Cogut Institute for the Humanities

9. Black Aliveness

A wide-ranging and revelatory conversation with scholar and writer Kevin Quashie about his new book Black Aliveness, which emphasizes the experience of Black life through readings of poetry and first-person essays.

We discuss the notion of aliveness in the context of Afropessimism and anti-Black violence, critique and post-critique, and the fields of aesthetics and cultural studies. In the course of our conversation, Quashie also offers a philosophical analysis of pronouns, an account of study as an ethical act, and a beautiful reading of “Reply” by Lucille Clifton.

Music and production: Jacob Sokolov-Gonzalez. Administrative support: Damien Mahiet and Gregory Kimbrell.

You can also listen to Meeting Street on Amazon Music, Apple Podcast, Google PodcastRadio PublicPlayer FMSpotify, and Stitcher.

Go to the show's main page


Amanda Anderson: From the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University, this is Meeting Street. I’m Amanda Anderson, the show’s host and director of the institute. In today’s episode, I will be talking with the scholar and writer Kevin Quashie about his new book, Black Aliveness, or A Poetics of Being, published earlier this year by Duke University Press. I’m really looking forward to talking with Kevin about his book, which enters into current debates over Blackness and identity in distinctive and thought-provoking ways. Beyond this, I see his work as an example of humanities writing that deeply engages our present moment, as well as the many texts from the archive that it takes the time to read and think with.

Kevin teaches Black cultural and literary studies here at Brown University, where he is a professor in the Department of English. His previous books include The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, published in 2012, and Black Women, Identity, and Cultural Theory: (Un)Becoming the Subject, which appeared in 2004 [both from Rutgers University Press]. Kevin, welcome to Meeting Street, and thank you for talking with me today.

Kevin Quashie: Thank you, Amanda, for hosting me. I'm looking forward to the conversation.

Amanda Anderson: Tell me a little bit about how you came to the topic of your new book, Black Aliveness. Your earlier book, The Sovereignty of Quiet, explores and promotes the complex expressiveness of the inner life as opposed to a life conceived in relation to certain public demands, particularly about what it means to be Black, or to represent Blackness. How is Black Aliveness a further or different response to the conditions and modes of expression you explored in The Sovereignty of Quiet?

Kevin Quashie: I think, in some ways, in The Sovereignty of Quiet, in pushing against the way in which publicness overdetermines how we understand Blackness and Black cultural production, that I might have overemphasized a little bit the notion of the interior. And though there I tried to be thoughtful about reminding us that the interior is social and legible to all things public and political, I still sometimes encountered readers and people who wanted to think with me, who understood interiority as being exempt from the public world. So I think the idea of aliveness became a way to extend further a notion of the capaciousness of Blackness and to maybe go around the particular register of the interior as it circulates in our imagination. 

But I think the other thing, Amanda, is that I wanted a way to think with — and maybe even grapple with — the spectacular and terrible rise of Black death around us — or maybe I should say, the way in which we might have become more aware of that death, and then how that awareness manifested itself in our thinking about Blackness — in our scholarly thinking, in our intellectual thinking, in a kind of broader thinking about Blackness — so that there was what one might call a “death thinking” that was circulating around Black studies, and Black literary studies in particular, that I wanted a way to think with and to see if there was something else that I might be able to say in regard to that discourse.

“ I wanted a way to think with — and maybe even grapple with — the spectacular and terrible rise of Black death around us, or maybe I should say, the way in which we might have become more aware of that death, and then how that awareness manifested itself in our thinking about Blackness. ”

Kevin Quashie

Amanda Anderson: Thank you. That connects up with a question I want to ask you about how you would situate your work in relation to certain strands in Black studies, including certain strains of Black pessimism that underscore the enduring afterlife of slavery as well as the ongoing terror of anti-Blackness, which is of course connected to the question of a pervasive threat of death. This is in fact one of the most subtle, thoughtful, and challenging aspects of your project. How do you conceive the book’s relation to contemporary Black pessimist thought or other strands of work in Black studies? And perhaps it would be useful for our listeners if you could begin by elaborating a little bit how you see Black pessimist thought — you know, how you would define it or characterize it.

