Semipublic Intellectual Sessions: “Where’s ‘the Discourse’?”




ON OCTOBER 7, 2021, the Los Angeles Review of Books hosted a panel discussion “Where’s ‘the Discourse’?”— the first conversation in our Semipublic Intellectual Sessions, featuring Daphne Brooks, Sarah Marshall, Jesse McCarthy, and Lexis-Olivier Ray, moderated by Lili Loofbourow and introduced by LARB’s Executive Director, Irene Yoon.

Access the video recording of this event and help us continue to foster exciting conversations by making a donation of $5 or more to our year-end Fund Drive here. For access to recordings of all five Semipublic Intellectual Sessions and our two Satellite Sessions, make a donation of $25 or more here today. All contributions between now and December 31 will be matched by the generosity of an anonymous donor!

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IRENE YOON: Good evening and thank you for joining us for the inaugural event of the Semipublic Intellectual Sessions here at the Los Angeles Review of Books. I’m Irene Yoon, LARB’s Executive Director, and it’s my great pleasure to welcome all of you and our special guests Daphne Brooks, Lili Loofbourow, Sarah Marshall, Jesse McCarthy, and Lexis-Olivier Ray here tonight for our discussion “Where’s ‘the Discourse’?”

Lili will be moderating tonight’s conversation, which is a great thrill as she is not only a brilliant award-winning critic, staff writer at Slate, a founding member of the Dear Television collective here at LARB, but also a very dear friend and, along with our own wonderful TV editor Phil Maciak, the first to coin the term “semipublic intellectual,” to encapsulate what they recognized back in 2013 as “a particularly 21st-century situation,” a name for “an identifiable if constantly shifting relation between scholars and the Academy.”

New publications like LARB were essential in shaping the scene, providing — along with social media — writers and critics more public-facing forums for sharing ideas and scholarly work. But a lot, of course, has changed since then. In addition to the scholar who bridges the public/academic divide, negotiating the semipublic as a fruitful location rather than just an equivocation or diminishment of some kind, we’ve seen the popular emergence of deeply researched critical work that’s totally unmoored from “the profession” or any institutional affiliation. We’ve also seen naked animosity toward expertise and erudition from the highest echelons of power, the very notion of authority and who has the right to speak for and about whom powerfully challenged, and the tools of critical inquiry turned on their head and occasionally meme-ified to great effect. All against the backdrop of, most recently, a pandemic that’s doubly underscored public discourse and engagement today as an oddly private digital phenomenon: a global conversation that can fit in one’s back pocket.

As we reflect back on the last 10 years here at LARB, and the new conversational spaces that we’ve been able to foster as a digital publication, first and foremost, I’m very, very excited to welcome our brilliant guests today to help us untangle where, indeed, the discourse is, or needs to be, and where we might imagine it going in the next 10 years to come.

First, a couple quick notes about the format of this evening’s conversation. The first 40 to 45 minutes or so will be a conversation among our panelists, and then we’ll transition to Q&A with all of you, our audience. So, if you have any questions that you’d like to ask any of our speakers here, please drop them in the Q&A function at the bottom of your Zoom screen, rather than the chat. Closed captioning is also available. And you can turn that on by clicking on the closed captioning button, likewise, at the bottom of the Zoom screen. You can also pop that out if you’d like to have it running as a separate window throughout the conversation tonight.

Thank you all, again, so much for joining us this evening and for your support of the Los Angeles Review of Books. You know, it’s engaged and curious readers and writers and thinkers like all of you that have kept us going strong for 10 years, and we look forward to keeping the conversation going — wherever it is! — for many years to come. So, without further ado, I’ll turn it over to you, Lili! Thank you so much.

LILI LOOFBOUROW: Thank you. Hi, everybody. I’m so excited to be here. I think this is going to be so fun and what a subject to try to tackle: “the discourse.” I want to first just welcome everybody and introduce our panelists.

Daphne A. Brooks is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Music at Yale University. She is the author of Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910, winner of The Errol Hill Award for Outstanding Scholarship on African American Performance from ASTR and Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Her most recent book, Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound (Harvard, 2021), is the winner of the 2021 Museum of African American History Stone Book Award. She has written liner notes to accompany the recordings of Aretha Franklin, Tammi Terrell, Prince, and Nina Simone as well as stories for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, and Pitchfork. Daphne, I’m so glad you’re here with us today.

Lexis-Olivier Ray is a multimedia investigative staff reporter at the James Beard Award–winning publication, L.A. TACO, as well as a filmmaker and an artist. Based in Los Angeles, Ray has previously contributed to Men’s Health Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, SFGATE, LAist, and KCET. Ray was a 2020 Center for Health Journalism Data Fellow and 2020 Ruben Salazar Awards finalist, and is one of the finest reporters on homelessness that I have had the pleasure of reading.

Sarah Marshall is the co-host of the incredibly popular modern history podcast You’re Wrong About, which has been highlighted everywhere from The New Yorker, The Guardian, to Time Magazine. Anytime somebody asks for podcast recommendations, You’re Wrong About is there. Her writing has also appeared in The Believer, BuzzFeed, and the true crime collection Unspeakable Acts.

Finally, Jesse McCarthy is an assistant professor in the departments of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. His articles and reviews are published or forthcoming in Transposition, African American Review, and NOVEL. He is a contributor to Richard Wright in Context, Ralph Ellison in Context (forthcoming), and The Cambridge Companion to the Essay as well as a new introduction for the Norton Library edition of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and an introduction for a new edition of Vincent O. Carter’s The Bern Book. He is the author of Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?, a collection of essays (Liveright, 2021), and a novel, The Fugitivities. The Fugitivities is very good novel — buy it! — and it just came out.

Welcome everyone. I’m so happy to be here with you. And a brief word about the semipublic intellectual. So that’s a term that my colleague, Phil Maciak, really came up with, and he and I co-authored an essay about that, and put together a panel for MLA, trying to think about the ways back then that scholarship was starting to make weird and ambiguous breakthroughs into public discourse that no one quite knew how to feel about. At the time, the academy certainly didn’t especially like scholars writing for other places. Twitter was really troubling what scholarship meant, and specifically what public scholarship meant, and it was introducing new perils. Steven Salaita, for example, famously was “unhired” for some of his comments. And back when we wrote that, there was a real emphasis among university administrators on questions of how free speech and civility should intersect. Chancellor Nicholas Dirks at UC Berkeley, when he was commemorating the Free Speech Movement, specifically said that free speech and civility are two sides of the same coin. This was sort of where we were. I think that we should probably talk about where that debate has gone in recent years. But more interestingly — more broadly, I guess I should say — that was a long time ago, and things have changed a lot. We had to italicize Twitter back then; that’s sort of how comparatively new including that in scholarly debate was. As Irene said, I think we’re in a moment that has an enormous suspicion of expertise, that I think is interesting to think about, has maybe a diseased relationship to punditry, that is worth thinking about, and also, I think, has a lot more scholars than ever before participating in the public square.

