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Bad Artist Statement #2: Emma Marie Jones
Emma Marie Jones and I talk about Christine Smallwood's The Life of the Mind, universities in the age of COVID, the desire to leave academia, and an increasingly infantile culture.
Emma Marie Jones is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Emma's first book, a fictocritical memoir, Something To Be Tiptoed Around, was published in 2018. Emma has written for The Lifted Brow, SCUM, Meanjin, and Cordite. She teaches fiction and life writing, is finishing a PhD in anaesthetised millennial literature, and is at work on her first novel.
Emma and I have been close friends for years, at certain points having crises of individuation. We spoke over FaceTime about Christine Smallwood's The Life of the Mind, universities in the age of COVID, the desire to leave academia, and an increasingly infantile culture.
Paul Dalla Rosa: This one I think is the conversation that I'm actually nervous for, because I guess our communication is pretty much constant. Then there's the risk of saying too much, and then having to go in and edit it all out.
Emma Marie Jones: Yes.
PDR: I know you're between drafts of your novel so it probably isn't the best thing to talk about. I was thinking of us talking about Christine Smallwood's The Life of the Mind because, in certain ways, reading it this year felt like it described both of our lives in really specific ways.
EMJ: We can do that.
PDR: The Life of the Mind is Christine Smallwood's novel that just came out this year. It's about an adjunct teacher at a university in New York and the adjunct's life in this perennial state of either overemployment or underemployment. It's about the life of the mind, the intellectual life that I suppose we constantly romanticise, and then the reality of living that life today. I was lucky because I wasn't teaching while reading it, whereas you're sort of in a different position. Both of us teach, well I don't really teach much, I sort of drop in for a unit then leave, but you teach fiction and memoir. And so, yeah, I guess how did you find the novel matched up with you?
EMJ: Yeah, I feel like one of the most relatable things to me was even just the scene at the start where the main character Dorothy is sitting in the bathroom. But students also use that bathroom and having this feeling, like, hyper-conscious of knowing that there's no separation between the teacher or the student in some way that would make it feel like there's any kind of power structure or hierarchy between them, just like reducing that down to her sitting in a toilet cubicle. So I feel like that collapse between student and teacher—in a way that I think students might not be so aware of—was very, like, relatable.
PDR: Well, I've had that exact experience of being in a bathroom that's close to the tutorial room and then being in a toilet stall or the urinal and then, like, coming out into the main bathroom and then realising that one of my students is there and you have this really awkward, awful interaction and then leave.
EMJ: I've had that too and you sort of just smile at each other with that closed-lip smile and like pretend that you didn't see each other.
PDR: I think it's because students sort of like this idea that, you know, there's meant to be this huge distance between you and your students. And to an extent, you know, there is a huge distance in terms of like where you are in your career, what your, you know, expertise is to teach a class. But it doesn't always feel like that.
EMJ: Yeah I'm older than them and I'm in a different kind of world like they're not going to hang out with me in the same social sphere because they're just different people. But I feel like it's probably just this assumption amongst students and, I could be naive in saying this because things were very different when I was an undergrad and all of my teachers would have been like tenured, but there was just this separation between them. My tutors would have gone to a separate building with their offices to heat up their lunch or use the bathroom. And it's just like today there's no separation in that way.
PDR: Yeah, it's like that moment in The Life of the Mind when the main character, Dorothy, is in the library and needs to print something but a librarian there won't recognise that she's a professor or an adjunct.
EMJ: Which is, I don't know, I mean, that collapse, kind of like now that everyone's on Zoom, it's like maybe that collapse is something everyone's more aware of now, and it's happening to every staff member even if they're not a casual tutor.
PDR: Well, I guess it makes everyone feel casualised.
EMJ:So, yeah, but also, it's like that kind of intimacy that you want to avoid with your students by like having them hear you pee or whatever. It's like now they can just see your living room or, you know, they can see your house from within your house. Whatever wall you are going to erect between yourself and your students, where they would see or some kind of like, I don't know, other zone. It's like that's not possible anymore. So it kind of all doesn't matter.
