PhD Student Noor Asif: "public-facing writing is important because it democratizes literature and the study of literature"

November 9, 2023

Our next interview will be with a PhD student in the English Department: Noor Asif. I first met Noor because she was my GSI for English 45C, which was one of the first English classes I took at Berkeley, and which covers literature from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century. The class taught me so much about the ways to go about studying, and writing about, literature. Noor also is an editor for a magazine called Parapraxis, which focuses on psychoanalysis, and she previously studied art history. For these reasons, I thought she would be an incredibly interesting person to speak with for an arts and humanities column. 

To start us out, I would love to hear more about your research, Noor. How did you first come to studying literature at the graduate level, and what does your research currently focus on? 

I came to study English at the graduate level in a very roundabout sort of way. I double-majored in English and studio art in college, and after graduating, I worked at a museum for a year. Then I applied to do my MA in art history, because I thought I wanted to pursue a career as a curator. I realized during the MA that the training I had received in college as an English major wasn’t going to apply to art history. Art history was not for me; I am not a historian. English allows you to bring multiple theories together, multiple disciplines together. It’s very rigorous in the sense that you’re always staying close to the text—but it allows a lot of freedom and creativity. You can build an argument based on a constellation of ideas. After the MA, for which I had focused on modern and contemporary South Asian art, I was given the opportunity to do a 4-month fellowship in Lahore, Pakistan, to study Urdu – an incredible experience for which I continue to be so grateful.  During the fellowship, I applied to PhD programs but still wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue a PhD in English or in another discipline. So, in addition to a few English programs, I also applied to programs in cultural studies and women and gender studies – departments where I felt I would have the freedom to explore my ideas, which at the time revolved around cultural production, nationalism, diaspora, and queer theory.

I got into Berkeley and accepted the offer, a decision I continue to feel positively about.  The English department here is unique in that you are expected to have a very rigorous training in the discipline itself – to be able to understand how one closely reads, how one thinks about literary criticism and literary history, etc. – but at the same time, there is a lot of freedom to think about interdisciplinarity, and to bring various concepts and theories and methods together.

I was wondering about some of the differences between art history and English, just because I don’t know as much about art history. Does art history have critical theory, or is that more unique to English departments? 

It varies across art history departments in different universities and even within an art history department at a single university. What I mean is, different faculty members within a department might have different ways of approaching art history. Some schools also have visual studies departments instead, and my understanding is that these departments are more explorative with regards to critical theory and less interested in historical questions. But generally speaking in art history there is unquestionably some sort of inheritance from critical theory, even if it might not always be explicit. For instance, I remember taking a seminar during my MA about how museums are sites of subject formation, an idea drawn from the work of Michel Foucault.  Psychoanalysis has also played a large role in the way we’ve come to reckon with works of art. There’s also a strain of art history that draws on the work of Karl Marx to think about the material conditions out of which  a work of art is produced. Art historians particularly interested in questions of nationhood and the global turn also build on the work of critical theorists concerned with forms of governance and worldliness. However, I think in English departments, and English at Berkeley, especially, the influence of critical theory is more evidently palpable in the ways in which we read, interpret, and situate texts. 

And this might be a bit too general of a question, but what is literary criticism, and what would you say is the function or value of literary criticism? To narrow this question a bit, I would also be interested in whether you have any preferred methodologies or approaches toward literary criticism, and if you could give us a short explanation of some of the most important critical concepts of your research.

What is literary criticism? [laughs] Well, what do you think it is?

Umm [laughs]… I don’t know. I don’t even really know what literature is. 

That’s fair. I think literary criticism offers a way for people to grapple with the meaning of literature – the meaning that exceeds what has been written on the page. It’s very intertextual and relational in the sense that critics are building off of each other’s ideas to understand a text or a literary movement. Literary criticism is especially important right now because it’s becoming especially tempting to take things at face value even though it’s become more risky to do so – I’m thinking of AI right now. We don’t want to do the work of interpretation, and don’t want to think about the ways that meaning exceeds that which we are confronted by on a very material level. We want things to be simplified and made efficient – that’s a result of technological advancements and capitalism. And so I think it’s important that we take literary criticism seriously and start thinking of it differently – not just as something people do in the ivory tower, but as something we all do (or should do) all the time. Because, in my opinion, literary criticism bears upon the way that we relate to all sorts of knowledge production, not just works of art. I mean, even a text message that you receive from someone – you can interpret that in so many different ways, and it can reveal a lot about you as a person, but also the person who sent it, and also the medium through which you received it. In this way, a simple text message can become a way to think about human relations and technological advancements in the context of our historical moment. One more thing about literary criticism that I want to say is that there’s some movement towards making literary criticism more available to the public. I think that because we’re in a moment in which people are becoming less interested in digging deeper, a lot of critics want to make it more accessible in order to motivate the public to do the work of digging. We should all be doing the work of interpreting and interrogating meaning, not necessarily out of a suspicion of our reality, but as a way to become more intimate with it. 

