Office hours: they’re the best! For the latest in our ongoing series of professor interviews, Sam Schube spoke with old Bwog favorite Bruce Robbins. While you might know him from that one essay you skimmed for University Writing (that’d be “The Sweatshop Sublime”), Robbins is a man of many interests—chief among them plumbing and the plight of the New York Knickerbockers.
Just to settle a personal bugaboo, you’re not the Bruce Robbins who pitched for the Detroit Tigers in the late ’70s, are you?
I’m not. I actually threw four no-hitters in my last year of Little League, and if that had gone further, I would not be here today. I would have much preferred it, frankly, but everyone else kinda grew a lot faster than I did. I threw my best fastball and just watched it disappear. End of career.
I remember you made a subtle basketball reference in class early this year—likening an authorial choice to a “non-call” by the referee. Are you a basketball fan?
Yeah, I’m a Knicks fan. It’s a hard time to be a Knicks fan. But the future…
You think so?
Well, the tricky thing is, does LeBron James want to come to a team that looks as feeble as the Knicks? Anyway, they need somebody with serious low-post moves.
Changing gears: what are you working on now?
Well, let’s see… this week, I’m giving a talk on secularism at the New School. It’s not serious research, it’s more like scholarly polemics. There’s this phenomenon called post-secularism, which is a kind of very strong attack on Western rationality, and I’m critical of Western rationality, but I’m not as critical as they are.
You had mentioned something about plumbing?
Yeah, I’m speaking about plumbing and infrastructure at Brown. Plumbing is a mode of interconnection between domestic intimacy and the larger world. I wrote something about this called “The Smell of Infrastructure” [What up, JSTOR! UNI/password required] about how infrastructure is perceived to smell because nobody takes care of it and nobody loves it. But I think since then, people have been discovering that infrastructure is kind of sexy, as the sort of structure of necessity—that other things are built on, that you can depend on, even if you don’t notice it until it stops working. So it’s kind of trying to do something with the imagination of the hidden ways we’re connected to each other.
Have you done any practical research?
I have not. Where plumbing is concerned, I call the super.
Any hobbies, interests, things we might not know about you?
Well, you got the sports thing. My son beats the shit out of me one-on-one, which was not always the case. What is interesting is that he continues to want to beat the shit out of me, and it’s not “point made.” The rules are that, since I can’t guard him, I just foul him, and the question is, can he make the lay-up anyway?
Academic obsessions? Plumbing?
Well, plumbing’s not quite an obsession… Hm, let me think. It’s so uninteresting not to have any obsessions! This is probably too serious, but I’m interested in the Middle East—as a Jew, I’m interested in the Middle East. I just came back from Palestine, where my daughter is doing her Ph.D. research, so I was visiting her. That was incredibly cool. And I suppose I have some urge to do a little representing of a side of the story that doesn’t get represented a whole lot.
So that was over spring break—did you do any trashy reading?
I read, let’s see—not trashy, James Wood’s novel The Book Against God, I read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin.
Oh, my dad’s been recommending that one. Thoughts?
Well, it’s one of these “trying to connect us all in a city.” It’s kind of related to the infrastructure thing. The center of it is the moment Philippe Petit walked the tightrope [at the World Trade Center in 1974]. I live not all that far from there [pulls a picture from the shelf]—that’s a picture I took from my roof on September 11th. That gave me a very strong sense of neighborhood.
How do you find living far from campus?
It means a few things. It means students don’t see what groceries I’m buying.
And that’s good?
I prefer not to have my grocery choices vetted—”Aha!” you know, “Cheerios—no, Honey Nut Cheerios!” I fantasize that everyone else is having more fun, you know, because everyone is bopping in and out of each other’s apartments all the time, whereas I’ve been living in the same apartment since 1985—a long time before I came to Columbia. In the nice weather I can ride my bicycle along the river to get here, which is kind of nice as a way of starting the day. Makes you a little smelly for class.
Last question: there’s a pretty great picture on Bwog of your face Photoshopped onto Bruce Springsteen’s body [see above]. So: fan of the Boss?
I think he’s great, yeah. Poor guy, though—it’s kind of insulting to him. He’s an American hero!