Interview with Joanna Zylinska

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© Joanna Zylinska and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Zylinska was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis on April 12th, 2013

Joanna Zylinska is a cultural theorist writing on new technologies and new media, ethics and art. She is Professor of New Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. The author of four books – Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (with Sarah Kember; MIT Press, 2012), Bioethics in the Age of New Media (MIT Press, 2009), The Ethics of Cultural Studies (Continuum, 2005) and On Spiders, Cyborgs and Being Scared: the Feminine and the Sublime (Manchester University Press, 2001) – she is also the editor of The Cyborg Experiments: the Extensions of the Body in the Media Age, a collection of essays on the work of performance artists Stelarc and Orlan (Continuum, 2002) and co-editor of Imaginary Neighbors: Mediating Polish-Jewish Relations after the Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). She has just completed a translation of Stanislaw Lem’s major philosophical treatise, Summa Technologiae, for the University of Minnesota’s Electronic Mediations series. Together with Clare Birchall, Gary Hall and Open Humanities Press, she runs the JISC-funded project Living Books about Life, consisting of a series of 20+ co-edited, electronic open access books about life which provide a bridge between the humanities and the sciences. Zylinska is one of the Editors of Culture Machine, an international open-access journal of culture and theory. She combines her philosophical writings with photographic art practice. In 2011 she was Beaverbrook Visiting Scholar at McGill University in Canada. Her current projects involve photographing media entanglements and serving as Artistic Director of Transitio_MX05 ‘Biomediations’, the Festival of New Media Art and Video in Mexico City to be held in 2013. She is also writing on critical vitalism, nonhuman photography and ‘a big theory of media’, while trying to outline a minimal ethics for the anthropocene.

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

I grew up in Poland, on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain, where there was a strong tradition of being an intellectual, a tradition that wasn’t driven by capitalist productivity and that – contrary to the perception of “Eastern Europe” in the West at the time – encouraged many forms of critical enquiry and experimentation. So, as much as one can at an early age, I always intuitively felt I wanted to pursue that activity of thinking beyond the limits of thinking, of doing something that wasn’t limited to fulfilling any agenda-driven programs or pre-decided modes of production (even if I wouldn’t always have been able to articulate it like that at the time). I had perceived university professors as being able to exercise a certain kind of freedom, in a political sense – although there are of course constrains placed on that freedom – but also in a broader sense, in that professors seemed to be able to ask different kinds of questions, to unpick the norms of culture and society, and to read intensely, even madly. I also imagined that university professors must take great pleasure in their career: in sharing knowledge with others, in teaching others, and in learning from others. So the formal academic training was for me a quasi-natural consequence of this early realisation, as was my immersion in the tradition of first literature and then European philosophy – from Kant, through to Levinas, Lyotard and Derrida. Then, when I moved to the UK in the middle of my graduate studies, I was rather disappointed about the negative connotations the concept of the intellectual had here: intellectualism was something that the French did, apparently. I also discovered how the traditional class structure of British society was tied to certain forms of financial and cultural capital. The latter had very little to do with the pursuit of difficult ideas or unthinking the status quo. But in the UK I was also exposed to a very exciting intellectual development, which was the Birmingham Centre-inspired tradition of cultural studies espoused by thinkers such as Stuart Hall and Angela McRobbie. Cultural studies combined academic enquiry with a political critique of the main structures and notions we all hold dear, including both the traditional class system and the role of the intellectual! So this is how it happened, although I feel I am still in the process of becoming a university professor – a process that will perhaps never end…

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

First, I need to mention Professor Tadeusz Slawek, my PhD thesis advisor from Poland, who was a theorist and a philosopher, a scholar of William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche, but also a poet and a musician. He pushed me to start thinking about the relation between philosophy and language differently. With my PhD, what began as a rather conventional project on gothic fiction and the sublime thus ended up being a much more experimental enquiry into aesthetics, ethics and technology as well as into the very practice of writing, understood as the weaving together of ideas and images. (A revised version later came out as my first book, On Spiders, Cyborgs and Being Scared: The Feminine and the Sublime.) I should also mention the late Professor Lorna Sage from the University of East Anglia, where I had a visiting fellowship during my graduate studies. Lorna encouraged me to play further with language, to delve deep into the gothic imaginary of women’s fiction and non-fiction, and to get my hands and mind dirty while pursuing a so-called academic career.

