An Interview with Fred Moten, Part 1
In Praise of Harold Bloom, Collaboration and Book Fetishes
Literary Hub contributing editor Adam Fitzgerald interviewed Fred Moten this month. Moten lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches at the University of California, Riverside. In 2009, he was recognized as one of ten “New American Poets” by the Poetry Society of America. He is author of Arkansas (Pressed Wafer); In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press); I ran from it but was still in it. (Cusp Books); Hughson’s Tavern (Leon Works); B Jenkins (Duke University Press); and The Feel Trio (Letter Machine Editions), which is a finalist for the National Book Award. His current projects include two critical texts, consent not to be a single being (forthcoming from Duke University Press) and Animechanical Flesh, which extend his study of black art and social life, and a new collection of poems, The Little Edges.
ADAM FITZGERALD: You’ve been tremendously productive these last years: three books published; The Feel Trio, a finalist for the National Book Awards in poetry; The Undercommons, a scholarly and discursive book written with Stefano Harvey; most recently a new book of poems, from Wesleyan, The Little Edges. Additionally, you and Stefano used your recent talk at the Poetry Project to share a forthcoming essay. How do you remain so incredibly productive as poet, scholar, critic, theorist and teacher?
FRED MOTEN: I work pretty steadily but it was also a bit of an accident that a bunch of stuff came out relatively close to the same time. I’ve got a couple new things that I’m trying to finish up now and once I get these things done it’s kinda like I’ll be coming to a kind of end and then we’ll see what the next phase will be… different, you know, maybe not so much stuff under my own name, but more overtly collaborative stuff is what I’m hoping to do.
FITZGERALD: Are you planning any readings for The Little Edges?
MOTEN: I did a reading at the AWP. I had a reading with Wesleyan authors. I just did something at the Brooklyn Public Library – not so much for that book but just some stuff that I had scheduled previously; but I’m kinda getting towards the end of that now. I guess the last big poetry thing that I’ve got going for a while is a talk I am giving in New York at Poets House on September 26.
FITZGERALD: Are you finishing up poetry or more critical work?
MOTEN: I’ve got a collection of essays – more critical stuff – that will be published in a couple of volumes next fall and one book of poems coming out next fall called The Service Porch. I guess, in a way, the line between the criticism and the poetry is sort of blurry. I got some stuff in the poems that probably could’ve been collected with the essays and vice versa so that the stuff has kinda gotten a little more intertwined; or maybe I’m just more aware now of how it’s always been entangled. And then there a few things I’ve been working on now with Stefano – some shorter pieces, like what we presented at the Poetry Project – and sometime next year, depending on how much stuff we have, we might put that out as a book. That kicks off the ensemble work I’ll be doing from then on.
FITZGERALD: What’s the prime appeal to collaboration for you, in collectivity?
MOTEN: I feel like all the work is collaborative work, it’s just that it comes out under an individual name so the other people you’re in collaboration with are subordinated in a certain kind of way to one’s own name, even though all of those voices are constantly with you and in your head. There’s a customarily solitary practice of orchestrating or organizing all those voices in a particular way, but I think now what I’d like to do is just not even be involved in that solitary practice of composing, or arranging. I mean there’s always an element, however illusory, of working by yourself, which takes the form of practicing in that sense that, you know, a piano player would practice alone, but then the actual practice that you’re practicing for, so to speak, is in the ensemble, in the encounter. There’s a great musician/composer/musicologist/historian named George Lewis who is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which was formed in Chicago in the late 1960s. He tells us that one of the things the AACM did early on was kind of insist that all their members do a solo concert. And out of that practice came a whole bunch of solo albums, which was sort of unprecedented in jazz, at least unprecedented for reed players and brass players and percussionists. And George, himself, released a great solo trombone album in the 70s. But I’ve heard him talk since then and he’s said he’s just no longer interested in that kind of solo work – he just doesn’t want to do it anymore. And even in the solo album he’s doing all this stuff with overdubbing, multiple tracks, playing with and against himself. He wants, and seems always to have wanted, to be involved in that sort of intense interaction that comes with playing with others. And I feel like I would like to be like involved in that too as a practice – as a writing practice in which, as George says, one composes in real time with other people. And to improvise, where one composes in real time in common, is where one is discomposed in real time. One fades. So I think maybe the difference is between composing in real time in common – as an explicit social practice – and that illusorily solitary practice of remixing and reorganizing, which is, you know, a different modality of sociality that occurs remotely and in ways that are based on a certain kind, or a certain sense, of space-time separation. So like I’m sitting in my room writing something and I’m in conversation with Donne and Shakespeare and Baraka and Mama and my grandfather and, you know, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Patton. And all these people, they’re in my head and they’re in my body, you know, they’re sort of animating my flesh, disrupting the body I guess I thought was mine, but there’s another kind of sociality that’s given in the close quarters of the living, I guess you could say, that I would like to try, that I would like to do, to fade into. And it might not even manifest itself, ultimately, in any kind of published text; maybe a bunch of writing held in practice, a writing that is and that also documents the practice but that might very well disappear, be deleted where deletion just means a different kind of dispersion or disbursal, just getting in the air in a different kinda way, a memory of talking and studying together, that get’s told or retold or untold, as the case may be.
