© Nick Srnicek and Figure/Ground Communication
Nick Srnicek was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on December 29th, 2011
Nick Srnicek is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics, where he is working on “The Material Construction of World Politics” (thesis title) under the supervision of Kimberly Hutchings. His research examines how technology is used and adapted to grapple with the emergent complexities of our modern world. His work aims to expand the conception of technology in IR, with its narrow focus on communication and military technology. It also aims to demonstrate the ways in which technology operates not merely as an empty vessel for human intentions (the social constructivist and instrumentalist thesis). Srnicek co-edited with Levi R. Bryant and Graham Harman The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (Melbourne: Re:press, 2011). He has co-authored with Alex Williams Folk Politics (London: Zero Books, 2012 – forthcoming).
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
At some point, it became a conscious choice to do the PhD and work towards becoming a professor, yet this was a rather late decision. My undergrad was a pretty volatile time with me switching my program every year (from Mathematics, to Psychology, to Philosophy, and eventually a double Psychology/Philosophy major). It wasn’t until the final year that I realized I had a passion for academia and wanted to do an MA and eventually a PhD. But the contingent set of circumstances that had to come about for this pathway to open up was always quite improbable. So while there was a conscious choice at one point, that choice itself was the product of numerous contextual factors.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important you learned from them?
My most important mentor was Doug Long, a professor of political theory at the University of Western Ontario. Doug is a type of professor that will be fading away in today’s university – someone who has published relatively little, but has instead devoted their energies to producing exceptional teaching. When I took his class I had no real interest in politics or the practical implications of abstract philosophy. But Doug was a hugely inspiring figure, and was adept at bringing home the concrete significance of otherwise abstract meditations on justice, community, and equality. He brought these ideas to life for me in a way that I hadn’t imagined before, and this sparked my continuing fascination with politics. Additionally, on a practical level he was instrumental in me getting into a MA in Politics, despite not having majored in Politics. It’s no exaggeration to say that I owe where I am now to the support he gave me then.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
I think there’s two distinct questions here – one about the role of the university professor in a larger social system, and one about how media affects teaching. The latter question predominantly affects what it means to be a good teacher today, so I’ll leave that for the next question. But on the issue of how the role of teaching has changed over the past generation, I think the key point has been what’s now widely recognized as the neoliberalization of the university. The term itself is multivalent, but it nicely condenses a number of important shifts in how teachers function in their environment.
In the first place there’s the trend towards contract and part-time teaching work, with all the ensuing precariousness that places on individuals. We all know the wage gap between males and females in the same position, but we tend to forget the wage gap between permanent and temporary workers doing the same job. In the academic world, my own experience has been that temporary workers make 50-75% of what the equivalent workload would receive for a permanent worker. I’ve heard of American schools where this wage gap can reach as low as 20%. This is not only a gross inequity, but it leads to all sorts of social consequences. This is accelerated by the decline in pensions and the slow disappearance of tenure-track positions. The modern-day academic is living a precarious existence. They aren’t alone in this though. The defining characteristic of contemporary work is precisely its precarious nature, and this should become the focus of any workplace struggle (academic or otherwise).
The second issue is that there is a real problem amongst academics (and I thank my friend Paul Kirby for reminding me of this) in that since we are doing something we typically enjoy, we feel as though we should take on extra work without any extra pay. It’s the belief that we’re in a privileged position and therefore can be freely exploited as though in atonement for this privilege. I know of some colleagues who work in places where they aren’t paid for marking, for prep time or for office hours. Their attempts to change that situation were met with hostility not only from management but even from other teachers. Yet this isn’t simply a problem of some intrinsic conservativeness on the part of academics; rather, I think it’s an issue of how academics understand themselves, their work and their place in a larger university system. This can and needs to change, otherwise the exploited labour of academics will continue expanding.
The academic, as a contemporary figure, therefore is one plagued by two significant problems: first, the increasingly precarious nature of the position, particularly for new graduates. Second, academics are plagued by the misguided self-understanding that we should be available to exploit for free. These two combine to produce a rather dire situation, but one that may be changing.
