Carlo Rotella is one of the most exciting thinkers I’ve ever met. He’s a professor, writer, and public intellectual, and his mind ranges everywhere: from boxing to the blues and free play to fantasy novels.
A couple of weeks ago, Rotella wrote a brilliant column in the Boston Globe about the challenge of conveying nuanced ideas in media formats which value glib summaries above all else. (Even the title – “Why Academics Turn Into Robots on TV” – was great.)
I emailed Rotella, and he agreed to talk some more about his ideas. I called him a few days later, and I did my best to follow his fertile mind as it criss-crossed acres of political and cultural terrain.
MB: In a recent essay in the Boston Globe, you talked about the relative absence of experts on TV and radio who are capable of articulating complicated ideas in a digestible way. You suggested that there’s a “sweet spot between the eminent scholar who had so much to say but couldn’t find a way to say it and the media pro who didn’t have much to say but managed to get it said memorably in a few seconds of airtime.”
It sounds like you’re lamenting a lack of real public intellectuals. Who do you think of as the best occupants of that sweet spot right now?
CR: Well, at the risk of starting up by saying, “Well, Matt, it’s complicated,” let me just amend the first part of that. I think there are a lot of people who can do it on both sides. That is, there are a lot of academics who are able to talk to a general audience and who have an ambition to make things more complicated than they often come out in the press. And on the other side, there are a lot of people in the writing trades and journalists who are interested in what academics have to say, and are familiar with that world and want the academics to give them that material.
So, a lot of what I’m talking about is actually the technical difficulty of squeezing it in to the niches that are made available to do it. Even with goodwill on both sides, sometimes it’s hard to do, right? So I’m not lamenting the lack of people who can do this; I’m saying that it’s hard to do and it’s a very specific skill, separate from having something to say. And so, it often doesn’t work even when there are good intentions on all sides.
MB: So the problem is two-fold. Sometimes, media outlets aren’t interested in nuanced discourse. And even when they are, there’s this second challenge of actually being able to do it.
CR: Right. I’ll give you an example of someone who I thought did it quite well. So when Kim Jong-Il died, there were a very small number of Korea experts who ended up getting interviewed a lot in print and on TV. (And let me just add that generally, the more capital that goes into producing whatever it is, the harder it is to squeeze in the complexity. So it’s easier, for example, being interviewed for a magazine piece than it is if you’re doing your 20 seconds on TV or whatever.)
But there’s this guy, Brian Myers, he’s at a university in Korea. I don’t know him but I was very impressed by his ability to navigate exactly that tightrope that I was talking about in the piece, which is to meet people where they are and use the language that people who don’t know a lot about North Korea will recognize, but to use that language to say something other than what everybody else is saying.
And what struck me particularly is that everybody who doesn’t know much about Korea, which is almost all of us, was amazed and aghast that people seemed so upset that Kim Jong-Il had died. And Myers had this great line where he said, “Well, just think about a country where a lot of the work that is done by the popular culture in our country is done by official political culture, and think about all those people who seemed to get overly excited about Michael Jackson’s death.”
And just that line performed that difficult feat which is it’s not just a sound bite; it’s a big argument about what happens when official culture is popular culture. It’s a big argument but the Michael Jackson reference caused the whole point to click into place. So it’s definitely doable; it’s quite hard to do and it’s a strange little skill that’s certainly not taught anywhere.
MB: You mention specifically that academics and scholars aren’t trained to do this well. My sense is that much of academia functions as a relatively closed, tradition-bound world in which this skill isn’t prized particularly highly. Is this the sort of thing that you think should be taught to rising scholars?
CR: At least in the humanities, I would say that the movement over time has actually been towards this kind of thinking. The professional rewards for being obscure have been reduced, I think, for a lot of reasons.
One of them, for instance, is the change in academic publishing that says that if you want to publish a book with a first-rate academic press, you need to publish something that feels like a book, that somebody can just pick up and read because they are interested in the subject. And that still drives a lot of tenure and promotion decisions – who publishes where.
That and a lot of other things including intellectual reasons. For people under 40 in particular, the pendulum has begun to swing considerably back towards just being plain and clear and making yourself understood to anybody who’s interested. And if you’re in a big enough department, that includes your colleagues. If you’re a specialist in American popular culture, you need to make yourself understood to the medievalist, and that’s good practice for making yourself understood to people who’ve never even heard of what you do.
