Interview with John Durham Peters



Volume 2, Issue 22
April 20, 2017

Interviewer: JANE WENG (M.E.D 18), SHUYI YIN (M.E.D 18)

John Durham Peters is a writer, a media historian, a social theorist, and a professor in the Department of English and the Program in Film and Media Studies at Yale. He is also the author of various books and articles, including The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (2015), Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition (2005), Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (1999)

Paprika_: _Discipline is a kind of demarcation. What we find interesting is that both media study and architecture are discussing infrastructure, both expanding its meaning to the immaterial realm. In your book The Marvelous Clouds, you discuss the ocean and the air as medium, in the field of architecture, some of us discuss the urbanization of the oceans and the atmosphere as well. Do you think there are differences in point of view between media studies and architectural theory?

John Durham Peters: Thank you. I think there is a geographical conception of disciplines, basically nationalism, with every discipline wanting to have its own territory. When you go into another discipline, it is like traveling abroad, and you have to get your passport.  It is a 19th-century model that every discipline has its turf. I don’t think that is the best model for disciplines today because disciplines have a lot more in common than they think they do. Probably a media scholar and an architectural theorist share more in common than a media scholar with another media scholar. There is more variety within than between disciplines.  There are media scholars who study topics like FCC policy, or public opinion polling, or social media messages. Each of them might be closer to someone in political science, or law, or sociology. Because disciplines are themselves, I don’t know if I want to use your term, urbanized (laugh). But there is a kind of infrastructural inversion and infrastructural reconfiguration of what counts as a discipline. Is a journal like _Grey Roo_m a media studies journal or an architectural theory journal? Yes to both questions! It’s so hard to pin down exactly what media studies means. In a nationalist frame people will turn to you and ask, what do people in China think about this? Or some Europeans ask, what’s the American point of view on this? I think there is no American point of view, there are just lots of different points of views. And trying to figure out what makes my point of view American is very difficult. It is an intellectual question of affinities. There are stylistic things that belong to someone who lives in a nation. There are worries or concerns, but there is no essence of being American or being Chinese. There is no essence to a media theorist or an architectural theorist. It’s a series overlapping interests, worries and concerns.  So I think maybe media studies is an excursion for you, but maybe it’s also a homecoming. It’s like urbanization. Is New York City America? There is this image of New York City as the essence of United States, but in fact, New York City is a global city. It’s a Chinese city, it’s a Russian city, it’s an Israeli city, it’s a Jamaican city, you know it’s an Asian city, it’s a Puerto Rican city, it’s a Haitian city.  A city is maybe a better model than the nation-state for disciplines. Media studies is an urban agglomeration, in which you can find quantitative people interested in public opinion similar to clusters of political scientists, or policy people similar to lawyers, or people interested in everyday life similar to ethnographers, or people interested in infrastructure similar to architects or environmental historians.

P: You just mentioned that New York City is a global city, do you think there is an invisible boundary that demarcates people, like sovereignty?

JDP: Yes, you still need a visa to get into New York. Or you need to be a special kind of worker, you can illegally stay pass your visa. They are questions of power, I don’t mean to celebrate the kind of babble plurality of New York and any other city as if that’s a Utopia. Especially at this moment of travel bans, it’s very clear that state sovereignty matters in very profound ways about the circulation of bodies. For academic disciplines, it’s also true. In moments of crisis, you have that kind of sovereign demarcation. Hiring committees can often ask if a candidate is a real communication scholar? I think media scholars are different from communication scholars. I was in a department of communication studies; we sometimes had debates about who is a real communication scholar. Within media studies, we tend to be a lot less worried about who is genuine or fake. Because the barrier to entry is so low to be a media scholar. One thing I say is that if you can tell the difference between rating and share, in terms of TV audiences, then that makes you a media scholar. That’s the kind of insider thing that no one really cares about outside of the field. There is a kind of border policing, that definitely happens, for example, in graduate school admission, job hiring, giving grants–, you need to have credentials, which is very similar to passports and Visas.

