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Documents of Mundanity

Doreen St. Félix, interviewed by Merve Emre

Doreen St. Felix

Doreen St. Felix

While I was preparing for this interview, there was a problem with The New Yorker’s website; when I searched “Doreen St. Felix,” I got what seemed to be every single article ever written in the history of the magazine. This glitch struck me as an appropriate representation of Doreen as a prolific critic with a wide range and surprising subjects. Here are some of the artists I have learned about through her work: the violinist Sudan Archives, who, Doreen writes, “does not stand still when she performs. She has used choreography inspired by video games: twirling her bow as if it were a sword or a snake, as if she were a charmer, or a warrior”; the cult astrologist Susan Miller, who gives readings perched on top of a trunk “space-blue on the exterior, with a circular aperture that reveals the inside, where orbs representing Saturn and Pluto hang”; the photographer Alicia Rodriguez Alvisa, whose doubled images of women Doreen compares to taking a selfie. “I think of how I sometimes turn my phone on myself,” she writes, “and am then confronted by dozens of antagonizing copies of me that curdle into an image nothing like the idea of what I want to look like.” She has written about public art and the history of Confederate monuments, the Republican primary debates, Danielle Deadwyler, the new Kesha album, anti-Black police violence, the photographs of Clifford Prince King, Jerry Springer, Alex Trebek, and, of course, television. If you’ve watched it, Doreen has written about it, in her gorgeously sinewy style, with her sharp political acumen and her wicked sense of humor. Her television column from 2020 to 2022 is an archive of seminal documents in contemporary television criticism. I think of her as a John Berger for the screen era. Doreen was named on the Forbes “30 Under 30” media list in 2016, and in 2017, she became a staff writer for The New Yorker and was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary. In 2019, she won in the same category.

Merve Emre: I always start these conversations with the same prompt. Most of the people in our audience are college students. Can you narrate how you got from where they are to where you are today?

Doreen St. Felix: I’ve noticed how you start the conversations. I studied up before I got here because I wanted to be one of your favorite guests. The fact that you are all at an event at the Shapiro Center means that you are light-years ahead of where I was at your age. I started off in college studying neuroscience. I was burdened by the idea that I was meant to be a medical doctor. I grew up in a very Catholic home deep in South Brooklyn. Both of my parents worked in medicine. I was surrounded by art, and they really loved and cared about art, but there was a sense that for your life to have importance, it had to be a life of service.

When I got to Brown, I entered the pre-medicine track and found that I was genuinely terrible, not at science, but at math. I had an advisor tell me, “I don’t know why you think that you have to be this kind of person in life.” She gave me the freedom to explore other areas of study, and I meandered a lot. I did a little bit in French literature, but I thought, I don’t want to go to grad school, so I won’t do that.

There were two newspapers on my campus, the daily newspaper, which covered only news on campus, and the alternative, sexy, weekly newspaper, which tried very hard to be like The New Yorker. Of course, that was the newspaper I gravitated toward. Initially I did local news stories, metro reporting, and then I found myself becoming interested in a kind of writing that I didn’t know at the time was criticism. I became the Features Editor and started writing essays that I didn’t know were essays. I had no idea of any history or tradition when I started writing for the newspaper, in part because it wasn’t an academic setting. There was no one leading or guiding us and telling us, “This is what you’re doing.” We were just dicking around. I ran the newspaper, and we had a really good product. We put it out once a week. I wasn’t aware that would lead to anything like a staff job.

During the year after school, I found a community of like-minded proto-critics who tended to be women or nonbinary and queer people. We were compulsively performing criticism for each other with respect to the pop-culture products we were consuming. I still hadn’t grasped that this was work I could publish anywhere, because a lot of the magazines that are now publishing this work weren’t publishing it when I graduated, which was ten years ago this past May. I think the first piece I ever published was on a Rihanna song called “Bitch Better Have My Money.”

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Why that song?

I studied music for many years, in a religious context. I played piano and sang in a church choir. I knew that I wasn’t necessarily a talented musician, but I had a real hunger for doing the particular exegesis you do as a musician. I wanted to transfer that to another part of my life.

I gravitated to that song because I saw the history behind it. I saw Rihanna cosplaying as Lil’ Kim in the nineties. There’s this amazing interview of bell hooks talking to Lil’ Kim in Paper magazine. It came out in 1997. I was totally obsessed with the cross section of pop culture and Black feminism. In many ways, I think this is what critics do: we take a subject and we appropriate it for our own purposes.

