Joshua Clover on Wearing Intense Knowledge Lightly and Changing Quickly
Joshua Clover is a communist, though various communists don’t think so. He is also a professor of literature and critical theory at the University of California Davis. A national award-winning essayist, poet, and cultural theorist, he was a senior writer at The Village Voice, once quit as senior writer at Spin, and has a column at The Nation. He has collaborated on writing, publishing, and conference organization with Jasper Bernes, Chris Chen, Timothy Kreiner, Annie McClanahan, Chris Nealon, Louis-Georges Schwartz, Juliana Spahr, Michael Szalay, and others. His latest book is Red Epic.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
The what-do-you-do question is usually en route to a more interesting conversation, so I think it can be good to move past it pretty swiftly. Recently the best conversations I have had with strangers have begun, “Can I ask you why you’re reading that?”
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
To be a good friend to my friends. I like to argue, and I’m a good critic. But I am not half as good as I would like to be at making my friends feel cared for and supported and admired and loved. I’m trying to get better at that. My friends are helping.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes, because I am not dead and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t live past 36. No, because this is still a world that destroys people.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Having been betrayed by a series of leaders who had been angling for buereaucratic jobs or worse, a couple of years ago one of the parties in the National Union of Students in the UK ran an Inanimate Carbon Rod for president. They made it to the national hustings and this young man gives a talk on behalf of Inanimate Carbon Rod. The speech is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. It is savagely funny. It’s a word salad of faux-political uplift and new economy buzzwords along with references to previous betrayals which, we are assured, the Rod will not do. “There are those who will say clear future value people but let’s be clear: future. Not just for the next five years but the next four thousand years together with the rod in positive serous fightback for serious together clear where we’re going… the NUS needs to be going forwards not backwards, upwards not forwards, and always twirling, twirling twirling twirling, towards improving the student experience through sharing best practice.” It’s an astounding satire of political speeches in general, but also a brutal assessment of actually existing student politicos. All without cracking up. In fact it’s quite angry. “It will not stand back when you are kettled through the night on Whitehall waiting for some uniformed thug… the rod does not do glowstick vigils. It wants revenge.” Amazing.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I have an almost total lack of interest in family history. Though I am interested in the consistency with which it intersects with the great tides, often horrifying, of history at large. Like, relatives who died in the camps, yes. Relatives who fled the dustbowl and starvation for California, yes. Who fought in the army. Who fought in the Free Speech Movement. Yes yes. I really like that clichés are clichés for a reason.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
I don’t have a savings account, so, all of it. I have actually never had a bank account or credit card. I have this little credit union. They wink at me with secret complicity because they know I got arrested for blockading a bank once, it was in the local news. They think I am the weaponized wing of the credit union movement.
What’s wrong with society today?
People think that cops need to be reformed. They need to be killed.
What is your fondest memory?
It changes? Prince at Madison Square Garden in 1986. The time I wrote a perfect 400 word review and I knew that for the first time ever the editor would send it forward without any changes and she did. A reading Juliana gave at Berkeley a few years ago. The first time I took acid, reading the same Joyce page over and over. That time I felt like I really understood the first chapter of Capital. March on the port, November 2, 2011, Rihanna soundtrack. Hearing “Graveyard Shift” for the first time. Not that it’s my favorite song, I just remember hearing part of it as I was out running one day in Iowa and freaking out, running directly home to find out what song it was. I called the radio station and everything. But really, all the people who were waiting for me outside the jail when I got out after a few days in 2012 — thinking I had a lot of good friends.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Do you remember that Facebook meme from 2009 or so, when you were supposed to post “25 Things People Might Not Know About You” or something like that? And a friend of mine posted her list, it was sort of uninteresting which is the meme’s fault not hers, and then the last one was, “thinking there might be a revolution in my lifetime is the only reason I am not afraid of dying.” I am probaby misquoting but that was the idea. I don’t know if I have ever had such an intense moment of self-recognition, that sense of, oh, that is the entire structure of my psychic life and I never quite knew it. That was the basis for the poem “Transistor” in my book.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is giving form to the antagonism between the concept and immediate struggle. Or: lol again.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
Think about possible answers to questions from SF Weekly.
What are you working on right now?
A book about the political economy of riot. The publishers changed the title. It’s now called Riot. Strike. Riotwhich is maybe better?
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
It is no secret that I most admire the writing of my friends. More and more that is how I get to be friends with people. I like writing that wears intense knowledge lightly and changes quickly. I like writing that doesn’t hedge all its bets while claiming it is being open and vulnerable. I like Diane Di Prima a lot. I am still trying to understand what it means to love Baraka despite how fucked up a lot of that shit is.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Once I crashed a pickup into a warehouse wall in New Orleans, and was knocked unconscious. When I woke up I had some memory loss, but called a phone number in my pocket. It turned out to be a friend in town; she called the EMTs. They showed up and were checking me out, when a guy walked up. We’re on some warehouse district back street, deserted, distant sounds of revelry. This was Sugar Bowl week. I was very disoriented, it was like being superhigh and everything was in and out of focus. The guy was drunk and he was in handcuffs and the handcuffs were attached to a skirt, it was just sort of hanging from them. Empty skirt midair. He wanted the EMTs to cut off the handcuffs before he went home to his wife.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
That was always the big threshold when I was a journalist, making a dollar a word. But it turns out they don’t pay you to write words. They pay you for their degree of editorial say. The more they pay, the more they reserve the right to change your words. This is an absolute and linear relation, and any well-paid journalist who doesn’t know it just happens to write what their editors wanted them to say in the first place, without having to be told.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Bread coffee hash gasoline. I can’t imagine anyone ever says anything else.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I’d like to spend a year in China. But I would also like to go back to school and study economics, begin again from the beginning.