P: In your book, The Marvelous Clouds, you emphasized the importance of the materiality of media. In architecture, all we focus on is the materiality aspect of space. One of our discussions about the architectural space, or built environment in general, is that they are powerful but also powerless. Professor Keller Easterling in the architecture school once said that the steel itself couldn’t do anything, but the stories and fictions attached to it are so thick that they can bend the steel, turn it into buildings and civic projects [1] (JDP: that’s interesting, P: Yeah!).  I wonder how do you see the power of the materiality, regarding space or medium?

JDP: For me, passivity is a kind of power. In the western tradition, we often associate power with activity, with dynamism. The word for power in Greek is dunamis. But I think that passivity is a very powerful way of being. If you think in terms of politics, like passive resistance, which is not passive at all. But if you think of what Martin Luther King did, or Occupy Wall Street, it’s actually a politics of being in a space, taking over a street and doing nothing in particular very deliberately.  Demobilizing other people’s activity can be a very powerful protest. If you think of built environment like steel, you can say it’s passive, but also it’s totally definitive. You can’t argue with a steel building, you can put graffiti on it as a form of resistance. 9.11, of course, was a kind of resistance against the steel building. You turn an airplane into a weapon. That’s such a drastically abnormal way of resisting—and abusing–steel.

In my books, I talk about immateriality as being really important. Who gets to define what is the central point is, who gets to define where the grand meridian is in Greenwich? It may seem completely natural to say that the zero point of longitude is in Greenwich, but in fact, it’s a reflection of political power. Is software something material or immaterial?  Is architecture material or immaterial? Isn’t the ultimate technique of architecture the blueprint? Or the plan? Not so much the building, but the drawing might be the ultimate medium or technique of architecture. I prefer the word technique because technology has this kind of ideology of history of progress built into it that can be problematic.

P: There is a difference between stillness and passiveness, right? Passiveness is with a purpose, but do you think the total stillness, for example in the Eastern Zen meditation, is without any purpose?

JDP: I have to confess that I’m very skeptical about divisions between East and West. Zen, as we know it, was partly invented in America by Paul Carus and D. T. Suzuki, a Japanese philosopher. Suzuki wrote key texts first in English. Because in part the kind of Zen he was teaching is very close to American Transcendentalism, with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson or Henry David Thoreau, who appreciated nature as other, as resistant to human purposes. Obviously, when you think about China, there is this great tradition of Chinese Nationalism, China is the center of the universe, the middle(中), is that the word?

P: Yes, exactly, means middle in Chinese.

JDP: That’s what I mean. It’s the media nation, the middle nation. The nation of mediation—perhaps that is China!

P: In the English Language is there a connection between middle and medium?

JDP: Yes. Definitely. Medium comes from the Latin word for Middle. Medius is a Latin adjective meaning middle. One Latin word for space is locus. So in Latin, if you say in the middle space, you say medius locus, and Latin is the ancestor of French, and it turned into milieu in French, which is a classic architectural word. In milieu, you have the notion of media hidden in there. A Milieu is a Medium. The French philosopher Michel Serres is very interested in media and milieu, as kinds of spaces.

Even with Zen, there is a kind of purpose. You always get the kind of contradiction when you have a purpose without a purpose. How do you go to a Zen Garden and not meditate? Because if you go to a Zen garden to meditate, then it’s not Zen. So it is a paradoxical question. In Western tradition, there is a great tradition of thinking about passivity too. In some ways, Western philosophical traditions and Eastern philosophical traditions have very deep affinities.  For example, Chuang tzu is very close to cynicism, Confucius is close to Aristotle in emphasizing important relationships and seeing the state and family as connected in terms of ethical relationships. For Aristotle, the human is the zoon politikon, a term Hannah Arendt uses, which means the animal with speech. This is not very hard to connect to Confucius, where there is a mandate of heaven, the politics is connected with the sky and with earth. Obviously, the two aren’t exactly the same, but there are affinities. I think the effort to make a demarcation is often a political one. It is not genuinely a philosophical one. The questions Chinese civilization have to deal with are city life, differentiation, gender, family, power, desire—the problems every civilization must face.  Solutions may vary, but the problems are the same.

P: What is your view on the newness today? Do you think there is newness? Or the things that we consider new today are just repetitions.

JDP: Thank you, that for me is such an important question. I want to answer it in two ways. One strategy I take in The Marvelous Clouds is to try to find all kinds of things that people say are new about digital media, and show how they are not new. The strategy is to undercut this claim of novelty and newness. If you look at fire, navigation, calendar, book, or divination of the sky, you can see how many of these are connected to Google or smartphones. On the other hand, there obviously is something new about the digital world. I think it is such an interesting historical and philosophical question to figure out what is genuinely new. The fusion of nature and art is a very ancient idea, but I’m convinced that we are doing it in ways that are different than before. If you think about the blue marble image, it is such a beautiful image, a transcendental image, we can always say that the earth has always been blue and beautiful. But it is also only possible with the militarized project of the space program, the intensified technology that gives us this picture.  And it is a picture that’s free from technology, paradoxically, because this image is a result of technology that erases the very technology. A funny thing about studying media is that media swipe the tracks behind them. Media erases the long history. And partly this is not just media themselves but the marketers. Silicon Valley loves to pretend what they are doing is so new, so exciting and so unprecedented, whereas so much of it is just recycling old worries. The internet is about power, is about sex, is about relationships, is about data, is about the weather. These are core elements of the human condition. Such questions are built into civilization.  The data world that we live in reconfigures them in some ways that might be new, but it is very hard to figure out what are the ways that precisely are new. That why the postwar period is a good era to focus on this question of novelty. We can focus on some new things that are happening there that have never happened before.

P: Do you think this newness is due to technology?

JDP: What does technology mean for you? It’s such a hard term.

Paprika: Such as industrialization, Google, Silicon Valley. The way in which we do things?

JDP: Because technology as a term has a notion of newness built into it. And I think technology is a very problematic term because as soon as you start to use the term technology you presuppose something that’s innovative. I like your point about the way, because practices, material devices, noopolitics, brain power, there are so many levels at which we have to think about what technology is.

P: Just to conclude with the last question. Going back to the question of excursion, when we are doing research in architecture, it is impossible to read just within our discipline. Reading literature from other disciplines can be incredibly overwhelming. Your books are arching into so many different disciplines, such as environmental study, biology, astronomy, etc. What is your experience with interdisciplinary research?

JDP: In the introduction of The Marvelous Clouds, the metaphor I use is the sinkhole. A sinkhole is when people sucked up all the water out of the ground, and sometimes when you walk along the street will collapse beneath you. When I was writing this book, if I felt that I had enough knowledge of astronomy, for example, and I started moving forward, the infrastructure always collapsed beneath me. At some level knowing anything is impossible. When are you ever going to know enough to say anything responsible? So I made my peace with pragmatist epistemology, that you can know enough to say something. This is an engineering point. The old saying is that the machine works at its maximum efficiency right before it crashes. When the bridge breaks and, the building falls over that’s when we actually learn, that’s where the knowledge comes from. Henry Petroski has written about this famously. Without disasters, there is no engineering. Finitude is our lot. We live in a world with amazing cognitive enhancements, and things like Google do make you a lot smarter. It helps us learn about other fields quickly. I think in one hour you can learn enough to be at least oriented. To learn a lot about another field to be an expert, you need 10,000 hours, but one hour can get you started, so why not?

P: If there is a boundary between the known and the unknown, can we see the known knowledge as material, and the unknown as immaterial? Or the known as human condition, and the unknown as beyond human?

JDP: Maybe so. I like your term confidence. Because you will always get the feeling that you’re a fraud, and you don’t know enough. I like the example of Socrates, because his argument was that ignorance is an enabling condition. If you know that you are ignorant, that enables you to be thirsty for knowledge. Socrates invented the word philosophy, which means love of wisdom, not having it. It’s like you are in love with this thing, but wisdom is not in love with you, so you can’t have it. I feel that this attitude is very helpful. I think learning is going from the known to the unknown. And the only way you can do it is by taking the risk of being embarrassed. You generalize, you use metaphors, you use analogies, you do things that might feel utterly foolish. History of science, the history of learning is a history of failure, big marvelous fantastic failure. All we can do is fail better. That’s Samuel Beckett, isn’t it?  At least it was Beckett before the Silicon Valley marketers stole it from him!

[1] This is the issue editor’s (Jane Weng) personal memory from previous discussions with Keller, may not reflect her original words or meaning.

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Volume 2, Issue 22
April 20, 2017

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