I knew that song, its message, was going to be the perfect surface on which I could engrave my ideas about how young women like me were thinking about money, were thinking about heterosexual romance. That was the first piece I ever published after school. I published it in Pitchfork. I was paid fifty dollars. It changed my life, mostly because I was never going to be a writer if I wasn’t going to get paid for doing it. With the way that I was raised, I felt it was important for me to feel like my work was valuable. Obviously, fifty dollars is not that much money, but it made clear to me that I didn’t have to self-ghettoize or self-segregate myself just because I didn’t have the certain pedigree that some of my peers at Brown had.

You said you and your friends, your community of proto-critics, were constantly performing criticism for one another on objects that were not being paid attention to by mainstream media. What were those performances of criticism were like? What objects did you focus on? Recreate that scene for us a little bit.

As much as I was living in New York City in the mid-2010s, I was also living on the Internet. I think we were drawn to objects that readily transferred their sense of power or being via image. The music video was something that we were all attached to, and fashion; although I wasn’t someone who necessarily liked to consume a lot of it, I became obsessed with watching how fashion allowed people to present themselves to the world, present themselves on the Internet. I think we were also interested in the ingénue figure. I’m thinking of Vashtie, a deejay who was always on the Lower East Side looking gorgeous and inaccessible. Her images would go absolutely feral online.

We were interested in seeing how women presented themselves at this juncture in the 2010s. The magazine was fading, and Instagram wasn’t the marketplace that it is now. It was a period when people were able to control their image and control the profit that they made from their image. I wouldn’t have used this language back when I was twenty, but I understood that something was changing fundamentally. When we talked about the history of the image, that’s often what we talked about, whether on blogs like Tumblr or in intimate spaces like emails or DMs. I would have these long, circuitous tribunals on theory about image with my friends over email. That was the culture at the time.

I don’t know that it’s the same now. I have developed a much more wary relationship to the Internet in the past decade, because I’m recovering from what it was like to be a critic who primarily wrote online. Now I’m writing more in print. I also think the Internet is a lot more hostile now than it was back then.

How did you get from Pitchfork to The New Yorker?

I had an odd series of jobs. I worked for about eight months as an editor-at-large for Lenny Letter, a defunct newsletter that was run by Lena Dunham. This was the time when a lot of feminist celebrities were interested in publishing. Lena had just published her memoir, which had done incredibly well, and she had a real knack and taste for the personal essay. There have been many diatribes that argue the personal essay doesn’t exist anymore, or when it did exist in this way, in the Internet era, we overly valorized it, which caused a lot of people to publish things about themselves that they shouldn’t have. I don’t have that viewpoint. The newsletter was serious. Sometimes it was silly. I mostly worked on books. I ran a column where I wrote about books that I felt more people should read. I think the first one we did was on June Jordan.

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That’s such a micro generation, isn’t it? I remember it, but it feels very, very distant, as does the optimism of that moment.

I felt distance from that optimism. I think I was brought in to be the younger cynic on staff, but I also was not going to let that kind of opportunity pass me by. I’m not a purist. I’m very willing and able to be in spaces that are shaped by capital, are shaped around selling things. I think that the consumer is the primary identity of many, many people in our generation. I started off working for these companies that were about making money.

Bitch better have my money.

Exactly. I worked at Lenny Letter for eight months. After, I moved on to MTV News, which was also doing something very interesting in 2015. MTV News was absorbing a lot of the people who had been fired from Grantland, which was a longform essay shelter in the late 2000s, early 2010s. We had this playground that we knew was never going to last. There was no way Viacom was going to allow us to continue to publish searching, meandering, long-form criticism on music and culture, but we did for eleven months. Right before the operation was shuttered, I got a message from an editor at The New Yorker that said, “You should come into our office.” I went, and I didn’t want to take the job because at first I felt like, This is everything that I don’t do. I’m an Internet girl, I’m a blog girl, I don’t do print magazines. I don’t think I’d ever been published in print at that point.

It strikes me how many media journeys have started from these fringe spaces that felt experimental, that came with these strong feelings of community but without a great deal of institutional backing. Then, if you were good at it, you got absorbed by the legacy institutions. How did your voice change, if it changed at all, from being a blog girl to writing for a magazine?

The great irony is that we were working in a mode that is traditional to the newspaper form, which is that you produce a piece quite quickly. But there was a sense of playfulness, a sense of willingness to be wrong that was crucial to our ability to produce this work as quickly as we were doing it. When I started writing for the New Yorker website, I was nervous that the institutional style employed at places like Lenny Letter or MTV News wouldn’t work within the culture there, that the pieces would grate against what readers were expecting.

