Interview with Nina Power

© Nina Power and Figure/Ground
Dr. Power was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. December 30th, 2012.

Dr. Nina Power is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University. She is the co-editor of Alain Badiou’s On Beckett (Clinamen), and the author of several articles on European Philosophy, atomism, pedagogy, art and politics. Her book One-Dimensional Woman was published by Zero Books. Dr. Power also writes for several magazines, including New Statesman, The Guardian, New Humanist, Cabinet, Radical Philosophy and The Philosophers’ Magazine. She is reviews editor for The Philosophers’ Magazine and also runs a film club (Kino Fist) in her spare time. She is based in London.

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

Well, it should be noted that in the UK, I’m a lecturer rather than a professor (which is the most senior position), but I appreciate the term is used generally to mean someone who teaches at a university. In terms of ‘conscious choice’, I’m not sure: I certainly enjoyed studying, and it’s certainly true that I wanted to carry on researching and writing on topics that interest me and that I think are socially important. I also enjoyed teaching, having taught both 16/17 year olds at a Further Education college and adults of all ages at a continuous learning institution while doing my PhD. So I was happy to apply for university jobs and even happier when I got one, as it’s not easy: There are so many people I know with PhDs, excellent publication records, teaching experience etc. without work.

There’s also the problem of rendering oneself unemployable the longer you stay studying: if you finish a PhD at 27-30, you’ve very likely not been in full-time work for any extended period of time, making you pretty unattractive to most non-academic employers. So I think a lot of people end up in academia – if they get a job – almost because there’s nowhere else to go. That’s not meant to sound depressing by the way! I think the desire to continue studying is at the heart of it – I clearly can’t get enough, as I’m currently midway through a part-time law degree which I study at an evening university in London after work.

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

I think I had excellent and encouraging teachers all the way through – from primary school to university. It’s actually perhaps more teachers from my Comprehensive (state) school that stand out when I think about ‘mentors’, as at university level there’s perhaps a feeling that you are working in a more independent way and relating to your lecturers on more of an even playing field. I would say that some of the best lessons I’ve learnt from teachers and lecturers are critical, difficult ones that hurt a lot at the time: about failures of thought and unsuccessful modes of writing, for example. I appreciated the single-mindedness of a lot of my lecturers and their dedication to their subject and the way this spilled over into their enthusiasm for teaching. I often think that one of the most important things a teacher can convey is enthusiasm – perhaps the most important thing, in fact.

In your experience, how has the role of university professor evolved?

Well I haven’t been working at a university for long enough to say, perhaps, but there certainly has been a great deal of worry at institutions I’ve taught at – places that are not in the league of supposedly ‘top’ universities – about the impact of massively increased fees, 100% cuts to the arts and humanities funding budget, visa restrictions for overseas students and so on, about what the ‘role’ of the university worker might be, and how best we can help students, who themselves are very often in precarious financially positions, and frequently working long hours alongside their studies. I think university workers have perhaps had to become more ‘rounded’ in the wake of the economic crash, fee increases and threats of course-closures – that is to say, more aware and adaptable to crisis and to understandable student worries and anxieties about what doing a degree ‘means’. At the same time, there is much more pressure on individual institutions to prove their worth as a whole – meet government targets, participate in generic research assessment exercises, and so on. So that filters down too, and working in departments where subjects are under threat of closure (the UK has seen the closure of many ex-Polytechnic Philosophy and other Arts, Humanities & Social Science courses in recent years) makes people more aware of the precariousness of their employment. On the plus side, this also makes it easier to relate to the difficult situation students often find themselves in as regards to employment after their degrees. But it’s a unenviable ‘plus’.

I think there is an older image of a lecturer/professor, who can simply get on with their research, occasionally teach topics relating to this research and who can afford to be a bit ‘other-worldly’ or ‘eccentric’. I’m not sure how true this ever was, but it doesn’t feel possible at all now.

What effect has the information age had on the university and on pedagogy?

That’s an extremely broad and complex topic: clearly the possibilities for different models of learning and dissemination of information have expanded immensely. The internet has a great democratising capability and effect, and there are infinite resources available to those with an internet connection. At the same time, we have new enclosures of knowledge: companies who profit from fenced-off journals where the (unpaid) labour is done by academics in the shape of the articles themselves, peer-reviewing etc. – and these things are not legally available to the online public. I think the internet has made it much easier to organise para-academic things like free universities, reading groups, and some of the barriers that prevented people thinking they could go to free lectures on universities campuses have been overturned by the internet: so it’s overall extremely positive as regards pedagogical possibilities, and helps takes the idea of ‘knowledge’ away from the idea of a privileged domain belonging to a cultural elite. But there are more and more in-built restrictions to this knowledge as the parcelling up of the internet continues apace.

What advice would you give to graduate students and aspiring university professors?

I’m not sure any advice I give would be very useful, as I’m not a very good scholar in the sense of sticking to one area or field, which is often what departments require. I think, though, that having a fairly wide-range of teaching experience, not only at university level, is great training and demonstrates that you can work with people with different motivations for learning, different ages, and so on. I think the desire to convey enthusiasm is important, and to understand where your students are coming from helps.

What is the status of disciplines today? What are the strengths and/or weaknesses of interdisciplinary studies?

I’m quite interested in the idea of ‘transdisciplinarity’ which was the topic of a couple of workshops hosted by Kingston University (London) this year, where part of the idea, as far as I understand it, is to think about texts and positions that are not bound by discipline in the first place: so Marx’s work – stretching across economics, politics and philosophy, but critical of all of these disciplines might be better understood as transdisciplinary (and ultimately anti-academia, perhaps).

There are some places – Goldsmiths in London, for example, where inter-disciplinarity seems to work – but often it comes across as quite gestural, and more driven by outside research opportunities than from any genuine encounter between different modes of thinking/working. Having said that, it’s been important in the struggle to save departments to identify them as ‘disciplines’ worth saving in their own right, rather than be amalgamated (and thus eliminated) into other programmes. So it’s a complex situation, part academic, part strategic and part a critique of academic differentiation.

How has the privatization of education affected the university? Is the university as an institution in crisis?

I’ve already mentioned some of the negative effects, in terms of course closures and so on. We’re starting to see some of the impacts of the massive tuition fee-rise voted through in December 2010, in terms of students, particularly from poorer backgrounds, deciding that borrowing such a large amount of money isn’t going to be worth it. The expansion of higher education that we saw in the second half of the twentieth century is going into reverse, and, along with the increasing difficult for overseas students in terms of visas and so on,  the composition of the student body is going to revert to a very elite group of home students. This is depressing for everyone. At the moment, things look bleak for those universities, and those departments, not regarded as part of the elite group – so mostly the fight is to save them, and members of staff who are victimised for trade union activity and/or for questioning management decisions. But it would be good to imagine what we would change about the university if we didn’t have to fight to simply keep it alive: to think about what a truly democratic, free university might be.

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

Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2012). “A Conversation with Nina Power,” Figure/Ground. December 30th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Interview with Brian Cogan

© Brian Cogan and Figure/Ground
Dr. Cogan was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. December 30th, 2012.

