Author: mark sussman (page 1 of 18)

Outtakes: More from John Keene

I have an interview with the brilliant John Keene over at The Creative Independent. Most of what made it in there deals with process and writing. But our conversation included a lot of fascinating stuff about race and history, so here’s some extra stuff, lightly edited, condensed, etc.



Can we talk for a second about this Joyce Carol Oates tweet about Othello?


I had said something about it on Twitter, and you had a very historically embedded response to it. Could you unspool that in a non-Twitter context?

I like what you had to say to her in terms of the fundamental necessity of race and, of course, Othello’s Blackness being part of the story. What struck me was, I taught that play several times. We have an introductory course for English majors, Foundations of Literary Study, and so I introduce the students to different genres. Usually my thematic movement is Colonialism/Post Colonialism. So Othello fits perfectly there. But one of the things that really fascinates me about Othello is, in teaching the students about literary criticism, and historicizaton, etc., we did a little bit of reading about Othello. And it’s so interesting to think about how, in Othello, and some other plays, Shakespeare is grappling with questions, in real time, about blackness and otherness.

There’s this amazing portrait of an ambassador, I guess, from one of the North African countries that would have existed then, it wasn’t Morocco. There’s this amazing portrait of this ambassador, and it’s unclear whether Shakespeare would have ever seen that particular picture, but imagery of that kind circulated about Northern Africa and the Middle East, and of course Africa itself. There was also a moment where, in his transposition of the story from Britain to Venice, he’s picking a very similar society. A maritime society, but also a society that you could say gives him a little bit more leeway, but, like Britain, [one that] is very much engaged in mercantilism. So there are all of these parallels between the Britain of his day and the fictional Venice.

But the fascinating thing that most people usually don’t talk about is that, in Shakespeare’s time, he would see Black people walking through the streets of London. They may have been working in the theater, or they may have been working on the docks. This is also the moment where slavery is getting going. So you have all of these things happening in the background, and as you pointed out, they all feed into the play.

I think it’s very interesting that in the play, you have these moments of slippage. One of the things the students always ask is, “What is a Moor?” This is what the dictionary says a Moor is. And then, when you read through it and you see how, in fact, it’s not even so much about Moorishness Africanness. It really is about Blackness. When you think about all of those insults that come out of Iago’s mouth or the horror that Desdemona’s father feels about this. He’s a warrior, he’s just like this big “black ram.” So you see that. Shakespeare was kind of working through multiple things at once, which makes the tragedy that much more powerful. So when Joyce Carol Oates makes the statement, I was just sort of like, “What are you doing? You’re smart enough to know, you’re not making any sense.” You know? I don’t know. I don’t know.

I teach the play all the time, also to my intro students. And Shakespeare’s proximity to Black people and the multicultural nature of London at the time is something that they’re always surprised by. I’m always telling them, “Yeah, obviously race is central to the play, but it’s not only one thing.”  So, of course, there’s the way that Iago weaponizes it and Brabantio, his reflexive fear, or horror, as you say. But, the term Moor is so confusing to them because I’m like, “Well, it’s used as an insult, but it’s not always an insult.”  It’s these multiple things. People use it as a neutral descriptor sometimes in the play and the hardest thing that they seem to have is disaggregating the most clearly racist forms of speech in the play from the play itself. Right?

The fact that Elizabeth the First, twice, she has this call to expel the “Blackamoors” in two different ways. And there’s the kind of panic there that clearly was palpable for the monarch. Because one of the questions my students always have is, “How many Black people were there?” And I think, well, clearly there were enough for her to notice or for someone to bring it to her notice, or whatever. And not just once, but multiple times.

Anyway, I take them as they come, but that one I thought, let me just say a little something about this, because that play is, on so many levels, such an important work of art. On a linguistic level, it’s majestic, but also, in terms of, again, that complexity and layering of seeing the society around you and constructing a work of art that on the one hand reflects that society but also figures out a way to shift it so that you get an almost indirect, or a slant view, to me is actually quite powerful. And I think he does that again and again.

Your comment on Othello on Twitter got me thinking a lot. Because the fictional play that Joyce Carol Oates imagines, the raceless Othello, you’re involved in writing historical fictions in a different way. Your work, and I’m thinking here of the stories in Counternarratives, is engaged in colonial history, postcolonial history in a way that doesn’t turn away from the fact of race and the historicization of race. You try, at certain moments, to centralize race as a way of understanding the historical moment that you want to write about. So I wonder if you want to talk about race, history, and colonialism/postcolonialism, how that triad emerges in your work, or how you approach it.

