Thinking outside the orthodox box: An interview with Jonathan Eburne, winner of the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize


The Modern Language Association has announced that Jonathan Eburne’s Outsider Theory: Intellectual Histories of Unorthodox Ideas has won the James Russell Lowell Prize. One of the most prestigious scholarly awards in the world since its founding in 1969, the Lowell Prize honors an outstanding work in literary or linguistic study written by a member of the Association (which has more than 25,000 current members from more than 100 countries). The selection committee’s citation reads: 

Jonathan Eburne’s Outsider Theory: Intellectual Histories of Unorthodox Ideas is an original and extremely erudite book with a fresh perspective on a wide range of movements, texts, and ideas that fall outside traditional investigations of intellectual histories. Eburne’s attention to the ways errant, marginal, and often hermetic ideas circulate forces us to question how we know what we know. The book brings together high and low cultures, often eclectic and esoteric, to explore how knowledge is produced and revised. Eburne’s ethical commitment to tracking without fetishizing the unorthodox over a thousand years of human history makes this book both unique and essential to our understanding of how institutional knowledge relies on our comprehension and incorporation of the weird and the heterodox.

On the occasion of this major honor, Eburne conversed with Press Outreach and Development Manager Eric Lundgren about the genesis and development of Outsider Theory, as well as its relevance in the current social and media climate.

For those who might not know, the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize is one of the highest honors a literary scholar can achieve—the English professor’s equivalent of winning the National Book Award or the Pulitzer. What was your initial reaction when you heard the news?

I had trouble breathing!  I compulsively started looking up information about James Russell Lowell, though I was a bit too flustered to read any of the poems.

Your book ranges widely from Gnosticism to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Marcus Garvey’s movement, the rehabilitation of the Marquis de Sade in the 20th century, and psychotic maps drawn by paranoiac asylum patients. What are the attributes of “outsider theory”? Can you tell us a bit about how this constellation of topics came together?

One of the inspirations for this book, the art historian Roger Cardinal, just passed away this month; part of the impetus for my project—for all my work, really—has to do with the kinds of scholars and intellectuals I admire and strive to become. Roger was an intellectual omnivore, whom I didn’t know all that well but who had me over to his house for dinner once and was always kind and attentive. For him, as I understood things, at least, “outsider art” was never meant to be a static category or a kind of brand name, but an ethos: a term that described at once the capaciousness of his own interests and, most importantly of all, enabled creative works that might not otherwise be considered art to be considered as art. As vexed a term as “outsider” might be, therefore, it has meaning for me as a spur to attention, an imperative for taking things seriously on their own terms and thus according to criteria that may or may not be continuous with one’s own judgments, beliefs, identity, or principles.

As far as the constellation of topics covered in the book, the paranoia chapter came first, a direct extension of my work on the surrealist movement’s interest in psychoanalysis and particularly in paranoia as a form of critical thought; that prior work focused on Leonora Carrington’s wartime memoir of mental illness, Down Below, which features a remarkable map of the places of “cosmological” significance she sited throughout the institution in which she was held against her will in Santander, Spain.  

But I think the overall pattern for my work on the book was sparked by my reading of Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels, which is about the seemingly miraculous rediscovery of repressed ancient knowledge. The way in which real events in intellectual history can and have, so to speak, played out like psychoanalytic phenomena became a fascinating principle for my own desire to be surprised by topics. After the surprise comes the scholarly work: much like the scholarship undertaken in the wake of the “gnostic gospels” discovery, the next step is to figure out how best to understand, contextualize, and respond to the material in front of us.

Your previous book was Surrealism and the Art of Crime, and you’re the acting president of the International Society for the Study of Surrealism (ISSS). I’m thinking of the ways that Surrealists focused on dream life and repurposed overlooked, humdrum, or disgraced objects in their work. Do you see Outsider Theory building on or relating to your Surrealist work? 

Well, when I first started working on the projects that would become Outsider Theory, I thought I was making a conscious break with surrealism studies, leaving the world of surrealism behind, at least temporarily.  But in classic psychoanalytic fashion it turned out that this was hardly the case at all and that the work is thoroughly conditioned by surrealism. As I mentioned above, for instance, much of the project extends from my besottedness with the writing and art of Leonora Carrington, whom I cite in an epigraph to the book for her entreaty to approach knowledge as  the task of “turning oneself inside out and to begin by despising no thing, ignoring no thing.”

Your book reminds me at times of Dorothy Nelson’s book The Secret Life of Puppets. Nelson argues that, to some extent, genre fiction—e.g. Superhero movies, Gothic fiction,  and SF—has come to fill the void left by the decline of traditional religions. Do you see a thwarted spiritual or religious impulse drawing people to “outsider theory”?

I love Dorothy Nelson’s book, and I very much agree with this general notion about a spiritual impulse. I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of thwarting or decline, however. Formal religions and personal devotions alike are highly regulatory phenomena; they make a lot of demands on the body and mind as well as the soul, and they condition the way people use their time, regulate their food and drink and breath, occupy their physical bodies, and socialize.  Religion is, in this sense, always political in some degree, even when it’s not establishing or protecting an orthodoxy. So I consider the struggle to think, as well as the struggle to find truth and meaning, to be very much bound up in the worldly aspects of religion and devotion alike. As for the spiritual part, what is more “spiritual” than the kinds of longing and yearning that drive any quest for truth? But what fascinates me more than anything is how such yearning manifests itself in the very earthly, material practices of devotion themselves, whether this looks like chanting or prayer, numerological calculation or the creation of “spells” in language or assemblages of wire and glass and wood, or, for that matter, scholarship.

