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On Writing—Writers in Conversation: Maggie Nelson and Hari Kunzru

On April 14, 2021, under the auspices of the Levan Institute for the Humanities at the University of Southern California, Maggie Nelson and Hari Kunzru sat down with one another, via Zoom, for a wide-ranging discussion of Kunzru’s work, the amorphous territory of genre, and their thoughts on the role and responsibility of the writer in both the academy and the public square. The conversation was the sixth and final event in a year-long series, On Writing, curated by Emily Hodgson Anderson and David L. Ulin. Air/Light is delighted to present a video and a text transcript (below), of this interview.



Emily Anderson: I’m going to give a very brief introduction to this particular event, but I want to thank all of you so much for joining us for what is our final event in a year-long series sponsored by the Levin Institute called On Writing.

This series was suggested to us by Danielle Bleischmar, who’s the director of the Levin Institute, who unfortunately can’t be with us today. She indicated that of all the topics that she had polled USC faculty on, related to the humanities, people seemed most interested in just wanting to have more conversations amongst each other about writing, as it were. So this is the sixth event now. If you haven’t been able to join us for some of the previous ones, there are links to the recordings on the Levin website.

David Ulin and myself have co-convened these and they’ve really been the bright spot for us in this year. We’ve talked to an amazing range of people on an amazing range of subjects including process, form, flexibility thereof, editing—the list goes on. It gives me incredible pleasure to wrap up this year-long series, as it were, with a conversation that is itself a conversation between two brilliant preeminent writers about how they enact all the various topics that we’ve spent the year looking at—in a more granular way. So I’m going to turn it over to David Ulin to do those formal introductions and kick us off. And I’ll just say, finally, again, a resounding “thank you” to the Levin Institute and Daniella and Isabella for facilitating this, for inspiring this, and to all of you for being devoted participants in this series as we’ve coordinated it throughout the year. Thank you.

And David…

David L. Ulin: Thanks Emily, and welcome to everyone, particularly those of you on the west coast. This is a breakfast conversation and I’m really grateful that everybody’s here.

I just want to very quickly introduce Maggie and Hari—this is a real pleasure and I think a privilege for me. These are two of the most exceptional writers working at the moment and to have the opportunity to see them in conversation about writing and craft and wherever the conversation goes is something that I think is really thrilling.

I first want to just thank Maggie and Hari for being here, and then I want to echo what Emily was saying about the series. The series has gone in all these interesting and unexpected ways, like I think all of my favorite collaborations, and has created its own narrative over the course of the school year and this feels like a really compelling and vivid way to close it out. I will not belabor things —I do want to mention that Maggie Nelson has a new book coming out in September called On Freedom: For Songs of Care and Constraint. A brilliant theorist, brilliant narrative writer, brilliant nonfiction writer. And Hari Kunzru is I think one of the most interesting and provocative novelists working now— his most recent novel Red Pill looks into paranoia and alt-right politics and identity and all kinds of things—also the author of White Tears, Gods Without Men, one of my favorite books about the liminality of experience, and a number of other novels. I’m gonna get out of the way now and let Maggie and Hari take it away. And thank you both for being here and thanks everybody in the audience for being here. I’m really looking forward to this.

Maggie Nelson: All right, I’m going to try and make Hari bigger because we’ve never met and so I can’t bear to meet you, Hari, in a box this small, so one second, let me see, okay–

Hari Kunzru: I see you, Maggie, and I’ve made you bigger.

MN: Okay. Now I see you bigger and I’m thrilled. I’m so glad to meet you and it’s very funny to be doing things like this, like meeting people for the first time amongst others and on Zoom but I’m thrilled, so thank you so much for talking.

HK: Likewise. I’m a big fan and it’s a real pleasure to have this chance to talk to you. 

MN: Well, I see, and you guys can probably see, like if you were on Room Rater. I’m gonna, we’re gonna, give you like the big thumbs up because Hari has his book, as I do, in view—and it’s so great and I want to talk about the book, but I want to talk about a lot of other things, too.

Like I said for all of you guys listening, we don’t know each other, so it’s like I have so many things I’d love to talk about, and you guys will get a chance to ask questions later. I see a lot of people I know, so there’s a lot of smart and interesting people who are going to want to ask things, too.

I’ll just start off where I want to start off because I get to do that. I just thought, you know, ironically, because we’re meeting each other on Zoom, as I said, in the presence of other people, but I thought we could start off talking about privacy. Just because one of my very favorite parts of Red Pill is the description of your narrator. For those who haven’t read it, arriving at a writing residency in Germany and then realizing with slow rolling horror that all the writing is supposed to be done in this shared setting, with all the other residents’ eyes upon him. So he’s not going to have the writing privacy that he dreamed of. I just wanted to say that these passages alone would make Red Pill qualify for an award for the best horror writing, in my mind. It’s just such a horror show. But it made me think a lot about writing under surveillance and/or under the feeling of being observed, and I was also thinking of Emily co-hosting who wrote this great essay earlier this year about the pandemic and about having kids around called “No Room of One’s Own” and I just thought, I wondered how, you know, on a pragmatic or even domestic level how the toll on privacy, if that is what there has been, has played out for you.

HK: This is where I have to, first, ‘fess up that some good moves got made before the pandemic. You know, I have two smallish children, eight and four, and my wife Katie Kitamura is a novelist as well, and we’re very used to being at home and working at home in a domestic space so I think the shock for us has been rather less than it has been for some other people. Back when we first got together, we did both write novels in the same room at desks facing in opposite directions. That’s not because of some, you know, performative wish to say how great our relationship was, it was just because we’re in a tiny New York studio with no money to rent office space, but as you can see from my authoritarian wall of books behind me, I now have a proper writing space. It’s even got a window. It’s everything that I could want for my little pod-like world and the thing that I’ve always felt. When I’m asked this question, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that the sitter lives down the stairs so we have been quarantined with child care and that is the invisible part that actually has made it a productive year rather than a year of total meltdowns. So, it has been not as bad for us as I think it has been for a lot of other people. I’m intermittently social. I would say—I can do it and I like to drift off back into my own thing.  I’ll mainly be in my head and with the ones close to me that I love and then, you know, I will crawl back out into the light and remind myself what it’s like to be, you know, drinking room temperature white wine at a book party.

