This is the second installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read the first interview, with Kamran Javadizadeh, here.
“Rethinking” is a word that appears throughout my interview with Joel Rhone, a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Chicago. Rhone’s use of “rethinking” captures his commitment to building upon, not invalidating, the work of his interlocutors. It also captures his commitments in his writing. One of several graduate students making a name for themselves in the world of public writing, Rhone sees public-facing work as an avenue through which junior scholars can rethink the meaning and purpose of scholarship that is otherwise restricted to the academic spheres shutting them out. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Rhone has made it his mission to show how literature has shaped institutional orientations to inclusivity and to find a different way to think about the drop-off between the articulations of universities’ commitments to diversity and inclusion and the realities that make them feel unsatisfactory. Are our current methodological commitments as writers, Rhone wonders, serving us in the way they need to? We talked over Zoom in November about audience, “difficult” writing and what criticism—and literature—can do.
Jessica Swoboda: When you’re writing, who do you write for? Who is your work directed at?
Joel Rhone: That’s a really good question. When it comes to academic writing, I imagine myself in conversation with the people I’m citing. There are certain assumptions I make about what these readers and other folks in the field know, which often translates into shorter footnotes, quicker glosses and a little less explanation than I would do in more public-facing work. For instance, if I’m writing something for Baldwin or other post-45 scholars, a long history of his relationship to protest fiction would feel redundant to me, given how extensively it’s been written about in these fields.
Whereas in public writing, there’s so much that people want literature to do and what they expect from it. I’m thinking of the last couple of summers with all the antiracist reading lists or, as you might have seen, the way that Toni Morrison has been roped into this new kind of culture war, like how she became the face of critical race theory in the Virginia governor’s race. I’m also thinking of Imani Perry and the piece she wrote for the Atlantic on the prescient relation of Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground to contemporary racial politics.
There are all these conversations that matter inside of academia, but then there are also these moments when people use certain works to take up broader cultural or historical narratives in more public forums. And I love these moments because they’re when scholarship becomes extraordinarily necessary, and we get to leverage our expertise and set the record straight about how particular works might serve us.
JS: What motivated you to start writing for the public?
JR: Part of the motivation is working with Baldwin, just because he did so many kinds of it. And when I came to the University of Chicago, I was surrounded by some fantastic peers who had managed to find public outlets for their scholarship. Lauren Michele Jackson and Jean-Thomas Tremblay were both advanced graduate students when I got here, and their writing was just kind of everywhere. They both gave me a good idea of what public writing could look like for me down the line.
JS: I’ve interviewed a handful of tenured scholars, and they’ve all said they didn’t feel like they could write for the public until after they got tenure. Yet so many precarious scholars nowadays are turning to public venues. Do you have any sense as to why that’s the case?
JR: I would venture to say—and this is super speculative—that it has to do with the current rethinking of the discipline and the humanities in general. I wish there was something more original to say, but it’s become clear that people are rethinking what their scholarship should mean and what they want it to accomplish because of the corporate restructuring of the university. And, you know, I think it’s great that so many humanities departments have been trying to legitimatize the idea of “alternative careers.” What’s great about public writing is that it’s an avenue for producing scholarship and sharing knowledge outside of the academy.
JS: What do you hope for in your writing and in your scholarship?
JR: My own ambition, or the thing that I probably think about too often, is originality. Just so much has been said about Baldwin’s expatriation and his formalism, or temporality in Morrison’s fiction, or continuities of anti-blackness after emancipation. So, I think a lot about how I can build upon what’s already been said. The writers I most admire are able to engage their interlocutors in that way. They write clearly about their disagreements, in ways that are both generous and confrontational, but not disparaging. Striking that balance is something I want to master.
JS: Are there some scholars that you think are especially good at that, or who you turn to as models?
JR: I think Stephen Best and Jesse McCarthy are really good at this. In “On Failing to Make the Past Present,” Best articulated and modeled a lot of my anxieties about identitarianism as a phenomenon that has permeated the field of slavery studies, both within literary scholarship and outside of it. Jesse McCarthy also has this essay “On Afropessimism,” which is really great. Both are good examples of writing that points out moments in someone else’s work that don’t work—or maybe once worked in a way that might be less helpful now—while still trying to recover what was good about it.
Public writing-wise, Maggie Nelson and Zadie Smith, for different reasons. With Smith, there are these transnational entanglements and attachments across her oeuvre that have been so interesting for me. And then with Nelson, her thinking about all the uses and misuses of freedom has been major. She gives these great glosses of Fred Moten’s thinking about freedom, then Saidiya Hartman’s thinking about it, in a way that helps readers see why a problem surfaced in the way that it has. They’re good models for me in terms of figuring out how to help people find their footing in the fields of literary and cultural studies.
