I will begin with a confession: To me, most criticism has palpable horny celibate energy. Not all, certainly, but most. I don’t believe libidinal investment in artwork is a problem, on the part of the critic or anyone else. In fact, I’m not sure appreciation of or engagement with artwork is ever not libidinal. A problem only arises when such investment goes unrecognized or, even worse, is refused as a possibility. What is the doomscroll, the hate-watch, (the hate-fuck), the gleeful, enthusiastic, public takedown of an unflinchingly negative review, the behavior of the obsessive, angry reply guy if not fascination so unbreakable it verges on the erotic? Why bother engaging anything enough—let alone art—if there isn’t something about it that gets us libidinally fired-up? 

The horny celibate is at war with himself, though. Our perception is never clear when it’s clouded by longing. This might mean that our perception is never clear, period, but it certainly means that unless we can recognize our libidinal investments as the source of one particular kind of clouded judgment, we will be doubly clouded. Imagine a book that acknowledges this as an inescapable fact, allowing said book to continually shape-shift as the site of a juicy, sticky, living predicament. Imagine a metacritical rumination on that exact predicament as a fecund starting point, a yearning, radiant zero.

What results is We the Parasites—a bodily, cerebral, and unabashedly horny book. An experiment in subjectivity and a love letter to art and theory, it’s a joyous refusal of both the prison and the clinic as the primary sites of criticism and art. 

A. V. Marraccini and I talked about her new book for a few hours in February of 2023. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Lindsay Lerman: I thought it would be fun to start by talking about the libidinal investments of the critic. I love the way you acknowledge the role of the critic as possibly a parasitic role, but you’re clear that it’s not exclusively parasitic. It’s much bigger than that. And there’s the possibility that it’s symbiotic, of course, but that doesn’t remove the fact that there is some sort of a libidinal investment on the part of the critic.

A. V. Marraccini: Yeah. There’s been this rash of essays, as sort of a backlash against the 2000s Internet personal essay, which we can all admit was maybe a bad moment for all of us. But I mean, it’s one of those choices of the young women who really desperately wanted careers. They needed to put their personae—almost their souls—online, in ways that were not good, or were damaging to them. There is some earned backlash, but it’s funny because I love Sontag and sometimes these people use Sontag as an example of being distant, you know, and objective. But I think Sontag actually had more libidinal investment than she would have admitted to, maybe, or wanted to say she had. And I think that’s always there. 

One of the things I like to use as an example, because I’m an academic and a nerd, is that of course Thucydides can use the third person, but that doesn’t change that he was ostracized during the Peloponnesian war. And it’s like, we know it’s you, buddy, we know that you’re biased from the way you discuss Athens, and you don’t have to pretend, you know. And there are these moments where [Greek historian and geographer] Herodotus gets historical shit for being the wacky guy who tells stories. But then it turns out there actually are flying snakes in Egypt and there actually are circular boats in Iraq. And the more we find out is true from Herodotus, the more confusing it is to us that the subjectivity of the first person narrative is just as valid of an historical mode as the pseudo-objectivity of the third person narrative. 

When it comes to literary criticism, I think it’s very convenient also that people are interested in a moment of new new criticism when theory has been seen as the leftist political enemy. And so the recent [online backlash] with the Guillory book and the language around that has been in some ways an excuse for people just to throw theory under the bus. And also, while doing that, to throw the license for experimentation with subjectivity—that theory sometimes allows—under the bus.

One of the things I wanted to do when I wrote the book—because I was coming from academia, so of course, personal investment is not considered a valid form of scholarly engagement outside of theory—was to push back on that and to say, “No, actually, my libidinal investment makes me a better writer of criticism, not a worse one, because I’m acknowledging it and framing my own subjectivity in a way that is, I hope, rigorous.” And I don’t think it’s indulgent to use sonically pleasing language, poetic language. I think it’s actually recognizing the necessity of that kind of language for the fullness of expression.

Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s why we’re so in love with poets in performance, right? Because when they’re good at it, they take it all into account—there’s that fullness of expression you’re talking about. 