Dr. Brian Cogan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communications at Molloy College in Long Island, New York.  He is the author, co-author and co-editor of numerous books, articles and anthologies on popular culture, music and the media.  His specific areas of research interest are media studies, music, fandom, punk rock, popular culture, comic books, graphic novels, and the intersection of politics and popular culture.  He is the author of The Punk Rock Encyclopedia (Sterling 2008), co-author with Tony Kelso of The Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Media and Politics (Greenwood Press 2009) as well as co-editor with Tony Kelso of Mosh the Polls: Youth Voters, Popular Culture, and Democratic Engagement (Lexington 2008), which is about youth culture and political involvement.  Dr. Cogan is also the co-author, along with William Phillips, of the Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal Music (Greenwood Press 2009), and is the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays on the popular television show South Park (Lexington 2011).  He is also the co-author/editor of two forthcoming books in 2013, Baby Boomers and Popular CultureAn Inquiry into America’s Most Powerful Generation  (Co-edited with Thomas Gencarelli) 2 Volumes Praeger Books (2013) and Everything I Ever Needed to Know About _____________* I Learned from Monty Python” *Including History, Art, Poetry, Communism, Philosophy, the Media, Birth, Death, Religion, Literature, Latin, Transvestites, Botany, the French, Class Systems, Mythology, Fish Slapping, and many more! (Co-written with Jeffrey Massey) St. Martins Press (2013)

Was it a conscious choice on your part to become a university professor?

No! I could not have imagined ever teaching back then, much less at the college level. I wanted to work in film or video production and/or music and did that for a good portion of my life, and still do outside of academia even to this day. When I was in college, I imagine that I had no real idea what it was that professors didoutside of teach. I had no idea about research or service and I also wonder looking back how much preparation some of my professors had even put into coursework. It just seemed as though the best of them knew the topics, but there were always some that didn’t seem to go far beyond the textbook. Even back then, you could tell the ones that had passion for their work. They were the ones that could surprise you with their questions.

Back then I also had no idea of academic publications and while now it seems apparent in retrospect which ones had tenure, publications, etc., I didn’t know it then.  Maybe I had seen too many old “inspiring teacher” movies, but I think I had a romanticized notion that class was only the start of the learning experience and that professors would be more like mentors and take the students out after class and we would while away our hours on esoteric subjects. It rarely happened. There was a professor in the English Department that seemed to want to talk to us outside of class, but he was the only one. I hate to say it, but when they raised the drinking age to 21, it took some of the fun out of the concept of the mentoring system. Due to liability issues, professors were increasingly scared to fraternize with students, and students who wanted to drink chose (or were forced) to binge drink when they could get their hands on the stuff. In the rare occasions were we did talk to faculty in adult settings; we were too scared to get even tipsy. The ones that took interest in us and wanted to see what made us tick we desperately wanted to impress. I think something is lost now that you have to strive to recreate. The sense that now as a professor you are not there to lecture (I almost never lecture for more than a few minutes at a time), but to build some sort of intellectual curiosity in the students. To create a community where this activity is naturalized.  I still maintain that not all schools are trade schools, and that most academic subjects exist to ask students to think, as opposed to teaching them a set of specific technical skills. They can train mice to do a variety of jobs, but not to think. I actually became a grad student almost by accident. I was lucky enough to work for a school that provided tuition remission, and decided that my brain had atrophied enough and that grad school was a good idea. I loved it, the debates, the books, and the sense of history. I never looked back.

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

I was very, very fortunate to be in specific place; NYU in the Media Ecology Department, at a specific time period when someone like me was considered a good match. The school and its focus have changed since then, and I’m not sure they would have wanted the scruffy bearded long haired Brian of that time period who argued that being careful about language was important. It’s funny; I had worked in film production and come from the punk scene and both of those made me a natural skeptic during the boom in technological utopianism.  I honestly feel that the whole Wired magazine mentality that permeated the early nineties is still alive and well, only now the optimistic focus is on social media. I think media is a wonderful agent for change (a lot of my work is abut that) but until I came to NYU I had never encountered a rigorous program that examined technological change with that kind of skeptical attitude. Many people will tell you that back then it was an intellectual boot camp especially under the guidance of Terence Moran, but it sparked such lively, such open and engaging debate, with a real sense of collegiality that I couldn’t help but respond. At NYU I met Neil Postman who was my Thesis and Dissertation advisor and who became one of the major influences on my life, but almost everyone there was a mentor. There was Jonathan Zimmerman, a Professor of Education and History and Director of the History of Education Program, at Steinhardt, who is not only a wonderful man, but also a top-notch person to discuss shifting notions of historiography with to this day. But even outside of the full time faculty, I was always meeting people like Lance Strate, who was teaching the class From Cave Painting to Print that really got me excited abut media history and he has been a big influence since then. Sal Fallica also was an enormous influence on my continued work in school, and he was one of the first to bring us out after class for coffee to keep the conversation going. Still a treasured friend. The big three, Postman, Moran and Nystrom, were all intimidating in their own way, but I think the reason I got along with Neil so well was his natural sense of the absurdity of the world. That’s why we relentlessly made fun of the more absurd extremes of postmodernism, it was not from ideological difference, but about careless use of language to obfusticate instead of illuminate. Neil told me that he wrote books his 99-year-old mother could understand. To this day, I think while we work on complex theoretical issues, unless there is a practical application we are just circling the wagons. Any good we do as teachers and writers is how it helps other people.

There is one other person, who I never took a class with at NYU that is probably the most influential on my career or anyone. I was privileged enough to know the wonderful, witty and wise Janet Sternberg from my days there, and I would not have continued with my studies without her encouragement. She told me I could move on to the doctoral program, and in a wave of exuberance, I agreed with her much inflated opinion of me, anything I’ve done since then is thanks to Janet in many ways. I was also really lucky to be part of a cohort that was mutually supportive, I know now that that’s not always the case, but working with Mike Grabowski, Laura Tropp, Lila Bauman, Marco Calvita and a bunch of others before and after led to a really open and inviting atmosphere where people listened to our ideas seriously. While the faculty did try and guide us, they almost never tried to remake us in their own image. I just remember such a sense of freedom and excitement about those years, also being broke and eating ramen, but that’s par for the course.

How did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

Where to begin? I talk to colleagues across the country and one thing I keep hearing is this sense of both sadness and anger that they are called upon to defend their discipline on a consistent basis. At national conferences and in editorials, I keep hearing the same thing, that academic freedom is under siege and it’s not just the usual political battles we’re all used to fighting, but it has turned to justifying why we teach the way we do and why we have the unusual temerity to ask people’s children to take classes that do not always have any concrete connection to a specific job path. The old view of college as a liminal space for experimentation and growth is under attack, by people (sometimes for good reason) who are worried about their kids getting work after graduation, but also from various interest groups who demand accountability. I have no problem with the idea of accountability, everyone is accountable for their actions in any profession, and there are enough professors out there who haven’t changed their lesson plans in years, but when we are told by corporate funded  groups that the only value in education is directly tied to economic value, it gets depressing. How much inherent economic value should we assign to Wordsworth? To Keats? To Kundera? To Joyce? To Plato? To McLuhan?  I’ve been trying to say this for years with little success, but we can train a cat or a monkey to do many jobs, but we can never train them to think.  At our best, we are trying to get students (and yes, I am a romantic) to live every moment of their lives in full, to not settle and to try and, like the unknown cave painters in Lascaux and elsewhere, to give some indication that they lived during a certain time period, and loved and laughed and danced and questioned every moment.

