Maya Kronfeld: Literature, Philosophy and All That Jazz

Maya Kronfeld
Assistant Professor of Literature Maya Kronfeld joins the Duke faculty this year. (Shaun King/Trinity Communications)

Maya Kronfeld is truly a product of her environment. 

The assistant professor in the Program of Literature grew up in Berkeley, California, with parents firmly rooted in academia, activism and music. Her mother, a professor of Middle Eastern languages and cultures who also translates Hebrew poetry, instilled an appreciation of verbal art that became a locus of sanctity for Kronfeld.  

“The tradition of Hebrew intertextuality, where writing is always rewriting and where one is always in critical dialogue with the echo chamber of texts that came before, really nurtured me, especially in its diasporic and antinationalist formations,” she shares. 

An appreciation for philosophy came courtesy of her father, who had no trepidations teaching her from a young age the theoretical fundamentals of critical thinking as intellectual self-defense.  

“When it comes to logic and the philosophy of language, fields that have been so male-coded, I think being raised by a dad who wanted his daughter to have full access to these tools had a huge impact on me,” Kronfeld confides.  

Her father also shared his love of music and taught Kronfeld how to play the drums (although she later migrated to the piano), which introduced a rhythmic orientation that would eventually surface in her scholarship — her first published article, “The Philosopher’s Bass Drum,” discusses the politics of rhythm in jazz and critiques Adorno’s aesthetics.

Growing up in the Bay Area, Kronfeld was shaped by her expat Israeli family and community activism for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, as well as by the egalitarianism promoted in Berkeley schools. She was exposed to a strong intergenerational tradition of jazz and has played piano professionally since high school.

“Growing up, I was deeply influenced by Black-led community arts organizations who modeled radical inclusivity in its true form,” she says.

Kronfeld has sought to nurture these values in her teaching and research, especially when it comes to the Western canon. She completed her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley in 2020, specializing in English and French romanticism and modernism, as well as the philosophy of mind.

She went on to spend three years at the prestigious Princeton Society of Fellows, where she taught philosophy and literature courses on Descartes, Hume, Kant, Victor Hugo, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, and designed a new course on jazz and literature. 

Having just completed a comprehensive essay on Immanuel Kant for the “Johns Hopkins Guide to Critical and Cultural Theory,” Kronfeld continues to advocate for the mutual implication of philosophy and literature.

“I see a possibility for a truly bidirectional exchange between the two fields,” Kronfeld explains.

As a student of Judith Butler, Kronfeld also trained with John Searle, and believes it’s possible “to integrate traditions within philosophy, like critical theory and analytic philosophy, that have often been segregated from one another, but which to my eye need not be understood as disparate.” 

She has maintained a dual career in academia and musical performance, collaborating with artists such as Toshi Reagon, Nona Hendryx, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Taylor Eigsti, Christian McBride, Thana Alexa and Antonio Sánchez, and has appeared most recently at the Newport Jazz Festival.

We sat down with Kronfeld to discuss her teaching, the latest book project — and of course, jazz. 

Is there a common thread in your teaching and research that unites your three disciplines of literature, philosophy and music? 

My recent articles on Poe and Hume, Woolf and Kant, and Eliot and Bertrand Russell explore the ways in which literary works engage philosophical issues, not least in their use of experimental form. I think it’s important to work against the all-too-common approaches to philosophy and literature that instrumentalize the literary. Rather than seeing literature as a vehicle for the circulation of pre-existing philosophical themes, I want to suggest that new categories can be theorized based on imaginative discourse.

Verbal art becomes the space for new, not-yet-available concepts for thoughts not yet thinkable. The fact that works of literary fiction and poetry are never finished being known renders them answerable to unforeseen future circumstances, as well as to past and present experiences that have been occluded from view by structures of oppression and domination. This is also what makes the arts so important politically.

