Interviews with VCS Founder Mieke Bal
by George Dimock (VCS Class of 1993)
George Dimock: One of the things I value most about having worked with you is the extraordinary gift you have for the close reading of words and images.I remember a brief conversation in which your cautioned me not to disparage the “old” New Criticism but rather to acknowledge its strengths as a resource for more wide-ranging and socially committed forms of cultural criticism. I have become increasingly concerned with the ways in which the current electronic media and academic pedagogy encourage, if not demand, a dispersal of attention that makes deep literacy increasingly unsustainable and outmoded in the lives of young people (Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, would be my primary source here).What role(s) do you see for close reading and deep literacy in relation to VCS in the 21st century?
Mieke Bal: Without knowing Wolf’s book, I agree that close reading is more or less a scarcity today. Perhaps it always was. I always found it disturbing that close reading was so little valued, and dismissed as “formalism.” Of course, the old version of it WAS formalistic, escaping from social reality. But instead of substituting the one for the other, my version of close reading takes social reality (whatever that may be) or rather, social issues, as an important element of whatever form emerges.
I find it somewhat shocking that even in art historical publications, supposedly keenly interested in visuality, figures are often indicated as “illustrations.” This is on the level of the collective unconscious of that discipline: the artwork is only an illustration of the art historian’s argument about, or around it.
There are so few publications that engage me on that level. And yet, only an analysis that engages the artifact in a deep and detailed manner is able to resist its own tendency to overrule the object. For a long time, my rule of thumb has been that no quote or figure must be left to its exemplary function; nor should it speak for the argument. Instead, as soon as one alleges a so-called example, a good strategy is look back to it, and analyze it in such detail that it can actually resist what the writer wanted it to “illustrate.” Only then can we learn new ideas, with and through the object concerned by those ideas. It is actually very exciting to come upon such resistance, qualification, of detailing.
I will always defend such close reading on the condition it takes into the conversation theoretical perspectives and social or cultural concerns as the third partner. Whether or not this will work in the programs such as VCS is not up to me to decide. I can only hope so, and encourage it through publications.
George Dimock: In what specific ways, for better and for worse, have twenty years within the academy, influenced the development of Cultural Studies as a “discipline” that was founded on a premise of “inter-disciplinarity?
Mieke Bal: You know, I don’t really know the answer to this question. It requires more specific knowledge than I have. But intuitively I think it is not true that Cultural Studies has become a discipline; only, it has not developed and cherished methodological reflection on its own inter-disciplinarity. In a sense, I’d even venture to say that it has remained an infra-disciplinary area. My book Travelling Concepts in the Humanities A Rough Guide (University of Toronto Press, 2002) was meant to contribute to such reflection.I care too much for the inter-subjectivity – the democratic access to knowledge – involved in method as a ground to agree or disagree or to take methodology lightly.
George Dimock: On a more personal note, I would love to know what you are working on now and how your own inter-disciplinary program has fared in recent years and since you left Rochester.
Mieke Bal: Long story, short version: I am currently working on a trilogy of short books on the art of the political. In other words, on political art as a possibility, but beyond the thematic. The first one is on sculpture, the second on the moving image, and the third on abstraction. Each [book] places one artist at the center, confusing the genres of the monograph and the theoretical essay. The issue of close reading underlies this concentration on one oeuvre to work out the theoretical perspective. One is in press at Chicago; I just started the second.
But as you know I have also started to finally do what I always wanted: making films. The other half of me is doing that. I have done this now for about seven years. It started with short films on art, how audiences respond to works – a kind of reception-based close reading, if you like. Soon, some event in my surroundings triggered an interest in experimental social documentary. From that early moment on, I have built up a small oeuvre of films and video installations on the questions raised by migration. One of the installations, called Nothing is Missing (2006-ongoing), has been and still is quite successful, and is touring the world, sometimes in more than one showing at the time.
Here, I have just turned another corner and embarked on a fiction film, or rather, a “theoretical fiction.” It’s about madness as a social and political construct and issue. See the website crazymothermovie.com. There are some hilarious video clips there. We are about halfway through. It’s a huge project.
George Dimock: Could you describe your role/involvement in the founding of the VCS program?
Mieke Bal: Michael Holly and I invited Norman Bryson for a lecture. He was so engaging that we felt we could and should try to hire him. But to make the case in a time of budget cuts (nothing new under the sun) we devised the idea of a program that would bind all the disciplines studying visual objects together.
For weeks, Michael and I ran around on campus with a huge black “floppy disk” on which we wrote the outline and rationale of the program. This first phase went rather quickly and easily. Writing the bulk of prose for state approval was a different matter. Persuading the body of senior faculty took a lot. Once the program started, it was great fun to meet with the concerned faculty, titled “program committee.” We did everything, from creating the program, teaching the courses, to selecting the students, including pacifying colleagues who soon turned from opponents into envious onlookers who would have loved to be on board.
My favorite activity was teaching and working with the PhD students on their theses. Of course, it took a while for the first years to actually start writing. My least favorite aspect was holding meetings.
George Dimock: Could you tell us a bit about whether you began your academic career within a discipline (if so, which?) and what attracted you to an inter-disciplinary program?
Mieke Bal: I started out in French literature. Soon, the need for better theoretical equipment turned me into a theorist, specializing in narrative. And when questions started to pop up on generalizability, I took on a body of narratives very different from the modern French literature I had studied so far. It had to be foreign, ancient, and put to different purposes. The Hebrew Bible became my field for a while. The turn to images happened through Rembrandt. I can say that I was not attracted to an inter-disciplinary program; there was none, I needed one, so I created one.
George Dimock: How would you characterize your thoughts regarding Cultural Studies, Art History, and Film Studies? Do you believe that Visual and Cultural Studies encompasses all of the above? Would you characterize your research interests as leaning more toward one of these fields?
Mieke Bal: I find this question strange, in my case unanswerable. I consider “fields” far less important than what actually happens, and that is often between fields. The academic divisions don’t respond to the life of the arts, or other forms of cultural expression; nor do they move with the times.
George Dimock: What projects were you working on at the time of VCS’s founding? How did you feel the inter-disciplinary combinations of Visual Studies and Cultural Studies related to your research interests at the time? Presently?
Mieke Bal: I just started to work on Rembrandt and got too bored by the literature. No one really looked at the images. I feel a bit like all my answers lead back to your question on close reading. An artwork doesn’t allow us to confine it within a grid. For the rest, see my answer to question 2.
George Dimock: Were there any ideological tensions or rifts between the founders regarding the mission/goals of VCS?
Mieke Bal: There were discussions, not rifts. Not that I am aware of anyway. We discussed a lot, in fact, everything from teaching, recruiting, enrollment, to write-ups, administrative prose, and as usually happens, we never had enough time for the discussions of our own work. But we did read each other’s work, which is already something. Politically we were more or less on the same wave length.
George Dimock: Did you at any point experience hostility or skepticism from colleagues firmly entrenched in disciplines before, during, or after your involvement in an inter-disciplinary program? If so, what do you think motivated such behaviors?Do you think, in general, the academy is more open to/accepting of inter-disciplinary programs now than when VCS was founded in 1989?
Mieke Bal: Of course (to the first question). Like all pioneering activity, it pushed people back into the trenches. I find that normal, and even healthy. Having to battle for something sharpens our own ideas. Conviction is never enough. The art of negotiating without compromising what matters most is difficult, but it’s part of the game.
And then there is the backlash. Under the guise of economic restrictions, it’s easy to see that many regroup in favor of disciplinary work. In my current institution, this is in full swing. Administrators find it handier, and pick their advisors among the predictable would-be administrators. I am not at all happy about the way academics sing the politicians’, and worse, the bankers’ song.
George Dimock: What kinds of cultural shifts or shifts within the academy as a cultural/ideological institution contributed to the founders’ mission statement and goals for VCS? Have those initial goals changed/evolved for you individually? Are you currently employed in a disciplinary or inter-disciplinary program or department?
Mieke Bal: If I may be skeptical: there is no significant cultural shift necessary to feel confined by established divisions that only record a moment in time and rigidify it. Among the many influences on our thinking was of course, feminism, which is, as we wrote in our application for state approval, among the most significant intellectual movements of the second half of the twentieth century. But feminism cannot escape history any more than other movements. The struggles within feminism to overcome the white bias in the movement have, in turn, contributed to the current insight that gender, while remaining a key category, is by far not the only one that promotes inequality in the world.
I am currently still employed within an interdisciplinary program (another one I co-founded) but slowly and surely the administrators are getting the upper hand. Only our relative success saves us for now from being absorbed by the very discipline from which we tried to distinguish ourselves when we founded the school: history. And this is not to say we oppose history, on the contrary. But we oppose naïve and exclusivist history, in favor of a rethinking of the history of the present, among other things.
George Dimock: What are your current feelings about disciplines versus inter-disciplinary studies? Did your involvement with VCS contribute to your current sentiments (for, against, or ambivalence about the future of disciplines/inter-disciplinary studies)?
Mieke Bal: I cannot think any other way.
George Dimock: How do you think Visual and Cultural Studies has evolved over time? How do you see it changing in the future?
Mieke Bal: I think it has evolved slightly problematically, developing its own turf wars, dogmas, and alliances. I can’t see it as unified, and that’s for the best.