(Non?)-participant Observation

I’ll digress this morning from discussing book-reading and take some time to make a disheartening report based on people-reading this a.m. in the hostel’s kitchen. This place has been filled with scholars for the last five days, standing by the coffee pots and water coolers in earnest discussion of the supposedly real-life demands and implications of doctrine, religious practice, and belief. As is probably true for every professional get-together,* the assertive ego and borderline-friendly one-upmanship that occur in such soft networking give the lie to their participants’ attempts to wrap the whole thing in the guise of friendly conversation. PProg_19_p51_Hypocrisy

But the veneer takes on a particularly ugly aspect when these mostly-white dude scholars get into flighty enthusiasms about authentic messages from the beyond, and the justice-insistent ramifications for one’s own life (or really, for others’ lives) that they have. It was almost hilarious to witness from my corner the irony of the group’s quickly being overcome with a wave of indignant ire upon realizing that breakfast was not at 7:00, as they’d assumed (in spite of the blackboard in the hall announcing it was at 8:00). The complaints soon moved from a general expression of hunger and disappointment to derisive imitations of the place’s staff, their management skills, and their lack of desire to switch an entire establishment’s operating procedures to assuage the ruffled entitlement of a bunch of well-funded people surrounded by coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores that could easily provide them with sustenance in their time of morning starvation. It was somehow the appropriate culmination to a near-week that featured things such as an entire panel of uptight white guys making pronouncements about riffing in Coltrane’s A Love Supreme** to gaggles of vest-and-bowtied hipster children spouting Augustine and Aquinas as authorities for contemporary living. The following statement really needs to be dissected, or maybe even trashed, but here’s the basic feeling with which I always walk away from these things: all of this discussion, this theory, this much-vaunted interaction, just seems like so much justification of our own lifestyles, a way of absolving ourselves from having to look at what our day-to-day really means for the world and our de/valuation of it; and for all of the people who inhabit that world, especially those who don’t have the time or luxury to celebrate grand systems and the imponderables that maintain them– those who go unseen and unacknowledged until our stomachs give the faintest hint of a grumble, but not enough of one to get off our asses and make our own breakfasts.

Yeah: I’m ready to go (or rather, be) at home. Let’s hope that, if nothing else, this week’s exposure to dogmatic navel-gazing provides a long-lasting spur to thought and action in my own pretty comfortable existence …


* Especially for this particular field of higher ed, in which, I learned a couple of days ago, only 30% of its members will ever even be offered that coveted tenure track.

** Why does everyone who wants to prove his (because it usually is a he) love of jazz and its authenticity hold up this work as the ultimate in genuine profundity and musical brilliance? I may be biased; I’ll go ahead and admit that, in spite of what went into its creation or lies beneath the end product, I find the piece unlistenable.



  1. Special K

    Yeah, whether for good or ill, it’s what many think of as the less virtuous emotions– anger, frustration, indignation– that often push the words out onto the page for me. Although all of those sensations, if used correctly, can lead to excellent outcomes: mass movements for justice and structural change for the better that follows in the best of situations, etc., etc. Ready as I’ve long been to check out of the realm of scholarship, I’m still going to call that general phenomenon the best sort of sublimation.


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