Kevin Quashie: Black pessimism is a complicated, complex school of thought. And indeed, I should even say that I use the phrase “Black pessimism” as an overarching generic phrase, but some of the people who identify with that school might more prefer “Afro-pessimism.” As I understand Black pessimism, I think it’s a school of thought that is trying to get us to understand that Blackness and violence to Black people are structurally integral to modern society. So that the conceptualization of liberal humanism, of the capitalist project, of all of the kind of political and social ideals of Western thought that go into how our societies are structured depend on, historically and ideologically, the idea of violence to Black people and the possibility that that violence can be done.

And so perhaps there are two things. One is: Black pessimism articulates an antagonism to the logics of liberal humanism, a kind of rejection of those logics, and imagines Blackness — and I keep saying Blackness partly because I want to always be cautious about the slippage between these ideas and then our sense that these ideas corroborate neatly with the complexity of Black life. So, that antagonism — that Blackness is itself an antagonism to the very society and the very ideology of the society we live in — and then related to that is a kind of abjection, a state of enduring terror, a state of non-being as some thinkers put it.

I find those ideas provocative. I find them compelling for the ways in which they remind us that, in the political and social work, that there is so much work to be done, and they do not allow us to pretend as if we have achieved the state of freedom for people — not just Black people, for many peoples. And I find a provocation in asking us to think about what does it mean to live in a world where we’re surrounded by evidence of death and concepts of death and yet there is still life?

Perhaps then my differentiation with Black pessimism is: I take the idea of violence and the threat of death as a prominent one in how we think about the social world, but I think, as a person who studies literature, as a person who lives in his own body in the world, I don’t know how to reconcile the life that I know that I have, that I feel animated to try to pursue, the ways in which I fail in that life, with the totality of the idea of death as it sometimes can be articulated. And I know that I have retreated to a personal example as a way to try to grapple with a conceptual idea, but I think maybe we all do that as writers. And so there’s something, there’s a kind of dissonance that then opens up a possibility for me to say, what else can I do for thinking through some of these ideas?

Amanda Anderson: Perhaps you could say just a little more about aliveness, because it’s such an interesting word. You know, it’s not the same as saying Black life. There’s something very important about your choice of that word, and I invite you to reflect a little bit about that.

Kevin Quashie: I think I was deliberate about the idea of aliveness rather than life, partly because I want to elude or interrupt any attempt to talk about Black life as we might know it. I think it’s hard to codify anyone’s life. And what I liked, too, about the idea of aliveness is that it’s an idea, one that I could read and think with in the language of aesthetics. That is, I could read and think about the quality of aliveness in a sculpture or in a poem or in a particular line. We could do that with song. We could do that with the way in which a fashion designer styles an outfit. So that there was something about trying to pay attention to aesthetics and to qualities in cultural production that made the term “aliveness” much more useful to me than any other term — by virtue of aliveness being a synonym of “life,” that I am all the while implicitly gesturing towards the ways in which these ideas might resonate with more explicit considerations of the peril of Black life.

“ I was deliberate about the idea of aliveness rather than life, partly because I want to elude or interrupt any attempt to talk about Black life as we might know it. I think it’s hard to codify anyone’s life. ”

Kevin Quashie

Amanda Anderson: It’s interesting to hear you bring in the question of aesthetics, because in the field of literary studies more broadly, there’s been a series of influential arguments against ideological criticism and an attempt to promote forms of engagement with and attachment to the objects that we study. That is to say, rather than seeing literary texts as always and everywhere symptomatic of entrenched power structures, instead seeing literary texts and the experience of engaging with them as more variegated and as inviting forms of what one might call “enlivening response.” Do you see any connection between what you are doing and these larger trends in literary studies, which don’t tend to focus in on the question of Blackness as a central issue, but I’m curious to hear what you think about that?

