© Corey Anton and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Anton was interviewed by Laureano Ralón on June 10th, 2010
Corey Anton is currently a Professor of Communication at Grand Valley State University. He has published dozens of scholarly articles in journals such as Communication Theory, Philosophy and Rhetoric, Human Studies, Semiotica, ETC, Bulletin of General Semantics, The Atlantic Journal of Communication, afterimage, Communication Studies, and The American Journal of Semiotics. He is a Past Chair and Program Planner for the Semiotics and Communication Division of NCA. Highly active in the Media Ecology Association, Anton is a trustee on the Board of Directors for the MEA and serves as the Editor for the journal Explorations in Media Ecology. Most recently Anton was named a Fellow of the International Communicology Institute, and a trustee on the Board of Directors for the Institute of General Semantics. His first book, Selfhood and Authenticity was the 2004 winner of the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Social Interaction, presented by the Media Ecology Association, and his most recent books include: Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism, and the edited collection, Valuation and Media Ecology: Ethics, Morals and Laws. In this exclusive interview with Figure/Ground, Professor Anton answers questions about a vast array of topics, including selhood, authenticity, the relationship between philosophy and communication, and the YouTube medium.
I would like to set up the tone of this interview by quoting none other than Marshall McLuhan, who once said: “Any approach to environmental problems must be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to encompass the entire environmental matrix, which is in constant flux. I consider myself a generalist, not a specialist who has staked out a tiny plot of study as his intellectual turf and is oblivious to everything else.” That passage is from the Playboy Magazine (1969). Earlier, in Understanding Media (1964), he had declared in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” I believe that such statements can be viewed as an endorsement of multidisciplinary/ interdisciplinary studies. In graduate school, I quickly realized that the more one studies one subject, the more that subject tends to relate to another subject, which is just another way of saying that the general-specific divide constitutes a false dichotomy: a good thesis or dissertation, for example, is by definition both broad in scope and specific in focus. What do you make of all this? Do you think McLuhan was right in his contention? Does specialism hold in this age of information?
A key source to consider here is the last chapter of McLuhan’s Understanding Media: “Automation: Learning a Living.” He there well outlines how specialization is a problem. But as much as I think that that’s right-minded in so many fields – that increasingly, what happens in the cutting edges of various fields has impact on other fields –, McLuhan all said was a poet, and he got his claim to fame by giving overstatements, probes that would push ideas to the extreme in order to help people bring things into focus. So it’s perhaps true that one has to be some kind of multidisciplinary or anti-disciplinary generalist, but one also still needs command over a specialty area. This really is a vital tension. Perhaps the best way to achieve that balance (or at least what many have tried to do) is to be something like a “scholar’s scholar.” You go into a field and try to find people who are fired up and excited about their work, and then you get into the people who those people are into. Find the key minds in any field and begin there, or make particular scholars and minds the continued area of study. As someone from the humanities, I’ve always been a little wary of people who talk only about topics and topic areas when they’re asked what they study. When I was a graduate student, I noticed that some social science students, when you asked them what they studied, would reply in terms of topics; they’d say “social support” or “organizational development” or something like that. On the other hand, when you talk to philosophy or humanities students, even if they tried to talk about a topic, they almost instantly would turn to particular scholar. They would say: I study Sartre or Langer or Butler whoever. They would identify specific people and their traditions.
Recently, I gave the keynote address at Purdue’s graduate student conference 2010, and it was on “Should Communication Be Disciplined?” The general problem is: how do you create a discipline regarding something like communication? Communication obviously transcends disciplinary boundaries. If you include language and symbolism, every field is revealed as an ongoing communicative process. And it can be very challenging when you move to areas like Semiotics. My undergraduate training in Semiotics, and I came to learn that different schools and different universities, it is housed in different areas. Semiotics is, generally, a great example of an area that is tough to pigeonhole. I would add that society will always need experts, but expertise has be a command over bodies data, evidence and research, but those are often crystallized as they expressed and articulated by particular influential scholars.
Is there necessarily a difference between the terms multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary and anti-disciplinary studies?