The question of how to have rigorous and interesting and intellectual debates in public has been approached from so many different angles by the people here that I think specifically are responding to lacunae that they have seen, things that are not being covered well, things that are not being talked about correctly, things that are not getting the attention they deserve. I don’t think we’re going to do definitions here about the discourse, because that would take up all the time we have, but I would like to get a set of associations just so that we have some common terms on the table for whatever the discourse means to you. If we can go around, and each of you give me three words that come to mind when you think of the discourse? Let’s start there. Daphne can get us started.

DAPHNE BROOKS: Oh my God. Well, I mean, first of all, I’m so delighted and honored to be in this wonderful company. And I want to say thank you to LARB for holding a space for these kinds of conversations for the past 10 years. I want to thank Anna Shechtman, one of our brilliant graduate students at Yale, who has worked at LARB for many years and who I worked with very closely on my pieces that I contributed to LARB.

I don’t have any good feelings about that word. So, what are the three words that I would associate with discourse? Graduate school, solipsism, and anti-democratic.

LL: Yeah. All right, Jesse, how about you?

JESSE MCCARTHY: Three words, huh? Well, I think Daphne has already kind of taken us there. I’ll be vague about it. I’ll just say the lettered classes. That’s three words.

LL: Okay. Sarah, so how about you?

SARAH MARSHALL: Today, my three words are bad, art, and friend. My first association, I think, is when I was in grad school, it felt like I needed to catch up on what have people, what have scholars been talking about and what have the important conversations been in this field for the last, I don’t know, 40ish years, 40, 50 years. I feel like leaving academia, that definition got ported over to this idea of, “What are people talking about on Twitter today? And how can I make sure that I’m staying kind of in the current?” Yeah, unfortunately, the first thing I think of when I hear “the discourse” is like, “What are people talking about on Twitter today, and am I missing it?”

LL: I so could not agree more! Lexis-Olivier, how about you?

LEXIS-OLIVIER RAY: Sorry about that. I’m going to piggyback off Sarah and say, yeah, Twitter definitely comes to mind for me. And also, I would say, the art world.

LL: Okay, not three words, but can you say more about that?

LOR: I guess similar to what other people have said, you know, I think of intellectuals and people getting maybe too deep into their art and the sort of things that you hear at art openings and such and in art school.

LL: Interesting. Mine are depleted, angry, and dull, for what it’s worth. So, that’s where I am. Okay, well, I feel like we have a real bummer of a set of associations, and maybe that is telling us that’s a good consensus to start with. Well, Daphne, I would like to start with you. You wrote a tour de force dedicated to such an incredibly rich area of inquiry, and that was Black women as intellectual and philosophical and historical producers and critics and archivists and curators of music, that what I think of as the discourse, and what I think you characterize as the discourse, too, with a much wider lens, had almost completely overlooked or missed or eliminated or reduced. And I feel like your excavation and recuperation of that really equips you to get us started. What blind spots, in whatever the discourse is right now, are you seeing?

DB: Thank you for that. I mean, I guess I’m also just interested to hear from everybody here, about what else is there? What’s the alternative to discourse? I mean, that’s, I think, how I approached that book, which is to say, can we imagine a robust network of conversations and collaborations and intellectual intimacies that flourish on other frequencies outside of the hegemonic discourse? So, what do we call that? And can that manifest itself in a variety of different expressive forms since an extra word I would associate with discourse is discursive. Are there other ways in which intellectual and cultural exchange emerge in electrifying and fruitful ways? That wasn’t answering your question. I think your question now was … remind me of the question?

LL: The question is, so what is missing? What blind spots do you see right now?

DB: All of those things! Right? Those things. I mean, you know, part of what I was obsessed with in this project was also a way to talk about the absences of the makers who structure the discourse. And so, what happens if we pull them into the room and give them a space in which to lay bare, whether they want to or not, the baggage that they bring into creating knowledge, producing knowledge about Black art and Black woman’s art in particular. So that’s exciting to me, and it’s the story of how culture is made and also about the culture makers, so why can’t we include them in the narrative? That’s kind of my jam.

LL: Lexis-Olivier, how about you?

LOR: Sorry, can you repeat the question again?

LL: Yeah, what’s missing? What are the blind spots right now? I’m asking you because you actually have been covering homelessness at a level of detail that I don’t think almost anyone is bringing to it. And with a level of — you are persevering, right? I mean, you write about other things too, but that particular beat is a hard beat, and not one that is often covered with as much thoroughness as you’re giving to it. So, I sense that you have like a very real radar for what is not getting the attention that it needs and dragging it into the spotlight. I’m curious like what other things you see that would benefit from that kind of sustained attention.

LOR: Sure, yeah. I think one thing I’ve learned recently is that a lot of writers when they’re writing about homelessness, they’re really writing for housed people, rather than writing for the unhoused community, who in many cases doesn’t even have access to the news or internet media outlets. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about that, about how my journalism can be more of a resource and a service to some of the people that I’m reporting on, and I think that that’s missing at especially some of the more major outlets, you know? When an ordinance is passed or something, they’re writing to tell housed people how this might affect them. You know, “You can displace people from schools or daycares now,” rather than really getting that information to the unhoused community who’s going to be the most affected by some of these policies and changes. So, I’ve been trying to look at journalism from more of a service and resource perspective, especially when reporting on homelessness.

LL: If there were 10 of you, are there other beats that you would try to cover that you feel like aren’t getting enough work done on them right now?

LOR: It’s funny because, I mean, I’m always kind of getting pulled in different directions. I wouldn’t even really say that I have a beat necessarily, but yeah, I also do reporting on police. I think we could use a lot more reporting on that. I also report on lighter subjects like food, but there’s areas there like food justice and accessibility and things like that that if I had more time I’d love to dig into more.

LL: I don’t know if this is your experience, but my experience is whenever I try to cover something that I feel isn’t necessarily getting the coverage I think it deserves, sometimes it sinks like a stone, to my intense distress, because it’s just not something people want to pay attention to. And that is happening, for example, right now with a lot of Coronavirus coverage. People are just sick of it, and so they’re just not reading about it anymore, even though, you know, the news is still happening in there. But that’s a bad example because I think Coronavirus has gotten a lot of attention, but the larger point that I have been distressed to see is that it is hard to get people to actually pay attention to stuff that really matters without making it a vitamin. And so, I want to turn to you, Sarah, because you have excelled at making this kind of thing fun. Help! What should we be doing? How did you come up with this formula that so successfully makes actual history and reviewing all of these old discourses that congealed into these ugly stories that turned out to be fictional, that aren’t true, how did you figure out how to make that fun?

