Thanks for doing this interview with us, Steven. Let’s start with your personal practice of scholarly work. What are the pleasures and pains of scholarship for you? How do you experience solitary study and writing, collaborative writing, camaraderie at conferences?
"Scholarship" or "solitary study and writing," is really something like a need for me. If I am not actually working on something, which means either writing something, or preparing for writing something, then I start feeling bored, restless, listless, and agitated, all at once. Of course, I can avert this feeling if I am very busy with (let's say) non-creative tasks, which are certainly a part, both of simply living and of whatever job one has -- an academic job as much as any other. So there are many times when I am just too busy to write, or even to think about what I might want to write. Also, I can't really write or think about writing when I don't get enough sleep, when I am distressed or depressed for any sort of personal reasons, etc. But if I have the space and time to relax -- then I can't really relax, because it feels empty if I am not engaged in what I perhaps too pretentiously think of as "intellectual work."
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
I'm addicted to caffeine, and I can't get anything done without it. I am sufficiently addicted that I have no desire to break the addiction; I would just like for it to continue as long as I live. In terms of work habits, I cannot get much done until (in addition to drinking coffee) I have been awake for several hours. Nor can I focus enough to write in the evening, usually (at least not for careful academic writing; sometimes I can fool myself into writing a blog entry in the evening -- as long as I just spew without worrying too much about what I am saying). I write a lot at home, but if I get stuck, or if I get restless, it usually helps to go out to a cafe, carrying my netbook with me, and continue writing there. At the cafe, I seem to be comforted rather than interrupted by the ambient background noise (including muisic), but at home I need silence in order to write -- I cannot focus if music is on, or if the TV or a video is on. So, given all of this, I try to write on a regular schedule -- every day, if teaching and other academic necessities permit (which during the school year they often don't), and at roughly the same hours every day (say, from late morning until mid-afternoon, with perhaps an interruption for lunch or for a walk to the cafe). But it is very hard for me to actually ramp up to this sort of routine; every time I start a new project, there are days or even weeks of procrastination before I can get down to it.
Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I grew up in New York City, in the Bronx, in an apartment building; we lived at the same location from the time I was 3 years old on (though we moved from one apartment to a bigger apartment in the same building when I was 13). My mother still lives there today -- she has had the same address for well over fifty years. I started reading avidly as soon as I learned how to read; so I was always bookish and completely un-athletic. I couldn't stand any kind of sports and always did my best to avoid having to play in any organized sport. (Though I followed professional baseball and enjoyed going to games). I was also pathologically shy as a child.
What about high school?
I went to the Bronx High School of Science (whose notable alumni include, not only a lot of scientists, but also such people as -- if I am not mistaken, since I am really just recounting school legend here -- Samuel Delany, Bobby Darin, and Stokely Carmichael). This was the late 1960s (1968-1971), so I was active in antiwar and antiracism protests, and I refused to participate in "shelter drills" (in which were supposed to practice how we would take shelter in event of a nuclear war). Also, I was a very sullen and alienated teenager. We were required to carry schedule cards, listing all our classes, as a kind of ID; I wrote FUCK YOU over mine, and waved it in the face of any teacher who asked to see it. I got good grades in nearly all my classes, but they mostly bored and irritated me because I didn't feel I was really learning anything from them, it all seemed to be just memorization. There was one high school teacher I loved, however: my 11th grade social studies teacher (I believe his name was Don Schwartz) who was a militant new leftist, who freely admitted that he had only become a high school teacher in order to avoid the draft, and who really opened my eyes, in all sorts of ways, to all sorts of things that were going on politically and socially in the world (I was a politics nerd already, but he gave me really new perspectives on things).
Undergraduate days: where did you go to university?
I went to Yale, and I found a lot of the classes I took exciting -- in sharp contrast to high school, I actually felt I was learning things (mostly literature, art, and philosophy). Also, in those pre-home-video days there were a lot of film societies at the school; this is where I really became a cinephile. Freshman year of college, I saw two Godard films -- Pierrot le fou and then Weekend -- which had the force of a revelation: I couldn't understand them, but they totally excited and intrigued me. My current interests as a film theorist and scholar take me very far from Godard. Nonetheless, I owe my entire orientation today as a cinephile and an aesthete to that initial mind-blowing (as we said back then) experience.
Can you tell us about your graduate school experience?
