Interview with Robert McChesney

© Robert McChesney and Figure/Ground
Dr. McChesney was interviewed by Justin Dowdall. February 25th, 2013.

Robert McChesney is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of several books on the topic of mass media in the United States and the former host of the weekly NPR radio program “Media Matters” (WILL-AM, Urbana-Champaign). Dr. McChesney cofounded the media reform network Free Press with Washington correspondent John Nichols (The Nation). Free Press is a catalyst for discussion of important issues related to mass media, advocating for the defense of Internet neutrality and criticizing the consolidation of large media conglomerates.

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

No, it was an unconscious choice. As an undergraduate in the 1970s I studied economics and history and I was planning eventually to go to graduate school with no clear idea of what I was going to do with my career thereafter. And then I got side tracked and became a journalist and a magazine publisher. I spent most of my twenties in Seattle working on other things and didn’t go back to graduate school for communications at the University of Washington until I was 30. Even when I went back to graduate school, I was not sure that I wanted to be a professor. I didn’t know much about academia, and I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know if I wanted to teach at the college level. At the same time, what you can’t know until you do it, is if you enjoy writing, that’s such a large part of being a scholar. I had no idea what to do. I was petrified; I guess that’s like most people. I thought that writing might prove difficult for me, but I just started writing that first year and really enjoyed it. I think at that point, I asked myself, “is this is something that I could see doing for a living?” It just felt right, it felt good; it did not seem that hard and was really pleasurable. So, it was really in the process of my first year that I could see doing this. Then I knew that this was the right path, but I was in my thirties and it was also the process of elimination in our society. What exactly else was I going to do?  It wasn’t like there were a hundred interesting jobs “out there” that I could pick from. I had published a rock and roll magazine and a weekly newspaper and had done some editing in my twenties and that was really enjoyable.  Those were some cool jobs, but I could see those were things that I did not want to do when I was 50 years old. They were sort of young people’s employment.  So, I would say that’s all, that the other options stepped backwards and being a professor was still nigh.

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

Well it depends as undergraduate and/or aspiring professors what their research is in. I would give different answers to different people. For the students of the research that I do, the political economy and history of media and media politics, the advice I would give is that the most important thing is to love your work. If you don’t really love the work with a passion the job isn’t worth it. You should get out. It’s almost like being a dancer, you got to have a joy in the work itself, or it’s not a very easy life. Especially with the pressures on academia today with the cut backs and the shirking of the autonomy and privileges that academics traditional had.  That’s my first advice. What thinkers should scholars be reading? I don’t have a laundry list of mandatory authors to read. The authors that influenced me growing up, coming of age, going back decades: Noam Chomsky, Paul Ron and Paul Sweezy greatly influenced me, C. Wright Mills has had a lot of influence upon me. There have been lots of scholars and historians that have been important as well. Those are probably some of the more public figures that have played a large role in my development.  I am pretty eclectic as a scholar and I’m fairly eclectic as a reader, so I don’t really have a set list that everyone should read.

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

I didn’t really have mentors in the sense that the term is used.  My advisor in graduate school was Bill Ames, who died before I finished my degree. And what I really admired about him – and what I try to do with my graduate students – was that he had a lot of faith in me and he let me do whatever I wanted.  He just basically ran interference for me. He didn’t get in the way. He respected me and I find that’s what you can do with your best graduate students. If you’re a mentor you don’t try to put them in your box, you try to let them take off and make it easier for them to be successful. That’s the lesson I learned from him. I think intellectually, my intellectual antecedents, I didn’t have a mentor who said, you have to do this or that. I was pretty much “out there” on my own, sort of finding my own way intellectually. I guess it would have been nice if I had had someone telling me, “I know everything you’re doing and this is what you ought to be doing,” but I did not have that as an option, so I just did what I could. I don’t know if that’s the best way to do it, but it’s just the way I had to do it.

What makes a great teacher in the information age?

Beats me…what makes a good teacher period. It doesn’t seem to make a difference what age you’re in. Sometimes I think I am a pretty good teacher, sometimes I don’t, It really varies. I think one thing that makes a great teacher is having great students. It‘s hard to teach people who have no interest in what you’re talking about. You can try to do back flips and jazz it up all you want. However, if there is not a genuine intellectual curiosity about the world, it’s tough for even the best teachers. It’s hard to grow crops in a parking lot. You need top soil, sunshine, and water. Having said that, I think being a teacher is like being an actor; it’s a commitment you have to make to your craft and to your audience and to the people you work with. I think listening is important, knowing your material is important, and, like an actor, liking people is important – enjoying people, accepting people for who they are. But then that could make a bad teacher too, I don’t know. It could be a lot of gibberish. I don’t know if I am in the position to be the judge about what makes a great teacher. There are some people that would not put me in that group.

 Nearly half a century ago, Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” noted, that “Fascism seeks its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves”. In what way, if any, do you believe that this relates to our current media moment?

Well, I guess that there is an element of truth to that. I have not thought about this quote in this way. I mean, fascism is a very important question. It’s an issue that is very poorly understood in the United States, maybe in the whole world, but certainly in the United States. We think of it traditionally in the United States as being Nazi Germany and rabid nationalism, militarism and Anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust and propaganda. Something that seems antithetical to what the United States has been about. It seems like something that is really weird that is over there, something that could never happen here. I think that the one of the problems with that thinking is that Nazi Germany is not the prototype of fascism. It in some ways distorts fascism, because of its own peculiarities and because of World War II and the Hitler Nazi cult. Fascism has a more traditional meaning that is applied to lots of other countries; Italy was the most famous and is where fascism comes from originally, which is the idea that fascism represents the merger of corporate power with the state, so that the state works on behalf of corporations and corporations basically use the state to advance their interest. They are really tied together in an active process that involves a great deal of propaganda, militarization, and security. When you understand fascism that way, not just as the Nuremberg rallies and the Holocaust, then it seems to be far more saleable with what is going on in the United States. It’s not an inaccurate way to understand our government-corporate power work very closely together.  Our system is functionally democratic, but only by the thinnest of reeds by this point. We have two completely different law systems for the rich and for everyone else. Actually it’s the rich, everyone else, and the poor. There are sort of three different law systems. But we don’t have rule of law anymore, which is a clear sign of a fascist society. So I think that fascism is a very important issue, underappreciated, but of increasing importance. As far as the role of the Internet in it: we once thought that the Internet would make fascism impossible, because it would give people information to control their own lives, it would undermine the ability of tyrants, maximum leaders and demagogues, to control people’s lives. We thought we would have the information and power to sort of blow them aside and run our own lives as a great force for democracy. And as your question with the Benjamin quote suggests, it has so not turned out that way.

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

I think that Fukuyama, in this piece, is making some very good points about some of the problems of higher education and tenure. The reason that we got tenure in the first place, at least the ostensible reason that we got tenure, is to protect academic freedom. It’s to protect the right of professors to do research at a certain point of their career without fear that they could lose their job by stepping on powerful people. It’s really a necessary condition to have an independent intelligentsia and independent scholarship. To have any plausible free society where you don’t have your academics and researchers at the beckon call of the powerful and the elites. However, it has been abused greatly. The vast majority of college professors that are protected by tenure today do work that in no way threatens anyone in power and in no way could cost them their job, because it was so controversial or so gutsy. I wish that were a problem. I wish we had universities filled with faculty doing daring research and going after the people in power and challenging their assumptions and the way that the world works. The problem with getting rid of tenure is that it would not solve that problem. The first people that would get fired would exactly be the people that need tenure. The controversial professors, the ones that are taking chances – they are the ones that are right out the door. They’re are not going to be the ones that Fukuyama is taking about, the ones not taking risks or the ones writing jargon; they are safe. They are bureaucrats who got their butts covered. They are not the ones getting thrown out. Believe me, look who runs universities! If you get rid of tenure, they are not going after some meaningless professor writing jargon. They are going to go after professors talking to you. The professors talking to a broader audience and that’s why we have tenure in the first place.  So the solution, if we want to have a creditable and independent intellectual group in our society, is not to get rid of tenure so that existing people in power can start firing professors if they don’t like them. That’s a nonstarter.  The solution instead is to try to find a way to make our professors and intellectuals more engaged.  The great curse is, as Fukuyama points out, that we have a tremendous amount of intellectual work being done in this country that is just garbage, just a complete waste of everyone’s time. It gets jobs and makes careers, but getting rid of tenure will not get rid of that. I don’t think that there is any evidence that will go away, unfortunately, for that argument.