And I mean, to not think that criticism or meta criticism can be both hyper-theoretical and libidinal and personal and gross is to impoverish it in a way that I don’t want to see as a critic. And I use the word “critic” in the broadest possible sense. I also don’t like the idea of primacy; it’s something that is like one of my hobgoblins. I do sometimes end up teaching Plato to students to explain why primacy is kind of a weird concept in the first place. I don’t like the idea that criticism isn’t significant because it’s not the primary work, or that it’s not significant because it uses referentiality. What literary work doesn’t, or isn’t? And like canonically, everything’s referential, especially Dante. I hope that readers of the book come away with a sense not only that yes, this was supposed to be an erotics of criticism, but also that when we acknowledge and frame our libidinal investments as part of our prose, we are not the poorer for it. 

You put it so beautifully on page 13, when you’re talking about being unprotected by the mechanisms of your “critical academical position.” You’re making a case for the fact that there’s a way to engage with art that is a little bit less protected. And the way you’re framing being less protected is just laying your investments out on the table. You’re suggesting that being more explicit about your critical goals and desires allows those desires to be more free. More honest, maybe more meaningful.

Yeah, when it’s an exchange, you yourself are more vulnerable. Critics ultimately have a great deal of power over the object of criticism. And at the same time, if you’re honest about your own reasoning for wanting to read criticism or engage with this object, you lose some of the power of distance as a mechanism. Do I want to say that that’s queer, that it’s a kind of bare-backing? I don’t know, that might be pushing it, but I think there is something about Foucauldian power and the idea also of normativity and sort of slotting things into normative power roles that occurs both with sexuality and criticism. And you know, I would like the space of criticism to be neither the prison nor the clinic.

Yes. Agreed.

I don’t want to discipline the work that I write about. That’s not the goal. It’s not the goal to sort of tell them their failings. Nor is it to merely love their successes. There’s something more interesting here. I think because you’ve been trained in philosophy, you understand the problems we get into with language. 

I might!

We have to describe these relations, and there are two ways we could go. I think we could go to, like, really technical, possibly Marxist and structuralist terms about power. And I do that in other forms of my writing. But with this book, I wanted to use the emotionally raw end of my understanding of the power of Marxist historiography. For me, it’s Marxist materialist history from below—the idea that the history of the object animates the world and gives voice to the voiceless. That is my interest in materiality. 

There’s a long history of queer theorists as well who talk about the object of criticism as subject-object relation, and libidinal relations. That’s something that’s worth speaking and engaging with, especially in this moment for theory where everyone’s trying to walk away from the problematics of queer theory because they don’t want to be associated with parts of it that failed as an experiment. I think it’s important to acknowledge the work that it did. Sometimes, of course, it turned out being fucked-up. But that’s how taking risks works. And like, ok, Foucault makes mistakes about seventeenth century science—something I know a lot about, right?

But, you know, I find the current movement away from theory to be disingenuous to what theory can do. And I think people who read Parasites won’t necessarily link it to the deeply theoretical underpinnings it has. And I wish they would, because I think there is an erotics to theory that makes these desires possible. And I think you understand from philosophy as well that something really technical and dry nominally can have such incredible possibility, and so many other valances—spiritual, sexual, whatever. And especially with the classical material, I think we have to remember that it’s all undergirded by beliefs we probably don’t share—political, social, spiritual, sexual. All of fifth century Athens would seem incredibly, horribly weird.

Do you hope that critics read this book? 

Yes. When critics review books about critics, they typically hate them and write reviews about why they suck. But that’s okay. I would actually prefer to get one of those because I want to have this discussion that breaks out. I mean, this isn’t an intervention in the historiography of criticism in the academic sense. 


