Dominic Pettman: Human Matters

April 23rd, 2018 | Category: Interviews

I first came across Dominic Pettman’s work through his 2011 book, Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines (University of Minnesota Press), which I promptly wrote about because it connected so many things I am interested in. Not long after, he wrote a cultural history of my favorite animal, Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology (Zer0 Books, 2013). He had written several before, and he’s written several since. He is a professor at Eugene Lang College and also teaches in the Liberal Studies Program at the New School for Social Research. Pettman is currently both one of my favorite theorists and one of my favorite writers.

I can’t introduce him without pointing you to his In Divisible Cities: A Phanto-Cartographical Missive (Dead Letter Office/Punctum Books, 2013). It’s a poetic, aphoristic urban excursion. You can download or buy it directly from Punctum Books or lose yourself in Alli Crandell‘s interactive web version.

Roy Christopher: What would you say is your area of work?

Dominic Pettman: My official title is Professor of Culture & Media, so I guess that gives an accurate idea of the scope of my beat. In other words, pretty much anything is fair game! My university education in Australia was quite eclectic and promiscuous, and we were not encouraged to squat on a sub-sub-field as many are here in the States; so I never learned to get the laser vision that some of my colleagues have. When I arrived in the US in 2004, and people described my writing as “brave,” it took me a while to figure out that this was code for “crazy and reckless.” Nevertheless, it’s too late for me to hyper-specialize now.

I do, however, have enduring themes that I’m interested in, and my work pays particular attention to questions concerning the species-being of “the human,” especially in relation to the technical aspects of various libidinal economies and ecologies. For the past twenty years, my research has focused on neglected connections between philosophical ideas, psychological states, social anxieties, and cultural artifacts, with a particular focus on the media used to create and navigate these phenomena. While the objects of my research may seem quite different from project to project, they are all case studies relating to the three main questions animating my work: 1) how do humans use media/technology to symbolize their complex experience of time? 2) how do humans use media/technology to communicate their conflicted experience of intersubjectivity? and 3) how do humans use media/technology to perpetuate—or complicate—their ambivalent relationships to other forms of intelligence, such as animals or machines?

In one recent book, Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media (Polity, 2016), I demonstrate the ways in which online sharing platforms “hypermodulate” our attention in order to more effectively control our behavior, via different digital rhythms and time signatures. In another recent title, Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (Stanford University Press, 2017), I ask why it is that humans have historically been considered the only being blessed with voice. I proceed from there to explore the notion that animals and machines may in fact have their own modes of “speech,” and may thus be trying to tell us something that we are currently incapable of hearing. A companion title, Creaturely Love: How Desire Makes Us More and Less Than Human (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) details some of the ways that desire makes us both more–and less–than human by looking closely at some canonical literary, philosophical, and aesthetic uses of animalistic themes, within the lovers’ discourse.

RC: You are quite prolific, having finished as many books as I’ve started in the same amount of time, as well as posting regularly online. Do you have an elaborate writing scheme and schedule? Are there really two of you?

DP: I’m somewhat abashed to say that I don’t. I’m not one of these people that write a little bit a day, and then—by the end of the year—I find I have 100k words ready to go. Rather I tinker a little bit with notes, as I circle the project, and then—when the moment feels right—I pounce, and work like crazy until it’s finished. I definitely need a clear block of time in order to bring a manuscript together–whether this be a Summer break or a sabbatical. Also, what you might notice is that my books are getting shorter and shorter. One day I aspire to be Agamben, and have even a haiku published as a book in a 5,000 point font. But I can work quickly. Infinite Distraction, for instance, was written during a four-week winter break. Of course, it sold more copies and got more attention than the book I spent several years on! There’s a lesson there perhaps.

But usually when people ask what the secret is, I tell them don’t have kids. Then again, my colleague, McKenzie Wark is a very committed father, and he is even more prolific than I am. Maybe it’s an Australian thing.

Seriously though, I do think that many academics or theorists—especially those traumatized by grad school—tend to be wary of sharing anything with the world until it is so polished as to be mortified. There is also a fear that if you haven’t read every single text even vaguely pertaining to your subject then you have no right to enter the conversation. But I prefer to see each book as a moment, or specific contribution, not the very last word on an issue. And this frees me up to address any gaps or unconsidered angles in a subsequent work.

RC: Since you write about so many different topics, I am curious as to what is coming up next.

DP: My current research, speaking generally, seeks more explicitly to “reanimalize the human,” in order to more consciously track the ways in which our historical sense of human purpose (“species-being”) is being challenged by, and responding to, new ethological discoveries, and a rather urgent new sense of ecological entanglement (not to mention mutual precarity).

Look at the BunnyI am in the midst of two manuscripts that emerge from this research. The first outlines a general “libidinal ecology,” beginning with the provocative notion (borrowed from Bernard Stiegler) that we are running out of libido, in the same way that we are running out of natural resources, like fresh water or oil. It begins by asking: “What is the carbon footprint of your libido?” – a quantitative conceit to clear the way for qualitative questions around desire, mobility, and media. Part of this project scans the archive of philosophical commentaries on human intimacy in search of seeds which never took root, but which have the potential to free us from the dangers of “peak libido,” and the associated impasses or afflictions of contemporary private life. Plato’s Symposium, for instance, offers an array of definitions of human passions, but only Aristophanes’s figure of the sutured hermaphrodite, fusing itself back together with its other half, has come to dominate the romantic imagination. What if we follow more nuanced accounts of what it means to be an individual among other individuals (none of whom, perhaps, are as in-dividual as they may like to think)?

The second project is more creative in spirit: an engagement with Vilém Flusser’s theory of mediated gestures. This collaborative endeavor, with historian Carla Nappi, experiments with the written and performative forms through which scholars might engage and communicate media theory. This has yielded a complete manuscript, Meta-Gestures, which gathers together short stories written in tandem, responding to Flusser’s original gestures, such as “the gesture of photographing,” “the gesture of making,” and “the gesture of planting.” Can only humans make authentic gestures? Or can this specific type of semiosis—less than an action, but more than an intention—be something performed also by animals and machines? Together, Nappi and I intend to make an audit of contemporary gestures made in response to intensifying digital imperatives, while also creating a blueprint of alternative gestures which (at least potentially) embody the kind of “freedom” that Flusser himself felt must follow the rather dismal options provided by the program industries.

Ultimately, this research is conducted in the service of recognizing, and fostering, not only new forms of intimacy and understanding between radically different types of being, but new conceptions of what it means to be human in a (productively!) dehumanized world.

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