Kevin Quashie: That was such an efficient summary, Amanda, of what I would call critique and post-critique studies. And indeed I see myself as trying to navigate through and between some of the possibilities and maybe also the limits of those ideas. So for example, I would say that one of the offerings that critique studies, and post-critique in particular, suggest to me is it asks us to think about why we read and how we read, as in what kinds of interpretations are available in our readings. And what I love about that is that it motivates us to think about the nature of our studying rather than to take that studying for granted. I’m thinking here of, say, Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique [University of Chicago Press, 2015], a kind of iconic book in the field, and all of the other works and thinkers that engage in and respond to Felski’s work.

I think that question of the motivations for our studies is vital to Black studies in particular. And indeed, I think often we almost take for granted what it is to encounter and read a Black text, as if it happens without various kinds of political or ideological pressures on it. And I will give just two quick ways in which that manifests. One is it’s almost as if there’s an assumption or at least an underplaying of the aesthetic dimension of the work. And I'm always struck — when I think with Lucille Clifton, I think: Lucille Clifton, a Black woman poet, wrote poems, and there’s something in the genre of a poem that she found particularly useful to articulating whatever the idea she wanted to undertake. I don’t want to discount that, because I think to discount that is to somehow accept that Black thinking, and Black art, and Black creativity, is secondary to the sociological, or political, or maybe even something essential about Blackness that surpasses the text.

But I think the other thing is that so often Black literature — and I’ll stick with literature for the moment — is read as if it’s supposed to teach us something about Black life and about social and political issues. And in that reading, the assumption is that the reader is a non-Black reader, that the idealized reader is one who’s going to learn about and be transformed by their encounter with this work, and transformed in terms of modified ideas about race, racism, anti-Blackness. That assumption not only excludes someone like me from having a phenomenal and phenomenological relationship with the text, which I think would run counter to what many Black writers would say that they’re trying to do, but I think it also then leaves in place certain habits in literary studies that ought to be pressed, and critiqued, and challenged — certain habits in how we teach literary works. I would not want to walk into a classroom and assume — and indeed I couldn't — but I wouldn't want to assume that there isn’t a Black reader in the room as I’m thinking with this text. And so I find the move in critique studies useful for asking us to think about the matter of interpretation again, though perhaps I veer a little differently than some of the ways in which that provocation in critique studies is often taken up.

Amanda Anderson: I think this connects up nicely with a question I want to ask you about method. So you advance your thinking in Black Aliveness through readings of poetry and first-person essays. What’s important about this mode of approach and the opportunities it affords you?

Kevin Quashie: I love this question. I love it because there is something about the textuality of a poem, even a long poem — maybe not an epic poem that goes on over the stretch of an entire book — but there's something about the textuality of a poem, or the textuality of a first-person essay, the materiality itself of this thing, that it's almost a world that you can hold in your hands as a reader. 

And there's something about that encounter with a totality — and here, I want to be careful that when I say a totality, I simply mean that every text offers up a world for a reader to enter, and that world is something of a totality. It is a momentary totality. It may not be a complete and successful totality, because the reader may be encountering the text in a moment that disrupts the possibility of surrender — not unlike the way film critics will often talk about what it is to go see a movie in a theater where the darkness suspends you in a world.

So I love that approximation of a totality that's possible in engaging poems and first-person essays. And then the other thing is I love what first-personness offers for how we might think about aliveness. That is, I’m not so much interested in “I,” the first-person pronoun, as I'm interested in the pronoun “one,” the singular personal impersonal pronoun, which is the case from which, the syntax through which, a person interrogates their experience and then projects beyond that experience towards who else they might be.

