Newman, "Site Three: Use, Pedagogy, and Addiction"

Finding Romantic Commonplaces: An Interview with Jerome Christensen

Site Three: Use, Pedagogy, and Addiction

Steve Newman, Temple University

Microsoft's Campus
Aerial photograph NW-95 12-52-66 used by permission of the Engineering Division
Resource mapping Section, Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Microsoft Campus
  1. Steve Newman: I’d like to move on to a different set of questions about pedagogy. It has to do with an essay from your new collection, which hasn’t been published elsewhere, "Using: Romantic Ethics and Digital Media in the Ruins of the University." In that essay, you describe your aims in founding The Center for Digital Media Research and Development at Hopkins which were to help to initiate Hopkins undergraduates into a craft that would allow them to foster their own agency in a labor market increasingly dominated by a corporate culture exemplified by Microsoft and Nike. And to show how this is in fact a Romantic praxis, you seize on the stigmatization of these students as "computer addicts," taking that as a sign that they are the post-Fordist heirs of Thomas de Quincey and his "crypto-liberal line of descent." De Quincey, you argue, breaks the narrative of addiction that would rob him of his agency, a narrative that would match his present and future with an irremediable past. He does that by an act of rhetoric: He postulates that the moment when pleasurable use turns into abuse can’t be specified. In this act of performative will, he alters the contract between author and reader. Instead of promising to match up effects with causes, he promises the reader the pleasure that comes with an act of rhetorical invention that leaves one open to the possibility of accident and capable of weathering change.
  2. You then say that this same conspiracy governs digital media research, whereby these students' "unreasoning affinity for computers" is transformed into a shared practice that teaches students to use their addictions to their benefit. Does that sound like an adequate summary?

  3. Jerome Christensen: That’s a good account.

  4. SN: The first question I had is about the category of production in your argument. The first thing that strikes me about it is that it’s the most optimistic presentation you’ve made about it. For example, in Practicing Enlightenment, you cite Baudrillard’s argument that by "insisting on man as a producer, Marx remains entrapped within that mirror of production that permits that infinite reflection on itself that is the capitalist mode of reproduction." Or, in "The Romantic Movement at the End of History," what makes the insurrectionaries Romantic is that, from the standpoint of a culture looking to cure them, they do no work. So even if we read the insurrectionaries as Romantic addicts, they certainly weren’t doing work that the Microsoft of their day might have found useful. So it’s my sense that "use" and "production" have acquired a certain status in this essay that they haven’t elsewhere in your work. Or perhaps this is a more populist instantiation of the aristocratic agency you accord to Byron in his co-optation of "Byronism" in Lord Byron’s Strength?8

  5. JC: I tried to avoid the term "production." Not because anyone hates production, not because it makes your hands dirty. It’s simply because as a discrete category, referring to a system or a situation, production has completed its work. Any argument that is going to have any application to the way we live now will have to enfold production into consumption.

  6. SN: "Using" cuts both ways, toward production and consumption.

  7. JC: Right. Addiction, as De Quincey represents it, is compulsive consumption. Every scholar of De Quincey who knows anything about opium says that, judging from his account, you’d never believe he had ever actually taken opium. Opium is a figure for poetry. And for De Quincey, opium eating is a poesis. De Quincey de-moralizes the conception of poetry he’s inherited from Wordsworth. Just as De Quincey’s representation of the opium eater abuses Coleridge’s definition of the poet as someone who puts the whole man into activity, so De Quincey abuses poetry by rendering opium eating as though it has a poetics every bit as complicated and gratifying as that involved in the making of poems.

  8. That seems true to life. At least true to the life that digital poets lead now. If we were to have a long running camcorder to record a fourteen-year-old suburbanite, we would find that this person is moving fairly quickly from something like sheer consumption of images to the making of images, say, on a Website a digital "composite art." The downloading of MP3s as a step in the assembly of a personal CD which composes tunes into a personal musical program.

  9. The digital user employs the same tool for both consumption and for making. Not only don’t you need to be a rocket scientist, you don’t need to be a computer scientist. Most of the materials used to achieve preferred outcomes are found and re-processed. Using is a secondary imagination. If we think of ourselves as constantly jeopardized rightsholders, that re-manipulation is plagiarism, subject to the law. But considered as users what we’re actually seeing is a form of collaboration, not a naming but a making, which acquires the material from upriver. Again, thinking of the current MP3 debates, those who "plagiarize" in this manner have no conception, or have a merely legal conception, of what plagiarism might possibly be, just as they start out with no concrete idea of the person who has created the song or even posted it. One of the ways in which things happen is that you electronically engage those people on the other end or people like those people, narrowing the degrees of separation, and in the process discursively develop an ethic of use.

  10. SN: How precisely do you mean poesis?

  11. JC: Just precisely enough to seduce people into the appreciation of the collaborative making of interactive multimedia programs as artful labor freshened by regular impulses of mild surprise.

  12. SN: I’d like to take our discussion back toward pedagogy. To return to "Rhetoric and Corporate Populism"—we should mention that that essay will not be appearing in the forthcoming collection. . .

  13. JC: Right. On the advice of my lawyers.

  14. SN: On the advice of your lawyers. In that essay, you put forth de Man as a paradoxical model insofar as his teaching seems to have avoided both what you call "seduction" and "recruitment" and thus avoided a certain kind of humanist mimeticism in which the student learns to reproduce the teacher’s world-view.

