the seed field podcast; season 3 episode5-12; Individual writing in book on mountain top

S3E6: Stuck On Autopilot, We Ignore Daily Injustices. Can Art Shake Us Awake?

The idea of “defamiliarization” says that we sometimes become so used to our world that we grow numb to it. It takes powerful art to remind us of how strange an experience the opera can be, or how cruel it is that our society forces people to live without shelter on the freeway on-ramps. In this episode we interview the novelist and professor Alistair McCartney about his recent seminar on the Russian theorist Viktor Shklovski and his theory of “defamiliarization.” We talk about what exactly this term means, how it plays out in the works of Leo Tolstoy and Toni Morrison, and how this practice can be used both in and outside of literature to create a more empathetic world.

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Episode Notes

Visit Antioch’s website to learn more about the programs Alistair teaches in: the MFA in Creative Writing and the BA in Liberal Studies.

Learn more about Alistair’s writing and find links to buy his novels on his personal website

You can read the essay, “Art as Technique,” in Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader.

This episode was recorded February 2, 2022 via and released March 30, 2022. 

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.

The Seed Field Podcast’s host is Jasper Nighthawk, and its editor is Lauren Instenes. Special thanks for this episode goes to Karen Hamilton and Melinda Garland for their contributions.

To access a full transcript and find more information about this and other episodes, visit To get updates and be notified about future episodes, follow Antioch University on Facebook.

Guest Bio

Alistair teaches Fiction in the MFA program at Antioch, directs the BA in Liberal Studies’ Creative Writing Concentration, and curates the BA Program’s Literary Uprising reading series. He is the author of The Disintegrations: a Novel (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017)–the story of a man obsessed with death, the novel blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, story and eulogy, poetry and obituary. The Disintegrations won the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley award for LGBTQ Fiction. Seattle Times and Entropy Magazine both listed The Disintegrations on their best of fiction lists for 2017. His first novel, The End of the World Book (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) took Rimbaud’s method of systematic derangement and applied it to the form of the encyclopedia. TEOTWB was a finalist for the PEN USA Fiction Award 2009 and the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Debut Fiction Award 2009, and was in Seattle Times Best Ten Books of 2008. McCartney’s writing has also appeared in Fence3:AM, Animal Shelter (Semiotexte), BloomLies/IslesGertrude, Crush Fanzine1913James White Review, Scott Heim’s The First Time I Heard series, Karen Finley’s Aroused, and other journals and anthologies. 

Born in Perth, Western Australia, he lives in Venice Beach, California. A graduate of Antioch University MFA’s inaugural year class, he also oversees Antioch University Los Angeles’ undergraduate creative writing concentration, and has presented at institutions throughout the country, including CUNY Grad Center, PEN Center USA, Teacher’s and Writer’s Collaborative New York, and UW Madison. You can learn more about his writing at

S3E6 Transcript


[00:00:03] Jasper Nighthawk: Welcome to The Seed Field Podcast, the show where Antiochians share their knowledge, tell their stories and come together to win victories for humanity.


I’m your host, Jasper Nighthawk. Have you ever had the experience of doing something that you’ve done 1,000 times before? Like maybe you’re cleaning your house or driving across town or getting ready for bed and at some point you catch yourself and you realize that you don’t really know or you can’t remember what you’ve been doing. Did you change lanes? Why are you all the way over in the right? Or did you already sweep this room or have you washed your face yet or do you still need to do that?

 This happens to me pretty regularly. I sometimes call it, “I was just running on autopilot.” I just wasn’t generating memories. I didn’t even notice what I was doing, but there’s this larger question that I think this experience raises which is, if this happens all over our lives, we’re blundering through life in the rut of our routines. Does this impact the way that our lives have meaning? On a bigger scale than that, what if we also stop seeing the things that are in our society, these problems of real social injustices? We can’t see the people who are living without shelter on the freeway on-ramps, because we’ve learned not to see them, or we stop seeing the cruelty of a carceral state that responds to bad behavior by locking people in concrete buildings for decades.

