Interview with Henry Jenkins

© Henry Jenkins and Figure/Ground
Dr. Jenkins was interviewed by Justin Dowdall. September 27th, 2012.

Dr. Henry Jenkins is an American media scholar and currently a Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, a joint professorship at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Previously, he was the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities and Co-Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program with William Uricchio. He is also author of several books, including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media CollideTextual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. Jenkins’ research explores the boundary between text and reader, the growth of fan cultures and world-making.

It seems that many young scholars are turning their attention to topics related to “digital media.” What role do you think media history should play in such research? What do you believe are some of the core questions these scholars should ask?

The discipline of Media Studies no longer has a monopoly on media theory. If, as Marshall McLuhan once argued, “media are put out before they are thought out,” the digital revolution has produced a vast amount of instant analysis from all kinds of stake holders – from academics to pundits, fans, media makers, and industry “thought leaders,” all of whom have wanted to describe our current moment of media transition as “utterly without precedent.” The result, in the first wave, was a series of utopian and dystopian claims which, unknowingly in many cases, replicated the discourses that have surrounded the introduction of every other major media across human history. We are just now settling down to the point that we can make more nuanced and balanced claims about the impact of digital media, and a key factor in reshaping those claims has been the willingness to actively consider historical predecessors and precedents. And our historical consciousness may be one of the most important contributions that academics can make to these debates.

In my own work, I have been insisting that we situate the expansion of communicative capacity represented by the new media landscape in relation to several hundred years of struggles by individuals and grassroots communities to gain greater access to the means of cultural production and circulation and before that, to the kinds of collaborative creativity which defined folk culture for earlier generation. For someone else, this may mean looking at the history of media regulation, of corporate dominance over communication channels, of the shifting notions of the public sphere, of the concept of imagined communities, of old media when they were “new,” of the relationship of work and recreation, all of which have something to say about the ways digital media are playing out.

At the same time, the digital media invites us to pay attention to different elements in the past, and thus, we can see it helping to revitalize the study of media transitions more generally, a tendency well represented by, say, the work of Lisa Gitelman, who has used concepts from digital theory to revisit the history of the phonograph or to produce an anthology on pre-20th century examples of “new media.” I believe that the concept of transmedia storytelling may ultimately become a way of reframing earlier debates about hybrid forms of expression, inviting us to pay attention to media practices, throughout human history, which had escaped our attention previously.

So, from my perspective, media historical research is more important now than ever, especially if we can use the current moment of rapid change to encourage us to reflect back on similar moments of transition. This has been the focus of the very successful series of conferences on Media in Transition which I helped to launch at MIT and which continues to run strong since my departure.  The eighth Media in Transition conference, next spring, deals with “public media, private media.”

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors, and who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?

My most important piece of advice is to learn to think across media. Unlike some other parts of the world, American universities have tended to fragment the study of media into medium specific disciplines.  So, film has set itself in opposition to television studies, digital media is often contained within a separate department, all of the above is cut off from the study of painting or print. Even within divisions, we isolate marketing and public relations, print and broadcast journalism, and so forth. The more we allow ourselves to be locked down into medium specific perspectives, the less clearly we are going to be able to understand the nature of changes that are impacting the current media environment. Whether we look at it in terms of structures of media ownership, patterns of consumption, modes of expression, or the flow of media content, the media system is increasingly integrated. Choices made in one media sector can have enormous impact on every other. We can not make sense of the current moment by trying to protect the purity of media or police the boundaries between disciplines.

I would argue that this has always been the case. I teach a graduate seminar on Medium Specificity at the USC Cinema School, and we are re-reading some of the classics of film theory with the eye to considering what they tell us about the intersection between media: so, Rudolph Arnheim’s polemic against the coming of sound, say, was actually an analysis of many kinds of hybrid media forms from opera to radio drama, Eisenstein wrote extensively about theater (from the circus to Kabuki) and literature (what Griffith learned from Dickens) in trying to explain why he thought montage was the essence of cinema, and Bazin describes how developments of new media technologies were shaped by a driving “myth of total cinema” or how the introduction of photography freed paintings to pursue modernist abstraction. In short, there is no pure film theory, not even in the classical period, when it was obsessed by the need to define cinema’s original contribution as an art form, and there certainly isn’t any such thing as media purity at our current moment of transmedia storytelling or conglomeration and concentration. So, contemporary scholars have to learn to think, teach, and research across media.

As for who young scholars should read, there’s a wealth of new work emerging almost every month right now as the academic world is making this transition towards a comparative media perspective in their work. I try to feature as many of the new books as I can through my blog, so I won’t try to construct a list of shout outs here. Instead, I want to urge young scholars to read beyond the boundaries of their own disciplines. Folks in cultural studies, for example, need to engage with work in the consumer research tradition that is coming out of the business schools. Everyone who studies media should be attentive to the work on Digital Media and Learning emerging from the education schools.  We should be attentive to work on intellectual property, remix, and peer-to-peer production coming out of the law schools. And beyond that, we need to acknowledge that, as I’ve already suggested, academics do not have a monopoly on media theory. We should be attentive to works being produced by industry thinkers (such as those represented at conferences like South by Southwest) or the thinking of creative artists (such as those who speak at events like Story World) or public intellectuals (such as those featured at Ted and Ted X events). You need to be reading blogs and watching podcasts, which is where the most urgent exchanges are taking place, and you should be looking at events, such as the Futures of Entertainment conferences, which represent crossroads where these various communities come together.

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow sub discipline. In a short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. Do you agree with the author? What are your arguments for and/or against academic tenure?

I have not had a chance to go back and read what Fukuyama wrote, but here’s my thinking about tenure: tenure is a profoundly imperfect process, one which can protect academic freedom and at the same time have highly conservative and chilling effects on junior scholars. The reality, as I see it, is tenure is not likely to go away any time soon and if it does go away, it’s still bad news, because it is more likely to be abandoned for all of the wrong reasons – because of the shifting economic logic of American universities, not in the name of promoting greater academic freedom and intellectual flexibility. So, for me, the question is not whether we should have tenure or not, but rather how can we reform our tenure practices to better reflect the values that should govern education in the 21stcentury.

How, for example, can we rethink tenure in media studies to support a growing generation of hybrid scholars, who do not fall neatly into the categories of critical studies or production, but who combine hands on and conceptual work across their career? How do we create support for junior scholars to become public intellectuals, to share their ideas with larger publics, to provide greater service to the communities in which they are embedded and invested? How do we form a basis of support under tenure for various forms of electronic publishing, given the reality that fewer and fewer books are being printed and that digital publishing may represent the best way to express certain ideas? How do we support blogs, videos, podcasts, and a range of other audiovisual means through which scholars might better present their insights about media? How do we value timely response to contemporary developments as opposed to the sluggish “always late to the party” practices around academic publishing? How might humanistic programs deal more effectively with collaborative work, such as those involving Big Data, which might be normative in the sciences and social sciences, but do not align well with our tenure standards? How do we value work that straddles the borders between academic disciplines in order to promote new configurations of scholarly fields? These are questions that need to be asked within the current tenure system if it is going to provide space for current graduate students and junior scholars to pursue projects that reflect the current demands of media studies.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

At the University of Iowa, I worked most closely with Rick Altman and Edward Branigan (who was a visiting lecturer there at the time). Rick fostered my interests in American genre films, but especially modeled my interests in thinking comparatively across media. An Altman syllabus might encompass early Roman romances, the design of the doorways of medieval cathedrals, the great 19thcentury novels, popular melodramatic theater, comics, paintings, and of course, films from multiple national traditions. Branigan was perhaps the first graduate school professor to recognize and really help me to identify my strengths as a scholar. At the time, I came into graduate school from Georgia State University, which had had no real resources or faculty focused on film and media studies. I was almost entirely self-taught and there were idiosyncratic gaps and pockets of knowledge that meant that I always came at the discussions in the seminar room askew the other students. My first sessions were more than a little bruising, but Branigan helped me to figure out a path that made sense for me.

John Fiske was a transformative figure for me. I encountered him first at the University of Iowa, where he was a visitor, and then, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was offered a faculty position. I’ve written often about the profound mismatch between what I knew as a fan who had seen the enormous creative and interpretive activity of that community and what I was being taught as a graduate student at a time when “subject position” theories of ideology were in vogue and there was very little space for focusing on audiences as active producers of culture and meaning. Fiske brought me into contact with the British Cultural Studies tradition and gave me a language through which to frame my work.

