A guest post by Christopher Schaberg, Loyola University, New Orleans
Last week I was floating down the Yellowstone River, casting a small imitation grasshopper to cutthroat trout hiding behind rocks in the swift current — a typical excursion in the romantic American West, an adventure worthy of Brad Pitt’s Paul Maclean in A River Runs Through It.
My friend’s friend, who was rowing us down the river in his boat, asked what I did, and I went through the usual verbal gymnastics of explaining that I was an English professor while also trying to sound like a normal human being — and it wasn’t going well for me. As a last resort, I blurted out that I had just finished a book about Brad Pitt.
“Brad Pitt? You mean the actor?”
“I think he’s a dick.”
I focused on casting my fly under a stand of willows alongacut bank, sort of pretending not to hear.
“Oh, huh, really…? Why is that?”
“Well, he ruined Montana!”
This statement referred to how, according to a certain local sentiment, the state was invaded and overrun by tourists who had seen A River Runs Through It in the 90s. But notice, it wasn’t the director Robert Redford who had “ruined Montana” — it was definitively Pitt who did it. (You can read more about the terms of this debate in Ben Leubner’s chapter in the book, “Making Montana.”)
And this is how it begins: what unfolded there on the river was an impromptu discourse concerning the cultural significance of Brad Pitt—not merely as an actor nor just as a celebrity, but as a complex figure who moves across these realms and falls into various pigeon holes and unexpected positive roles in between.
I’m used to these conversations, but they always make me uncomfortable. Usually I find myself thinking, what have I gotten myself into? I’m no ‘expert’ when it comes to Brad Pitt. I haven’t even kept up with his most recent work, much less the tabloid exposés! And yet still, I somehow managed to pull together a book about him—it’s called _Deconstructing Brad Pitt, and it comes out next month.
The essays in this book take Pitt seriously as an artist and as a social phenomenon. My co-editor & I titled the book after Jacques Derrida’s philosophical strategy “deconstruction,” to signal both the analytical slant of the book as well as its playfulness. And lest anyone think the book is a brutal assault on Pitt, remember: Derrida once said that deconstruction is love. This may sound laughable, but our book approaches Brad Pitt with love — with a kind of sincere interest and openness that can only be sustained through love.
Brad Pitt has become for me a synecdoche for the things that surround us in everyday life, things which there is general resistance to take seriously. (Airports are another one of these things.) Yes, we have dared to think seriously about Brad Pitt — for nearly 300 pages. And what serious thought requires is sincere interest, a sense of sustained openness — in short, love. I suppose an alternative title for the book could have been Loving Brad Pitt. (But then we wouldn’t have needed the underscore in the title, which turns out to matter.)
Still — it always starts with a grimace, a scowl, a sour sense of disbelief. What? Why Brad Pitt? Even my own mother scoffed when I first mentioned the book to her. Why bother thinking about Brad Pitt? What’s your problem? And then I think again, what have I gotten myself into? But then the fishing begins, the chance to lure a conversation out of the currents and eddies of contemporary life. And isn’t that what we academics do best, when it works, in the classroom and beyond? My home university has a slogan that goes “The world is our blackboard.” _Deconstructing Brad Pitt is one example of embracing this slogan, and making it real.
_Deconstructing Brad Pitt is edited by Christopher Schaberg and Robert Bennett and is published by Bloomsbury in September.