Public Thinker: Jo Livingstone on the Critic’s Voice

As a graduate student, Jo Livingstone realized early that an ...

As a graduate student, Jo Livingstone realized early that an academic career was not for them—too inward-facing and prescriptive in terms of genres and topics. At the same time as Livingstone was completing a dissertation that applied postcolonial theory to medieval literature, they began writing wide-ranging cultural criticism, first for small publications like n+1 and The Awl and later for giants like the New Yorker. Having earned a PhD in English from New York University in 2015, they are now the culture staff writer for the New Republic.

Livingstone has turned their incisive critical attention to subjects from the eroticism of Mission Impossible: Fallout to reactive white womanhood in Halloween, to the emotional astonishment of seeing all four Old English poetic codices together in an exhibit at the British Library. They excel at clever one-liners that are also, somehow, perceptive close readings. Of the recent Bradley Cooper–Lady Gaga blockbuster, they wrote, “I can only describe the experience of watching A Star Is Born as like watching the trailer for A Star Is Born, except that it takes longer.” They intersperse such reviews with essays on topics like the Trump regime’s simplistic, erroneous memo on defining gender, written shortly after Livingstone came out on Twitter as nonbinary.

This omnivorous approach allows Livingstone to use their academic background to add depth to criticism in a manner that is both pertinent and accessible. In a Tumblr series, “Dr. Jo’s RX,” they “prescribe” works of art for existential problems: both Cézanne’s and Picasso’s portraits of Ambroise Vollard for a father worried about being a good parent, Bach’s Fugue in G Minor for a grad student unsure whether to drop out of their program. I talked with Livingstone about alt-ac career paths, the figure of the public intellectual post 2008, and Twitter as an intellectual platform.

Rachael King (RK): Can you describe what you do and how you got into it?


Jo Livingstone (JL): My job title right now is culture staff writer at the New Republic, which is a political and cultural magazine in New York City. I write a couple of articles per week, most of which are reviews. I review movies, I review books, I review TV shows, and then scattered in between those things will be comment pieces—it’s not quite like an op-ed, but I will identify a buzzword or a particular kind of rhetorical streak that I’m seeing in the media or in politicians’ speech and try to think through it. I got my PhD at NYU in the English department, as did you, and my dissertation was pretty, like, wild; it was just strange. I was probably never going to get an academic job from it. I also never really bothered with peer review because it was so frustratingly slow and it just annoyed me so much.

But fortunately I had started freelancing as a book critic initially and then as kind of a culture writer more generally since the third year of my PhD work. I did a couple of media internships; one was at n+1 magazine, which is a tiny journal based in Brooklyn, and then I worked there off and on all the way up until I got my TNR job. That kind of exposure just made me realize that I could do a different job, and then I was so unemployed after graduating that writing was what I doubled down on, and I was very, very lucky to get the job I have now.


RK: How do you compare the kind of writing you do now to your academic writing? What do you like and dislike most about the public-facing writing that you do?


JL: Being productive is a big hallmark of my attitude toward this work, which is a little different from how I saw the academic work that I did before. The difference between that and my academic writing is kind of temporal. When I wrote my dissertation, I felt like I was speaking to myself and to the past. I was trying to make diagnoses implicitly about the modern world, but mostly my materials were medieval, and what I was doing was trying to push back certain arenas of postcolonial theory to apply to culture before the era of mass colonialism. For me it was kind of about trying to define my existence as not being part of the contemporary world. And I liked living elsewhere, which is a form of fantasy, but I really enjoyed it, and it felt productive and like I was doing something that had an ethical drive behind it.

But the work I do now I think of as service to the community of people who make art; I feel that reviews are a very important part of the economy—okay, maybe they’re not very important, but they are in some way a part of cultural production in 2019. And so I feel this ethical duty now to take every work of art seriously even if it’s a minor novel that’s coming out and I just want to boost that person’s name. You have to take every work of art equally seriously and ignore how famous or prominent the person who made it is. And that is an ethical drive, but it’s really different from the ethical drive that I felt in the academy.


RK: So do you see yourself as taking skills you learned in grad school and translating them, or are they different skill sets?


