This is the tenth installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read previous interviews here.
In his work, Tobi Haslett chooses rough, unpredictable terrain over the well-trodden, direct path. Whether it comes to prose or ideas, he refuses to pander to the status quo, unlike many reviewers, who, he says, fall victim to its traps; and he insists on disclosing, especially at the formal level, how all cultural objects are “shot through with violent antagonisms.” Read his essays on Elizabeth Hardwick, or Susan Sontag, or the George Floyd rebellion, and you’ll see what I mean. Haslett is arguably one of the best, most culturally and socially incisive writers at work today, precisely because he is willing to dissent from what’s “trendy” and critique what’s “vulgar”—namely, what he calls “self-professed aesthetes.”
Haslett is a prolific writer and critic as well as a Ph.D. student in English literature at Yale. We talked over Zoom in April about the relationship between politics and criticism, how his writing has “Marx-ish coloring” and his disinclination toward the personal essay.
Jessica Swoboda: What or who inspired you to start writing?
Tobi Haslett: Impossible question, in part because I’m one of those people who always wanted to be a writer. But I may or may not be freakish in that I can recall the specific moment when I decided that actually going for it might not be a complete waste of time. The spring I graduated from college, n+1 published an essay called “Cultural Revolution.” It was a manifesto, or at least I read it as one. I was young. The piece began with Marcuse and ended with Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution—not the worst progression—and the basic point was that every possible institution that used to be a home for politically committed intellectual life is being smashed to pieces. The academy was becoming more and more rapacious, more and more venal and more and more dislocated from anything we might nostalgically, or resentfully, call the bourgeois public sphere. And the worlds of publishing and journalism have become more slack-jawed and poorly paid. Even they can barely keep up the fantasy that they’re reaching a “general reader.”
So between the Scylla of the corporate university and the Charybdis of freelance hell, this piece laid out three ways forward. The third one was obviously the best: the proletarianization of the intellectual. The editors of the magazine were arguing that the devastation of institutions may be a kind of necessary humiliation for writers who fancied themselves left-wing. They had to find a new audience, and a new way to address that audience, and all because the writers themselves were feeling the sting of a broader crisis. So they’d have to pick a side.
I remember reading it at 21 and thinking: how convenient that someone has already worked this all out. I’d always kind of known that my desire for the “literary life” made no sense, but now the nonsense seemed—political. And apparently there were writers in New York City who still read Marx. So I decided to try reviewing books.
JS: How do you feel about the essay now?
TH: Obviously I resent that it gave me the impression that my kind of work would ever matter. But I think the piece holds up, analytically speaking. Of course it overstated—for good rhetorical reasons—the apocalypticism of the situation. There hasn’t been a revolution in culture. Things have continued to crawl along in more or less the same way.
I should also say that, having just winced through some of my old writing in preparation for this, I think some of the bombast of the essay probably marked me. Though it’s not the only or even the primary source for that. Sartre’s introduction to Les Temps Modernes is something I reread compulsively, especially when I want to convince myself of the importance of “literary journalism,” plus the writing moves with the kind of amphetamine flash that I like. I also return to Margo Jefferson’s “The Critic in Time of War,” published during the invasion of Afghanistan, which is powerful in a different way. What I think I end up bringing to all of my work, even if it’s not always explicit, even if it’s sometimes on the level of imagery, allusion or simply the feel of the argument, is a kind of Marx-ish coloring. I don’t think I’m especially rigorous or disciplined about it. Oh well. I’m compelled by the debates about Marxism and the philosophy of language, Marxist conceptions of culture, the Situationists vs. the Surrealists, but I’m not really a partisan for this or that position, at least not when I’m writing a piece that’s ostensibly about something else. I’m always coming back to the perhaps too-basic notion that every object, every movement within culture, every molecule of collective life, is shot through with violent antagonisms. And those antagonisms don’t look the same all the time.
For instance, I write a lot about black subjects, and for some reason I’ve taken it upon myself to try to, on the one hand, deflate certain liberal triumphalist narratives about blackness while also resisting the plangent, sentimental ones, all while insisting on the objective importance of the history of the black struggle. Basically, I don’t want to rely or wage war on “wokeness”—both approaches are so limp and cheap, especially the latter. But I don’t want to dispense with politics altogether. Clearly I’m not the first person to have this thought. And I’m not sure I have a real program when it comes to threading this particular needle. I’m writing about aesthetics most of the time. A lot is probably dictated by taste.
JS: This seems like a good place to ask you about a passage from Anna Shechtman’s interview. When I asked her about infusing the personal into her writing, she responded, “Publicness itself has reinforced my feminist politics, my sense that disclosing myself through writing, which happens whether or not you’re writing in the first person, is a political act.” Does that ring true for you?
