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The Tuning Fork in the Ear

Mara Corsino

Mara Corsino

In a series of conversations with Merve Emre at Wesleyan University, some of today’s sharpest working critics discuss their careers and methodology, and are then asked to close-read a text that they haven’t seen before. The Review is collaborating with Lit Hub to publish transcripts and recordings of these interviews, which across eleven episodes will offer an extensive look into the process of criticism.

While I hesitate to use the word “delicious” to describe anything other than food, Carina del Valle Schorske writes delicious essays. One in particular, which won a 2021 National Magazine Award, is about Covid-19 grief and postapocalyptic dance floors. “In Plato’s ‘Protagoras,’ Socrates argues that dancing girls have no place in philosophical gatherings,” she writes. She proceeds to prove Socrates wrong by weaving together social dancing, journalism, and a philosophy of visibility. Another essay, a profile of the rapper and singer Bad Bunny that appeared in both English and Spanish, does what the ideal profile should do: situates an enigmatic, alluring, and successful cultural figure in a particular time, place, genre, and language. It provides us with not only an account of a person, but a panoramic view of history.

Carina received her Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, The Point, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The New York Times Magazine, where she is a contributing writer, and she is currently at work on her debut collection of essays, The Other Island


Most people in this audience are college students. How do you get from where they are to where you are now?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. I do come from a family with where there’s a precedent for higher education. My father’s father was a professor. But on the other side, my mother’s mother was a singer on Puerto Rican radio before she migrated and worked regular blue-collar jobs her whole life. My mom was a performer in the Nuyorican scene when she was young. During my childhood, I had a sense of the value of artistic and intellectual life.

It was interesting being raised by New York and New Jersey people in the Bay Area. There weren’t really Puerto Ricans or Caribbean people there. The Jewish people were not the same as the Jewish people on the East Coast. So there was a certain sense of cultural dislocation, even though my parents both had strong leftist sensibilities and I was very aware of the Bay Area as the hotbed of a certain kind of radicalism—Black Panthers, César Chavez, ethnic studies—alongside the hippie spiritual stuff going on in my family. I went to Yale on full financial aid. In many ways, it was edifying, and, in many ways, it was very scary.

Why did you find college frightening?

I would say that I arrived in college already exhausted by the class conflicts and pressures of private school, where the fiction that I “deserved” to be there concealed the threat that I must continue deserving, must manifest my gratitude. And at Yale all of that was even more intense; I could see the gears of power turning. I was supposed to be in the Directed Studies program, which is a Great Books curriculum for freshmen who show promise in the humanities. It bothered me that the definition of rigor was submission to this list of European texts that hadn’t changed much since the nineteenth century. So I bailed: I took seminars on Orientalism, on Caribbean intellectuals. Hazel Carby was a big influence—my mom had books by Alice Walker and Toni Morrison at home, but she was my official gateway into Black feminism. Both of my majors, Literature and Ethnicity, Race & Migration, were global and interdisciplinary. Some might argue that I had no disciplinary training over the course of my whole academic career. But I feel grateful for the education that I ended up getting. It forced me to make connections and analogies.

I studied poetry. I wanted to be a poet, but I never quite figured out how to make my poetry accommodate the political and historical questions that seemed urgent to me. I was also interested in a form of writing that could possibly support me as a career. I loved essays. But I graduated into that very difficult economy after the 2008 crash. At that point all the magazine internships were still unpaid. The editorial assistant gigs in New York or D.C. paid $17,000 or $25,000 a year. I wasn’t able to take those jobs even though I was credentialed appropriately. My boyfriend at the time lived in Boston. He was getting a Ph.D. at MIT and he said, “Come live with me for six months and look for a job.”

I thought I wanted to work at Harvard’s Hiphop Archive. I sent them a review I’d written of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III. They weren’t hiring, but I had a conversation with the director, Marcy Morgan. She connected me to the editors of Transition, a magazine of decolonial politics and culture that was founded in Uganda in 1961 by Rajat Neogy. In the 1990s, it was revived by Henry Louis Gates and Anthony Appiah. Transition published a lot of interesting experimental work over the years: Bessie Head, V.S. Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, Paul Theroux, interviews with Caetano Veloso and Julie Dash. When I was there, I worked with lots of amazing writers including Zinzi Clemmons and Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. It was so understaffed, and it didn’t pay much more than those other jobs, but because I was living with my boyfriend, the salary was feasible. On the side, I did some freelance editing and research for a psychoanalyst.

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You applied to graduate school while working at the magazine?

