the chair is peak jeans in church culture

vibes as aesthetic theory, tbh

Hi friends—

Just a short letter this week as I am moving. Next week’s letter about The Nest is still…very in progress, haha. Also, my interview with Adroit Journal went live. It was a fun convo, done way back in the spring.

The other day, I tweeted that nothing is good anymore, and that the dominant aesthetic consideration of contemporary media and art is whether or not the vibes are on. I tweeted it as a joke but also because I believe it, and people seemed to relate or want to argue about it. The usual internet stuff.

I was talking about the new Netflix show The Chair, which follows Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, newly minted head of an English department at a fictional liberal arts college just as the department is beset by scandal and intrigue. The show is well produced though not entirely well made, which means that it looks nice and has some wonderful moments of acting, moments when the characters truly come to life and speak with human mouths and human feeling, but for the most part, it is indistinguishable from all the other well-manufactured series that dominate the streaming landscape. It chimed with certain experiences that are familiar to anyone who has spent too much time in academia even if the depiction doesn’t withstand more than passing scrutiny. It seems both eager to take on the larger questions facing our campuses today—free speech, diversity and equity, power dynamics, consent, sexual harassment, ongoing discussions of divestment, the ethics of labor all amid a perceived declined in the prestige and centrality of literary studies in the broader culture—and entirely too timid to approach them with something real to say. The result is a glancing critique that restates the issues without actually playing them out in nuanced and interesting ways.

But it’s fiction. It’s entertainment. There is no expectation of realism in the spirit of facsimile. What matters is that the vibe is mostly there, no? Sandra Oh in incredible clothes looking harried and exhausted putting up with white bullshit and trying to steward a fellow woman of color through the harrowing halls of white academia? Sandra Oh the Emily Dickinson scholar? Sandra Oh saying things like ecocriticism and affect theory? Sandra Oh’s hair? Sandra Oh’s gravitas and humor? The delightful Holland Taylor as a Chaucer scholar and wonderfully bawdy university intuition finally getting to talk back and take a stand for herself? The potent and always amazing Nana Mensah as Yaz, a young rising star in American studies being courted by big institutions even while her white male colleagues, threatened by her ascendency and all it represents, stymie her? And a white man we are told is charismatic by many of the characters but whose chief charms seem to be…slightly greasy hair and a Beakman’s World meets late Judd Apatow self-insert vibe. We know these people because we have met them or been them at various points in our lives. So what if the show barely sketches in backstory for the characters it purports to care about. So what if we know basically nothing about Yaz except that she is popular among students and sought after by elite institutions. So what if we linger mostly over the will-they-won’t-they tension between Ji-Yoon and the white man who is in hot water for doing a maybe Nazi salute in class. The show’s sympathies are mostly with the white man and mostly with Ji-Yoon, whom it pities for loving a white man. And instead of unpacking why that is, we get a kind of rushed storyline pertaining to cancel culture and its slippery slope argument in which the wronged professor is allowed to make an eleventh-hour appeal that does not save his job but does show us that he has the right moral character.

It’s true that Yaz does eventually, after being asked to teach with a white colleague whose enrollments are down, get to stand up for herself, and yet, in the end, she’s still there sitting around the table with all of them. She doesn’t leave. She doesn’t take the job at Yale or go to any other institution that might value her (but let’s be real, the odds of such a place existing are low) because Ji-Yoon gives her a (frankly inappropriate) speech about how she stayed because she wanted to provide an example for Yaz and to help her reach new heights. To be the first black female tenured professor in the department’s history. Yaz does get to say something to the effect of, “yeah, that’s why I’m leaving.” And good for the writers for recognizing that it wasn’t quite the flex Ji-Yoon thought it was, but one wonders why Yaz did stay. I mean, come now.

I guess this is my larger problem with the show. There is no granularity. No real acknowledgement of the realities of the labors of production within academia. We don’t know about Yaz’s teaching load. We are told she connects with students and that she has an impact with the undergrads. But in what way? Which students? Does she do discussion groups? Social groups? Does she mentor? What about the graduate students? The adjuncts? What about the rhetoric requirements? Who is teaching that? How do they feel about all of this? And, frankly, I get the impression that the white man who was chair before Ji-Yoon was probably not very good at being chair. I mean, he was very popular, but why do I feel like Ji-Yoon probably inherited an administrative nightmare? And yet there is nary a whisper of that. The material concerns of the world of the show do not enter into the field of its drama. What one gets is an inert set of tableaux that resonate with static ideas we have about academia and so it excites the pleasure centers of the mind. But is any of it alive? No.

The show has a halting, anxious stride to it. When you look at it too closely, it does not hold up. David Duchovny? I did love when Ji-Yoon read him for filth tho. As a show, I think The Chair misunderstands the real drama of academia. It misunderstands the real sympathetic core of that whole enterprise, and in doing so, it wastes a lot of its animating energy. It understands that like all systems, the drama and tensions of academia come down to precarity and power. Who has and has not. But what the show does not understand or seems to delight in sidestepping is addressing, in an honest way, just who the power dynamic exists between. It wants to play at dress up. Put Sandra Oh in gorgeous clothes and let her spread charisma around—she’s got it to spare. I cannot stress enough how much I love her in this drag. But when it comes to the larger systemic issues that are coming to a boil in this series, it has depressingly little to offer us. In no small part because it has chosen to omit the other side from the conversation: the students, the adjuncts, the people whose lives are impacted by the faculty.

