In the Spotlight: Stephen ShapiroInterview with CAPAS Fellow Stephen Shapiro
Stephen Shapiro is the first ever Professor of American Literature at the University of Warwick (the highest held title at Warwick), and has been since 2010. His research interests focus on the writing and culture of the United States, cultural studies, literary theory and Marxism, world-systems analyses, urban and spatial studies, sociology of religion, television studies, and critiques of mental disease.
What were your first thoughts, when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
Tacheles, my very first thoughts were about the chance to live and work again in Germany, especially after the tantrum of Brexit. But also, nearly my entire academic research has looked at questions of crises, whether these be involving the yellow fever plague in eighteenth century America to the contemporary feeling of multiple converging catastrophes. CAPAS appeared as a rare and vital place to think more broadly about the cultural history of responses to social emergencies.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
Individually, I have been arguing that the return of horror and apocalyptic culture, from movies to costumed zombie walks, is a way for people to express fear and discontent about the erosion of the postwar liberal State’s protections. This is also why we’ve seen the return of something my generation never expected to ever see again, a popular and unashamed far right movement, be it either with Trump or the querdenker.
Horror, however, is also the language in which previously marginalized groups are using to criticize the prejudices of the mainstream. It used to be that horror films taught the audience to be scared of those different from us. Now, so-called normality is seen as the monster.
Post-apocalypse, I think, means trying to think of a better future, but one “without guarantees.” In the past, we imagined different utopias as alternatives. These dreams often had bad consequences. Now we’re trying to be more pragmatic.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve, which questions is it addressing, and with which methods?
At CAPAS, I am focusing on how new data-driven business and government policies are creating a different kind of human identity. German sociologist Jürgen Habermas is known and beloved for championing a society of calm discussion and thoughtful public debate. Is this even possible anymore in a world of social network trolls? If offering your opinion stands as an invitation to fall into a hell of abuse, then how is the university supposed to function now?
My background comes from British Cultural Studies, associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (the “Birmingham School”) where I studied. I combine this with my own involvement with the so-called “Warwick School,” which looks to world-systems perspectives, associated with Immanuel Wallerstein, to help consider questions of culture.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
Professionally, the fellowship is allowing the seeds of long-planted work on social change to flower. It is a commonplace within world-systems approaches that we have entered a chaotic phase, much like Europe in the 1790s. In this turbulence, everything is to play for, everything is on the table as to what will eventually happen. CAPAS is a rare place within the EU to be langfristig, or as they say in the UK, do “blue sky thinking” about the future.
Personally, the apocalypse is nothing new. As a child of the 60s, my entire lifeworld has been “less than,” a feeling of deflation from the postwar boom of my parents and the spirit of 68 of my older sibling. As someone who was active in ACT UP/NY for many years in the midst of the AIDS crisis during my 30s, the phase when one initially begins to have glimmers of one’s self, apocalypse was what we ate for breakfast.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results (personally, career wise, or for the state of research)?
On a small scale, I hope to write and publish some of my research from this time. More generally, one always hopes to alter human consciousness.
What are the aspects you are looking forward to with respect to input from other disciplines, other perspectives and the exchange with the fellows and people at CAPAS?
The overwhelming degree of my academic work has been collaborative and collective. CAPAS exemplifies the ideals that different perspectives make for a better end product. I see CAPAS as a new Bauhaus, a place where different disciplines come together for a gesamtwerk.
Perhaps it seems overly dramatic, but I think CAPAS has begun historically important work. To be part of this, perhaps even as a footnote, is tremendously exciting.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
Decommodification, democratization, and the end to digital surveillance.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse — whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?
I’m on print publication for arguing that Emil Ferris’s graphic narrative, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a work of Moby Dick-level achievement. Only the first volume has been published, but when the second comes out, hopefully, later this year, we all need to cancel our appointments and read it immediately.