This is the eighth installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read previous interviews here.
Nan Z. Da insists that preserving the generic, categorical distinctions that separate different forms of writing makes for “curious crossings.” It also makes criticism more capacious. This may come as a surprise: after all, most interviewees for this series have collapsed these distinctions, instead advocating for blurred boundaries. Take a look, though, at Da’s essay “Disambiguation, a Tragedy” in n+1 or at her book Intransitive Encounter to see why she might hold this perspective. These pieces of writing are just two examples of Da’s expansive reach and stylistic mutability, showing readers not just the value in these different forms but also what adhering to distinctions makes possible for one’s ideas.
Da is Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of English, concurrently affiliated with the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, at the University of Notre Dame. We talked over Zoom in March about literary criticism’s layers and preserving a culture of argumentation.
Jessica Swoboda: What is literary criticism for?
Nan Z. Da: Its purpose is plural, by which I mean that different people use it to different purposes, and that its purposes are layered, often occluded, even in single transactions. One vital but under-exercised function of literary criticism is the communication of moral intelligence: the critic wants to tell you how some things happen, step by step, and why the memory of its happening never seems quite stable. It wants to relay the meaning of plot—plot as in a precise sequence of words and information. But that is only one part.
JS: What do you see as the differences between academic writing and other forms of writing?
ND: There’s an oft-quoted line by Niklas Luhmann, an acute understanding of the endgame of social evolution in modernity. He posits that “humans cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate; not even their conscious minds can communicate. Only communication can communicate.” You’re not supposed to think of this as writing advice. Nonetheless, things have to be primed for communication.
Academic writing has to look different than nonfiction writing, has to look different than journalism, and so forth, for much the same reason that interdisciplinarity means nothing if disciplines don’t have operational closure, don’t have integrity. You have to have categorical and systemic partitioning, even hard generic distinctions, in order to see curious crossings. Intense siloing and conversational insiderism are problems in academia and in literary circles at large, but well-done compartmentalization creates real opportunities for criticism. Also, you just hate to see the great convergence in criticism that Luhmann describes of mass media wherein commercials start to look more like mini-movies and movies start to look like NFTs.
JS: What do you hope to see in your own writing?
ND: I’m always trying to exercise jester’s privilege without being a natural-born comic, so I take what I can get. With my coeditors, I tell authors to imagine a longer horizon than just three to five years. There is always a way to test whether an idea will be sterling in ten to twenty years, and academia and the general public do have rituals of returning to past literary-critical works to test their steadfastness.
More personally I hope to prove that there’s no incompatibility between Luhmann’s observations about modernity and the possibility of writing heart to heart, or at least heart for heart. My longtime friend and colleague Rachel Feder put it best in her book on Frankenstein: “To interpret the text is to harvest its heart. But texts don’t have hearts. The literary critic asks you to interpret her text with her in her way, which is to say, to harvest her heart.”
JS: Thinking about one’s “harvesting her heart” gets me thinking of Twitter, namely, the drama of watching conversations unfold on it, because it seems to attract the total opposite of that. How do you think Twitter has impacted literary criticism and literary community?
ND: Catastrophically? [laughs] I was on Twitter for a year. Every minute felt like Cate Blanchett at the end of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
I think Twitter is a fascinating, grossly under-theorized object. Because it’s the widest call for talent on the most littered open sea, you’re going to see astonishingly good stuff. I learned so much from Twitter. It’s comedy of the highest order. By the same rationale Twitter forces you to become a free-speech absolutist if you weren’t one before. You think to yourself, thank God there’s Twitter, given that there’s Twitter.
It’s over-theorized from a certain standpoint. We know the arguments about polarization, misinformation, the radical pluralization of people’s perceptions of reality, surveillance capitalism, its psychotic effects on popular and public discourse.
My hunch is that Twitter compels an inductive understanding of utilitarianism—utilitarianism as a literary theorist understands it—that is, outside of the trolley problem and the Should-Batman-kill-the-Joker thought experiment. It’s asking you how you really feel about large-scale social technologies that shift consequence from intent to demonstrable impact. It is such a technology because it places the minimum amount of importance on the content of a tweet and the maximum amount of importance on the record of the tweet and the interaction order of reactions to it in real time. This is where its effects are under-theorized.
JS: Can you say more about that?
ND: This record of interaction order can be outsourced to another realm, like screenshots or group chats, memory-holed away; nonetheless, the range of ways to record the interaction of human speech means that etiquette—and the legal ramifications of recorded speech acts—matters. You might think that you’re in a space where etiquette, defined as socially weighted, visible sequences, doesn’t matter, but it always matters. Since most speech acts on Twitter never have to be answerable for the effects of their actions, the evaluation of these actions (how they perform relative to their peers) depends on their conspicuousness and on the ratification of others, at quantitative scale. To start with, this means that Twitter rewards hand over fist those with social canniness about the importance of sequence and the observation of interactions, or those entirely protected from the consequences of their speech acts. The idealism of anyone speaking truth to power through the principle of the platform’s design would eventually be outpaced by the big-data logics of recorded speech.
JS: How have your experiences as an editor and as someone who’s been edited influenced your own writing?