Literary, as well as musical, rhythmic form can embed new ways of knowing that are otherwise hidden from view under the reigning social order. Think of how Virginia Woolf goes beyond stream of consciousness techniques in “The Waves,” or of Toni Morrison’s ability to constantly revise the very narrative voice that she uses in the novel “Jazz,” or the way that Thelonious Monk’s rhythmic phrasing, like Charles Baudelaire’s metaphors, disrupts aesthetic conventions of beauty while opening new possibilities within the beautiful, what Monk called “ugly beauty.” 

That’s why it’s so important to theorize from the works of art themselves, rather than “apply” theory to them. Students are often taught the theory first, and they aren’t actually listening to the music, or reading the literary work closely.   

Could you share some insights on your current book project? 

In my book “Spontaneous Form: Consciousness and Philosophical Fiction,” I reclaim a concept that has gone underground in a variety of fields — what Immanuel Kant called the “spontaneity” of human understanding.

Spontaneity is that active power we all have to synthesize, organize and shape our experience. It’s a kind of structural creativity that underlies the possibility of objective knowledge. The idea is that people have an awareness of actively participating in their own cognition.

In the book, I use this concept to trace a counter-tradition in the history of consciousness fiction from Victor Hugo through Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Woolf to Toni Morrison, a counter-tradition that parodies the conceit of a full and transparent record of the mind, which is the way that stream of consciousness fiction and the empiricist tradition in philosophy are often reductively understood. 

What’s at stake for me — and here is where my experience as a musician comes into play — is combatting the primitivist and implicitly racist discourse on spontaneity that is so common in Western culture, associating it with the irrational, formless flow of “anything goes.” For me, these racialized inflections are particularly palpable in the way that jazz “improvisation” — a cognate term for spontaneity — is discussed, even and especially when it’s being praised. 

I had an opportunity to bring together the two sides of my argument — and really, of my life — when I was asked by Fumi Okiji, an amazing scholar and musician, to write from the perspective of a “musician-thinker” for a special issue of “Jazz & Culture.” The result is my more experimental piece, “Structure in the Moment: Rhythm Section Responsivity.” 

What can students expect from your courses?

I really want students to come away with an appreciation for the nuances of philosophical argumentation and, at the same time, for the distinctness of aesthetic strategies such as metaphor, point of view and narrative distance. I’m passionate about honoring the contributions to knowledge made by a verbal art form on its own terms, not just assimilating it to another set of concepts and values.

I really believe in creating a collaborative learning environment, where we let go of the pretension to know it all and draw on the special perspective each student brings to the discussion.  

In the Spring, I’ll teach my undergraduate course Saying “I”: First Person Point of View in Philosophy and Literature. What philosophers and literary critics mean by the first-person perspective is actually quite different. So, this is an opportunity to contrast but also bring together two distinct methodologies. We will read Descartes, Hume, Kant, Victor Hugo, Frederick Douglass, W.B. Yeats, William James, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, among others.

My graduate seminar, Ways of Knowing: Philosophy and Literature, focuses on the issue of literary knowledge — what does it mean for fiction and poetry to contribute to epistemology, while going beyond existing concepts? We’ll explore the ways that verbal art can embed nondeterministic ways of knowing that are otherwise negated in everyday life and existing social structures.

Here, we’ll get a little hard core into the intersection of epistemology and aesthetics, drawing on Kant, Hegel, C.S. Peirce, Bertrand Russell, T.W. Adorno, Angela Davis, Edouard Glissant and Paul Gilroy, and theorizing from the works of Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Kafka, Wallace Stevens, Richard Wright, Ishmael Reed and again Morrison.  

And look out in the future for courses Toni Morrison and the Philosophy of Language, as well as Conversations: Jazz and Literature, which will feature guest artists, integrating theoretical readings with actual playing. 

While you’re focused on teaching at Duke, will you be able to create some space for jazz? 

I’m excited to be doing some work soon with the Grammy-award winning jazz pianist and composer Taylor Eigsti, and with the internationally acclaimed, experimental multi-instrumentalist composer and producer Georgia Anne Muldrow. I’ve also been invited to the University of Pittsburgh’s annual jazz seminar for a lecture and clinic. This September, I am performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and over the winter break, at the Winter Jazz Fest in New York.