Interview with Dylan Trigg

© Dylan Trigg and Figure/Ground
Dr. Trigg was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. March 20th, 2012.

Dylan Trigg is currently a CNRS/Volkswagen Stiftung post-doctoral researcher at the Centre de Recherche en Épistémologie Appliquée. He previously taught philosophy at the University of Sussex and continues to teach philosophy privately in Sussex. He earned his PhD at the same university, submitting a thesis on the materiality of memory. His thesis was supervised by Tanja Staehler and Paul Davies, and examined by Edward S. Casey (Stony Brook) and Celine Surpenant (University of Sussex). He has been a visiting scholar at Duquesne University, USA, a guest lecturer at the University of Montana, USA, and an invited speaker to several conferences. His research includes: phenomenology (especially Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard, Husserl, and Heidegger); the phenomenology of place (especially spatial phobias, memory and materiality, and the aesthetics of space); and various aspects of bodily existence (especially body memory, body horror, anxiety, eroticism, disease, and the prehistory of the body). He is currently writing a book on agoraphobia. In addition to many articles, Trigg is the author of two books: The Memory of Place: a Phenomenology of the Uncanny (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012) and The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason (New York: Peter Lang, 2006)

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

Like many people working in academia, accidents and errors have become more valuable than conscious choices. My introduction to philosophy came via psychotherapy, which itself came via criminal psychology. Before philosophy, I was studying existential psychoanalysis in London. This style of therapy is rooted in phenomenology, and the grand themes of death, freedom, anxiety, and meaning inspired an interest in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Heidegger, Levinas and so forth. I was introduced to this through Irvin Yalom’s textbook, “Existential Psychotherapy,” which I read as a teenager and still hold in great regard, though perhaps with some uncritical nostalgia now. Later on, works by R.D. Laing, Karl Jaspers, and Ludwig Binswanger drew me closer to the phenomenological tradition more broadly.  Because of this background, the Wittgensteinian idea of philosophy as therapy retains a relevance for me both academically and personally, as Wittgenstein would have it: “The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.”  So, academia for me is not a conscious choice, as such. I did not harbour childhood fantasies of becoming a professor. It was instead an expression of something that began in the context of studying psychotherapy, which I then became seduced by.

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

After finishing my undergraduate studies at the Birkbeck College, I was keen to move to a department that would be able to accommodate my interests in the phenomenology of place. At the time, this was not possible through the University of London’s philosophy departments. Because of this, I had been repressing a longstanding desire to write about the importance of place within human experience (as it would turn out, this act of repression was sublimated into my first book, “The Aesthetics of Decay,” which I began writing while still an undergraduate). Coming to the University of Sussex, therefore, was liberating. Being there allowed me write openly about these issues that had been expressed only indirectly before. For example, my MA dissertation on Gaston Bachelard and personal identity contained a long section on the phenomenology of Starbucks, exploring its spatio-temporal qualities from a philosophical rather than cultural perspective. This kind of marginal research was only possible thanks to Sussex’s intellectually open spirit.  To this end, I was fortunate to have Tanja Staehler and Paul Davis as supervisors at Sussex. Both of them opened me up to a particular way of reading texts and engaging in ideas, which has left a strong impression on me. In terms of mentors, I was lucky enough to have been taught by the late musicologist, David Osmond-Smith (I believe I was his last student, in fact). Professor Osmond-Smith embodied a kind of visceral mental and bodily intensity, which gave not only his tutorials on Wagner and Nietzsche a feeling or passionate urgency, but also his entire presence. He remains, for me, an inspiration.

In what ways would you say the role of the European university professor, particularly in France, vary from that of its American counterpart?

The question is complicated by the different usages of the word “professor,” and the term varies broadly from Europe to the US. I should also say I am part of a small research centre in Paris, which is in a state of transition, so probably doesn’t reflect the general state of French academia. That said, in terms of sweeping generalizations and personal observations as an outsider, it seems to me French academia is rooted in a complex set of boundaries marking professors from non-professors. The hierarchical order is evident in some university practices, from the hiring procedure to the organisation of seminars. There is further complication, given that the title professor in France carries with it several different ranks, each of which entails a different status. Here, professors are held in very high regard culturally speaking, especially in Paris. Because of this, there is a sense that more reserved students can feel as though the professor is unattainable owing to this status. In the UK, hierarchical boundaries between graduate student and professor are more porous. As such, things tend be more informal and slightly less rigid than in France. This is partly because of the peculiar relationship we Brits have to institutions and national culture: a mixture of self-abusing irreverence and self-aggrandizing sentimentality. This is also because of the way teaching is structured. Instead of teaching being limited to large lectures, UK teaching tends to consist of both large lectures and also smaller tutorials with groups of students. A similar teaching style occurs in France, but to my knowledge, is quite different in the US. These tutorials are immensely helpful in forming a rapport with students instead of seeing them as a homogenous mass of units. It is usual for a professor to be involved in both of these formats, though like in the American system, the equivalent of teaching assistants plays a key role. The American situation seems to be placed somewhere between the French and British style, though I have only experienced it as a visitor, so my impressions may be one-sided.

