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an almost-elegy for the acerbic: jim aune (1953-2013)

January 21st, 2013 by slewfoot

[LATER EDIT: I revised this for posting on The Blogora, so what follows is a copy of that revision.] Like the numbers, the words have come, but not in the way I would wish them. I have learned through a failure measured against the pens of more gifted friends that I cannot write poetry. I wish that I could, because poetically is how I would like to mourn for Jim, who loved poetry. I may not be a poet, but I recognize the feelings that those gifted wordsmiths help deliver to language, especially in the not-quite-but-just-still-somehow-right asymmetries. There is no right way about this or any death.

When I think of Auden I think of Aune.

I write an almost-elegy, then, in the mode of eulogy, perhaps better said as a prayer. I want to remember Jim as a petition to help each other and for us to let others help us.

Stated simply: I hurt for Jim and I hurt for losing him.

These two hurtings seem impossible to reconcile with the event of Jim’s death: there is the concern for his suffering and then the hole left in the self from his characteristically awkward exit. For the unknowing reader, our dear James Arnt Aune, a major voice in the field of rhetorical studies, the blogger most associated with the Blogora, a friend to dozens upon dozens, and a teacher of hundreds, took his own life almost two weeks ago, dramatically—if not, in his own way, poetically. That he left is pain enough; how he left is impossible, if only because we have thought of our leaving in a similar way too. That much is human.

But we stay, and Jim went.

We wonder what unfathomable suffering would make for such an exit without warning. Perhaps it is best not to wonder, for this kind of suffering, silent then and now silent again, cannot be reckoned. Getting to this point has been the hardest for me, but having arrived here and accepted the unanswerable “why?” the crying finally stopped.

Why do the tears come so fiercely for Jim? I mentioned the uncomfortable, individual fantasy of the self-controlled death because Jim’s suicide asks us to reckon with this self-same part of mourning him, this second half of the irreconcilable, this “I hurt for losing him” half. Mourning Jim is not only about that biological being who existed and moved and thought outside of our worlds, independent of our minds—which is one of the many reasons why we loved him, for often reminding us of this brute fact —but it is also about the Jim we internalized and took into our persons as our companion, a voice of conscience, and for many of us, as a role model. The reason why some of us experience self-pity with Jim’s loss (which I know we’re not supposed to admit) is because Jim had become a part of who we are, at the very least a part of who we wish to be as comrades of the life of the mind. Incorporating others as a part of the self, whether their mannerisms (mimesis) or idealism (values) or comportment or standards or whatever the quality is, this is what makes for up for the fundamental lack of some essential identity. “We are each other,” they sing in the beautiful south, not merely or only another’s keeper, but as coordinates on a shared map of self-recognition.

It is tempting to make recourse to Freud and Abraham on mourning and melancholia, but instead I’ll go where Jim would probably prefer me to: the Greeks! Jim was no stranger to virtue ethics, a philosophical perspective on the good life introduced by Aristotle but more recently advanced in our time by Alasdair MacIntyre in his classic treatise, After Virtue, a book Jim sometimes cited here on The Blogora. The gist of the ethics is simple and, I think, true of what we actually do: to become good at what we do (our “practices”), we cultivate “virtues” or dispositions of character that we see role modeled by others whom we admire. And by “good at what we do,” I mean to refer to more than scholarship and teaching. I mean a way of being, since in our line of work separating one’s “personal life” from one’s “professional life” is often a pointless kind of boundary drawing. To be “good people” we simply copy, or try to copy, those characteristics and behaviors and habits of others whom we admire—we take on the virtues these people appear to model in the hopes of cultivating a similar disposition. Jim was someone many of us admired in this way: brilliant but generous, extremely well read, passionate, not afraid to express feeling in public, smart, devoted, acerbic but kind in equal measure . . . I could go on and on. And certainly there were his more fiery qualities that we had rather not adopt, but this is the elegance of virtue ethics: we needn’t hold up our role models to impossible standards of perfection, but rather, simply see them as people who, more are less, strike a middle path worth following. My point is that it hurts to lose Jim because so many of us had modeled our own approach to the academic life on his many virtues, or at least recognized his way of practicing the life of the mind in the way we practiced or wanted to practice this life ourselves. Losing Jim in this sense is to lose a piece of ourselves. Although we may feel guilt for our own grief, we should also take heart: we feel sad for ourselves because of the Jim-in-us.

That said, the Jim-not-in-us, the one who would bluntly announce his serious differences and then laugh maniacally, is mourned too. Jim leaves behind a wife and two sons, and we mourn with them. I will not rehearse all the details of his distinctive and storied life, as they have been so adequately done elsewhere with humor and respect. Like many of you, what I have to share are stories of time spent together with Jim, snippets of who he was with me. Jim was a mentor, and in time he became a trusted colleague and friend. We would have been coauthors too, however, I now know the piece we were going to write together on Adorno and magic will be written alone (dammit, Jim!).

