Hello, Tim, thanks for joining us today. You’re self-identified as being with the OOO or Object-Oriented Ontology wing of the Speculative Realists, along with people like Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and others. I know there are differences of opinion among you, but how does belonging to a group like this influence your personal practice of scholarship, which, no matter the group, will involve some degree of solitary study and writing?
Solitary study and writing is frighteningly pleasant—I'm quite introverted and contemplative so I really like this part of my job. Big conferences can freak me out, but it's getting easier to surf the adrenaline. Being part of a small group of emerging philosophers (the OOO crew) is really meaningful for me, in ways that my previous scholarly existence wasn't.
In what ways? I know there is a lively blog give-and-take among you guys.
I'm a suspicious, inward, control-freak type of a guy who is very intellectual, judgmental and critical, jealous, paranoid, you name it. I really should have nothing to do with civilized society! So I have trouble with group dynamics sometimes, especially large groups. Small groups, under about nine or so people, tend to emphasize survival over competition. I can do survival. As a meditator I've been on solitary retreats, which I've loved, and large group retreats, which have often sucked, except for the silent ones. The silent ones are great because the guy sitting next to you could be plotting to take over the universe, but there's nothing either you, or thankfully he, can do about it. And you never even get to hear of his plotting! You just coexist. It's very ecological actually. There should be more introverted public spaces—like libraries. It would be very good for democracy.
I love it that I've been welcomed into the OOO group, which is very warm, very genuine. Graham has often said that we're heart-on-sleeve type people so yeah, there is some feeling of kindred spirit there. We all made our different journeys to the same place. It is of course a tremendous relief to find one's inner stuff reflected somewhat in the outer world, to be supported and accepted and so on. It's also bracing. Those guys have upgraded my head about five times since summer 2010 when I figured out I was one of them. But yeah we talk with each other a lot.
On this note it would be interesting to compare the group dynamics and so forth of different philosophical schools. How do Deleuzians relate with one another? My first taste of a large flock of Deleuzians (a plateau of Deleuzians, surely) was Jane Bennett's book launch at Johns Hopkins. They were a really curious, open minded, good crowd. I felt right at home. Derrideans tend to be solitary. And so on.
Yes, there's a whole anthropology to be done there. Isn't that what Bourdieu says? We should do an anthropology of ourselves and a sociology of other cultures. In any case, what is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine? How do you get yourself in the mood to do philosophy?
I do have a set routine but it's not about clock time. It has to do with sheer quantity. If it's a book, 2000 words per day (or more if the spirit moves me), then stop and do anything else. I look at myself as the poor schmuck who has to write stuff down. The scribe. Others can have the ideas, I just kind of record my observations. I've figured out that it's better to put it all together first, then work on detail. Then print, scribble, redo (repeat until you can't do it any more).
I am okay with trusting myself. It was agony watching as a kid my perfectionist dad and perfectionist and soon-to-be-schizophrenic brother throwing away amazing music and lyrics. You can get quite far by just letting things be. You have to trick your unconscious into playing along.
What about your constructed environment? Music? Caffeine? Everyone has his or her own tricks!
Mild stimulation is good. For instance, writing in bed with my two year old son asleep next to me in the pitch darkness; writing with busy things happening around me out of the house. Music, yes, constantly, of an absurdly eclectic nature. Caffeine, perhaps best administered intravenously, though I've never tried, is the elixir of life—or do I mean death?
A very Derridean thing to say! How did you come upon these practices?
The basic routine came together quite quickly during my PhD studies. Somehow I figured it would be better to go with quantity rather than quality. I just divided the number of words left with the number of days left and added some days per week for research. It saved my life. Sheer quantity. So I tell my students they should just write “Hegel evidently disagrees with Kant when he banana banana banana” until they have 2000 bananas. Better than nothing. Really.
Speaking of your life, then, can you tell us a little more about your childhood? Did you move around a lot, or mostly live in the same place? What sort of town(s) did you live in? Were you bookish, artsy, athletic as a child?
Grew up in London, moved a little but not much. Surrounded by extended family. I got into big trouble at my first school for bending the rules, which I interpreted as challenges rather than injunctions!
What was it about school that brought this out in you?
Britain in the 70s was weird. I'm still figuring it out. The primary school playground was where we acted out the decade's darkest fantasies—race riots mostly. In the adult world neo-fascists were on the march. The Wall with the Hammers gives a pretty good picture of what was going on. I'm happy to report that the six-year-old me spent his lunch break kicking racist ass. But I also got into detention a lot for testing rules like “You can't talk and do math at the same time”—which I took as a hypothesis to be tested. It's hard to overestimate the standardization of British public schools at the time. No streaming, nothing like that, no gifted and talented. That sausage machine in The Wall, that was quite accurate. Then I became a scholarship boy in a private school (St. Paul's) and I had another problem: I was very smart but who cared? My mom was on welfare. The other guys had helicopters to fly them to the dentist (that really happened by the way!).
What about high school? Did you know philosophy and like disciplines even existed?
High school saved my life from a difficult family but I got addicted to getting high marks and cramming facts into my head. I studied English Lit, Greek and Latin. Philosophy existed but my main teacher wouldn't let me do it! He claimed it would drive me to sinister left wing weirdness: he was, in fact, totally correct. But because of the Greek and Latin I read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Lucretius and others. It was a little frustrating because the teachers didn't bring it to life very much. That happened later, on my own time. But going to Greece and visiting the Agora was pretty intense. Posh school, you know? But those guys were all about creating people who would run the country. Sadly, some of them are now doing it. (Notably “Eddie” Vaizey and George Osborne, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer.)
What about undergraduate days: where did you go to university? Any memorable teachers? Do you recall any particular paper assignments? Any essays or books that made an impact (then or later)?
Oxford. Ralph Walker, the neo-Kantian, was a huge presence in my college (Magdalen). Getting told off by him made me think of Kant, by whom you could set your watch. He was very very ticked off when you didn't follow the form. I half blocked his way while he was showing some guests around and he really laid into me about it afterwards. Friends having to write an essay that refuted Derek Parfit, who I later emailed to say how much I loved Reasons and Persons. His views on personal identity (or the lack thereof) were deeply threatening in narrowly utilitarian Thatcherite Britain, in particular because he bases them on devastating assaults on self-interest theories of ethical action.
What about your major field?
I was an English Lit student and the head guy there was Terry Eagleton. He was my tutor for a while. His religious certainty (about Marxism, or was it Catholicism? Was there a difference?!) was comforting and he made a lot of sense to someone with a very confusing class background (scholarship boy son of musicians). It took me a long time to realize I wasn't really a Marxist (oops did I say that out loud?). It was cool to study English if you were into Continental philosophy.
OK, then, on to graduate school: What was the atmosphere like: friendly, competitive, stimulating, stressful? What were you reading at the time?
Oxford again, maybe that was a mistake. Very unfriendly atmosphere, very competitive, lonely, basically wrong! Oxford is a beautiful lunatic asylum for clever people. It's also a virtual reality experience based on a mythical place called “Oxford” which you read about in Brideshead Revisited etc. This simulation vibe goes way back. The original buildings were simulations! Not good at all for serious thinking. I forgot how to think, then how to write, then how to read—the usual graduate paranoia trip. This coincided with reading Writing and Difference to put me to sleep: great! I had no idea what it meant!
So even when everyone else had abandoned High Theory in favor of New Historicism, you still hung in there?
Exactly. One teacher said “You really shouldn’t take this to be about, ‘What really exists?’ or ‘Does life have a meaning?’ ” I was pretty miffed because that was why I was into it. Anyhow. My Ph.D. was in English Lit and it was the zenith of historicism, which is cool because now I know what it's like to toil in the Mines of Moria for ore that no one else cares about. No, it was good actually, in that Foucaultian way where you see the otherness of the past. I read philosophy anyway (can't help it): Deleuze and Guattari, Hegel, Nietzsche, Sartre, Derrida (who was very important), Marx, Adorno, ecological stuff like Callicott and Peter Singer, just a whole lot of eighteenth-century materialism (Holbach for instance).
I don’t think that sort of reading went down too well at Oxford! But maybe I’m wrong?
No, you’re only too right. Oxford philosophy was firmly in the “Assume it's nonsense until they agree with you” camp so when Derrida showed up he was subjected to a public humiliation, which he managed beautifully. It took me until the late 90s to begin to recover intellectually, psychologically and aesthetically from Oxford. And I had to go to Boulder, CO to do it!
Too much of a cliché to say the US was a breath of fresh air?
Maybe it’s corny, but it fits my experience. America versus Britain—sorry Brits, but it's no contest! You guys still have the Queen! I’d say the high point of my early scholarly life was arriving for a conference in NYC (my first trip to the USA) and finding everyone understood me when I talked. Weird! I devoured Deleuze and Guattari and made my dissertation into a schizoanalysis as soon as it had passed the censor.