FITZGERALD: I think of this beautiful turn in the essay you recently read at the Poetry Project where you discuss meeting in a study group with friends and enthusiasts about jazz and how that study led to your further definition of jazz as itself a form of collective study.
MOTEN: Well, yeah, that’s something that’s been going on for the last 20 years now. A little more than 20 years. The jazz study group at Columbia University, which is organized by Robert O’Meally, who’s Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English there, and basically, yeah, what I learned there and what, over time, I came to realize – and I’m sure other people in the group came to realize this much more quickly than me – that the music was always a gathering of people who were trying to study the music, study it by practicing it, so to speak, living the intensity of that relationship between study and practice and social improvisation. That’s what I’m interested in trying – I just want to be a part of that, basically all the time.
FITZGERALD: Are you interested in critiquing the modes of production in which a book is formed, completed, where collaborative voices/labors are suppressed or put to invisible margins during the inevitable production cycle of promotion and review?
MOTEN: I love books. I have a kind of book fetish – I don’t think that’s gonna stop. I’m not very moralistic when it comes to commodification. I don’t think commodities are dirty. I mean I think commodities are important and useful and necessary. They’re eloquent vulgarities. They’re these fundamentally important instruments that help to structure our social life. And also – insofar as I’m the descendent of commodities and bear the trace of that commodification in my own flesh – I don’t see that I have any standpoint from which to be moralistic about what it means to be a commodity or to be in relation, so to speak, to, or even through, commodities. So I’m not trying to critique the production cycle of books or disavow the book as commodity – I’m not interested in critique at that level anyway. You know, there might be a thing or an artifact that might emerge from this other kind of practice that I’m hoping to be involved in. There might be a way for it to take the form of a book and I wouldn’t be mad or upset or feel compromised by that in any way. It’s just that it might not take the form of a book. It will always be textual in that sort of expansive sense of the text that you get maybe from Derrida’s work or something like that. It’s never not gonna be textual, whatever else it is. A band playing a concert is a textual phenomenon, after all. I’m just not gonna be thinking about making a book in the first instance. I’m not gonna have in my mind “Oh I’m making a book right now” or “Man, I gotta get this manuscript finished and of to the publisher.” I do think that there’s a kind of pressure or a kind of … a bunch of stuff that circulates around the production of a book and the book as a kind of product – and you know I’m not trying to be like all above it – it’s just not gonna be my – I’m just trying not to be organized around that stuff. And I don’t think I ever have organized myself around it too much in terms of the poetry because I didn’t come out of – you know I don’t have a job, my job is not in creative writing, and I just don’t – I haven’t had to live with that kind of pressure to produce that I think people who do have to make a living off it that way and have jobs in creative writing departments have – I’ve been lucky in that regard. Lucky because I don’t have to face that kind of pressure, but also lucky because I certainly get residual benefits from all the work people do who do face that kind of pressure, in terms of the way they publish and have been very supportive of my work and stuff like that. At the same time, I’ve been working along with my friend and colleague Joseph Donahue. We’ve been trying to do a little press – we’ve published a few chapbooks. And in that collaboration we’ll still actively be involved in trying to publish some other people. In other words, to make a long story short – I’m sorry for this longwinded answer – I’m not trying to critique anything, at least at that level.
FITZGERALD: Are you currently teaching?