I think the importance of these sociopolitical shifts for the classroom is fairly obvious. There’s simply no way to separate out the events happening in the broader context from what happens inside the classroom. The increased pressure on precarious teachers plays itself out in the classroom through less student engagement, more rote teaching, hasty evaluations of student work, and all sorts of other micro-political shifts that subtly shape how students emerge from the university today. These changes may play into management’s desire for more standards and more rote learning, but it’s at the expense of critical faculties.
Overall, therefore, I think the university space is going to see major transformations, but the primary determinants today will be political and economic rather than technological.
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 an interesting question, and one that I think is rapidly changing in accordance with the changes in technology today. One of the key aspects of a good teacher, I believe, is something I learned from Levi Bryant. He did an interview one time where he set forth his own philosophy of teaching and it’s always stuck with me. Essentially, as Deleuze notes, desire comes before knowledge. To teach a student who doesn’t desire to learn the material is immensely difficult. At best, there may be a utilitarian calculation on their part that this material is important insofar as it will be tested. Yet as soon as this need is met, the knowledge fades away. Properly teaching therefore means not simply to reproduce knowledge claims, but more significantly, to generate desire on the part of the students to learn. Given the desire to learn about a topic, it can be astounding what people are capable of. A common example we all know of is people who are diagnosed with a particular disease – they suddenly have a much more heightened desire to learn about it, and many end up becoming experts on their disease. The capacity for knowledge is there, but it’s a matter of awakening it.
Which leads to the question of how to do that? How to generate desire? In today’s age, counter-intuitively, I think this may actually be becoming easier. Certainly in one sense, students are increasingly shaped by multi-tasking and interruptions and continuous streams of incoming information. But with this shift, I think it’s also possible for teachers to work with these changes (much like Deleuze’s figure of the artisan) and to change how we project information in accordingly multivalent ways. This means teaching not only via a standard lecture, but also through verbal debates, videos, charts, historical pictures, schematic diagrams, electronic games and real-time news. This was all available in the past, to be sure, but with the rise of the internet and electronic media it’s passed the crucial threshold of usability and become something that can readily be applied in classrooms. For instance, I recently taught a class where one of my discussion questions raised the issue of the right to protest. It just so happened that Occupy Oakland was facing an eviction at the same time, and that there was live streaming video of it online. Being able to play this live video of cops suiting up in military-style outfits in preparation for their violent eviction of an occupy movement gave the discussion question a reality and a significance I don’t think it would have had otherwise. Properly applied, I think the new technologies are an excellent instrument to further teaching and produce a desire for knowledge.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Being a young graduate student myself, it’s a bit difficult to pretend I have anything particularly enlightening to say about the experience yet. That being said, one major trend I’ve noticed in my own experiences has been the rise of informal academic networks. By a large margin, most of my academic colleagues are people I first met online, whether through blogging or emailing or tweeting. I’ve since gone on to meet a number of them in the physical world, but the initial connections have almost invariably been via the internet. There’s a pragmatic benefit to this, which commonly goes under the label of ‘networking’ – simply put: the more people you know, the more opportunities arise. Yet on a much deeper and more important level, these connections have truly shaped and developed every one of “my” thoughts. The beauty of the internet – the beauty of philosophical and political communities online – is that one is forced to face up to a simple fact: cognition is collective, extended and embodied. Who “I” am as a scholar – my own process of individuation – has been undertaken and produced only through the medium of online collective thought.
At the same time, in enmeshing oneself in these networks one quickly comes to realize how often you are wrong. Writing on the internet will tend to attract experts on the smallest aspects, and you will inevitably have your claims being torn apart by people who are more knowledgeable in a particular academic corner than you are. As a result, one is forced to take a healthy scientific stance towards your own claims: “I tentatively take this claim X to be true insofar as I believe Y and Z.” Given our own cognitive defects and biases this is the only justifiable stance towards one’s own claims, and the internet effectively mandates that one take such a stance. Again, thought is collective and extended: recognizing our own errors is part of a much larger project of knowledge production.