SM: I’m so happy that the show was able to do that. Going into it — we started the show and started releasing it in spring of 2018 — I felt like I had this tremendous backlog of stories that I wanted to talk about that were mostly stories that I had grown up seeing on Saturday Night Live reruns in the ’90s for the most part, and then had dug just a tiny bit deeper, and, you know, you dig just a 16th of an inch down, and you’re like there it is: we were wrong. It’s very obvious — the information is there. And I remember as a freelancer trying to pitch stories that were basically like, “What if Amy Fisher got screwed by the media?” These stories were always very hard to place because the response I tended to get was, “Well, there’s no hook here, especially if you’re not talking to someone or if it’s not an anniversary of an event that happened.” If you don’t actually have a long-form interview with Amy Fisher, and you’re talking about, like, we sat down and we talked about the past. Even then I feel like that kind of thing was hard to place. So, I just had this sense that these stories were more interesting than the market for freelance writing was willing to bet that they were, and for some people that turned out to be the case. I feel as if there’s definitely so many gaps in the marketplace or in academia, in the places where we tend to go for any kind of reckoning with the past, between what do people want to be learning about and thinking about and what are people willing to put money toward reinvestigating, even if it’s just looking at what information is readily available that we could then come in and talk about. I think one of the other things that I tried to do for the show is say, “I’m not saying that I would do a better job if this were happening now in front of me.” One of the things that the last few years have made really abundantly clear is that understanding a situation isn’t necessarily contingent on having the facts available to you because sometimes it’s when they’re most available that we’re most scared of them. I think just looking at people in the past who really screwed up and exonerating them in some way means that we can be more merciful toward ourselves, and I think that’s a freeing experience.

LL: That’s interesting. Okay, well, we’re going to come back to that. By the way, if any of you have anything to say, I don’t just want this to be me interrogating you guys; I want this to be a conversation. So, please feel free to jump in! Don’t feel like you have to mute yourself — stay unmuted.

Jesse, I wanted to ask you because you have a wider angle than most of us. You grew up in France where the discourse, whatever that means, is different. The critical engagements and approaches to history are different, the political defaults are different. Your novel is an experiment in all kinds of hybridities, combining Flaubert and the road novel and Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston. So, you are thinking creatively about stuff with, I think, a level of internationality that maybe would be helpful. What do you see happening to the American public sphere right now? What’s missing in the way we talk and think in public right now?

JM: I was being a little facetious, a little slick, when I said earlier, the lettered classes, but Daphne mentioned that one of her keywords is graduate school. And I think that the term “the discourse” doesn’t just refer to all of social media, right? There’s lots of ecosystems in that very vast lagoon or archipelago or however you prefer to imagine it, and it strikes me that the discourse tends to mean more a certain set of interactions and conversations, many of them, to a certain extent, parasocial. I think there’s also that as part of the phenomenon, right? It’s not just actually being involved in a conversation, but sort of watching conversations. Lurking, following, almost in a kind of schoolyard way, with an interesting, affective dimension of being, of watching. Sometimes car crashes unfold; this kind of thing is involved in it. But it also, I think, refers in an important sense to something that we can think of with a bit more texture in terms of its social location, in terms of a class basis.

That involves also, to a certain extent, some of the labor issues in higher education, right? And some of the ways in which, for example, we have, essentially, a situation where we have an overproduction, for instance, of people who are extremely brilliant and highly credentialed, who have done extraordinary work but are routinely underemployed or employed in a very precarious manner. That’s happening simultaneously to a moment in which, to invoke in a very graduate student way, Habermas, you have the structural transformation of the public sphere by social media. I think these two things converge together, and it’s true that the outcome of that — as many of the negatively tinged words that we’ve come up with suggests — the outcome of that has felt to most people to be far from ideal. I don’t know whether or not that’s the kind of thing that you reform. I think that it just reflects, again, in almost a kind of Marshall McLuhan way, the vehicle. You mentioned, Lili, attention a bunch of times. I mean, it’s an attention economy. We’re dealing with the way in which a certain kind of, oftentimes I would say, lowest common denominator in the market tends to win out. I don’t know actually, to a certain extent, that it’s that different in other countries, or that they’re immune from some of these same dynamics.

On the other hand, I do think that when we think about the fact that there could be — maybe it’s utopian — but we could imagine a greater or a better or a more ideal use of what ultimately is, potentially perhaps, a powerful tool. Then you would like to think, or you would like to hope, that we might try to be not only more autonomous and critical in our usage of it, but really thinking about not only what what’s missing and not there, but even how we turn it against some of the forces that we know are inimical to the kinds of conversations we really do want to have and, in many cases, do have, just not necessarily right on Twitter, for example, where it can be very hard to be yourself. It can be very hard to make a point seriously. I don’t think it’s an original observation of mine. Many people have said it, but it’s the problem of bad faith almost being the genre of Twitter that means that certain kinds of conversations are always going to be virtually impossible. But it’s certainly true that, in one sense or another, we, to paraphrase William James, we are what we pay attention to. And so, if we don’t pay attention to certain things, or we don’t like what our discourse — or what “the discourse” — reflects about what we seem to be spending a lot of time on, we’re going to have to be more deliberative about trying to pay attention to other things, and there’s no shortage of things to pay attention to.

And since you mentioned the international, I do think it’s unfortunate that we don’t pay attention to international writers and literary figures, like those who might even, say, win the Nobel Prize. We don’t pay much attention to international conflicts. So, it’s hard to go on Twitter and find folks who are talking about the coup in Guinea or the jihadist campaigns in Cabo Delgado in Mozambique or the fact that there’s a very, very dangerous and creeping possibility that a fascist party will come to power in France, which is a pretty important country for a number of reasons, even if we don’t ourselves live in it. So, I think these are all the main issues. I don’t know that some other place or some outside has a better way of doing it. I just think that we know that it’s far from ideal — we all feel it to a certain extent. But it’s true that it’s also very difficult to fight against very powerful market forces and technologies that through gamification, algorithms, and so on and so forth are employed to a certain extent against us. It’s very difficult to fight against that. You’re swimming against the current, for sure. But that might still mean that, again, if you’re a member of that class, you hold these credentials, and you have that kind of social or intellectual capital, you might want to put it in service of trying to do just that, even if it’s a harder thing to do.

