© Jussi Parikka and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Parikka was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on July 12th, 2012
Jussi Parikka is media theorist, writer and Reader in Media & Design at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton). He is Adjunct Professor (“docent”) of Digital Culture Theory at the University of Turku, Finland. In addition, he is a Senior Fellow at the Winchester Centre for Global Futures in Art Design & Media. Parikka’s books include Koneoppi (2004, in Finnish) and Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses is published by Peter Lang, New York, Digital Formations-series (2007). The recently published Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology (2010) focuses on the media theoretical and historical interconnections of biology and technology and was published in the University of Minnesota Press Posthumanities-series. The co-edited collection The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn, and Other Anomalies from the Dark Side of Digital Culture is published by Hampton Press, and Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, Implications came out with University of California Press (2011). In addition, the edited collection Medianatures: The Materiality of Information Technology and Electronic Waste is out in the new Living Books About Life-project (Open Humanities Press, 2011). His new book, What is Media Archaeology? (Polity, 2012), is just out. Currently, Parikka is interested in the concept of the aesthetico-technical as well as materiality of e-waste. His website and blog: http://jussiparikka.net
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I am not really sure whether it was conscious; partly yes, and partly it was a drifting into something that would have scared me speechless as a 21-year-old student: to teach in front of dozens of people! Nowadays I enjoy it. During my studies, I had considered becoming a journalist. I worked as a freelancer, writing general interest stories – interviewing pop stars, poets, and politicians – as well as what really I enjoyed writing, such as book reviews relating to theory and philosophy. I loved writing, but I never was any good at fiction, so various genres of journalism and essays were easier. Gradually, I lost interest with journalism, realizing that I would not be able to support myself with the more marginal writing interests. Hence, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program, and happily realized that I was actually allowed to read books and write as much as possible on such topics! And thanks to the Finnish grant system, I was able to land enough support for my Ph.D. project so that I could work on it for five years. But it also became clear to me that there would not be many jobs in Finnish academia (always so underfunded, despite its high quality, supported by the outstanding school system), so I had to start looking internationally early on. I spent some of my study time in Amsterdam and Berlin, and then started to look for jobs in Canada and the U.K. I held my first permanent academic position at Anglia Ruskin University.
Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I did my degrees at University of Turku, Finland, and my mentors were perhaps not the most internationally known, even if outstanding, scholars. Professor Hannu Salmi, a true multidisciplinary historian, gave interesting points of view based on his expertise in cultural history; Professor Jukka Sihvonen was instrumental for me and others in introducing thinkers such as Kittler and Deleuze to us. His Deleuze course (in media studies) was an outstanding eye-opener, and I believe it was Sihvonen who also introduced me to the positively puzzling media theoretical thinking of Kittler. For me, that was really an antidote to the hermeneutical emphasis of so many historical disciplines, or the history discipline mindset in general. Having said that, I learned huge amounts and was inspired by Sakari Ollitervo’s grad seminars on Heidegger, Gadamer, Hegel and many other thinkers we read. I remember how reading Erkki Huhtamo’s media archaeological writings had an impact on my interests in historically tuned media theory.
In your experience, how has the role of university professor “evolved” since you were an undergraduate student?
Besides time, there is another thing to consider here: the fact that I studied in Finland, which still is an open, free, and publicly supported university system, and that I now work in the U.K., a completely different academic environment. I remember that in Finland, professors were really respected, and had an aura about them, so to speak. The first university lecture I attended was given by the highly established Jorma Kalela, whose lectures on “What is History” were amazingly clear and inspiring. (Despite his nice style, I was very anxious when years later I interviewed him for a cultural magazine story!) In Finland you were more in charge of your curriculum, picking topics you found interesting, while of course taking the compulsory courses. More emphasis was on book exams that gave the freedom one enjoyed. It was more reliant on student activity and ability to organise and keep time than the current system, which at times, in the U.K., feels more like a continuation of school. Indeed, the current customer emphasis of universities is going to produce severe problems in the long run; shortening of course duration, simplification of content, and a general change of ethos in terms of expectations from experimental inquiry to tightly managed investment mentality about education – that does not allow the required development of cognitive or affective skills universities should give. I really do miss that learning environment that one can still also recognize in some German university courses and in some pockets internationally.
