© Peter Zhang and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Zhang was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 10th, 2012
Dr. Peter Zhang is assistant professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University. He has authored the following articles, dialogues, and probes: “Deleuze’s Relay and Extension of McLuhan: An Ethical Exploration,” “The English Language as a Medium and Its Impact on Contemporary Chinese Culture: A Speculative Critique,” “Gilles Deleuze and Minor Rhetoric,” “Corporate Identity Metaphor as Constitutive Discourse in Miniature: The Case of NCL,” “The Idea of Communication: A Response to Lee Thayer,” “The Rhetorical-Theatrical Sensibility as Equipment for Living” (first author), “Formal Cause, Poiesis, Rhetoric” (with Eric McLuhan), “Pivotal Terms in Media Ecology” (with Eric McLuhan), “Syntax and Ethics” (with Corey Anton), “Bindings and Becomings: Korzybski, Deleuze, and Ecological Thinking” (with Eric Jenkins, under review), “Homo Faber,” “Chiasmus as a Mode of Probing,” “Numerotherapy and Its Metamessage,” and “Philosophy How.” He has reviewed The Book of Probes for ETC. His public scholarship includes: “Navigating the Technologized Campus Environment,” “Liberal Education: Provocations for Freshmen,” and “Midterm as a Ritual: Further Provocations on Liberal Education.”
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I guess the answer is in the question: to become. It’s all part of the process of autopoiesis – you enter one after another zone of intimacy or field of vital energy to experience an intensive mode of existence, to pursue self-transformation and ego-loss. Picture life as a few quanta. Each quantum is a break. A good break unblocks the elan vital in you. It’s a source of joy. Like everybody else, I’m susceptible to the swaying power of symbols, and preoccupied with the symbolic sorcery being deployed around us. At grad school, I learned that I’m a rhetorician “by genetic makeup.” The label simply means that you use a rhetorical understanding to cope. That’s the only way to get out of naïve verbal realism, which is a deadly hindrance, a source of incomprehension and incompetence in the symbolic and social worlds. The simple fact is that we can’t opt out of either of those worlds. I felt I needed to share this understanding with those who are still in their formative years. I can’t say it’s entirely conscious, subconscious, or unconscious. Has to be all of them all at once. This is the point where alea, necessity, and volition fuse into one, where you can no longer draw a line between a preoccupation and an occupation.
Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
This question is too often vulgarized as a matter of pedigree. The “umbilical cord” image behind it often makes people uneasy. I think it’s a good idea to bracket all of that, and speak in terms of positive influence. The way I see it, mentors do a few crucial things: they introduce authors into your life, they concoct an idiosyncratic letter soup out of a common vocabulary to nourish your soul, they teach by example (i.e., they embody what they teach), they open up an oral space for you to inhabit, and they bring you to the threshold of another world (Samuel Butler’s Erewhon – both no-where and now-here, according to Deleuze). Ultimately, it all boils down to an existential gyroscope. Obviously the university is not the only place to develop a mentor-mentee relationship. And you always get what you deserve, that is to say, what you are ready to get. To be specific and simplistic, I got an opportunity to meditate on phronesis (a matter of doing the right thing) and casuistry in the vicinity of John Lucaites, developed an appreciation for playfulness and “looking at communication” by studying with Robert Terrill, discovered Mikhail Bakhtin and Victor Turner by auditing Richard Bauman, became aware of Gilles Deleuze, Henri Lefebvre, and the idea of teaching in the moment by auditing and talking to Ted Striphas, became acquainted with Michel de Certeau through Phaedra Pezzullo. But Bob Ivie was the major influence. Besides introducing Lewis Hyde to us, he taught a quirky but foundational course that featured Burke, Nietzsche, Vico, and Perelman. For the student of culture and productive critic wannabe, that means a lot. It’s wrong-headed to try to pin down what he has to offer because you always find him to be on the outside of your measure, and your measure to be a measure of yourself. What you get is a sensibility, which makes you receptive to other influences, such as Deleuze. I particularly appreciate the style with which he works with you, which enacts a positive sense of virtue (the Te of Tao, to couch it in Taoist terms), and a mature social efficacy. I learned a lot from him about how to attitudinize and cope in various situations. As you can see, what you get is really an assemblage. It’s all a process of getting populated, a process that does not end with grad school. It was Fred Antczak who shared the piece of wisdom from Arthur Quinn that academic obligations are not reciprocal, but transitive, who showed me how to use the fragmentary time available to meet deadlines. Busy as he is, he’s read multiple manuscripts of mine and always comes back with insightful suggestions. Occasional words of wisdom from him really go a long way. Tony Thompson has inspired me with his calmness, conciseness, and sure moves when a hundred things are going on – precisely how a mature artist operates. Alex Nesterenko showed me how to apply the axe when one of my essays turned cancerous. Although I had taught pieces by McLuhan and Postman and used Ong in my own work, I wasn’t really aware of “media ecology” before I got to know Corey Anton, who also introduced Alan Watts to me, among many other “things.” I appreciate the way he regulates himself, and the stimulating conversations we’ve had over the past few years. The difference between grad school and after is that once you are out of it, you have