Steven Shaviro is a postmodern seer disguised as an English professor at the University of Washington. His books and various other writings slice through the layers of our mediated reality and show what factors are at work underneath. He cuts open the tenuous sutures between academic fields and dissects contemporary culture like the slimy animal that it is. His book Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction About Postmodernism (Serpents Tail, 1997) roams the land between the lines of traditional fiction and cultural commentary and comes back with dead-on insight and understanding.
Shaviro is currently working on a book about cyberculture and how its rampant connectivity is changing our lives.
Roy Christopher : No one field of study seems able to contain your work. In what fields do you see yourself sowing seeds in the scientific/literary landscape?
Steven Shaviro: I am trying to write in between different fields of study. “In between” seems to me to be a good place to be, indeed a necessary place, if you are trying to figure out things about contemporary culture. Because contemporary culture itself is not a unified field, but involves all sorts of encounters and transformations between different things. Everything is hybrid today.
So, as a critic, I am trying to write in between the fields in which I have been specialized as an academic (literature and film) and other areas (which include science studies, media and communications studies, etc.), as well as in between standard academic writing and journalism. I call myself a critic, but I am not making value judgments from on high, rather, I am involved, or implicated, in the things I am writing about: the mutations of contemporary culture, its responses to new technologies and to political and social changes, and so on.
RC: Doom Patrols is one of the most interesting book projects I’ve come across in my reading. Where did you come up with the idea to do a “theoretical fiction”?
SS: I was writing that book in a way that obviously came from my studies in poststructuralist theory, which means the writings of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, and so on, but also thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and even Andy Warhol. I was trying to confront all this theory with a lot of other stuff going on in contemporary (or at least recent) culture: comics and slasher films and Microsoft and even Dean Martin. Now, one of the dangers with a theoretical approach to culture is that the theory becomes the measure of all things, and the stuff you are looking at turns into just illustrations of what is already being stated in the theory. This is what I was trying to avoid by making my work into a “fiction.” What I meant was, that I was trying to write this examination of culture and cultural theory in the way a novelist might write. I was using abstract ideas rather than characters in the literary sense, but I was trying to dramatize the ideas and bring out their inner life, in the same way a novelist might do with his/her characters.
RC: You’ve written extensively about film theory and I’m finding this more and more the focus of culture critics and theorists. Do you believe the image has taken/is taking over? Have we reached “the twilight of the word,” as Harlan Ellison calls it?
SS: I don’t think words are disappearing. The World Wide Web, for instance, is still very much a textual/writerly medium, despite all the graphics and Flash animations and so on. I am not one of those who worries about good words giving way to evil images.
But I do think that the new technologies and new media we are experiencing today are changing the relationship between words and images. One of McLuhan’s most useful ideas is that every new medium changes “the ratio of the senses,” the balance between vision and sound, or words and music and images — the hierarchies they make with one another. So, yes, I think that the word isn’t as supreme today (and will not be as supreme tomorrow) as it was in what McLuhan called the “Gutenberg Galaxy,” or the age of print.
I’d also say that literary writing today has become a very conservative medium. Except for certain types of science fiction, and experimental writing (from Burroughs to Acker to Doug Rice), literature seems to have retreated into the past. Most of the novels that get celebrated in The New York Times Book Review, or other places like that, are almost acting as if nothing had changed over the course of the past century. Whereas things like music and film and video are much more involved in what it means to be alive today, in a postmodern, multimedia age. I learn much more, and get much more of an emotional effect from Björk or Outkast or the Basement Jaxx, or from David Lynch or Wong Kar-Wai or Claire Denis, than I do from Don DeLillo or Nicholson Baker or Martin Amis (and I am choosing writers here who are at least trying to get a pulse on the present). I am myself a writer — because that is what I am good at, I am not much of a musician or visual artist. But I am trying to make my writing wrap itself around musical and visual forms, because they are where the most interesting things are happening today.
RC: Tell me about Stranded in the Jungle. What is your aim with this book?
SS: The book is composed of a series of short takes (approximately 800 words each) of a variety of contemporary, or near-contemporary, cultural phenomena — ranging from pop music and SF novels and films, to reality television and alien abductions. The main aim of the book is, a) to write in a more accessible style than I employ elsewhere and, b) to try to focus on how these various phenomena feel (as opposed to what they might mean, which is what my other writing tries to do). It’s a series of impressions, in a very precise sense. Moments frozen and unpacked. The book is conceived for publication on the web, and I post new chapters as I write them. There are thirty-seven so far, out of a hoped-for total of eighty or so. I don’t know when I will be finished. I have not written any new chapters recently, because I have been busy with other stuff. But I hope to return to Stranded in the Jungle soon. (The title comes from a doo-wop song that was a minor hit for the Cadets in the 1950s, and then was covered by the New York Dolls in the 1970s).
RC: Is there anything else you’re working on that you’d like to mention here?
SS: I am also working on another book called Connected: Or What It Means to Live in the Network Society (University of Minnesota Press, 2003). This is an extended, book-length single essay on cyberculture and how it is changing us. I move back and forth between things that are actually happening now, technologically and socially, on the net, and things that are only happening (for now) in science-fiction novels, but that resonate strongly with those actual events. I cover a variety of subjects, from Napster and digital copyright, to webcams, to the stock market, to artificial intelligence. I hope to finish the book by the end of this year (2002). I probably will hold back from putting it online, at least at first, because I would like to get a conventional publisher to accept it.