This question, I think, expands even further. If it’s a problem that things become so familiar to us that we can hardly see them as they are. What we need is something that can make our world seem unfamiliar again. We need for the world to become de-familiarized. Today we’re joined by the writer and teacher Alistair McCartney for a conversation about precisely that. The literary theory called defamiliarization, which suggests that art and literature can do this. They can help us see the familiar or the habitual with fresh eyes. Alistair is teaching faculty in the MFA and creative writing at Antioch Los Angeles. He recently gave a seminar on precisely this concept, defamiliarization. I’m really excited that we have him here to pick his brain about this topic.

I want to introduce him a little bit more, slightly. Alistair teaches in the MFA. He’s also teaching faculty in undergraduate studies here at Antioch Los Angeles. He also is an Antioch alum. He came to the MFA in the first year that that program was started and he’s been teaching at Antioch since 2001. He curates Antioch’s Literary Uprising Reading Series and helps advise the undergraduate journal Two Hawks Quarterly. Beyond Antioch’s walls, Alistair is also known for his two inventive award-winning novels, The End of the World Book, which was published in 2008 and The Disintegrations, which came out in 2017. Alistair, welcome to The Seed Field Podcast.

[00:03:04] Alistair McCartney: Thanks so much for having me, Jasper. It’s a pleasure to be here. I really loved listening to your introduction about the topic we’re going to talk about today, defamiliarization. Your intro too was really grounding actually.

[00:03:18] Jasper: That’s wonderful. I wrote the intro after listening to a recording of the seminar that you had taught. Before we get into the actual topic of defamiliarization, I want to stop for a minute. We always do this at the beginning of the podcast. Because our voice is coming over the air we’re kind of familiarized to the idea that we put on a podcast and our voices just drop out of the ether, but I like to help our listeners know what positions we’re coming from. Especially when we’re talking about issues of power, issues of social justice, I think it’s really important that we disclose our own positions. I’ll go first.

For myself, I think it’s useful for listeners who know I’m a white cis-gendered man, an American citizen by birth. I have both a college and a graduate degree, and I’m not currently living with a disability. I have a great deal of privilege that also extends to being housed, having a stable income. I also want to disclose, because this might come up in our conversation, that my own sexuality, while being complicated, I currently live in a monogamous relationship with a woman. Alistair, would you mind letting our listeners know as much as you’re comfortable some of the details that make up your own position in society?

[00:04:34] Alistair: Yes, absolutely, Jasper. I would say like you, I share a number of those privileges as a white male, as someone who’s very fortunately housed within the complex housing landscape of Los Angeles. I’m a gay white male, sometimes a queer white male depending on what context I’m talking about my identity in, and I am an American citizen, but I was born in Australia. I came to my citizenship through the green card process and I wasn’t able to obtain my citizenship until I was able to be married to my husband, who I have been partnered with since we met in 1994.

I was living in the States for a long time as a student on student visas, as an employee of Antioch on multiple work visas, but then it wasn’t until 2013 when DOMA was overturned and same-sex marriages were allowed on a federal level and were then granted the legal benefits of that. The main one that I was really focused on was obtaining a Green Card and then citizenship through marriage. I guess that’s a long way of explaining some of the layers of my identity.

[00:05:59] Jasper: Thank you for disclosing all of that. I think that it’s really relevant also because the way that we experience society is so mediated by our own background. It allows you to see different sides of our society. If you do not have an experience of the immigration system, you might assume that everybody has access to the same privileges throughout society and not realize that there are whole classes of people who are relying on complex kind of green card processes, paying large amounts of money to lawyers, waiting through bureaucracy and sometimes being kicked out of the country where they want to live.

[00:06:40] Alistair: Yes, absolutely. I’m very aware of my privilege as a white person navigating the immigration system, but then it was complicated just by the fact that it was an incredible struggle to stay here, incredibly expensive for many years.

[00:06:57] Jasper: I feel like your background as an Australian who immigrated to the US actually provides an interesting entry point into the topic of defamiliarization-

[00:07:07] Alistair: Absolutely.

