Interview with Garnet C. Butchart

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© Garnet C. Butchart and Figure/Ground
Dr. Butchart was interviewed by Andrew Hines. December 19th, 2013.

Garnet C. Butchart (PhD, Massachusetts-Amherst) is Assistant Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University. He specializes in semiotics and philosophy of communication. His research has been published in leading communication journals including, Semiotica, Communication Theory, Social Semiotics, Communication Culture & Critique, The Review of Communication, and elsewhere. His research has been recognized nationally and internationally with awards from the Philosophy of Communication Division of the International Communication Association (ICA), the Semiotics and Communication Division of the National Communication Association (NCA), and the Philosophy of Communication Division of NCA. In 2013 he received the Journal Article of the Year award from the Philosophy of Communication Division of NCA. Dr. Butchart has held teaching appointments at universities in the United States and Canada. He has lectured on ethics and visual semiotics by invitation of the Jerusalem Center for Ethics in Israel. He is a Scholar (elected) of the International Communicology Institute (ICI) and a member of the Executive Board (elected) of the Semiotic Society of America (SSA). Dr. Butchart’s current research examines the ideas of community and communication in recent movements in contemporary continental philosophy. He is co-editor of Philosophy of Communication (MIT Press, 2012).

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

The choice was conscious, but I’m not sure if that which brought me to it was. I do know that taking this route was inspired initially by my undergraduate education in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. Truly exceptional communication scholars led my courses at SFU. Their lectures made a significant impression on me. So did the seminars, especially the famous course on Innis, McLuhan and Grant, led by Roman Onufrijchuck—a true intellectual. His approach to reading primary sources prepared me well for graduate school, gave me a sense of what post-graduate training would be like. I think being in Vancouver was also a factor in my career decision. Attending university in a diverse urban setting broadened the way I saw the world. But ultimately it was the literature—the ideas—that drew me in the direction of an academic career. Most of my courses in communication left me wanting more of the philosophical background: What is phenomenology? How does it relate to the study of media? What is structuralism? What is post-structuralism? And this word, “semiotics,” why is it lodged in the back of my mind? I had these questions—really, I thought about this stuff—and I wanted answers. So I applied to graduate school.

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

The main lesson was: Read. Read a lot. Otherwise, writing suffers. I learned this from all of my mentors. Charles Acland taught me how to refine the scope and limits of a research topic—how to understand the broader problematic into which a research project will intervene, and to prepare for questions about why I chose this topic, why these questions, and from this point of view, rather than related topics, questions, and other points of view. During my doctoral work, my advisor, Briankle Chang had similar advice: Read widely, and also, take time. We are always short of time, aren’t we? And we must finish our degrees in a timely fashion. But the labour of reading—reading carefully—and of critical thinking also demand time. Obviously, taking time makes for high quality scholarship.

In your experience, has the role of a university professor evolved since you were a student?

Not too much, I hope. Today we hear of “flipped classrooms” and the idea that lectures are ineffective for learning. I’m not so sure. I think the basic role of the humanities professor remains consistent; namely, to question why our world appears as it does, and to imagine it differently. Bringing that into the classroom can be quite inspiring. When we teach, we hope to inspire intellectual curiosity. Part of the goal of the professor is to provide intellectual resources to help students add meaning to their lives. Another part is to provide a skill set for the job market. Personally, I think the two are bound together. Theory is a practical way to talk about the world. I don’t think this basis of a humanities-based education has changed. I am always mindful of the importance of broadening the marketplace identity of a Communication BA. The Communication graduate is haunted by the question, “What is Communication?” I try to emphasize the cultural, and not merely instrumental value of an education in Communication. I try to talk about big ideas in grounded ways, linked to issues and topics that effect students as citizens. And if I can build student confidence in speaking persuasively about the value of their time in university, then I take that as a success.

Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by a world in which attention is fractured by media and information overload?

Right now changes are happening to how we think, learn, and interact with the world. Being present in the classroom, or anywhere else, is always an exercise in mindfulness. I think attention today is, indeed, at a higher premium, in large part because of our investments in our digital devices. Our investments in these devices are real—“media are extensions of ourselves,” as McLuhan says. Smartphones are among our most vital organs. Personal media devices will arrive to the classroom not as tools of distraction, but literally as part of who we are. So I think it’s crucial to acknowledge this. Given these circumstances, I think the best strategy for teaching and learning is to be flexible and open in the digital media environment rather than rigid. I try to make learning as interactive as possible, and I invite integration of devices into the learning process. I want to learn from the knowledge my students have, and from their skill in finding content to add to the course. So I approach the classroom as an “expert co-learner,” to use Howard Rheingold’s phrase. I also try to engage students in dialogue, and not simply lecture. I ask my students to undertake group problem solving activities and to engage the course material collaboratively. I don’t want to say that the lecture model is finished. Far from it. But I do think that lectures have to be dynamic and stimulating today in order to hold attention. This is why collaborative work and dialogue can help significantly to facilitate learning. It is an exciting time in education. Inability to pay attention in class has as much to do with media and multitasking as it does with bad lectures!