So if I had one piece of advice for younger students, it would be to get involved in the online communities. It’s been the best intellectual and professional step I’ve taken.
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?
I think McLuhan was perhaps a bit premature in pronouncing the death of departmental sovereignties. Certainly my experience has been one of little (official) communication between departments. This isn’t to say there haven’t been some excellent informal connections, but these tend to operate on an informal, non-institutional level. If, on the other hand, we take McLuhan’s statement as something to be worked towards, I’d be in complete agreement. What he misses though is the problem that arises from interdisciplinary work. Specialization has arisen for at least one very precise reason – namely, cognitive limitations mean we can only know a small area of knowledge. Interdisciplinarity runs straight up against these inherently finite capacities, which set strict limits on how hybrid individuals can be. The way to resolve this is for humanities and social science scholars to follow their natural science colleagues in moving towards more project and team-based work. Whereas most humanities and social science works are authored by a single person, natural science has largely adopted the practice of multiple authors – in no small part out of the necessity caused by cognitive limitations. This is a practice I think should be more widely adopted, and the capacities for collaboration opened up by digital networks are one of the greatest tools to achieve this. It’s not hard to imagine this shift taking place over the next decade and thereby truly achieving McLuhan’s end of departmental sovereignties.
As far as whether the university is in crisis, I’d hesitate to agree it is under threat from digital media and the spread of ubiquitous information. Rather, the current period is one of transformation. As I said earlier, I think the greatest forces in shaping the university today are political and economic, but this is not to say that technology isn’t playing a role as well. Perhaps I’m simply too embedded in the existing order to see an alternative, but academia is founded first and foremost on a physical community of people in a localized geographical area. I’ve blogged, I’ve Skyped, I’ve tweeted, I’ve used iTunes U, and none of these are anywhere close to approximating the intellectual thrill of sitting with a group of friends at a pub and debating whatever comes to mind. When I step outside of London (where I currently live), the shift in the intellectual environment is palpable. So I don’t see digital networks replacing the need for a physical university anytime soon. In fact, what we see today is not universities adopting distance learning because of educational concerns; rather distance learning is adopted for financial reasons. In other words, it’s not a replacement for the visceral academic experience, but instead merely a cheap knock-off. Where technology will have an influential and progressive effect on the university is in the teaching experience. As I said above, I think that when technology is properly integrated into the classroom, it can be a major improvement in generating the desire to learn in students. At the current moment though, the melding together of teaching and technology is still in an experimental phase. Individuals are trying out different permutations, but there exists (to my knowledge) no definitive body of knowledge on how best to adapt these new techniques to teaching.
What attracted you to Speculative Realism, what was your contribution to this movement, and where do you see it heading?
The attraction of speculative realism to me has always been its attempt to break out of language and consciousness. After passing through a philosophical education where everything is constantly bracketed and claims are held in check by endless caveats, it was remarkably refreshing to see philosophers try to reason about grand metaphysical issues with clarity, precision and verve. So it was a breath of fresh air, and one summer I sat down to digest as much as possible of these new philosophers. Stuck in rural Canada with no one to discuss the issues with, I was led to blogging quite a bit about it on my old site The Accursed Share. At that time, there was only a handful of blogs writing about it and I think mine was perhaps the most consistent one to post about speculative realism. I had commented on his blog a number of times before then, but one day Levi Bryant of Larval Subjects contacted me and put forth his idea for a collection on speculative realism. From there, The Speculative Turn was born. We contacted Graham Harman soon after the initial idea, and Graham was such a huge help that we agreed he deserved to be a co-editor with us. From there we put together what I think is the single best introduction to speculative realism, and what I think is my biggest contribution to the movement. I still find it surreal at times to think that I was a part of it, and having the opportunity to bring together so many brilliant minds is a definitely a highlight of my scholarly career.
