Fred Moten Is Still Figuring Out How to Live, Just Like Everyone Else

When he gets around to it, he'll also try and finish his opera.

Author, professor, poet and critic Fred Moten. University of California / Facebook

Fred Moten, poet, professor, author and an awardee of one of 2020’s MacArthur Fellowships, has always adored working with others. Collaboration and interpersonal connectivity are at the core of his practice as a writer; he’s constantly thinking about how radical, disruptive energy can give birth to new worlds. Last week, Observer published Part 1 of a wide-ranging interview with Moten that explored the strange dualism of the art world and the discomfort that comes with having one’s ideas extracted from you in order to validate larger, more shadowy structures. What follows is the interview’s second half.

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Observer: Sometimes, I wonder if the point of art has less to do with how something actually looks, and it’s more about what intellectual avenues you can go down in terms of the intent of the person who made it, or the history behind it, or any one of those channels. Maybe at its best, art is just a channel to a different place. 
Moten: I love all those channels, too. But I like to look at it, and touch it and listen to it. For me, the sensual experience of it is really still important, but I just don’t see how the sensual experience of it can be separated from the social experience of it and from the intellectual experience, so all of those things are combined, you know.

So much of your work is about the importance of, literally, what you do with other people, whether you’re talking, dancing, standing in line — does this tie into your aversion to being singled out? 
It’s complicated, you know? I mean, no, I don’t want to be singled out. At the same time, I have to eat and all of that. I have ideas and dreams about what a genuinely communal or a genuinely communist life might be, and at the same time, I live under the duress of structures that are brutally trying to suppress any such dream. So, we all have to figure out how to live, and how live in the present and at the same time live towards something else. So I’m just out here muddling around, trying to figure it out like everybody else.

Of course.
This great critic and thinker named Lauren Berlant passed away, and I was looking at what people were saying. People were quoting her, and I’m sure I’ll mangle it, but it was something like: People would like to imagine that they’re swimming towards some beautiful horizon, but really, in real life, you’re dog-paddling around in an area whose contours you don’t really know. And I actually think that both of those things are true, and I’m sad about the fact that I won’t ever get a chance to talk with her about it now and ask her about that, but my sense is, I want to believe that maybe she believed, too, that both of those things were true. And so we work and we do do things together, we do collaborate, and that collaborating is how we want it to be in the future, you know? So the future’s in the present in a certain way, but we do it under constraint. We do it under duress. And a lot of times, we do it in ways that are mediated by institutions that we know don’t mean us well, but you’ve got to keep moving. You’ve got to keep trying.

You have to keep moving and you have to, I think, be funny. I was reading some of Lauren’s writing today on Twitter, and I saw a friend of hers, an academic, had screenshotted a text she’d sent. Lauren was describing herself — she said, “I’m a dog in a sea of crotches.” I don’t know what that means.
Oh, I know what it means, I know exactly what that means. Well, I guess they had just recently taken up the pronoun “they,” but they were also totally open to and forgiving of people who continued to refer to them as her because all the work that we have, most of it is written from the perspective that she says of being all-girl. But I know exactly what they meant about feeling literally compelled to sniff and compelled to pay attention, you know? And you can feel that in their work. Not only compelled to pay attention to things, to objects, but capable of extraordinarily deep and sensitive attention.

I read a few years ago you were working on an opera. Did that ever come to pass?
It’s still in the works right now, but Wu [Tsang] is making a film of Moby Dick.

A minor project, not super ambitious.
Yeah, exactly, but we’ll get to the opera someday.

Fred Moten Is Still Figuring Out How to Live, Just Like Everyone Else