JL: A lot of my writing is about gender and race, and I definitely draw every day on the critical theory and some of the primary texts that I read in grad school—there’s no line there, it’s like a fuzzy overlapping boundary. The thing that Jill Lepore calls academic jargon is much maligned in the media. The first editor I ever had would give me so much shit about it, but I think that when you’re in an academic community you devise certain kinds of shorthand for much bigger ideas that help you to imply much more than it looks like you’re saying. A good example is that I used to use the word “horizons” a lot, and my editor would always be like, “Stop using this word,” but to me the word “horizons” implied this critically aware way of describing social historical context and how that limits or inflects an individual’s thinking. That makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t make sense to most people, so it took a lot of unlearning.


RK: I had that problem a lot with my book, because it’s about epistolary genres and even educated readers often don’t know what the word “epistolary” means. “Epistolary” comes off as very jargon-y to a lot of people.


JL: But it’s the word that you mean. I think that people outside the academy don’t realize that academics really mean what they’re saying, and they’re not trying to instrumentalize their language to do anything to anybody else—they’re trying to convey a great deal of meaning. But I kind of see it from both sides.


RK: How do you think about the category of the public intellectual? Do you think of yourself as being in that category?


JL: I think it would be very grandiose for me to think of myself that way, so no. I also don’t think that public intellectual is something that—like, no one ever introduces themselves at a dinner party and someone asks them what they do and they say, “Oh, I’m a public intellectual.” It’s more of an idea and a way for people to group and better understand a sector of professionals at work now who don’t quite fit into old typologies of who does what, because the public intellectual is something that has always been around. Today I think it incorporates things like editors, people who founded publications, columnists but not op-ed writers; it includes some podcasters and some radio people. Yeah, I think it includes so many types of people that the term “public intellectual” has to somehow describe a sensibility more than a workday. How do you see it?


RK: I think when people invoke it now they often mean an academic, so someone with an academic position who reaches out to a public audience, and I think that’s what we’re often being told has disappeared, academics doing that kind of work. But I think, as you’re pointing out, the kind of work that they did has maybe migrated to other venues.


Great Liberations: Writing Beyond the Academy

By Kim Adrian et al.

JL: So this is my bias working in New York media, that I think that people in the broader field of publishing are the public intellectuals. But you’re totally right that being a public intellectual used to be the domain of academics who were public-facing, so I’m thinking of someone like—who wrote The Great Tradition? [F. R.] Leavis? Okay, someone like Tolkien who gave a lot of public lectures as well as being a novelist as well as being a professor. But then again, I think it’s also always been a kind of essayist role that doesn’t necessarily have to be an academic, like Susan Sontag, for example. Let’s think of more good examples of academics who were public intellectuals. Judith Butler?


RK: I guess I always think of someone like Arthur Schlesinger as a kind of public historian—


JL: Oh, or the big anthropologists from the early 20th century. Yeah, interesting. So they tend to be maybe from fields that define themselves as having some utility to the world. Like anthropology is something that people use in the way they conceptualize the world. And cultural anthropology, if you think about it, is quite similar to writing criticism, because it’s about consolidating knowledge about the world and then giving an answer about it. Public historians are, I feel, a more represented field in our world today; maybe at least in England they are. Like Michael Wood is a TV presenter who’s also a history professor.


RK: Mary Beard.


JL: Yeah, Mary Beard, absolutely.


RK: There is that category of British TV that they can go on. We don’t really have that.


JL: It’s totally different in every country, and America is in a very fucked-up place when it comes to academia. I mean, how do you see the state of the academy relating to this public intellectual crisis?


RK: I think that definitely public intellectuals, the ones that we think of, have always come from very elite institutions, and that’s part of their purchase. We’re in this really strange moment right now of declining faith in the academy and ongoing attacks on universities, but at the same time weirdly combined with an appeal to that elitism when it’s functional, right? So that Trump is always like, “I’m smart, I went to Wharton,” but at the same time we have the constant Republican attacks on universities.


JL: Another issue that I was thinking about was the Avital Ronell scandal, I think we can call it a scandal, and how the professors or the public intellectuals who strongly supported her—and these are the public intellectuals of our time, like Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam, people who are a part of your world whether or not you are an academic—when those people came together as a bloc to defend one of their own, it showed this schism of understanding whereby these critical theorists who rightly interpreted themselves as marginal within the academy in the ’80s are now its center, and they no longer can claim that marginality as a rhetorical strategy for defending one of their own. You are stuck in a paradox, and therefore I diagnose you as doing doublethink.