I’ve been very interested over the last 20 or so years, even really before that, but especially over the last 20 to 25 years in an understanding of the history of ideas, particularly in the West, and histories of conceptualizations of peoples, nations, philosophical concepts, etc. That’s very abstract. [I wanted] to make it more practical, just to be thinking about something like capitalism. Clearly there have been many brilliant people, Ian Baucom, we can just go down the list of people who have written about race and capital, capital formation, etc. Someone like Paul Gilroy, in a different kind of way, talked about the Black Atlantic.

This is not to say that other people haven’t fictionalized it or dramatized it, but I think I was trying to figure out a way of writing that past, but writing about it with a certain kind of complexity that also involves a dramatization of the coming into being of certain kinds of ideas.

One of the things that, clearly, is so fundamental to our existence in the U.S. is a certain idea of freedom. Freedom and liberty are two words that are bandied about all the time. The new World Trade Center is the Freedom Tower. Newark Airport is Newark Liberty Airport. All these new names that come into being after, for example, 9/11. So, a while ago, when I was actually still in graduate school, I thought it would be really interesting to try to write a story about a character that I’d encountered in an historical work who was, in one way, an embodiment of freedom, but in another way, the exact counterexample or the antithesis of what was possible at the moment of the country’s coming into being.

Thinking about the dawn of modernity, the dawn of ideas, the dawn of all these systems that have really kind of locked in. So often, I think we disaggregate systems of knowledge from systems of power. Often when we talk in a general sense, for right or wrong reasons, we disaggregate these things, so they lead us to always have to ask, “How did we get to this place?” or, “What happened?”

So, I thought about that. And I also wanted to try to think in broader terms than just the U.S., but to keep race, and Blackness, in particular, at the center of these stories. So that led me to go beyond the usual approach, to expand it a bit, but also to try to go in different directions. I feel like, so often, in the English speaking world, for obvious reasons, we think of the anglophone world. So the anglophone Caribbean, anglophone Africa. So I wanted to expand that a bit and to look at, for example, the Spanish speaking world, a little bit. Brazil is an interesting analog. I think it was George Williams, the great historian at Stanford, who did those comparative studies of the U.S. and Brazil. But to mix it up a bit.

So, as a way of, again, thinking about a trajectory, but not a smooth trajectory, something more complicated, more jagged, more rhizomatic, and to see if it worked. Built into a project like Counternarratives is the possibility of failure, or various kinds of failures. I was interested in that as well. So, that was my overarching process. Then, of course a key component of that is the colonial and the postcolonial. The dawn of empire and the decline of empire, but I mean empire in another way.

You’re describing this project as a kind of theoretical, conceptual, political whole. You’re using the book as a way to, as you say, engage the history of ideas, or certain ideas. I think normally when people engage with those things, they think about doing it in a way that is explicitly theoretical or explicitly through historical work, through archival work. You deal with all of that stuff through fiction. So I’m wondering about the technical research process that undergirds that conceptual engagement animating the project. How do you go from the research to the writing?


One other way of approaching all this is in a scholarly sense. [In scholarship,] you really do have to make sure that whatever approach you’re taking, it’s very clear. You know, there’s the rationale. With fiction, I feel, almost sort of along the lines of theory, you have a lot of leeway. All this to say that another component of this is not so much the history of forms, but the ways in which various forms themselves might be deployed to tell these stories. I just wanted to add that to the mix.

So, in certain cases, I had an idea. The challenge then, was to figure out how to tell the story. Sometimes there was research where I came across something id read and I thought, “Oh, my God. I really wanna try and dramatize it. What would it look like if this were a short story?” In other cases, it wasn’t something I ran across, but it was an idea I had.

So, to take two examples, with “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,”  just the nub of that was based on a character in Lorenzo Johnston Greene’s The Negro in Colonial New England, which is such a fascinating book. It’s pretty much forgotten. And I was motivated to read that book because I was so curious: “Why is there so little about slavery in the North?”

I was born and grew up in a border state. It was a northern state, but also a western state, Missouri. So, reading Greene, he’s got all these nuggets, and just wonderful stuff in there. It’s a narrative history. There was this larger than life character and he’s focused on the character in talking about slavery. But I thought, that was what motivated me to then say, “Wait a minute. There are all these interesting things happening at the very moment.”  Which isn’t to say that Greene doesn’t acknowledge all that, but that’s not his interest. His interest is writing about slavery, giving you this slick scholarly breakdown about slavery in New England, particularly in Massachusetts.

So, I had in the back of my mind, that story about a character. But from that, I then decided to try to tell that story. So I figured that one way to tell the story might be to take an episodic approach and to be able to put [historical] documents in there. Part of what I also wanted to do was to, on the one hand, use the authoritative, historical voice, but also have that voice be unstable. Have things undermining that voice, because part of what the entire collection is also trying to do is to think about what does it mean to speak with authority about U.S. history, or the history of the western hemisphere, or about race, etc. So that was one approach.

