© Christopher Fynsk and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Fynsk was interviewed by Laureano Ralón on July 7th, 2011
Professor Fynsk is Director of the Centre for Modern Thought within the School of Language and Literature at the University of Aberdeen. He is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University, Ph.D., The Department of Romance Studies, 1981, University of Strasbourg, Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies, Philosophy, 1980, The Johns Hopkins University, M.A., French, 1979, The University of California, Irvine, M.A., English, 1976, Cornell University, B.A., English, 1974. Professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Thought, University of Aberdeen, 2005-, Professor of Comparative Literature and Philosophy, Binghamton University, 1994-2004, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Philosophy, Binghamton University, 1989-1994, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature, Binghamton University, 1984-1987, Maître de Conférences Associé, Philosophy Department University of Strasbourg, 1985-1987 Lecturer in Comparative Literature, Binghamton University, 1981-1984.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
This occurred in the last year of my undergraduate training at Cornell University (which would have been in 1974). I link the decision to my nascent political thinking: I could not think of a more worthy field (you will see that this thinking was also a bit naïve, but there it is).
I hope it will not be disrespectful to say that I did not really take Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy as mentors. I looked upon them rather almost as “older brothers.” At that time, my mentors were Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard. But I chose to work with the two of them in Strasbourg for my PhD (rather than return to Paris, where I had studied in 1976), because I felt that it was perhaps a more propitious site for my work on Heidegger. This was an obscure decision, but it seems to have been a good one, even though neither Lacoue-Labarthe nor Nancy had progressed as far in their respective readings of Being and Time as I had at that time (the text had not been fully translated in French). I don’t believe that Lacoue-Labarthe (attached at that time to Johns Hopkins and serving as my titular advisor) read even a page of my actual thesis, which was exactly what I had anticipated.
The seminar in ‘79-‘80 and ’80-’81 was a thrilling context. There was also an excellent seminar that was undertaken jointly, I believe, with Bernard Bass. When I returned to Strasbourg to take Jean-Luc Nancy’s place at the faculté (during his visit to San Diego), the seminar had declined in importance. But I was so nervous in conducting it (Lacoue-Labarthe was also absent that term) that it took me almost 6 weeks to realize that the institutional conditions had changed at the University and in Strasbourg.
Lunches and dinners at 6 rue Charles Grad were memorable events. For the first time I witnessed literary history debated at the table as something with real political and social importance. But here, I should refer to my experience in France in general during this period—I discovered there an entirely new set of possibilities for living as an intellectual. The university receded as my primary point of reference. This was where I would locate the substance of my real learning in Strasbourg.
In terms of their influence upon me, I would note that Lacoue-Labarthe was a great stylist, a “syntaxier,” as I described him in Typography. There was a care in thinking and reading that I responded to very strongly. I was also very attentive to his relation to the theatre. I was certainly fond of Nancy and very happy to present his work to a North American audience, but we were not as close.
Joshua Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
In teaching philosophy at the U. of Strasbourg, I came to understand to what degree philosophy, and, more generally, habits of reading and thinking, are shaped by their institutional conditions. The lesson was reinforced for me when I took up my post at the U. of Aberdeen in Scotland. This question of context is an immense and important one. I had recognized it in moving between the disciplines of literature and philosophy as a graduate student. But the experience of divergence in national practices was especially striking for me.
I have to say that I do not see very significant differences in the role of the university professor since my student days. It has evolved very little, in fact.
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 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?
In my view, disciplines (by which I mean the institutional formations, eg., “departmental sovereignties”) are alive and well, alas. It is true that interdisciplinary work has flourished in many fascinating ways. But I believe that the academic institution is rather limiting in terms of what it will allow. Often, the most daring interdisciplinary study remains entirely contained within a disciplinary context. The institution is far more conservative, I think, than many theorists recognize. But I should add that my immediate view of this is particularly coloured by my experience in Scotland, where disciplinary boundaries are carefully guarded. The Centre for Modern Thought is a rather exceptional formation in this regard.
I believe one must be very careful to distinguish between institutional conditions (with their socio-political determinations) and developments in thinking and communication. The University is a powerful societal institution that can perfectly well accommodate the transformations to which you refer. The University is certainly suffering in the contemporary financial crisis, but I would not say that it is in crisis as an institution.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
I can only respond to this by acknowledging that the issue of student attention has never become a problem for me. This may have to do with the nature of the material I present, but obviously my relation to the material is important. But I find it difficult to talk about my own teaching in this context (or teaching in general, with some reference to my own). I believe in offering a discursive line of questioning in my seminars—a sustained challenge. Students seem to respond to that.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
My advice has always been the same: one must follow one’s passion (i.e., one’s intellectual/existential commitments). There is little sense in becoming an academic otherwise. Recently, I have added, in my advice to graduate students, that they should not act in fear. This advice is a little harder in application, especially in the contemporary context. I also believe very strongly in the virtues of collaborative work and community.
