The program started in a literal broom closet across the hall from the department’s offices. [Myself], my TA, and five students could barely squeeze in. Between the first two semesters, most of our equipment was stolen. It was not an auspicious beginning.
You had already a long career before establishing the program at ACTLab, which in many ways seemed to crystallise your different interests in sound technologies, computing, performance and not least, in radical cultural theory. Could you tell us more about what led to the formation of ACTLAB and also about its early phases? Who was involved and how did it develop?
ARS: I came to the ACTLab by way of the History of Consciousness program at UCSC (at which I took my doctorate while studying with Donna Haraway) and just about every department at UCSD, where I taught for several years while I was still ABD [“all but dissertation”].
Donna had suggested that I visit UCSD to sample their new Science Studies program, and perhaps to act as a bridge — to be a kind of representative of HistCon, and to try to establish some sort of exchange program whereby Science Studies students might spend some time in HistCon to broaden their understanding of subjects like Critical/Cultural Theory which were absent from the UCSD program, while HistCon students might spend some time at UCSD getting a better grasp of how traditional Science Studies worked.
This began when I cold-called the Science Studies program from Donna’s office, and was surprised when the director of the program answered. I told him my name, and said that I was interested in being an exchange student for a year, and he asked me what department I was in at UCSC. I looked at Donna, who shook her head and mouthed “Not HistCon”, so I said “What department are you in?” “Sociology,” he said, and I came back with “What a coincidence, I’m in sociology too.” This wasn’t a complete lie; I’d been taking sociology courses and working with a sociological research institute, and HistCon students were encouraged to develop a disciplinary interest more intelligible to the everyday academic than HistCon was, as a kind of epistemic camouflage. So the next thing I knew, I was in San Diego.
The part which is relevant to the ACTLab begins there, because through a series of missteps and unfortunate incendiary interactions with the Old White Men of Science Studies, I managed to get myself thrown out of the program and instantly rehired as faculty. From that felicitous position, over the course of the next few years I taught a variety of courses across many departments — anthropology, sociology, political science, English, history, an experimental program called The Making of the Modern World — I was like a kid in a candy store, and when I wasn’t teaching I was hanging out at Don Norman’s nascent Cognitive Science program or the physics labs, or [witnessing] the wonderful things being done by the Border Art Project. There were rumors of a tenure line opening up for me, and it was in that heady climate that I suddenly found myself being headhunted by the University of Texas.
Donna was in close contact by email, and, as my advisor, was counseling me on what to do. Being Donna, her comments were measured, meticulous, and thorough, and my fellow fledgling scholars seemed to be unused to similar levels of attention. One evening while I was responding to one of Donna’s emails, a colleague came up quietly behind me and began reading aloud her instructions off the screen. “Weigh carefully each of these alternatives,” he intoned, in his best epic cinematic tones. “My god, it’s Jor-el instructing Kal-el! Why don’t I ever get this level of caring from my advisor?” Why, indeed.
I didn’t want to leave San Diego. Donna said “If they offer it, take it”, and while I was mulling that, I received a call from an old and highly respected academic friend who said bluntly that if I didn’t take UT’s offer, she would personally fly down to San Diego and strangle me. With that kind of incentive, I didn’t have much choice; so the next thing I knew, I was in Austin.
Various departments there had hired some very interesting people, taking some risks in the process, since those people didn’t yet do things that were intelligible to a traditional department. Gradually we discovered each other with help from Yakov Sharir, the head of the Dance program, and we discussed starting an interdepartmental interdisciplinary thing of some sort; Yakov encouraged us and arranged for us to have common office space so we could rub up against each other more often. We studied each other’s work and thought about how we might bring about some modification of the university’s teaching structure, which, as it stood, was quite hostile to people from different departments co-teaching courses. We began to discover other academics at other institutions thinking along similar lines.
Then came the purges. Every single department that hosted one of those promising but untenured young scholars kicked them out. It was a shock of seismic proportions. Within a year, I was the only one left standing. We had gone from a campus peppered with young brilliant faculty doing weird interesting things, to… me. I surmised that I escaped only because no one bothered to notice that I was there.
Let me back up slightly. When I was hired, my department gave me a brief: word for word, to “drag the department, kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first century”. For a junior faculty member still wet behind the ears, that is a very large order. For the first year or so I simply mulled it over, and allowed myself to become caught up in the general excitement of those promising scholars who were discussing the future of media and pedagogy and were about to be sacked.