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From my interview archive: Arts & Letters Daily founder Denis Dutton

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

My favorite college class won that designation not just by delivering me my sole A, but by introducing me to Arts & Letters Daily. It lasted the entire quarter but had only one assignment, the same for all fifteen or so students enrolled: write an essay on globalization. On the first day, the professor had us pull up a site that he promised us would offer a fount of engaging and clearly written pieces on a variety of subjects, globalization and otherwise, and so I took my first look at the same three columns, unchanging in format but always ever-changing in content, that I’ve checked every day since: Articles of Note, New Books, and Essays & Opinons (with the less regular Nota Bene on the side). Arts & Letters Daily, in other words, immediately joined the short list of outlets I couldn’t do without.

Pull up the Arts & Letters Daily front page today and you get links to writing on such subjects as the relevance of Alain Badiou, the algorithmic manipulation of human emotions, the optimism of Thomas de Quincey, and the failure of “cool” — all worth reading, and as a mixture more or less what I would have expected when I began following the site over a decade ago. Still, I can’t help but feel that its sensibility has shifted somewhat over the past six years since the death of its founder Denis Dutton. Whatever sensibility it had under him (which had its detractors, one of whom labeled the site “Farts & Fetters Daily”) did enough to shape my thinking that, when I launched my radio show The Marketplace of Ideas, I took the site a a kind of intellectual template for my interviews. And what better tribute could I pay, I eventually thought, than to invite Dutton himself on for one?

When I e-mailed asking if he’d like to have a conversation, I knew nothing about him except that he founded Arts & Letters Daily and that he lived in New Zealand, but when he replied he gave me quite a start: not only had he gone to UC Santa Barbara, the very same university I had (and the one where I took that globalization essay class), he’d been the manager of KCSB, the station where I recorded and broadcast The Marketplace of Ideas, back in the early 1960s when it switched from AM to FM. We talked not just about his work with Arts & Letters Daily but with the Bad Writing Contest, memorably “won” with this 94-word monstrosity by Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

“To ask what this means is to miss the point,” wrote Dutton. “This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind.”

I didn’t know at the time that Dutton, a philosophy professor by day, was at work on a book of his own on aesthetics and evolution. When The Art Instinct came out, I naturally brought him right back on the show to talk about it (thought not before Stephen Colbert did). Later that year, on a trip through New Zealand, I wondered if I should ask if he had any time to meet up, but in the event passed by Christchurch, where he lived, maybe figuring I’d catch him and the city the next time around. He died, of course, the very next year (I actually wrote his obituary in the Santa Barbara Independent), and the year after that an earthquake destroyed enough of central Christchurch that people tell me it’s never really been the same since. I don’t suppose there’s some kind of lesson in all this.