Like, I didn’t address any of the history or historiography, but it is an intervention in the practice of public writing of criticism and about criticism. It is not The New Yorker essay. It is the antithesis of The New Yorker in terms of style and difficulty and form being a primary concern. And I think I want to highlight that I don’t want American letters to be Iowa workshop-New Yorker essay criticism forever. You can absolutely quote me on that one. There’s this kind of post-war, Cold War conservatism in the form of American criticism—and British criticism. You know, the focus on the novel. It’s what we retain and we fetishize and we teach. And in turn we just procreate pale imitations. And I think we need to maybe break away from the Cold War postwar mindset. It is no longer 1975. The time we live in is profoundly digital and interconnected and different in ways that I think we need to acknowledge, especially post pandemic. It’s just no longer enough, I think, to go back to the history of twentieth century thought and criticism. As much as I am reflexively talking about Adorno and Benjamin all the time—I’m guilty, too. I do this all the time. But I just think that we need to have something that’s more a longue durée (a phrase I overuse)—but broader in scope with broader sensibility. Because I think sensibility has gotten narrow, particularly.

Yeah, it’s been so narrowed, I think. But what you’re doing with Adorno and Benjamin, for instance, or Genet—or anyone that you’re working with in We the Parasites, is you’re keeping them alive and you’re bringing them into this next century, and you’re letting them play in that space of hyper-referentiality, hyper-multi-textuality—what I think of as a fundamental part of contemporary sensibility. 

When people talk about their attention being completely fractured right now, saying they have no more attention span, I want to push back against that and say, it’s not that your attention is gone, it’s that your attention has been radically reshaped. People are still paying very close attention. The people I know who are online all day, they are paying super close attention. It’s like you can’t remove our human capacity for close attention—it just looks different.

I mean, what do people think Twitter fights are about right? Right! Close reading. It’s that. I think you’re totally right. I mean, it’s not only about paying less attention, it’s about what constitutes attention. The reason I wanted to write my next book about art and technology is that the question of attentiveness and being in a world of things interests me. We the Parasites was written during a period when I was very very online. It was kind of over two lockdowns, but also a period during which I went on very long walks and I also had this confrontation with the physicality of my world. I don’t necessarily do that now—I’m a little lazier than I was during the pandemic, when it was like “I’m gonna go outside and explore every day.” But yeah, I think that’s a very apt characterization of how people are like, “Oh, I’m so fractured,” when in fact maybe you are. But can that also be positive? Fractured things also catch light in different ways, right? 

They do, it’s true. The more I hear that criticism is dead and literature is dead, or all art forms are dead, what I really hear is people saying that art forms are being restructured and it’s scary to them. And they’re saying they don’t know how to make the twentieth century model of what artistic success looks like fit with what’s happening right now. And part of me thinks like, good, good, fuck all that.

I love how all these people, especially neo-trads and fascists idolize bohemian artists. Being a bohemian means living in non-recognition and poverty and despair, and they claim to want a capacity for more truth with a capital T and beauty with a capital B, but they’re unwilling to explore the implications of that in any sort of serious and prolonged engagement. 

Yes. There is always the question of who benefits from restructuring. 

And it’s incredibly dangerous to link one’s aesthetic concerns with a source of money that has political concerns that you think you can sidestep. They’re intrinsically bound up with each other. Always. I remember when a certain publishing house that is now publishing leftist texts rejected We the Parasites because it wasn’t political enough. And that shocked me. Because for me it was a deeply political text. As a Marxist-inflected historicist, I was looking at my own training as an art historian, but also looking at the theoretical implications of other frameworks for that training. And one of the things I hope to do with the next book is to make very, very clear that there is no divorce between aesthetic and political frameworks, and they imply or are implicit in each other, all the time.

Yeah, well that’s that narrow understanding of politics I think we’re just seeing so much now. Narrow sensibilities, like you said.

I mean, do they want me to cite the Grundrisse, or what?

Right, the people who are in charge of selecting art that’s going to be propped up and sold to the largest audience possible now, they need it to be so simplified, so clear. They have this dangerously limited understanding of what political art is or looks like or who produces it. And anything that falls outside of that is just a bunch of noise and not signal. I just think this is such a mistake.

