A Television of Her Own: On Emily Nussbaum
By Sarah MesleAugust 30, 2019
What, in America, is serious? And what that’s serious can you see in a television set? These questions aren’t just Ginsberg’s, and they aren’t only relevant to the social crisis of his own cold war moment. They’ve motivated whole fields of scholarship; they hum and scratch as the seemingly intensifying background noise in a wide range of cultural criticism. And they’re at the heart of Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum’s excellent, recently published book, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution. “Fights about art had always doubled as fights about what the world takes seriously,” writes Nussbaum in the introductory essay to the collection. “They were fights about power.”
Emily Nussbaum has been meaningful to me, personally, not just because she takes television seriously, but because of what within television she has been willing to take seriously. It’s true that she is a striking prose stylist, fierce and chummy by turns, with an illuminating analytic eye — exactly the qualities you want in a critic. It’s been bracing, these last several years, to read her criticize one show as it “happily fellated the corrupt system it pretended to satirize” or praise how another’s mix of the “exploitative and liberating” appeals like a “pastel-tinted chamber of horrors.”
But more than the style of her criticism, I have been gripped by her insistence on its object. A glowing review of Nussbaum’s book in NPR claimed in its headline that I Like to Watch offered “a passionate defense of television,” which is not untrue, but also, in the year 2019, only part of the point: it may be appealing to side with a scrappy cultural underdog, but Nussbaum’s book clearly acknowledges that TV is no longer, or not really, the stooge to so-called “higher” forms like movies or books.
Many people today take television seriously. Instead, Nussbaum’s contribution has been to argue for what precisely about television merits our serious attention.
Specifically, Nussbaum is an art critic at one of the nation’s premiere magazines who is unabashedly womanly in her tastes — by which I mean that she seems to like women, to like stories about women, and stories made by and for women, and for women at womanly times. (“Best show to watch compulsively while pregnant” is not a category at the Emmy’s, but Nussbaum tells us her nominee: fascinatingly, Law & Order: SVU.) As others have noted, her presence at The New Yorker makes women’s stories feel serious — and her attention, and the way she can direct New Yorker readers’ attention, makes art about women’s lives feels serious. This feeling is still rare.
I Like to Watch includes essays, reviews, and profiles published over the last 12 years. Not all of them are about gender, but many are shaped by Nussbaum’s keen sense of the “hidden ladder of status, the unspoken, invisible biases that hobbled TV even as it became culturally dominant.” What’s most interesting about this book — and interesting about reading so many of these essays together as a book, rather than portioned out over 10 years of links clicked and magazine pages crinkled — is reading them against a landscape in which the relationship of art, seriousness, and power has radically shifted.
For one, the landscape of seriousness includes TV now, for sure. It includes gorgeous auteur series and Broad City’s bawdy audacity and any number of gigs for critics interested in these televisual developments.
One of these gigging critics is me. Here with me in this landscape where I write about the ascendant medium of television are many darker things, too: a lot of starving polar bears, the grinding cruelties of life under Trump, and the battle-weary and often crabbily big-hearted defenders of American higher ed.
I love Emily Nussbaum’s writing. And I see Nussbaum’s book, the fact and form and content of it, lining up with a long series of books that have also mattered to me — Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Rich’s Of Woman Born, Walker’s (now troubling to revisit) In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Berlant’s The Female Complaint — and trying to shoulder the weight of a question that feels, as Ginsberg would say, quite serious: for women, in dark days, what is the act of criticism for?
1: Dating the Serious
What does it mean to be serious? We ask if an illness is serious, or a relationship, and when we do, I think we mean: how much of yourself, your life, is at stake in it? When we say that some object in the world, some piece of art, should be taken seriously, we mean something similar: understanding this, taking it seriously, might change your life. It’s worth your time, and your attention. Put some skin in the game — or pay attention to how you already do.