But I was wrong. Readers were excited to see stories that would come out five hours after whatever phenomenon we were analyzing. The idea that I had to put on a suit and stiffen up totally came from myself. The writers I gravitate to at the magazine the most, including you, including Hilton, are people who decide not to take up these rules and decide to play with style. There’s a way that you can allow your voice to freeze into one’s idea of what a New Yorker writer should sound like, but there’s a way that you can give yourself permission and do whatever you want.

I want to go back to what you said about your parents, that you grew up thinking the only life or the only career worth pursuing would be one dedicated to service. Do you think of what you do as providing a service? It’s not the same type of service that a medical doctor provides, but it is a service for consumers of culture.  

In criticism, service is a bad word. It’s a word that we apply to publications whose reviews are just telling us whether we should buy something. But as I’m entering my second decade of doing this work, I don’t bristle at the idea that I am doing something for people who might be deciding to look at that work primarily as consumers. Obviously, I want to live in a world where the criticism stands on its own, where the exegesis is sometimes even better than the work. I personally love reading criticism and never seeing the movie, or never reading the book, because the whole point is to see the exegesis being done. But as I get older, I think we must face the reality of the thing, which is when someone messages me and tells me, “I wasn’t going to watch this television show, and I decided to continue to not watch that television show because of your review.” That’s a kind of power that I think is fleeting in our cultural space. It’s a power that I think is important.

There might be no form more compromised right now than the television show, as far as capital goes. You were the television critic for the magazine for a little under three years. Tell us about that process. It’s another step in a career, to go from writing pieces that you choose yourself or negotiate with your editor to having a column that must be published on a regular basis. It’s something that you steward.

I was much more of a roving critic before I started the column. I didn’t really think of myself as having a responsibility, or as having a home or a shelter. I took over the column from someone who had absolutely redefined it on her own terms, Emily Nussbaum. Suddenly, the stakes felt a lot higher. One thing that was exciting was realizing, yes, I’m going to have these individual columns, but what I’m really doing is developing an extended argument about the state of television throughout all of them. I couldn’t have gotten that job at a better time. I started the column in February of 2020, which is to say that a month later the only art you could consume was television.

You could read novels.

You could read novels, it’s true.

But everyone was also watching television. Or Netflix.

In an extremely impassioned way. It was a somewhat disconcerting time to be a television critic. I felt a lot of desire from people who read the column, like, “Can you please watch this television show and tell me how I feel about it?” I was turned on by that ask, because television critics don’t have the Cahiers du Cinéma. We’re not associated with a serious project. We’re associated with something more like TV Guide. I love old TV Guide reviews, but there wasn’t a guiding ethic for television criticism in the twentieth century.

Now, in the twenty-first century, there’s a real effort to make it as serious as film criticism. I used that as my compass. I didn’t want to neglect reality television, for example. You can make an argument that everything is reality television at this moment—I don’t mean in the Trumpian sense, but that we are always filming ourselves. We are always making documents of mundanity. To act like that’s not worthy of the pressure of a critical eye is, I think, delusional. That was one thing I wanted to bring to the forefront of the column. I sometimes also wrote about social media, which at this point constitutes a kind of television. For me, it was about redefining what television is more than covering certain shows or certain genres. I tried to temper our obsession with so-called prestige television. Obviously, there are some shows you can’t avoid. You have to write about them.

What were the unavoidable shows from 2020 to 2023?

Succession. A great television show, but on balance, not watched by many people in America. I found when I was looking at the numbers that people do still really watch network television. Sometimes I would have to write about Law & Order. That was exciting, to look at this thing that in some ways rested in a critical dormancy but was a magnet for most television viewers.

Oh, I love Law & Order. It’s so comforting. It’s so formulaic.

Also, game shows. I wrote about The Masked Singer. Whenever I would sometimes feel down on myself—like, damn, is this what I’m doing with my life—I would think about writing as wrestling. We have to wrestle with the fact that popular entertainment is where a lot of our desires get performed. Writing the TV column helped me shed a lot of my own preciousness, my own snobbery, but also build new kinds of snobbery. Personally, I think snobbery is great.

What are you a snob about? You’ve been resolutely anti-snobbish in this conversation.

As much as I do love bad, trash culture, I’m still a snob about it. I think that there is a half-submerged technique to creating that culture, and when you see it, you know that it’s being done with intention, and when it’s not there I am very much willing to dismiss the effort. I’m not going to sit and apply a Black feminist analysis to some meme that has gone radically viral within the past week or two, which is something that happens in modern popular criticism that I have a real bone to pick with. Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks didn’t do their work so that you could say this social media rapper is a genius. There are some real stakes that have to be redrawn, especially when we talk about Black culture in a capitalist context.

