Dear Dr. Hansen and the editors:
For better or worse, I did enjoy reading your book manuscript. I am troubled by the fact that I was not invited to contribute, nor is any of my own relevant work (Gold Bantam & Silver Queen, for instance) even acknowledged anywhere in the text – yet perhaps this reader report can serve as my contribution.
I have identified a number of potential threads that hold great promise for further elaboration or expansion, if the editors are open to them and the process of revision & resubmission is not already too far along. (Ferris Gilroy at the press did not give an indication of where the ms now was in the process, perhaps wisely so.) I think that, at this point, the editors’ focus should be on identifying a couple of threads/themes to further develop. Below are some of the themes that may hold the most promise—in terms of evidence and broader significance—for development.
Reading this manuscript, which I’ve waited for for years and knew was coming, I can only say: it’s a good start. I’d like to throw my arms around this manuscript. I really would. That’s why this is so difficult to write. I feel that the members of the ESTAR(SER), broadly conceived, have made a valiant effort, in the sense of an intentional valence (appropriately enough), to challenge a few fundamental things that outsiders take for granted about Bird culture – and it is the burden of our time to consider, and realize really, that even modest, thoroughly well-intended efforts at making pragmatic, incremental change will get swept away in the cold currents of stochastic policymaking and what we all recognize intuitively as the ruthless nature of historiographical politics – which is, puzzlingly, only slightly evidenced in this volume. To realize means to make real, or as one the earliest known Birds once put it, Esse quam videri, crescit eundo.1 In short, I’m not sure that the contributors to this volume quite pulled it off.2
Before moving on to specific themes, I tarry to note: in today’s scholarship, it is often forgotten that the peer review was once viewed as a literary genre in its own right – the legacy of which has been mostly lost to the briny fog of metahistorical fads. At least some of the most noteworthy peer reviews from the mid-nineteenth century United States were collected by Tzvi Gal-Chen in a volume entitled Over Over Over Overboard in 1876, but to this author’s knowledge, no full copies of the original text are extant. (A persistent search of WorldCat, HathiTrust, and MetaFilter confirms this.)
As the communication scholar Erica Robles-Anderson put it in a recent (though not so recent that the editors should not have been perfectly likely to have seen it) essay, “[Bird] studies is a critique of Protestantism. It is a discipline devoted to intercessors, transubstantiation, and the indirect.”3 But I digress.
My critique is two pronged, and one depends on the other. (In a Birdy sense, they suspend each other.) One has to do with the concept of attention, and the second with the editors’ political motivations.
I don’t think the editors have thought enough about the connection between “attend” and “attention.” They come from the same Latin root. You have an “attending physician” (who supervises medical students and residents). You have an attendance record – “Present!” “Attend” means to be somewhere, particularly to show up where expected or appointed: attend a party, attend school; less frequently “things you need to attend to.” So it means both being/presence and looking/listening, as well as an affective state. We certainly sometimes talk of “being present,” which means really engaging with those around one and not being distracted. As StoryCorps says, “Listening is an act of love.” It may be sentimental or treacly, but it seems very true nonetheless. Except, of course, in the 2006 German film The Lives of Others, for one example. (More on this shortly.)
In the typical rhapsodic fashion of the Birder hegemony, everything about attention is beautiful. It is fulsome even if perfectly evanescent. It is being, it is communion, it is both art and the apprehension of art. (Here we see the perennial temptation to the critic to want to see criticism as an artistic practice, because they wish to identify with the object of their attention [the art/artist].) The long ribbon of the of the Order of the Third Bird’s history is portrayed as a braid of twee encounters – Precious Moments, if you will (but with smaller, beadier eyes).
Attention is their beanie baby truck and trade.
And in some ways, this is not wrong. But it misreads attending as a purely aesthetic (and secondarily, ontological) state, when it is in fact affective and relational. To attend is to care. One wouldn’t look, stand, sit, or otherwise if one didn’t care. (Think of “sitting with.”) Care seems to be associated with trouble, going all the way back (see its link to “lament”). Loving something or someone means always being troubled, even when nothing is going wrong, no one’s ill, no disaster has overtaken you and the beloved — the way a mother cares for her baby, and is always worried because something bad could happen, even if nothing, strictly speaking, is.
