"Ideas don't exist, except within emotions": Interview with Joshua Cohen
Benjamin Ferguson: Your most recent work is a compilation of essays and criticism which is tinged with the theme of distraction, essentially pointing out how our limited quantity of attention is constantly being bombarded and commodified by pharmaceuticals, legal and illegal data collection, etc. Consequently, diminishing quality is part of what you are trying to get across and the work explores to what extent this phenomenon may or may not be modern. How did you decide that 2018 was the moment to explore this particular idea and why did you choose this format instead of the medium of fiction?
Joshua Cohen: I think I also tackled it in fiction, but […] I think it is all a fiction, in a sense. There was an increasing interest in the idea of attention, as if everyone could agree on what that was. As if when you said “attention”, everyone immediately had the same idea as to what that word meant, even though there are neurologists who point to the inner workings of various structures of the brain and who say that it is a function of the mind. There are certainly [people] in the humanities and […] in religious literature [who would say] it is a state of being and not a function. I felt the world was full of these assumptions about 1) what attention was and 2) the fact that it was a diminishing quantity. It seemed to me to be a panic, almost a moral panic, and like most moral panics, it seemed to have some profit-making into it. I don’t know whether I actually believe that any of it is true, in fact I’m not really sure that attention exists as a single entity that we can point to and all agree on. I saw around me people creating in artificial resource called “attention” in order to then create a sense of artificial scarcity and panic people into buying solutions for it, or at least into an entire market of, if not self-help, then some degree of self-inquiry and time-management that has turned everyone into workers, even when they are home. I felt in a sense that these were false categories, so I wanted to write a book about how, when we are talking about attention, we are talking about the entire world and there was almost no way to focus.
Benjamin Ferguson: But you go [all the way back] to Babylon. Do you think this idea of commoditization is modern?
Joshua Cohen: I think the idea that time is money is modern in the way that historians use the word “modern”, which is “modern period” which is now ancient history. I believe it really begins with early management studies. I think the idea of attention has changed considerably from when we can begin to recognize words that have some similar valence to the way we use it today. There was an idea that prayer is attention and that when one was praying, one was paying attention to something greater than oneself. There was almost the occasionalist philosophical idea that the world is God’s attention and that when God stops paying attention to the world, it ceases to exist. I think that there were certainly ideas of attention being ways of demarcating categories when people were in the early days of scientific classification, such as the binomial classification of Linnaeus.
Benjamin Ferguson: It also a class thing: if you are an academic, or a monk or a priest, you have much more time on your hands to focus or to have attention.
Joshua Cohen: Again, there is this modern notion of attention, of what we spend our time doing, and it is entirely quantitative. You do see a turn from the qualitative nature of attention to the quantitative nature of attention around the end of the eighteenth century, Rousseau being the height but also the end of the qualitative approach. You then begin to see ideas of not just time but also the return on attention: if I am investing my time, what is the return on my investment? The concept becomes invested with all these financial metaphors, and that begins happening right after the Enlightenment.
Benjamin Ferguson: […] How do you view your place in the American Jewish literary canon, in a century where intellectual literary figures are on the decline more than ever, in favor of more easily recognizable things like brands?
Joshua Cohen: Are those my choices? Be a Jewish American or be a brand? Those are pretty shitty choices.
Benjamin Ferguson: […] I say that because so many people have said that this is the decade of the brand.
Joshua Cohen: You are talking to someone with no real Internet profile, no social media…
Benjamin Ferguson: That is what I mean, do you think it is more difficult for you at this moment? Did authors such as Philip Roth or Saul Bellow have a different experience because of the Internet and because of this moment?
Joshua Cohen: I think they had all of the benefits and all of the drawbacks of being in a far more parochial environment than we are in now. They were of course read by the world, but their writing had – and I don’t use the word “parochial” in a negative way – both a parochial focus and a parochial audience. The thing that everyone is facing now, not just me but everyone who writes at all, is that we are expected to be read by the world. Let’s take out the economic considerations for a moment. The economic considerations are: you make a piece of art, you make a piece of writing, and it needs to be IP [intellectual property], it needs to have the potential to be a movie or a television series, a streaming series – let’s take all of that equation, that idea that most people write books today in order to make TV shows. It seems to be a wasteful and time-intensive way to make something, to make narrative. But with that thrown out, the real artistic question is that if you are publishing now, you are publishing to the globe. You are being read by people everywhere, and the larger an audience gets, there is a tendency to dumb things down because you can speak most intimately to smaller numbers of people. The way you communicate to your family, the way you communicate to a spouse or partner is a phenomenally intimate mode of communication: you have all the shorthand, you have all these abbreviations; you understand one another because you have built up a common vocabulary. Sometimes you don’t even need to say anything, sometimes it is just a glance, and your small audience, your family or your partner-audience will understand you. So the larger it grows from the family, to the community, [from a regional to a national language], to the international language – which is just about as big as you are ever going to get, unless aliens start reading us – it becomes less and less intimate, because you are dealing with people who bring different ideas to your work about how language operates. There are so many people in the world who speak English, but the English they speak is business English or computer English. The real challenge facing everyone is not about branding or identity or how one is read, but “Can you keep the specificity or the beauty of the parochial, the beauty of the detail, the local, the regional detail and can it be appreciated widely?” I think that is the first thing that goes when people are writing literature for the world. This category that we have called “world literature” is just as bad as “world music”: it just sounds like bullshit.