You are an internationally recognized Heideggerian scholar. What attracted you to the work of Heidegger? Do you think his thought is still relevant in this age of information and digital interactive media?
I started reading Heidegger because I was studying poetry. My first reaction was excitement because Heidegger was answering questions for me that I had encountered in reading Blake. But I came to recognize that I needed to engage with Heidegger’s text in order to approach authors like Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and Blanchot. Then I found myself captivated by the thinking there. That thinking is surely still relevant for the digital sphere, as I have been discovering in my work with Sha Xin Wei, director of the Topological Media Lab in Montreal.
During one of his lectures at UC Berkeley, John Searle declared: “in the subculture that I belong to, you don’t want to be caught dead with any of the ‘Hs’” – in clear reference to Hegel, Husserl, but especially Heidegger, given his well-known antagonism with Hubert Dreyfus. Do you think Heidegger’s work continues to be stigmatized and ignored because of his ties to Nazism? I personally believe that the “Death of the Author” was a premature death sentence; however, I do think it’s important to separate a man from his work in some instances, especially when it means saving the work from the man. I’m thinking of Heidegger – but also of Althusser and others. As academics, how should we deal with the fact that perhaps one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, whose masterpiece is, in my opinion, a labour of love that has inspired so many, was also a Nazi collaborator?
I have written on the question of Heidegger’s Nazism at some length (most significantly in the post-face of the second edition of my book on Heidegger). It is a tremendously difficult question that cannot be taken lightly, and I can hardly launch into a new treatment of it on this occasion. But let me note simply the following: When I took up the text in the 1970’s, the reigning attitude was that Heidegger’s political misadventure was little more than an unfortunate turn. A “philosopher’s” blunder. (Thus the man was separated from the politics.) I never thought of it this way—I accepted that the relation to National Socialism was not a mere flirtation (this is perfectly apparent in The Introduction to Metaphysics of 1935). Indeed, the word “collaborator” should be used carefully: he was a committed National Socialist who “collaborated” with the Nazis (with great admiration for Hitler.) The question thus emerged: what was at stake in National Socialism for modern political thought? What does Heidegger’s misadventure signal to us about modernity or the history of political thought? But as the question of the Holocaust came to the fore in the 1980’s, the terms of the question changed, for all of us. This is what I described in my post-face as a change in the legibility of the text. In any case, I set out from the start to discover what in Heidegger had made post-structuralism possible. I did not read Heidegger for the sake of “Heidegger”; in this sense, yes, it was always a matter of separating the man from the text.
The “man” should always be separated from the text, though this does not eliminate the question of what the text gives to us of a singular existence. And it certainly does not mean eliminating the question of socio-political context (in Heidegger, the question is acute because he so masks his political engagements). But the question of the writing subject is an especially difficult one, as Blanchot sought to teach us. We have still to take the measure of that teaching, I believe. Blanchot, I might add (since this is a personal interview) is an interesting case for me. I never identified with Heidegger. But I feel for the later Blanchot a profound respect and gratitude.
You are deeply engaged with the question of the possibility of language and how the human relation to Being is sketched out through literary and philosophical texts and art works. Does this imply that simple everyday experiences such as enjoying French fries, talking to an old friend, cannot be meaningfully discussed unless French fries and breezes happen to be mentioned in some “text” of James Joyce that can be twisted and punned to pieces, and perhaps vaguely connected with the politics of the day? Are there limitations to a philosophical approach that overemphasizes simbolicity over other dimensions of the Self and experience?
On the face of it, this question strikes me as a little silly (and its presuppositions are foreign to me—I focus on the linguistic grounds and limits of the ethico-political relation at the levels sought by thinkers such as Heidegger, Lacan and Blanchot). But the limit to which you refer might be identified with what Blanchot tried to think with the term “the everyday.”
I feel a bit sorry for those who can’t enjoy French fries without worrying about deconstructionists stealing their pleasure. I’ve never had that problem (I’m more worried about my 10-yr old stealing my fries). But I am very interested in a thoughtful relation to food—hence my work with Ferran Adrià (a deconstructionist of a different sort).
What are you currently working on?
I am just completing a book on Blanchot. In the coming months, I will turn to a second volume on infancy for a new press in Mexico City, Paradiso Press. I find it a pleasure to work with this energetic and ambitious group.
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