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An Interview With Carlo Rotella: “How People Live the Consequences of the Mess We’ve Made”

Carlo Rotella is Director of the American Studies Program at Boston College. He writes for the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, and the Boston Globe. He is also a regular commentator for WGBH FM.

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.

It sounds like you’re lamenting a landscape bereft of real public intellectuals. Who do you think of as the best occupants of that sweet spot in our contemporary discourse? Who are the best that we’ve got 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. Carlo Rotella

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 particularly 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.

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. 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.

MB:   Your recent essay on “The Wire” suggests 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.

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, 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’m thinking about politicians who 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.

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 the 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?”