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Interview with Dr. Lara Mitias, Associate Professor of Philosophy.
By Matt Walker ’04.
Dr. Lara Marie Mitias currently serves as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Antioch College where she teaches Asian and comparative philosophies, along with various courses in Western Philosophy. She completed her doctorate at the University of Hawaii specializing in Asian and Comparative philosophy Her doctoral work what is on the nature of time in the study of memory in a comparative context.
She has taught over 30 different courses in Western and non-Western philosophy, including Logic, Metaphysics, Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy for Children (P4C) and courses on Death, along with many independent study courses, including On Happiness, and Indian Philosophy of Language. She has published in a range of areas from Indian philosophy of Mind to Japanese and Continental Philosophy to Philosophy for Children.
MW: “Are you interested in bringing back the Philosopher’s Roundtable to Antioch?”
LM: “Yes. It’s one of the things that really attracted me to Antioch initially. Lew had started it, my colleague Lewis Trelawny-Cassity, who I miss dearly. The Roundtable was one of the factors leading me to take the position. It was a group of about 15 to 20 people from the community and surrounding areas. They were of all ages, including retirees in the community who had backgrounds in philosophy, psychology, working psychologists, and professors from other fields. They had pretty high-level philosophical discussions every third Friday of the month. It was great, and it showed me that there was an actual interest in the community at large in philosophy. I was also happy to learn about the Dharma Center and the general culture of Yellow Springs, both of which seemed very open to philosophy, especially comparative and non-western philosophies. I also found out about the history of philosophy at Antioch, which has been extraordinarily strong. At its height there were 12 philosophy professors at Antioch. Antioch had two of John Dewey’s students teaching here. It’s varied a lot but it’s always been important and it’s always been very unique.”
“But yes, I have restarted The Philosopher’s Roundtable. It is now ‘The Virtual Philosopher’s Roundtable’ and takes place on the first Friday of each month. We met for the first time in February of this year. A recently graduated philosophy student, Vespere Oaks, presented the work he is currently developing on the epistemology of mythology. And, in March, Antioch Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Ramesh Patel presented work from his most recent book on Indian Philosophy, Self and World. We had very excellent discussions at both sessions, and I’m looking forward to working with the group, as well as students and faculty–from Antioch and other regional Colleges and Universities.”
MW: “What’s the typical format of the philosopher’s roundtable? Is it a spectator sport? Do people come and watch? What is it like?”
LM: “Everyone participates usually. It’s a really fun, thought-provoking, and educational event. The featured speaker, or lead discussant, sends out their document or their notes a week or two beforehand. Then everyone reads it and thinks about it. It’s a two-hour long period and the speaker may take questions during the presentation or afterward, but I think it’s more engaging to have discussion throughout. But these presenters might have to come back because we may not get through their whole presentation!”
MW: “Another topic that’s come up in my conversations related to Philosophy is Daoism. I feel like most of the students that mentioned Philosophy mentioned an interest in Daoism. I also feel like it’s very popular with folks here in Yellow Springs.”
LM: “I am glad to hear there’s such strong student interest in Daoism. I currently teach a course in Chinese and Japanese Philosophies, but will probably teach a Special Topics course on Daoist Philosophy soon. When I interviewed at Antioch, my teaching demonstration was on some work I’ve done on the logical structure of implication in the Dao De Jing. I thought it would be interesting to the students and Antioch community, and it was. Lew had designed his Epistemology course to include Daoism and that’s highly non-traditional and demonstrated to me that Antioch would be a great place to teach non-Western and Comparative philosophy.”
“On YouTube, on podcasts and things like that, it seems that there is an increasing amount of Asian and non-Western philosophy available and that people today are very interested in non-Western philosophies. There are summaries, commentaries, fan pages and thousands of whole primary texts, many of which are only just now being translated, and multiple people interpreting all kinds of information. And I think that’s indicative of what the coming generations are finding most valuable in philosophy. It takes real devotion to read through Immanuel Kant or John Stuart Mill. I call it devotion, but I don’t know what it is, perseverance, or intended learning or whatever it is, but it takes a lot of concentration. Many students don’t have the interest to wade through it. It’s almost unreadable for many people today. One sentence is often a paragraph long, and it is difficult for most people to read that. Asian philosophy is often written in a much more immediate way and is easy to get something from even one verse or chapter of the Dao De Jing, for example. It seems to be much more applicable and practical compared to understanding this complex theory, intricately woven, that you then have to apply to something practical on your own. It’s usually very beautiful linguistically in the original language as well. There is also a lot of practical wisdom in Asian and other non-Western philosophies that is right on the surface. And then what you have to struggle to understand is what is underneath—their long traditions and alternate conceptual structures and technical terms. The metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics of these philosophies are quite different, and truly grasping the significance of this difference and the conceptual reasons for it, is much more complicated. For example, in the traditional philosophy of Yoga from Patanjali, asana or postures, which is taken in the west as Hatha Yoga, is only one limb of the eight limbs of Yoga. And asana in the tradition actually includes all postures and general body awareness. But more importantly, the entire ethical code and all of the psychospiritual aspects are left out. It’s exactly the same with mindfulness for most people today. Right mindfulness is only one of the eight steps on the Eightfold Path of the Buddha. It’s only one of eight, similarly, and so we take that out, and we leave behind the ethical code and the psychospiritual components. And as with asana, sati or mindfulness, is also taken very superficially and without contextual relations, and I don’t want Antioch students to lose the very significant benefits of studying these phenomenal philosophical traditions.”
MW: “Thank you.”
MW: “As a follow up question, I’m wondering two things. First, are Daoism and Eastern Philosophies gaining interest because of the increasing strength and prominence of China? And secondly, is there any part of Daoist philosophy that acts like an antidote to our contemporary “modern American” context? Do you feel either of those questions ring true or am I completely off base?”
LM: “No, I think you’re right, this is one of the reasons. It’s a very interesting and complicated dynamic of Confucianism and Daoism in China because of the entrance of Buddhism, and the state support for Buddhism throughout. As well as the cultural code that Confucianism is, as opposed to this sort of religious or spiritual alchemy that Daoism can take in certain forms. Whereas Buddhism is, in some respects, a very practical sort of philosophy. And then, of course, you have the development of Communism on top of that. We’re in a great age of global confluence, and most of non-Western philosophy has a lot to offer modern society in my view. Especially if we put it in genuine conversation with Western philosophies. In our modern society we seem to be uncritically taking the very worst parts of Western traditions, and maybe not the best parts of non-Western traditions, and adopting them uncritically together. It is my hope that students will become aware of these different conceptual schemes and ways to structure their experience and their knowledge, so that they might consciously reflect and choose to take the best parts of Western traditions and societies along with the best parts of Asian and non-Western traditions and societies and join them consciously. Given our current global crises this seems to me to be one way we could go forward without too much more catastrophe into our new global society. Almost all of non-western philosophy would help balance our contemporary American context, as well as the dominance and suggested dominance of Western philosophies and ways of thinking globally.”
“Daoism offers us ways to rethink all of our institutions and relations. Governance of any kind should be as unobtrusive and non-coercive as possible. It should simply nourish or aid in the natural development of whatever is governed, including the environment. Also, people are considered as fundamentally good in their natural state. This sort of faith in others would help us communicate, I think. We could give charitable interpretations and I think this kind of understanding could help us a lot today.”
“Daoist thinking promotes a fundamental respect of others and the environment which is simply lacking in our modern context. Daoist philosophy is based on the dynamic structure of the constant change we experience. This cyclicity and reversal is symbolized in the Yin Yang, which people are very familiar with today. Within every complete whole, indicated by the symbol’s circle, there is a dualism, and that is a dualism that is not an entirely split dualism as we understand dualism in a Western context. Meaning that you cannot have anything completely good or completely bad in the very transitory world we experience. Within something good, there is some bad that may grow to make the larger good become bad. But in that new bad there will be the seed of good. It’s very much a thing in motion. The balance of Yin and Yang as a particular thing, situation, or event is always shifting and rebalancing, but the primary virtue in Daoism is to embrace Yin, which doesn’t mean to be passive in any negative way but to be like water, fluid, adaptable, and embracing, as well as life-promoting. But if you hit water hard enough, it’ll be like a solid object. Water is vitally important to all things but it is understood as common. It is also one of the most powerful elements and can bore through stone. There is so much from Daoist thought that could help us today. It shows us not only how to be resilient or to be like bamboo rather than oak, but also shows us that real power is virtue, which is what the ‘de’ in Dao De Jing indicates, both virtue and power. Not many people think power and virtue are actually the same today, but just as the virtue of a hammer is to pound nails into wood, this is its power. Understanding and accepting Daoist principles and adopting a Daoist worldview would most certainly help our relations with one another and our environment.”
“But even in Western philosophical traditions there is a lot of wisdom to be found that could help us. This past fall term many students were taken with Kant’s imperative that we treat all people as ends in themselves and not merely means. And this can be applied to our environment and all beings. The sickness of our world and our societies and institutions especially, is that this is not the case.”
“So, I think the time is right for philosophy, especially non-Western philosophies. And this new generation seems to have an increasing interest in philosophy. It’s very critical time we’re living in, as we all know, but with this it’s also a time of opportunity. In fact, it’s often noted that ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’ are the same character in Chinese languages. There’s a lot that the study of philosophies can contribute both to modern society, and to our personal lives with ourselves and others. Interestingly, it seems less and less important because economic interests have become the sole consideration. But I think this could be a golden age. This could be a resurgent renaissance although we don’t often hear that but I think, or at least hope, that it’s true. This is the first time worldviews, histories, and texts from all over the world have been available in a widespread and instantaneous way. We have access to the wisdom of 3000 years right now, at our fingertips. It’s never happened before that we know, and it may not last. This generation has the greatest chance to live wonderful lives I think, and live in a new age and a new way. There are certainly a lot of obstacles! And we certainly need to change so much. It is my hope that we can take the good aspects of Western thought and the good aspects of Eastern thought and other non-dominant philosophical views and go forward together in a better, more harmonious, and just way. Unfortunately, this runs counter to our dominant ideologies of a necessary scarcity and competitive survival and success.”
MW: “Absolutely. Thank you for that. This all kind of speaks to one of my main questions: what’s the philosophy behind our time and or our current moment in history? I think you touched a lot on that but is there anything you would like to add?”
LM: “Well, when I was working on my Master’s degree it was what seemed to be the beginning—but maybe it was the middle—of the height of the talk of narratives. And it was the time of the most severe effects of deconstruction and postmodernism. And so, I studied psychoanalysis, feminism, critical theory and that type of thing. And I understood it and thought it was pretty revolutionary. And, these analyses can be understood on a very deep, semiotic level and not only as a sociopolitical or historical critique. These semiotic analyses can open up the radical difference offered by non-Western languages and worldviews. In my view, it seems that our contemporary use and understanding of these particular interventions in academia doesn’t quite lead us to their valuable essence and most significant implications. And we’re kind of at the point where, again, taking it too shallowly in a particular “pop-up” academic way, where postmodernism leads to relativism about truth. And not a sensible relativism like “I’m touching the tail of the elephant and you’re touching the ear and so there is still one elephant we just don’t have access to all of it”. I mean, not in a smart way to be relativist about language, or nominalist about language, or a perspectivist, but in a very shallow way that there is no truth–which, if true, wouldn’t be something we could know–and that my “truth” is as good as your “truth”. But then people don’t even seem to live out their “truth”. They live a totally different kind of life. They just say that kind of thing when what they really mean is ‘my experience isn’t the same as yours’, or ‘I don’t believe what you do, and I don’t want to talk about it’. It’s the same thing with promoting social justice while still being completely unjust to the people around you.”
“Philosophers from all traditions and all times have understood, for example, that social justice begins with personal justness. You can’t get a socially just system unless you get individual people being just; it’s composed of that. I think you discussed in your interview with Dr. Suzelis, whether we improve our relations with our environment to improve our society, or our relations in society to improve our environment. In my view, it is more complicated in that have to improve our relations with ourselves, which will improve both our social and environmental relationships naturally, as the Daoist would say.”
