Shannon Mattern is a leading figure in media studies and infrastructure studies. She is equally a beloved teacher and mentor to these fields writ large—and beyond them, for her work touches many disciplines. Mattern is a true champion of the public humanities and public thinking. In addition to her four books—The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities; Deep Mapping the Media City; and Code and Clay, Dirt and Data: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media, all published by University of Minnesota Press; and A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences, published by Princeton University Press—she maintains wordsinspace.net, is a contributing writer for Places Journal, and speaks to a range of audiences about the future and history of information infrastructures. We spoke about what it is to do public thinking in our contemporary moment of burnout, austerity, and academic labor activism at the start of summer.
Hannah Zeavin (HZ): Did you arrive at graduate school knowing that you were going to work on libraries and urban spaces?
Shannon Mattern (SM): I arrived thinking I was going to work on posthumanism and cyborgs. I had become enamored with Donna Haraway and Allucquére Rosanne Stone as an undergraduate, and I thought I wanted to continue exploring the themes central to my undergraduate thesis, which focused on how advertisements tried to help people understand how they were supposed to relate to consumer computing technology. Then, as I began to question more deeply the role of religion in my own life, I thought I wanted to focus on religious architecture and the media of liturgy. I remember taking a several-week-long public “history of church architecture” class at Saint Thomas, a big Episcopal church on Fifth Avenue. That class, while fascinating, convinced me that no, this would not be my dissertation.
Having moved to New York from a rural part of the country, I was amazed by the richness and ubiquity of its public libraries. They were sacred in their own secular way. This realization allowed me to incorporate themes that initially inspired my interest in religious spaces: order and ritual.
HZ: How did you discover your interest in ritual and in order? Why were you interested in those themes?
SM: Growing up in a religious household was one reason. My dad and his brothers also had a hardware store in our small town. It had its own aesthetic order that was really fascinating to me. My job was to take the items that came off the truck, look at the barcodes, match them to the bins, and be able to discern all these minute differences between types of screws and fasteners and things of that sort. My brother got to drive the forklift out back in the lumberyard. Meanwhile, my mom was a special education teacher. She started out by teaching high school–age children with Down syndrome and then moved to younger students with more complex and compounding disabilities. Her work made me interested in different forms of knowledge production. So I combined my interests in craft and making that were manifested in my dad’s sphere with these multiple forms of intelligence from my mom’s sphere.
I was also a chemistry major as an undergraduate, and at the time I intended to be a doctor. My schedule was packed with math and science, and I took a literature class almost every semester as an escape. Ultimately I realized that I was taken by the material text tradition (although I wouldn’t have used that language back then)—the physicality of the page, the choice of typography, the use of white space, the stock of paper. I was just as much interested in the book as a material object as in the words on the page. In retrospect I realized that such aesthetic concerns had been part of my interest in chemistry too: I loved the imagery of pipettes and the colors that emerge when different chemicals are mixed together, the periodic table. I really liked the aesthetic order of the lab as much as the knowledge that was produced there.
HZ: How did you come to switch course from medical school to humanities graduate school?
SM: I didn’t grow up in an academic family. I was good at, but did not feel a lot of passion for, math and science. Once I switched majors I hoped to find a pragmatic application for literary studies. I thought I was going to work in publishing or advertising. My senior year I was looking for jobs in copywriting.
That same year I took a medieval British literature class. My professor had a profound impact on my plans. I told him about the advertising job. He laughed and said, “That doesn’t seem to me to be your calling.” He put the idea of graduate school on my radar for the first time. There were just a few weeks before the application deadlines, so I had to throw things together. At every turning point in my career I’ve always applied both to academic jobs and to “applied” jobs, in the arts and publishing and with nonprofits, because I could see my trajectory forking at multiple pivot points.
HZ: In the switch from religious order and religious architectures to the library, did you feel the influence of working within media studies, and particularly at NYU with its media ecology framing?