A different approach would be the story “Gloss.” I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools, and I remember hearing that that, on some kind of feast day or something, there was an anecdote that Father Charles Nerinckx had basically approved Black nuns in Kentucky in the 19th century. Those were the little anecdotes that stuck with me because it was like, “Geez, there were Black nuns in the 19th century.” Anyway, I said, I want to tell several different stories. How can I use that bit of knowledge?

So that led me to think, first of all, Catholics are written out of the history of the 18th and 19th century of America. But then, also, of course, Blackness in relation to religion, etc, particularly at a crucial moment of the early 19th century. That became my way into this story. One of my colleagues at Northwestern had given a talk about the Haitian Revolution and he had suggested you should read this book by David Paul Geggus. One of the little anecdotes there was that when the Haitian Revolution happened, a number of the slave owners actually came to the United States, which isn’t news. Usually people think they went to New Orleans, but they went all over the place. They went to Maryland. They went to Philadelphia, etc. All these little kernels of things. So, for me, the challenge became, how do I create a story out of this? So, a lot if it involved, at times, really outlandish leaps, in terms of imagining things, thinking through these worlds.

Then, I would go back in certain cases and do a little research to make sure I got things basically right. I did that probably the most for the Civil War, because I remember reading an interview with someone many years ago where they were saying, and I always tell my student this, “If you want to talk about guns and the Civil War, you wanna get those two things right, because people will freak out.” So, I did do a lot of reading about the Civil War to make sure I got the battles right.

Here’s what I think. A lot if it involves me just making certain kinds of leaps, and with this, I allowed myself to be drawn forward by character as a guiding force, by the interactions between character and plot, and to see where it would take me. So in certain cases, I didn’t even have an end in mind. One of my favorite stories, “Acrobatique,” was pure happenstance. I just happened into the Morgan Library in New York and saw this exhibit on Miss La La, and I thought, this is such an interesting story. This Black acrobat that Edgar Degas is painting, the only Black person he ever painted, even though he had family members who were living in Louisiana and were Black. They were Creoles. He also struggled with that painting, even though he was an extraordinary draftsperson.

All these things came together, and I thought, “But what if I tell it in her voice.” Usually the impulse would be to tell it in Degas’ voice, and I was convinced that there were about three or four versions of her story out there. I think Catherine Frazier actually has a poem about Miss La La, but it doesn’t deal with any of the biographical material. All of which is to say that a lot if it is an exploratory process for me, and I try to let the research sit to the side, and just see where my imagination will take me. 

Monsters of Adaptability

I’ve been thinking a lot about this passage from Stanley Cavell’s essay “Epistemology and Tragedy”:

But aren’t Nazis those who have lost the capacity for being horrified by what they do? They are our special monsters for that reason, monsters of adaptability. (Who knows whether what they did, apart from scale, was really that different from what others have done? Who knows whether the only real Nazis were created by a particular time and place and by a particular set of leaders and led? Who does not know that Nazism cannot succeed apart from the human capacity for going along? And what political thinker does not recognize that most of us will mostly go along with the tide of events, and even argue that we [mostly] ought to? But who does not see that there must be some limit to this? I am saying that Nazism specifically turns this human capacity for adapting into a mockery of itself, a mockery of being human.)

Originally, I wanted to write about Nazis and Charlottesville and some other stuff. But then the last two weeks happened, and Cavell’s parenthetical remarks read much differently to me. The accents fell differently, especially after reading Rebecca Traister’s remarkable essay in The Cut. The stories about Harvey Weinstein broke. Weinstein isn’t a monster of adaptability. He is a monster of coercion, physical violence, and domination, who, it seems, gets off on owning people through fear. (Just to be clear, I’m not calling Harvey Weinstein a Nazi, though I’m calling him something.) The revelations and accusations that followed have provoked, at least in me, a vertiginous feeling that something is changing. And I think it has something to do with adaptability of the sort that Cavell talks about here, though I think I may mean something different.

I had heard about the Louis C.K. accusations for a while, and I’m nobody special. So when I first heard them, I thought, well, if they’ve gotten to me, then everyone must know. And Louis C.K. must know that everyone knows. And everyone must know that he knows that everyone knows. So how is it that no one has done anything?