I went to grad school in English, also at Yale. This was the heyday of "Yale deconstruction" & theory. I took lots of classes with Harold Bloom; I occasionally sat in on (though did not take for credit) seminars by people like Paul De Man, and I went to some of Derrida's lectures (at that time, he would come to Yale for a few weeks every year). Fredric Jameson was also at Yale at the time; I never studied with him either, but his presence, his early books, and students of his with whom I was friends, strongly influenced me.
Any other teachers who were important to you?
Due to studying with Bloom et al, I wrote my dissertation on Romantic & post-Romantic poetry (Blake, Shelley, Stevens). But the most influential teacher I had was a guy in the French department named Joseph Libertson, who introduced me to Blanchot, Bataille, and Levinas, and who also got me to reading Deleuze at a time when nobody else involved in "literary theory" was paying any attention to him.
What about fellow students?
Brian Massumi was also in grad school at Yale at the time, and we read Logique du sens together for the first time. This was another moment of revelation, when new worlds seemed to open up for me. I was also a member, together with other (mostly) English Dept grad students of the Marxist Literary Group; we met regularly, and had reading groups on Capital and other texts. Also, I continued to go to lots of films, got familiar with a great part of both the Hollywood and the Euro-art-film canons such as they were up to that time; and I went out regularly to punk clubs (or, more accurately, to the one punk club that there was in New Haven at the time).
How would you sum up your time in graduate school?
As time went on, I came increasingly to resent and dislike the way Yale worked as an institution; but because of the people I hung out with and the things I did, this was still a very rich time intellectually. At that time, at Yale, you could only write your dissertation on canonical literature; the first thing I wrote after getting my PhD was an article on William Burroughs -- something I could never have done in the Yale institutional setting -- and I found this incredibly liberating. Also, they kept me on at Yale as an adjunct for several years after I got my PhD (1981) and until I got my first full-time, tenure-track academic job (1984); this was a real life saver. During these years, I also knew people like David Rodowick and the late Miriam Hansen, who were at Yale briefly, and at that time were just beginning to get film study legitimated as an academic discipline at Yale -- all this was also quite important to me, especially getting to know Miriam. (After we both left Yale, for the next 25 years I only had very rare and intermittent contact with her, but I have always valued having known her, and I was quite grieved at the news of her recent death).
What was your early professional life like?
My first job was at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and I stayed there for twenty years. I liked Seattle, and I had good friends in my department. It is really just "on the job" that I actually learned how to teach, and how to operate within the constraints of an academic career -- in graduate school, I had received no guidance whatsoever either in teaching or in what is today called "professionalization."
What were your first publications? Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece? How did your early research relate to your dissertation?
I was sick of my dissertation, so I never turned it into a book (though I published a few chapters as articles). My first book was about Blanchot and Bataille. I suffered from being "premature," as it were; I wrote about these authors before they became fashionable in academia, so nobody paid the least attention to my book. It did get me tenure, though.
What were your colleagues like? Did you feel supported?
There was no formal mentoring process when I was junior faculty at Washington. I did, however, get strong support from senior colleagues who helped me through various hurdles, and without whom I would never have gotten tenure or gotten where I am today. There were a number of people at Washington in the 1980s whose help was crucial -- I would particularly like to name Donna Gerstenberger and Hazard Adams (although there were others as well).
The most important thing at the University of Washington was that I was permitted to switch fields; although they originally hired me to teach romantic poetry, I was supported in my switch to writing essentially about film, popular culture, and "poststructuralist" theory or philosophy (Blanchot, Bataille, Foucault, and Deleuze).
Let’s consider the institutional and professional side of things. The 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? How do you respond to it, practically and theoretically?
I have no good ideas about this. The Governor of Michigan just announced a 21% cut in the state funds going to my university. We don't know yet what the effect will be. The current protests against budget cuts for education in the UK, and against the destruction of union rights for public employees in Wisconsin are inspiring. Resistance is possible, and the future is not predetermined. But it is pretty sure that, without substantial resistance, the university as we know it is in process of being destroyed.
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?
As a department, we do a lot to prepare our students for the job market. As for preparing them for non-academic work, there is not much being done as far as I know. The problem, of course, is that there is little that any one institution can do by itself when faced with a nationwide (and indeed global) problem. At my university, adjuncts continue to be underpaid; but at least they are now unionized, so their positions are not entirely unprotected.
