A Conversation Between Friends

By Michael RobbinsJanuary 27, 2015

I MET ANAHID NERSESSIAN when we were graduate students in English at the University of Chicago. We didn’t get along. It was only during our last year in the program, as we were finishing our dissertations and the interpersonal melodramas of graduate school were starting to seem as facile as they had always been, that we began to meet for coffee and conversation. She is now one of my closest friends. We talked via email recently about her forthcoming book, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (Harvard University Press); my poetry collections in the Penguin Poet series, Alien vs. Predator and The Second Sex; feminism; literature; and Taylor Swift.

— Michael Robbins


ANAHID NERSESSIAN: I’ll start predictably: what are you reading these days?

MICHAEL ROBBINS: I’ve been going through Jonathan Edwards. Marilynne Robinson’s piece on him for the NEH prompted me to reread Part Four of The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, and now I’m on The Nature of True Virtue. And James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which somehow I’d never read before.

I just finished Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations, which is really something else. Karen Russell, in her blurb for the book, suggests that what Galchen “is doing doesn’t yet have a name,” which is exactly right. You can say her stories have not a word out of place, that they’re both delicate and broad-shouldered, that they swerve consistently away from the likely choice, but you won’t get within a football field’s length of their achievement. Meanwhile, I moved to Los Angeles this summer, so I’ve been reading John Chase’s essays in Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving to get a handle on Los Angeles’s famously eccentric architectural landscape.

Ah, this is great; I’ll pick up the Galchen. Which reminds me: I can see five books from where I’m sitting that I bought on your recommendation — by Adorno, Catherine Malabou, Michel Serres, Jonathan Crary, Joanna Piccioto. If you say I should read something, I’ll read it. Or at least buy it and let it accuse me from my shelves. But you refuse to read Marilynne Robinson’s essays despite all my cajoling, just because you hated Gilead (which, to be fair, you read on my recommendation). What should we conclude from this?

Is the Adorno his lectures on negative dialectics? That’s an amazing series of documents, not just for their content, but for the battle of wills between Adorno and his students that’s going on for the whole lecture course. It’s the 1960s; the students are trying to start a revolution and they’re getting increasingly impatient with this guy droning on about Hegel and Romanticism, but they also respect him and want him to affirm what they’re trying to do in the streets. Adorno, of course, is not going to give an inch; like Lacan and Foucault, he was skeptical of the whole premise of liberation, especially sexual liberation. You mostly don’t know what the students are saying to Adorno, but their rage and sense of betrayal comes through at a high volume, as does his disdain and his despair. On a more basic level, the transcripts suggest an excruciatingly accurate record of a bad day in the classroom; it’s comforting to know that really every teacher has been there.

It’s true that I refuse to read Robinson’s essays all the way through, because I’ll get fed up by the first paragraph; like that last one you sent me, which opens with her describing how, under the influence of her older brother, her young soul did some time “gloomily captive to the determinisms of Positivism, Behaviorism, Freudianism, Marxism, and the rest.” Leaving aside the question of whether all those very different philosophical schools are actually deterministic, I find her opposition of “Modern Thought” to “liberation” deeply anti-intellectual, and for me that’s an insuperable turn-off. I disliked Gilead — which replays this same opposition between the narrator and his older brother — for the same reason. But happily for our friendship, we both love Taylor Swift. 

Is it obnoxious to quote from my review of When I Was a Child I Read Books? I’m going to anyway:

It would be remarkable if anyone besides Marilynne Robinson agreed with everything Marilynne Robinson has to say …. Robinson is too brisk with Marx and Freud (that their worldviews are irreconcilable with each other, as she asserts in Absence of Mind, would be news to, inter alia, Marcuse, Lacan, Althusser, Deleuze and Žižek).

And "too brisk" is too kind. But you have to keep reading. I mean, we read Freud despite finding many of his positions untenable and even "deeply anti-intellectual." (I think Philip Rieff is entirely right to refer to his "entirely anti-intellectual approach … to religion.") You don’t read Freud to learn about religion; if you look to Robinson for insight on Marxism, you’ll be misled. But if you keep reading her best essays — if you read "Darwinism" and "Psalm Eight" and "Wondrous Love" — you discover a tremendously intellectual religious writer whose refusal to capitulate to fashionable cant is almost unparalleled and, if I can use this word, inspiring.