David Bordwell was my other primary mentor in graduate school, and he helped me to develop a more rigorous approach to discussing the poetics of popular culture: my dissertation on early sound comedy and the vaudeville aesthetic grew out of my efforts to work through the implications of Bordwell’s Classical Hollywood Narrative paradigm in relation to my passions for low comedy and popular theater.

Both Fiske and Bordwell were deeply committed to teaching, and you could make the argument that they saw their scholarly writing as an extension of their roles as teachers. They insisted on very concrete, very personal, and very accessible modes of writing, which might enlarge the publics which media studies addressed. These are virtues I very much hope to pass along to my own students. They also used the classroom as a way to work through their ideas and engaged with their students as their thinking partners, enjoying students who challenged their assumptions or questioned their findings.

Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

I do not accept the premise that “fractured attention” or “information overload” are unique properties of the digital age. These are challenges that faculty have grumbled about across at least the 20th century and perhaps much earlier. Plato worried that his students were losing their memory because of their over-reliance on the written word. So, the first piece of advice is to get over it. If anything, it is much easier to monitor the distractions of our students, today, because they are coming up on a screen and thus visible to us as we walk around the room than were the day dreams that occupied the minds of previous generations of students but left fewer material traces.

But, second, the trick is to incorporate these other modes of engagement into the instructional process. I actively encourage my students to bring their laptops to class, I ask them to look up information and contribute it to the class discussion, I provide back channels through which they can ask questions and get response from the TAs if they are confused. I also am moving between different modes of presentation – sharing videos, projecting power points, lecturing, leading discussions – across the course of a class period. And with my current large lecture hall class, I am integrating students into 4-5 person knowledge communities, designing tests that can be taken within teams, and encouraging them to rely on each other more for dealing with questions more complex than they can handle as individuals.  In short, I put my theories about the value of informal learning in a more participatory culture into practice in the ways I design and execute my classes.

We’ve been speaking about issues involving the university environment. Moving on to a quote by Marshall McLuhan, he declared in 1964 that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis?

By this definition, American universities have always been in crisis, and perhaps always will be.   In some ways, educational institutions are profoundly conservative, slow to adapt to change, falling back on old methods, practices, and paradigms, which are passed along from generation to generation. On the other hand, because they deal with youth, because they are about generating new knowledge, they are constantly the locus where social, cultural, political, economic, legal, and technological changes are felt first.

It would be horrifying if disciplines which first took shape in the industrial age were left unchanged in any significant ways by the rise of the information age (and the emergence of a networked culture).  The past few decades have seen dramatic changes in every aspect of our everyday lives in part by our relationships with new media, and thus, every discipline has to make rapid adjustments to these shifting structures or run the risk of being irrelevant to the lives of our students.

We need to remove administrative structures which make it hard for us to reconfigure the relationships between different domains of knowledge, which discourage experimentation, innovation, and collaboration, which set too many restrictions on who we talk to, who we read, and what we think matters as we pursue our research questions where-ever they lead us. We need to recognize that we are preparing students for a world where they will move much more often between jobs and between fields, where our graduate students may work both in the academy and in industry, where the highest value is flexibility in dealing with new challenges.

But, as we do so, we need to recognize that the structures we are pushing aside are not ahistorical, that they emerged in specific socio-cultural contexts and responded to different needs about how knowledge was going to be produced and distributed. There’s no heresy in saying these structures are not timeless and enduring, but very much of their time, and very much in need of ongoing reconsideration.

In Convergence Culture, you suggest that in terms of collective story telling, we are just now learning how to individually and collectively exercise this power. Do you believe that since you wrote that, the nature of content (particularly in the construction of truth) has changed as the “spreadability” of media has intensified?

Let’s start with something basic. The term, content, refers to that which is contained, as in the contents of a bottle or the table of contents of a book.  This is an important starting point, because media is much less likely to be contained within traditional channels and systems as we move deeper into a convergence culture.

Our new book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, starts with a distinction between distribution and circulation. Distribution refers to the established set of practices whereby institutions and corporations determine the flow of their content across culture. So, decisions about whether to air Doctor Who on the same date in the UK and the USA, whether to release The Avengerssimultaneously or on a different schedule around the world, are basic decisions about distribution. Circulation refers to a system where the spread of media is increasingly shaped by the often unauthorized decisions of grassroots intermediaries, whether understood as influential individuals or larger networks. I use unauthorized to avoid the term, piracy, which is so a morally fraught term that it shuts down consideration of how value and media are generated as content moves between many hands and gets reframed as it gets inserted into a range of different networked exchanges.

The most spectacular example of spreadable media in recent months was the release of Kony 2012 by the organization, Invisible Children.  This thirty minute documentary about child soldiers in Uganda spread at an extraordinary speed and scale. The organization, based on its previous release of more than ten previous documentaries, had estimated it would reach half a million viewers over a two month period during which they planned to conduct this particular campaign. Instead, it reached more than 70 million viewers in a four day period, more than the number of people who saw the highest rated shows on American television or who went to see Hunger Games, that week’s Hollywood blockbuster. The video spread across the planet, primary based on localized choices of supporters, to pass it along through various social media channels. It forced itself onto the national agenda, forced experts around the world to respond to its provocations, although the response was often highly critical and many of its core claims got shot down. Kony 2012 spoke in very powerful ways to its young supporters, inviting their participation in its efforts to pass along its content, and proposing a vision of how social media might change the world. It was, to be sure, highly spreadable content, but it was not highly drillable content – that is, when the video came under attack, its supporters lacked the critical skills to be able to respond to and rebut these criticisms. The organization did not provide many ways to dig deeper and develop a more nuanced understanding of these issues.

To focus on Kony 2012 is to focus on an exceptional situation where grassroots circulation reached more eyes than would have been possible under the old Broadcast paradigm, spread fluidly across the planet speaking to audiences that would not have been reached if distribution had respected traditional geographic borders, and where this process of circulation pushed an issue into the agenda of mainstream media. There are more and more cases like Kony 2012 but we should not measure the success of spreadable media on the basis of these spectacular examples. So, take it down a notch to focus on the many, many more videos that are reaching 50,000 viewers or more, still an enormous amplification of the reach of amateur and nonprofit media makers under the old distribution model, or lower still, think about how a movement, such as Occupy or the DREAMers, might reach many viewers through the rapid and widespread production of videos which might individually reach only a few hundred viewers each but which collectively speak to many different communities.

So, in some ways, Kony 2012 is a remarkable example of the expanded communication capacities that emerge because content can be spread throughout ever expanding social networks with relative ease and with low transaction costs. But, this raises the stakes in terms of developing social structures that appraise the quality of information we place into circulation. A study recently conducted by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics network, of which I am a member, found that 85 percent of young people want to have more help in how to critically evaluate the quality of information which enter their lives online. They need help in determining the value of information that is passed to them and which they pass along at a time when other research shows young people are learning more about the news through social media than through traditional journalism outlets. So, spreadability has enormous possibilities in terms of diversifying the content of our culture, allowing voices that lack access to powerful channels of distribution to spread ideas, but it also increases the importance of accountability and responsibility of the quality of information we circulate.

Recently on your blog, you hosted an amazing interview with Howard Rheingold. Both of you talked about this wonderful energy of culture creation though collaboration. I was wondering in what way, if any, you see the concepts of spreadable media and smart mobs as being intertwined?