The questions — “Why hasn’t someone done something?” —  is its own answer. All considerations of career and personal safety aside, the presumption that “everyone knows,” I think, is the thing keeps anyone from doing anything. Because if you learn something terrible, and you learn it from someone who heard it from someone else who herself heard it from someone else, then you learn two things: 1) you learn the terrible thing, and 2) you learn that the terrible thing is “normal.” Not “normal” in the sense that it’s acceptable to you, that it is something you would ever do or that you think is ethical. “Normal” in the sense that it turns out to have always been a part of the world you live in, a part of the world the person who did the terrible thing lives in. And that world has kept on turning while the terrible things you’ve just learned about have been happening. You look around, and you say, maybe not out loud, probably in the back of your head somewhere, “Terrible as it is, this is how it is.”

The world changes retrospectively for you, and you look back and you realize your sense of what was normal included the fact that vile acts committed against women — in some cases, women that you know — just happen without redress. You may not have known you knew it, but you knew it. All that time, I was watching and enjoying Louie, and Louis C.K. was sexually assaulting women. And because I sat there and watched it happen, and because no one was doing anything about it, I incorporated these two seemingly irreconcilable images — Louie the lovable schmuck-moralist and Louis C.K. the sex criminal — into my sense of The Way Things Are.

I think this is a structure, one structure, of permissibility. It’s how we — or in this case, I — can both feel revulsion and not think it at all strange that this person is still allowed to function in public. This is especially true in the case of the entertainment industry, whose lore and history has always included the predations of lechy men. Once you learn that something terrible has been permitted to go on, it hardens into a mere fact about the world, and so it becomes something you accept about the world, and you adapt to it as you would the changing weather.

Once you simply begin assuming that crime is part of the order of things, it becomes permissible. Not permissible in the sense that, if you asked the average person whether they think the terrible thing is okay, they would say yes or do it themselves. It is permissible in the sense that knowledge about the crime, knowledge about everyone else’s knowledge about the crime, and the knowledge that nobody has really done anything about it, all conspire to produce a sense of normalcy around the crime. It’s not great, but what can you do? If we all know it’s going on and no one’s doing anything, how criminal is it, really?

What people like me — that is, people who have not had to worry about sexual harassment or assault basically ever — have come to understand is not that terrible things happen to women as a matter of course. We already knew that. I definitely did, though not to the extent that I should have or could have. (I’m not speaking of the victims’ experience, of course. In many of the cases we’ve been reading about, the victims tried very hard to draw attention to the situation, to its abnormality or monstrosity.) What I did not understand was how different my experience of normality, of “how things are,” was from theirs. To take that gap, the gap between my experience and a woman’s experience, seriously means to accept that I can’t ever have direct knowledge of what is on the other side. Hence, slogans like “Believe Women,” where, as so often happens,  an assumed “belief” substitutes for an impossible “knowledge.” The slogan’s tacit admission is that a man can never know, but asking someone to “believe” is a difficult prospect, even if we “know” we should.

I can only attribute the dizzying feeling that something is happening to a certain kind of normalcy dissolving and another kind of normalcy emerging, which is maybe what it feels like when belief transforms into knowledge, a transformation that isn’t  a change in the physical state of the facts, but in people’s feelings about the facts. A good place for this event to end up would be in our powers of adaptation aiding all of us to agree that the terrible things we know should be treated as though they were as real as they actually are. The frightening feeling comes with not knowing what that will mean, and what will come along with that sense of normality. Masha Gessen has already raised the specter of sex panic, one of the country’s most prominent progressive politicians has more or less admitted to groping charges, and probably, by the time I click “publish,” something else will have happened.

Insofar as our sense of what is ordinary and real emerges out of a shared understanding about who can know what, we’re undergoing not only a long, long overdue reckoning with sexual harassment and assault, but with our very sense of what we can and do know about each other.

Post-Quality Television

That TV is “good” now seems to be beyond dispute. No one need ask “Is there anything good on?” anymore, because we all know that there is something good waiting for us on our DVR, on a streaming service, for a la carte purchase, etc.  I don’t need to rehash the rise of the serial drama or the advent of the second Golden Age of Television or whatever you want to call it — plenty of other people have done that better than I can. But there is always someone telling me, as I’m sure there is always someone telling you, about some show you have never heard of but that you have to see. And, if you are like me, after the third or fourth time someone tells you you have to watch that show, you make a solemn pact with yourself never ever to watch that show, just out of sheer spite.

And yet sometimes, whether out of weakness, boredom, or genuine curiosity, I find myself watching a new series. And in watching these series, I’ve started to realize that my own judgments have become fuzzier, less definite. Some I have an immediate allergic reaction to and stop watching; some I continue to hate-watch, though I’ve stopped thinking they’re good, and I refuse to behave rationally, accept the sunk cost fallacy, and stop; some I continue to watch because I want to be part of the culture (i.e., memes — what’s up Game of Thrones); and others I actually enjoy and admire. I’ve often thought that, even with shows that I dislike or think are just straight-up bad, the overall quality of television is up. There are more shows now that seem like they are custom made for someone with exactly my tastes: ambiguous, allusive, surreal, darkly funny, accommodating to pessimism and negativity, comfortable with silence, auteur-driven, and visually attractive. “Arty” or “pretentious,” take your pick.

