, I have a job, which is a lot more than some of my friends and colleagues can say, trapped in adjunct hell. But does “having a job” count as success? Shouldn’t there be a book out there with my name on the cover? How about tenure? Or, on those rare instances when Buddhism pops up in the news, would those who get reporter phone calls be considered successes? What about keynote speeches at flashy x-Buddhist conferences? This kind of stuff can drive a person crazy, and I’m fairly convinced that being driven crazy is an occupational hazard. Not one unique to academia, to be sure, but it seems to be an important part of being an academic to the extent that the filed is defined by intellectual output and achievements that are all relative, arbitrary, subjective, and unevenly applied. Success, whatever it might mean, is fuzzy.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that since one’s success is based on sometimes unknown or arbitrary criteria including intellectual output, and since intellectual output is accomplished by some fuzzy combination of personal effort and the vagaries of the publishing world, when you fail, if you’re like me, it’s hard not to let that failure in some way define you.
I’ve read such confessional literature as this from folks in other fields — mostly creative or artistic — confessions that speak to the way in which failure turns into self-doubt. In my case, this manifests itself as an inability to get stuff done, turning into a proverbial deer in headlights while sitting before the blank page. Whatever successes I’ve had in my career, they are crowded out by voices born of failures and rejections.
I really want to be clear here that I’m not writing this as a confessional, per se, and I’m really really not writing it looking for sympathy. I’m not feeling particularly “woe is me” today, nor do I need the support or encouragement of “the Internet” to see me through the next bought of writer’s block. I’m mostly writing this to reflect on how weird this career of mine is, and to put into words something that I’m sure is a shared experiences, even if it’s not expressed by people very often. An academic career is weird in that you are judged by your intellectual output, and as such there’s a pretty clear connection between one’s sense of self and how one makes a living. If I assembled boxes for a living, and made some particularly crappy box one day, whatever. (No disrespect to box workers.) If I write a particularly bad book (which I did, apparently, twice), then I’m an idiot. And I suspect that a lot of folks in my field have this experience, that despite our usual type-casting as arrogant, pedantic, asshats, we are at times not only wrong, not only spectacular failures, but we know it. And it sucks.
And when that happens, there’s only one thing to do. Get back to work.
The internet is outraged.
There’s always something. Perhaps it’s a celebrity that has said something sexist. Or a minor public intellectual who’s made a bad joke or used a racist slur. I don’t know. But I do know this: first and most importantly, it’s okay it be pissed off and to call people out on their bad behavior; secondly, it probably won’t change anything.
Of the first point, because it’s worth stressing so as to avoid a slew of angry comments and hate mail, when people say and do stupid things, they should be called out on it. A lot of the time, people either don’t know that they’re behaving like assholes or they think they can get away with it; either way, they’re never going to learn unless it’s pointed out to them. So, carry on Twitter. Carry on.
Of the second point, I’m reminded of a YouTube video I was pointed to earlier this week. It was made by a guy who’s spent some time in Buddhist academia (as well as Buddhist monasteries), and his overall point in the video seems to be that people are sort of jerks. To use his term, frauds. That is, they lack personal integrity and behave like pompous, fatuous blow-hards despite the idealizations that academia is supposed to be a place of open dialogue and critical thinking. (Or, conversely, they behave like small-minded ignorant dolts despite the fact that Buddhist monastics are supposed to be, I don’t know, enlightened or something.) The video was not particularly revelatory to me because (a) well, duh; and (b) pointing out how individual people can be less-than-perfect idealized version of the people we want to be is easy. Proverbial shooting fish in a barrel easy. There are always going to be people who behave badly. That’s the nature of game. (And the game, by the way, is samsara.)