Even though that’s only one case, for me it seemed very much like the canary in the coal mine of some kind of crisis of faith between young politically aware people who are very often autodidacts, who have done enormous amounts of reading, with the generation of politically alert intellectuals who are now in late middle age—and then we exist in between as people who are 30-something. We are on the cusp of becoming those people who are going to have more power than the people we are talking to.


Ask the Kids

By Roberta R. Katz

RK: So how do you think academics or writers who are our age, the older millennials—because the people who are entering college now are not millennials anymore, they’re whatever’s next—so how does our generation incorporate the experience of the past 10 years, post 2008, and the changes that have happened in the academy into a stance of public intellectualism?


JL: Well, I think the first fact is that so few of us have jobs in colleges that our generation has already felt the effects in a very serious way of these changes in the academy, so we’re in an interesting hinge position. We went to college, got PhDs or didn’t, and were trained by the older generation, but we also were people who had internet adolescences, not the same way that kids do now, but there’s that simple fact of being able to have some kind of empathy with both generations. A lot of us who would have become professors in an older system are doing other jobs, and that inflects who is a public intellectual as opposed to a private intellectual because lots of people are working as editors at magazines instead of being professors at a private university who publish at a very slow rate.


RK: Part of what I find interesting and I think is even more true of current grad students than of when we were in grad school is this sense that most of you are going to end up in a different career than the people who are training you, and a feeling like they are not always recognizing that and are not helping train you for a different career. But I always try to focus on the ways that it can be a very productive experience, whether or not you get a tenure-track job.


JL: I truly, truly believe that a PhD is an incredible experience in and of itself without having an orientation to the future. Now that depends on whether you have the luxury of being able to give yourself five to seven years out of life. There are so many people for whom this is not practical at all. At the same time, I got a PhD partly for the reason that I wanted to get a visa to the States; I wanted to have, even if it was low, a reliable income; I wanted to get the hell out of the job market in London in 2010 because I couldn’t get an internship anywhere.


RK: Do you feel like grad students have more pressure on them to do public kinds of writing, to maybe have a Plan B or to market themselves and develop a reputation to go on the job market with?


JL: I think they do feel that. I didn’t feel it because I felt the opposite, that all the writing and culture work that I was doing in New York City was like less than nothing to most of the people who were supposed to be mentoring me. I mean, I think that they were curious on a human level and they were nice about it, but maybe it also helped them to write me off. So I think that advisors really have to learn that even though you should be advising your students to conceptualize their transferable skills, you still have to take everyone seriously when it comes to their ambitions in academia, and that’s something I don’t think the academy is there with yet.

The public intellectual is part of both of our lives, right, but we’re coming at it from totally different professional standpoints: you got a tenure-track job and I went with a lot of certainty into kind of fancy New York publishing. It demands different things of you; there are areas of academia where more personal writing is a part of the discipline, but not usually, and I think it goes to show how the conventions and the depersonalized nature of academic research can constrain you in the kinds of arguments that you’re able to put together.


RK: It does go back to the accusations against academic writing, and I think one of the ways they may be true is that particularly for a first book, you do feel like it has to have this very particular kind of structure, to not be personal in a way, to be an introduction and five chapters and an epilogue and to fit very cleanly into an academic genre.


JL: And where does that pressure come from?


RK: Tenure! And then, you know, maybe you can do different kinds of things after getting tenure.


Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth

By Lee Konstantinou

JL: I think there’s also a strong parallel between that and people who want to be perceived as highbrow critics. Maybe you can write your personal work—you know, you can be Janet Malcolm and write your very personal books when you’re in late middle age, but especially if you’re a woman or otherwise identify as not a man, there is a default assumption of your partiality or your bias toward your own experience because you’re not considered the default disembodied narrative voice. There’s always this presumption of your embodiment in the world. You have to somehow show your ability to inhabit the depersonalized universal voice that is like the great critic in the sky, and I think that is a constraint that is maybe universal to people who are young and women.


RK: Do you see other people kind of pushing back against that in this younger public intellectual group we were thinking about, not wanting to adhere to those constraints?


