Interview with Steven Shaviro

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© 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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Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2013). “Interview with Steven Shaviro,” Figure/Ground. February 22nd.
< http://figureground.org/interview-with-steven-shaviro/ >


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