What role do you see for professional organizations such as the MLA in dealing with these and other concerns of the profession? Do you have any specific proposals you’d like to see implemented? What do you see as the proper relation between the MLA and the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) in the broader struggle of the humanities and of university faculty as a whole?
Professional associations have a role to play in encouraging discussion and debate across the profession; but I really do not see them as having much to contribute to the political and economic problems we face. These are better dealt with through unions and other such job-based organizations (our local AAUP chapter is also affiliated with the AFT, for instance).
Looking back on your career so far, you have changed perspectives quite a bit. Your PhD was in English literature, and you currently teach Film and Media Studies in an English Department. Your work currently seems divided between philosophy/theory (Whitehead, Deleuze, speculative realism), film studies, and science fiction. What were some of the critical turning points in your trajectory?
I think the turning points have always come from encounters with people who, and with texts and artifacts that, pointed me in new directions. I am always looking for such new directions, because I get bored if I work on, and write about, the same problems (or the same group of texts or artifacts) for too long. I have tried, and largely succeeded so far, in making every book I publish be radically different, both in style or form, and in content, from the preceding ones. This is becoming more difficult, however, as I grow older. There are fields I dabbled in previously (like avant-garde writing, and new media) that I have pretty much given up on, because I don't have the time or energy to keep up with all of them. And I find it harder than I used to, to continually alter my writing style. There are lots of things I'm interested in, but I don't discover what I think about them unless I have the time, and the energy, to write about them concertedly and in detail.
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 philosophy?
I don't really think that I integrate my various interests together; nor do I particularly worry about not being able to. I don't see any deep connection, for instance, between my writing on Whitehead and my writing on contemporary film; nor between any of that writing and, say, the fact that I prefer to get my exercise by taking long works in urban settings. Or, better: I am sure there are all sorts of banal ways in which all the things I do in fact fit well together, since they all reflect what kind of person I am. But for me, the problem is not to integrate everything together, but rather to differentiate oneself as much as possible, to be able to change and do different things. Like most people, I am largely a creature of habit. It's very hard to break away from habits; and again, like most people, I often don't even try. But I hope that at least sometimes I can succeed in rupturing or changing old habits, and in acquiring new ones.
How do you integrate teaching and research? How long did it take you to find the most productive practices here?
I have, perhaps, a strange attitude here. I do not like to teach anything that touches on my current research, or work in progress. Every time I have tried to do so, it has been a disaster. This is because, when I am working on something, I genuinely do not know what I think about it -- this is only something that comes out in the writing. It doesn't come out, for me, in the teaching or in any sort of oral means of presentation. I have to write, and I can never write in the same rhythm by which I teach.
How do you handle your teaching then?
My best teaching comes, to the contrary, either when I focus on topics that I already know extremely well and do not intend to write about (or write any further about), or else when I focus on a topic that I don't know as well as I would like, and hope to learn more about (but which I am not yet ready to do writing about). An example of the first type is classes I have taught on classic Hollywood film (1930-1960); I love lots of old Hollywood films, and know the period reasonably well, but have no plans to write about such films. An example of the second type is the class I did on Eastern European film some years ago; I taught the class because I wanted, myself, to learn more about this body of films. It is only now, four years or so after having taught that class, that I have started actually writing about Eastern European films.
Do you have a formula by which you express your approach to teaching?
In both cases, I see my role as a teacher predominantly to be saying: Look at this! I hope to expose my students to ideas, and works, that they didn't know about before, and that they might find interesting, or mind-expanding. That isn't to say that I expect my students to like all the things, or the same things, that I do. But if I make them aware of stuff they didn't know about before, and give them the ability to explore that stuff more on their own if they feel inclined to do so, then I feel I have succeeded.
What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
I seem to be perpetually overcommitted, and behind schedule, on my writing obligations. At present, I have been writing essays on the relation between Whitehead and various strands of speculative realism; I hope that these individual essays will eventually coalesce into a book. I am also writing several essays on Eastern European films that reflect on the legacy of actually-existing socialism, and on the current problems of actually-existing-capitalism; I don't know yet whether these will come together in a book, or just exist as separate essays. Beyond these, I'd like to get back to, and complete, a book that I was actually working on a number of years ago: The Age of Aesthetics, a kind of sequel to my book Connected, which uses science fiction to think about issues in political economy (ranging from consumerism to advertising to debt to exotic financial instruments), and to draw links between economics and aesthetics. Beyond all that, I'd like to write about science fiction and speculative biology.