LL: Yeah, I think that, like several of you, I am plagued that in considering the discourse, my first frame of reference is Twitter because looking at what’s trending is frequently how I have to figure out what to write. And so, being attentive to an algorithm that is pernicious and specifically dedicated to cultivating largely discord, not discourse — although both have been sort of exhausting. For me, watching Twitter’s evolution, since maybe it would be productive to talk about it for a second, I think at the beginning it offered some sense of actual — I don’t know if you all felt this way — but I felt like there was a possibility for real exchange and conversation and fun and riffing and creating intellectual communities that were otherwise totally inaccessible to me. As a graduate student, I think I felt very isolated from what I would call academic gossip or something, a version of sociality within the academy that made it feel collegial and not merely formal and intellectual. So, there was for me a little bit of a golden age for Twitter that just rapidly went away. To me now, it feels like a space largely dominated by dunks. I think the quote retweet has really changed the way that people engage with it and has really privileged a kind of adversarial relationship to communication. And I do wonder whether that has, in some ways, soured people’s relationship to expertise. I don’t know if that’s right or not. But, Sarah, I want to turn to you because the format of You’re Wrong About is so interesting because you don’t feel like you have to perform expertise. And that is, I think, part of what makes listening to it — you’re both clearly experts — but somehow there is a relaxedness to it. The format that you came up with is quite intimate, it’s sort of noiseless, it’s just the two of you, where one kind of educates the other or debunks the misconceived notions that the other has. It’s such an interesting and powerful way of modeling a form of scholarly engagement and critical inquiry and it doesn’t feel toxic — the one-upmanship, or whatever the performative aspect that social media cannot help but have, with the possible exception of Reddit, and I want to talk to you guys about that at some point. But it doesn’t feel alienating in the way that scholarly work can to the uninitiated, and I would love to know how you guys arrived at that.

SM: Thank you, Lili, so much. I mean, I feel like one of the things I loved most about academia was the sense of, “Here is a place that, at its best, rewards obsession, and where you can go and be so deeply interested in a topic so minute that it’s amazing to find peers who you can also talk to about it, who are doing things kind of harmonious with it, and where your special interests are — in a meritocracy, at least, or something resembling it — going to carry you forward. You will be rewarded for your obsessions.” One of the things that I loved about being part of academia and being in grad school for the time that I was just finding friendship through that — that’s an amazing thing. And so, whenever I have imposter syndrome about You’re Wrong About, what I tell myself that I’m definitely doing, and what I definitely think is important to do, and I’m able to do, is sell tones, to create the feeling that you’re hearing two people really enjoying each other. And two friends who are taught: one gets to tell the other about something that they can’t stop thinking about, and oh my God, and then there’s this thing, and then can you believe that he said this. One of the reasons that I have always found it so rewarding is that — especially in the past year and a half, when the show really became a lifeline for me — that replicated the experience of going to a coffee shop and sitting down with someone and being like, “Okay, I have been researching this for a month and a half. I can’t get it out of my head, and we have a free hour and you are going to indulge me by listening to me tell you about it. Can you believe…?” And I feel as if this idea that knowledge-sharing can be something that is constructive rather than destructive, and doesn’t have to be adversarial, it can be a function of friendship, and it can be something that actually can bring us closer together is something that makes me so happy to model and so happy to do because I just really enjoy it.

I also feel as if, now more than ever, we need to do away with the construct of general knowledge because we have tiny little brains and tiny little lifespans and there’s an infinity of information to learn. One of the reasons why I have been on a break from Twitter for about six months is this feeling of intellectual one-upmanship and this feeling that learning is something that really, at this point, I think, is having a hard time flourishing on the platform because people seem to be in a race to know everything that they need to know before other people. It seems kind of obvious to break it down this way, but I think I love just being able to show (on the show) the fact that not knowing something and then learning about something can be a joyous experience rather than something that makes you feel bad. And there’s certainly many things that I didn’t know that I learned suddenly where I’m like, “How have I lived my life in this country for this long having been a school for a lot of it and not known these things?” Some of those things, I should have sought that knowledge out. My schools should have taught that to me at some point. There are certain gaps that you find where you’re like, “This is a problem. I fucked up — somebody fucked up — that this never entered my brain before. But I think it’s hard; I think shame is an easy pit to fall into, and I think, maybe especially lately, it’s easy to turn any learning experience, any ascent from ignorance of anything into this feeling of like, “Oh, I should have known that already.” There are so many things that you just can’t have known yet.

LL: Right. So, Lexis-Olivier, I feel like L.A. TACO is actually doing really interesting work trying to create a joyful product that is both internet savvy and also, in a very un-Twitter trends kind of way, really hyperlocal and maybe even analog. What do you think? Talk to us about what L.A. TACO is up to.

LOR: Sure, so, just a little background on L.A. TACO. We launched in 2006, I think, as a blog back in the day when blogs were everything. At first, we focused mainly on L.A. culture. So, of course, on tacos, but also lowrider culture, graffiti, art. And then around 2017, we transitioned into becoming a daily news publication, really because the alt-weekly paper here, LA Weekly, essentially collapsed. They were sold to a new conservative owner, and the whole newsroom was gutted. There was really this void in the independent journalism space, and we kind of grew out of the ashes of the LA Weekly. A lot of the writers that used to contribute to LA Weekly started contributing to L.A. TACO, and we really built our voice. We consider ourselves a street-level journalism outlet, and I guess what that means is that we have our ears to the streets, and we’re connected to communities that a lot of other outlets just don’t have access to or maybe don’t have interest in telling stories about that community. I mean, first of all, I think 90 percent of our newsroom is made up of people of color, and the majority of our contributors are people that grew up in L.A. or lived in L.A. for the majority of their life. I’m kind of an exception to that; I grew up on the East Coast, but have family that grew up here. My perspective was really shaped by my family and people that grew up here. So, to answer your question on the way we use social media, I do think it’s interesting. I mean, me personally, I see social media — and I think this extends to really all journalists — as not just the platform, to promote work and to publish work, but also as a reporting tool. It’s a place to conduct interviews and find sources, keep track of reporting that’s out there. So, I guess we try and find a balance between that and do our best to connect with these audiences that aren’t being represented in larger outlets.

LL: Are you hearing from people? Are people like, “Oh my God, this is something that’s actually made for me.” What is the relationship with your readership like?

LOR: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I use Twitter very often. As I mentioned, sometimes I’ll get tips for stories or conduct interviews. I use it to push my stories out there and get eyes on some of my stories. I don’t think that they would get the level of readership that they get without having a community that I can reach out to on social media. It’s sad on one hand and a little bit depressing that we’re at this crossroads where people are actually reading stories less and less. It’s hard to get people to read stories. Part of that, like I said, makes me kind of sad, especially as like an investigative writer that really loves doing long-form stuff, but I also see it as an opportunity. There’s all these new platforms and I think it makes it easier, in some ways, for people to enter into this space and to build their own audience maybe in some cases. It’s both exciting and terrifying.

LL: It’s just so interesting because local news is dying everywhere. It’s awful. And somehow L.A. Taco is carving out a really interesting exception. That’s so fun to watch happen. It’s so unlikely, but it’s doing something really unique and interesting. I almost feel like it’s like an analog version of a digital product. Daphne, I wanted to ask you about this — about analog versus digital stuff. First of all, do you have anything to say about that before I ask you a question?