“ I'm interested in the pronoun “one,” the singular personal impersonal pronoun, which is the case from which, the syntax through which, a person interrogates their experience and then projects beyond that experience towards who else they might be. ”

Kevin Quashie

Kevin Quashie: Perhaps the simplest way of saying it is that I often say to students that “one” is the philosophical pronoun. It’s the pronoun through which philosophers imagine and conceptualize ideas. And if we imagine that every human being lives in the world, or could live in the world, through that pronoun case “one,” then I think it offers something that goes beyond the problems and maybe even the fallacy of individuality that the pronoun “I” offers. So I love the idea of “one,” even as — and I agree with philosopher Hortense Spillers who says that the idea of a one, the idea of oneness, or the pronoun case “one” in Black culture is hard to achieve because of the ways in which Blackness is so readily conceptualized as something that’s collective, that’s something that’s public, that we have a hard time imagining a case of “one” when we’re thinking about Blackness.

Amanda Anderson: So much of the book is taken up with richly textured readings of poems and first-person essays. I’m wondering if you could perhaps share one of the literary examples that you focus on in the book and talk us through it a little bit.

Kevin Quashie: I’d be happy to do that. I realize now, too, as I was responding to the question about “one,” I might just add — which is relevant to the poem I will read — that part of what I love about the idea of “one” is the right to complexity, and opacity, and ambivalence. All of those things that constitute what we might say is the right of the human. Well, this is the poem — one of the poems that open, the poem that opens the book. It's Lucille Clifton’s “Reply.” It's an untitled poem as Clifton's poems are often untitled, though it is often referenced by the first line. It's from her 1991 collection Quilting [BOA Editions].

The poem opens with an excerpt, an epigraph, or a paratext of a quotation from a letter that was sent to W.E.B. Du Bois. And so I'll read the poem as it exists on the page, though the listener should know that the block that I will start with, the quotation, is a block of text, almost a rectangular block of text, and then the rest of the poem is a singular stream down the page. That’s important for beholding the visual aesthetics of the poem.

“From a letter written to Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois by Alvin Borgquest of Clark University in Massachusetts and dated April 3rd, 1905.” Quote: “We are pursuing an investigation here on the subject of crying as an expression of the emotions, and should like very much to learn about its peculiarities among the colored people. We have been referred to you as a person competent to give us information on the subject. We desire especially to know about the following salient aspects. 1. Whether the Negro sheds tears …” End quote.


he do
she do
they live
they love
they try
they tire
they flee
they fight
they bleed
they break
they moan
they mourn
they weep
they die
they do
they do
they do

This poem, this poem — one of the reasons I wanted to start the project with this poem is there is an elegant simplicity here, and yet there’s also a gesture towards a totality that cannot be captured in the poem. I read that gesture, especially in the last three “they do / they do / they do,” as if we are being invited to then imagine what is not yet rendered through verbs on the page: other kinds of doings that surpass, that dance off the end of the page of the poem. 

I also love the repetition in this poem, not just the repetition of the pronouns — first, “he” and “she,” and then “they,” “they,” “they” — but also the alliteration and assonance that may make us aware then that this is not a random catalog — “flee,” and “bleed,” and “weep” — all of a sudden you hear the resonance of the connection between those words — “moan” and “mourn.” And of course, the pleasure for me in the long “U” of “do,” “do,” “do.” The incredible rhythm in this poem — “he do / she do” [marks each syllable, each beat with a tap] — that two-beat rhythm that is sustained so beautifully and yet is modified as it goes along because what we’re being offered are different verbs, some of them intransitive verbs, all of which are pointing towards different experiences of being in a world of ordinariness, and joy, and harm.