Criticism is a way of taking things seriously. It’s both a looking closely and an argument that things should be closely looked-at. It’s this second part, the should, that makes things interesting and complicated, because it’s where personal attentiveness intersects with social pressure. The “should” is the rub of aesthetic judgment (and maybe not all criticism is based in aesthetics, but aesthetics is the realm of thought and experience that has focused most on what criticism might be for) where individual and universal get wrapped-up and weird, where you can’t tell the difference anymore between someone saying “this is interesting,” “this is interesting to me,” and “if you are interesting, this will be interesting to you.”
My personal expertise in the theory of aesthetics began with a massive fight I had with my philosophy major college boyfriend after he said to me, “you’re interested in the beautiful and I’m interested in the sublime.” This fight was possibly a more useful intellectual encounter than actually sitting down to read, as the same boyfriend wanted me to, reading Kant’s Critique of Judgment (I still have only read parts). I mean, it’s all there: the way that taste, description, and interpretation get mixed up in gendered social roles and the fundamental problem of wanting you to like me. Maybe the reason relationships and criticism are both judged in terms of their seriousness is because a major goal of criticism is the critic’s emotional need to be taken seriously. (And maybe critics experience this need as “emotional” precisely to the degree that they presume they, in a given situation, will be taken seriously.)
Since college I’ve learned a lot more about aesthetic theory but here are some things that always come to mind when I think about what criticism is for and how it works. First: the word “aesthetics” emerged in 1735, not quite 400 years ago, around the same time (please enjoy my hand-wavy Foucauldian historicism here) as modern systems of both discipline and banking. And second: at that time, many people amassed fortunes and donated them to universities so that universities could produce people who seriously considered questions of criticism and aesthetics with serious institutions at their back. And third, inevitably: most of the people who made those seriousness-producing fortunes were white and very few of them were women. Why? Here is Virginia Woolf:
If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated the use of their own sex…we might have looked forward without undue confidence to a pleasant and honourable lifetime spent in the shelter of one of the liberally endowed professions…Only, if Mrs Seton and her like had gone into business at the age of fifteen, there would have been — that was the snag in the argument — no Mary. What, I asked, did Mary think of that? …For, to endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether. Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children — no human being could stand it. Consider the facts, we said. First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby. You cannot, it seems, let children run about the streets. People who have seen them running wild in Russia say that the sight is not a pleasant one. People say, too, that human nature takes its shape in the years between one and five. If Mrs. Seton, I said, had been making money, what sort of memories would you have had of games and quarrels? …But it is useless to ask these questions, because you would never have come into existence at all. Moreover, it is equally useless to ask what might have happened if Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had amassed great wealth and laid it under the foundations of college and library, because, in the first place, to earn money was impossible for them, and in the second, had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned. It is only for the last forty-eight years that Mrs. Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband's property — a thought which, perhaps, may have had its share in keeping Mrs. Seton and her mothers off the Stock Exchange. Every penny I earn, they may have said, will be taken from me and disposed of according to my husband's wisdom — perhaps to found a scholarship or to endow a fellowship in Balliol or Kings, so that to earn money, even if I could earn money, is not a matter that interests me very greatly.
That long quotation is the most important one I know about the weird intermixing of seriousness, attention, resources, and gender. Here is a good tl:dr: “to endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether.” And this: “If Mrs. Seton, I said, had been making money, what sort of memories would you have had of games and quarrels?”
Woolf’s is an account of how care of daily life becomes the opposite of aesthetic seriousness, and the way the mapping of seriousness happens up and down the line, from family roles to foundation grants. One way a critic’s personal interest can take on the voice and force of the universal — move from “this is interesting to me” to “this should be interesting to all of you — is when the seemingly depersonalized resources of an institution are thrown behind that critic.
But of course, as Woolf knew, that institution has resources because of the personal experiences of people: because of women who nursed their babies at home, and in doing so did not make universities into places that paid much serious attention — aesthetic, medical, economic, or otherwise — to what it was like to be a woman, for example, nursing a baby. (Woolf, so articulate about her own position, does not at all consider what it might be like to be a woman nursing someone else’s baby, or a woman, as Alice Walker wrote in response to Woolf, “who owned not even herself.”)