And can you tell us a bit more about your research?

That’s a good question. So, I’m working on a prospectus right now, which is like a blueprint for your dissertation; in the English department, you write your prospectus after you pass your qualifying exams. My prospectus focuses on the relationships between certain postcolonial writers and “charlatans” and how these relationships are mediated by text and influenced literary production. By “charlatan,” I mean figures who are characterized as masters of deception, but who are also sincere and offer profound and new ways of understanding the world. I’m interested in charlatans who have disseminated their ideas by writing prolifically about them. The project begins with the late 19th century, with the rise of psychoanalysis and the development of the natural and human sciences –  a time in which, as the story goes, religion and god fall into the shadows. Yet people still need something to believe in; and this desire for belief creates the perfect foundation for people like charlatans to emerge. The interesting thing about charlatans is that while they may be exploiting other people’s vulnerability and desire to believe, they’re also offering something very real in return – written accounts of systems of thought through which to think about human potential in the context of modernity, for instance. I’m trying to grapple with this doubleness of the charlatan. How can someone who is lying, or deceiving, or exploiting, also be someone who is offering something very important and sensible to the demands of humanity's need to believe in something? And how do we see this playing out in literary form? How are these dynamics mediated by or transferred through text? And what is the relationship between the charlatan’s teachings and radical forms of politics? 

I heard a talk by Poulomi Saha about their work last year, and this seems really related to that. 

Yeah, they are my advisor!

And, as a graduate student in English, but also someone who works for a magazine and who had a job before coming to graduate school, I was wondering if you could speak more on accessibility and public reception in academia. I think for me, one of the hardest things about studying literature is the feeling that work in the discipline is only affecting, or interesting to, a very select group of people. It can be hard for me to justify studying literature when it feels so self-contained. Do you have anything to say on this? What have been some of the main differences between your work in academia and your work that reaches a wider audience? What are the pros and cons of both ‘forms’ of writing? 

Well, I think there is this perception that the study of literature happens in an ivory tower, and it very much does – we can’t deny that. At the same time, I think public-facing writing is important because it sort of democratizes literature and the study of literature. It gives everybody the tools to interpret and to find meaning and for them to develop their own way of reading. I think with Parapraxis – because it’s a magazine and not an academic journal – we (including the other editors and myself) encourage people to write in different registers than they normally would. A lot of our writers tend to be academics, but also analysts and freelance writers, grad students, etc., and we encourage them to write in a style that’s more accessible. This isn’t only to make ideas legible to a wider readership – which, yes it is that – but it’s also to allow people, like academics who have been told to write in a particular register, often using jargon, to finally get the chance to develop their own style of writing beyond that of the academy. And because it’s a magazine, and because it’s about psychoanalysis – which has very much to do with the psyche, repression, desire, the sense of working through things – we want people to write not from a position of knowing all the time, but from a position of curiosity, and being a little transparent with the reader, like opening up to the reader and saying “OK, this is something I’m interested in, but it’s hard for me to talk about, or it’s hard for me to think through, and I’m not going to hide that. I’m actually going to use that struggle in my piece to come to some sort of revelation about whatever it is I’m writing about.” Does that make sense?

Yeah, that does. 

So that’s really different from journals, and academic writing, which are often framed from a position of expertise and obscurity. I think public-facing writing is really important in that way. 

One of the things that I find really difficult is: Who has time to read these things? I think about more accessible forms of academic things – for instance, I like reading The New Yorkerand it might be more accessible to some degree, but it still isn’t, really. Because I feel like the people who read these things are still very privileged. 

Because of the paywall?

And also because not everyone really has the time to care about… I guess not everyone really has the time to read things like The New Yorker, and there is a paywall, and I mean… I don’t really even know how to form this into a question. 