SM: My understanding is that my dissertation defense was the last one that Neil Postman—chair of Culture and Communication at NYU—was able to participate in. His health declined rather dramatically, and I don’t believe he was able to attend other defenses after mine. He was a public intellectual whose work has been highly influential, but he had a mixed reputation among academics. I appreciated his work, but I more greatly admired his humanity. He always asked me about my family. He was very interested in my mom’s work in special education, what I learned from her about being a teacher. Yet I will say that he and my other advisors in the department were perhaps a little bit too laissez-faire. I completed at least half of my coursework outside the department, around the university, which probably broke a few curricular rules. I remember reading in the course catalog about this class at the Institute of Fine Arts called Space, Place, and Landscape, which sounded amazing. It ended up being a landscape history class with W. J. T. Mitchell, and it opened up all kinds of new questions and areas of study to me. I took additional classes in American studies and urban studies with Andrew Ross, who ended up being on my committee.
So, my academic advisors’ hands-off nature was both a boon and a risk. I could have, and some might say that I did, create a very undisciplined curriculum. Yet “undisciplined” has both positive and negative connotations for me. A lack of disciplinary confinement could have made me a completely illegible patchwork—which perhaps to some people I am! But it also allowed me to piece together insights and methods from different disciplines that have made my work what it is today. And I think I balance out that curricular promiscuity with discipline of other sorts.
HZ: That is a gorgeously positive hallmark of your work. It’s not undisciplined, it’s very rigorously multidisciplined. You get the feeling that someone is taking the trouble to stick together conversations that all are of a piece, and yet the rigidity of boundaries has stymied those conversations. You convene them.
HZ: When did you start to move beyond the standard monograph or peer-reviewed article (you have many of both) to other forms of writing?
SM: After I got a grant to visit 15 libraries for my first book, I started to write additional articles on libraries. I began to realize that there was an inherent tension within this conventional academic equation of scarcity with prestige—as exemplified in the presses and publishers and institutions that I was supposed to be aspiring to work with—and the more egalitarian, democratic models of knowledge production and sharing within the institutions I was writing about.
I hoped that my research would resonate for a larger audience. In my postprobationary review—that is, the halfway-to-tenure review—my work was deemed a bit too accessible. I was writing too pragmatically, too accessibly, without enough high theory. I was even told I was too enamored with my subject. I needed to be more critical. I remember for one of my early peer-reviewed articles, about the acoustics of libraries and archives, a reviewer asked me, “Shouldn’t you be emphasizing how this is a Foucaldian institution that’s disciplining its subjects?” I’m like, “Sure, but what institution isn’t doing that? Isn’t this a painfully predictable argument? There’s also a lot to be celebrated and to love here.” I was trying to balance critique with appreciation and pragmatic applications, to celebrate the labor and expertise of the people who are committed to these institutions, however fraught that labor might be. I came to realize that my articles and my first book were used by actual librarians and planners and architects. The work had utility, which meant a lot to me. Library directors from small towns and cities around the country, sometimes around the world, were asking for advice. I realized, Wow, I can do work that matters beyond the academy.
Coincidentally, after I got tenure in 2012 my first proposal to Places was accepted. And it was such a positive experience, so different from any peer-review experience, that I realized: This is the type of editorial relationship I want. This work is differently rewarding, the potential readership is much broader, it’s more personally meaningful work. The synchronicity of getting tenure and beginning to write for Places was affirmation that I had both checked the necessary boxes for the academy and opened up doors to a broader community at the same time.
HZ: That makes all the sense in the world. Can you say a little bit about your first column for Places?
SM: They had a call for a new series on the public and private, which I thought pertained to my work with public libraries. Around that time I was also working with the Architectural League of New York on a design project related to all the little libraries that were proliferating around the country: Little Free Libraries, birdhouse libraries, pop-up libraries. This generated some interestingly designed projects, which were then distributed around the city. So I began looking more deeply at libraries’ relation to art practice. There were lots of experimental libraries happening at arts fairs, and work engaging with classification itself as an aesthetic practice.