DB: Well, I’m certain I’m the oldest person on this call. I’m proud to occupy the Gen X space here. I will also say that I am not on any kind of social media. There’s a fake Facebook account that’s not me. I’m on the Gram just so I can watch D Nice, so I really have no connection to it. I was kind of forced into it a little bit more by my lovely editorial team when the book came out.

But I’m moved by what everybody said. I’m not going to do a Seth Meyers “Back in my day” kind of thing, but I’m very moved, Sarah, by what you were discussing with regards to holding a space for shared intellectual cultural intimacies and curiosities and shared self-respect, respect that is mutual that way. All of my work has kind of emanated from that space as a Black feminist studies scholar, as a performance studies scholar, as a jazz studies scholar. I was deeply invested in thinking about collaborative work. When I was in graduate school in Los Angeles, in the beautiful ’90s, the beautiful, terrible ’90s, my grad colleague, Sonnet Retman, and I spent a lot of time going to shows, a lot of time reading music journalism, and a lot of time trying to figure out how to bridge the conversations — discourse — and the popular media that acknowledged the worlds that we lived in outside of UCLA. At the same time, we wrestled with and tried to utilize the workable tools that were generative that we were drawing from in the academy and trying to fuse that together. That led to us organizing a conference called Discord — I’m glad you used that word earlier, Lili — that the great Susan McClary, a musicologist, supported us in planning. The structure of it was such that we were inviting our favorite scholars in the academy who were doing work that was all over the place in terms of cultural studies and music and Black radical thought and feminist thought, journalists who we “stanned” as the kids like to say (why? if they did a little digging, as Sarah was, I’m like, I don’t know why we’re doing the Eminem thing), and musicians who were important to the kind of social justice projects that we believed in. That structure became the template for the most important conference in my professional life now as a whatever I am in the academy. It started the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle 20 years ago this coming spring. Eric Weisbard and Ann Powers have run it. The reason why I’m flagging that event and also another event that was really important to my writing and how I think about ensemble-like writing — that other event was a New York Public Library event that I did with Jack White, and the heads of Revenant Records, the Blackwood Brothers, Greil Marcus, and some other folks. We talked about the Paramount Records collection, which had just been reissued. But the structure of that event, like the PopCon, was such that we were coming from different intellectual spaces and trying to cultivate a space around shared interests in which we found our affinities and our passions within the work itself. These were live events where people come together and create community as pop-ups. I kind of have this dream that that can still work, and it’s something we do in a working group that I have at Yale with my colleague, Brian Kane, called Black Sound and the Archive, where we are inviting people like Cecile McLorin Salvant and Rhiannon Giddens and Valerie June and all these different musicians to come in and sit with us — it could be 20 people, it could be 150 people — and listen to recordings together and just be in that space, and create knowledge in that space, and have it be a free-flowing way to identify with the ways that culture matters to us. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in the beauty of discursive work that can resonate with communities and live on to the next generations, but I do feel like it would be really exciting to see a grassroots cultural revolution in whatever is the after-times of this thing that we’re in that is constructed around these spaces in which we are producing knowledge together in intimate ways that affirm our life worlds and build new ones. That wasn’t the question you were going to ask me, Lili, I don’t think.

LL: That’s interesting. It’s funny because what I was going to talk about as the place where I go when I’m trying to find out how people are talking and thinking when they’re not responding to the pressure to perform the way that I see them doing on Twitter — which at this point I find to be almost useless, except as gauges of what people feel like they should be emitting at a particular moment — for me, the weird answer to that has been Reddit, which is the opposite of what you were describing in every possible way. It’s anonymous, right? It has a kind of upvote or downvote system that’s extremely rudimentary. Yet, for whatever reason, I think because it doesn’t attach to people’s real identity, it has been where I go when I want to see people actually talking to strangers in a way that is detached from their professional identities, from their personal anxieties. Sometimes they’re working out their personal anxieties, but in ways that are unanchored to themselves. It’s so interesting to me that you’re describing a local form of physical proximity and communion that is invested in personhood and full identity, and that where I was going was Reddit where nobody has to be a person at all. Yeah, I don’t know. Jesse, do you have any thoughts about this?

JM: Only to say that I’m very moved by everything that’s been said and what Daphne was just evoking for us I share as a hope as well. That there’s a — I don’t want to just say a backlash or a total rejection — but maybe a kind of migration back to the real world, a reappreciation for the need for sociality, including an embodied sociality in different ways actually, which is also interesting. From what Lexis-Olivier is doing on the journalistic side and pulling out the local and pulling out stories that are meaningful in and of themselves, but also meaningful to people who are in a community and in a place who needs to hear them, partly because they are, in fact, whether they acknowledge it or not, or know it or not, involved in that life world and in that community. Sarah, also your way of bringing things back to the ideals — the effective ideals — of a positive way of having conversation rather than just opposition or people dunking and duking it out, and so on and so forth. All of these things, it seems to me, are not in the deep distant past. They’re troubled by the dominance of certain forms of technology and social media right now and also, of course, being disrupted for us by the pandemic, and by the larger problems and social forces that are dividing people and making it really hard for people to come together. I think all of what we’ve heard points to a basic, underlying fact, which is that you can, in fact, construct the conversation you want to have if you’re deliberate about it, if you’re a little creative about it. If you take a magazine that capitalism destroyed, but then you pull the great human talent that was in it, and you reroute it, plug it into the local grassroots, or you take a kind of format and restore a certain kind of humanity and humanism to it, it turns out, actually, people really want that. The market, the logic, makes people think that it has to go to the bottom, to the worst, but that’s not necessarily the case if you can actually construct something deliberately. Actually, people feel the difference and gravitate toward the thing that’s better and these forms of sociality that Daphne’s talking about, folks have always constructed for themselves. Daphne, your scholarly work is also about this, the ways in which people with no connection to the academy have done and do this right now, all the time. Those of us who are connected to that milieu, you can do it too, and maybe need to do it because it strikes me that it’s true that that way of connecting is more fulfilling at a personal level, at an individual level, which is good and is important, but our individual and personal well-being is only part of the equation. The other side of it is, how do we get a better politics? How do we get a better society? Those things also, I think, depend upon the quality of our relationships and the qualitative character of the conversations that we have. And so, the deliberateness of constructing conversations that we want to have, and doing it offline if need be or in a kind of hybrid manner, off and on, or online but in a more protected and caring way that’s more nurturing — all of this seems to me to be relevant and important, as opposed to attempting to constantly enter and reproduce the thing that we feel doesn’t work, or that we know doesn’t work, that makes us feel bad, that doesn’t seem to generate the right kinds of conversation. That seems to at least bear some kind of correlation with a serious decay in our social fabric and certainly in our politics, which ultimately has serious consequences via ecology and various other problems we know we’re facing for all of us. I think the stakes are high, but I also think that it’s not so much that the technology or the medium or this or that is deplorable or needs to be thrown out or anything like that, but it would seem to me that a lot depends upon how deliberate we can be in how we choose to make use of it and cut against the worst tendencies that are latent in it.

