Jessica Hopper’s William R. Kenan Lecture on Ethics and Resistance: Writing from the Margins

Jessica Hopper
Jessica Hopper, rock critic

On the rainy night of October 1, Macaulay Honors College hosted the award winning rock critic, Jessica Hopper. To a room full of primarily Macaulay students, she delivered the most recent William R. Kenan Lecture on Ethics and Resistance. By the end of her incredibly quotable talk, the table in the back stacked with copies of her new book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (May, 2015), appeared even more enticing than it had at the start.

“When was the first time you were told you didn’t count?” was one of the first questions Hopper posed to her captivated audience. As a woman in the male-dominated field of rock criticism, just being there and voicing her opinion was, as she emphasized throughout the talk, “an act of resistance.”  Judging by the nodding heads of the members of the audience, her sentiments rang all too true for a lot of us.

While the lecture lasted just over a half-hour, the question-and-answer session seemed to comprise the bulk of the event; everyone had something to respond to. In a room full of writers, activists, music lovers, or combinations of the three, hands flew up to ask Hopper her opinion of call-out culture, or to corroborate the feeling of being unwelcome in certain spaces. Hopper spoke on safe spaces for women, queer women, and women of color in the punk rock scene. She related personal anecdotes about how, 17 years into her career, a male colleague advised her to stop getting into trouble with her superiors and “kiss ass” instead. And she talked about her personal experiences with violently misogynistic internet trolls who would “doxx”—reveal private information, such as the address of a person—women who dared to critique equally misogynistic media online. “When you’re anything but a straight white male, opinions cost you,” she declared, and the room erupted in another wave of eager head-nodding.

She had quite a bit of resonating advice for writers, especially those who “write from the margins.” For her, writing is a way to assert that she is not complicit; the simple refusal to be silent is actually not simple at all. Writing exacts power. Doing the work you’ve been called to do is an act of resistance. For any writers challenging norms and critiquing status quo, we know the pit-of-stomach knot of anxiety that comes along with putting out any work, but especially work that may stir the pot.  Regardless, we feel compelled to do this work and to keep doing it. But we do not feel compelled to ask for permission before taking steps forward. As Hopper put it, “It’s not about seeking permission. I don’t really want to be allowed in the club house.”

Finally, she imparted advice that every writer likes to hear:  “The only way we learn is by fucking up. Self-doubt is poisonous. Writing from the margins sucks. Dig down to your truth, and do not stop in the face of haters.”

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