Working Out What's True and What Isn't: An Interview with Gerry Canavan

Elizabeth Haslam, "The Calm After the Storm" 2012

Elizabeth Haslam, "The Calm After the Storm" 2012

As an open-access internationally peer-reviewed academic journal, it should come as no surprise that Praxis believes in the importance of scholarship generally, and of writing center scholarship in particular. We are dedicated to sharing our authors' contributions to the long effort involved in improving our grasp of the situation in which we find ourselves as scholars and as writing center staffers, and we believe that effort includes attention to the institutional and social landscape in which writing centers and scholars exist. Toward that end, today Praxis Managing Editor Thomas Spitzer-Hanks discusses how data, ignorance, and instruction traverse the divide between individual and institution with Gerry Canavan, assistant professor at Marquette University and editor of Science Fiction, Film and Television (Cambridge UP, 2015) and The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction (2015) with Eric Carl Link. In addition to his work on science fiction and critical theory, Canavan also works in transnational American studies, literature and popular culture, and ecological humanities, and has been recipient of the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Fellowship for Undergraduate Instruction awarded by Duke University. Praxis would like to thank Dr. Canavan for his time.

1. Dr. Canavan, as a scholar interested in speculative fiction and as a public intellectual in the Internet age, you spend a fair amount of time thinking and writing about where we, meaning humans as a species but also academics as a profession, are going. Additionally, much of your work notes that there's a general pessimism about the future. Do you share that pessimism? Do you think we're locked into a technologically, environmentally and philosophically unsustainable future at an institutional level? Why?

That’s a very hard question to answer. It’s certainly true, I think, that most attempts to imagine the future in our moment are fundamentally depressive; the dominant paradigm is a sense that the party seems to be winding down. (As Tony Soprano put it in the first episode of The Sopranos, we all seem to have the feeling that we’re coming in at the end of something, rather than at the beginning.) My position, following familiar names like Jameson, Zizek, Mark Fischer, and others, is that this is because we can all see that our current socio-economic order is propelling us towards environmental catastrophe, but we don’t believe the terms of capitalism can ever be modified or changed—so there’s nothing to do but hunker down and hope that the worst of the inevitable collapse happens after we and our children and maybe our grandchildren are all dead. To me, it’s this last part that’s the real tragedy, because the pervasive sense that we are hopelessly locked into a system we can all see is about to go over the cliff is itself the fantasy. We could very easily change the way we live to an ecologically rational, sustainable paradigm, and it wouldn’t even be that painful—we just don’t do it, and maybe won’t, even as the bottom falls out. The apocalypse is a choice that the obscenely rich people who rule us have deliberately and calculatedly made, and continue to make every day.

2. I agree with your characterization of our response to the future as generalized fatalism, but I'm surprised by your description of easy and relatively painless change. Given the stakes of the game - human existence, first of all, and a continued unfolding of human potential as the concomitant of that - and the current ways in which capital circulates between institutions and the small number of people who have a measure of control over those institutions, I find myself reacting with suspicion to such a sunny assessment. What is the source of your confidence in the possibility of change, and what makes you think that characterizing that change as easy and not all that painful is reasonable?

I think we’re talking about slightly different things. When I say that the change to a more ecologically rational lifestyle could be easy, I mean to say that if we took seriously the crisis and devoted our resources to addressing it it wouldn’t be that painful. (The estimates for what it would take to seriously combat climate change, for instance, are still on the order of a few percent of global GDP.) Our civilization has tremendous surplus capacity that it basically devotes entirely to waste, much of that to further enrich people who are already inconceivably wealthy and/or to perpetuate the security regimes that protect that wealth. If we devoted our resources instead to fixing the ecological crisis we would be able to make those changes while maintaining the global standard of living to which we are now accustomed (especially if we’d started that process of transition when the first indications of the coming disaster became recognizable decades ago – we’d practically be done!). The problem, as you suggest, is political: our institutions and the people who control them have no interest in making any of those changes, and in many cases refuse to even acknowledge that there is a problem at all. So nothing gets done.  

I’m an optimist, perhaps, about what technology can do to keep the project of human civilization going – what fills me with dread is the fact that the world’s governments are built out of constitutional orders that make no sense in a twenty-first century context, and which are completely bloated with gerrymandering and malapportionment, veto points, and opportunities for graft, which the obscenely rich have used to stymie all progress towards making our society either ecologically or economically rational. We need new institutions – democratic, academic, journalistic – that make sense for the world in which we actually live.

