Since November’s inception in July 2020, we have been preoccupied with a suspicion that our present intellectual world has become stunted in its imaginative capacities. Bear with me, we aren’t trying to sound a tired alarm. We share the same [hopefully] widespread concerns about the resurgence of puritanical moralism, dogmatic browbeating, and a culture of relevancy-for-relevancy’s-sake in public discourse. Our intention is not to bludgeon you with information that has already been made readily, consistently, and painfully apparent by daily life. What collectively concerns us, rather, is something both more simple and perhaps more difficult: a loss of curiosity. Or, to perhaps put it more romantically, a loss of fascination for that which evades obvious usefulness. All too often, from the circular debates around the value of transgression to the narcissism of small differences that animates quibbles over what type of “-capitalism” we are living under, a concept’s cultural purchase seems to be coterminal with its ability to buy one a bit more time to figure out whether one is or not, in fact, on the right side of history—a side which, it should go without saying, shifts in direction with both the consistency and predictability of a message-in-a-bottle, sent from a desert island in some sort of desperate SOS-bid. In our previous volume, On Postmodernism, we attempted to enumerate our desire for a return to curiosity by parsing out the stubborn persistence of certain threads of 1980s and ’90s cultural theory in the present day—as Aria Dean writes in her introduction, “There is a pervasive sense that once-radical concepts might flip on us; they also might just as well look more anodyne in hindsight. At some point, we might be forced to break with old frames whose comfort we’ve sought in such troubled times as our own.”
Here, we take a stab at applying this same question of curiosity to writing. Why? A cynical reading might point out the obvious: as a magazine run by a group of writers, we have skin in the game. In a certain sense, who could fault us for wanting to publicly air a few vain anxieties of our own? But that’s not the real wager. Rhetoric, we believe, is the defining vector through which we position ourselves within an increasingly abstracted, capitalist world. Of course, language is always already ideological, unavoidably preconditioned by the context of its deployment—trying to write a theory of language is like trying to build a boat that has already set sail. Our concern here is not to provide a cohesive argument about the nature of writing, but rather to unfurl some of the more troubling political, aesthetic, and cultural contours of rhetoric’s current deployment as we’ve witnessed them play out. Language is booming: from the pseudo-populist theater of political figures like Ron DeSantis (a “mini Mussolini,” as Lee Edelman refers to him in this volume), to the gloomy weaponizations of theory-speak by celebrity professors in open letters, to the explosion of “auto-” as a default prefix for conferring literary weight upon the most banal details of daily life (for more on this, see Michael Shorris’ essay in Volume 4), to the increasingly terminally-online, terminally-text-based nature of our day-to-day communications, we are perhaps all writers of a sort now—or, at the very least, characters subject to the whims of another’s authorial determination. Language is a bust: from the rapid disappearance of smaller publications, to the erosion of public faith in top-down mainstream media, to the ongoing crisis of relevancy in academia, to the endless worries about what AI is doing to writing, to the reduction of most criticism to a cheap paraphrasing of press copy, the power of the written word has perhaps never appeared more suspect.
To take a stab at identifying a throughline here, we’d like to suggest that what unites these various anxieties, communicative shifts, and rhetorical flourishes is a shared flattening of language, a reduction of writing into a one-dimensional tool for aggregating and communicating useful information—information, in other words, that you can do something with now. While perhaps no more ideological than before, the written word appears to be increasingly neutral, indifferent to such concepts as irony, pastiche, the pregnant silence, the buried implication—concepts, to put it another way, that work against the increasing social and economic premium placed upon language which is universally translatable from one context to the next. In the interest of trying to work through the implications of this flattening of language’s usage, we’ve engaged a diverse coterie of writers, including the novelists Emma Cline and Stephanie LaCava, the academics Denise Ferreira da Silva and Lee Edelman, and the journalists Bob Colacello, Malcom Harris, and Hua Hsu.
It is excruciatingly clear that cultural work, on the whole, is a downwardly mobile enterprise. Throughout these seven conversations, the social and economic precarity of “the life of the writer” continues to rear its head. And yet, against all rational judgment, people still want to be writers. Whenever a desire for a certain type of life persists in the face of such increasingly stacked odds, it is worth asking the obvious: why? Humor a bit of reductive comparison: in a creative world defined by diminishing returns, visual artists can still cling to the (decreasing, sure) hope of attracting the adoration (pocket change) of a rich benefactor (they also, perhaps as a result, tend to throw the best parties); musicians, while perhaps not quite as likely to strike gold, can rest easy knowing that people will love them in a way that they could never love a novelist or a painter. What fantasy of salvation, then, is left over for the writer?
