Reading an interview with Zizek linked to at Pop Theory got me thinking about the interview format. Zizek comes off looking even more like a court jester than usual here. Partly that is his intention, to subvert the desire to create a hagiography of him. But part of it also is the format, the jump-cuts from idea to idea, the hard-hitting questions about Lady Gaga, his musings about a “Virginia Woolf burger.” He presents as a buffoon. Whatever Zizek’s quality as a thinker and a scholar, he is in no sense at his best here.
The same could be said of David Foster Wallace in David Lipsky’s book about his “road trip” with the author in 1996, just after Infinite Jest was released. Lipsky’s book consists almost entirely of a transcript of the audio tapes he made while interviewing Wallace over the course of several days. While there are a few gems scattered here and there, for the most part what Wallace says is pedestrian. It is in striking contrast to the fecund intellect and exhilarating writing in his fiction and essays. At one point Wallace even worries how poorly he is articulating his ideas in the interview and wishes he could write his responses instead.
I do six or eight drafts of everything that I do…If we’d done this interview through the mail, I could be really really really smart. I’m not all that fast. And I’m really self-conscious. And I get confused really easily. When I’m in a room by myself alone, and have enough time, I can be really really smart…I don’t think I’m quite as smart, one-on-one, with people, when I’m self-conscious, and I’m really really confused…one reason I’m uneasy about these interviews is I know that I’m a lot more talented alone, when I’ve got time, than I am in the back and forth of this…(Lipsky 2009, p. 218).
Really. Despite these very real formal limitations, however, many of us tend to treat interviews very much like any other piece of work by an author. Foucault is the most obvious example. The interviews are part of the corpus. I have treated Ranciere’s interviews this way. But reading Wallace talking extemporaneously in a rental car drinking a diet Pepsi and chewing tobacco made it clear to me just how different this format is. If it can make someone like Wallace sound run-of-the-mill, it is clearly a different animal. Even if scholars typically have a better conditions, like more time to think, shorter sessions, and edited transcripts, they are still working much more off-the-cuff than in their written work and lectures. Moreover, interviews are not solo projects, but collaborations with other people. Foucault’s interview with the Maoists is a good example. He concedes all sorts of stuff there that is surprising, to say the least, such as when he seems to agree with the Maoists (p. 26 of Power/Knowledge) that in the revolutionary struggle the proletariat must lead everybody else, and that the unity between proletariat and non-proletariat must be enforced by a revolutionary state apparatus. Yikes. It seems more than plausible that to an extent he was humoring them, or playing a role he thought they expected of him, or was even just trying not to hurt their feelings.
Plato believed we are composed of three different parts, each struggling to direct our life. Nietzsche agreed, though he thought that we are not just three but a whole multitude of different wills, that we have a whole social order inside us. Deleuze and Guattari too. If they are right, then every person whose work we encounter is multiple. There are many David Foster Wallaces: the scintillating one, the generous one, the petulant one, the genius one, the depressed one, the lazy one, etc. The one that emerges in interviews tends to be not the white-hot intelligence of Infinite Jest but a humble, kind, and pensive man. The interview Zizek is a clown. The interview Lefebvre was oblique. The interview Foucault, it seems to me, tended to be playful and ironic and attentive to the desires of the interviewer.
I am sure I am not the first to consider this question, I just thought it was worth thinking through a bit, to register a reminder that we should pay attention to the context in which someone is offering their ideas, and to not judge the tangled mass of wills that is Zizek or Foucault or Wallace only by what they say in interviews. And maybe I even want to say that we should give these texts less weight than work that has been thought through, especially when they are done in the context of a publicity junket (as were the interviews with Zizek and Wallace). But even when they are ‘academic’ interviews, they are still significantly warped by this hagiography function. Because let’s face it, when we interview people in academia, partly what we are doing is beatifying them. And the weight of that function can’t help but have an impact on both participants in the dialogue. Interviews have their use, they can reveal things other formats can’t, but on the whole I wonder we engage them a bit more than we should.