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

I think the key to commanding any kind of attention in the classroom is developing an honest rapport with your students. My approach to teaching is very simple: treat students as individual human beings and encourage them to recognise the importance of philosophical issues in their own lives. Ultimately, if the professor is enthusiastic about what is being taught, then it is up to him/her to transform that enthusiasm into a space of thinking. Students—and sensitive human beings generally—intuitively pick up on a lack of enthusiasm or a distracted mind. If you’re not engaging with the materials as a teacher in a committed fashion, then it’s unlikely the students will respond with attentiveness and enthusiasm. Of course, technology has altered modes of learning, problems of attention are pervasive, and interruptions in the classroom in the form of a student’s ringtone have been known to happen. But interruptions will always be present in one form or another. I don’t think the response to these interruptions should be to wage war on technology or to somehow compete with it in the form of elaborate PowerPoint presentations. My response to these problems of distraction and information overload is return to the basics: conversation. On the whole, though, most of the students I’ve taught have been philosophically and politically engaged in one way or another, and they tend to want to engage with the material to understand their intuitive convictions about life.

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

I’m not sure how qualified I am to confer advice upon aspiring university professors or young graduate students. I can only speak on behalf of those who have recently graduated, are in temporary contracts, unsure of what the future holds, and yet still retain a love for their discipline. To graduate students, I would say: find an area of research which appeals to you not only scholastically or because it’s academically topical, but also because it bears relevance to your experience of the world. The disillusioned graduate students I have known have mostly lost their way due to losing a rapport with their research topic. For them, it becomes an obstacle in the external world, an inert practice, rather than something that imparts meaning upon their lives in a dynamic way. Scholarly exegesis is essential for understanding the history of any discipline, especially philosophy. But it is not an end in itself, and in order to ward off the ever looming threat of graduate depression, there must be some kind of deeply held personal engagement in the research.  For doctoral students unable to finish their thesis: don’t get too hung up on saying everything you’ve ever wanted to say in the thesis. There will be time for that afterwards. Nor should you fixate too much on saying everything perfectly.  This will only stigmatise the thesis as an insurmountable obstacle, against which one is reduced to nothingness.

As for aspiring university professors: I think given the current state of things, it would be misguided to undergo doctoral studies with a view of securing a job at the end of one’s research, at least not without a lot of tribulation. Unless the employment situation changes within the next few years—which it looks unlikely to—then doing a PhD will invariably be an act of passion rather than a viable career move. This in itself might not be such a bad thing, as it forces the question of whether research has a value in and of itself. It’s important to have some humility in this respect

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

The university is certainly in crisis, and the partial dissolution of departmental sovereignties may well play a role in this, though I think this is more a political and economic issue than an issue of the digital media. It doesn’t seem to me that the age of information poses a considerable threat to the integrity of a department: teaching still takes places in a physical environment, after all. Of course, the internet and email have made it possible to establish correspondences and intellectual partnerships in a way that was not possible 20 years ago. But all of this is compatible with the traditional working of the university environment. What is new, at least in the UK, is the level of apathy of the current government in its relationship to the humanities. This is not a new phenomenon, but the form it is presently taking is striking and nauseating. One of the trends in British universities is to conflate the humanities departments into one collective department. In principle this might not be bad thing, as it encourages dialogue from different disciplines. The real danger, I think, is for philosophy. Philosophy is already a marginalised discipline and has tended to occupy an ambiguous relationship between the humanities and the sciences. Its absorption into the humanities as a whole poses some risk of philosophy’s identity being assimilated by an “interdisciplinary identity,” with all the vagueness and problematic tensions that term implies.

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 subdiscipline. In a short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. Do you agree with the author? Does the academic tenure debate in Europe center on similar challenges as in North America?