[00:07:08] Jasper: -because I think that that word defamiliarization– It’s a mouthful. How would you even spell it? I think a lot of us have had this experience, maybe not of being in immigrants, but of traveling to someplace new, a new country, a new city, and finding that things are unfamiliar. Because you grew up somewhere else you’re able to see the customs and the built environment even, that shows you the arbitrariness of the rules of society. You came to the US and you had this outsider view. What was that experience like? Were you able to see some of the societal structures that other people took for granted?

[00:07:47] Alistair: Yes. Just thinking back, I’ve been here a long time, and so in some ways I’ve gotten very habituated just to being in the States. In some ways there’s more– I found especially California, somewhat of an uncanniness about it because in some ways, California is very similar to Western Australia where I’m from. It’s both familiar, but then also deeply unfamiliar in terms of the state where I’m from. Very sparsely populated. Perth’s always referred to as the most isolated, industrialized city in the world. There was both a familiarity and unfamiliarity, which I was very aware of.

What sparks to my mind though in some ways more is how Americans related to me. I feel like that somehow soon as many of them would hear an accent that I wasn’t from here, I feel like it would in some ways, it’s also I think a privilege again, it goes back to whiteness, I felt like that at times I got a little bit of a pass in terms of because I wasn’t born and raised here. I think some people would feel more comfortable around me than they might say around white Americans, if that makes sense. Yes.

[00:09:02] Jasper: Especially maybe people who were not themselves white Americans.

[00:09:05] Alistair: Exactly, yes. I don’t want to speak for them, but I felt like that– Sometimes people would actually say that to me. It gave me an outsider status in that respect that I was very aware of at times. I think that familiarity, unfamiliarity dichotomy is something that’s quite pertinent to the concept of defamiliarization.

[00:09:31] Jasper: It also seems pertinent to just becoming a writer.

[00:09:34] Alistair: Absolutely, that insider-outsider status. I think as a queer person it was always there for me as well, just in terms of to be a white queer person. A white queer male, you’re inside and outside of different privileges. You’re both. You’re both privileged, but then placed askew to it. It’s a position that I was familiar with in terms of seeing before coming here but I’m sure it very much fed my turning to writing as a way of relating to the world.

[00:10:08] Jasper: That makes total sense to me as another writer. Let’s get into this specific term defamiliarization, and talk about it as a literary term. If it’s okay with you, I will give my pocket definition which I’ve thought about how to present it, then you can, hopefully, fill in maybe anything I’m getting wrong or missing.

[00:10:28] Alistair: Sure.

[00:10:28] Jasper: All right so, I studied Russian in college, so I actually read this initial essay that this Russian writer and theorist Victor Shklovsky wrote and he published it in 1917. The essay is titled Iskusstvo, kak priem, which means art as technique or art as device. This word “priem” has multiple translated meetings. I always really like this second translation ‘art as device’, because it emphasized how art could be this device. It could actually do something. The thing that it would do is to make what seemed familiar or habitual seem strange again.

It would take these regular common, normal parts of our societies and our lives, and the reader might take them so for granted that they hardly see them, they couldn’t see them. They would just be like, “Oh yes, that’s a car.” It would reveal them to us like it was the first time we’d ever seen them. It would defamiliarize some aspect of the world that had become invisible to us. That’s my pocket definition. We’ll look at an example. What am I missing? If I’m not missing that much, what is exciting to you about this?

[00:11:39] Alistair: Well, I think you do a really great encapsulation of the term. I love that. Unlike me, you’ve read Shklovsky in Russian and are familiar with the intricacies of the translation of technique versus device. I would say what excites me about it is just when I first encountered the concept, the clarity of the concept, I was very immediately drawn into this notion that Shklovsky defines that the purpose of writing is to, as he says, make the stone stony, to impart the stoniness of the stone.