“Part of my task as a philosopher is not only to open people to new ways of thinking and new ideas and concepts, but to show the value of asking questions in an unafraid and honest way that allows us to reflect on ourselves, and to be open to correction and to new knowledge. If one already knows a particular thing or thinks that one knows, there is nothing to learn. So, we are starting out with ourselves, realizing and reflecting on our own action so that we can live harmonious lives, and good lives because bad things happen. And we need resources to deal with that.”
“There’s also a spiritual resurgence going on, I think. So, although it seems we’re kind of left in an age of nothingness, where nothing has any value or any meaning after existentialism and the death of God, and all of that, we could also enter a new renaissance with this upcoming generation of students. It seems like spirituality is increasingly being permitted as a public option. This form of awareness opens us up to our environment and to all sentient beings as intrinsically and essentially valuable. We are in a horribly disposable age where everything and everyone is seen as disposable and nothing is inherently valuable. But the apparently increasing interest in religion and spiritual awareness seems to be a backlash to this type of thinking. Understanding religions and philosophies of all traditions is vitally important for understanding cultures since they all started out as ways of life and not particular philosophies. The major religions as we have grouped and divided them today didn’t begin with dogma or doctrine or power structures, but with experiences we can call ‘religious’ and as ways of life. And we all have ways of life, as well as religious or spiritual experiences, I hope. But if we don’t examine our own way of life and our own philosophy on life, we might get misled and convinced of someone else’s philosophy. Or we might uncritically believe everything we hear, or the most dominant narratives, which I think is a big problem today.”
LM: “So I think we’re in a good age philosophically. It’s unfortunate that over the last 25 years, some schools have gotten rid of philosophy departments even though ethics and logic are vital areas of study for any field and for human relations. But philosophy has so much more to offer for people personally. But there aren’t as many students wanting to make philosophy the focus of their study for economic reasons mostly. But we also seem to be in an age where discussion has stalled and debate is not encouraged and philosophy is about dialogue and inquiry most fundamentally. Unfortunately, our economic and institutional structures are easily threatened by philosophical inquiry and some ways of thinking and philosophy can be dangerous to those in authority. It always has been. It’s a naturally subversive endeavor since we try to read below-the-verse, or ‘beneath what is written’ so to speak, and to question the knowledge and challenge paradigms that may be accepted by others. Students often say that philosophy is really hard. I’m sure that also has something to do with it. Our attention spans, concentration, and our memories are quickly diminishing. But philosophical thinking is extraordinarily valuable in my view, for any discipline or any person. And here at Antioch especially, I try to help students develop themselves personally and to learn things that might help them live more sustainable and resilient lives. This doesn’t immediately give them an increasing number of quantifiable skills or make them appear more employable or better workers. And although they do get these things from studying philosophy and training in philosophy, it helps students be successful in all areas. Studying philosophy doesn’t have much of an objectively demonstrable product at the end except for the person themselves which, to me, is ultimately what’s important.”
MW: “Absolutely. And it shows. I think the interest in Philosophy among the students that I’ve encountered really speaks to that approach. If you don’t mind, I’d like to move on to the next question, which is: what similarities/differences do you see between Hinduism/Buddhism/Sikhism & Judaism/Christianity/Islam?”
LM: “I’ll try to answer this question as best I can. Since we don’t have a religion department at Antioch, philosophy is probably the closest discipline. And, of course, the Asian traditions weren’t classified as “religions” before colonial imposition, so the likeness is closer there. When I teach Buddhist philosophy, I often draw an analogy between Hinduism and Buddhism and Judaism and Christianity because of the social change implied in the religious movement. Also, the fact that both traditions, Christianity and Buddhism, emerged out of Judaism and Hinduism in a similar way. Both emerging movements integrated women, and were inclusive of outcasts and the poor. Both suggested that the best way to live, in fact, the enlightened way to live is with compassion for all people. The conditions within these original traditions that led to this similar reformation in both parts of the world were very similar, and are common to entrenched and entrenching paradigms and institutions. There was a stagnation in the community because of financial corruption and the hoarding of knowledge and desire to keep the masses of people ignorant. This cultural power was being used against common people and the marginalized. Similar in some ways to the dominant cultural powers throughout history using scriptures and other dominant ways of knowing to get people to do things. But that has lasted all throughout history and it’s still going on today.”
“But as far as religions go, there does seem to be somewhat of a parallel between these two strains. And Gotama Buddha is very Christ-like in a lot of ways. The Buddha is known to have been a man and Christ is not known to be a man, or not only, depending on your faith. And so, there’s a difference. People don’t worship the Buddha, exactly. Though it does appear like this sometimes. One pays homage to the Buddha and takes refuge in the Buddha and their hope is to become like the Buddha, awakened. Whereas, one worships and is devoted to Christ as God incarnate usually. But similarly, we are to become Christ-like if we are Christians and act as He acted. In both cases we are told to care for those around us and that there is something more significant for a human to become. This is really a form of a natural transhumanism. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are even more similarities between Christianity and Buddhism in some ways. And in some forms of Buddhism, like pure land Buddhism, there seems to be a lot of likeness with some Christian interpretations, and one can call on the name of Amitabha Buddha to be saved. Also, in Mahayana Buddhism more generally, there is Buddha-Nature in all sentient beings, if not in all things, and this is somewhat like God or Christ or the divine in all of us, if one thinks of this in a liberal way. A form of this idea is present in the Quran as well, as also in Christianity and Judaism, at least in the Kabbalistic tradition. So, there are a lot of connections we can make between religions and philosophies generally, especially when it comes to the mystical forms of all of these religious traditions. I think that there are more differences between Sikhism and the Indian traditions than Islam and the Abrahamic traditions. I am not as familiar with Sikh texts, but as I understand it, the Sikh tradition was influenced by both the Hindu and Muslim traditions.”
“You originally had a question about time, so I’ll just add something interesting. Abrahamic religions function on linear time, whereas Asian religions function on circular time. So, in the East Asian and South Asian traditions, there is no beginning in time. That’s a ridiculous sort of idea in their analysis. And now we know from modern physics, only our time began. There can be no beginning of time overall. There are just beginnings of time locally. But we didn’t know that then. A wonderful Japanese philosopher, I think it was Nishitani, made the point in a book called “Climate and Culture” that our cultures and our religions develop out of the climates that we find ourselves in. And so, in a desert climate in which people were largely nomadic, time is understood in a linear way. Whereas in a seasonal climate, time is understood in a cyclical way. It’s really interesting how deeply these things are rooted. Understanding time as linear has completely different implications for all of our other conceptualizations than understanding time as cyclical. This reverberates completely into our modern, I think mistaken, ideas of progress as well as growth and our relations with our environment and one another, and even how we understand our own lives.”
Interviewed conducted Dec 13, 2021 by Matt Walker ’04
MW: “I have some basic, background questions to get started. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? How did you hear about Antioch? And if there’s anything you want to share about that?”
SM: “I’m Steve McQueen, or Stephen Joseph McQueen the second. I was born in Marlton, New Jersey to Steven and Ramona McQueen. And they’re from Philly. Most of the rest of my family’s from Philly. I’m the only one from Jersey. Also, I was born and raised in Marlton, New Jersey. After high school, I got accepted into what then was Rowan College and that became Rowan University. Then it was Glassboro State College and then Rowan College. All that happened when I was there. I went there for three years but ended up dropping out.”
“I wanted an education but I didn’t like how I was getting it and where. And so I met someone online who was going to Antioch. And she told me about some college in Ohio. And Ohio, at that time, was just something I heard about in movies. She told me about how Antioch was about their education. She told me you had to travel and be proficient in a language. She told me about Corretta Scott King and Rod Serling.”
“So I was like alright, I have to see this place for myself. I did a little research but was still unsure if it would live up to my expectations. So I came out to visit and it was all that and more. I was blown away by the school, the community, and the town. And so that’s what I decided to do. I wanted to come to Antioch and I did everything I could to go there. I had to go back and take some community college courses. Grades were difficult for me, but I was able to get in and it was the best decision of my life, to be honest.”
MW: “When did you originally enter Antioch?”
SM: “So, officially, I became a student in the summer of 2003. I was a prospective student, living on campus all summer in 2002. The first time I ever got here was 2002, but I officially started in 2003.”
MW: “When you first got here what was your general impression? What do you remember from when you first arrived?”
SM: “That it was nothing like the East Coast. There was a lot of culture shock. People are generally nice here. You know, their first question is “what do you do?” In Jersey, that might be the fifth or sixth question, maybe. To me that was surprising. Hanging out with students I was like, wow! These kids, compared to where I was going, had way more experience with the world. I grew up in a very Christian scenario.”
“So Antioch was explosive for me. I felt like I was growing up. I was getting a huge rush of information from the students as much as I was from the classroom. I was learning a lot about the Midwest and a lot about the campus as well. I was able to visit classes and other different scenarios. The whole thing was pretty phenomenal.”
MW: “And now you are back at Antioch! What is the program that you are involved with? I know you are coming back to finish your degree but what can you tell me about all of this?”
SM: “Well the University had offered that people who didn’t finish at the College before it closed, if they wanted to, could complete their degree. It was definitely an adult program but for people changing careers. I didn’t have anything I needed to really complete it. But the program that I’m in isn’t for not completing here, it’s for not completing with the University because they closed down. And so now I’m technically finishing that program. But because I have credits here, I’ll be able to do a self-designed major. That would be much more what I’m looking for versus finishing out the humanities program out there. That was a nightmare. People did it, good on them, but it was not for me whatsoever.”
MW: “Okay, so you’ve got all these credits and you’ve transferred back into the College. You’ve mentioned to me before about studying with Dr. McGruder. I’m curious what you are planning on studying and what’s your background with him?”
SM: “I was here when Antioch closed and so I remember them doing the Nonstop Institute, which is really interesting. But then all of a sudden they announced that the alumni bought it back and it’s going to begin again. And so they were looking for professors and, you know, here comes Dr. McGruder. I had met him before at Central Chapel. I grew up in the church environment but I didn’t take to it. So I was trying to embrace the Black Church from a perspective of its centrality to how the Black Community operates. It’s not as influential as it once was. But I’ve found that it’s really helpful if you want to know what’s going on.”
“And so I did that and he was in the choir. They knew I sang. I got invited to sing something with the choir. And so they knew that I grew up in the church. Then they asked me to be the church drummer. And so then I started attending choir rehearsals and I would drum too. But they knew I could sing so I went back and forth. They utilize me a lot so that’s how I came to know Kevin.”
“But he’s always busy with all these Antioch things and writing books. We would talk and then The 365 Project decided that we wanted to do these tours, the Black Tours. And so Dr. McGruder offered to do the history aspect of it. I had told him about my experience working at the African American Museum in Philadelphia and giving tours to families and school groups there. I’ve always had a knack for it. And so we started working on that together. But I had to be like, well, if we’re going to walk it, like why don’t we walk from here, do it this way and schedule the tours accordingly. And so a lot of how the tours work, where they went, cutting and pasting sort of what the kids are going to say how they’re going to say it… that was my job – teaching him how to say it and telling them to gather around, make sure everyone’s there, ask if there’s any questions, all these different things that you need to know. We’ve just completed our sixth year of the tours.”
“I’ve been working with Kevin for that long. And for those tours, we would go to the archives in Xenia. And we did a land tour, Black Ownership Lands Tour. He taught me how to look up the different contracts, land contracts. I wanted to give as proper and knowledgeable a tour as possible. We were able to find out things like the land Olive Kettering Library was built on was sold to Antioch by a black woman. Antioch bought it from her and it turns out there were pictures of it. So we went to Antiochiana and Scott Sanders gave us photos. From there we were on our way! And so I have some projects in mind that I definitely want to do with that sort of information, including more with the tours.”
MW: “Cool. Do you want to talk about any of those ideas?”
SM: “Sure. Well. So there’s The Green Book which was made famous by a movie. The Green Book for the Negro Motorist, I believe is the full title. Most people now know what it is. I’m not gonna get into that. However, many years ago my parents saw a copy, not an original, but a copy of the Green Book. Once they told me about it I became fascinated and I immediately looked up Ohio. There’s two spots in Yellow Springs. There’s like seven spots in Springfield and four in Xenia. So my goal is to look up those spots and see if I can find people who had some sort of story. And see if we can’t map it out, find pictures, and do the full nine. It’ll take a lot of research, but I’m sure at least out of the fifteen entries I could find seven legit ones to interview folks about. I’d like that to be sort of a final project, something that I really work on for a while.”
