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SEK

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I didn’t know Scott Eric Kaufman well, but I knew him well enough to know that the refusal of the American university to find room for a scholar and writer and speaker of his talent is and will remain an abiding disgrace.

SEK (nearly a decade ago!) on blogging and intellectual life:

Over the past three years, I’ve learned what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience. If this seems like a simple point, that’s because it is. Nor is it one of those profoundly simple points, either: it’s straight simple. When a blogger sits down to slave on her dissertation, article, or book, she doesn’t turn her back on the public sphere. Because in the end, the public sphere is us.

I’m talking about the communities we currently have, only five years in the future, when we’re scattered around the country, unable to communicate face-to-face, but still connected, still intellectually intimate, because we’ll still regularly be engaged with each other’s thoughts. But I’m not only talking about us. There’s no reason our community needs to consist solely of people we knew in grad school. Why not write for people who don’t already how you think about everything? Why not force yourself to articulate your points in such a way that strangers could come to know your thought as intimately as your friends from grad school do?

The informal publishing mechanisms available online can facilitate such communication so long as bloggers write for an audience informally. Senior faculty might continue to orient their scholarly production to the four people whose scholarly journals don’t pile up in the corner of the living room, slowly buried beneath unpaid bills and unread New Yorkers. Whether they know it or not, bloggers write for an audience larger than the search committees we hope to impress. They have already started eye-balling the rest of the world, asking themselves how they can communicate with it without seeming to pander to it. By and large, this approach works. To draw from my own recent experience:

In the first week of October, I presented at the American Literature Association’s Symposium on Naturalism. My talk went well enough, but the conference itself was surreal: two tenured faculty members — both of whom wrote books I wish I’d written at institutions that would never consider hiring me — two tenured faculty members independently introduced themselves to me and acknowledged that they’ve read my blog, Acephalous, for quite some time. Flattering, but hardly surreal. However, they then told me that they almost didn’t introduce themselves because they were, and I quote, “intimidated.”

Tenured faculty intimidated by a graduate student. These professors obviously put some weight into what I’ve written on Acephalous and The Valve. So I turned to my audience for feedback, and one of my commenters made the obvious point: I have commenters. Most scholars don’t. They have people they need to impress and tenure files to fill; but I have sustained intellectual engagement with hundreds of people. As one member of it wrote: “In the land of the people who work on things only three people will ever read, the schlub with a somewhat popular blog is king.”

Perhaps, but I don’t want to sound like one of Adam’s blog triumphalists, because I consider the power of blogs to be supplementary and concrete: they provide atomized intellectuals a way to meet and remain in contact with fellow sufferers and their ideas. More importantly, they ensure you’re not forgotten.

“The public sphere is us.”  That thought is both inspiring and daunting at this particular historical moment: a moment in which the sudden loss of SEK’s remarkably diverse talents, exemplary intellectual courage, and unique rhetorical voice seems especially devastating and cruel.

 

 I had thought, seeing how bitter is that wind
 That shakes the shutter, to have brought to mind
 All those that manhood tried, or childhood loved
 Or boyish intellect approved,
 With some appropriate commentary on each;
 Until imagination brought
 A fitter welcome; but a thought
 Of that late death took all my heart for speech.
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  • efgoldman

    Thank you for this.

  • He will be missed. We honor him by continuing the fight.

  • King Goat

    His point about grad school communities is important. It seems so many academics never leave their grad schools, in an intellectual sense.

    His passing really is a loss.

  • Burning_River

    Thanks for this, Paul. “The public sphere is us” is going to be kicking around in my head a lot in the coming weeks and months, I’d wager.

  • MilitantlyAardvark

    “I sat, a solitary man,
    In a crowded London shop,
    An open book and empty cup
    On the marble table-top.
    While on the shop and street I gazed
    My body of a sudden blazed;
    And twenty minutes more or less
    It seemed, so great my happiness,
    That I was blessed and could bless.”

  • Donalbain

    (Sadly, and quietly):Pew pew pew.

  • Todd

    One of the real specific pleasures of the internet was when some film or movie, or piece of culture/politics, that you enjoyed or found interesting was addressed by SEK. The ability to improve upon and deepen appreciation for something you already liked, contemporaneously, like free cultural master classes, was a real gift.

  • LeeEsq

    This was beautiful.