PDR: Yeah, exactly. No, definitely. And then I guess I was going to ask, obviously I already know this, but for the conversation, where are you at right now in the sense of studying or teaching or writing?
EMJ: I don't know. No, I'm teaching this semester and I am supposed to finish my PhD in the next 12 months, which I guess just feels increasingly, I don't know, unrealistic.
EMJ: And that's for so many different reasons, like, you know, in terms of a possibility, because it's like when am I ever going to be able to use a facility belonging to the university again without having to be locked down. But also, I guess just like, I don't know, I don't know. It just feels unrealistic.
PDR: I do have a belief that for everyone in that situation it feels unrealistic, even if they're a month off submission.
EMJ: That's probably true. It's like you live for so many years with this kind of just almost like fantastical deadline over your head where it's like, that's okay, it's like in the future. And then it gets to the point where the institution is telling you that it's supposed to happen now, and you're just like, no, that's not real.
PDR: It's time to leave the building.
EMJ: Yeah, it's like my own mortality. It's just like this is eventually going to happen but I haven't exactly thought about preparing for it.
PDR: And then I guess I should give some context, which is I guess I'm on leave from my PhD at the moment. I have a strong sense that I'll defer. It just seems sort of inconceivable to me that I'd be able to go back right now. That doesn't necessarily mean I don't have an intention to finish it. It's just I've too many things going on.
EMJ: Yeah, it's that and it's also, I hate to harp on about the pandemic because it's such a boring thing to talk about, but I feel like it's like everyone in the pandemic is like a mosquito in amber, and everything moves more slowly, and eventually it stops moving. And I feel like with a PhD, it's something that requires so much motivation and planning that comes from within yourself. There's no external factor that's like pushing you along. So it's like just the energy to think about imposing deadlines on myself and doing the work is just like, that's just not happening.
PDR: Yeah. I don't even know if it's the pandemic for me. I actually think a lot about that tarot reading you did for me. When was that? I think that was last year maybe.
EMJ: Yeah, last year, maybe during the big lockdown. I think it was actually maybe my birthday.
PDR: Yeah it was, which is weird. Why would you be giving me a reading on your birthday?
EMJ: I guess you just called me to say happy birthday and I just was in that zone.
PDR: The reading was pretty clear. I don't remember the cards exactly, but it was that I couldn't do everything at once, so I had to drop something. Simplify. So I did, and sort of now it's funny. I guess I've had this time where I haven't had to think about it, and that's been incredible but now I have these looming decisions ahead. Like I have Leave Society on my desk at the moment and I was like looking at it before, but something happened with my mind where I couldn't see the spine as Leave Society. My mind read it as 'Leave Academia.' Which is extremely seductive in many ways.
EMJ: I think because that idea of leaving academia is less seductive and more just like inevitable.
PDR: Well, it's just the reality of, yeah, I guess this collapsing system or not even a collapsing system because the system's still going to be there. You just might not be the person in it.
EMJ: It feels inevitable because there's just no… It's less I will have to leave academia and more like academia has left society. So there is, you know, what's the point of clinging to a raft when it's just like a splinter, really? You should just let go and float away into the ocean. That's how it can feel.
PDR: Exactly, it's like that image of the raft in The Life of the Mind.
PDR: The main character keeps imagining a raft the children of the future cling to after catastrophic climate change. But the raft might as well be, you know, these institutions that have been changing for decades but are now undergoing things like, I don't know. I feel like dealing with the universities right now is almost like dealing with a transformer that is constantly morphing and turning into its most streamlined-to-austerity form. But it doesn't stop or settle. And it's like, do I even want to deal with that.
EMJ: Yeah, also in The Life of the Mind, the climate change thing feels almost interchangeable with a generalised anxiety about the shittiness of the future. So it's like the character Dorothy's hang-up about thinking of having children and what the future will be like for her children is just a generalised feeling. You could insert anything into that space and think, well, everything's just getting worse.
