Thursday, December 31, 2009


One of my favorite stories ever was told to me by a colleague of mine in the Psychology Department, Dr. Julie Steel. Frustrated with end-of-the-semester appeals for better grades by wayward students, she figured there must be a better rejoinder than simply sighing in exasperation and staring-back with incredulity. So, when students ask that oh-so-familiar question at the end of a course-- "what can I do to get an A in this class?"-- after spending the entire semester slacking-off and underperforming, my colleague suggests the following response:

"First, you need to build a time machine. Then, go back to the beginning of the semester, complete all of the work, study for the exams, and show up to class."

Simple and brilliant advice. First, you need to build a time machine. Of course, that's funny, because we know it is an impossibility. But it also goes directly to the very familiar emotional and psychological heart of the student's question, which is something like the terrible feeling of paralysis that always accompanies regret, remorse, missed opportunities, roads not taken. Putting aside the hilarity of this advice for a moment, it has made me think about the strong desire we all feel to call for a Mulligan when we find ourselves nearing the end of some period or project that just hasn't turned out the way we might have hoped. Hindsight may not really be 20/20, as the old adage goes, but it sure is better than our foresight a lot of the time.

So, here we are at the end of the decade. The end of the "aughts" is also, in a way, the end of a certain set of "oughts"... at least, the set intended to shape and define the first decade of the twenty-first century. Whatever we ought to have done in the aughts that we didn't do, cannot be done now. And the things that we did because we thought we ought to, but we now realize we ought not have, cannot be undone. I am reminded of a line from Maya Angelou's "On The Pulse of Morning" (delivered at President Clinton's inauguration) that I used as one of the epigraphs to my dissertation:

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.

My guess is that, for many of us, looking back on the last ten years is going to require a considerable amount of courage. It's difficult for me now to remember what the world was like before 9/11, before the War on Terror and the wars it spawned, before the horrors of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, before the economic collapse, before wi-fi and Facebook, or (a more local concern for me) before the academic job market became a dry and desparate wasteland. We are so quickly habituated to our historical, ideological, material and technological milieu that it's even difficult now to remember what it was like to be in that "before" world.

I suppose I could compile a list here of the "oughts" that we missed in the aughts, and I suppose that would service in some way the project of (as Angelou frames it) not re-living that history again. I'm not going to do that here, though I think it's important that we all do it. We should be wary of and vigilant against the temptation to put historical errors in the passive voice, in the language of historical determinism, which is always vacant of agency and responsibility. To say "mistakes were made" is itself an abstract and formal repetition of the concrete and substantive mistakes to which it nebulously refers. And it requires no courage to say "mistakes were made"; it neither prevents nor motivates anything particular for the future.

But, mistakes WERE made.

There are no time-machines. There are no do-overs, no mulligans. But the advantage of wishing for them, of facing even a wrenchingly painful history with courage, is that it makes a space for the possibility of imagining new possibilities. And the advantage of that expanded imagination for possibilities is that it keeps our attention on the force of the "ought," the calls that obligate us to others and the calls we make to others that obligate them. There is nothing really "more" significant about the end of this year, the end of a "decade," which is just an arbitrary division of time that we arbitrarily mark as significant. But I implore you, readers, to take a moment to look back with courage over the last ten years before it concludes tonight and to try to locate the missteps, the errors and the (real) terrors, the oughts that have mutated with time and hindsight into ought-nots...

...and then, to realize that they need not be lived again.

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