But okay, she's a fissiparous thinker. Taylor Swift is too. From Swift’s recent Rolling Stone interview:

"I have to stop myself from thinking about how many aspects of technology I don't understand. … Like speakers," she says. "Speakers put sound out ... so can’t they take sound in? Or" — she holds up her cellphone — "they can turn this on, right? I’m just saying. We don’t even know."

I’m hoping there’s something in this wonderful koan that will allow you to transition to talking about your wonderful book, Utopia, Limited, which will be published in March 2015 (plug).

Well, speaking of being skeptical about liberation, my book describes some ways in which Romantic literature — British and German Romantic literature, mainly — imagines utopia as a place where people are not absolutely free, but partially constrained, in particular when it comes to what they can demand from the finite resources of the material world. A lot of radical thought leans heavily on ideals of comprehensive liberation, and on versions of Hegel’s claim that “it is not the finite which is the real, but rather the infinite.” So, for example, when Judith Butler spoke at Occupy Wall Street, she (very beautifully) said, “If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible.” While being completely in solidarity with people like Butler and movements like Occupy, Utopia, Limited turns to Romanticism for a different paradigm, one in which restraint, loss, and a deference to the planetary limits on “impossibility” are placed center stage. For the Romantics, the desire for utopia is best expressed through a version of what Michel Serres says in Malfeasance: “I wish for, and practice, the dispossession of the world.”

Believe it or not, Alien vs. Predator is a big influence on my book; even knowing you as well as I do (for almost a decade now) I was surprised by how environmentally engaged it was, without being at all preachy. And I suspect, even though Serres himself can be quite preachy, that you have a lot in common with him. Your poem “Enjoy My Symptom” ends “I etch the speckled cybernaut. / I rape the earth. It’s not my fault,” and there are dozens of other examples in your work of powerfully non-sentimental, funny, and tragic instances of eco-critical thinking. A principal claim of Utopia, Limited is that poetic form can be used to model this idea of utopian constraint, and I’m interested in your thoughts on how form and prosody work to elaborate some of the environmental themes in your work.

Even knowing me as well as you do, you can’t know how much that means to me. Well, I will say that I am interested (for instance in a paper I published on Paul Muldoon that no one read) in the ways in which poetic negotiations with form become allegories for larger social and moral problems. Prosody has been experienced as constraint in modern and contemporary poetry, or so the story goes. I experience it as liberation. Adorno, in the lectures you recommended, notes that the concept always contains its contradiction, which is one attraction of your thinking about utopia. One thing we’ll have to do if we wish to address ecological catastrophe — although it doesn’t appear that we wish to do so, and it might be too late anyway — is to begin to think about liberation through, rather than from, formal constraints on our desires and imaginations. Lacan is probably an obvious reference point here, but I’m not in the mood.

When you write of "a place where people are not absolutely free, but partially constrained, in particular when it comes to what they can demand from the finite resources of the material world," I’m reminded of the situation of the poem, even though language’s resources are not depletable. I suppose in this sense — in your sense — I’m a late Romantic: the lines from "Enjoy My Symptom" you cite remind me of Geoffrey Hill’s assertion in The Lords of Limit (note the title, borrowed from Auden) that "Romantic art is thoroughly familiar with the reproaches of life. Accusation, self-accusation, are the very life-blood of its most assured rhetoric." Prosody might be a form of wishing for and practicing your own dispossession.

There’s an allegorical argument for formalism as (if you will) a sustainable mode of production whose output is infinitely renewable even if its raw materials are not. Of course, the notion of “sustainability” has become indecorous as it’s become more and more clear how easily it accommodates a consumerist model of environmentalism, one that drastically misrepresents the causes and the scope of our planetary crisis; I use it in my book a few times, albeit in a very specific context, and I’ll probably get some heat for that. As for the possibility of an ecological politics — and, for that matter, of left politics in general — William Blake would agree with you that emancipation is contingent upon imaginative and libidinal or appetitive constraint. His concept of “the bounding line,” which is at once cognitive, scriptive, moral, and biological, expresses exactly that principle. “Leave out this line,” he writes, “and you leave out life itself.”

Taking a cue from you taking a cue from Geoffrey Hill, let’s talk about self-accusation, Your poems often assume the position of both prosecution and defense — the two voices seem knotted together in that line, which I’ll quote again, “I rape the earth. It’s not my fault” — but there’s a real pleasure and exuberance, even a lightness, that spins out from that confrontation.