The last thing I will say about this poem — though I could say much more — is I also love that the orientation of the speaker doesn’t turn necessarily to respond. It doesn’t say “we do.” That is, the speaker doesn't imagine themselves — herself, if we presume that the persona in the poem is an approximation of the poet — the speaker doesn’t say “we” as if to orient a world that’s organized against the terrible question. The speaker is engaged in watching this world of wondrous doing as if we are being invited into a scene that’s somehow different from the expectation of reply that’s set up by the terrible question. There’s something about the speaker's — almost a display, almost as if the speaker is an emcee watching this wondrousness and pointing it out. There’s something about that.

And maybe the recouping of the word, that third-person pronoun ”they” — recouping it so that it no longer has maybe some of the barbed quality of objectifying that it can have. Maybe it's a different kind of objectification that’s being rendered, an invitation to look differently and maybe to look better at the wondrousness of this group. I love this poem.

Amanda Anderson: Well, that was a beautiful discussion of the poem. And it's interesting to hear you talk about the ways in which that reply enacts a kind of refutation, but cannot be put into the category of formal refutation, and that connects up to something else I just wanted to draw you out on. At one point during one of your readings of an essay you write, “I find inspiration in the way that the first-person essay tries to dispense with argument and tarries instead in the study of a moment” [p.105]. What’s important to you about moving away from argument as a mode?

Kevin Quashie: I think if I'm going to take seriously the idea that a concept of the “one” is a concept that’s available to every human being, then I perhaps take seriously my sense of the humility, as well as the ferocity of what I, Kevin, am trying to do, which is I'm just trying to pursue and understand a way of being in the world from the standpoint of the things I encounter and experience and how those encounters and experience allows me then to project beyond myself. 

So that important in the project is my thinking about relation, and relation not as a practice that instantiates us to be oriented to the other, but that demands of us that we be prepared for the encounter with the other. That is, there is something — I’m going to use a word that I don’t often like — there’s something of a kind of invitation to self-reflection — who am I, how am I, and how ready am I to meet the world out there? — such that in reflection is an invitation to surrender.

A young junior scholar pointed out to me that it was rare in my writing that I used the phrase “I argue,” and in fact, I don’t think I use that phrase. Maybe a part of it is a little bit of personal obstinacy: I don’t feel I’m arguing. I'm not interested in arguing anything about what I understand about reading, engaging texts. I’m interested in trying to pursue a line of thought and really moving with thinkers and artists who enable that line of thinking as best as possible, and for me to see where it takes me.

“ I'm not interested in arguing anything about what I understand about reading, engaging text. I’m interested in trying to pursue a line of thought and really moving with thinkers and artists who enable that line of thinking as best as possible, and for me to see where it takes me. ”

Kevin Quashie

Kevin Quashie: And I don't mean to be precious about it — I assume that’s what everyone else is doing in their work — but I think I want to remind myself as much as possible to be oriented in being open in literary study rather than to feel as if I have an endpoint I’m trying to get to, especially because I think getting to that — and the idea of getting to that endpoint — perhaps can close down what it is literary encounter, what it is artistic encounter, and dare I say, what it is that human encounter is supposed to make possible in us.

Amanda Anderson: I have a follow-up question about the emphasis on first-person writing and this question of argument. You yourself are a first-person presence in the book, being very direct about your affective relation to the work you’re studying and even interjecting sighs to remind us of your own breathing aliveness, all of which I think gives the prose a unique feel. The sigh, which you typically inscribe as the word “sigh” followed by either a period or a colon, is a quite unusual experience to happen upon in a work of literary criticism. And I’d love to hear you talk about why you started using it and how you see it working or answering to a writerly need or impulse.

And just to give a couple of instances so our listeners can get a feel of it. So, first of all, well into a complex reading of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988] you write: “Sigh: I am uneasy about trying to defend A Small Place in regard to its ideas about anti-blackness and overtures toward a dominant (white) reader. Not only because I understand those overtures as an aesthetic apparatus of the speaker’s relational doing, but also because in a black world, the book and its speaker (never mind its writer) do not need defense” [p. 79]. Or rather differently, when writing about Audre Lorde: “Sigh: Lorde's thinking is so dazzling, it could withstand repetition and transliteration” [p. 17]. There are lots of other instances, but I'll just let you talk about how you see this particular element of your writing, which I quite enjoyed, I found quite engaging and thought-provoking when I happened upon them.