If trying to establish a career in academia means calculating one’s intellectual risks in a mode of fear and adhering to an insular and jargonistic discourse, then there is a fundamental problem in the tenure system. It is regrettable, I suppose, that this discussion of intellectual and political risk is posed in the question of tenure track at all.  Probably for this reason it becomes all the more striking when young untenured professors do take a stand, not only intellectually, but also politically against evident injustices in the system (I am thinking here of the assistant professor, Nathan Brown’s, letter of protest to the chancellor of UC Davies).  In the UK—especially in the humanities—there is less talk about tenure track. Indeed, there is no system of tenure, as such. It does not play the cultural role it does in the US. This is especially the case given the current state of things in the humanities, where the equivalent of tenured positions—permanent positions—are becoming rarer. Things are somewhat different in France, as you have funding bodies such as the CNRS, who would fund a researcher rather than the researcher being funded by a department.  This gives far greater freedom to research, in terms of being affiliated with a department that suits the interests of the researcher.

Let’s move on. You are CNRS/Volkswagen Stiftung post-doctoral researcher at the Centre de Recherche en Épistémologie Appliquée, where you specialize in phenomenology. Is phenomenology still relevant in this age of information and digital interactive media?

Phenomenology is especially relevant in an age of information and digital media. Despite the current post-humanist “turn” in the humanities, we remain for better or worse bodily subjects. This does not mean that we cannot think beyond the body or that the body is unchallenged in phenomenology. Phenomenology does not set a limit on our field of experience, nor is it incompatible with the age of information, less even speculative thinking about non-bodily entities and worlds. Instead, phenomenology reminds us of what we already know, though perhaps unconsciously: that our philosophical voyages begin with and are shaped by our bodily subjectivity.

It’s important to note here that phenomenology’s treatment of the body is varied and complex. It can refer to the physical materiality of the body, to the lived experience of the body, or to enigmatic way in which the body is both personal and anonymous simultaneously. In each case, the body provides the basis for how digital media, information, and post-humanity are experienced in the first place. Phenomenology’s heightened relevance, I’d say, is grounded in the sense that these contemporary artefacts of human life tend to take for granted our bodily constitution.

But phenomenology’s relevance goes beyond its privileging of the body. It has become quite fashionable to critique phenomenology as providing a solely human-centric access to the world.  This, I think, is wrong. One of the reasons why I’m passionately committed to phenomenology is because it can reveal to us the fundamentally weird and strange facets of the world that we ordinarily take to be clothed in a familiar and human light. Phenomenology’s gesture of returning to things, of attending to things in their brute facticity, is an extremely powerful move. Merleau-Ponty will speak of a “hostile and alien…resolutely silent Other” lurking within with the non-human appearance of things. For me, the lure of this non-human Other is a motivational force in my own work. It reminds us that no matter how much we affiliate ourselves with the familiar human world, in the act of returning to the things themselves, those same things stand ready to alienate us.

One of your areas of research interest is the phenomenology of place. In fact, your most recent book is entitled Memory of Place: a Phenomenology of the Uncanny, which has been characterized as a “lively and original intervention into contemporary debates within ‘place studies,’ an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of philosophy, geography, architecture, urban design, and environmental studies.” I was hoping you could give us a sneak peek of your book. In a nutshell, What is the place of memory in Memory of Place?

There are three places of memory I describe in the book. The first is the episodic memories of places that we have from our past. These are the memories we become attached, either though positive or negative experiences. They are the places, in which memorable events occur, and in the process transform the place in question from the background context of our memories to the formative focus of those memories. Typically, one thinks of such places as any place we have developed a relationship with, such that the place becomes a part of our sense of self. The philosophical question surrounding these memories concerns to what extent the memories of places we’ve inhabited contributes to our sense of self. In the book, I argue that the memory of place is a privileged memory, as it allows a heightened interplay between the bodily self and the material world. Put another way, the memory of place attests to our bodily entwinement with materiality. In this way, it presents a critique to the Lockean idea that personal identity is secured by the continuity of an immaterial memory. So, spatiality is not an extension of memory, less even a mnemonic to cue specific memories. I am not, for instance, concerned with how particular places nudge dormant memories into consciousness, as though memory occupied an incidental relationship to the environment. Rather, what concerns me is the necessary relationship between memory and materiality, and how this relationship can pose a source of alienation as well as a source of continuity to the remembering subject.

The second place of memory refers less to the individual experience of places from one’s past, and more to construction of memories through the natural and built environment. Here, my concern is with monuments sites of trauma, and ruins that portend to events outside the memory of the living subject. This transition from the memory of place to the place of memory mirrors a shift from a phenomenological focus on lived experience to a hermeneutic analysis of the environment. So, for example, in my discussion of monumentality and space, the key question is how can a material artefact stand aside from the surrounding world, embody a commemorative silence, and stop us in our tracks? This is a complex process, which carries with the ethical responsibility of how materialityought to respond to the past. And there are no clear responses here, as any monument has to negotiate between the obligations of the past and the uncertainties of the future.