MW: “Yeah, absolutely. And it makes me wonder if you are interested in pursuing education beyond Antioch? Perhaps the project you were just talking about would be great for a PhD or a Master’s program.”
SM: “I’m thinking of a Masters and, honestly, I would like to. I know that people are doing this. I know that there is a field of study within it about people finding their family histories. I’d like to start with mine. But also do someone very different from me, like my wife’s, just to see where that could lead versus where my parents came from. My mom’s side is mostly from Kentucky but my Dad’s side is kind of all over the place. So I’m fascinated with that. Even with everything all over the place, can we find this information? Is it possible or can we at least get some leads or something that could show up now? To me, that’s the fun part. A lot of times the mystery, the fun, the investigating is phenomenal to me.”
“There’s another story where it is believed that Frederick Douglass came to Yellow Springs because he toured and he gave a couple of speeches at a couple of colleges near here. We know he knew people over at Wilberforce. Because of that, we’re pretty sure he would have met William Gaunt. And the hypothesis is that, during that time, if he would have made it to see William Gaunt he would have stayed at William Gaunt’s house. And supposedly there’s a newspaper blurb, but not in Yellow Springs, but that Frederick Douglass was in Yellow Springs. I would like to see if I could prove that correct or inconclusive. The closest I could find so far was that he was here in Ohio.”
“The other idea is to finally lay to rest whether or not the Underground Railroad actually had any stops here. There are people who have said that there was but there’s never been any sort of historical evidence to prove it. Now that doesn’t mean that in some way, shape or form someone didn’t come through here. But the concept that there was a steady stream through here is what people think of when you think of a stop on the Underground Railroad. I even saw that someone said it was the final stop on the Underground Railroad. It’s like yeah, I think you’re talking about the Conway Colony, which is its own story.”
“We took a trip down there, actually, to the Conway Colony. The 365 group took students and people who were interested to go out. It’s very confirmed as a stop. They have a lot mapped out but it was secret. So that’s a very, very difficult thing versus the other two, which aren’t secret. But the ones people haven’t been keeping up with, it’s gonna take a lot of energy to really drum up all of this information again. But I’d like to. I’d love to see where that takes us but maybe I’ll just keep it to Greene County and do the Xenia stuff. But Springfield has a bunch. So I’m kind of really fascinated about Springfield.”
MW: “So there’s that deep genealogy and DNA and family history type of projects…”
SM: “Well, that’s what I would use. That’s how I would use whatever degree I’m able to get from here. That’s what I would use it for, is to get into that and help others. There are people who are paying for that.”
MW: “Sure. That’s big business these days.”
SM: “Right. In fact, what’s that famous website? They usually hire people or commission people each year in that area. So that’s what I mean, it’s becoming a thing. And especially with DNA, that helps a lot because it’s we now know which people came through where. I’d love to find that out – why that even works and what’s the science behind it? It’s pretty fascinating to me that we’ve come that far. But yeah, I’d love to find that out. But not here. Not yet. But future wise, that to me is like, what I’d love to actually find out and really dig into.”
MW: “Those are all such great, interweaving projects. Pursuing any one of them will inform the others, it seems. So how long are you thinking of being enrolled at Antioch?”
SM: “Two years at the most. I understand how schools work and that they need two years out of me and I’m willing to put that in. Plus, that’s more time working with Kevin, and more time utilizing Kettering Library. Plus being back on a college server where you can actually get a lot more academic papers than you ever could in a regular library. So there’s just a lot of things that I’m looking forward to.”
MW: “Steve, you’re such a treasure trove of stories, information, research. I’m curious, what are some of your favorite research methods?”
SM: “We’re blessed to live in the time that we do because a lot of people post their academic work online which is really helpful. There’s something called Watch Night Service in the Black Community. It’s New Year’s Eve. You pray-in the day. You pray-in the new year and my family did this growing up. They say that the origins of that is 1863, New Year’s Eve of 1863. And slaves, having heard that that’s going to be the day that they, technically, will be free, that they’re considered free from law. And so the Watch Night Service was praying in this new life. And that’s really fascinating. But research on it is pretty difficult. That would be a great example of something where someone else would have had to put in some more legwork, something like a subreddit where people are putting in a bunch of information because that’s a great way to start learning. Or start hearing other ideas. But, with our powers combined, we can come up with some sort of academic way of proving or disproving whatever.”
MW: “So crowdsourcing research and information?”
SM: “Right. Well, just finding other people who are interested in and willing to put in just as much time. People are solving murders now this way, unsolved cases. If we had that many detectives we probably would have way less unsolved crimes. It’s the same way with history.”
MW: “When you’re getting your information, is it from talking to people? Is it from Reddit? Is it some other place?”
SM: “So of course, right, Wikipedia is a great place to start. But from there, there should be more questions. But they usually have references that they link too as well. So I really like Wikipedia because of those references. Now, a lot of times those references will get lost, but at least I can get started on that new search. Wikipedia is a great source if it’s referenced really well. So it depends on what you’re looking for and how obscure what you’re looking for is. Something like where Frederick Douglass may have visited is a really difficult, off the wall thing. But if I can at least find that newspaper article that people say reference this. If I could find that well then bam, that would be a great start.”
Interview by Matt Walker ’04.
Natalie Suzelis is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Antioch College. She holds a Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie Mellon University, where she was a Schaffer and A. W. Mellon fellow. Her research synthesizes environmental and economic history with cultural theory in order to construct a cultural studies account of capitalist transition in early modern literature. She is interested in the intersection of capitalist development with environmental and ecological change, and with formations of race, class, and gender across social landscapes from the early modern period to the present. In addition to her research and teaching in medieval and early modern literature, she researches and teaches on subjects in gender and feminist studies, commercial popular culture, subculture, queer theory, media studies, utopian fiction, and climate change in the Anthropocene. She is a contributing editor of Uneven Earth and her research has been published in Mediations, Shakespeare Studies, Uneven Earth, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1800, and Law, Culture, and Humanities.