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

I’ve recently been using a metaphor that is helpful (to me at least) in understanding the mind of a college student. Of course they are going to reach for their phones during class. To them it’s a lot more natural an activity to them than sitting in a classroom for an hour and a half or three hours.  I think even without the arguments regarding rewiring the brain in The Shallows and Proust and the Squid (which I think are pretty sound) what we are seeing is not just a desire for connection, but an ingrained habit. One that in many cases they actually do not enjoy. What many of them are doing is essentially smoking. When I say smoking I do no mean literally smoking cigarettes, but that their behavioral patterns are too reminiscent of a long time smokers to ignore. When bars and restaurants allowed smoking, the first time someone you were conversing with smoked a cigarette, they would usually ask out of courtesy of you minded if they smoked. They never did this for the second, third or fiftieth cigarette. They were no longer looking for a nicotine fix or immediate pleasure, the rest of their cigarettes were just reflexive habit, and in some ways, sad reminders that they were no longer getting pleasure out of what they were doing. They were just maintaining. I used to be annoyed by students checking their phones, now I try and call attention to their behavior, to ask them what they are doing, and why they think they are doing it.  I like to say, because I am endlessly curious, that I study the meaning making process. I like to know that kinds of pleasure or uses people are getting out of constantly checking their phones. How much of this is about connectivity or instantaneous connection or new ways of looking at the world? I’m still thinking about. But, one thing that grounds me is the fact that people use different artifacts, whether it’s music, art, ritual, culture, etc., that they use to give their lives meaning, what gets them through the day. This is consistent human symbolic behavior. What is interesting is that I keep finding how important distraction is to being a human. Not that distractions and entertainment aren’t useful, but it seems to me that the consistency of he grand narratives that used to give people’s lives meaning such as religion and ideology are consistently being replaced by distraction. It keeps coming back to Postman for me.

I’ve been at countless meetings at my school, about changing assignments, about stressing writing intensive classes, etc and those are good ideas, but they miss a fundamental point that I keep going back to in meeting, after meeting. These students are NOT miniature versions of us, whether through neural rewiring or through acculturization, they do not think like us anymore. If you start studying students as more akin to Martian teens that look a lot like us, then you get closer, but don’t expect an eighteen year old to think the way you did when you were that age. This is a completely new generation, with a radically different technological environment with a radically new mindset. To me (and most likely to many people reading this interview) our role is not longer to simply teach atthem, but then again we knew that at least since the sixties. Our role is to ask them to try and understand their environment, to even notice that they even havedifferent environments that surround them. That’s when we can start to get some real work done.

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

As a long time member of the punk rock community, I have an inbred suspicion of seminal texts or institutions. I think some of my tendencies are to simply ask “Why?” over and over again, but despite that some things keep me going, mostly works that either challenged dominant paradigms or spoke about things that no one else was talking about before, some books, not all about media per se, that I keep coming back to are:

The Society of the Spectacle-Debord

Amusing Ourselves to Death-Postman

You are not a Gadget-Lanier

The Joke- Kundera

Subculture: The Meaning of Style– Hebdige

Dubliners– Joyce

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life –Goffman

Understanding Comics– McCloud

Our Band Could be Your Life– Azerrad

Watchmen– Moore

And almost anything by McLuhan, Innis, Ong, Carpenter, Mumford, MacDonald, Tolkien, Joyce, Thurber, but reading wildly (and widely) and reading fiction as much as critical analysis is always a good idea. I really do think there is something to be said about making lists of works you’ve read, mean to read, etc. The act of consistent reading is one thing I believe is vital. The one thing I think is vital to being a human being is the simple strange act of fetishsizing books. Walter Benjamin wrote about this and even the simple pleasure of looking at your books not because they are first editions and valuable, but because they are old and trusted friends and that each one made you a new person with every page.  I know I’m a print oriented person and I’m rather proud of that. I’ve been joking for years that my tombstone should read, “One. More. Book.” And I’m not sure if I’m even really joking at this point. I use as much social media as most of my contemporaries and my current TV is the largest I’ve ever had in my life, but I will argue until the day I need that tombstone that there is something so inherentlyuseful in print based culture that to throw it out and start over because of enthusiasm, usually created by people with a vested interest in the propagation of new technologies, seems both short-sighted and irrational.

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. Do you agree with the author? What are your arguments for or against academic tenure?

I’m very much against writing in jargon. I think it’s the bane of academic writing and most academic writing that chooses to use jargon over substance is bound not only to give academics a reputation as obtuse and vague, but does nothing to affect ordinary people’s lives, which is the main point of writing anything for the public.

With that in mind though, I am very much pro-tenure. I have tenure at my institution and it does not only guard against having controversial positions, but also allows us to be more effective in terms of intellectual risks. There are people who abuse the system, much as any other system can be abused, but tenure itself (which by the way, does not guarantee continued employment, only due process) is not the problem. The problem is that jargon is the norm in most fields. Has anyone read a law journal recently?  Or a business journal? Even a mechanic uses specialized knowledge when talking about why you need to pay several thousand dollars for a new part for your car that you cannot even see. But while these specialized languages can be used to maintain hierarchies (look at what Harold Innis had to say about that topic), they are also used (at their best) because a specialized language is often required for complex subjects. But that is a separate topic from tenure. As I mentioned earlier, the institution of tenure is under attack across the nation, much as unions are under attack, because certain groups of intellectuals, usually with their own agenda, believe that there is something disturbing about what I see as basic job protection. I am appalled by a national infatuation with teachers on all levels as “fat cats” who don’t work as long or as hard as other professions. Teaching is a noble and extremely difficult job to do well. Every good teacher knows how coming into work slightly sick, or distracted, or low on energy, can completely throw a class off.  To ask people who spend a lot longer than a forty hour week working in classes, grading and rewriting lesson plans, not to mention publishing potentially controversial articles to give up the basic protection against summarily being fired, is to ask the most adventurous and most controversial and inquisitive members of that profession to leave the public conversation. And if this keeps up, believe me, they will leave the conversation.

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 could 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?

When has the university not been in crisis? While that’s an easy and glib joke to make, there is some truth in it. No matter what institutions and methods we have used as humans to guide and shape the minds of the young, there have been people who questioned those methodologies and educational environments. That’s a healthy thing to do. There are no institutions that humans create that do not have inherent fallibilities and need to be reassessed. But when we spend more time defending the value of what we do, than actually doing it, it becomes difficult to continue the project. The reaction of many people is to look at a new technology and ask, how can we use this to keep the university afloat, and in many ways that’s fine. But, I also think there is a rush to use new technologies for their own sake as opposed to asking questions as to what kind of new environments and mindsets are being formed while using these new technologies. I love the idea of doing classes and programs in “New Media,” but without a sound theoretical foundation and reading skeptics (from Ellul to Lanier) you risk the same mistake a lot of companies made during the bubble. “Wow, this stuff is so cool! Wired magazine says this is the next big thing!” I think that media critics could really examine the music industry and the rise and fall of its machinery over the last few decades and apply those lessons to academia.

What attracted you to media ecology?

