“The minor literatures, the small spaces, the little arts, these are the things of which one makes a literary life”: A Conversation with A.V. Marraccini — Isabella Streffen

To celebrate the publication of her debut book, We the Parasites, a “dazzlingly erudite disquisition on the erotics of criticism” (Lauren Elkin), Minor Lits brought together author A.V. Marraccini, and artist Isabella Streffen for a discussion of desire, referentiality, the state of contemporary art criticism, and much more. The conversation took place over Zoom at the beginning of January.

Isabella Streffen: In the excerpt shared earlier this week, you talk about a heist, and, later, how that is not the relationship you have with the things you write about: you don’t want to possess them or not let anyone else see them. Can you say more about possession, or the sense of ownership criticism might provoke?

A.V. Marraccini:  As an academic, my doctorate was on early modern books and manuscripts, 13th through 17th century, roughly, and my dissertation was on 15th to 17th century books. I came to Britain as an RSA Kress fellow at the Bodleian Library, and was also a visiting member of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. My experience in the Weston Library — the Bodleian’s rare book and manuscript library — was really idyllic, seeing the books come out, touching them, and having intimate experiences with them over a couple of years. The idea, both at the British Library and the Bodleian, is that these things should belong to the public so that people like me can touch them. You can feel the hair and flesh sides of the vellum. There is an incredible intimacy to that privilege, but it also means they don’t belong to any one person. They belong to the library which is their custodian for perpetuity.

I’m writing about technology for my next book, and people don’t often think of the codex as a technology, but it is. People also think I’m not writing about rare books anymore, which isn’t true. It’s almost always true that things come back to books as objects for me. Which is also why I first got into Sublunary as a press; the books say “an object by Sublunary Editions” on the back.

IS: I really love that; I’m always thinking about books as objects. What has been interesting for me working with a small press is the intimacy of the work, particularly around design and manufacture. How did that go between you and Sublunary?

AVM: The book, as an object, will be intimately tied with the text; we discussed its design at great length. I really wanted a blackletter or Fraktur font because of the historical implications, and it will printed on pink card stock. It will be beautiful. We even talked about sending the book out with glass slides of tapeworms, but it turns out that biological material changes shipping. We couldn’t do it. There will be special translucent bookmarks, though, that are tapeworm proglottids …

So, I do desire things, right? And the idea of desiring something for myself alone might have some novelty or satisfaction, but I’ve always joked that in a zombie apocalypse I’d be outside the Bodleian with a sawn-off shotgun, protecting those books. Because there’s nothing I value more deeply than passing on that experience, that incredible sensory pleasure of truly being with a thing. That’s probably the reason I’m still in academia, despite everything. But it’s also part of the animating force of writing criticism. You want to parasitize a thing, but in a way that’s a kind of sharing or multiplication.

IS: You write about ­– through, even — Twombly extensively throughout the book, and at one, heart-stopping point speculate about the limits of critique. Is there a limit to knowing? A limit to desire?

AVM: I’m not going to answer this in a philosophically rigorous way, but in a solely personal one. I think there’s a point in life where we come up against limits; I know I will never truly understand Noh theatre, for instance, because my Japanese is just not there, and I don’t think it ever will be. Do I love Noh theatre? And waka poetry? And Metabolist architecture? Absolutely! But I don’t think they’re mine in the same way as something I’ve known inside and out for years, that I can linguistically and otherwise inhabit. The book uses the Iliad and Twombly’s antiquarian paintings because I feel that material is patterned into my veins. And of course, I’m not a classicist by training, there are many things I don’t know technically about Homeric Greek and its traditions. But the limit is pretty broad; it feels like a mathematical limit that asymptotically approaches the zero at infinity. There’s also a tiny sliver of room above the x-axis when it’s plotted; this space to want and to continue to know.

IS: The material encounter seems really important to you. Something I’m interested by in your wider practice is the way you bring a very material approach to the dematerialised, as the digital is often supposed — though I think erroneously — to be.

AVM: Right! One of the interesting things about becoming involved in the digital world (again for my next book) is seeing the digital itself as a kind of material. I’ve been reading Non Things by Byung-Chul Han. He talks about non things and how thingness is being replaced by data and the digital, and he sees that as an impoverishment in some ways. I think it can be, and in many cases it is, but it doesn’t have to be. What Byung-Chul Han articulates which I share more broadly is a fear of an impoverished sensorium, of limiting the richness of the world. Going back to the heist, I saw that as the idea of taking from the world, whereas criticism should be, in theory, an act of enrichment. But there’s also a thrill to the heist, the illicitness of taking and coveting, which I am drawn to as form. It’s a dialectic Parasites plays up, to try to understand what’s happening with wanting.