Matt Walker (MW): “Thank you for doing this interview, congratulations on joining the faculty here!”
Natalie Suzelis (NS): “It’s my pleasure, and thank you!”
MW: “What are your impressions of Antioch and why did you choose to accept the position here?”
NS: “I had a lot of expectations for Antioch given what I had researched about the school and its history. I knew that it was a school driven by social justice values as well as environmental justice. I first noticed, for example, the Coretta Scott King Center and the Antioch farm. I also noticed that the research and teaching interests of the faculty aligned with those two core values pretty well. I saw courses in Environmental Science, Sustainability, Environmental Justice, Dialogue Across Difference, etc. I haven’t really run into anyone yet who *doesn’t* seem to be driven by those values. I also expected the students to be driven by a certain kind of progressive value system, or even radical value system in both social justice and environmental sustainability, and I’ve also found that to be the case. So my impressions are that the things that initially brought me here are still alive and kicking.”
MW: “What have you learned from students and faculty?”
NS: “The thing that I’ve learned is that Community Governance is something that everybody here seems to be very familiar with, and I’ve learned this the most from students at the ComCil meetings. As I’ve watched students interact with each other, I’ve noticed a real sense of responsibility for the college. And it’s kind of a stunning process to see just how invested students are in creating and maintaining an atmosphere on their own. At the last Council meeting, for example, I was taking in the voting procedures and observed students being completely comfortable and at ease with all of the different processes, knowing exactly where to intervene when they wanted to have their voices heard. It seems like it becomes an almost intuitive thing after you’re here for just a short time. That’s something that I found in political organizations, but I never saw it so active on a college campus before, and I think it’s amazing.”
MW: “Do you have any political affiliations?”
NS: “Oh, yes, I’m a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). But I guess just more broadly, I’ve been interested in and involved in more local political groups and organizations fighting for different reforms on a city policy level with lots of coalitions of different groups.
MW: “In Pittsburgh?”
NS: “Yeah, so in Pittsburgh for example, I was part of the Pittsburgh Coalition of the International Women’s Strike. That was a coalition between DSA members, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and members of the International Socialist Organization, which is not really active anymore but, at the time, they were. I’m most affiliated with DSA but I would say, in terms of active politics, I prefer to work across organizations and organizational boundaries.”
MW: “Do you have any impressions you’d like to share about DSA: what it’s like, where it’s going?”
NS: “I didn’t notice any DSA members here in Yellow Springs so I guess one thing that I’m noticing is that it seems to have more support in bigger cities. I’ve met some members here of Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL). DSA has experienced a lot of growing pains over the past couple of years. And I think it still has a lot to figure out. But it does seem to be an interesting driving political force, particularly among millennials.”
MW: “Do you think you might start a (DSA) chapter out here?”
NS: “I think I’d rather listen to students and what they’re interested in. Meeting students who are already part of PSL, students who are interested in taking down the flag and doing different political actions… I think it would be cool to be involved to the extent that whatever direction students wanted to take political activism or organization. I would just like to help facilitate that.”
MW: “That’s awesome. So the flag gets taken down, no flag, or which flag?
NS: “You’re asking me?”
MW: “Yeah. If the flag comes down, which I think is a great idea… this is kind of a silly question but what flag would go up, or no flag?”
NS: “It seems the students wrote on the base of the flagpole that they would like to see something like Black Lives Matter, Pride flag, some combination of all the things that students can be proud of, or organizations or activism they’ve been involved in. I think it’s a great idea to put a couple of different flags or different signifiers at the intersection of those different political stances. So, once again, I think the students have a good idea of what they might want.”
MW: I really appreciate how supportive you are of the students. Maybe a new flag could be created collaboratively or something? Next question: what are your impressions of Yellow Springs or anything that you’re enjoying about that village?”
NS: “Yeah, just as one of the first things I noticed when stepping foot on the campus was that the college seems to be driven by community, I’ve really seen to be reflected in the town. I recently went to a little neighborhood party just down the street and I didn’t know anybody there except for my neighbor. But pretty much everyone in close proximity with me introduced themselves asked me where I was coming from, and it was just very warm and friendly and generally that’s my impression of Yellow Springs.”
MW: “Are you registered to vote out here? Are you involved in this whole levy situation?”
NS: “I am not registered here yet. I just got my new driver’s license and I checked the box to re-register here. So I think I’m waiting for something to come in the mail.”
MW: “What are some of your teaching interests?”
NS: “My teaching interests are pretty broad because I like to be guided by students. I love teaching plays, poetry, prose, novels… There’s not really a genre of literature, or a time period really, that I feel bound by. My research interests were more focused on early modernity, Shakespeare, drama, poetry, and prose. But my teaching has always been much broader in terms of texts and different forms of media, and I like to incorporate lots of contemporary literature and philosophy. I’ve always found that being adaptive to what students are interested in has sort of forced me to learn as much as I can as a teacher. That’s just generally the attitude that I take to pedagogy. So I hope my teaching interests become even more broad as I meet more students. That’s just kind of how I’ve always operated.”
MW: “Cool. Thank you. What about your service interests?”
NS: “On campus here at Antioch, I have become involved in ComCil, College Council, and I’m also participating on the search committee for the Social Science Psychology professor. I’ve been trying to get pretty involved in the inner workings of the college. When I was at a previous institution, I also did a lot of colloquia and public-facing panels and lectures. I really love inviting speakers and organizing events and I’m excited to do things like that in the future. I hope to work with Michael Casselli on a Herndon speaker and/or performance series for the winter quarter.”
MW: “Any themes emerging with that potential Casselli collaboration?”
NS: “Yeah, we talked a little bit about it. I think one of the things we’re throwing around was about abolition futurism. Thinking about how to envision a world without so many of these systemic harms that we’re often talking about on campus; being able to think about eradicating or abolishing those systems behind everything from the prison industrial complex, to the environmental harms that we’re seeing inflicted daily. So providing new frames for how you might think differently and creatively in imagining alternative futures, and having different speakers, artists, performers, or literary figures who can help us do that. But I’d like to get some student feedback and see who students are interested in or what sub-themes might align with this general topic. But that’s basically the first brainstorming session we had.”