Kevin Quashie: If listeners could see me now, I was smiling and even laughing quietly as you read those, partly because, Amanda, you’re an astonishingly close and engaged reader, and I’m so grateful for that. I might disagree just slightly in terms of one of the things you said about the sigh. For me, I’m not even sure I’m aware that I put those in, simply because they are, for me, moments where I am literally sighing. 

Maybe I can say that differently: that the work — and here I mean the labor of thinking for me — and I imagine for anyone else, but I can only speak for myself — the labor of trying to think with is indeed a labor, and so the sigh is an acknowledgement of that. It is a moment of pause and sometimes frustration, sometimes of being tired of trying to move through a complicated thing and trying to figure out how to make clear, as clear as possible, the turn in the ideas or the many turns in the ideas.

When I read the Lucille Clifton poem “Reply,” in the aftermath of having read and talked about it, I also wanted to sigh because there’s a little bit of frustration to say that I feel like I have barely begun to engage and share with you what I think I understand, or at least what I think I’m brought to by that poem. So when I say, I might want to disagree a little bit with the way in which you set it up, I love that you recognize it as a moment of first-personness on my part, though perhaps it’s an unintentional first-personness because I am ... I don’t necessarily think my first-person being is so interesting that it has to show up in the work, though I think what you’re recognizing and what I am deeply committed to is a sense of the work, the call to work. I know there are many useful critiques of that word “work” that exist in our thinking about capitalism as part of Western modernity, but I also believe in what it is to give effort to the labor and the energy and the attentiveness and the presence one brings to anything one undertakes: a conversation, a meal, paying attention to a sunset, etc. I’m not willing to give up on the display of the fact of work, that this is work.

Amanda Anderson: No, I really like the fact that you connected it to work. That makes a lot of sense. Let’s turn and talk about the university as a setting, especially in relation to the challenges of the past couple of years, including the pandemic and protests against anti-Black racism. I’m interested in how you conceive of your work within the context of the university as an institution. One term that is used and privileged in your book seems to connect especially to the university but in a somewhat unconventional way, and I’m thinking here of the term “study,” which you’ve used in a couple of your answers already. What is the value of study? Is it something categorically different than research or scholarship or even teaching? Or does it perhaps re-situate those activities in an important way?

Kevin Quashie: When I use the term “study” — and some listeners might know that the scholar Fred Moten also uses the term “study” or tries to revise the term “study” — you are right, Amanda, I’m trying to shift away from our common understandings of what we do in the university, because I don’t think what I mean by study is privileged or exceptional, and certainly not exclusive to what happens in the university. One might even say that, in some ways, some of the dynamics of the university might undermine studying.

“ When I use the term “study” [...] I’m trying to shift away from our common understandings of what we do in the university, because I don’t think what I mean by study is privileged or exceptional, and certainly not exclusive to what happens in the university. One might even say that, in some ways, some of the dynamics of the university might undermine studying. ”

Kevin Quashie

Kevin Quashie: Perhaps simplistically I mean what religious scholars might call paying attention, and then what paying attention asks of the one who’s paying attention in the way that they’re paying attention, right? So that I’m not trying to privilege particular ways of paying attention, but in paying attention, one is called to think about one’s self, one’s capacities, and then to think about the thing that one is trying to pay attention to. And in that, I read a kind of ethical praxis. Indeed, that’s where I’m hoping the conversation about aliveness moves. What does it mean to think that literature and an encounter with literature offers up to the reader a chance again to engage the ethical question, which is simply “How am I to be?” And that ethical question, which can't really be — no one can give you an answer to the ethical question. That part of coming to it is a series of thinking on and returning again to “How am I? And how might I be? How could I be?” And that's singular personal human work. It's slow and deliberate work. So in that way, I think of study as being a synonym of that notion.

