Note: Brian adds that this interview “reflects a certain, post-Parables, time in my life.”
WTF AFFECT: Describe briefly the space where you most usually write. How is it arranged? What must you have close at hand as you write? Any special or unusual features to your arrangement or deployment of writing space?
BRIAN MASSUMI: My writing space can be very small. The key for me is being surrounded on all sides by surfaces and shelves where I can lay out the books I will be consulting and the notes I have prepared. If my sources are out of sight, they tend to drop out of mind, so I have them in ready, visible reserve. The only ‘unusual arrangement’ is that I have a cat sleeping area on or near my computer. I find that cross-species conversation aids the writing process.
WTF: Before starting to write, how do you know when you have done enough research?
BM: I have never done enough research. There is always more detail that needs to enter in, and always more levels of analysis to explore. The writing process begins less when I feel that I have done ‘enough’ research, than when I sense that if I do more it will be too much – that I will get lost in the complexity of it. The writing is designed to hold onto the complexity without integrally expressing it (which would make the text utterly unreadable). I try to make the excess detail and layering of analysis present indirectly – by indicating in one way or another potential lines of development dealing with empirical detail, or knots where levels of analysis intersect in ways that can only be unraveled theoretically by making another pass, from a different direction (that is to say, in a different writing project, my own or another’s, that restages the problem from a different angle).
WTF: When in full writing mode, generally how many hours @ day are dedicated to the task? Are they consecutive hours or split up with breaks in-between, etc?
BM: Ideally, I write in solitude, in long sessions (10-12 hours or more, over a number of consecutive days), with breaks during the day to eat and pace. Pacing indoors or taking walks outdoors is a necessary part of the process. In practice, with work and family commitments, I have had to try to adapt to short sessions between other activities – up to now unsuccessfully. Writing has always been a very intense, immersive experience for me. It takes 3-4 hours just to get started on a productive session. The difficulty of finding uninterrupted writing time, or my inability to find new writing strategies that work for me under my current life conditions, is a continuing frustration. But then writing has always been a tortured process for me, and perhaps this conundrum is just my current method of making it torturous.
WTF: Do you proceed from an outline or some other pre-set framework/roadmap as you write? Do you keep notes before you write? As you write? Do you have any sort of system for keeping track of inspiration and insight as it arrives alongside or prior to writing?
BM: I always start from detailed reading notes of what will become the key texts. There are usually one or two texts that an essay is keyed into. They are always texts I feel that I have not mastered, perhaps cannot master, and sometimes suspect are inherently unmasterable. The essay is a way of working with the conceptual impossibility of the texts in a way that makes something positive of it, a basis for a new construction or creation that will have (hopefully) a clarity all its own but at the same time will remain ‘true’ to the its precursor texts by inheriting something of their impossibility, in order to pass on to the next writer, to continue the process. I also write outlines. These start simply from subsection titles. I know the concepts that the titles index are related to each other, but I don’t know how yet. As I fill in the outline, I fill in (perhaps invent or hallucinate) the connections. The outlines tend to get out of control. I write them by hand, so as I try to squeeze more thoughts onto the same pages, the writing turns into a scrawl. It often trails off the page or shrinks and swirls into tiny, illegible tornados of letters. By the time I’m ready to write, I can’t read or understand the outline. But I’m convinced that somehow, somewhere, perhaps just off the edge of the page, it contains great wisdom. This belief gives me the courage to start composing. As a result of this procedure, what I write is never a straightforward implementation of an outline. The outline is more like an invocation of ideas that I never quite feel I own or entirely control. When I read what I have written after a break, I do not recognize it as my own writing. It feels alien, and at times I do not even remember having thought the thoughts. What I enjoy most about writing are those surprises. The writing is a success for me when it brings me to ideas I couldn’t have conceived of before the actual composition of the essay. It is not infrequent that I find my writing disagreeing with what had ostensibly been my opinion. I have to reread an essay I’ve written many times to make it my own. Sometimes I do this. Sometimes I don’t, leaving the ideas incompletely owned, and the issues very much open for subsequent writing. This leads to certain inconsistencies between essays.
WTF: What writers (cultural theorists or otherwise) do you admire? Is there something that they share in common/something that links them? Or, do they each provide different aspects or features that you take as important?