And the distinction between signal and noise is a false one that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Generated machine learning, generated images that people call images—because of course, they’re generated from Gaussian noise. I’ve been thinking about how a signal is born from noise and vice versa and how the models are trained. And so signal and noise become a dialectic that are always bound up in the other—which probably they always were. So that has forced me to rethink how people think about the idea of noise. And what is and is not relevant. And at some point everything is relevant. The distinction between what is signal and what is noise as a choice, I think is political, is personal, is subjective, is libidinal. And to at least acknowledge that gives us the framework to ask more interesting questions. 


Rather than saying it’s time for us to stop having feelings in public and go back to being pseudo-objective, like the essayists of 1965. We’ve undergone a shift from, you know, atomic and Einsteinian relativity to quantum mechanics and other stranger theories of particles, so the literal theories of noise have changed. I’m thinking a lot right now about Aristotelian phusis [nature], and machine learning knowledge, and I’m trying to make the connection between physical movement and noise and things because the other model of things is Heidegerrian and he makes me mad.

Yeah, Heideggerian thing-ness is a little lacking in my opinion.

Yeah, right. Like Hannah Arendt, I’m sorry, but you fucked him. And it was so bad. I can’t not think that every time I see your face. I mean, I should talk, but I haven’t fucked Heidegger. I mean, I’ve made some bad choices in life, but I really don’t think I’ve done anything personally as bad as fucking Heidegger.

I’ve known some women who kind of imagine that they’re sex warriors and like, through fucking they could exchange energy in a way and take some of the—

The evil! Oh yeah, the ones sleeping with Houellebecq.

As though you could take some of the evil and exchange it for some of your goodness, your purity.

I don’t think that works. You just end up giving them an orgasm and walking away. If the Lysistrata teaches us anything, it’s that [power] is not in giving it, but withholding it.

Not unrelated to your signal-noise concern.

I hate so much that the conservatives and the fascists have stolen the idea of the classical and tradition from us, to whom it is equally a birthright. We the Parasites was all about that. I’ve always been an Iliad person over an Odyssey person. Lately I’ve been thinking about the three arrows of the Antifa symbol, which are for the monarchy, for fascism and, of course, for fascism within the left, like Stalinist communism, etc. I’ve also been thinking about Odysseus, in Book 22 of the Odyssey, knocking the arrows and shooting them through the holes of the aligned ax heads, when he returns disguised as a beggar to see the suitors in his house drinking his wine and fucking his slave girls. He also kills the slave girls, and I would like to take note of that. And I mean, I think this is part of the Homeric message that Odysseus is an asshole. Like, I don’t think the poem is lauding this. 

So, I sort of want to come back and say to the neo-Trads and the conservatives who try to claim the classical: This is my house. This is my wife. You’re drinking my wine. Get the fuck out. And this goes back to Heidegger and stuff predating Heidegger. And this goes all the way forward to people working now. And I see someone like Ron DeSantis—I grew up in the state of Florida, and I went to a public school in the state of Florida, and I wrote about it in a book, but I can’t give my school that book because the book says “gay” about a thousand times. And other words that would probably get it banned. And I just. . . I’ve loved these [classical] things my whole life, and I read them in the Library of a Florida public school. I read dirty things, and I mean, if you’re going to discover you’re a homosexual, classical languages are fantastic. 

Oh yeah. 

This is what I don’t understand about the whole classical education thing. You do realize how dirty and gay it all is, right? And like, they keep talking about grooming, but you know what’s grooming? Greek pedophilia. Do we want to have the discussion about Athens and Rome and slavery and sexuality? Like, I don’t think they understand that implicit in that is critical race theory and intersexuality. And also intersectionality


If you’re going to make an argument for a return to tradition and the classical education, you have to confront that the classical is not what you think it is.

Lindsay Lerman is an interdisciplinary writer and translator. Her first novel, I’m From Nowhere, was published in 2019. Her second book, What Are You, was published in 2022. Her first translation, François Laruelle’s Phenomenon and Difference, was published in March 2023. Her short stories, essays, and poems have been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Tyrant, Sarka, and elsewhere. She has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. She is currently a posthuman art fellow at Foreign Objekt. She lives in Berlin.

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