3. In an introduction to a special issue on ecology and ideology you've written that "[I]gnorance has become the ground for our relationship with Nature," and you go on to detail some of the ways in which we don't know or fail to predict things about our effect on the planet. Many of your examples - the Deepwater oil spill on the Gulf Coast in 2010, perpetrated by British Petroleum, the Massey coal mine disaster that same year, and the terrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - don't seem so much like actual ignorance as they do examples of people in power choosing ignorance. Can you expand on the role of this chosen ignorance, both in the wider society and in academia? Is there something about your work that you hope is mediating or somehow counteracting this pattern of interested ignorance? Also, what is the role of this information everyone is ignoring, and the people that produce and publicize it, in this pattern?

I would perhaps draw the distinction between denial as a psychological coping mechanism and denialism as an ideology. We know from many different studies that human beings are very good at rejecting, minimizing, or outright refusing information that makes them unhappy or disconfirms their beliefs; we need better strategies for educating people that account for cognitive biases and maladaptive, motivated reasoning. But denialism is something different: that’s the pseudoscientific political-media ecology we live in that aggressively deprecates real knowledge in favor of faux-objective debate, infotainment, obscurantism, and deliberate lies. Presidential campaigns, for instance, focus essentially zero attention on the environment when by any rational measure it is a five-alarm fire, the most important political issue of any of our lives; the last election cycle had something like one question on the environment in dozens of debates, and it was asked as a novelty by a cartoon snowman. And when mainstream media and political sources do discuss the environment, it is almost always to introject doubt that climate and ecological sciences are accurate, typically through sources that they know or ought to know are illegitimate. (Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes’s Merchants of Doubt is a really stunning examination of this point: they show that climate deniers don’t simply use the same techniques as those who disingenuously defended tobacco, in many cases they are literally the same individuals.) 

Colleges and universities, operating outside the traditional market economy, at least potentially pose a counterforce to this kind of denialism—though academia has been largely coopted by the same sorts of forces and in many cases has itself been transformed to promote the denial industry as well. The independence of the university, which is now under such fierce attack, is precious in no small part because it is one of the few entities we have with the institutional authority and material resources to combat the widespread ignorance that so much of the rest of our society inculcates.

4. I find your distinction between denial as a psychological mechanism and denialism as an ideology very useful. It strikes me that there remains some overlap - people using denialism for their own purposes will probably be assisted by patterns of individual denial in audience members, especially in specific debates like those centering on identity or the environment - but it also seems that you're implying that denialism has become something more than a rhetorical technique. While there remain plenty of people knowingly using denialism for the purposes of avoiding regulation, for instance, there's a larger social problem that has to do with our relationship to information and learning. Do you think our ability to engage information, both individually and as a society, has atrophied as a result of a sort of paradigmatic denialism? If so, how can we look forward to change when the thing that ought to drive it - data - is so distrusted? Also, can you unpick what you mean when you say that academia and the university operate outside the traditional market economy? How is higher education divorced from capitalism when it serves such an important purpose as a gatekeeper for other, capitalist, institutions, and what does the independence you would preserve for the university look like in theory and in practice?

This is a huge problem and I wish I knew how to solve it. It definitely seems that our major interaction with information has the form of (I love your phrasing) “paradigmatic denialism,” a tendency accelerated by media forms that promote it and by the open Internet, which allows people to confirm or disconfirm any proposition essentially as they choose. There is a need for a return to something like “expertise” – we need better ways to legitimate, promote, and confirm expert knowledge. But (as always) that doesn’t mean simply trusting the elect, either – we need a paradigm for knowledge production that is open and transparent and democratic but also responsive to academic ideals about good faith, honesty, confirmability, rationality, mutuality, and so forth. It’s difficult because the media and academic systems we have today are so perfectly maladaptive: our brains are prone to cognitive biases like wishful thinking, confirmation bias, and backlash effect already, and the information channels we use just makes these kinds of mistakes that much easier.