I think one of the things that attracted me to the school of thought wasnot just the professors and colleagues I mentioned earlier, but how different it was than other approaches.  It seemed to speak to my punk sensibility that encouraged people to create their own worldview. I know that media ecology gets some static from people who (not having read much of it usually) dismiss it as not having a specific methodology. I think a lot of the social sciences are infatuated with quantitative research and with certain exceptions I don’t buy into much of it (it gets into too much of “four out of five dentists surveyed…” field for my tastes). I think when I first read Neil Postman’s article “Social Science as Moral Theology” where he essentially said that all “social scientists” are essentially commenting on the nature of human life. I think that he was right, and like McLuhan, was enamored not of “proving” anything, but of throwing contentious ideas out there for public discussion. On the other hand, I think that the idea of the “hardening of the categories” is implicit in our field as well as almost any other today. (Try getting a reasonable answer from an insurance company over the phone!) Media Ecology, along with cultural critical studies and subcultural studies and  lot of other fields that some others and I use for our work allow us to ask the right questions.

You’ve just finished editing a collection of essays about the television show South Park (Lexington Press 2012). What attracted you to South Park and what schools of thought informed your examination of this text?

South Park was always a favorite of mine because it was unlike almost anything else on television when it came out in terms of its severely deconstructive tendencies. It was so self aware (although not as far or as intertextual as Family Guy), but also really a compelling look at what seemed to be (in some ways) very realistic little kids with real life problems living in a small town and Parker and Stone were masters at what the Irish call “Taking the piss” out of someone.  They took no prisoners and in light of today’s postmodern televisual landscape, it’s hard to recall just how revolutionary they were when they premiered. I didn’t come up with the idea for the anthology, another colleague who had to leave the project did, but I organized and edited it and shaped the vision, which was that South Park was just as open to intellectual critique as some of the great works of literary art. I wanted in particular not to just approach South Park in terms of television studies, but to have the contributors address it with all the seriousness that works of popular culture from the past are examined now. I’m a proud member of the Popular Culture Association as well, and really think that there is northing too “silly” to be studied seriously. But then again one of my next books is about Monty Python’s Flying Circus, so that’s a pretty good indicator of my mindset.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a variety of projects, a bunch of book chapters, some articles, some non-academic work and over the few two years I’m the co-author or co-editor of two forthcoming books in 2013, Baby Boomers and Popular CultureAn Inquiry into America’s Most Powerful Generation  (co-edited with Thomas Gencarelli) and Everything I Ever Needed to Know About _____________* I Learned from Monty Python” *Including History, Art, Poetry, Communism, Philosophy, the Media, Birth, Death, Religion, Literature, Latin, Transvestites, Botany, the French, Class Systems, Mythology, Fish Slapping, and many more!(Co-written with Jeffrey Massey, St. Martins Press) which is probably the silliest title of any of my books that are out so far. I’ve still got some ideas for more punk related work and am hoping to work on a book about superheroes soon, fingers crossed.  Part of why I write is that I’m a natural contrarian and in graduate school one of the first things I was told by a major figure at NYU was that, “you can write on any topic you want for the dissertation. Well, not something like Batman” and I spent the next few years thinking, well, why not?  I think any project I work on in the future will try and incorporate my personal ethics, which revolves around community building, mutual respect, charity, mutual reciprocity, mentoring and questioning authority for its own sake. I have a great quote by Joe Strummer that more or less sums up my worldview,  Strummer said, “Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom. But I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control, and it didn’t have any inherent wisdom.” I don’t think that’s very far from Neil Postman asking “what is the problem that this (new technology) is the solution to?” Life is all about asking the right questions and not accepting the environment we live in as natural or necessarily healthy. To paraphrase Kafka, you won’t ever get an answer until you ask.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2012). “Interview with Brian Cogan,” Figure/Ground. December 30th.
<  >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Interview with McKenzie Wark

© McKenzie Wark and Figure/Ground
Dr. Wark was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. December 15th, 2012.

McKenzie Wark is Professor of Media and Culture at Eugene Lang College the New School for the Liberal Arts and Professor of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. Working in the traditions of British Cultural Studies, German Critical Theory, and French Poststructuralism, he is the author of A Hacker Manifesto,Gamer Theory50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International, andThe Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, among other books. His most recent book isTelesthesia: Communication, Culture & Class.

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

It was an accident waiting to happen. In terms of class origins it was possible but not likely: my father was an architect and my mother a psychologist, but we had lower-middle class ideas about university. You were supposed to aim at becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

Given that I was pretty much innumerate, I was supposed to become a lawyer. So I was enrolled in a combined Bachelor of Arts and Law degree. But law only interested me conceptually; I had no interest in practicing it.

After that I did a Masters degree in communication at the legendary program at the University of Technology, Sydney. It was a really jumping place at the time. I did a bit of tutoring, and then fell into a full time job. I only applied for the job for the practice. I wasn’t supposed to get it. But the ‘inside’ candidate had a bit of a breakdown (If I remember this at all right), and I got it by default, given that I knew the material from tutoring in it.

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

Well, I’m from the punk era, so refusing to be mentored or to learn anything was probably more my style. I’m sure I was very snotty and unpleasant to have as a student, if I even bothered to show up. I spent a lot of time in the ‘current serials’ section of the library and knew all the debates. So I guess what I learned was to have patience with different people’s learning styles! Most of my teachers were extraordinarily patient with my delinquent approach to learning.

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

As an undergrad in Australia in the 80s I paid about $140 per year in compulsory student union fees, and after that it was free. So there’s really no comparison to American higher education in the early twenty-first century. In those days university was a place you could just hang around for years. Take some classes, drop out, take some more. Or spend the year in the bar or on the student newspaper or doing political organizing. It was an education in life, during which, almost accidentally, you might actually graduate. In some ways I learned a lot more from writing and editing the student union journal than from anything else.

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

Well, who said I was a good teacher? I certainly try to be one. People in their twenties have always been distracted by one thing or another. One thing you can do is make their distractions part of the curriculum. Not hard to do in the humanities. Learning the art of one’s own drives and appetites is what that part of life is mostly about. Well, that’s what the Greeks were talking about. That’s what Spinoza is talking about. That was the whole project of the Situationist International.

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

My advice is never listen to advice from people like me.

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 could 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?

Everybody always likes to think there’s a crisis because it’s so much more exciting than to have to deal with business as usual. The university survived several changes in the mode of information. It actually invented several of them – including the internet. Gotta love those B-school idiots who are saying – in 2012 – that the internet is going to ‘change everything’ in higher education. Where were you clowns twenty years ago?

There are always several tensions within universities, including between different kinds of scholarship. For example, there’s the fox-to-hedgehog ratio. Isaiah Berlin (a fox himself) sees the foxes as jumping from one thing to another, scratching about here and there, while the hedgehogs just dig one big hole, deeper and deeper. There are usually more hedgehogs than foxes in a university. They are less prone to breathless language about the big new thing. On the other hand, they can be digging that deep hole in a very uninteresting place. It’s good to have a certain tension between those positions.

I think universities are inherently conserving institutions, particularly on the humanities side. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned,” as Marx said of capitalism. Well, in universities, that goes a little slower, so we keep our bearings a little bit. As much as I love McLuhan, he was more fox and hedgehog. Few of his more concrete ‘predictions’ worked out, but he had a genius for probing the relational aspect of what media makes of the world.

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 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. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?

Well in Fukuyama’s case, tenure was a waste. It is not as if his pop philosophy ever dazzled his century. Elite American universities have a bad habit in the humanities and social sciences of collecting people who just articulate the ruling ideology of the times in serviceable prose. And who tend to not be good gauges of what’s actually going on.

