© John Lysaker and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Lysaker was interviewed by Andrew Scott Hines on October 5th, 2012
John Lysaker is currently Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. From 1996 to 2009 he taught Philosophy and Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon. Raised in NJ, he attended Kenyon College and did his graduate work at Vanderbilt University. His work concerns the nature of the self, with a particular eye on the conditions under which humans do and do not flourish. This has led him to consider the importance of poetry for life, the nature of mental illness, schizophrenia in particular, the importance of friendship for human growth and happiness, and the ways in which various institutions (e.g. government, markets, professions) enable or undermine human well-being. Dr. Lysaker is the author of You Must Change Your Life and more recently his work on Emerson and Self-Culture. He has also co-authored a book with Psychologist Paul Lysaker entitled, Schizophrenia and the Fate of the Self.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I was blown away by an Introduction to Philosophy class taught by Juan De Pascuale at Kenyon College. It contained a good deal of existentialism and in those texts I found the drama of my own life played out with far greater depth, nuance, and complication than I had ever imagined. I recall very vividly thinking: digesting these sorts of issues simply is who I am. Why not allow that activity to organize my life? Luckily, my parents were very supportive. They were not only not scandalized but excited. That said, choices that inform the character of one’s life are really not made all at once, nor should they be. Choices about one’s profession should be made and re-made several times as one comes to see different dimensions of that life, some of which evolve, for example (keeping to “professor”): how one reads, how one writes, what teaching involves, the kinds of teaching demanded, what it means to belong to a department and to whatever administrative structures surround it.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I don’t want to forget undergraduate mentors. I already mentioned Juan De Pascuale at Kenyon. There was also Roy Rhodes, who was in religion. Both have left indelible marks upon me, principally through their examples. They both conduct themselves with a kind of vocational integrity that I’ve tried to make my own. And I don’t just mean as teachers, though certainly that. They helped me to see that work on fundamental ideas is less talk about life than integral to living in a manner that is genuinely responsive to our mortal condition. In a way, they taught me less that the unexamined is not worth living than that the examined life enlivens and deepens living. And I cannot sufficiently convey my gratitude for that, and for all the time and energy they gave me.
In graduate school, Charles Scott, then at Vanderbilt, intensified my sense that philosophy could be practiced with a kind of vocational integrity. He also reoriented me within philosophy, showing me how to read texts in ways that not only tracked arguments but also followed out textual operations that helped establish the discourses within which arguments are made. He also allowed me to see how texts could be at odds with themselves, and he helped me to take those moments as occasions for further thought. (This frees one from the tyranny of so-called “considered views,” as if canonical thinkers were of one mind about things, as if being of one mind about big issues were even a virtue.) He would often speak of “thinking along with the text,” which I take to mean, locating the conceptual terrain it presumes and following out the unspecified suggestions and implications that follow from how that terrain operates and how the author inhabits it. As I began to see how the process worked, my mind caught fire. The whole engagement was so productive. For example, thinking about how the distinction between Apollo and Dionysos recoils upon that very distinction, marking it as clearly Apollonian, re-opens the question of how the Dionysian should be thought. And at that moment, one is thinking with Nietzsche, not just about Nietzsche, one is considering a question that is neither the author’s nor the reader’s in any exclusive sense, but one that arises out of their conjunction in the event of reading. Said otherwise, from Charles I learned a way of engaging texts more than any doctrine or thesis. And I think that is why his influence on me has been so lasting, even as my own concerns and commitments have moved away from some of his.
There are other influences, of course. When I was in graduate school, deconstruction was flourishing, and I was lucky enough to have a few classes with John Sallis, and to have him be a reader on my dissertation. It was from him that I learned how to locate unstable oppositions in a text and to find ways in which each term would appear as integral to the other, thus undermining their exclusion without sublating the dichotomy in a Hegelian manner. John Lachs was also a big influence. He allowed me to find the power of pragmatist thought and to think along those lines, namely, in terms of ontological relations (as opposed to entities), and to think of human action in terms of the consequences that followed from it. How do we know what we’ve done? Look at what followed from it.
A theme is arising here. My mentors gave me ways of thinking more than anything else. I’m now the mishmash I am because I’ve had so many strong teachers. And two more must be mentioned. Michael Hodges and Jeffrey Tlumak, analytically trained thinkers, really helped me see the importance and power of deductive argument, and to take the reciprocal exchange of justifications and criticisms as a vital activity. Learning how to explain why I do not accept the positions of thinkers like Rorty and Habermas has been very important to my thought, and I was able to do so in part because Hodges and Tlumak schooled me in the art of tracking the passage from premise to conclusion with an eye out for presumptions, conflations, etc. If one combines those eyes with a deconstructive nose, I think one has a damn good education.
In your experience, has the role of a university professor evolved since you were a student?
Hard to say. I went to a liberal arts college of 1500, Kenyon College. I’ve taught at Vanderbilt University (1 year), the University of Oregon (13 years), and now at Emory University (going on 4 years). My student and teaching experiences do not overlap so much, therefore. But more to the point, when I was at Kenyon, I didn’t have much sense for the various dimensions of professorial life. I was too focused on the ideas and drinking with my friends. And graduate school wasn’t all that different. I never really looked at philosophy as a profession until I had graduate students who wanted jobs and until I realized that even within universities, there are many folk who are hostile to philosophy as a discipline. So I don’t know.
Inside the classroom, how do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by a world in which attention is fractured by media and information overload?
I swear a lot. Just kidding. I now ban all digital technology from the classroom, unless someone needs it as an accommodation. No computers, no phones, no nuthin’. No one seems to be able to control these devices. You go to a college faculty meeting and people continually check e-mail. To do philosophy well, one needs to concentrate. These devices distract even the best students. If I walk past a classroom at Emory and three students have computers open, at least one will be open to a page that has nothing to do with the class. No doubt these devices can be integrated, but why? They are not essential to learn philosophy and they are often a detriment.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared 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?
Universities seem to always be in crisis. Sometimes the crisis is internal, sometimes it’s external. On the internal side, that’s learning. If I learn something I was either ignorant or mistaken or both. Growing pains are integral to the very structure of a university, therefore. On the external side, I think the current crises are more cultural than tied to changes in information technology. Keeping to the U.S., we are a nation wedded to business on the one hand and purportedly revealed truths on the other. Between the two, there isn’t much room for genuine inquiry that doesn’t produce a saleable commodity. It’s particularly tough on the humanities. Many, if not most, Americans understand the nature and project of human life in terms they take from the marketplace and religious institutions. The humanities are grounded on the presumption that there are non-revealed insights into the human condition that are sufficient to orient a praiseworthy and meaningful life, and scholars in those disciplines tend to explore those insights through modes of thought that do not try to predict and control phenomena. Humanist thought is thus quite out of step with the orientations dominating contemporary American life. Does the information age and its digital presence pose a particular threat? I don’t know. No doubt it depends upon what you take yourself to be doing. I do not think of philosophy as principally about the transfer of information. I think it concerns facilitating intellectual growth that is more about how one thinks. At present, this still works best in the classroom with extended and informed interactions between faculty and students, and with a teacher-student ratio that allows instructors to be informed about their students, to have a concrete feel for how they are thinking through the material.
In 2009, Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist and economist 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 sub-discipline. 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. Do you agree with the author? What are your arguments for or against academic tenure?
I don’t know what to make of Fukuyama’s claims. Whatever the review system, new professors are going to move within the established discourses in which they were schooled. That’s what they know. The real test of tenure lies on the other side of the decision. Does it enable scholars and thinkers to become better teachers and researchers than they would be without it, and does it protect them from the kind of ideological meddling that would significantly undermine the kind of free and open inquiry that is the raison d’être of higher education? Those are the operative questions on my view. Let me start with the latter. In my experience, public institutions are particularly vulnerable to ideological meddling from legislatures. The thought of a public university without tenure is a terrifying one. Standards of review would become political battlegrounds and the process would be a nightmare. More generally, I also think tenure protects the faculty from its own shifting trends and the empire builders who would love to bring in more of their cronies and remove those who think otherwise. Looking at the issue from the institutional angel, I do wish more faculty used tenure to break out of their dissertation-era niches. But I doubt that removing tenure will increase the likelihood of that. If anything, it will lead even more people to focus on CV-building at the expense of genuine, intellectual growth since the reviews will ultimately be decided along those lines. So, I still favor tenure on the strongest possible terms. That said, tenure does not guarantee a vibrant intellectual culture among those who earn it. I thus wish the debate would shift to ways in which various post-tenure challenges in research and teaching can be addressed and meliorated.
What advice would you give to graduate students and aspiring university professors, and who are the thinkers today that you believe young scholars should be reading?