“Taste is just another name for internalized misogyny,” a friend and I wrote a few years ago, and Woolf, within her raced limitations, describes the material condition, for how that came to be. In the economy of cultural capital, where critics, artists, and institutions pass the reputation for seriousness back and forth between each other like a line of credit, woman’s lives rarely had the backing to merit anyone’s investment. In the circular logic by which a piece of art becomes serious because a serious critic attends to it, and a critic becomes serious by tending to serious art, the institutions that exist to back the currency always already are predisposed to both privilege and conceal their privileging of the men who founded those institutions.
So what are the topics that become aesthetically serious? The answer to that changes over time, but some answers for the current moment might be: the Civil War, mob violence, Bob Dylan, and the number of times Pete Buttigieg (#bless) has managed to read Ulysses. Ulysses is a fine book and I love Bob Dylan until “Idiot Wind” comes on, but it remains irritating that despite the fact that we all know, we have all been saying that seriousness is raced and gendered, we still have to live and work in a world where the seriousness of these dudely topics is projected onto everyone. It feels non-consensual, like it’s been pre-determined that our relationship to aesthetic accounts of white male experience is a serious one. For some of us, we’d rather label that relationship as: “it’s complicated.”
One reason it’s complicated is that when white women or people of color make appeals for seriousness, it’s hard to avoid the structure whereby dudes (or white people in general) become the implicit audience, the people whose attention is needed. And probably the easiest way to gain that attention is by describing other lives as they respond to (white) men’s actions. In a world where white men remain powerful, there are stories to tell here: but that frame (and I’m sorry, but this is often just true) tends to center women’s suffering rather than other parts of their experience. And this means that women can be serious to the extent that they are somber and oppressed, rather than fantastical, joyful, or alive.
Because of all this history, I’ve spent a long time wondering if the category of “seriousness” is one that can be rescued from the patriarchy. I vacillate between wanting to argue that we should take seemingly frivolous things — Twilight, shopping, girlhood, Sex and the City, shoes — seriously, and wondering if the better strategy is to take them something else; if there would be a way to turn our attention, care, and intelligence towards these things that would not be pitting them against dudehood in all its many pernicious splendors.
So what might be another way, besides seriousness? Would satire work? Would back channels work, or gossip?
Emily Nussbaum seems to me, as a reader who is also a critic searching for role models, to be similarly trying to navigate the question of what counts as a useful approach — a “serious” one. What would that mean for Nussbaum, while in the unusual position of having both a serious venue and a historically unserious topic — television — as her resources. She’s done so, largely, by deploying the unseriousness of television to expose the machinations of seriousness more generally. This is one thing, then, that criticism might be for — not to tell us what to take seriously, but rather to show us the logic of material resources by which things come to be serious. To show us, as Nussbaum says, about power.
2: Feminists in the Archive
The new essay that begins Nussbaum’s book reminds the reader of a late '90s moment when “among serious people, even the best television wasn’t considered worthy of real analysis.” In a strange way, one marker of the truth of Nussbaum’s claim is that it was in 1992 that The New Yorker hired its first full-time television critic. There had been ample New Yorker television coverage previously, but committing regular attention to it was one of the innovations brought about by new editor Tina Brown, along with regular photography and, in general, an increased focus on popular culture. Recently an essay about Brown in The New Yorker explains that, “Brown’s legacy remains controversial not because her success is in question but because, for some, too much was lost in her kind of success.” What was lost, I think, was a particular version of “seriousness.”
In 1992, I was a sophomore in high school, Doc Martens were in the mall, Bill Clinton was president, and all culture felt as tangled as Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss’s steamily ambivalent embrace.
What strikes me now is that Brown’s shake-up at The New Yorker, bringing television into the fold among the serious critics of theater, literature, and film, was a kind of canon war running parallel to the one happening then in universities. Let me give you an example from my own field: in the nineteenth century, American novels mattered to critics more as a social force than as a serious aesthetic practice, and that perspective had continued through to the mid-twentieth century when critics (F.O. Matthieson, Leslie Fieldler, Perry Miller — here I’m listing writers, Matthieson especially, who in different ways paid their own tolls for access to institutional attention) started to craft a story of what might be serious about American literature.