Amanda Anderson: So as a last question, what’s next for you? First of all, Black Aliveness is an incredibly powerful book, and it’s clear that a lot of labor and love went into it. And you may be taking a pause, and that’s, you know [laughs], entirely warranted. But I'm always eager to hear from scholars about what they’re thinking about in terms of their next project and where you think you might go next, or are already going next.

Kevin Quashie: Well, thank you again, Amanda, for saying that. That’s very kind. I don’t mean this at all to be diminishing: I think I only really have one question that I've been pursuing through the 25 years of my being in the academy, and perhaps even before that, that as a person I was trying to just pursue this one question. And I don’t know that I could sum up the question well, but I do know that I continue to be interested in what it means to try to conceptualize a commons, as in a collective, a sense of a collective, a sense of a gathering or being together. And that word “commons” — again, it's another term that Fred Moten uses, though perhaps I might mean it differently than him.

I guess I'm interested in: is it possible for us to think that aesthetics can ignite an intimacy of the commons? And when I say “intimacy” there, I'm trying to delay — whenever I think we talk about the commons, or the common good, or the collective, that the scale of it becomes so big that it's hard for me — and this might indeed be a limit of my imagination — that it's hard for me to figure out, well, how do we grapple with the incredible differences that manifest once you bring people together or you think about people being together?

“ [I]s it possible for us to think that aesthetics can ignite an intimacy of the commons? ... [W]hat’s the scale of intimacy that allows us to do common thinking? And in that way, I love the idealized scale of a reader with a text, or one person with another person. ”

Kevin Quashie

Kevin Quashie: And my way of trying to get around that is: well, what’s the scale of intimacy that allows us to do common thinking? And in that way, I love the idealized scale of a reader with a text, or one person with another person. And then, what can one learn from that scale of engagement and the navigation of difference on that scale as a way of thinking about difference on a larger scale? I’m not a political scientist and maybe even not a political thinker, but as a human being on earth, I’m always trying to figure out how do I live in this body, and then, how do I live meaningfully with other people? Meaningfully, generously, kindly with other people, rightly in the philosophical or religious sense of that word “right.” 

So I think I'm continuing to think about that. I'm interested in the work that sentences can do in texts, but I might just say that this early on — well, I once heard Tony Morrison in an interview — someone asked her about the new work she was doing, and Morrison, who’s so characteristically impish and playful, but also so devastatingly smart, laughed and said: “Well, I am working on something, but it’s a small mosquito of an idea, and I’m not sure it's worth sharing at this moment.” I've always loved that mosquito of an idea, because you know how potent a mosquito can be if it’s bothering you. So I feel as if I would just borrow Morrison’s language to say, I have a small mosquito of an idea about more thinking about aesthetics and commons, and mostly I'm grateful to be able to continue to study.

Amanda Anderson: That's wonderful. I especially like the idea of trying to sort of acknowledge the single question or set of questions that animate all of one’s work, because I think that’s actually a pretty useful reflection to undertake that we could all do, that I think in a way that would allow us to perhaps present ourselves to others with a certain clarity. So I really, really appreciate that, and I look forward to wherever the mosquito goes. But I want to thank you so much for taking the time today and for exploring with us this incredibly rich work that you’ve been doing. Thank you so much, Kevin.

Kevin Quashie: Thank you for hosting me, Amanda, and thank you for reading with me as deeply as you have.

Amanda Anderson: Meeting Street explores some of the most important and creative work being done in the humanities today through conversations with scholars and thinkers who are extending the boundaries of their respective fields. The show is produced by the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University. Damien Mahiet is our production manager. Our sound editor is Jake Sokolov-Gonzalez. If you enjoy this week’s episode of Meeting Street, please leave a review wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.