Very closely. There’s a reason why Howard and I have kept crossing paths over the past two decades. Howard Rheingold embodies the links that Fred Turner has identified between the counterculture of the 1960s and more contemporary forms of cyberculture. He’s very much interested in collective experiences which have emerged through networked communication, and so am I. Howard’s early work on “virtual communities” provoke me and many other scholars to think more deeply about the kinds of social structures that have emerged online as communities of interest find ways to share insights and information without regard to geographic location.  We might describe his “smart mobs” as a model of grassroots mobilization, which exploits the resources of mobile and networked communications to bring communities together “just in time,” and the book develops a rich conceptual background for thinking about why these collective efforts may be meaningful. Convergence Culture spoke to the issue of collective intelligence, via Pierre Levy, exploring, through the Survivor Spoilers example, the ways diverse groups of people might pool knowledge and work through complex problems together within informal, ad-hoc networks. My work on New Media Literacies seeks to explain what it might mean to reinvent the educational system in order to foster this kind of social production of meaning, in order to shift for thinking about literacy as about individual capacities and instead discuss it as the capacities of diverse communities to work together to achieve common ends. Spreadable Media might be understood as speaking to the collective circulation of media content. Howard’s most recent work on “Net Smarts” talks about, for example, network literacies, an understanding of how network works and how to deploy them towards one’s own communication needs. And my current project is really focused on understanding how we are deploying all of these skills and practices to reshape the nature of civic engagement and political participation. So, I would argue that these various projects are thoroughly intertwined. I know I have learned a tremendous amount from Howard’s writings through the years, and I was thrilled to be able to feature such a rich conversation with him on my blog.

As a follow up, I was recently listening to your speech at the IIEA conference, and it seemed to me that this question of “trust” kept coming up in a similar context to how it is discussed in Smart Mobs. I would love to hear what you think about the role of collective trust in your work, and perhaps how you see the idea of “trust” impacting the future of American media regulation?

Let’s start with some of the implications of Spreadable Media, especially in relation to some current events. On the one hand, a networked culture expands the capacity of any participant to put ideas into much wider circulation, and thus, it is perhaps the most powerful tool we have for promoting democracy and insuring diversity in our media flows. It is our best hope for resisting, say, the negative effects of media concentration.  On the other hand, we should be concerned with the enormous capacity for circulating noxious content and misinformation, often in ways that are deeply destructive to our common interests. So, we should be concerned that such a high percentage of people believe that Obama is Islamic or that he lacks an American birth certificate. We should be concerned that, as I am writing this, there are waves of violence directed against American embassies across the Arab world as a consequence of an amateur-made movie defaming Islam as a religion. And we should be concerned that a video like Kony 2012 might misdirect resources away from the actual root causes of problems in Africa in ways that ultimately cause more harm than good.

In other words, networked communication is giving us great power without necessarily fostering great responsibility, to evoke Peter Parker and Spider-man.  These are cases where traditional gatekeepers have a constructive role to play – as fact checkers if nothing else – and yet, we should be concerned where the news media is refusing to play that role, where there is more fact-checking on Comedy Central than on CNN, where political candidates (who will remain nameless) dismiss the vital role which fact-checking plays in any (small d) democratic process.

We have to create structures at all levels that require greater accountability over the information we place into circulation, and I think in many ways we all know this. I’ve already mentioned the YPP survey data that suggests that the majority of teens are signaling they would like more training in how to discern the quality of information they receive on-line. We might think about the role of Twitter in the protests following the Iran elections a few years ago and the hashtag “CNNFail.” Some have read this hashtag as signaling a great distrust of mainstream media in favor of the informal flow of information via social-media. To some degree, this is true, but it also centers a desire for professional journalists to do what they do best – work the official channels and established sources, verify core information, provided the shared base-line around which meaningful debates and discussions can take place.

That said, I am not sure that regulating speech is necessarily the best way to get at this problem. I certainly support more constraints on media ownership that prevents a monopoly of control over broadcast and cable media. We certainly need regulation to support net neutrality or to support greater flexibility in how we deploy intellectual property.  But, regulatory solutions probably will not be as effective at dealing with the circulation of false and malicious information through more grassroots channels.  Regulation certainly will not do so without serious harm to the ideals of democratizing our communication capacity and insuring free expression for the widest possible range of participants. Instead, we need to support educational solutions which foster a greater sense of personal and collective responsibility over the information we circulate, which insures more people have access to the critical literacies to challenge misinformation as they encounter it and to identify the often covert motives which shape the production and circulation of certain kinds of media. We need to help build up within our communities and networks a set of checks and balances, where-by grassroots media fact checks mainstream media and vice-versa.

Finally, what have you been recently working on?

I am in the midst of a large publishing spurt. This summer, we published a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures which I co-edited with Sangita Shresthova dealing with “fan activism.” Later this fall, we will mark the 20th anniversary of Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culturewith a reissue of the book, complete with a teacher’s guide by Lousia Stein and an extended interview where Susanna Scott grills me about the historical evolution and current state of fan studies. Then, at the end of January, there will be the publication of Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, and finally, a few months later (date and final title still to be announced), we will publish a book for educators on reading in a participatory culture, which describes some of the work my New Media Literacies team has been doing around Moby-Dick and remix culture.

I am part of a Youth and Participatory Politics network created by the MacArthur Foundation to better understand how new media and participatory culture are shaping the civic and political lives of young people. This is a cross-disciplinary collaboration that combines qualitative and quantitative methods, under the direction of Political Scientist Joe Kahne. As part of the network’s work, my USC-based team of faculty, PhD students, and Post-Docs, has been doing ethnographic work to examine a range of innovative political movements and networks – from the fan activism represented by the Harry Potter Alliance and Nerdfighters through the new media tactics of the undocumented youth involved in the DREAMer movement, from Young Libertarians to Islamic-Americans, and, of course, we are also paying attention to Occupy Wall Street. I wrote at the end ofConvergence Culture that we were learning a core set of skills through our play with popular culture and we would soon be applying those skills in more “serious” ways to reshape core institutions. Each of these movements, in its own ways, represents the fulfillment of that prediction – they are modeling ways where remix and transmedia can be deployed towards political ends, they are demonstrating ways that cultural participation can provide a pathway into political participation, and they are showing how collective intelligences and ad-hoc networks might allow for quicker mobilization and wider circulation of political speech. These themes will be the focus of my next major book project, which is still a few years away from completion.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Henry Jenkins
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Dowdall, J. (2012). “Interview with Henry Jenkins,” Figure/Ground. September 27th.
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Interview with Alex Reid

© Alex Reid and Figure/Ground
Dr. Reid was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. September 20th, 2012.

Dr. Alex Reid earned hi PhD from SUNY Albany in Writing, Teaching, and Criticism in 1997. Since then he’s taught at Georgia Tech, Penn State, SUNY Cortland, and now at the University of Buffalo. He studies digital media networks with a particular interest in their operation within humanities pedagogy and scholarship. His book, The Two Virtuals: Composition and New Media, examines the intersection of technologies of virtual reality with philosophies of the virtual and considers how bringing these two discourses together offers insight into teaching writing. He is co-editor of Design Discourse, a collection of essays on the construction of technical and professional writing curriculum. He has also published articles in several journals and book collections. His primary blog, Digital Digs, deals with developments in new media, rhetoric, and higher education.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

That decision came during my first or second year as a doctoral student. I had first gone to graduate school to get an MA in creative writing. I hadn’t done that with any career in mind. In fact, a large part of my motive in going to New Mexico State was a desire to live in the desert. However I really enjoyed my time in that program, so I decided to continue my studies. I applied to both PhD and MFA programs and chose Albany because the program at the time was quite experimental and designed to integrate writing and theory in a way that really spoke to me. Anyway, I met my future wife in New Mexico and convinced her to move to Albany with me. We married the next year. Soon after our wedding, I remember sitting in our apartment and looking at the MLA job list. That was when I realized that I needed to think about what I was doing in terms of some future career. I also realized that identifying myself as a rhetoric and composition specialist was going to be a good strategic choice, so I started angling in that direction.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

To be honest I can’t say that I had any mentors as a student, at least not in the sense of someone I turned to regularly for advice or took a special interest in my development. I also can’t say that I sought out a mentor. That said, I had a number of interesting professors over the years. As an undergrad at Rutgers, I met a history professor, Calvin Martin, who studied Native American culture. It was his courses that first got me to see the world from an oblique angle. Reading Ceremony and Desert Solitaire in one of his classes was what first got me to think about moving to the desert. At NMSU, Joe Somoza supervised by thesis, which was a collection of poetry. Joe was very laid back and spent much of this time in his backyard writing poetry. We would play basketball with some of the other faculty and grad students on Sunday mornings. I think I probably learned a degree of insouciance from Joe. In contrast, Albany was a crazy place, very politicized, and the faculty were at each other’s throats. One group of faculty tried to break away from the department and take the doctoral program with them. It didn’t happen, but the experimental program that had attracted me to Albany didn’t live long past my time there. Steve North was one of the well-recognized rhetoricians who was there when I was, and I took a couple courses with him. I always respected that he was level-headed and straightforward. In my experience those aren’t common traits among academics. I’m not sure that he was greatly interested in the weird, non-disciplinary, theoretical mess that was my dissertation project.  In any case, he was away in Finland during the year that I took my orals and wrote my dissertation.