So what are you gonna do about it? The answer to that question has to do with making a crucial distinction between personal bad behavior and systems of institutional discrimination. The former is good old fashioned prejudice, prejudice that can come in the form of cultural chauvinism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, racism, ableism, and so forth. This kind of personal prejudice is easy to spot because it comes up in everyday, personal interactions we have with other people. Someone makes a “dumb blond” joke. Hello casual sexism! Someone uses the word “gay” to refer to something they don’t like. Oh, hi there heteronormativity! It’s good to call these things out, and it’s a worthwhile hobby to catalog and note our inherited and uncritically accepted biases and predispositions. I have no doubt of that.
But I also have no doubt about the fact that if we want to change the system that allows for these biases and prejudices to persist, unchecked and unchallenged, we also need to address precisely that: the systems that undergird them. There is a difference between personal bias and institutional discrimination. Here’s an example.
For about a century, little black kids and little white kids went to different schools in the US. This was justified by the logic of “separate but equal,” a legal (i.e., institutional) system put into place by the US Supreme Court in 1896. It was undone by a 1955 Supreme Court case called Brown v. Board of Education. When his state’s schools were told to desegregate, the governor of Arkansas said, basically, “Hell no.” Now, it’s easy to see his individual behavior as reflecting personal prejudice. No question about that, and we’d be right to say, “Hey, Mr. Faubus, you’re a closed-minded racist idiot. Please stop.” President Eisenhower had a different tactic. He sent federal troops to Arkansas to protect the rights and freedoms of African American citizens who wanted to go to an all-white school.
Now, here’s the thing. I don’t really know anything about Pres. Eisenhower. But I’m willing to bet that, given the facts of when he was born and where he was raised, he probably had personal opinions about people of color that would not have jived with our early twenty-first century sensibilities. I’m willing to bet that he never used the term “person of color” but probably did use all sorts of other words that start with the letter “n” to refer to African Americans. But you know what? I don’t care. I don’t care what his personal beliefs or individual attitudes were because when push came to shove, in the case of Little Rock, Arkansas, he defended a law that was explicitly designed to deconstruct a system of institutional racism.
That’s the distinction between personal and institutional discrimination. It’s a worthwhile project to be outraged and to catalog instances of personal prejudice only insofar as, in the aggregate, they reflect larger systems of institutional inequality and imbalances of power. But also know that if you want to undo those systems of power, complaining about individual stupidity isn’t going to do much without simultaneously actually working toward undoing institutional systems of power and inequality.
How do you undo institutional systems of power and inequality? That’s complicated. And because it’s complicated is why no one blogs about it. The fact of the matter is that you undo them either through large-scale revolution or though smaller acts of resistance. Large scale revolution isn’t something I can advocate (but only because I’m opposed to literally bashing people’s heads in even for the Greater Good). And smaller acts of resistance tend to be just that: small and largely ignorable by larger systems of communication. Maybe you’re working for a local community activist group. Or donate time and money to some charitable cause. Or serve on the board of your community and, when some prejudiced blowhard proposes some new policy that you know will have negative consequences for already marginalized people, you stand up and say “Hell no.” That one act of resistance, even if no one but your fellow board members notice, can mean everything.
And I know that some of you reading this have had that experience. And to you I say, thanks. Keep up the good fight.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to give a talk to a group of BCA folks about Buddhism in the United States that is not Jodo Shinshu. An easy task, sure. No. Wait. Not an easy task. There is a dizzying diversity and variety of Buddhist tradition in the US; assuming it can be summed up in a reasonable way is preposterous.
Having said that, I still had to give the presentation. So I did what you do when you have to give a presentation; I created a PowerPoint. Actually, I created a Prezi because I’ve been toying with the software a bit lately and thought this was as good an opportunity to test it out as any. Specifically, I wanted to create some sort of chart or graphic or map that would help orient my audience to the diversity of Buddhist traditions in the US. So I created this — wait! Before you click on that link, read the rest of this post.
Everyone is ethnic. Let’s start there.
The Angry Asian Buddhist’s most recent post critiques another blogger’s use of the word “ethnic.” In many discourses about race and ethnicity, the use of the term is in juxtaposition to some “non-ethnic” category, though rarely is this made explicit. In this case, the blogger in question explicitly uses the term “non-ethnic.” There are two things to note here.