Your question is really important. You’re absolutely right to point out that many people do not have the time or energy to care, and this gets to the very pervasive issue of how our lives are run by the demands of capitalism. I think there are some ways to alleviate this, though of course nothing is perfect or complete.  One way is through education; we need better, more equitable, and accessible forms of education to inspire people to care about literature and form new kinds of readerships. And of course, the humanities are under attack right now. Sadly, universities are faced with budget cuts in the arts and humanities all the time and that sends a message. A message in which the humanities are viewed as fluff and uselessness while STEM is associated with real material change and importance. It’s true that most people are exhausted from working long hours to make ends meet, and that they would rather unwind in other ways than read something. But also, people don’t care because they’re told that critical thinking is bad, I think. And this is a problem whose solution can be found in advancements in education. Also there’s other forms of content that you can absorb, like podcasts, or even just talking to friends – conversation. Parapraxis, for instance, is affiliated with the psycho-social foundation which has seminars every two weeks on Zoom on a sliding scale (it’s basically free if you want it to be). And so that’s another way of being a part of a community of people who are interested in the things you are, but aren’t necessarily in grad school together or academia at all. It’s a public coming-together. 

And, as a teacher, have you seen the use of AI affecting scholarship so far?

No, I haven’t seen it, actually. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I’m assigning material that is pretty niche, and ChatGPT isn’t good at summaries; it gives you false summaries. And I told my students that if they’re going to use AI, that’s their loss. They’re throwing away their own potential there. And I think it’s working so far, or at least I hope it is. It’s been really wonderful to see their writing improve as the weeks go by.

I was also wondering if you could speak more about your experience teaching R1A (Reading & Composition) this semester. How has it been different from teaching English majors, as you were mainly doing last semester in our 45 series class? Do you think that STEM students come to literature with different approaches, and how do you think non-English majors can benefit from the type of thinking necessary in literature classes?

I am thinking about this constantly. Teaching R1A is a huge change. I don’t want to speak for the other people in my cohort, but I think we’re all sort of reeling from the fact that we’re not teaching English majors anymore. We were told that it would be really hard to get STEM students to care, and while I think this is sometimes true, I do not think it’s the case all of the time. Some of my best students are STEM students. The good thing about R1A is that there is still some sort of choice involved: the students have chosen to take your class based on the theme; they know what they’re getting into. For the most part, I think that people were genuinely interested in the theme that I chose for the class: abjection.

But yes, it is really challenging, because you’re teaching students who just got out of high school. And they’re all from very different backgrounds; everyone’s high school education is different. You have to teach them not only how to write, but how to read. I have found this to be both really challenging and rewarding. My students are really smart, and it is clear that the ones who care, care a lot. But none of the students are taking the class purely because they want to; it’s a required course. So I’ve tried to explain to them that R1A is important because it’s their first college opportunity to learn how to write, and writing is important no matter what their major is. Because even if they’re writing lab reports, or business reports, or whatever it is, they need to be able to write lucidly, logically, and also compellingly. And so I emphasize the importance of writing about what interests them. I try to make the material interesting, and I always tell them – and this is something Professor Vicky Kahn said in a seminar once – it’s better to be interesting and wrong than boring and right. I find that that helps students feel a little more liberated and at ease. While teaching English majors was a great experience, even then I think there were challenges, because close-reading is not intuitive to most people.There’s no fixed science for how to properly read literature  but there are steps that you can take to read better and more closely, and that requires a certain level of training. 

It’s interesting too, because I’m a comparative literature major, and I struggled with English too, because in comparative literature we’re more expected to think outside of the realm of the text, and we need to be thinking more about the relationship the text has with the rest of the world. So it was hard for me to switch my thinking onto just the text. I took a lot of English classes in the summer, and now that I’ve switched more to the practice of close-reading, it’s hard for me to get back to the thinking I need for comparative literature. So it’s just interesting to look at all the different ways of thinking. Even if it’s a related topic, it can be different. 

No, that's a really good point. And so then the challenge becomes: how do you use close-reading in the service of a larger historical or contextual reading of something. 

And I also wanted to hear a little bit more about your R1A topic. First of all, about abjection, and secondly, about the use of critical theory in literary research. I just think it’s interesting how people take these pieces of theory and apply it to other things. I guess I was just curious as to how critical theory works in literature. 

So the course is called “I Hate You, I Love You: Abject Intimacies and the Body.” It’s basically building on some psychoanalytic concepts like desire (which has different meanings if you look at Freud vs. Lacan) and the theory of abjection, as put forward by Julia Kristeva who was a French psychoanalyst, philosopher, and feminist. Abjection is, according to Kristeva, the interaction with something that is outside of yourself, which troubles your sense of self, something that you are simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by It describes that oscillation between disgust and desire

Is it also something that is outside of yourself but had previously been a part of yourself? Because I thought it was stuff like vomit of feces where it’s abject because it had been a part of you. Or is that not a part of it?