The 2012 United States presidential election saw unprecedented media spending in battle ground states. What lessons do you believe communication and media scholars will take away from the trends that have emerged? In other words, what effect do you see regional segmentation having on the national debate?

Let me rephrase the question, because I am just now in the process of finishing a book on this very subject, Dollarocracy, that I am writing with my friend John Nichols (it will out the middle of 2013). So I don’t know what media and communication scholars will take away from it and I frankly don’t care; I am more concerned with what the American people will take away from this, and people that are engaged in their communities take away from it. There I think we are getting at what we where talking about earlier: the reed that makes us a democratic society is a very narrow reed. Basically, in this society the way this worked for a long time is that you have Election Day and then everyone is equal. Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, Warren Buffet, the CEOs of Fortune 500companies, all had the same power as someone working the graveyard shift cleaning toilets at Wal-Mart. They are exactly equal on Election Day and that’s the day that frightens people in power more than any other for exactly that reason. Because once that Election Day is over, the great masses go back to their couch and go back to sleep and the people that own the country run it. That’s how it always works in America. Election Day is the one day that can upset that apple cart and the one thing that can goof up the system. That’s the great threat always to people in power… intellectual democracies. So the way that they traditionally try to deal with that is to restrict the enfranchisement, so only people with property, only men, only white people, only rich people, can vote. Well, we won a number of great progressive victories over the last hundred years to guarantee universal adult suffrage and now we are seeing a real rollback in that with these efforts to suppress the vote. For instance, felons can’t vote, so we have an absurdly high percentage of Americans who can vote compared to any other country. Again, it is limiting people who can vote, who are not going to be necessarily sympathetic to the idea that billionaires should run the country. What we are seeing with our elections in general is this influx of money. This election (2012) probably cost around ten billion dollars when all is said and done. That is unprecedented, it’s mindboggling, and it’s just the beginning. It’s only going to get worse. It has made it so that the election system has almost no credibility, or at least very little credibility.  That narrow reed that connects the idea of democracy to the reality of the United States, which is really getting thinner and thinner, is very close to snapping. It’s an issue of the absolute utmost importance for you, for me, for everyone in this country going forward.

I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your time on NPR and Media Matters.

The show Media Matters was on the air for ten and a half years and concluded in October of 2012, and it was a great show. The station I worked at which was NPR Affiliate WILLam580 Illinois was very supportive of me from the very beginning. The management could not have been stronger. There is no way that show could have been done on any other NPR station in the country. It took a special station with a lot of courage and real commitment to taking chances and serving the community, to stand behind the show and to be willing to give me an airing every week for an hour. It was a lot of fun and a tremendous show. It was a lot of work, but it gave me a chance every week – as you know if you listened to it, and I think the shows are still up on the web if people want to hear – to talk to really brilliant and interesting people every week. These people were authors, activists, and politicians, and had noncommercial hour discussions and let people call in and ask questions. So, I had a good experience, my station was completely supportive, but it’s not the same sort of programing now that I am gone, and one that we will never see again on NPR. If you know, NPR normally regards a show like that anathema to them, because it puts them in political hot water, despite the fact that it was massively popular. It was by far the most popular show in our station in terms of pledge drive support and I think that a similar show would be similarly popular anywhere in the country. This show can be done by a lot of different people in a lot of different places, but no one will touch it for political reasons and I think that is unfortunate.  The reason I did the show as long as I did – I did not plan to do it ten years – was I knew that once I stopped that kind of voice would not be heard again on NPR.

What are you currently working on?

The book that I told you about with John Nichols called Dollarocracy, which is sort of the money, the political, and the media money election complex, which is destroying democracy in this country. I also have another book coming out also this year within the next few months, called Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, which is a political economic critique of what is taking place online.  So that is what I have been working on the last couple of years.

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

Suggested citation:

Dowdall, J. (2013). “A Conversation with Robert McChesney,” Figure/Ground. February 25th.
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Interview with Steven Shaviro

© Steven Shaviro and Figure/Ground
Dr. Shaviro was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. February 22nd, 2013.

Dr. Steven Shaviro is DeRoy Professor at Wayne State University. He specializes in cultural theory, cultural studies, film and new media, postmodernism, and science fiction. Professor Shaviro received a Ph.D. from Yale University in 1981 and has since published widely on topics ranging from body horror to Whitehead. His books include Passion and Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary TheoryThe Cinematic BodyDoom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction About PostmodernismConnected, Or, What It Means To Live in the Network Society,Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, and, most recently, Post-Cinematic Affect.

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

It’s not that I ever positively imagined becoming a university professor, so much as that I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. In college, I was interested in aesthetic experiences, and in ideas. I majored in English, and going to graduate school in English seemed to me to be the logical next step. Back then, I didn’t have any ideas, or any understanding, of what being a university professor would be like in pragmatic or institutional terms.

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

In graduate school, at Yale University in the late 1970s, I took a lot of classes with Harold Bloom. What I learned from Bloom was not so much his particular vision, or his ideas and doctrines (most of which I disagree with), but a certain sense of intellectual style. What I admired about Harold Bloom then (and still admire today) was his independence of thought — his determination to pursue his own ideas, intuitions, and enthusiasms, regardless of fashion, and regardless of whether those interests and passions were in accord with current intellectual and academic modes or not.

My biggest intellectual influence in graduate school, however, was a French professor named Joseph Libertson. He also encouraged me to shun intellectual fashion. And he introduced me to some of the writers or theorists who have been of the greatest importance to me ever since: Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille (the subjects of my first book), Emmanuel Levinas, and above all Gilles Deleuze. This was at a time when Jacques Derrida and Paul De Man were all the rage in “literary theory” circles; people were reading Foucault also, but almost nobody in the United States was paying any attention to Deleuze. And they knew Blanchot, Bataille, and Levinas only through Derrida’s commentaries on them. So Libertson introduced me to a wide range of mid- and late-20th-century French thought, long before it became widely known in American academia. Libertson’s own Levinasian thought, and even more the thought of Deleuze, were decisive influences upon me — and still are today.

A third important influence from my graduate school years was the beginnings of film studies. Yale at that time did not have any sort of film studies program (very few universities did). But during my years there I got a great education in the history of film from the numerous film societies that flourished on campus in those pre-VHS (let alone pre-digital) days. But things were finally starting to happen in the area of film studies in the early 1980s (after I got my PhD, but before I got a full-time academic job; I remained at Yale for several years as an adjunct). David Rodowick was a junior faculty member at Yale, and Miriam Hansen was there as a post-doc. Encounters with both of them, as well as with other cinephiles, were very important to me.

One last crucial influence from my graduate school years was the community with fellow graduate students — and especially the Marxist Literary Group which a good number of us formed at the time. We read all three volumes of Capital, and we excitedly discussed Marxist theorists from Lukacs to Adorno to Althusser to Jameson. All this was important to me, both for the friendship (or comradeship) generally, and for the sharing of, and arguing about, ideas. The Yale Marxist Literary Group was essential for me, both as an exemplary instance of what an intellectual community might be, and because Marx’s thought, and Marxist thought more generally, remain today the best tools we have for understanding what is going on in the world economically, politically, and socially.

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

It isn’t easy to say, because “the role of university professor” is not a single thing. There are great differences between the experiences of tenured faculty, of untenured but tenure-track faculty, and of adjuncts. There are also great differences between teaching at an elite university like Yale, where I was trained, teaching at a non-elite, public university like Wayne State, where I teach now, and teaching at a community college, or at other non-research-centered institutions.

However, if I try to generalize, I would say that the role of university professors in society in general has clearly diminished over the past forty years or so. The working life of a tenured professor is still better than is the case with many other kinds of workers — thanks to things like tenure, summer vacations, and the still-surviving expectations of doing research. But a lot less college teaching is done by tenured and tenure-track professors than was the case forty years ago. More teaching than ever is being done by adjuncts, who are overworked and severely underpaid, and whose condition is not all that different from those of precarious workers in other fields. The relentless corporatization of universities, and the imposition of neoliberal modes of management and control, means that a larger and larger percentage of university teachers will be pushed into this precarious state. As somebody who is nearly sixty years old, I may well be among the last generation to have tenure protection, and the opportunities to engage in research and scholarship, all the way until retirement. (Though even this is not altogether certain: my own university is in the vanguard of those attempting to attenuate tenure, and to make it possible to eliminate full-time faculty at will, in order to replace them with heavily-exploited adjuncts).