There were a couple rhetoricians who deeply influenced me in graduate school through their books, particularly Victor Vitanza and Gregory Ulmer. Many years after graduate school I met Victor, and while maybe it was a little late in my professional career to develop a mentor relationship in the way you are asking, Victor is someone I deeply respect and would seek out for advice. Also David Blakesley, who published my book, is someone I would turn to for professional advice and has been supportive of me. I think Dave and Victor have each given me important insights into how our profession operates. They were among the first established scholars in my field to recognize the merits of my work, which was valuable in helping me to keep moving forward.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor “evolve” since you were an undergraduate student?

I was an undergrad in the late eighties, and I think there have been significant changes since then. I will break it down in the familiar terms of research, teaching, and service. In terms of teaching, even the less technologically-savvy faculty have had to shift the way they interact with students. Email is a mundane technology today and has changed the way we communicate. Of course now we have course management systems, online courses, and related applications of digital media that have transformed the way many of us teach.

The eighties were the earliest days of the PC industry. I imagine many faculty then would still compose by hand. I can remember when, as a grad student in the early nineties, the MLA bibliography would show up on a CD-ROM. So the practices of library research and composing scholarship were very different. Furthermore, our ability to keep in contact with our colleagues on a national or international level was severely limited compared to our networked relations today or even the email listserves of the nineties. This is why I think it is so strange that we still produce the same kinds of scholarship: the monograph, the 20 minute conference paper, and the 7000-word or so journal article. The pace of communication, our access to information, and our capacities for composing have radically changed but our scholarly practices haven’t caught up… yet.

To step away from the technology theme, at least partly, it is also clear that university culture has changed a lot over 20 years. The ratio of tenure-line to adjunct faculty has shifted considerably across the nation and we’ve seen a proliferation of bureaucratic, administrative roles on campus, in part out of increasingly demands for regulation and assessment. In turn faculty play less of a role in campus governance as well. Higher ed is just more a business than it once was.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

The unsatisfying answer is that there a lots of ways to be a good teacher: different disciplines, institutions, and courses require different kinds of teaching. I’ve never lectured to 100s of students. Mostly in my career I have taught small writing and digital production courses. These days I teach mostly graduate seminars. Since I’ve never been much of a lecturer, the attention issue hasn’t been a major problem for me. In my undergraduate courses, students aren’t asked to be passive learners very often. Ideally, students are active in the classroom: writing, working in groups, and collaborating on digital projects.

I suppose another way of thinking about this question is in terms of reading and having the concern that the amount of reading in a course has to be reduced. When one flips the classroom in this way, it is important that students are reading. I try to construct classroom (and online) activities that will support students’ reading. These strategies vary depending on the course, and I need to be aware of the resources and tools that are available to me as a teacher. In the end, while I suppose, at its worst, our era is one of interruption, fracture, and overload, I wouldn’t characterize it that way. Instead I see our age as one of challenge and opportunity, where we have to develop new rhetorical and cognitive practices for operating in a networked world. As teachers we should be helping our students to develop such practices.

What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the text that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?

A recent MLA study indicated that the average time from BA to PHD was more than 10 years of full-time study. We are in a time of tremendous flux in higher education, particularly in the humanities, as we have been discussing here. It’s very hard to know what our profession will look like in a decade when today’s grad students will hit the job market, let alone what their professional lives will look like over the next 30-40 years. That said, it seems crucial to me that humanities graduate students should acquire a high degree of digital literacy. I don’t think everyone needs to specialize in the digital humanities. However, I do believe we will all be research, composing, and communicating via digital media (aren’t we already?). I see many graduate students who are technically savvy, but I see just as many that echo some of my more senior colleagues who take an odd pride in their lack of technical ability. I think that in the very near future saying that you aren’t good with digital media and networks will be akin to saying that you aren’t a good reader.

As to the task of reading, I think the most important work is being done in the areas of speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, new materialism, nonhuman/posthuman theory, assemblage theory, and actor-network theory: Bruno Latour, Manuel DeLanda, Graham Harman, Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, Tim Morton, Karen Barad, Jane Bennett. There are plenty more important figures, but that’s a good start. Though there are significant differences among these thinkers, they share an effort to build upon but also move past the postmodernity of the last century to address the concerns of objects (or actors or machines or whatever you want to call them). This is significant for rhetoric and composition, which needs to pay attention to role of nonhumans, especially given the revolutionary shift in communications technologies. To this end, in my field, along with Vitanza and Ulmer, who I mentioned earlier, I am always in interested in the work of Diane Davis, Byron Hawk, Collin Brooke, Jeff Rice, and Thomas Rickert. Jody Shipka’s new book deserves attention. Finally I’d be remiss to not mention Geoffrey Sirc. What I think you’d find in common among these folks is a strong interest in the philosophical and experimental dimensions of rhetoric and composition, combined with a concern for technology.

How would you define Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology? Would you highlight the importance of their intellectual efforts and theoretical contributions for us?

Both SR and OOO strike me as terms that might have started in a fairly definitive space and moved into greater diversity, in part because they have been taken up by more people. I think about how a term like deconstruction or nomadism starts in one place and then becomes many unexpected things. Object-oriented ontology is very clearly Graham Harman’s concept. Others have taken up the term, principle Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, and Levi Bryant, but I think at least Bryant has a version now that diverges from Harman that he has taken to calling machine-oriented ontology a few times on his blog. So either OOO will remain proprietary and limited or it will become a more common term and end up less focused. I’m not sure which. Either way, I think it is fair to say that OOO rests upon a few foundational principles.

  1. All objects are real.
  2. Objects withdraw from one another and even from themselves, which means that no object can fully know another object or even fully know itself.
  3. As such, objects exist in excess of their relations.
  4. Objects do not require relations in order to exist.
  5. Objects exist in a flat ontology, which means that although in certain relations some objects may dominate or even destroy other objects, there is no fundamental ontological principle that states certain objects are necessarily dominate over others.

I would recommend Harman’s Quadruple Object to anyone who wants an introduction to OOO. Speculative Realism is a more nebulous term and might refer more to a historical moment than to a unified set of theories or methods. It comes out of a conference at Goldsmiths College in 2007 featuring Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux. What I think is shared among these thinkers is an interest in addressing correlationism, to use Meillassoux’s term: “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (After Finitude, 7). However each has understood this problem somewhat differently and found different aspects of it interesting. Furthermore, I think that speculative realism suffers from being at once too broad to be neatly defined and too narrow in the sense that there are many other scholars who have taken up realist ontologies but probably don’t call themselves speculative realists (e.g. those involved with new materialist feminism). I suppose one can say that these theories are moving away from the postmodern-cultural studies emphasis on textuality and representation. Many take Deleuze as a departure, with some, like OOO, putting more distance between themselves and Deleuze than others. In part this distance depends on the degree to which a theory places emphasis on process (more Deleuzian) or objects (less Deleuzian). However, that might be more my take (as I have come to this work as a departure from Deleuze) than a definitive quality of speculative realism.

I would say that it is still too early to know for sure what the value of these contributions will be long term. However I do have a sense of their potential. In my view, the humanities are facing a moment where neither their traditional methods nor the methods of postmodernity/cultural studies are sufficient for addressing the aesthetic, rhetorical, ethical, social, or political challenges that we face. Realist ontologies of various stripes have developed in meeting the challenges of ecocriticism, science studies, digital media, and related fields where an increasing emphasis on the role of nonhumans has been called for. The anthropocentric view that implicitly permeates the human-ities arguably limits their viability in addressing many of the key issues of the contemporary world but has perhaps also closed off opportunities to understand the traditional objects of humanistic study in new, productive ways. Big data digital humanities projects offer to investigate literature, for example, on a scale at which no human could ever experience it. But what does that knowledge mean? How do the relations and knowledge composed by big data analysis inform the way literary objects exist? These kinds of philosophical questions about nonhumans require new ways of thinking. Object-oriented ontology and speculative realism are integral parts of meeting that challenge.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?