MOTEN: No, I’m not teaching right now, and I’m not going to be teaching until spring of 2016. I’ve moved around a lot from job to job and I’ve never been able to really accumulate a lot of sabbatical time. And when I have had time off it’s usually because we’ve been moving or because our children were born or when my mom passed away. So this will be the first time when I actually really have a break – though it’s not even really technically sabbatical since I’m still going to meetings and having office hours and stuff. But it’s nice, at least I thought it was gonna be nice, to have time from teaching. My family are saying I’m especially grumpy and they’ve been saying it’s because I haven’t been teaching.
FITZGERALD: I have poet-teacher friends who really try to compartmentalize those selves. I know others who think just the opposite: their teaching is a laboratory that extends from and encompasses their writing. So I’m wondering how your teaching life affects your practice as a writer where you teach, at Riverside’s English Department, I believe.
MOTEN: Yeah I teach in the English department. But I’ve never – that’s what I meant to say is that I don’t ever – I’ve never had a creative writing job, I’ve never had a job teaching creative writing. I taught one summer at Bard, you know, in their MFA program, which is an interdisciplinary MFA program, so I was sorta working with – well it was just for two weeks, or three weeks, I guess – and I was sorta working with more sculptors and filmmakers and painters than writers just because of the way that program is set up. So there’s that. And then I taught for one week, a couple summers ago, at Naropa, and I am doing it again this summer. But in general I have not had very much experience at all teaching creative writing courses. I think I taught three of em at Duke and really didn’t like em at all. Kind of hated it. Ideally what it is, what I imagine, is a place where students can have some time to devote specifically to writing in an otherwise busy schedule. But the workshop process and those sort of critiques, that stuff always sort of freaks me out. But, to answer your question – most of the teaching I’ve been doing is the kind of teaching that regular old English professors do – teaching literature classes. And I would say that as far as my writing is concerned I have learned something over the past few years – that the vast majority of the writing I do is preparation for teaching. The critical language, which some folks might say is inaccessible or too full of what they might call jargon is a kind of shorthand, or a mode of technical notation, in which one is trying to work out some ideas whose most fundamental expression will be oral, and given in the context of teaching. So the writing is notes for teaching, for choir practice, so to speak. Some of the strangeness at the level of diction, or the convolution maybe of certain kind of sentence structure, comes out of an interest in getting a certain kind of precision, but the precision is not in the first instance about presenting it in a precise way for publication, but getting the idea out right, where writing is a kind of method of thought. I mean, I’m not trying to compare myself to Einstein or anything like that, but there’s something in Einstein’s practice, or something in a great musician’s practice, where you repeat things and you try to say things – you say shit over and over again because you’re trying to get it to be precise. And I don’t even think that getting it precise means necessarily getting it right. Getting it right and getting it precise are two different things, and I’m not so much trying to say that I’m getting the idea right, therefore sacrosanct and to be written in stone – it’s just that there’s a certain iteration of thinking that I’m trying get down in as precise a way as possible, so then at least if someone comes along and says it’s wrong, they’ll at least have an easier job saying it’s wrong, so to speak. Maybe it’s about being able to make a falsifiable claim that is designed for that. Or maybe it’s about a very precise way of pushing over the edge of that falsifiability. But the main point is that writing is, on the one hand, a kind of method for thought, for me, in the same way that Einstein would get up in the morning and play his violin and go up to his study and have a pencil and a pad and experiment with equations. That was his method in a lotta ways. And so, you know, that would be the model I try to use although of course I know I’ll never achieve anything like what he achieved. So part of it is an experimental method so to speak – not experimental maybe but what’s a better word? But on the other hand, I’m just trying to prepare myself to talk with my students about it.
FITZGERALD: I’m smiling because I’ve spent the last year obsessed with quantum physics though I have zero–that is, less than zero–ability to do anything mathematical. One book I was reading compares the physicists working at German universities in the early Twenties to the jazzmen inside New York City clubs, how both of these collective groups created the century’s best. People forget Einstein’s practice was deeply creative, that often what he called thought-experiments occurred to him through daydreaming intuitive questions and reality-pictures, a kind of pre-numerical thought.
