Discover more from the pillow book
B is for brumation
A IS FOR AESTHETIC
I see a PhD friend who, by dint of designing his own clothing, always looks like he is visiting from the future. We have been orbiting each other for the past year — thanks to mutual friends and showing up in the same rooms to attend early-morning three-hour-long seminars taught by professors visiting campus to give talks — but this is surprisingly our first time having a long 1:1 conversation. We meet in a coffee shop, the one that is a little dingy on purpose. It has everything: soft furniture softened by decades of asses, perpetual dimness, $8 cocktails, undergraduates stricken by the season’s latest pestilence hacking up phlegm, a corkboard with a question where people write and pin their unhinged responses.
My friend and I talk shop, maybe too much. Running down the list of professors in our various departments and all their peccadillos, discussing our favorite Lauren Berlant chapters. I feel dumb because of all that I haven’t read when he says, I love Giovanni Arrighi on the longue durée. I don’t know if he has siblings. A lot of sociality in grad school is like this, though, maybe? You talk about books for years with someone and then something happens eventually where you’re like, Oh shit! You have a family!
Actually we keep referencing our parents. I say I’m frustrated with my field and the expectations of social science sometimes, but that it’s easier to talk to my parents about sociological findings than, I dunno, Tim Dean on barebacking or whatever the hell is going on in the latest books out of Duke University Press’s Theory Q (sorry). He nods and says his parents laugh — not at him, but just the whole project of the humanities, its opacity — whatever it is you do over there. We’re not really talking about our parents as people, but as synecdoche. Am I using that right? His parents, my parents, a part of the whole: the laypeople of America. (Well, educated and liberal laypeople, NPR-on-the-car-radio types.)
We discuss the pros and cons of Grand Theory. I quote Mark Lilla’s takedown of Michel Foucault: “his proud will to ignorance, relying on extremely limited archival sources yet speaking in the magisterial register of World History.” I have absolutely no love for Lilla, I say, but there’s a part of me that resents the magisterial register too. Who gave you the right, Michel?
My friend says he has a commitment to the aesthetic in his writing, that it’s something he appreciates about the Grand Theory books.
Huh, I say. I’ve never thought about adopting the magisterial register of World History for the aesthetic. Is that true, I wonder: are the books where you explain a thousand years of something instead of writing in minute detail about a case of X simply more beautiful? There’s Lukacs: the developing tendencies of history constitute a higher reality than the empirical ‘facts.’
B IS FOR BRUMATION
On Sunday night R. says that turtles can be buried under sand or dirt for the winter. Their system slows down, not quite hibernation: it’s called brumation. There are videos on TikTok. Standing around the kitchen island with D. and G. we watched one, a cheerful blonde woman in a zip-up fleece set her turtle down in a hole marked by a ring of stones. Come back to watch us dig him up in April! she chirped. I wondered what happens if a huge gust of wind scatters the stones or the turtle’s owner meets misfortune or any other variety of mishaps take place — does the turtle have a way out?
Brumation, we read soberly off our phones. A state or condition of inactivity, torpor, or sluggishness — I pronounce sluggishness like sluggishnish by accident and then say, Look, it’s already happening! because it really does feel like we’re all brumating now that the sun sets in the afternoon. It is 6 PM but it feels like 9. D. and R. and I are supposed to cook dinner together but we’ve been vacillating over where to find nopalitos. Somehow we wind up talking about G.’s family reunion in the South and she says, Did you know the Coolidges had a pet raccoon?
Our house has one of those easy conversations that’s half Wikipedia. I wish people had no social expectations in the winter, G. says, I wish it would be acceptable to just hang out with a couple of people and not go anywhere.
You could do that, D. says impassively, but you just get FOMO.
C IS FOR CULPABILITY
In the house we talk about K-12 schooling and I go on a tear about how the factory model of education sorts winners and losers, reproduces class, and instills mindless obedience to authority. (I’m such a fun housemate!) D. is home and suggests we all watch John Oliver’s episode on homeschooling. Later she brings up a book on culpability and children (Gideon Yaffe) and asks if I think children should be held as responsible as adults for crimes.
Coincidentally, today’s lecture in the class I TA for is about children and crime; I walk in and there on the slide is the title “[Why] is it OK for the state to execute adults but not children?” Prof delivers his lecture sitting with a cane because he broke his femur or something insane like that. The seated look is rather magisterial, FDR or Pierpont Morgan, but in high-top Vans with a purple stripe. Prof is big on getting the students to see how constructed figures play a role in narratives of shame, punishment, policy, and legality: figures like the welfare queen, the innocent child, the deadbeat dad, etc. If I have learned anything from women’s, gender, and sexuality studies it’s that everything is made up and through the making up, we make things real — at least insofar as “real” means they can hurt people, delimit how they move through the world, etc.
The professor reviews previous readings about sex work and Catharine MacKinnon’s memorable line, paraphrased, that the difference between perpetrators and regular men is that regular men get away with it. I think MacKinnon is wrong on a lot of things but wonderful for her attention to, and palpable anger about, the quotidian forms of violence and domination that are rendered OK and allowable in heterosexual intimate life: in one lecture on sex work, she asks what a man buys when he buys sex, then says it’s “Buying a sex of no back talk, of being served and serviced on demand, [buying] that look in pornography, that ‘she’s not there’ look — what is this? That’s the picture of a woman [...] dissociated — that’s what’s called ‘sexy’ out there.” She’s not there as sexy — once you start seeing it, you can’t not see it! There’s a facial expression for models, perfume ads, sex on camera, the work of responding to the male gaze, and then there’s a facial expression for being a real person who wants to have actual sex.
Anyway, MacKinnon also challenges the way that adult heterosexual sex is seen as acceptable while 18 is maintained as an obvious line: what’s the difference between having sex at 17 years and 364 days old and having sex at 18 if that sex is bad, oppressive, demeaning, whatever else? She says the figure of the innocent child is used to curb the worst excesses of the patriarchy while ultimately legitimating those abuses that fall on the other side of the age of majority.
With that in mind we review cases about children doing crimes and the Supreme Court weighing in on their sentencing, like Graham v. Florida, about someone (Terence Graham) who received a sentence of life in prison without parole in Florida for armed burglaries. The SCOTUS majority opinion was that you can’t sentence a juvenile to life without parole when they didn’t kill someone, which I imagine (thinking here of the NPR-on-the-car-radio target demo) is probably a pretty uncontroversial idea. Here’s Clarence Thomas, dissenting:
“Our society tends to treat the average juvenile as less culpable than the average adult. But the question here does not involve the average juvenile. The question, instead, is whether the Constitution prohibits judges and juries from ever concluding that an offender under the age of 18 has demonstrated sufficient depravity and incorrigibility to warrant his permanent incarceration.”
Prof draws a comparison between MacKinnon and Thomas, at least in the sense that they’re both pointing out the ways law is inconsistent in its response to a Thing because of age: sex for MacKinnon, depravity and incorrigibility for Thomas. Except in this case Thomas is on the side of lock ‘em up and MacKinnon is like, maybe if sex is bad for a teenager it’s also bad for an adult woman, and we should do something about that.
My friend Jonathan sent me a funny Substack called “Mommy, Baby, Tyrant, Serf” and since then I’ve felt inspired to throw more things on X-Y axes. Maybe one day I can make one that has anything to do with my field exam topic. Happy brumation!
Image: “Two Sketches, One of a Turtle, the Other of Two Unidentified Objects,” Hokusai, 18th-19th century. Met Collection, public domain.