Advice? First, know the profession but do not forget what first drew you to philosophy: questions that demanded a response from you, and a response that deserved a good deal of concentration and hard work. I see too many young graduate students and scholars who know their way around a scene but have very little to say, even within their own areas. Second, develop and keep a network of interlocutors, both in and after graduate school. Philosophy is often a solitary activity, but if one never discusses one’s deepest thoughts with others, those thoughts will suffer, and one will as well. Third, when entering the academic market, do not presume that the prestige of an institution correlates with a department wherein you will flourish intellectually. We all know how many variables go into good, sustained philosophical conversation. You may find that rare confluence in the most unlikely places and find unworkable scenarios in places whose letterhead draws an initial “ooh” and “ahh.”
Who should folks be reading? There is a lot of good work being done in many fields. And most of the great philosophers are still great and absolutely worth reading, even required reading in many instances. But I can’t answer well without knowing the animating interests of the asker. I could say whom I read but I’m not sure that means lots of other people should be reading them as well. That’s not quite right, of course, but I’d need a bit of space to justify my choices. So let me focus instead on how to explore the many thoughtful things being written. First, stay true to your genuine interests, and by “stay true,” I mean allow those interests to be challenged by what you read and allow them to challenge what you read. In this, Emerson is the great teacher, the one who fixes you in a self-trust that renders you averse to conformity, including conformity to what you thought yesterday, even to your career. Of course, commitments change, but don’t chase after trends except in an experimental manner, which is to say, to test them, to check out what all the fuss is about. Second, read in the context of possible disagreement. If you thrill to a text, be sure you consider why one might resist it. If a text strikes you as wrongheaded, be sure you consider what motivates the author and whether your resistance is well-founded. Third, cultivate a group of touchstone figures or texts rather than just one, and gather them into an agonist if conversation. If you fall for Heidegger, as I did, don’t look for Heidegger wherever you turn. Look instead for thinkers who can contest him, e.g. Adorno, Nietzsche, and Irigaray. Out of that contestation, you will come into your own. (If you fall for someone like Emerson, also be prepared to brawl on his behalf wherever you go, but again, do so in a manner averse to a foolish consistency.) Fourth, trace the lineage of whatever figures excite you the most. Working back from Heidegger and Adorno into Hegel and Aristotle has been immensely enriching for me, transformative even. This doesn’t mean I’ll write a book on Hegel even though I have taught him for over a decade. But the issue isn’t the CV. It’s preparing yourself to say well those few thoughts that we are lucky enough to chance upon. Fifth, don’t shy away from figuring out with real care why you are notin line with some very powerful thinkers. I have grown immensely while struggling with Habermas and Rorty over the course of several years. Finally, take up some of the texts and issues of people you respect, i.e. learn from your students and colleagues. Barbara Andrew was a colleague at Oregon for a time and her work on Carol Gilligan, whom I had already taught, and Beauvoir, whom I had moronically ignored, brought me to Beauvoir who has been an integral part of my teaching over the past five years. But don’t just keep to your friends. Masculinist and cultural-supremacist currents flow through academic life and keep us away from scenes where real thought is occurring. As best we can, we should swim against those currents. Just as one might survey journals within one’s field, so too one can survey work being done by thinkers from groups underrepresented in professional philosophy. This is not to say I do this as often as I should. I don’t. But it remains fit advice.
A continual theme in your work is the transformative power of art and poetry. Besides being echoed in many of your articles, it is one of the dominant themes of your work from the late 90’s on poetry and philosophy entitled, You Must Change Your Life. You also seem to mirror this theme in your 2008 work on Emerson, Emerson and Self Culture, with your focus on the effort of self cultivation. The concept of the transformative power of art in your philosophy arises from the belief that art and poetry engage us and solicit our attention in a way that extends beyond entertainment. Today, much of how we experience art and poetry is via technology. Technology has another kind of transformative claim on human experience. How is the transformative power of art and poetry altered by technology?