LL: And the cynicism that I think is so easy to produce. On that note, we have a few questions that I actually want to turn to about I think, in part, students and how they are experiencing all of this. Our first question says, “I’m curious to hear if you all have thoughts on higher education as a capitalist industry — the gutting of humanities and arts programs, disposability of adjunct profs, difficulty of getting tenure, exorbitant pay to sports coaches — and how that has shaped student’s experience of discourse.”

DB: It’s terrible. The catastrophe of our times. It’s going to take some real imagining and all of the philosophical and ethical ways that Jesse was just describing, and everybody on this call. Of course, we know it’s going to also take larger systemic transformations to trickle down to the already high-up university level in order to imagine something else and something better. We shouldn’t pretend that it wasn’t rotten to its core, even before we had this total capitalist breakdown of the university system. There were attempts to repair it across generations. Back in my day, the repair was supposed to be at the level of a kind of structural inclusion that never fulfilled itself for any variety of reasons.

LL: Do you think it’s worse now than it’s been?

DB: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it’s worse if we want to talk about raw data. It’s, you know, the West. It’s just rotten to the core. We’ve tried to exist in the belly of the beast and transform it from within. To a certain degree, there’s been some real, transformative thought that has led to material quotidian change, even down to the fact that when I was in graduate school, Kimberlé Crenshaw was teaching her first classes on intersectionality. Now, as I’ve been told, it’s in all of these media sites that you all have been discussing. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not everything and we need to keep having very candid conversations about what could everything possibly be and then figure out how to actuate that.

JM: I think it doesn’t get said enough that if everything were going well in the university, in many respects, that would entrench the status quo. The fact that things are not well, one of the side effects of that is that it’s producing dissidents, it’s producing anger, it’s producing people who feel they now have a stake in pushing back. So, actually, it’s dialectical. The conditions that often create the possibility for change are, in fact, bad conditions. The revolution comes out of folks who are fed up and they’re like, “This isn’t working anymore. We can’t take it anymore.” That’s what actually causes certain kinds of conversations, certain kinds of mobilizations that actually achieve larger and more profound change. While it’s true that it’s to be deplored that the situation is bad, if the situation were not bad, it would just mean that we had an entrenchment of things as they had been thus far, which, as Daphne is pointing out, was already an unjust system that needed to be deeply restructured. I just want to put that out there.

LL: That’s interesting. The massive student debt being a force for revolutionary change.

JM: Well, I think it does radicalize people, is my point.

LL: No, I think that’s right. Mark Rosen asks, “What are your thoughts about Trump supporters considering intellectuals and other educated people who are liberal or progressive as the ‘elite,’ and not recognizing that Trump represents the financial elite whose only goal is to protect and increase their wealth and have done and will do nothing for the majority of Americans, including the Trump supporters?”

SM: I don’t like it.

LL: You’re not in favor?

SM: It feels like one of the essential pieces of sleight-of-hand American conservativism that the more I look at it, the more I feel like projection is just the law of the land. This idea that there’s this group of people who are trying to keep you down and ruin your life. It’s like, yes, but it’s the people that are talking to you, not the people who are into facts. Then there’s the kind of Ben Shapiro–popularized aphorism: “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” This is something said by people who are completely overwhelmed by their feelings all of the time, to the point that they don’t know that what they’re having is a feeling. I feel as if intellectual inquiry or just thinking critically — because I feel like intellectualism even is a word that stresses people out, because thinking critically throughout the day is a humbling activity and it’s difficult and it never ends — it’s hard to convince people to undertake that for no reason other than, “Do you want to keep growing? And can you find joy in that?” I think it’s easy to turn people against something that is already hard work. If there was a conspiracy about all these people that are trying to trick you into exercising, that they’re actually trying to destroy your life, I’d be like, yeah, I always suspected that jogging was terrible for me and now someone’s telling me that, so that’s great.

LL: I was always really baffled by the elite charge because it just seemed like such an obvious misnomer, but the extent to which it’s social resentment of perceived condescension seems to me like something that has become increasingly clear as we’ve had to read profile after profile after profile of Trump voters in diners. I don’t know what that tells us about the discourse, but there’s something about it. My theory of the present right now is that we’re living in an anti-persuasive moment, where persuasive techniques aggressively do not work — they backfire. Everybody is too well versed in how persuasion works to the point where when they sense that they’re trying to be persuaded of something, they shut down and double down in favor of whatever position they initially favored. They see attempts to persuade as condescending, as hyper-rational, as somehow denigrating, and so the only things that work are explicitly anti-persuasive or anti-rational. Somehow, it feels like we have been vaccinated against persuasion, to me, as a people in a way that I find really fascinating, even as we are all mired at all times in persuasive messaging. I don’t know what to do about that. I find it dizzying and I find, in particular, the anti-vaxxer kind of discourse right now to be the perfect example of a perfect storm of suspicion of elite, the pleasure of conspiracy thinking, the fear of medical intervention, rightful suspicion of pharmaceutical companies. All of that morass combined to produce an absolute allergy to any kind of expert advice. Is there anything that discourse can do about the fact that the discourse does not work?

All right, we’re going to move on to the next question, but if anybody has a thought, please tell me because I’m agonizing over this! Okay, last question. You are what you pay attention to: does this idea guide what you choose to write about? Or do you find that what you cover comes to define you retroactively?

SM: This is the problem with having a panel with any kind of academic stripe in it. Everyone’s trained in waiting out silences and waiting for someone else, waiting for a student to start talking. I would say though, just to kick this off, that with my scholarly obsessions, always retroactively, I can see how I was figuring out something personal. It was something that I couldn’t address frontally at the time. For example, one of my interests when I was in grad school was Puritan demoniacs and this concept of typically, or not typically, but in a couple of really remarkable cases, Puritan servant girls who became possessed by demons. That’s obviously an interesting subject on the face of it, but who were allegedly possessed by demons — I don’t think that actually had happened, but I think they thought it was happening. That was their truth. Just my abiding interest and Tonya Harding really helped kind of carry me into making You’re Wrong About. One of the bread-and-butter topics of the show is what I call maligned women. I feel as if allowing yourself free rein, or being in the position where you’re lucky enough to be given some degree of free professional rein, to really drill into what interests you and what calls to you allows you to figure out, “Why does this matter to me? Why am I drawn to stories of, theoretically, women who are too much?” or whatever I’m drawn to. I think that’s a way that your career can be something that allows you to lead a meaningful life holistically because you’re working on yourself without knowing that you’re doing that.