Care originally meant to worry. The dictionary tells us that care is “a state of mind in which one is troubled; worry, anxiety, or concern: He was never free from care. A cause or object of worry, anxiety, concern, etc.: Their son has always been a great care to them.” The word’s origin comes from an ancient Germanic term for “lament” — “before 900; (noun) Middle English; Old English caru, cearu, cognate with Gothic kara, Old High German chara ‘lament’” — which makes the Cura mythology story somewhat confusing. Indeed, the primordial story of care goes:
In crossing a river, Cura gathered clay and, engrossed in thought, began to mold it. When she was thinking about what she had already made, Jove arrived on the scene. Cura asked him to grant it spiritus, “breath” or “spirit.” He grants her request readily, but when she also asked to give her creation her own name, he forbade it, insisting that it had to carry his name. While the two were arguing, Tellus (Earth) arose and wanted it to have her name because she had made her body available for it. The judgment is finally rendered by Saturn. He determines that since the spiritus was granted by Jove, he should have it in death; Tellus, or Earth, would receive the body she had given; because Cura, or Care, had been the creator, she would keep her creation as long as it lived. To resolve the debate, homo, “human being,” would be the name, because it was made from humus, earth.The story attracted the attention of Heidegger, a modern philosopher, who observed, “The double sense of cura refers to care for something as concern, absorption in the world, but also care in the sense of devotion.” Heidegger regards the fable as a “naive interpretation” of the philosophical concept that he terms Dasein, “being-in-the-world” in Section 42 of Being and Time.4
Care was “engrossed in thought” when she made humanity. Paying attention to the clay, attending. This detail is the core of the myth – and, arguably, the other classical mythopoetic root of the Order of the Third Bird, along with the story of Zeuxis. The editors need to examine other iterations of the story to get a better sense of how much thought, focus, attention were key to it. For instance, literary scholar John T. Hamilton talks about this mythology over a huge swath of history in his 2013 book Security: Politics, Humanity, and the Philology of Care:
The inner being, constituted by a split—the split between body and spirit—will henceforth be assigned fresh dichotomies, unforeseeable divisions. For the name, which is always a name for others, draws mankind into history, into circulation. Once the creation story overflows into a story of nomination, humanity flows into an inscrutable, properly improper future…
If it is argued that all anxiety (cura) is ultimately an anticipation of death, this emotion could be specified as the fear that the corporeal and spiritual components of life will one day be torn asunder. For death is here defined as being either an inanimate body or an incorporeal spirit, as the state of being either a corpse or a god. Cura’s competence—the capacity of care—to maintain heterogeneous qualities is a way to stave off both versions of human lifelessness.5
Worrying is also a way of focusing on something, for better or worse. “Focus is a particular form of attention,” the sociologist Micki McGee has commented. “Care is required in order to focus (both the care you give to task at hand and care that you receive from others in order to be able to focus.”6 Care, focus, worry, attention – how does this volume completely gloss over these themes?7
Neither the editors nor the contributors pause to consider when attention can be a bad thing – sometimes it can be a nuisance, or even actively malicious and pernicious, as in a panopticon. It’s not always generous. (Peer review is often another example of malevolent regard.) Indeed, we do not always “allow the work to be worth everything” when attention artists regard an object, as the 1966 Manual to the Order of the Third Bird (a signal work in the early rise of Birderist ideology) would have it.8 How do the editors nowhere acknowledge the basis of the modern Bird concept of “participant ethnography,” in the mid-twentieth century Crisis of Antwerp, which regarded the colonial attention inherent in Western social science as an evil to be purged and corrected? Birds were the first participant-observers, but they were also among the first and most important participant-imperialists.
The editors, like the other mandarins who direct the Birder hegemony, only consider attention to be potentially problematic when they turn to the widely discredited concept of “radical inwardness” or metempsychosis (p. 6) – in other words, only when it harms them.9 Runaway attention only matters when it hurts them: the seers, the watchers, the stayers, the suspenders. A piquant coincidence.
The Birders are preoccupied with errata and addenda, samzidat excisions, marginalia, and other paratextual material, occasionally with questionable intent. For example, fn. 6 of the Introduction makes the claim that “discussion of the Ausonian permutation” was included in an earlier version of Destreé and Murray’s Companion, but was mysteriously excluded from the ultimate print edition; the editors insist they are “quite certain” it was in there; a flimsy basis on which to found such an important part of their gambit, given that there is literally no evidence for it.
Yet they have curiously – or not so curiously – chosen to ignore completely a dissenting text by the historian of language Hennepin Stern, whose 1978 manifesto excoriated the establishment historiography for its lack of attention to conflict within Bird communities.
All this strange alternate Bird history and Bird politics – Bird dynasties, Bird heroes and Bird evildoers, saintly Birds and psycho Birds, Birds too stupid to live and Birds too smart for their own good – insulated by secret loyalties and codes of silence from the world they’d all been given to attend.10
Those “secret loyalties,” Stern might have said, are furtively on display, or hiding in plain sight, in this very manuscript, had she lived long enough to have the opportunity to review it. The editors wish to provide an account of the rich pageant of Bird history that satisfies the Chicken Soup for the Soul crowd.11
A few final points: the volume needs to engage more directly with necropolitics as a form of anti-care attention.12 None of the contributors acknowledge College Watson’s 2008 documentary Bird Flight in Humans, which revealed tenuous but no less troubling ties between Bird practitioners and military projects of the biotechnology industry – this might be understandable for a media outlet such as CBS News or the San Jose Mercury News, given the extensive effort to suppress reporting of the Watson investigation, but it is unforgivable for the editors of this volume.13 Only “The Vorkuta Antinomy” (Chapter 6) gives due credit to this rich schismatic genealogy, yet even this is a poor and paltry parsley of an olive branch to the many members of the Bird community who want the real story to be told.
The more I think about it, the more I realize: reading this manuscript was like climbing a perfectly smooth wall. It’s like the Venn diagram of a particularly gross polycule, populated by pretentious acrobats from Boerum Hill, that scatter like little critters when a pen light arrives. I feel like my reader report will not be taken seriously given the personal history that I share with one of the editors, as well as the severity of my critique, but I hope that at least some of these comments will make their way into the manuscript as a late intervention. I’d be very happy to talk all this over by phone to elaborate on any potential leads or address any questions that you may have.
1. Radium, Nothing Reminds the Mind of Power Like the Cheap Odor of Plastic, trans. Andrew Savage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018; 1st. ed., 317 CE).
2. Henceforth, I will use the term “Bird” to refer to rank-and-file practitioners of the Order of the Third Bird’s ethos and aesthetic, but I will apply the malonym “Birder” to refer to the broad clique of leaders within the movement that has monopolized most Bird discourse, especially since the mid-twentieth century – i.e., the hegemonic voice of the mainstream of Bird Studies, which has its own agenda.
3. Erica Robles-Anderson, “A Few Remarks on Aesthetic Remediation of Care Work in Postfordist Central Canada,” Critical Affect Studies, Series B, Human Geography 14 (December 2019): 14. See also Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Random Penguin, 1994).
4. Casey Baskin, “The Whole World a Prison: Forced Feminization Narratives and the Politics of Sexual Identity,” Tropics of Meta, September 19, 2016. A more traditional translation of the Cura myth (albeit considered outdated since the move to Pinyin) is available in Tzvi Gal-Chen, If You’re Going to Teach Psychosis, Some Things Are Not Going to Make Sense (Beijing: Hong Kong: Jidujiao Wenyi Chubanshe, 1959). Notably, Gal-Chen disagreed strenuously with de Selby’s interpretation of the myth as a foundational narrative of oppressive “momism.”
5. John T. Hamilton, Security: Politics, Humanity, and the Philology of Care (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 5.
6. Micki McGee, “Intermediate Podemos for the Grieving Gig Worker,” The Nation, February 29, 2013.
7. Readers can find a much more robust exploration of these themes in my study, A World of Their Own: Care, Affective Labor, and the Postindustrial Economy (forthcoming, 2022). If the editors had reached out to me, part of this work-in-progress could have found a warm, snug place in the current volume.
8. Manual to the Order of the Third Bird (1966-67), p. 16. W-Cache.
9. For a review of the long debate over metempsychosis, see Jenna Feltey Alden, “Bottom-Up Management: Participative Philosophy and Humanistic Psychology in American Organizational Culture, 1930-1970,” PhD Diss. (Columbia University, 2012), and Paula England, “Emerging Theories of Care Work,” Annual Review of Sociology 31 (2005): 381-99.
10. Hennepin Stern, “Preamble 2,” Private Life of Mothballs: A Call to Action (Evansville, IN: Cedrick Press, 1979 [?]). In her introduction, which might fairly be described as a jeremiad, Stern borrows a distinctive meter, familiar to most scholars in the history of language, from the Basque poet Styno Pocmhahn’s “The Glass House.”
11. In this popular vein, see also the work of geographer of Edward W. Soja, such as Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (New York: Wiley, 1996).
12. Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1 (Hants, UK: Zero Books, 2011); for earlier iterations, see Henry Van Dyke, The Unknown Quantity: A Book of Romance and Some Half-Told Tales (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1912); de Selby, The Country Album (Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1927); Richard Von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis (New York: Bell, 1965).
13. Bird Flight in Humans (SD Single Channel Video, 2008), dir. Bradlee Crawford Hicks.