In the story they told, the serious male writer triumphed against the perniciousness of trashy women’s domestic fiction in order to describe the dramas of men breaking free, lighting out for the territory like Huck Finn. In an absolutely on-fire 1982 essay, feminist critic Nina Baym (genius) describes how literary seriousness — strangely, she notes, given the economic and political supremacy of white men — became identical with what she sardonically describes as “melodramas of beset manhood.”
But, in the '90s, as the New Yorker’s television coverage was changing, so too was the critical consensus about American literature. Tina Brown hired James Walcott to cover TV just a year after the publication of a key manifesto in the history of American literary criticism: Susan K. Harris’s “But is it any good?: Evaulating Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Fiction.” In it, Harris describes the difficulties she and other path-breaking feminist critics had in getting the hugely popular novels of the nineteenth century taken seriously as literature. Harris’s perfect title conjures the innumerable times Harris surely faced its question in faculty meetings, while in an icily formal tone she describes how “the analytic modes most of us were taught devalue [women’s] literature a priori.”
This history from literary studies is the one I know most about, personally, but it runs alongside other genealogies. In 1989, feminist critics in media studies, for instance, formed the coalition “Console-ing Passions” to help gender move to the center of the academic screen, and feminist critique remains at the heart of television studies in the academy. Indeed, even the ubiquitous phrase “quality television” — now most often associated with the post-Sopranos “Golden Age” — partly owes its contemporary critical circulation to a 1985 collection of scholarly essays on Mary Tyler Moore’s TV production company. During this same era, numerous interdisciplinary approaches found places (if not fully sheltering homes) in institutional spaces where different ideas of the serious could grow.
There’s a profound temporal, if not causal, relationship between these shifts in academic seriousness and the growing field of television criticism. At the very same '90s moment that literature critics and others were beginning to illuminate the way that “beset manhood” had been the signal tool through which “serious” American literature had been legitimated, beset manhood became the tool through which television sought to legitimate itself. Another way to say this is that the melodramas of beset manhood, tragically deprived of attention from (some) English professors, migrated to a new home on television.
In 1999, The Sopranos premiered on HBO, and that was the beginning of a long line of cable dramas — from The Wire to Mad Men and True Detective — that featured the serious problems of serious and anti-heroic men. The “creative revolution” that “changed TV forever” was praised in books with titles that read like a list that Nina Baym might have fantasized to prove her point: Difficult Men, for instance, or The Revolution was Televised.
Now, I don’t know that Emily Nussbaum read either Susan K .Harris’s or Nina Baym’s essays — but I do know that in 1999, when the Sopranos premiered, Emily Nussbaum was in graduate school in English at NYU. And while I certainly agree with the NPR reviewer of Nussbaum’s book who considers it “lucky” for us that Nussbaum chose to shift away from academia, I also consider it profoundly lucky that she went to graduate school in the first place, at a time that graduate school was incubating profound arguments about gender and seriousness.
Because one thing noticeable about Harris and Baym’s strongly worded letters to the field of American Literature is that they prefigure almost exactly in content (if not at all in tone) an essay Emily Nussbaum does not include in I Like to Watch, the excellent (and, FYI, very teachable) 2014 polemic “Cahier du Buffy.” In this essay Nussbaum lambasts critics who insist on judging TV by the standards of film and thus “conflate visual sophistication with overall worthiness” while giving “Shows made on a budget, or collaboratively, or on off-brand channels, or on channels for teen-agers … the side eye.”