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?

Despite the overwhelming technological changes, I am not convinced that the problems of teaching college students, and of dealing with their “attention deficit and information overload,” is any greater than it was forty years ago. There are always students who are genuinely interested in the subject matter, and in what you have to say; and there are always students who aren’t interested, and who are taking the class for different reasons (e.g. to meet distribution requirements, to get some easy credits, etc.). The resources of the Internet and of our electronic technologies are a great boon for interested and committed students; they can learn a lot more, by supplementing what they get in the classroom, than was ever the case in my day. On the other hand, students who are not interested had ample means of distraction back then, even without the Internet. It still remains the case that, in order to teach effectively, you need to be something of an entertainer — though hopefully without sacrificing intellectual substance in the process. And in terms of technology, I am a better teacher today than I could have been several decades ago, simply because of the wider availability of media (like film clips) and sources of information (like blogs and Wikipedia) that I actively use in my teaching.

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?

The biggest piece of advice that I can give to “young graduate students and aspiring university professors” is to be aware of the economic situation today and how it is affecting academia. I would never discourage anyone from the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, or even from the particular (and sometimes distorted) forms that that pursuit takes in academia today, and in graduate training in particular; but given the amount of time, and intensity of effort (not to mention financial constraints) that a graduate education involves, anybody who goes into it really needs to be aware of the job prospects and economic conditions awaiting them on the other end.

I cannot think of any particular texts that I think young scholars ought to read. I do think that it is important to be both a specialist and a generalist. A specialist, because academic work is not worth doing unless you develop expertise in some area that you feel passionate about. This may well be something that few people know about, and that seems narrow to outsiders; this doesn’t matter, as long as it is meaningful to you. The world is a better place when there are people interested in ancient Latin manuscripts, or the mating habits of sea slugs, or the history and technical development of chewing gum, or (to cite one of my own major interests) certain detailed technical points in the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead. These are all intrinsically rewarding in themselves, and they add to the common store of human understanding and imagination.

But at the same time, every scholar ought to be something of a generalist. As The Residents famously put it, “ignorance of your culture is not considered cool.” I don’t have anything like a list of necessary items of general knowledge; the very idea of there being such a specific list is rather silly. But I think that everybody ought to have some degree of general knowledge about biology and the other sciences, about the legacies as well as the current state of art and religion, and about sociology and political economy.

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?

The university is under threat today, not from the spread of “information” and the growth of new information technologies, but from the relentless demands of capital accumulation, which has led to both the defunding of educational institutions, and their instrumentalization and monetization as nothing more than potential sources from which an economic profit may be extracted.

I do think that McLuhan was largely right, and that formerly distinct areas of knowledge and research (“departmental sovereignties”) are increasingly interlinked and interdependent. Therefore I think that an increasing amount of interdisciplinary and collarborative work is urgently necessary. Hence what I said about the need for generalism as well as specialism. But we need to be vigilant against the ways that this necessity is all too often used as an alibi to dismantle the protections formerly afforded to scholars by academic structures, or to disallow any sort of research that isn’t justified on the grounds of immediate pragmatic (i.e. commodifiable and monetizible) results.

Francis 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 subdiscipline. He 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. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion?

I think that Fukuyama’s assertion is altogether false, and indeed risible. I don’t know whether to ascribe his claim to honest ignorance or deliberate malice, but it must be one or the other. One of the most important reasons for tenure is precisely that it protects scholars, preserving them from the pressures of knee-jerk conformism and conservatism. It is indeed true that, to a certain extent, “younger untenured professors” are put in a position where they are forcibly made “fearful of taking intellectual risks.” But this need for caution and conservatism on the part of such younger scholars is precisely because they don’t (yet) have tenure!

Once scholars achieve tenure, they are much more free to go in new directions and strive beyond the boundaries of “their narrow subdiscipline.” To abolish tenure would be precisely to make the conformism and fear of risk that Fukuyama claims to deplore a universal condition — nobody would dare to be original any longer. In a university system without tenure, if you ever went beyond the limits of your “narrow subdiscipline,” you would lose your job. We would have an unconditional reign of the marketplace, which means that the only form of intellectual activity to be encouraged would be that of the star system in which a very small number of so- called “public intellectuals” would make huge amounts of money by ponificating via dubious overgeneralizations and simplistic political pronouncements — precisely in the manner that is exemplified by Fukuyama himself.

It is disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst, to worry about tenure being “too costly”, either “financially” or “intellectually.” Universities want to get rid of tenure precisely so that they can replace professors with adjuncts who are much more poorly paid, and who are usually denied the benefits that permanent employees most often have. However, despite the mania for such cost-cutting among university administrators, in fact humanities departments like English and History make a lot of money for their institutions. Having researchers with relatively modest research budgets (compared to the physical and biological sciences), and who teach large numbers of students, is in fact an enormous bargain. If universities seek to maximize short-term profit even further, by deranged cost-cutting and austerity programs directed at destroying activities and functions that are in fact largely viable, this can only be a symptom of the out-of-control insanity of corporate culture today, and of its relentless extension into sectors of society (like universities) that used to be more or less free of it. The “end of history” via the universal triumph of capitalism, which Fukuyama prophesied several decades ago, may indeed be upon us: but this is not a prospect of enlightenment and freedom, but rather one of widespread immiseration, and a general descent into barbarism, accompanied by life-threatening environmental collapse.

Whitehead’s process philosophy has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past few years. Your book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics has no doubt contributed to this. How do you explain this interest in Whitehead, and are there any similarities between this and the renewed interest in a thinker like Gilbert Simondon?

Part of the answer is circumstantial. In the same way that Deleuze was pretty much singlehandedly responsible for the revival of interest in Bergson, after years of neglect, I think that Isabelle Stengers deserves credit for the current revival of interest in Whitehead. Stengers’ massive and great book, Thinking With Whitehead (Penser avec Whitehead) was published in French in 2002, and translated into English in 2011. It is through Stengers that I was introduced to Whitehead’s thought; I know that this was true for many other people as well. In the United States, Whitehead’s legacy was kept alive by Judith Jones (whose superb book on Whitehead, Intensity, dates from 1998) and by the process theologians at the Claremont School of Theology (especially John Cobb and David Ray Griffin). But Stengers provided the link between Whitehead and the French “theory” that has long been popular in North America. It is thanks to her that people interested in Deleuze, or in Latour, have started to pay attention to Whitehead.

Beyond that, I think that Whitehead’s philosophy resonates quite strongly with a number of contemporary concerns. For one thing, the term “creativity,” which Whitehead pretty much invented, turns up everywhere these days (both for good and for ill). The way that Whitehead describes creativity and novelty, through selection, modification, and recombination of already-existing elements, seems almost like a blueprint for our contemporary aesthetic of sampling and remixing. And Whitehead’s understanding of processes and relations throughout the world, in a manner that is not necessarily human-centered, provides important resources for our current environmental and ecological concerns.

Gilbert Simondon is another thinker who is coming into new prominence thanks to others’ references to him: he was important to Deleuze, and he is very important to the contemporary French philosopher Bernard Stiegler. Simondon’s works, written in the 1950s, still aren’t available in English — but translations are finally forthcoming in the next year or two. Simondon and Whitehead seem to me to be quite different from one another; but they have overlapping interests in questions of process. Simondon is largely concerned with what he callsindividuation: the processes by which discrete entities, or individuals, come into existence in the first place. These processes always involve relations between things and their environments — so in this way, Simondon is also deeply relevant to ecological concerns.

One other similarity between Whitehead and Simondon, which has not been sufficiently remarked, is their understanding of the dynamics of change. In a lot of environmental thought, as well as in thought about living organisms and other dynamic systems (including social systems), the focus has been on self-maintenance. We commonly hear about homeostasis, about autopoiesis (a biological concept in Maturana and Varela, extended to social systems by Luhmann), and about Spinoza’s notion of conatus (the tendency of every entity to strive to persist in being). These are important concepts, but I think that they have been overstated and applied too widely. Whitehead (with his notion of what he calls concresence) and Simondon (with his notion of individuation) both provide correctives to this: they both point to the ways that living things, and other complex systems, strive not only to persist, but also to change, to produce novelty, to become different from what they were before.