But I frequently find myself watching a new, arty, expensive-looking series, asking myself, “Is this good?” and finding no way to answer the question. I had this experience most recently with two series: Netflix’s The OA and HBO’s The Young Pope. Both of them came to me as “must watch” shows, though for totally different reasons. The OA, I had heard and read, is a drama about loss and trauma, featuring nuanced performances from young, mostly unknown actors, with a quasi-mystical vibe to it. The Young Pope is a TV show called The Young Pope starring Jude Law as a young pope. The OA seemed to scream “prestige drama,” while The Young Pope looked like fun sexy garbage, replete with absurd stunt casting and a title so on-the-nose it’s almost subtle. And they are quite different shows. But after a few episodes, I noticed myself reacting in a similar way to both of them. I have no idea if they’re good or not. I have no idea if they are as smart as they want me to think they are, as deep as they want me to think they are, or as artful as they want me to think they are. More than that, I remain vaguely suspicious of these shows, suspecting that they’re compensating for some essential lack of ideas, intellectual heft, and existential import by using strategies that suggest ideas, intellectual heft, and existential import.

Guess who? It’s the Young Pope.

Some of this comes down to the ways the series use silence. Characters stare silently, look at each other without speaking, seem to contemplate ineffable mysteries. This is less true of The Young Pope, whose characters are perpetually explaining their own feelings and motivations to each other in yelly, improbable monologues. (See for example, an enraged, cardiganed James Cromwell yelling, “I was supposed to be pope!” at a sulking Jude Law. Me too, dude!)

But The OA, at least the handful of episodes I made it through before giving up, is full of characters staring and contemplating, full of moments in which we, the audience, are meant to infer some deep, ambiguous process going on within the character, in which, in fact, the scene’s meaning and drama are often left up to us to produce. And the The OA is not alone in this. Hulu’s The Path (which I kind of like) is redolent with characters staring off into empty space while they struggle, silently and internally, and I’m willing to bet a number of other dramas use this technique as well. We’re meant, I think, to understand that the characters, like us, experience their turmoil within themselves, in their own heads and guts. Thus, no matter how mystical the show’s premise or fantastical its themes, they all claim a kind of realism for themselves by portraying characters silently reflecting on their own experiences and sense of selves as we silently watch them reflecting and ponder what it is they’re pondering while recognizing that we, too, ponder our own nature and experience it in just that way. It’s here, in silence, where characters’ three-dimensionality emerges, where they become “realistic,” and where these shows often implicitly makes their claims for art, depth, and all of that. In other words, “quality.” (The other source of TV’s “realism” is, of course, its violence, especially its sexual violence, but that’s a topic for another time.)

There are different kinds of silence, with different qualities. The locus classicus for silent staring on TV is, of course, Mad Men, and I think that show exemplifies uses of good silence. Nary an episode went by where Don Draper wasn’t staring at some damn thing: a wall, a car, a window or whatever was outside it, himself in the mirror or maybe just the mirror itself. Sometimes the staring occasions an expository flashback, like the one where Don gets lost in a saucepan of boiling milk because it reminds him of his traumatic, depression-era childhood. Usually, though, it’s staring that seems to serve no narrative purpose, nor is its cause or outcome clearly defined. But I want to praise Don Draper’s staring, because it is organically bound to the subject matter of Mad Men itself, and to Draper’s character, and to how other characters and we as an audience are meant to perceive him. Don is an enigma both to himself and to those around him. I think, at the series’s end, he remains enigmatic. We don’t know what he’s thinking, nobody around him knows what he’s thinking and, most importantly, he might not even know what he’s thinking or why he’s thinking it. He remains cut off from himself, and his silence marks an impasse between his past and his present, one he repeatedly tries and fails to cross.

Don Draper staring.

This marks another problem for silence, and really for many forms of ambiguity these serial dramas trade on. If these moments of silence, nonaction, and ambiguity do finally coalesce into something meaningful, it happens over a long stretch of time. Mad Men had seven seasons to do it, which is far longer than most series last. But Mad Men also had unusually high production values, a famous obsession with historical accuracy, and very good dialogue that was often genuinely funny. (It also liked to play cat and mouse games with its die hard viewers, as when the creators seemed to leave clues hinting that Megan Draper would be murdered by the Manson family in season six. She wasn’t.)  All of that made the show worth watching week to week, even if you weren’t convinced that its narrative would pay off. Now it’s common to hear something like, “It starts off boring, but it starts to get really good in episode six when everything starts coming together.” Episode six??? Art sometimes demands great patience of its audience, but after absorbing six hours of anything, I may start convincing myself that it was worth it just so I don’t feel like a sucker. Stockholm Syndrome works in mysterious ways.