MN: Yeah, well actually, that is one of my other questions—I’m curious about, you know, my partner released a book in pandemic times although sadly on March 17th, which was really like not as good a time as maybe the fall but I’ve, you know, as I’m sure you’ve been doing many things like this and so have I, you know it’s made me think a lot and I’m really curious to know what you think about, as all the procedurals of the public aspect of a writer’s life—like the dinners, book fairs, book signings, weird Q&A’s with people stumbling over to a microphone—as all that has evaporated and we’re here alone in our chambers. I wonder—have you thought about—like—do you feel like this, do you need and want this exchange—as nourishing to an intellectual life? Do you feel the action of it can be had in these forms? If this were all we had, would it be good enough, or what do you make of the loss of that interstitial experience?    

HK: I know the terrible sadness will come when the leave meeting button gets pressed. That’s always the thing that I find slightly traumatic. Because normally, we’re on right now, like here we are, we’re being our sparkly best and we’re performing ourselves. Hopefully in an interesting way for an audience and you put all that energy in and you’re talking. You talk to someone and it’s like you form a staged conversation and then the button gets pressed and then you’re just back on your own and whereas normally you’d go to the bar, maybe somebody nice would take you out for dinner, it would have a much more natural rhythm to it and certainly for me. I published this novel last fall and I wanted to feel, I wanted an experience of bringing it out into the world rather than still being in my room. This is the experience I have when I’m teaching; this is the experience I have when I’m talking to my family in England, who I haven’t seen for a year and a half. This is everything and it doesn’t have all the different textures that you need for a fulfilling social life, you know, as a straightforward tool for having a conversation of this kind. For doing things like seminar teaching, I think it’s pretty good. I think I’ve managed to do some good things in this format, but I do miss the… yeah, I miss sitting in a restaurant and what we would probably do afterwards, if this was a normal year.

MN: Do you feel like, then, that the part of the publishing where after the solitary sojourn where there’s a public enmeshment is—do you conceive of them as part of two sides of the same coin that you, that you desire, or would you be happy if the latter one, I mean like…

HK: Like I said, I’m intermittently social, so I do quite like the bit where I go forth into the world and slightly random things happen to me. I like the strangeness that happens when you encounter people and you have a sense of what it is that your work is. You know, I know the world that your workers got involved in. After going through that process of writing a book, I need to take some lap out in the world to wave at everybody. Then I just feel sort of slightly cowed and embarrassed and need to go back in and write another. But I’m looking forward to other things more. I’m looking forward to just being able to travel and see family, and the grandparents haven’t seen their grandchildren since 2019 and that’s tough on them, and I would quite like to stand on a high hill far away from other people.

MN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Still thinking about privacy or surveillance just because it’s so at issue in Red Pill. You have to forgive me because twice in these questions, I’m quoting my forthcoming book but that’s only because it’s just the quickest way—I’ve already said it so I don’t have to re-say it again. I just wanted to read to you something that I have in the chapter I have about art and freedom. I write, “As Adam Phillips notes, we can never be entirely free of surveillance of some kind or another and not always from the usual suspects. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a real need to create spaces or forms wherein we can temporarily suspend its grip and practice a certain fugitivity from cops in the head. As Augusto Boal, founder of the Theater of the Oppressed, put it”— and then I go on to quote Augusto Boal saying—“The cops may be in our heads, but the headquarters of the cops are in external reality.” Boal says it’s necessary to locate both the cops and their headquarters and I just I kept thinking about this quote when I was reading Red Pill, and I know that I’m putting you on the spot because I’m just reading it to you for probably the first time, but I just wonder if it brings up any ideas that relate to the book?

HK: Well, absolutely. The starting point for the novel was exactly that question—the reduction of our space of privacy because of electronic surveillance and so on. I think we’ve got so used to the idea that we are always, at least potentially, being overheard and being watched. That it has reduced the scope of our sphere of privacy and that’s important because we… it’s a space to experiment; it’s a space to try out things before you have to bring them into the world. And I think that act of stepping forward out of your privacy into the public space is the fundamental act of freedom. It’s to choose when to show yourself to, choose how to show yourself, and alongside the very straightforward things of somebody knowing where you are, or being able to hear things that you say. There is a sense that I think that the social media landscape, the tech landscape more generally, is making channels, is providing a grammar in which we are being taught to express ourselves so that even inside in this private space, we’re producing versions of ourselves that at least potentially will be usable by these systems. It’s all about metrication and measurement, isn’t it? It’s all what is useful to the tech companies. There’s a behavior that can be aggregated and packaged and analyzed and sold, or the information about it can be sold so things that are unresolved, things that don’t have names are not useful. So we are encouraged very strongly to name things, to give things numbers, to put things in these terms. There’s something Foucault says somewhere in The History of Sexuality about how in a sense, people are freer before sexual practices and particularly orientations are named, when your feelings and desires exist in this unreflective way. They can just be. But if you say “I am straight,” “I am gay,” “I am a person who likes this—those contact ad lists of fetish preferences,” or whatever they could be, there’s a sense in which that’s a grid that is imprisoning even though in that post-’60s way, we feel that openness and being able to speak our truth is a kind of freedom as well. I think that those two things are in tension with each other.

MN: I love the part of this book that’s the long story about the young punk rocker being corroded or recruited by the Stasi and East Germany. When I was reading it and reading in other books of yours—because obviously several books [of yours] have an interest in psychological ops on people that bring them into systems of surveillance, on others or on revolutionary groups or on different things. I wonder, without a facile, better or worse, thumbs up / thumbs down with the internet, I do wonder, since you’ve been a student of these other forms of surveillance.  Something I’ve noticed, at least with my kids is that when they’re taught in their tech classes about social media surveilling you and the loss of privacy, their first reaction is just like “You guys all feel so unfree like what is wrong with you, just give it all over and actually you’re free,” like they just don’t give a crap. And they’ll say like “God, Mom, like why are you freaking out over your touch id on your iPhone, like just touch it, just touch it, just get in, get in.”  It’s tempting to think, “Oh, they just don’t know, they just don’t know what’s awaiting them.” Other times I think maybe they’re on to something. I don’t know. I just wonder if you have thoughts about it.