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

We’re used to hearing all sorts of jeremiads today, mourning the passing of the golden age, when the life of a professor was supposedly much easier, when there was much more academic independence and sovereignty, etc. However, I feel I somehow missed out on that golden age, as the whole of my university career so far seems to have been spent on trying to negotiate between competing demands from external regulators, academic managers, students, publishers, and grant-giving bodies. So in one sense the role of university professor has evolved towards having to respond to the different claims that are being constantly made by different “stakeholders,” to use that terrible management-speak term. In the UK, there is a strong emphasis on the need for the academic profession to prove its “external influence,” in the sense that professors have to demonstrate their value to economy and society by showing their “impact in the real world.” Now this is a rather narrow and instrumentalist idea, which is not to say that professors should not think about the wider world, or that they should remain in their so-called ivory towers, obsessively pursuing their own minute concerns. It’s just that the role of the professor is arguably to be sometimes at odds with the world, with dominant thinking, with the government’s economic agenda, with the political system. Unless we recognise this, we will turn professors either into civil servants or into extensions of the business machine, whose whole value will be to make “the system” run more efficiently and function more smoothly. That might of course sometimes be desirable, but it may also foreclose the prospect of imagining some other possibilities, some different futures. It is precisely in this possibility of reimagining and transforming, on our own terms, in a kind of bottom-up way, what it means to be a professor today – by developing different forms of engagement with institutions and agencies such as arts bodies, non-governmental organisations, activist movements, and other dispersed networks and communities from which the professor can learn and with which she can work (instead of just “professing” to them) – that I can see the promise and hope of the academic profession today. To continue on this positive note, when it comes to the evolution of the professor’s role we should also mention some beneficial aspects of professionalization, in terms of the better and more structured teacher training that is offered to professors, pedagogy being taken more seriously, and professors becoming more aware of their pastoral responsibility for their students’ lives outside and beyond academia.

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

I wonder to what extent we can really assess the “effect” that the information age has had on the university and pedagogy, given that the university itself has arguably produced, or at least co-produced, the information age. (Think about the university network ARPANET that gave rise to the Internet, or Google and Facebook developing as projects when their founders were at the university). I would argue more broadly that technology is not something that can be applied to external agents who can then exert influences over things. It should rather be seen as a dynamic network of forces and relations. The university is one of the nodes in such a network, which actively contributes to its functioning, but which also undergoes changes in the process. Seen from this vantage point, one of the most exciting things on the pedagogic arena over the last decade has been the incorporation of media technologies not just as tools for learning but also as active agents in the pedagogic process. This has been part of a wider agenda willingly embraced by some universities or forced on them by everyday praxis coming from the student body, of the idea of “student as producer.” Access to cheap technologies of media production has gone some ways towards breaking the boundaries between knowledge and information producers on the one hand and their recipients on the other. This expanded model of media production and knowledge creation has allowed professors and students to reflect on how to generate knowledge otherwise, and how to remediate their own positions as readers and writers of different types of texts. Naturally, this new model is not in itself a guarantee of the emergence of better knowledge. This multi-level media production, coupled with the constant production of information and the constant struggle for our attention, has arguably led to the role of university professor becoming more like that of a curator – an active constructor and interpreter of information flows.

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

Some disciplines today enjoy a relatively privileged position, especially if they are able to justify their existence in terms of their usefulness to the economy and society, the way we discussed earlier. We can mention here the sciences, such as, for example, neuroscience, molecular biology or information science, but also engineering – all disciplines that are widely seen as worthy of both funding and scholarly attention. Other disciplines, especially some of those from the humanities stable, have found themselves in a much more vulnerable position. In this context, the 1990s buzzword of interdisciplinarity seems to have lost some of its shine in the humanities. I would argue, however, that true interdisciplinarity still hasn’t happened, with C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” division between the sciences and the humanities still shaping to a large extent many university programs, academic faculties, publishing ventures, etc. Yet for me it is the disciplinary encounter between humanities, arts, and sciences that can potentially offer the most exciting direction in which academia could develop. But I realize that, while humanities may seem keen to go down this route to strengthen their somewhat vulnerable position and make themselves look more “proper” (witness some uncritical and rather mechanistic adoptions of the “digital humanities” agenda by certain universities), there is far less at stake for sciences in embarking upon this kind of interdisciplinary encounter.

You have recently completed a translation of Stanisław Lem’s Summa Technologiae for University of Minnesota Press. Could you tell us a little about Lem’s overall philosophical project and perhaps comment on the structure of the book?

Lem is predominantly known to English-speaking readers as the author of the novel Solaris, which was subsequently made into a film – first by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and then by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. However, alongside fiction Lem also wrote philosophical commentaries on the relationship between humanity and technology – the most accomplished of which is his Summa Technologiae. Even though the book was first published in 1964, it retains much of its critical significance, especially in the way in which it manages to address some of the important ethical questions facing humanity today without falling into a moral panic about technology. This is why I was delighted to be able to help make it available to Anglophone readers. The title of Summa, as you may be able to tell, is a pastiche of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. With the structure of the book, which draws on the scientific method to construct a complex secular edifice of knowledge, Lem rivals the scholastic ambitions of his predecessor. He develops an intriguing argument about the parallel processes involved in biological and technical evolution, while at the same time showing some serious doubts about the logic and wisdom of evolutionary processes. With his characteristic wit and irony, Lem describes evolution as opportunistic, short-sighted, miserly, extravagant, chaotic, and illogical in its design solutions. There’s no “nature knows best” in his theory, but neither should we expect the human to make up for this supposed stupidity of nature. Yet Summa is not a pessimistic story: it’s just an excellent lesson in scepticism.