First, discursively there is no distinction to be made between “race” and “ethnicity.” Whereas the latter has come to the fore in the last few decades, in practice, it is used in the same way that race has been used in the past. Both terms are social constructs, arbitrarily defined categories with fuzzy, shifting, and permeable borders. Sometimes a distinction is made between race-as-biological marker and ethnicity-as-cultural marker; but this distinction is absurd the closer one looks. There is no biological basis to support racial categories. And, much more to the point, it is not the legitimacy of the categorization scheme that matters as much as how the scheme is deployed and enacted in the social and legal realms. It was not the legitimacy of the category that mattered when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ferguson; it was the state’s desire to control persons marked by racial categories that was on trial.
On a plane over Nebraska earlier this week, I wrote a really good post. It started on an idea somewhere between Fred Phelps and Meiji-era Japanese Buddhist socialists. It was about ethics. And karma. It was deep and philosophical and profound and you would have loved it. I deleted it accidentally, and Fred died, and it seems already out of date and unimportant. So I don’t have anything new for you this week. Maybe next week. Or the week after.
I just gave a talk about US Buddhism, an overview of sorts. It included charts and a map and everything. And it may be the subject of some future post that you, dear reader, can help me with. For the time being, you should go out there and do some good. Part of my now lost post on ethics included something about the difficulty of coming up with some universalistic and pragmatic moral code of behavior given the relativity of karma, personal experience, and our inability to see all ends. Platitudes are easy. Be nice to people. Translating platitudes into specific action is infinitely more difficult and always subject to critique, critique that often gets in the way of actually making a decision — even a flawed decision — which, ultimately, we have to do. Because here’s the thing: even if coming up with some universally applicable pragmatic moral code is impossible, we still have to act. Even not acting is a kind of acting. So as long as you’re going to have to go out there into the world interacting with other people, don’t be a jerk. That’s all I can say.
So there’s this thing called Medium, and I thought I’d use it to see if it’s a good, well, medium. I’ve posted a couple of things there, and I’m not planning on deleting them or anything, but I’m not planning on writing anything else there. A lot of what I’ve seen up on Medium (or, at least, what gets promoted to the top) hasn’t been as a good as the design. I like the design. And it has all these high hopes and aspirations that I think aren’t being fulfilled. Part of me is grossed-out (for lack of a better word) by this post and it’s proximity to this. But I’m not saying you shouldn’t use Medium because of a philosophical disagreement. That sort of ethical purity is hard to maintain in practice.
One thing I did write on Medium was about my desire to turn off notifications. That experiment has failed. It failed in part because some programs make turning off notifications damn near impossible (I’m lookin’ at you Facebook). But it also failed because it didn’t really stop me from being occasionally distracted.
This has become especially clear to me over the last couple of weeks. There have a series of Big Damn Deals happening in my life (both personally and professionally), the kinds of things that cause you send anxious emails to people at odd hours of the day because some of those people are in your same time zone and some aren’t and some issues need to be dealt with, like, yesterday, and some are just dramatic, blah blah blah. Nothing too serious, of course; I’m a pretty boring guy in my personal life, and my job isn’t exactly brain surgery. But when you send an email out at 5:38 p.m. on some random Tuesday and you know the response will dictate how irritating Wednesday morning is going to be, no matter how much you’d rather walk an imaginary dog up and down your hallway with your two-year-old daughter, you’re going to be obsessively checking your phone.
Two things I’ve learned: (1) notifications serve a function; and (2) it’s my own damn fault.
On the first point, here’s the deal. If I actually do need to check my email while walking an imaginary dog, if I had notifications turned on, all I’d need to do is turn the phone on an see whether or not I’ve got one of those bright red numbers in a circle. No number, no email. Put the phone back in the pocket and pick up that invisible leash. Without notifications, there’s the whole business of actually turning the phone on, opening the app, etc., etc. It’s more time consuming and more distracting. Notifications can actually be useful. Sometimes.