That’s right. I started at Columbia five years after I graduated from college. It was also a strategic choice because it seemed like the most financially viable option—benefits, six years of funding, and guaranteed housing for six years in Manhattan, not far from my grandmother’s place in Washington Heights. I started the Ph.D. knowing that being a traditional scholar probably wasn’t a good match for me, but it seemed like the most capacious option for being intellectually self-directed and having time to figure out how I wanted to write. I started publishing during my second year in the program, using some of the materials that I was being introduced to in classes. I wanted to write about what I was reading—D.W. Winnicott, Clarice Lispector, Gwendolyn Brooks—in a voice for the public. My adviser, Saidiya Hartman, saw that I was yearning for a more intense, intimate, populist mode of engagement and sort of gave me her blessing. I started with little magazines like The Point, Boston Review, and Lit Hub. Because I wasn’t relying on those publications for money, I could afford to pursue my own subjects and style.

Almost every one of my guests has either an M.A. or a Ph.D., and has decided, for whatever reason, to take their talents somewhere other than the university. When you knew that you weren’t interested in being a traditional scholar, what kinds of things were you looking for in your education and how might you link that education to the essays that you’ve written—for instance, the essay on postapocalyptic dance floors?

That’s a great question because you wouldn’t think the links are very direct with that essay. But the stuff about Katherine Dunham really came from my oral exams. Katherine Dunham was a dancer, choreographer, scholar, pedagogue, and activist. I was very much inspired by the people I was reading, figures from the middle of the twentieth century like Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Deren, and the Cuban anthropologist Lydia Cabrera. They had relationships to academic institutions, but their interventions were radical and experimental. They were in precarious economic or social positions and were trying to piece together viable careers, to get in where they could fit in. I was supposed to be working on them but I felt more like I wanted to work with them. 

It’s interesting that you brought up the midcentury anthropologists. When I read your pieces, I think of a roving, immersive, ethnographic writer who is, for instance, getting drunk with Bad Bunny and analyzing it afterward. I wonder if you could talk about how you position yourself as both a witness and an experiential subject in the essays that you write.

The phrase “participant observer” was helpful to me. The other thing I admire about anthropology, even with its colonial legacy—or in reaction to the colonial legacy—is the idea of writing a position paper. I don’t mean that in the legislative sense, but anthropologists are asked to account for their positionality in relation to what they’re writing about. I don’t think you need to make that the focus of every piece of criticism that you write, but I think that all writers should be taking stock of where their investment comes from. When I’m teaching, I like to present my students with a Gramsci line from his Prison Notebooks that Edward Said quotes in Orientalism: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.” Then he says you have to make that inventory. So it’s about reflexivity, but it’s also about the pleasure of participation and the rewards of intimacy. I know I’m never outside or above the situation I’m trying to describe, and I don’t aspire to be.

So, on the one hand, you’re trying to convey the politics of participation, and on the other hand, the pleasure of participation. There are different ways to make that inventory, and there is perhaps nothing as cringe-worthy as reading a piece in which a subject is strenuously trying to account for their own positionality and doing it in a way that feels either apologetic or insincere.

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Or secretly self-aggrandizing. Like they feel obligated to say, Look how terribly privileged I am! And then they move on without letting that alter their analysis at all. It’s annoying.

How do you make sure your writing stays sensitive and reflexive in an intellectually robust way without being—I will use the word again—cringe?

You have to think about what’s relevant to the story. Not every element of your biography is relevant. To me it’s so much about tone. Margo Jefferson always talks about that. Not to draw a parallel with pornography, but you know it when you hear it. Does the tone sound sincere? Does it sound artificial? I feel like there’s a tuning fork inside my ear that helps me figure it out, which may not be a super cerebral answer to your question.

I will get back to the question of tone. In a sense, it’s a little unfortunate that you brought it up now because it would’ve been a nice pivot to the object that I’m going to give you. But I have one question to ask before we get to the object. The ways that you act as a participant observer are tremendously expansive. You engage with multiple people, sites, objects, and histories, all layered onto one another. Perhaps the most striking calibration that you attempt in these essays is between the history of individuals and the history of Puerto Rico. Could you talk a little bit about your national or international, or transnational—whichever word you want to use—commitments?

The world comes to us in a tremendously complex tangle. The norms of contemporary journalism—maybe just journalism, period—insist on the present in a way that is flattening and not true to the thickness of time. In general, and definitely in the US, we are discouraged from historical thinking. Even in terms of what’s going on right now, in Israel and Palestine, you hear people say that referring to the occupation or anything that preceded October 7 is a distraction from the present. That attitude is not going to help us understand the violence of our world order. And it won’t help us transform it. I would say the same about nationalism. It’s not explanatory, and we miss so much if we insist on framing things that way. I come from self-consciously diasporic communities, but even if I didn’t, I hope I would still have enough sense to keep my moral focus on people rather than states.