In this case, it’s obvious that the main issue is the casualization of academic labor. Now, there’s some teaching that should be done by part time people (practitioners in the field, for example). And it is also the case that part time teachers can be dedicated and excellent teachers. But the problem is when core teaching is casualized. It erodes living standards and in the end teaching standards. Managers replace professors. Nobody is really in charge any more of the quality of the curriculum.

The problem is that a real education is expensive, and the ruling class no longer wants to pay for everyone to have access to that. Let’s just not pay our taxes, not invest in future generations. Let’s just clip the rent where we can from what’s left of the commodity economy. That’s the current plan.

There will be enough legacy slots in the Ivy League schools for the children of the plutocracy. Everyone else will get this pretend education. Powerpoint slides narrated by adjuncts with a multiple choice test at the end. Maybe even that can be automated.

In short, if there’s a problem it’s not technology. Universities have always navigated technology changes. We invented most of them anyway. The crisis is with the social order. In the ‘overdeveloped’ world we are in this decadent phase where the ruling class maintains itself by raiding the commonwealth rather than by genuine innovation. So the relevant question is: why this ‘tenure system’ on Wall Street? Why have we tenured a ruling class that can’t rule?

Are there any viable options in the fight against intellectual property rights for digital activists, beyond the open source argument? Are there any techniques that can be used in practice that have not already been appropriated? Could there be a digital détournement?

Well, as the situationist international used to say, “our ideas are on everybody’s minds.” Digital détournement, in the form of rip and mix, file sharing, mash-up, memes — it’s everywhere. The genie is out of the bottle. Millions and millions of people are now taking possession of information, of culture, as something that belongs to everybody.

This pushes the new ruling class – what I call the vectoralist class – to try new strategies. One is all the secret treaties, to the negotiation of which advocates of the public are always excluded, which make intellectual property (that oxymoron!) an absolute private property right. This consolidation of a new kind of property – ex nihilo – has been going on for a few decades, but has reached the point where we can say it is founding a new class relation. It’s the owners of information versus the rest. They will even try to control the whole value chain with it.

But intellectual property is just the half of it. The other is the properties, plural, of the intellect. The formation of big data as a private domain, the formation of a mode of production premised on its management. While détournement continues a not unsuccessful struggle against intellectual property, this second development takes the struggle to a whole new level. It’s based actually on a kind of cease-fire in the first struggle. Google or Facebook don’t really care that when we do all this voluntary labor for them, it’s with other people’s IP. All they care about is the set of sets, the data and how it can be valorized. Against that, I think the strategies that might work are more like Anonymous, deliberately mudding the waters of our data trails. Or, you can be a cypherpunk, but I suspect that just makes you even more resonant on security databases! So perhaps a little opacity, a little queerness, a little invisibility. Let’s just agree never to be ourselves online, but to follow Rimbaud’s advice: I is another.

What role do you see apps playing in the future? Many theorists talk about the death of the Web and the rise of new multi-level, semi-closed and controlled networks. Do apps contribute to this change or do you see them as liberating, as creating new approaches to ontology?

Well, it’s both. It is about the recuperation of the internet back into the commodity form. It’s about the cellphone as the model of the device, rather than the general-purpose computer. It’s about a transopticon rather than a panopticon. A distributed monitoring and commodified feedback, with no central node, necessarily, but autonomous and automated feedback loops, where every impulse is met with purchase options. And where it is no longer even a goal for the ‘subject’ to internalize the perspective of visibility. We are no longer subjects with desires; we are organisms with appetites.

On the other hand, it’s not uninteresting to watch the unravelling of a whole series of ontological givens and their replacement with new ones. How bodies and information are mediated and distributed. How labor and play become indistinguishable. How the market as calculus is doubled by a kind of set-theoretic data management system. Are there components in that for new kinds of systems? Ones that don’t exhaust the planet? Exhaust desire? Exhaust the lifeworld? One has to at least imagine such things are possible, as nothing else keeps us from nihilism any more. There’s no private garden to which to retreat.

The information theorist Luciano Floridi has asked the question “Can information be naturalized?” In your opinion, could it be correct to view information not as something sent and received – although it can be – but instead as something that is already “out there” that individuates us and that makes up the stuff of our world?

Information is not about how something represents the world to itself, but about how it defines its boundaries and survives against something external. Or in short, we live in a Plato’s cave of game play rather than cinema spectatorship. But we have a problem with this information that comes to us from without. What could guarantee its veracity? God is dead. Nothing assures us that what we take to be information is actually information about anything. It could just be whorls of noise. I take Floridi’s project to be one of constructing some modest avatar to take the place of the God that once guaranteed the meaning of the world. He thinks of philosophy as a kind of conceptual engineering, to both debug and recode the procedures via which information is admitted, assessed and acted upon. Hence an “information turn” in philosophy, to push against its scholastic tendencies to repeat its old patterns of signal processing. It’s a fantastic project, one I’m not qualified to say much more about. My only query would be whether or not it concedes too much to philosophy as a pre-existing entity. It is as if the ‘something’ that is desperately playing this game, in and against information, is philosophy itself rather than the ensemble in which the human as a whole is embedded. Is our goal to save the world? Or to save philosophy? I notice too that the information turn brackets off the media form in which information is mediated. That strikes me as the very source of the problem. There is no God, because there is media.

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

Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2012). “Interview with McKenzie Wark,” Figure/Ground. December 15th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Interview with Gary Gumpert

© Gary Gumpert and Figure/Ground
Dr. Gumpert was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. December 14th, 2012.

Gary Gumpert is Emeritus Professor of Communication at Queens College of the City University of New York and co-founder of Communication Landscapers, a consulting firm. His primary research focuses on the nexus of communication technology and social relationships, particularly looking at urban and suburban development, the alteration of public space, and the changing nature of community. Some of his noteworthy and early publications include: “Talking Tombstones and Other Tales of the Media Age” (1987); “Inter/Media: Interpersonal Communication in a Media Age” (1979); and “The Zoning of Social Interaction” (1991). Among his most recent articles are “Communicative Cities“ (2008); “Public Space Transformed: Digital Connectivity and Urban Spaces” (2010); The Urban Communication Infrastructure: Global Connection and Local Detachment” (2010); and “New York as Global City and Local Community: The Paradigm of Urban Communication“ (2011).

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

My intellectual perspective was, in part, influenced by the fact that I was not born in the United States. When I was six years old my immediate family escaped from Germany three months after the Second World War began in 1939. The early struggle to learn English at age seven, to become American, probably shaped my intellectual thirst.  I struggled academically during my first year at Temple University but I was attracted to radio and television courses offered in the Business School and theatre and speech courses offered in the School of Liberal Arts. In retrospect, the communication discipline’s later identity problems can be seen early on.  I decided to seek fame and glory in radio. There was something magical about the medium. I was attracted by it’s ability to create imaginary worlds and simply the mystery of transporting the human voice. I began as a sound engineer for WRTI and later produced a radio program in 1952 or 1953 for which I interviewed actors and musicians in the Philadelphia area. In 1954-55 I was fortunate to have the opportunity to occasionally direct a 15 minutes drama produced by Temple University and broadcast over WFIL weekly for the Philadelphia School system.