In the context of new materialism, do you see any similarities between thinkers like Whitehead/Simondon with other thinkers in speculative realism/object-oriented philosophy, or is there a fundamental difference between them?

I think that there are both similarities and differences. For instance, Graham Harman, the founder of object-oriented ontology, both praises Whitehead for his non-anthropocentrism, and criticizes him for his privileging of relations over fixed substances. Whitehead’s insistence upon the primacy of “experience” and “feeling” puts him at odds with speculative realist thinkers like Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier, both of whom tend towards the sort of scientism and eliminativism of which Whitehead was severely critical. But at the same time, Whitehead is also severely critical of what Meillassoux and the other speculative realists call “correlationism” (although, of course, Whitehead never uses and did not know this term). I think that it would make sense to develop a Whiteheadian strain of speculative realism — and this is part of what I am attempting to do.

Whitehead’s ontological and cosmological concerns put him in connection with the speculative realists; but pragmatically, he is closer to those contemporary thinkers who have been called new materialists. Jane Bennett’s “vital materialism” and Karen Barad’s “agential realism” both seem to me to have resonances with Whitehead’s thought, even though neither of them mentions Whitehead directly (as far as I know). Donna Haraway, on the other hand, has spoken specifically about the importance of Whitehead for her ideas about companion species. None of the new materialisms are based on Whitehead’s system or his technical terms, but they share his project of reconciling phenomenal experience with natural science, without rejecting either.

Recently on your blog, The Pinocchio Theory, you offered a very coherent summary of Muriel Combes’ book on Simondon. Can you comment on Simondon, Combes’ book, and on his ontology in general? What role does information play?

Simondon, writing in the 1950s, was very concerned with cybernetics, and he takes over the cybernetic notion of “information.” But he uses this notion in a somewhat different way than the cyberneticists did. He resists the tendency (very much alive, still today) of understanding information as mere “data” to be transmitted from one point to another, and then manipulated according to certain rules. Rather, Simondon stresses the “form” in “information.” For him, an informational process involves the transmission and growth of formal structures, or the giving of form. The growth of crystals is the first example that he uses, but there are more complicated ones including human psychological and social processes. Often, the partisans of “information” today often regard it as something immaterial, a pattern that can be impressed upon, and expressed within, any medium. But Simondon insists that in-form-ing, the process of materiality taking on form, is not a simple imposition of a pattern on a neutral substrate. Rather, informing or patterning depends upon intrinsic qualities of the medium. Matter is not intrinsically shapeless and passive, and you cannot simply impose a form upon it. Rather, in-form-ing is a process of mutual accomodation and adequation. Where most theories of “information” ignore material considerations, Simondon insists that information is intimately intertwined with material affordances and with questions of energy flow and entropy. For Simondon, there is no informatics without energetics.

Could you end by telling us about what you are currently working on?

I am working on several projects at the moment. First, I am currently trying to complete a book about Whitehead and speculative realism, working through the issues that I was discussing earlier. I hope to finish the manuscript in the next several months, and to get the book published sometime on 2014.

Second, I am also working on the ways in which the new (and sometimes not so new) digital technologies are transforming cinematic form. This involves looking at contemporary audiovisual works — films and music videos — and considering how they both reflect, and help to produce, the “changes in the ratio of the senses” that Marshall McLuhan said were crucial consequences of new media. I am especially concerned with: 1) changes in the relations between sound and image, and between space and time; 2) what I call “post-continuity”, or the way that film and video cinematography and editing today increasingly tend to subordinate traditional concerns with establishing narrative continuity, in favor of establishing new sorts of sensorial and emotional relations; and 3) what I call “post-irony,” or the invention of new forms of realism, once we have gotten over our shock and dismay at the alleged “death of the real” amidst the proliferation of simulacra and of citations repeated tongue-in-cheek “in quotation marks.” Ten or twenty years ago, our culture felt the vertigo of such developments; but today we are finally starting to realize that such phenomena do not undermine “the real” but rather integrally compose its texture.

And third, I am looking at the ways that science fiction narratives (mostly novels and short stories) work as forms of ontological and sociological speculation. Science fiction writers today are offering us fresh insights into such diverse areas as corporate finance, biotechnology, and neurobiology. They are extrapolating from empirical concerns and discoveries in these areas, and reconceptualizing them in ways that philosophers, scientists, and economists have not yet caught up with. Science fiction does not claim to actually predict the future; but it is an important tool for us to grasp the “futurity” that is already, and increasingly, a part of our present.

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< >

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Interview with Linda Garcia

© Linda Garcia and Figure/Ground
Dr. Garcia was interviewed by Katie Armstrong. February 18th, 2013.

Dr. Linda Garcia is the former Director of the Communication, Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University, and presently a member of the faculty. Prior to assuming the Directorship of the 150+ student graduate program in 1996, she was Project Director and Senior Associate at the U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment. There, she directed studies on electronic commerce, intellectual property rights, national and international telecommunications policy, standards development, and telecommunication and economic development. In 1997, Linda received her Doctorate from the Program in Social Science Informatics, which is part of the Psychology Department at the University of Amsterdam. She received her Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International Affairs in 1965, and was ABD in Department of Political Science. In 1963, she received her Bachelor’s Degree from Syracuse University where she majored in international affairs.

How did you decide to become a professor?

I spent 20 years at the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which was in the congressional research arm of the Congress, and there we did studies on a variety of topics. I worked in the area of transportation, then I worked in the area of oceans and the environment, and then finally I ended up in the area of computer and communication technologies. This was a policy place, but it was different from most other policy places. It was more holistic, and it had an approach that embraced complexity. One thing about me was that I always felt that I needed to conceptualize my studies in a formal way, which is not something that most policy people do. So I was always being teased about having long conceptualizations in my work, and my coworkers told me that I should be in academia. The other thing is that I loved to work with young people so people said I would do really well in academia. The 101st Congress, under Newt Gingrich, promised they would cut back on government, and the one agency they cut back on was my agency, which had had tremendous success for 20 years. So, I suddenly found myself without a job.

My husband was also bought out of his job at the Audubon Society, so here we were footloose. My husband was asked to go teach on a kibbutz in Israel for environmental politics and environmental law. So, we were free and we took off and went to Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel. I totally enjoyed this time; it was transformative for me because we were Christian, but the kibbutz was conservative Jewish, albeit very liberal because it was formed by hippies in the ‘70s. The institute was the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and they brought Jews and Arabs and some Christians together around the venue of the environment: water policy (because it’s right on the Jordan River) and things like that, hoping that that would be a basis for a conversation that might lead to other conversations. So, I was there in the middle of the Middle East, right before the Second Intifada, and there was hope that something could happen, something could change. And I knew, having spent time there, that I didn’t want to come back and do policy work – that just seemed irrelevant in the face of war and death and cultural issues. I knew I wanted something different, and when I came back, a person I knew formerly from OTA, who taught at the University of Amsterdam as well as City University of New York suggested that I needed a new career, but needed to first finish my Ph.D. So, he sponsored me at the University of Amsterdam to get my Ph.D. and to write a thesis. I was able to build on my OTA work. I was then credentialed to work in a university, and after another job as an adjunct professor, I then came here to Georgetown’s Communication, Culture, and Technology program under Martin Irvine as an adjunct.

So, here I was, having started out doing policy work with all of these conceptual frameworks that made me sort of peculiar in government work, finding myself here in a university. I love young people, I love students, and I can now do that side of my personality.

What was your thesis on?

My thesis was called “The Network Enterprise.” It was before we talked about electronic commerce – it looked at technology and business, and talked about the electronic enterprise and the future of commerce. So in a way it anticipated a lot of what we’ve seen happen.

And so how did you get involved in policy work?

I was at Columbia, and I was married at the time, and I had a son. There were no teaching jobs then. My husband came to work for the Library of Congress, and I came down, of course, with him and my son. After about a year, when my son was six years old, he didn’t need me to take care of him at home anymore. A friend of mine told another person at PBS, and that person at PBS interviewed me for a job doing financial analysis at PBS. Math is not my forte, as any of my students know, and after I interviewed I knew the job wasn’t for me. But, the interviewer’s husband worked for the then-newly formed OTA, and I interviewed and got the job there. It was the best thing!

Who has been the biggest influence or mentor in your work, both in your policy work and in academia?