In terms of Puerto Rico in particular, I know that you’re referencing the Bad Bunny profile, and, to a lesser extent, the dance essay, which does feature many Nuyoricans because we’ve always been creative drivers in the city’s music and dance scenes: mambo, salsa, hustle, hip-hop. With the profile, the fact-checkers wouldn’t let me use the word “nation” or “country” to write about Puerto Rico, even though Bad Bunny himself had used the word “país,” because that’s not Puerto Rico’s official political status. I ended up translating “país” as “homeland,” because another word that Puerto Ricans often use is “patria,” which is more like “fatherland.” I thought “homeland” kind of threaded the needle. But that’s an example of how seemingly small stylistic questions can be fraught with political conflict in American publications.

It’s not like I want to include Puerto Rican History 101 in every essay that I write. In fact, I find that work very thankless and frustrating and annoying. I want readers to have the tools to understand the meaning of a figure like Bad Bunny, but I don’t want to privilege the hypothetical “mainstream” readers who don’t have that context over the readers who do. I think it’s okay—good, actually!—for there to be some friction, some mystery. You said “layered” and that’s what I strive for.

I want to go back to what you said about having a tuning fork in your ear. I do not think of myself as a good listener of music. I’m good at listening to other people, I think, but I’m not a good listener of music, and I don’t even know what I mean when I say that exactly. I’m wondering if you could help us listen to something. I’ve previously given people texts to read or photographs to look at, but I was hoping that you could help us figure out how to listen to an object with an eye to making exactly the kind of argument that you have been detailing.

Do you recognize the object?

It’s “Yo Perreo Sola” by Bad Bunny—the lead single of the album that was out when I interviewed him, YHLQMDLG. It wasn’t my favorite track.

How does one begin to listen? I realize this is difficult because unlike having a text in front of you, the experience is over.

The first thing that I’m registering, always, is how the music makes me feel in my body. And this is a dance song.

That is already an interesting genre distinction to me. In our house, there are only two kinds of songs: there are jams and there are bangers. But you have a different kind of generic setup in your mind?

Yes. I’m interested in this typology of genre. It’s a dance song if I want to dance to it, which is maybe a simple definition. But this song is also making a claim about dance. The chorus is about “perreo”—twerking is not a perfect analogy, because “perreo” turns the word “dog” into the verb “perrear.” In the classical vision, the woman is maybe pinning the man to the wall with her butt. But on this song there’s a woman’s voice saying, “I do this by myself. I don’t need you.”

The genre judgement also has to do with a musical genealogy. When I first heard the song, with its quasi-feminist message, I immediately thought of “Yo Quiero Bailar” by Ivy Queen. Ivy Queen’s from the previous generation, sort of the Celia Cruz of reggaeton—the only girl who got any respect in that boys’ club. With “Yo Quiero Bailar,” she’s talking about how the kind of erotic movement that might happen on a Caribbean dance floor does not automatically imply consent for activities elsewhere. She wants to grind, she wants to sweat, but that doesn’t mean she wants to fuck. So for me, the message of “Yo Perreo Sola” feels derivative. And the sonics don’t make up for that.

On the one hand, you draw a distinction between what you feel like the song makes you want to do—the affective or embodied response to it—and, on the other hand, hearing the beats that plug the song into a whole history of genre. All you need to hear is the title of the song repeated to extract that generic history. Then, you can make a judgment. Is that all happening at the same time or is it sequential?

I always try to notice what my first reactions are, but I don’t privilege them too much, because music is a repetitive form. I guess these days you can “repeat” most anything. But with music, I think there’s an invitation to repeat. I’m interested in how my thoughts and feelings continue to evolve through multiple listens.

When I was getting my Ph.D., I taught freshman comp, and I would sometimes tell my students, “Feeling is thinking and thinking is feeling.” What I mean by “feeling is thinking” is that feelings are a useful starting point for understanding: you notice your feelings and then there’s an opportunity to step back and try to analyze where they’re coming from. Like, why am I angry? Why am I bored? And then “thinking is feeling”: when you experience yourself making a rational claim or critical judgment, you should inquire into the emotions that might be lurking under the surface of “thought.”

How do you land on the feeling or thought that this is a boring dance song? You offered a conceptual justification: It’s already been done, and the quasi-feminist message of it is not new. But when I think of a boring dance song, it’s one that makes me not want to dance.

Totally. It’s just as much rooted in my body as it is in a discourse analysis of the song’s freshness. I find the beat on “Yo Perreo Sola” a little frantic, and I don’t like the EDM escalation around the chorus. My sweet spot for dancing is more mid-tempo. And I prefer songs where you get a bunch of different beat switches, a super mix like “Safaera.” Those kinds of songs call back to salsa classics that are rooted in jazz and other Black improvisational traditions where there are long percussion breaks and polyrhythms.