I first met Jim Aune as a graduate student at a Rhetoric Society of America conference, just shortly after he delivered one of the most astonishing keynote speeches I had heard in an academic setting. True to his style, what got my attention was a joke he made about “frictionless capitalism” that involved “getting screwed without knowing it.” I laughed aloud—as did a large ballroom full of dessert-eating academics. The meeting was in a lobby and was (predictably if you know Jim) awkward; I told him I loved his speech. He was gracious but uncomfortable with compliments. After that moment in the late 90s, I would come to know Jim as a respondent to panels I was on at conferences because of our mutual interest in the scholarship of the Frankfurt School. Later we would share drinks at conferences. When I moved to Texas, Jim became more of a mentoring figure for me as I looked to him for advice about professional life. We also became frequent “arguers” here on the Blogora—often on the topic of psychoanalysis, of which he was critical (but, then, he would admit to having a soft spot for Jung). Jim also regularly posted on my personal blog, The Rosewater Chronicles, back when blogs were a thing before online discussions were limited to 144 characters or drifted over to Facebook.

Most of my most memorable, personal stories about Jim should remain private; they are colorful, often filled with equal parts laughter and kvetching (the latter more often than not for the humor), and some involve—ahem—very adult humor. Some of my fondest memories of our time together are talking, often on a sidewalk as he (or later we) smoked, at meetings and conferences. My most recent memory of Jim is doing just this at the “Violence and Rhetoric” conference he and Jen Mercieca organized at Texas A&M; I cannot recall seeing him so happy, as he was at the Last Supper on the final evening, because the conference went very, very well. Along with David Beard, I had a years-long conversation with Jim on Facebook about everything under the sun, from professional issues involving colleagues, or decisions about job offers or considering other jobs, or the increasingly frightening developments in higher education here in Texas. Jim was passionate about education and the land-grant mission of attending to the needs and aspirations of the working class. Many have remarked this passion was evident in his teaching and commitment to argument and debate, but it is also evident in his caring for others, especially the students whom he advised and are now in successful careers of their own.

When I met his life partner and wife Miriam for the first time the week of Jim’s death, exchanging a long overdue bear hug, she reminded me “Jim loved you so.” “I know,” I said, “and he let me know that.” Jim let just about everyone he cared about know that he did so, although I wager rarely directly. He might not look you in the eye, but you knew of his caring because he spent time with you, worked with you, recommended speaking to someone or reading something, answering queries at 2:00 a.m. (“Aune, what the hell are you doing up at 2:00 a.m. answering emails on a Tuesday?” He would answer, “reading,” and explain the complexities of caring for the boys.) Jim toiled tirelessly writing letters for the commendation of others, reviewing books for the field, reviewing articles (rarely blindly, you know, as his voice in writing and speech was unmistakable). He wrote for my tenure case and, I bet, for dozens and dozens of them over the past decades. His compassion for the teaching and mission of rhetoric, and the field of communication studies, was well known.

One could not separate Jim the person from his vocation: he lived what he studied and taught.

Many mutual friends have said their chosen way to honor Jim’s memory is to return to his scholarship. To this end John Murphy has penned a marvelous appreciation of Jim’s work, and I recommend it to you.

For the moment, I want to honor Jim’s memory by recognizing the time he shared with me as a mentor and colleague and friend, the hours of discussions we held online and, since moving to Texas, in person, and the respect he often showed to me and others by simply being there. Hell: in many of our lives it is not an overstatement to say Jim was ever-present! To honor the time Jim gifted to me is daunting when I recognize just how many others feel the same way. So many of us share an intimacy with Jim that we do not feel with others in our profession; that he could forge this kind of connection with so many people speaks to what a remarkable person he was, and how much of himself he truly gave.

With the gift of his time and mind Jim loved and led with his heart, and fiercely. And we love him back with the same loyal ferocity befitting, as he jokingly referred to himself, a patriarch.

We hope that the Jim-not-in-us has found an end to his suffering, which most of us did not know. As transparent and giving and earnest as he was, Jim also had a private life, and we owe him that too. The Jim-in-us we carry forward as a disposition, however unsteady and hard to maintain, should aim toward championing those who feel pushed to the margins or to the outside. Many of us drawn to the life of the mind often feel we are outsiders, which is why knowing Jim and earning his respect meant that you were part of something central or fundamental, that the outside was actually “in.” “In loving memory” is a good phrase to reckon with both Jims, because they are united in Jim’s love for us. We realize, unfortunately now in his absence more than ever, just how much we loved him back.

Respectfully submitted, Josh Gunn

3 Responses to “an almost-elegy for the acerbic: jim aune (1953-2013)

  1. Shaunessey Says:

    Eloquent and heartfelt, friend. Thank you for this, and thank you for you.

  2. Suz Says:

    This is really beautiful and quite fitting. All of this has brought up so many reminders of how I want to live this life as an academic….

  3. M Lane Bruner Says:

    Thanks for this Josh, and thanks to Treat for letting me know about this elegy.

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