INSIDE THE DEN: Adam Nocek ’99

Each month in celebration of BMA’s 50th anniversary, we present to you a fellow academy alumnus/alumna. Join us as we look “Inside the Den”, learn about how the academy has evolved over time, and gain new insight on how the school shaped these Burkie Bears’ lives in ski racing and in life.

Since its inception in 1970, the academy has been home to 1,193 students including 36 who have gone on to compete in the Olympics and 145 who have been members of national teams representing the USA, Australia, Canada, Chile, Estonia, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea, and Spain. Above and beyond the athletic success of its alumni, BMA has always embraced a progressive educational model that focuses on engendering creativity, curiosity, and problem-solving in all of its graduates.

This month, we present you Adam Nocek. Adam is a professor in the philosophy of technology and science and technology studies in the School of Arts, Media, and Engineering at Arizona State University (ASU). He is also the founding director of the Center for Philosophical Technologies at ASU. He has published widely on the philosophy of media and science, speculative philosophy (especially Whitehead and Deleuze), design philosophy, and on critical and speculative theories of computational media. Adam is the co-editor of The Lure of Whitehead and a forthcoming book titled, Molecular Capture: The Animation of Biology. He is currently working on two book projects: the first project addresses computational governance and the emergence of new regimes of design expertise, and the second project reimagines the role of mythology within speculative design philosophy. Nocek holds a permanent visiting professorship at the University of Amsterdam and also served as the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Visiting Professor in 2019.

When did you first learn about BMA and why did you choose to attend the academy?

I grew up in Central New York, and I remember my ski coach describing this utopian place in Northern Vermont where high school students live on the mountain, ski every day, and train to be Olympians.  My immediate reaction was, “What? Are you kidding me? Where do I sign up?”  I became obsessed with Burke, bugged my parents every day offering them details from my research on Burke until they finally broke down and let me go to Christmas Camp. There was no turning back… 

What were your ski racing aspirations when you arrived at BMA and how did those evolve over your years as a Burkie?

 Well, like many Burkies, I wanted to be an Olympic champion. By the end of my junior year, I realized this wasn’t going to happen. I’m not exactly sure how it dawned on me—probably that my FIS points were nowhere near what they should have been—but by my senior year, I became much more focused on what was next for me. I think this is something really difficult for young athletes to deal with, so I was lucky to have very supportive friends and family.

What memories stand out the most from your Burke days?

 I love this question because there are so many:

One thing I remember fondly now is that there were no TVs in the dorm rooms. I don’t even think we had individual phones until my junior or senior year. (I remember calling home on the hall phone in Moulton House, only answering yes or no for fear that others would hear me.) In any case, without personal media devices, we spent countless hours together —talking, listening to music, whatever. I’m afraid that this kind of sharing is a lost art now…

I also remember pulling pranks my senior year with James Devendorf: turning Finn’s office into a disco, transforming the tennis courts into the dining hall, holding the science center’s TV hostage, even sending ransom notes written in haiku. Good memories. Although I do believe I served my time doing pots and pans for each offense, so I think I’m all paid up.

I remember when Kathy Gundersen decided to start a women’s lacrosse team my senior spring. She invited me (or I invited myself, I can’t remember which) to be the assistant coach. We may have even won a game or two.

Can you share your academic journey after graduating from BMA? 

I left BMA pretty confused about my future. I wasn’t very academic at Burke. I was much more interested in skiing and socializing. My best friends at the time, James Devendorf and Peter Behrman were much more bookish than I was. And like a good Burkie, I was very competitive, so if bookish was their thing, then it definitely wasn’t going to be mine! Haha. Anyway, I took a year off, spent time in Syracuse where I grew up, took college courses in philosophy and literature (flirted with Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre, and the rest of the gang), and realized that I could dedicate my life to this—wear black, smoke cigarettes, read books for a living. In all seriousness, I became obsessed with ideas, with big concepts, with things I couldn’t answer, and that was the point!

So I ended up attending McGill University in Montréal where they had an amazing philosophy program. I completed an honours degree in philosophy and wrote a thesis on Martin Heidegger and his critique of modern scientific rationality. After that, I spent a decade in graduate school. I went to Boston College, which had the largest concentration of Heideggerian phenomenologists in the world, and I had a change of heart. I  became enamored with the philosophy of science and technology, and how contemporary technoscience was shaping our political unconscious. So after I finished my MA in Boston, I headed west to pursue a PhD at the University of Washington. There I worked under some fabulous scholars who mentored me through the grueling work of completing a PhD dissertation. During that time, I also met my amazing wife, Stacey, who was completing a PhD in feminism and critical theory.

After completing our PhDs, my wife and I were fortunate enough to land amazing tenure-track professorships at Arizona State University. ASU is a very different kind of research university: it is very big (not just in size) on creating transdisciplinary research teams, hybrid learning/research environments, and so on. As a philosopher, I am in the unique position to be in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, working alongside artists, engineers, scientists, and designers/architects. This transdisciplinary environment gave me a platform to found and direct the Center for Philosophical Technologies, which houses faculty, researchers and graduate students, a journal, and works on collaborative research projects throughout the U.S., Europe (UK, Netherlands, Poland), Asia (Thailand), South America (Colombia), and Australia.

What drew you to philosophy and in particular philosophy of technology? 

Initially, what drew me to philosophy was asking big, difficult questions. Questions that would make your head hurt, but questions that needed to be asked nevertheless. What is the Being of beings? Or why is there something rather than nothing? There was something about this kind of thinking that attracted me.   

