Raymond Malewitz is an Assistant Professor in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film. His book The Practice of Misuse: Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary American Culture (Stanford Univ. Press, 2014) explores furniture hacking, hypertext novels, Cormac McCarthy, salvagepunks, ethical design,thing theory, posthumanism, “maker communities,” Margaret Atwood, antimodernism, Chuck Pahlaniuk’s Fight Club, performativity, and many other fascinating subjects. He was kind enough to answer some of our questions in the winter of 2015.

You received a Bachelor of Science degree in English and Biochemistry from the University of Michigan, and went on to receive a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia. From an Environmental Arts and Humanities standpoint, I’m wondering if, and how, your study of biochemistry informed your study of English, or vice-versa.

The 15 years since I graduated from U of M have been dominated by this very question, and I’m still in the process of working out ways of bringing together literature and chemistry.  After college, I worked briefly at an environmental engineering firm in Germany and then spent two years teaching high school chemistry in Houston, TX.  Both experiences taught me some hard lessons in patience that proved useful to my later work in as a grad student in literature.  As a lab worker and a chemistry teacher, I learned that the most important activities in the sciences usually occurred before any research was carried out—that it was far better, in other words, to anticipate problems than it was to encounter them a year into a long-term study or a few months into a year-long chemistry class.  I’ve tried to adopt the same strategies in my research and teaching at OSU.  For example, a few years ago, I decided I wanted to write an article on the chemist-writer Primo Levi, but I knew that I lacked an appropriate method by which to examine his great memoir The Periodic Table.  To address this problem, last year I redesigned a unit of my undergraduate / graduate “Literature and Science” seminar at OSU to put this memoir into dialogue with a variety of possible methods.  The subsequent course conversations resolved some of my difficulties, and the writing process for that article, which is nearly complete, has gone much more smoothly.  Finally as this example also indicates, I am drawn to literary texts that represent the achievements, frustrations, and ongoing questions associated with 20th and 21st century pure and applied sciences. 

 

Your book “The Practice of Misuse” explores ways that people whom you’ve dubbed “rugged consumers” are “creatively misusing, repairing, and repurposing” capitalism’s consumer products as a way of overcoming alienation and turning “passive encounters with mass-produced commodities into active ones.”  Are you in any way a rugged consumer yourself?

I am probably more MacGruber than MacGyver, but I think it is impossible NOT to engage in practices of misuse on a fairly regular basis. These activities rarely call attention to themselves in office settings—I wouldn’t give much thought to propping up a projector with a few books or using a coffee cup as a penholder.  If I did give these everyday misuses any thought, I doubt I’d relate them to mythic models of frontier self-sufficiency, as so many of the characters I study do (though it would be funny to do so), or use them as an occasion to reconsider my generally passive interactions with consumer products.  Every so often, though, I stumble into a situation that defamiliarizes objects in a way akin to moments that I discuss in the book.  For example, I’m in the midst of taking a wilderness first responder course through OSU this term, and I’ve been amazed at the many medical prostheses that can be fashioned from ski poles, foam pads, fleece jackets, and so on.

 

In your article “Regeneration through Misuse: Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary American Culture,”[1] you sidestep the question of “Whether (furniture hacking) subvert(s) or in fact support(s) the conditions of late capitalism.” You dig into this more in your book (“most examples of rugged consumerism conceal rather than foreground the ideological problems to which they respond and thus support or ignore rather than challenge the structures of late capitalist consumerism”[2]), but I’d like to press you a little more about your opinion on the ultimate effectiveness, in terms of EAHI’s mission to help “humankind make the difficult turn toward a more sustainable life on Earth,” of these social critiques.

I refer to practices of misuse as “rugged consumerism” in my book to allude in a funny way to the ways in which repurposing is often framed through the older American myth of rugged individualism—a concept that is as popular as it is problematic.  As the project took shape, I realized that the history of rugged consumerism strongly overlaps with the history of post-1960s libertarian philosophies on the right and the left, which were and are deeply suspicious of any collective attempts to address contemporary problems such as the current environmental crisis.  The shortcoming of this perspective, of course, is that it is naïve to think that the environmental problems of the Anthropocene epoch can be resolved through a bit of Yankee ingenuity.  Thus even those practices of misuse that appear to lead people in the direction of more sustainable living might at the same time weaken any political will to make much more consequential changes at a national or international level.

 

Much of what you write and study concerns “agency,” or the lack thereof, whether it’s American’s struggles with alienation, or how “the human imagination (can) convey the agency of nonhumans.[3]” I’m curious as to the roots of your interest in this issue, and if you tend to approach the idea of agency and structure from any particular school of thought.

I think this question of agency is a (perhaps the) fundamental preoccupation of our cultural moment.  So many schools of thought seem to conclude that human beings are shaped by a set of hidden or partially concealed forces—political, economic, psychological, biological, cultural, social, and so on—that the very possibility of an individual expressing its agency freely and coherently seems unlikely.  I disagree with this outlook, and I express this disagreement by pursuing answers to two basic questions.  First, if individual agency is possible, what are the material conditions within which that agency might become visible?  Second, what happens to an individual’s agency as it enters into relationships with an ever-expanding network of other agencies? Does it disappear into the collective, for example?  My older interest in material culture and my more recent interest in animal agency in literature reflect these preoccupations.  In both projects, I look at events that seem to temporarily break down or suspend the conventional ways that humans interact with objects, animals, and other humans.  At these moments, we might decide to return to conventional ways of thinking about our environments.  Or, perhaps, we might use this surprising, unfamiliar occasion to think of better ways to carry out these relationships.

 

As an Assistant Professor in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film, “narrative” is an integral component of your professional life. How much do you believe our current environmental crisis relates to narrative, or the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves?

Many critics have argued that our environmental crisis is the result of a certain set of stories that we tell ourselves about our world: stories composed of a limited number of characters in particular spaces and times; stories in which meaning is to be found beyond the world rather than within it; stories in which humans are heroes and villains, while nonhumans are symbols or realist backgrounds.  Addressing the problems of the Anthropocene will require changing some of these stories or at the very least pairing them with other kinds of stories that position ourselves within much larger, longer, and stranger narratives.  I hope that my work in some way contributes to this effort.

 

More about Raymond Malewitz can be found on his blog at: http://rmalewitz.blogspot.com/

 


[1] MLA, Vol. 127, No. 3, May 2012

[2] From the dustjacket.

[3] “Narrative Disruption as Animal Agency in Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 60, Number 3, Fall 2014, pp.544-561 (Article)