Building Education for the Commons

GCAS Interviews Professor Kenneth Surin (Duke University)

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.19.36 AMI had the pleasure of interviewing one of my dear friends whom I met as a graduate student at Duke University, Professor Kenneth Surin.  He was the first to expose me to Gilles Deleuze as we read through A Thousand Plateaus.  Ken and I worked together as he, Philip Goodchild and I co-edited the book series, New Slant published by Duke University Press.  Ken also served on my dissertation committee with Slavoj Zizek, Corey Walker, and John Milbank.  More importantly he is considered a leading Marxist theorist from whom I continue to learn and grow.  In what follows is my interview with Ken who succinctly summarizes the basic contours of the debate about emancipatory theory among other things.  I encourage all GCAS researchers to read this piece.  Ken will also be a featured speaker in our first World-Conference, “Democracy Rising” 

The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS)

Creston Davis [CD]:  It seems to me that your work expressed in different fields of inquiry (economics, literature, religion, philosophy) is grounded in every instance in the question of liberation.  How and when did this question of liberation emerge in your work.

Kenneth Surin [KS] Answering this question has to begin by my acknowledging that “finding” something that turns out to be a life-long project– in this case Marxism and liberation– is an undertaking (if one can call it that) accompanied by many missteps, dead-ends that have to be backtracked, missed opportunities, and of course those supremely rewarding moments when one makes some kind of ostensible advance without having any sense that it would have been forthcoming. At the immediate moment of this or that event, so many things seemed, and indeed are, gratuitous or haphazard, constituting in the process a kaleidoscopic and sometimes phantasmagoric reality that can’t really be encapsulated fully in the following paragraphs.

I’ve been “on the left” from the time I was a schoolboy (it had nothing to do with my parents, who were both conservatives), but the way forward from that early untutored visceral leftist affiliation to my work today was not obvious to me at any time, except of course with the sham benefit of hindsight.   I have to say straightaway that I have little interest in literature per se, and that I may read a novel every five years or so. Events that occur in the world around me are always more riveting and represent a more powerful goad to the imagination than any novel.

My initial training as an analytical philosopher had its advantages, as well as many drawbacks, the foremost of the latter being this philosophy’s decided lack of interest in the problematique of liberation. For example, I was surrounded by highly intelligent people who thought that Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (which appeared in my final year as an undergrad in the UK) was completely revolutionary! I turned to religious studies as graduate student in the initial hope of finding a way to combine my interests in logic with a growing fascination with metaphysics of the continental variety. In those days there was no such thing as “theory” in lit departments, and with the UK and US university philosophy departments confining themselves overpoweringly to logical empiricism, it was the people in religious studies who were engaging with Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Buber (one thinks here of Tom Altizer, Ronald Gregor Smith, and John Macquarrie who translated Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit into English). Realizing this, my thesis director, the amiable and benign John Hick, put me onto something called “process theology”, which was/is a horrible bowdlerization of Whitehead’s later philosophy. I ploughed through the stuff in order to get my PhD, writing a thesis on the modal-logical version of the ontological argument advanced by the process theologian Charles Hartshorne. This was a time of pioneering work in the semantics of modal logic done by Saul Kripke and Stig Kanger, followed by the UCLA School of David Lewis, Richard Montague, and David Kaplan, which excited me much more than process theology ever did. But graduate school opened several other intellectual doors as well.

The Birmingham philosophy department, where I ended up doing most of my work, had the Finnish modal logician Ingmar Pörn (later to take up the chair at the University of Helsinki occupied by Wittgenstein’s prized student and literary executor G.H. von Wright, who had succeeded to Wittgenstein’s chair at Cambridge, prior to returning to Finland in 1951).   Ingmar soon became more of an influence on my thesis than John Hick, and as a result he became my thesis co-director.   Pörn (1935-2014), who had absolutely no sense of rank or entitlement, perhaps because he was the son of a farmer, nonetheless imposed what turned-out to be a severe discipline on those of his graduate students who kept late nights, myself included. Ingmar insisted he was at his “sharpest” very first thing in the morning, so graduate students were privileged to have the first call on his time each day, then undergrads, then office hours and whatever admin he had to do.   So you had to meet with him for a weekly one-on-one supervision at 6.30 in the morning, a brutal requirement on a dark mid-winter’s day, since one had to commute by bus to the campus, which meant leaving home an hour before (with the workers at the nearby British Leyland car plant for company on the bus, a salutary experience because they did it every day, year after year, decade after decade).