EMJ: And like I love teaching and I love my students and I love how much teaching changes my approach to things. It's a very mutual kind of relationship. But I feel like thinking about it as a long-term future is like that TV show, what's the name? The one where people have to do all of these really comical obstacles, like run across a spinning bar or climb a wall that punches them and then fall into the mud.
PDR: Is that Ninja Warrior or something?
EMJ: I think it's Wipeout.
PDR: Okay. Yeah.
EMJ: It makes me think of that where it's just like, how long can you keep doing something that's sort of so almost comedically punishing, even if you really like it.
PDR: And even if you're really good at it.
EMJ: I mean, that's up for debate, but I really like it and I would definitely do it. I would definitely do it for the rest of my life if it wasn't going to completely destroy my body and soul. It's really the instability of it. That's the destructive part. It's not the work itself.
PDR: Well, you know, I've seen lots of people, especially over the COVID period, but it was a lot before that, where it's like, you know, course makers or tutors won't even know if there's money for the subject they're teaching until the week the subject starts or, you know, they won't get the contract till the day of. Or they'll work to digitise a course and then be told they don't have a contract next semester. Then at most there will be a press release that talks about x number of jobs lost, but that's not even what the press release says. It's all about how the university has been "re-imagined." Though normally there isn't even that because they don't have to report on casuals.
EMJ: I've taught before or done other similar work like research assistant work or whatever. I've got the contract like a week after starting the work. I'm essentially working, not knowing when or whether or not I'll get paid, and I need to have faith that I will.
PDR: I guess I get frustrated. Everything I do is just a way that I can keep making art, but I can actually choose how I do that and when all of this surrounds you, it's like, why choose to do that in this exact way. I remember a news article that came out last year where some report was quoted that universities need to 'pivot,' and what they need to pivot to is on-campus instagrammable experiences.
EMJ: That's what they need?
PDR: Yes. Instagram. An instagrammable experience is just creating a marketed image of the university as a product rather than anything to do with what a university actually is. I find that so patronising. This might be too much of a shift. I want to try and 'pivot.' I want to talk about how I feel like there's been this shift in culture into a more infantile one. Everything feels monetised and moving towards just being content.
EMJ: Yeah, even the commodification of university where it's just like, the words that come to my mind when I think about this kind of culture is just like everything is smooth and ready for consumption. There are no rough edges or kind of like little bits that come later that you have to figure out how to attach meaning to or anything like that.
PDR: That sounds better.
EMJ: Yeah. It's so reductive, obviously, but it's like I even just think about that when I'm like scrolling through Netflix or whatever. And it's like everything on here is designed for me to absolutely not resist it at all, to just be like, yes, I'm going to passively let this wash into my system.
PDR: Yeah it's exactly that. I see it everywhere, and to me, it really does have a broad infantilising effect. I had a friend send me a photo of themselves at that Van Gogh Pier 36 immersive experience in New York, where they project Van Gogh's Sunflowers or Starry Night at some wild resolution so it's like you're in the painting. And in this photo, my friend's body is slumped on the floor and his hands are over his face in despair, sort of like an overwhelmed child. Regressive almost. Then that same day, I read the Natasha Stagg Out of State column about the same Van Gogh immersive experience, then remembered that Melbourne had something like that or did recently.
EMJ: I don't know. When Van Gogh was here, I'm pretty sure I went but I don't think they had that kind of like projections of it and stuff. And they had those, like evening events where they would do that.
PDR: No, this was a separate thing a few months ago, Van Gogh Alive. It's funny because it's a different exhibition to the one Stagg describes but it's the same thing. Actually, I think in that column, Stagg mentions two almost identical exhibits showing in New York at the same time.
