By Naomi Riddle
26 April, 2019
‘To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot. What is missing?’
Teju Cole, Blind Spot (2017)
‘We all need a great deal of help’, says the writer Teju Cole in his conversation with Krista Tippett. Since founding Running Dog in 2017 and, until very recently, making do with an editorial team of one, I have often found myself in need of such help. If I think of this publication as a proposition, then I also think of it as a body that skitters and stumbles and propels itself away from my grasp. This mutable body has taken the shape of its namesake: sometimes it seems willing to acquiesce to my approach; other times it bolts away from me carrying its lead in its mouth.
I listened to Cole’s conversation two days before Running Dog’s first event, ‘Survival of the Critic.’ A friend told me Cole speaks the way he writes—that is, in careful, calm, condensed statements that open up a whole world, and then another, and another. (It sounds like I’m exaggerating; I’m not.) Midway through the conversation, Cole speaks about ‘trying to lower the volume’: ‘I want to reduce the number of sparks. I want to embed hesitation and lack of certainty.’ For Cole, being a writer in this ‘age of opinion’ means pushing yourself to think beyond: beyond what seems too easy, and beyond this hyper-vigilant reactive present.
What I admire most about Cole’s writing is the way he uncovers, pauses on, or crystallises images, people, ideas, or moments that would otherwise have remained submerged. It is a mode of thinking that I wish to translate, in my own small and uncertain way, into what this publication is, and what it could be.
Running Dog’s first event about the state of criticism, somewhat inevitably, prompted more questions than answers (should accessibility be our primary focus? / is our ideal reader someone from outside the art world? / are the concerns of the critic and the arts writer the same?). But, for me, both Cole’s conversation and ‘Survival of the Critic’ reiterated the need for a concept that is often lost amongst the noise—generosity, both as an action and a motivating principle.
Any belief in the value of openness and accessibility requires generosity, just as supporting a publishing ecosystem in distress requires generosity. And there is a generosity in trusting the need for criticism too, as well as a generosity in an artist relinquishing ownership over the meaning and reception of their work.
I want to be careful, though, because the idea of generosity seems to carry with it a hippie-scent of squishy and passive sentimentality / whereas I mean a generosity that is robust and fortifying and the opposite of passivity. Because knowing when to relinquish space is in itself an act of generosity, as is making space for voices that, for too long, have been excised from the conversation. To even think this way requires relinquishing what is most prized by our society—the individual pursuit of success.
Generosity is not counter to critique because generosity encourages moments of pause, which pushes critique into more complex territory. It requires thinking through its relevance / need / significance and impact. Generosity is also a means for holding power to account (David Marr: if journalists worked together when asking questions, then it would be far more likely that politicians would be forced to actually answer the question.) Or, to put it another way, keeping us all in a hyper-competitive state makes it far less likely any of us will see the value in working with each other to upend the status quo.
I will try and be clearer, because I am finding this letter harder than usual, and I feel like I’m trying to hold everything all at once / but holding everything all at once also means having to stay steady so as not to spill. I am not interested in noise, although I find myself being pulled towards it.
As an editor and a writer, I am hoping, like Cole, to lower rather than amplify volume—even, in fact especially, when presenting critique. I do not wish to produce or publish just for the sake of producing or publishing a piece that is ‘timely’. I do not wish to simply repeat or (re)inscribe the hierarchies between editor / assistant editor / contributor and reader. And I do not wish to shift Running Dog’s focus away from the act of writing, even if there may be a more shareable medium.
And I don’t think this approach is naïve, or foolhardy, or economically impossible, although it may turn out to be all these things. But it does require something that, in our contemporary moment, seems hard to ask for help with, and even harder to achieve: a discipline built on generosity, care, trust and collective attention.