OCTOBER 2, 2021
I’VE BEEN THINKING for a while about the obligation, maybe even duty, of the scholar to communicate with wider public audiences. For a lot of academics, this is simply out of the question — or never even considered. Writing for the public often is said not to “count” for tenure or promotion, even though this is usually a myth, easily dispelled. The truth is that administrators love public-facing scholarship (if only for reasons of recruitment and publicity), and departments that support this kind of work benefit from it. Publishers and tenure committees find themselves in a chicken and egg situation, unsure of who exactly sets the parameters for “rigor” — but meanwhile, savvy scholars are figuring out ways to both foster and do this work, changing the publishing landscape around them.
Still, the possible forms of public scholarship remain largely inscrutable to most academics. It is enough to work toward publication in a narrow field, without adding the burden of learning to write for a different kind of reader. Even though many such academics ostensibly teach students to write lucid prose, that same skill is often lost at the upper echelons of humanities scholarship. A peer-reviewed, accepted, and published article can still end up practically unreadable.
When humanities experts have formulated or invented critical knowledge, what should they do with it? It’s not quite like other disciplines, where such findings might be put into clinical practice, patented, or mass produced. What is the function of timely or deeply researched literary or philosophical concepts? Not just to be filed and sit stale in library stacks, surely. Thinkers come up with edgy concepts and neologisms not only to sound cool or to crystallize abstract ideas, but ideally to cut: to alter social fabric.
So I was eager to read Julietta Singh’s new book, The Breaks, which in some ways picks up where her brilliant but more squarely academic monograph, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements, left off. Though to call Unthinking Mastery “square” is hardly fair, since that book weaves together front-line theory and contemporary philosophy concerning the erosion and evolution of humanities inquiry. And Unthinking Mastery also dropped tidbits of Singh’s more conversational, storytelling voice throughout — leading me to anticipate her full-tilt nonfiction book. (Singh’s other academic book, 2018’s No Archive Will Restore You, also formed a key part of the author’s bridge toward public writing.)
The Breaks follows in the epistolary tradition of James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and more recently Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me — in Singh’s case, this takes the form of a long letter to her six-year-old daughter. Tracking across the final years of the Obama presidency and then through the purgatory of the Trump era, Singh reflects on her own intellectual development and her adjustment to becoming a mother. It is a tale of queer homemaking and expansive kinship — of deciphering family pasts, shaping domestic presence, and imagining unknown futurities of belonging.
I’ve drifted from my original point of entry. What I love about The Breaks is how Singh embraces the personal, eschewing the private — all for the sake of public writing. Academics are trained to deploy jargon (ack, even that “deploy”!) strategically for appropriate audiences. But in this book, Singh uses theoretical terms precisely and selectively, by way of opening them up to a wider readership. I am flipping back through the pages to find a suitable quotation, but it’s hard because these instances are on every page and so elegantly intertwined with the narrative unfolding within. Words like queer, capitalism, and racism are never left ethereally floating, but are always grounded in the everyday life of the author.
In short, Singh’s book is an example of living theory, of breaking through the academic confines of critical theory and into ordinary life. I don’t mean to flag this as altogether unique, as theorists have done this for decades in their own idiosyncratic ways (see Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, bell hooks, et al). But Singh’s entry into this field is distinct in its unflinching openness. It’s not just about applying complex concepts, but showing how complex such application truly is. It’s one thing to have critical-theoretical ideas; it’s another to play them out in the messiness of everyday society and culture.
Amid the run-up to Richard Branson’s brassy if brief trip up to the lower atmosphere, Neil deGrasse Tyson said something to the effect of 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 vacuous, what with the bombastic media spectacle and the cruel irony of the event: the richest humans displaying their extreme privilege precisely while claiming that they were opening up outer space to all. A mere week later, I found myself reading The Breaks and delighting in how Singh had already articulated in advance an astute answer to deGrasse Tyson’s as-if last word: “If our survival has now become impossible, I want to join all our expiring selves in fierce poetic refusal, until every last one of our bodies has been destroyed, then recycled, to emerge as other earthly things.” Singh is comfortable with species extinction, but thinks we might go about it more justly, more poetically — and this, in some ways, is the lesson for her daughter.
The Breaks rightly understands ecological catastrophe and racial injustice (and specifically the slave trade) as two sides of the same coin, or, as Singh puts it, “two crucial pivot points in the history of capitalism.” I am assigning The Breaks in my Ecological Thought seminar this semester, because I want my students to consider this juncture and Singh makes it very plain. If Singh is implicated and entangled in advanced Western capitalism, in all its spoils and foils, she is doing admirable work as an embedded journalist, of sorts. Singh finished writing her book during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this public health crisis emerges as yet another inflection point in the narrative — and serves as an apt end.
I’ve strayed again. What I admire about Singh’s latest book is how boldly it breaks through the conventions of academic writing, without ever losing sight of the high stakes of the intellectual work that propels it. For any scholar contemplating how their own personal narrative dovetails with their academic interests, The Breaks serves as a lucid model. At the same time, for any writer looking to tell their story, The Breaks stands out as a lithe, captivating exemplar.
I know it’s unrealistic to expect all humanities scholars to produce public-facing writing. But I also know that there’s a thirst for this kind of expression, as well as increasing venues that make such work legible and available for wide audiences. 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 unassuming illustration of making thought public, of finding praxis in the quotidian — and daring to linger there.