The entire essay is sharp and clear, but to my mind the most significant line, if we want to put Nussbaum’s piece in the history of feminist criticism — which I do — is her description of herself in 1999, when she “was not yet a professional TV critic, just a woman, standing in front of a television show, begging everyone to love it.” Here she describes the forcefulness of one then-disregarded text and genre (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and teen tv) in the language of another: the romantic comedy Notting Hill. It’s an off-the-cuff reference that, significantly, frames both the critic and the reader (the reader who will most likely get her reference) as women; in fact, the sentence makes womanly experiences, both romantically (appealing to a boy) and aesthetically (watching rom coms), into the central ways one might and, implicitly, should, be educated into aesthetics. So while Baym, in 1982, and Harris, in 1991, had to argue that women’s lives might become valuable aesthetic metrics, Nussbaum, in 2014, can fully inhabit that position, even as she describes a moment when that ability was still coming into being.
Essay after essay in I Like to Watch make similarly wry and ferocious work of dismantling the apparatus of male seriousness, using the force of Nussbaum’s own preference — what she, herself, “likes” — to model a nexus of tone and object that “centers,” as they say, women’s issues without privileging a male audience. So for example she shows how “because Scandal is so playful, and is unafraid to be ridiculous, it has access to emotional colors that rarely show up in [House of Cards’] universe, the aesthetics of which insist we take it seriously,” and, similarly, how Jane the Virgin makes genius of “genres that get dismissed as fluff, which is how culture regards art that makes women’s lives look like fun.” Her genealogy of our golden age of television doesn’t dismiss The Sopranos, but it gives equal weight to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sex and the City — shows radical in their attention to femininity’s “glittery not gritty” complexities.
In what feels like her ceaseless advocacy for ways of watching television that let women’s stories reign — her criticism seems to happen at the rate of television, which itself has been sped up by the internet — Emily Nussbaum has built on, accelerated, and advanced the slow and necessary work done by the last forty years of scholarly feminist critics. It is a marvel, and I am grateful.
But as Nussbaum has done so, popular television criticism came to experience something that critics in other integrating fields — like literary studies — were as well. As women, queers, and people of color claim to hold more, if incomplete, sway in institutions of power, the economically powerful began to abandon those institutions like so many public buses. The signs of this have been around for a while — from the collapse of funding for public universities to the closing of, say, Grantland — but they certainly reached their apotheosis in the 2016 election of Trump. Watch from the right angle and see melodramas of beset manhood flee from literature departments to media — and then to the red hats of political theater, where they reappear under a slightly different name: melodramas of beset American greatness. What is “American greatness,” in MAGA’s white supremacist fantasy, beset by? Here’s an incomplete list: the allegedly repressive force of the so-called feminist and multi-nationalist university. “Illegals,” and Obama, and all he stood for. And the unruliness of nasty women too.
3: Women’s Television
Let me throw out a crazy, bar talk kind of claim: that the association between women and television isn’t just historical or sociological. What if it’s also formal and — entertain the thought, just for fun — even biological. It’s an idea that came to me with a sudden force reading for the third time Nussbaum’s introduction, when she maps out her own changing idea of television. TV, she says, is episodic, and its repetitive part-for-whole structure makes it have a particular relationship to formula, to genre (because a viewer coming fresh to any particular episode needs to have a way to interpret it outside of its particularity: genre offers this ability). It’s bound by seasons and by time, and is necessarily collaborative in its production, sort of normalizing.
Oh my god, I thought to myself. Television is menstrual.
In the introduction to I Like To Watch, Nussbaum describes the strange energy of her television advocacy: how asserting the particular values of the medium felt, sometimes disproportionately, like a “cause,” a “mission.” Why so much zealotry, she asks herself, about one screen vs. another? But that fervor makes more sense if we think about television as the medium most parallel to, or maybe even synecdochal for, women’s embodiment itself. It’s one way to consider Nussbaum’s goals to “help forge a critical rhetoric unique to the medium” and to develop “a critical stance less hobbled by shame.”