I graduated from Temple University in 1955, and at that point fell in love with television – the new medium capturing the public’s imagination.  I remember watching the early morning antics of television innovator Ernie Kovacs. I became a frequent, bewitched spectator of band leader Paul Whiteman and the TV Teen Club that was broadcast from the Old Amory on Broad Street. At the same time many of my theatre friends at Temple became actors on a live TV western, Action in the Afternoon, produced on the WCAU Philadelphia Main Line lot – the drama sometimes interrupted by the sound of a Greyhound bus roaring by. Television had captured me.

My last two years at Temple University were amazing with my intellectual and creative selves beginning to fuse. It resulted in my receiving an assistantship at Michigan State University for $1600 a semester. For that sum I had to produce a weekly radio drama over WKAR-FM. At the same time I began to learn television production. It was the best of all possible worlds. I also had the luxury of studying French, Latin, and Greek literature and minoring in English. I had come a long way linguistically and for my master’s thesis studied the work of Katherine Anne Porter, a brilliant 20th century Southern writer. My thesis was titled “The Problems Involved in the Television Adaptation of Catherine Anne Porter’s ‘Noon Wine.’”  At that point I realized that wanted to pursue an academic career and that I might be able to blend the artistry of television with an intellectual career.

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

One of my early mentors was Adrian Jaffe, an English professor at Michigan State. He was a small man, witty, sharp-minded.  I was scared to death of him yet I learned so much from him. His comment during my presentation of my thesis ideas still reverberates in my mind: “don’t hide when I ask you a question.” He was very influential in terms of his refusal to allow me to evade his penetrating questions. He required an intelligent response and his pursuit was relentless. I studied Greek and French literature with him, and it was an unforgettable experience. I was fortunate to meet several such mentors early in my career.

After I got the MA degree I was drafted into the army and served for two years in 1956 and 1957. I ended up in in a television production unit at the Signal Corps’ Army Pictorial Center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. I also went to motion picture school at Fort Monmouth and especially learned from Frank Capra, Jr., the son of the great American motion picture director. One my assignments was to learn aerial reconnaissance  – great fun accompanied by an equal amount of fear – in case we dropped the camera during a shoot.

I got married in 1958 and received an assistantship from the University of Iowa to become the lighting director at their television center. I stayed there for one year and studied with several great teachers. One of them was the late O. J. Brocket, who taught dramatic theory. I was required to write a weekly two page theory paper based on specific theoreticians – from Aristotle to Brecht, with a third page reserved for references. The synthesis of economy of thought and academic style remained with me forever and the two grades we received, one for content and the other for style were informative and often humiliating.  Every week he would lecture for 50 straight minutes, without a pause. He was brilliant, assertive, and extremely insightful.

Despite the brilliance of my University of Iowa mentors, I wasn’t satisfied since I wasn’t directing, I received another assistantship from Wayne State University, and I directed more than I could have imagined. There I had an extraordinary mentor: Lee S. Dreyfus. He was an amazing administrator with an ability to use people effectively. He was a brilliant speaker, a man of imagination, and my doctoral advisor. In 1978 he would become the Governor of the State of Wisconsin and remained a great mentor, even though he was a Republican.

One day early in 1960, Lee Dreyfus asked me to attend a lecture at the Merrill Palmer Institute in Detroit. That would be my introduction to a charismatic and mystifying performer: Marshall McLuhan. The next day Lee Dreyfus informed me that he wanted me to direct and produce a half hour television program with McLuhan. Thus my relationship with McLuhan began. In preparation for the program we corresponded and met several times in my on-campus apartment in Detroit, he came accompanied with a good bottle of scotch and several excellent cigars. I slowly gained an understanding of what he was about. The result was that on June 4, 1960 we produced The Gutenberg Galaxy in the form of a kinescope – a film made off a television tube (video tape as a recording medium had just begun to emerge in the mid 1950s). The Gutenberg Galaxy, the book) would be published in 1962.  The production budget for the project was $365 (which included a $75 directorial fee for myself) plus one negative kinescope and print for $250 adding up to a grand total of $650. It was not a very good production, but certainly an historical one.

There is a sequel to this tale. The program was produced in conjunction with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, but a copy of the production was given to me and kept in a metal canister in the basement of my home.  For the next 50 years that canister would remain sealed and I had no idea about the condition of what was inside – had it disintegrated into dust? Last year I gathered up my courage and took the can to a reliable New York production house and asked them to examine the contents – would they find a useable kinescope or ashes from the past? It turned out to be intact, and they produced a master tape plus several DVDs.

How were your conversations with Marshall at the time? He was on his way to becoming a pop icon and you were a 27-year old…

Back to the story about the show. Marshall McLuhan appeared with two others: Harley Parker from the Royal Ontario Museum and Robert Shafer, Associate Professor of Education at Wayne State University We had two cameras in a television studio surrounded by posts and everything was done live. By contemporary standards it was an amateurish production, yet the image of a cigar smoking Marshall McLuhan flicking his ashes while pontificating remains an indelible memory. One of my colleagues observed that in the production McLuhan looked like a deer caught before a pair of headlights.

Did this TV show have any relation to the book with the same title? What did Marshall talk about?

McLuhan and his colleagues described the impact of technology on human beings, the industry, the nature of patterns, repeatable commodities, assembly line production, and on the duplication of technologies.  We used a portion of Norman McLaren’s 1956 animated production of Rythmetic in which the relationship of each number to another was punctuated with sound and motion. We used it to illustrate the notion of repeatability and impact. McLaren was an extraordinary Canadian filmmaker. You might be familiar with his wonderful animated production of Neighbours.

I think McLuhan had a great impact on my future work. That work would rely a great deal on understanding the texture of radio and the magic of the television screen – in short an understanding of the grammar of the medium – and that would radiate and penetrate both my teaching and my conception of communication research and theory. If we are going to talk about media from a theoretical perspective, we ought have some intuitive sense of understanding the language of the medium. I’m not asking everyone to be a TV director but I am asking for an appreciation of the creative process. I think many of our scholars don’t have that understanding. You need to know film, you need to know sound, you need to know the technology of television, and to link that with an intellectual theoretical approach.  Ironically, McLuhan had no understanding of production, but completely understood the power of the medium. McLuhan pushed me even more in that direction.

In 1961, after a short period at Queens College, I was invited by Lee Dreyfus to join him at the University of Wisconsin as the Executive Producer for WHA-Television. The position also gave me the opportunity to finish writing my dissertation on “Television Theatre As an Art Form.” As the Executive Producer I also held an academic position in the Radio and Television Division.

This was a strange experience in which I could express my creative identity, but I also saw how destructive departments and academic ambition could be. The Speech Department did not speak to the School of Journalism and neither had a relationship with the WHA-TV and the Radio and Television Division. We did some remarkable work at Wisconsin including the production of the first Intercontinental Television Classroom in 1963. On Memorial Day we took our remote unit and linked a group of students at the West Bend High with the Lycée Henri-IV in Paris. –  I saw Lyndon Johnson on one of the monitors waiting to use this non-synchronous satellite. For one half hour the sophisticated French students, fluent in English, bonded with the American students as they talked about The Beatles and other noteworthy and insignificant matter – but what matters is that their conversation spanned four thousand miles.

So, in a sense, this was a prototype of distance education… 

Yes, and from that experience I learned that every medium connects and disconnects simultaneously.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student? What makes a good teacher today?