A man named Joseph Coates mentored me at OTA. He’s a futurist, somebody who studies how do you predict the future, and he helped and supported me during my time at OTA. Then he left OTA, but now he’s coming to Georgetown to teach a class on futurism. He’s 15 years older than me, so he’s go to be in his eighties.

So you’ve worked with him since OTA? 

No, he left OTA to start his own business. This would have been in my formative years at OTA, maybe my first five or six years there. The other person who’s been an influence helped me through my Ph.D., and was my advisor and mentor from the University of Amsterdam. I also had a wonderful boss at OTA, Jim Curlin. We all did our own projects – OTA was very much a non-bureaucratic, government organization that allowed each of its teams to do their work the waythey did it. So, I could do my theoretical work, I could have a theory chapter in all of my reports, as well as do my reports my way, as long as I got them done on time and within budget and got good press. Jim taught me a lot about management, that the manager’s job is to make reign for other people; and that’s what he did. He gave me so many opportunities.

Could you tell us a little more about your work at OTA? 

I’d say the things I’m most proud of were in the field of communications. I did a study on rural America and technology, and a study called Critical Connections: Communication for the Future. And then I did my Network Enterprise course in electronic commerce, and I did a course on intellectual property rights, and one on standard setting.

What is standard setting?

Standard setting is how browser technology gets agreed upon so that you can have it cut across different systems. How do decisions get made about that, and how important are they to do a business strategy? There’s also a part that looks at how important standards are to a nation to have its standards as the standard. So, we see a lot about standards wars and things like that. There have been some recent articles about the kilogram and how it’s growing – it gets bigger and bigger over time – because it’s standard weight that everything relies on. But it’s changing its weight as it collects things. But if you “clean” it, you might undermine its weight as well. So, people are working to come up with a standard measure to standardize weights.

At OTA, I moved up from being a research assistant to a senior associate. So, I played different roles there. We had a number of research assistants come from all over – a lot from places where they had an interest in science and technology, and some from the humanities even. Everything was interdisciplinary, which is one of the things I love. And I used to tell people when they came to work with me, “Well, you think you’re an economist now, but I promise you, you won’t be an economist when you leave here!” There was a danger with interdisciplinarity that you’d lose your credentials in the field. But the young people had a wonderful camaraderie, and so many opportunities to do things. In my standard setting study, we were looking at global standards and whether the United States’ standards field was so conflicted that we couldn’t present ourselves in a unified fashion in the world, and therefore was undermining our ability to set standards at the global level. I convinced the assistant director of the agency that I had to go to Europe and talk to the European stakeholders. So a colleague and I went from Sweden to Denmark, to Germany, then France and England, and asked them how they saw the U.S. and ability to play a positive, effective standards role. I can’t tell you how contentious the standards community is.

In my rural America study, I convinced Jim Curlin to come with us, and he realized how important fieldwork is. So we had many adventures. Nothing was old and stale; it always news. Every time we took on a study, we thought, “How can we answer that question? What do I need to do to do that?” The answers were different for each study, so we were never bored.

When we completed a study, we’d have a one-pager. Then we’d have gigantic reports, and then a summary. And typically we’d bring it to Congress and to the Committee who had asked for it – because there was always a Joint Committee that had asked for it – and testify on them.

Now, the Government Accountability Office does some technology assessment, but what was lost with the ousting of OTA was a lot of institutional memory – it was a craft as much as it was anything else.

So you’ve talked about interdisciplinarity in the workforce. What do you think of disciplines in academia? What do you think are interdisciplinarity’s strengths and weaknesses? 

One of the things I think about is an effective knowledge-sharing network. My classes that I teach here are about networks, so the unit of analysis in all of my classes is networks. It should be shaped with, what we call in network theory, a small-world network. That’s a world in which you have clusters of lots of dense activity and collective action, but you have outward links to others places so that you get new information, new ideas, new inputs into your cluster. The ideal world is presumably a world like that, which is called “small” because you can go from one cluster to the other cluster (or, across the network) in less than six degrees. So, the clusters perform as a hub, linking the network by links across. To me what that means for disciplines is that we all need our disciplines. You need to be astute and attuned to your discipline. You need to know what the problems of your discipline are. So you need to study in a discipline for, I’d say, around 10 years. But you also need to have weak ties to other places, so that you can then come together and get ideas. Think about the development of the Internet during ARPANET. What you had were research centers linked together by a network working group, where they all came together occasionally to work together on problems, but they also worked at a distance at their own labs and research centers. It was the perfect small-world, and it was the height of innovation. So, I think that if universities want to be adaptive to a changing environment, being a small-world is ideal. Universities should be places where disciplines come together, and they should also be places where people perfect their discipline, and understand the cross-discipline need for research, to look outside their own disciplines to solve a problem. But, I think the difference between multi-disciplinary, which is where you get people from every discipline, andinterdisciplinary means that if you’re going to be truly interdisciplinary, you should master more than one discipline.

What do you think has been the effect of the Information Age and technology on the university and on pedagogy? 

I don’t think there’s been that much effect, and I think that’s a problem. Why hasn’t there been more of an effect? I think that the university’s pretty grounded in its past, so I think what’s going to be interesting is what’s to come. Universities are now using technology to do classes online; I’m working on a standards project to develop classes around standards. I’m doing that for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. So things are happening, but I don’t see that much happening to bring interdisciplinarity about. But I do think that the university is trying to adapt. It’s very hard because you have the weight of a past that’s very strong. I’m not sure tenure belongs in the future. I’m not sure departments as they’re made up now belong in the future. But one has to think about what would be optimal given the nature of the world as complex and global.

How has the privatization of education, in your opinion, affected the university environment? Do you see the university as an institution in crisis, and what is its future?

One crisis is that the costs are going up so high. So the question is, how do you reduce costs? I think there’s a simple way to reduce costs, which is to eliminate certain things, and then I think there’s a more strategic way, which says to restructure your boundaries so that you get more synergies from what you have. It’s sort of like the problem that Obama has about how do we grow the future – either you invest in it more, or you cut spending. And the problem and question is how to do that so that you actually enhance what you can do, rather than shrink what you can do. And I think there’s a danger of doing just that.

I mentioned the question of tenure, and the reason I mentioned that is because so many faculty are non-tenured, and yet they’re actually earning a lot of the money that supports the tenured faculty. So if you think about it, other schools (not Georgetown) give minimum amount of money to a non-tenured faculty; those faculty teach courses, but they don’t get involved with the administration, and they don’t have a say in on-going governance of the program. That said, they also contribute a great deal and yet there’s a movement now to unionize adjunct faculty; if that happens, that changes a whole lot of the way we do things.

Then the second thing I think about goes back to the notion of self-governance. We have self-governance in the university, and on the one hand that’s admirable. Each department has its faculty meetings, wherein they deliberate on things and come to a consensus. But there’s been work on what “deliberation” means. The author of a book called Infomedia talked about democracy and different modes of it and how it works, and one of the things he talked about – deliberation – is that deliberation only works with good outputs and when people have the same rank. Take tenure. It is one of the most separating things – it divides people up by titles, so there’s a real hierarchy. So what happens when you put people in a room together and you have some people seeking to get tenure, some people who have tenure and who have power over the non-tenured people, some people of senior rank? That means you have deliberations, but it’s not a free flow of information because people who are dependant on other people’s votes tend to keep silent and ideas don’t get put out there. To make sure you end up getting all of the ideas expressed in the room – and some of those ideas may come from someone lower on the hierarchy than others. Maybe they have the best idea, but it might not ever come out. I’m not sure – if we have half the faculty not tenured, or a third of the faculty not tenured, and then we have the tenure system – I’m afraid that might shut down ideas, and when you asked if the university could adapt, that might inhibit adaptation. People with fresh, new ideas have a harder time expressing them.

But I love working in a university – that should be said!

In your academic research in technology deployment, you said “…users are not brought into the deployment process, thus creating an inadequate solution for promoting technology and fostering development.” So, how would you propose to solve this problem? 

The work I’ve built on is Everett Roger’s work. He talks about the fact that in order for diffusion – not deployment – to take place, for more and more people to adopt a technology, you need to distinguish between deployment, which is getting the money together to put the technology out there, and getting people to use it. Rogers describes a number of things that have to happen about the technology to have the technology usable, and it shows how the people who use it first are related to people who use it second and third, and how they influence the process of whether a certain technology gets used or not. There are a lot of things that go into diffusion that are not deployment. If you start from a diffusion perspective, you can start to think about how to build a project together with deployment and diffusion so that the users’ demand pulls the deployment rather than suppliers putting it out there when it’s profitable. When it’s profitable, then suppliers only put it where it’s profitable, and not in regions such as rural areas or developing countries, where they won’t make a profit. That’s why we see technology centered in cities. So if users pull it – if you can find strategies that can aggregate users, or to have users play a more significant role – you might get the technology to go faster.