Nussbaum’s approach to criticism is no less than a kind of '70s-style consciousness raising — and as such might actually have less to do with the very institutional feminist criticism of the '90s than the more personal and experimental earlier work of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. It can be productively difficult, reading I Like to Watch, to tell the difference between moments when Nussbaum is defending women’s television and when she’s defending women themselves. Criticism, here, has a particular value: it is a way to defend the ways that women live; the ways that they encounter being alive. This is a task with particular urgency now.
Reading the book this way also helps give an account of its overriding preoccupation with sexual violence — the blurry boundary between the fact of sexual violence and its representation. Sexual violence is not the only or even the brightest flame in the dumpster-fire constellation that is 2019, but it’s the one that, not unreasonably, guides I Like to Watch. Maybe the most serious sentence in Nussbaum’s book and its interrogation of seriousness is: “When women’s lives are taken seriously, sexual violence is going to be part of the drama.” Nussbaum isn’t shy about intense humor, and she praises comics like Sarah Silverman who use humor to describe even rape. But perhaps no metric is more important to her critical eye than whether a show regards assault against women as more serious for its victims (for instance, the seemingly lighthearted Kimmie Schmidt) or its perpetrators (most egregiously, the philosophy spewing True Detective).
Sexual violence isn’t just I Like Watch’s most common thread — it is its formal anchor. Ballasting the book’s construction is its only new essay, a 50 page juggernaut called “Confessions of a Human Shield” that, in narrative traveling back and forth between Nussbaum’s 16 year old fan dreams about Woody Allen to her recent interviews with Louis C.K., wrangles with the problems of criticism in the #metoo era. The essay is rangy, impressive, and it feels bad and unresolved, which is how all the best writing about #metoo feels in my experience (here I’d point to Rebecca Traister’s #metoo essay which makes its brilliance felt in the nausea it produces).
“Criticism isn’t memoir but it’s certainly personal,” writes Nussbaum. What she describes in this essay isn’t only her ambivalent coming-to-terms with the fact that her critical outlook was shaped by loving, and then rejecting, Woody Allen’s comic sensibility. It’s the question of what criticism means. Is it a way to “erase the art made by these [abusive] men … to scribble all over it and make it mine instead of theirs”? Is it an “indulgence,” a “monocle-peering” taking the place of “justice”?
Provocatively, by juxtaposing the critical questions of #metoo with the feminist sex wars of the 1980s, Nussbaum’s essay places criticism in direct parallel to sex itself. Criticism is a kind of desire, an attraction, a penetration: it is not clean. It takes place through the misogyny already in us.When we treat art as having a real kind of embodiment — and of course, it does not necessarily itself, but as so many feminist, race and sexuality, critics remind us, it is made by people with real bodies, with real experience on the line — we have to recognize criticism of art to be an intimate, embodied, thing too; not just a discussion of attraction but a visceral inhabitation of it.
But how to do this is complicated. Nussbaum ends her essay, movingly, by describing the desperate and untenable need so many people feel to find some clear metric, or benchmark, by which we can measure the good. “It’s hard to find your footing when the ground is shifting,” she writes. “We’d each have to figure out for ourselves where to draw that ethical line.”
It’s striking to me that Nussbaum’s essay about the #metoo moment is called a “confession.” This is its own special genre, one that plays out in many of the television shows Nussbaum admires. A confession is an admission of wrongdoing. Nussbaum is pretty sure that she has done some wrong, if a lot of right too.
But then, this is basically how every writer I know feels after the election of Trump. And here women’s problems with criticism merge, if retaining their own special texture, into a larger critical problem.
Trump made everything worse, and one thing that’s become really demonstrably worse is the act of paying attention. Whatever you attend to, it’s probably the wrong thing. Russia? Gerrymandering? Housing crisis? Adjunctification? Polar ice? Where in this disaster smorgasboard to mention the gross bodily cruelty of the cages at our borders, the bodies dead and damaged in the streets, in the classrooms. Everything is more an emergency than everything else. And it sucks that no matter which way you look, Trump tries to make sure that what you see is what Trump has done to it. For writers, for critics trying to aim their readers’ attention: if you show what Trump has done, are you giving him the attention he craves? If you ignore him, isn’t that just a different kind of complicity?
