Vacation's Over / by Travis American

The realization kind of snuck up on me. I knew that it’d been awhile since I’d written any criticism, journalism, or literary non-fiction, but I’d just kind of framed it as a vacation from that part of my brain. Vacations, though, don’t usually last three-and-a-half years. My last substantive essay—this one, about mentors and death and the gray languidness of Berlin—was published in 2015. The last time I really thought in public, Donald Trump was still a joke candidate. 

Looking back, I can tease out a few reasons for the long hiatus. Burnout is the most obvious. In early 2016, I defended a doctoral dissertation about—ahem—critical journalism. In addition to editing the now-defunct Blunderbuss Magazine and writing pieces of my own, I was also researching little magazines like Jacobin, n+1, and The New Inquiry. After I crawled across the finish line and collected my diploma, I was exhausted with the whole business. Even as my creative identity was still wrapped up in Blunderbuss, my interest in actually running it flagged. It was a bad combination, contributing to an unnecessarily long decline up until we formally disbanded last year.

It wasn’t just burnout, though. I wasn’t just tired. Familiarity had bred something approaching contempt. I was increasingly turned off by the prevailing styles of public discourse and discussion, or at least the ones that dominated the corners of the internet I frequented. I deleted my Twitter account because all the point scoring and pile-ons left me resenting even the people I agreed with—even myself. In a trend that’s only deepened since I dropped off the map, art and culture writing tended toward the enforcement of moral orthodoxies. As Wesley Morris ably articulated in the Times last year, for understandable and even righteous reasons, professional and lay critics have tasked themselves with separating the good from the evil, the okay from the not okay. Morris describes the results:

So we wind up with safer art and discourse that provokes and disturbs and shocks less. It gives us culture whose artistic value has been replaced by moral judgment and leaves us with monocriticism. This might indeed be a kind of social justice. But it also robs us of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art. It validates life while making work and conversations about that work kind of dull.

I cosign the whole passage, but that last sentence hits me the hardest. Criticism-as-progressive-catechism might be, in its way, ethically sound, but it’s also tedious, even boring. At its best, criticism (and, for that matter, art) offers insight. By my measure, he rigorous application of predetermined rules isn’t an especially promising way to find it. It produces prefab criticism. Watch a movie’s trailer, and you can probably outline the Slate think piece.

Not all lefty commentators subscribed to a tone of militant solemnity. Chapo Trap House, arguably the torchbearer for a more freewheeling mode of discourse, benefits from a sense of humor. But the podcast retains an absence of doubt and a belligerent negativity, which together create an impulse to destroy and humiliate. As with the moralizers, there’s a case to be made for this approach. But as with the moralizers, it’s not a style of discourse that appeals to me.

Neither of these teams was my team, so I didn’t see a place for myself in the game. I went back to writing fiction, where ideas can be approached obliquely. And more than anything, I turned to photography, where I could make stuff without saying anything at all. It was liberating to work through images, where I didn’t have to claim an opinion and defend it with certitude. (Besides, with so many people already taking on that mantle, was there anything new for me to contribute?)

Still, though, I have ideas about things, and I miss the way writing helps me give those ideas shape and texture. I feel dumber when I don’t write. So lately I’ve been thinking about what kind of commentary or criticism would be congruent with my interests and approach. The first year of my PhD program was meant to be Robbie McClintock’s last as a professor. Feeling appropriately reflective, Robbie taught a class called “My Canon.” His syllabus was made up of works that were formative for him, and he conceptualized the course like this:

Contentions about The Canon do not interest me. Each person, I believe, has a life-long engagement with an emerging canon, uniquely [their] own – other persons, cultural works, places and institutions, challenging problems – matters that appear imbued with a charismatic, compelling authority towards which a person reaches out with aspiration and hope. And for me as an academic, my canon has consisted largely of major texts, which over the years I have felt I must engage, struggle with, and try to appropriate into my understanding of my work and of the circumstances impinging upon its pursuit. 

He essentially invited students to join in as he processed how he became the person he did. To my regret, I didn’t take this class. I didn’t know Robbie yet, though we’d go on to teach together when circumstances drafted him out of retirement. His project, though, appeals to me right now. By its nature, it demanded engagement with works that he finds meaningful. It’s personal, but it also looks outward, to the ideas and perspectives of others. It’s unconcerned with providing a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and more concerned with understanding how a certain work can shape you, for better and for worse.

 On this blog, I’m going to try to do something similar. Each post will be a consideration of a book, movie, image, idea, person, or event that somehow had a significant influence on me. Consider it an intellectual or creative autobiography, delivered in installments. Where Robbie’s course was a meditation on a long and esteemed career, this project is me at 33, cleaning out my mental attic and dusting off whatever might be useful going forward. I’ve spent a few years as something like a recluse, and this is me, somewhat tentatively, writing my way back into the world.