This is the fourth installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read previous interviews here.
You could say that Timothy Aubry, Professor of English at Baruch College, spends a lot of time thinking about aesthetic experience. What I admire most about Aubry’s writing is his willingness to discuss why academics should care about literature beyond ideology. We also turn to it, he writes in essays for publications like The Point and Paper Monument and in his scholarly monographs, to help us through emotional setbacks, to puzzle out questions and to experience aesthetic pleasure. We talked over Zoom in November about breaking free from the predictability of academic writing and the relationship between aesthetics and politics.
Jessica Swoboda: What are the biggest challenges of academic writing?
Timothy Aubry: One of the big challenges is that you feel like you have to write in a certain mode. I remember having an inferiority complex in grad school because I felt like no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make my prose unreadable and complicated and weird and forbidding like all the scholars we were assigned, whether that was Gayatri Spivak, or Judith Butler, or Homi Bhabha, or the academics who were imitating them. They wrote these unbelievably complicated sentences with words like “imbricate,” and “pharmakon,” and “liminal,” and I would try to write papers that sounded like their books and essays, with multiple subclauses that would be hard to decipher. And it was a complete failure.
Over time I did learn to write more in accord with academic protocols and so forth, despite my misgivings. And, according to my family, I do write obscure, unreadable academic prose—so I must have succeeded in getting there to some degree at least.
JS: Do you like reading difficult prose?
TA: I’m not one of those people who’s opposed to difficult academic writing—I think it can be great, I think it can be powerful. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean convoluted sentences. Difficulty can mean that there’s stuff going on below the surface and that are depths you’re trying to get to. Lionel Trilling is that way for me, and James Baldwin. These midcentury intellectuals use the same words that you and I use, and their sentences are not especially complicated. And yet, somehow something happens when you encounter those sentences that gestures toward something more. It makes you want to keep thinking about them, unpacking them. If writing isn’t doing that, then I’m not as excited. If writing is totally lucid and transparent, then I’m probably going to get bored.
JS: Why did you start writing for the public? What’s possible in public writing that isn’t in academic writing?
TA: Those are hard questions. Only after I got tenure did I feel like I could write for other kinds of venues. I met Roger White, who was one of the founding editors of Paper Monument, which was the sister magazine of n+1 but focused specifically on art. I know very little about art, but he was interested in having my perspective because, from time to time, he wanted the magazine to have essays that looked at the art world through an outsider’s eyes. I wrote a piece called “How to Behave in an Art Museum.” I wanted to write about myself as a human being confronting works of art, with all the insecurities, uncertainties and questions that never make it into academic articles. I wanted to discuss how I actually feel when I walk into an art museum and what questions and worries I have when I do. I also thought the piece was a good occasion to write about the postures people put on when they interpret artworks in elaborate and sometimes annoying ways and act as a know-it-all.
Having said all that, I do try to insert a certain kind of honesty into my academic writing. I think that happens in a couple ways. I don’t necessarily see myself in a heated debate with someone I want to take down or outsmart or poke holes in their argument. I’m fairly conflict-averse. And rather than have arguments with specific scholars, I guess I’m more interested in identifying and sometimes overstepping the unspoken implicit boundaries that you’re not supposed to cross and talking about the things you’re not supposed to talk about because they will make it seem like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Because things get fairly boring when you always try to remain safely within those boundaries. The essay I wrote for Paper Monument allowed me to break free from that predictability.
JS: Do you want to do more of that? Break free from that predictability?
TA: I guess I’ve always been interested in trying to see what happens if we cross certain boundaries and risk embarrassment. The first few weeks of grad school, I had a crush on this person that didn’t work out. My first thought was: What book can I find that will help me get through this minor emotional setback? Just a little bit after that, when I was thinking about what I wanted to write about for my dissertation, I asked myself: Why do I read literature? I was trying to be really honest with myself, and I realized I read literature as a form of therapy. Then I wondered: Is that something any critic I’ve read has ever talked about? Is writing about literature performing a kind of therapeutic function for readers allowed?
At that time, the answer was no. And I realized that this had to be the topic of my dissertation—because it’s something that nobody else seemed willing to talk about. In the seminars I was taking, literature was subversive, disruptive and unsettling, but if it made you happy, that meant it was bad literature. The last thing any critic would want to admit, if they’re trying to make it as an academic, is that they treat literature as a kind of therapy, that it validates their feelings, helps them feel better about life and less alone, and provides a kind of reassurance. Of course, I was initially embarrassed that I cared about literature for precisely these reasons. But then I found a way to talk about what I wanted to talk about in a way that was considered less embarrassing. I historicized. I talked about the ideological bases for wanting to treat literature as therapy. I found other critics who made similar kinds of arguments. You could say I’m motivated by the question “What is it that academics are just not willing to admit or talk about?”