Otherwise, networked technologies, resources and methods have enabled a way to rethink learning spaces. The extended classroom, and the tying in formal learning spaces with informal, is beneficial in terms of how it feeds into teaching media studies as a theoretical subject. The situation in terms of resources is difficult in the midst of student debt, but luckily an increasing amount of online resources is making research accessible. Besides such developments that surely have an impact, it is important to think about the issue in a more significant way: How might we think differently with different, networked educational technology context, and how does it condition the process of learning? Far from being someone who automatically hails “new learning technologies,” I would actually say in most cases they are mobilized in a superficial way. Universities just don’t know how to use them yet, and often pedagogical training in universities (in the U.K., at least) is not able to truly and innovatively support ideas that might produce some valuable learning. Furthermore, if the use of learning technologies does not come with a fair dose of critical attitude that actively supports open and free technological platforms, we are just playing into some corporation’s pocket. The U.K. has been so enthused about the idea of digital literacy throughout the past few years, but we really need to roll it out as a comprehensive attitude towards technological culture, not just a bit of coding skills.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by attention deficit and information overflow?
I think the attention deficit and information overflow applies as much to academics as it does to students. For academics it is often the amount of administrative paperwork and such that distracts from actually contributing to the best learning environment. Oddly, this has not yet been picked up in the U.K. or by students, who should be critically evaluating the misleading discourse of “student experience” kick-started by the government and supported by many bodies; most of the increase in fees does not go to lecturers and ensuring properly good teaching, but to managerial measures to make the university look as if it is thinking of the “student experience,” which often might be more likely to be measured in student happiness, not in the actual quality of teaching. I am happy to work at a school where we actually are constantly trying to invest – and have the possibility to do so – into student learning and support measures with a good staff/student ratio.
Ideally, a good teacher is one who can contribute time to students. It’s as simple as that – since with time, you are able to create learning environments that support going off on tangents but still working that into a milieu of learning, an agenda, a way of developing critical thinking as a speculative, exploratory activity that uses various techniques. Someone somewhere said that a good teacher is someone who makes him or herself redundant in the end – that the student is able to carry on, along the certain modes of thinking learnt, and even scrap those when they become unsuitable to the cognitive tasks. I guess nowadays there is more emphasis on affective sides of learning, but that was always there – that you were able to create a wonderful atmosphere of learning.
What advice would you give to aspiring university professors?
Consider one more time if you really want this career! There are other ways to write and do intellectual stuff. I am partly kidding, and more seriously I would encourage those considering this career not to play too much into the corporate game in which I believe we are expected to participate. Instead, refrain from too blatant self-promotion, and while thinking carefully of career strategies (for instance in the U.K. the key advice for anyone now wanting to find a job as a lecturer is to make sure you have your four REF items sorted out and in high-level journals preferably), try to avoid the not-so-nice sides of contemporary academia which have to do with digging into academic trench wars, staying loyal to clubs, or elitism. Cherish academic gift culture, and modesty even!
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?
Yes, but it is not about an age of information but the corporate turn in university cultures. Departmental sovereignty might indeed be in danger; part of that change is due to the pressures (good ones, one might add) of interdiscplinarity and transdsciplinarity. However, a bigger danger is the autonomy of academic units being threatened by corporate senior management types taking over universities, which are then run like any other business. The ineffective business culture that is detrimental to universities as we know it is creeping in, supported by governmental measures such as the U.K.’s own REF and other measurement mechanisms that are far from transparent. In relation to the increasing fees and increasing managerialisation of universities, such education arrangements outside them as free universities are offering alternative models of learning – of course still without the authority over degrees that universities have, but offering possibilities for that affective, community-oriented problem-solving that does not have to give in to short-sighted business demands.
In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, 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. In a short, Fukuyama 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. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?
We do not have tenure as such in the U.K., so I am not in the ideal position to comment on this North American system. However, I recognize the benefits and am a huge promoter of academic freedom of speech and job security. Without wanting to fully comment on Fukuyama’s arguments, I believe the idea of something such as the tenure system being “too costly” is ridiculous. I just love the phrase by Siva Vaidhyanathan in his recent article in Slate on public education, about some people claiming how “American higher education is ‘unsustainable.’ No. It’s just not adequately sustained.” I fear that removing tenure would indeed be less about exposing supposedly lazy professors to public scrutiny, and more about a bigger move against autonomy of education systems in relation to economic and security interests. In terms of latter, think of for instance the UCSD Ricardo Dominguez case of past years. In that context, tenure needs unreserved support to enable and encourage fresh and courageous research that really matters. Looking at it from a European perspective, job precarity is becoming the standard state of things in academia, and gradually having a significant impact in what kind of work we do. Instead of embarking on long term, major projects, we are forced to think more short-term. Of course, it is not only tenure we should be worrying about but the other levels of academia, and the increase in non-tenure track jobs, permanent contracts, and various increasingly unfair and unsupportive roles, especially for junior academics.
