The Chronicle Review

The Provocations of Mark Taylor

Richard Howard For The Chronicle Review

Mark Taylor, religion professor at Columbia U., leans on a glass case that holds dirt he culled from the grave sites of famous writers, thinkers, and artists.
January 24, 2010

With its bucolic setting and sweeping mountain views, the rural Berkshire home of Mark C. Taylor seems an unlikely host to feverish experimentation. The site, though, is testimony itself to the Columbia University religion professor's restless enthusiasm for taking on any number of projects. He calls it home; you and I might think of it more as a combo laboratory and private Kunsthalle displaying everything from his ambitious landscape design to the quasi-minimalist works of sculpture he has constructed (three of which are installed on the grounds).

The 19th-century barn that Taylor refurbished is no different. It serves as library and writing studio, but it's also a living museum for the range of his activities, housing an overwhelming number of personal relics and his own artwork. His desk faces a vitrine containing dirt surreptitiously culled from the burial sites of famous writers, thinkers, and artists (the project formed the basis of an art exhibition at MASS MoCA, nearby). If you've seen Field Notes From Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living (Columbia University Press), his recently published memoir-cum-philosophical diary, you'll recognize many of the mementos in the studio from photographs in the book: his uncle's jewelry-engraving equipment and work cabinet; the century-old broadsheets announcing horse and mule auctions at his ancestor's Pennsylvania homestead; his grandfather's muzzleloaders.

Even more, though, you might take note of how these personal effects jostle against, say, his snapshots of his friend Jacques Derrida. Or how the fragments of wood that Taylor collected from the ground around Heidegger's Black Forest hut don't seem out of place next to a large poster of the Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk, an autographed present Taylor received when he celebrated his 60th birthday in the intensive-care unit at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York. He ended up there after a harrowing experience when his kidneys and liver shut down suddenly in 2005 from septic shock, which, combined with his diabetic condition and the cancer that would be later confirmed, nearly killed him.

"It's a weird trip, to be in that space," Taylor says about his hospitalization and recovery. "I deal with diabetes all the time, and it's a tough, tough disease. But this was really touch and go." If the almost-fatal collapse was not the genesis of his memoir—Taylor had been thinking about embarking on such a book since the late 1980s­—it was the prod for its ultimate writing. The result is in many ways a record of the before-and-after of Taylor's brush with death. "These experiences have changed me in ways I am still struggling to understand," he writes. "I have devoted my entire professional life to thinking about existential issues, but life has a way of putting ideas to the test. While the language of the writers I study, teach, and write about is abstract, I have always believed that the problems they explore are frightfully concrete."

If you were to come across Taylor only through the earnest, at times painfully honest, pages of Field Notes, with their straightforward exploration of the paradoxes and ethical conundrums raised by a host of "frightfully concrete" situations—like confronting the legacy of a brother and sister whose deaths he didn't learn about until late in adolescence, or the pedagogical dilemma of teaching students the recondite, philosophically bleak texts of Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus that they surely lack the age and wisdom to comprehend—you would probably be hard pressed to identify the writer as the same author of a highly controversial provocation in The New York Times last April.

In "End the University as We Know It," a broad attack on academic tenure and traditional disciplinary structures, he called for "problem-focused programs" on such topical subjects as "water" and "money" and increased collaboration among institutions, while excoriating the presumed fiddling-while-the-academy-burns of a colleague who "boasted" of his student's dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used footnotes. The Mark Taylor of Field Notes is more a quiet social scientist of the self than a firebrand social critic of the contemporary university.

If there are indeed two Mark Taylors, they have spent a career in productive coexistence, a sort of happy dissonance. Before Field Notes was even published, he had begun work on "Redeeming Art," a study of four contemporary visual artists, while focusing his attention on yet another project: turning his angry Times op-ed into a book for Knopf. That commission resulted from the loud response to the essay, which became a cause célèbre along a certain bandwidth of academic commentators and which at the least ensured that Taylor would never be elected to the presidency of the Duns Scotus Society. The still untitled book, tentatively scheduled for publication this fall, will make the case for nothing less than a top-to-bottom redressing of the American way of higher education, starting with the entrenched privileges of tenure. Oddly enough, though, the best preparation for Taylor's modest proposal about the failings of the academy may be a text that couldn't seem further from it: Field Notes From Elsewhere.