Benjamin Ferguson: One of the themes you approach quite frequently in your work is that of male sexuality, and the honesty you bring to it at such a precarious moment with the rise of the #MeToo movement and all the self-reflection that it demands upon the 21st century male. How has your writing been affected by that, particularly keeping in mind the current demonization of sexuality in Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint for instance??
Joshua Cohen: It is good we have some scandal, it means someone is interested in something. I am very wary about anything that tells me what I can or cannot write. It is my natural instinct to always do the wrong thing. I think the socialist realist element of literature which is not depicting the world as it is, but depicting the world as you would like it to be, is not limited to countries laboring under Stalinist rule. For me it really does come down to that question of “Am I interested in portraying a reality or in portraying a utopia?” There have been some things that I have written where I was interested in portraying a world as I would like it to be according to certain rules, a dystopia according to certain principles. But for me, the real beauty of literature is to see the depiction of the world as it is, and that will always be my self-appointed task, whether it is about sex, whether it is about money, whether it is about any sort of political issue. Unless we can go to some place in this world where we can freely see and freely hear a depiction of what people truly think – if we don’t have that, I think we have lost an enormous access to a part of our humanity.
Benjamin Ferguson: What about the techniques that you use? Is using your vulnerability or this ostensible honesty, whether it is true or not true […] a technique for navigating difficult topics, such as sexuality? For instance, your meta-protagonist in Book of Numbers evokes his estranged wife saying things like “Rachel would call that sexist, but…” with regard to potentially insensitive comments he makes about certain women. He also frankly discusses low semen count in the couple’s attempts at having a child and other topics as well.
Joshua Cohen: The job of a novelist should devolve onto the characters. In other words, I see it as my job to try and depict the world as it is, or as I see it, through a number of different characters’ points of views. The next level, or stage, of that, is granting those characters the ability to try and inhabit the minds of yet other characters, so that each character becomes the novelist of the novel. There are parts where I go through the narrator’s mind and investigate what he is thinking and there are other times when I want what he is thinking to be what his ex-wife is thinking or what his friend is thinking, or what his employer is thinking. All of these technical strategies or tactics are really essentially just the principle of transformation, allowing any person in a book to mentally inhabit anyone else in the book, just like I can mentally inhabit any of them.
Benjamin Ferguson: So is it more about getting into the character’s head than some technique for getting across an idea? Do you try to get across ideas?
Joshua Cohen: Not at all. I do try to get ideas across only insofar as they can stage dramatic action. I think the most useful technique is to have somebody say something in a book that you do not believe, so you can write against it or write a character that contradicts that. As I get older, I don’t know what ideas mean any more. It is very clear to me, every morning waking up and turning on the news or reading the newspaper or magazine, that ideas don’t exist except within emotions. [It is almost impossible] to truly talk to somebody who has an idea that is not surrounded by layers of emotions, neuroses, frustrations, guilt, resentments. You would have to talk to a pure scientist, and even those people have ideas couched in ambition and a desire not to be wrong. Every thought with me has to come from an emotional gesture that exposes the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the character.
Benjamin Ferguson: Is this lack of truly having the existence of ideas, is that what you wanted to say with your final essay of Attention?
Joshua Cohen: If you want to talk about resentments, and if you want to talk about vulnerabilities and truth, I think that one of my great frustrations was to come of age as a writer of fiction in the age of non-fiction. Beyond people confusing me with my narrator and my characters, beyond the fact that almost everywhere I go I get the question “did that really happen?” or “is that true?”, I think that there is a premium placed on the idea of facticity, that a fact is something that is carved into stone. And while we can understand the rhetoric of the dangers involved with eroding that faith, and not believing in our news, believing that our news is fake news, believing that everything said by every politician is a lie – I think these are ideas that are long established. For me, it is the terror of truth and falsehood as rigid categories, as if there were no overlap and no gradation between the two, as if there were no agendas behind someone telling the truth or motives behind someone telling a lie. I wanted to express my frustration with living in such a black and white, Manichean society.