I’m currently researching the points of contact between media ecology and existential phenomenology, particularly the connections between McLuhan and Heidegger. Recently, I’ve been thinking that these two thinkers were both studied through other people: in the case of Heidegger, it was politically correct in Europe to read Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Derrida and Lacan – all of whom were deeply influenced by Heidegger; in the case of McLuhan, after his death in 1980, people approached him – often unknowingly – through Baudrillard, Virilo and Kittler, while McLuhan’s work was no were to be found in university libraries. In light of this, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of going back to the source, because strictly speaking, one can’t fully comprehend Lacan or Derrida without first reading Heidegger, and in a similar fashion, one can’t make full sense of Baudrillard or Kittler without first understanding McLuhan. What do you make of this appreciation? I know you have some thoughts of your own on the particular interplay between McLuhan and Kittler.
I think this question is one of those where I would have to say “yes” and “no.” To elaborate, and reflecting on my historian background: the further back you can go, the better. Excavating the long genealogies of thought is important, time-consuming, and hence rewarding. And yet, that kind of thinking can become itself a way to use institutional power and stop refreshing ideas from emerging. The idea that you should not speak about Derrida or Kittler if you do not understand everything about the history from which his thoughts comes from leads into an endless tracing (very Derridian, right?) that never is able to take the thinking forward. Philosophical inquiry becomes tracing the influences, not something that might be able to develop transversal, new ideas. This is a very Deleuzean and Guattarian way of emphasizing the pragmatics of language and philosophy. Instead of trying to decipher origins, meanings, and in general such hermeneutical dimensions of something, let’s see how it works and how we can make it work. Having said that, I think we need time – and let thoughts have time – for such “uses,” and tracing histories can perhaps can become a methodology for creation of something new, something useful for our situation. Perhaps this is the media archaeologist in me talking now. Mapping histories has to do with creations of the new.
In terms of McLuhan and Kittler – sure, this is one lineage of thought worthwhile excavating. It’s interesting to remember how the “roots” of “German” media theory are, in so many directions, including Canada. And yet, let’s avoid master narratives and thinking that reading McLuhan is the only “key” to Kittler. Kittler was both influenced by his thought but also often critical, and demanded a more radically material take on histories of media technology. He was also more anti-humanist, of sorts, and in so many theoretical ways, going into a very different direction than McLuhan. Although, I do know that there is much more to the supposed humanism of McLuhan.
To build up on the previous question, what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?
There should be no one set reading list. Kittler read Lacan and Foucault, Aristotle and Pynchon. It is always good to start with those, but it is not enough, as we know, to imitate the previous generations. Regarding media theory, I still find a lot being published in Germany of outstanding quality and of such rigorous scholarship with quirky ideas that are astonishing. I have been reading recently literature on cultural techniques, including works by Bernhard Siegert, who I highly recommend. Similarly, there are always loads of thinkers that might be quite central, but would still demand even a more central place in terms of our media theoretical debates. I have always been such a huge fan of Adrian Mackenzie’s work, as well as Matthew Fuller, and a range of feminist materialists, who early on were promoting the non-human turn (consider Rosi Braidotti’s work). At times theory gives you not only ideas, but great affective moods and modes.
But what someone should read – I hesitate to be in a position to start telling people that. I might suggest and plant ideas, but we all find our specific academic kinks that inspire us, on a regular basis. It’s always good to be surprising; I am at the moment reading Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History, which is to me a fantastic way to approach media studies topics as well. Always read outside your discipline.
Alvin Toffler once declared that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” – a statement which, by the way, Heidegger would approve. As a professor of Digital Culture Theory, do you agree with Toffler. Should scholars and academics make use of social media? What would you say to those who still resist it on the ground that scholarship should be based on a detached, disinterested, contemplative attitude?
Depends on what kind of social media you are talking about. I do silently chuckle a lot of the various “new innovations” in learning technologies and social media. A huge amount of young scholars’ time is in risk of being redirected to that metalevel of research activity; research becomes a never-ending exercise of research management. But I am also traditional in the sense that the old fashioned things like reading, writing, and publishing are quite useful if you want to be a scholar. But this takes different forms now. I am happy that we are moving away from the institutionalised book form, governed by a small range of academic publishers, and at times with incredibly grim business models that have not much respect for the writers, the academics. A new colleague at our school, Paul Caplan, has introduced me to thinking about remix practices as one way of considering arts and humanities publishing. Indeed, forms of open publishing, experimental writing, and collaborative ideas using new forms of networking, mobility, location, and movement are inspiring. They force us to rethink institutional boundaries.