In this show—and many others like it—students and the public for whom the students are a proxy are treated like an amorphous, shifting mob. It’s the same way that Law and Order used to use the press as a catchall for public sentiment as a way to justify certain actions. It’s the same way that shows like Billions and Succession use newspapers to telegraph and signal to the audience the backpressure of the world driving a character’s motivations. Or providing a foil in a moment of tension. It’s a secondhand that is effective in the short term, but broadly, culturally speaking, it has the effect of deadening a discourse. In a show like The Chair, which is taking on something like cancel culture on campuses, it’s a double sin because the students, the public, is the second party of that discussion, the debate. But on the show, they’re always in a mass, always in plotting, phone-carrying scenes.

The new horror of the 21st century is not the man with the knife, but the public, out for blood and change, trying to destroy the old world order. Every dying breed sees in the eyes of the public the shape of their own demise, I guess. But I don’t know, I just feel like, the show would have been better had the students been treated like more than backpressure and sign posting.  More than virtue signaling.

In the contemporary movie or show, the public is the zombie horde: anonymous, many-eyed, peering in from all corners and eradicating privacy. There’s something oddly defensive about that posture. I’m not sure what to make of it. In 2008, I feel like, culturally, we laughed at the people online talking about privacy and data security. And now, the zombie movie has given way to the anxiety of being perpetually online. Surveilled and ruined by an act of small humanness that becomes, in the distorting eye of the digital panopticon, some gross moral crime. No one is laughing now.

But I don’t mean to paint The Chair as pandering or over serious or lacking nuance. I think it’s the rare show that does try to approach these issues with some wit and humor. There are, again, many moments of beauty and laughter and grace. It’s a sophisticated but ultimately middle-brow approach to dissecting the contemporary culture wars. And, I mean, not everything is Cukor. Not everything its Phyllis Nagy or Kelly Reichardt. Nor should it have to be. If there are resources, people can make whatever art they want.

I think people were rankled when I said that nothing is good, that good died in 2010. I don’t think good died in 2010. I mean, Chewing Gum, is more than good. It’s brilliant. It’s a genuinely alive piece of art. Moonlight is more than good. God’s Own Country is more than good. Certain Women. 45 Years. The Father. I would add The Nest to that list. And The Souvenir.

There is still good art, even in an era (or if you’re an optimist, especially in an era) of mass production of well-manufactured content. Things have never looked so good. Or sounded so good. But at the same time, never has it been easier to borrow the signifiers and attributes of good art and commodify them to disguise deeply mediocre shit. I mean, a little muted-color grading, some upmarket fast fashion, and snappy dialogue, and you’re already three-fourths of the way to an HBO pilot or an Amazon original movie that I will probably stream while folding laundry or writing a newsletter.

But I don’t have a romantic sense that art is ever or has ever been divorced from the commerce that it depends upon. I think it’s probably always been this way, and what’s changed is that we’re soaked in it all the time. It used to be the only way to see a movie was to go to the movies or to watch a lot of TV. And now you can passively find yourself saturated with a movie and its themes before you even set foot in a theater even without trying. It flows to us wherever we are. Finds us where we sleep and sprinkles its magical little dust over our heads. We aren’t being advertised to so much as we are being herded like cattle along vast tracts of the internet.

And, okay, it’s always kind of been like that. Things have always kind of sucked. But I feel like we used to be able to say when things were mediocre. We used to have a word for that. And now, it’s like, if you enjoy it, then it’s good even if it sucks. It seems true that we have come into a cultural idiom in which we associate made with good. Just because something got made and got advertised to you does not mean that it is good.

Maybe what’s lost its cache is the idea of an objectively good piece of art. Maybe we’ve tossed that over into the sea. Goodbye to all that. So long. And yet even if we’ve tossed it out in favor of a bunch of scrambled fiefdoms over which we each get to be our own little tyrant, why then do we still invoke the idea of a universal, objective good. Why do we still appeal to the idea of something being objectively good if we have all agreed to wear jeans to church.

When I was younger, if you wore jeans to church, you weren’t allowed to sit with our grandparents because they were mortified at having grandchildren who didn’t dress up for the Lord. And then as I got older and young people stopped coming to church, certain churches started adopting a “come as you are” attitude. Our church tried it for a few months. People wore jeans and polo shirts and praised the Lord in tennis shoes. What mattered, we were told, was what was in a person’s heart. But the aunties would still gather and read for filth anyone they saw wearing blue jeans. Why can’t they wear a nice black jean if they gonna wear them pants. The aunties could not divest themselves from a hierarchy of taste even as they pronounced that there was no hierarchy in the eyes of the Lord. They hewed to the word but not the spirit of come as you are. And that, to me, is the central paradox that epitomizes Jeans in Church Culture. We act like there is no hierarchy. Let people enjoy things. Etc. But then we turn around and say, Oh my God, this is so good. I cried like eight times during that episode. It’s dishonest!

It would be more honest to say, I enjoyed this. The vibes were on. I was into it. Was it good? Probably not. Who cares. It’s mass culture, baybeeee. I mean, just say you’re vibing. Surrender to the vibes. Surrender to the indiscriminate alignment of the vibe.

Either we wear jeans in church and fully accept all that entails. Or we admit to our desire for a hierarchy and the way it makes us feel safe and warm and tucked into our stable cultural systems that perpetuate grossly damaging inequities.

Anyway, that’s all. Nothing is good. Vibes is on or vibes is off. Stream The Chair on Netflix.

Have a great weekend.