2023 - Spring

Swiss Landscapes, Modernism, Nostalgia, Politics and All That Jazz: MUSE’s Interview with Matthew Scully

Authors: William Flores and Roxane Kokka

Image: © Nell Wasserstrom (Matthew’s wife). Matt enjoying an éclair in Paris.

Roxane: Hello, Matt! Thank you for accepting this interview with our magazine! It’s an honor for us to interview a new staff member and especially someone who seems to be interested in so many different disciplines. It’s quite fascinating!

Matthew: Thank you, the pleasure is all mine!

R: Could you tell us a few words about yourself? Where are you from? Where did you study and how come you ended up here?

M: It was sort of a strange process getting here. I’m from Connecticut in the US, a very small state between Boston and New York, the major landmarks in the area. But I did my bachelor’s in Montreal at McGill, where we had a bilingual university environment. And then I did all my graduate work in Boston; my master’s at Boston College and my PhD at Tufts. With its 200’000 students Boston was a great space for academics and for university life. As for UNIL, I saw a job advert on Twitter of all places! I think it was after a colleague from the Netherlands posted about it. I had a great experience with the interview process and with getting to know the faculty and, since I was offered the position I decided to take it. That was about a year ago. I think I arrived in mid-February last year.

William: Was it tough for you to leave the US?

M: In some sense, yes. I do miss Boston and a lot of my friends and colleagues who are there, although with things like Zoom and social media it’s easier to stay in touch. But other than that the transition wasn’t too hard. Everyone in the department has been really wonderful and welcoming. So, the shift from teaching in Boston to teaching in Lausanne has been fairly smooth. And my wife, who is also an academic, had already been in France for a year and a half, so I was already familiar with the European academic system. In terms of bureaucratic procedures, however, like health insurance, it took me a few months to truly get into the system, but once I got that settled, it was much easier.

R: So, did you also move with your wife who lived in France?

M: Actually, I was commuting from Boston to Paris about once a month, more or less, and I would also spend a few months over the summer to max out my tourist visa. This is the first time I’m living in Europe for a longer period.

R: And how do you like Lausanne, so far?

M: Well, I didn’t know what to expect at first but I’ve really enjoyed it. Now that I’ve settled and figured out all the bureaucratic procedures, it’s been great! I’ve been exploring Lausanne and taking advantage of all the things to do around, like hiking and the wine country, which has been a highlight! I’ve really liked it so far and, again, the department is truly fantastic and I’ve enjoyed getting to know all of my colleagues! Having people here to talk to and meeting people in Geneva as well, developing all those connections has been nice and helpful. All these friends and colleagues gave me recommendations for things to do and see in Switzerland, so that has kept me quite occupied.

R: Was there anything in particular that stood out to you?

M: When I first arrived, after landing in Zürich and taking the train to Lausanne, that moment when we came out of the tunnel by the Lavaux and I saw the Alps, and the lake, it was all so comically beautiful… Especially because it was such a perfect day and I felt kind of jetlagged and confused! That has really stood out to me. Now I live close to the center and I like to run along the lake and it’s still stunningly picturesque. I love the landscape throughout Switzerland, especially after having been in a place that isn’t quite as stunning.

R: I also love the views here! I like to run in the vineyards while looking at the landscape and then I get all distracted and go “oh, wait, I have to take a picture!”

M: Totally! Do you stay at the lower levels or do you go up?

R: I live further up, so it always goes up and down, but it’s fun!

M: Yeah, I’ve personally stuck to the flat parts…

R: You appear to have a very large range of interests from visual arts, to music and politics, psychoanalysis and, of course, American literature; so, I was wondering, why American literature, specifically? Is there a particular reason?

M: That’s a really good question. I actually came to American literature late during my PhD. In fact, throughout my master’s I was working on British literature and focused on British modernism in particular. But then, for a series of reasons, something about American literature made more sense to me and I also started shifting to the contemporary sphere. I think partly my own reading led me to contemporary American literature, but also some of the questions that come up with American studies and literature that seem open to a very diverse set of texts. It just seemed to fit better with my own theoretical interests.

R: According to UNIL’s website you are currently working on a new book on several different topics. Could you tell our readers a little more about it?