One of the interesting observations you make is that, in the absence of a good education, everything begins to seem equally implausible. As you put it, “without a concrete frame of reference, everything looks like bullshit.” I think about this dual phenomenon of rising ignorance and, at the same time, profound skepticism of the American public. It would seem like the conditions are right for “outsider theory” to proliferate in the years to come. Or perhaps for the distinction between establishment and outsider media to collapse further.

None of what you’re describing is happening at random or according to so-called natural causes.  As books like Erik Conway’s and Naomi Oreskes’s Merchants of Doubt and many others have described, the “rise” of ignorance is a political strategy that has to do, on the one hand, with the wholesale defunding of public education and the erosion of state support for all kinds of public commons and forms of intellectual infrastructure. This does not mean that people are more ignorant today than they were at some point in the mythic past; what it means is that the work of creating and maintaining safe, effective spaces for education—for knowledge production, for open-mindedness and experimentation—is a struggle that leverages increasing financial burdens and personal risks on students, teachers, and cultural organizations. On the other hand, the privatization of public resources and institutions has made virtually every sphere of information, and every facet of our attention, into a monetizable commodity. There’s hardly a moment in the day when we’re not being marketed to, or when our informatics aren’t being captured, calculated by algorithms. How crazy does this sound? But it’s true. Skepticism, as a tool for questioning the truth of every proposition, becomes an unwieldy device when those propositions have been calculated, manufactured, foreclosed.

But there are all kinds of people who are dedicated to keeping ideas alive, even so, from dedicated teachers to librarians, small press publishers, nonprofit volunteers, anarchist bookstore workers, and parents who tell creative stories to their kids. The list goes on. What Outsider Theory is really about, in this sense, is extending this list of knowledge workers as far as it can go. What efforts, what risks, have people undertaken in the name of learning more, of seeking knowledge (even if they were, so to speak, “wrong”)?  What risks are we willing to take in turn?

One of the lines from your book that really struck me was this: “The circulation of ideas is ultimately a political struggle, and with real, mortal consequences.” Obviously, we’re currently in a moment when many marginalized voices (including some very frightening ones) have entered the mainstream, and struck significant blows against traditional media. In Outsider Theory, you take a longer view on this dialectic of inside and outside. Does that give you any hope for our present moment?

Yes, it does. For what count as “marginal” voices and what count as “central” ones (or as “normal”) is not based on stable categories. As reassuring as it may seem to consider, say, resurgent white supremacist nationalism as a “marginal” ideology, it is part of the historical foundation of the United States as a settler colonial nation with a persistent structural racism that has yet to be eradicated. To the extent that white supremacism may be less normalized in the twenty-first century than during the era of Jim Crow, this is the result of active struggles for rights, for political freedom and justice. The “normal” is determined politically and ideologically. And so, too, are the so-called margins in turn. The work of Outsider Theory proceeds from the observation that there are many different kinds of marginalizations: the alleged marginality of  white supremacism—the extent to which it is not, thank goodness, a norm, however dangerously commonplace—does not mean that other “marginal” voices are equally hateful, dangerous, or deservedly marginalized. The marginalization of Indigenous voices, the safety of trans women and men, and the disproportionate juridical and carceral violence against Black and Brown people, are still very much part of what is “central” or normalized in contemporary US culture. This is not a matter of epistemology or the status of facts; this is a matter of political struggle. And this struggle is being fought, which gives me hope.

This is also a big moment for the University of Minnesota Press, as it’s the first time one of our authors has won the Lowell Prize. I’m wondering if you could reflect on publishing this book with Minnesota and the role that university presses have to play in this unsettled moment of idea circulation. 

I find it hard to believe that other UMP books have yet to receive the Lowell Prize, so this is an especially great honor. I have long admired the University of Minnesota Press for its commitment to critical theory, as well as for the exploratory and interdisciplinary nature of its list. When I started graduate school in Philadelphia I haunted an independent bookstore called House of Our Own, which had a special shelf dedicated to the Theory and History of Literature Series, which I coveted (and many of which I eventually managed to pick up). And in the decades since I continue to admire the range and creativity of UMP titles—let’s not forget their design, too—and especially their commitment to both intellectual discovery and the exigencies of the contemporary world. I also really like your staff! So I was excited and honored to have the opportunity to work with the press on this book, and I love the cover design so very much.

I spoke earlier about the increasing pressure on individuals and organizations alike to continue working for the public good; university presses are a fundamental part of this intellectual infrastructure and, in my eyes, they are a national treasure. One of the great ironies of “intellectual circulation” is that the professionally edited, scholarly, peer-reviewed research being made available by presses like UMP must compete on the “open” marketplace with mass-market books, which are printed and distributed on an entirely different scale than university press books. As a result, they’re both cheaper and much easier to find. I admire all the ways in which UMP and other university presses work—indefatigably, from the looks of things—to make their books more affordable and more accessible to a wider readership,  without compromising their quality. This includes the development of open-access platforms like Manifold, among many other initiatives and strategies. Now, I’m a staunch fan of printed books, but when it comes to making work available to readers of all kinds, it’s a matter of doing whatever it takes.


Related: Outsider Theory, Ruggles of Red Gap, and unforgetting: On the unfinished, ongoing work of political and intellectual struggle.

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