© Michael Heim and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Heim was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on March 3rd, 2012
Michael R. Heim is an American author and educator. Known as “the philosopher of cyberspace”, Heim’s three scholarly books - Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (Yale University Press, 1986), The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 1993), and Virtual Realism (Oxford University Press, 1998) – have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. He taught at Missouri Western University in the 1980s, was an online lecturer for Connected Education in the mid-1980s, and taught at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, 1995-2002. Heim lectures in Humanities at the University of California, Irvine and in the graduate program at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
From my mother I learned to love reading books, and the more books I read, the more I enjoyed reading the kind of books that stretch my understanding. If something was perfectly clear, if a book didn’t puzzle me in some way, I lost interest. Study was just part of growing up. Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, Alan Ginsburg and Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, books on nuclear physics and Dylan Thomas, everything was fascinating and fair game to read. One of my favorite authors was the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose love for solitary reflection fueled mine; and later, after I got into Tai Chi, his explorations into mystical experience called for fresh re-reading. My work on virtuality and UFO phenomena comes from that kind of spirituality. These days Merton’s lectures on Muslim Sufism seem to me prescient for broadening cultural understanding, and I find myself reading Merton again.
Early on I also discovered a knack for explaining things to other people. Grade school teachers saw this and put me in front of the room at the blackboard. That’s how long ago it was, we had blackboards those days, not white boards or Power Point presentations.
When I got to graduate school, I loved it so much that I stayed, albeit at different schools, for ten years. A couple Fulbright grants, DAAD, and other travel grants helped keep me in graduate school. But most of all I enjoyed the interactions with other grad students which was professional but friendly and not yet complicated by the political machinations typical of full faculty members.
The whole process was not career oriented, so becoming a professor felt more a matter of deepening my interests and “following the argument.” I do remember, however, an occasional look of disbelief when someone would ask me personally about my life plans and I would reply that I want to be a practicing philosopher. I also recall the chair of a prominent philosophy department telling me that I would never find anyone to publish the kind of things I was writing. My interests were not narrowly professional. I always thought like a humanist with connections to literature, poetry and the arts, not in terms of a disciplinary specialist.
This broad range of interest comes out in my books The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality and also in Virtual Realism but not so much in Electric Language which was written more with academic readers in mind. But Electric Language is my favorite because its vision caught the pristine seeds of the digital revolution so long ago as it was just sprouting. Louis Rossetto implicitly recognized Electric Language in 1987 when he put my mug on the cover and he titled his fledgling magazine Electric Word – which later became Wired magazine.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important you learned from them?
Mentors for me were those who combined thinking and scholarship with writing their own books, people like Michael Gelven, Edward Ballard, Stanley Rosen, and John Anderson; in Germany, Heribert Boeder and Hermann Gundert. But I learned most from the faculty in Philosophy at Northern Illinois University during the 1960s. The whole faculty at the time consisted of former students of the great Hegelian humanist Albert William Levi, who was then still in St. Louis, Missouri. The N.I.U. faculty members all felt that philosophy had a broad scope and range of expression, very much the opposite of the then prevailing linguistic analysis. They were all humanists like the earlier St. Louis Hegelians who had taught them. So the study was rich and eclectic: the Tao Te Ching was read along with Plato, Vico, Eldridge Cleaver, Ionesco, and Ayn Rand. It is only in recent years that I discovered ways to read Wittgenstein and connect him with a sense of spirituality that does not reduce to narrow linguistic behaviorism.
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?
The whole university became much more controlled by administration. The faculty lost ground in defining its role. This change led to some improvements like funding and getting grant money but it has taken a toll on morale. If it was true that decades ago you would have felt pressure to write and publish in a certain way, that became even more true by the end of the 20th century. What will happen now with the new digital publishing, that is anyone’s guess.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
This is difficult today of course because of the changing media landscape. Creating a personalized authentic sense of intellectual community seems rare in a world that easily avoids face to face meetings.
My seminars these days involve getting a dozen graduate students together for a whole day and interacting with one another for the day. We give presentations to one another and write short critiques. The aim is to create a face to face experience of humanistic discourse. This was something that I learned from another mentor, the Italian scholar Ernesto Grassi. He long ago saw the need to use technology to bring people together. Attending Grassi’s Zurich Discourses in Europe for several years was excellent preparation for creating this kind of teaching and learning environment. In these eight hour seminars, students get to encounter each other interpreting texts, films, and other art forms. The focus is on witnessing one another’s living imaginations in action, not mediated online but directly in face-to-face conversations. We practice public speaking and small-group discussions and we use computers, smartphones, smart podiums and other technology to stretch our awareness of the immediate human interchange.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
This way of making a living is a risky way to live. Only those who have no choice but to follow their intellectual passion should embark on this kind of journey. The cultural environment will support serious academic efforts in the Humanities only reluctantly and sporadically. But then, hasn’t this always been so? Some things that help such a risky journey include: an emotionally supportive and resourceful partner, a love of solitude, and flexibility to adapt to unexpected and varied job situations. If you can make your passion for learning and teaching into a functional lifestyle, how wonderful is that!
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?