In a word, yes, I do think the academy as a whole is under threat and some institutions may be in crisis. Digital media plays a part in a larger historical shift. I think this story is somewhat familiar now. The modern, German-model university was designed for industrial, nationalist purposes in the nineteenth century and flourished, especially in the US, through the Cold War with the nation’s industrial dominance and deep Pentagon pockets for pure research. The shift toward a global, information economy that started in the 70s changed the role of the university. Universities started opening their doors to more people and a college degree became more of a necessity for a career in the information economy. By the time we got to the 80s, universities were far less about supporting the nation and more about educating individuals and supporting economic interests rather than national defense interests. In the 80s we start to hear about “academic entrepreneurialism” and higher education as an investment in individual human capital. The State begins to reduce its direct support of higher education and universities begin to operate more like business and less like a public service. That’s where the threat comes from. Digital information technologies have played a role in that shift as they have powered the economic changes we have seen in a manner analogous to the way the steam engine powered the first industrial revolution. That said, I can certainly imagine a world with digital technologies where universities play a central role (one could say I am professionally counting on that possibility being realized), so I don’t think that there’s anything inherent to digital media that is a threat to the continued existence of universities.

Setting all that aside, universities are hardly innocent victims in these matters either. I am hardly an expert in the business side of higher education, but there’s a clear disconnect in my view between the way we depict college as a lifestyle in brochures, the very utilitarian way we talk about degrees and jobs in mainstream media, and the more traditional educational mission most academics see, at least in the humanities, arts, and sciences. These different conversations need to come together in the context of digital media, which are clearly shifting the way we compose and share information. We still absolutely require the creative and intellectual work of scholarship and research; we still need learning communities that are led by passionate experts. But we need to recognize that our teaching and research practices and the ways that we have organized and delivered academic work are historical products rather than universal principles. Maybe larger political, economic, and technological changes will sweep away the university, but any chance we have to survive in some recognizable form will depend on our ability to make these shifts.

Your book, The Two Virtuals: Composition and New Media, examines the intersection of technologies of virtual reality with philosophies of the virtual and considers how bringing these two discourses together offers insight into teaching writing. In a nutshell, what do virtual reality and technology studies have to say about the teaching of writing?

In a nutshell, a lot. Writing is a technology and technological practice (depending on whether one is speaking of the object or the activity). The same may be said of teaching. Since the appearance of personal computers in the 80s, the study of computers and writing has been a growing area of concern in the field of rhetoric and composition. Today it is so common for rhetoric and composition job ads to seek some expertise with digital media that I think it would be very unwise for anyone entering the field now to not develop some technological facility. When we began to study computers and writing, we implicitly stated that writing was not just one thing, that the objects that participate in the network of our writing activity play an integral role in composing. I took up the philosophical angle because I believe that a theory of written composition must rest upon a more capacious theory of composing (or ontology). Our theories of written composition were (and still are) so interwoven with particular technologies and networks that we needed to extricate ourselves. Furthermore, we couldn’t understand the role of these objects in composing without an ontology that would sufficiently account for nonhumans. This is something we can get from studying technology.

How does that inform the teaching of writing? If one imagines writing as a strictly individual, internal human practice, then teaching writing focuses on solitary humans and their internal mental states. Most writing assignments still work this way, asking students to write individually, be “original,” and to recognize deficiencies in writing as individual deficiencies. If one imagines writing as a cultural-discursive activity (as we see in the cultural studies turn in rhetoric in the last 25 years), then one might teach students to critique the ideological function of discourse and media so as to become a more savvy and/or resistant subject. However, oddly, in practice in these classes, the activity of writing is still largely viewed as solitary as the cultural-discursive elements are understood as a kind of ethereal ideological force in our minds or in representations/texts. The view I am pursuing imagines writing as a distributed, networked activity involving humans and nonhumans where thought and agency are not internal to any one of these objects but produced in relations. Here writing is not solitary; even if it doesn’t involve the immediate proximity of other humans in the room, it involves many objects that need to be recognized. By helping students become conscious of the networked activity of composition, it becomes possible for them to intervene experimentally in that network: change the objects and change the composition. This is very different from imagining that change must be a correctional of some internal deficiency (e.g. not knowing grammar) or a change in critical subjectivity (e.g. being able to critique).

What is writing anyway? How would you redefine this fundamental human activity in an age of digital interactive media?

Writing is many things and many activities. I agree with the view put forward by David Russell and others that there really isn’t a generalized writing to speak of (beyond the practices one commonly learns in grade school). Rhetoric does provide a set of methods for studying a variety of writing practices but we shouldn’t mistake those methods or the knowledge they produce for the practices themselves. Rhetoricians traditionally focus on symbolic action, which would include speech along with writing. To those we might add symbolic action in other visual media. I have some interests in what I have called a “minimal rhetoric,” which explores rhetoric without symbols, so I might want to define writing without calling it a specifically human activity. That is, I wonder if there’s a kind of taxonomic problem in trying to create a category that includes all the human activities we might want to call writing and excludes any nonhuman activities. That said, I do think that it is feasible to think about writing as coded expression, as long as we do not limit expression to humans and as long as we realize that coded expression rests upon the ontological capacity for un-coded expression/relation.

Speaking of writing in this age of information, your blog, Digital Digs (, deals with developments in new media, rhetoric, and higher education. How does blogging fit within your larger scholarly enterprise? Should academics befriend social media?

Blogging is a primary element of my scholarship. Undoubtedly most people who are familiar with my work have become familiar with it through my blog. By simple measurements of blog subscriptions and web traffic there’s no doubt more people read my blog than read any article I’ve published. Last May I gave a keynote at the Computers and Writing conference. It was the largest audience I’ve ever had for a presentation and yet it was smaller than the number of visits to my blog on a day when I make a new post. I become introduced to the OOO community through blogging, which is probably the most important intellectual event in my work in the last couple years. I receive regular invitations to contribute to books and journals that almost always begin with “I’ve been reading your blog.” In short, I believe the work I have put into my blog and the success I have had with it have been central to my success as a scholar. As a general rule I would encourage academics to get involved with social media, but they should realize that it will change the nature of their work. However I would also say that it depends on one’s field. Obviously as someone who specializes in digital media, it makes sense for me to be out there.

What are you currently working on?

The short answer is “read my blog.” If I am working on it, I’m blogging about it. The longer answer is that I am about one-third of the way into my second book, which will deal with object-oriented ontology, assemblage theory, actor-network theory, and other realist ontologies. It will intersect these with various technological developments in gaming, mobile devices, and so on. I am envisioning three parts. The first will deal somewhat more abstracting with theories of the nonhuman and their implications for rhetoric. The second third will explore compositional practices. Here I will be working off some of the work I discussed in that computers and writing keynote (which will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Enculturation) on the “new aesthetic” and the concept of the glitch, as well as some of my interests with the digital humanities. The final third will take on some institutional issues, such as the future of the university. So much of what we’ve been discussing here will be addressed in more detail there.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Alex Reid
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2012). “Interview with Alex Reid,” Figure/Ground. September 20th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Interview with Eileen A. Joy

© Eileen A. Joy and Figure/Ground
Dr. Joy was interviewed by Andrew Hines. September 17th, 2012.

Eileen A. Joy is an Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She is a co-founder and self-fashioned Lead Ingenitor of the scholarly collective, the BABEL Working Group. Alongside many other projects, Dr. Joy is also the director of the open-access, independent publisher punctum books as well as an editor of the cross-disciplinary journal Postmedieval. She has edited and co-authored many collaborative books, essays, journals and blogs in the field of Medieval Studies, and the Humanities more generally. Currently she is co-authoring a book with fellow medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen entitled Inhuman Actors: Tracing the Lives of Objects in Medieval Literature.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

It wasn’t really a conscious choice. Though this doesn’t describe everyone, most people get their undergraduate degree and go directly to graduate school. They have in the forefront of their mind the understanding that they’re going to be a professor at the beginning of their graduate studies. I never did. First of all, I was a total screwup in high school and had to go to a university with an open admissions policy as a result. I floundered around for a few years and was on academic probation. I eventually latched onto English as an undergraduate degree, which I really loved, but I had no intention of going to graduate school and being a professor.

