Zizek, Pink Sunsets, Movies, and Mountains in New Mexico: Luke Mancuso Talks to Madhu Mitra About His Sabbatical

Madhu Mitra:  St. John's College (Santa Fe) famously promotes the study of "Great Books" in its curriculum. What was the "greatest" book you read in the summer seminar you took there? What made it the greatest?

Luke Mancuso:  Ah, yes.  Great, greater, greatest.  I was enrolled in the Graduate Institute for a time, and signed up for the Politics and Society roster of readings.  The syllabus readings are standardized by disciplinary subject matter, like Philosophy/Theology, and so forth.  So I happily read some Greek political philosophy on the St. John's campus at Santa Fe, a cluster of adobe-colored colonial villas tucked into the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains. 

     It is a singular sight to stroll into the campus bookstore there, and to find a giant wall of textbooks for students simply shelved alphabetically A-Z, say Aeschylus to Zola, the standardized canon of western literature and philosophy. The college there firmly believes that such a classical erudition (in itself) will imbue the whole student population with a more fully developed instinct for enlightened thought and beliefs.  They boast about 400 undergrads and about 100 graduate students, if I recall correctly. A classic-style liberal arts atmosphere pervades the little campus, dotted with dog-eared copies of Aristotle, and sprinkled with spirited conversations about Kant's "categorical imperative"--you get the picture.

     I have to begin with an anecdote: A psychologist friend of mine who met Foucault in Rome in the seventies, and now works in the Vatican, confided to me early on in my sabbatical season in New Mexico that, over dinner, Foucault had revealed (to my astonished friend) that his favorite book was Plato's Republic; Foucault mirthfully continued that he even carried a worn copy of the Republic to the beach on the French Riviera every summer!  

     After having spent over fifteen years delving deeply into Foucault, I was innately intrigued by the inclusion of the Republic on the reading horizon, and indeed it was a trance-like read for me.  I had read Plato piecemeal since my undergraduate days in the seventies, but systematically poring over the whole text for six weeks was a revelation.  I had mastered, like any run-of-the-mill humanities scholar, Foucault's work on governmentality, the carceral society, and so forth---but reading the Republic was like getting a pre-history of all these standardized terms---particularly the sections on dialectical forms of government.  I now know why Foucault was obsessed with reformulating ethics with such a vengeance---in a sense, it's all there in response to Plato---this canonical "embryo" by Plato, a "great book," gave birth to our own "age of Foucault," as a template for our common critical work over the last decade. 

Madhu Mitra: Here's a comment from your sabbatical report: "As Stanley Aronowitz has argued in The Knowledge Factory, one of the ways to reinvigorate higher learning is to rigorously embrace the 'key texts of legitimate academic knowledge,' through a pedagogy of collaborative learning." What, in your opinion, are some of the "key texts of legitimate academic knowledge"? How is this (or is it?) different from Great Books?

Luke Mancuso:  It seems to me that the differences here are erected around the "collaborative" term, rather than the "key texts" term.  Aronowitz , a "tenured radical" if there ever was such a creature, has called for a rhetorical restoration of the canon, but only in a free-for-all learning environment that does not approach the canonical works as though they were sacrosanct---like golden tabernacles that only the priestly caste can unlock, bearing the sobering weight of our PhDs and Greek verb tenses.  

     It's all shaped by a charged rhetorical context, or a richly-experienced material ground on which we are standing when we read, say, Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, or Foucault's History of Sexuality, or more recently, Zizek's The Sublime Object of Ideology.  I don't see an ontological density in the text itself---I see a contested relationship with the text---a dialogue, a fistfight, a dinner conversation, a debate, an arm-wrestling match, a reciprocal give-and-take----informed by the preceding academic conversations that surround any of these BIG texts-the Oxford Classics, then, are like walled cities with noisy armies at the gate, who are pitching heated responses over the walls.  

     We all enter the parlor of philosophy in a belated way, in the sense that once we cross into the room, there is always already a lively conversation going on in the packed parlor----we can hang back like wallflowers, or we can pick up a beverage, and circulate, offering a few well-delivered questions about any texts, whether they are "great books," or films by Ang Lee, or episodes of The Sopranos

     Zizek is fond of saying that philosophy is a modest endeavor, that usually begins with a moderate question like, "What do you mean when you say that we are free?"  Not a grandiose question like, "What is freedom?"  That's my kind of party. My engraved invitation to that conversation is always already in the mail.

Madhu Mitra
: You spent much of your sabbatical reading contemporary film theory, and the works of Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Lacan. Could you comment briefly on the most exciting discoveries you made in each of these areas?

Luke Mancuso:  Yes, I labored through fifteen to seventeen of Zizek's books, and several commentaries that have begun to mushroom in the Zizek studies conversation.  I attended two professional conferences during my sabbatical season, and in both Cleveland and Chicago, the hundreds of language professors have already forgotten to incessantly cite Foucault or Derrida (they are just in the air we inhale, I guess).  But at every turn, Zizek was EVERYWHERE---informing ingenious readings of novels, poetry, films, on the tip of professorial tongues on several panel presentations and cocktail conversations.  As I mentioned to a friend between papers, "We seem to be speaking in tongue singular now (Zizek), as opposed to speaking in tongues.  Where has the glossalalia gone?"

     I have another anecdote.  I had a memorable first encounter with Zizek's work.  On a spring afternoon in 1994, when I was writing my last dissertation chapter, I strolled down to the campus bookstore at the Iowa City Union, and as I approached the "Philosophy" section, a book on the bottom shelf literally fell out onto the aisle, striking my shoe.  I kid you not.  I dutifully picked it up, and it was Zizek's The Sublime Object of Ideology, his first big splash in English published in 1989.  I walked zombie-like to the cashier, and bought it, where it lay on my shelf until the summer of 2004.  Ten years.  I pulled it out in '04, and read it straight through in 5 days, compulsively highlighting favorite passages.  More Zizek books followed---all the ones in the Alcuin library, since that initial contact.

     I was hooked.  So, I opened my reading in my little adobe hermitage in New Mexico last year with a return to Zizek's Sublime Object.  A homecoming.  It's a good place to start, since the book establishes what we now call the "Zizek effect," the obsessive drive to read Hegelian idealism through the prism of Lacanian psychoanalysis, grounded in so-called "vulgar" American pop culture.  It's, like, Zizek will be offering a mind-bending reading of Hegel's "Absolute Idea," or of Lacan's sinthome, as concepts which illustrate the cultural antagonism to human emancipation in late capitalism---and then, suddenly, he goes, "Which reminds of that interlude in Jim Cameron's Titanic when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are perched statuesquely on the prow of the doomed ocean-liner...."  You get the point.  Dazzling stuff.  And fun.

     Since Zizek is Lacan's oracular mouthpiece in our time, it seems superfluous to actually read Lacan.  But I did. I plowed through Lacan's Ecrits, with a superb commentary, which is often like knocking your head against a wall---with flashes of startling sudden insight emerging after long stretches of struggle.  And in film studies, I loved Todd McGowen's The Impossible David Lynch, which is an example of the "Zizek effect" in film studies----he reads the whole of Lynch's work, from The Elephant Man to Mulholland Drive, through the lenses of Zizek and Lacan-with virtuoso readings of all those memorable films, especially Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet.  

Madhu Mitra: What would you say was the most memorable non-academic experience you had during your sabbatical leave?

Luke Mancuso:  Sabbaticals are proof that, in Zizek's terms in a recent lecture, there is "life before death."  Such a transfusion of human energy.  

      Seven-thousand miles of western road trips, en route to and from Santa Fe with friends, through a dozen national parks, one heart-stopping sublime landscape after another.  

     The shifting purple-rose-colored light every evening, at twilight, in a small village, at 7000 feet altitude, in my little adobe hermitage, in the mountains of northern New Mexico.  

     An extended spring stay in Washington DC,  combing the Smithsonian galleries for days---soaking in a thousand art objects and displays.  After 3 days, I already was expert in giving museum directions. "Pardon me, did you say Matisse?  The water lily paintings are in the second gallery on the left."  You know, that kind of thing. 

      The major cinema exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum, on the National Mall, which I returned to for days---avant-garde and experimental film heaven-one installation more compelling than the next.  I will never forget how riveting Christoph Girardet's Release was---he takes famous film footage---in this case Fay Wray's first eye contact with the giant gorilla in King Kong--- and then grinds the film agonizingly slow toward the narrative recognition that follows-jerking the film's time-frame into a new relation for the viewer to cinematic time.  A complete revolution in the "truth" of experiencing film time----spellbinding stuff.

Madhu Mitra: The word on the street is that you have seen every movie the Alcuin Library has in its collection. Is that true?

Luke Mancuso:  A legend is a legend is a legend.  Having just invoked Washington, I cannot tell a lie.  Yes, I have seen virtually all of the 4500 DVDs in our media collection, and most of the 3000 VHS films.  (There are duplicates)!  

     But, I love to tell my film students I fell asleep during Star Wars; and I have never seen many blockbusters all the way through.  All special effects; no critical substance:  that's a real turn-off for me.  I see around 150 to 200 films annually.  It's a healthy obligation, if you will.  Film is a window to waking up cultural criticism for me, not a dream.  I'm not counting cable TV serials.  That's another story.

     For over a decade, I have collaborated as a major acquisitions resource in our library media collection, and of course, I regularly reference these pivotal films in my two regular film courses. We meticulously analyze about 100 scenes in detail each semester in my classes.  On my feet.  I love it passionately.

     My own scholarly enthusiasms in film studies have led to a commission to contribute to a new collection coming out this year from Cambridge---it's an essay I completed on Brokeback Mountain, while in New Mexico, called "The History of the Future of the Normal."  It's a sort of Zizekian reading of the film, along with some riveting references to the recent work by gender philosopher Judith Butler.   Oh, I have just seen Sean Penn in Gus van Sant's Milk, a genuine masterwork, and I am already cooking up another essay argument when I am driving around St. Cloud on errands. 

Film is the gift that keeps on giving....  Like friendship.

Madhu Mitra:  What was the most riveting film you saw during your sabbatical? And what about the most riveting book that you read?

Luke Mancuso:  Easy to answer in both cases.  Santa Fe has three art cinemas, and last January I was thrilled, in the tony art-house multiplex there, to see the singular vision of Paul Thomas Anderson's masterwork, There Will Be Blood.  It was a knockout punch to the brain and the gut.  It's THE film I reference when thinking about the failures of patriarchal authority in our late capitalist world----and his sense of innovative shot compositions is second to none.  He's one of the handful of directors who can stack radical cinematic gestures in a narrative scene, and get away with a major studio release.  Kudos to that. 

     Books.  I was exhilarated by every page of Lee Edelman's No Future:  Queer Theory and the Death Drive.  The book is simply a tide-turner in gender studies.  Things in gender studies will be pre-Edelman and post-Edelman No Future.  Period. 

     Edelman reads the imperative of the "normal" as a form of real violence, that itself produces death, and produces the deferral of urgently-needed human diversity.  Normalization is a catastrophe.   His reading of Hitchcock's film The Birds is the most perfectly amusing and devastating piece of film criticism I have ever read.  And I have racked up quite a bit of that film criticism stuff.  His book was "the bomb" for me last year.