Well, they are different words, and people can create different models by which they think different areas can relate. Let me just give you an example. I know of a university where they teach a class called “Capstone in Communication” (it’s the senior course that all the different Communication majors required to take.) The department itself has 9 majors: communication studies, but it also has advertising, broadcasting, public relations, theatre, film and video, photography, health communication, and students in all of these majors have to take the course. There can be significant challenges to address ideas relevant to students in all the majors. Some faculty who regularly teach it have tried to pull together significant thinkers who have written on those common topics and issues that resonate in and throughout all the majors. So it might be key thinkers on ‘freedom of expression,’ ‘nature of language,’ or it might be on ‘symbolism’, or ‘self-understanding,’ or whatever. But some other faculty, which I don’t think have been as successful, basically attempt to take their own subarea and try to show how this area is relevant to students in all the other major areas. So imagine a person who is trying to show that everything is basically PR, or everything is basically advertising, or everything is basically theatre. Do you see the key difference between someone trying to show how their major has relevance to students in every other majors and someone who is trying to select those scholars who have identified key concepts, themes, issues that cut across and through all areas, ideas that address us in our humanity? And you can find really brilliant minds who have done just that! There are people who have understood this problem for a long time.
The problem with interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, is that this is partly meant to make Deans happy. Seriously, deans often run into some troubles if they don’t know how to put every bean into its proper jar; they are disconcerted when they are not really sure where to place people, how to account for funds, how to get things subcategorized. I don’t think any of that is all that important, though; the most important thing is to see that there are two kinds of knowledge: there is applied knowledge, where people actually create things, do things, implement social change, and it often includes technological and hardware conditions; but there is also this thing called “the conversation of humanity.” It’s an ongoing dialogue, and the reason you read seminal thinkers is that they shaped the continuing dialogue in so many ways. If you read secondary sources, it can be useful and helpful, but maybe not as much so if you do not also really spend your time trying to read “the greats,” whatever that means. Being widely read in different fields, you’ll be able to enter into much wider economies of discourse; you’ll be able to get into that dialogue into a much richer sense.
In your book, Selfhood and Authenticity (2001), you make an important contribution to the developing “cross-disciplinary” field of philosophy and communication. When and how did you realize that there were important – yet unexplored – points of contact between these two disciplines?
I went to Purdue because they have one of the only joint-programs in philosophy and communication, and it’s a highly multidisciplinary graduate program generally speaking. When I applied to get my PhD, I was first offered a fellowship at a top program but when I contacted them and I asked: “How many courses can I take outside of the department?” They said, “We’ll let you take up to two.” And then when Purdue contacted me and offered me a Teaching Assistantship, I asked them too, “How many courses will you let me take outside of the department?” They replied: “Well, you have to take two, but we’ll let you take up to half of your program outside.” The choice was very easy. I also largely went to study with Calvin Schrag: even though he was in the philosophy program and I was in the communication program, I knew I would get a chance to study with him. I took a good number of courses with him and he eventually was on my Doctoral committee. I also got access to many amazing professors there, both in my area and across the campus. For instance, one day a post-doc in physics, who had been sitting in on Schrag’s Postmodernism class, gave a guest lecture on contemporary chaos theory and non-linear geometry and how that relates to developments of postmodernism, mathematics, and physics.
So mentorship was important…
Absolutely. Well, just real quick…some other programs that I thought were really sexy when I was looking were the University of Chicago, which had a special committee on social thought – that’s a great program; Purdue’s program was (and I think still is) one of the top interdisciplinary graduate programs in the country; there was a smart program called the “history of consciousness program” at Santa Cruz; the California Institute of Integral Studies is generally pretty good, and the stuff that they are doing at the EGS is also good, although it’s a European orientation and a little more philosophically dense, maybe too primary-source driven for some.
As for mentorship, I would have to say, again, absolutely. As an undergraduate, I studied with Lee Thayer, who is very difficult to place. Some people see him as the Wizard of Org, as an organizational guru, as a leadership scholar. Other people know him as the exemplar of a communication theorist, while some see him as an early and pioneering systems theorist. He was the founder of the journal of Communication, (which had an incredibly distinguished editorical board) and he himself is a very multidisciplinary and anti-disciplinary scholar. So I guess I took a fairly multidisciplinary orientation from the get-go.