Yeah. I think the speaker’s simultaneous self-accusation and self-exculpation in my poems register antagonism to and complicity in several aspects of our situation at once. So in the line you quote the speaker both opposes and celebrates the rape of the earth, while both insisting upon and rejecting his complicity in it. It’s the proper dialectical response to liberalism, don’t you think? The consumerist fantasia of Earth Day, on which we all go around picking up trash and resolve to be better shoppers, is a way of accusing ourselves while feeling good about how enlightened we are while imagining that the power to make the world a better place resides in our individual habitus. Fuck that. Green capitalism is worse than openly rapacious capitalism, for the same reason Nietzsche found the reforms of Protestantism so dispiriting — they guaranteed the survival of the beast.

You quote H. Bruce Franklin on J. G. Ballard to the effect that the end of the capitalism may be the beginning of the human world. I take it that Utopia, Limited, is anti-humanist but not anti-human. Where is agency in this picture, for you?

That’s a great question. The line Žižek is always throwing out — “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” — and which you also find Fredric Jameson using, seems to have its origins in some comments Franklin made about Ballard, who (says Franklin) portrays capitalism’s disintegration as the beginning of a global “tribal warfare” whose wages are mutually assured destruction. (One could say all sorts of things about the implicit racialization of the apocalypse as “tribal warfare”; Jennifer Wenzel’s recent work is terrific on this.) So, Franklin says, why imagine the death of capitalism as the death of everything? Isn’t that exactly what capitalism is trying to tell us, that without it we’re doomed? My own view is that being serious about alternatives to capitalism means accepting that only human beings are capable of being the architects of such alternatives. This in turn means rejecting claims that there is nothing distinctive about humans as a species, or that the category of “species” is itself arbitrary. It certainly means rejecting the reboot-button fantasy, the one that involves saying, “I can’t wait until our awful species is finally extinct and the world can go on being the world.” That’s just narcissism dressed up in the pseudo-sophistications of nihilism. Anyway, none of this entails commitment to a great-chain-of-being model, in which humans are and should be at the top of the evolutionary hierarchy; it just means rethinking categories like “agency” to be collective rather than individual, and oriented not toward self-actualization and fulfillment but toward the more radical purpose of renunciation. 

This reminds me of Adorno’s insistence, following Marx, that human history has not yet begun, that we remain pre-historical. I recently attended a graduate-student workshop on politics and poetry at one of New York City’s storied universities, and I was struck by how quickly the conversation became one about internal transformation, shifted individual perspectives, and the like. Which isn’t to say such experience isn’t legitimate and valuable — but it hardly seems political in the meaningful sense that is urgently required. "The personal is political" is obviously true, and just as obviously false. The personal must in an important sense give way before the political. I would like to see less valorization of difference and more emphasis on unity, on solidarity. Without human solidarity, the dream of autonomous subjectivity remains undreamt. One question is how to incorporate or address sexual politics from or within such a standpoint.

Well, what Gayatri Spivak calls universalist feminism — which thrives on staging dramas of the individual — certainly continues to have its moment in the sun. On the one hand, it sometimes feels churlish to object to websites like Jezebel, which probably do a lot of good in demystifying some basic principles of feminism for, in particular, a younger generation that’s been raised to consider it passé. On the other, their rhetoric steers very deliberately away from proposing that there could be serious doctrinal divisions among feminists, and that those divisions might point toward incommensurate experiences of class and race — never mind the failure to recognize that feminism in its universalist incarnation is routinely leveraged against marginalized populations. All politics and forms of activism have their blind spots; pretending that a feminism born and raised in Europe and the United States, whose consciousness is very much that of the individual and, candidly, of the consumer, is or should be beyond critique doesn’t do it any favors.

I recently read on one of those sites a thoughtful essay arguing that resistance to Beyoncé as a feminist role model must be rooted in fear of blackness and sexuality. Fair enough, and I love Beyoncé’s music — I finally bought the self-titled album on vinyl and it’s just perfect pop. But is it not problematic that she’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars? If she’s a feminist role model, where does that leave feminist critiques of affective and domestic labor (Silvia Federici, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James)? Who speaks for undocumented women who clean toilets for minimum wage? I mean, it’s farcical.

You know, I’ve always wondered if you like Beyoncé — glad this mystery is now solved! Anyway, I don’t want to sound grumpy, but the more interactions I have with college students who are desperate for a feminist culture that simply was more visible when I was growing up than it is now, the more reasonable it seems to draw a line in the sand and say, “It’s a better world where X-Ray Spex puts out records with EMI and you could see Salt-N-Pepa and Sonic Youth on MTV than one where it blows people’s minds that a public figure would self-identify as a feminist.” Beyoncé’s never going to hook up with Precarias a la Deriva, and Taylor Swift is never going to write a song about how Manhattan is a gated community embowered by a police state. But as a person like you, with a great love for popular music, I think we’ve had and should have a more interesting and robust mainstream. What’s happened to radio in this country, and to the price and possibility of being an independent musician, is not trivial; it’s slashed and burned the field of what’s sonically, lyrically, and politically available. 