MOTEN: I have the same predilection and the same deficit as you. I read all these books on the history of math and history of physics and I get to the equations and I just have to skip which is really sad. I mean if I ever hit the lottery I’ll quit my job and go back to college and study math and science… I won’t be any good at it but I just want to learn how to do the math. And frankly, it’s a similar relation to music too – when I get to the musical notation I have to skip because I can’t read it and it’s a great frustration for me to not be really able to follow musicians in that way into where they’re going. But I would say, just to kinda pick up on what you were saying–first of all, that sense of a group of physicists in Europe in the early 20th century and a group of itinerate sharecroppers, blues men and women, in Mississippi and Alabama and Tennessee at that same time working out the terms of modernity, let’s say [laughs] that seems totally cool to me. The point is these groups, these collaborative ensembles, are working in ways that are always kind of mixing something we might think of under the rubric of the thought experiment. Einstein’s thought experiments were designed to try to give us some sense of the nature of physical reality and in a way I feel like the thought experiments that animate the work of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith are also on the one hand trying to give us some sense of the nature of physical reality and on the other hand trying to give us a sense of the nature of spiritual and aesthetic reality while also trying to give us some sense of how to transform reality. So I feel like, yeah, they’re all working on that together. And it’s important that it’s collaborative and that maybe what I was saying earlier about collaboration wasn’t really precise. It’s not about being in the same place at the same time but it is about a kind of presence shared in and as displacement. Shared presence in displacement cuts the way we attach certain kinds of events and certain kinds of advancements to the individual subject, to his name, to his worldly occupation. There’s something that kind of attachment makes it possible or sometimes easier for us to understand but that way is always a kind of shorthand, it’s always an abbreviation. There’s a really cool way, like there’s this one great story in Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement when they’re all getting together for some big conference in Copenhagen – and Niels Bohr picks up Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli, I think, at the train station, or at the sea port, and they get on the tram to go to the Institute for Theoretical Physics, and they get to talking and they go all the way to the end of the line and then they go all the way back to the beginning. They pass their stop like three times – you know, that kinda…but it’s equivalent to like Monk and Charlie Christian and Kenny Clark at Minton’s Playhouse playing all night after playing their gigs – that intensity of collaborative study. And you lose all sense of space and time, so to speak. Whether you’re playing music, or actually developing a new theory of space and time.
FITZGERALD: I grew up reading Harold Bloom as my entryway to serious literature.
MOTEN: Yeah, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Harold Bloom.
FITZGERALD: I have to find that and read it, hope you don’t mind!
MOTEN: No you don’t.
FITZGERALD: Bloom was such a formative way of thinking about literature for me even as it’s something I critique, hopefully transcend. Yet like Joyce with his Catholicism, it’s still rooted my synapses in a fundamental way. With Shakespeare, whom Bloom is constantly seeing in his Romantic lexicon as a kind of sole inventor of lyrical interiority, he was not a sometime “collaborator.” Rather everything about Shakespeare was collaboration. It astonishes me still that someone who was working with so many different hands and people and literally distinct voices, was able to do something so singular. I guess I want to push Bloomian singularity as a counterpoint or in contradiction to what you’re saying. Though admittedly, Einstein, the absolute genius of science, if he’s up in his study he’s still thinking through others, James Clerk Maxwell and electromagnetism. He still has to think of Newton, Max Plank, he still has to build substantively on the social formulations of reality that he inherits.
MOTEN: And not only thinking of those great theorists but he’s doing so within the context of these very specific, epoch-making practical industrial innovations that are going on as a function of, like, mining, this is the stuff Peter Gallison writes about in Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps…
FITZGERALD: Yes, and that his father was one of the first people electrifying European cities! But to go back to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, these artists actually bring out the Bloomian in me, not because I deny the debts of lineage of influence and collaboration. Yet with singers especially, in that Roland Barthes’ notion of “the grain of the voice” and that very Derridean notion of particularity and irreducible, radical singularity–I mean is it naïve or hopeful to think that when we think of the instrument of the voice and all the ways that it can bend and mimic, there is something inherently particular about the way that Bessie Smith is gonna sing a song, that no amount of interpenetration will ever replace? Is that a hold out for Romantic Bloomian originality? Or is the acoustic organ as much a palimpsest as an equation whose lineage is discernible?