Benjamin Ferguson: Your ultimate essay in Attention details the history of Western ideas on attention or focus. As you have said in the essay, it is about nothing but also about everything, from Augustine to automatons, from Freud to methamphetamines, etc. This technique comes across as quintessentially American in its meandering form, almost Emersonian. But your wellspring of knowledge does not tend to come from American founders; you talk more about the Jewish tradition of Europe and post-war immigration to America than you would Emerson or eighteenth-century Americans. How would you view the organization of this essay with regard to your personal influences? How did it come about?
Joshua Cohen: It’s funny, because I see it more as French, […] as something like Chateaubriand’s memoirs.
Benjamin Ferguson: But in modern France, you would have a problématique and it is all about clarity…
Joshua Cohen: Every culture has fallen and has become more boring since the eighteenth century… I actually don’t see [this essay] as American; I see it as of the Internet, of technology. I think it is the access to these data points. What do you do with information? These are the enormous questions of our time. When facts are so cheap and so easy to obtain, do they still continue to be the authorities that we hope they are? When we can go online and equally cite statistics that say opposite things and then attempt to prove through citations that we are both accurate, even though we contradict each other – this to me is the great joke of the Internet: it’s the way in which you can access all times and all places instantly. Through that access, you also devalue that and so a large part of it is a parody: I hate to be the person sitting here explaining my book and saying it is a joke, but in a lot of ways, it is a way of explaining that the chaos behind people’s use of the Internet is really the thing that is unexpressed by the Internet. If I look through your browsing history, and you looked up “what kind of shoes am I going to buy?” followed by “What are the directions here?” followed by porn and then the history of WWI, would I have a picture of you? What I am lacking is: what is the mind that is connecting all of these points? What is the intentionality? What is the emotional drive? That is never going to be expressed through data; it is only going to be expressed the through-lines of narrative that coheres these isolated information points. For me, the mission – if there is a mission to literature – is providing that narrative through-line that makes people equal to the task of their own information, that makes people the masters of their own information.
Benjamin Ferguson: I think your work is of this moment; reading your work, it does give that sense of you having Googled certain things and you are not trying to hide that.
Joshua Cohen: Absolutely, and there are lies throughout it. There was an essay that was in that book – I’m not going to tell which one it is – where it is all based on research and quotes of Wikipedia pages that I secretly wrote. And these facts that I have put out there, have now become facts in the world. I have seen other people reproduce them, I have seen major American newspapers reproduce them. [The essay] is about the invention of fact, this simple invention of fact. It is not a question of me sitting there, looking things up, and then drawing these connections: it is me also trying to seed these connections in order to destabilize a sort of regime of an appeal to authority or a regime of an appeal to authenticity, which is ultimately fruitless and imaginatively limiting.
Benjamin Ferguson: I had a professor in college who used to change the Wikipedia pages the night before the test.
Joshua Cohen: That’s a wonderful idea.
Benjamin Ferguson: One of your traits as a fiction writer is undoubtedly this flexibility, which I find interesting. In Book of Numbers, there is this scene in Dubai where the protagonist goes to the interview with the tech mogul and ends up fighting a wealthy business man at the threshold of an elevator, in the middle of a swank hotel, the fight being over the beating of the latter’s wife. The scene has an elegant playfulness with language, particularly in its meticulous use of alliterations and jeux de mots. What was your mindset when deciding to write that section in that particular style, and how do you move between styles when you are writing fiction?
Joshua Cohen: It is a thriller scene. When you have to write a thriller scene, you have to write it in the thriller language. [There] is that the postmodern idea that a language needs to be appropriate to the genre that you are appropriating from – so you can have a thriller scene in a book, but it’s written in the thriller style, a love scene in the book that is written in a love scene style – but then I also like the idea of writing against those styles. Let’s have a scene that would be conventional and in its outlines be a thriller scene, but written in a love scene voice. Let’s give it the wrong rhetoric to wake people up. There is too much automation in the way people view things and hear things and read things; every once in a while, there needs to be that little hiccup that wakes people up and the idea [in this scene] was to use the language against the theme.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Joshua Cohen, Benjamin Ferguson, ""Ideas don't exist, except within emotions": Interview with Joshua Cohen ", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), décembre 2019. Consulté le 10/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/interview-with-joshua-cohen