LL: That’s nice. I love that.

DB: I started with this, so I just didn’t want to be redundant. My work, Black feminist praxis, just calls for the personal being political, being intellectual, being radically transformative. Black studies are the study of the West. It’s also the study in which we interpolate ourselves into the narrative of the West in a way that is legible and audible to ourselves and, hopefully, the masses. It’s just inextricably linked with how I think and how I write. I will say that in this most recent book, I was writing through and about a problem that involved me as a Black feminist critic being invisible in popular music circles and trying to rethink the history of that kind of writing and those kinds of conversations with folks like me at the center, but it was also about all the dudes who have been in the room for so long. I just will add that as we talk about, I guess, anti-discourse, that I really was trying in the second half of the book to stage some conversations with some people I have real serious intellectual disagreements with — or people whom I admire, but I have gone a different path in some cases in terms of my thinking around a topic — and how to engage those conversations ethically and keep myself in the room along with them. It’s the part of the book that, even before it was published, grad students asked me about the most, i.e., younger people. How can I mount this kind of discussion in which I have serious problems with my interlocutor and still create a space that’s generative and humane? Those are the ways that I think I show up, that I try to show up in my work all the time.

LOR: For me, I’ll say that I’m an artist. I didn’t really arrive at journalism the way I guess most people do. I didn’t go to school or anything like that. So, for me, I guess the way I approach journalism is heavily influenced by the way I approach art. As an artist, I don’t really see art as being the job; I see it as being more of a lifestyle. It influences the way you dress, the way you talk, the way you see the world, really. I think that trickles into my journalism a bit where you’re always an artist. In some ways, I feel like I’m always a journalist. You never know how an experience or somebody you meet is going to eventually show up in your writing. I also really liked the point that you made, Sarah, about looking in the mirror and asking yourself or thinking about why you might be drawn to certain topics, and I guess that’s something I haven’t gotten around to doing much. I do think that my interests definitely guide a lot of my writing.

LL: It’s such a good question because, for me, a sort of accidental obsession became the concept of free time and of the stuff that you do in your free time being the stuff that matters least. This is why I got interested in pop culture criticism. We think — I certainly grew up thinking — of TV as garbage. All of the TV shows that you watch in your free time or whatever, you know, that’s just your free time. In a certain way, it seems to me that cultivated a sense that it was disposable time, that it was time that was not important. When you weren’t working, what you did in that time was just fun and, therefore, frivolous. I really think that what you pay attention to does so much to define your worldview and your life. The shows that I watched I think had more of an effect on me than I realized. For me, the therapeutic project was kind of figuring out how fucked up am I from the things I spent all that time watching. How much did those things affect me in ways that were not actually available to me because I wasn’t thinking actively about it and because it was time that I had been trained to not think very hard about? How I would answer that question is kind of backward. I got kind of obsessed with how — I don’t know. I just think it is so interesting to think about what we do in the little free time that we have, the choices we make, and what we choose to engage with. The fact that I spend a lot of that time on Twitter I find deeply depressing. Sarah, I’m very happy to hear that you’ve been off six months. I applaud that. I hope that you keep going because salvation lies that way.

Okay, we have a question from Tara Molder. “Sarah and Lili, I’ve been following your work for a while, and I really appreciated the focus you have put on compassion. Can you talk about the importance and limitations of compassion and cultural criticism?”

SM: Lili, I want to piggyback off of what you just said because I was a big reader as a kid, but I was just as big of a TV watcher. I see so much of how I was figuring out, especially as a very lonely kid, how to be a person and how the world works. Trying to study, basically, the place that I trusted that I would get to as an adult — getting some kind of fossil of that through television. One of my prevailing interests professionally is this idea of how we get passively trained to believe in a world where arresting criminals means separating the evil from the good and then putting them far, far away. One of the things that I always think about is that in the ninth grade, I would come home every day and watch about four hours of Law & Order because that was what was on TNT at the time, and I would do my homework in the commercial break. I was not getting good grades. I just learned relatively recently that that famous “dun dun” noise is supposed to make you think of the sound of like a cell door slamming, and I was just like, “Oh my God.” If I’m going to talk to anyone who, like me, has passively grown up injected with copaganda, like a Foster Farms chicken with antibiotics for their whole lives, I have to look at that 14 year old who is trying to figure out what is the world like and also just trying to pass time doing something comforting and finding comfort in this show that was designed to be comforting and also is designed to make some of the most poisonous attitudes of modern American life into comfort food, for at least some viewers. The fact that, just through sheer force of nostalgia, that’s a sound that’s comforting to me, and if I’m in a hotel room now and I turn on the TV, and I’m flicking through cable, and if Law & Order is on, I will watch it, and I will know what is going to happen if it’s from the Lennie Briscoe years. The fact that I have been Skinnerized into hearing this pure expression of propaganda sound effect as like, “Oh, yes, my show is happening; this good thing in my life is starting.” I have to have self-compassion about the fact that I’ve been trained that way, by TV, my only friend at the time, the thing I trusted most. I think it’s funny because the past year and a half has been difficult for me partly because previously, my philosophy allowed for there to be a very low cellar for how easily humans can become awful and inflict a lot of pain on each other. I have continually been surprised by how much lower that cellar keeps getting based on obvious evidence right in front of me. I feel as if one of the things I’m trying to figure out now is, if I look at people’s actions and I can’t rationalize it, and I can’t put myself in their perspective, and I can’t say, well, maybe this set of circumstances makes that behavior make sense to me. I’ve been hitting the wall more than ever before recently, and trying to figure out what do you do when compassion runs out. You have to figure out other ways through, other ways forward. I know that it has limits, but I think, again, in terms of creating a productive discourse, I have to look at all the ways that I have been complacent and complicit and really accept that and try to figure out what to do with it in order to be useful.