IS: One thing I felt when reading the book, partly because of attending the lecture you mention in it, where you discussed plague objects, and also having read some of your shorter pieces, was that you write criticism like a lot of artists might make art.

AVM: That’s fascinating. I’ve always loved art-making, but I’ve never seen my own art-making at that level. I’m really picky about what I think is good! And so I keep my own drawing and writing quite private. I keep a notebook, but it’s actually a lot of drawings. So it’s not a book written by an artist, though I do have an intimacy with art-making. Still, knowing you’re an artist and do work with material in ways I don’t, that’s an incredible compliment.

IS: It’s the way you approached the text. Although you talked about distance, a coolness or goodness that you seek, it feels like you’re constantly being drawn back into areas of the erotic, which feels like art-making. There’s a part where you talk about your louse’s tongue which seems like a recognition of wanting your place in the conversations of those making primary objects.

AVM: I’m a fan of hybridity and hybrid forms: poetry and prose, but also fiction and non-fiction. The book is a testament to that. Is it an essay? Is it a memoir? Is it a manifesto? Yes. Maybe. I don’t believe in the categories of primary and secondary objects in that way which goes back to Platonic aesthetics and metaphysics. Plato would be the first to point out that, in this conception, art making is already secondary to the thing in the world, which is itself secondary to the form — so art is tertiary even. Anyway, the discourse of primacy and of what constitutes that as an object has never been, to me, clearcut, or useful. I’d like to think Parasites rejects a fetishization of primacy that is a tic among certain artists who need it to prop up their conception of self as maker.  Parasites refuses primacy as a category; it is ultimately about the failure of distance as “goodness”, and embraces a wallowing-in the “badness” of my subjectivity, in both experiencing and writing about an erotics of criticism.

IS: It doesn’t happen very often (and why should it) but sometimes art historians write like artists make, and it seems to me that it’s connected to their relationship with materiality, understanding that the material has agency and requirement.

AVM: Strangely enough, this was about an absence of materiality. I mostly wrote this book when I didn’t have access to anything because of COVID — especially not the British Library, where I frequently go to touch, smell and hold antiquarian books and manuscripts. It was written entirely from reference photographs, so in a way this was longing. Absence creates longing. The heart grows fonder. I’ve actually never seen The Age of Alexander, a Twombly painting that forms the core of a major chapter, in person because I’ve never been to the Menil Collection in Houston. I just had high-res photographs and a pile of ridiculously expensive glossy catalogues, and would unfurl over quiet weeks. If there’s a question of agency and material here it’s one that operates at a remove in crucial ways.

I don’t know if there’s an artist’s sensibility to my concern with materiality.

I had an unconventional self education that was very much modelled on being literary. I loved art, and thought a lot about art objects, but it was modelled on being literary in style and in life. I wanted to be Susan Sontag. There are incriminating photos somewhere — thank God there was no social media — but I dyed a streak in my hair, and I wanted that soft butch authority where you could have a deep, gravelly voice and be tall and commanding, command a room. But as it turns out I’m five one and talk like a twelve-year-old, and I’m pretty naturally hyper-femme, which is hilarious. I’m a bit of the opposite of Sontagian as a presence, though I finally do own a good leather jacket now. Parasites is pretty gendered as a book, so it’s amusing that I write under gender-neutral initials. But A.V. Marraccini? I don’t know what people think she looks like … I don’t think I’m what a lot of people expect when they read my work. Anyhow, I modelled my writing on the literature I loved when I was forming myself as a person, scholar, and critic — which was initially, primarily fiction and poetry, and the later non-fiction.

IS: I think when I talked about writing like an artist, it was to do with your engagement with materials and the incandescence of your rage — a viscerality I zoned in on. The tongue, the blade, the eye, the reading of the past and projecting of possible futures through your body in the present. You really inhabit it. I love some limpid, elegant critique (when it’s immaculate) but I long to hear art historians writing about art like they might die of it.

While reading, I made some very ridiculous (artist’s) notes, treating your text like source. I wrote: “Who are you, wasp woman?” and made notes about the transference. I asked what we learn by inhabiting, and how that relates to teaching. I underlined: “the remove makes it only sweeter” on page 9. So, thinking about the erotics operating through your text. What else? Notes about the inhabiting of other narratives … Oh, this was something that I enjoyed: the expectation of a range of references and how you made decisions around that.