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared 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?

That was in 1964 and I think it’s still too soon to tell. I’m not sure that the authority of the university is undermined in the age of information. For example, because of the flexibilities afforded by innovations in mobile communication and interactive media, the demand for online education has increased—it makes practical sense, and it is highly profitable. Part of the demand is for certification. Because of its history, the modern university really has the advantage here—its authority is to certify. Still, I don’t think this means the university won’t have competition and won’t have to work to maintain its legitimacy. It must, and it has. Consider the whole “MOOC” phenomenon. Who knows what that will look like a year from now. But at present, those courses are wildly popular not only because of the flexible form of their delivery, but also because of the certification students can get from them. The leaders behind this movement are some of the world’s wealthiest and elite universities. But not all universities can pull this off. I’d say the university, as an institution in general, is very good at leveraging high speed computing, mobile and interactive media for promoting and maximizing profitability in its education services. And as more of the curriculum goes online, the university has the distinct advantage of profiting from a global surplus of intellectual labour. We can’t overlook that aspect. So, although I don’t see the authority of the university being threatened just yet, I do think your question gets us thinking about the quality of education, the future of the humanities, and the funding structures that traditionally support salaries. Are these under threat? I think so.

In the wake of several authors (like the philosopher Alain Badiou and the controversial psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan) you maintain that many visible things, like our speeches or the political systems we live in, are built around a “void”. This void is not just an empty space within which things move, nor can it be a sheer “nothing” if it is to produce visible effects. Avoiding the roughness of the technical jargon of metaphysics, how can this “void” be conceived?

We can add Merleau-Ponty to the names you’ve mentioned. This “void” is not a mysterious concept. I have characterized it in a number of ways, following a basic, Lacanian psychoanalytic framework. Put simply, a void is that which cannot be seen from the perspective we typically bring to a given situation. A void is that around which a situation is structured, given its order. As you point out, the void of a situation is not simply invisible, nor is it empty. Rather, the problem is that a void cannot be “seen” from the point of view that is typically brought to bear on a situation. That’s why it is a void, not something else. For example, in communication a void is not nothing, manifest, say, in silence, as with the absences within one’s speech, or in the avoidance of certain topics. A “void” in that sense is not simply a void in the possibility for communication. Rather, as Peter Fenves has said, “a void of communication is communicated whenever communication is avoided.” So, in order to recognize the significance of a void in communication (spoken, visual, or so-called non-verbal) one must shift perspective. That is, although what a person says may appear empty or meaningless in a given situation (say, in a specific conversation), the so-called void, absence, or emptiness in conversation might in fact conceal what the person wants to say and the significance of it for the kind of relation he or she wants with the other person. Whatever can be communicated cannot always be communicated clearly. Now, to shift perspective in order to recognize that which structures a situation but cannot, as such, be seen, this is no easy task—in politics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, or in conversation! It requires one to approach a situation from a perspective that may not be one’s own, which is very hard to do. And why would anyone want to do this anyway? The short answer is, to transform radically what Badiou calls the “state of affairs” of a situation. To change the order of things—here I am thinking especially about relations of exploitation, the so-called “precariate,” surplus labor, to mention a current and extremely pressing example. This would require locating that specific group or “class” as the very void on top of which a given state of affairs is structured (capitalist exploitation, dispossession, put simply), but is often overlooked. What does it look like? What are its contours? And, how do we make the conditions better? Obviously, transforming the state of a situation is not easy.

You have published articles about the notion of “truth” in documentary. Beyond the definitions that have been provided, you have argued that visual perception is the truth in a documentary. But visual perception is not immediately visible itself, so a documentary “tells the truth” about itself only if it brings visual perception into view, lingering on what you call “the situation of documentary.” What is this about? Technically, how can it be rendered? And, is this framework valid for other visual arts?

It’s a good question. I am afraid that my answer might be too simplistic. But let me reiterate what I said a moment ago because I think the answer to this question is in there somewhere. What I called “void” a moment ago is really just another name for the limits of thought; it marks that which one does not, or does not yet, know or see. A void is not nothing; it is that which, in fact, compels one to look, to think. This is the image (or sense) of the void that I have whenever I invoke it in my writings. What is it that compels us, or stirs us, to look, to think, to wonder? It is that which we do not yet know or cannot yet see. The void is that which “appears” between the visible and the invisible. It is that out of which, or across which, the invisible must appear in order to be seen. It is within this philosophical framework that I have written about documentary as an enterprise in bringing to visibility that which is not yet seen. What is documentary? I’m not sure. What does it do? Well, one thing documentary film and video does is teach us something about the world, and it does so from a point of view that the viewer may not have thought about, may not have seen. As I have argued in print, the real story about any documentary (its truth, as it were) concerns that which is not on screen, that which really cannot be seen because it is so painfully blinding—namely, the point of view from which the world on screen is depicted. This is certainly not a new idea. Not long ago, film theorists writing about this topic linked it to the problem of ideology, talked about it in terms of continuity editing, seamlessness, this sort of thing. They were talking about process, the machinery of looking that quickly disappears behind all that it gives to be seen (the assemblage of images on the screen). Movies are beautiful precisely because they draw us in; they do the work of looking for us. The perspective of the film implies the viewer. So what I have done in my research is to focus on the semiotic-phenomenological aspects of image-making, which we rarely hear about in media theory and ethics. Thinking about image making as a process that is framed, entered into, and negotiated brings us beyond largely irresolvable issues of individual morality, as well as bringing us beyond simple, sometimes trivial textual analysis, allowing us to focus instead on the relations enabled and constrained by visual media—relations of communication that we experience at a fundamentally embodied level. Basically, my goal of offering a semiotic phenomenology of looking, showing, and being seen has been to bring communication into view as a reversible relation—the idea that self-expression becomes the perception of others, an interpretation of an expression of a perception. Richard Lanigan, one of the most important philosophers of communication, has written extensively on this semiotic phenomenology of communication.