  • c u n d gulag

    I can’t believe he’s passed-away.
    Such a vibrant person.
    So well meaning.
    Such a terrific thinker and writer.

    R.I.P.
    SEK.
    You WILL be missed. ;”’-(

    We will continue the fight for peace and all forms of justice in you honor!

    Maybe LG&M can come-up with an honorary SEK award for the person who fights the hardest for all forms of justice?

    • MilitantlyAardvark

      Call it the SEKularist Prize, perhaps?

      • Domino

        I second this.

      • c u n d gulag

        NICE!!!

      • Nobdy

        The award ceremony would have to be called the SEKs. In his honor I would suggest holding it in a university faculty office. That way we would be sure that he would be there in spirit.

  • Karen24

    One tiny flickering light in the darkness that his death caused was discovering how many of my real life friends followed his work. We’ve had a lovely Facebook conversation for the last few days about OLDMAN CATS and other SEK specialties.

    I thought of this:

    Dirge Without Music
    BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

    I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
    So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
    Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
    With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

    Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
    Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
    A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
    A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

    The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
    They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
    Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
    More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

    Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
    Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
    Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
    I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

    • Katya

      Lovely, and fitting. Thanks.

    • West

      Beautiful piece, thanks for posting.

      That SEK was a mensch shone through in most if not all of his writing, but for me, never more so than in the OLMAN CATS series. I had an oldman cat in my life for some years, long since gone now. That cat was also rich in personality, had an abundance of off the wall moments, and was never shy in expressing himself. SEK’s OLDMAN CAT posts caught the essence of such a creature in a way that for me was just sublime, and revealed the writer’s mensch-ness (menschheit?) perfectly. There’s arguably tons of more important SEK writing (politically, culturally) to be savored, but his humanity really shone through on these posts.

  • AstroBio

    SEK led me here, years ago. And now, he has taught me to grieve for a man I never met. The public sphere is no longer abstract.
    Thank you, Scott Eric Kaufman.

  • Nobdy

    I know a lot of people are sad about SEK’s death, and I am too, but to a large degree I am also angry at the cosmic injustice of it all, which I know is also a stereotypical response.

    Paul writes about the unfairness of the academy not having a place for someone like SEK, and that definitely is unfair, but he managed to carve out a life for himself anyway, with his ornery cats and his scraping by on a writer’s meager wages, and the crazy unpredictability of his life, like he had taken the “wild wasteland” perk in Fallout and reality was just buggy and…twisted…around him moreso than others.

    I don’t think anybody felt sorry for SEK during his life. Frustrated that he didn’t find more material success or stability, sure, but not sorry for.

    But to die so young with so much work left to accomplish, and having just watched the country start to slide into a period of uncertainty and injustice…

    It’s just cosmically unfair. Talent, hard work, a kind nature, sometimes they seem like so much sand flung into the wind of fate. He was denied half his life. We were denied a much needed voice of reason and levity in the darkness. It’s just a bunch of bullshit!

    Meanwhile Rupert Murdoch is a million years old, Roger Ailes will probably make it to 90, and Peter Thiel will likely succeed in his quest to become an immortal vampire and enslave all our descendants in a Randian “paradise” where insulting him doesn’t just get you sued but summarily executed.

    SEK won’t soon be forgotten, which is more than you can say for most, but he deserved a full share of years on this planet, which is more than you can say for many.

    I also think this is a key element of liberalism vs conservatism. Liberals recognize that life isn’t fair, that fate can be cruel, and that we should build a system that accounts for that and comforts the afflicted and supports people who are down on their luck. If fate unevenly distributes its blessings, and it does, then we need to even out the portions a little bit.

    Conservatives just shrug and go back to punching down, or insist that everything already is fair and that the suffering deserve their fates.

    I think it’s in part because they’re afraid to face the truth of the randomness and capriciousness of life.

    Anyway, please excuse the rant, but I’ve been thinking about SEK a lot and I’m mad about what happened. Both for the unfairness and because damn it I want more SEK! I want his thoughts on the very dark (but also patently absurd) period we’re about to enter. Nobody wrote cats as characters like he did, and damn it we’re going to need more cat stuff of every variety to make it through.

    George Will is 75 years old. He’s probably got another 40 years left and in that time he probably won’t write a single column that’s worth the most tossed-off half-thought through SEK blog post.