EMJ: Yeah, and that we see art like that, Van Gogh's like most famous artworks all the time on umbrellas and phone cases. It's like one in every three boomer women I know has a Sunflowers glasses case or something like that. But it's like Stagg said that the thing that makes people so excited when they see the real artwork and they quote-unquote get off for the first time, it's like the texture. That it's just like before it was completely flat and then it was something when you look at it, it's like, oh shit, this has like almost a violent texture that's really different from the picture on the umbrella. I don't know if that fades into what I was saying before about infantile culture. You just feel like everything is smooth.
PDR: Yeah, I think it does.
EMJ: People have these, like, profound experiences, either positive or negative when they are confronted with the actual texture of reality.
PDR: Yeah, Fredric Jameson wrote a lot on this, smoothness, lack of texture, but I think now we see it and its effects from a different vantage point. What I find sort of really sad or difficult is the artist today existing within that culture. Like I'm thinking of, I think it was something Oscar Schwartz shared. He'd gone to the NGV and they had Jeff Koons' Venus in the atrium. So that was there. And it's like this reflective, smooth, mirror-polished steel surface, and then there was a string quartet playing in front of it so that you would enter the NGV and you would say, oh, wow, this is a real artistic experience. And Oscar had taken this video of a man taking a video of the quartet playing in front of the Jeff Koons. And the man was taking a video of this little plush toy monkey he was holding in one hand, and he was waving it in his hand so that it was dancing to the string quartet in front of the Jeff Koons. And seeing this in Oscar's Instagram story, the only thing I could think of was to imagine being the cellist or the violinist.
EMJ: It makes me think, actually, I think I was texting you about this when I was watching it. Late one night I was channel surfing and I saw this televised André Rieu concert. And he got out this opera singer, like a woman with obviously classical opera training, and then she just sang like, I can't even remember which song. They sang a cover of a Michael Jackson song because I guess this had been filmed the year that Michael Jackson died. And so this woman, this opera singer, and a children's choir sang a Michael Jackson song and it showed all of these old European people sitting in the audience just sobbing. And it was just, I don't know, there was something about it. I had a similar feeling where it feels like this is a shortcut. It's a shortcut to get this, like, semi-sublime reaction from the audience. But it's just like the audience don't understand that you've taken a shortcut. There's something really weird about it.
PDR: I think it's weirdness. I think it's almost like high strangeness when people talk about, like, UFO encounters and these weird phenomena around them, which isn't just limited to the strange object itself. It's like reality becomes fuzzy almost. And that's what I find when I see a video like that or something like that, I feel like I'm almost in freefall. I felt like that when I saw Kim Kardashian being gifted a hologram of her dead father talking to her. Like it's just really fucking weird. This wormhole of hyperreality.
EMJ: I mean, I guess this there's something to be said for the way that everything we view or all experience, at least half of it, if not more than half of it, is mediated by a screen. And so those kinds of like textural or uncurated elements are, I guess, overridden by the sort of smooth, high polish of the screen. And so in this way reality gives way to hyperreality. I don't know if that makes sense.
PDR: No I think it does. And there's a sort of delirium to it as well. It actually has a charge that does interest me. I don't reflexively hate it in every instance.
EMJ: It's funny, I think that what you're articulating is like actually what made me lose my mind and it's why I had to delete all of my social media accounts because it was like I almost couldn't delineate any more between what was like a mediated reality and actual reality. It was making me really not have a grasp on how I felt about things that were happening around me or, like, how I should feel about my body and stuff like that. It was all just completely controlled, like mediated by this algorithm that was just really fucking with me. So I had to delete it all.
PDR: Sometimes I feel like that. I don't know. I just find it really interesting and fascinating, and even with art, say the Triennial at the NGV, which now seems literally years ago. So much of it is about driving engagement and numbers. And this idea of like the public coming in contact with art and the way of having the public come in contact with art is to have instagrammable art or experiential or tactile art. But what does that actually create? To me, it sort of creates a kind of weird infantile culture because it's not really about an artistic experience it's about this possible mass experience, which is really just about the viewer generating posts, PR and marketing for the experience itself so that the marketing and the art collapse into the same thing.