As soon as I finished college I went out into the world and did a huge number of different jobs. I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be a fiction writer. I ended up getting an MFA in creative writing and also worked in filmmaking. Even then I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue graduate school, but I had a professor who was a medievalist who said, “I think you’d be good at this.”

I was a little bit worried about making it as a creative writer because it’s such a tenuous profession. So I did end up going into a medieval studies Ph.D. program at this professor’s encouragement, thinking the whole time, “Why am I doing this? I prefer postmodern literature and avant garde art, why would I want to study medieval literature?” Before I was halfway through my Ph.D., I dropped out. I gave up my teaching assistantship after two years and worked as a landscape designer for about three years or so before finally deciding, “Oh fine, I’ll finish my Ph.D. because actually I like teaching.” All during this, the one consistent thing that I really liked doing was teaching, even when I was just adjuncting at a community college. I also taught in a medium security men’s prison and a lot of unconventional environments. Even when I was a landscape designer I taught courses in garden design for adult education type programs. Teaching was the one thing that I consistently enjoyed, no matter how unconventional the environment.

So my path was really strange. But once I decided “I’m going to do this,” then I really threw myself into it in a major way. I figured whatever you do in life, you should give it your all. So roundabout 2001 or so when I finished my Ph.D. I was like “Yeah — I’m going to make this my major role in life.” Meaning, most broadly: the humanities, the university, education.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what did you learn from them?

I think one of my most important mentors who has stuck with me all these years was Marcel H. Cornis-Pop. He was really kind of wild. I had him as a professor in the late 1980s and this was the heyday of the culture-wars in the American university, but I was blissfully unaware of that. I didn’t know anything about so called “high theory” at that time. I wasn’t reading Derrida or Foucault or any of those people who were just beginning to emerge as major figures in American intellectual life at that time.

Cornish-Pop was a little unusual. He taught our so-called theory class for graduate students, and at that time, when everyone was going post-structuralist, he was really into narratology and the structuralists. I realise now there’s a real link between the narratologist of the 1970s — and even earlier — and the object-oriented philosophies that are circulating today. I’m really struck by the links in their work. The narratologist were ontologist. They thought about fictional worlds and possible worlds, and they were interested in set theory and the structure of narrative. Cornish-Pop had us read all these writers, some of whom you don’t hear mentioned very much now, even though everyone knows who they are. Writers like Wolfgang Iser, Algirdas Greimas, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Propp, Gérard Genette, Thomas Pavel, Paul Ricoeur, Umberto Eco, and all those guys. He was also just an incredibly enthusiastic professor. I realise now that his teaching has stuck with me longer than anybody’s, partly because of his enthusiasm but also for his eclectic interests. As a fiction writer I was fascinated by this kind of theory in particular. So he was a huge influence on me in terms of getting me interested in theory, even though it isn’t the theory most people are trained in now. He was probably one of my biggest influences but he wasn’t really a mentor.

I didn’t really have mentors in graduate school. I know that sounds strange. When I did my Ph.D. in medieval studies there were three medievalists at my institution whom I really loved and who were wonderful people; they did not do anything crazy to me. You hear horror stories about graduate school all the time — professors who really mess with your mind and soul and don’t leave you alone, who want to break you down or mold you in their image, or just leave you a little worse off than when you started with them (intellectual sadism). My three Ph.D. mentors were very hands-off. They were more conservative and they weren’t so much into theory the way I was. But they said something marvellous. They said, “You know, we don’t fully understand what you’re trying to do, but we think you’re smart enough, so you just do whatever you want to do and we’ll sign off on it.” So that was really, really marvellous, but I had to actually go outside my institution to seek mentors.

A really important one for me was Roy Liuzza who at the time (late 1990s) was an Anglo-Saxonist teaching at Tulane University. I just wrote him a random email saying, “I think we have some things in common and I love this work you’re doing on the intellectual history of the discipline, which is what my dissertation is about and would you maybe read my stuff and give me some feedback?” He did — an amazing amount of commentary, actually, that helped me shape my ideas a great deal — and then he went on to write letters for me for fellowships and for jobs. I’ve always been really grateful to him for that.

Other mentors are people you read, right? You never meet them, but they have a huge influence on the way you’re thinking. They’re kind of like your invisible or distant mentors.

Has the role of a university professor changed since you were a graduate student?

Yes. That is such a difficult question to answer. It’s a good one though. I started teaching as a graduate student in 1993. That means we’re almost at the 20-year mark since I started as a teaching assistant. I would say the world that my professors grew up in is radically different than the one I’m in as regards university life, which encompasses so much more than just teaching and research.

I would say the biggest change is that many of us teach at institutions, not counting more privileged places like Harvard or Duke, where our students are way more stressed out than they ever have been before. They come to college already saddled with debt and obligations that are financial or personal that make it very difficult for them to just be students. So I think this idea of a student who just goes to school and has no other concerns but soaking up university life — its own unique “ecology,” and one that was immensely valuable to me when I was “just a student” — is a vanishing entity and one that makes it much more difficult to capture our students’ attention and their affection. I think that is something important to work on, and to understand that context and work within it. Also, I think we need to do all sorts of political labour on behalf of returning us to the idea of a free or at least radically affordable “for all” education.

The other thing that’s changed is the institutional, bureaucratic structures which have become more managerial and corporate in style. Professors are being asked more and more to devote their energy to all sorts of institutional protocols having to do with so-called teaching effectiveness, learning outcomes, self-assessment, and program assessment. This has become intensive and in some cases it feels almost crippling in terms of the time that’s left over to do other things.

On the one hand, I am much in favour of faculty being more tuned into whether or not they have so-called “effective” outcomes that are attached to their teaching. It would be ridiculous to say faculty have no responsibility whatsoever to think about the effectiveness of their courses and programs and mentorship. On the other hand, we are often treated like children in this scenario; we are more often told what to do and how to do it, and then we are asked to direct our own programs of self-assessment, but according to administrative (and even legislative) expectations and guidelines that may be completely out of sync with faculty-led curricular vision and experience.

State legislators are getting much more meddlesome than they used to in the institution of higher education (or maybe that’s just my perception: maybe they’ve always been intrusive, and rightly so, given how much money they give to public higher education, but now they are starting to get hostile as well toward the mission of the university, especially toward the liberal arts). At my university we have something that is almost the equivalent of a time clock. Once a semester we have to fill out a time sheet, writing out the numbers of hours per week we spent on different activities – from advising students, to teaching hours, to teaching preparation, to research that’s independent, to research that’s funded through an external granting agency, to professional activities. This is insulting. We spend 10 plus years in graduate school training to be professors and then we’re asked to prove that we’re doing our job.

It’s different in every state, but just in the past couple of years, state legislators have done abusive things, such as in Texas where they recently abolished sabbaticals. Faculty in Texas schools are still giving their faculties sabbaticals, but they can’t call them “sabbaticals.” They have to call them something else, and they can’t give out as many of them as they used to. So state legislators are doing things like saying faculty should be on campus every single day and they shouldn’t have sabbaticals and they should teach more and have more office hours and they should be more accountable for how they spend their time, as if, somehow, professional educators are like wayward children who need more oversight and discipline. All of this is deeply demoralizing and is also creating a climate of mistrust and skepticism toward higher education. This is a time when students need higher education more than ever and can’t afford it. So that’s the climate in which we work, which is a little bit frightening.

To follow up on that, you’re speaking about forces attempting to reform from the outside. When there is internal dysfunction and reform is needed, where does it come from?

It’s a good question, too. In many institutions of higher education, there is an immense need for reform from the inside and it has to be faculty- and student-driven. I could tell you so many stories. I travel a lot to different institutions and I’m always struck by the politics of departments and programs and colleges that at times can be so intensively negative that they effectively dismantle and disable the ability of faculty and students to do constructive and creative work together. I think that in general the faculty, writ large across the institutions everywhere, have to really work better together to collectively agitate on behalf of their field. The field I work in is the humanities. Aranye Fradenburg has called the humanities the living arts, which is so essential to personal and also social well-being. That means that the humanities need to get more humane (and start living up to its own radical theories in its professional affects and departmental & program policies, especially as regards the dismantling of hierarchies and special statuses and privileges, and also as regards the pursuit of a multiplicity of becomings over supposedly static “truths” or “facts”), and other disciplines in the university also need to recognize better how various modes of “artful living” are essential to all professions (and society more largely), and the humanities are the primary site for cultivating those.

