Chair, Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies
What drew you to Pratt after 17 years teaching philosophy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee?
I was a filmmaker before I came to academia and, while I can’t deny that I am now a critical philosopher to the bone, I have never lost the conviction that philosophy and many other humanistic and social scientific disciplines can thrive when undertaken adjacent to the arts. At Vanderbilt, in addition to training PhDs in philosophy, aesthetics, and German intellectual history, I was an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Art. The social sciences and humanities play a central role in Pratt’s mission to educate artists broadly, but what made Pratt especially appealing to me was the independent status of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
How do you like living in New York City after so many years in the South?
I’m thrilled to be here, but I must say that Nashville is a complex and urbane city that defies the common perception of many New Yorkers of a single, homogeneous place down there called ‘the South.’ The differences between the major cities of the South and New York have diminished significantly over the last 25 years. I wrote my PhD at Rutgers, my family is from Brooklyn and the Catskills, and I spent three-plus months each year in New York while living in Nashville. The move to New York is therefore something of a homecoming for me.
Your background in philosophy provides a more academic perspective on aesthetics and the idea of the critique. How do you feel that will impact teaching and learning at Pratt, which tend to be very hands-on?
This is such a complicated question! My most honest answer is: I need to wait and see. I’ve had what I think of as a fairly broad range of experiences — for an academic — of art teaching. I’ve participated in crits, helped develop syllabi and curricula for art programs, worked with academic artists on how to introduce critical themes into their classrooms, and so on. There is a wide range of points of view on the value of the academic perspective in teaching art and design. My teaching experience has taught me that the borders between teaching art and teaching aesthetics, while by no means inconsequential, are nonetheless porous. Among the students I’ve taught over the past 25 years, artists, writers, composers, and musicians have, in their own ways, profited from studying philosophy as much as anyone.
What is the focus of your current research?
I’m working on two concurrent book projects. The one nearest completion is called Old Media, which examines the post-history – the ‘afterlife’, so to speak – of media such as ventriloquism, cut silhouette, and other media that died off when superseded by other media and have receded from official histories of the visual arts. The other project is on Freud and political authority. I am fascinated by the ways in which political authority reappears, in distorted but inescapable form, in the analytic consulting room. In this sense, my Freud book is, in its own way, also about the afterlife. But as Freud once said, solving problems is a lot like cracking walnuts: It’s easier if you do it two at a time!
What do you do for fun?
I love to cook. I also have a slightly crazy and obsessive interest in wine, although my friends don’t complain about it too much. These pastimes, I confess, are also touched by my intellectual concerns, since food and wine, too, are afterlives of products of the earth. Catching up on old movies on big screens, instead of on television, is one of my major pleasures; you’ll find me at Film Forum or Anthology Film Archives probably three nights a week. I also spend some time every year at the seashore, which is the one place I am able to drift and dream unimpeded, and in Berlin, which is my second favorite city on the planet.
Photo by Diana Pau