The final, and perhaps most important, place of memory is the human body. The body’s memory place is implicated in both forms of memories above, but it is also independent from these. This phrase “body memory” needs to be clarified, as it can refer to many things. The way that I use it in the book is less in the manner of Proustean recollection, as an invitation to lost time (though, of course, these memories are vitally important to our understanding of the embodiment of the past). It refers even less to a mechanical retrieval of applied motor memories, such as being able to hold a pen. Instead, the phrase refers to the relation between how we cognitively recall the past and the way in which our bodies act as anonymous organisms for manifesting a history different to that cognitive impression of the past. This emphasis on “difference” is because body memory carries with it a fundamental ambiguity: the body’s memory of places belongs to us as personal subjects and simultaneously can remain at odds with our personal recollection of the past. Obviously one clear way in which the body can manifest a past different to the past we’ve ordinarily remembered is in cases of traumatic recollection. Traumatic memory is one especially visceral way that the body can become a host for a living history that the traumatised subject is alienated from despite being constituted by that past.

But this sense of body memory as being the site of a different past is not limited to trauma. As I argue in the book, the role of body memory can help explain phenomenon such as hauntings. Both trauma and hauntings call upon the idea that the body has a hidden teleology that strives toward the preservation of self, even if that self is now a materialization of self-estrangement, now ill-at-home in its flesh. This principle is also evident in more innocuous environments such as airports, waiting rooms, and modern offices. This transition from sites of trauma to airports may seem flippant. But in fact one of the things I argue in this book is the following: the certain places can be so cognitively overwhelming or disorientating, that bodily intentionality takes a more focal role in guiding us through the world. Of course, thematically, there is a huge difference from being lost in an airport and being imprisoned in a solitary cell. Yet in both cases, the structure of bodily experience retains a parallel role. In turn, this can lead to a nullification of memory in our conscious lives. All along, the body is in the midst of establishing its own history of the world, which may return to us long after the place has receded from our waking lives.

All of this points to the importance of the uncanny in the book. As I mentioned above, phenomenology has a special relationship to the uncanny, insofar as returning to the things themselves can, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, encourage us to view the world, “as if viewed by a creature of another species.” In the book, I am interested in how this other species joins Freud’s account of the uncanny as involving a “species of the frightening.” This encounter of weird species is the backdrop against which my study of memory and materiality takes place. Memory fits especially well into this uncanny landscape, as it involves a twilight zone between presence and absence, past and present, and the familiarity of visual memory and the unfamiliarity of a memory anchored in the body’s cryptic experience of things.

What can you tell us about “place studies” as a contemporary field of inquiry? What can you say about its origins and antecedents?

Place studies is the field of inquiry that dedicates itself to the study of how we experience places, how places intersect in political life, and how places shapes our understanding of identity, individual and collective. My own work in this field has tended to veer toward the phenomenological study of place, even though I occupy a critical stance to some tendencies in the phenomenological tradition. The study of place, as it features in philosophy, tends to take its point of departure from Heidegger’s account of dwelling, Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on bodily spatiality, and perhaps more critically, Gaston Bachelard’s important book, “The Poetics of Space.” Bachelard is especially crucial here for thematizing the role of place in our remembering lives. For him, the childhood home becomes a sort of ontological centre, around which much of our subsequent live revolves. This is because, for Bachelard, the memory of places is oneiric in nature: memories of childhood homes drift into our daydreams and imaginations, creating an overlapping duration in our history. Of course, there is much that is problematic in this idealization of childhood memories, and Bachelard remains mute in his treatment of the house as a site of hostile memories. Nevertheless, he has exerted a tremendous influence on philosophical studies of place. Both Bachelard and Heidegger are formative in influencing the discipline of human geography, which is closely aligned with phenomenological studies of place. So, in the 1970s and 1980s a steady output of research on place by pioneering thinkers such as David Seamon, Yi-Fu Tuan, and Edward Relph. These thinkers were among the first to explicitly employ a phenomenological background to our experience of the natural and urban environment. At the heart of much of this research is an ethical assumption about what constitutes a “sense of place.” As such, in its earliest stages, the phenomenological treatment of place tended to be slightly one-sided in its criticism of the “placelessness” of the urban environment, at times gesturing toward a vaguely Bachelardian nostalgia.  Later on, thinkers such as Karsten Harries, Robert Mugerauer, and the architect Juhani Pallasmaa pushed these origins in a more diverse direction, while still retaining a broadly Heideggerian foundation. Today, the contemporary field of place studies is in a healthy state: thinkers such as Jeff Malpas, Ted Toadvine, and Doreen Massey are all pushing the field in exciting ways. For me, though, the most significant thinker for my own work is Edward Casey. Casey has written prolifically on place, remembering, and imagination. His books such as “Getting Back Into Place” and “The Fate of Place” are exemplary in their thematic richness, scholarly breadth, and attention to phenomenological detail. This last point was especially compelling for me when I first discovered his work as an undergraduate. It seems to me that one strength of phenomenology is the ability to remind us of things that we already know but have been overlooked through habit and over familiarity. Reading Casey was a breakthrough for me, as he work calls attention to the richness of everyday life with such clarity and precision that one has exactly this sense that his thinking is also an act of recollecting what we already know but were blind to.