One rote answer: “the life of the mind.” Leave society, escape the delirium of our present mania, indulge in the pleasure of thinking. A valiant enough modus operandi, on face value—although, perhaps ironically, I have yet to meet a writer who finds the act of writing purely enjoyable (as Denise Ferreira da Silva puts it in this volume, “It’s painful and it’s alienating, but I also love it”). Defendants of the “life of the mind” position tend to couch writing’s importance in its ability to provide some type of moral education. The argument goes something like this: writers, with their forcibly isolated lifestyles and positions of contemplative remove, bless us by doing our hard thinking for us. Unlike filmmakers and visual artists, who are so often forced to cater to the whims of producers, curators, collaborators, collectors, and an entire network of production and circulation mechanics, writers are free to work relatively unencumbered by the dulling impulses of bureaucratic bog-water and investor-protecting plausible deniability, both of which invariably serve to blunt even the sharpest of insights. Writers are ostensibly afforded, in other words, the distance necessary to think through the big questions of life—sex, death, depravity, evil, regrettable desires, hatred, longing—without interruption or grave social consequence.
Increasingly, one catches wind of a mounting chorus of writerly anxiety: burdened by a rampant culture of pietism, identity politicking, social media scapegoating, and bad faith reading, writers are apparently no longer allowed to say anything (in the interest of being generous, let’s put aside for the moment the fact that publicly voicing this opinion is still within itself, well, saying something—how many pages have writers filled decrying the fact that no one is allowed to write anymore?). Most of the major players in contemporary literary discourse, regardless of political affiliation or cultural sensibility, seem to more or less agree: writers need a break from being expected to say the right thing—this is a position which is currently as popular with left-liberal free speech defenders like Maggie Nelson 1 and Garth Greenwell 2 as it is with transgressive shock jocks like Michel Houellebecq. 3 Against the endless moralizing of public discourse, many of writing’s staunchest defendants have doubled-down on the idea that writers ought to reclaim their proper space within our cultural ecosystem as the custodians of society’s most filth-laden depths.
One frequently hears of the threats posed to morally complex art, but a passing glance at the current state of cultural production would suggest that these fears are more a matter of rhetorical positioning than an actual reflection of either the prevailing tastes and sensibilities of our moment or the calculated financial investments of cultural platforms. 4 In the absence of an actually robust culture of silencing and morality policing, this bemoaning of a lack of artistic freedom reads less as acute social analysis, and more as the flourishes of an imagination that has become overly dependent upon a particularly suspicious form of reactionism in order to justify its own use value—even, ironically, if the original intent is to push against such suspicious reactionism. In order to drive home their critiques of a flattened, critique-for-critique’s sake crazed public discourse, writing’s avant-gardist defendants have, by in large, adopted the exact same rhetorical structure originally championed by those identity-politics obsessed, left-liberal postmodernists that they seek to denounce. Not unlike the finger-wagging puritans they claim to oppose, writing’s loudest public defendants so often appear to have a shared penchant for reducing the use value of a position to its capacity to tear down one’s perceived adversaries, emptying such supposedly mystifying ideals as ugliness and filth into straight-forward rhetorical cudgels for beating down the declared enemy. In each successive iteration, the antidote to moralizing reactionism appears to take the form of yet more moralizing reactionism—the costumes change, but the frame stays untroubled. One begins to suspect that the current crisis facing language is not an issue of content, but rather of form itself.
The suspicious mind is the modern writerly POV par excellence. To have a writerly voice is to have an inherently suspect voice—as Hua Hsu puts it in this volume, “Beautiful writing sometimes has this kind of emotional blackmail dimension to it, where you can only feel this way because of how lyrical it is.” For better or worse, to write cultural theory in our age is to have one’s intentions questioned, to engender the potential for critique—we are all unavoidably inheritors of a critical suspicion that was first unleashed by modernism’s obsession with false-consciousness and then perfected by postmodernism’s flattening of all positions into an endless chain of reactions and references. The distinguishing line between critique and its writerly predecessor, philosophy, is perhaps the level of faith one places in the possibility of sincerity. Overwhelmed by the sheer contradictions and duplicity of modern life, critique buries its head in the more defensible game of “practice,” that abstract word which evokes an endless revolutionary undoing of all fixed positions. Unchecked, however, one worries if practice-for-practice’s sake has retreated too far into the safety of refusing to die on the hill of an impossible position, erecting a new theology of the eternally suspicious critique in place of the older theology of rationality and logic that it set out to deconsecrate. 5 Our wager is that, somewhere along the line, the value of skeptical rhetoric outgrew its original intent, losing interest in that which it could neither tear apart nor weaponize in the interest of tearing someone else’s position apart. In a world in which all motivations and positions are potentially suspect, the safest bet is to stay as far ahead on the ouroboros’ curve as possible. A position need not be novel, nor foolproof, in order to have legs, it just needs to anticipate and lay bare the flaws of that which came before it.
In a sense then, we’ve arrived once again at the original question: what is the point of writing today? There has to be more to our continued, completely economically and socially illogical desire to write, something beyond simply wanting a turn at dragging the inadequacies of one’s predecessors into the light. Everyone is proven wrong by the passage of time; no position is designed to hold indefinitely—we know this, but this knowledge doesn’t (or shouldn’t, at least) inspire the type of joy that would drive one into a lifelong commitment to a downwardly mobile craft. We know that we aren’t safe, we know that life is both precarious and duplicitous. This is emphatically reflected in a number of the conversations in this volume: whether it’s Emma Cline talking about using her MFA as a stepping stone for gaining proximity to the New York literary world, Malcolm Harris unpacking the trials and tribulations of sneaking a Marxist analysis past the watchful eyes of mainstream publishing, or Stephanie LaCava theorizing the novel as a type of gameable product, there is a persistent sense that the life of the writer is inherently one of chance and calculated risk. Writing’s persistence ought to signal a desire for a life that aspires to more than the temporary safety of staying ahead of the rhetorical curve—if anything, it should signal a desire to be dazzled, or even knowingly duped, by the strange and unusual thoughts of another.