M: Sure! I have just signed my official book contract with Fordham, so the manuscript will be done in June and scheduled to appear next spring. The book is about democracy and democratic anarchy. The motivation for the book was to see how the word “democracy” in the US is now used both on the Left and on the Right, but for completely different purposes. The word has become an empty signifier and can mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean. So, part of the book interrogates this language confusion while also recovering the core principles of democracy, such as equality and freedom. That’s why I make the link between democracy and anarchy, as the latter keeps open questions of equality and freedom where democracy, as it is deployed in the US political discourse, forecloses those ideals. It’s a politically motivated book, but most of the main texts are literary with a few exceptions, such as a visual art piece and a couple of references to film and some political speeches. The goal was to find through these texts a discourse on democracy that resists the status quo of mainstream politics and social organisation. At the same time the book is kind of messy in the sense that democracy is also messy. I bring in several topics and types of literature and theories, and link references from the 19th century to the present, for instance. It’s a big bag of materials and questions.

R: That sounds very interesting! Do you have any other passions or projects aside from your academic ones? We were wondering precisely because you have so many different academic interests.

M: Yes, I think a lot of academics have their scholarly interests blend and bleed into their personal interests. So, for instance, I love going to museums, but at times seeing art ­– or reading even – feels like work. But I also play music.

W: What instrument?

M: The guitar, but I don’t have a band or anything over here.

W: Over here?

M: I used to in the States.

W: What kind of music did you play?

M: Mostly jazz and blues. I was trained as a jazz musician, rather than a classical one. But, my PhD program kind of destroyed the practice routine that I had, so I can’t play as well as I used to. But I still try to keep up with jazz and blues music. That’s my main interest, but I also enjoy running, hiking and swimming. Although, I couldn’t swim in the lake with this temperature…

R: I do understand what you mean by your passions and scholarly interests intersecting. I could be reading a book or be in a museum and suddenly get an idea for a university paper. It’s fun, but sometimes it would be nice to be able to enjoy these passions without that mental load.

M: Absolutely! It’s really hard to read and then not have the urge to grab a pencil…

R: I happen to be very curious about what people wanted to be when they were growing up, so I was wondering, what did you want to be and who were your role models?

M: That’s an interesting question! I can’t tell you much about my early childhood, because I can’t remember early role models or desires, but I definitely went through a phase of wanting to pursue music as a profession, all the way through high school. I had this idea of making a living as a professional musician. But when I started my bachelor’s I decided to major in literature rather than music. It was a last minute change. As for role models, I’m kind of old-fashioned in terms of music, so I modelled my playing on Jimi Hendrix and other artists from the 1960s and 1970s who would combine jazz principles with blues and mainstream rock!

W: Speaking of the 1960s and considering your interest in the relationship between art and politics, what are your thoughts on the rise of nostalgia in music and film?

M: Nostalgia is a very tricky concept… My knee-jerk reaction to this 90s revival I’m currently seeing, which was an era I grew up in, is a bizarre experience. It’s alienating for me to see the 90s in a nostalgic way. It certainly was three decades ago, but to me it feels much closer, so I don’t perceive it as an object of nostalgia. Whereas the 1960s truly represent for me a distant past that I have no personal connection to, so it becomes more of a detached object of interest. But it seems like everything is destined to come back at least once in some form. And I know that nostalgia can have some negative connotations with conservative politics, such as nostalgia for an idealised past that never existed. On the other hand, there’s nostalgia for remaking things of the past, like from the 1960s, to keep alive some of the possibilities that seem to exist in that space… Nostalgia always appears to be operative and it can be pushed towards a conservative pole or a more progressive pole, or even just a neutral one. Perhaps it also draws attention to the idea that nothing really is new. We’re always recycling and reusing things from the past. Going to college in the mid-2000s, I can tell you that the music of the time was clearly inspired by the 1980s; like the big synthesizer was back and bands like Arcade Fire were becoming popular. So, that 1980s sound really came back with a vengeance. It strikes me that there seems to be this recursive structure, especially with objects like media and music. I guess this wasn’t really a sophisticated answer but more a rambling of sorts…

R: We’re here to pick your brain, so any thoughts you say are interesting to us!

M: Thank you!