Interdisciplinary studies remain a chimera, a shimmering illusion. Academic power resides in the faculty disciplines, always has. My experience on many campuses in different states and countries tells me that interdisciplinary goals receive glowing lip service but very little funding. The universities revolve power-wise around the separate disciplines. If you have no anchor, no full support there, you remain an outsider. The power still resides in the separate disciplines because that’s where the bread and butter courses are taught, and that’s where the income is generated to fuel goals beyond the basics of the respective field. If you are lucky, you may find a chair or an exceptional dean who “gets it” but don’t hold your breath! Waiting for such unusual circumstance can be fatal as an individual. If you pursue an interdisciplinary line of thinking, you are pretty much on your own and at risk. Realize, though, that you are doing something necessary and important but don’t expect any compensation for your work until a decade or two have passed. That’s the way it’s always been and, pace McLuhan, things don’t seem to be changing in the way he imagined.
Let’s move on. You were a Fulbright scholar for three years in Europe, where you travelled extensively throughout the Continent. What memories do you hold from this period?
I have very fond memories of Freiburg and Berlin. Especially interesting were the passionate theorists who engaged each other in those days, the 1970s, with Hermeneutics, Heidegger, Adorno, and Marx. One outstanding feature of the European academic world is the dedication to studying without reservations and without worries associated with getting grants and making a living. This seems to be slowly changing in Europe but when I was there in the 1970s, the students showed a depth and dedication to studies for the sake of knowing and understanding without the practical considerations that dominate in the United States. There’s nothing as inspiring as seeing a short man quietly paging through a book in Herders Bookstore at Berthold’s Brunnen in Freiburg and then recognizing the face of Martin Heidegger. There is an atmosphere of immense dedication to tradition and to passing along that inner torch. Europeans maintain this advantage in the Humanities. It’s their dedicated concentration that seems rare in contemporary American culture.
Sometimes the European experience felt too extreme as when Marxist students at the Free University of Berlin would bust into a lecture hall where the lecturer was reading from Descartes’s Meditations – from an original first edition of Descartes – and then the class would be shut down because protesters wanted to eliminate idealistic abstractions and anything too precious from the campus. For those of us attending the lecture, it felt like a stomach punch. And that’s other side of extremely intense dedication, sometimes shocking!
As a Fulbright scholar, you studied Heidegger at the University of Freiburg. I think nobody would deny that, despite his ties to Nazism, Heidegger remains perhaps the most influential philosopher of the 20th century: Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Marcuse, Gadamer, Levinas, Derrida, Habermas and Foucault were all influenced by his work in a way or another;however, perhaps for this very same reason, authors such as Graham Harman have argued that Heidegger can be a sort of “life sentence” for many scholars. How does one move beyond Heidegger intellectually, and what do you make of the paradox that one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century was also a Nazi collaborator?
Good question! There’s too much in this question to unpack in this interview and many good scholars are spending a life time unpacking these questions. I will only say that Yes, I stood in the Freiburg University Library and read the Rektoratsrede. Then I translated a book by Heidegger and then went on to write The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, which I then thought of as the interpretation of virtuality as a type of worldhood. Why should an attempt to fathom a fresh phenomenon become sidetracked by political wrangling from a half century ago? Not to say that the political and moral issues of another time are uninteresting or unimportant, but there has to be a place for us to continue fresh thinking when it feels called for.
In Electric Language, you acknowledge Walter Ong a great deal, but are quite dismissive of Marshall McLuhan. Why is McLuhan ignored by philosophers of technology such as yourself, Don Ihde, Andrew Feenberg, and Albert Borgmann?
McLuhan was good with the bon mot and the widest generalities, but he was short on in-depth step by step analysis, what Hegelians call “conceptual labor.” What he saw was so important for us to notice and he used oracular, pithy phrases to prick our awareness. The oracular slogan can launch the research project but goes no further. Another but another kind of work is needed for unfolding the implications and extending the insight. McLuhan was the oracle that prompted the journey. It’s for others to embark on the long odyssey.
What are you currently working on and what attracted you to Tai Chi?
I’ve just finished two articles that will be chapters in collections on virtuality, one published by Oxford University Press and the other by Johns Hopkins University Press. The chapters treat in different ways the shift from in-place prosthetic technologies to a virtual reality that is mobile and much more distributed. My presentations – the next one is in Taiwan – now revolve around this new development – from immersion to mobility to the risk of human immobility.
Tai Chi is one antidote to the growing and debilitating somatic immobility. Our addiction to technology means more long hours slumped over digital devices, more time staring fixated on screens and all the while our somatic energy bodies stagnate. While I’ve been teaching Tai Chi outdoors now for 22 years, there has never been a time when I felt greater need for this kind of movement. Our next evolutionary phase requires a re-grounding and re-invigoration of the body-mind configuration. We are entering a new plane of space-time. Ancient practices can be re -built for this purpose, for preparing our newly grounded virtuality.
© Michael Heim and Figure/Ground Communication. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Heim and Figure/Ground Communication with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Your feedback is welcome and appreciated! If you like what you see, please consider voting, commenting or donating to help us grow. Figure/Ground is currently on the outlook for collaborators to help with the expansion of this section into the largest repository of scholarly interviews on the net. For specific suggestions regarding future/potential interviewees or to obtain permission to republish any of the interviews already on the site, please contact email@example.com.