Saturday, 17 December 2016

The Election of Donald J. Trump as a Two-Horse Steeplechase

Authors’ note:  The election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency in November 2016 raised many questions, not all of which have been answered. It is suggested that a less conventional view of the events of that day provide a more satisfactory explanation. In particular, Alfred Jarry’s ‘The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race’ and Ballard’s ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Downhill Motor Race’ give us useful leads.

Sanders, slated to start, was scratched.

Obama was the starter. The former champion, retiring from racing, gave the send-off.

Clinton made a good start on the donkey. Some commentators have suggested that her choice of steed, and a propensity to ride facing backwards, were tactical misjudgements. Trump, on the elephant, was slow out of the gate.

The Capitol track is one of the most difficult on the circuit. We need hardly mention the deplorable events of 1865, 1881, 1897 and 1963, all of which concerned malpractice in the use of the starting pistol. For this steeplechase, modern electronic methods were used instead.

Clinton gained an early lead, but could never quite outdistance her rival, who loomed behind her. The partisan crowd appeared to strongly support the less experienced challenger, although later head-counts of the crowd in fact revealed a significant margin of support for Clinton.

Visiting teams. Although the Capitol track has traditionally been a two-horse steeplechase, several other teams were present. The Russian team provided technical support to the elephant rider, along with the Ecuadorian commentator. One of the stewards, Comey, was seen on the track but Clinton’s claims of interference were disregarded by the crowds and commentators. In the middle of the race, Clinton cleared the three hurdles with a significant lead.

The turns. Clinton’s race took a turn for the worse. In the final furlongs, the donkey went downhill rapidly.

The flag. Trump, on the elephant, won by a nose.

In view of the continuing interference in the race, which resulted in Clinton, clearly expected to be the winner on past form and experience, faltering in the final straight, it has been suggested that the hostile crowd, eager to see a win by the elephant driver, deliberately set out to see her lose the race. Another theory maintains that the stewards were in collusion with the visiting team, whose presence remains unresolved.

Several puzzling aspects of the race remain. One is the presence of the elephant driver’s daughter in the weighing room, an unusual practice among steeplechase riders. Another is the sharp decline in the presence of the favourite’s supporters on the route, with some suggestion of suppression.

The course. In the aftermath of the race, it is likely that the shape of the course will be remodelled, with more sharp turns to the right. Future races may be discontinued entirely. Of the losing rider, one can be sure that her race misfired. The question remains: who placed the bets on the winner?

Wednesday, 14 December 2016


In a book I dearly love, and which I have read many many times, Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut describes a scene from his youth, in which he suggests that he wouldn't play a particular school friend at table tennis because the ball had so much spin on it, it was as liable to go up one's own nostril as back over the net. When this fiendish spinner of the ping-pong ball met another classmate, Skip, he met his Waterloo: 'Skip cut me a new asshole', the friend reported to Vonnegut. While partaking of a little schadenfreude in relation to his friend's 'colostomy to his self-regard', Vonnegut spins this into a parable about the relation of oneself to the world: no matter how much you think you're hot stuff, if you go out into the world you're bound to meet Albert Einstein or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who will inevitably provide you with a supernumerary asshole.

Well, I've never felt I was hot stuff. It's probably my working class upbringing and all that, but I find it very difficult to take pleasure in, or even care much about, the intellectual work I've done in academia. Sure, I do the best possible job with anything I set my hand to in terms of books or articles or the professional apparatus of academia, but after it's done, it embarrasses me a bit. As an academic in literature, this is my wholly ironic 'fatal flaw': in terms of a career, I don't suppose I ever have, ever do or ever will do the 'right thing' with regard to making a career or getting promotions or anything else. I like meeting people and talking about their work, but not my own; I'm not a very effective networker as I like to ask questions and draw people out a bit, rather than telling them about what I do.

In some ways, of course, this suits me ideally to the role of teacher or mentor or supervisor, which is certainly the thing I'm best at, I would say. This last few months three of my doctoral students have passed their viva examinations and I'm proud to have been able to support their development (and of course will continue to do so) and today, in what occasions this (now very occasional) piece, another of my doctoral students had her first piece of work published in an academic journal. (It's here.)

Now this fills me with delight. I didn't know that article was being published today, it appeared on my twitter feed; and I feel an uplift, as I did last Friday when two of the vivas took place, that these thoughtful, hardworking, brilliant people had achieved what they had wanted to, and not through my work but through their own. It's a pleasure and a privilege to accompany them on their journey.

This isn't a kind of humblebrag, as I hope my friends and colleagues would testify. But as I feel increasingly adrift in an academic world so consumed by REF and TEF that it can't (or won't) see the crumbling fabric of the world and the communities beyond the campus, where these brilliant students come from, of course, being there to help and to witness their successes provides a bit of light in the thickening gloom.

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