BM: Literarily, I most enjoy authors who write as much with the rhythm of the words as with their meaning. Philosophically, I most appreciate writers who are not afraid to let their idiosyncrasies show (but do so with an economy of expression, and without letting them get reduced to merely personal quirks). In cultural theory, my favorite writers are those who take the craft of writing seriously, and see themselves as much as essayists as academic ‘experts.’
WTF: How does the eventual audience for your writing figure in to how you address the task itself?
BM: I think a lot about how I address the reader. I want to make the reading in some way enjoyable, however difficult it might get in places. I try to lead the reader in and move the reading forward with a rhythm that recalls the rhythms of speech (using techniques like alternation in the length of sentences, or between words of latin and anglo-saxon etymology, or between technical words and everyday expressions, tones of high seriousness and asides verging on silliness, etc). The essays aren’t made to be read out loud, but as I write I need to be able hear the language as if it were to be spoken. In other words, I talk to myself as I write, but on the understanding with myself that the result is very much a written product and is not speech, even if it carries certain echoes of its rhythms. Even though I talk to myself through my writing, it is very hard for me to deliver my essays as talks. To feel comfortable presenting them orally, I have to recompose them for speech (as opposed to writing them with certain properties of speech).
WTF: What role do concepts and theory play in relation to your writing approach? How do you conceive of the place of theory (as detour, as something to apply, as immanent, as relay, etc) in regard to the other subject matter of your writing?
BM: I think the answers to earlier questions have responded to this question already – I see theory as a relay between writings, in touch with and powered by an immanence that can only directly present itself in the form of a conceptual impossibility or a paradox (a “problem” in Deleuze’s vocabulary). The problem plays out through the writing, always deflected or inflected by the particular strengths, weaknesses, and weirdnesses of the particular writer, making it irreducibly idiosyncratic. Because of this necessary indirection and idiosyncrasy, the writing is always as much a detour or digression as a relay or progression.
WTF: When has a piece of writing – yours’ or anyone else’s – “succeeded?”
BM: When it has succeeded in saying something that could not have been said before it was written, and when it enriches its readers’ attention in a way that enables them to perceive things in the world around them that would otherwise have passed unremarked. The new thoughts and perceptions are gifts that are also invitations. They are not obligations. If they forced particular allegiances, or prescribed particular actions, they would be tools or weapons, not gifts. Rather than obligating, they invite. They invite the receiver, through a creative activity of his or her own, in his or her own way, to ‘succeed’ another gift for others still.
WTF: To your mind, what one or two key things (though there may, of course, be more) sets cultural studies writing apart – for good or for bad – from other forms of ‘academic’ writing or writing done in different disciplines? Is there a genre that you feel fits your own writing the best?
BM: What sets cultural studies writing apart for me is that it sets out to encounter difference. Not just with a tolerance for it, but with a passion for it. This is an inherently contradictory enterprise. To encounter difference you have to in some way bring it into your sphere, make it to some extent familiar and comprehensible. But if it becomes too intelligible, it is no longer different, it’s been reduced to something shared, framed as a likeness. Cultural studies writing has to grapple with this vacillation between the shareable and unshareable, the understandable and unimaginable in human ways of being. I consider my own writing to be philosophy, but certainly in its earlier stages in intimate dialogue with cultural studies.
WTF: Any pithy (as short as a single sentence) advice to give to a beginning essayist?
BM: Don’t write personally. There is nothing less interesting than personal opinion or personal history. Write from the alien in your life (remembering that writing the alien is entirely different from being alienated). Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can compellingly express yourself. Feel that something compelling in the world can express itself through you.
WTF: Are there features of your own writing, particularly its unique stylistics, that you think are owed to your previous work as a translator (not necessarily ‘what’ you’ve translated but the ‘how’ of translation itself)? For instance, your continual invocation to the reader to ‘call’ something by a particular name seems indebted to the way that a translator might arrive at a particular term – from among the potential contenders hovering about it – when translating from one language into another. It reminds us of what Walter Benjamin said of the ‘call’ of translation: “[T]ranslation does not find itself in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.” Although you are often writing about things that are decidedly extra- and non-linguistic, is there a heightened sensitivity to how things are ‘called’ (into writing, into existence, etc) that bears some connection to the task of translation? In sum, how do you see some of the distinct features of your own writing voice as shaped through the processes and experiences as a translator?