TH: I think Anna’s comment is in many ways inarguable. Her whole interview is great. I will say, though, that I’ve done very little self-disclosure in my “career.” The “I” does emerge in a few paragraphs in my piece on the George Floyd rebellion, “Magic Actions.” I think that literarily and politically speaking, any account of rebellion would be incomplete—or at least the kind of totalizing account I was aiming so desperately for—if it didn’t say something about what it felt like in the moment and in the street. There are apertures in political and cultural life that can only be fully explained if you include the psychic element, the aspect of consciousness. There’s even a sentence where I say, “Behind these rigid objective conditions, a few splintered and subjective ones.”
JS: Can you say more about why you’re disinclined to the personal?
TH: Well, it’s difficult to explain why you haven’t done something, among the millions of things that it’s possible to do. Writing about yourself is a very particular thing that I haven’t made the effort to get good at, so I don’t do it. For one thing, I just don’t think my life has been that interesting. I guess I also hope that my perspective is being articulated strongly enough through my particular stylistic and compositional choices. Part of me feels like I’m disclosing enough on the level of form, or I ought to be.
I also came into the biz at a time where there was an overwhelming emphasis on peddling one’s marginalized identities. And a lot of good and bad writing came out of that, as is the case with any trend. Even talking about this is cliché, I know. I should say that I’m not opposed to life writing—I’ve written quite a bit about memoir and biography, and have, by my own choosing, taught an entire course about the history of life writing. But I always refused—as a black person in a largely white field, especially in the book-reviewing side of things, which is the more bleached end of the industry—to invoke the moral authority of my racial position as a means to push the little wagon of my career forward. It’s about my arrogance as much as anything. I like to think that I’ve never shied away from writing about black subjects with the seriousness that they deserve, but I only lean on the fact that I happen to be black when it’s appropriate. People can google me and guess.
Then there are times when my particular interpretive accent is inevitably a black one. A few years ago, I wrote a piece about Elizabeth Hardwick in which I wrote a whole section on her essays on Dr. King and the Watts riots, which are some of her best. She’s virtually the only one of her coterie who took a real, as opposed to a notional, interest in the black struggle, in large part because she was raised in the Jim Crow South. That’s not the whole argument of my essay, but I kind of built the piece out from that point. It struck me that it wouldn’t occur to every critic to do that.
JS: Is there such a thing as a “public intellectual”?
TH: Something within me recoils at the invocation of “public intellectual” because its golden age produced a slew of writers that I feel both indebted and hostile to. Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe—I feel a deep and violent ambivalence toward all of them. If Russell Jacoby did indeed coin the term “public intellectual” in The Last Intellectuals, he wasn’t referring to any of the black writers who played an enormous role in reshaping the mid-century notion of the “public.” James Baldwin isn’t mentioned once.
The category of the public intellectual presumes an undifferentiated or at least stable public that is receiving and recirculating ideological messages—I think that I think that. But the bourgeois public sphere was always limited. And there are forms of fracturing and dispersal that have completely eroded the already fragile prominence of the anointed, generalist intellectual.
JS: You talked earlier about your purpose as a writer. What do you understand as the purpose of criticism?
TH: Criticism is just a genre that I write in. (Not the only one.) Then again, there’s an attitude that the very invocation of a purpose is somehow unrefined. Sometimes I want to insist to myself, or to whatever reader I imagine is paying attention to a particular piece, that it’s possible to have an explicitly left-wing perspective and approach literary objects and aesthetic questions without sacrificing any irony, sensitivity or sophistication on the level or the argument or sentence.
The implicit understanding is that if you’re committed, if you’re too overtly political, then you’ve made some Faustian pact with vulgarity. Am I overstating that? I have no idea. But in reviews, novelists actually get bonus points for not having a political perspective. There’s a long history to this that I can’t summarize well here. But even today certain kinds of critics—sometimes very established—are invested in displaying their exhaustion with politically inflected art. And I think: What are you exhausted with? Where did this twee McCarthyism come from? You’re an American. You’ve barely ever consumed any left-wing cultural production. You grew up middle-class in the most philistine capitalist state there has ever been, but you’re acting like you were raised on a diet of socialist realism and state radio broadcasts. Your closest experience to agitprop is Sesame Street. Your fatigue is so unearned, I can’t stand it. The neo-aestheticist boredom with social critique? That’s vulgar. And self-professed aesthetes should write good sentences, frankly. I guess some of them probably do. I end up thinking exactly what they think of people like me. I get snobbish about their snobbery. I read that sort of thing and go—oh dear. Pleasure? Profound feelings? How reductive. What a boorish, mechanical view of what art does and is for.