ND: The more garbled or compressed something initially is, the more laborious an editor’s job becomes. That means that editors have to take a piece of writing on intuition, on good faith, and be responsible for the many rounds of rewriting it will require to be legible to a decent number of people. I personally struggle with articulacy. Being edited as well as being an editor has helped me see how labor accrues and appreciate clarity’s relation to fairness—a fair ratio between intelligence and exertion on the part of the writer and the reader.
JS: What inspired you to start the Thinking Literature series for the University of Chicago Press?
ND: I had read the Los Angeles Review of Books’s “No Crisis,” which was a very important set of works. Then I came across the essay “Who Cares?,” published in the Stanford Arcade by my now-colleague and coeditor Anahid Nersessian. Read it and you’ll feel what I felt. Anahid had just written Utopia, Limited and was commencing her next book project, The Calamity Form, both of which make undeniable cases for the explanatory power of literary interpretation. That caught the attention of our now-coeditor Alan Thomas. At the time I was entering into a disciplinary argument that forced me to precisely define literature and literary analysis despite their inherent eclecticism. I’m not sure those definitions were right after all, but in any case, these three-way conversations eventually became an expressed wish to see more of a certain kind of literary criticism. This criticism might call upon all kinds of methods and practices but will treat literary reading comprehension as an inherently difficult task.
We have been gifted with really great submissions and hope there can be more from people working on non-English literatures.
JS: Has working on the series changed how you understand the purpose of arguing about literature?
ND: I keep those two things separate, actually. The purpose of arguing about literature is independent of the series because it’s too basic to be hitched to it, really.
Because literary studies is a form of truth-telling that is technically available to anyone, preserving a robust and fair culture of argumentation around it is of the utmost importance. I understand why people would downplay the significance of the outcomes of our procedures and deliberations. You hear this periodically: guys, remember that we’re just arguing about fiction, and no one in the real world is really paying attention, right? So calm down. But I understand it as a form of harm prevention. Some of these takes out there you really wouldn’t want to see laundered into importance through overblown claims to urgency. Factor this in and the point still stands: it’s a matter of life and death.
In his essay “Criticism and Truth,” Jonathan Kramnick asked how people can tell if criticism has been truthful, what that would consist of and why these procedures of veridiction matter. I go about things a bit differently, but I strongly agree the question should be broached as elegantly and often as possible. If literary criticism has not been truthful, how can you tell, and how can you tell without also triggering a mechanism of punishment in your telling? There’s a way to know relatively quickly if a medical doctor is a fraud or if their education has not been completed in a certain way. But for us, the radius of consequence is much, much longer—which doesn’t at all mean that the consequences are diminished or that traversing the distances must be an act of blind faith.
JS: How do you understand “difficulty”?
ND: There’s difficulty at the level of diction and syntax: someone needed to bend language to accommodate an involved thought or a strange reality. The late Sara Suleri Goodyear’s Meatless Days is a great example of this difficulty. This phenomenon can be hitched to a second order of difficulty: something—an event, an idea, a reality—is also difficult to look at: it’s a flinching view. Even after you’ve cleared the woods and can now look down at the landscape, it remains a flinching view. And you’re glad that this someone else has not flinched so that you can also not flinch. They’ve taken the pains to help get you to at least this modified eyewitness understanding.
When it comes to the evaluation of difficulty and clarity, I think common sense applies. Of course you’re going to make an exception for “Can the Subaltern Speak?” moments. I’m happy to find some angle level of repose where we say, “What doesn’t parse in a commonsense way must be a necessary linguistic arrangement.” But generally I think things are left too unclear, and people stop at the wrong level of disambiguation in reading and writing.
JS: What especially excites you about literary criticism today?
ND: I place a lot of hope in the time lag for coming to knowledge about some thing or some fact. Coming down the pike is Chinese diasporic literary criticism that has really figured some stuff out, and that has become wise to the deepest levels of cross-cultural mystification. For instance, look at Jane Hu’s recent “Ang Lee’s Tears” to see this multidimensional formalism at work.
I also find it exciting when a certain kind of mind trained in the life worlds of the humanities turns its attention to the mechanisms of a digital social technology. An example of that is Jeffrey Kirkwood’s article on cryptocurrency and a metaphysical shift from labor to proof of labor that it entails, which was published in the winter issue of Critical Inquiry.
JS: How would you describe the current state of literary criticism?
ND: Let me lean on a trope here. One thing that really stuck with me from T. J. Clark’s most recent book, Heaven on Earth, is the idea that in the paintings of the old masters it can be legitimately difficult to tell if you’re in heaven or in hell. Visual depictions of heaven and hell are intrinsically interesting, but more interesting are the ones where, for even a very discerning person, it’s hard to make a call. Clark plies this idea to its greatest effect in his readings of Bruegel.
I feel this way about the state of literary criticism and literary studies. On the one hand, it’s a fine, cold renaissance. There’s so much that’s so good. In the vastness of these realms there are small oases in which there is enough leisurely, protected time to think and do good work. Look closer, however, and many of these oases are also just filled with mottes and baileys where even the safely ensconced seem always short of drinking water and where real-deal types are consistently, cruelly shut out. And yet here, at the sites of exclusion, literary criticism and scholarship often join up with sprezzatura, poetic justice and the mysterious operations of life to come. Where it’s nearly impossible to disambiguate, heaven-hell-wise: the stylish, the blasé, the ironic, the radical, the fugitive, the romantic, the labor-intensive, the gimmick.
Image credit: Children’s Games, Pieter Bruegel the Elder