Okay, so now you’ve figured out you that you’ll give the States a try. Where was your first job? What was the teaching load? Did you like teaching there?
NYU, Visiting Assistant Professor. I was put in charge of cultural studies. I had 100 grad students, many of them standing or sitting on the floor. It was the most popular class in the humanities—so I became the scapegoat. Andrew Ross, with whom I'd arrived, was about to undergo the Sokal Hoax (1995–1996) so I got caught in that energy. They were going to hire me permanently but I was seen as a wrong-un due to my association with cultural studies. It sucked! When I went back to give a talk it was very much the same. Frozen department.
What were the students like?
Students were okay, but there was a huge attrition rate among the grads, which was demoralizing.
Why’s that? Bright lights, big city?
The university had a somewhat cynical policy of bringing in far more students than really should have gone there. I'd been at Princeton just doing postdoc stuff the year before and there were about twelve grad students there. When I got to NYU there were almost 100!
What were your first publications? How did your early research relate to your dissertation?
The first book was Shelley and the Revolution in Taste. It was about the fact that Shelley was a vegetarian. Andrew Ross gave me the idea for the title, which is not that bad at all, though I was going to go with Food, Discourse and the Shelleys, as in “the world, the flesh and the devil”! It was a revision of my dissertation. Then I published a bunch of essays associated with it. Not necessarily the best way to proceed. Now I know better. My second book was about spice: The Poetics of Spice.
Very cool. What’s that all about? I loved Schivelbusch’s Tastes of Paradise, which has some great stuff on beer vs coffee in the German Enlightenment, all sorts of amazing things about material culture. Is it in the same vein?
Yeah, that's right—objects, things, that book by Appadurai called The Social Life of Things was a big deal. There was this fantastic group at NYU run by Richard Sennett on culture and theory, and everyone showed up—anthropologists, philosophers, sociologists, you name it. I really benefited from that group, and from taking some grad classes at Princeton. Oxford really inhibited that. I remember one meal—I was a heavy vegetarian at the time, and I was invited to do an interview, which included a meal at High Table. All these Oxford types sitting there telling me how ridiculous vegetarianism is. And I write about it, and I am one! It was like being eviscerated by intelligent insects. They are in eternal attack mode. In the USA I realized that some humans had endoskeletons and soft skin, as it were. Now when I go back I feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputians—“Why are you stinging me? That's really annoying! Do you think you're being clever? What is that?”
Schivelbusch was important but it was also a lot of Deleuze and Guattari combined with Braudel. When you look at capitalism as forces of deterritorialization and reterritorialization you start to see food not simply as symbolic or “meaningful” or whatever but as an actual material substance that circulates around. I was also fascinated by Žižek as he had just produced The Sublime Object of Ideology, and it seemed to me that food directly was ideology. In other words, a McDonalds Happy Meal doesn't signify comfort: it is comfort, directly. “The Truth Is Out There.” This was very clear to me and very boring for everyone else, who wanted food to fill the gap left by the “death of the Author.” University of California Press flat refused to publish my stuff because it had philosophy in it—that was their actual stated reason! They wanted to replace The Fascinating Story of Charles Dickens with The Fascinating Story of the Potato. Kind of like that movie The Red Violin. After a while I stopped writing about food because I just ran into a lot of walls with my demystification approach. Instead, I started writing about ecology. Vegetarianism is obviously about ecology and all food involves thinking about ecological stuff. That was woven quite explicitly into the first projects. Then I just decided to write about it front and center. Then I stopped writing about poems! Now I'm just this weirdo who writes about philosophy…
Is there one publication that stands out as your breakout piece?
My breakout piece: “Why Ambient Poetics?” — my first go at expressing my thoughts on ecology. It worked because I stopped trying to prove I was smart and wrote what I really thought, directly and with some feeling. That came out in 2002 so you can see it took me a while to get my mojo.
Where were you at that time?
My actual tenure track job was at CU Boulder.
What was that like?
Nice people but nice in the same way a dysfunctional family is nice: terrible working conditions (they made us compete for peanuts in various insulting zero sum games). No mentoring to speak of. I became profoundly depressed and only really started to get my mojo back a few years into my new job at UC Davis. Boulder was a great town. The smell of the pine trees in the sun. I started practicing Buddhism fully.
OK, so it’s when you get to Davis that things turn around for you. Let’s consider the institutional and professional side of things. Philosophy and other humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence in universities on short-term economic criteria, sometimes in number of majors or tuition income, sometimes in terms of outside grants. How is this pressure manifest at your university?