    DAMN IT!

    • Steve LaBonne

      …the good die first,
      And they whose hearts are dry as summer’s dust
      Burn to the socket.

      • mds

        … we die, my Friend,
        Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
        And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
        Dies with him or is changed, and very soon
        Even of the good is no memorial left.

    • (((Hogan)))

      A man said to the universe:
      “Sir, I exist!”
      “However,” replied the universe,
      “The fact has not created in me
      A sense of obligation.”

    • It’s just cosmically unfair. Talent, hard work, a kind nature, sometimes they seem like so much sand flung into the wind of fate. He was denied half his life. We were denied a much needed voice of reason and levity in the darkness. It’s just a bunch of bullshit!

      Meanwhile Rupert Murdoch is a million years old, Roger Ailes will probably make it to 90, and Peter Thiel will likely succeed in his quest to become an immortal vampire and enslave all our descendants in a Randian “paradise” where insulting him doesn’t just get you sued but summarily executed.

      It’s been a frustration to me since I started reading blogs that TV and newspapers were filled with hacks and conmen and morons who would hold their high-paying positions ’til the day they died, while the ‘net was crammed to the gills with brilliant, insightful writers who toiled in anonymity and poverty, and were derided by the mainstream pundits because they weren’t born mainstream pundits.

      A proper world would’ve had SEK’s obits on the evening news.

  • Murc

    Flattering, but hardly surreal. However, they then told me that they almost didn’t introduce themselves because they were, and I quote, “intimidated.”

    Tenured faculty intimidated by a graduate student. These professors obviously put some weight into what I’ve written on Acephalous and The Valve.

    This sort of experience wasn’t unique to SEK at the time; you saw a lot of bloggers with similar experiences. And I kind of have a theory about it.

    Back in the aughts, when blogging platforms such as this one were referred to as “new media” rather than just “media”, there were two interesting dynamics at play. The first, of course, was a certain amount of soi-distant sneering at the pajama-clad hordes of ignoramuses daring to wade into the pool where formerly only professional media apparatchiks had been allowed to swim. This is well-known, still happens sometimes.

    But the other less-talked dynamic is… people started reading blogs. Not just kids, either, but older people as well. And something I noticed is that older people who had a lot of experience consuming MSM content who started consuming blog content would, subconsciously but very solidly and very quickly, start according the people they read there the same respect in their minds as they would someone writing in a traditional media outlet. If you checked a blog every day for the latest hot takes, your brain would form the same associations with its proprietor that it would with, say, a NYT columnist or a local respected news anchor you see every night at eleven or other such traditionally respected figures.

    So the intimidation factor makes sense, even coming from older, tenured members of SEK’s own discipline at the time. In their minds, SEK wasn’t some guy who was having trouble getting his career going and writes a blog on the side; he was a writer they checked every day, and accorded the same sort of respect they would to any other writer they checked every day. More, even, because they were probably older than average and associated “guy I read every day” with “has successfully proven himself such as to gain entry into professional writing” even though all that actually required was setting up a web site.

    Or so I think.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      well, yeah. and I think it says two things- (one) is how good SEK was at what he did, and (two) is how randomly the traditional notion of “success” occurs- ’cause there isn’t a one of the front pagers here who *shouldn’t* be a household name

      • Nobdy

        Well, Loomis is clearly being punished by the condiment gods for his heretical and unnatural beliefs.

        The others should be famous though.

        • Denverite

          damn beat me to it

  • smott999

    I’m so sad. It’s odd but I keep thinking of the Oldman Cats.
    I hope Virgil and Mund have a comfortable loving home.

    • Nobdy

      I do not think it is odd to think of someone’s loved one’s after they have passed.

      SEK went hungry so the cats could be cared for. He clearly loved them deeply. I also hope they are well cared for. I am sure they miss him terribly and, being cats, they cannot even be told what happened.

    • It’s doubly sad to think of a 39-year-old man outlived by his 18-year-old cats.

    • nobadcats

      From what I have read and heard from others close to him, the Oldman Cats are currently living with his brother Marty. I don’t know if this is a temporary foster situation or permanent.