So there’s a whole suite of skills. What we’re talking about with this kind of punditry is an extreme example, which is encapsulating academic arguments into short paragraphs and using narrative and characters more than abstractions in order to make an argument. That is, showing how characters live the consequences of an argument. And punditry is a one way to do it. I think writing for trade publications is another.
So there’s a lot of cross-training you can do to do this. So when I think about skills and where I get chances to work on them, it’s undergraduate lecturing, writing for magazines, giving public talks. In all of those places, you’re working on a set of chops.
One of the best ones is undergraduate teaching, to be able to do this on your feet to a large group of people, who, like radio listeners, feel that it matters and then need to be convinced of your argument.
MB: You mentioned narrative above. Let’s talk more about that, and in particular, about your recent essay on “The Wire.” You suggest that the show is able to provide real insights about our political culture “by showing how people worth caring about, people who happen to be fictional, live the consequences of the mess we’ve made.”
It sounds like you’re making a point that’s bigger than the show – about the power of narrative to illustrate things we know to be true but don’t know how to talk about in standard political discourse.
CR: I think that’s about right. And some people – in some fields, people have a leg up on this. Historians, for instance – it’s their job to tell stories about people, in addition to accounting for change over time. But especially over in my end of the academy, which is more American studies/English, there tends to be less of a tradition of doing that. And the thing that I object to and the thing that I’ve tried to get rid of is this misunderstanding that it’s easier to tell stories about people to dumb down or make more accessible or cosmetically improve the cuteness quotient of your argument.
What I’m saying instead is that actually one of our most potent forms of argument is telling stories about people, telling stories about characters, and that it’s not dancing around the argument so that people won’t be afraid of your argument, but rather, it’s a really strong way to argue.
And here we’re moving away from punditry, because here we’re talking, almost by definition, about a kind of a longer form, which depicts the time the character lived in three dimensions and sets that character against a big picture.
And some pundits are so good at that that they can do it in 40 seconds, but I think that that’s also the purview of the magazine profile and then all the way up to the biography, the scholarly biography. It’s to put that character in motion against the background, in such a way that you explain something big that’s behind the character by way of following the character’s movements. That’s a kind of achievement of humane letters that I think is coming slowly; the pendulum is beginning to swing slowly back towards that kind of work.
MB: I think what you just said almost perfectly explains why so many people found themselves loving these characters – like Omar Little, for example, someone who does really despicable things. It’s precisely because they’ve been made so live, so 3D and robust and contextualized that we can actually see them as real human beings and not just carriers of a failed morality or something like that.
CR: Right – or as dupes or as just metaphors. I mean part of what I think is really important in, let’s say, writing a magazine profile that carries over into scholarship is that another thing about those characters is that they are messy, they’re not neat. They have aspects that don’t fit into your argument perfectly, whatever argument you happen to be making. To me, that’s usually a sign that a character is alive enough, is complex enough to sort of stand on its own two feet, and so that they’re not just this kind of cut-out character who is there to illustrate the point, whatever the point is.
And Omar is different from some of the other characters in “The Wire” because he’s actually from another genre – he’s from the western and he sort of just showed up in “The Wire.” But there are other characters who are just very messy, complicated, compromised, inconsistent characters who are caught up in the bigger picture. My favorite example is the team, Herc and Carver, who are in some ways terrible cops, but as you follow their bumbling in one way or another and then Carver’s dawning enlightenment, they become perfect illustrations of what it means to be caught up in the perfect catch-22 of the war on drugs. And it’s beautifully done, because they’re so messy that the big forces playing upon them become clearer and clearer. And another character like that—I’m now forgetting his name, one of the corner guys from the first season, the one who becomes the most thoughtful and ends up making it almost to the end before he was killed in the final season.
MB: I can’t think of the name either. [It's Bodie.]
CR: So he starts out, he’s just kind of a monster, and then the moment when he can’t kill his friend at the end of the first season, and Poot does it for him, he starts to become complicated in that same way and he’s sort of living the contradictions from the other side of the street as Herc and Carver. And it’s that messiness that in fact makes them extremely precise instruments for advancing an argument.
