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Space B2: Occupy Irrelevance

February 16, 2013

Early in my graduate career, I attended an obligatory “get to know your fellow graduate students” mixer, and we were prompted to introduce ourselves by describing our career goals in academics. Some colleagues responded by discussing the impact that they wanted to have on students, often in glowing/idealistic visions of transforming student lives by revealing the wonders and powers of the written word. Others spoke in pompous terms about literary scholarship. Erstwhile answers all. They must have believed themselves and probably still do. And perhaps churned out a few starving writers or charming statespersons or literary afficianados or . . .

Yet, when it came time for me to speak, I had gotten quite fidgety and cynical about my colleagues. Having grown up in the world of higher education, I have never gotten past its bureaucratic nightmares, its star system of academics, its dogmatic territorialism, and its incorruptible acceptance of checks from Exxon to prove that offshore drilling is a good idea or that oil spills renew ocean environments. Together, these qualities of higher ed always seem inextricably entwined with whatever constitutes this week’s supposed forefront of incontrovertible human knowledge. Contrarian by nature, I responded, “My driving passion is to achieve complete irrelevance.”

I don’t know what I meant, if anything, at the time. The contrast amused me, so I said it. Over the years, though, the thought has taken on multiple resonances for me. I have thought of irrelevance sometimes almost as interchangeable with irreverence, the cognitive and logistic space to imagine the unimaginable, to say the unsayable. At other times, I’ve thought in terms of simply quarantining myself from whatever contaminant is currently passing itself as relevant (cf., discourses about jobs, free trade, decisive leadership, individual and personal security, and martial peacekeeping to preserve freedom). Even more prominently, I’ve thought of irrelevance as a space of playfulness, non-sense, non-sequitur: outlierdom. I treasure it. The dancing banana emoticon always make me laugh. It has absolutely no reason for being, but, inexplicably, there it is, in all its phallic glory banana. With Brian Spukowski on “The Sarah Silverman Show”: “I worry that farts will never not be funny.” By the simple measure of achieving irrelevance, most, if not all, observers would see my career as a smashing success.

Lately, though, when driving past the increasingly frequent evidence of fracking activity in central and northern PA, I feel a different, much less romantic sense of irrelevance, one that is more equivalent to obsolescence. I am the oxymoronic acolyte of a past that never was: the Luddite who has a blog, the conservationist who leaves the water running when washing dishes, the hermit who preaches community, the iconoclastic academic who teaches learning for learning’s sake but pushes assessment. The modern keeps invading my more fanciful notions of the good life. Mantras of efficiency, consumption, and technologically driven time-space compression leave me feeling out of sorts, yet still a willy-nilly participant. I like experiencing (not spending or consuming) time. I like the woods. I like to walk through a biodiverse garden that can feed me and delight my senses. I don’t like 24-hour access to the workplace and the expectations that come with it.

In response, my students get a heavy dose of human ecology disguised as pre-writing invention techniques. Human ecology’s central tenet—at least when passed through my imagination—is the revolutionary idea that human beings may not have a divine mandate to be custodians of nature. The discipline replaces such anthropocentrism with the understanding that we are merely one species in competition with all other species to maintain the optimum conditions of our mutual survival. It turns out that funny things (read: unintended death and destruction) happen when we try to eliminate “pests” by introducing non-indigenous predators into local environments. Or, when we attempt to bleach out pollutants in our groundwater. Correcting a wrong with another similar wrong and expecting a better outcome seems the height of arrogance.

Fully deanthropocentrized, we might begin to ask questions about our priorities and what constitutes our human rights and our intra and interspecies responsibilities. We might ask whether it’s a sustainable idea to privatize water, healthcare, social safety nets, education, internet access, basic utilities, DNA strands. We might question the value of spending entire, disembodied mornings on the internet. We might envision a social commons that is not demarcated by consumption, profit, and income. We might consider the nourishment of the body with such things as sex, the scent of flowers, the taste of the tomato, the lunacy of the squirrel. These might replace things like killing, imperialism, abstinence, and rationalism. But, then, we would be irretrievably irrelevant: beings in time rather than ahead of it, experiencing it rather than saving it. We’d be irrelevant in all its senses: irreverent, sensual but nonsensical, questioning, neologizing. In short, obsolete.

And farts will still be funny.

So will a blog on obsolescence with no posts after 2009.

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