Part of the problem within doing cross-disciplinary work is that in many graduate school programs, what they will try to do is exert a pressure upon you to cite people who are within “the discipline.” Take communication: it’s one thing to say that you are going to study the phenomena of communication broadly construed, but you don’t need a degree in communication to do that. But there are, unfortunately, some people who have such a disciplinary alignment that they only cite people who have degrees from a National Communication Association accredited institution. It can be pretty much an inbred and technical game being played…
Do you think of yourself primarily as a professor, an academic, a scholar, a researcher, or all of the above?
Tough to say, and I love to learn, but if I had to be pick only one, I’d say that I am a teacher. I’m in it mainly for the teaching; I love the students and the classroom. It if weren’t for the teaching, I don’t think I would do what I do for a living. I mean I greatly enjoy reading; I love thinking and being a scholar – but I guess largely for the presence of mind that it give. It keeps you fresh, and the classroom is a great place to feel fresh. Right now I teach a 3-3 and I will soon have several books out and I have a couple more still coming. When they are all out, I can imagine going to a research institution. But if they wanted to buy me out with a 1-1 teach load and wanted me to just write books rather than teach, I would say no. I don’t want to do that; that sounds like a prison sentence. Now, if they said to me: “come on out and we’ll let you do a 2-3 or a 2-2 and we’ll give you graduate classes” that could be fine, but I’d still be in it for the teaching. Seriously, the more I think about it, the less I like the thought of having less time with students.
I was particularly intrigued by the title of your book, Selfhood and Authenticity. Is there a reason why you speak of “selfhood” rather than “subjectivity”? I guess when we think of the subject we tend to conceive of it as a permanent, solitary, self-sufficient thinking substance with accidental properties, solipsistically trapped within one’s own consciousness – a very Cartesian notion. Are there alternative ways of thinking about the subject?
This is one of the difficulties of the idealist/Cartesian legacy within one strand of phenomenology, namely transcendental phenomenology. The word “phenomenology,” outside of the rigorous field proper (and I mean existential thinkers like Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty), means so many things. For example, some people like Maturana and Varela – whose work I like – somewhat make it seem like phenomenology is basically ‘philosophy in the first-person;’ it’s from the inside out, like that “doom” video game, where you are the perspective, as opposed to seeing your own character in the video field. As much as I appreciate their work, that take on phenomenology seems a bit false to the facts, and it’s really not true to a rigorous phenomenologist – certainly not what you find in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which is a tripartite ontology of being-in-itself, being-for-itself, and being-for-others. And it is precisely this being-for-others that is the issue: that part of my being which flees from me. For Bakhtin, this is absolutely crucial: others are the condition of aestheticization of the world; others, by their transgredience, cloak us with a kind of outsidedness that renders our ethical projects into aesthetic displays. That’s why we have theatre: theatre, broadly understood, is a uniquely human phenomena. The human sense of aesthetic drama is so fascinating, and here, what you see is human subjectivity rendered as understood selves within a drama. I think selves are what we find in dramas unfolding, and subjectivity is more like the motive-horizon within those selves that we can see as they wend their way through their dealings. I guess my point is that selfhood itself is embodied, is social, is temporal and is linguistic, and all four of these dimensions are inexhaustibly rich. You can pursue the self as thorough-goingly any one of them, and you can write a book on each one of those! A lot of Heidegger’s work is on time. For Heidegger, time is the subject and the subject is time. But I think for Sartre, there is really a problem of otherness of the other, and how the other is an alienating presence. Sartre cuts at all the ways that I’m strange and haunted by a look and a gaze that appropriates me in certain ways and imprisons me. Whereas for Bakhtin, like I said, it is an aesthetic realization. Merleau-Ponty’s work on the palpitation of the flesh and the intertwining between self and other also brings a richness to self that is so much more than subjectivity; he’s somewhere between the positions of Sartre and Bakhtin.
