Willing to Be Convinced: An Interview with Matthew Wolf-Meyer

This post builds on the research article “Our Master’s Voice, the Practice of Melancholy, and Minor Sciences,” which was published in the November 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Ned Dostaler: Can you say a little bit about how you became interested in twentieth-century alternatives to neuroscience and perhaps contextualize your Cultural Anthropology article in terms of your larger project? Is there a connection between this project and your past work on sleep (e.g., Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine and Modern American Life [Wolf-Meyer 2012])?

Matthew Wolf-Meyer: During lunch with one of the neuroscientists I’ve worked with over the last decade or so, we were talking about a book he had recently found: José Delgado’s (1969) Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society. This friend had found the book accidentally, as he was working in a lab where they developed brain implants that relay information from the experimental subject to a computer about the subject’s sensory experiences. The implants would also allow the scientists to send electrical signals to the subject, potentially controlling its behavior. They were working mostly with cats, but Delgado had developed a similar contraption in the mid-twentieth century that he used on everything from chimpanzees and cats to bulls and humans. My friend and I were both mildly surprised that we didn’t know of Delgado and his work earlier, and that the modern lab had reinvented the technology with no knowledge of its ethically problematic past.

About a month later, I was having lunch with a psychiatrist I had worked with during my sleep-related research, and he asked the question that appears in “Our Master’s Voice,” namely: whatever happened to psychoanalysis? He had been trained in the 1970s, and really saw his cohort as the last group of American psychiatrists trained in both neurologically derived psychiatry and psychoanalytically informed studies of character and personality. These two questions about the history of neuroscience and its contemporary practice got me curious about what else had been forgotten or erased from the history of American neuroscience and psychiatry and what we might be living through again, unknowingly. So, in that sense, there’s a very direct connection with The Slumbering Masses: I’m tracking ideas that inform everyday practice and knowledge production in contemporary neuroscience and trying to make them legible to clinicians, researchers, anthropologists, and popular readers.

The book project that my Cultural Anthropology article was spawned from is working towards a genealogy of what I refer to at the end of The Slumbering Masses as multibiologism: a conception of human variation as being an inevitable feature of our species, requiring institutional adjustments that allow for nonnormative physiological experiences. So, in the case of sleep disorders, we often see insomnia as the inability for individual sleep schedules to fit with normative orderings of society (e.g., school start times and nine-to-five work times), and this places the burden on the individual to meet these institutional demands. One way some people are able to do so is through medication. But we might also think about how institutions could be reorganized to allow for a variety of sleep schedules: why not allow some students and teachers to start their school days at 11 a.m. and end at 5 p.m.? That kind of model works in some kinds of labor (mostly elite, white-collar jobs, where we call it flex time), but it could be exported to other institutions to mitigate a variety of nonnormative physiological experiences. This new book, and I’m unsure of its title because I’ve been working on it for so long, works on elaborating the philosophical underpinnings of multibiologism by looking at the history of disciplines related to neuroscience—especially psychiatry, cybernetics, and psychoanalysis—and pairs this history of multibiologism with institutional histories of nonnormative institutions and individual and family histories of neurological disorders to think about what other kinds of models we have for the organization of society, conceptions of the individual, and remedies for disabilities. But most of that is not apparent in my Cultural Anthropology article, which is why I think of the article as a supplement to the book and not part of it.

ND: Why Deleuze and Guattari? Was it clear to you, on your first reading, that they would serve as a critical source of inspiration for your own scholarship? When did you first read them and how has your relationship with their texts changed over time?

MWM: I first read A Thousand Plateaus (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) as a Master’s student in the American Culture Studies program at Bowling Green State University, not because it was assigned to me but because it had been assigned to some friends and they were having a hard time making heads or tails of it. I was pretty immediately seduced by the project, which might have to do with my undergraduate Great Books training, one that leaned heavily on psychoanalytic and Marxist theories of textual analysis. A Thousand Plateaus felt like a capstone to that Great Books and humanities education—I had also done a Master’s in science fiction studies at the University of Liverpool by that point—and it employed all of these texts that I had already encountered in provocative ways. But through my graduate training I was drifting towards the social sciences because I was more interested in ethnography than textual analysis, and by the time I started my doctoral work I was a little surprised to find that Deleuze and Guattari weren’t very widely read among cultural anthropologists. They often recede into the background of my work, but the influence always seems to be there.