I proposed this piece to Places about little libraries on the urban margins. They accepted it, and the article did really well. They invited me to write something else. And after a few long-form pieces I became a columnist. I’ve written close to 30 long-form pieces for them over the past decade.
I look around for the “perfect” reading to assign and find that it doesn’t exist. So I decide, Well, I guess I’ll write it.
HZ: You mentioned before that there is a different editorial process inherent in public writing. Could you say what felt new in that moment when you first encountered it? How it changed you?
SM: I’ve been working with a steady, reliable editorial team for some years. As someone who studies psychoanalysis, I’m sure you can understand the relational aspect, the connection you develop with a team of competent editors with whom you’ve worked for over a decade. Ultimately you stop being self-conscious about your quirks, your insecurities, because you trust your interlocutors to look past them, or to help you acknowledge and work around them. The pressure, the self-defeatism tends to go away when you’re able to build those relations. At the same time, these people were still subject-matter experts. They were checking to make sure that I was aware of, and cited, relevant contemporary and historical research. The quality control of traditional peer review was still brought to bear, but in addition, my Places editors were reading for style, for aesthetics. I was able to work with a photo editor. I proposed images, but sometimes the reproduction costs were too high or the copyright was too difficult to track down. Just having somebody working with you to think through how to make a visual and design argument was great. I found it so rewarding to have this ongoing dialogue with a team of people thinking about content, argumentation, style, readability, obligations to readers in multiple disciplines and distributed geographic locations—readers accessing work that is freely available out there on the web. Those are discussions that I hadn’t had with traditional academic editors.
HZ: It’s also interesting that you started with the relational because, of course, part of the rigor associated with peer review is anonymity—a particular way of relating. Sometimes we blur that boundary in the academy, but it’s an uncertain experience. Even if you publish in the same journal, the editorial board will have changed over the years.
Do you feel that a stable, known, two-way editorial relationship inflected and shaped your field of study?
SM: During my years as a columnist, I definitely took on some articles that I was a little scared to write because I knew I could rely on my editors. One of my longtime editors, Josh Wallaert, has moved on to other things—including writing children’s books—but he still occasionally does freelance work. He and I turned Word’s track changes columns into an epistolary genre itself! We both seemed to be night owls. We would stay up really late exchanging annotated drafts. I’d say, “Josh, I’m just not sure about this word. I don’t want to offend, but I also want to be very precise here.” The fact that I could have five back-and-forth exchanges with him between midnight and 2 a.m. about something like that—that’s what allowed me to take on riskier subjects. It’s the type of exchange that would not be possible with an anonymous peer reviewer.
HZ: I want to talk about teaching and the labor of mentorship and in administration.
In my cohort in graduate school, I felt like everyone was working with you, and I remember every other sentence out of their mouths was basically, “I’ll check with Shannon.” At a certain point in time I recall thinking, I worry for her inbox! But your generosity, which everyone remarks on, is not just scholarship but also public pedagogy. Can you speak a little about how you came to focus on opening up the university beyond what the university typically wants to be open for?
SM: In part I thought about the class as an object lesson for students, especially the many, many terminal master’s students with whom I worked, most of whom didn’t aspire to pursue an academic career. I was trying to model for them ways of “being public,” of “building learning communities,” via my sharing of materials like syllabi.
This opening-up was also a creative practice for me. I was a musician in high school. I briefly considered going to conservatory—yet another career possibility!—but again, there wasn’t any model for that in my family. I didn’t know how to make a life doing that. Gradually—especially during grad school, when there’s very little time for “hobbies”—music became something I consumed rather than produced. Same with the visual arts.