But there’s still some pleasure for me in “Yo Perreo Sola.” It really developed another meaning in quarantine: the song came out in the summer of 2020, when we were all at home dancing on our own. There was something fun about that.

We haven’t really talked about the words. You’ve talked about the beat, the rhythm, and the callback to other songs in the same genre or subgenre. Where do lyrics come in? I have a recurring argument with my husband who hears rhythm first and doesn’t pay any attention to lyrics. I often only hear lyrics, and I’m quite dismissive based on lyrics and lyrics alone. Do you pay attention to lyrics in the same way you pay attention to words as a translation?

That’s funny, I have a similar conflict with my mother. She’s like, “You’re always paying attention to lyrics!” I don’t think that’s true exclusively, but listening to lyrics definitely made me want to be a writer. I was the kind of teenager that was always on those websites learning the words. But my dad listened to a lot of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. My mom listened to a lot of poetic Latin American singers. I came of age during the mainstreaming of rap as popular music. The voice is one of the instruments and the delivery of the words is one of the instruments. Words are rhythm. So to me, the distinction between words and music doesn’t feel tenable. I’ve always had the strong sense that words, music, and movement emerge together. We’ve disaggregated them in our society, but that’s not how it has to be.

I think a lot about rhythm, delivery, and tone in my own writing, especially when I’m writing about music. I’m allowing the object to influence the way that I’m expressing myself. One of the ways that I can show a reader what I’m writing about is by absorbing and performing some element of it.

Do you try to match your prose to, for instance, the rhythm of a lyric when you’re embedding it in a sentence? Are you trying to imitate or to perform what you’ve absorbed?

I did with the Bad Bunny story. I wanted to be funny. I wanted to be irreverent. I wanted to be slick and sticky. Or when I’m writing about a live performance of Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin singing “Ooh Baby Baby” on Soul Train, I want to take on a wistful legato. I want my structure and my sentences to have some of the tender lucidity that I feel there.

Since people can’t have the experience of listening to the music itself, the prose needs to approximate what you would judge its style to be like?

Exactly. There’s a line that people repeat when they want to describe the supposed difficulty of music writing: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” That’s crazy to me, because dancing is about architecture. Dancing is about space. It’s about how we navigate public space and our bodies in relation to one another. Dancing is already about architecture, and writing is about music because words are already a musical phenomenon. It’s not such a big leap to make the connection.

Part of the great joy of listening to music is listening to it with other people. I don’t get as much pleasure listening to something by myself as I do when I listen to something with my kids or my husband, or when I go to a concert. Listening with strangers is its own form of pleasure. How do you think about bringing other people’s experiences into the mix? Surely part of what’s happening when you’re listening in public is that your body is reacting to other bodies, reacting to the music?

I would argue that music is an inherently communal form even when you’re alone—or certainly when I’m alone. I’m thinking about all the other people it’s touched by the time it reaches me. I like to try to find ways to formalize that curiosity. In a profile, I like to look beyond the individual that our neoliberal media system has selected to be the hero. I’m more interested in how and why we collectively made them the hero. And in all my stories, it’s also about the interview practice, about refusing or reaching beyond traditional notions of expertise. Like, your average twentysomething in Puerto Rico has a richer sense of what Bad Bunny means than some musicologist.

When I’m listening to music or writing about a particular piece of music, I’m really trying to listen for how other people listen. If I hear a snatch of music coming from a car on my block, I like to see who’s driving. If I hear something out in public, how are other people reacting? If I’m on Twitter, I’m reading what people are saying about a new album drop. I think it’s fair to say that music is our most popular art form. That’s part of its value. Besides the supreme pleasure that I personally derive. Besides my wish that I could sing or play piano or play guiro. But I can’t. So, here we are.

An axis along which critics arrange themselves is the axis of authority that has, on its one end, the centralization of authority, and on the other, the active seeking or embrace of plurality. Another way to think of it might be as the difference between a centripetal and a centrifugal force in criticism. Have you always sought out that plurality of view? Does it change based on what your object is or where you are in your career as a critic? Were there more anxieties about being an authority figure, having just one voice, one view, one relation of experience?

In general, I’m not interested in a kind of criticism where people retweet it and say, “This is the last word on X or Y. Mic drop.” I’ve never been interested in those kinds of proprietary claims. I’m interested in a form of criticism that really opens up other desires, associations, lines of inquiry—because to me, an object is never exhausted, no matter how many people write about it. But there’s also so much where the idea of authority or expertise barely comes up because critics haven’t seen those objects as worthy of analysis. That’s my sweet spot.

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