As a friend of mine, Professor Darren Wershler at Concordia University in Montreal, said casually on Twitter as part of our conversation, he does not like the idea of “schools” (such as in academic traditions, clusters) so much as :networks.” Indeed, that has been my line too. It’s the much wider networks, outside traditional institutional boundaries, from and in which our thought emerges. These are not only technological, but technology might enable ways to think differently.
I do kind of like Toffler’s little idea, and its dynamics. As important as “learning” is “unlearning” – NIetzschean forgetting – as a way of getting rid of the baggage of institutional history. Institutions are effective in installing internalised guidelines and police forces, of which we need to unlearn too. Besides reading and writing, we need to be able to be open to new kinds of affective, habitual, and organisational arrangements. Of course, this corresponds to the neoliberalist emphasis on flexibility and constant-readiness – the willingness to learn and change habits – but it can of course be something useful for a critical productive stance, too. Social media is in this sense only one kind of a node, which is important for learning new habits. In addition, to go back to what I said earlier, it is important we develop an understanding of the proprietary contexts of so much of social media, and its relation to the online contexts -institutions – in which we are writers and readers.
Your most recent book is entitled Media Archaeology. It is an introduction to the emerging field of media archaeology and analyses the innovative theoretical and artistic methodology used to excavate current media through its past. Who were some of the authors that influenced you to write this book, and who are some of the antecedents in the development of this new interdisciplinary field?
Media archaeology has been practiced by writers and artists since at least the 1980s and early 1990s; Siegfried Zielinski, Erkki Huhtamo, Thomas Elsaesser, and such artists as Paul Demarinis and Zoe Beloff have been important in outlining its various forms. Friedrich Kittler has also been understood as part of this way of thinking because of his interest in the Foucauldean mapping of conditions of existence of technical media culture; technical media is itself a condition of existence for ways in which we write, read, hear, think. More recently, Wolfgang Ernst has emerged as a singular thinker in this media archaeological field.
Of course, we could push further back. We can track uses of the notion of “archaeology” in so many other fields too – archaeologies of cinema, archaeologies of knowledge, of modernity, of the psyche. There is a wonderful book out just now by Knut Ebeling, Wilde Archäologien (Wild Archaeologies), which basically maps an archaeology of the concept of archaeology in cultural theory. Just to add, in Germanic style it is over 700 pages, so please do not expect me to offer a summary just yet.
For me, what media archaeology does besides offering a certain epistemology of cultural analysis or highlighting huge amount of interesting specific studies in the crossroads of art, science and technology, is to think about time. It offers ideas about temporality. Media archaeology is so much more than just a footnote to Foucault or Kittler. By this emphasis on temporality I mean how it allows us to think of other times; of times of long duration (to nod at the direction of Fernand Braudel), of microtemporalities that might be of technological quality, of time percolated and folded like braided, zigzagging, revolving and unfolding lines (Michel Serres talks of such dynamic times). Ernst’s concept or idea of microtemporality is very much an interesting one, and escorts us to think of the other “times” than those of historians.
What are you currently working on?
Lots of things and nothing! In other words, I have no one big project on at the moment, but I have been toying around and drafting some ideas on how to combine some of my media theoretical and archaeological interests with post-Fordist political theory – for instance, how to approach the notion of “cognitive capitalism” from a media archaeological perspective. Otherwise, I am now writing texts on critical engineering, media ecology, and electronic waste, as well as on time-criticality in network culture. I am also co-editing a special issue on cultural techniques for Theory, Culture & Society.
What I would want to do is to find that modest five to ten years to work on something in a focused manner – something in the spirit that does not so easily find a place in the measurement oriented and short-term academic cultures of contemporary education and research. I already have nostalgic feelings about my Ph.D. times, when I was able to write the same book – that came out as Digital Contagions – for five years, full time.
In Winchester, we are getting off the ground our new research Centre: Winchester Centre for Global Futures in Art, Design and Media, with lots of great colleagues. As part of that, we are establishing local and national partnerships and activities, as well as international ones, in Europe and elsewhere. Certain regions are of special interest to me, including Berlin, but also Istanbul where I, as Centre representative, will be involved with the Amber Festival.
Questions of “what” one is working on should be complemented with questions of “when” one is working on something, and where.
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