HK: There’s a sort of self-consciousness, isn’t there? Somewhere in Red Pill I quote Sartre in Being and Nothingness. He has this example of a Peeping Tom, somebody looking through a keyhole in the dark corridor at something they shouldn’t be seeing, and they’re completely focused on what they’re doing, they’re unself-aware, but as soon as there’s a noise in the corridor, they’re suddenly hyper-aware of themselves. There’s possible shame, possible discovery, and so on and he describes that as having their freedom suddenly drained away from you because you are the object of the other’s gaze and I think that’s exactly what we’re describing here, isn’t it? If you don’t feel that gaze, then you can behave as if you were free, and whether objectively you are free or not is actually not an issue. There’s somebody I was speaking to yesterday who’s tutoring teenagers who was so surprised how un-self-conscious fifteen-year-olds were in these Zoom meetings. Now here we are, we’re slightly making sure that we’re, you know, looking correct and professional, whatever it would be for a conversation. It seemed to be partly just familiarity. They’re used to just sitting online with their friends all day doing homework and nobody’s been able to see each other so that’s the social world, but also these considerations that the non-digital natives have are not there for them. But this is just the experience rather than any kind of objective reality about who’s being tracked and who’s not being tracked and I think, yeah, you know, we really have only to look at the uses to which this infrastructure is being put in China to understand how a very meaningful and radical way freedom is a threat from pervasive surveillance. You know, at a point where you have networks of cameras, you have face recognition software attached, AIs attached to those cameras. You have a list of people who you want to track. You have certain behaviors that you want to flag up. You have systems that are many, many times as powerful and efficient as hand watches that can detect behavior anomalies. Absolutely, we are heading into a period, and I think it’s naive to imagine that these things will not come to us and will not be used on us. They may come to us in a way which appears that we’ve given our assent to them, you know, it may not be imposed by the Central Politburo, it may be that it emerges out of everybody’s desire to be safe, but it’s coming. And I think in that very practical way how freedom is ebbing away. And what that means for the future I’m not sure; I suspect that it means nothing good.

MN: It’s interesting because your Twitter feed has been recommended to me many times and I don’t have any social media accounts and my moment of revelation of what you’re talking about is when I learned not so long ago that Facebook also keeps files on people who don’t use Facebook. That to me was like, oh my god I thought I was off the grid—but they’re actually more interested in people like me and they also keep a file on [me]. . . like, why wouldn’t you use Facebook? There is no, there’s no pure space of invisibility left. You can throw away your smartphone and use your virtuous flip phone or whatever—but there’s no outside. I want to move on a little bit but I just want to underscore something you said because I just thought it was so interesting because I’ve been reading a lot of Hannah Arendt and writing my own book on freedom and she talks so much about freedom taking place, for her, only in the public sphere, which I have a lot of issues with, but something you’re articulating about freedom transpiring precisely when you step out of privacy into the public space as a liminal event is very interesting. . .

HK: It is that. It’s being able to choose when you present yourself. Slaves and prisoners are not free, partly because they don’t have that ability. Being forced to involuntarily present yourself is always experienced as a violation of freedom and being able to withdraw as well. We’ve joked on this call, but in a room of your own, but that’s a concrete material form of being able to assert privacy when you need it. It’s not just the practical thing of no sound and no distractions. It’s a lack of not being observed, not having to be in dialogue with the they or the you. Others’ sense of who you are. The freedom from having to make a coherent presentation of yourself allows you to experiment and allows you to become, rather than just to be fixed according to your previous actions. We all know the horror stories for younger people now. The terrible thing that you post as a teenager that follows you around for the rest of your life. You know, these slightly botched experiments in Europe with the “right to be forgotten,” which is a beautiful idea but very difficult to implement practically. I’m extremely grateful that I did my teenage years before this global memory was dropped down over us all.

MN: One nice thing about having kids though is as I just mentioned, when I express all my anxieties about this change—they remind me that—that’s not how it’s going to be for us and they’re just blithe about it and they’re forging on. A lot of my book about freedom, some of it, is concerned with what you just described as the difference, or lack of difference, between feeling and acting as if one were free, and then so-called “being actually free.” And someone like Hannah Arendt would be very hard on the “as if” model. Whereas others like the anarchist anthropologist who unfortunately passed away last year, David Graeber, [feel] like most of all the action is in the “as if,” the “acting as if” space. And it reminds me of writing, only because, again with this Boal quote…there’s cops in the head, and then there’s the headquarters, and when you’re writing, you know that there’s all kinds of cops in the head and you know that they’re outside the head, but you’re also trying to create a space as if you could explore what you wanted to explore. And again, when it comes out and you go around, it’s as if everyone’s trying to discipline you into all the ways you weren’t free when you wrote it, but there’s something about doing it that has to preserve a space, no matter how phantasmagorical.

HK: You mentioned the section in the novel where it deviates into the story of a teenager in the 1980s who grows up in East Berlin, a teenage punk who becomes the object of Stasi’s surveillance and then forced into being an informant. I wrote that partly because I was interested in this difference between a twentieth century totalitarianism and the mechanisms that are around for us, say in the U.S. now, where a lot of it is happening, at least formally with our assent, but then later on for a podcast, I went back and actually sought out one of the very first punks in East Germany who was a sixteen-year-old at the time. He wasn’t even really certain about the music, but he just saw a picture of The Sex Pistols and he decided that looked great, and so he spiked his hair up with soap and tore some of his clothes and off he walked out of the door and into a world of trouble, because the Stasi were fairly convinced that punk was some sort of CIA-backed plot to undermine the morals of the workers’ and peasants’ state. And so he said, he would basically just go down to Alexanderplatz and hang out with other teenagers who were dressed like that. They would manage to get hold of some of the music, people were bringing in tapes or whatever; they were just doing the things that teenagers do. But because of this assumption by the Stasi that there was something behind it, he was picked up almost every day and interrogated. And he developed a relationship with his Stasi interrogator, who would ask him things just trying to work out if he was being fed particular political views. So he said, “What do you know about anarchism?” and this guy would say, “Nothing!” but then he’d go and look it up. So, effectively he was being educated. But the point of bringing him up is to say that I asked him, well, what do you make of the present day, what do you make of cell phone surveillance? We don’t live under totalitarianism anymore. And I was expecting him to rail against the abrogations of freedom that there are, and firmly, he said, you must live as if you are free and that’s the first thing and then you go forward into the world, behave as if you’re free and take it from there, you know, if you worry so much before that, you don’t act at all, then they’ve already won. And I see limits to that, but at the same time, I think existentially that has to be the way that you make that space for yourself.