That is a part of it. The example that she gives is of a child who receives a cup of milk from her parents. The milk was just boiled and has a thin layer of skin on it. In this example, the child feels the skin touch her lips and instantly wants to vomit. And when she expels it, she’s expelling not only the milk, but her parents because they’ve given it to her. And through this visceral expulsion, she emerges as an individuated subject, free of her parents – though of course things are not ever this neat. Confronting the abject object throws your own identity into disarray, where you don’t know where you stand anymore. The contours of your self disappear so that Self and Other merge, but ultimately, you expel the Other and this results in individuation. And so this concept can be used to think about colonialism and racism, where it gains currency as social abjection. The colonizer sees the colonized, and thinks, “that is not me,” and uses that difference to carve out his own identity as superior and different. Abjection works in service of these very damaging power dynamics. So it’s good in the sense that it allows individuation from the mother – in the psychoanalytic sense – but then it’s bad because it can be used to create power imbalances. The important part of Kristeva’s work, and the reason it applies to literature, is that literature – especially modern literature – has the tools to represent the abject through certain techniques – narrative, character, symbols, etc. – which thereby purifies it. For example, in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, for instance, the protagonist turns into a cockroach, and as a reader you are confronted by endless disgusting descriptions of his body and its ongoing plight. Yet by the end, you feel a sense of relief, even though he dies, because the act of writing – the act of representing the abject through literary techniques and form – is purifying. Hence, literature transforms abjection into catharsis. 

And I actually had a question that was a little related to this. In English 45C, we read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and we had a class discussion about how to go about studying this text. I remember we read Chinua Achebe’s essay on it, which essentially says that we should stop studying Heart of Darkness because of its racist depictions of Africa. I’m in a comparative literature class this semester called “Literature and Colonialism,” and we studied Heart of Darkness in that class as well. We also had discussions about studying this text, and we considered both Chinua Achebe’s and Edward Said’s views on it, which are conflicting. And before those classes, I read the book for a high school English class, and we talked about the moral dilemma of teaching it then, too. It’s just a bit ironic to me that this text, which we repeatedly discuss as something that may not be appropriate to stay on syllabi, is actually the text I’ve had to study the most through my time as a literature major. So I was wondering if you had anything you wanted to say about studying Heart of Darkness? I know the debates on this text are very complicated, but I was curious to hear what you thought about it, especially after teaching it.

This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I love Heart of Darkness. I think we need to take the novella seriously. And, to be clear, taking the novella seriously does not mean that I condone its subject material, nor do I think that students should condone it. Rather, the novella is important for other reasons. One, because it teaches students to try to understand a text in its time and place. This means letting go of our contemporary moment, and really trying to grapple with the historical context and social issues of the text’s own time. It is only by understanding our past that we can come to understand our present.  Conrad’s novella forces you to deal with the realities of late colonialism through the narrator, Marlow’s, own experiences. Conrad himself was very critical of the colonial imperialist project, and he was very self-conscious of his own involvement in it. Yet, as Edward Said says, he had no resources to think of an alternative to colonialism – that’s up to us as readers. I think we can all agree that colonialism and its afterlives continue to be destructive, exploitative, and polarizing. Heart of Darkness shows this to us from within the colonial frame. Not only does it show us the realities of colonial violence and trauma; it shows the ways that colonialism has damaged the psyches of both the colonizer and the colonized. The colonialism that Conrad is speaking about still exists in the form of postcolonial violences, of the violences of decolonization which culminated in the rise of nation states, of ongoing violences and humanitarian crises in the Global South and Middle East as a result of global capitalism and imperialist wars. All of this is still very relevant. It doesn't do anyone a service to forget. Forgetting just causes the same issues to happen again. Reading and sitting with Heart of Darkness could be a way through which we can better understand the psychological implications of colonialism, and the way that we’re still affected by them, and use this knowledge to prevent future atrocities. 

I was also really interested in hearing more about the magazine you work for. I work for two undergraduate literary magazines here, and I’ve found that it really complicated how I view creative writing and fiction. I was just curious as to the things you’ve learned from editing a magazine, and also what your magazine focuses on. 