AVM: I was told many times that the book would have been more accessible, and therefore saleable, if it had no expectation of the reader’s ability to parse or look up references, or didn’t include Greek words. But, it’s my first book, and I wanted it to be the truest, most uncompromising expression of my aesthetic preferences. Those references make me as a person. I am a pile of footnotes, and without them, without those citations and references, the book wouldn’t exist. To strip it of them would have been to publish an eviscerated thing.

It’s always a struggle to find a balance between writing for one or two or ten people and writing for an audience. The only person that maybe gets all your references, and all your stupid jokes about Pliny the Elder and volcanos, is the person you love. But I think readers are capable of more than we typically give them credit for. We live in an era when it’s easy to look it up if you don’t know a word or how something is pronounced. I expect my readers to be able to learn alongside me in the book, and I hope whatever I continue to write proves that a book can exist in the world that asks people to do these things.

Regarding references, one of the reasons Twombly paintings move me really deeply is how referential they are. But I also love things that aren’t referential. The book is about a lot of referential things because it’s about criticism, but there are things I love that aren’t that. I want to be clear: referentiality is not a demand. I’m also interested in different referentialities, which I don’t get. I get the classical ones, unless they’re pretty obscure, but I don’t get references to, say, Chinese court life when I’m reading Tang Dynasty poetry — I want to, because I don’t think there’s only one canonical tradition. I don’t think we should only teach Western texts, or teach the Western tradition in a narrow, exclusionary way. There are other traditions of intertextuality of reference that are incredibly rich and that I wish I had more access to. I wish I had more lifetimes to read, more languages.

IS: There is something really important about entering space when you can’t know. The space of not-knowing is where art can happen. This is essentially what artists reify into what they produce, a sort of laboratory of the unknowable.

That brings me to some thoughts I have about translation, and possible relationships between writing art history and translation. What role does translation have in your work, both practically and conceptually? I find ekphrasis a difficult term: if you could just write it down you wouldn’t have to actually make it, so it’s not quite that. But reading Parasites I often wrote ‘translational’ in the margins.

AVM: I don’t do translation in any professional capacity, so I don’t know that I’m qualified to talk about the nature of it. I don’t think of my work as being translation. I certainly lean on translation because of course there are some things I can’t read in the original, and I feel a debt of gratitude translators for giving me material and worlds. But I don’t think of criticism as being an act of translation. In the book, I talk about fish lice and having tongue substitutes, speaking for and speaking about, and I think that ekphrasis has a translating quality. I don’t think it’s akin to translation, but it has a quality of speech difference from other prose that I would like to think more about philosophically.

Paraphrasing is also interesting. It’s not a translation but it is a different sort of speech, and I think these little in between speeches — I say little, just like Minor Lits is minor — to me those are the most fascinating spaces: the small arts. Criticism is a secondary art, that for me is my great love. The minor literatures, the small spaces, the little arts, these are the things of which one makes a literary life, I hope. Hybridity is something I love, I think that’s clear from the book, and that’s something that translation is a part of, because betweenness is a category that queerness and hybridity both share.

IS: I made the note on references because it was something that I had found quite difficult to think about when I was writing my own book:  how much do I have to footnote? What can I take out? When is it too much?

AVM: I think Anglophone culture has made erudition something of a literary crime when it didn’t always do that, and it didn’t used to be. And we’re taking away access to humanities in both the USA and UK. Rishi Sunak wants people doing maths until eighteen, great, but also literature and art to eighteen too, because a well-rounded liberal arts education is all of those things – trivium and quadrivium.

People think a classical education has to be conservative, with conservatives in the US using “classical education” as a secret code for “white, straight, male” education, but no: these texts are and can be radical. We can’t let the right wing own these things, and part of seizing them back is writing about them, and writing about them in ways that are subversive and interesting.

I want to write for a public that I imagine in an ideal democracy, in a kind of vaguely post-Enlightenment sense — although I have many, many problems with teleologies of Enlightenment rationalism, pace Foucault — write for a public that I imagine being part of, an educated citizenry that deserves to be treated that way. If you cater to the lowest common denominator, you end up with fifteen copies of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens in an airport bookstore. And that’s not literature.

IS: It’s interesting to hear you talk about imagining your audience, who they might be, what they might know, what kind of encounter they might be able to have with your text.

AVM: It’s been something I’ve been forced to think about a lot because of my prose style and because what I choose to write about is often considered obscure. I’ve had editors and others try to convince me that I need to write for a broader audience.

IS: I think there’s a really interesting conversation going on around criticism right now, and what its function is.

AVM: People don’t see it as glamorous, like they do literature or art.

