Work

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Published Work

Selected Popular Publications

On corporations as the greatest threat to free speech, for the Washington Post

On the threat of Republican antipathy towards universities, for the Los Angeles Times

On the need for a progressive policy agenda in California and beyond, for the Forward

On the left’s fixation on easy victories, for Current Affairs

On another charter school scandal, for Jacobin

On declining absolute income mobility, for The Guardian

On knowledge and knowingness, for Jacobin

On Bernie Sanders and Election 2016, for The Washington Post

On pro-globalization neoliberal pundits, for Current Affairs

On free expression and private forums, for the Los Angeles Times

On the identity crisis of the Democrats, for The Washington Post

On life in college towns, for The Towner

On the Panama Papers, for Foreign Policy

On the need to assess assessments, for the New America Foundation

On the limits of acknowledging white privilege, for the Washington Post

On the university in a time of ambient fear, for The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall)

On Louis Farrakhan, the BlackLivesMatter protests, and the future of black political leadership in Harper’s

On the need for campus activists to work bottom-up, rather than top-down, when protesting in the New Republic

On the corporatization of campus and the real source of campus speech codes for the New York Times Magazine

On Google Deep Dream and the structural reasons the tech press is broken for Full Stop Quarterly

On the Ashley Madison leak and the culture wars in the Observer

On Bernie Sanders as a socialist in Politico

On bad arguments against polygamy in Playboy

On experimental metal in Vox

On Rachel Dolezal for The Los Angeles Times

On gay marriage and the “born this way” argument for the Observer

On polygamy for Politico

On critique drift for In These Times

On the Rolling Stone University of Virginia investigation for The Week

On geek culture for The New York Times

On the bogus notion that everything’s a remix

On Israeli fears matching Palestinian realities for The Dish

On the Brookings student loan debt story for Talking Points Memo

On my love for Diana Wynne Jones on The Dish

On neoconservatism for Salon

On Hartford, Connecticut, for n+1

On Gawker’s coverage of Rob Ford for Salon

On liberal humanitarianism and counterfactuals for Jacobin

On academics, public work, and labor for The Dish

On Twilight of the Elites for The New Inquiry

On international college students for The Huffington Post

On the fundamentals of conservatism for Wunderkammer

On the resentment machine for The New Inquiry

Academic Writing

Standardized assessments must account for non-standardized institutions, for eCampusNews

Standardized Tests of College Learning: Past and Future, for the New America Foundation

Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogywhere I serve as  Comm Editor

“Evaluating the Comparability of Two Measures of Lexical Diversity” for System

My review of Class Dismissed for Teacher-Scholar

My CCCC panel review for Kairos

“The First Person” for Writing Commons

“Singular ‘Their’ and the Grammar Wars”

“All of Bali”

“Review of Mary Soliday’s Everyday Genres”

“Eugene Debs’s Statement to the Court: A Rhetorical Analysis”

“Postmodernism in Rhetoric and Composition: Past, Passing, and Yet to Come”

“Towards a Place-Based Writing Pedagogy”

“The Perfomative Utterance in Hamlet

Elizabeth Wurtzel, 1967-2020

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Dan Callister/Shutterstock (4871343h) Elizabeth Wurtzel, New York – 10 Jun 2015

I had one little run in with Elizabeth Wurtzel, some five or so years ago. We were both on a panel on some sort of web talk show, streamed in via Google Hangouts or whatever. There were maybe four of us and a host. I could not tell you the topic of that conversation if my life depended on it, much less the name of the show. But I do remember her. Before the show began, we were all sitting there, waiting, and it was awkward, or it would have been, had she not started talking. She talked quickly and confidently. She asked me about “my deal,” and before I knew it we were talking about my cat. She was forward and endearingly nosy. She seemed completely at home with herself. And then the show started, and I said some stupid pablum when my time to talk came and it was over.

I read Prozac Nation when I was a young man, in my early twenties. I devoured every page, finishing it in a week, and hating her the entire time, which if nothing else proves once again that there is only one hatred: the hatred of recognition. I’m told that “reading,” in the drag world, refers to the act of sizing someone up so completely that you gain power over them. If I have that right, then she read me while I was reading her. For if the past decade of my illness has been defined by mania, my young adulthood was defined by the depression. I think back to my first little studio apartment and I can’t imagine a worse house of horrors, the endless hours spent curled up in the fetal position on the carpet. And I think about her book – it’s been, I think, 17 years since I read it – and I can’t quite grasp why I was so repelled by the familiar. I suppose the only honest answer is that I was not looking for honest answers. Not then. Back then I was running.