Why do you think America’s regulatory regime is conducive to the way we consume the Internet? There are only a few providers, for example, and service is so expensive.

Have you ever heard of Tim Wu’s book, The Master Switch? What he points out is a really nice comparison of multiple technologies, that early stages of development of a technology have certain characteristics, but you have to look at how the technology evolves in each moment of time. And over time you tend to get fewer and fewer providers. It’s not so much a function of our regulatory system as partly a function of the nature of technology and how it evolves in the context of the user base. What that says for regulation is that how you regulate a technology should depend probably on a stage in the diffusion process, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation. The lesson learned from Telecom was to break up the system and have competition. But over time, that competition disintegrates as you get larger and larger corporations integrating the process more. What Tim Wu talks about is the cycle, where large companies that are very profitable are going to try to prevent younger, newer companies to innovate. And you end up getting a static system, which eventually I think breaks up through what we could call creative destruction. In network terms you’d call it a phase transition into a new system. But how you would regulate that would depend on where you are in that cycle.

You have written that, “As these technologies and their various functions are brought together into integrated and interactive networks, more and more trade will take place electronically in a virtual environment.” What are the implications of this – both good and bad – for businesses, and technology users and buyers?

This is what I built my dissertation on. I did a study on electronic enterprises early on. My office was skeptical of it, and I was lucky to get it out because they didn’t understand it; it wasn’t neo-classical economics. It was transaction-cost economics. It was looking at how the role of information affects the nature of firms, and the nature of markets. It argued that we were going not from a firm to a market or even from a market to a firm, but to network relationships, a whole new business firm. We had to have a bumper sticker for each study, and this one was that “Architecture Matters” – that the way a network was structured would structure the economy. One had to think about networks as a foundational platform for businesses, etc., and that that would become increasingly important. But also it meant that people who were regulars, let’s say, had to understand standards, because these networks didn’t come together without standards; they had to understand intellectual property rights because people put property rights in standards and tried to control the network; and they had to understand anti-trust laws. And where were the lawyers who knew all those things together? Increasingly, they do but that was the challenge then. So, we talked about how it could reduce transactions and lower the cost of business, because it could reduce information costs. And if you reduced information costs, you wouldn’t have to be a bureaucracy. You could move more towards a network firm. But that sets up problems of trust – how would you then deal with issues of trust and authority? But it’s very interesting to look at different periods of the economy. For example, early network firms were the traders in medieval Europe. The traders made their fortune by trading in Spain – and these were vast networks. So, this was an early homologue of what you find today.

What are you currently working on?

I have a project that I started a year ago as a paper, and now it’s becoming bigger! It’s on networks of creativity and it’s called “The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.” Basically, it’s looking at the architecture of networks that support creativity in different historical periods. It argues that today, the field of creativity is dominated by the market and market forces; this suggests that it’s like the couple who killed their goose to find out where the gold was – it may have a stifling effect on creativity – or we should at least look to see if it will or not. I use a network model created by someone who talks about gatekeepers who decide what’s creative and what’s not. Today, it’s Wall Street that decides what’s creative or not. So, we’ve changed who decides what’s creative, how creativity gets taught or shared. Now we have actors who work on gigs rather than long-term projects – how does that affect things? I’m looking at all those things. I’ve done the network analysis – what does the architecture look like – but now I have to look at distinct historical periods and find enough data to apply that.

I’m also working on a soon-to-be-published paper that’s on the economics of the Internet, with a chapter on the economic history of the Internet. Again, that’s looking at different periods, and looking in a holistic way at the conditions that allow different forms of coordination to emerge.

And I’m working on a project that looks at developing modules of standards for classes and course work. If an English teacher wants to talk about language as a standard – they could use some of the modules but not the whole course. So it’s modularizing all of these subjects so that people from any discipline can say, well how does this pertain to mine?

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

Suggested citation:

Armstrong, K. (2013). “Interview with Linda García,” Figure/Ground. February 18th. <  >

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Interview with Alexandra Juhasz

© Alexandra Juhasz and Figure/Ground
Dr. Juhasz was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. February 11th, 2013.

Dr. Alexandra Juhasz is a Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College, where she teaches media production, history  and theory. She has a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from NYU and has taught courses at NYU, Swarthmore College, Bryn Mawr College, Claremont Graduate University, and Pitzer College, on YouTube, media archives, activist media, documentary, and feminist film. Dr. Juhasz has written multiple articles on feminist, fake, and AIDS documentary. Her current work is on and about YouTube, and other more radical uses of digital media.  Her first book, AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke University Press, 1996) is about the contributions of low-end video production to political organizing and individual and community growth. Her second book is comprised of transcribed interviews from her documentary about feminist film history, Women of Vision, with accompanying introductions (Minnesota University Press). Her third book, F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, edited with Jesse Lerner, is recently out from University of MN Press. Dr. Juhasz’s innovative “video-book,” Learning from YouTube (2011), is recently published by the MIT Press. Her earlier digital effort is Media Praxis: A Radical Web-Site Integrating Theory, Practice and Politics. She blogs on this and other projects at

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

Both of my parents and many other members of my family are professors. So, even though I always loved school and was good at it, as a college student, I wanted to be anything but! I thought my skills might make me a good lawyer. I engaged in several internships during college with a variety of legal entities—judges, high-powered law firms—and then even took the LSATs. But during my senior year, I really loved working on my undergraduate thesis on Little Women, and I did well at it. Also, even then, I found my academic work to be a conducive home for my many of my sustaining commitments: to social justice (at that time, feminism); expressive and critical culture; and meaningful and principled personal and inter-personal interactions. I also decided that I was morally uncomfortable with the adversarial justice system. So, what else was there to do? I applied to grad programs in Cinema Studies, got in, and even got scholarship support. I thought of grad school as a great opportunity to have focused activity in a cool place (New York City), and then, later, I could re-evaluate my professional path of not becoming a professor.

It was teaching that changed my opinion. Until then, grad school was more of the happy same: being a good student, enjoying school, being affirmed for this skill, enjoying the questions I was pursuing and interacting with others about these questions. However, the actual work of teaching—its deeply human interactions, the belief that my labor mattered to other people and to larger systems, its complex performances and rituals—convinced me that this job, unlike the Law, was ethical, social, and even political in ways that I could live a life by. So, teaching was what induced my late, although very conscious decision to become a scholar.

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

I was lucky enough to have feminist, political, and often female mentors as both an undergrad and graduate student. In part, this was related to having parents who were academics, in that I was less shy or awed by professors then my fellow students, and understood that they were approachable human beings. I often consider how much harder it must be to succeed in this profession if you are a first generation scholar, in that many of the social and cultural norms of this workplace go unexplained and are hard to interpret. Of course, a good mentor can function to assuage this.

At Amherst College, I was quite close to several of my professors, one of the benefits of small college education that now defines my work, as teacher and mentor at small college. I was mentored by Laura WexlerAndrew ParkerJohn Cameronand Barry O’Connell, Professors of English and/or American Studies at Amherst, and also Cathy Portuges, a professor of Comp Lit and Film Studies, at UMass. I have stayed close to these professors to this day. In grad school, my mentor was Faye Ginsburg, at NYU’s program in Culture and Media. In all cases, I saw enacted by my mentors ways to live a principled, political, generous and generative life of the mind, that was committed to social justice and change, as well as human compassion both within and outside of academia. In the case of my female professors, I was also lucky enough to have the opportunity to see modelled the possibility for women’s power and experience within the University, as well as being offered honest insight into the ongoing difficulties for women in this profession: from raising families while maintaining professional integrity, to keeping self-confidence and dignity in the face of patriarchal oppression. When my beloved professor, Laura Wexler, did not get tenure at Amherst (she’s since gone on to an inspiring career at Yale), solely, to my mind, as a result of the sexist, patriarchal values of my alma mater, I was radicalized to understand that my political interests in social justice and change—in particular in relation to my nascent commitments to identity politics—had deep and critical applications within academia itself. I’ve never looked back, and like my mentors, attempt to practice the values I hold dear in my own work and institution.