LL: It’s so interesting what you say about Law & Order. For me, it was Agatha Christie, but it’s sort of the same principle with, I suppose, the caveat that I think I find it very comforting in the way that mysteries are always explained to one as, “There is restoration of order to a chaotic world,” which is essentially the Law & Order premise as well. Things are messy and indeterminate, and what a pleasure to have a detective come and observe a bunch of people and say, “Well, I can tell that they didn’t eat all of their dessert, and normally people all eat all of their dessert and therefore…” It’s just the idea that there are people who eat all of their dessert, that you can draw conclusions from that I found comforting because I think I was kind of a chaotic child with no regular habits, so this was presupposing a society made of orderly people with a way of being that you could predict and draw conclusions about and from. But I’m 1,000 percent with you. I think that definitely cultivated a pro-carceral-state mindset that is very hard to unlearn and very hard to implement. I think moral challenges get harder and harder when there’s just a general coarsening of everyone. For me, my version of what you’re describing, which is how horrible can people become to each other has been, I suppose — I don’t know. The most recent version, which I wrote about and I made a lot of people angry and I feel bad about that, was the subreddit about anti-vaxxers — celebrating, cataloging anti-vaxxers who die. It’s a series of Facebook posts about these people making anti-vaxx memes and scoring people who get them and calling them weak and names — often there’s xenophobia — and then there’s the story of how they get sick. The progression of the disease described by families and their death. When they die, they are awarded the Herman Cain Award, like, you know, so here’s a new Herman Cain Award entry. People are nominated if they’re hospitalized, and the award is awarded if they die. As you can imagine, there’s an enormous amount of schadenfreude because people are so exhausted of having to put their lives on hold. Everyone is so tired. All of these people who are trying so hard to do the right thing, their kids are coming home with COVID. Despite their best efforts, they’re getting sick. It just seems like there’s no end in sight and no will to end it and I have no idea what the right attitude toward that is. I didn’t actually write with an intention to pronounce because I found a lot of things interesting about that subreddit, including the fact that it was the most complete, to me, portrayal of what dying from COVID is like just because it’s seeing story after story after story of people describing what it is like to go through this. It is horrifying. At the same time, you’re like, well, I don’t know. Anyway, in the community of that subreddit, there’s a lot of what I would describe as moral burnout where people are just like, “I just can’t muster. You know, compassion is not coming. I’m just, whatever, they made their choices, it’s fine.” There’s even jubilation. There’s even celebration. There’s a wide range of affects. This is the reason that I said that I find this subreddit interesting, because it actually allows for the expression of ugly emotions that I think we try to discipline in other contexts. I’m interested in how those other emotions come to be and what they’re coming from and what they’re doing analytically, I suppose, and where they’re going. In terms of compassionate criticism — thank you so much for saying that; I would not necessarily have thought that — but in my approach to criticism, the game that I have always played with myself, even with shows I really hate, like Game of Thrones, which I hate and always have, was I would read the subreddit of the fans who loved it. My goal, my game, was, “I want to write a piece persuasive enough that they will post it, even though they hate my conclusions. And even though they get mad at me.” I won three times. But you know, trying to figure out where people are and what they valued about it was really important to me and trying to figure out what the discourse was that existed within that fan community to try to get in there and make some points about why I thought it wasn’t good. I don’t think I necessarily convinced anybody, but it was a way to try to investigate, as best I could, what the thinking was and what the pleasures are that people are taking in something that they have chosen to invest in so massively on their own time. So that would be my answer.

DB: I know we’re running out of time, but I was thinking — in a moment of compassion — that Jesse didn’t get to answer the last question. Not to put you on the spot, Jesse, but I am curious to hear what you would say about finding yourself and your work, especially in these two magnificent books that you’ve put out this year.

JM: Thank you, Daphne. I’m thinking about that and also thinking about some of the things, Lili, you were just saying, and I do think that it strikes me that we can think about certain ethics of attention. There’s a version of this problem that’s set up in order to make people more smoothly tailored to advancement in a neoliberal rewards system, which travels under the name of curation, where paying attention to the right thing, or even to a certain extent having the right moral attitudes or coordinating moral attitudes, becomes an end in itself to make yourself the better salmon leaping forward in advancement toward some higher goal. I’m not sure what it is, but presumably better social advancement, something like that, credit of some kind. But there’s another kind of ethics of attention that I think has always been close to folks who are artists and who are interested in art, who are interested in the problems of art, the pleasures of art, the dangers of art as well. That has to do more with something — I think actually Lexis-Olivier, you were getting at in a really important way for us — which is that that kind of attention makes you susceptible to change. It’s related to not only a desire for change, but also the ways in which change just becomes inevitable if you’re paying certain kinds of attention with a certain kind of significance. You’re open; your orientation to the world is wired in that kind of way. It sort of happens. And I wonder, Lili — it’s not an answer, but one way of getting at your question, which I take as a serious point and I think you may be right about this problem of persuasion — but that art, I think, doesn’t always need to persuade, at least not in that way. It’s rather that when we pay attention to it in certain kinds of ways or when it forces a certain kind of attention, a state of attention in us, we change, and not necessarily because we wanted to or because we willed to. In fact, many times, perhaps just the opposite, right? It may very well end up being an involuntary kind of change that happens in us. I think that that kind of possibility, that kind of relationship is the one that I’m always on the lookout for. It’s hopeful that we can confide, can create in art, in criticism, in conversation and dialogue, and in our sociality, in the world, in hanging out. I think that to the extent that we live with and in the internet and social media and all of this, of course, it’s not going anywhere. We understand that; we know that it has a place, and we know that sometimes it can even be crucial and important, and it can help us connect and reach folks we couldn’t even reach and allow for, all we know, certain kinds of important political manifestations to occur that might not otherwise be possible. But I think the issue is still not there. The issue is who we are and what we bring when we enter that place rather than the instrument itself, which I wouldn’t say is completely neutral because the hand of capital is there, but it can be made all kinds of use of. It’s true, I think maybe there’s a certain way in which, whatever it might be, an unnecessary pause, a moment of reflection, a kind of epiphany, something that allows you to take a little bit more time, a breath, to have just enough opening to allow yourself to be attentive to the world and to have opportunities that are autogenerated, that you are guiding yourself toward. Not necessarily completely, but at least making yourself open to them should they arise is something that’s well within our capacity. If we can push that kind of an ethic of attention in everything that we do, and it’s certainly something I try to do in my work and my writing, I think we will be the better for it.

LL: I cannot think of a better way to end. Thank you, Jesse. Thank you all so much for being a part of this panel. Thank you all for watching, for attending to us. It has been a pleasure and thanks so much to L.A. Review of Books for hosting us.

JM: Thank you, Lili.

IY: I know we started off on a sober note thinking about what “the discourse” means and has meant to all of us and the kind of negative associations therein, but I do find it really quite inspiring to hear all of you thinking through so carefully, and with such compassion and empathy, the work that you do and in engaging in these conversations and shaping these conversations — so maybe there’s hope. Thank you all for joining us. Thank you to all of you in the audience who tuned in. We’ll be sharing this also with the folks who couldn’t join but were very excited about the conversation as well. If you’re interested in joining us, we’ll be having another conversation on Saturday about the Cultural Revolution with some really fantastic writers and scholars who are rethinking what its legacies are, and next week, we’ll be here at the same time, same virtual space for a conversation about leaving academia and about finding the freedom to write in other spaces and places and for other audiences. Thank you so much again. To our guests, you are amazing. That was really wonderful and so, so great to hear from all of you. So, thank you again, and see you all next time. Thank you.

 

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