For the supervision, I usually presented Ingmar with a draft of a fragment of a chapter, or he would prescribe readings in modal logic to be discussed with him.   During this supervision, which lasted 2-3 hours without a break, the huge blackboard in his office in the plate-glass Muirhead Tower would be covered with equations, as the slowly rising sun came through the windows.   One time we discussed the difference, if any, between the being of God and an act of God, and of course he had a string of equations for each, while telling me this had absolutely nothing to do with theology, though theologians could use it if they wanted to. This routine was repeated nearly every dawn with a different graduate student.   After a morning break for coffee, Ingmar did his undergraduate teaching. Lunch followed in the faculty dining room, and having had his office hours after lunch, in the mid-afternoon one or two interested graduate students would be invited to join Ingmar in the sauna at the university’s sports and recreational centre, this time to discuss Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (no modal logic whatsoever was discussed in the sauna). These discussions would sometimes continue at a pub adjoining the campus, though Ingmar would always leave before 8 in order to be ready for those brutal early morning graduate supervisions he so obviously relished (and which’ve remained one of the most powerful intellectual experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have). Thus I was introduced to continental philosophy by one of the world’s foremost deontic logicians.

At the same time I became friends with Rex Ambler, the at times bafflingly eclectic and much loved Quaker theologian on Birmingham’s theology faculty, who insisted in his mildly bemused way that I simply “had” to read Adorno and Benjamin (something very few English academics would make their students do in the early 70s).   David Ford, then in his first job, was also encouraging me to read Barth and Bonhoeffer, even as Dan Hardy was encouraging me in the same way with regard to Coleridge. I was also attending the occasional open university lecture given by a riveting British-Caribbean scholar of cultural studies named Stuart Hall.

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In any event, I stumbled into becoming some sort of theologian, always feeling I was faking it, unable to get an academic position, especially after Thatcher took office and slashed the higher education budget because for her the universities were seed-beds for left-wingers like me (she was right of course, though for us a university was merely doing its job if it produced intellectual opponents to Thatcher and the ideology that came to be associated with her). After a few years as a school teacher in and around Cambridge– pleading occasionally with an understanding head teacher to give me an afternoon off here and there to attend seminars at the university, though I also called-in sick a fair number of times on days when there were seminars!– I got my first academic job. For some time I had been obsessed with the so-called problem of evil, and having argued in a book that this was a pseudo-problem because Christianity always addressed questions of evil and suffering via the doctrine of salvation (and not something philosophers called “theodicy”), I knew I simply had to engage with Latin American liberation theology. After reading Adorno and Benjamin in graduate school I spent the next few years studying Marxism and neo-Marxism (Lukács, Gramsci, Althusser, Raymond Williams, et alia), all done concurrently with the pursuit of a certain kind of theological scholarship, and of course school-teaching. But the theology was starting to recede slowly into the background just after I got my first academic position as a theologian. I was already sensing I had done what I could in theology, that an inevitable limit had been reached where my own work was concerned.

As for economics, I had done it as an A-level in school, and got into my first university to do economics and law (in the UK students begin their major(s) as soon as they matriculate, and law is an undergraduate degree).   The law students around me were generally horrifying and were obviously waiting for someone like Thatcher to come along and bring joy and good cheer to their lives.   I mention economics, though in truth there was none of it, since all we did in that first year was calculus and statistical methods.   Discussions with some older students over many beers in the student union bar revealed that no Marx was ever studied (“Good heavens, don’t you know we do economics here!?”), that poor old Keynes was relegated to an elective seminar in the final year, and that “political economy” belonged to the history of ideas and hence was not something a “real” economist would want to have within sniffing distance. I soon got the recurrent subliminal message (“auf wiedersehen”, “adios”, “au revoir”, “sayōnara”, whatever language one chooses) from the lawyers and the economists, so at the end of that year I changed universities and became a philosopher.   I continued to study economics informally and more or less assiduously, in graduate school and afterwards, but this time as a student of Marxist political economy.

As for the problematique of liberation, which concerns theologians, philosophers, and political economists of specific intellectual persuasions under very different general rubrics (which may however overlap)– “how is one liberated from the condition of sin?” (the theologian), “how is one liberated from exploitation?” (the Marxist political economist), “how is one liberated from alienation and dread?” (the philosopher/psychoanalyst)– all these questions are pressing and urgent for many of us at some point, even if we do not broach them using high-falutin’ intellectual formulations. The questions pose themselves, they solicit pressing consideration as questions—in the popular nomenclature of the 60s we use to call them “limit questions”– even if no answers are forthcoming, or what seem like answers may come to us in the form of what turns out to be a puzzle or enigma that in turn poses yet more questions.

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[CD] When did you take up your position at Duke University?

[KS] I came to Duke University’s Department of Religion in 1987 from what is now the University of Gloucestershire in the UK. In 1993 I moved to the Program in Literature and Critical Theory at the invitation of Fredric Jameson, though I retain a joint appointment in Religion.

[CD]  What do you think are the most important elements of organizing the left today?

[KS] Phew, you ask a question that is a provocation to thought!   But, and here I pause, is it fundamentally a question of organization, or is there something else that has to take place first?   Let’s say from the outset that any form of organization aimed at a counter-capitalist mobilization is to be welcomed without reservation, whether it takes the form of efforts to raise the minimum wage, or to forestall a money-making charter school grab of city schools in New Orleans, and so on.   Every and any form of resistance to capitalism that is not self-stultifying has to be welcomed.

At same time it is clear that the emergence of a “new centrist consensus” (Bill Clinton’s triangulation, Tony Blair’s Third Way, George W Bush’s purported “compassionate conservatism”), coupled with the loss of coherence of the old Left-Right divide, has made anti-capitalist mobilization increasingly difficult.  The urgent need here is for a restoration of this divide, and the abolition of this bogus “centrism”. The previous rationale for this Left-Right divide was supplied by the state capitalism of the Soviet bloc, and the social-democratic parties of the capitalist west.   Both these formations have been swept aside by the rising neoliberal tide, so the need now is for a redescription of the socialist/communist project that appeals to neither of the “grammars” of these now defunct formations.   There can’t just be “one politics” for marxism today: the sites of power in our society, and the complex and shifting movements of force positioned at these sites, are too diverse, too dispersed, to be managed by a politics of the kind that has prevailed in the last two hundred years.   Nothing indicates this better than the clapped-out nature of the mainstream parties in American and British politics– the prospect of another Bush and Clinton being pitted against each other in the next presidential race, the inability of the main UK parties to deal with the challenge posed by the hardly-revolutionary Scottish Nationalist Party (whose most powerful platform pledge is the abolition of the UK’s nuclear weapons, a prospect which sends shivers down the spines of David Cameron and Ed Miliband).

A pluralization of sovereignty is required to make some inroads into the monolithic market-state.   More energy has to be infused into citizenship (as opposed to turning us all into passive consumers), and so we need many more co-ops, community banks and credit unions, proportional representation in countries which don’t have it, community-sponsored daycare, the revival of municipal government, and proper apprenticeship schemes (as opposed to the current workfare).   Above all, Marx’s formula of “the expropriation of the expropriators” has to be enacted—as long as these expropriators exist, the capitalist market-state will serve their interests and not ours.   The CEOs of Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, and the politicians who are amply rewarded for conniving in their rapacity, don’t give a fig for the poor and vulnerable. It is time to put them out of business!

Designed by Stavroula Drakopoulou

Designed by Stavroula Drakopoulou

[CD]  What advice would you give to students who want to further their education in graduate school?

[KS] I’d say to them: please don’t listen to the pessimists who tell you there is no future for the humanities in higher education. In any event, the death of the humanities– which by the way has hardly done many favors for those of us on the Left (!)—whether real or otherwise, may perhaps make way for something better (as the late Masao Myoshi used to suggest with an impish twinkle in his eye). If this is your passion, follow it. But be prepared for the inevitable disappointments and challenges, and be prepared to be changed in so many ways.   Passion alone won’t eliminate the many obstacles facing the aspiring intellectual who wishes to do political work in an academic environment, but it could fuel what the late Daniel Bensaïd called in another context a “slow impatience”.   To develop that “slow impatience”, while acknowledging that there has never been a university anywhere, of whatever ideological orientation, which has had a decisive stake in the emancipation of masses of women, men, and children, is a task fraught with the temptations of capitulation masked as “compromise”, or surrender camouflaged as “collegiality”.   You will soon come under pressure from those on high to project yourself as someone who is “judicious”, “balanced”, and “moderate”– they will pat you on the back and tell you that this is simply conducting yourself “professionally”.   I’m talking here to those who see their intellectual work as being inextricably bound-up with the vocation, at once exhilarating and arduous, of political struggle. I’ve nothing to say to those who don’t view academia in this way.

[CD] What specific research projects are you working on now?

[KS]   Nearly all the projects I’m currently involved in are solicitations, so there is no overall coherence to them.   I have several things simmering away on the stove, and some will probably go cold.   But I hope eventually to complete a bigger project on the above-mentioned redescription of the post-capitalist socialist/communist project that appeals to neither of the “grammars” of state-command socialism or social democracy.

[CD] Thank you, Ken!

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This entry was posted on April 22, 2015 by .
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