© Mark Poster and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Poster was interviewed via Skype by Laureano Ralon on May 8th, 2011
Mark Poster teaches at the University of California Irvine in the History Department, the Department of Film and Media Studies, and the Critical Theory Emphasis. He has courtesy appointments in the Department of Information and Computer Science and the Department of Comparative Literature. Some of his recent publications are: What’s the Matter with the Internet? (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), The Second Media Age (Blackwell, 1995), The Mode of Information (Chicago Press, 1990) and Cultural History and Postmodernity (Columbia University Press, 1997). Most recently, Dr. Poster continued his study of the social and cultural theory of electronically mediated information with a book entitled Information Please: Culture and Politics in a Digital Age (Duke University Press, 2006). A full bibliography of his works may be found here.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Yes, it was a conscious choice. I found that I really enjoyed as an undergraduate reading and talking about ideas, so I decided to go to graduate school. And I decided on intellectual history as my primary focus because it was about ideas, but it gave me the flexibility that – I felt – philosophy did not.
Where did you go to graduate school and who were some of your mentors?
Well, I went to graduate school at New York University, and my mentor was a man named Frank Manuel, who wrote mostly about utopias. He was a terrific scholar I thought. Being in N.Y.C., I also attended lectures from many different people, both at N.Y.U. and Columbia, and in philosophy mostly – but also in related fields such as music, art history, and other fields related to European Culture. But Frank Manuel was really the main person who mentored me.
What were some of the most important lessons that you learned from him as a mentor?
That’s an interesting question. I think to take the point of view of the person you are writing about and give it a fair hearing as well as to criticize it. That served me pretty well until later in my career.
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?
Well, I think it changed quite a bit. Joshua, of course, is thinking about media, and that is certainly one aspect of the change of the role of university professor. I remember, before I became a professor, I did some public school substitute teaching, and to my shock, some of the students brought in portable music players and started playing their music during the class – I just couldn’t believe it! Years later, when I began to teach about the Internet as a university professor, I began using high-tech classrooms with computer stations at each desk and I found that – after 30 years of teaching – I could no longer control the class. This was before the i-phone of course, in the early- or mid-nineties, but they were already distracted or multitasking and generally more interested in going on the web. So that has certainly changed the role of the professor: the fact that the student has the entire world of information at their disposal and you can’t really turn it off means that the classroom is no longer this enclosed space where the professor can become expanded and amplified compared to the relative ignorance of the students. In light of this, the professor, in a way, becomes more of a research assistant to the students’ own projects, as they discover information and knowledge that they are interested in. Now, that doesn’t mean that the old ways are completely gone. If there is a discussion of a reading assignments in class, that probably still looks pretty much like the university where I was an undergraduate in. So there are a lot of new things which add-on to the old ways of doing things and give you more possibilities.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by information overload?
You have to take on multiple roles. You are no longer the authority who has the knowledge and dispenses that knowledge to the students. The students can discover the knowledge themselves, and you can give them clues as to, for example, how to read websites critically; or how to develop “associative knowledge” – bringing two things together is a self-creative act – in addition to reviewing students’ actual work and giving them feedback.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Well, in the United States right now we are going through a really bad economic situation. You have to really want to do it, and you should try to get as much feedback as possible from your graduate teachers about your abilities. A lot of people want to become university professors, and yet they are not really competitive. In today’s market, where there are not as many jobs, it can be very difficult and very discouraging if you can’t compete; if you can’t write a first grade dissertation if you want to be in a research university, so I would urge caution – and find out what people think of your work in an objective way. Be open to criticism!
Let’s move on. What attracted you to the work of Jean Baudrillard? In what ways was Baudrillard an improvement over McLuhan?
Baudrillard seemed to connect some of the thinking about language to the media; and he seemed unafraid to connecting all of this to popular culture, whereas a lot of other intellectuals who had similar interests in language could not deal with popular culture. The whole difference between popular culture and high culture has been falling apart for quite a while, and yet, Derrida deals primarily with the philosophical tradition and the same is true of someone like Deleuze: even though he has a book on cinema, he treats cinema as high art. So that’s what really attracted me to Baudrillard, who, paradoxically, was viewed as too common in Europe.
As for McLuhan, I think he is also very important. He of course didn’t have the language and cultural theory available to him that Baudrillard did, but I have compared them many times; and Baudrillard was one of the very few French intellectuals to pay any serious kind of attention to McLuhan. If you look at Derrida’s comments about McLuhan, they are completely off base and ridiculous, in my opinion. As smart as Derrida was and as wonderful as much of his work is, his comments about McLuhan are really embarrassing.
McLuhan and Baudrillard are somewhat different in style, although they are both kind of outrageous. I think the two of them, plus a Czech writer named Vilém Flusser are very interesting in the sense that they go for the new media, and try to explore “What if the world was all new media? What could we get at?”
One of your areas of specialization is critical theory. Do you think there is a tendency in critical theory to overemphasize sociality and symbolicity at the expense of embodiment and temporality?
My general attitude is that people should explore what they think is important in the context of critical theory. We shouldn’t rule out things or suggest that certain things are not important at any particular time, because theory is different from empirical social science; there is no kind of truth in theory, which is suggestive and opens up questions and problematizes things, as Foucault would say. So, à priori, on the face of it, I would not say that there is an overemphasis on one or the other. You can actually say the exact opposite and make an argument that there is too much emphasis on embodiment and temporality on Merleau-Ponty, for example. So I don’t like to pre-empt topics or lines of inquiry.
In 2001, you wrote a book entitled What’s the Matter with the Internet? What was the matter with the Internet then and what is the matter with the Internet today?
Well, I was playing with the term matter, and I meant the “materiality” of the Internet. Today, of course, it has changed somewhat, but at the physical level it’s pretty much the same composition of electrons, lights going through optics, etc.. And it has the same ways of interfering with the Newtonian world of matter that it had then: it’s very fast, it’s everywhere, and it has its own spatial and temporal coordinates and characteristics, and I think that’s evident in social media as well as it has been in online gaming or peer-to-peer file sharing, or blogs or Wikipedias, etc.. I really didn’t mean “what’s wrong” with the internet. The title could be taken as a double meaning in the sense that the materiality of the Internet is not like the Newtonian world. It has to interact with the Newtonian world but it disrupts the Newtonian world.
What are you currently working on?
I am actually taking a rest right now and working on much smaller projects that were left over from previous years. So I am kind of sitting back and observing what is going on in the domain of new media. I haven’t decided yet on a new project.
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