BM: Yes, I think that the connection this question makes to translation is very accurate and helpful. Again, I think earlier answers perhaps cover this well enough – I did find myself talking about ‘invocation’ and alienness, and I do think of original writing as a kind of translation process. In terms of translation in the narrow sense, I believe that working on it as a craft did allow me to find my own writing style – precisely because it obliged me to ventriloquize other writers, to internalize their styles, or at least to gain the ability to switch between styles to some degree. If I think of the voicing process I was talking about earlier, and put it together with the alienness I feel expressing itself in writing, ventriloquy seems a good companion concept to translation (in connection, for example, with Bakhtin’s ideas about the “alien word” and Pessoa’s “heteronyms”).
WTF: You make clear that affect is before emotion, feeling, and perception. Is there any thing before ‘affect’?
BM: There is everything before affect: participation.
WTF: When you write, at the end of ‘The Bleed’ – “Do we, cultural theorists, recognize ourselves in the rushes?” – do you think that it is important that writing/theorizing find (i.e., perpetually re-discover/re-orient) itself in and through its particular choice of subject matter? Is the relation of writing-style to subject matter itself a ‘bleed’ (as kind of respiratory / rhythmic / affective mimeticism, or, how do you see the processes and stylistics of writing & theorizing altered by the choice of example or instance)?
BM: When I wrote that sentence, I was thinking that if we did ‘recognize ourselves in the rushes,’ we were in trouble. If we could really own or own up to our words and thoughts, we would be building an orthodoxy and, like Reagan, capturing powers of becoming toward conservative (self-reproductive and self-justifying) ends. I think that the writer should always leave the subject matter at least partially unreduced. If everything fits together tightly, the idiosyncrasies of the subject have been conquered and the subject matter has been homogenized (and there is nothing left for the reader to say in his or her own right). To express the subject in its heterogeneity, in its singularity, as what makes it as no other, the idiosyncrasies have to be allowed to ‘bleed’ through the writing, tint it or stain it (produce effects in the writing that the writing cannot claim entirely to master). If they don’t, it’s not the subject matter that has been expressed in writing; instead, the subject matter has been made to express something else (a preexisting set of judgments or opinions). It’s been made a reproduction of the theory (re-cognition). Theory can be a creation. To be a creation, it must conform, to some degree, to the irreducibility of the subject matter (in other words, allow itself to be deformed by it).
WTF: Your writing doesn’t so much unfold, hone in, and clarify as it accumulates (like an autopoeitic snowball rolling downhill) and complexifies. When composing an essay, do you have a tendency to recurrently understand its architecture in any particular way as it progresses: as vectors, interlocking spheres, adjacent layers, hinge-joints, etc? Do you feel a kind of synaesthesia-effect in your writing (especially since it produces such a sensation in its reading) where words and phrases and sentences (etc) have a certain shape, motion, processual linkage/leakage and directionality almost irrespective of their more static place-position as text on a page? In other words, what sort of image of thought do you feel is conveyed through your stylistic choices as a writer?
BM: I don’t feel the writing as a structure or as having an architecture. I do feel it very kinesthetically, as a rhythm of movement. I think in terms of conceptual directions that get developed sometimes sequentially, sometimes concurrently, but in either case find a way at points to intersect, interfere with each other, eddy together, then overspill again into at least potentially separable currents. Less liquidly, I think of threads that are separated out but then snap back and knot up in a way that makes it impossible for them to be separated out the same way again. It’s not that they can’t be separated out, but when they are they will be kinked or twisted by the experience, they will carry marks of their massing. I like the massing most. There are usually points in my essays where the ideas collapse into each other to form a dense point or condensate that is almost impossible to write my through. Those points are the most satisfying for me because it feels that the writing is somehow renewing itself even at its point of exhaustion. When I do get past that point I feel the writing has somewhere to go again, like it has been somehow refueled by its own ability to run itself to empty. I doubt those points of exhaustion are the most enjoyable for most readers, but I would be very happy to think that some connect to the writing at those points and perhaps even find it in some way energizing and not merely annoying. There are certainly points like that in ‘The Bleed.’ I’d be interested to hear how you felt about being confronted with them.