There is always a need for reform, especially curricular reform or reforms in the ways we teach. For instance, in the past 10 or so years, there’s been a massive shift away from lecturing, at least in the States, and towards more of an emphasis on group work and collaboration — having students lead discussions and that kind of thing.

So I think in general the faculty, with feedback from the students, will over time make adjustments to how they do their work. I think they can be counted on to do that, even with the bad politics that permeate some places. The faculty can be counted on to reform from within. I think we should be allowed to be trusted to do that.

It’s like heart surgery. Who do you want to decide how to improve the methods of heart surgery? Some kind of policy person who comes in from outside of the hospital to tell the heart surgeons how to do their job? Sometimes heart surgeons aren’t doing their job or they make mistakes, and hospitals do have people who oversee those procedures and work with the surgeons when mistakes happen, but you don’t second-guess the heart surgeon on how to do heart surgery. I think that’s one of the issues within university today. They’re large institutions, so they need administrative personnel to run the day-to-day operations. Everything from mowing the grass to keeping the technology running to making sure people get paid. But when the administration starts telling the faculty what the general education curricula should look like, or how they should teach or how much time they should devote between teaching and research, I think they’ve started to go too far.

Much of the work you’re involved in is open-access and seems to be attempting to address some of the issues you’re speaking about in creative ways. What are the pros and cons of open-access information in university education, and how does a peer reviewed open access journal function differently than the more standard peer reviewed journals?

The biggest bonus to open-access is in the words themselves, “open” and “access.” I could be wrong about this, but I really believe there is a deep public desire for participation in intellectual and cultural life. There is a real desire to be a part of cultural life in this country more so than I think than people realise, and yet not all of those people can afford to participate in the institutions of cultural life. Whether it’s the Metropolitan Opera or New York University, they can’t afford to be participants there or they couldn’t get the job they wanted working or teaching at one of those institutions. But they don’t want to turn their back on what might be called a “high” cultural life or the university and everything that it does.

Also at the same time, there are people within the university and the institution who have a difficult time getting their hands on information or published scholarship. So what open-access does really well is says, “look, we’re going to make everything that everyone is doing, available to everybody.” Now it’s information overload on one hand. Everyone can pick and choose what they want to read, what they want to listen to, what they want to think about, and we won’t be able to read everything. But it does mean that everyone can participate in the life of the university beyond the university’s walls.

Those situated in institutions with very few resources who can’t afford outrageous subscriptions to a journal owned by big publishers like Maney or Palgrave Macmillan or Elsevier are not charged outrageous sums of money to get access to what should really be public intellectual property. But it isn’t free either, so we can’t just start clapping our hands and dancing, or even just hate on the big commercial academic publishers who are trying to help us publish our work and in high professional style. All of the labour that was always involved to edit, proofread, design, format, market, mail, store, and archive our work is still an issue. I actually think corporate publishers and university presses, and independent cultural organisations and para-academic groups, and intellectuals and artists should work together in the coming future to figure out ways to make everything open-access, but also sustainable in some kind of economic framework that everyone participates in and benefits from.

Punctum books is open-access, but still sells print books. I actually believe people still want printed matter and they’ll pay for that. People will also pay for access to things if that access is cheap enough. We’ve learned this just from iTunes and the Apple app store. If it’s 99 cents, anyone can afford it — they just have to have the technology, or the devices, to run it.

As to how open-access, peer-reviewed publications are different from traditionally peer-reviewed publications, they’re not necessarily different at all. It depends on how you do it. You could have an open-access academic journal and you could run it exactly like a regular academic journal. You can blind-review submissions, you can have a panel of experts, advisors who review everything. You can have all sorts of editorial oversight — the only difference is the finished product is accessible to everyone.

Or, and this is my preference, you can make every step of the editorial process more transparent. You can get rid of blind review. You can say “there is no reason why we can’t know each other in this review process” and you can open up the review process to more people. You can have open peer review online, which postmedieval did last summer with one of its issues (“Becoming Media,” edited by Jen Boyle and Martin Foys, published in Spring 2012). That process has its ups and downs. Time will always be an issue. Time really is precious and more and more it feels like we have less and less of it. It’s hard to ask everybody in the world to review everything but I think it’s probably worth it to engage in this experiment of open peer review online and to bring in more people to the process of review: from the amateur to the expert in one field, to the generalist, to the expert in another field who nevertheless has something of value to share, to the graduate student and to the professor, to the independent researcher and independent artist. If we could get all of these people involved in the review process, I think it will be richer and more rewarding for everyone involved. It means we strive better to make the so-called intellectual “commons” a reality.

Let’s talk about the BABELworking group,of which you are a part. In the group’s credo you describe yourself as “a non-hierarchical scholarly collective.”  What are media’s and the Internet’s relation to hierarchy today, and how do BABEL and open-access fit into that?

It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, online media and the Internet more generally would seem to promise an infinitude of riches, regarding the so-called democratization of information and exchange and communication of ideas. I think we’ve learned, especially at the political level, in terms of what has become a rather poisonous set of discourses (let’s say, in the United States, for example, over the issue of global warming), that these media are just as powerful in their roles as agents of dis-information. We’ll put that out there as a cautionary note. We’ll say that the Internet by itself does not guarantee the democracy of information, nor the completely open and free exchange of ideas nor an intellectual “commons” that is truly transparent. We know that there are dangers there. But having said that, I do think, in terms of the university, and my own field of medieval studies and the humanities more generally, that online media, including blogs, online journals, Facebook, and Twitter, have been incredible, beneficial tools for democratizing and leveling hierarchies among people who should really be working more alongside each other in what we might call the University (as opposed to your university versus my university).

Whether you’re an assistant professor or full professor, or lecturer, an adjunct instructor, a graduate student, an independent scholar, or just a random person who’s interested in Beowulf studies or Adorno, you can participate in these conversations. There’s no identification card required, no institutional status required, and rank is just irrelevant.  That doesn’t mean that people aren’t aware that when they’re in certain online environments that they’re conversing with someone who might be a star in a particular field or with someone who has just entered a graduate program. But it does mean that there is a lot more freedom. I’ve seen in my own field of medieval studies the actual leveling of traditional status and other markers for “recognition” and some amazing conversations and dialogues that result from this leveling. This has led in many cases to actual publications, special journal issues, anthologies, conference sessions, etc. So it’s been an incredible tool of equality for intellectual discourse and making stuff happen.

It also gets us what I call open processional scholarship. That is what scholarship really is anyway, instead of this idea that someone is sitting in their study and doing all this research and they might share a little bit of it here and there in a conference session, and then they’re back in the study on their own, then they write a book, then it’s under review for two years, then it’s published two years later, then it’s reviewed two years later — that feels like a static entity has been produced, one that supposedly emerged from one person’s mind. But that entity is so disconnected in space and time from the flow of ideas that gave rise to it. With online media we can practice scholarship in the processional way it actually unfolds in our heads with other people. It doesn’t really matter if it leads to a book; the actual exchange itself is the scholarship — the thinking out loud with others. Books are almost an afterthought, but of course they are important because they help us to historicize this process and also give rise to even more new ideas.

What advice would you give to graduate students and aspiring university professors, and who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?

My advice to graduate students would be to take charge of the university and not wait for professors or other so-called mentors to tell them how to think or what to do. I think graduate students should be incredibly pro-active in the shaping of the university that they want. So instead of saying, “I wish it were like this or I wish it were like that,” they should take charge of the university as their property and their special mission. They should strive as much as they can, even under the influence of thinkers they admire, to try to create thought and not just follow other people’s thinking. Even though sometimes it looks like that’s the recipe for professional success — you adopt thinking and a methodology of a star in your field and you apply their thought constructs to a text or a situation, and voila, you (supposedly) have the start to a brilliant career.