JS: In your most recent monograph, Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures, you discuss how having an interest in aesthetics or aesthetic pleasure is often thought of as turning away from politics. You challenge this idea, but do you think that assumption still dominates literary criticism? How would you describe its current state?
TA: Even though there’s been a real resurgence of interest in form and aesthetics, I think literary scholars have at the same time doubled down on their political commitments. In the past five or six years, the sanctimoniousness has gotten even worse than it used to be—the idea that we’re on the side of the righteous. So now we see often form and aesthetics getting recuperated, but very often in political terms. Most of the books celebrating a return to formalism are doing so because somehow that’s now key to doing ideological criticism well. Some of that work is really interesting and good. But it’s not possible at present for people to say that such and such a book is valuable because of the immediate experience it creates for readers. If that experience doesn’t have political repercussions, if it doesn’t inspire any ideological insights, then the experience doesn’t matter and the book has no value. It must have a political kind of value.
I also think that people are still very much trying to align their taste with their politics. And so everybody wants the books that they respond to viscerally, emotionally, to also be the books that have the right politics, right? Which means there’s not much room for guilty pleasures. One of the only writers in recent years who seems to be making more space for those kinds of pleasures is Andrea Long Chu. She argues that our desires don’t always line up with our ideology. And that’s inconvenient and can be difficult. And she is somehow able to be transgressive, subversive, shocking: sometimes you read things that she writes and you think, “Holy shit, this is this is crazy—like, this is gonna offend a lot of people’s pieties.” And yet she’s somehow managed to align that with a kind of political righteousness. I’ve seen very few writers who are able to do those two things at the same time.
JS: Is that where you see criticism trending? What would you like to see more of in literary criticism?
TA: I do think we’re at a cultural moment where everybody is very carefully censoring themselves and modulating their arguments in order to make them accord with certain political commitments. And that means there are certain desires that aren’t getting voiced. And I’d be curious to see what would happen if more people owned up to their guilty pleasures and wrote about them. I don’t know exactly what that would look like, because one person’s pleasure can always be another person’s exploitation. But it would be interesting if more critics could write about their responses to literature, without having to frame them so they support the governing orthodoxies. Does that make sense?
JS: Yes, it does. That comment has me thinking about Twitter now. I wonder, how do you think Twitter has impacted academic criticism and academic community?
TA: The subtweet is the form that is most revealing about what people want from Twitter. At its worst, it’s a form of bragging. People show off how well-versed they are in the current cultural zeitgeist. But the subtweet also is an expression of a fantasy of a unified, non-fragmented public intellectual culture, where we’re all talking about the same things, debating the same issues and having similar kinds of feelings. The subtweet expresses the yearning for others to know what you’re talking about so that you don’t even need to mention it. That would mean that we’re all on the same page together, all in the same community. But the problem is also, as everybody knows, that you can only create a great, interesting, cool community by excluding people. And so while the subtweet expresses that desire, it also makes half the people who see it feel excluded or stupid. It performs both of those functions simultaneously.
I’m doing a lot of research right now on the early days of the Partisan Review—the 1930s and Forties. They all saw themselves as taking part in the same debate. Whatever they were arguing about came down to either supporting Marxist revolution or being complicit in colonialism and capitalism. There were multiple positions—you could be a Trotskyite, a socialist, even a Stalinist—but whether you were reading about literature or writing about art, you were taking a position in this ideological struggle, which had high stakes. But there was an interesting coherence to it all, even amidst all the excoriations and condemnations of each other’s positions, because everyone felt like they were part of the conversation, even those who simply wrote letters to the editor. I think that gave everybody in that New York intellectual scene a feeling of belonging, even as they were tearing each other apart. Academic Twitter produces a similar kind of feeling.
JS: You mentioned earlier that you don’t want to be combative in your writing. But you did respond to Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s review of Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures in the Los Angeles Review of Books, which accused you of abandoning the political and of claiming that literary criticism should only be undertaken to assign and explain aesthetic value. What inspired you to do that?
TA: I thought Tremblay’s review of Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures in LARB was really unfair and entirely mischaracterized my book. They said that I utterly jettison political criticism and that, in my view, the only role of the critic is to figure out why literary works are a source of pleasure or not. In some ways, though, their review was a pretty good expression of what I had seen as a kind of defensiveness within political criticism toward other methodologies when I first undertook the project. There’s a certain strain of political criticism, influenced by Marxist criticism, that assumes that if you’re doing anything other than ideological analysis, then you are reactionary, complicit in neoliberal structures or giving up on the project of political criticism altogether.