I read both Being and Time and Being and Nothingness and I thought they were both great, but I found Being and Nothingness infinitely more difficult to follow than Being and Time. Do you agree with with this appreciation? Also, what do you make of the contention that Being and Nothingness is just a misunderstanding of Heidegger?
Both are notoriously difficult but I would say that Being and Time is more focused and directed, whereas Being and Nothingness is more rangy. I mean, Being and Time is a systematic piece of existential philosophy, the analytic of Dasein. Heidegger was a systematic German philosopher, and we can now have a systematic record of his writings. So you look at the early Heidegger and he seems like a religiously pious scholar. You read The Concept of Time, then The History of the Concept of Time, then Being and Time, and then Basic Problems of Phenomenology. These books develop thought and they were coherent with lecture notes that in some way were on a continued theme. Sartre, on the other hand, was a mad man; his stuff is much more rangy. He was a Marxist who rejected the Nobel Prize, and he prolifically wrote all sorts of stuff, not just philosophy, and so, no. I think that’s a complete exaggeration to say that Sartre’s Being and Nothingness was just a misunderstanding of Heidegger; Sartre was as heavily influenced by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Bergson. He was in my opinion engaged in a much larger dialogue. I once saw an interview where Derrida said “what was anyone to do after Sartre? There was nothing to say after Sartre laid down his existentialism.” And, then, how about The Critique of Dialectical Reason? It will blow your mind! Have you ever read that?
Oh my! By the time that you get to Volume Two of the Critique, you, at a certain point, realize that for some people there was Sartre and then there was everybody else. You can see why so many people formed a kind of religion-like worship around him. They were happy to affirm that, “God is dead.” They had Sartre.
After Sartre, the postmodernists advanced a conception of reality as being primarily socially constructed and linguistically constituted. In a nutshell, they tell us that there is very little left in terms of the subject, perception, and the body as we once ‘knew’ them…
This is a ridiculous and pre-maturely declared death sentence. What will be “post-post”? How do you get to be “post-post”? As I said before, Derrida had hinted that his deconstructionism was almost something resorted to because there was really not much to do after Sartre. I mean, Sartre, in such range, addressed everything from the absolute nothing of consciousness, to how consciousness is in the flesh, to the concrete relations with others, to how otherness is a part of that. His stuff on language and love is amazing! He understood so much of it, and I think so much of some post-modernist stuff was a buried response to Sartre…
Now, wouldn’t your own approach be considered “reactionary” in a way? I mean, I’m wondering why you chose to write a book dealing with embodiment, meaning and perception – everything the postmodernists seem to negate…
Well, no. I don’t think so. I have argued that phenomenology and media ecology give the rigorous historical and embodied ground for how social construction is possible. Taken together, they could be called, “social constructionism with teeth.” When we say that humans socially construct the world, some people assume that you are talking about making it up or something like that. It sometimes helps to start by asking people: “Is today Tuesday?” For us, in this situation, maybe it is not for you in China, but it is for me in the US. That very sense, that right now we have a global set of timelines, means that we can agree not only that it is a certain day, but we can agree what time it is for you and what time it is for me. We can both know with certainty the time of the other; we can do all of this kind of dynamic of triangulation that is a truthful speaking, a sort of disclosure of our relations to the world. But it is impossible without communication and communication technologies. Look at us right now, I’m talking to you in China through communication technologies, and we are making references to the fact of what day it is and what hour it is. Now those things aren’t there independent of people, but we are not just making it up out of thin air. It’s very real, but has been built up through a long, complex, and now assumed or mostly forgotten history.
In your book, what do you mean when you say that, even though reality is socially constructed, prior to that, it is “phenomenologically constituted”?
