Today, we bring you another fascinating conversation as part of our “5 Questions” series that brings you up close and personal with our wonderful community here at UT. Dr. Randy Lewis is an associate professor in the American Studies department and also serves as graduate student adviser.
What have been your favorite projects to work on and why?
Really I could say all of them and it would be accurate. I enjoy making music videos as much as writing books in film studies. I like making documentaries as much as crafting new courses. What I like best are the projects that allow for collaboration, something that breaks up the endless sitting and staring that goes into crafting a book, which can make you feel like you’re a forest fire look-out alone in the treetops.
Collaboration is the ideal, but when I work alone, I find a different sort of pleasure. I like trying to pin down something that has never been pinned before. I like trying to describe an idea with as much precision as I can muster. I like trying to account for the ghostly passage of an idea through our collective imaginations.
And I certainly like the process of making something. Like most people with the good fortune to labor in a creative field, I go into a pleasurable zone of suspended animation when I work on something absorbing—time stops, sounds are muffled, and nothing exists except the re-arrangement of words and images on a screen. It may sound like I’m drinking too much cough syrup in the wee hours, but it’s really what psychologists call a “flow” experience. In some ways, Final Cut Pro is ideal for this mindset in which nothing else exists, just you and the screen and an endless puzzle. But you can also get it with a legal pad and a fountain pen—it’s nothing new for people engaged in the creative process.
In this sense, I relate to “process” artists of the seventies: scholarship is a craft in which the process is as important as the product, although the latter gets most of the praise and honor. Maybe I should write a book that no one would read: Zen and the Art of Bibliography Maintenance. I’m kidding, but only sort of. The process of attentive listening, digging, and sorting makes you who you are. In other words, scholarship should not simply be the insatiable drive for “product” that is easily measured. We should also appreciate how the intellectual process sharpens our ethical, political, and aesthetic selves, and does so in a manner that has subtle but significant benefits for the way we live with ourselves and others.
How do you see your work fitting into larger conversations in the academy and contemporary society?
I’m interested in the democratization of our cultural life at every level, but most especially in how documentary expression can serve as a site of affective engagement, political mobilization, and aesthetic pleasure, often at the same time. For example, Marlon Riggs’ 1994 film, Tongues Untied, is a beautiful work of art that invites us to feel a connection to a community (gay African American men) that was traditionally disrespected or ignored in the mainstream media. Rigg’s film invites our empathy, compassion, and understanding, which lead to other forms of solidarity essential to a democratic culture.
Using the interdisciplinary freedom of American Studies, I try to speak to scholars in multiple fields at once (Native American Studies, film studies, anthropology, media studies, cultural history, American Studies, English) and even to a broader public when I can. I’ve been interviewed on national radio programs about my research, and a film that I co-produced has aired on television in New York City. And yes, I blog like every other primate. I haven’t yet started to tweet, but am delighted by what I see on the new AMS twitter feed.
Although I believe we can influence the larger conversation out there, I sometimes worry about being heard in a country so mesmerized by “Dancing with the Stars” and the Hitler channel. Still I remain hopeful about having an impact through writing and teaching. I have a high degree of idealism about intellectual work in general and the role of careful, critical teaching in our culture. I’m not delusional about the scale at which changes might occur, but I am confident that scholars can add something beautiful and important to what we know about the world.
Are there other projects, people, and/or things that have inspired your work?
YES. So many. I’m immensely reactive and recombinant at some deep level—-one of my heroes is Robert Rauschenberg, the Port Arthur boy who took this principle and made it genius. I need to see what other people are doing, especially artists, philosophers and creative writers (which can include scholars). I love the push-pull between art and interpretation, artist and critic, text and scholar. I don’t like thinking in a vacuum.
Specifically, I’m inspired by the artists who combine art and politics into Molotov cocktail of conceptual destruction: Tom McCarthy, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Kara Walker, David Shields, Spike Lee, Banksy, Sacha Baron Cohen, Guy Debord. The truth-telling comedians like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Ziggy.
What is your background as a scholar and how does this background inform and motivate your current teaching and research?
I came from a literature background way back in olden times, and worked in the Ransom Center with some very smart people. My paternal grandparents were poor Anglo-Irish immigrants who had made me curious about the world that they had fled in the 1930s, and as a weird result, I had found myself working on the cultural history of their time and place (although in a form they would have found unfamiliar). I suspect that I was part of the last generation to enter adulthood with a kind of spooky reverence for the early 20th century modernist canon. Joyce, Eliot, Stein—they came up with a spectacularly creative responses to human existence in a very grim epoch, and they seemed to register certain kinds of suffering that had torn the bark off my family tree.
But these modernists had also run away from head-on politics in a way that I found appalling. As I got further into my twenties, I wanted them to descend from their creative isolation in “Axel’s castle,” as Edmund Wilson put it, and change the world—or at least protest a little more vociferously. Writing in 1931 about Proust, Wilson bemoaned “the spoiled child of rich parents who has never had to meet the world on equal terms and who has never felt the necessity of relating his art and ideas to the general problems of human society.” That was, as the centerfolds say, a real turn-off for me.
And that’s when I ran into Emile de Antonio’s radical documentaries and said, Ahh…. You can be an artiste engage: creative and political and accessible and challenging. Holy smokes… And it was in this spirit that I went flying toward documentary film some twenty years ago, when very few scholars were paying attention to it. I sensed that we needed to understand how creative nonfiction could get up in the national imaginary and move the furniture around in interesting ways. What happens in the realm of nonfiction was (and is) important cultural work. And we’re in a documentary boom right now: it’s everything from a salacious corporate product called Reality TV to a quiet little art form that allows for contemplation and philosophical nuance. At its best, documentary is an independent counter-discourse to the mythic delusions of the mainstream media. It’s the collective conscience for the age of electronic media.
What projects would you like to work on in the future? In what directions do you imagine taking your work?
I just finished a book that took a long time to write and quo vadis is an interesting question. I’m really inspired by some projects that seem to blend creative nonfiction, thick description, and cultural geography in ways that are mysteriously powerful, especially in their evocation of certain places and certain intensities. I’m also very curious about the ways that we’ve learned to accept greater degrees of surveillance, including self-surveillance, and am looking for ways to track this phenomenon through our contemporary cultural landscape. And I even have an ill-formed interest in Texas as a place. Part of it comes from living here, and part comes from the accidents of ancestry. My mother’s family has been in East Texas since the 1830s, but because I grew up in New Jersey muttering “dems” and “does” on the skeezy Asbury Park boardwalk, I feel like I don’t quite belong here, at least not as much as I wish I did. On the other hand, maybe that complicated insider/outsider status makes me a better observer. We’ll see. I’ve also got a number of video and art projects on the agenda. And I’m working with some colleagues to build an app related to cultural geography and art. Lots ‘o’ stuff.
If you had to describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say? (bonus question!)
Supercalifragilisticinterdisciplinariadocious? Oh, that’s one word… one terrible, terrible word.
It’s a hard question—a slightly amorphous interdisciplinary enterprise doesn’t lend itself to easy encapsulation. But I can riddle you this: What could be more interesting than digging where you stand? Digging is a powerful metaphor at multiple levels, hinting at everything from archival diligence to stoner existentialism.
So dig this: perhaps American Studies is a bit like Dig Dug, star of the sublime 1980s arcade game that rewards you not just for digging straight down through the dirt, but also for burrowing laterally and blowing up heavily pixilated dragons (aka “Fygars”). In American Studies or any other interdisciplinary field, you always have to dig down and across to score serious points: it’s the essential interdisciplinary maneuver. Just watch out for Fygars.
 See, for example: Katie Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, Duke University Press, 2007.
Dr. Lewis has been with the Department of American Studies at UT since 2009. His books include Emile de Antonio: Radical Filmmaker in Cold War America and Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker.