“The breaks” by Julietta Singh and the public purse

I thought for a while about the obligation, perhaps even the duty, of the researcher to communicate with a wider audience. For many academics, this is simply out of the question – or even ever considered. It is often said that writing for the public does not “count” for tenure or promotion, although this is usually a myth, easily dispelled. The truth is, administrators love scholarships aimed at the public (if only for recruiting and publicity reasons), and departments that support this kind of work benefit. Editors and tenure committees find themselves in a chicken-and-egg situation, unsure of exactly who sets the parameters for “rigor” – but in the meantime, savvy researchers are finding ways to both promote and to do this work, changing the editorial landscape that surrounds them.

Yet the possible forms of public scholarship remain largely elusive to most scholars. It is enough to work on the publication in a narrow field, without adding the burden of learning to write for a different kind of reader. Even though many of these academics ostensibly teach students writing lucid prose, that same skill is often lost at the upper echelons of the humanities scholarship. A peer-reviewed, accepted and published article can still be virtually unreadable.

When experts in the humanities have formulated or invented critical knowledge, what should they do with it? It’s not quite like in other disciplines, where such discoveries could be put into clinical practice, patented, or mass-produced. What is the function of current or deeply researched literary or philosophical concepts? Not just to be filed and sit in library piles, surely. Thinkers come up with avant-garde concepts and neologisms not only to appear cool or to crystallize abstract ideas, but ideally to to cut: modify the social fabric.

So I couldn’t wait to read Julietta Singh’s new book, The breaks, which in a way picks up where his brilliant but more downright academic monograph, Thoughtless mastery: dehumanism and decolonial entanglements, leave behind. Although to call Thoughtless mastery “Square” is not fair, since this book weaves front-line theory and contemporary philosophy concerning the erosion and evolution of research in the humanities. And Thoughtless mastery also dropped bits and pieces of Singh’s more conversational and narrative voice, which made me anticipate his non-fiction book thoroughly. (Singh’s Other Academic Book, 2018’s No archive will restore you, was also a key part of the author’s bridge to public writing.)

The breaks is part of the epistolary tradition of “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” by James Baldwin and more recently that of Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the world and me – in Singh’s case, it takes the form of a long letter to his six-year-old daughter. Following the final years of the Obama presidency, then the purgatory of the Trump era, Singh reflects on her own intellectual development and adjustment to become a mother. It’s a story of queer household and expansive kinship – of deciphering family pasts, shaping domestic presence, and imagining unknown futures of belonging.

I moved away from my original point of entry. What I like The breaks This is how Singh embraces the staff, avoiding the private – all for the sake of public writing. Academics are trained to deploy jargon (ack, even that “deploy”!) Strategically to appropriate audiences. But in this book, Singh uses theoretical terms precisely and selectively, opening them up to a wider readership. I flip through the pages to find a suitable quote, but it’s difficult because these examples are on every page and so elegantly intertwined with the story unfolding within. Words like weird, capitalism, and racism are never left floating ethereal, but are always anchored in the daily life of the author.

In short, Singh’s book is an example of living theory, to break the academic limits of critical theory and in ordinary life. I don’t mean to say this is entirely unique, as theorists have been doing it for decades in their own way (see Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, bell hooks, et al). But Singh’s entry into this field is distinguished by his unwavering openness. It’s not just about applying complex concepts, but showing how complex such an application really is. It is one thing to have critical and theoretical ideas; it is quite another to play them in the disorder of everyday society and culture.

Amid preparations for Richard Branson’s brief copper trip to the lower atmosphere, Neil deGrasse Tyson said that if humans don’t rush to colonize space, they might as well prepare for their own extinction. I’m paraphrasing. The whole thing seemed so empty, with the bombastic media spectacle and the cruel irony of the event: the richest humans flaunting their extreme privilege precisely by pretending that they were opening space for everyone. A week later I found myself reading The breaks and delighted with how Singh had already articulated in advance a clever response to deGrasse Tyson’s last word: Bodies were destroyed, then recycled, to emerge as other earthly things. Singh is comfortable with species extinction, but thinks we could go about it in a fairer, more poetic way – and that is, in some ways, the lesson for his daughter.

The breaks rightly understands ecological catastrophe and racial injustice (and in particular the slave trade) as two sides of the same coin, or, as Singh puts it, “two pivotal pivotal points in the history of capitalism” . I attribute The breaks in my ecological thinking seminar this semester, because I want my students to consider this moment and Singh makes it very clear. If Singh is involved and entangled in advanced Western capitalism, in all of its spoils and foils, she does an admirable job as an integrated journalist, in a way. Singh finished writing his book during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this public health crisis comes across as another inflection point in the narrative – and serves as a fitting ending.

I got lost again. What I admire about Singh’s latest book is how boldly he breaks the conventions of academic writing, never losing sight of the high stakes of the intellectual work that propels him. For any researcher who is considering how their personal story fits in with their academic interests, The breaks serves as a lucid model. At the same time, for all writer seeking to tell his story, The breaks stands out as a flexible and captivating model.

I know it is unrealistic to expect all humanities academics to produce writing intended for the public. But I also know that there is a thirst for this kind of expression, as well as a multiplication of places that make this work readable and accessible to a large audience. For readers and writers intrigued by the potential of public scholarship, Julietta Singh’s book The breaks is an inspiring case study. It is an honest and unpretentious illustration of making thought public, of finding praxis in everyday life – and of daring to dwell on it.

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Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Emeritus Professor of English at Loyola University in New Orleans. His new book Pedagogy of the depressed will be released in January 2022.

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