the luxury to call your new mentors “mediators” (as Deleuze understands the term). Eric McLuhan has played such a role over the past year through an extended dialogue with me about McLuhanism. Lee Thayer always manages to insinuate into my consciousness a healthy dose of uncertainty with his subtle questions that defy straight answers. I really feel indebted to a number of other scholars who have mentored me in various fashions. I won’t enumerate them here but one can always get a clue by reading the acknowledgements in my papers. Valerie Peterson once said, instead of cutting your umbilical cord, what about pluralizing it? I find the idea to be very comic-minded. The comic frame not only equips us for practicing criticism, but also equips us for living. The size of our begging bowl is really a measure of our potential, as Lewis Hyde suggests. There is a Taoist sensibility in this idea. “A small receptacle brims easily,” so goes the Chinese saying. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, has a similar idea: “Each time a staff is held out to us, we either grab it or miss it. There is no alternative. Hesitation shows that we are not yet ripe.” For Deleuze, there are two modes of human power: action and passion. But the latter – the notion of power as receptivity and affectivity – is almost always underemphasized. There’s a cultural blindness to the wisdom that it’s the receptor that drives the system. To put it metaphorically, the simple question is: between a stuffed tummy and an insatiable appetite, which brings about more movement around itself? I think as a culture, we tend to overemphasize the so-called generation gap, and underemphasize intergenerational mentoring, which is unfortunate. There are many many very interesting old people, and also many many very uninteresting, very decrepit young people. To become “minor” with age – how’s that as a rule of thumb for the good life?
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 like the way Spinoza defines “good.” To keep it simple, a good teacher is a relevant teacher, who makes the students resourceful, who helps them to grow into artists of life, who cultivates in them the habit of raising good questions, stating and restating problems. Bergson teaches us that a problem posed is a problem solved, and that the difference between slavery and freedom is the capacity to pose one’s own problems. We tend to think of interruption as the archenemy. This attitude is untenable and pedagogically crippling. Nothing holds the attention better than interruption. Teaching as an associate instructor at grad school, I used to build in artificial breaks during lecture time, asking the students to diagram an idea, write down a question or a one-sentence summary in their notes. Or I’d illustrate a point with a quick clip. I rarely show clips these days. The reason is that media ecology makes me feel well equipped to address the issue head-on. When you turn the media environment (and the disposition it cultivates) into the subject matter of your class, everything becomes relevant. A phone ringing in class becomes a “visual,” an opportunity for dry humor and refreshing laughter. A pedagogical nuisance thus turns into a productive energy. Theoretically, interruptions or gaps make for a “cool” mode of writing, painting, music making, or simply communicating. Knowledge broken is something for which we are yet to develop an appreciation. Nietzsche’s aphorisms, Burke’s notion of perspective by incongruity, McLuhan’s notion of the resonating interval, Eisenstein’s montage theory – these all rest on the serviceability of interruptions. Interruptions can be a source of drama, too, literally so. Our culture has benefited tremendously from interesting interruptions. There is always the opportunity for people to appropriate twitter as a poetic medium. The media environment today is the very reason for us to teach “media literacy,” as media ecologists understand the term. I can’t think of a better historical juncture for McLuhanism to get so much traction. This is the homeopathic train of thought. On the other hand, at a time when interruption has become environmental, when it has become a given, a cultural syndrome, I find Stoicism to be tremendously serviceable. Foucault teaches us to read few authors, read what is adequate, and use reading as a means of practicing askesis so what we read becomes part of our paraskeue (equipment for living). One who shares this ethos can’t care less about “mere stuff.” There are many authors on my syllabi who make a similar argument. Lévi-Strauss says undercommunication is a precondition for creativity. Deleuze says: we do not lack communication; instead, we need vacuoles of noncommunication so creation can happen. Walker Percy cautions us against the symbolic complex that ends up keeping us from experiencing “it” and depriving us of our sovereignty as perceivers. Burke teaches us to value form over mere information. Korzybski reminds us that the map is not the territory – nothing blinds us to the indescribability, richness, and recalcitrance of the world more than the Internet – a realm of maps and second-order maps, a trap to slip. Chuang Tzu, the ancient Chinese Taoist, promotes the fasting of the mind. I often tell my students that instantaneous access to information deprives us of the joy of discovery, the opportunity to muse on that to which there is no straight or immediate answer, and the opportunity to face solitude, and that a world deprived of its mystical aura is a sterile world to live in. If what you teach and the way you teach it augment the students’ capacity to pursue the good life, if what you do day in and day out in the classroom enacts the good life, the students will get involved. A good teacher, to come back full circle, does not teach mere technical excellence but offers ethical provocations, and, better still, helps the students to develop their existential gyroscopes – a spiritual wealth of which nobody can deprive them.