So the magazine is on psychoanalysis and leftist politics. It’s a way to talk about current issues that we’re facing nationally, globally, internationally, through a psychoanalytic lens. But also another driving force of the magazine is to put Freud and Marx together in conversation, which is really hard to do, since while Freud is interested in the psyche, Marx is interested in political economy. They both have gaps, and so the question becomes, how do we start thinking about political economy through the psyche and vice versa? A figure who does this in a really compelling way is Frantz Fanon. He thinks about the psychic and the social together, by paying special attention to the material conditions of pathological issues, including decolonization and nation-building. That’s sort of the goal of the project: to fuse the psyche and the social. And to make it more accessible to people, because psychoanalysis has been historically elitist and associated with people who have money. The classical psychoanalytic subject is the Western, bourgeois subject. So how do we open it up to non-Western people, or people who are immigrants, or people in the diaspora, etc.? What I’ve learned from editing is that every published piece of writing that you see – even if it’s written by a very accomplished, advanced scholar – has gone through a lot of editing. Editing for Parapraxis has taught me how to care for another person’s writing in a very sensitive way, since writing is so personal. By editing, I want to help people transform their writing so that it reaches its fullest potential. 

Yeah, one of the reasons I’m so interested in writing is because my whole family other than my mom has pretty severe dyslexia. And so, they aren’t really as able to express themselves through writing. It’s just always been interesting for me to see how much power there is in being able to write about yourself, and about your ideas. And so that’s why I really like editing too; it’s like being able to give someone a way to express themself.

Yeah, exactly. And helping them find their own voice, and their own style. Editing also helps you become a better writer, I think. You see the problems in other people’s work, and you can sort of identify them happening in your own. Another thing about working for a magazine is that it creates a different kind of sociality of writers and readers than something within academia would. We are gaining a following from people who heard about us on Twitter, who aren’t in academia but who are just curious about psychoanalysis. It’s like creating a new community. So it’s really cool how magazines can do that; journals do that too, but I think journals can be a little bit more elitist. It’s just cool to see the magazine bringing the public together around a shared interest. 

And I know that you did museum curation before coming to Berkeley. I was wondering if you could speak more about that experience, and if there’s any ways in which curating a museum and teaching literature have overlapped for you?

Interesting. Yeah, I actually think there is some overlap. I interned at a few art spaces throughout college, in development departments and curatorial departments. My first job out of college was as an academic programmer at  what’s now known as the Benton Museum of Art, a teaching museum at Pomona College. There, I worked on developing connections with faculty, and helped them bring their students to the museum to make use of our archive, and to make sure they knew  that the museum was a resource for them if they wanted to do a project related to art collection. Later on, I became more interested in curatorial work, and I worked on co-curating a traveling exhibition from India at the Seattle Art Museum. Working on this curatorial project made me more aware of the  political and social dimensions of museum exhibitions. For example, because museums receive a lot of their funding from individual donors, you have to take their perspectives into account when organizing exhibitions and other museum programming. Museums are also public-facing, despite being funded by private sources. When writing chats (another word for the labels that you might see on museum walls next to artworks), you have to make sure that what you write will be understood by a middle-schooler and remain interesting for a visiting scholar. What’s so amazing about museums is that they give the public the opportunity to have an intimate exchange with works of art, and they strive to ensure that art is accessible to the public. But in order to get the public into the museum in the first place, museums rely on marketing and often sensationalizing artwork. Sometimes, when I’m teaching literature, those same kinds of demands come up. You have to sell the literature to the students, and I don’t always like doing that. To have to persuade someone why anything matters can be a bit cumbersome, and yet it’s a huge part of teaching and sparking someone’s interest. But usually, like artwork, the literature speaks for itself. 

It’s interesting because in a lot of my literature classes, people kind of make moral judgments on both the characters and the authors in places that can sometimes feel inappropriate. For me, the reason something is interesting to study is because it is morally ambiguous, and I feel like there is a tendency for people to discredit something based on whether or not they agree with the actions of characters or the author when, sometimes that doesn’t really feel as relevant. 

I think that’s a very general tendency that readers have. It’s hard to distance yourself from what you’re reading, and be like “OK, this represents something,” or “this dynamic between these characters speaks to something else.” And so, I think trying to get students to put themselves into the text, but also create this critical distance between themselves and the text—where it’s something that they’re intimate with, but also something they can objectify—that I think, gets to the heart of literary criticism, and teaching it. 

And the last question is: What book would you recommend to everyone reading this?

I want to say The Golden Notebook. I love that book. It’s by Doris Lessing, and it’s phenomenal. It’s like a novel within a novel within a novel. 

Yeah, the structure of that book is so cool. I love that one too. 

It’s really cool. I also love Meatless Days by Sara Suleri. It’s a memoir, but it’s a memoir through her memories of other people in her life, which is interesting. Her identity is sort of refracted through other people.