Which, I think, is why I often can’t tell whether or not these shows are actually good.  They’ve gotten so good at engaging their audience’s capacity for ambiguity, postponement, and silence. There is a sense in which we are always waiting for a show to “get good” because these shows always hint toward the idea that they might, that the boredom and listlessness you’re experiencing are just the necessary prelude to a revelation that will recast the hours and hours and hours you’ve already invested as crucial steps in a satisfying aesthetic experience. It’s no surprise that so many of these shows take divine, mystical, or otherwise supernatural revelation as their explicit subject-matter: The Path, The Leftovers, The OAThe Young Pope, and, importantly, two shows that set the template for modern serial drama, Twin Peaks and Lost. Mr. Robot, a show that is in some sense about two very worldly concerns, technology and wealth, is also about revealing the hidden reality beneath ordinary perception. It is also absolutely full of staring, a fact not unrelated to how superlatively bad its second season was.  Even Mad Men (which, if it’s not clear by now, I love) ends with Don attaining enlightenment in lotus position.

Part of me wants to say the seemingly endless stream of series that promise noumenal contact with some transcendent Truth as a narrative payoff (and then don’t or can’t deliver) is a product of the auteurism in television that followed on the success of The SopranosThe WireMad Men, and Breaking Bad (three of which actively resisted that kind of narrative trajectory, btw). Great television, the theory goes, like great cinema, literature, and visual art, comes from the mind of one great author, or “showrunner” if you insist on using the faux insider industry term.  Our current fetish for “creators” (or **shudder** “creatives”) insists that great art is produced when great minds are given as much freedom as possible to do whatever they want. (This is, of course, true only in a few famous but anomalous cases.)


I think what our current TV situation shows us, though, is that when many, many people are given the chance to do what they want with an incredibly powerful medium, they simply end up reproducing tropes and themes that happen to signify “depth” rather than being deep, that orchestrate pre-digested narratives, pre-circulated tropes, and shopworn techniques that read as “arty” without actually saying much. Their shows are often beautifully shot and develop a “signature” visual style: Kubrickian one point perspective in House of Cards, the simultaneously spacious and claustrophobic Vatican in The Young Pope, whatever that thing is in Mr. Robot where the characters’ heads sort of pop in from the bottom of the frame.

Typical composition from Mr. Robot.

But in most cases these signatures devolve into cliché, and visual style becomes a way of suggesting, like the religious iconography they so often reference, an encounter with meaning that transcends the material of the object itself. They remind me of “creative writing,” the sort of pieces know that a man looking in a cracked mirror signifies “crisis of self” without needing to understand or communicate what such a crisis might actually feel like, or that suggesting someone is a “Christ-figure” confers, through some arcane transitive property, the weight of martyrdom but without any actual suffering to support it. Such a technique relies on a reader’s willingness to “put in the work,” but often the “work” the diligent reader (or viewer) puts in is work the writer has failed to do himself, or perhaps doesn’t think it’s his job to do.

Such a predicament doesn’t mean that all of this television is “bad” rather than “good.” I think it suggests that the terms by which we judge quality have become obscure, that much of the new television we see, intentionally or not, works to evade the kind of judgments that could pin it down and find it wanting. The formal vocabulary of the new Golden Age of Television draws attention to itself as important, or potentially important, art, but it does so by relying on our receptiveness to its ambiguities, deferrals, and silences. In that sense, there can be no final judgment of good or bad, there can be no real evaluation of the work.  In the ’70s, Norman Lear’s “quality television” involved making the social issues of the day part of the explicit subject-matter of the shows he produced. In that sense, most serial dramas are also “quality television.” But in another sense, we are post-quality, because judgment has become not so much a matter of exercising your critical faculties, but of deciding how long you will “stick with” a show before it either completes its run or you bail on it. Since there is always a possibility that a show will “pay off,” it can always claim a kind of importance for itself, one confirmed by the very fact that you, the diligent viewer, have sat and watched 10 hours of it already in expectation that “something” will happen.

I sound like someone who hates TV, but I don’t. I, for one, welcome our post-quality world. While I don’t think it necessarily makes for good art, it may serve another function, which is to offer a kind of therapeutic critical no-space. No value judgments necessary, no critical renderings possible, just the amniotic warmth of a narrative environment promising a final act we can take comfort in knowing will never come. If you ignore its need to be meaningful, television offers a zen-like retreat for people like me who lack the discipline for an actual zen retreat, or the interest in attending one. But this, you’ll say, is how we used to talk about television: empty calories, vapidity, it’ll rot your brain, the vast wasteland, and so on. Fine. Good. If you’re at all concerned about our current political environment, you feel as though your brain is in a vice, and every Times news alert that rattles your phone turns the screw a little tighter. They call you to engage, get outraged, resist, and so on. But these demands are unsustainable. I want to flee from them, too. Between submitting to irrational authoritarianism on the one hand and the warring puritanisms of the “resistance” on the other, I’ll take the vast wasteland.