On the second point — and I can’t believe I find myself saying this because it seems so obvious and stupid — it’s just a fucking phone. It’s a tool. A piece of technology. It is not surgically implanted into my head. No one is forcing me to use it. I actually am in control of my life, and if there’s no reason to be checking email, phones can be set aside in favor of invisible animals and tea parties. It’s called will power. Or self control. Or, oh, I don’t know. Being human.
There’s two things that have been on my mind of late, neither of which I really have time for, so maybe this will serve as the basis for later posts. First, there’s the way many commentators throw out phrases decrying “kids these days” and their Facebooks and their Twitters and their whatchamacallits as a too-easy dismissal of changing culture and technology. The dismissal, apart from reeking of old-man agism, suggests that all these new-fangled technologies are, by their nature, not only negative but the root cause of all our social ills. No. Technology is not blame. An iPhone is a lifeless collection of glass and plastic. It has no agency. Only persons have agency. Technology is not the problem; people are. And dismissing technology lets people off the hook.
Second, there’s this thing that Don Slater pointed out — like fifteen years ago! — about the distinction we make between “online” and “offline,” and how this distinction leads to the sense that “online” is a “place,” a location, a world to which we go that has its own rules and culture. This is weird, because the Internet is just another collection of technologies and tools that we use. But rather than extending the metaphor of the tool to, say, Reddit, we extend the metaphor of place. We don’t talk about social media in the same metaphorical sense the way we talk about other types of media like the New York Time, for example. We use the metaphor of place for social media. Social media spaces are locations we visit whose inhabitants are playing by different cultural mores than those we play by in meat space. This distinction seems dangerous to me. Again, briefly, I think it lets people off the hook for ethical behavior and self-control by suggesting that who they are online has no connection to who they are offline. Which is patently absurd.
There is no offline. Just ask this guy.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my imaginary tea is ready. Mmm, tasty.
My article, “The Tranquil Meditator: Representing Buddhism and Buddhists in US Popular Media,” has been published by Religion Compass. You can download it from the website if your school has access to the journal. (I’m looking into other ways to distribute this one.) This paper was based, loosely, on a paper I gave in Chicago in 2012, the audio of which is here.
I am very late to the non-Buddhism/x-Buddhism party, let alone the post that inspires what I’m about to say. So the following isn’t mean to comment on, one way or the other, that ongoing discourse. Something written on the Speculative Non-Buddhism Blog that I happened to read over this past weekend triggered some other memory in my brain, and I felt compelled to write about it. So here goes.
Back in May 2013, Glenn Wallis listed pieces of advice they’d received regarding the non-Buddhism project, a subtext of which was the advice that they should “do something productive.” I’m paraphrasing here, mostly points #1 and #4 of that piece that call on the non-Buddhists to be “substantive” and “address alternatives.” This sort of reaction to criticism, this advice that one should “do something,” is one I’ve seen in other contexts, and it’s one that always gives me pause.
I’m resurrecting the blog. My faculty blog (this-a-way) will remain up and will post institute-related news. To the extent that this blog is my personal blog, neither supported nor endorsed by the Institute, the views and opinions expressed are mine. This site has ads because when you hear about people getting their advanced degrees with six figures of debt, yeah, that’s me. I don’t endorse the ads. Blame Google. I can not promise that I will post regularly, that I will be interesting, or that what I’ll say will mean very much, one way or the other. But I am going to try and take some good advice and not take it all too goddamn seriously. For an archive of the first version of this blog, go here.
Next week, I’ll be presenting some of my recent research on US Shin Buddhist music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I’m very grateful to Courtney Bruntz (recently minted PhD from the GTU) and her colleagues for the invitation.
More info can be found here, and if they record the event in any way, I’ll update this post accordingly.
Update: they did record it. Audio can be found here.