But then I returned to creation through an unexpected development. I applied to a non-discipline-specific Mellon postdoc at Penn, and much to my surprise, the art history department took me in. Which was so fortuitous, because I never would have aligned myself with a discipline that had seemed so rarified and specialized to me. But it was such a hospitable place, especially because I really wanted to find a way to transform my scholarship and teaching into a creative practice. Back in 2003 I started to build websites for each of my classes, and to approach the process as a means of designing a space, a virtual space, that aesthetically and materially embodies the ideas that we’re talking about.
This work of pedagogical design has also been really generative for my research. Many of my Places columns exist because I wanted to find a text or illustrative example that makes a particular connection for students or shows how a critical idea is manifested in a creative practice. I’ve often found myself looking around for the “perfect” reading to assign and finding that it doesn’t exist. So I decide, Well, I guess I’ll write it.
HZ: I want to ask—for selfish reasons and because I want everyone to know—about the redesigning the academy course you just taught at The New School.
SM: Redesigning the Academy was something that I had been unintentionally building during my final few years at the New School. I’d had a very service-heavy career. Most recently, I had been simultaneously directing two programs that bridged three different divisions of the university—and across my 18 years at the university I taught and served across four divisions. As anyone chairing or directing a program throughout the pandemic is aware, the workload—and worry!—became quite overwhelming. Meetings proliferated: 20 or 30 hours per week. University panic about attrition and retention really increased the service load, and customer service-style outreach to students generated a lot of additional work for folks in administrative positions. I was also facing a number of inconveniently converging personal challenges—family health problems, long commutes, a frustrating encounter with a copyright troll, and so forth—that sort of broke me this past year. After 18 years of nearly nonstop work, my brain just stopped working.
I was also hearing so much despondency among students, especially PhD students who were gravely concerned about the academic job market, many of whom wondered if they even wanted an academic job after observing their advisors’ burdens and their institutions’ dysfunctions and hypocrisies. So last summer I just thought, There’s a critical discourse around the academy’s brokenness. Let’s engage with that critical discourse and do something positive with it. I wanted to design a class that engaged with critiques about adjunctification, metrics and rankings, professionalization, the decline of the liberal arts, student debt, all of these concerns. How could we imagine things otherwise?
I also decided that if I didn’t find another job that year I would quit, because I was so overwhelmed and miserable. I knew this class was going to be my mic drop, my swan song—pick your metaphor! It felt appropriate to do something both cathartic and reparative at the end of everything.
I also thought this collective exploration was necessary for my students. They realized the depth of the challenges the academy faces but also held out hope that there are other places that may embody the academy’s purported values better than the academy itself does.
HZ: And what were they?
SM: A lot of alternative learning spaces and communities. We had Eli Meyerhoff come to our class to talk about alternative schools and intentional learning communities. We looked at Caroline Woolard’s work with co-ops and Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s approach to non-professional learning and collective study. We looked at the “undercommons,” the Freedom Schools, the “third university,” the abolitionist academy. There’s so much to learn from them.
HZ: That’s fantastic. Yes, I remember all of those examples from your website. There’s so much that you can do when you don’t need scale. Scale can breed a feeling of anonymity and attachment to wages.
Do you imagine that you could teach that course at Penn in your new position? Would you do it again?
SM: You were talking about the risks of scale. The New School is a great example of these risks because it was founded as a small community that embraced really progressive, idealistic principles. But when it grew and grew and became more conventionally institutionalized, those ideals were compromised. Certain things are possible only when everybody knows and trusts each other, or when they’re all working together in one building, shunning rigidity and being ad hoc. But when you have a university of 10,000 to 11,000 students, and when the vast majority of your faculty is contingent, those principles are harder, if not impossible, to implement.
Penn’s a different beast. It’s a more prestigious, more professional school with many more resources. One of the things I really want to do in the classroom there is to spread the wealth as much as possible. I realize such aspirations are fraught because town and gown relations, especially in West Philadelphia, are fraught. But if we did teach the course again we’d have to think carefully about the relationships between universities and the communities they exist in—something Davarian Baldwin writes about beautifully—and the local groups that already exemplify that type of study we aspire to.