I think there are two kinds of professors. For me scholarship has always been all-consuming and learning a constant. In that sense one my graduate students became a mentor and colleague. Susan Drucker and I have been working together for over 28 years. She was one of my graduate students in our MA program at Queens College. Between her baccalaureate degree at Queens and her MA she received a Law degree from St. Johns University.  Our collaboration has been amazing and is reflected in much of our writing – a legal perspective has been added to an aesthetic, theoretical, philosophical approach.

But back to your question: I retired from university in 1991; I was 58-years-old and realized at that time that the teaching process was changing. In the twenty years since, I have seen the teaching model change. The technologizing of the classroom, grade inflation and student evaluations are shaping the professor and the classroom experience. You are liked or you are not liked. The student enters the classroom tied to a cell phone, I-Pad or laptop. The current professor steps into a consumer market place classroom in which control has shifted from professor to student. The classroom has become a much more complex place and new PhDs, seldom are taught to teach, but must now also be able to cope with Blackboard, 24/7 on demand contact, and a learning environment shaped to a great extent on access to information rather than to the acquisition of knowledge. The notion or philosophy that all is searchable is counterproductive to the teaching/learning process. The danger of the technological classroom and its accompanying attitude is that the teacher may be transformed from an intimate and “immediate” mentor to an abstract and distant tour guide. 

You are a Professor Emeritus of Communication Arts and Sciences at Queens College, City University of New York, but also a partner in the consulting firm of Communication Landscapers. How do the two facets of your career (professor, consultant) have reinforced one another? And what are, in your view, the most important points of contact between Urban and Communication Studies?

The underlying question, the elephant in the room, is whether a scholar should be heard and by whom?  I would hope to be considered a Communication Scholar recognized by Communication Scholars but I have clocked thousands of miles and hours of work in an effort to be heard by someone outside the academy. I was particularly honoured to have received the MEA Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity in 2011. I hope that some of what we say has an impact.

I am now the President of the Urban Communication Foundation and that is a natural growth of my interest in exploring the nature of public space and what happens to community in a technological age. I am indebted to Victor Hugo and to Marshall McLuhan. Hugo, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, intuitively understood the intricate relationship of invention and impact. In a chapter titled  “This Will Kill That” Hugo details how the invention of the Gutenberg printing press would have an incredible influence on the church – impacting on both the priesthood and the edifice.  The mobile Bible would require the re-evaluation of the priest and the huge cathedrals of worshipping would be less effective in their ability to dominate those who worship.

What we are doing now as part of the Urban Communication Foundation is to encourage a focus upon the impact of technology on the urban landscape and quality of life.  It is predicted that within the next 20 years 70% of the world’s population will live in urban settings. We are looking at the link between place and medium. We must be able to choreograph those technologies to balance out their influence.

Touching somebody is still important, but we are quickly being reduced to a fragmented kind of living. In the U.S. air conditioners allow us to close our windows to disconnect outside from inside; the automobile has lead us to a universe of strip malls, highways and urban sprawl.

We are concerned with the transformation or perhaps even the loss of physical social space – those sites where people interact. This is leading us to work with architects, environment psychologists, landscape architects, and planners through the Environmental Design Research Association in the U.S. and International Association of People Environment Studies abroad. These issues transcend the “silos” of Communication and link to the broader matters of design.

Do you think communication studies should be a discipline in the first place – concerned as it is with a sort of nothingness, i.e., mediation and the invisible effects stemming from technological environments?

When we attempt to define ourselves we mark boundaries. Much of our time has been devoted to establishing boundaries and the result has been detrimental to the field. In 1963, Wilbur Schramm pointed out that communication had not yet become an academic discipline like Physics and Economics, but that it had become an interesting and lively area of research and theory. He identified the individuals whom he considered to be founding fathers of communication research in the United States: Paul Lazersfeld (a sociologist), Kurt Lewin (a psychologist, who came from Vienna escaping form the Nazis), Harold Lasswell (a political scientists trained at the University of Chicago), and Carl Hoveland (a psychologist from Yale). With their psychology and sociology backgrounds they were concerned with propaganda, mass media and behaviourism. In the United States no departments of Communication existed until probably the 1960’s when both Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin began doctoral programs. Being a communication scholar requires an academic paternity test and our legitimacy is often not clear.

The contemporary study of communication in the United States results from several dissimilar parents: Speech, Journalism, The Chicago School of Thought, The Canadian Tradition (Innis and McLuhan), and The New York School (Media Ecology and Queens College). Add to that the European theoretical lines of Habermas, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, and Foucault and you find a discipline in flux. What you see is a clear trend in which communication scholars are the illegitimate children seeking redemption and/or recognition. The result of this is a search for territory and legitimacy in which, rather than emancipation of thought, we see the pursuit of territory. Thus, in the U.S. we have seen the proliferation of silos or fiefdom of intellectual territoriality. The insecurity of communication scholars, unsure of their identity, has been counterproductive”

The transformation of the department at Queens College is significant. When I got there in 1967 I was put in charge of the television studio – probably considered at that time the least significant area of the department, in fact in most departments around the country. This ego-deflating position became part of an intellectual battle in which several of us asserted that pervasive “Media Studies” ought to be integrated in the fabric of “Communication Studies.” We began to integrate media studies with the more traditional parts of the department – small group, interpersonal, persuasion, rhetoric, non-verbal communication. I was very fortunate to work with Robert Cathcart who came to Queens as Chair in the early 70’s. Our collaboration resulted in the three volumes of “Inter/Media: Interpersonal communication in a Media World.” Oxford University Press published the first volume in 1979. The premise of Inter/Media stressed continuity and flow within the discipline. I had entered the Department of Speech and left Queens College and the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences in 1991.

What are you currently working on?

The work has escalated in the last twenty years and perhaps can be divided into several parts.

Susan Drucker and I had begun an extensive study of public space that combined legal perspective with a social one. “The Zoning of Social Interaction” (1991) was a significant step in that direction and our involvement with the urban landscape is punctuated by a million dollar contribution by Gene Burd toward the establishment of the Urban Communication Foundation in 2005. I became its president. The mission of the UCF is to promote research that enhances our understanding of communication patterns in the urban environment and encourages collaboration between communication scholars, urban planners and policy makers. Most of my current research and publications are linked to the urban landscape.

The second preoccupation is on Communication Rights that has resulted in a continuing series of publications. However, the most recent focus in this area has been on the “communication division of Cyprus.” We also came to fin dout, as a result of our work in Cyprus,  that between 1946 and 1949 the British incarcerated on the island 53,000 Jews, seeking a homeland after World War II. We are now completing “Memories in Cypriot Soil, a documentary on that that forgotten, but important event.

A Third area of current activity is “the Urban Impulse,” a series of essays inspired by the transformation and evolution of the city as viewed through our communication tinted glasses. It will hopefully complement “Talking Tombstones and Other Tales of the Media Age” my book published in 1987.

The last major area of obsession involves my passion for the game of baseball. We are currently editing “There Used to Be A Ballpark Here: Communication, Community and the Spaces of Baseball” to be published by Peter Lang next year.

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

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2012). “Interview with Gary Gumpert,” Figure/Ground. December 14th.
<  >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Interview with Maya Lujan

© Maya Lujan and Figure/Ground
Maya Lujan was interviewed by Dr. Julia Schwartz. December 13th, 2012.

Maya_headshotMaya Angelique Lujan is a native Angelina. She grew up in Topanga Canyon and currently lives and works as an artist, curator and publisher in Venice.  She recently exhibited at Jancar Gallery and Texan Equities, and has exhibits planned in 2013 at LA Contemporary Art Fair and again at Texan Equities. She has curated extensively, most recently Caesura at The Annenberg Beach House.  A long-term goal is to travel in space as part of an ongoing art project.