JS: It sounds like you’re interested in not only dragging someone for their flaws, but also exploring further possibilities for their arguments.
JR: Right. Just to get myself going as a younger graduate student, it would often be, you know, here’s x, y and z reasons for why this person’s approach doesn’t work. Now I’ve been trying to think through what I can build upon in someone’s work and what from their writing I can include in my own. I want to appreciate all the good that’s there. And I want to develop a more complex understanding of how to engage my interlocutors.
JS: Have you read the “Cultures of Argument” cluster that Pardis Dabashi edited for PMLA a bit ago? It focuses on generous thinking and engagement and primarily on why it’s our generation of scholars who are so keen on developing this habit of engagement.
JR: That’s great. I mean, in preparing for this, I was looking over the Critique and Postcritique volume that Duke University Press put out a few years ago, which I think was really necessary for me to read. There was this Twitter conversation about critique and postcritique this past winter that I saw and tried to get my arms around. Both were really huge for me in terms of thinking through want we want critical work to do.
JS: In connection with what you’re saying about engagement and specifically the ethics of engagement, you wrote a review of Clifford Thompson’s memoir What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he responded to your review because he didn’t think it was fair or accurate. Then you responded to his response. What did you learn from that experience?
JR: That experience made me think more about what it means to depersonalize scholarship and about the kinds of attention I want to bring to different genres. I’m sure that Thompson, in addition to wanting to articulate his approach to race during the Trump presidency, also just wanted his memoir to be loved and well-received. Something that I wish I would have given more care to is what it means to issue some really strong claims about what I thought Thompson got wrong in his memoir and the way it contributed to this larger liberal race-relations discourse. If I could do it over again, I would probably try to be more mindful about what it feels like to have your work critiqued. It ties back to what I said about trying to acknowledge good intentions, decent aims and all of what’s good in what I read.
JS: It’s like you have to walk this line of saying, okay, there are these limitations I want to talk about, but I can still talk about them in a generative way that will be both thoughtful and engaging. I admire the way you just discussed your reaction to the experience. You didn’t bash Thompson for how he responded to you, but you thought, “Oh, this is a learning experience for me.”
JR: When my editor at LARB reached out to me about Thompson’s response, I was unsure of whether I wanted to get into that back and forth. I was really worried about building a reputation as a tough or crass critic who tears people’s work to shreds. A priority for me in the next public thing I write will be to do a bit more appreciation—not canonize or consecrate, which I have a strong allergy to, but to acknowledge what works and what’s worth building upon.
JS: What do you understand as the purpose of arguing about literature or writing literary criticism?
JR: Inside academia, a lot of the times we’re trying to maintain a robust, lively and “rigorous” discipline. What’s often at stake here is a certain kind of pedagogical credibility when it comes to what literature should tell us about certain ideologies, structures or cultural commitments; or the ways we talk about “representation,” “identity” or other salient categories, for example. But I also think the answer to your question will change depending on who you ask, because many of us have some very personal reasons for arguing about literature. Stephen Best’s intro to None Like Us and Zadie Smith on reading Zora Neale Hurston in the opening essay to Changing My Mind give us a pretty wide range of how that can go.
JS: So, there are systemic reasons for arguing about literature. There are also personal reasons, personal stakes, for arguing about literature. What are yours?
JR: One thing that really fascinates me, especially when it comes to racial politics, are the uses and currency so many people find in historical continuity, or in the idea of “tradition.” I don’t think it’s uncommon to see Baldwin or other African American writers categorized this way. When I do, it makes me think about debates James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison got into with their contemporary critics who would try to place them in a kind of genealogy with Richard Wright. They both pushed back and claimed folks like Henry James and James Joyce as their “ancestors,” which would make it hard for us to think of Baldwin as representative of a kind of traditional black cultural ethos.
And so that’s a fight I’m staked in for reasons I need to continue thinking about, but right now, I feel that when people try to claim Baldwin as a quintessential antiracist voice, or the prophetic voice of America’s racial reckoning, I do get argumentative about method and kinds of reading we’re doing. Because for me, we should come to Baldwin’s writing as an artifact of a specific cultural moment and not as a container of timeless national truths.
JS: When you hear someone say, “That person’s writing is difficult,” what does that mean to you?
JR: A lot of people will accuse Fred Moten of difficult writing, as if it were his objective not to be read or understood. They’ll use words like impenetrable, inaccessible or difficult, but what’s to be commended are the ways that he is really thinking hard about matters of racial ontology, racial subjectivity and anti-black worldmaking, which people have been writing about for a long time and that he’s really trying to get right. I think that what’s difficult about his work is symptomatic of that critical difficulty, which is its own kind of labor and is to be lauded.