W: You said that as a society we tend to recycle old ideas and that it’s normal. Does that mean the current nostalgia we see for the 1980s and 1990s is not a symptom that we have run out of ideas as a society?

M: That’s a good question. I think there are two versions of it. On the one hand there’s a more pathological and vulgar form and on the other just a normal kind of recycling. In film it always struck me how repetition is built into the medium. But when I look at Disney Plus, every day there seems to be another Star Wars series, so it seems that repetition has intensified. Now, I haven’t watched these series, so they could be great, but maybe there is a difference between recycling older forms to make something innovative and interesting with them and then a more vulgar and market-driven approach, where we just reuse old stuff because it’s gonna sell.

R: I also feel that the part about recycling just to sell is certainly a thing. I think that familiarity plays a role in it. It seems to me that people often like staying in their comfort zone and therefore seek to watch something they’re already familiar with. But the other kind you described is a phenomenon we see in art history too: there have always been movements that drew inspiration from the past while adding new features.

M: Yes, it’s like the modernist mantra by Ezra Pound; “make it new”. But, of course, he does not suggest throwing away the past. Rather, we should salvage what is useful and reconfigure things. I think it’s an interesting synthetic and dialectical process.

R: Yes, kind of like Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made art. Take what is already there and give it a new meaning.

M: Yes! That is indeed a great example.

W: But speaking of this desire to take something which already exists and make something new, do you think that people in the past, especially in the second half of the 20th century, had more hopeful ideas for the future? Because when we see renderings of how people imagined the future in the past, the future seemed pretty bright. We don’t really see those grand, retrofuturistic visions anymore.

M: That is an interesting point. It makes me think of that often misattributed quote, I think by Fredric Jameson, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”. There’s something about the post-70s world and especially post-70s America where neoliberal structures became so entrenched and successful that it becomes quite difficult to imagine an alternate form. But perhaps Afrofuturism is an exception, as it tries to imagine alternate future societies and social organisations. In that sense I find that sci-fi and fantasy remain quite alive. I think they work hard on imagining a future that is not as bleak as the one we’re constantly inundated with and that is authentically different from the status quo. I guess it’s more difficult to imagine that today than in the late 20th century, just because of the normalisation of the neoliberal logic.

W: Do you think that the current crises, such as global warming and the COVID pandemic, are signs that capitalist structures are reaching some kind of breaking point?

M: I always like to think so, but capitalism is insidious and it strikes me that every crisis appears to be a means for the economic system to reconfigure and reassert itself. Remembering the 2007-2008 financial crisis in the US, it really seemed like an opportunity to disrupt finance capitalism, but it just ended up reentrenching it. But there is hope, I think. In my teaching experience I’ve noticed that ecological concerns have become more and more important for students in the last years. But crises themselves are not enough to change the system.

W: You’ve previously mentioned anarchism. Do you think there are things that we can learn from anarchist modes of organisation?

M: Yes, I think that the decentralisation of anarchist organization is really appealing, especially in the US, where anarchism has a much longer history than Marxism. Although it kind of moved into the background in the 20th century, it came back with movements such as Occupy Wallstreet and Black Lives Matter. I think avoiding a big central organization is helpful, because they tend to be hierarchical and thus to reproduce inequalities. With mutual aid, anarchism can bring solidarity in interpersonal relations as well as in bigger political movements. It’s not an all-or-nothing situation with anarchist groups. From what I have learned in Boston, they are also quite open to questions and avoid slipping into dogmatic ways of thinking. There’s also a Marxism vs. anarchism dispute, but that’s another topic… But in general, anarchist groups seem to have a more ad hoc approach to organization and resistance, with a willingness to experiment. That kind of inventiveness and improvisation probably leads to more long-lasting change as well.

R: I agree, I believe you need to have the courage to test new things and think outside of the box in order to move forward.

M: Absolutely! I also think that anarchist protests can be quite funny as well which can be useful in some cases.

W: Right, are you familiar with Murray Bookchin’s work?

M: Yes! Although not as much as I should be. I do know about his social ecology theory. But what I can say is that it seems like a lot of what is going on today is the conjunction of fields, which is why I love American Studies so much. Both Black and Queer studies engage with anarchism and ecology. I like these approaches that use notions of social ecology to think about the interaction between human and non-human groups, and therefore address the totality of the problem.

R: I saw that you worked on William Faulkner, among other authors. What do you appreciate the most about his writing?

M: I love his writing, he’s phenomenal! But like every modernist (it seems) he was a terrible person… I would never want to interact with him. But despite that he writes magnificent fiction that supersedes personal and subjective limitations. So, his fiction produces counter-positions to those of the biographical Faulkner. I have always loved his work partly because of how he manipulates space and time. He gives you a view of a particular object or moment while also changing the point of view. Let’s take the beginning of As I Lay Dying. The dying mother is in one room, one of her sons is building her coffin outside, while two of her sons are walking up the path from the barn and you can really map out the space just by following the shifts in view. He reconfigures the realist tradition and reinvents the fictional language in a stunning way. In that sense he is like Virginia Woolf in the British tradition.

R: Yes, that fascinates me too! You would only gradually understand what he’s describing.

M: Yes, and then in some cases he breaks the realism and there’s a character who’s just speaking in a way that does not correspond to them at all and so he just shows you another mode of thinking. I am also reminded of that boy, Vardaman from As I Lay Dying, who has a one sentence chapter, “My mother is a fish”. Out of context it’s completely enigmatic, but in the context of the novel it makes perfect sense. When you follow all of the references to the mother and the fish in the novel you can piece it all together. So, it’s a completely innovative way of building the fictional psychic interiority of a small boy dealing with his mother’s death. It really is an impressive accomplishment in fiction.

R: Alright, so our last couple of questions are very random… Let’s imagine you’re hosting a celebrity dinner party (the invites can be dead or alive)! Which writers, philosophers, artists or political and historical figures would you invite? With whom would you like to talk? And who would you like to see interact with one another?

M: Well, that’s incredibly difficult, but not Faulkner! I would love to have Toni Morrison. I’ve heard her speak a couple of times but I never spoke with her. I think she would be a wonderful person to speak with. It would also be fun to bring Karl Marx, who would probably hate the whole thing! And then someone like Frantz Fanon, whose work I really love. He’s also quite critical of Marx, so that would be an interesting interaction. I’d be tempted to invite people with whom I’d really love to speak with, as well as those really critical figures who had disagreements. It might end up like a terrible dinner party, more like a boxing match… but those would come to my mind!

R: Our editors’ team would love to know who would you put on Mount Rushmore if you had a say in it.

M: Can I give you an annoying response first?

W and R: Of course!

M: I would just get rid of Mount Rushmore entirely. There’s just such a risk to any kind of monumentalisation of one particular figure. That’s really obvious when it’s on the Right. Take all the Confederate statues in the US. Then, when they’re taken down the obvious answer is to replace them with a left-wing figure. My fear is that any kind of monumentalisation ends up encouraging some kind of dogmatic indebtedness to that figure. But if I really had to choose, I’d say Toni Morrison. Also because her works resist monumentalisation. There’s always something in her fiction that completely disturbs the reader. So, she’s kind of an impossible figure to fix in a stable position.

R: Yes, I noticed that Love is one of her most disturbing books, which is pretty ironic. But that’s what’s interesting about her. She is bold enough to go the extra mile and make us uncomfortable and push us to think about what’s wrong with the system.

M: Yes, and this also makes me think of her novel Paradise which she initially wanted to call War but her editor overruled her. “Paradise” and “Love” probably sell better.

R: How confusing! This reminds me of Recitatif, where, just like Faulkner, she’s not straightforward. As readers we’re left guessing which character belonged to which race, all based on stereotypes.

M: Yes, and right now I’m teaching Sula in a third year class and there’s three characters named Dewey, all with different ethnic identities, but the matriarchal figure just refers to them as “that Dewey”. So, I think Morrison is playing with our own obsession to impose a certain identity on characters and people. She does that in a kind of comic way.

R: Well, that would be all from our part. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

M: I would just like to emphasize how important it is that we, as readers, or students even, remain willing to be surprised and made to feel uncomfortable, precisely to ask us to question our own ethical and moral positions. We might call it productive self-alienation! Well…Thank you very much for these extremely interesting questions!

W and R: Thank you for answering them and taking the time!

Image: © Nell Wasserstrom. Picture of Matt during the couple’s visit of a village in the Lubéron (France).

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