Trump’s False Choice

So Donald Trump claims that “millions” of votes for Hillary Clinton were the result of fraud.

He’s also suggesting that he might jail and/or deport flag burners, even though flag burning is protected speech under the First Amendment.

But is he “really” in the process of subverting the Constitution and delegitimizing the electoral process?

Or is he “actually” distracting us from his conflicts of interest, shady/illegal business practices, and so on?

This is essentially the shape of the debate right now. It seems to force anti-Trump folks to make a decision about how we’ll treat the things Trump says. Either we treat his tweets as miniature policy proposals or as little sideshow performances that shift public debate away from concrete legal violations. We’re meant to either take his proclamations “seriously” or else ignore them as a smokescreen.

But I think buying into the serious/distraction dichotomy in the first place is a mistake. It’s the same mistake Trump has goaded the media and the commentariat into throughout the election. He’ll make an outrageous proclamation, half of his opponents will take him seriously, and the other half of his opponents will chide the first half for getting distracted from the “real” issues. At this point, Trump will hold a rally and point out how unfairly he’s being treated by the media, and how “they” don’t get that flag burning should be illegal. To which you can imagine a Trump crowd roaring in assent because a huge part of the country agrees with him. 

The point is that the distraction and the serious dichotomy doesn’t hold up. It’s a false decision. Buying into it only enables Trump to continue using liberal outrage to fuel his support. Trump isn’t “actually” saying he’ll subvert the Constitution or “actually” distracting people from his conflicts of interest. Or rather, he’s doing both. But he has the advantage of not yet being president, so he can continue to play this game without having to face actual consequences. While he’s holed up in D.C. and New York trying to sort out what his administration will look like, unable to hold rallies for the moment and unwilling to hold a press conference, he can continue to remind the voters who showed up for him at the polls why they voted for him.

The only thing to do is take the serious/distraction dichotomy for what it is: an illusion. Reject it.

Repetition and Understanding: Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster

L0005730 Joseph Jacotot. Lithograph by A. Lemonnier after Hess. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Joseph Jacotot. Lithograph by A. Lemonnier after Hess. Lithograph By: A. Lemonnierafter: HessPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0’m reading Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster right now, and it’s a bit of a revelation. One of the things Rancière does that I’ve been trying to do is break down the distinction between concepts of “understanding” and those of “repetition.” In the educational context, we tend to think of “understanding” as the thing that happens when a student comprehends the logic of a given object (say, the German language) and is able to apply it to something else (they can write original, grammatically correct sentences in German). We think of “repetition” as what happens when a student memorizes a set of statements in the correct order and repeats them back, thus fooling us into thinking they have understood, when really they have only memorized and repeated. The student can repeat a grammatically correct German sentence that he has heard, but he can’t come up with his own, because he doesn’t “understand” German grammar. (Join the club, kid.)

You can sort of see this distinction dramatized in this Kids in the Hall sketch.

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I’ve always thought there was something mysterious or fishy about the proposed distinction between understanding and repetition. When you get down to it, couldn’t you describe “understanding” as an iterable practice of minute, variously conjugated repetitions? Logic is abstract, but it follows rules. Doesn’t the application of rules imply the repetition or possible repetition of those rules? I’m getting into either John Searle territory or Jacques Derrida territory. But in the project I’m working on, I’ve found neither Searle’s “Chinese Room” nor Derrida’s “iterability” very convincing as ways of addressing a fundamental epistemological ambiguity between repetition and understanding. I’d be interested to know if there is any work in neuroscience that addresses this, though I could imagine a neuroscientist saying something like, “Well, everything in the brain is a pattern of more or less successful recall, so yeah, ‘understanding’ is just a complicated form of repetition.” That’s probably an offensive oversimplification, but you get what I’m saying.