On the subject of pop, when your first book came out, reviews were obsessively focused on how your poems use pop and hip-hop lyrics, often to the exclusion of any comment on their political content or formal choices. The Second Sex similarly refuses to represent the poet’s world as a cloistered private library stocked only with George Herbert and John Ashbery, but to my ears the poems are less evasive about their affection for the lyric tradition than those in Alien vs. Predator. Were you consciously aiming for what I hesitate to call a statelier performance with your second book? That’s not an insult, by the way.

How could I love pop without loving "Irreplaceable" and "Jealous" and "XO" and "Haunted"? "You must not know ’bout me."

While popular music and the lyric tradition aren’t opposed — the ballad tradition, for instance, has been important to the development of English lyric, as you know — it’s true several of my new poems more openly embrace certain lyrical tropes. Statelier isn’t how I'd put it, but I reread Songs and Sonets and, yes, The Temple for this book. I read Ammons’s Sphere. I don’t feel hostile toward the canon of English poetry. My favorite poets of the twentieth century are Yeats and Berryman.

Recently I’ve decided I need to cut out the pop allusions in my poems. I feel I’ve done all I can with them, and they do distract the critics. But we should probably end on a pop note, so I’ll ask what music you’ve been listening to lately. I’ve been obsessively replaying Charli XCX’s new singles; Actress’s Splazsh and R.I.P.; Taylor Swift, natch; Young Thug’s Black Portland; Big K.R.I.T.; YOB; Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence; Miranda Lambert’s Platinum; Jenny Lewis, despite myself. And I think I was the last person to discover Future Islands’ performance of "Seasons" on Letterman — I watch it over and over. It’s a work of genius in Emerson’s warmed-over sense: it gives me back my rejected thoughts with a certain alienated majesty. I’ve also been spinning lots of jazz.

In Los Angeles your commute really drives your listening habits. On the bus, I try to keep things considerately low-key so people aren’t annoyed by the sound coming out of my headphones, and my iPhone reveals that I mostly play Mulatu Astatke, Silver Apples, Candi Staton, and my dear friend Larkin Grimm, whose album Parplar got me through many long Chicago winters. When I’m in the car, and if I’m by myself, it’s also old favorites but played at extremely high volume: lately Felt, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, and the most incredible live rock band I’ve ever seen, Prince Rama. One of Taylor’s many BFFs, Lorde, gave a pretty dazzling performance at the AMAs; I had never listened to her music before, nor (to be honest) have I since, but she’s so charismatic and if you must have a song stuck in your head you could do worse than “Yellow Flicker Beat.”

What kind of jazz?

Oh, lots of stuff — Lee Konitz, Steve Lacy. I’ve been hanging around Ben Ratliff, The New York Times’ jazz critic, and he’s reignited my jones. I saw Jason Moran’s trio at the Village Vanguard a couple of weeks back. He’s still doing his Fats Waller thing — giant papier-mâché mask, looped samples. His version of "Jitterbug Waltz" brought me to tears. I was with a friend, and we had been talking earlier in the evening about our attraction to disparate accounts of the world as broken — critical theory, Christianity. I leaned across to her during the song and said, "The world is broken, but this is one of the things we do about it," gesturing in awe at the band. She said, "And would it mean as much if the world were whole?" Which is basically the theme of the critical book I’m working on, Equipment for Living. I’m sure all that sounds ridiculous, but "Jitterbug Waltz" was incandescent and perfect that night. I bought the record, took it home, put on the studio version of the song. It wasn’t even close.


Anahid Nersessian is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at University of California, Los Angeles. Her first book, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator and The Second Sex, both published by Penguin. He is an Assistant Professor of English Literature and creative writing at Montclair State University.

LARB Contributor

Michael Robbins is the author of the best-selling poetry collections Alien vs. Predator and The Second Sex, both published by Penguin, and a book of criticism, Equipment for LivingOn Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017). His third book of poems, Walkman, was published by Penguin Random House in June 2021. He is also the editor of a collection of Margaret Cavendish’s poems published by New York Review Books. He teaches creative writing and English at Montclair State University.



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