This shouldn’t have surprised me. I had these hardcore Marxist friends in grad school who I would debate on a weekly basis. And anytime I would say “Yeah, but are these moments of aesthetic satisfaction necessarily about politics or politically driven?,” they would respond that moments of aesthetic satisfaction are themselves an ideological fantasy you’re having. Capitalism wants you to believe that you are granted some kind of autonomy from the imperatives of the market or from the pressures of ideology. When you posit that fantasy, then, you are subscribing to or reaffirming those ideological structures. There’s a kind of totalizing in Marxist criticism that doesn’t allow for any nonpolitical analysis of any moment in your life, any nonpolitical analysis of literature.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this when I was writing Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures. Those conversations with my friends were always in my head, and I felt like writing the book was my way of continuing to debate them. In this book, I wasn’t trying to suggest that political criticism wasn’t important, or that political responses to literature were not useful. I was trying to see if it’s possible to carve out some space for other kinds of reactions, for ways of describing responses that are not totally infiltrated by ideology.
JS: The response you got seems to be the standard reply anyone who proposes an alternative to critique gets: if you don’t do political critique, then you’re complicit in neoliberal structures.
TA: Political criticism safeguards its ubiquitous presence within the academy by not allowing for anything else. So it’s all or nothing. You’re either all into political criticism; or if you’re saying “Yeah, political criticism is good, but there might be room for something else,” then you’re rejecting political criticism altogether. In Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures, I do not reject political criticism. I argue that political criticism itself is valuable for the many reasons that it claims to be valued and that it can be a form of aesthetic appreciation. Political critics are often making aesthetic judgments about literary works, even if that’s not how they would describe what they’re doing. They do that simply by focusing more on certain works than others, by putting certain authors on their syllabi, by making value judgments about works that are couched in political terms. They also tend to champion certain formal structures and certain modes of response; the claim is usually that these structures and these responses merit attention because they are useful for understanding or challenging dominant ideologies; but their arguments make it clear, whether it’s Fredric Jameson or Lauren Berlant or Saidiya Hartman, that the critics are drawn to these literary forms and modes of response because of the aesthetic pleasures they yield. Once you start reading ideological critique as a form of aesthetic appreciation, you see it everywhere you look.
JS: Is that something you want to see more of in the future? What do you wish literary critics would do more of?
TA: I’d love for academics to get better at making aesthetic judgments: think through why literature or art appeals to us, what it does for us, not just what long-term political goals it serves. So what can it do for us now? What experiences does it produce that we need? Back in the 1940s and 1950s there was a consensus among many critics that the use of ambiguity, complexity and paradox was what readers needed: it was somehow a reflection of the confusion of modern life but could also restore some of the wholeness that was lacking—could unify people’s conflicting impulses, their thought and feeling, their contradictory urges, in the form of a coherent aesthetic response. It would take a certain willingness to be unfashionable, but I’d be very interested in seeing people ask: What kind of literature do we need now? What are our aesthetic criteria? What are the social conditions that make us unhappy? What’s our situation? And what can literature do for us?
I also think we could pay attention to actual readers more. So much in academic criticism is focused on whether literature reaffirms or challenges dominant ideologies. Does it offer false resolutions to the contradictions of capitalism and thus maintain docile subjects? Does it support neoliberal thinking? We could work harder to find out what effect a book actually has on readers. Does it make readers more complacent, more conservative? Or does it do the opposite? A good sociologist or ethnographer might, on the model of Janice Radway, consider actual readers and possibly compare their politics to nonreaders, or simply ask them how reading changes their way of responding to all variety of situations. We could strive to verify some of the big claims that critics are always making about literature; or we might discover that some of those claims are unverifiable, which would itself be interesting.
JS: What is literary criticism for?
TA: I never really feel like I understand a book unless I engage in some kind of conversation with it, whether it’s in a class that I’m teaching, or reading reviews alongside others, or writing reviews. I think that it’s only in dialogue with other people that we get a sense of what books are doing for us.
JS: It sounds like you’re interested in the social stakes of literature as well as of literary criticism.
TA: There’s nothing more enjoyable than being with a group of friends, talking about some book we’ve read recently. You have a moment where you feel like all of the concerns and problems and worries about life retreat for a little bit. You almost feel like you’re in this little world and that you’ve escaped your everyday life. That escape from the quotidian is hard to pull off, and conversations about literature are one of the most reliable ways of making it happen.
When you teach, you’re always hoping to have that kind of conversation with your students. Often it doesn’t work. Nothing goes according to your plan. But every now and then it does—everything in the room suddenly seems a little brighter and the rest of the world briefly goes dim, like you’re all on stage having an experience together, and you’re like, “Oh, right, this is why I’m in this profession.”