Part of your recent work is aimed to establish philosophy of communication as an independent field of inquiry. Could you give us an outline of the key issues in this area? Also, we might think about communication as a linear and internally coherent process. What is the role of conflict in communication?

Philosophy of communication as an area of inquiry has been around for nearly 40 years, shaped by the work of several communication scholars in the United States, Canada, and Europe. As I see it, philosophy of communication is concerned with communication as a problematic. It is an effort to think philosophically about some of the basic problems and issues that legitimize raising “communication” as a topic of inquiry to begin with. It puts what you call the linearity and internal coherence of communication into question as a presupposition; and it sees conflict (great example!) as a critical feature of the possibility of communication as well as community (which I will say more about in a moment). So, we never presuppose this thing, “communication.” Communication is a horizon for inquiry into topics that are fundamental to the meaning of being human. For example, philosophy of communication (or, a philosophical approach to human communication) includes basic questions of language (e.g., how is that the sounds I am making are intelligible to you? How is it that these sounds, or words—signs, which are part of semiotic systems—how do they bring structure to sense and meaning to my lived environment?); it includes key questions of media (e.g., what can the phenomenology of a given medium—a description of the conscious experience of its practices—tell us about a specific period in human culture?); philosophy of communication includes questions of consciousness (e.g., how am I aware of my lived environment? How do I become aware of my awareness of my environment? How do I experience the discourses of which I am a part?); it includes questions of difference (e.g., how are semiotic systems organized? What are the rules or codes that govern the exchange of signs?); it also includes questions of ethics (e.g., what kind of relation is established in and by way of communication? What role do other people play in my awareness of self?). These are some of the core questions. Drawing attention to them in a way that makes the contemporary study of communication crackle with life is the goal of my co-edited book, Philosophy of Communication. What we’ve tried to do in that collection is to bring together some of the most insightful and foundational works of continental philosophy that help characterize the scope of communication as a problematic, and to arrange those works in ways that may be unexpected but will, hopefully, stimulate further philosophical inquiry in our field.

What are you currently working on?

Right now I am working on a book devoted to the topic of “community” in the continental philosophical tradition. Obviously the topic of community is fundamental to the study of communication. But in the past three years, there has been a major spike in articles on community published in mainstream Communication journals, articles on the topic of building community, on online communities, on networks as communities, and so on. However, my interest is quite different. I am interested in the idea of community. What do communication scholars mean by “community”? What does the idea or concept of community add to our understanding of communication (of shared understanding, of subjectivity as intersubjectivity)? The question of community is a question of its possibility. What are the limits of community, especially today, in the collapse of communities and in the contexts of appeals to it that have gone terribly, horrifically wrong? Some answers to these questions can be found in the philosophical works by Jean Luc Nancy, Roberto Esposito, and Giorgio Agamben, to name a few. As I read these and other European scholars who share in the conversation about community, such as Peter Sloterdijk, there is an implicit philosophy (and ethics) of communication. For example, Nancy’s ontology of community is an attempt to introduce new terms for thinking about the lived condition of our co-occurrence, what he calls “being-with” and its articulation—its communication. Or take Sloterdijk’s “theory of spheres” [Bubbles, Semiotext, 2011], which I read as a radical philosophy of being together, but from the perspective of form. Sloterdijk develops an intriguing vocabulary—spheres, orbs, foam—that draws attention to the shape of our surroundings, the shape of the outside, and the phenomenon of “globe-alization.” The relevance of both projects to communication is the focus they bring to the boundaries that structure the experience of being together. As we know, a boundary (that which is included within, and at the same time, remains outside of what it contains) is the very condition of possibility for both communication and community. Sloterdijk’s “sphere-ology” and Nancy’s “being-with,” two unique philosophies of boundaries, contact, and communication, broaden our thinking about the contours of our concrete, lived situations. So the goal of my current work is to draw out and to offer a critical synthesis of these recent philosophical perspectives on community and communication.

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

Suggested citation:

Hines, A. (2013). “Interview with Garnet C. Butchart,” Figure/Ground. December 19th.
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