A Conversation with David Kurnick
I spoke with the Rutgers English scholar and author of “Queer Theory and Literary Criticism’s Melodramas” about his recent article, the difference between teaching and criticism, and the virtues and viciousness of Twitter. Here’s some of that conversation.
You point out that the central dichotomy established by Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” can often seem tendentious. So what do you think accounts for its enormous resonance, both when it was published and later? It has sort of eclipsed her other work.
That it eclipsed her earlier work is totally true, and kind of unfortunate. The essay characterized queer theory, including her own work, as involving a kind of necessary revolutionary excess that now we could dial back. At the end of her life she wrote about getting less interested in queer stuff. But because she was such a powerful intellect, it could seem like her own disinterest represented a larger cultural or intellectual exhaustion. I thought that was a strange move. This will sound crazy, but sometimes I do think the whole thing was overdetermined by homophobia — as if everyone, even a lot of queer academics, felt a little relieved that this person who had made us all think we couldn’t ignore gay topics and gay sex was telling us that we could finally stop thinking about it.
The good thing about that essay is that it called criticism to account: Do you really believe the things you say, she was asking, or do you just like to say them? There was a vernacular, truth-telling quality to that. One knows what she means. But I think she was talking about a dreary professional habitus that you can inhabit no matter what your method is. Her essay has been really successful, but it hasn’t banished predictable, routinized criticism, or made critics generally more generous and open.
That essay also allowed her to be consumed as an icon instead of a writer. She’s an incredible writer, an incredible critic — which is to say she’s messy, complicated, and interpretable. But she’s not that paraphrasable, and that essay had a regrettably paraphrasable title.
I wonder if part of the problem is that some of the methods conversations are imprecise at the level of their description of a method. That’s something Jonathan Kramnick is trying to correct for in his recent Critical Inquiry piece: If we’re going to talk about method all the time, let’s monitor the coherence of our propositions a bit.
Yes. It hits the road in the classroom, though — there we all know what it is that we do. One can try to be rigorous about describing it, in the Kramnickian way, but that’s really hard. There’s a kind of black-boxing of that everyday work of the profession when we talk about “method.”
A lot of our accounts of what the profession is like seem to depend on a kind of cartoonish transfer, in which we translate what someone says as a critic into an image of that person in the classroom — a martinet wagging their finger, denouncing and monitoring. But I don’t think anyone really believes that the literature classroom is this desiccated, punitive place.
Your essay diagnoses a kind of unconscious investment in melodrama on the part of some of the post-critique folk. It occurs to me that you could call the passion, not to say the vitriol, that these method disputes seem to inspire — especially on Twitter — “melodramatic.” Pretend I know nothing about these debates: How would you explain to me why people on both sides get so angry on Twitter?
I wish I knew. My best guess is that it’s a reflection of the devaluing of the profession and of our political impotence — and of our impotence to defend our expertise, which can feel really intimate, a kind of “intimate denegation,” in Sedgwick’s phrase. We’re existentially on the line, and it feels that way.
I’m not on Twitter as a tweeter. I go through periods of intense lurking, and then I have to get away from it because it freaks me out too much. In this essay, I wanted to be able to disagree, but with respect — to play out some genuinely mixed feelings. The room for that is less available now. Twitter isn’t a great space for holding ambivalence, obviously. The format tends to melodramatize disagreement. A lot of literary critics are really good at Twitter, for the maybe obvious reason that a lot of them are good at shaping words. But it’s probably not the best genre for us.
On the other hand, I’ve been introduced to really interesting critics on Twitter. The academy isn’t reproducing itself, so there’s critical and interpretive energy there that the academy isn’t accommodating, and there’s a kind of guild energy or appetite — the spilled guild. It’s spilled onto Twitter.