Taylor has cut an unusual and idiosyncratic path ever since he received his Ph.D. in 1974 from Harvard for a study of Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship (the Copenhagen thinker was not a bad introduction to the wiles of the self and its presentation). "I always find religion most interesting where it is least expected," he says in conversation, and his trajectory bears out that search for the unexpected and the unpredictable. His 24 books before Field Notes include pioneering work introducing Derrida and poststructuralist inquiry to religion departments, and to those grappling with the work of philosophers of culture, in whatever discipline; collaborative projects with contemporary artists and architects that earned him a following outside the academy, cemented his relationship with a number of influential museum directors, and made him a sought-after headliner on the artistic circuit; texts such as Imagologies (Routledge, 1994), which began to scout out the new terrain of "media philosophy" as the Internet was beginning to cast its shadow over the humanities and the arts; and, more recently, Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption (University of Chicago Press, 2004), which anticipated the banking crisis and presciently looked at finance capitalism in the context of network theory, complex adaptive systems, art, religion, and the postmodern play of signs, a rarely visited meeting place of Volcker, von Neumann, and Venturi.

As if his philosophical restlessness weren't abundantly manifest in his zeal to traverse fields and arguments—and his disciplinary perambulations sometimes led critics to whisper of glibness and to give his body of work a Monet-like assessment (really pretty from a distance but up close, kind of hazy)­—it has also been hailed as a productive way to tackle the structural contradictions built into the discipline of religion. Tyler Roberts, a professor of religion at Grinnell, for example, argues that Taylor's "serious play" as a theoretician offers not only a bridge between religion per se and the "study of religion" but also a path for reimagining the future of theology. In a recent issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Roberts held up the theoretical ruminations of Taylor's 2007 book, After God (Chicago), with its serpentine logic, as a signal moment in the contemporary discipline of religion.

Beyond the intellectual promiscuity, Taylor has championed a host of projects no less pedagogically experimental. A seminar teleconferenced with a counterpart in Helsinki in 1992 prompted greater reflection on the new-media possibilities in teaching and led in 1998 to his founding, with the Coca-Cola tycoon Herbert Allen Jr., of the Global Education Network, an ambitious but eventually unsuccessful for-profit project to stream accredited lectures by mostly Ivy League professors into classrooms. Taylor experimented too with new, technologically savvy forms of the presentation of information, creating with José Márquez a CD-ROM game, "The Réal, Las Vegas, Nevada," to augment his 1997 book Hiding (Chicago) at a time when the idea of hypertext was more a rumor than an integral part of how students interacted with the world.

Yet underlying the variousness of Taylor's projects is an embrace of the classroom experience: To his way of thinking, teaching becomes a paradigm for a certain type of feedback loop. "Everything I've learned to do, I've learned from being with students," he says, and if the sentiment sounds platitudinous, it seems in Taylor's case to be no less genuine. (A point of pride for him is the 1995 honor he received from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which named him a Professor of the Year in view of his razzle-dazzle as a teacher.) His pedagogical focus seems of a piece with the small and intimate environment of a New England institution like Williams College, where he taught until 2007 and was the sole professor unattached to any department (it is one small irony that he left the quads of Williams for the research-oriented campus of Columbia). And given his Williams background, with its small class sizes and predilection toward teaching, it isn't difficult to imagine how nothing could be more an anathema to him than the stereotype of the professor as a claustral Casaubon oblivious to the needs of students.

"My mother and father were teachers"—they both taught high school, she English, he biology and physics—"and in my home, the school was a church," he says, tracing his reverential attitude to education to his childhood. At the core of Field Notes From Elsewhere is Taylor's attempt to come to terms with that quixotic inheritance, particularly the meaning of vocation in his life and his career—what it means to receive something like a religious calling when you in fact "don't believe in the one who calls."

The book is a Baedeker of such ambiguities and enigmas and double meanings. Comprising 52 chapters, each headed by a pair of terms that in some cases are semantically close ("Beginning/Origin," "Solitude/Loneliness"), in other cases diametrical opposites ("Levity/Grief," "Failure/Success"), and in still others of little apparent affinity ("Pleasure/Money," "Premonitions/Postcards"), Field Notes is structured by the sense that each theme is completed or fulfilled or canceled out by the other in a web of associative meanings and interrelations. Peppering each short entry are family snapshots and pictures of mementos that often have only an uncertain or ambiguous connection to the text.

