012 On Friends & Institutions

Emails, networks, Republics of Letters, Illich, Grafton, and more

Recently I have been thinking about how friendship and learning coincide, and this raises questions of community and institution—two fuzzy words that can sometimes represent diametrically opposed realities.

Last year when I dove into Ivan Illich’s work I felt as if things that I had long wanted to see connect in a way that made sense, did so. Events of the past year have prompted a lot of people to turn to his work: Illich is showing up in a lot of circles and pockets right now, isn’t he? His critique provides us with some reasoning as we’re seeing all kinds of institutions continue to fail and stutter. His advocacy for conviviality reminds of what we can do in our own lives.

Illich, the anarchist-priest-scholar-critic-activist, noted how he had tried to act as a friend in his life, an impulse both voluntary and universal, and which derived from his religious faith. Illich himself was a tremendous, energetic polymath and few of us could even hope to emulate him. But as our institutions calcify, as our bureaucracies bloat, as our infrastructure decays, and as scarcity squeezes harder on the most exploited and vulnerable people in our world, we must continue to think about how we can live together. A subordinate question in all this is how we can explore, learn, and share knowledge without relying entirely on those very institutions which unthinkingly distress and terminate lives.

I don’t say that all institutions are bad in all ways; I only say that institutions do not provide our redemption or our ultimate security, and we would be wiser to think about them prepositionally and positionally: through them, yes, but also around them, behind them, under them, perpendicular to them, in the ruins of them. In my mind, forms of friendship are essential to this kind of thinking.


Many readers will know that I was an academic until a few years ago. I finished my PhD, taught at a few schools as an adjunct, and had a terrific visiting assistant professorship for a year. But there was an obstacle. When I didn’t land a tenure-track position after my VAP, I had to choose: did I want to return to adjuncting so that I could remain a professional scholar by way of being a contingently-employed instructor, or did I want to find a more stable job that would offer me health insurance and perhaps an entry into other career options?

I opted to pursue the latter, and have had to leave behind teaching for now. Because I left behind teaching, I left behind the currency of institutional affiliation. So on the two post-academic occasions I’ve presented papers at conferences, I’ve been an “independent scholar.” It’s felt weird. (Let me add that nobody has made me feel weird. I’ve just felt so.) I was glad to have presented recently at the virtual SCMS conference, on Joanna Hogg’s wonderful film Exhibition, and was fortunate to have terrific co-panelists. It may be my last SCMS; it may not be.

There’s a lot, a lot, a lot I could say about academia. I’ll hold off on most of it except to say that I think academia, to the extent that it is profoundly institutional in its being, often stifles the virtues and disincentivizes the very activities that it would advertise as its raison d’être. Many junior academics are too panicked and precarious to do their best work; many established academics are probably too comfortable to appreciate what’s happening around them. Higher education has countless smart, talented, well-meaning people who are powerfully and unjustly distracted, at a structural level, from realizing their purposes.

I have still tried to realize my own intellectual purposes within the limited time and space I can devote to them, these days. Much of the intent now is to disregard territory in order to learn genuine things from other people (and hopefully share something back). I don’t think I’m the only one who has been energized in this way. In the wake of the pandemic, international Zoom panels and talks have exploded—academically hosted events but also things like InterIntellect, the Stoa, etc. The past year has underscored for many people the value of community docs, forums, syllabi, and reading lists as collaborative, open-ended sources of knowledge and discussion.


In an important way learning involves becoming more fully who you are. I watched a movie that dramatized this problem very beautifully, although it isn’t about education or intellectuals at all. It was Charles Burnett’s little-seen The Annihilation of Fish (1999), which never got a proper release. I’d wanted to see it for a long time. Two older people meet as tenants in a Los Angeles home; both deal with hallucinatory fantasies, or “dreams,” which provide their life with purpose and grief. Over the course of the movie, as they grow closer, they learn to live with each other’s “dreams” while learning or relearning the impulse to grow out of them when appropriate, too. In summarizing like this, I’m making the film seem tamer and more moralizing than it actually is. James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave play the leads. It’s an eccentric, sincere yet non-literal story.


In Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (2009), Anthony Grafton notes that the early modern Republic of Letters was subject to the political concerns of its time. There were also examples of extraordinary pettiness and territorialism. Nonetheless, the Republic of Letters allowed for new kinds of exchange among people united in common pursuits.

“Any young man, and more than a few young women, could pay the price of admission. If they mastered Latin and, ideally, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic; became proficient at what now seem the unconnected skills of mathematics and astronomy, history and geography, and physics and music; visited any recognized scholar—from John Locke in London to Giambattista Vico in Naples— bearing a letter from a senior scholar, and greeted their host in acceptable Latin or French, they were assured of everything a learned man or woman could want: a warm and civilized welcome, a cup of chocolate (or, later, coffee), and an hour or two of ceremonious conversation on the latest editions of the classics and the most recent sightings of the rings of Saturn.” (pp. 20-21)

Grafton notes that these 17th/18th century exchanges operated not unlike blogs in the early 2000s (when he was writing his book). There were standoffs between official channels—what today some might translate to “legacy media” or “PMC”—and non-official ones.

“Trade became global again in the fifteenth century. Information also joined the global flow, as Huguenots in exile in Berlin and Potsdam informed the European world about recent science and scholarship in French. Kircher, admired and envied in Rome, used reports from fellow Jesuits around the world as he charted the underground movements of rivers and lava flows and the ancient migrations of peoples. Vico, isolated in Catholic, southern Naples, but well informed, used Dutch journals published in Latin as his primary sources for the new theories of Spinoza and Locke. Like the blogs that have accelerated the movement of facts and ideas in recent years, the new journals and publishing houses had a profoundly unsettling effect on political and social authorities. The Republic of Letters stood, initially, for a kind of intellectual market—one in which values depended not on a writer's rank but, at least in theory, on the quality of his or her work.” (p. 24)

The issue of meritocracy aside, what attracts me here is the possibility of a network that is more open and democratic than its alternative institutions. How can we continue fostering that kind of a vision? Is it possible to have anti-algorithmic samizdat when publicly “unplugging” and “logging off” and avoiding screens are becoming clear markers of socioeconomic privilege? I’m not confident. Yet I do think that there are incredible spaces of possibility for learning and community right now, ones that can be global or local, generalist or specialist, which etch new lines into our map of the world, and blaze new trails. (Or maybe they retrace old ones: sometimes reacquaintance is sweeter, healthier than novelty.) I think that knowledge will grow even more context-dependent but it won’t necessarily be sealed off: the “hermeticism” of an open source software project rather than the paywalled or closed-access journal.

How does one find time to do all this? (Or is there a better way to frame the problem?) It’s not always easy, and this is, in fact, one of the foundational questions of this newsletter.

I am no citizen of any new Republic of Letters, but I do value my slow, substantial email exchanges and occasional video calls with friends across the globe very, very much. Because I don’t “live the life of the mind” to pay my bills, I have to live the life of the mind in the crevices of my life, simply to stay sane. Relatively few things are as enjoyable as the frisson of an encounter with another person when you recognize mutually that you have something in common. This, in turn, opens doors to some of what you do not have in common. This intimacy is a crucial part of a friendship. I think it’s also an aspiration of that troubled word, education, whose etymology involves bringing up or bringing out.

“Times have been, and are, dark. But even in dark times, the social worlds of scholarship provide room for human warmth and the desire and pursuit of the truth and promote deep scholarship and intelligent writing. And these abide.” (p. 8)


Two images from Charles Burnett films—The Annihilation of Fish (1999) and The Law of Parties (2020), Burnett’s contribution to the Cinetracts ‘20 project.