One caveat worth exploring, though, is how this difficulty complements the project of establishing anti-hierarchical modes of scholarship and critical thought. I mentioned Maggie Nelson as an example of good writing because her sentences aren’t often longer than they need to be, and she’s careful to work through terms that might be unfamiliar to her readers (or that might be too familiar to them, like “freedom”). This makes her work inviting, and I think inviting writing is usually a pleasure to read. When we describe writing as “difficult,” I think we often mean it demands more time and attention, which we shouldn’t conflate with not wanting to be read. What I think Nelson masters in On Freedom is a style that makes it easier for the reader to follow her thinking about what the notion of freedom is doing and not doing for us in our political milieu.
JS: Would she be an example of a clear writer? Is “clear writing” writing that is inviting?
JR: I need to keep toggling back and forth between the difficult and the clear to answer this question. When I’m thinking about what’s difficult, it often takes a long time to get through, due to needing to reread. You can get lost in the middle of sentences and need to figure out where the subjects and verbs are. Whereas clear writing, I think, moves efficiently. It’s economical. And there’s a tone that I think of as “conversational” or “accessible,” both of which I often feel weird about, given how pejoratively they can be used. But I do think that there’s something tonal to what I mean by inviting, clear writing. It wants to be a pleasure to read. It’s staked in including those who might otherwise feel alienated from the terms, debates, histories and so on that the author is thinking about.
JS: That’s a helpful way to formulate it. Everyone I’ve interviewed has had a different response to this question, which I find fascinating. It goes back to an earlier point you made about the purpose of arguing about literature—that the purpose will be different depending on who you ask. It seems to be the same for questions about difficulty and clarity.
JR: You’re right. It’s very contextual. Because I think there are some places in academic writing, let’s say, where getting into the weeds of how a certain question has been thought about by many different folks is clarifying, because it clarifies the position that you’re taking. What really clear public writers do is give that same kind of shape of the field, offering readers several different angles from which they might take up the topic before showing readers what they have to gain from theirs.
JS: How would you describe the current state of literary criticism?
JR: I would probably elaborate on what I said earlier about the work that’s interested in the aims and methods of what we want the discipline to accomplish. I think of Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s essay on symptomatic reading, where they acknowledged and clarified all of the ways that psychoanalysis and Marxism have oriented us in certain ways and argued for starting to think differently about what literary scholarship should do. One example of a book that I see doing that is The Ruse of Repair by Patricia Stuelke. She’s thinking about some of the ways that certain antiracist, feminist and other movements have unwittingly participated in re-instantiating certain kinds of capitalist, neoliberal paradigms. To me, her book is an example of the kind of scholarship I want to see. It’s generative, and it’s asking whether or not our critical methods, commitments and orientations are serving us in the ways that we need them to.
JS: What are some of the ways that you think they need to serve us?
JR: Something that has really resonated with me are the ways that people have talked about an over-fixation on unmasking or revealing the ways that certain regimes of power have, let’s say, concealed the inequalities they’ve been generating for decades. I understand my dissertation as a contribution to that conversation. There’s a lot of work that’s committed to finding new ways for thinking critically about institutional and ideological paradigms that have been so pervasive. That’s why I really appreciated that Critique and Postcritique volume. Those contributors were interested in speculative thinking, in venturing what new possibilities, new methods, new paradigms for scholarship might look like. And I think we need more of that very generative, speculative thinking.
JS: The idea of speculative thinking is interesting, because it also challenges the notion in academia that you have to have the last word on a subject. It invites the development of an interpretation.
JR: Absolutely. Another kind of related question, I think, that’s been generated by a lot of this disciplinary and methodological rethinking, is whether scholarship is its own form of political participation—whether it’s a way for people to critique or confront certain ideological and institutional paradigms. And those are also really interesting questions to me, mostly because I don’t think of my work as a kind of activism, yet I admire the work of some of my peers who do think of their work in that way. And so to be both rigorous and generous in engaging those folks requires a lot of speculative thinking about how to have serious conversations about method and its implications and the relationship of scholarship to the world, while not dismissing the way that people understand what their work is doing.
JS: What do you hope to see more of in academic writing and literary criticism in the next decade?
JR: I would like to see more of what I think is coming into vogue right now—rethinking some of the conceptual consensus that has dominated much scholarship and a lot of work in the academy. Specifically, I’d like to see more work that asks what we mean by liberation and its indebtedness to certain forms of liberalism. And to continue to think about the implications of reparative reading. And though I’m still kind of invested in the work of uncovering, unsettling and disrupting certain hegemonic modes of thinking or shortsighted ideological commitments, I also think we can do something that is as generative as—if not more generative than—the work of demystification. I do think the future looks bright, in terms of what is beginning to look like a certain critical reorientation towards the critical approaches we’ve taken for granted up to now.