Reading Deleuze and Guattari as an anthropologist—and this is something I presented on at the AAAs a few years ago and should write up as an article—is sometimes jarring, in part because their engagement with anthropology is pretty dated, despite their interest in developing a philosophy and set of theories that exist outside of time. What I suggested in that AAA presentation is that any anthropological engagement with Deleuze and Guattari—and especially with their use of empirical sciences, like anthropology—has to let go of facticity and instead accept their use of ethnography in the development of figures of thought. In that way, they’re really generative to think with and to read ethnographies with: doing so moves ethnography away from presenting just another case study to presenting a model system of social organization that a particular community uses to systematize their everyday lives.

All of that being said, I don’t think that Deleuze and Guattari—especially their conjoined thinking—is amenable to anthropology more generally: they’re working toward posthumanism and might even be construed as antihumanist, which could produce some strains between their theoretical apparatus and anthropological applications of it. What is really vital in their work is their ontological flatness—they treat everything with equal weight, whether it’s historical fiction, ethnography, psychoanalytic theories, and on and on. Their approach is really antidisciplinary, and it serves as a good corrective to disciplinary methodologies that really prize one approach or kind of evidence over another. These days, more than anything else, I rely on their antidisciplinarity to motivate the work that I do, since I don’t always find participant-observation to be sufficient when it comes to explaining complex phenomena.

ND: Much of your article focuses on the pedagogical efforts of your Lacanian teachers, Arturo and Nev. Did your analysis of Arturo and Nev’s pedagogy impact the way that you teach anthropology?

MWM: One of the challenges for me in my Lacanian training—and this comes through in the article—is that the pedagogical structure of the classes and the education, more generally, was so different than anything I had encountered that I often found it deeply frustrating. Nothing was more frustrating than the expectation on the part of my teachers that the students had not done the reading and that—if we had—we understood it so poorly that it needed to be rehearsed in real time in the classroom. It may be the case that students are underprepared or lack understanding, but I tend to give my own students enough credit that I assume they know what they don’t know—or, at least, they know that there might be something they don’t know and are open to learning about it. In the article, I discuss how the teachers’ pedagogical efforts actually backfire and lead to the perpetuation of psychoanalysis as disenfranchised in the contemporary United States. A different pedagogy might achieve much different ends, but, as I suggest, that might prove troubling for individuals who are invested in psychoanalysis as a minor, disenfranchised practice.

One of the repercussions of my psychoanalytic training was giving my students even more credit for their knowledge and capabilities, which is difficult in the modern classroom, as enrollments keep rising and students, parents, and administrators are eager for outcomes. It has led me to take more seriously constructivist approaches to education and learning, which are sometimes difficult to extrapolate to a large classroom. Yet I increasingly feel like it’s an important thing to do in order to counter tendencies of passivity. Rather than be cranky about students using screens in class, I’m more interested in finding ways to get them to use their screen as part of a collaborative educational project—and to get them to start thinking about how to use their screens differently. This is basically the opposite of the psychoanalytic training I received, which presumed that we were starting with blank slates each week as students and that it was the duty of the educator to fill that slate up with Lacanian thought. It’s political to me to resist the assumption and reproduction of passivity in education, which may have been part of why I bristled at the pedagogical technique of my teachers. Shouldn’t we be fostering the sense that individuals know things already? That they can gain knowledge that builds on existing schemas? That they can be educated in ways that change the world for the better?

ND: In the article you offer a detailed account of a conversation that was spurred by Lacan’s question “What use has the university been?” Arturo says, “If you want to radicalize your students, you turn them into Freudians, into Lacanians!” Do you think that is what Arturo and Nev were attempting to do to you, to radicalize you into a Lacanian? Did they have any success? Do you think there is any role for the radicalization of students in university settings?

MWM: I’ve always been drawn to the classroom because of its political potential. I think students can be radicalized in the sense that a good educator can give students new ways to think about the worlds they inhabit and make, and that can lead to significant societal changes. The same perspective leads me to do the kind of scholarship I do, which is often focused on popular topics in an attempt to get readers to think differently about taken-for-granted phenomena like sleep or neurotypicality. That said, there is a real ethical need to give students ways of thinking and things to think about that are generative of worlds that we are interested in making. I’ve always been ambivalent about Lacan; the closest I’ve ever gotten to appreciating him was through Slavoj Žižek’s (1991) Looking Awry, and that might be because I like Hitchcock’s films more than Lacan’s system of thought. My psychoanalytic training really led me to appreciate Lacan less, particularly because of his misogyny and conservativism, but also because his system of thought perpetuates ways of understanding kinship, individuality, and society that I find troubling.

There is some merit in teaching students theories that are flawed, particularly to get them to think through the theory and understand the flaws for themselves. So I don’t think I was radicalized by my psychoanalytic teachers—at least not in the way that they had hoped—but I’m sympathetic to their interests in radicalization and that made me empathize with their pedagogical project, despite its shortcomings.

ND: What are you reading lately, whether in anthropology or otherwise? What excites (or troubles) you about contemporary anthropology?

MWM: These days I’m intentionally not reading scholarly work, which is a point I get to when I’m working on book-length projects. I protect myself from being derailed by not exposing myself to new stuff, because I’m easily swayed into engaging material that isn’t necessarily within the ambit of what I’m working on. So, to be frank, most of my reading time is spent reading comic books and children’s books. I write about both from a scholarly perspective and so it’s not totally unrelated to the work I do, but it’s more often for enjoyment than for strictly scholarly purposes. I have a deep, abiding love of superhero comics, which I’ve published on before (Wolf-Meyer 2003, 2006) and hope to do so again, but most of what I look forward to reading these days are less about superheroes and a little more experimental for the medium: Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals, Bob Fingerman’s Minimum Wage, Kurt Busiek and Ben Dewey’s The Autumnlands, Ed Brubaker’s Velvet and The Fade Out, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s The Manhattan Projects. The list goes on.

In terms of anthropology these days, I’m really hoping that someone will rally to defending humanism, which is so vital to anthropology but seems to have fallen out of vogue, at least in any theoretical way. Given the recent sway of science studies and posthumanism among cultural anthropologists, it really seems time to come to a robust defense of the human and human empiricism, if not human exceptionalism. It won’t be me; I’m not a particularly good humanist. But I’m willing to be convinced. With the recent history of post- or antihumanist theoretical approaches, it seems that a new approach to humanism could really be productive, if for no other reason than to give anthropologists something to debate. A strong theory of humanism could give anthropologists the public voice that some seek, and would really make anthropology central to many contemporary debates. Anthropologists need to get back to thinking about “human nature” and not cede that ground to the evolutionary psychologists. I’ve begun to try and elaborate something along these lines, particularly in relation to what we think about as natural sleep (Wolf-Meyer 2011), but it needs to be a bigger conversation and it could be something that really spans the subdisciplines. My personal inclination is much more posthumanist —or, really, antihumanist—which motivates the project on neurological disorders and multibiologism, since I’m working with the pseudoethical system that Deleuze and Guattari have so imprinted on me, and which I extrapolate from Spinoza.

ND: What you are currently working on?

MWM: Most of my time these days is spent parenting our six-month-old and four-year-old, which means a lot of watching human development in action. When I have time to focus on my research, I’m working on finishing the book on multibiologism and neurological disorders, as well as getting a new project off the ground on the history and contemporary use of human shit in medicine. That project starts with my recent interest in fecal microbial transplants (FMT) and extends back to the late 19th century to think about how race, medicine, and capitalism work together to produce normative bodies—from our microbial colonies up to our social collectives. Much like The Slumbering Masses, it moves back and forth in time, from ethnography to archival and textual analysis, to tell a long story about how shit and health work together and how both are based in ideas about normative racialized bodies. I presented an early piece of this work at the 2014 AAAs, which focused on CDC and FDA debates about the standardization of donor fecal samples and how that relates to the capitalist interests of American pharmaceutical industries. The other stuff focuses on elimination communication and American attitudes towards childcare and shit, the American marketing of regular bowel movements, the epidemic of pediatric constipation, and Kellogg’s historical interest in the gut and colon.

If the neuroscience book follows one strain of The Slumbering Masses—specifically, the multibiologist project and its implications— the book about shit follows what I refer to as the biology of everyday life, the ways in which physiology and social life connect and shape one another. Psychoanalysis is pretty unavoidable in that project, since Freud’s project veered so closely to my own; he was fascinated with the relationship between biology and culture. But I’m hopeful I’ll never have to go back to psychoanalysis school . . .