You have to realize that in my academic infancy I was a devoted, pretty radical social constructionist, but it slowly became more and more apparent to me, reading people like Hilary Putnam and his reactions to Richard Rorty; lots of work on analog/digital by Gregory Bateson and Anthony Wilden, and existential phenomenology more generally – all these different traditions were starting to register in me something deeper…and of course, semiotics! Let’s talk about semiotics quickly. There is in discourse always three levels to the sign: there is the indexical level, the iconic level, and the symbolic level. As I’m speaking right here and now, we sometimes refer to words as only symbols. Well, we treat them as arbitrary symbols, but they are also icons at a different level; that is, every word that I’m uttering right now rhymes with other words in the language. If I use the word “tree,” it rhymes with bee, knee, and sea and tea; that itself is an iconic level of discourse. But beneath it all, discourse also has indexical levels. So, for example, as I’m speaking to you right now, there has to be a physical, actual production of the sign. There is some causal as well as countless contiguous relation. It usually doesn’t come to be an issue when we think of symbols, unless it’s something like a signature, or where to place a sign, or we perhaps are trying to determine who said what; but those do become part of the way it’s socially constructed. One way to really get at this is that we can argue that law create social reality, and there are countless examples of laws, but some attention needs to go to the particular “someone” who has to produced the actual documents and to the “someone” who actually signed them, etc. There are embodied, concrete, material elements that make it happen.
So are you suggesting that perhaps somebody like Saussure sent semiotics into the wrong direction by reducing it to its symbolic dimension?
Yes, quite significantly. Saussure is perhaps a main bugbear in it all, at least for some lines of philosophical postmodernist thought. The people who now really need to get out of the nightmare of the worst forms of deconstructionist and postmodernist quagmire are those who became ridiculous goofballs by picking up all of their linguistic theory from Saussure. If they had come out of Jakobson first – particularly Elmar Holenstein’s work on Jakobson – they wouldn’t have encountered any of those problems. So many of the off-the-wall, bordering on absurd postmodernist stuff began with a simplistic reading of Saussure and then got caught up in the signifier-signified trap. You don’t get into any of those problems with Jakobson and Holenstein.
It is said that, hammer in hand, everything tends to look like a nail. What are the risks associated with forcing connections into patterns? What are the limits of interdisciplinary studies?
Young scholars should be on lookout for those fields of knowledge that are likely to go open-source, because they don’t require technology and have no material hardware demands. Some of those are going to go to digital platforms. You are not going to need to house them at universities in the same way that you need to house labs and things that require technology and I guess other forms of personal contact. If I were a math or accounting professor, I might be a little bit scared. At any rate, part of the question becomes, ‘How will people deal with what knowledge is likely to mean in the future?’ Increasingly, the youth have to be able to produce wealth, and that perhaps is not happening. If you read someone like Korzybski, his book Manhood of Humanity, which is a bad title but an interesting book partly on the notion of wealth, his point is that have we enabled people who don’t know how to produce real wealth. There is much true there: so much knowledge has become parasitic, it’s not knowledge that genuinely either affects people in their relations and changes their lives or themselves, or physically creates some sort of service or good that is bettering people’s lives. So, some of those questions about what is knowledge and what is the goal of being knowledgeable, will eventually need to move toward something akin to “What does it mean to become wise?” I think that what we are after are people who can learn to see their own lives as a beginning of solutions to larger social problems, and it has to do with changing practices of consumption, with relationships toward otherness, toward owning responsibility and not bypassing them, developing strategies for cutting against legalistic culture.
Let’s change the subject. I know you’re actively involved in YouTube. What’s your impression of the YouTube community? If Erving Goffman were correct, then there must be a noticeable difference between Corey Anton the University Professor and ‘professoranton’ the Youtuber?
I have a love/hate relationship with YouTube. Sometimes it’s enjoyable and stimulating, even edifying, but often it’s very frustrating: many people are rude for no reason, people say absolutely mean things, and there are all kinds of backstage melodramatic interactions. I have people post hostile comments on my videos, and then privately send me long-winded confessional life stories about how life was for them as a youth. Lots of stuff like that. It’s really a bit bizarre. It’s such a land of misfit toys. There are so many people who are lonely or dejected, and it’s sort of like you have to feel sorry for them. But they come and treat you badly, are mean to you. The kick you in the groin, and if you grab them and you say “I’ll take you to task; and don’t kick me there!” and someone else then says, “Oh, why are you jumping on that person? You’re abusing your power!” It’s weird, hard to embrace. It’s also odd because on YouTube I tend to be more stiff (a bit formal and rigid), whereas in class I’m more animated and I get to question them. In class I also get to hold them accountable more, could be quiz over a shared reading, and especially I have an hour and fifteen to play with; we can really get an argument going in an hour and fifteen…
Yeah, as opposed to ten minutes… But what I’m trying to get at is this: clearly, the values of both academia as an institution and YouTube as an online community are radically different and even perhaps incompatible from each other, right? I’m curious to know what kind of reaction your involvement might have caused among your colleagues in academia, and what attracted you to YouTube in the first place….