While putting together this introduction, I found myself—as many often do—returning to the work of Peter Schjeldahl, who quite brilliantly captures this rhetorical give and take between trust, suspicion, and curiosity: “While going by the names ‘I’ and ‘me,’ the critic-as-artist is a fictional being, mysteriously hell-bent for cultivation and never tired or confused. No one knows better the flimsiness of that illusion than any actual writer, who is often tired and regularly confused. He or she bets that readers, if pleasurably engaged, will condone the masquerade.” 6 Schjeldahl is the first to admit that this idea is partially borrowed, much like I’ve partially borrowed his insight here—he adapted it, almost verbatim, from Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Critic as Artist,” which puts the same point (as Wilde is wont to do) a bit more melodramatically: “I live in terror of not being misunderstood. Don’t degrade me into the position of giving you useful information.” 7
If we are, in fact, arguing for a form of criticality here, it is of a Wildean-Schjeldahlian variety, which finds its usefulness not in clarity, reaction, or demystification, but rather in a fascination for misunderstanding and the perpetual forward motion of inquiry that misunderstanding leaves in its wake. We want writing that unshackles itself from the expectation of being universally translatable, writing whose work is carried out not merely by the writer on the page, but also, to a greater degree, in the reader’s attempts to grapple with the alien-adjacent idiosyncrasies of the writer’s individual style and preoccupations—how many novel thoughts were launched, for instance, from exasperated questions like, “For the love of God, what does Foucault even mean when he says power.” Against the valorization of “the writer” as either antisocial outside observer or hyper-topical public commentator, we want writing that pushes out into the extremes of one’s individual disposition, but only in order to return to society once again, to inspire collective discourse through the encounter with one’s concentrated eccentricity—writing, in other words, that inflates the time-space field of language, operating on both an aggressively individual and broadly collective register, a square peg mashed against the round hole of the present. This dynamic of an individual eccentricity, or opacity, which expands the field of language through the potential for misunderstanding is arrested quite brilliantly by Bruce Hainley in Volume 4, who, while attempting to reckon with the impenetrably provocative strangeness of Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Sherrie Levine’s centerfold contribution to the third issue of The Flue, writes: “The artists were examining—aren’t they still—the rough present. How not to be manhandled by it.” We want a criticality that refuses to be manhandled into a position of one-dimensional dissent-for-dissent’s sake; a criticality which works through, as opposed to against, existing cultural mores and contradictions; a criticality which takes the fact that all ideas must fail to reach their loftiest goals as a given, and yet insists on the value of their impossibility nonetheless. We want writing like the kind embodied by Lee Edelman’s attempts to square queer theory with Afropessimism, or Denise Ferreira da Silva’s counterintuitive interpellation of her own practice of tarot reading through the magical thinking of the very same (“supposedly,” as she points out) rational Enlightenment philosophers that she takes as objects of critique.
Call it style, star power, or dumb luck, but we maintain a certain faith in the idea of an ineffable quality to certain voices, combinations of words, and articulations—an individual flair that takes the potential to be misunderstood as a productive force, not a sign of critical deficiency. For Lee Edelman, it’s the negating power of poetry; for Denise Ferreira da Silva, the practice of magic; for Hua Hsu, the faulty memory induced by photographs; for Bob Colacello, the provocative glamor and androgyny of Mick Jagger; for Malcolm Harris, the undying belief in one’s convictions; for Emma Cline, the suggestive power of surrendering to one’s subconscious; for Stephanie LaCava, the effortless style that evades gamification. Whatever name it goes by, it is a vitalism that finds its final expression not in its ability to make something happen now, but rather in the long-con bet that it might survive to take on new life outside its original context.
We are wary of sounding like utopians: this isn’t a vague, cruelly optimistic call to place one’s faith in a perpetually deferred future just off the horizon. We’re simply insisting on the idea that writing is not merely a tool for moral education, antisocial contemplation, or destroying an intellectual adversary—if anything, it is a way to figure out how to bear living, a way to arrest the ineffable feeling of something beyond reality as we know it, something that can perhaps be trusted, against all odds. In times like these where we feel as if we’re caught in a trap, it perhaps makes sense to lean on the words of a star, one who, while hardly a writer, had a certain singular ability to take the words of others and elevate them into something beautiful: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds, we can’t build our dreams on suspicious minds.” 8
Next from this Volume
in conversation with Johanna Zwirner in conversation with Johanna Zwirner
“I’m always cognizant of life being the most interesting thing, and writing coming out of that.”