MN: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me, given the “as if” feeling—in some ways, it’s a feeling, right? So, as Arendt would say, it’s not a demonstrable fact about freedom, she wants the facts about freedom, not a feeling. But one thing I found really interesting is, in certain interviews I’ve read with you, at some points I’ve read you correctly and hilariously talking about liberals’ obsession with feelings as opposed to certain forms of structural change. But then on the other hand, the experience of reading Red Pill is certainly a journey through the emotional life of our narrator and obviously that’s something that novels excel at, and yours in particular. And I guess I just wanted to talk for a minute about the role of feeling in the novel, because while I think you’ve said, and I think I get this, too, about the narrator, he’s having a crisis of self, that the self seems to evanesce when he looks for it, [yet] he certainly has a lot of affective feeling, [as] he goes through this meltdown. I guess that’s just my first question, that compared to the things that you have thought or felt about an overemphasis on feelings in the political sphere, do you think of the novel as something different?

HK: I suppose the first thing to say about feeling in the political sphere is that I specifically mean feelings [of] innocence.

MN: Gotcha, okay, that’s very helpful.

HK: I think there’s a well-worn, let’s call it a liberal route, through the political to say, How can I absolve myself of my feelings of guilt about my structural position in this situation? Like, oh no, I have wealth and whatever it would be. And that’s the thing that I wish to disrupt, because I think the attempt to be innocent or to feel innocent or to untangle yourselves from the implications of your structural position leads people off into some very strange, unhelpful politics. And it seems to me much better to look objectively, to use Marxist language, about your structural position, about your class position, and so on. There are things that you can tell about what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling per se…feeling is part of human flourishing. I’m certainly not interested in some sort of cold objectivity or some sort of unlocated, positionless experience of the world. But then we get into what is it to write and you know it’s an honest observation in the book, to say that the novel is a bourgeois form, because the novel deals with individuals and roots its questions and its ways of understanding the world through making characters. I suppose I square that circle slightly by thinking of myself as a systems novelist, as someone who tries to see their characters as implicated in these larger social economic technological systems and to try and make those things visible through telling stories. I think that is a thing the novel can do, and I have a case that I make for the novel based on that. To get to the guy in Red Pill, the narrator of Red Pill allows me to have some fun with somebody who’s close enough to me for me to be able to work some things through, but also is far enough away that I can mock him for some of his pretensions. He’s irredeemably individualist; he goes through this whole crisis, the crisis of selfhood, the crisis of politics in the book. Never once does he really think of trying to reach out and make community or solidarity with others. [It’s] all rooted through his sense of himself and eventually his sense that he is dissolving, and that becomes a mental break. But you know he never thinks, “Hang on, my solution for my feelings of fear and isolation would be to try and make meaning with other people, or to make community with other people.” So he’s a bourgeois to the absolute end in the book, and he moves in these fairly well-heeled Brooklyn intellectual circles, and it’s no real spoiler to say the book ends on election night in 2016, and it’s a milieu in which firstly the Trump victory comes as a terrible surprise, as a shock, rather than as a as a product of processes that have been going on for decades, and secondly is experienced as a crisis of selfhood, in that it’s a crisis of the kinds of meanings that this group of people, and the narrator in particular…it’s their picture of the world that’s been disrupted. I think that the libidinal energies that were released by that, and the source of the glee for some of the frog Twitter Trumpist types who were all passing around pictures of liberal ladies crying was the experience of this break, of this rupture of a complacent set of norms. And my experience of the last years has been of gradually watching this thing coming from the outside. I don’t claim to have predicted quite how dominant it would become in mainstream American politics, I was surprised that the world of the [4-chans] turned out to be able to elect the president that they did, but I had this sense that this was out there, that this was coming, and I didn’t see it reflected in the discourse that was being conducted in the more rarified echelons of the of the media. And so that was another reason to write the book, to write about somebody who undergoes a shock, who undergoes an epistemic crisis, I suppose, a crisis of the structures of meaning that he lives inside.

MN: One thing I like about the end, and I hope we’re not giving too much away…I mean, whatever, you just gave whatever there is to give away, Trump got elected, we know that! But the narrator, on the one hand, no matter how debilitated he’s become, there’s a sense in which he could be feeling at the end his own sense of mastery, his own sense of…Trump’s election was the red pill to his wife and her circle of people, right, except for that, I wouldn’t still choose him as my Sherpa, to the next life. He might be feeling like “I told you so,” but we’re not feeling like his “I told you so” is necessarily fruitful, either.

HK: Absolutely. The fact that he feels that he saw something coming and they didn’t doesn’t change the fact that it’s coming, and he still has no resources to combat it or deal with it. One or two people online who don’t credit me with self-consciousness have said what a terrible book it is, because it’s just a resistance novel. It exemplifies this elite liberal hand-wringing. And that’s partly what I wanted to portray—it’s this particularly individualist character, he’s almost congenitally incapable of collaborating or being in community with people. What do you do when the only way to make political power is to form alliances and to make political blocs? It’s a set of habits that you saw people trying to acquire in real time; lots of people who had never really been attending political meetings were [kind] of scrambling to make the structures that would have needed to be in place long before if the danger was to be warded off.

MN: I agree with you, and I understand what you’re saying about his congenital capacity to move towards community or solidarity, but it also seems like my read was also that it wasn’t just like bourgeois individualism. It was particularly also… filtered through a homosocial obsessional mindset, whereby first with Edgar—this annoying guy at the writing retreat—but then later obviously with Anton, that the structure, which is cathexis onto a male who in some ways seems to challenge [or] threaten whatever it is to you, remains the principal cathexis. Just when you’re thinking that he has identified that this show and the things that Anton is doing [are] mainstreaming alt-right stuff, laundering them through Hollywood, his big answer is to go be like a crank at Anton’s Q&A’s, and you’re just thinking, “Oh god like, no, not that!” But partly “not that,” not because it’s not politically constructive [or] whatever, that can all be argued. It’s more like “not that” because it just felt like a further doubling down on male competition.