IS: That makes me laugh because making art is so not glamorous, it’s so often gross and uncomfortable. But I come from a tradition where what the critics says is what the thing is; where it is more important than the art. One of the things my discipline struggles with is who gets to speak about art, and it’s usually the critic, that’s where the power (as far as there is any) lies. One thing I’ve noticed in looking at how artists’ PhDs have evolved over the last 30 years, is a curious overlap: artists are writing into art history more (an expectation that they will use the methods and tools of art historians, which is a kind of conservatism), and art historians are using more materially-driven, experimental methods. There’s a blurry conversation, I think, between these things that would make a great research project for someone who is not me, frankly.

AVM: I know that artists think art historians think about them, and maybe they do in two-hundred years, but right now most art historians don’t — most people aren’t contemporary specialists, it is after all, a historical field first. And there are fewer and fewer of us, and there are very few art critics, so the idea of making or composing work for critics is often this active overthought. The idea that art historians or critics have a monolithic power of inscribing history is increasingly untrue because, well, there’s hardly any funding, substance or space in universities for criticism or history any more. If artists are making works for critics, I don’t know who those critics are.

IS: I don’t think they’re making art for critics in quite in that way, that’s not really what I’m getting at. I think there’s a sense in which even with an interested audience, there’s a deferral to critics (whether art historian, critic or curator) in decision-making about whether art actually works, actually is art. The tradition in which a review makes or breaks the career is still very much alive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in conversations where the question about what my work means or is for has been directed at the art historian, critic or curator, when I’m sitting right there. It’s as though the artist’s understanding of the work must be externally qualified.

AVM: There’s a populist thing now, like with Olafur Eliasson, Damien Hirst, the Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs – those are not things that critics were particularly excited about, but they are things that have become … People don’t care what critics think! There’s a lot more interesting things going on in contemporary practise, but actually my power is so limited, if any at all … Curators in white cube galleries and major modern museums have some power, but they’re also totally beholden to trustees and to the market and to all these other forces. And honestly, it’s popularity. MoMA will always do a Picasso show because a Picasso show brings in the money to stage, say, the Chinese architecture exhibition in the room on the third floor.

Although the book takes an attitude of power, because it is an empowering act, critics are very much powerless creatures. At least in the 90s you would turn on the TV and Camille Paglia would be on PBS having, you know, some admittedly stupid opinion. Now if you turn on PBS or the BBC it’s not critics speaking. I don’t think critics have the kind of power that people imagine. Maybe it was true in the 90s, or perceived to be true. But also publishers had more money then, they would give people advances, and now everyone I know writing criticism is working adjunct positions close to the poverty line.

IS: And everyone I know making art is in the same boat or worse. If you look at the stats on artists’ incomes, it’s not an activity that is either fiscally or socially rewarded by the contemporary.

AVM: The idea of the critic as this powerful, socially removed figure that gets to make decisions for history is cute, but I don’t think most people even know what criticism is versus a review. I don’t think people see enough criticism, and it’s not their fault. Yes, the New York Times Book Review is fairly critical, but 800 word pieces don’t give people a lot of space. Since The Guardian cut their book section, I’m basically reading reviews rather than review-essays or broader criticism. I also read the TLS and LRB, of course, but I think both have recently become more culturally conservative. The loss of Bookforum really makes this hit home.

There are a lot of good publications left, but a lot of the best work is being done online. So there are still places but … It seems like critics are parasites in a very literal sense, like we’re struggling. This is a moment of great difficulty for criticism. Although, the TikTok video, the YouTube video, those are forms of criticism, and they’re very much alive, video is just not a good format for long-form literary criticism …

The internet is both evil and amazing, it’s a cesspit — a fabulous cesspit. I think part of democratising criticism, and culture more broadly, is teaching people research methods, teaching people reasoning, and teaching people standards for logical inquiry, and we as a society have virtually failed to do that. But also I do try to remind myself that a lot of these people are very young — some of them are idiots, but some of them are just very young — and I’m hoping if they make these videos they will figure it out.

IS: I do think that if that’s what people have access to, that’s what they know how to explore, is it not better for them to at least be trying than not? To a certain extent they’re having to engage with the mechanics.

AVM: The Internet is a giant democratising force. Almost every classical text in three different translations is free now. What I would have given for that as a teenager! Whatever resources enable someone to write, let’s say, a 16 chapter fan-fiction, could also have been used for so much else!

This is going to sound like a critique, like people are lazy, etc. but I think it’s mostly a broader failure of education, and a failure of our culture and society to support people intellectually to produce new work. And I just don’t know that it’s possible to get a good education for most people anymore, and it scares me. These structural failures are really what’s at stake here.

IS: I think that is a really critical point, it’s incredibly difficult for many people to access good education. It’s an infrastructural problem. I could say it’s a problem of curiosity, but is it possible to be curious where you are under the sorts of pressures of hunger, debt and lack of reliable housing or medical care?