JL: Yeah, I think that in the last 15 years the old feminist axiom that the personal is political has really come true in terms of high-quality writing being published by prestige outlets. You know, there are the usual suspects in the genre of women’s life writing, right, like Sheila Heti and Maggie Nelson—there are countless less recognized voices in that field—but I think also there’s been a realization that the personal can allow you to access critical zones that are off-limits to the universal critic voice. Like I totally feel entitled—and I mean that in its gross sense as well as its empowering sense—I mean entitled to tackle lowbrow subjects and maybe be personal because I have a PhD and because I don’t worry about anybody stereotyping me as a young queer, because I can just be like, “That’s Dr. Young Queer to you!” I know a lot of people think that privileged discourse is reductive because it sort of universalizes all the different social situations that we find ourselves in, but there is a huge amount of privilege that I am able to marshal in my particular world because I have the advanced education that I have. Like, I lean on it. And that’s elitist! That is straight-up elitism.


RK: Hopefully it’s clearing a space too.


JL: That’s my hope. That’s my hope.


RK: There’s a lot of public intellectual writing that happens on Twitter in particular. How do you think about your use of Twitter? Is your Twitter handle your work or personal, or is it a mixture?


JL: It’s really changed. Twitter is weird because at the moment it feels like the main, almost to the exclusion of anything else, avenue by which a person can start presenting themselves as a public intellectual by making declarative statements and promoting their work in a way that really works, and it’s really funny when public intellectuals like Joyce Carol Oates are so bad at it and you think, “Oh my god, the curtain has been lifted and you’re just a voice in the gramophone.” I got a Twitter account before I started freelance writing, but from the very first piece that I ever published, which was a review of a book of public-facing history about demonic possession—very subacademic, I would say—immediately from that piece, which was in 2013, I was already charting its success according to how it moved on Twitter. And that piece, because it was a salacious subject, a bunch of weird celebrities tweeted it, like really strange people I had only barely heard of who were American celebrities. Like, who was that guy who was an early MTV presenter in the ’80s?


RK: Kurt Loder?


JL: Kurt Loder! Yeah, like, who the fuck is Kurt Loder to me? I didn’t really know what to make of it. Okay, I’m interested in history, I know a lot about premodern history, so someone commissioned me to write about demonic possession, and demonic possession is popular in movies, so when I tweeted it some guy who presented MTV shows in the ’80s, he tweeted it, and now I have a feeling of mild gratification, like, what is happening? And I never got the answer, but I realized that I liked it. Whatever it is, I found it a consolation, and I still use it that way. Lots of people are deeply resentful of Twitter, and I do have to do it for my work, because I have to use my brand, which I’ve never conceptualized that way, to get people to read my work. But you know, I spend a lot of time alone because that’s my personality, and I really like having this funny little imaginary world with other people in it.

RK: Along those lines, you recently came out as nonbinary on Twitter, so why did you use that—I mean, I’m sure you did it in your personal life as well—but why did you use that platform?


JL: I did it so that I wouldn’t have to do it at work, because everyone at work follows me on Twitter, and also because I had been out in my personal life to my friends and girlfriend for a long time. I’m not an identity-based writer—I mean, of course I am, we all are—but I’m not, professionally, like a personal essayist. I try not to center my identity in my analysis, not because I think it’s bad but because it’s just not my personal preference, so I didn’t know what to do with the information. Because I am British and I have a PhD I have a terrible fear of being dramatic, and I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to be scrutinized. I don’t like being scrutinized, and that’s part of the reason I like being a writer. That is something that is a privilege of being a writer, you don’t have to show your face and you can just be a pure disembodied voice, which kind of appeals to me as an idea, right? I don’t know, I didn’t want anyone to read me differently.


RK: But is that evidence that you can’t just be a pure disembodied voice anymore?


JL: Being a pure disembodied voice is a fantasy; it’s a total fantasy, and it’s an easy fantasy. Maybe it’s a fantasy that I have been able to indulge in because of my work conditions, but I think the internet has been that for so many people. I don’t know if you were on forums when you were a teen or doing the world-exploring that noisy dial-up connections led us to when we were younger. I think it’s true that there has been a landmark change in how we conceive of subjectivity in the world. Then again, the big problem is that Twitter is not the real world—it’s not coextensive with the real world, not everyone uses it—and so sometimes everything that happens on Twitter is the illusion of change in the world.


Correction: March 28, 2019

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a letter of support for Avital Ronell, signed by many prominent academics, as referring to Ronell as queer and including among its signatories Jack Halberstam.


Update: July 8, 2021

All instances of “Josephine” in the article have been changed to “Jo.”


This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon

Featured image: Jo Livingstone, New York, 2019