What I didn’t know at the time was that she understood things I couldn’t see. What Wurtzel grasped was that there was no percentage in trying to soft pedal a disease that would give no quarter if she did. She understood that behind depression there’s just more depression. And so why not try to do the impossible and put into words that which comes to be the defining facet of your life? Depression is a negotiation, made against someone who has all the leverage. You can, perhaps, improve your negotiating position with drugs and therapy. But the actual experience of depression will remain visceral no matter how hard you try to render it banal. There simply was no value, to her, in trying to make others feel more comfortable about the spiraling instability that was her early adulthood. This might sound selfish but in reality it’s the kind of internal bargaining that could only be made by someone who thoroughly knew herself.

Was her work pretentious and self-absorbed? Sure. But she never claimed to be otherwise. Depression makes you myopic; hurt develops its own kind of gravity, and over time everything falls in, except those people with foresight enough to see that they are approaching the event horizon who step away in time. You will not be saved by trying to maintain the requisite ironic distance from your own life, to act like some 21st century Twitter power user who deadens their experience of life with jokes and memes and cleverness. She chose to do the opposite, and being a writer, she did it with words: she wrote down what it means to be depressed, and what it mean to be a brilliant beautiful Gen X degenerate, and she did it as good as any and better than most.

Besides, I’ve been an advocate for pretension for a long time. What you gain from refusing to be pretentious is, I guess, becoming a harder target to hit when people inevitably come to dress you down. That’s the only upside I can see. And the downside? You become a stranger to yourself. You are so consumed with not being pretentious that you leave beside anything deep, penetrating, and true. You doubt your own reaction to beautiful people and perfect art. You are scared to bare your undershirt, let alone your soul. You know that there is always a built-in limit to the ecstasy of any experience. You become a slave to your own self defenses. You are neutral in all the places where neutrality makes you boring. You are afraid. Me, personally? I’m a cancer orphan who got his first shot of Haldol at 21. How could I have ended up any other way than pretentious? And for those of us in that position, there is Wurtzel to say, fuck them, say it anyway. Say it anyway.

I have only just thumbed through the text again the last few days, but if I remember correctly Wurtzel mentions cancer often in Prozac Nation. This too is a preoccupation of the depressive. I suspect it’s because cancer is the realest illness, the most visceral and the hardest to deny. Surely that has great appeal to those who, like the depressive, have been told in voices both loud and soft that their illness is not real and that their concerns are those of the coddled. Breast or brain, cancer can kill you; I suppose it was only fitting that a person held captive by her own mind would become convinced that it was her mind that would kill her. Now it makes me think of Trumbull Stickney, who wrote

Sir, say no more.
Within me ’t is as if
The green and climbing eyesight of a cat
Crawled near my mind’s poor birds.

There is a period of time, when you are on-boarding meds, where you are altered and know you are altered. It turns out that this is something of a blessing. Because what comes afterwords is the persistent question inspired by no longer feeling altered: have I acclimated to the meds, and am now back to my old self? Or did I just get so used to being altered, I’ve forgotten how I used to be? And at this point, do I even care about the difference?

I look back now at my earlier self, the one who was so hard on Elizabeth Wurtzel for articulating everything I felt and could not bear to say, and I can only think of one thing: my certainty, at one time, that my resolve mattered, that what drugs and doctors couldn’t do, my will could. If I am being honest, that is the biggest change in my life from those days when I would count the grains of sand in the paint on my ceiling: I have surrendered. I have learned that I am not strong enough, and that even if I could summon the strength, there was not much worth saving. Elizabeth Wurtzel knew intrinsically what took me decades to learn. She knew that depression, like cancer, was no tame animal, that it took who it chose when it felt like taking them. And so she made up her mind to describe it as fully and forcefully as she could, undeterred by the inevitable criticism, determined to try and express feelings that undermine the foundations of the language in which you express them. She did not deny her illness, nor try and sand off the edges that came along with it. She understood that she had no power over her illnesses but the power of description, and so she described. Her descriptions were true, as true to depression as has ever been written, and they will endure. She knew things, like the price of telling that truth. And that for her, and for me, and for you, the bargain with cancer and with depression remains the same: the fates will decide, and you will survive, or be consumed.