Thank you for this. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the philosophy of technology, so this question has been with me for some time, though not in precisely this manner, which makes it all the more intriguing. But it is a very tricky question. On the one hand, we have the matter of art and its transformative power. On the other hand, you note a contrasting “claim on human experience” tied to technology. And then there is the question of what happens to the transformative power of art when it is accessed by way of technological modes of production, distribution, and/or presentation. There is a lot to say on each score and a lot that one should avoid saying. But I will do my best to address what I take to be the spirit of the question. Heidegger is insistent that technology is not simply a matter of tools. Similarly, art works are not just artifacts or performances or even happenings. Instead, and here is where it is important not to say certain things, art and technology name diverse sets of ways in which human existence takes place (and time, for that matter). In each case, various human capacities and dimensions of the world come together into various configurations while others recede into the background or disappear altogether, thereby precluding the appearance of other configurations. In technological situations, the human ability to predict and control variables in order to produce pre-given ends comes to the fore along with whatever features of the world enable the process and fit the schematic patterns operative in the given mode of production. In big-time agri-business, for example, animals are manufactured in order to provide the market with commodities. Before it even hatches, therefore, the chicken is really an ensemble of legs, wings, breasts, etc., rather than an integral whole. In, fact, what we usually regard as a “chicken” is a temporary assemblage in a trajectory that commences with increasingly sophisticated biological knowledge and concludes in various shrink-wrapped, yellow styrofoam trays. I would term this scene of appearance a technological situation. In an art situation, something quite different occurs. In more than schematic ways, the interactions sought, e.g. among sound waves in a small room, produces a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts even as many of the parts maintain a quasi-independent standing – Adorno terms the process a non-violent synthesis of particulars. Moreover, the ends toward which these interactions unfold is quite open, which is why engagements with artworks can be so surprising, even unsettling. Of course, there is a good deal more to say, but let me address the question. You asked how the transformative power of art is altered by technology. In a quite specific way, I want to say: it depends on the situation. I think technological instruments can operate in art situations and what we usually term artworks can appear in technological situations, e.g. in an auction house or as part of collection designed to demonstrate the wealth of the owner. Now, the presence of technologies like screens on phones or ear buds changes the situation and this will have effects on what capacities are solicited and stimulated for artist and audience. And it may so domesticate an artwork that it becomes little more than a feature of some other situation, say, doing our homework, watching TV, exercising, etc. In those instances, we do not have an art situation, but the culprit isn’t simply some technological device.
A recent consideration of your work is the theme of friendship. You are also the director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Philosophy at Emory University. In the 20th century Universities underwent much transition in many areas, one being student-faculty dynamics. We are just now seeing some of the first echoes of those changes as we begin a new century. Extending the theme of friendship to the life of the university, what place does friendship have in the university as an institution?
There are friends and there are friends, and given the way you posed the question, I presume you have in mind friendships between professors and students. It do think a certain kind of goodwill and affection, combined with a shared sense of the nature and importance of the project, underwrites many of the best teacher-student relations, and in those cases, we can talk about a kind of philein or friendly love. And given philosophy, tied as it is to conversation, that project travels well, meaning, it can arise in informal social settings where conversation can sometimes flourish. And since philosophy can engage almost any topic, such conversations can engage more than assigned texts, e.g. politics, shared enthusiasms for artists, etc. But such friendships cannot concern in any mutual manner the full life of each participant, and that is what I take friendship to entail at its best. So, friendship can be a fine term for certain kinds of student-teacher relationships, but it can also say too much, or worse, lead people to expect too much from what remains an asymmetrical relation.
What are you currently working on?
Two books. One concerns the role of literary form in philosophical writing. But rather than make a study of various forms like the dialogue, the aphorism, or the essay, I am interested in the exploratory-deliberative process that leads a thinker to commit to one form over another, and as a commitment determined by the philosophical goals of the project. Along the way I will explore the essay, aphorisms, the fragment, and the professional article, but principally in order to ferret out the kind of philosophical commitments embodied in these forms. A second book will articulate a general theory of art works. I’m at the point where I have enough misgivings about Heidegger, Adorno, and Dewey’s views that I want to air them out, and to do so in a way that can engage the work of Arthur Danto, a philosopher who has had enormous influence in analytic aesthetics. This project will present artworks as communicative acts of a certain sort, and argue that given this character, we should engage artworks in very particular ways, ways that have fallen out of favor in the academic study of artworks. I also am always writing “just one more” essay on Emerson – recently wrote one on “The Poet’” while the current issue is race – and I have recently written an essay on how to think about the “Americanness” of so-called American Philosophy. I argue that much of what characterizes pro-typical American philosophers was and remains opposed to the dominant character of the nation, which is more or less a militarized empire dedicated to commerce. I’m curious to see how it resonates, if it does at all. I think “America” is inhospitable to philosophy and we ought to register that fact when we philosophize as Americans. Finally, my brother, Paul Lysaker, and I are about to pursue another series of papers on the nature of schizophrenia, burrowing further into issues raised (e.g. meta-cognition) or temporarily set aside (e.g. affect) by our book, Schizophrenia and the Fate of the Self.
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