One has the general sense now that we are all grasping at straws. Some double down on the “should” of criticism. The same week that I Like to Watch was released, for example, the excellent literary journal Critical Inquiry published an essay (itself obliquely a form of television criticism!) arguing that hierarchical aesthetic judgment is how critics can sustain their worth, in times of crisis. Nussbaum’s approach is different, and rarely prescriptive: it’s not insignificant that she her title relies on an “I” rather than a you or a we.
And I like this approach for reasons more dire than the ones named in Nussbaum’s book. If we’re all going to die, if the job markets for critics are all collapsed, it’s hard to fully recommend a book or television show. Even if you believe, as I hope you do, that art matters in times of crisis, death gets the metrics all screwed up. Do we want television that gives us joy? That’s fun to talk about? That exposes the machinations of our world, or helps us envision another? All three; neither; who knows; if you’ve found something that’s working for you, go for it. Telling someone that they should watch or read this or that in the age of Trump; well, that’s like telling someone how to grieve.
And although Nussbuam’s #metoo approach is clearly bound to the Trump moment, it’s another way she keeps us directed through her gaze, at her experience. It’s one strategy Nussbaum seems to be using to talk about the world now without giving Trump credit — credit he doesn’t exclusively deserve — for making it. Within sections called things like “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “In Praise of Sex and Violence,” essays jump back and forth in time; the book’s thematic rather than chronological structure downplays him, almost vertiginously. Her seriousness never becomes his.
It works, kind of. Nussbaum’s intimate account of television keeps the focus on our bodies, as watchers of TV and as readers of her, and surely if we want to claim any sort of power going forward it needs to come from this embodied vantage. But the body is a queasy place for criticism to leave readers living in a country where the ultimate arbiter of material power swaggeringly instrumentalizes his history of sexual assault to drive home his favorite political selling point: that he can fuck over everyone who stands in his/MAGA’s way.
I began this essay by asking: what is criticism for?
The most intense recent occasions in which I found myself asking this question were very early mornings — watching the time shift from 12:43 to 1:27 to some moment after 2:15 when you have to stop paying attention to the clock — when I would find myself awake, bleary, and trying to find some meaningful thing to write about another lackluster episode of Game of Thrones. I spent five years writing about Game of Thrones, and in the early morning hours when I was trying to finish a recap essay, the most practical answer to the question of criticism’s purpose felt intensely personal. I would say to myself: if I write this, write something funny and sharp, and write it now, before the east coast wakes up, it will find itself in a pocket of attention, briefly and strangely inflated by other viewers’ disappointment. And if that happens, then we can share that moment together, my readers and I, and I’ll get the grounding sense that the void left by lackluster TV was filled by something I made. It doesn’t always happen. But sometimes it does: sometimes watching an hour of bad television isn’t a waste of that hour, or the waste of many hours spent thinking about it, because some community, some art — comes of it.
These are fragile little ecosystems of care, and they’re not clean of ego or of the large, insidious corporate behemoths that seek to grab our attention for profit and worse. But it strikes me that they do matter; that the worlds springing up around Emily Nussbaum’s Twitter feed do matter; that ecstatically group texting with friends about a book or movie or show does matter. They matter in much the same way that a good classroom discussion matters, or a good academic Q&A. These improvisational critical shelters cannot protect us from all that is wrong, but at their best they might still be acts of world making in a crumbling world. The best criticism always pushed institutions; that means criticism has a capacity, itself, to build.
Criticism might be a way of encouraging us to put our queer shoulders to the wheel.
I Like to Watch makes a case for an expansive way of seeing value. By putting it in line with other works of criticism that have sought to do the same thing what I’m trying to do is create a slender sense of hopefulness — a way of seeing, across field and object and methodology, that although it is hard to watch beloved institutions under threat, those institutions were never designed to show us all that we could be. The relationships they made serious rarely asked us to put our most generous selves on the line. But we might chose to do that, in our criticism, and in ourselves.
Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.
With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
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