As you probably know, there has been much debate lately about the “right to forget”. France, in particular, is considering new legislation that would give net users the option to have old data about themselves deleted. What is at stake is the length of time that personal information should remain available in the public arena. What is your take on this debate and, from a philosophical standpoint, what is so uncanny about “remembering forever”?  

Nietzsche famously told us that the capacity to forget is as important as the ability to remember. The point he was making is that we are ethically obliged to be critical of the past, lest it occupies a monolithic and antiquated relationship to the present. The erosion of memory, virtual or otherwise, is as important to good health as water and clean air are. In a more banal context, I have been blogging since 2004, which is a fact I’m very ambivalent about. Part of me is compelled to delete the blog, to begin again, freeing me of a connection to archived materials. At the same time, this compulsion is outweighed by a hoarding mentality, where my written past becomes an external object, which I treat in forensic terms, as though it were connected to me only by a trace. This too reappears in the new Facebook timeline feature, where it now becomes easy to chronicle the neuroses and idiosyncrasies of one’s online life in an archival fashion. Indeed, the internet in a way promotes this kind of pre-emptive nostalgia toward the immediacy of our near past in a way that is producing a sickly, uncritical fascination with the contrived creation of memories. The ghost towns and graveyards of the internet are fascinating because they still hold remnants of a life that is traceable in the future. And this uncanny affectivity of the internet as a memorial site for the archive of an individual’s life is compelling, I think. Urgent research is likely needed on the relationship between the internet and people’s sense of their own (im)mortality. Is the ambiguous temporality of the internet—with its anonymous storage units and sinister databases—a source of comfort for those who wish to have their existence carved in virtual stone long after they’re physically dead? I don’t know. But net users should certainly have the option to delete data about themselves which is stored online. But I’m not sure all internet users would wish this upon themselves.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on two projects. The first and most pressing is a phenomenological study of agoraphobia. After writing “The Memory of Place,” it occurred to me that many of my descriptions of the uncanny were rooted in a phobic experience of the world. There is a phobic dimension to the uncanny that is manifest, for example, in the experience of homesickness. In homesickness, the world is explicitly structured into homely and unhomely territories. This kind of division can set in place a phobic relation to unhomely and unfamiliar places and bodily sensations. That tension was implicit in “The Memory of Place,” but I’m now pursuing it in a more focused way through attending to agoraphobia. This work, which is being carried out at the Centre de Recherche en Épistémologie Appliquée in Paris, is situated in a broader analysis of intersubjectivity and embodiment, and I’m especially concerned with questions such as: how does the look of the other affect our bodily experience of the world; what role do other people play in shaping the materiality of the world; and what can anxiety tell us about the ontology of the body? Increasingly, I am becoming to think that these questions will require some kind of dialogue between phenomenology and psychoanalysis. How this is possible, I do not yet know.

The second project is more speculative in flavour, and broadly concerns phenomenology and the origins of life. Philosopher’s sometime talk in terms about “thought experiments.” The problem with thought experiments is that the speculative dimension of the experiment is presented in a fictional sense in order to get to a supposedly “deeper” problem. I’m interested in pursuing an experiment in thought that takes the speculative aspect on its own terms. All of this is a polite way of explaining that I’m exploring the human body’s relationship to theories of panspermia (the idea that life is transported in space through microbes inhabiting asteroids and meteoroids). Much of the inspiration for this work takes its inspiration from Merleau-Ponty’s cryptic notes on nature and his last unfinished manuscript. For example, Merleau-Ponty’s use of the term “ineinander” to refer to the “strange kinship” of human and non-human animals can provide a model for how Earthly and non-Earthly bodies relate to one another. Here, I am especially interested in exploring the prehistory of the subject as it figures in Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the prepersonal body. The speculative dimension of this research, therefore, will be situating this prehistory in both the origins of the Earth but also in the materiality of cosmic space – if indeed, one can draw such a distinction between Earth and cosmic space in the first place.


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

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2012). “Interview with Dylan Trigg,” Figure/Ground. March 20th.
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