HZ: We haven’t talked yet about your most recent book, A City Is Not a Computer (2021). How did you come to think about the notion and fantasy of a smart city?
SM: My work on smart cities started in maybe 2010 or 2011. It grew out of my interest in libraries. If people ask me what I work on, I usually say: how information is materialized or manifested spatially. Those manifestations could take the form of an interface, the design of the printed page, furniture, architecture, infrastructure—all of which I’ve written about. Cities are a great framework to study how multiple scales of mediation converge. A smart city is an environment in which we “instrument”—and “instrumentalize”—urban knowledge and apply it in the pursuit of greater efficiency, or some other set of values that lend themselves to quantification. Smart cities are also often where we collapse the myriad, prismatic forms of intelligence that constitute a city and reduce them to representation on a data dashboard. The impoverishment of that reduction was really what inspired me to start looking at these places.
I remember one person on Twitter commenting that A City Is Not a Computer isn’t really a smart city book. That’s exactly what I was aiming for. They framed their comment as a critique—because the book has this seemingly superfluous stuff about libraries and maintenance—but that’s the point. I wanted readers to think about the paucity of, the limitations of, thinking that intelligence is data. Intelligence is also community knowledge and care. The book is part of a short-form series I hoped would be good for teaching. I made sure it was formatted to be under $20.
HZ: And it was so prescient—that the book was conceived prepandemic. How did you negotiate the pressure of the pandemic on the book?
SM: I submitted the proposal and got the contract before the pandemic. Then I had a moment of crisis, as I’m sure many people did, about whether the world even needed this thing, considering all the more pressing issues we now faced. And then I thought, maybe what I had to offer was actually useful, considering the ways databases and surveillance were marshaled to address the pandemic. I wanted the book not to be about the pandemic but to draw lessons from it.
HZ: In addition to the many things I know you are working on, you have a big leave coming up.
SM: Yes. This is my first leave in a decade. My last leave was in 2013, and I used that to self-manage my own divorce, so that really wasn’t much of a respite!
This year I had to realize my limitations. The stresses of the year broke my brain. I had to back out of a lot of projects, something I hadn’t done before, and say to everybody: please know that this isn’t because I’m sloppy, overcommitted, or didn’t prioritize your work—I just can’t mentally do it. The ideas just weren’t coming. I was doing all the background research, I had all my notes organized, but I didn’t know how to make an argument anymore.
I’m pretty mentally depleted right now. So I need to take some time to plan and imagine my future life, moving to a new city, figuring out how to still have one foot in New York and one in Philadelphia. Those logistics are going to be really intense and affectively potent, because I love New York so much.
I’ve also committed to a number of tenure and manuscript reviews and small projects for other people. Once I finish those, I hope to think about two book projects—both of which build on isolated articles I’ve written over the years, but which I now realize, in retrospect, actually constitute slow series. One is about furniture design and media history; and the other is about sound design. I’m hoping to start with the furniture book so I can consult with my dad, who’s experienced a lot of loss in recent years. I want to honor all the material knowledge that he and his friends possess. I feel like there are existential limitations that are pushing me to work on this book now.
HZ: That’s so moving. I’ve seen various objects of your father’s crafting—they’re gorgeous. And you tweeted that you yourself have been doing some woodworking.
SM: I do know a bit. My dad is way beyond beginner, but he took me to a beginner’s woodworking class in Tennessee a few summers ago. I made a little Shaker-style table with hand-cut dovetail drawers. And my dad did it with me, even though he was far too advanced for that class. But it was really meaningful. It was just the two of us there together, in rural Tennessee, planing and staining wood for a week and a half.
And that reminds me of another priority for my sabbatical: spending more time with my parents while they’re here. Doing fieldwork with my dad in his woodshop and, at the same time, simply being a daughter and enjoying their presence.
This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen.