Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Ups and Downs of the Uncanny Valley: An Interview with Mark Kingwell

For those of you who would like a preview of what you might get at our "All Saints and Fast Zombies" night with Mark Kingwell at Type Books this evening, I'm posting a little interview. On the title of Unruly Voices, the importance of the humanities, urban architecture, and more. See you tonight on Queen! For more information, visit our page on landoflastnight' 
U of T Prof and Harper's Contributing Editor
Mark Kingwell.

“The Ups and Downs of the Uncanny Valley”: An Interview with Mark Kingwell.
1.      Tell us about the title of your book. To what does Unruly Voices refer?
The phrase has a layered meaning for me. One of the core essays is about the erosion of civility as a feature of public discourse, and as a virtue of political life. This goes back to my earliest interests in political theory, especially the virtues (or otherwise) of citizens. So that’s one kind of unruly voice, the one that disrupts politics for self-serving ends. But there is another, positive sense of the phrase that alludes to the mix of voices and tones that make up a single human consciousness—the unruly voices of personhood. The modern idea is that we gather these together, smooth them out, and call the result an ‘inner voice’ or some such. But the insights that dominate the later essays are about the impossibility of doing this, the enduring unruliness of the voices that are the texture of consciousness. So, finally, there is the sense that the collection itself is a matter of unruly voices, the different tones and pitches of the various essays, which range from popular to fairly scholarly, even as they all revolve around the basic question: Is democracy possible?
2.      You mention the range of tone in these essays, which deserves a question in itself. Not many writers can shift from strict philosophy to dramatic monologues in the voice of President Obama! What else did you hope to achieve by bringing these different modes of writing together?
Well, I wanted to highlight a range of approaches and styles of writing, all of them linked by themes—and by the fact of their authorship by this allegedly singular consciousness I am, or ‘have’, or ‘experience’. It happens that I routinely contribute to a variety of publications that expect different styles, so that is directly reflected here. All of the essays date from the period between 2008 and 2012, so obviously the dominant politics facts they are preoccupied with include Obama’s first term, the 2008 economic collapse, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. I don’t see them adding up to a single political theory so much as illustrating various facets of what it means to dwell critically on the world of democratic politics.
3.      Throughout Unruly Voices you emphasize the value of literature and the humanities to North American democracy, and you often will teach works of literature in philosophy classes. In your opinion what does literature bring to philosophy that straight-up philosophical writing doesn’t? And do you think literature is more relevant to democratic theory than to other lines of philosophical inquiry?
The emphasis on human imagination, once central to democratic theory, has been lost in recent years, and part of my purpose here is to try and bring it back. The cultivation of consciousness that is unique to the experience of literature is a necessary part of the ‘sympathy’ (as Adam Smith called it) that alone makes society possible. We have to see the other as an entity with the same mysterious qualities of desire and reason as we sense in ourselves. Literature is not the only way to accomplish this, but it remains the best—not least because, as Northrop Frye said, argument actually convinces few people, while narrative and imagination often do. And further, without imagination and vision, argument has no point or direction. To use the title of one of my previous books, we have to engage with the very idea of a world we want.
4.      In “Retouching the Void” you discuss an interview you conducted with Michael Arad, architect of the 9/11 Memorial Plaza. At this time you’d already published one book on consciousness and the city (Concrete Reveries), which focused especially on New York and Shanghai. What was it like to revisit your thoughts on public space with Arad? Did the idea of the memorial shift your thoughts on New York as a transglobal city?
I always love going back to New York since the days I lived there and drafted those parts of Concrete Reveries. And Arad is a passionate New Yorker as well as a talented architect. His task was almost impossible: to memorialize the most significant national, political disaster in recent American history. I don’t think he entirely succeeded, but the attempt is, like all the best architecture, an occasion for thought.
5.      You’ve been writing what we could call moral philosophy for a long time, and you’ve always had an interest in how we as people can create better lives, governments, and societies for ourselves. This is your seventeenth book. How has your approach to writing moral philosophy changed since you published your first book in 1994?
I think I’m less ambitious, in the sense that I no longer retain the full version of what might be called the Philosopher’s Fallacy, namely that argument and theory can save the day when it comes to ethics and politics. I believe more firmly than ever in the centrality of language, however—my version of Heidegger’s claim that “language speaks us”—and these essays from what I guess must be my ‘middle period’ reflect that instability. I’ve been writing more and more in a kaleidoscopic fashion, I think, using both argument and other discursive means to illuminate one facet after another of a basic idea, or problem. Here, of course, that idea is democracy.
6.      Do you feel your interest in popular culture separates your work from that of others working in the field of democratic theory or ethical philosophy? Why or why not?
Well, it does separate it as a matter of fact—most political theorists don’t think about zombies or sports or movies as much as I tend to do. But culture is culture, and the idea that there is ‘official’ culture on one side and ‘popular’ culture on the other is a relic of another historical moment. I follow people like Barthes and Bourdieu, Veblen and Galbraith, in thinking that you can’t understand politics without considering how people actually spend their time, what they consume, and what they care about.
7.      If you had to pick one thing for a reader to take away from Unruly Voices, what would it be?
A sense of possibility, even as the ground seems to be shifting beneath our feet. I finish with an essay that considers the idea of the uncanny, and surely we live in uncanny times, where meanings distort and double, revenants roam, and the repressed always returns. Unruly Voices is my attempt at providing a partial guide to the ups and downs of the uncanny valley that is 21st-century democratic politics.

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