What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts young scholars should be reading today?
There’s a nontransferable joy in being a junior faculty member. You feel vulnerable and anxious, but totally alive. Junior faculty members are not necessarily young but you feel young because of all of that. My advice is as much for myself as for the next person: live like a good Spinozist – pursue good encounters to develop your “virtue” as a professor. Affect and be affected. Inhabit those interfaces and intervals where the fluxes, flows, fluidities, and flights are. A Spinozist, after all, is a “minor” figure – one who is capable of becoming. This understanding mostly comes from Deleuze, whom I highly recommend. I’m hesitant about prescribing a reading list for people unless they are already driven by some angst or problematic. One thing I’d share, though, is that it pays to develop an intimate familiarity with a few authors’ entire corpus. Reading primary sources helps to keep the head clear, partly because there’s intertextuality between an author’s earlier and later works. The best “cheat sheet” is found somewhere within the author’s own corpus. Examples include Foucault’s interviews and his lectures at the College de France, Kierkegaard’s journals, Deleuze’s dialogues and collections of short essays, Virilio’s conversations, and so on. Dialogues are where an author’s sensibility is in active play, where new thoughts emerge, where elusive, impenetrable iterations become lucid with reiteration. I was so attracted to this genre that I have written six of them with colleagues in the media ecology community. People have different tastes. Here’s how Deleuze works for me. I think his major collaborative work (A Thousand Plateaus) was actually written in fragments, with short-term memory. The implication is that each fragment was crafted in a flow mode. Reading these fragments induces in the reader a flow experience. When you no longer try to read the book in a possessive or panoptic mode, it is actually easier for your mental apparatus to be affected and refashioned by the vibes. Reading thus takes on a Zen quality. When you catch the Deleuze delirium, your mind switches to a different mode, a rhizomatic one, which infects and inflects the way you approach everything. I can’t think of a more radically enabling change in a person. If I have to list a few names, I’d pick those right-hemisphere authors, such as Lewis Hyde, James C. Scott, Edward T. Hall, Alan Watts, Nietzsche, McLuhan, and the like. Young scholars are easily trapped in the dilemma of trying to stay productive at the expense of transformative self-cultivation. I feel fortunate for having read fewer journal articles than books in the past few years. Here are a few titles I find to be nourishing and I offer them here to those who can afford to be nourished: The Book of Tea, Siddhartha (the novel), Zen in the Art of Archery, The Way of Zen, Chuang Tzu, I Ching, Tao Te Ching, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, The Chinese Eye, Zen Keys.
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?