MOTEN: So two things: 1) I don’t think I’m so committed to the idea of the radical singularity of Bessie Smith as I am committed to a kind of radicalization of singularity, that we now we come to recognize under the name of Bessie Smith, which the figure, the avatar, that we now know as Bessie Smith was sent to give us some message about. I think of Bessie as an effect of sociality – she was sent by sociality to sociality, in that way that then allows us to understand something about how the deep and fundamental entanglement that we are still exists in relation to and by way of and as a function of this intense, radical, constant differentiation. My friend Denise Ferreira da Silva talks about this as “difference without separation.” So if radical singularity implies a kind of separation or originality in that way, then that’s something that I would kinda want to…that would not be the way that I would tend to think about it or want to think about it. And if you bring it back to Shakespeare, I mean yeah Bloom, you know, wants to say maybe something like Shakespeare invents modernity because he invents modern man in all of his glorious, self-conscious interiority. And I would want to put it in a slightly different way [sic], and I would say I don’t know that Shakespeare invents it, but I think that Shakespeare – and by Shakespeare I mean this intense and absolutely emphatic radicalization of singularity that now we know under the name of Shakespeare –announces it, which is to say announces as an insistent irruption that he also enacts. By he I mean something much more like they; like the gendered personal pronoun is totally inappropriate for Shakespeare and for all the folks we’ve been talking about, it seems to me. The plural pronoun isn’t quite right, either. This makes me think of a band I once heard at a kind of free concert in Vegas when I was eleven or twelve some kind of political event my mom had helped to organize. There was a local band playing that day called Clyde ‘nem and Her. Best band name of all time. Shakespeare is like Bill ‘nem and Her. Anyway, we know just enough about Shakespeare to know that we don’t know enough about Shakespeare to call Shakespeare an author, right? And we know on the other hand that there’s Will Kempe and Richard Burbage, that Shakespeare was part of a company, or was a company, or kept company, that Shakespeare was part of a social world that was producing all this drama and that the drama of Elizabethan life was irreducible, that drama was just as much a fundamental characteristic of Elizabethan society as it was of, you know, black society in the way that Hurston would say it. So the point I’m trying to make is, I think the complex that is called Shakespeare was sent to show and to trace out the limits, okay, of interiority, the limits of a kind of singular interiority. Hamlet’s interiority breaks down. Richard II’s interiority, which is all bound up with sovereignty, breaks down, and we see it breaking down. The soliloquy turns out to be the break down of interiority, not its enunciation. It’s where that shit breaks down.
FITZGERALD: In the Break, so to speak!
MOTEN: Yeah. And it’s, and I don’t think, and ultimately it’s not that I don’t think Shakespeare’s not concerned in the first instance with inventing or with monumentalizing interiority; I think interiority is a kind of phenomenon Shakespeare pays some attention to, in the interstices between a much more absolutely sustained interest in sociality. That’s what I think. And it plays itself out in these very simple ways. Prince Hal ain’t nearly as interesting as the social life of Eastcheap. Prince Hal is only interesting in that social life. Otherwise…
FITZGERALD: So is authorship almost a metonym for you? An associative cluster of the many social acts that form a point until later we’re able to retroactively consign it by name?
MOTEN: You could say that. Authorship – well, one way you could put it I suppose is you could say that authorship is always-already collaborative and collective, at which point – what that would mean is that the authority that we tend to want to invest in authorship is always-already broken and disrupted and incomplete, so that in a weird way to say that authorship is collaborative is to say that it doesn’t exist at all. Now, how do we come up with a more precise way of talking about what does exist, what is? But then there’s another way I would put it, just on a personal level, to make it more emphatic and more clear, maybe. To the extent that I said anything or that I have something to say, that’s because a whole bunch of people, a whole bunch of history, a whole bunch of things sent me to say it. My grandmother used to love Kojak. I’d say, “Mimi why you love Kojak so much?” She’d say, “He just sends me.” And it was the only time I ever had anybody, the only time I ever knew anybody to use the word in that way that, you know, Sam Cooke uses it in a song. It’s kinda one of those terms that’s maybe even archaic when he says it. But there’s that sense of being sent, you know. And that’s what I mean – to be sent, to be transported out of yourself, it’s an ecstatic experience, it’s not an experience of interiority, it’s an experience of exteriority, it’s an exteriorization. And so we’re sent. We’re sent to one another. We are sent by one another to one another. To the point that, by the time you get to work that shit out as well as it should be worked out, we’re sent by one another to one another until one and another don’t signify anymore.
The interview continues here.
Image by Kari Orvik.