HK: Absolutely. You know this is a hard one, [but] I have come to understand that. Very much…how I was socialized as a teacher…setting yourself up in competition against an antagonist and another man and the absurdity and impotence of that is also precisely there. I can’t quite remember, it might even have been a Slavoj Žižek thing, saying [that] there’s always a moment of political breakdown, and then in the narrative of, let’s say, Hollywood films, where a question becomes so complex to face that that it just can’t be dealt with within the narrative economy of the film, so they have a fistfight. And you know that’s the point where certain things become impossible to deal with within the form and then precisely that. In this novel, he’s faced with his very, very large questions and a set of realizations that would require him to move beyond this, but instead, as you say, he falls back into, you know, “Who’s actually smarter?” [inaudible] You know, in a way it’s a bit like conspiracy theories. I’ve written a bit about conspiracy theories recently, and the conspiracy theories are simplifications; they’re ways of understanding very complicated, slippery processes that imagine that there are just ten guys in a boardroom, and then if you kick down the door and took them into custody, the world would be saved and would be a better place. And that’s naïve, because clearly that’s not how power works…we don’t have these satisfying resolutions. And so that’s sort of another theme of that book, is the way that obviously the character falls short, and the way that any personalized look for the villains will fall short. Trump is just the face that that thing wears right now. Trump in himself is fairly trivial.

MN: I have one more question about Q[Anon] and conspiracy theories, then maybe I’ll ask you a couple questions about writing and then we can ask other people to jump in. So my question, I really like the piece in Harper’s—is that what you’re talking about? About conspiracy theories and Q?

HK: Yeah…

MN: I was thinking you could summarize that better than I can, but for the people listening, what you just described is that it seemed like you were trying to emphasize the difference, at least at the start of the essay, between the conspiracy theories of yesteryear, which did offer grand and simplifying explanations, like the ten guys at the boardroom, but that Q[Anon] offers a fractalizing web that, the more you are led into it, it can even actually…have an overwhelming, even terrifying, complexity. And you write that, with Q, what starts off as heroic fantasy ends up as horror. And this was super interesting, and I just wondered if you had watched the documentary recently about Q, and if you had, what were your thoughts? And then secondly, I didn’t watch it, but something that bothered me just as I was looking at the aftermath of people talking about Ron Watkins and whatever—maybe we’re already too in the weeds for some of the people here—but if we’re not, I saw a lot of people saying like, “Oh, I wonder how everyone feels that they got owned by like a man-child pig farmer in the Philippines,” or something, and I was like…that scarcely is the point! I mean any shepherd of libidinal energies, it doesn’t matter where they are or what their face is, I don’t know. But it almost was as if the reaction to that to me sounded like an almost nostalgia for conspiracy theories of yesteryear, as if there were an Oz; everyone would see the Oz and say, “Oh my god, I was had,” but that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening at all.

HK: Yeah, it’s kind of like the Kennedy assassination is the Reagan to Q’s Trump, isn’t it? You know, we feel faintly nostalgic for it. I didn’t actually see the documentary, but I’ve spent way too much time in this zone, so you know for people who don’t know, it seems that father and son pornography team, Jim and Ron Watkins, based out of the Philippines, had control of the account on 8chan that was doing the Q drops, and it’s likely that Ron, the son, was—on a day-to-day level at least lately—the person who was controlling the account, and they drove a lot of traffic to their site through that.…As you say, the focus on him as an individual, it seems to domesticate this thing in an unhelpful way, because he’s neither here nor there. If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. The part of it that interests me particularly is the way the Q thing emerged in the earlier days on the chans. It was an accepted, almost a literary form of post, you know. People have always written these little, almost like in-character posts on these chan sites, and there was an accepted format where someone would say, “Hey I’m a super insider in place x, and let me tell you it’s all going to go down, and you’ll know because of this.”

Even whoever was controlling the Q account in the beginning was making these posts that seemed to…there was a genre of them, a type of post that one made. And for whatever reason, finally one of those things got traction, and then it jumped the species barrier out of chan world into boomer YouTube world, which was when it really took hold. And I spent a certain amount of time watching people’s YouTube channels when there was a drop, and it was an experience of community for people. It was a community; it was very much like the slightly crackpot numerological Bible exegesis that people will do in a lot of places. People would come on somebody’s channel, and everybody would have good ideas about what the drop meant, and you know some of these people have status and authority because they can interpret particularly well or make particularly baroque stories around it. But you could see that it was a lot of people who were finding a shape to their lives, and it was a very attractive thing to think that you’re a warrior for children, for saving children, for a deeper truth…. And you can see why people got so enmeshed in it. And I hope people are looking now on the downward slope of this thing, as the storm didn’t happen, and the narrative is quite hard to maintain. There are still people saying, you know, “Trump is playing 16-dimensional chess, and soon the arrests will take place.” But by and large, it’s diffusing now and becoming more inchoate, and falling back into the soup of references out of which it came.

The web-like quality of it is fascinating, and it expanded to take in everything from Atlantis to Area 51 to Kennedy to all the things, the Illuminati, everything that’s been around in that part of existence. In the Harper’s piece, I called it “folk scholarship” or “folk research.” The figure of the researcher, you know, the person with an internet connection who can go forth and sift through the complexities and pull out truth is, I think, one of the dominant figures of our time, and relates back to older things, but is really important now. It’s becoming less organized, but those energies are still there, the desire for meaning is still there, the feeling that good people are down and bad people are up is still there, the suspicion of elites and so on. And there’s no reason to imagine that it will not coalesce again in some form, presumably in a very, very unexpected, unlikely form. Nobody would have predicted that would be a narrative that could gather such cultural momentum, especially internationally—there’s a lot of Q in Japan and Germany, and places that are not very connected with American politics.

MN: That’s super interesting…and it’s so interesting that I want to ask you one more political question before I ask you a couple questions about writing, but that’s just because you’re here and I don’t want to miss my chance. So in thinking about what you’ve described just now, and then other times about this libidinal channel that has been opened—and in my own forthcoming book, I have spent a bit of time with political theorist Wendy Brown, who I think has been very…she’s just been very excellent on describing what she calls “the brilliant campaign of the alt-right to associate anti-egalitarian, anti-immigrant, and anti-responsibility sentiments with freedom and fun, while casting left and liberal commitments as repressive, regulatory, grim, and policing.” And her concern is that this campaign seduces its would-be converts with the feeling of release from responsibilities of all kinds, and a feeling of disinhibition. And then she says that the fusion of that libidinal freedom and fun with an authoritarian statism, she says, has a formidable power to appeal to the young, the immature, the reckless, and the wounded. And then her warning is this fusion will land us in more trouble than we knew and requires that we think very hard about what strategies would most successfully counter it. I’m not doing that interview thing where you’re like, “Well, Hari, what are the strategies?” but I just…I mean that’s stupid, but I just wonder, maybe because it is a fool’s errand, but I have spent time trying to imagine those strategies and I wonder if you have any thoughts?