MB: What we’re talking about unfolds over the course of lots of episodes – even whole seasons. But you mentioned a minute ago how, when pundits are very good, they’re actually capable of delivering compelling narratives in 30 or 40-second bites. I’m thinking about when politicians do something similar: the quick anecdote about a real American -“Joe McKnight from Peoria is working two jobs and trying to send his kids to college,” that kind of thing. Sometimes it’s effective, but other times it feels insincere, even exploitative.
CR: And it also feels so formulaic at this point. In fact, I remember some Saturday Night Live parody of it, where the average American that he mentioned had gone through a series of spectacularly improbable industrial accidents which he went into in great detail, precisely to point out that you just glaze over.
MB: It’s funny though, because I want to say that it’s not just the politician’s fault that we glaze over. Maybe they’ve overused that little anecdotal genre or whatever, but it’s not that they’re necessarily trying to do something illegitimate. It’s the timeframe. There’s something about trying to do it so quickly, trying to compress someone’s life – and the meaning of that life – into a 12-second political point. It just doesn’t seem to work. I want politicians to be able to think and talk about real human narratives, but I’m not sure always sure what that looks like.
CR: Yeah. Structurally, this is difficult to do. If Bill Clinton has a problem doing it, then chances are, there’s a high degree of difficulty in this dive. And I think actually Clinton was better at it than either Bush or Obama, because he had the added advantage, spurious or not, of being able to persuade at least part of his audience that while he was encapsulating the person’s life into something very compact, he himself was sort of feeling it and it was resonating with his own experience in such a way that encouraged you to feel it too. So you’re actually empathizing with Bill Clinton responding to the person’s story, whereas in their various ways Bush and Obama are much more detached emotionally from the person they’re telling the story about.
With Clinton, what he was really doing was saying, “I’m reacting powerfully to this story and I invite you to react along with me.” You know, like a character in a Steven Spielberg movie – the main thing characters in Steven Spielberg movies do is stand there with their mouths hanging open, gaping at whatever this incredible spectacle is that he’s putting on the screen, so that we’re encouraged to do that too: “Oh, look, a dinosaur!”
But with Clinton, it wasn’t so much a storytelling ability as a kind of emotive expression or acting ability, whatever you want to call it. It’s hard to do. But let’s just remember that telling stories about people isn’t the only way to do it. It’s possible to do it purely on the analytical level and in doing it, you come up against two different models of culture.
One is the prison-house of language model, which says if you use the same old words to try and say something new, you’re just going to end up saying the same old thing, right? And the other is the idea that you can go into the same old language and by brilliantly using your recombinant skills get it to make something entirely new.
I’m just not sure where I come down on it. What you’re talking about is a pretty good illustration of the prison-house of language argument. You’re saying the same old things, “Yeah, I know he’s from Ohio. I know he’s had a hard time recently. You know, there’s a loan involved, and a mortgage,” and as I said you kind of glaze over.
But then the recombinant argument is like this historian that I was thinking about in Korea, Brian Myers. Just by injecting the name of Michael Jackson at a crucial moment, you kind of crack open the language like a shell; something new came out of the egg, which was a different understanding of how popular culture works in North Korea.
So I think it is possible to do. Maybe in the State of the Union Address, it’s impossible, but I know it is possible in a magazine-length article, and what you’re talking about is, “Is it possible at some length in between those two?”
MB: I think I’ve seen it from Obama – for example, at the Gabby Giffords speech a year ago. In short anecdotes, he was talking about moments in these citizens’ lives, and he seemed to achieve something Clintonesque to me. But it was a bit different, because with Clinton, it was all pathos and empathy; ideas weren’t involved in the same way. With Obama, I get the sense that there’s real empathy and pathos, but there’s also a clearer set of convictions and ideals.
CR: Well, it’s a little a bit like comparing Spock to Kirk, right? I mean, what is it you’re after? But with Clinton, what was underneath the impulse was analytical. He had a great analytical mind and he was after advantage in a kind of incredibly purposeful and calculated way. It’s just that he had a range of skills on the performing emotive side that gave him certain advantages, right?
I think that’s different from the talking heads. The talking head can stand back a little bit from that kind of point-scoring and make a purely analytical point. They actually have one fewer onus on them, but on the other hand they have a more complicated objective than the politicians, which is just to win the news cycle or to win the point, whatever it is.