AVM: My incredible privilege comes into play here, and it’s where I go back to my socialist principles and Marxist-inflected historical roots: Okay, my parents could buy a house in a good school district; they could afford the time to make sure we applied for the special magnet programme; they could afford to pay for university. But at the same time, there are still just people with horrible taste. It’s possible to be affluent, have access to a great education, be exposed to many things, and just be dumb. Or tasteless. Those aren’t the same thing, which is interesting and deserves more inquiry than I can give it casually here.

Having strong tastes and an aesthetic sensibility is underrated. We all want people to like us on the Internet, or to become infamous for being hated. But I really want neither; having strong aesthetic preferences is a human experience that I enjoy. And I care very, very deeply about literature. Our world is more vibrant for having opinions.

Also, hating is itself an erotics. The book is about things I love, things I crave, and want to inhabit, but there’s also an erotics to wanting to disinhibit, to shun. I like being a hater. I truly fucking hate lots of things. But that’s kind of a joyous experience to release yourself as your taste. γνῶθι σεαυτόν ! Then again I should also include the other Delphic maxims: Μηδὲν ἄγαν  and Ἐγγύα πάρα δ’ Ἄτα. “Know thyself” but ALSO “nothing too much” or “nothing in extremity” and “Give a pledge and trouble is to hand”. Both of those probably also apply as warnings to myself here. I am given to both extremities and trouble, especially when it comes to distaste for certain kinds of writing and style.

IS: I often say this to students, let yourself be driven by something you hate or that really pisses you off, because at least you will be interested; when it gets hard your bile will keep you going.

AVM: And let’s be clear, my aesthetic judgements are mine and mine alone. Do I think you should agree if you have good taste? Yeah. But that’s my personal and subjective opinion. The book is deeply personal because I think aesthetics as a personal, subjective concern is something that carries over into so many literary discussions. The book is about love, and although it would be fun to write a companion volume about hate, I don’t know if I could take it.

I think some people will see Parasites as autotheory or autofiction, which I would be happy with. I don’t think of it as fiction, and I don’t think autotheory or autofiction has to be narcissistic. I think that’s a false stereotype.

IS: I think so too. It’s quite a gendered claim, and one I’ve speculated about a lot online. It’s purely anecdotal, but I see a lot of what I’d call autofiction by men lionised, and autofiction by women dismissed. It feels really non-reflexive. Much earlier in my career, I wrote and exhibited under initials because I wanted to conceal that I was (and am) a woman so my work wouldn’t always be interpreted through certain lenses. Later, when I started working in a field which was very male-dominated, I found it slightly advantageous that they didn’t think I’d understand certain technical things, or be bluntly critical, so I began to use my full first and last name. Can you say something about your relation to this?

AVM: A scholarly press, that I had put the book up for consideration with said I had a blog-style voice. And I said no, that’s because you know I’m a woman and it’s got confessional aspects — I’m actually horrible at blogging, ironically. It was incredibly gendered to say something was “bloggy” as an essay because it revealed a personal slant. I publish under my initials because I’m vain and I like the sound, but it is convenient because people do indeed make fewer assumptions about my intellectual capacities as a critic. I also like the implicit queerness of it.

Speaking of queer aesthetics, I also made the book pink partly because — well, it’s not Twombly red — but it felt like it had a similar violence. It’s the same pink as the eosin stains protein on sample slides of tapeworms.  It is both queer and feminine in a way that suggests what you called “incandescent rage” earlier: an unabashedly queer colour that expresses all the things the book was allowed to be. The colour runs through the book.  And I think the colours, both the pink and the Homeric rage, sadness and want of Twombly’s red, convey some of the paradoxes of this type of writing. What people often expect from autofiction, and especially autofiction, by woman is a is a confessional Eat, Pray, Love sort of thing. And when you don’t do that, they get mad. But Eat, Pray, Love? What is this book, actually? Infest, Corrupt, Desire.

A.V. Marraccini is a critic, essayist, and historian of art. Twitter: @saintsoftness

We the Parasites is out with Sublunary Editions next week. You can order a copy here.

A virtual launch, featuring Alina Stefanescu, will take place on Saturday 25th February at 13:30 EST / 18:30 GMT. Register here.

Isabella Streffen is an artist. Twitter: @minxmarple

Her book Fabulae. How It Begins is available from Ma Bibliothèque.

There will be a launch for Fabulae, as well as Sharon Kivland’s Abécédaire, at After 8 Books, Paris, on Friday 17th February. For more information, visit their website.