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

I feel deeply humbled and grateful that I received a first-rate education—even though my parents and I could never have afforded the schools I attended without the help of loans and scholarships—and more so, that I have gone on to have a teaching career in institutions similar to the ones where I was educated. At Pitzer College, where I have taught for eighteen years, an abiding commitment to liberal arts education, and the college’s ongoing 1960s commitment to professorial self-governance, insure that I teach much as my professors did: under the incredibly empowering system of tenure, and within an institution that values thought, education, and the role of the intellectual-activist above other more contemporary neo-liberal aims. I am well aware that since the time of my own education in the 1980s, there has been a radical change in the role of university professors, and that I am lucky enough to be a member of a small and shrinking minority of the profession who works full time, with tenure, teaching and writing about what inspires me, and generally appreciated by my institution, students and colleagues for the results of this intellectual freedom. Most of my colleagues within the professoriate longer work under this model.

What makes a good teacher in your view?

In our ever more corporate, greedy, and inhumane culture, a good teacher models another way of living and being to her students, one organized around the pursuit of ideas and ideals. She works with her students to allow them to see that each one has the capacity, and ability, to enjoy these activities of thinking about, analyzing, discussing, critiquing and creating culture, and that this is a worthy, empowering, and sustaining use of our labor. She produces a collaborative and interactive environment were all participants are stakeholders in a project of world- and self-making, and where each participant learns to appreciate her abilities to contribute. In this environment, different values from our daily culture preside: respect, critique, self-awareness, collaboration, sustained and adaptive thought, conversation, and production.

How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

In some classes and situations, I admit, I do ask my students to turn of their devices. But more critically, a good teacher produces a lively, social, and engaged environment, where the ideas under consideration matter enough that students feel compelled to attend and participate. A good class should feel like a community connected by a shared project. Its focus, shared commitments and vocabularies, and sense of respectful interaction can prove an antidote to the fracturing and overload in our culture. The longer I teach, and the more the society splinters in this way, the more I understand the classroom not only as a respite but as a model for living.

What advice would you give to young graduate students considering a career in the academy and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?

I hate to say this, but believe I cannot but advise young graduate students to begin to imagine other career possibilities besides “Professor,” both outside of or within academia, even as they enjoy the pleasures and challenges of a graduate education. The neo-liberalization of academia, and its changing rationales of employment and education, really do mean that a very small percentage of current grad students will engage in the profession in ways similar to their own professors. Thus, I’d say current grad students should read the inspiring body of writing online, a great deal of it by grad students, about alt-ac careers and training, as well as the ongoing research and criticism by activist intellectuals about the changing norms of our profession, as well as the new possibilities for activism, organizing, and opposition that become necessary to respond to these changes.

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? 

The university is in crisis in the ways I’ve emphasised already: the labor of professors and students is being restructured to maximize profit, focus upon quantifiable rather than qualitative “outcomes,” and otherwise serve goals, entities, or institutions outside of our individual or collaborative scholarly and political pursuits. This said, as a scholar of media and now digital studies, I see no “crisis” in regards to information or interaction but rather a critical possibility or even mandate to focus our activities, skills, and productions as academics within the university upon the real-time and long-term analysis of these new institutions and machines with the goal of making and sharing clear, critical, informed interpretations, as well as just and empowering applications.

Among your areas of specialization are documentary video production, women’s film and feminist film theory. In fact, you teach a course entitled “Feminist Online Spaces.” What is that titled meant to describe? How would you characterize such spaces?

Media has changed radically over the twenty-plus years that I’ve been an academic, but my concerns and questions about it have remained consistent. The course “Feminist Online Spaces,” as well as my many other feminist, queer, or activist media classes, pursues thinking, talking, reading, and making focused upon the use of media for self and community empowerment and growth. Feminist Online Spaces presents students with the mandate to ask internet culture to be as giving, generative, moral, and inspiring as the best places we make and inhabit as humans. I call such a place “feminist,” but others could as easily apply to Online Spaces the principled, political, creative and communal systems that most move them. As I’ve said, I often think of the classroom in this way. In the course, we look at mainstream sites to see how they do and do not uphold the standards that each one of us names as “feminist,” and we also evaluate more overtly political spaces. My students are also asked to build and improve upon existing spaces. You can see our work here.

Another course you teach is “Learning from YouYube.” What is the value and promise of YouTube as a pedagogical tool?

YouTube is a terrible pedagogic tool, and a marvellous one. The course, and the free, born-digital “video-book” about it (MIT Press, 2010), ask (among other things) what the world would be like if people learned on YouTube, rather than through more traditional venues. Thus, the course asks students to think critically about the role of online media in our contemporary lives and education. We findthat this corporate-owned entertainment platform—even worse than is true for the neo-liberal university—has aims, protocols, and structures that are decidedly opposed to the values of complex, interactive, critical expression that has been the hallmark of education. But, given that we learn this and so much more after a semester inside it, how can we not find that YouTube is a valuable and promising pedagogic tool?

What learning strategies would you recommend teachers adopt to exploit the potentiality of the YouTube medium?

The class, as well as my Online Feminist Spaces class, simply allows students the time, permission and vocabulary to be critical and more aware of the many online spaces we’ve been given for free; and to apply the same tools and focus they’ve learned to critically approach texts, institutions, and histories from across their education to these new places that shape our contemporary existence. Teaching strategies that allow students to see new media as sites of cultural production (that have been made by others towards particular ends; and that we, everyday citizens and scholars can also make and improve) are most apt towards the goal of producing digital-media literate students and citizens committed to critiquing and changing the Internet culture in which we live.

Is YouTube more effective for teaching and studying certain subjects more than others?

Following upon my answer above, the class is less a place where we learn about “subjects” like American History or Gay Marriage, then it is a framework whereby I ask students to become more aware of the institutions, structures, forms, vernaculars, and ideologies through which we learn and participate in culture.

Another of your areas of scholarly inquiry is Media & Sexuality. What are some of the problems that characterize this field of inquiry?

Beginning with my political and doctoral work on activist AIDS video, I have been interested in the ways that people, in particular politicized people and communities, use the media to represent their own experience, build solidarity through such representations, and critique dominant culture and representation though their own media making. The “problems” raised by considering media and sexuality in this way are both how to see and analyze dominant culture’s representation of sex, gender, and sexuality (and how race, class, and place are linked), and how to find, make and use alternative forms to improve upon, complicate, and make more just representations of those aspects of our shared human existence that are structured through difference and desire.

What are you currently working on?

I am collaborating with Anne Balsamo, at the New School, and hundreds of feminist scholars and artists from around the world, on a collaborative experimental teaching project that challenges the MOOC from a feminist point of view. You can learn more about our project, and join us in this collaborative endeavour, here.

This project, like most of my scholarly work, is based upon first critiquing, and then trying to improve our culture and its institutions and practices, in collaboration with others, and with impassioned, critical traditions of intellectual, artistic and political discourse and production as our guide and inspiration. I do believe that the academy is one of the few places left in our ever more corporate world where such goals, activities, and engagements can be supported. Thus, I truly appreciate this opportunity to pay attention to my often unself-aware endeavours as a professor and scholar, and applaud you for asking us to attend to this aspect of our work. 

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

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2013). “Interview with Alexandra Juhasz,” Figure/Ground. February 11th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Interview with Katherine Bradford

© Katherine Bradford and Figure/Ground
Katherine Bradford was interviewed by Julia Schwartz. February 13th, 2013.

Bradford_headshotKatherine Bradford is a painter who lives and works in New York. She attended Bryn Mawr College and holds an MFA from SUNY Purchase.  She is on the graduate MFA faculty at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and in 2009 was a Resident Faculty at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.  She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011 and a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant in 2012.  Her work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums and universities, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum, The Wooster Art Museum, and the Portland Museum. She is represented by the Edward Thorp Gallery.  She maintains a studio in Brooklyn.

Katherine, I loved that interview you did with Jason Stopa at Brooklyn Rail. You said, ”It was the huge ocean liner being completely humbled by the ice in the sea. That story’s very close to 9/11, our World Trade Center towers which collapsed before our very eyes, something we never thought would happen.” It seemed like a kind of existential mood took hold (at least that’s the phrase that occurs to me) and came through your paintings in the form of Titanic and Superman being toppled or humbled.  Was this idea something you were consciously aware of while you were painting or does it occur afterwards?

