The Global Center of Advanced Studies is a daring new venture that has the hopeful audacity to offer something alternative and revolutionary to the imminent stagnation of esoteric academia. There are two renowned voices who agreed to do an interview with me about this new project underway. Enjoy!
Tell us a bit about who you are and what you're up to?
Creston: Jason and I are, like many who made up the Occupy movement, poor academics who completed our PhDs and entered the job market right around the time of the 2007/8 economic crisis: We bore witness to the rapid-fire decimation of traditional academia that's been happening over the last several years in the name of "good financial sense." And when we saw what the academy was being reduced to, we started imagining alternatives and then creating them.
More generally, we're two middle-class white American dudes who believe in the transformative power of love, the struggle for community and the refusal of dispossession, which makes us both freaks by worldly standards. And maybe it was the awareness of this that lead us to think of GCAS as a "global" center rather than a purely "American" center.
Jason: Indeed -- by worldly and/or American standards, we are freaks. While I imagine we were both happy to have been offered positions at elite liberal arts colleges after graduating (I at Williams College, Creston at Rollins College), neither of us were satisfied with the futures we or our students would likely face following the predictable path, especially not in the form traditional academia appeared to be taking following the crisis.
Personally, everywhere I looked it seemed everything I valued in academia, from critical media studies to radical political theory to critical popular education, all were being axed -- it was clear the market would increasingly dictate which types of courses and foci mattered and the others would be left to flounder.
Never mind, of course, that post-crisis employers in the U.S. overwhelmingly affirm critical thinking as the most desirable skill college graduates can acquire! In any case, it didn't take long before I began placing more faith in what could be created anew, collectively, and beyond national boundaries, rather than in fitting into something already existing in the U.S. context, individually.
You were both students of leading theorists. Let's start with you, Creston, you were a student of Zizek, Fredric Jameson, and Milbank. How was your work affected by these figures?
Creston: I started reading Milbank and Zizek at the same time in Fred Jameson and Ken Surin's classes at Duke back in 1997. I saw in Zizek's Sublime Object of Ideology a strange but powerful materialist theology, something that was different from the Marxist Christian matrix put together by the underground group "Slant" formed by the likes of Terry Eagleton and MacIntyre in the late sixties. The book series New Slant that I started with Ken Surin and Philip Goodchild at Duke University Press was named after that sixties group at Terry's suggestion.
What became immediately clear about Slavoj's theological formulations was the radical contingency and fragility that wasn't trying to win the cultural war that has sadly plagued western theology from Roman Catholicism to nearly all forms of Protestantism. In other words, Slavoj's theology wasn't characterized by trying to show that Christian, institutional morality was superior to other forms of living; indeed atheist theology was about dispossession, de-subjective, and far more humble.
So I started writing him about this. After several years of corresponding I invited him to come to a conference I organized in 2002 at the University of Virginia in part based on our correspondence about atheism and Christianity; or, better Christian atheism and its political tendencies.
And Jason, you studied with Virilio and Agamben?
Jason: Well, I also studied with Zizek and Badiou, but I'll get to that -- the important thing is, Virilio and Agamben were of greater influence for me, at least while in graduate school. I was introduced to both Virilio and Agamben by the Canadian communication theorist and phenomenologist Ian Angus while doing my MA degree in 2002/3 at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC.
The first works I read were Speed and Politics by Virilio and The Coming Community by Agamben: between the two of them, my outlook transformed tremendously. The interest and influence has not really subsided in the years since, though my fondness for rehashing/apologia has.
My 2004 MA thesis, for instance, amounted to an extended defense of Virilio's entire ouevre (in the face of his critics), while in contrast, in my forthcoming book, Occupy Time: Technoculture, Immediacy and Resistance After Occupy Wall Street (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) I engage Virilio without reducing everything I put forth to his approach.
Tell us a bit about The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS)? What sparked the idea?
Creston: The Center was put together in early 2013 by Patrick Provost-Smith and me, but over the past two months or so, Jason Adams joined me as Co-Director. In this more recent period, GCAS has taken off with breathtaking force. Both Jason and I have always put on big conferences by bringing theorists, artists, activists, workers, and farmers together to create new connections and address the intersection of injustice and theory, so this is something we already had in common.
At the same time, I realized that the humanities and social sciences in the academy were dying, especially given the pressure from the corporate take over and how the administrators are becoming simple robots to the lawyers and wealthy boards of directors. So we thought: why don't we actually do something about this rather than just sitting around resting on our laurels.
Why is there a need for a new form of educational pedagogy? What is wrong with the current institutions?
Jason: The problem with current institutions, at least in the U.S., is twofold: first, you have elite, private institutions like those Creston and I taught at after graduating (and that he studied at prior to graduating); second, you have popular, public institutions like those that I attended before graduating. In the age of advanced neoliberalism, these are, really, becoming two sides of the same coin, and it's no secret that real thinking and learning happens only rarely in either context.
The elite, private institutions may not be faced with the same funding problems as popular, public institutions, but they are vastly unaffordable for the vast majority, serving largely as wealth-reproduction machines or "feeder schools" for the financial industry.
Of course, that leads me to my next question, the million-dollar question: Is this going to be an expensive school to attend? Finances seem to be a sticky issue across the global landscape of academia. How is GCAS going to set itself apart from what seems to be quite a practical issue?
Creston: The GCAS is absolutely committed to not only providing a free (i.e., non-corporate) venue in which the leading theorists, artists, architects, etc. and students can explore and create new futures and worlds, but we are going to do this by cutting the tuition costs as much as possible -- well below that of elite, private institutions, for instance. We can do this because of the unique infrastructure that we are designing.
We champion a free-form academic structure that doesn't have to expend all types of resources to maintain dinosaur buildings, an army of over-remunerated administrators and a single, territorial place; we are already located all over the planet. Of course we have plans on establishing several collaborative campuses either interoperationally with existing institutions or at some point, our own as well, but we're going to do so using the most efficient and environmentally friendly techniques that draw on the genius of our professors, faculty members, and students.
Philosopher Gilles Deleuze once said: "The fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly (and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered): Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?" -- Has the university become a place where people have come to fight for their own servitude? If so, how will GCAS counteract this?
Creston: Wow, that's a brilliant and insightful question, George. Growing up poor, I have had to fight for everything, and even a few years ago when I got deadly sick and my spouse divorced me, it proved once again that one has to struggle and fight to stay alive. But too often people just settle for the boring, I mean just look at suburbia and you know it's an aesthetic of death. No one actually lives in suburbia -- they go there to die. No wonder it looks like a big-ass retirement community, and all the dogs who speak for humans as they yip and yap at all the neighbors just for walking by. So part of creating the GCAS is actually doing philosophy -- a philosophy of life that refuses death. Philosophy should be about liberation and resurrection and not about conforming to a sad aesthetic society of suburban death that the wealthy colleges and universities only ever reproduce.
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