But it’s true that publishers put out a lot of chaff that presumes its own “urgency.” So why shouldn’t someone criticize it? I have to remember that the culture has been so flattened and dismantled that I have no idea what’s even hegemonic anymore, so it’s probably not worth the time to complain. Everyone’s just refining their own random niche, or trying to run their hideous little subjectivity for the literary equivalent of local office. Myself included. I guess that’s what Pierre Bourdieu meant by “distinction.”
JS: Whose writing do you return to? Do you have models?
TH: I’ve gone through a lot of phases. In my early twenties, I read Hilton Als’s The Women many, many times. From college to my mid-twenties I was always returning to Sontag’s sixties writing, from her more committed era, especially Styles of Radical Will. “Trip to Hanoi” is my favorite, and genius in how it invokes the “I.” She drops in her diary entries, but that’s only part of the piece. I also used to reread Hardwick all the time.
In the Eighties and Nineties, Barbara Kruger had a column about TV for Artforum called “Remote Control.” I like to go back to it because of how loose and smart and punk it feels, very American, as if she’s blowing bubblegum at the back of class, but the class is on Theodor Adorno. I love this: “TV is a tool. But unlike computers and chain saws, there are no directions as to its use; no how-tos, no recipes. You never forget how to use TV because you never have to learn how. Like any other relationship, it seems you just sort of ‘get along’ with this chatty appliance; you ‘do’ it, it ‘does’ you.” I don’t write like that, but it’s good to go back to when you start to feel too stiff in your own work.
Margo Jefferson’s old New York Times pieces are inspiring to me. I aspire to her elegance and economy. And Gary Indiana. I’ve written on him a few times, and I’ve interviewed him. Hardwick also writes somewhere that people who write prose should make sure to read a lot of poetry, to remind them of how much language can actually do. So I’m constantly rereading Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka.
JS: In your lecture for the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design’s 2022 Critical Issues Lecture Series, you said, “More and more people ended up realizing there isn’t a built-in audience for their work. There isn’t a built-in way to survive as an artist, or a writer, or any sort of what we now lamentably call ‘creative’ in our society.” Today, what do you see as the biggest challenges critics and artists and creatives are facing?
TH: Living under conditions of vastly less security—everyone says this because it’s obvious, and true. But the downstream effects are various. Trends come and go with rapacious velocity. I think the world itself is facing much more important and greater challenges. But insofar as the “creative class” exists, its major problem right now is not just impaling itself on the absolute reification of everything. Can you have an intellectual life that dares to take a stance vis-a-vis this or that trend or take exception to this or that thing in a way that isn’t simply the photonegative of a compulsory celebration? Is it possible to be critical without being an unthinking provocateur? Is it possible to dissent without having that position flatten into yet another card to be shuffled in the same deck?
These problems intensify the more people feel twisted down by market pressures, which really do exist. But it’s also become socially acceptable to genuflect to them completely. I have no idea what the right path or answer is, and I think I fail a lot, personally. I do think that the complete material and ideological obliteration of a bohemian alternative—the combination of rising rents and just giving up on the project of an oppositional attitude within culture—has not been great for thought.
JS: What do you understand as “clarity”?
TH: A sentence can be a very complicated machine that should nevertheless run. Some people have decided to recuse themselves from the responsibility to make sure that the machine runs. And then there are some people who care so much about making the machine run that the task it performs is too simple. Ideally, a sentence or paragraph will aim for something sophisticated—and actually get there. Here’s a perfect sentence, from The Black Jacobins: “The difficulty was that though one could trap them like animals, transport them in pens, work them alongside an ass or a horse and beat both with the same stick, stable them and starve them, they remained, despite their black skins and curly hair, quite invincibly human beings; with the intelligence and resentments of human beings.” Very clear. I have it memorized.
I write to be read. I’m not an experimentalist. But while I don’t think my writing is unclear, it’s not to everyone’s taste. I think some people prefer a kind of journalistic plainspokenness, even on the question of aesthetics, which is not my impulse.
Very early on in my “career,” an editor said to me, “You do something that we don’t really do here. I noticed that in your sentences, the word that comes next isn’t exactly the word you’d expect to come next.” And I remember thinking: of course it fucking isn’t. Otherwise why would I write it? A revealing episode to me.
This is the tenth installment of Criticism in Public, an interview series led by Jessica Swoboda about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read previous interviews here.
Image credit: ehpien, “Gordon Parks : American Gothic” (Flickr, CC / BY 2.0)