HK: I think they’ve emerged. I think you know…the news on that front is good. First I completely recognize that characterization, and you know we’ve got…Hillary as mom, and the boys are going like “Ah, mom”—that it’s those kinds of things that were very straightforwardly visible. But I think the transition in far-right culture, it has been…it’s been a cultural transition and there’s been a kind of…the far right of my youth were joyless skinheads, you know, parroting rather tedious propaganda points that were stale in the 1960s, but it’s certainly the discovery of irony, I think, and the discovery of humor and playfulness that came out of the chan culture, that came out of this arms race of grossness that was a feature of the chan culture. I was spending time on the chans as an appalled observer, I should say rather than an enthusiastic participant, but I was lurking around on these sites in the early aughts and seeing this arms race quality and…seeing a lot of like racist and misogynistic material being presented as “How gross can it be? How shocking can I be?” and what then happened is that the, you know, the suburban teens who were driving this… the high school boys, for one reason or another, got fused with a much more serious group of far-right activists. There’s a very good book by Dale Baroon about 4chan and its rise, and he suggests that what happened is that…the chans raided a site called Stormfront…a Neo-Nazi site…and that the Neo-Nazis were intrigued to discover that there was this breeding ground, and they made active attempts to recruit. 

So, you know, you cut to 15 years later, the kids have all grown up, the irony has fallen away, and then…people are asserting…extreme biological racism, for example, as a serious position, but it’s all packaged with this plausible deniability. You know, the thing about the okay symbol [makes an OK hand sign]…every liberal who hand-rings and says, “That’s a Nazi sign,” and you can say, “Pffft. You’ve lost it. It’s just, I’m just saying okay,” and that exists—that space of joking-not joking, serious-not serious, is the space in which this has grown up…but it was very successful, as Wendy Brown said in that quote. “The presentation of the opposing position is essentially censorious and authoritarian and clamping down on…the irrepressible libidinal energies that want to be free”. And you know, and also that there’s…I think there’s something going on with male groups and that you can point backwards into a more traditionally fascist formations. You look at something like the Proud Boys gradually looking more and more like the Nazi…by the month. But they’re not…they’re not the only people who can be funny on the internet. They say commies don’t know how to be, but actually it turns out they do. And you think of things like the emergence of Gritty, that hockey—a Philadelphia hockey symbol—Gritty as a meme figure from the left, and then there’s a lot of very successful trolling and outing of people and forcing people into the open. If the space of action for a lot of these people is anonymity and deniability, you know. Basically, there’s been a very concerted anti-fascist campaign to put these people’s actual beliefs and identities in front of their employers… in front of other public spaces and to say, “Well, is that acceptable or not? Yes or no?” Forcing people into actually either siding with it or not. Reducing that sort of “Oh I was just joking. I was just being ironic” space.

So I think there’s an online war that’s been going on for years, and is down and dirty and being conducted with viciousness on both sides, and in public discourse the left is learning to be a bit less easily baited. The baiting into outrage is an old tactic and it’s become clearer over the last five years or so how ineffective that is, and how certain sorts of moral panic and certain sorts of outrage just serve the alt-right agenda. Being able to eye-roll and not take them seriously when they wish you to take them seriously, is a good judo move in that fight.

MN: That’s super interesting. Well, I have all these questions about form and stuff that we’re not going to get to, so I’ll just ask one question about writing and then we can open it up. But I just…I read in an interview that you said that some of the best advice you’d ever gotten about writing was like “This feeling, it will pass,” you know, and what made me laugh about that, was that when people ask me the same question, I often note something that a mentor of mine once told me, which was a variation on the theme saying that my feelings about the work, my work, didn’t matter. The work was what mattered, but that my feelings would change day by day. But whether or not…now this is true, and I think this is very, to me, that’s been very, very useful. However, I also asked somebody different at some point, like I asked a friend, “If I’m writing something and I feel really bored while I’m writing it, like does that mean it’s boring?” and they were like “Yeah, like it does.” And that was also really worrisome to me because I… So I’m just wondering about like when you’re working and this notion of A. “Why is this feeling, it will pass,” why is it some of the best advice? and B. How do you chart judging what you’re doing based on how you’re feeling about it, or how you feel while you’re working?

HK:  It’s the difference between a fleeting feeling and a consistent feeling…

MN:  Right…consistent is bad.

HK: I sit down and read what I did yesterday and I think, “You know you’re a fool and a dolt, and you should do another job,” and then, you know, I’m…on occasion, I sit down and think, “That was quite smart, actually.” And neither should be trusted in a straightforward way, but if you sit down every day and you’re bored by your project, well…maybe that is a sign that…certainly there’s a sign that you should find another way of approaching the project, if not junking the project all together. But I think one of the hardest parts of writing is learning. You’re using your own reactions in such a finely tuned way to judge the choices that you’re making, and you know there are days when we’re off, and there are the days when, you know… it’s why it’s not a good idea to press send on the essay as soon as you finished it. You know, you let it sit… I find one of the most useful tools that I have when writing a longform thing is to put it away and then come back to it when I’ve slightly forgotten what it was like reading it. Certainly, like a draft of a novel…if I, I often …how many times do I have a fresh draft of a novel? In the times…

MN: …A good bunch of novels.

HK:  …but a good tactic for me is to go away and do something else for a few weeks, then print this thing out and take it to a cafe or to some place where I don’t write. And then just read it as if I’m a person reading a book in a cafe, and like alienating myself from the thing. And often, I discover things about the rhythm…all that wood for the tree stuff that’s impossible to get to when you’re in the midst of a project. That’s when I’m like “Oh right! It reads like that, it flows like that, or this clearly I failed to explain that.” Whatever it would be, that’s when I can discover a lot of things that can be fixed that I hadn’t understood before.