I want to give you an object that brings together the threads of what we’ve been discussing: high and low culture, the way one attends to images, the application of a Black feminist lens to artworks. Could I ask you to flip over the piece of paper next to you? Do you recognize this?

Awol Erizku: Girl with a Bamboo Earring, 2009

I do recognize this.

What are we looking at here?

We are looking at a photograph based on a very famous painting. This photograph is titled Girl with a Bamboo Earring. It was made by a young Ethiopian American photographer called Awol Erizku.

One thing that I haven’t done so far in this series is give anyone a work of visual art. The reason I haven’t done that is because it is challenging to describe visual art on the spot to people who don’t have the image in front of them. What does this photograph look like? What strikes you about its colors, its composition, its subject, its point of view? Take it anywhere you want to go.

We might go to some weird places. The fact that we are looking at a photograph based on an image I think people can recall—Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring—is really fascinating. Usually when we look at images, that image is being birthed in front of our eyes, in that very moment. We’re not necessarily thinking about reference. Whereas this photograph by Erizku is drowned in reference.

We have this black background. It’s so black, it’s nearly Vantablack. We are looking at a young woman. Her skin is brown. She seems to be Black. She is giving us three quarters of her body. She is dressed in what looks like a dress. It’s blue. The blue of the dress starts to recede into that black, black, black background. She has her hair wrapped in a particular style. It kind of reminds me of the way that hijabis wrap their hair. The top of the wrap is the same blue as the dress, and then there’s this yellow strand, almost like a ponytail, coming from her head wrap.

She looks contemporary. Part of that is the way her lips are half open. People who take selfies that are meant to seduce people know what I mean by this half-open look. You let your bottom lip come nearly to your chin, and you expose your teeth a little bit. She also has lined her eyes with kohl, and the kohl is overdone. It’s a little smudged, almost like a frame around her eye, and her eyebrows are filled in. She’s wearing makeup in the way that women wore makeup in the 2010s.

Then there’s that earring. It’s the one aspect of her dress that doesn’t look like a costume. The way that she’s wearing the dress and head wrap makes it seem like a stylist or a photographer came in and put her in this outfit. There is a sense of disruption in time. The girl who looks like this typically wouldn’t dress this way, but the earring looks like an earring she might typically wear. It’s a bamboo earring you can get at a beauty supply store. It’s likely made from plastic. It doesn’t seem to have weight to it. It’s sort of waving in the air as she turns and gives us her three-quarter profile. It’s shaped in a heart and because the background is so black, because of the lighting of the photograph, it seems to almost float.

We can’t really see her ear, but we can see this earring. There’s a sense of humor about that, because when you think of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring,so much of its appeal throughout the centuries is that we are seeing an idealized girl pierced. The idea of that jewelry going through her body has always been the appeal of that painting for me. In this photograph, we don’t get to see the ear at all, and so it feels like the photographer is interested in making a very different point than Vermeer was.

Can I ask you to say one more descriptive thing before we get to the difference between what Vermeer is trying to do and what the photographer is trying to do? Can you say something about the way the hand at the bottom looks like it is resting on something—as if it’s arrested in midair?

It’s amazing that you asked me that, because the way the photograph is composed, you almost miss the hand. The hand is right at the edge, almost being eaten by the frame. The hand might be on her hip. It might be dangling. There’s something a little bit naughty about the hand, because usually when we see a portrait that gives us a torso up, we’re not necessarily thinking about the bottom half of the body, but the hand suggests it. It also makes you wonder what her nails are like. If she’s wearing a bamboo earring, it allows you to speculate how she might adorn the rest of her body.

Also, there’s a little bit of kinetic motion with the head wrap. I wonder whether she tied her own head wrap, or someone tied it for her, or she swept it around her back and didn’t know what to do with the hand that had just done that sweeping, so decided to give us a parody of a pose.

That raises the question of genre. What is the relationship between this photograph and the painting that it’s based on. Is this parody? Is it satire? Is it merely a reference? How do we read the relationship between the past and the present, and between painting and photography?

Or is it Mad Libs? I’ve encountered this photograph so many times in my life. The first time I ever encountered it was on Tumblr, and that’s because it went bonkers viral. If you were a cute Black girl in the 2010s and you saw someone had redone the Vermeer with a brown skin girl and she was wearing a bamboo earring, you went berserk. But there wasn’t necessarily a language for that feeling. There was an acceptance that it was evident why people would be attracted to Erizku’s photograph, but I don’t think it’s actually evident. I think there are a lot of confused feelings and confused messaging in this work.