There is a lot of talk, but actually not too much in the way of action. People say daft things (the UC Prez recently said “It's how to fund the English department that worries me” or something like that. Answer: thousands of undergrads paying tuition fees!). “Outcomes based” education is the new phrase we have to deal with.
How do you respond to it, practically and theoretically?
I'm interested in reinventing the humanities in a somewhat Latourian way. We should be in the business of making things, building things, networks of affiliation. We should get out of criticism mode and out of “They just don't understand us” mode. We should also start talking to scientists. Not simply explaining what they do, and not simply “critiquing” them either. We should start working with them and telling them what to do.
I’m all for that, having humanities people and science people talk to each other!
I think we should start a website where we suggest experiments for scientists to do. First on my list: “Is consciousness intentional?”
Let’s let that one simmer for a while! We don’t have all day!
Yeah, it’s a pretty big topic, I’ll grant you that!
Coming back to the institution. How has the falling percentage of tenure-track positions relative to graduate assistants, part-timers, postdocs, and permanent instructors affected the strategies your department uses in graduate student placement? What does your department do with regard to preparing graduate students for non-academic work?
Not much, perhaps this is not a good thing. But we are good at training them for what we do, not for what we don't do. We have a not bad placement record so that's okay I guess, but it would be good to start thinking beyond this.
Fair enough. Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Where are you now? Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
Yes! Massively! At first I was a Deleuzian, but not many people really dug it where I was in the early 90s. I changed my tune but my readers' reports regularly say that Deleuze is in there. Is it really that obvious?! By early 2010 I was known as a deconstructor. One promotion letter said something like “He can deconstruct texts with the best of them,” so I guess I earned my stripes. I thought I had it all figured out. But the really big shift came a few months later. By mid 2010 I was an object-oriented ontologist. I'm as surprised as anyone by this delightful turn of events. I'm lucky it happened: it's not unpleasant to realize you could be wrong about something.
Ha! I’d like to realize I was right about something sometime!
OK, let’s get serious to finish up. What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your professional life at this point?
Most rewarding: starting to work online and share my thoughts and texts, being more open about my thinking. Which led to making friends with the OOO crew (Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost).
What is the most frustrating?
Most frustrating: for some reason I often find myself in the “strangled at birth” situation: “This isn't even an essay” is the kind of report I often receive. It's scary and it flips me into survival mode. I'm good at survival mode but it's a drag.
Tell us about HOW you survive! In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life such as cooking, or listening to music, or physical / spiritual exercise – what have you – into your intellectual work?
I do that sort of integrative work much, much more than before. Now I talk about what I believe and what I feel—what else do you have to give? It's very much influenced by my daily meditation practice. It becomes quite hard to hold on to wrong stuff when you do that for a while. I think and write quite metaphorically and intuitively so art and politics and science keep coming in all over the shop.
OK, here’s a standard question: How do you integrate teaching and research? How long did it take you to find the most productive practices here?
I only just figured out how to teach Ph.D. students. I had to write a few books to really tell the difference between a dissertation and a book. At first I rigidly separated teaching and research. Now I find that opening my mouth and communicating IS research. Undergrad teaching is an increasing delight. I like shouting in front of big classes.
I’m a ham too!
But I also find myself experiencing something like a quiet contemplative state with 100 people, that's nice too. I teach in a very experiential way, which you may not guess from my intellectual prose.
You get in the zone, to use the sports phrase?
Maybe not. Maybe a somewhat lame zone, slightly more vulnerable. I like that idea: large groups feeling open and slightly weak, together, rather than pumped up. Feeling a kind of irony together, but a sort of nonviolent irony. I like this line, by a Buddhist teacher: “The vicissitudes of this life are like drowning in a glass pond.” Sincerity, in the phenomenological sense.
What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
Three books: the third in the ecology trilogy (it's called Dark Ecology). The first two were Ecology without Nature and The Ecological Thought, which is the “prequel,” hopefully not as bad as The Phantom Menace. Maybe ecological awareness is a kind of phantom menace…
A book on causality called Realist Magic. And a book on my “hyperobjects” called (guess what) Hyperobjects. Many many essays and talks.
I've entered a very pleasant naïve phase of thinking and reading where I have no idea about a lot of things any more. I'm reading and reading and reading (philosophy, science, Buddhism mostly, in that order). I feel small, slightly dumb and very cheerful. Humbled by such great minds to share things with. No really.
I'm as surprised as anyone about what I'm thinking. I hope this continues until I'm gone. I'm not sure I have concrete long-term projects, except maybe becoming a nicer human.