It felt like even though he clearly gets more complex about the concept of defamiliarization or estrangement, is a term people sometimes use in place of defamiliarization, I would say the simplicity and the clarity of the concept really struck me in terms of the function of writing. This idea that he’s imparting that, as you said, as humans we tend to become very numb to the world around us and habituated to it. Then our task as writers is simply to refresh readers’ memories and alertness to the stoniness of the stone and the thingness of things to the world around them. Both on a very immediate level but then also, as I think you mentioned in your intro, it has much broader implications in terms of thinking about the politics of the world. Defamiliarization definitely has a social function as well.

I think at first, I was just drawn into the fact that it’s a very precise aesthetic concept, but then Shklovsky gets more complicated as he unwraps the different ways writers can defamiliarize and where it’s a concept that was very, I think, very important to experimental writing in the 20th Century and modernism. I think it also has functions way beyond that. Is that making sense?

[00:13:42] Jasper: That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for expanding on that and getting into the excitement at its core. We’re obviously not going to have time to unpack all of the different intricacies of Shklovsky’s theory and then the people who’ve built upon it, but I want to look at an example. I arranged with you to have this example before you. It’s an example that Shklovsky uses from War and Peace and that you actually highlighted in your recent seminar. In it, one of the characters of War and Peace, Natasha is going to the opera and Tolstoy could describe it using the opera critical language that we have of like, “Oh, and now there’s in the libretto the tenor sings a passage about his love for the diva.” Instead, he gives a more maybe anthropological description that I think is a key example of defamiliarization. Does that set it up right?

[00:14:41] Alistair: Yes, absolutely. It’s hard to imagine Tolstoy as such a foundational point for Shklovsky to come up with this technique. He starts the essay by quoting that just beautiful passage from Tolstoy’s diary that you paraphrased about doing some cleaning and then not being able to remember whether you cleaned or not. Then he shifts to this passage from War and Peace to present the first concrete example of what he sees as defamiliarization. It’s almost hard for me to imagine this concept without Tolstoy, even though when I teach the seminar to my students, I’m always really trying to push the fact that this concept can be expanded to writers whose positionalities are utterly different from Tolstoy’s. It’s not just privileged, just a very distinct writer in Russia in the 19th Century.

[00:15:37] Jasper: Yes. Well, would you read this passage?

[00:15:39] Alistair: Yes, of course, Jasper. The middle of the stage consisted of flat boards. By the sides stood painted pictures representing trees, and at the back a linen cloth was stretched down to the floorboards. Maidens in red bodices and white skirts sat on the middle of the stage. One, in a white silk dress, sat apart on a narrow bench to which a green pasteboard box was glued from behind. They were all singing something. When they had finished, the maiden in white approached the prompter’s box. A man in silk with tight-fitting pants on his fat legs approached her with a plume and began to sing and spread his arms in dismay.

The man in the tight pants finished his song alone, then the girl sang. After that both remained silent as the music resounded, and the man, obviously waiting to begin singing his part with her again, began to run his fingers over the hand of the girl in the white dress. They finished their song together, and everyone in the theater began to clap and shout. But the men and women on stage, who represented lovers, started to bow, smiling and raising their hands.

[00:16:57] Jasper: Thank you for reading that. You have of such a beautiful reading voice too. It’s a pleasure to get that on the podcast. Can you unpack this a little bit for us? How is defamiliarization working here?

[00:17:08] Alistair: Sure, Jasper. As I was saying, this is such an important passage in terms of presenting to the reader what this concept is about. I would say what Shklovsky points out in this passage and why he uses it is that here, Tolstoy is describing Natasha’s first visit to the opera. I think the fact that it’s her first visit is very important because as Shklovsky says, the function of defamiliarization is for the writer to present to the reader the world anew so we’re experiencing it as if for the first time. What Tolstoy is enacting in this passage and Shklovsky is really clear to point out, is the artificiality of the scene.

Opera is something that we can often assume it’s high culture, it’s really important culture, it’s culture for a specific audience – and of course it’s in translation so I’m not sure if you’ve ever read Tolstoy in Russian, but I’d be interested to know how the passage reads in Russian – but there’s a real flatness and objectivity to the description of the scene. We’re not getting any adjectives or any language to talk about how beautiful or how grand the scene is. Everything’s being described very this happens and then this happens and then this happens. We’re very drawn to the fact that everything is taking place on a stage and it’s not natural but artificial.