  15. JC: Right.

  16. SN: But it’s not the case that you adopt De Man’s teaching method as your own, at least insofar as De Man in "Resistance to Theory" states: "Teaching is not primarily an intersubjective relationship between people but a cognitive process in which self and other are only tangentially involved." That can’t be your method as you have described it, since the "breathing together" you find so attractive in the Romantic model requires intersubjectivity. Does that seem like a fair point?

  17. JC: Sure. I stretched the point with De Man for polemical purposes in order to argue that a good deal of the outrage over the revelations about De Man’s past was fueled by a deep mistrust of his effectiveness in turning out students who did De Manian criticism. De Man would and did give an alternative account, one that, I think, mystified what actually occurs in the seminar room and, by virtue of that mystification, enacted the mimeticism against which he inveighed. The trouble for me is with the word "cognitive," which produces the strange equation of an "intersubjective relationship between people" with a duet between "self and other." I can only understand the avoidance of the term "rhetorical" as a symptom of the De Manian reduction of rhetoric to an understanding of the operation of tropes, so that turning out analyses of poems and turning out students could look like the same sort of inexorable operation. For better or worse, my emphasis on the commonplace aims to broaden the understanding of rhetoric to include the siting of tropes, a process in which a teacher and a student—not self and other—are conspiratorially involved.

  18. SN: So, if that’s the case, how do you deal with the transferential relationship that might attend that "breathing together"? I know that this is a difficult question to be asked by a student of yours, but how do you respond to the agons of the classroom in which the students often compete against each other for the regard of the teacher and seem to identify with his or her desire? And how do you understand your own authority and desire as a teacher? And I think here of a line in a recent book that describes your work as "inimitable." And I’m assuming that’s that the way you’d like it to be.

  19. JC: I suppose "inimitable" is a fair description of the kind of the associative and improvisational style of teaching and writing that I tend to do. I come from a tradition in which The Visionary Company and The Anxiety of Influence are simply true, in which the potency of the poets is so deeply intimidating that it does encourage what Plato would stigmatize as bad mimeticism in which one attempts to perform the inimitability of the poetry itself as an attempt to communicate its informing power. Certainly a lot of my teaching is quasi-theatrical and non-scripted and improvisational. I work in a seminar but I’m never sure the seminar works.

  20. SN: That’s precisely the question I had. I hope this doesn’t embarrass you, but what got me hooked on Romanticism initially was your reading of the Salisbury Plain poems in which somehow what was happening was Coleridge was Little Ricky Ricardo [SN and JC start laughing], pining at the breast. . . . That was not a type of teaching I had encountered before.

  21. JC: Perhaps because it is not teaching at all.

  22. SN (laughing): Well, I’m still trying to be a Romanticist, so whatever it was, it seems to have been effective, at least from my perspective. But the question I had along these lines stems from a line in "Using," in which you write that students now have an "unreasoning affinity" for computers that they used to have for poetry. I read that with a certain pathos—I mean the pathos was mine, not yours. I thought, "But I’m still trying to teach Romanticism, not digital media." So I wonder if your artisanal or workshop model, which does mitigate the scenes of recognition and cure, the normalizing narratives we have of the transference, would work in a Romanticism seminar. Or if you had thought of doing it. Or if I had thought of doing it. I have tried to experiment pedagogically in the Writing Center and in other contexts, but I also have to admit that most of the teaching I’ve done involves student presentations, etc. and other not-exactly-radical techniques. And I also try to mirror back to students what they are saying in my comments, trying to use their vocabulary to whatever degree I can, which is something you do extraordinarily well. But still, although I find "Using" generally optimistic, I’m not sure how optimistic it is for seminars, particularly Romantic seminars.

  23. JC: Well, students don’t spend enough time in seminars. They spend the right amount of time on the course, but not in seminar. Just say, don’t read the book before you come to class, which is the opposite of what we always say, "Make sure you read the book before you come to class."

  24. SN: "Don’t waste my time."

  25. JC: Yeah, "Don’t waste my time because we only have a certain amount of time in class." That’s one of the things that happens in the Digital Media lab or in a film production course. Those people spend hours and hours and hours together. Then they go away and come back with ideas, stupid ideas and good ideas. And at the end of the day, no one knows whose idea it was. And no one catches on or rather, everyone catches on. So there’s not such an onus about making a mistake.

  26. SN: The trick is to produce a cathexis to the questions you ask and not to yourself. That’s the sense in which I want to be charismatic. It’s not as if I have all these students banging down my door dying to get into my courses. That hasn’t happened yet. But I catch myself spinning out that fantasy. When you say it’s tricky, that’s how I think it’s tricky.

  27. JC: Well, charisma is a tricky thing and its role is not easy to dismiss, since the occupation of university professor is one of the hallmarks of the routinization of charisma. We’re all offered the opportunity for our star turns. Part of what I mean by the conspiracy model is a democratization of the undergraduate and graduate seminar experience, which I think can be achieved by people working together in a common place toward a common end. What makes teaching today different from the sixties and seventies, the heyday of high theory and second wave feminism, is that just as the master narratives have expired, so have the master movements that nerved professors to posture as exponents of an adversary politics and culture. Who leads the class now? And to what end? Classroom conspiracies concoct collective projects that acknowledge no master teacher and adhere to no master narrative. They cohere in the coded occultation of their goals from the authorities—both self and other—and prosper (if they do) as the allegorical elaboration of their equivocal institutional situation.


8Lord Byron's Strength: Romantic Writing and Commercial Society (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993).