"I thought of the book as a combination of a diary or daybook—the Danish word for diary is dogbok, or daybook—a book of hours, and a family photo album. It's a complicated form of writing. I didn't want it to be a straight narrative—that's not the way life is. I asked myself how one can be honest without being self-indulgent. It's an ethical question: What does one show and one hide, about oneself and about others?"

The answer to that question is a powerful and particular form of disclosure. The book begins with the nearly fatal episode of septic shock in 2005 but quickly segues to an account of the vexing notion of origins, "a past that becomes our future to form a circle that never closes." He recounts discovering, in the family Bible, the existence of two other siblings, and his parent's disclosure of the ghost brother and sister—an experience that would inflect not only his ambiguous understanding of his roots but also his curiosity about the spectral presence of "the departed" in his life and teaching. (Taylor evocatively explored the philosophical ramifications of ghostliness in his 2002 book Grave Matters, a collection of photographs of the headstones and mausoleums of famous philosophers and writers that ends, proleptically, with an image of the future burial ground of the author himself.)

Much in Field Notes is an examination of how those roots unexpectedly inflect his reading and his teaching; it leads him to theologically and philosophically rich discussions on the meaning of place and placelessness, pleasure and money, survival, autoimmunity, cancer, and the body. Wallace Stevens and Herman Melville become as much touchstones for reflection as the knotty work of Kierkegaard, Hegel, and Derrida. The book is a jigsaw of coincidences and late thoughts—a strategy on Taylor's part to reach an audience he hadn't attempted to write for previously but for whom he feels he has much to say about the relation between philosophy and theology to the everyday business of living. "The reason certain things are interesting to me is that they help me deal with life," he says. "In that sense, the pedagogical value of these ideas is to deal with life as it comes up. The issues in Field Notes are issues and questions everyone has to ask. The challenge to the writer and teacher is to give people resources to deal with those issues when they arise."

The coherent pattern that begins to emerge in Field Notes involves "betrayal" (in fact, this was Taylor's original name for the book) and its double nature—in the sense both of giving something away inadvertently (i.e., "his frown betrayed his discomfort") and of the more mendacious violation of a trust. Nowhere is this centrality more evident than in the chapter titled "Teaching": "It is easy, all too easy," he writes, "to lure with meditations on dread, despair, and death adolescents who are struggling with questions of their identity. They are vulnerable at this age, and that vulnerability poses both a danger as well as an opportunity."

He finds himself chagrined when an undergraduate perceptively questions his lecture on Sartre's Nausea stressing the existence of "radical freedom" in the face of meaninglessness—and refuses to accept on face value the existential argument that meaningless might be accepted hopefully. "Should I tell the students what they wanted, perhaps needed, to hear or should I tell them what I really thought? A lifetime of reading, writing, and teaching flashed through my mind in that instant. Having learned my lessons all too well, I once again avoided the unavoidable by ducking the question. Rather than telling them what I really thought, I proceeded to explain how the writers we were reading would have responded to the question. ... This is the abiding dilemma of teaching: On the one hand, do I have the right to deprive young people of hope by telling them of the suffering and uncertainty awaiting them? On the other hand, if I am not honest with them about what lies ahead, will they think I betrayed them when they inevitably encounter what we spend most of our lives trying to avoid?"

Teaching-as-betrayal is a point Taylor returns to again and again in the book. He tells of a former student who committed suicide after fabricating an illness (perhaps as a Munchausen-by-proxy form of bonding with him), and he writes of the anguished outburst of a frightened student, after the near collapse of the banking system last year, who feels his entire generation has been deceived by Taylor and his fellow professors to accept the false promises of a future of opportunity that is forcefully contradicted by the uneasy world they are graduating into.

In conversation, Taylor considers the word "betrayal" more deliberately in relation to what he sees as the dangling carrot of American graduate education. "Young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay, and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments," he says. "But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings."

Arts and humanities are in great trouble, he argues, because the patronage system is breaking down and programs will have no way of paying their own way. Rather than call for a new system of patronage, though, Taylor turns cavalier about the future of scholarship. "'Knowledge for knowledge's sake' is fine if somebody else is paying the bills," he says, while claiming that 80 percent "of 'so-called scholarship'" is a drag on a system that has become a bubble waiting to pop. "You have graduate students finishing their education $100,000, $150,000 in debt, with no prospects for a job. Debt is a problem on the institutional level, the student level, and the parental level," he says before impatiently rattling off a list of prestigious institutions—Middlebury, Harvard—in seriously overleveraged straits.

"As we speak, one of the great university systems, the University of California, is being dismantled." Everywhere, "assets are declining, liabilities are increasing, costs are fixed, and income is going down." In his view, calling graduate education the "Detroit of higher learning," as he did in his aggressive conceit at the beginning of his op-ed in the Times, is less hyperbole than understatement.

Is the dollars-and-cents side of things for real? Is the financial apocalypse Taylor has been warning about what motivates him, or is the concern more with a system of education that has perverted its purpose? Taylor's complaint about how education is conducted in the United States well predates the recent financial crisis, goes back at least to his Global Education Network venture with Allen. "There's nothing in the op-ed piece I hadn't written 10 years earlier. I graduated from Wesleyan in 1968. In 1970 there were no jobs. The first year that I looked for a job, in 1972, there were three in the entire country in modern Western [religion]. There have been no jobs since. And yet universities have not cut back on the number of grad students for the most part, because the only way they can afford to teach the undergraduates is to have the grad students." The proliferation of academic journals three decades ago ("Every group had a journal, and every group had a series with a press. Not because people had something to say, but because people had to publish") exacerbated the rift between teaching and research. It was all "predicated upon the assumption that people are doing research and writing. They're not."

When Taylor published his editorial, he was surprised at the ire it provoked in some quarters: In the Times, a Barnard philosopher accused Taylor of "crass anti-intellectualism," while a musicologist at the University of Northern Arizona contended he was poisoning "the waters of academe without offering a real antidote." Other letter writers saw the solutions Taylor proffered in reorganizing the departmental compartments of knowledge as little more than deck-chair shuffling.

Other aspects of his argument came under heavy fire. Marc Bousquet, on The Chronicle's Brainstorm blog, ridiculed Taylor's logic and his math while arguing that the purported surplus of underpaid doctorate holders was a junk theory the Times trotted out again and again. "I dunno if we should end the university as The New York Times or Mark C. Taylor claims to know it," Bousquet wrote. "But we really oughta end the university as the rest of us know it—as not merely exploitative, but as a creatively superexploitative employer."

"The blog stuff was pretty brutal," Taylor admitted. "But I received over 400 e-mails, 98 percent of them positive." Whatever the response, the op-ed immediately if temporarily launched him into the stratosphere normally occupied by Maureen Dowd and David Brooks as his essay shot to the top of the Times's most-e-mailed articles. For an opinion article on education, it seems to have at least been remarkably and widely circulated.

So far, his practical efforts at reform at Columbia, where he serves as chairman of the religion department, have been modest but at least partially carried out. The religion department, which has eight subfields that Taylor complains are specialized to the point that colleagues have little to speak to others about, has introduced a graduate component consisting of mandatory study of cross-cutting focus areas, dubbed zones of inquiry. These echo the problem-based curricula that Taylor championed in the Times—under the categories of time, transmission, space, body, and media, students and departmental members consider religion as well as their own specialties in a broad context. Under the auspices of the zones-of-inquiry requirement, the department also encourages participation with the new Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, which sponsors public lectures and events about the conjunction of the three. Co-directed by Taylor, the institute boasts an interdisciplinary set of advisers drawn from throughout Columbia and its humanities and social-science departments. The institute's weekly seminars focus on particular topics—blood, or media, or ghosts—that to Taylor represent more compelling areas for the university to be considering.

"Peer review and specialization are the worst things for creativity. They completely militate against working outside very narrow parameters," he says. "Somebody could do something very, very well, but what that something is might not be worth doing."

Whether his administration at Columbia, or for that matter his forthcoming Knopf title, will light a fire of reform, the experience is worth trying for Taylor. Consider it a continuing experiment born out of his own dissatisfaction: "I always say to my students, 'You don't desire satisfaction. Satisfaction is death. And there are a lot of living dead.'"

Eric Banks, a former editor of Bookforum, is a writer in New York.