A new environment reconfigures everything within it. It reshapes people’s desires, tastes, and habits, and in-forms the shapes of things to come. McLuhan saw electric media as an integrating force, which spells the end of specialism, departmentalism, and the artificial division of human knowledge and efforts, which makes the renaissance of a generalist, liberal education both desirable and practicable. That historical juncture, however, is long past, regardless of the fact that electric media are still with us and will stay with us in the foreseeable future. A significant portion of humanity is now immersed in a digital environment, which is a different animal entirely. “Information explosion” is yesteryear’s talk. When we speak of information these days, what come to mind are IT, C3I, cybernetics, generalized snooping, the principle of control, the rule of life by invisible codes, and the like. Digital media have a maximalist bias. (William Powers’s book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, is a bestseller for a good reason.) Life in the digital age can be 90% energy-dispersing busy work, plus psychically draining entertainment, if we lose our bearing and sense of proportionality. As far as the university is concerned, there’s no escaping the digital environment. What we see around us is that it actually drives the digital environment, puts it on display, and enacts the digital imperative. My concern is that the university is too much of the environment, too much of the times, too much an element in the business machine and war machine. As an institution, it has adapted all too well to the so-called zeitgeist. It has yielded all too easily to the hubris of the marketing class. As Deleuze points out, “Marketing is now the instrument of social control and produces the arrogant breed who are our masters.” What concerns him is a society in the making in which family, school, army, and factory are but transmutable or transformable coded configurations of a single business where the only people left are administrators. I am more interested in the university as an anti-environment, one that constitutes “minor” sensibilities. If you think of the MBA mentality as a threat, then it has been part and parcel of the university for a very long time. The real threat is for the university to become too purely MBA-minded. Then, it is time to ask not what is good for the university, but what the university is good for. Deleuze teaches us to have pietas toward the world. To couch it in his language, the university as “we” will it relies on the pink panther becoming, the becoming imperceptible, of the multitudes.
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 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?
One of the stock questions a good rhetorician asks is: “What is so and so’s speaking position?” Fukuyama speaks for the managerial class: his attack on tenure is another entailment of a cultural and economic formation that would erase vestiges of an alternative consciousness. What is at stake in the transmutation of the university is a loss of society’s critical consciousness. People I respect often speak of Fukuyama as a realist, which is not a compliment. But I have no interest in dismissing him automatically without engaging his ideas first, as a doctrinaire would do. I guess overall his attribution of causality is a bit too simplistic. I agree with him, though, that the imagined reader is the formal cause of what is written. But I think he underestimates the radical diversity of that readership. Also, in the last analysis, formal cause is reciprocal, not unidirectional. Authors do ingratiate the imagined reader through elocutio (i.e., stylistic appeal). But they also write to call into being an absent audience, a people to come. Sweeping generalizations are a good way to smuggle in what Deleuze calls “badly analyzed composites.” But we can always intuit that something does not sound right even if it looks logical. And we should trust our intuition. It may not be out of pure coincidence that Spinoza and Bergson both privilege intuition over intellect. The intellect is the breeding ground for thin simplifications and sweeping generalizations. The institution of tenure as a human artefact is a complex issue. It deserves being studied as a medium, a milieu. Let’s not forget that the disposition we call McLuhanism is anti-deterministic. Tenure as a milieu does translate into an invisible field of forces but it is wrong-headed to say the milieu determines what’s inside it. To say so is to mistake a formal cause for an efficient cause. That’s precisely what Fukuyama does. At a practical level, unless we are blind and deaf, it is not hard to see and hear that there are different species of academics, which are not defined by whether they are tenured or untenured. One thing is for sure: how a society treats its intellectuals is a measure for the kind of society it is. Speaking of jargon, don’t we hear some accounting terms in Fukuyama’s argument? As if the vast majority of thinking people are wedded to the root/rotten metaphor of the university as a business, and the attendant managerialism. David Harvey would say that is obscene. Personally, I value “bold character derived from stubborn patience” – a line I copied from a wine bottle, which describes some good scholars I know, those with style and spine. I admire those who are unhindered by their status or lack thereof. There sure can be tenured intellectual nomads, can’t there?
What attracted you to the work of Deleuze?