In your 2009 book, Bioethics in the Age of New Media, you talk about a “nonsystemic bioethics of relations.” Can you talk about that concept and particularly about your approach to the notion of “relation” in terms of contemporary bioethical debate?

That book arose from a dissatisfaction on my part with the traditional discourse of bioethics, which I felt was overtly prescriptive and procedural, and which did not match the emerging phenomena of life as they were currently unfolding. I was particularly interested in the transformation of the very idea of “living beings” that biotechnology has helped to promote and in the expanded kinship network between humans, animals and machines. This is why I decided to shift the focus of my ethical theory in the book from a singular moral subject (which arguably has been always been nothing more than a philosophical fiction) to a dynamic network of relations between human and nonhuman entities. Even thoughBioethics in the Age of New Media did propose an expanded set of obligations, I wanted to do more than just relocate our ethical attention from humans to animals or even to machines. Instead, the differential relation between the human and the nonhuman became my focal point, with the human being seen as emerging through, and in relation to, technology. For me technology is not something added to, or something that disrupts or threatens the original wholeness of, the human. Instead, taking inspiration from Bernard Stiegler, I see it as a co-constitutive and creative network of forces through which the human distinguishes himself or herself from his or her environment. Such a relational understanding of human and nonhuman life opens up the possibility of a non-hysterical engagement with technology. This does not mean an “anything goes approach”: a “nonsystemic bioethics of relations” can still work in tandem with critical policy work that may suggest regulating different forms of relationality and emergence in particular cultural and political contexts.

What role does the notion of “information” play in your work? How do you conceptualize it? For instance, Gilbert Simondon thought information as less a thing to be “sent” and “received” than as a type of structural function.

Even though my work does engage with thinking drawn from cybernetics and systems theory, the notion of “information” on its own does not play a significant role in it, I must say. As explained earlier, I am inclined towards more relational modes of thinking, where entities only ever temporarily stabilise. I also share N. Katherine Hayles’s concern outlined in her well-known book How We Became Posthuman with regard to how information had supposedly lost its body in systems theory, becoming a discrete unit of analysis – but also perhaps a unit of desire for many a (male) theorist. However, Simondon’s definition as cited by you here may offer us a way out of this dualism between form and content, medium and matter, and thus a more process-based understanding of information.

What are you currently working on?

I am trying to take my work on ethics and technology further by developing what I am tentatively calling “a minimal ethics for the Anthropocene.” I know that scientists have not yet actually agreed whether this newly postulated epoch called Anthropocene, which supposedly follows the Holocene, actually exists, but I am interested in this term as a kind of ethical call issued to those of us who call ourselves “human” to take responsibility for the biosphere, while avoiding many of the humanist pitfalls of traditional environmentalism, for example. This is no doubt a kind of experiment, but experimentation in and with knowledge practices is very important to me. That’s why the other area I am currently working on involves trying to philosophize via photography and image-making, while also being involved in various curatorial projects.

In your most recent book, Life After New Media, you situate new media as permeating the realms of the social as well as the biological. Is reality mediated? Are we mediated? What does it mean to “do” media studies in this way?

This book, co-written with my Goldsmiths colleague Sarah Kember, is an experiment in “doing knowledge” differently. It was also an attempt to try and write in two voices, with two people bringing slightly different ways of thinking about the media to the table and seeing what emerges in the process when the mastery of one single authorial voice and mode of thinking is suspended. On the thematic level the book deals with the idea of mediation. It suggests that, rather than think about media as a series of singular objects such as iPads, cell phones or cameras, we should first of all understand media as a network of interlocked processes of mediation in which biological, political, technical, social and economic flows interconnect and intra-act. With this, and drawing inspiration from Bergson’s relentless search for the truly new, we wanted to signal a creative energy within what we can conventionally understand as media, an energy that is often overlooked when media get locked into their traditional forms and uses – and the traditional debates about them. So, to answer your question, yes, absolutely, we are and have always been mediated. To “do media studies” in this way involves abandoning the formalist, structure-driven approach, where individual entities such as society, democracy, violence, or poverty are seen as being able to “affect” and “be affected” by other singular entities in a seemingly straightforward and unproblematic way. It also involves recognizing a multilevel process of media constitution – of which we’re part and from which we become different. But we also mustn’t see it as an uncritical postulation of a “media flow” in which everything is the same. The emergence of media out of mediation links to the notion of the “cut” – which for us serves as an ethical imperative that allows us to introduce temporary stabilisations and resolutions into mediation, and to see how they matter, and to whom. Life After New Media is also an attempt to rethink their relationship between theory and practice in media studies, between writing about media in a particular medium, say that of a conventional academic monograph, and producing media such as novels, art, YouTube videos. It has therefore been our ambition – in this book but also in our own practices outside academia (fiction in Sarah’s case, art photography in mine) – to explore some other ways in which different stories of mediation can be told and in which different forms of artistic and intellectual agency can be enacted and experimented with.

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

Questions? Please contact Laureano Ralón at laureano@alumni.sfu.ca