Black contemporary art now has very much solidified the idea that we are entering the great halls of the museum, of the gallery. There are so many shows now where they’ll put Faith Ringgold next to Picasso. I think MoMA did that a couple of years ago. This photograph to me is an emblem of that change in New York City’s art world, more so than it is a comment on the Vermeer. Many Black contemporary artists have realized that a great way to get into the museum system is to satirize the museum system. But at the same time, is there a weakness to this idea that we can blackface images that are classic in our Western imaginations? I think that’s something that we have to consider when we look at this image.

I think about the background, and I want it to do more. I want it to suggest its setting in time. The Vermeer isn’t just the girl; that she’s wearing a turban during that period suggests a kind of proto-internationalism. The bamboo earring can’t do all that work, because the bamboo earring has a kind of flippancy. It’s so obvious, it must be a little bit of a joke.

I want to go back to something you said in your description, which is that the posture of the mouth, the kohl-ringed eyes and the way that they are smudged, and the hyper-saturation of color seems to reference a contemporary aesthetic that solicits desire through a particular medium and genre: the filtered Instagram selfie. I wonder if there is history baked into the aesthetic in a different kind of way.

That’s a great way of looking at the photograph, too. There’s something about this photograph that makes me think about, strangely enough, the black-and-white portraits that Malick Sidibé would take in his studio, in part because this photograph is doing the opposite work. Those images were very washed-out. We got the sitter from head to feet, all of their body. Whereas this photograph is so much about removing the sitter from any sense of the world. We have an indication of the contemporary with her eyes, her mouth, and the earring—there is a real force. Not a violence, but an intensity on the part of the photographer, who almost wants to treat her like she is a painted object, who takes her body and decides to put her through these almost alchemical digital processes, which is what we do when we take our images and put them through a filter. We decide to crop them, we decide to make them fit a pre-existing application, but other times an idea. When I decide to post a selfie on Instagram, sometimes I want to just look like my sultry face cut off from the neck because I want to convey a certain idea. What’s so funny about this photograph is that Erizku is applying techniques of selfie photography, which of course means a sitter being her own portraitist. But this isn’t a selfie. This is him coming in—he is very important here—and deciding to provide his own criticism of how it is that young Black women think that they want to be seen.

Two gazes are operative here: the gaze of the male photographer and the sitter’s gaze, which focuses on us. How are we supposed to read our own relationship to this subject? To put an asterisk on the end of that question, you talked about seeing this for the first time when it went viral. I sense a distance between your attraction to it then and how you’re perceiving it now.

The thing about a photograph like this—which was displayed in physical space, but its home is primarily in digital space—is that it’s the kind of work that people all feel like they own. If you decide to repost this on your Tumblr, on your Instagram, it’s yours, and it becomes a part of the grand vista you have decided to create on the image gallery we all have on our various social media websites. Her gaze, which should be piercing, feels as if it has been divested of that feeling of confrontation, given that she doesn’t exist in a rarefied space where we would have to go to pilgrimage to find her. She is everywhere.

It reminds me of this great ambivalence that developed in me as a Black woman in my thirties. I’m still young, but I don’t feel the excitement of transgression that I felt when I was in my twenties seeing an image like this. I’m starting to feel like transgression has become superficial rather than a real substantive vessel by which we are trying to change things. Girl with a Bamboo Earring ultimately is fatally tethered to her reference, and it causes us to think of contemporary Blackness as the thing that has to be smuggled into the past, as opposed to something that has its own past. That’s the dilemma with an image like this, how it ages.

Anyone who takes photographs of themselves knows it will age poorly—or rather, that you will age, so it will no longer be a faithful representation of you. We have a fatal relationship to photography that feels essential to the medium. Do you think any of that logic is being self-consciously evoked here? Or do you think the image is more or less unaware of its relationship to its own gimmickry?

I think this photograph is completely innocent. This photograph was made with the very subconscious idea that the world would end after it was created. There’s no sense of the future in it, which is an amazing kind of optimism to have. I think that in a life longer lived, maybe that person wouldn’t create this photograph because they would be an adult with the knowledge that it would age, ironically, given that it primarily lives on the Internet and images on the Internet don’t age. I’m interested in it as a capsule more than as a work that I would apply an active critical analysis to today. It’s so much more powerful and totemic to me as a kind of message from the mid-2010s, when there were young Black artists who felt angry and entitled to do this kind of work, even if that work couldn’t always bear the weight of the ideas that it meant to signal.

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