The New Enthusiasm! A Manifesto

Two years ago, we started Avidly.  Today, we’re starting something else: Avidly’s life as an LA Review of Books Channel. This feels legitimating.  But what is it, exactly, that Avidly is trying to make legitimate? What are we trying to make real?

Avidly is different from other LARB Channels because its identity isn’t bound to a topic.  Instead, Avidly is bound to a tone. Or put differently, Avidly is a place for writing that has a particular relationship to its subject matter, whatever that subject is; we’re about a school of looking.  A school of criticism, call it. We sometimes call the school — though the name itself isn’t our concoction — The New Enthusiasm.

Bringing together cultural studies’ belief that anything may be read, productively and changingly, with recent critical and theoretical interest in affect, The New Enthusiasm affirms feeling about thinking and thinking about feeling. It doesn’t much care whether you want to think through your feelings for Keanu Reeves or deeply feel your thoughts about Lacan. The New Enthusiasm is not about sunny positivity but about energetic expression, about the visceral and kinesthetic; it does not have patience for (often masculinized) critical distance.

And yet, The New Enthusiasm does not set itself up against the idea of mastery in the way that the canon-expanding theoretical interventions of the late-twentieth century sometimes did. To the contrary, The New Enthusiasm celebrates mastery! Did you spend seven years in the archives finding out all you could about polar exploration in the nineteenth century? Have you spent years and years considering the octopus? We tip our hats to your deep and important knowledge. The New Enthusiasm says that, as long as Herman Melville is a part of it, the canon is not an enemy. Herman Melville must be read. He must be learned from. He must be sat with, and listened to. Likewise must C.L.R. James. Everyone: into the ring! TELL US WHAT YOU KNOW.

The New Enthusiasm respects that knowledge takes place at different times and at different speeds, and manifests in different scales. Spending seven years in the archives studying Henry James might, very wonderfully, enable you to throw down, off the cuff, the perfect illumination of Kendrick Lamar’s genius.  Or the other way around: watching a Beyoncé video might snap your work on Edith Wharton into focus.  What you learn in these moments might fill the space of a book; it might distill into the perfect tweet. But perhaps what you learn might fill some space in the middle, and that is why we have made Avidly: for writing in the middle. Academia privileges slow learning, delivered in particular doses; the internet privileges the quick. Both of these ways of learning are very wonderful.  Avidly hopes to support The New Enthusiasm by celebrating the kind of writerly spontaneity that springs from long, slow, loving labor.

One criticism often levied against academic writing is that it is too rarified, that its audience is too small.  The New Enthusiasm finds this criticism ridiculous. What could possibly be more lovely than spending years immersing yourself in nuances, and then explicating those nuances, with great attention and care, to others who love them the best? It’s no more absurd to plumb the world’s deep knowledge than it is to physically explore its most remote corners.  The New Enthusiasm is pro pure research!  Rural Iowa is not less vital than New York, just because fewer people live there!

It seems silly to us, that the world works so hard to make each of us into either this kind of writer, or that, but rarely both, at least not at the same time.  In the same way that a person might love long quiet talks with best friends and also love jostling her way through crowded dance floors, we deserve the chance to write in different modes and venues.  We love coterie circulation.  That affection does not dissolve our pleasure in strutting down the literary equivalent of the Soul Train Line.  The New Enthusiasm says: Writers! Show us your moves!

In short: the New Enthusiasm is not interested in petty arguments.  It finds turf wars boring. It’s not about the immediate instead of the archive. It’s not about the 500 word essay, slammed to the page in an hour, instead of the slow work of the monograph, the scholarly essay. Don’t both of these modes benefit from the other?

The New Enthusiasm admires, stylistically, both Strunk & White and Walt Whitman. The New Enthusiasm believes everything David Walker taught us about typography. The New Enthusiasm believes that many things are broken, all around, but we are not!

The New Enthusiasm believes that cultural criticism does work in the world. And yet it believes that we’ve been looking for evidence of that work in the wrong places; looking for massive structural change, legislative process, we’ve been coming up short, disappointed. The New Enthusiasm returns us to our hands, in front of us. Our hands, on keyboards, pressing letters. Our hands holding children, pets, gesturing to our students and bringing food to someone who can’t get to the store. These actions are not the same but they spring from each other: the way we write becomes the way that we care. We had been looking for the change as coming out of the abstractions our hands wrought, out of words and arguments. The New Enthusiasm says that’s got it twisted; the change comes not from the abstraction– whether language, expression, thinking– but from the action itself. The doing of it.

We change the world through the doing of knowledge, with joy.

 

Sarah Mesle and Sarah Blackwood:   Sarahs.