MN:  Yeah, I’m definitely a big fan of the self-alienation factor. Sometimes I almost joke with myself like, I’ll actually be almost play-acting, like “Oh! What is this thing I’ve found! Oh! It appears to be a piece of writing. Let me see.” Yeah, exactly! “Who could’ve done this!” But like the more I can do that, the better I feel like the read is of the work. But anyway, David, I don’t know if you want to step in and have some questions for Hari from the people who are here, many of whom, like I say, I know are very discerning people.

DLU:  Yeah, I’m gonna jump in…actually before we do that, I just want to follow up with both of you about that, Maggie. Because one of my favorite pieces of sort of writing advice, which I think comes from The Argonauts, is about how you’re reticent on the first draft, you’re not as bold on the page as you are in life in the first draft, and then in revision, you make it sharper and bolder so that you actually enact a boldness that isn’t necessarily yours in how you carry yourself—that question of being more authentic on the page, and I wonder if you both can address that question.

And then while they’re addressing that question, we have about twenty minutes left, so anyone in the audience who has a question, either use your little virtual raise hand thing and/or just simply put a question in the chat and we’ll share them.      

HK:  I certainly think that, yeah, revision for me is often a process of, you know, admitting that that’s what I want to say and then saying it in a straightforward way rather than with five different images or five different kinds of parallel clauses… just striking them all out and saying like that’s actually, you know, what I want to say, and I’m going to stand behind it.

MN:  Yeah, I would just totally underscore that, which is that I think—and actually this relates a little bit to our more political conversation about libidinal…you know output or is that…I think we have this idea that we’re all like a cauldron of things that are just, you know, transgressive and impermissible to say, when in fact, most of our immediate output is just full of these interminable clauses, and the unsureness, and the cops in the head and the like—you know for myself, like academic obfuscations—and it’s only after, you know, taking the whole page. And often I find that I’ll just put like a circle around the subject, verb, object, in the middle of it, and I’m like, “Okay, that’s what I wanted to say.” You know, and then…I once had a mentor—the same person who told me about the feelings actually—Wayne Koestenbaum, whom I adore…but Wayne told me once also that I could… I should say the impermissible thing and then I could spend the rest of my essay running away from it, but if I never said it, then I would never have….I also think that, too, but the last thing I’ll say is I think this links actually also to the question of the “boring,” which is that…you know, the problem with writing is that writing all that boring, not alive stuff is also like a burning off process, so it’s like if you don’t ever do it, this idea that you could just get the needle in the vein is not going to allow you to burn off defensiveness, obfuscation, unclarity. Like you’re not gonna…you won’t find the vein, so you have to…you’ve gotta dick around for a while. You know, yeah…

HK:  Yeah, yeah, that’s so true.

MN: …and bore yourself, and then you find out that you’re bored, and then you’re like “Why am I so bored?” and that all can be part of it, you know.

DLU:  So it’s the experience…I don’t want to say the writing is performative, because that’s overstating, but it’s the experience of being in the moment with the writing, living with the writing as you’re producing it, rather than imagining what the writing is going to be at the glorious end, you know, that you’re driving towards. 

Uh, we have Claire…you have your hand up…do you want to unmute and ask away?

Claire Michie:  Sure, thanks…this has been a real treat. I think the boon of the pandemic for me is getting to see authors I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise get to see, so thank you both for this.

Red Pill was one of my favorite books of the pandemic reading so far. And I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how you situated it in mental health narratives. I think the politics is super fascinating, but for me, a lot of what I experienced in there was that mental health crisis, and that moved from seeming sanity to a different place and then back to a neutral zone.

HK:  One of the things that I wanted to write about was what happens after..after this, you know; as a younger man, I was interested in these towering moments of disillusion or grandeur or whatever it would be and… but what I wanted to do…it’s a book about somebody who’s…who’s trying to get back to his life…to the person he loves, and to his child, and I wanted to…to try and think about what…how you would rebuild trust, and how you would attempt to remake domesticity after you had trashed it in such an extreme way and…and that, that sense of crampedness that he has, that he’s, you know…of knowing that he has so much to prove…and the difficulties of being seen as somebody who’s not trustworthy…were very much where I wanted to leave it. I didn’t want to leave him on a mountaintop, you know, romantic…. Though, it’s funny that we… I wanted this Caspar David Friedrich picture, The Traveler on the Sea of Fog, to be the cover partly because it is such a cliche of exactly that man alone with his, you know, towering thoughts kind of narrative and the designer was terrified of the idea of that because he said, “You know how many books have this on the cover?” and I was like “Well yes, exactly.” And so we found a way to displace it and obscure it with this…with this shape which I, you know, I really liked…but yeah it’s…I didn’t want to make it a literary crisis. I wanted to make this a real sort of lived crisis for a person that …who would have to pick up the pieces afterwards.

DLU:  Uh…we have another hand up. Manar?

Manar Moursi:  Yeah, hi, and thank you so much for sharing with us today. I had a question about  working productively with the affect of shame, which I’ve read a little bit…Maggie, in an exchange with Moira Davey, talks at length about this and I just wanted to hear more about… her thoughts on shame and working productively with it, and the power of reversal that happens…I guess when we are the writer as the writer, and the power that happens with the different forms of writing…so let’s say as an academic versus writing fiction or auto-fiction…and how she deals productively or not with this power reversal or how…how aware or not she is of this power reversal, and then the authority that the voice also that she writes with has…

DLU:  Okay, I think Maggie that was directed at you, if you want to take it. And then Hari if you want to…if you have any thoughts on that, by all means, please feel free to jump in.

MN:  Manar, was the “she” in your question Moira or me or somebody else? I just got a little bit lost at the end.

MM: Sorry? Uh…what…

MN:  Was the “she” in your question Moira Davey, or was it me, or was it somebody—when you were saying  “she feels” about this or how “she feels” about that, I just wasn’t sure who the “she” was…

MM:  Oh! Sorry, yeah…I think I was talking about the exchange. In this exchange, how both of you were considering…were considering this…

MN:  So me and Moira?

MM: Yes.