Rancière has a different way of approaching things. He’s writing about Joseph Jacotot, a late-18th-early-19th-Century French educator, a guy who taught Flemish speaking students to read and speak French, though he knew no Flemish at all and the students knew no French at all. He “taught” them by simply giving them each a bilingual edition of Télémaque and having them find the Flemish equivalent for each French word until they could translate it themselves. Did they “understand” French or were they simply learning to locate French words? Jacotot did no explication, no explaining, and yet the students learned French. Here’s one thing Rancière says about Jacotot and his students:

Without thinking about it, [Jacotot] had made [the students] discover this thing that he discovered with them: that all sentences, and consequently all the intelligences that produce them, are of the same nature. Understanding is never more than translating, that is, giving the equivalent of a text, but in no way its reason. There is nothing behind the written page, no false bottom that requires the work of an other intelligence, that of the explicator; no language of the master, no language of the language whose words and sentences are able to speak the reason of the words and sentences of a text. The Flemish students had furnished the proof: to speak about Télémaque they had at their disposition only the words of Télémaque (9-10).

Rancière’s reading of Jacotot suggests that “reason” and “understanding” are just the names we give to forms of repetition, of translating, of providing equivalences. There is nothing more to understanding “language” than understanding “words,” in other words. And once you learn what enough words mean, you can know a language. You might object and say, okay, but then whoever learns the language will merely be translating in their head. There will always be a two-step process, from French to Flemish. But for Rancière, there is already a process of translation going on, that of “the will to express,” which he equates with “[the will to] translate” (10). Once you think of language as something that has already been “translated” from thought, spurred on by the “will to express,” then the translation between one language and another in the mind becomes a matter of little epistemological import. It would be a matter of huge import if you wanted to, say, carry on a fluent conversation in another language, but not if you are asking “Is there a qualitative difference between translating by slowly looking up a word in a bilingual dictionary and translating in your head?” In Rancière’s way of thinking about things, the answer would be a firm “No.”

But clearly some people speak new languages better than others, acquire them faster than others, and so on. In Rancière’s thinking, this would seem to be only a matter of speed, not a matter of qualitative difference. When we use the unkind euphemism “slow” to describe someone who is “unintelligent,” Rancière might say, “Yes, precisely. He’s slow. And speed is the only thing that separates him from you and me. Not some qualitative mental difference.” He’s quite clear on this matter: “[the word understanding] alone throws a veil over everything: understanding is what the child cannot do without the explanations of a master — later, of as many masters as there are materials to understand” (6). Rancière sees the notion of “understanding” as a term conferred by power. Once we have a master’s blessing, we can say we “understand” a subject rather than just remember its salient elements. The further we penetrate down in the concept, the more we find that understanding merely comprises finer and finer points of memorization, recall, and coordination. There is a difference of degree and not of kind. Yet the difference between one who understands and one who simply recalls is one of the most widespread ways that that cultures have made the distinction between the educated mind and the ignorant mind, the scholar and the idiot, the civilized and the savage.  “Understanding,” in this sense, is just a term that signifies and justifies the dominance of one over another.

The simplicity of Rancière’s analysis of understanding is seductive. In the work I’ve been doing on conceptions of African American epistemology in the nineteenth century, Rancière’s analysis is utterly in harmony with what I’ve read. White supremacists, including those that thought of themselves as liberals, argued while people of African descent were “apprehensive,” they lacked “understanding.” In other words, they could learn rote skills quickly but could not engage in original thinking. What such an argument had going for it was unfalsifiability. If an African American seemed to understand something, it could be argued by anyone that she had simply memorized a set of facts or principles and mistook it for (or knowingly passed it off as) “understanding.” But in fact, it was not understanding, it was just recall, and so we needn’t be fooled into the idea that African Americans are the intellectual equals of whites. In fact, it’s quite an elegant way to deny that any person “understands” anything at all!

That’s material for a future post (and book). In the case of racialist discourses of black epistemology, it’s clear that all of these seemingly fine distinctions between “understanding” and “recall” are a bunch of racist hooey. But I wonder how far I’m willing to follow Rancière’s analysis. While its simplicity is appealing, and I felt a bit of an epiphanic shiver while reading it, something about it seems too neat. Would I be willing to follow through on the implications of this idea in my own teaching, take up a position of ignorance, and forego the practice of explication I frequently engage in with my class? I do not think I would. Partially, that’s for institutional reasons: I don’t think my department chair would be too thrilled by it. Partially, it’s for chickenshit reasons: it would be so different from how I was taught and what I was taught teaching is, I would be afraid to do it. And partially, of course, it’s for reasons of pleasure and ego: who doesn’t love standing up there and showing that they can take apart and reassemble a complex theoretical text, turn it one way or the other, and so on?

But of course, just because you wouldn’t adopt a theory as a lived principle doesn’t mean it isn’t pragmatically useful. Even distinctions whose logic has been dissolved by critique have a way of reconstituting themselves in lived experience. It doesn’t necessarily make us hypocrites if we theorize one way and act another, though it may sometimes. I suppose I’m trying to figure out how to acquire, or understand, or at least imitate, whatever act of judgment would allow me to make the right call.

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