6 questions to… Neil Badmington

On the occasion of this year’s Histories and Theories of Reading, GEMS welcomes six interesting and inspiring academics: we’ll offer them a coffee, have a chat, and ask the same six questions to each of them.
In December, Neil Badmington (University of Cardiff) visited us. Here is how he answered:

1. What was your dissertation about and who was your supervisor?

My PhD thesis, which I wrote between 1995 and 1998, was supervised by Catherine Belsey and was on the breakdown of the distinction between the human and the inhuman in twentieth-century fiction and cinema. Looking back, it would have made sense to present things in terms of posthumanism (a signifier which went on to be important to me until I abandoned it in 2010), but I don’t think that the word appeared anywhere in the thesis. Instead, I enlisted the work of Jean-François Lyotard to understand the breakdown of the binary opposition as a postmodern development; as my use of the term ‘binary opposition’ a moment ago probably makes clear, Jacques Derrida was also crucial. I was, in short, interested in making sense of what I could see in a film like Blade Runner by turning to Lyotard’s nuanced understanding of the ‘post-’ and Derrida’s recognition that binary oppositions are inherently unstable. I didn’t use the term ‘posthumanism’ in the thesis for two main reasons, I think. First, when I started work on the project in 1995, very few people in cultural criticism were using the word extensively. There was plenty of cyberculture and cyborg envy in the air, yes, but this was still several years before Katherine Hayles’s landmark How We Became Posthuman, which really put the signifier on the map. (I can remember trying to persuade Palgrave in about 1998 to call my first edited book Posthumanism. They were sceptical. ‘No one has heard of the term’, I remember someone saying in an email. But then one of my colleagues, Jane Moore, spotted a reference somewhere to ‘posthumanism’ as a word to watch, and this helped me to persuade the publisher to go with my choice.) Second, I wanted an academic job after the PhD, and having ‘postmodernity’ rather than ‘posthumanism’ on my CV struck me as more pragmatic, as it was not uncommon back then to see advertisements for lectureships which specified ‘postmodern culture’ or ‘postmodern literature’. (How times change.)

People sometimes look slightly puzzled when I say that Kate Belsey supervised my thesis on posthumanist culture, and it’s true that she’s not known as an expert in posthumanism. But what those people haven’t quite understood is that Kate, when she was supervising PhD theses in the glory days of Cardiff’s Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory, was always simply interested in theoretically informed analyses of culture; it didn’t matter that the culture wasn’t Elizabethan and the texts weren’t by Shakespeare. I can’t remember if I ever persuaded her to watch Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I do remember sitting in her office and discussing doubles, desire, and Derrida in the light of the film. In fact, Shakespeare is never the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Kate and her work, no matter how fond I am of texts like Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden, and no matter how fondly I remember going to the theatre with her in Stratford and Bath. If I picture Kate, I hear a single word in my head, in her distinctive voice: signifier. That, I learnt from her, is our business, our domain. And that, I also learnt, is where it all begins.

2. Who do you consider as your master?
(Who (dead or living, real or fictional) taught you the most and/or a very important thing? Who has inspired you, and/or is still inspiring you?)

‘Master’ is a strong term. A rather troublesome one, too. When I hear it, I imagine unquestioning acceptance, the carrying of a card. I also hear ‘mastery’, and I’ve never been interested in mastery — of a text, a bigger body of work, or a theoretical ‘school’. I’d prefer, then, to talk about influence and inspiration. (I’m drawn to the way in which the first term involves that which flows, while the second suggests breathing, life.) I’ll isolate two figures, then: one living and known to me personally; the other dead and a complete stranger.

As my earlier comments probably make clear, my intellectual debt to Catherine Belsey is beyond calculation. (I tried to repay at least some of the debt when Jürgen Pieters and I organised a conference about her work in Ghent in 2007, which then became a special issue of Textual Practice in 2010, but I didn’t even come close. If the relationship could be likened to a repayment mortgage, I’ve barely begun to make a dent in the interest.) I couldn’t possibly list everything that I’ve learnt and continue to learn from her, so I’ll simply single out, in no particular order:

– A commitment to clarity, even when writing about theories which make life difficult for the reader at the level of the signifier. (Even enlisting that phrase ‘the level of the signifier’ brings Kate to mind. As does the term ‘enlisting’, come to think of it…) Take a book like Culture and the Real. There’s some hugely complex theoretical work under discussion in its pages, but find me a sentence of Kate’s which isn’t clear.

– A belief that anything which signifies is open in principle to analysis. My heart sinks when I hear academics in English departments telling their students that Stephen King, for example, is not ‘literature’ and is therefore not suitable material for discussion. I’m not a fan of Stephen King, and I have no desire to read his work, but why on earth would I want to deny someone else the opportunity to do so within the space of the university? What kind of narrow, petty, reactionary mind would work in such a way, and to what ends? If something signifies, it’s suitable.

– A resistance to mimicry of ‘the master’s style’. I don’t think that we really need another book or article on Derrida, say, where the prose apes Derrida’s. I admire much of Derrida’s style, and I adore Barthes’s, but I don’t see why discussions of their work need to be stylistic imitations. (Such things always look like pale imitations, too.)

My other great influence and inspiration is Roland Barthes. As I mentioned earlier, my PhD drew heavily upon Lyotard and Derrida, and I think that this is probably also true of many of my early publications, especially those concerned with posthumanism. Barthes certainly mattered to me in those days (he’s present in Posthumanism and Alien Chic, for example), but he’s become far more important in my work in the last decade or so. This is all the fault of your very own University of Ghent, actually, and more specifically Jürgen Pieters, who invited me to speak at a conference on Barthes that he organised with Kris Pint in Ghent in 2006. I’m still not quite sure why he asked me to come — the other speakers were people with formidable reputations specifically in Barthes studies (Claude Coste and Andy Stafford, for example) — but sitting and rereading hundreds of pages of Barthes in preparation for the event was the beginning of a refocussing for me. (Derrida is still important to me, as is Lyotard to some extent, but I now think of them as background figures.) What draws me back to the late Barthes above all, I think, is his attention to ‘the magic of the signifier’, to nuance, to all that is light and delicate. His restless invention and reinvention. Drift. Then there’s the unclassifiability and the mischief. And the style, of course — that elegant, seductive style. (We often call him a ‘theorist’ in the anglophone world, but ‘écrivain’ is much closer to the mark in so many ways.) Barthes knew a thing or two about the seduction of the reader with only the signifier. When I open something like Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, I’m his.

3. What’s the relation between history and theory, according to you? Could you imagine writing about theory without writing a history simultaneously?

That first question is a big one! I’m not sure that I know to answer it, really, but I’ll do my best. ‘Theory’ to me means French poststructuralist theory. (I know that there are other forms of theory, of course, but they hold little interest.) Something I take from theory in terms of history, then, would be History as the antidote to Nature. (I’m using Barthes’s capital letters.) If any discourse which presents itself as natural, as eternal, as obvious, as common sense, can be shown to have a very precise history, then nature loses its hold on how we think and act. That’s what we read again and again in Mythologies, of course, but also in something like Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish or, more recently, Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests. (Garber is another critic who knows how to seduce a reader with style.)

Can I imagine writing about theory without writing a history simultaneously? Again, I’m not sure that I know how to answer, but one way to respond would be to do so in personal terms. When Jürgen invited me to this session in Ghent — a session in which several pieces of my own work would be under discussion in my presence — I found myself looking at my CV and trying to decide which texts to nominate. Theory runs all the way back to the very beginning of my career, but everything that I published before 2010 now strikes me as juvenilia, as a collection of pieces which I’d rather forget and have discarded from the Library of Babel. The kinds of questions I was interested in asking up until that year, and asking with the help of theory, no longer interest me, no longer strike me as worth discussing. To put things another way, those posthumanist debates in which I was involved for the first decade or so of my career now strike me as historical. I said everything that I had to say, and it was time to move on to something new; I needed to make those theoretical reflections my own history, rather than my own present or future. I don’t think that posthumanism itself is dead, of course — people like Cary Wolfe are still doing fascinating work in the field, and it’s not as if humanism has gone away — but it’s dead for me, dead to me.

4. Digital library/archive or the real stuff?
(or both, of course, but in that case I would like to know your ideas about the interaction between the two)

I’ve never done any genuine archival work so I’ll confine my response to libraries. I understand completely what digitalization makes possible, and I’ve often turned to electronic versions of, say, Barthes’s writings in order to track down in seconds an elusive phrase which would have taken days to find if I’d only had access to print. But, for all my posthumanist past, I refuse to embrace the digital. I need the bodies of books, their shape and their scent. I don’t want my entire library in a single, slender device made of sunshine; I don’t want waves and radiation. I want a physical presence which invites me to bend my way of living to its stubborn bulk. My own history is bound up in the volumes on my shelves, too, because I always write the date on which I bought a book inside its front cover, along with the place. Pulling one at random from the little working shelf which sits on my desk, I can see that I bought Barthes’s Camera Lucida on 4 November 1993 in Exeter, which is where I studied as an undergraduate. My handwriting looks childish, naive. I’m suddenly reminded of lost time, of being in my early twenties, of a period of textual awakening which is unthinkable to me now. A Kindle couldn’t do that; a Kindle is not a madeleine.

5. Which novel are you reading right now, or which is the last one that you have read?

I try to maintain a firm distinction between my working and non-working lives. I have never been interested in, or been capable of, remaining an academic everywhere and at all times. For me, it’s a job, not a life, a way of life, a calling. I don’t like it, for instance, when I’m waiting to collect my son from school and another parent in the playground asks me about my latest book or essay. This, to be absolutely clear, is not because I think that non-academics wouldn’t understand my mighty works of genius; nothing could be further from the truth. It’s simply that I don’t think of myself as an academic when I’m not in a seminar room or sitting at my desk with my pen in my hand, writing. Such questions about works in progress, then, are being asked of the wrong person, the wrong Neil Badmington. I’ve often wondered if, for this reason (and also because I have a ludicrous surname), I should publish under a pseudonym.

That preamble arises from the fact that I’m usually reading two novels: one for work, and one for non-work. These two regimes of reading rarely overlap; I don’t teach the things that I really love. I will, therefore, answer your question by telling you which novels (plural) I’m reading at present.

For work, I’m tackling Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark. I’d read about Lispector for years, notably in the work of Hélène Cixous, but had never got around to making direct contact until one of my PhD students decided to devote a chapter of his thesis to the novel in question. He very kindly gave a copy to me as a gift, and I’m making my way slowly through its unsettling prose. Slowly is the right word, too: I can see that I’m still only on page 86, and I must have been reading for at least two months. This isn’t because I dislike what I’m reading; it’s simply that it’s difficult and often baffling; it makes certain demands upon the reader.

For non-work, I’ve just this evening started Ali Smith’s Artful. I’ve been meaning to try something of hers ever since I read a draft of a wonderful essay by my colleague Becky Munford on Hotel World. Other things somehow got in the way, however, as they tend to. But then fate intervened about a week ago. I was in Brighton to examine a PhD thesis at the University of Sussex, and my hosts took the (successful) candidate and me out for dinner in the evening. Not long after we’d sat down, the candidate’s supervisor said that when he’d last been to the restaurant, Ali Smith had been sitting opposite him, in the chair which I was now occupying. (She’d given a talk at the university, if I remember correctly.) As she’d warmed the seat for me, I thought it only polite to buy one of her books to express my gratitude.

6. What is your unrealized project? (inside or outside academia)
(a project that you would like to realize one day, be it realistic or not)

For many years I’ve been making notes for a campus novel — a vast, bitter, vengeful campus novel. I’m very fond of other texts in the genre — David Lodge’s Small World, Jane Smiley’s Moo, Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind, and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, for example — but have felt for some time that we need a fictional account of just how staggeringly insane higher education has become in contemporary Britain; the problems described so brilliantly by Jacobson in the early 1980s, for instance, are not quite the problems of 2015. I even have a title, which I’ve borrowed from one of Thomas Bernhard’s vitriolic sentences: Unpardonable Idiocy. But a problem has come to cast a shadow over this ‘preparation of the novel’: everyday life in modern British universities is now so breathtakingly ludicrous, it’s already the stuff of wild fiction. There is nothing I could say in a novel which would be more fantastic than the idiotic reality. And if I tried to tell the truth — if I did something in the style of the early Tom Wolfe’s ‘new journalism’, for instance — I doubt that anyone outside British higher education would believe me.

by Britt Grootes