MN:  Got you. I think that she’s… I can’t remember what it was, for maybe Art Forum. A number of years ago, I did a conversation with Moira Davey, who’s a really great artist and writer that you guys should know about—“ D-A-V-E-Y” if you don’t already. You know, in that conversation, I think, if I remember correctly, Moira was occupying the “shame place” and I was talking more about a post-shame type of writing or something, but I…so I think she would be better to speak to shame than I, but I would say that…so Silvan Tomkins, who is a psychologist, who Eve Sedgwick, a queer theorist, injected into a more… mainstream theoretical milieu. Tomkins talks about pairs of affects, and the affect that he pairs with shame is interest. The interest and shame are like the opposites, and so to be very interested in something, it makes you available or vulnerable to being…to feeling shame, you know. To me, this is very useful because I don’t tend to think about shame as like in a Foucauldian sense of the secret of yourself is the secret of your sex or something like that. I tend to think of it as more like, you know, to have an…to admit an activated interest in something is a vulnerable-making activity…and what else is writing? But writing is an expression of interest, of showing the world what you care about. And for me, that’s why any writing…like people often talk to me as if personal writing is shameful, but to me, it’s the activity of interest, it’s not the content that is the thing to struggle with. And I think that that’s…you know, I think that’s as it should because if you’re not putting anything on the line or you’re not feeling some sense of something mattering, and all of the possible vulnerability that goes with that, then you’re not working probably at the spot that’s most important for you.

HK:  I think that’s such a…such a useful formulation. I think [inaudible]. I sometimes say to people that I think…I think there should be something at risk for the writer in a piece of writing, and I think that’s why…that’s what I mean by that, that the risk is shame and exposure or vulnerability rather than other…other forms of risk necessarily. But showing that you care…showing that you care enough to make this thing and to go and put it forth into the public sphere is a potential shaming, you know, it’s to risk shame…and  that’s, you know…I suppose you only have to go on to your review sites or whatever. If you want to indulge in self-hatred as a writer there…Goodreads is there for you in order to let you really beat yourself up. And there’s a cost to… I don’t know… it seems that in order to be able to maintain yourself as a writer, you have to also be able to walk through the marketplace with everybody throwing dirt at you, and you’re in sackcloth and ashes.

MN:  It’s like I have to unmute myself because I’m laughing so hard, but maybe…maybe you might feel ashamed if you don’t know how accompanied you are, so I will laugh with you. I’ve written down “walk through the marketplace with mud thrown at you” and “Goodreads equals indulge in your self- hatred as a writer.” These are the tips I’m taking away. Very good tips.

DLU:  I think…I think Goodreads and Amazon reviews are, you know, the best ego deflation tools in the history of ego-deflation tools.

MN:  That’s amazing because they’re like a…they’re also like an inflated version… a comedic inflated version of you know, your most…it’s not like somebody’s making something up entirely. It’s just like a Macy’s balloon parade version of you like walking down the street, you know.

HK:  Yeah, nothing my mom could ever come up with is as…is as terrible as that. And there’s a whole genre: “You owe me 20 dollars!”

MN:  “I read the first ten pages and put it down, so you owe me the rest.” Yeah.

DLU:  Yeah, my favorite I think, Hari—you were referring to something along these lines early in terms of emails—is when you get the comment that’s trashing your book for doing exactly what you wanted it to do, you know. It’s like, “Oh, I guess that was a success, then. Even if it’s not coming across.”

HK:  My favorite online review of…of Red Pill so far has been “It doesn’t even mention NAFTA.”

DLU:  Well, you know where to start for the next one. …I actually want to jump in with a quick question for you Hari, since you were talking about risk…that question of risk, which I think is really essential. But I wonder since you are…you’re primarily a novelist but also an essayist/nonfiction writer-commentator…I wonder is that sense or quality of risk different for you in the essay form than it is in the novel form?

HK: It’s a different sort of utterance…sort of obviously, isn’t it? I think the game with an essay is to not say anything that you wouldn’t wish to defend in debate. But the novel…in a novel often what I’m doing is trying to stage something very uneasy, or to make it exist in a…in an unresolved place, rather than…I don’t want to have characters that are just carrying these backpacks of points of view around with them and…and are just there as vehicles to stage some debate which I already have an opinion on. I’m interested in something much more… it’s like going to the difficult place, going to the bad place in a way…and that has…the risk of that is obviously being deemed by readers to believe something, or to hold some sort of point of view, you know, if you’re—the depiction of racism, for example. I have a lot of white friends who are writers who find it very, very hard right now to… to stage things like that because of the question of what…what’s deemed to be, you know, the writer’s own point of view. And there’s another complicated question about what are people’s libidinal investments in staging things…so you know if you have a…you know…why do you want to write a twenty-page rape scene, what’s in that for you? That’s another, another thing; but…where am I going with this? But yeah, I certainly think there’s…there’s value in using your chops, such as they are, to push out into…into areas that are uncomfortable and are complicated because otherwise why would you bother with the furniture of a narrative? Why if you have a…if you have a clearly articulated point of view, that’s…that’s an essay.

DLU:  Right, sorry I was muted. I’ve got gardeners and barking dogs on this end so…. Well, I think that that’s actually a great place for us to end this conversation, and I think it’s a great place for us to end the series, just on that…that question of risk and responsibility, and the porousness of those ideas. So first of all, I want to thank Hari Kunzru for being here, and for this brilliant conversation, and Maggie Nelson also—this is just…I’ve still got many hours of work today, but this is definitely the highlight of my day for me. And I want to thank my co-curator Emily Anderson. I want to thank the Levin Institute for allowing us to put on this series, and I want to thank all of you for coming both today and also throughout the series. The…the performance…the interview has been recorded      and will be available for people to see. We’ll also be publishing a version of it on Air/Light over the…in the spring, later in the spring and….I think that’s…that’s it. Thank you all so much. This has been really, really wonderful.

HK:  Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to do this. It’s really…It’s really cool.

MN:  It was a total pleasure. I presume this will not be the last time that we talk, so I look forward to the next time.

HK:  See you again soon.

MN: You too.

DLU:  All right, thank you everybody.

Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels "The Impressionist" (Dutton), "Transmission" (Dutton), "My Revolutions" (Dutton), "Gods Without Men" (Alfred A. Knopf), and "White Tears" (Alfred A. Knopf), as well as a short story collection, "Noise" (Penguin) and a novella, "Memory Palace" (V&A). His newest novel "Red Pill" (Alfred A. Knopf) was published in September 2020.

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Maggie Nelson is the author of several acclaimed books of poetry and prose, many of which have become cult classics defying categorization.

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