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How Long Does it Take to be You? Some Thoughts After Adrian LeBlanc’s Recent Lecture

Adrian LeBlanc at podium
Apr 19 2018
Michael Taylor

Bill Burr starts his stand-up comedy special You People are all the Same by telling his audience why he wants to get a gun. “What am I gonna do when the zombies come?” he asks. “ . . . If you don’t know how to fight, all you’re doing is gathering supplies for the toughest guy on the block, right? . . . What am I gonna do if some dude turns me upside down, starts shaking the gold coins outta my pockets? I gotta get a gun.”

Coincidentally, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, who visited Stanford as part of the Center for Ethics in Society’s Writers’ Workshop initiative, is writing her next book on standup comics—or, “people spending some of their time doing standup comedy,” since LeBlanc considers it a reductive and restrictive shorthand to identify people by their professional titles. In any case, I mention Burr’s bit not because it relates to LeBlanc’s current project, but because it illustrates the kind of slapdash thinking against which I have been considering LeBlanc’s more general project of “slow journalism.”

Unlike most elite journalists, who work as staff writers for major publications and regularly churn out stories as part of the 24-hour news machine, LeBlanc has never worked for a publication as a regular staff writer, and she researches her books for many years. She spent more than eleven years in the Bronx with the people who would eventually figure as characters in her book Random Family, and once again she has spent over a decade in “AA meetings, green rooms, psych wards, and really lousy apartments” as part of her research for a new book on people practicing standup comedy. She is not your typical journalist, and certainly not your typical Pulitzer-Prize winner.

Because LeBlanc conducts her work in a way that differs from the norm without making her any extra money, she is faced with the task of vindicating herself: Why doesn’t she believe in getting content out to the public as quickly as possible? At least two reasons why became clear during her talk: first, because she does not believe it is possible for her personally “to keep her soul intact while doing lots of quick thinking about people she barely knows”; and, second, because she does not believe that content produced so quickly has any real value.

In explaining why fast journalism seems to her worthless, wrongheaded, and often downright harmful, LeBlanc cited “The Male Glance,” an essay published recently in the Virginia Quarterly by Lily Loofbourow. In her essay, Loofbourow defines “the male glance” like this: it is “above all else, quick . . . a communal pulse . . . It feeds an inchoate, almost erotic hunger to know without attending . . . to reject without taking the trouble of analytical labor because our intuition is so searingly accurate it doesn’t require it . . .”

In his bit on guns, Burr is mocking the male glance to perfection. In “thinking about” whether or not to get a gun, Burr considers only one scenario, and in truth he is not so much considering a serious possibility as satirizing a deep-seated cultural fear: what if something should happen to cause our modern value system to break down, so that the world would revert to a more primitive time whenwe can only assumemight made right? Since Burr is performing comedy, it practically goes without saying that he never does any analytic labor, never agonizes over the implications his “decision” might have on real human lives (note that our word “labor” comes from the Latin labor, laboris, for “work,” or, significantly, “suffering”). Instead, via a quick series of rhetorical questions, Burr arrives gleefully at the only answer, the obvious answer, the answer he knew he wanted to get to before he even started: his answer, where his does not even refer to Burr himself but to the universal persona Loofbourow defines in her essay. This is the male glance at its purest, the quick, painless, and common way of looking that makes “you people all the same.” And, incidentally, it is the male glance where it belongs: in a comedy routine, in a joke. Not in serious discussions, and certainly not in journalism. (And, Dave Chappelle might add, perhaps not even in comedy, at least not when the audience is having fun because it is in such wholehearted sympathy with the perspective being mocked). 

As I understand it, the “male glance” that LeBlanc so despises is no self-consistent ideology, no coherent set of beliefs. It is, rather, a way of making sense of things, a vast perspective, acquired naturally through the process of socialization, that you can tap into whenever you do not want to do the work of thinking as yourself. Those who practice the male glance need not adopt any particular stance when it comes to an issue like gun ownership, for example; but they will inevitably adopt a stance that is at once final and false, like kids who strike the same dramatic poses as their favorite movie characters: To pass stricter gun laws would be to trample all over our second amendment rights; people kill people, not guns; the problem isn’t guns, it’s . . . ; it’s one thing to want a few bolt-action rifles for hunting deer, but who needs a military-grade assault rifle designed for hunting humans?; if assault rifles are legal now, how long until any average Joe can buy a nuke?; we have seen enough tragedy, it’s time for a change!; etc, etc,  etc (those interested in reading more can sign into Facebook). It is not impossible to imagine someone engaging with one or more of these ideas in the process of performing real analytic labor. But, on its own, each of these ideas has become a mere punchline, a final word, an impersonal posture of certainty that would be hilarious if its consequences weren’t so ugly. In the course of being shifted out of the enduring discourse about human affairs and into the 24-hour competition to shout news faster and louder than your competition, these thoughts have acquired the blunt force of a rallying cry at the expense of something much more valuable: the awareness of the infinite complexity of things, of the impossibility of any thought ever being conclusive.

“Strip us of our guns? Might as well fling open our doors to the wolves of tyranny themselvesdressed, of course, as liberal sheep!” If the male glancein its sneering contempt for its adversaries, in its total confidence in its rightness, in its adroit deployment of idioms and clever turns of phraseproduces stuff that sounds good, it is because the male glance has created the criteria for what sounds good in the first place. LeBlanc is interested in producing work that succeeds based on criteria she has established for herself, instead of the criteria she has received from various old, outmoded, and male-dominated institutions, from journalism to academia. This, as I understand it, is a big part of the reason why LeBlanc has remained “unaffiliated,” never signing onto any publication as a staff writer or occupying any post at an academic institution. For LeBlanc, institutional resources cannot compensate her for the loss of freedom she would suffer under a contract that would all but oblige her to employ the male glance, to become, instead of herself, one of Burr’s “people who are all the same,” telling some impersonal story over and over again.

In an essay published in 1921, T.S. Eliot wrote that “ . . . the ordinary processes of society which constitute education . . . consist largely in the acquisition of impersonal ideas which obscure what we really are and feel, what we really want, and what really excites our interest.” This still seems true today. At least as Americans, we live in a country where the influence of old and powerful institutions makes it exceedingly difficult to dissociate ourselves from what our social education trains us to be; indeed, to make the matter even more difficult, it is most often in our best interest not to try to do so at all. But it seems that LeBlanc has set herself this task anyway, and, if it takes her more than twenty-four hours to publish a piece, it is likely because it takes her much longer than that to believe she has seen her subjects through her own two eyes.

MICHAEL TAYLOR is the Interim Communications Manager for the Center for Ethics in Society. He is from Massachusetts, and he currently lives in the bay area.

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