It started with a question. The ear man in me picked up an intriguing term from Ted Striphas: affirmative criticism. I was dissertating and felt that the term captured well what I was trying to do. So I talked to him. At that time, I had been familiarizing myself with Deleuze’s ideas on and off for about a year through John Marks’s little red book, Gilles Deleuze: Vitalism and Multiplicity. To my surprise, Ted actually drew the notion from Deleuze’s book, Nietzsche and Philosophy. It was quite a moment for me. The moral is: if you want to learn about Deleuze, read Deleuze. Not that Marks’s book is not good. I still keep a copy on my shelf, partly for the aesthetic value of the cover. For one exposed to the rhetorical and Dionysian side of Nietzsche, encountering the Deleuzian version of Nietzsche was a unique experience. There was a resonating interval in between, which became a space for becoming, or involution. I found myself secretly redefining rhetoric for myself. Toward the end of my dissertation, I came up with a more or less pedestrian conceptual pair: Rhetoric as distinguished from rhetoric. The latter finally evolved into the notion of minor rhetoric, which was triggered off by another Deleuze book, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Feeling that the time was ripe, I composed “Gilles Deleuze and Minor Rhetoric” in a rapturous and rhapsodic mode. That was already two years after grad school – a long, long period of incubation, during which I read numerous pieces by Deleuze, including the utterly inspiring short essay, “Literature and Life,” which can be really confounding, if not alienating, to a lot of people in the discipline. I say this not out of a superiority complex. My affinity for Deleuzian vibes was physiological. McLuhan says it right, “Human perception is literally incarnation.” About the same time, Corey Anton and I wrote a conversation called “Syntax and Ethics,” which elaborated on the minor sensibility a bit further. Someday, I’ll have to write another follow-up essay, if only to inventory instances of the minor sensibility that I know of. I can feel this sensibility in Chuang Tsu, Zen Buddhism, and E. M. Cioran. To come back to your question, I think Deleuze is something in which you can get lost with joy, and get enriched when you get out. I started reading McLuhan systematically while the projects on Deleuze were going on. That move created another interesting interval. Re-approaching Deleuze through the lens of McLuhan, I found a reason to read or reread some other books by Deleuze: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, The Fold, and his two books on cinema. I really wanted to figure him out, aware that I’d have to read what he had read. Hence the decision to move on to Paul Virilio, but that’s another conversation.
You’ve just published an essay entitled “Deleuze’s Relay and Extension of McLuhan: An Ethical Exploration.” What are some of the points of contact that you identify in your article?
The discovering is always more interesting than the discovery. The more I study Deleuze and McLuhan, the more resonances I find between them. The essay only shows the tip of an iceberg, to use a cliché. If you find A Thousand Plateaus to be chaotic, read McLuhan and everything will fall into place in a magical way. McLuhan’s distinction between the visual and the acoustic seems to be the magic key. Reading Deleuze relies on and induces a mode switch. McLuhan can be the catalyst. In very broad strokes, the essay makes the following claims: A Thousand Plateaus is a postliterate book, an acoustic phenomenon, a radical departure from the Gutenberg Galaxy; Deleuze’s nomad is roughly McLuhan’s ear man; striated vs. smooth is a rewrite of visual vs. acoustic; Deleuze’s machine-based societal typology roughly corresponds with McLuhan’s media-based societal typology; McLuhan’s artist is roughly Deleuze’s untimely philosopher; the idea behind McLuhan’s probing is very similar to Deleuze’ notion of falsity as a positive power; Lynn White’s seminal insights about the stirrup have been picked up and reworked by both McLuhan and Deleuze; For McLuhan, the new games (e.g., surfboarding) embody the return of tactility, whereas for Deleuze, the new games (e.g., surfing) not only put on display the spirit of starting in the middle but also render tangible the human condition in a control society. The essay emphasizes the ethical dimension of both authors’ works, the tacit suggestion being that ethics is central to media ecological explorations. It ends by inviting people to read Deleuze in a media ecological light. After artificially ending the essay last summer, I’ve made extensive notes for a follow-up essay or two.
What other connections can be traced between Continental Philosophy and Media Studies, particularly Media Ecology?
I’m no expert on continental philosophy by any stretch but I appreciate the question, and this opportunity to stammer and probe. People map things differently. I’d like to take media ecology as my point of departure. As I understand it, media ecology is a “minor” discipline, an infinite game, a game of Go as against a game of chess. Its gist is exploration, or intellectual nomadism. A sedentary media ecology is no longer media ecology. I think I’ve used a Deleuzian vocabulary to talk about a McLuhanesque undertaking, which works just fine. There’s really a lot to trace if we go by problematics. Perception is a big one. A whole cluster of names immediately comes to mind: Merleau-Ponty, the Gestalt theorists (Spengler talks about Gestalt, too), and Virilio. We shouldn’t ignore the fascinating ethological work done by Jakob von Uexküll, which has everything to do with perception. Deleuze and Agamben are both influenced by him, and write about the tick’s perception in intriguing ways. A closely related line of inquiry: McLuhan makes a big deal out of artists. The main reason is perception. It’ll be interesting to see what Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze, and Virilio have to say about art and artists. Our own John Dewey is a good source, too. If we go beyond the West, then Chiang Yee is a good informant. This is where the term “philosophy” becomes problematic and somewhat limiting, because one can do philosophy by means of painting, film, music, sculpture (Auguste Rodin’s Art: Conversations with Paul Gsell is a good source), architecture, poetry, mathematics, molecular biology, martial arts, and whatnot. Time is another big problematic. There’s no getting around Heidegger. Spengler’s notion of contemporaneity is relevant here, too. So is Henri Lefebvre’s work on rhythmanalysis. Deleuze’s distinction between Aion and Chronos definitely belongs here. I explained this distinction very briefly in a recent dialogue with Eric Jenkins entitled “Bindings, Becomings: Korzybski, Deleuze, and Ecological Thinking,” but one can always read The Logic of Sense to get a thorough understanding. Virilio also has a lot to say about time (the doubling of the cyclical time of seasons and days by the real time of instantaneity, the domination of the local time of urban agglomerations and their exchange activities by the world time of astronomy, and so on). Space is another big problematic. Here we have fractal geometry, topology, as well as Deleuze’s notion of smooth space vs. striated space. Then, there’s the problematic of orality, literacy, and postliteracy. Here we have Lévi-Strauss, de Certeau, Weber, and also Bakhtin. In a dialogue with Eric McLuhan entitled “Media Ecological Motifs in Intellectual History,” I developed a media ecological account of Weber’s typology of authorities. Bakhtin is obsessed with a remarkable achievement in Dostoevsky’s novels, which is the re-presentation of a multiplicity of oral languages (heteroglossia) in a written medium without the multivocality being subsumed by the authorial voice or erased by the written medium. One can derive a profound theory of democracy out of this, a theory that foregrounds deep listening. In this sense, Bakhtin is still cutting-edge. Months ago, I started a paper called “Democracy the Acoustic Way,” partly to affirm this understanding. De Certeau definitely shares this sensibility. I’d like to talk more about these people sometime. The point is, the more we go beyond a merely technical understanding of orality and literacy, the less petty our work tends to become. If we go by individual authors, there’s a whole coterie of them to talk about. Bergson’s privileging of immediate experience and intuition over intellect (sounds like Zen, by the way) more or less anticipates McLuhan’s promotion of the ear in an eye-minded culture. Foucault makes a rich site of exploration all by himself. Here’s an interesting topic: how the Panopticon as a disciplinary technology evolves into an abstract principle that permeates the entire social field. That is to say, how it becomes environmental (a “medium”) so families, schools, hospitals, factories, and barracks all feel like prisons. I can imagine people resisting this dark vision as sheer nonsense, but Foucault more or less anticipated the kind of control society or society of telesurveillance we live in right now. The dispositif makes another worthy topic. Foucault’s genealogical as against teleological understanding of history definitely has a media ecological overtone to it. Also, there is a perfect correspondence between the historical shifts in consciousness Foucault talks about in The Order of Things and McLuhan’s perception of the psychic and social consequences of literacy and postliteracy. If Foucault perceives and describes two historical shifts in consciousness, then McLuhan provides the mediumistic interpretation. In between the two shifts was the Gutenberg Galaxy, or the Literate Interlude (my coinage). Roger Caillois’s book on games is an important source for media ecologists. I haven’t read much of Latour, but his vibes are already in the air and I can sense some affinity between him and McLuhan. Toni Negri (and his coauthor Michael Hardt) can be read as talking about how the new media environment reconfigures global late capitalist flows and formations and as exploring possibilities and modes of resistance. Deleuze and Guattari can be read in this light, too. Of course, there’s Baudrillard, the so-called French McLuhan. But my sense is that Virilio might fit this label better.
What are you currently working on?
I’m anxious to finish up a few projects, with the awareness that it never ends. That’s what happens when you operate in a Deleuzian mode. It’s good, though, to be always in the middle of something. Here’s a shortlist: an essay on minor pedagogy, a media ecological read of Dr. Seuss, a rhetorical read of Chuang Tzu, a critique of folk criticism in China, an essay on media ecological motifs in Paul Virilio, plus a few other unfinished essays. I’d love to scale back a little and get some quality reading time. I guess I’ve been waiting for a reversal or a transformation of work into play, busyness into sobriety and simplicity. At some point, I’ll try and see if I could write in strobe, as Hélène Cixous does. All that said, the project I’m really into these days is called “Media Ecology as Interology.” It can expand into a project on interology in general. The idea is to overthrow ontology, as Deleuze teaches us to. The impulse partly comes from chatting with Geling Shang, the philosopher. My sense is that he’s approaching the topic from the perspective of I Ching and Taoism. I use Deleuze, McLuhan, Virilio, and whomever else I chance upon in the moment.
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