      But what I do know is that his family still needs help defraying the costs of SEK’s care, so if anyone can chuck a few shekels at his https://www.gofundme.com/help-for-scotts-medical-bills account, that’d be so much help. Please LGM, if you could keep frontpaging the gofundme link, I’m sure it’d be appreciated. Obviously, his close family has been too busy grieving to provide updates, but whilst everyone has been posting remembrances, the reality of medical bills doesn’t go away, sadly.

      I’ll try to get a better update on the Oldman Cats soon.

  • witlesschum
  • I love this poem and it seems to me that while we aren’t British soldiers in the middle of a cholera epidemic, (unless you are, but I am not) I feel a lot of sympathy with what the author is saying. This Fucking Year 2016 has taken so many of the best among us. SEK’s death is the cherry on top of a shit sundae. My condolences once again to his family friends and cats.

    The Revel

    Bartholomew Dowling (b. 182—)

    East India

    WE meet ’neath the sounding rafter,
    And the walls around are bare;
    As they shout back our peals of laughter
    It seems that the dead are there.
    Then stand to your glasses, steady!
    We drink in our comrades’ eyes:
    One cup to the dead already—
    Hurrah for the next that dies!

    Not here are the goblets glowing,
    Not here is the vintage sweet;
    ’T is cold, as our hearts are growing,
    And dark as the doom we meet.
    But stand to your glasses, steady!
    And soon shall our pulses rise:
    A cup to the dead already—
    Hurrah for the next that dies!

    There ’s many a hand that ’s shaking,
    And many a cheek that ’s sunk;
    But soon, though our hearts are breaking,
    They ’ll burn with the wine we’ve drunk.
    Then stand to your glasses, steady!
    ’T is here the revival lies:
    Quaff a cup to the dead already—
    Hurrah for the next that dies!

    Time was when we laugh’d at others;
    We thought we were wiser then;
    Ha! ha! let them think of their mothers,
    Who hope to see them again.
    No! stand to your glasses, steady!
    The thoughtless is here the wise:
    One cup to the dead already—
    Hurrah for the next that dies!

    Not a sigh for the lot that darkles,
    Not a tear for the friends that sink;
    We ’ll fall, ’midst the wine-cup’s sparkles,
    As mute as the wine we drink.
    Come stand to your glasses, steady!
    ’T is this that the respite buys:
    A cup to the dead already—
    Hurrah for the next that dies!

    There ’s a mist on the glass congealing,
    ’T is the hurricane’s sultry breath;
    And thus does the warmth of feeling
    Turn ice in the grasp of Death.
    But stand to your glasses, steady!
    For a moment the vapor flies:
    Quaff a cup to the dead already—
    Hurrah for the next that dies!

    Who dreads to the dust returning?
    Who shrinks from the sable shore,
    Where the high and haughty yearning
    Of the soul can sting no more?
    No, stand to your glasses, steady!
    The world is a world of lies:
    A cup to the dead already—
    And hurrah for the next that dies!

    Cut off from the land that bore us,
    Betray’d by the land we find,
    When the brightest have gone before us,
    And the dullest are most behind—
    Stand, stand to your glasses, steady!
    ’T is all we have left to prize:
    One cup to the dead already—
    Hurrah for the next that dies!

    sourced from http://www.bartleby.com/246/213.html

  • Just_Dropping_By

    Sorry, but what is the relationship of the picture to the rest of the post? (I recognize it’s from Madmen, but I didn’t watch the show.)

    • COnrad

      Beats me, needs more eye lasers…

  • (((Hogan)))

    “We part, then, for the nonce, do we?”

    “I fear so, sir.”

    “You take the high road, and self taking the low road, as it were?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “I shall miss you, Jeeves.”

    “Thank you, sir.”

    “Who was that chap who was always beefing about gazelles?”

    “The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well, it was sure to die.”

    “It’s the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don’t mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?”

    “Not at all, sir.”

    We are all a gazelle short.

  • Calming Influence

    For me, he was a voice of the absurdist, one who tests the limits of popular dialog as a mathematician tests a formula at zero and infinity. All brilliant humor sounds simple once you’ve heard it delivered by a brilliant humorist. I hope I’ve learned something, SEK. Keep laughing.

  • FOARP

    Blogging brought to many a feeling of community. It still does despite being somewhat superseded by other (in my entirely biased estimation, lesser) forms of social media.

    I am only aware of SEK through my reading of this blog, but still it is a loss, and the thought of a death it what is still a relative young community is sad.

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