The toppling liners were done before 9/11, before the banks collapsed.  I think I wanted to subvert the insistent verticality of a looming ship by tipping it sideways.

The result was a sort of dismantling of the usual strength symbol of a big sea going ship.  The Titanic kept appearing in my work because of the visual interest between the black ocean liner and the white iceberg, between rectangle and triangle, between man made and organic.  Once I heard the painter Suzan Frecon say “all my decisions are visual.” She’s an abstract painter and I knew just what she meant.

It took me awhile to learn not to put too much story into the Superman and Ocean Liner pieces.  I pretty much focused on the sight of Superman flying and the sight of the ocean liner in the same frame as an iceberg. You see how much I left out, great chunks of both of these legends.  Anything more seemed like it would be too much information and in the end I had to consider what worked best to present clearly in a single frame painting.

On the other hand, I really like having both balls in the air: the tension between formal elements and also the stories.  The tone I’m most drawn to is one of vulnerability and searching which seems to also reflect the way I paint, my touch, and also the way I proceed through a painting which is to try and find the forms in the process of putting the paint on.  However, once a painting is finished it’s always very interesting to reflect on how it communicates to the viewer, the various interpretations, and I thank you for this chance to revisit these works in this way.

So clearly I attributed something of mine to the paintings, interpreting them according to my existential mood linked to 9/11!


Sargasso, Oil on canvas, 56×66 inches, 2012

Can you say something about color in your work. I am really struck by the colors, the orange and pink, for instance, in S.O.S. and Midsummer Night, are so spectacular. Is this conscious and deliberate or is it a more intuitive process? 

Thanks for noticing the orange and pink.  That came at a moment of heightened confidence when I felt I’d done enough paintings for my upcoming show and could fly around the studio doing whatever I wanted.  I think artists have to USE color and think in terms of putting color next to color rather than of describing something.  If you squeeze out tubes of the most vibrant 6 basic colors plus black and white and then as the studio gets heated up and brushes get loaded with paint and you’re working so fast that bits of one color get into another color, well hopefully fabulous things happen.

My mother was a very visual person and often talked to her four kids about what she was looking at and asked our opinions. She was the daughter of an architect and her son, my brother, is an architect.  Even now I can picture her at the kitchen sink with all sorts of Matisse postcards and art clippings pinned up on the wall for her to look at while she did the dishes.  This I took for granted for many years until recently when I realized it was quite unusual.

The best times I had with my mother were when we went to a museum together to look at paintings.  She was not at all supportive of me being an artist as she thought it would interfere with my wife and child rearing skills.  Once I took her to see an absolutely beautiful exhibit of Morandi paintings at the Guggenheim Museum and after a few minutes she wheeled around and said to me in a very angry voice “Did this man ever have a wife and children?”

She loved going to my art openings and meeting my friends but was very skeptical about the artist bohemian life style even though the way she raised us was so eccentric some of my friends were afraid to have meals at our house.  I guess the atmosphere was too rowdy and also she was what you might call a horrible housekeeper HOWEVER she filled our house with great color, always – flowers, peasant art (as she called it) and wonderful touches everywhere.


SOS, Oil on canvas, 61×69 inches, 2012

That story from your childhood is interesting- art in the domestic setting. Did you argue with your mother about her expectation to be “wife and mother”?

No I didn’t argue with her.  I thought that if I really wanted to live the life of an artist and to eventually have as my life partner another woman then I should just go do it.

And actually I think that my mother wanted for me what she valued most about her life, which was having a husband and children.  She didn’t know artists as we know them and saw them more as lonely misfits who didn’t play by the rules.  She would be very surprised and impressed by the global community of people on Facebook who reach out and support each other, as you are doing, but this was something she could not have imagined.

It sounds like that was your earliest exposure to art, but what about making art? Did you go to art school? And what about important mentors, influences?

No one ever sent me to art school.  When I was in my 40’s I got a teaching scholarship to SUNY Purchase just outside New York.  By the time I got there I’d already formed a close circle of friends in Brooklyn who were painters – Chris Martin, Peter Acheson, Rick Briggs, Don Voisine –and this was crucial since for the first time I was thrown in with multi media artists, photographers, video artists and I had to hold my own in these large debates about the relevance of painting. It was really helpful to return home to Brooklyn and hang out with my friends who were all dedicated painters.

I have had to fight for the life I lead now and this had made me value it all the more and not take for granted that I get to make art sometime all day long every day.

Now I have a question for you:  How did you get so involved with artists who live and work in the Brooklyn New York area?  You could say it was through Facebook but how did this start and how did you know which artists to contact?

I’m going to answer your question but first I have to say that you are the first person to ever ask me that.  So thanks. I’m not sure how it started. Probably Facebook, yes, but I don’t know who the first artists were, I think some were friends of L.A. friends, and a few via Jerry Saltz’s wall who seemed like kindred spirits. Then people contacted me.  I discovered myself at some point on 1000 Living Painters – wait, no, that was actually after I was FB friends with them!  I built connections like playing hopscotch.

I am by nature a shy person, but in this world of art I find myself much more fearless- like contacting you after reading your interview to say ‘I like your work!’ I would see someone’s paintings in a book or in a gallery or online and feel like I had to make contact, like there’s someone out there like me. Sometimes it happens the other way- someone contacts me, having seen me on a friend’s page or something.  I built a community of artists whose work was alive and who were open to conversation, I guess. I didn’t go to art school so THIS is my education. Does that answer your question?

You know the way you approach facebook is so exemplary.  You see people on facebook making post after post and then never having the curiosity or awareness to interact with anyone else.  I’m very wary of people who use facebook as a bulletin board instead of as a tool for community building, which is what you have done.  And I agree with you that there’s a great deal to be learned from being attentive to other people’s posts.


Desire For Transport, Oil on canvas, 54×72 inches, 2007

Can we talk about your studio routine a bit? In some ways you’ve addressed this in other answers- like how you lay colors out, but if you want to say anything else here- do you paint every day, work in oil or something else, multiple pieces at a time. I think you have a summer studio and winter studio, but is the work different depending on where you work?

My best time to work is in the morning, and by the afternoon my powers of imagination and inspiration begin to dwindle so I use the rest of the day to answer email, do errands and visit people’s studios. Evenings I go to openings, read or exchange stories about what happened that day with my partner, Jane. In the summer I take a large amount of unfinished work with me so there is not much difference in how I proceed. My summer studio is in an old barn with a very forgiving plank floor and I think I feel more freedom walking around with wet brushes and paint pots in a place that is already covered with spilled paint.  In Brooklyn my studio is also used as guest quarters for visiting family so I have to be a little more careful; but my Brooklyn studio is warm and comfortable which I really appreciate.  When I lived in Maine year round I experienced enough freezing studios to last a lifetime.


At Home, 2012 80×68 inches, oil on canvas

Any advice for future or emerging artists?

Yes, make work and get feedback.

A whole lot of early work just doesn’t amount to much and I had to be brutally honest about that.  I’d make more work and ask people over to look at it.  I’d ask people who would give me tough critiques.  Not only did I listen to what they said I wrote it all down and have 15 black notebooks filled with studio notes taken over the years.  Right after they left the studio I’d write down what they said especially the bad parts.  Days and weeks and years later I’d read over what I’d written.  The same damn things kept coming up – too tight, too self-conscious, too small, too afraid.  Then once in awhile I’d do something someone liked and it would inevitably surprise me.  You like THAT ONE!  It’s so sloppy, so vulnerable, so unskillful, so OPEN, so revealing.  It took me a long time to own up to the kind of artist I really was and let go of an urge to be a technically good artist whose paintings my parents would perceive as competent. In fact, I’m still working on this.  So maybe what I’ve said is enough.

What I most appreciated about this interview was that it turned into a conversation and I think your way of being in the world- at least in relation to the interview and with me- is fully consistent with your way as an artist: fully embedded in a process of discovery, searching, vulnerability, but being able to say “maybe we’ve said enough.”

And thank you Julia for letting this all take on another form than perhaps the one you first had in mind.

Thank you Katherine. It’s been an honor and a pleasure.


Kathy Bradford. Photo credit: Greg Irikura

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

Suggested citation:

Schwartz, J (2013). “A Conversation with Katherine Bradford,” Figure/Ground. February 2014.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at