Teju Cole on Trump, God, and How Twitter Makes Us Stupid


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Teju Cole on Trump, God, and How Twitter Makes Us Stupid

"I don't think Trump would be president without Twitter."

We spoke to writer, photographer, art historian Teju Cole in the diner of Skycity's hotel, in the heart of Auckland's central business district. He's been in New Zealand one day, here to speak for the Auckland Writers' Festival. Despite the jet lag, Cole is probably about as articulate as anyone you'll ever meet chewing through a plate of scrambled eggs. Here's what he had to say.

VICE: Hi Teju. Welcome to New Zealand. You travel a lot and I wanted to ask about the idea of strangeness, of being a stranger. You've talked before about a kind of 'productive estrangement'. How does that work for you?
Teju Cole: It's very useful. It's also an interesting challenge, because it's the challenge of belonging. Or not belonging. But my first thing about going into the world and experience of the other, you know, these exotic 'Kiwis' with their peculiar accents is that no, they're not the other, they're at home in the world. You're the other. And if you travel to Uganda, they're not other. Or if you go to America or Brazil, you're the other. So wherever I go I'm the other and this helps me out–something about not simplifying or stereotyping the people I encounter, but understanding that they are as present and invested in the world as I am. They're doing it from the point of view of being at home, and I'm doing it from the point of view of travelling.


Your book makes this great case for nuance, and complexity—at one point you use the phrase 'constellational thinking'. I wondered if you think we've got worse at this—a hardening of partisanship politically but also in general rhetoric, and a shift towards simpler narratives, simpler thinking.
I mean, quite honestly I think that kind of simplicity, especially nativist, racial simplicity has been with us for a very long time. What I see as really hardening now, and this applies to the consensus on the right as well as people who claim to be on the left, is this total refusal to interrogate the assumptions of the market. The idea that we have to sell as much as possible and that what makes monetary profit is the truth, and anything that gets in the way of that must be opposed. And that extreme violence against foreigners is permissible in pursuit of that profit. That seems to me to have hardened.

I also wondered, how do you think you make nuance attractive to people when simplicity is so nice?
Yes, when simplicity is the order of the day. I have no idea. How do we make nuance attractive to people? What do you think? I literally have no clue. What could we possibly do? It's a tall order, right. Give me a suggestion.

Well I guess your book takes a decent whack at it.
So. What it is, I think, is a very small number of people have a chance to be rescued in that way. You try to present good work to them, that could make them pause, and say, am I approaching this with enough doubt, with enough nuance, with enough hesitation, enough thoughtfulness. I don't think I'm going to go out there and convert any Trump voters. But somebody who already has a fairly serious commitment to, lets say, justice and fairness, somebody who's already saying that say, misogyny is a problem we need to think about or that racism is a serious problem we need to think about. That person is maybe someone who you can push a bit further and say, ok, follow this logic along.


What do you think about social media's place in that? If common ground means you can have more useful conversations, something like Twitter means you discover common ground with a vast network of people, but then, Twitter is full of those kinds of binaries, like this 'this person said this dumb thing, so they're trash'. You left Twitter, but do you see it as something broadly useful, or something that broadly makes us stupider?
I left Twitter about three years ago. Shortly before I left I was using it very actively, I used it creatively, connected with a lot of people, put a lot of interesting—at least to me—work out there. By the time I left it was a bit hectic, a bit noisy, I was hearing back from too many people about every single statement and there's certainly an abrasive and aggressive note, especially if you garner a large number of followers. It becomes this cesspool of commenting from strangers. I left just because it was getting fatiguing for me personally. But in the time since then I've actually gotten a very negative view of Twitter—of social media in general, but of Twitter and Facebook in particular. I don't think Trump would be president without Twitter.

That's not simply because he was reaching his people on Twitter, it's because he was reaching his enemies on Twitter, and using their strength against them. Sort of like judo. He was able to capture not just his own natural audience but also the audience that was opposed to him. So that for a year before the presidency we talked about nothing but him, and in what is literally a popularity contest, twitter just became the most unbelievable free advertising for this monster that would never have made it on his own in the conventional way. It became like the magician's tools were turned against him, and we thought we had this thing that could lead to progressive transformation but what it has done is brought out the worst instincts in people both on the right and on the left. It very much gave us a version of laughing at Hitler.


So my answer to your question is: Twitter has made us stupid in a very specific way, which is that we can't even see when it's going against us. There's a monster that feeds on noise and we kept feeding it noise, because that was the only thing the noise machine could allow. It could not allow for a kind of distance, silence, refocusing of energies, it just had to participate in the noise and entertainment. We sort of got onto that ride and did not know how to make it stop.

"Art can be a space for not simply strategy, not even that. But it can certainly create a space for mourning. And to be able to mourn what is worth mourning is such a deeply human necessity. People who are in the midst of something that ought to be mourned and are not mourning it have been broken in some way. And art is defending that space.

Yeah, Trump was a shock. And then afterwards, there was this huge flurry of comment about how it happened, why it happened. I remember one piece you wrote, about a photographer -
Taryn Symon.

Yes. It was through a very different lens, looking at what had happened through this lens of her work. Can you talk about what you think the role is of art, in helping us in violent or fraught political times. Does it ever seem frivolous?
Oh so, it's precisely not frivolous. One of the questions people are asking is, what if it gets really bad? And one sensible answer to that is it's already very bad. People are getting deported and families are getting ripped apart. People are getting killed through drone attack, military strikes. There are real life consequences for people. Every Muslim I know in the US is under constant stress. So the question is not, "What if it gets really bad?" The question is, "It's really bad now, what are you to do?"


You want to look back on this era, let's say 10 years, 15 years form now, and you want to say, you know, who were you? Let's say you were living in some small Polish village in the 40s and they round up the Jews in your town and sort of cut them out. In retrospect, who would you have wished to be in that moment? The options are not great, and there are not very many, but they're worth thinking about. So for me, it's such a time of intensity and thoughtfulness, I think art opens up a space where that intensity and thoughtfulness can happen, as opposed to a more rapid, more clever political response. Art can be a space for not simply strategy, not even that. But it can certainly create a space for mourning. And to be able to mourn what is worth mourning is such a deeply human necessity. People who are in the midst of something that ought to be mourned and are not mourning it have been broken in some way. And art is defending that space. Saying, this is not simply terrible, this is terrible. Art holds open that space, so that we don't lose sight of how terrible it is. Because mourning is what allows you to regroup, it's a kind of survival mechanism, and there's a way in which if you're not mourning that mourn-able event, you're actually being destroyed from within. You're becoming something other than what you fully ought to be as a human being.

I wanted to ask about #_blackpaper, a series you have going on Instagram, what are you doing there?
In January I realised there was a certain mood to my shooting since November. I woke up one morning and decided this work was going to be something that I explored under that title. That there can be a sequence of images and a certain type of shooting that has to do with these very complicated feelings of the present. As I worked on the theme it got more refined and more unified. To start with it was this search and it was all over the place, many different kinds of images, and now there are many different kinds of images but they also feel very united to me. So Blackpaper is going to be a long, evolving work, but let's say the first version of it is putting these various images on Instagram with this hashtag.


For me it is my first artistic response to the Trump era, but it's not about Trump. It's about listening to what's around us right now. Working through those feelings. And then it will continue to other forms.

Fifteen or sixteen years ago, not very long, I gave up religion - I also had a church upbringing you know. And there was a way in which I had to find a consolation for being alive. I knew it was something I found in poetry.

The way you talk about making work sounds almost like a spiritual process - you talk about listening a lot, it reminds me of my church upbringing.
Yes, listening to see what the Lord has to say.

How did you come to this way of working?
I've always been this way. I refer to my career is starting 12 years ago, but 15 or 16 years ago, not very long, I gave up religion—I also had a church upbringing you know. And there was a way in which I had to find a consolation for being alive. I knew it was something I found in poetry—not "oh somebody wrote a nice verse, I love the feelings" but this idea of holding a space open for something else to happen. It became something I absolutely needed after the loss of God. I'm not ashamed about having seriousness play a role in my life. Because I know seriousness is not the only thing that's there: I'm a fun guy, I love to party, I'm full of foolish jokes. But the seriousness helps me keep going through this. Poetry itself or anything infused with a genuine poetic spirit, in a tough and discriminating way. Anything that's acute attracts me, whether it's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Thelonious Monk, or Kendrick Lamar when he's good. It's not a substitute for religion because religion is kind of a totalising system, and art is not. But what it does is it just keeps you afloat.

This interview has been edited and abridged for clarity and length.

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