I would tell graduate students that you should make an event of your own career and you should absolutely do it in collaboration with others. Reject the idea of solitude, or competition, or an intellectual agon, as the only path toward so-called “great thinking.” Join forces with as many people as possible to make things and to be producers of things — new collectives, presses, journals, zines, etc. — and create new spaces for the fostering of creative thought and action. Be GENEROUS: help others make things happen. Both people within the university and outside the university. Don’t just think of yourself as an apprentice that is slotted into this or that field, this or that school of thought, marching along behind others.

As far as the thinkers who are really influential to me right now — it’s funny because I wrote a blog post talking about this in the course of also discussing one particular scholar who I really admire right now (see “Like a Radio Left On / On the Outskirts of Identical Cities: Living (with) Fradenburg,” In The Middle, May 5, 2012: 05/like-radio-left-on-on-outskirts-of.html). There are tons of thinkers who I love to read, but the ones that always jump out at me the most are the ones who, in addition to doing their field-specific work (medieval studies, or contemporary poetics, etc.), are also trying to grapple with the larger institutional questions. So for me the Bible has always been Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins. He died in a plane crash a while ago. He never even saw the publication of that book and he’s not around to keep writing and thinking, but that book has been hugely inspirational to me. I also think Jane Bennett is an essential read today. In addition to her work in political theory and political philosophy, and even her new book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, which puts forward some really intriguing ideas about vibrant materialism and which a lot of people are talking about right now, her most important book to me in some ways is The Enchantment of Modern Life: Crossings, Attachments, Ethics. She takes on really big questions having to do with our affects and connections and attachments in the world, and how that importantly contributes to ethical life and flourishing, how we have to be somewhat enchanted with the world (even one that, post-theory, has become disenchanting) in order to work on its behalf.

Another person from my own field whom I hugely admire in this vein is Aranye Fradenburg. She’s written tons of articles and books having to do with Chaucer and medieval literature, particularly in relation to subjects like sacrifice, death, pleasure, enjoyment, and labour, and she is important in a field (medieval studies) that has historically favoured alteritist versions of the Middle Ages for championing discontinuist historicisms. But increasingly, in the past several years, she’s been turning out a steady stream of articles like “The Liberal Arts of Psychoanalysis” and a recent essay called “Living Chaucer,”in which she’s addressing huge questions having to do with the possible connections between the humanities (and literature in particular) and flourishing, thriving, personal well-being, and things like that.

A much overlooked thinker from the 1960s who is still also worth reading today in this regard is Abraham Maslow. He was a psychologist and also focused all of his energies into thinking about how we live our lives and how we flourish and how we, more importantly, enjoy our lives. And finally the last person I would throw out there is Foucault, for his late writings. Towards the end of his life when he was writing about the hermeneutics of the subject and the government of the self, he was thinking particularly about care of the self, but also about parhhesia, or “free speech,” where in some ways he made a radical departure from his earlier thinking about power and discipline. Thinking about what he called in one of his interviews “an improbable manner of being that was yet unthought” that might open onto new forms of friendship and alliance and personal flourishing. I think everybody should revisit Foucault’s last writings and interviews. Which is not to say there are not problems there — I personally think hw over-romanticized some of the materials he was reading from the classical and late antique periods, but his late emphases on how certain modes of self-reflection and ascesis might help us to see how our “own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently,” feels important to me in light of some of our current predicament within the university and beyond.

This is just to say that those are the thinkers that grip my imagination most of the time. I also think Martha Nussbaum is incredibly important in that regard. Especially her massive book Upheavals of Thought.  It’s an amazing book about the connections between emotions and thinking. I’m really attracted these days to people who are thinking about the connections between the university, the humanities and personal well-being, especially in relation to emotions (feeling) and thinking. That is also why I would also briefly mention here how important queer theory has been to better “feeling” our way forward these past 20 or so years, and I would call special attention to the work of Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Michael Snediker.

Lastly, some of my favorite people to read right now are the object-oriented ontologists and speculative realists, especially those with an interest in “aesthetics as first philosophy,” like Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, and Levi Bryant. I love reading them because they’re invested in the project of speculative thought: highly imaginative thinking about the world beyond a human-centric perspective, with a deep interest in a more capacious ecology of enmeshed things, human and otherwise. Because I’m really interested in thinkers today who are trying to think of more open and generous ways of imagining sentience and consciousness and experience. So the last person, and by no means least important person on my list is Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in medieval studies, who is pushing the boundaries of that kind of thinking in my field more than anyone else. He has the most humane, capacious, generous set of perspectives on the world, history, and all of the entanglements attendant within history, and his entire oeuvre could be described as a grand attempt to merely describe the world and all of its items (human, animal, mineral, etc.) in a way that “lights up” that world and its activities and entanglements from within, and without judgment, without prioritizing one thing or person or event over another. That’s my roster of people to be reading right now.

What are you currently working on?

I have so many things going at once it’s a little insane. I’m a bit manic in my work and I tend to jump all over the place, sometimes starting and never returning to a project. Probably the biggest project on my plate right now is a book I’m co-authoring with Jeffrey Cohen called Inhuman Actors: Tracing the Lives of Objects in Medieval Literature. He and I are working on this book, which in some way is an outcome of our very deep reading in and affection for thinkers like Bruno Latour, Ian Bogost, Michel Serres, Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Levi Bryant — all those people in object-oriented ontology and speculative realism and new materialisms. So that’s something were diving into this year and thinking will carry us through to the end of next year (2013).

In addition to that, my other big project is revisiting the late writings of Foucault on the care of the self. I’m also going to be teaching an advanced graduate seminar at the Newberry Library in Chicago in spring 2013 with Anna Klosowska (Miami University of Ohio), revisiting Foucault’s late writings on ascesis and care of the self in relation to medieval and early modern texts on spiritual ascetism, friendship, and love.

I’m really fascinated by revisiting the questions of biopower and biopolitics in relation to Foucault’s ideas about care of the self. There might even be an out or an exit from what has happened so far in traditional discourses of modernity on questions of biopower (a “positive biopolitics,” as the medievalist historian Kathleen Biddick has posed it). So that’s kind of the other place my head is at right now.

The final other place my head is at in terms of my own work is thinking a lot about aesthetic solidarity at the end of the world. So thinking about, what does it mean to be situated at a time in history where a lot of things are ending? In a time of catastrophe and crisis, the end of the anthropocene. What would it mean to form new sites of aesthetic solidarity, and to think about writing itself as an intervention into a world that’s kind of in the middle of an end? Those are the three places my head is at right now with my own writing.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Eileen A. Joy
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Hines, A. (2012). “Interview with Eileen A. Joy,” Figure/Ground. September 17th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Interview with Thomas de Zengotita

© Thomas de Zengotita and Figure/Ground
Dr. de Zengotita was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. September 9th, 2012.

Thomas de Zengotita teaches at the Draper Graduate Program at New York University and the Dalton School. He holds a BA, MA, and PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University. He was contributing editor at Harper’s magazine from 2006 to 2011 and he blogs for the Huffington Post.

His book, Mediated, won the 2006 Marshall McLuhan Award.

Academic Publications Include:
“On the Politics of Pastiche and Depthless Intensities: The Case of Barack Obama” in The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2011
“Modernism Revisited: “Modernism Revisited: Artistic Works, Academic Disciplines, Divided Minds” in Logos, Fall 2011
“Believing Whatever” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/11/05
“On Wittgenstein’s ‘Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough'” in Cultural Anthropology (4:4 1991)

General publications include: “Geometry” in The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years, John Brockman, (ed.), Simon and Schuster 2000; “World World; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blob” in Harper’s, July 2000; “The Numbing of the American Mind” in Harper’s, April 2002; a profile of Hell’s Angel Sonny Barger in Shout, April 2002. “Common Ground” in Harper’s, December 2002; “The Romance of Empire” in Harper’s, July 2003; “Tune in, Turn on” in Harper’s, November 2003; “Attack of the Superzeroes in Harper’s, December 2004. “Watching Yourself Steal Cars” in Current, The Los Angeles Times, 11/11/05; “Reframing Your World” in Harper’s, June 2009.

Fiction: “Hannah’s Birthday” in Fiction, Summer 2003.
“The Other Side” in Logos, Summer 2003.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas de Zengotita
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2012). “Interview with Thomas de Zengotita,” Figure/Ground. September 9th.
< >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at