There’s that last sentence, the men and women on stage who represented lovers started to bow. Clearly, we’re not getting the sense that the scene that’s being enacted are actual lovers, but everything’s a representation. There’s the flat boards, there’s the painted pictures representing trees. There’s the green pasteboard box glued from behind. Everything is being presented by Tolstoy in this scene to alert the reader to the fact that everything is artifice, and opera is actually rather than being this cultural practice that we should take for granted as high culture, that opera is this very artificial practice.

Shklovsky is really anticipating Brecht in his notion of, if I’m remembering the German correctly, the verfremdungseffekt, that the function of art is to present to the world the fact that nothing’s natural. I’m putting it somewhat simply and crudely, but that’s how I would interpret this passage and impart the importance of this passage to my students.

[00:19:52] Jasper: I love how you draw attention to the specific details and their concreteness, like the lack of adjectives and the way that it’s the pasteboard box. I think that there’s a way that this technique focuses on things “as they are,” in air quotes.

[00:20:11] Alistair: I love that you say that because I was literally just thinking about I’ve been reading up a bit on phenomenology lately, the philosophical discipline phenomenology, which is really all about looking at things as they are, stripping away all its surroundings. I think that Shklovsky and the notion of defamiliarization is very much anticipating phenomenology as well in that respect.

[00:20:36] Jasper: Yes. I feel like phenomenology also tips into the moral, so let’s talk about the way that this doesn’t just expose to us the artificiality of the opera stage, but also can be a vehicle for art to shine a light on or help us see aspects of society that may be invisible to us, but that are more negative. I know Tolstoy does this and you also draw up the example of Toni Morrison using a similar technique. Can you just draw out for us how this could help us understand the social ills of society a little bit better?

[00:21:14] Alistair: Yes, absolutely. I think as a concept defamiliarization is hugely practical, I suppose, is a good word, in terms of thinking about then – well writing, the link between writing and social justice, but also then thinking even outside of writing and thinking about the practice of social justice in a broader sense. Like you said, Shklovsky then in the essay cites other works of Tolstoy, where Tolstoy is writing about in a much more political sense and using defamiliarization to impart to the reader or to expose to the reader social injustice, as Shklovsky quotes from one of Tolstoy’s story that’s written from the perspective of a horse.

The horse is reflecting on the notion of private property and is talking about how, as a horse, he’s an object, he’s a commodity, he has an owner. He has no autonomy. This concept of private property and the notion of commodities and commodity fetishism and ownership and capitalism is really unraveled by Tolstoy in this story simply by having the POV of a horse rather than the owner of the horse and present to us the notion of private property and ownership as really odd. The horse just can’t grapple with the fact of how on earth could I be this object, this commodity that’s owned?

[00:22:49] Jasper: Yes. I like that. That struck out to me too how the horse is reflecting. There are these veterinarians and trainers who treat me very nicely and are the people I spend my days with, but they’re not, according to this human concept of private property, my owners. My owner might be somebody who I only see once a year and he treats me horribly. Tolstoy concludes that story by say the horse reflecting, obviously, the civilization of horses is at a more evolved and higher level than that of humans because we don’t believe in such ridiculous concepts as private property.

[00:23:25] Alistair: Yes. He absolutely turns all these concepts that we take for granted on their head. Tony Morrison in her novel Beloved is one I’ve used recently as an example of a writer enacting defamiliarization. In terms of then her use of defamiliarization specifically and how it relates to the connection between writing and social justice, Shklovsky is really clear that the function of defamiliarization is for the writer to both present to the reader things anew, so the layers of mystification we have in front of our eyes about certain things we might take for granted is stripped away, and also for us to be witnesses, to be watchers.

He has that beautiful passage from Tolstoy’s diary where he mentions this idea that if no one is watching something that occurs, it could be as if it never happened. Clearly, I think Morrison in Beloved in her unique way was really writing and defamiliarizing, imparting multiple techniques, really, I think, working on many levels to present to the reader the horrors of slavery as if we’re encountering them for the first time and as if we’re somehow encountering them both as insiders and outsiders.