What attracted you to the arts? What were your earliest experiences of making art?

When I was about 8, I discovered a set of oil paints, brushes, turpentine, etc. in my father’s study and became instantly enchanted with the textures, colors, smell, etc. and the fact that I could actually use these materials to make alternate, private worlds constructed purely from my imaginings. At that point, by practice, I was able to draw anatomically correct horses from life, so I applied this natural propensity of rendering to painting, although I quickly realized that it was a very different and physical method of making gestures. I then took many art classes at different places such as UCLA extension and pretty much continuously trained since.

Who were some of your mentors? inspirations? influences?

The people who had the biggest impact on me were the faculty members at Art Center, and the former director of the Fine Arts Department, Laurence Drieband. I have to say that everybody was extremely supportive and I really felt like I was in a community. The specific people that really stand out in my mind are John Millei, Christopher Williams, Yunhee Min, Dean Ruth Weisberg and of course Andrea Zittel and Frances Stark of USC. All are really good teachers, and great mentors.

I am influenced by so many things: Nature, space, physics, light, maps, geography, history, philosophy, literature, culture, dancing, stop-lights, fonts, certain sounds, shapes, patterns, etc. and, other artists, authors, filmmakers, architects, etc.

There are so many people via image and text, living or not, that I will name just a few to be succinct: Albert Oehlen, Lynda Benglis, Rachael Whiteread, Vija Celmins, Viera Da Silva, Blinky Palermo, Steven Parrino, Banks Violette… all of these artists deal with heavy spatial concepts and abstraction.

Can you describe your first projects/ exhibitions?

My first works were always based in drawing and painting, but I have really made it a point to experiment with pretty much every medium. I graduated from Art Center in 2004 with a BFA and studied everything and left as a painter. I got my MFA from USC in 2008, and graduated as an installation artist that made large painterly sculptures and paintings. Now I make sculptural paintings and sculptures. I have learned that “installation” as a concept, is always inherent with painting and sculpture.

One early piece from 2004 was this very cerebral and elaborate bronze and plexiglass work that I made originally as a trellis. It was a big, domestic, live installation and I made a video for the project. Eventually, I installed it downtown where the cockfights used to be and left it there, out in the world. It stayed intact for a good seven months. That was the nature of the piece – growth and entropy.

There are several things I learned from that project; the problems with romantic art and ephemera and also to always make art that is made to photograph well as sometimes the documentation can be more long-lasting than the work itself. Last, how to really let go of a piece when the time is called for.


Could you talk about a significant success? Or a noteworthy failure that was an important turning point in your career?

It is always a success to sell work. One tainted non-success but not necessarily a failure was the Wight Biennial situation in which I was censored for installing a mandala in a student group show at UCLA in 2008. The piece resembled a swastika a bit too much for the inexperienced curators and they altered it without my consent. The situation got overblown and there were a couple of write-ups about it in the LA Times. Although it felt bad at the time, including the controversy of it all, I suppose it was ultimately good. I managed to turn the situation around and make it work for me.

Do you start  work with a concept or does the idea come later?

I always start with concept, if only materially driven. All of my works are essentially manifestations of the continued discoveries of spatial concerns. For example, the Intervals and Extensions works are very different approaches to describing object/void concepts and bodily relationships to objects that are Cartesian in nature. Whenever somebody asks me what medium I use, I always reply that I am primarily a painter but I use whatever material necessary to best describe the idea. This can be glass, solar reflectors for cars, titanium capsules, encaustic oil paint or even set-flats usually used for props in set productions.

There is something cinematic in your work, the building up of materials, constructions, very much like being on a set. Can you talk about that?

My old studio was a part of a large set design facility for Hollywood, and that environment really influenced my work. I was amazed at how there was such a high level of craftsmanship and how rapidly objects or scenes were created and made to look good on camera. You would see things like five guys making a huge walnut bed in two days; a bed four times as large as a California King because a certain shot required it to be so. And it also had to be made efficiently so that it could fold up neatly in order to transport to the shoot location.

I really liked was that it didn’t have the pretense of being an art object and was somehow so functional yet disposable. The use of set props, in my eyes, is a way to break down the differences between high and low art. The set props also helped me to question the nature of a studio, and the constructs walls make in describing space, as my studio walls were nothing more than some set flats allocating a sectionalized space. I also just see them as larger, three-dimensional canvases, with more square footage to work with.


Can you describe your rituals or routines in the studio – ie, daily painting vs. sporadic, music, etc.

I don’t have any specific rituals other then I always finish work within a personal deadline that allocates plenty of time to sit and stare at it. I always have to try to discover all possible reasons for the decisions made.

Other then that, right now, I prefer not to have people in my studio and I prefer silence. I also always try to have two studios rather than one.

I tend to work on several things at one time. Sometimes I get an idea for a really large-scale project and I am able to execute it as I envisioned it, relatively quickly. Other times it will take me two years to finish a large painting when the time is right. The way I operate is that I am always working on something, but I am not a slave to the studio.

Can you talk about your recent show?

I just had some large pieces in a show called New Times Roman with Sean Higgins and Victor Liu. It was the second show in a new space called Texan Equities. Alan Weiner is the Director and Eric Nordhouser, formerly of Show Cave, is the Gallerist. I made five sculptures called Bastions based on the dimensions and specifications of the gallery; departing from a slight slope on the floor where the wall meets it. The sculptures can be configured differently and can really force the viewer to negotiate bodily movements. It all depends on the positioning; whether a bastion is really close to the wall, or with an abrupt angle or even somewhat blocking the entrance. The term Bastion, essentially, takes on many definitions and psychological elements, either of obstruction, or a crossing point that can serve to open controlled lines of communication. The overall effect was that the gallery looked like a spaceship.

Can you describe what are you working on now?

I am currently working on a series of paintings based on the “Black Magic” painting from The Gap show. These paintings are shaped substrates with very alluring and textural finishes. They are very much about obfuscation and cancellation, hiding and revealing. That, and strict geometry, of course.

Then there’s one painting from left field I am working on that is about the windows and view of the cockpit of a space shuttle. It has a huge blind spot right in the center of it. I looked into this- and I was so surprised at how limited in vantage point/ horizon the actual windows of the shuttles are. Basically, the astronauts up there are really just blindly navigating this large ship, floating through the huge expanse of space without really seeing where they are going! And then when they might look up and out- all there really is to see is either the blinding glare of earth or, most likely, the lights or equipment that are already inside the shuttle as the black of space enhances these reflections. This really sparks my imagination and I wonder about the complete sense of disorientation the astronauts undergo and how that affects their perception. For me, all of this speaks very much about the mystery of painting and it’s also mimetic of the traditional “window” in painting and the historic notions of peering into a painting.

I plan to make more of these.


What’s next?

What’s next is involvement in The LA Contemporary Art Fair and after that, most likely a solo at TE.

Any advice for future or emerging artists?

All I really can recommend is being acutely cognizant of the history of contemporary art, and most importantly, doing everything possible to understand the aspects of selling art. Sometimes, it’s just through experience that this happens.


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

Suggested citation:

Schwartz, J. (2012). “Interview with Maya Lujan,” Figure/Ground. December 13th.
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