It’s hard for me to talk about this in an honest or objective way, because I guess in some way I wanted to believe in myself as a would-be new sheriff come to town. I don’t think that’s at all true, though. And there were a good number of people (they can remain unnamed), when I first set up my YouTube account, who said to me: “YouTube is the wild west; you can’t have conversations; people are going to be impossible poo flingers. It’s a waste of time.” Partly true but as I continued to post videos, I have begun to feel the change in YouTube culture all around me. YouTube is changing, even if the change is very slow and on many fronts. I do like to fantasize I’ve been part of the change but it seems, on honest appraisal, to be something larger that is just happening. There are more and more professors on too; there seems to be a little more scholarly debate as of late, and there has been some more civil dialogue. We perhaps need to remember that YouTube itself is only five years old, and it has radically changed in the past two years. But, to respond more to your question, I never talk with my colleagues about it, and I never show them to my students in class.
You are an advocate of book culture as well as a prolific writer. When is your next work coming out?
My most recent book, an edited collection, is titled Valuation and Media Ecology: Ethics, Morals and Laws. It just came out and it’s a great compilation. I’m very proud of it; there are some amazing distinguished and accomplished scholars in it, and going back to one of your earlier questions, one of my main concerns, something I address in my chapter in the book, is, what are we to do with the meaning of ethics, morals, and laws? Or as I’m trying to get at in my chapter: the difference between what could be called ethicality, morality, and legality. I think many people’s morals are now informed by laws to such a degree that they think that if something is not illegal there’s nothing wrong with it, or if they don’t get caught there’s nothing wrong with it. Think of someone who drives just a little bit above the speed limit. That’s pretty much what our culture has become. It’s a felt disobedience against a law that is taken as over-imposed upon oneself, whereas I think genuine ethics is more akin to an internally driven orientation from a person who is trying to bring about the good life in themselves and in others. There is a will to want to have a conscience. So there’s a history from ethicality to morality to legality, and now legality has become the dominant meaning of the age, an age that seems always looking for legalistic loopholes. Our culture condones people being ripped off and exploited constantly, and the laws have to keep catching up with new loophole exploiters, and someone always has a practice or service that has been able to make tons of money, exploit lots of people, “but it wasn’t illegal yet,” and now we have to change the law. Or, on a whole different side we act as if something is against the law then it must be a bad thing. These are problems that are not going away soon. We need more careful thought about the nature of these relations.
Another book, a single author book, coming out in September – my most recent baby – is entitled Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism, published by Purdue University Press. The book is getting good promotion, and I’m really excited that the Ernest Becker Foundation has been receptive and supportive. I began writing the book over my sabbatical about five years ago, though the research itself took many years.
What attracted you to the Stoics?
Well, just to be clear, it’s not exactly a book on the Stoics. I mean, it admittedly focuses on Epictetus in the final chapter. And much is aligned with the Stoic worldview. The stoics are rich for me in that they are one of the early philosophical schools to incorporate death acceptance in a way that some of the other traditions sort of promised something other than life. So accepting death with courage, as somehow being outside of your control, is important for me. Also, in contrast with atheistic traditions that align to a scientism which looks at the human exclusively as “in nature” or tries to understand the human as a natural phenomenon or a product of nature, and in contrast to the many different religious traditions that try to understand the human as an otherworldly being, almost like an angel or a soul or something like that, the Stoics fundamentally understood the human as an inherently civic, social being. That is part of the position that I’ve tried to raise: humanity, or the self-reflexive consciousness that we have come to take-for-granted as today’s mind, is a natural though social-historical phenomenon.
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