It’s hard to know how to combat these tendencies or how to turn around the ship, especially when (as you say) the space that ought to be working against these bad tendencies is actually fully captured by capital. Academia, in an idealized form, really can be an actually existing anticapitalism: its knowledge workers are responsive, in theory, not to the market but to what is true and what is not. Part of the reason norms like academic freedom emerged was precisely to insulate academia from capitalism, and allow knowledge production to happen without interference from market pressures or rich benefactors. Academia never existed in such a pure form, of course, but that was the idea at least, and what we’ve seen in the last few decades of privatization and neoliberalism from the administrative classes at universities is the total destruction of that crucial (if only ever partial) independence. Now we’re told that the only purpose of the university system is job training and credentialism – whereas before this was only one of its goals, or even something more like the university system’s public alibi. The idea that knowledge is a good in and of itself is anathema in the current political climate. 

What I think we should do is divert resources away from police and prisons and tax cuts for billionaires and spend money on preserving and growing the university system as a producer of knowledge. Science can’t be done in the market; it has to be done in an enclave where, as best as we can manage it, knowledge can be produced independently of the desires of wealth.

5. You write a lot about universities and colleges in transition, many of which you argue, as you're doing here, are becoming more corporate in response to various pressures including, but not limited to, budgetary strictures. You've also gone on record via Twitter as being deeply dubious about 'the Commons' as a value-neutral concept. What do you think 'the Commons' means, and what are its politics? More specifically, do you think that there are clear connections between the defunded university and this emerging interest in 'the Commons' and in Open Access to scholarly work, and how would you characterize those connections?

I’m in favor of “the commons” as an ideal, certainly. My objection to the way this idea has been generally been promoted in the academy is the way that the attraction to the commons has been weaponized in the service of what amounts to an enclosure movement: junior scholars’ desire to spread and share their work gets turned into new norms that hurt their ability to work, usually for the financial benefit of some for-profit entity. I think you’re talking about some of my tweets about open-access dissertations.

Obviously I support the ability of researchers to access each other’s work—but what we are actually talking about is universities using their authority over finishing graduate students to coerce them to sign one-way contracts so ProQuest can sell access to their work without their input and usually without them receiving any sort of benefit at all. That’s not the commons; that’s a fire sale at gunpoint. In many fields this is the work they will need to publish as a monograph, if they get on the tenure track—so they find themselves in a race with themselves, hoping to revise quickly enough that they can beat their own dissertation to press (and with only a one- or two-year embargo they almost certainly won’t). MA students who go on to get PhDs are now often told that they won’t be able to use their own master’s theses in their dissertations, because they are owned by ProQuest now. It’s obscene. And this supposed ethos of “openness” is spreading into other modes of academic publishing now too. 

If you want to transform academic publishing—and I do, as we all should—this is not the way to do it. Senior scholars could use their relative security to promote alternative, genuinely open-access publishing models—but for university systems to simply mandate that junior scholars sign their work away to for-profit corporations, for free and to their own detriment, bears no real relationship to “the commons.” The claim that it does is simply a way to moralistically shift attention away from what is obviously an unfair deal for the junior scholar by pretending it’s some utopian political ideal.

 6. Praxis certainly wants to transform academic publishing, and we put a fair amount of work into making sure we do so in a sustainable, reflexive way. As an open-access journal that allows authors to retain copyright to their work we're confident that we're not stealing anybody's intellectual property, but as editor I'm not always confident that we're doing everything we possibly can to transform academic publishing. Obviously it's more than an individual scholar or a single journal could hope for, but if you could change academic publishing in three ways tomorrow, what would they be and why? What are the biggest problems in our current system of knowledge-sharing aside from the forced population of the Commons?

I think my three changes with respect to publishing specifically would be open-access (both with respect to the economics of the thing but also with the sense of being public-facing and popularly accessible); much faster; and multi-modal. The larger problem than any of these, though, is the fact that the crisis in academic employment has left junior scholars utterly panicked, and incentivizes the worst impulses towards “big impact” issues, rapid turnaround, cutting corners, and out-and-out dishonesty. This is part of what I was saying earlier about the market breaking the seal of the university and distorting its procedures; when your scholars don’t know if they’ll have a job in two years or two months, of course the scholarship they produce is going to suffer accordingly.