As I got into the field a bit more (really only after spending some serious time in graduate school), I realized that there are certain things that everyone takes for granted today. And it is precisely these things that philosophers need to question and pay attention to most. For instance, do computational technologies need to be tied to the extractive forces of information capitalism? The cultural theorist, Fredric Jameson, famously quipped that “It’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” For me, what this indicates is that it is impossible for most of us to imagine a future for technology (or any other practice or system) that is not in some way tied to unchecked capitalist development. These are precisely the kinds of assumptions that my work in the philosophy of technology seeks to challenge. That we cannot think otherwise, especially in times of such dire crisis, is exactly what we need to be able to do.

What are the key topics that interest you these days in your work? Why are those topics important to you and to society as a whole?

Oh gosh, don’t get me started… Okay, I’ll try to be brief.  I just completed a book on speculative media philosophy called, Molecular Capture: The Animation of Biology. The monograph traces the convergence of visualization technologies in the biosciences (from the use of the microscope in early experimental biology to computer animated molecules in the biocomputational sciences) to neoliberal practices of power and governance and argues that the dominant regimes of capitalism are shaping how we perceive and know the biological world. Basically, my most recent work shows how technoscientific innovation does not happen in a bubble; it is woven into much wider and pervasive systems of political and economic force that shape what we call “knowledge.”

I have two other book projects that will investigate how computational culture, and the ubiquity of machine-learning algorithms (AI) in particular, converge with dominant systems of power and governance.

To sum up then: I guess my work is focused on critiquing and reimaging the relation between technoscience and capitalism.

I also work closely with my wife, Stacey, at the center to develop global education programs, particularly in Amsterdam, Warsaw, Bogotá, and Bangkok. We are currently designing a new Master’s program for “Philosophical Practices” (basically, philosophy meets conceptual art and critical anthropology) that requires residency in these cities to complete the degree.

What impact did your BMA experiences have on your decision to pursue philosophy and become a professor? (if any?!)

Great question. Honestly, my BMA experience was so transformative that it’s really hard to say. But if I were pressed, then work ethic for sure. Ski racing can be very isolating. It’s not a team sport (even if the college carnival circuit tries to make it one), and it requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, the desire to succeed and the ability to follow through, as well as focused study of technique, the competitive field, one’s own emotion and physical health, etc.,  There are some things that I’m missing, of course, but the point is that competitive ski racing (which I don’t have to tell anyone reading this) requires deep inner strength, especially when your body or others don’t think you can succeed.

Similarly, academia, and philosophy in particular, is not a social sport, even if I try to make it one! I spend the majority of my time reading and writing, and that happens in isolation. It happens even when no one cares that you’ve been struggling with an idea for months or even years; it also happens without many accolades or financial reward, since success in academia doesn’t get you bonuses or corporate spending accounts, but more often than not a bitter dose of resentment from colleagues; and it happens despite the fact that philosophy is deeply undervalued in a world struggling to make sense of the ecological, political, and financial mess that it has made. For me, to do philosophy today (especially in the very strange and unjust world we live in) requires the self-discipline and perseverance that Burke instilled in me.

Also, and more anecdotally, Terry Cantor, Kathy Gundersen, Doug Clarner, James Upham, and Tom De Carlo are in some ways always with me when I stand in front of a classroom. The care, love, and creativity these educators displayed (despite the fact that we could be absolutely selfish and miserable teenagers!) has stayed with me to this day. I often tell my two daughters, Fiona and Ivy, about how Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was my history textbook (that was Upham) or how Doug taught the class geometry by going to the pub in Lyndonville to play pool. (BTW: the philosopher David Hume famously used billiards to illustrate concepts.) Anyway, I’m always trying to inject the spirit of these skilled and passionate educators into my pedagogy.

Are there any parallels between ski racing and philosophy?

Tons. I actually proposed a philosophy course on the philosophy of skiing at the University of Washington. Unfortunately, the administration didn’t like the idea (they didn’t think anyone would enroll), but I definitely want to teach it in the future (maybe something to teach at Burke on my sabbatical). I have always thought, and there is good research in philosophy and cognitive science to back this up, that ski racing (as a distributed and embodied practice) produces a kind of “knowing,” a knowledge practice even. The world shows up very differently for a ski racer than it does for a farmer or an engineer. Although I have always wondered why there are so many former ski racers in finance. I assume it has a lot to do with their shared epistemologies. In any case, I have a friend who is working on philosophy and mountaineering, so I still think there is room for a new philosophical discourse of alpine skiing…

What other personal projects and passions keep you busy now?

I would love to say that I have lots of other hobbies, passions, and projects right now, but work and family take up most of my time. Until the pandemic, I traveled internationally for speaking engagements a ton, so that also limited my ability to do anything worthy of note. Although… I just moved into a new house with a huge back yard, so I have been reading books on permaculture. With any luck, that will be in my future soon…

What is your current relationship to skiing?  

Well, I wish it were a better relationship. I live in Arizona, so skiing is not right out the backdoor. I try to get to Colorado or Utah at least once a year, sometimes more. I used to ski every weekend when I lived in Seattle (I even joined an adult ski team/beer league), but alas, good things often come to an end.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you tell your 15 years old self? 

Don’t take BMA for granted. This place is about so much more than skiing.

Do you plan to attend the 50th anniversary hopefully in 2021? 

Absolutely. Wouldn’t miss it.

Final parting comments you’d like to share?

BMA is a very special place. It’s special for reasons that are difficult, if not impossible, to articulate. It’s so much more than a ski academy, or the premiere training ground for Olympic athletes, and so on. I have been in the academic world since I graduated from Burke in 1999. And I can honestly say, without hesitation, that BMA has a recipe for cultivating human beings that I have never seen replicated.