MW: “Cool, that’s exciting. What about research topics – what are your research interests?”
NS: “Recently I’ve been reading a lot about different climate policy agendas. I’m writing a book review right now with a colleague for a book called A People’s Green New Deal which is really about critiquing most of the green New Deal proposals that have been put forth. A lot of the proposals are based on this idea of pragmatism in an effort to reach the widest audience possible. So this book I’m reading is arguing that so many of those pragmatic stances are not only are they inadequate in actually addressing climate change, they’re not really winning either. And since we’re already in a political situation where we have to push really hard just to get basic reforms, we might as well push to demand what we really want. And what we think people deserve. I’ve been thinking about different agendas and policies for how to restructure the global energy system and how that needs to be fundamentally transformed in a very radical way if we’re actually going to meet the crisis where we need to. Those research interests are very near and dear to me, and not necessarily as close to my dissertation research as they are to my teaching. But I’ve met a lot of amazing colleagues who’ve really sparked that collaborative sort of research interest in me.”
MW: “I’m wondering if you think there are any policy proposals out there that might be more effective than the Green New Deal?”
NS: “Yes – I’ve been thinking about this because I was talking to Professor Mittias about maybe teaching an environmental ethics course at some point. And I was thinking about how that could be structured around the Cochabamba agreement which was a climate accord that was reached, I think, in 2010, I might have to look that up. But I think, basically, it was a document, it’s only about 10 pages I think, but it’s about the rights of human and non-human creatures on the planet to access life-sustaining things like water and food, while also protecting and nurturing the environment to be reciprocal in that relationship. I’d vote for that kind of agreement.”
MW: “Right on! That makes me think of this dichotomy between Deep Ecology and Social Ecology. My understanding of Deep Ecology is that we have to heal our relationship with the earth first. Before we can solve social problems, we must solve the problem of our relationship with the environment. Whereas, what I understand from Social Ecology, is that we have to solve our human-to-human problems before we can even address the greater ecological problems. I know it’s a bit of a false dichotomy but I’m wondering if you can speak on that a bit please?”
NS: “Yeah, I mean I think they’re fundamentally connected. So if the greatest enemy to the environment is the fossil fuel industry, the global energy system as it currently operates, then that’s both. It’s an issue of Social Ecology and Deep Ecology because we can point to all the social and political factors that have made it the primary enemy of both people and the environment. Here are human actors who are harming the human and nonhuman world ecologically, but also socially, economically, and politically. You also can’t really solve any deep ecological problems without using social tools and social forces to build power to change the political structure. The ecological problem is a social one and vice versa. And I think that’s actually the only way we can approach the social and political issues because they’re so long-standing and go back so far into centuries of human-nonhuman relations.”
“I just taught this essay from Kyle Whyte, for example, about Indigenous justice and climate justice, which shows a longer history of environmental degradation as the history of settler colonialism. So that’s a place where I would see Deep Ecology meeting Social Ecology: because the history of settler-colonialism is a history of ecological violence. And it’s a social-political but also an ecological problem. It’s also a cultural problem in that it relates to the ways in which people have conceptualized their relationship with the environment for hundreds of years from a culture of settlerism. You’d be addressing both issues at once if you followed this idea of climate justice and the kind of social resilience that Kyle Whyte is talking about. Which is also, for Whyte, an ecological resilience.”
MW: “All of this leads me to the topic and questions of: Are we natural? Are we a part of Nature or separate from it? Is what’s happening with us natural? What is natural in terms of climate change, etc?”
NS: “Well, the lines are so blurred to me. I do think it is a false dichotomy because nature is very social. Animals are very social with each other and plants grow together and interact socially. Even in the most pristine, untouched view of the natural world, if that even really exists anymore… it’s a false dichotomy because we’re constantly interacting with the nonhuman world and the human world while the nonhuman world is also interacting socially with itself.”
“This is where I think the literary perspective can be helpful. The stories that we tell about the environment, and the stories we sometimes tell ourselves about pristine and untouched natural worlds, I think that those stories have their own purpose and can sometimes be nefarious in creating dichotomies. But other stories that you can tell about our social environments, built environments, and natural environments can actually bridge gaps between them. And I would be more on the side of the latter. Stories can help us conceptualize how we can establish more mutual and reciprocal relationships between human beings and non-human beings.”
MW: “Regarding the future, the Anthropocene, Capitalism, the internet – what’s going to happen?”
NS: “I don’t want to be a climate-doomer but I do think it’s stunning that we have come so far in the acceleration of our timeline without mass movement and action stopping things from continuing in such a dark direction. But I hope, I think and I hope, that it’s becoming more clear that there are human actors who have an extreme amount of economic and political power who are doing the most damage. It’s traceable. And there’s been a lot of work done to obscure the actual power relations in terms of who’s making the decisions that do the most harm, who’s sort of at the top of these chains or hierarchies that do the most damage to the environment. I hope that it’s becoming clear to people. I think it’s probably more clear to the kind of students on campus here. It also seems like the most recent generation has dealt with a lot of pretty obvious information about climate change and a lot of climate disasters that are pretty hard to ignore. I think it’s tragic and a bit disheartening that we’ve managed to come this far without a giant push in the other direction. But I’m still so hopeful that that can happen. And I think that new ideas are being circulated about just how international and global an issue this is… so we have to act and think with global solidarity. And my hope is that this younger generation thinks that and feels that we’re all in this together on one planet, even though there are definite actors and enemies of the people and the environment. I’m hoping that we’re moving in the direction where people feel more international planetary global solidarity against those actors.”
MW: “I’m curious to hear you speak about if there is a more nuanced view towards humans and our detrimental effects on nature; something beyond Thomas Robert Malthus?”
NS: “There are two kinds of approaches you can take, even on the left. It isn’t just a right-wing reactionary thing that we need fewer humans on the planet, which would help us combat climate change. There’s this reactionary tendency to blame all human beings and say we need less of them as opposed to examining the power structure. There are even tendencies that are more austere in the way that we think of the quality of life for people. And I think that that’s a political stance. That’s a decision that’s could play out in really harmful ways. If you don’t try to think about fighting for quality of life and abundance that people deserve equally, in an evenly distributed way, which is possible if we’re not living under these capitalistic elements of exploitation of human beings and the planet, that’s an entirely different stance. People like Bill Gates and these rich, capitalist, very harmful actors act as if we can come up with the solutions that will be imposed from above, from the top of the economic and political hierarchy, that will decide who gets to live, how many people, and how. That’s the most harmful direction we could probably go in because people with power are going to act in their class interest. I don’t want to live in that world and I think that’s a real danger in climate discourse.”