I don’t have that passage in front of me right now, but what I would say Morrison does is that she just tackles language at such a heightened level, beloved. Every sentence is operating at this level that’s almost like electricity. It’s really, really heightened. She shifts dynamics all the time and moves between a more objective way of describing things then to a much more sensuous way. She moves back and forth with between horror and beauty in a way that’s really complicated. It’s very dazzling. I think it’s just constantly forcing the reader to relate to the horror she’s describing in this very material and corporeal and profoundly bodied way. She’s so much about writing the body and writing the black body, writing the female body.

[00:25:43] Jasper: To be specific about the scene of this formerly enslaved woman who is with, I believe, her child is like seeing the lash marks on her back from a horrible whipping she endured while she was enslaved and that exact heightened description, that’s both poetic and lyrical and very immediate and personal forces us to see this wound and this scar that this woman carries on her body and to see it through the eyes of her child almost. I’m not sure if I’m getting these details quite right, but I wanted to go to the specific example.

[00:26:22] Alistair: Yes, I think pretty much you are. It just reminds me both that Morrison’s use of defamiliarization in Beloved it reminds us that defamiliarization it’s an aesthetic concept, but it’s also a very, I would say, emotional or phenomenological concept in that it forces us not just to see things anew, but it forces us to feel things. Shklovsky is very specific that that’s its function. It’s not just about writing the world so the reader sees it afresh, but that so the reader has an emotional experience. Beloved is such a stunning example of that.

It also reminds me that, and I’m going to misquote her, I think the irony is also that Morrison has said at one point in an interview that specifically, I believe, in terms of Tolstoy, Tolstoy, wasn’t writing for someone with her positionality as a black woman born in the 20th Century. There’s a nice irony that this concept that really came about, as you said at the start of our session in 1917 in Russia can then be reconfigured to work really beautifully within Morrison’s writing landscape later on in the 20th Century.

[00:27:40] Jasper: Yes. Listening to you talk and seeing the way that Toni Morrison uses defamiliarization specifically to help us see and understand from a personal level the experience of the black female body through history and through slavery reminds me of another great writer of that same topic, Octavia Butler, who in her novel Kindred sends a contemporary middle-class black woman through a science fictional trope into the antebellum South, where she is then forced into slavery. That’s another way of defamiliarizing because she comes into this world not knowing any of its customs and not being used to any of it. Sorry, that’s just something that came up as another example.

[00:28:28] Alistair: Yes, it’s great. It’s just, I think the most important thing about this concept is that shifting it from a more abstract concept to one where we can begin to see concrete examples of writers from multiple positions enacting it to their own means and specifically thinking about writing as a way to reconfigure history and reframe the world.

[00:28:51] Jasper: Yes. It really gets to writing as a way to change readers, to force them to have an experience that may actually change their soul in some way.

[00:29:02] Alistair: Yes, and change writers as well in terms of just reminding us as we’re looking at our sentences and as we’re struggling with a piece in terms of what we’re trying to do, that this is one tool we can use to wake ourselves up in terms of our own writing projects.

[00:29:21] Jasper: We’re nearing the end of our time, but I want to ask you about your own writing. You’re a writer and you’ve spent decades writing. You’ve published these two novels. I wonder, do you consciously think, “This scene could you some defamiliarization. I’m going to defamiliarize”? If not, how do these ideas inform your own writing?

[00:29:41] Alistair: I would say probably in a fairly unconscious way. I know for myself personally, in terms of this concept, I don’t consciously think to myself like you said, “This scene could use a little defamiliarization.” I think for me, I know both as a writer and a teacher where this concept is useful. It’s where we’ve done something and then we go back to it, and we say, “This is what I’m doing in this scene.” Also, I feel often when I talk to my students, they’ve done a piece of writing and then after the seminar they’ve said, “Okay, so this is what I’m doing.”

As a concept, it’s so fundamental. I remember one of the very first times I taught the seminar where I mainly look at examples from prose, a poet said, “I feel like this is what all poetry does, essentially. This is the essential function of poetry.” I both agreed and disagreed because I feel it’s what we should be doing all the time, but just in a multiplicity of ways.

[00:30:43] Jasper: Yes. I love that and I love the restoring the stoniness of the stone. Really feels a poetic way of phrasing even the question of it.

[00:30:52] Alistair: Yes, absolutely. Just before the podcast, I was doing my daily walk and I was really just pausing here and there just to look at the bees on a lavender plant. I really encourage people listening to this to go read the essay because Shklovsky gets a lot more specific in terms of the different techniques we can use to defamiliarize, but I’m also just very interested in almost as a Zen Buddhist notion of look at something, strip it of all our assumptions around it and our preconceived notions of it, and simply just describe the thing as it is. It can be both a complicated concept but I think it can also be used in just a really much more very minimalist, almost simple, concrete way of just stripping things away and describing things as is, exposing that stoniness of the stone as you mentioned.

[00:31:50] Jasper: Yes. I really love listening to you talk about this idea. Maybe as a closing thought, one trend that I’ve seen in discussions of literature over the last 15 years or so that I’ve been active in the literary space is people trying to justify why writing matters and you see there’s such an emphasis on STEM curricula, of science technology, and then people are like, “No, the STEAM curricula. We could shoehorn an A right in the middle there, and that’s the arts.”

I feel like the humanities feel under siege and there have been people trying to say, “Well, this study that psychologists did shows that people who read novels are more empathetic.” That’s always felt to me like a very defensive justification for why we read. I feel like this idea of defamiliarization offers a more concrete idea of how reading and when that feels more accurate to me of how reading widely and the act of writing can actually make us more present in our world. It bridges the spiritual and the political of our understanding the world better, and maybe being able to move through it in a more open and receptive way.

[00:33:11] Alistair: Yes, I love that you frame it in that way because, yes, personally, I often find myself quite skeptical at the notion that writing and literature intrinsically makes better humans. Another writer, theorist, philosopher who had a big impact on me as an undergrad was George Steiner who was writing about literature in the Holocaust, and really wrote about the idea that the Nazis would be working in the concentration camps during the day and then would go home at night and read Goethe and Rilke and listen to Beethoven.

It really schooled me in the idea that, yes, literature has some intrinsic value that somehow creates greater empathy in us. I love the fact that you in some ways remind me that in terms of Shklovsky’s notion that yes, perhaps we can’t make such grand claims about writing literature but we can think about it in a more micro sense, just the specific techniques we can enact to at least on a psychological or a phenomenological, or perceptual level, just to make us pay more attention to the world and that perhaps that is a small way of beginning to then be, as you say, more receptive to the world around us.

Then we can see clearly that then a writer Morrison then used the technique in a very concrete way to really then explicitly make that leap and take the concept and then give it a political and historical resonance. It really seems that it’s up to specific writers then to make the technique come alive in an explicitly political sense, perhaps.

[00:35:03] Jasper: I love that and I think that maybe is a good place for us to end this conversation, on that idea, that it has this power but it’s ultimately up to writers and readers to make sure that we’re using that for good.

[00:35:17] Alistair: Yes, and thank you. We teach these things but then it wakes me back up to the possibilities of the concepts. Thanks, Jasper. Thanks for having me on.

[00:35:28] Jasper: Yes, thank you so much for coming on. Such a pleasure to get to speak with you.


The MFA and undergraduate programs that Alistair teaches in are both at Antioch Los Angeles and we will link to them in our show notes. We’ll also link there to his two novels, The End of the World Book and The Disintegrations. In the first sentence of the acknowledgments to The Disintegrations Alistair thanks Kirsten Grimstad, another Antioch professor, who we actually got to interview back in season one, and we’re going to link to that great conversation as well in the show notes.

We post these show notes on our website,, where you’ll also find full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more. The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes. A special thanks to Karen Hamilton and Melinda Garland.

Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. We hope to see you next time, and don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been The Seed Field Podcast.


[00:37:00] [END OF AUDIO]