EMJ: Yeah. I mean, but it's also slightly different. Because a toy for a child, for a baby is designed because it will feel nice to hold or like chew on or like it's a bright colour or something like that. But it's like there's another layer to it now that seems less infantile or is maybe a denial of the infantility of it, where the actual pleasure that most people get from participating with, like, artworks in that way or say like pop up rooms where you can lie in a ball pit and then take a photo of yourself lying in the ball pit. It's like it's not the actual tactility of lying in the ball pit that's pleasurable. It's that you can have a picture of yourself doing that and you can then share it with other people. That's the pleasure.
PDR: I think maybe what I sense as an infantile aspect is what makes me sad. But I think what I find infantile is that it kind of actually almost becomes this exercise in capital and whatever kind of transcendental, liberatory power of art seems to almost be taken away at the outset. It's squared out of the equation.
EMJ: Yeah, I mean, maybe, but I don't know. I think I'm going to sound really cynical, but it's almost like the people who are curating and marketing the exhibition for the masses assume that the masses won't be able to understand it. So they have to, like, dumb it down or whatever. But it's just like I'm pretty sure that the same person who's going to react with wonder at having Van Gogh's Sunflowers projected across their limbs is also going to react with wonder if they stand in front of the real thing or any other artwork.
PDR: Well, I think there's an element where it's like, for example, Van Gogh is like this, but even say the Mona Lisa, where people's response to the Mona Lisa is very rarely actually the artwork itself, but just that it's an image that's been repeated so many times that it becomes a symbol of the Mona Lisa, or rather it's like a simulacrum of art itself. That's what it is or what it represents. That's really at the heart of that kind of mania when you're in the Louvre and it's like hundreds of people, all with their phones out, trying to get a photograph of this tiny portrait behind bullet-proof glass.
EMJ: I actually have a favourite Mona Lisa photo. My favourite is the Eminem one. Have you seen it? It's that really ancient selfie he took on a flip phone.
PDR: No, I haven't. It doesn't come up in my memory.
EMJ: It's not special. It's just Eminem taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa on like a really shit ancient phone. But it's just like, I feel that says everything we've just said about art. It's not like Eminem has some kind of a deep appreciation for DaVinci. I don't know maybe he does.
PDR: Yeah. Baudrillard's The Conspiracy of Art touches on this. He makes this argument that art itself means nothing anymore. Only the image of art remains and then like a series of financial structures behind that, which is true but also maybe not always true. I do notice though in COVID times, I find that I'm more and more in this stupor in which engaging with art itself is dulled. And I kind of wonder, is this stupor actually meant to be what we're all sort of in? Is it by design that we should just be these dazed individuals that wander around wowed by bright colours.
EMJ: Yeah. And I think actually so much of this is like infantile culture that you brought up before. It's like to me sometimes it feels like a trap, almost like it's designed to make me feel depressed so that I don't engage with it all because I'll be too depressed to actually do something that requires a motivational thought. It's so easy to put your toe in the quagmire of, like, whatever's on the streaming service or whatever, and then like eight years later, you emerge from it and you don't even know what you've watched.
PDR: Yeah, I notice this a lot. I have a MUBI subscription through the uni, which I don't even know how I do because I'm not technically enrolled. But it's like sometimes I want to watch a film, and I really love watching Éric Rohmer films, so I'll load one up and I'll have it ready to go, and then something stops me. I'll be like, no, then I'll just put on, you know, Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
EMJ: It's with everything. We're all being constantly primed to always choose the path of least resistance. And I mean, I think the other thing is that a lot of contemporary TV shows, movies, whatever, even art, is that it's actually designed for you to really only give it half of your attention. It's almost like the people who are making them say, we know you're actually looking at your phone so we've designed it for that, and then in moments where like there's a sound effect or something, you look up at the screen and absorb what's happening, and then you can drift back to your other screen.
PDR: Yeah, it's ambient.
EMJ: It's designed to allow you to keep half of your attention on something else because it assumes that's what you're doing already. And maybe you can't resist it because that's ultimately what you really want.