The future of speculative realism is intriguing, albeit also uncertain. The original four – Graham, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant and Quentin Meillassoux – have largely gone their separate ways. But speculative realism lives on as an idea, and as a useful index of certain themes that are emerging all over the academic world. In the blogosphere, object-oriented philosophy has come to dominate the discourse with Levi, Graham, Ian Bogost and Tim Morton all being prolific writers. My own personal interest lies with the future of Ray and Reza Negarestani’s works. Reading Reza’s work is always a mind-bending experience, but the sheer range, depth and scope of his writings are truly imposing as well. I know he has been working on the fringes of mathematics and the philosophy of science recently, bringing together work by Fernando Zalamea and Charles Peirce to try and understand mathematical ontology in vastly different terms from the set theory of Alain Badiou or the calculus of Deleuze. I’m truly excited for the products of this research. Ray, on the other hand, has been working on the epistemological problem of determining how do we know what the real is like? The key here – so far as I understand his recent thoughts! – is to bind together the Laruellean insistence on unilateral duality between the real and thought, with the Sellarsian recognition of the necessary duality of the natural and the normative, and to re-work Robert Brandom’s ideas on how representation emerges from inferentialism. It is a hugely ambitious project, but also the most exciting philosophical work being done right now.
So the future of speculative realism essentially looks to be this: a continued and vibrant presence in the blogosphere, but in a certain sense this looks to have been consolidated into more of a testing ground. The early energetic debates between radically different positions have become rarer, but they’ve been replaced by greater focus on the production of proper books. I think this is a sign of maturity – the shift towards longer-form texts, as well as more carefully thought out and painstakingly edited pieces. So while the speculative realism blogosphere may have lost some of its energy, I think this energy has been transformed into other productive mediums.
I recently read an interesting commentary on New APPS about how hard and frustrating can be to read Derrida, apparently because of his over-emphasis on politics and textuality, but also because there seems to be too much ironic distance in his texts. In a related post, Graham Harman put it as follows: “You can’t place yourself forever beyond all definite statement and commitment, calling everything into question, placing everything in brackets and quotation marks, while feeding off the life-energy of those who dare to do so and hence can be the gullible foils of your supposed superior sophistication.” How was your own experience reading Derrida? Can a text be difficult yet accessible?
I tend to separate two different strands of Derrida. The first strand was the earliest work – Writing & Difference, Of Grammatology and the other works in this period. Here I think Derrida most closely approximates the classical style of philosophy. These are dense texts, and difficult for that, but they are utterly clear once one has grasped the basic framework. Moreover, this is the period where I think Derrida is at his most deconstructive, in the mundane sense of that word. Here is an attempt by an upstart philosopher to walk into the grand edifices of philosophy and try to tear them down by chiseling away at their foundations. There’s a proper enjoyment in reading these texts precisely because of their audacity and the pleasure to be had from methodically taking apart an elaborate conceptual system piece-by-piece.
I think that might throw up red flags for some Derrideans – after all, isn’t he precisely trying to destabilize any idea of meaning? What does it mean to ‘grasp’ his texts and his meaning here? Isn’t that a false sense of groundedness? To be honest, this wasn’t my experience of early Derrida. I think he does write quite clearly, if densely, and there was certainly a finely articulated argument being made. The famous close readings he provided of other texts are nothing if not attempts to be extremely precise and clear about these tests, and to take authors at their word with what they wrote. So I find early Derrida very enjoyable myself.
Later Derrida I know much less about, and what I know is primarily filtered through Critchley’s notion of an ethical turn in Derrida’s work. It’s here that I think Derrida ends up mired in a philosophical dead-end. The endless deconstruction of ethical and political concepts, combined with the increased linguistic gymnastics used to maintain the logical consistency of his project, means that, for me, later Derrida becomes a lot of work for little payoff. So here I find Derrida more difficult to read, but not because there’s a stance of ironic distance built into the texts. Rather, it stems from the contortions involved in trying to make an argument without pretending there’s a ground to meaning, and in the fact that I find the ideas produced to be of little use to my own projects. So late Derrida just holds less interest for me!
Building on the previous question, do you feel as though there was an over-emphasis on simbolicity and sociality at the expense of, say, embodiment and temporality in the post-structuralist enterprise? Does Speculative Realism take care of this imbalance?