 7. I'm also interested in what you say about how education needs to change in response to denialism and the ways it has formed the "political-media ecology we live in." What might some of these better strategies for educating people be, and how can they account for the cognitive biases and maladaptive, motivated reasoning that come along with denialism? Do they involve a complete overhaul of our educational systems and of the ways we share information? Also, do you think there might be a possible downside to an educative process that overrides cognitive biases and motivated reasoning? It sounds like such a powerful pedagogy that there would be immense responsibility resting with the instructor, and the power relations in the classroom could be dubious.

I can tell you that I’m terrified of sending my daughter to school in the current regime, where everything is directed towards accommodation to standardized tests (almost always produced by the state or by its designated for-profit agents). I think we can plainly do a much better job promoting curiosity, rationality, and independent thought by returning to the more diversified and more relaxed educational regimes of earlier decades, as well as by attempting to create “anti”-schooling structures that nurture independent learning, experimentation, and play. 

I’m not as nervous as some about power relations in the classroom. In some sense it’s baked into the cake: students are there to learn from a teacher who is there to teach. What we should be focused on is what is being taught and how it is being taught, and in preventing abusive practices from authority figures. It’s tragic, I think, that kids go into school so curious and eager to learn and quickly learn to hate the place – learning is one of life’s deepest and most abiding pleasures and the fact that our schools make their charges so miserable is strong evidence that our models are all wrong.

8. As a literary critic you work closely with texts, and much of your work with fiction could be characterized as interpretative and qualitative. However, you also write about events happening in the world, both in your academic work and on your blog, and much of this work I would characterize as quantitative, or at least data-driven. What is your relationship to data? How do you use it in the multiple aspects of your work, and do you find that there are situations in which data isn't useful or even becomes an accession to a hostile or exploitative rhetorical situation?    

I like facts, I like data. I think you need these things to make good arguments, and would probably say that both “the left” and “the humanities” are sometimes anti-data to their peril. What’s bad about data is, first, how easy it is to manipulate and how hard it can be to detect the manipulation once you’ve done so; second, how seductive it is to leap from the mere presence of supposed “data” to huge conclusions that are not supported by that evidence; third, how the size and scope of “Big Data” is sometimes mistaken as a theoretical grounding for interpretation, when in fact you still need a theoretical basis to make sense of the data you have; and fourth, how the use of this kind of Big Data is closely linked to new norms of total surveillance that promote both state and corporate control of our lives. Perhaps especially because I don’t have formal training in mathematics or statistics beyond a undergraduate-level math minor, my role in looking at data seems to be in trying to promote what I see appropriate skepticism around the way these things are used. I guess I would say that data helps us think, but that it shouldn’t be mistaken for a completed thought.

9. I absolutely agree with you that anti-data bias is common in the humanities and on 'the left.' In fact, my training as a feminist scholar involved a fair amount of using doubt as a heuristic device and asking of any given argument: where does this break down? How can I invalidate this argument? I think this has to do in part with the influence of specific philosophical traditions as they've influenced left-leaning scholarship, and I think the effects have been more generative of scholarship than activism. I also think some of what you're saying about the complexities of your engagement with data goes back to an earlier response you gave to a question about chosen ignorance, and the ways in which denialism marks our engagement with information. As a highly-educated university professor with some mathematical knowledge you remain deeply wary of data and feel that your primary role is to promote skepticism about the rhetorical uses of data; the 'completed thoughts' that data can generate seem to be the outcome of a hugely complex process with plenty of pitfalls; given all this, do you personally have a heuristic for dealing with data and data-driven arguments that goes beyond skepticism?

What I try to do is not take things at face value, especially when it comes to the way science is reported by the media. I try to figure out what the studies are saying by reading the study and understanding it as best I can from the perspective from a non-expert, paying particular attention to the limitations of its applicability. (Oftentimes, of course, what you really need to be skeptical of is how news aggregator sites and clickbait journalists misreport and distort results.) It’s also important to remember that science doesn’t progress by single studies, but by multiple confirmations. The best we can do is to try to keep the multiplicity of science in mind and not fall into the trap of confirmation bias, and to not turn every breaking press release into ammunition for the forever war against our political enemies. As infuriatingly slow as academic publishing sometimes is, there’s still something to be said for going slow, and taking time to understand what is and isn’t being said. Working out what’s true and what isn’t takes time.

Praxis would like to thank Dr Canavan again for his time and responses.