Sinead O’Connor, who passed away on July 26, was only twenty-three when she released her second, seminal album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, but she “had by then lived a lifetime and would go on to live several more,” writes the philosopher FT in an essay published earlier this month on NYR Online. “Transformations, rebirths, and epiphanies recur across her records.”
What was consistent over the course of O’Connor’s life was a prolific and inventive output that spanned genres, from pop to reggae to Irish folk, though it was sometimes overshadowed by her dramatic life story and its repackaging by an exploitative media. In FT’s essay, he considers the full catalog of her music alongside Nothing Compares, a 2022 documentary, and Rememberings, the memoir she published in 2021. “To be understood was my desire,” she wrote in her book. “Along with that was my desire not to have the ignorant tell my story when I’m gone.”
FT, or Fuck Theory, publishes pseudonymous essays independently on Patreon, where he writes for a dedicated audience about philosophy, psychoanalysis, translation, music, and much more. He is currently at work on a full commentary on Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics. He alsowrites criticism for publications like Artforum, Bookforum, and 4Columns,and previously wrote about the concept of nothing for the Review.
We e-mailed this week about O’Connor’s legacy, covers, and being a scholar outside of the academy.
Willa Glickman: Would you share a bit about the meaning of your pseudonym and the stance on theory it describes? Why did you choose a phrase (or is it a noun?) rather than a traditional pseudonym?
FT: The name came from the blog I started in 2009, which was fucktheory.tumblr.com. “Theory” is this weird pseudo-disciplinary fixation of the American academy. I love a lot of the thinkers who are read under the heading of “theory” in the US, but to me Deleuze and Foucault are just philosophers. Also, my dissertation was about sex and ethics, so the name was meant to be read as the verb phrase “fuck theory” but also as the noun phrase “fuck theory”—a calque on “queer theory” and “affect theory” and “thing theory” and all the other “theories” that were then current.
I just think it’s funny. It’s received about as you’d expect, evenly split between amusement and disdain. Some people think it’s crude and infantile, but I think it’s very funny when close friends call me Dr. Theory or sometimes “Hey, Fuck.”
WG: You’re a philosopher who writes outside of the academy, and often against the academy. Could you give an overview of the path your writing life has taken? How has writing, sometimes books, in a blog format affected your work?
FT: My writing life has taken a very strange path. I came to the US for grad school. During my grad school fellowship, social media was born. I started my Tumblr so I could voice my discontent with some of the stuff happening in academic theory at the time, and also just anonymously grouch without suffering professional consequences; graduate students are generally not encouraged to talk about their labor conditions publicly. I quickly realized that the “theory” happening on Tumblr was much more interesting and novel than what was happening in academia, and I started spending less and less time on my dissertation and more and more time on social media. Social media in its early years gave me so much hope that knowledge could be liberated from the stifling decay of the academy. All the while I was regularly but intermittently writing about music under a different name.
I think of what I do as writing in real time. I write really fast, easily ten thousand words a day when I’m on a roll, and I often shift abruptly between quite different topics. I’m extremely lucky to have a modest but patient, tolerant audience who will not only let me write about whatever I want, but also let me maintain an irregular publishing schedule.
There are drawbacks, obviously. My audience and my finances depend on third-party tech platforms, from social media to Patreon and credit card processors. I would love to have a columnist’s salary or a book writer’s advance. I would also love to have a regular editor. But I have freedom. There aren’t a lot of freelance philosophers in the world anymore. I’m not beholden to any institutions or masters. I can wake up in the morning, dream up any text I like of any length and any degree of complexity, in any style and on any topic, and just sit down and write it. If I like it, I hit “post,” and if not, I go to bed and try again tomorrow. I think I’m in an extremely fortunate and indeed somewhat archaic position for an intellectual without independent wealth, and I’m very grateful for it. I’m often broke but my mind lives a positively decadent lifestyle.
WG: There’s been a lot of public grieving for Sinéad O’Connor. She’s being mourned as an artist—as someone whose work touched a lot of people on a very emotional level—but it seems like she’s also being mourned as a uniquely moral figure, a mystical truthteller who wasn’t concerned about consequences. As someone who thinks a lot about ethics, how do you grapple with that kind of public veneration?
FT: I think the concept of “truth-telling” is a red herring in the Sinéad O’Connor story. What draws people’s hostility isn’t telling the truth, it’s telling a “truth” that is in direct opposition with a different “truth” fundamental to their current worldview. The locus of intellectual courage isn’t factuality, it’s oppositionality—an interior relation of conviction rather than an external condition of falsifiability. Unfortunately, as she says in the documentary, that kind of interior conviction can easily be mistaken for irrationality or even madness to an outside observer. That’s why it was important for me to stress the religious aspect of her journey. Despite being highly vulnerable to the mental effects of the backlash she suffered, Sinéad O’Connor stood firm for what she believed in and made great sacrifices for it. If there’s a philosophical or ethical question in the way she’s being mourned, I think that question is, “Would she be less brave and determined and admirable if she had fought to speak a truth that turned out not to be true, or not to be verifiable?”
WG: You mention that O’Connor’s skills as a songwriter have sometimes been overlooked, and it’s interesting that she gained the most fame for a cover (or two covers, if you count “War”). Was this just a quirk of the charts, or something to do with the unconventional structure of many of her songs?
FT: I’m not sure it’s either, to be honest; I think it might be a standard mechanism of the industry. Quite a few big Eighties artists (Bananarama, Soft Cell, UB40) burst onto the charts with covers. Sprucing up an old song is a time-honored way for an act without their own songwriter to score a pop hit. Conversely, at the time O’Connor was writing and recording her first two albums, acts like Kate Bush, Talk Talk, and David Bowie were big on the British charts, all with quirky and idiosyncratic songwriting. Weird songs have never really been a barrier to European success if they’re catchy enough. O’Connor was already a Grammy-nominated artist when “Nothing Compares” came out. It just happened to be an absolute banger of a cover.
WG: You write that her 1987 song “Troy” references Yeats’s “No Second Troy.” Does her music have other literary influences?
FT: As best I can tell she was an avid reader. I’d guess that quite a few songs have references to whatever she was reading while writing, but most are probably not as direct as the interpolation of Yeats in “Troy,” and I’m immensely sad to say we’ll probably never know what they are. Undoubtedly the single greatest literary influence on her was the Bible and the Catholic liturgy. The entirety of the lyrics on her album Theology are Bible quotes, and I could have written a whole separate essay about the psalm as a form and influence in her work.
WG: You filed a draft of this essay before her death. How did you choose to change it, or not, after the news came out?
FT: This was honestly an immensely hard revision process. I really wrote the essay as a celebration, wanting to give a great artist her roses while she was still here. I knew immediately after the news broke that I didn’t want to rewrite my celebration as an obituary, and that I didn’t even want to mention her passing until later. I think that aside from the introductory note and some tweaks, we ended up with almost the same essay we would have ended up with anyway, except with more crying on my part. The most significant change is that we modified all the verbs throughout to be in the past tense. That was the editors’ suggestion, which I thought made sense. The good folks at the Review gave me a lot of leeway to write the essay I wanted to write, for which I’m very grateful because the whole thing is really close to my heart. It was and remains an essay about O’Connor’s music. I don’t want people to walk away thinking, “Oh, so sad.” I want them to walk away thinking, “Damn, these albums sound great, I’m going to go listen to them.”