In the broadest sense, I see the problematic of post-structuralism as being one of understanding the limits of representation from withinrepresentation. Given the always already implicated nature of thought, language, representation, writing, text, structure, concept, etc. – how does one allude to the outside while simultaneously respecting the impossibility of straightforwardly speaking it? The result was, on a stylistic level, all the linguistic and rhetorical manipulations that post-structuralism is known for (and sometimes mistakenly derided for). On a conceptual level, there was always a negative invocation of that which exceeded representation, or was missing from representation.
The important exception to this was, I think, Deleuze’s work, which is precisely an attempt to give a positive formulation to this outside. It’s no surprise then that it has been Deleuze’s work which has been frequently taken up by theorists of the body, of affect, and of self-organizing matter.
Speculative realism is, in many ways, a continuation of this preoccupation. What differs today is the pathway outside of the prison of language and phenomenology – whether it be through a logical demonstration of the incoherence of correlationism (Meillassoux), a formal argument about the nature of objects (Harman), a reflection on how normative thought grasps onto the real (Brassier), or a transcendental deduction of the necessary material conditions for thought (Grant and Deleuze).
This isn’t to say that speculative realism is simply a necessary corrective to post-structuralism’s overemphasis on language and symbols. The best speculative realism work is and will be that work which fully grapples with the insights provided by the twentieth century’s critiques of reason, language and metaphysics and then moves beyond these critical formulations towards a positive reconstruction. Reason, language and metaphysics need to be reconsidered in light of their valid critiques. So the twentieth century of continental philosophy was not simply some aberrance that speculative realism can denounce or neglect.
What are you currently working on?
A variety of projects at the moment – the most pressing being to complete my PhD! It’s taking the ideas surrounding the extended mind hypothesis and demonstrating how they are already being enacted in world politics. My hypothesis is that with the rise of complex societies, it is technology alone which is capable of extending our cognitive capacities in such a way as to be able to cope with these complexities. Climate change simulations, option pricing models, and crisis mapping software are all attempts to extend cognition in order to make complex situations intelligible. There’s a historical narrative to be told here as well though. Technology, following Simondon, has its own internal dynamics and these are operating in these technologies as well. They are pressing forward their own internal complexity, which is in turn increasing the overall complexity of our world today. They are therefore both a means to mitigate complexity and an unintentional extension of complexity. The question then becomes, what does this mean for world politics and humanity’s relations to technology?
Another project I’m working on is similar – a book I’m co-writing with Alex Williams called Folk Politics. Folk politics is a neologism we coined to label a common mistake in many political ideas and actions today: the grounding of certain ideas and actions upon immediate perceptions and socially habitual actions, at the expense of abstract and complex strategic thinking. To give a few examples of folk politics, conservatives typically compare government debt to household debt and argue that just as households have to maintain a balanced budget, so too does the government. The argument is premised upon an immediate situation (the household budget) that’s intuitively appealing. What it misses is the complexity of government debt and how it is distinct from household debt (namely, the fact that the government is a currency-issuer not a currency-user, and that it can enforce liabilities on individuals in the form of taxes, whereas households cannot). Yet the idea of government debt having to be balanced is intuitively appealing and has gained widespread acceptance, despite being wrong. It’s successful though, precisely because it relies on appealing to folk politics. The book will go through a number of these examples and show the pervasiveness of folk political ideas, and how they were constructed. It’ll then develop an alternative mode of politics, premised in the first place on accepting the complexity and abstractness of today’s social world. This goes back to my PhD thesis topic as well, insofar as one of the primary means to avoid the mistakes of folk politics is to employ technology and its capacities to extend cognition.
There’s a couple more projects that then fall out of that conclusion – specifically the need for the left to today work to develop a formal and quantitative alternative to neoclassical economics. There are of course many problems with economic models, but the solution is not to abandon modelling but to instead push it further, and in a properly leftist direction. The current crisis is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shape economic policies and the left has to mobilize to take advantage of it. I believe this is one of the key tasks for the political left today, and it is something I’m beginning to work on with a handful of like-minded people.
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