Some folks from several Duke University departments have organized something that they call "The Political Theory Working Group." They meet regularly throughout the year and then hold a two day conference in the Spring. One of the organizers, Michael Gillespie, recently invited me to speak at this year's conference, in April. I was, needless to say, flattered by the invitation, and my initial inclination was to agree. But then he told me something of what they have been focusing on, and I started to have doubts. "This year's theme for the conference," he wrote to me in an email message, "is 'Community and Emergent Order in Non-State Spaces: Cinematic, Literary, and Philosophical Approaches.'" Right away, I began to have qualms. What on earth do I know about cinematic, literary, and philosophical approaches to community and emergent order in non-state spaces?
My doubts morphed into dismay when Gillespie told me what the group has been up to this year. " Over the course of the academic year, the Working Group will have watched a dozen films/TV episodes that have been paired with theoretical and philosophic readings dealing directly or indirectly with non-state spaces: The Wild Bunch & Deadwood (readings by you and from Anderson and Hill's The Not So Wild Wild West); Hotel Rwanda & The Battle of Algiers (readings from Fanon and Thucydides); Serenity & Avatar (readings from Rousseau's Second Discourse and James C Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed); The Godfather & The Wire (readings from Hobbes's Leviathan and Franz Oppenheimer's The State); The Bridge on the River Quai & One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (readings from R. A. Radford on the "Economic Organization of the Prison Camp" and from Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness); Rabbit-Proof Fence and Beasts of the Southern Wild (readings yet to be determined, but likely from Pierre Clastres and Rebecca Solnit)."
Readings by me in conjunction with The Wild Bunch and Deadwood? I had to Google them to find out what they are. [One is a Sam Peckinpah movie from 1969. The other is a TV show.] It was obvious that I was way out of my league. What on earth could I possibly talk about that would have the slightest connection to this kind of sophisticated kulturkritik?
I demurred, Gillespie said all manner of kind things to reassure me, and I finally allowed as how I wanted to talk about the relationship between language and social reality in Marx, with my remarks touching on economics, linear algebra, literary criticism, and commodity fetishism. "Swell," he said, and I was well and truly sunk.
For my entire career, my worst nightmare has been standing up at a lectern and droning on about something the audience really does not want to hear. Only several times in the past fifty or sixty years has that nightmare come true. Once was at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where I presented myself to deliver an invited lecture, only to find the large hall in which I was to speak deserted save for a scattering of perhaps eleven souls, five or so of whom got up in the middle of the talk and walked out. It was not until after the disaster was ended that my hosts explained: It seems that the Baltimore Colts were playing a crucial game at precisely the hour of my talk, and it was, they said soothingly, a testimony to my star quality that anybody at all had shown up.
What am I going to say, come April? Well, I am going to pull together a number of things I have written about Capital, in two books and several articles, and try to explain in forty-five minutes what I mean when I say that Marx needed to find a language and a mathematics sufficiently rich in syntactic and rhetorical resources to give expression to his complex understanding of capitalist social and economic reality. Are there "cinematic approaches" that can be paired with this talk? Maybe Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times [which I have not actually seen straight through], or the famous episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucille Ball struggles to keep up with a conveyor belt in a cake factory.
Something tells me this is going to be another disaster, on a par with the UMBC fiasco.