MW: “Bringing the conversation back towards literature and storytelling – what are some of the possible stories we can tell in regards to climate change and the fall of capitalism that don’t rely on the ‘crisis spurs the change’ idea?”
NS: “The power and meaning behind storytelling is that you can imagine possible futures and action points that might help you get there. I think there might be an expectation that capitalism itself – because it’s so unsustainable, exploitative, and harmful – might end on its own end because it will continue until it destroys everything unless it sort of crumbles from within. I think there are expectations that maybe the global market system itself is so up and down and volatile that maybe it might just crumble. So I guess the story that I would try to create and get behind is us being able to scale back this really harmful system and dismantle it in the interest of the people it’s been exploiting the most. But to do so effectively, we would also have to focus on rebuilding the alternative. Disaster Capitalism is pretty resilient; I’d like to think that it might fall or crumble on its own, but that’s somewhat unlikely. Against the idea of waiting for a Deus Ex Maxina, something I think people do well here at Antioch is try to envision new and different community structures, social organizations, and different kinds of stories about themselves and their relationships to other people. And also imagine different, possible futures. I think that’s probably the best way, the best place to put our energies is trying to build those alternative structures and futures.”
MW: “What about non-state actors? The government, the state, always seems to corrupt even the best ideas. So it seems like that’s something that you’re speaking to with community-oriented solutions?”
NS: “Yeah, I’m thinking about David Graeber right now who passed away not so long ago, and is probably most famous for the “We are the 99%” phrase from Occupy. Before he passed away he was writing this alternative story about human history and social organization called The Dawn of Everything, and it gets at the fact that we tell all these stories about, like, hunter-gatherer societies and primitive societies and different sorts of social, cultural organizations and how that all just funneled into this linear timeline of progress until we get to the modern state and capitalism. This book is against that story and attempts to show how there are so many examples of really complex social organizations throughout human history that look more like a decentralized, municipal, or localized kind of structure. So, yeah, I think the power of being able to point to different ways that humans have been organized against these more dominant models like that can help us see all of the possibilities and different ways that we can relate to each other, different ways we can build lots of alternative kinds of communities that are accountable to one another and more reciprocal, mutual, etc. And I think that it’s something that human beings are actually pretty good at doing when given the space to do so.”
MW: “You’ve mentioned different views of time. I’m curious to hear you talk about how a different view of time would look and how that would influence us? Also, I’m curious about your work, your dissertation studying the past and what from the part of history that you’ve dealt with informs our present moment? Is there anything to learn from those feudal Shakespearian histories that you’ve really dug deeply into? I’d love to hear you talk about either of those things: the time model or the history reflection.”
NS: “Probably the most dominant one is in the early modern period, where my research is set. I think that kind of nomenclature – “early modern” is interesting. It invokes the idea that there was a break with pre-modern times and this is where modernity started. And so, in terms of temporality and storytelling, I think that there’s been a dominant narrative in Western culture that the birth of capitalism and the birth of modernity is this linear timeline of progress that begins there. And what I appreciate about a lot of early modern literature is that goes against the grain and tells stories about time that think through temporality in different ways. It’s not just a march of progress moving forward. I think that narrative has been pretty harmful. Especially in terms of colonialism and imperialism bringing so-called civilizing ideas of progress to the rest of the world and acting like they originated in Europe. I think that’s very harmful. There’s a lot of really great authors, philosophers, scholars – like Leslie Marmon Silko, Kyle Whyte, Maria Lugones, Nick Estes, etc., who think about time in a much different way. Going back to the early modern period allows you to see how that myth and those narratives were constructed in the first place. I think it allows you to be pretty critical of them and watch as they just explode in Western literature. It also allows you to be able to trace it in a very critical way that helps you see that there are other ways of thinking about progress.”
MW: “That’s super thought-provoking. Thank you. Okay, two more questions. Is that ok? We’ve got to touch on Walter Benjamin. What do we need to know?”
NS: “Haha. Well I wrote my dissertation on Shakespeare and the stories he tells in his plays about the transition from feudalism to capitalism because I was inspired by Benjamin’s dissertation, which traced that through German baroque drama. So the concept of Trauerspiel, which comes from these tragic plays, is also a concept of history against dominant forms of temporality. Benjamin is really important to me as a literary person but also as a philosopher. The reason why he’s important in thinking about history and temporality and politics, leftism, revolution, etc. is that he has a really, really compelling view of time that goes against this whole ‘history is progress’ narrative” in, for example, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
MW: “Excellent! Thank you. I’m also curious what your writing process is like?”
NS: “It’s funny that you asked me this because I keep getting back these brainstorming templates that I gave my students which are both structured and free-form. They’re an attempt to ask structured questions but also to be open about how wacky the writing process can be. So the short and honest answer is that my writing process can be pretty messy because I try to be creative and allow room for flow. If you get into something and you’re inspired, you don’t want to stop because things are just coming to you… Since that doesn’t happen as often as anyone would like I often try to be structured as well. So these templates have basic things like the ‘why does this matter’, probing questions about the stakes and kind of intro conclusion sections, and then kind of filling in different examples and important quotes in an outline form. Like lots of people, if I’m inspired, I can just sit down and write, but I think we all need quite a bit of help in the structuring of the brainstorming process. So, I use a lot of outlines and different kinds of templates to organize my thoughts.”
MW: “Thank you for answering that. Any other thoughts? Anything else you want to add?”
NS: “I’m just really happy to be here. I’ve been learning a lot from the students every single day. It’s made me think about all the ways that I’m trying to grow and expand all of those teaching and research interests and it’s felt like a very inspiring place to do that.”
Conor Jameson ’21 graduated in June with a self-design major in Writing and Performance. She will perform as the frontwoman in the artistic collective !PUFF! during Yellow Springs Porchfest 2021
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