Creative Quarantine: Philosopher, Artist & Professor H. Peter Steeves

H. Peter Steeves dancing with Grover from “Sesame Street” (Danielle Meijer) | Photography by Anna Vaughn Clissold

H. Peter Steeves, talks with Esthetic Lens about the many things he has been up to during the pandemic. With a vast list of interests and different avenues of creative production, Steeves opens up about how he has pressed on in spite of the restrictions and published his latest book Being and Showtime.

1.How are you holding up?

So-so, I guess.  Why?  What have you heard?!

Detail of The Map Precedes the Territory: Live Satellite Feed from Iraq | Photograph by Monika Lozinska

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

It’s a difficult time.  I’ve lost people I cared about very much to the virus and I have been dealing with some challenging health issues myself, some of which have made it such that I have had to spend most of the time at home, sequestered with my wife, not really going out or seeing anyone else.  Luckily, I am something of a hermit anyway—and being with Danielle all of the time is the opposite of a punishment for me.  No matter what, I can’t complain. 

H. Peter Steeves with anamorphic shadow of his five-year-old self | Image by H. Peter Steeves based on photos taken by Greg Scott and Robert B. Atkinson

There’s so much suffering around.  As for the pandemic affecting “work,” it depends on the definition of that word.  I volunteer as a bioethicist at a Chicago hospital, and I’ve seen far too much suffering there recently.  My work—what brings in the paycheck, that is—is teaching philosophy and directing the DePaul Humanities Center (DHC) at DePaul University.  That has all been very different, with classes having moved online for nearly a year now, which is, essentially, an impossible thing to ask.  Information can be conveyed, but directed thinking together in which wisdom is the goal?  That’s hard to come by through Zoom. 

Detail of The Map Precedes the Territory: Live Satellite Feed from Iraq | Photograph by Monika Lozinska

At school, the DHC is my main creative outlet, so it has been a challenge not having face-to-face events to plan.  I’ve been trying very hard to create programming this season that offers something more imaginative and exciting than just another online talk or conference with events such as our eighth annual Horror of the Humanities and the “My Brilliant Pen Pal” series.  Outside of this, though, the artistic projects in which I’m lucky enough to be engaged have changed as well.  Several lectureperformances (“shows” in which I give a scholarly talk but include live performative elements such as music, dance, theatre, and general spectacle) have been canceled or postponed; a really exciting installation, film, and performance collaboration with my friends Zack Ostrowski and Greg Scott has been put on hold; and I haven’t even been able to play with my band, Real Ringo!  Because so much of the work I do involves collaboration, everything has truly changed over the last year.  I have been doing a few online magic performances, though.  (Speaking of which: is this your card?!)

Detail of The Human Genome Projection | Photograph by John W. Sisson, Jr

3. What are some of the unexpected creative things or projects that have developed for you while navigating the current state of the world?

The biggest thing, I suppose, is that I published my ninth book, Being and Showtime.  It is the first book I have published with a non-academic press, and I did so precisely so it could be something different.  Because it is, at heart, a collection of the scripts for several of my lectureperformances, I had always wanted the book itself to be something that, through its medium, challenged the nature of a book itself in a way that is similar to how the lecture-performances try to challenge the nature of an academic talk.  The idea was to have the reader perform the book rather than passively read it.  So I designed removable tarot and poker cards, holograms, scratch-and-sniff stickers, pop-up elements, finger puppets, logic puzzles, cartoons, a flip-book movie, and several other interactive elements.  Sawbuck Books, as super-generous as they were, didn’t have the funds necessary to do everything I wanted, and I couldn’t put together a budget myself that was large enough to include every element I had designed (such things as the animated lenticular image and the sound chips will have to wait for another publication, I guess), but in general, the book is, I hope, fun as well as intellectually interesting.  This is something that drives a lot of my projects: remembering that thinking about important and deep issues, and doing vital and demanding work, should be joyous and fun—serious tasks can be taken up without a somber attitude that precludes excitement and pleasure.  What has really been unexpected, though, is how much I have enjoyed building with the website for the book,

Being and Showtime | ©H. Peter Steeves

I am pretty much a Luddite—no cell phone, no Facebook, no Twitter, Instagram, or video games—and I don’t spend much time online in general.  But because Sawbuck had no money for publicity, and because the book is not available on Amazon since each one is hand-assembled and includes “ephemera”—I had to find a way to get the word out.  I put together a two-hour online launch party with live performances from a bunch of my friends, and we had more than a hundred people show up for that.  But still, I knew there had to be some sort of more “permanent” way to make it possible to find out more about the book and to order it.  The website does this, I hope, but I’ve never created a website before, so it’s been a challenge, especially using a sort of ‘stripped-down’ server that doesn’t let me do all of the crazy things I dream of doing.  Still, it’s been strangely fun tinkering with it all.  I have really bad insomnia and essentially never sleep, so I find myself playing around with the site in the wee hours, adding new elements and especially new hidden pages (there are now more hidden pages—which is where the weirdest stuff is on the website, and which you can only find by clicking on things that aren’t obviously clickable—than there are regular pages; I have no idea if anyone ever finds and sees these pages, even!). 

Pens against writing | Designed and photographed by H. Peter Steeves

I’ve also been creating “combo packs” such that you can order a copy of the book with other items included, and it’s been fun creating all of those bonus things.  This is why you can buy Being and Showtime-inspired hand sanitizer, face masks, peanuts, balloons, car air fresheners, and dozens of other things.  There’s also a new poster on the website that I designed that says “YOU WILL DIE” at the top and recounts the story of a skydiver whose parachute fails that I discuss in the final chapter of the book.  For some reason, a large, colorful wall poster that reminds people they are going to die hasn’t exactly become a best seller.  Honestly, I don’t know if I would have spent this energy on the website if it hadn’t been for the pandemic (and have a newfound respect for people with far better and far cooler websites, too).

Post-It Notes Under Construction | Designed and photographed by H. Peter Steeves

“Postmodern bookmark” | Designed and photographed by H. Peter Steeves

4. Who do you wish was still with us to provide pointed commentary on what we are collectively experiencing and why?

I may have created a poster all about death and coming to terms with mortality, but the simple truth is: I don’t believe in death.  If I ruled the cosmos no one would ever die and everything would “eat” light and, maybe, gravitational energy gradients instead of eating each other.  That being said, may I answer with four names?  Today, as I write this, I am thinking of Emma Goldman, Rachel Rosenthal, Andy Kaufman, and Snowball.  Emma was the real deal, an anarchist who spoke truth to power.  She would help remind everyone that the election of Biden in the U.S. means nothing; the problem was never Drumpf, the problem is the system, the empire itself, and nothing short of an anarchic revolution is called for if we ever hope to pursue our true mutual flourishing.

Nausicaa Undone II | Photograph by H. Peter Steeves

  Rachel was one of the greatest performance artists who ever lived; how fortunate I am that she was my friend for the last fifteen years of her life.  Rachel’s work often focused on animal and environmental issues as well as feminism.  Rachel would surely be creating some incredible performance pieces today that would help us see how art is paramount to thinking through our situation, probably with live animals on stage and an out-of-control cast of hundreds. 

H. Peter Steeves and Danielle Meijer at the conclusion of “The Mourning Show” | Photograph by John W. Sisson, Jr

Andy, another one of my heroes, would put perspective on everything and simply make us happy.  Perhaps he would have found a way to socially-distance while wrestling, singing Slim Whitman songs the whole time.  I would trust Andy with my life, and I think the feeling is mutual.  Finally, Snowball was my boyhood dog.  She was tough, like a polar bear, and had given birth to a litter of pups in the woods before being caught, sentenced to death, and eventually saved by our choosing her—against the advice and protests of the workers at the pound.  Having been a feral child myself, I wish that everyone could know the wild, intelligent, compassionate, brave, artistic dog who changed my life.  It would make it easier to get through all of this.

Detail of The Human Genome Projection | Photograph by John W. Sisson, Jr

5. What artists, performers, writers, have you come across recently that have created poignant work about where we are at right now?

I’m truly fortunate that I have the DePaul Humanities Center that lets me reach out to and support creative people.  As I mentioned, at the DHC I have been trying to create events this academic year that are not online.  One of the great things about directing the Center, in general, is that it allows me to get to know and spotlight incredibly creative people. 

Detail of The Human Genome Projection | Photograph by John W. Sisson, Jr.

I started, for instance, the “Sickness and Solitude” series this year that is taking place through the U.S. mail.  People sign up on the website and then get things for free in the mail.  The first thing we have coming out is an album of new music that I produced to be based on the theme of sickness and solitude.  I’ve been working with NNAMDÏ, Kyle Morton, and Gaelynn Lea on the project, and they’ve all written and recorded new songs.  Kyle, who started the band Typhoon, has been a friend for several years and is amazing.  His new work—like the new album from his band, Sympathetic Magic—is a deep, important, original response to our collective current situation.  Kyle is the absolute best.  Gaelynn’s recorded a new version of one of her songs for the album as well as an instrumental piece, and they are both gorgeous.  I’m really enjoying getting to know NNAMDÏ, too, and am loving his new track, “Goin’ Crazy” which he wrote and recorded for us.  Last fall when I kept listening to his song “Freeze” on repeat, I knew I had to try to convince him to be part of the album project.  The album will have all of these new songs as well as audio tracks of me having conversations with the artists (including punk icon, Roberta Bayley, who gave us the photo of Debbie Harry and Joey Ramone for the cover of the album that I designed to be an homage to The Ramones’ first album cover [which she shot]. The idea is that the CD, which will be mailed for free to the first 100 people who sign up, will act as if it’s an audio version of a regular, in-person DHC event.

“Death with roses (Danielle Meijer)” | Photograph by John W. Sisson, Jr

Up next will be an attempt to create a visual version of an event, so toward that end, I’m making a custom View-Master reel we’ll be mailing out with slides from some really cool visual artists including Wangari Mathenge and the Brothers Quay.  The Quays are…what can I say?…the best: dark, unique, genius.  I just became aware of Wangari’s work last summer and think that her paintings are really important for thinking through Black female identity today. 

Finger puppet of pigeon that Nikola Tesla imagined had laser eyes, by H. Peter Steeves

Apart from these new DHC initiatives, I’ve also recently enjoyed reading Seventh Mansion, Maryse Meijer’s first novel, which puts the environmental crisis of today in a new light, complicating it in a human and nonhuman way that only the amazing Maryse can do.  Also, thanks to my friend, Logan Berry, I’ve discovered Simply Sara on YouTube.  Dang!  I gotta go wash down them Buckeye Balls with a 2-liter of Mtn Dew!

The band, Gopher Sample (Dan Edelstein, Joe Marcus, Adam Berkson, Rich Green, and H. Peter Steeves), performing David Bowie’s “Five Years” | Photograph by John W. Sisson, Jr

6. What are you looking forward to?

Jet-packs; post-pandemic theatre, music, dance, and other face-to-face live performances; prison abolition; skkkool abolition; meeting Sasquatch and Nessie; having my eight-year-old niece, Charlotte, to our apartment for another one of our super-awesome anti-sleepovers when the vaccine is available; yesterday (I will have already had to conquer the challenge of time travel); the collapse of the grid and the end of capitalism and globalism; understanding the true nature of spacetime and a way to combine general relativity and quantum theory that isn’t ridiculous in the way that string theory is ridiculous; actual political revolution with the rise, from the bottom up, of anarchic phenomenological communitarianism; and…jet-packs.

Photography by Greg Scott (with direction from Zack Ostrowski)

H. Peter Steeves is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Humanities Center at DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA.  He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Indiana University (1995), and he specializes in phenomenology, ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy of science.

Detail of The Human Genome Projection | Photograph by John W. Sisson, Jr

Steeves is the author of nine books, including: Founding Community: A Phenomenological-Ethical Inquiry (Kluwer, 1998); The Things Themselves: Phenomenology and the Return to the Everyday (SUNY Press, 2006); Animal Others: On Ethics, Ontology, and Animal Life (edited; SUNY Press, 1999); Beautiful, Bright, and Blinding: Phenomenological Aesthetics and the Life of Art (SUNY P, 2017); and Being and Showtime (Sawbuck Books, 2020).  Forthcoming books include: Probably: How Chance Founds Our Reality, God Plays Dice with the Universe, and the Truth Is Never Better than More-or-Less Likely; APC ASAP!: The Anarchic Phenomenological Communitarianism Anti-Manifesto; and Keep Yourselves from Idols: Liberation (Post-)Theology Beyond the Death of God.  He has published more than 140 book chapters and journal articles and has presented more than 200 public and academic professional lectures. 

Detail of The Human Genome Projection | Photograph by John W. Sisson, Jr

Steeves has been a Presidential Scholar and recipient of the United States Presidential Medallion (1984), a recipient of the National Society of Arts and Letters’ award for literature (Indiana, 1990), a Princeton Historical Center Seminar Fellow (1998), a Senior Fulbright Fellow (Venezuela, 1998-99), a DePaul Humanities Center Fellow (2001-02), a National Endowment for the Humanities “Enduring Questions” grant recipient (2012-14), a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Center for Latin American Studies (2005), and a recipient of both Indiana University’s and DePaul University’s Excellence in Teaching Award.  He holds the position of permanent Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of Zulia (Venezuela) and sits on the editorial board of several academic journals.  In 2011, Rate My Professor—an on-line professor rating site for students—announced that based on their research culled from more than 1,500,000 professors in their database, Steeves was one of the “Top 15 Best Professors in the United States.”  

Detail of A Hole New World | Photograph by Monika Lozinska

Outside the university, Steeves has been involved as a member of and a consultant to various bioethics hospital committees has worked with international election observers in Latin America and has been interviewed by and appeared on CNN, the BBC, Australian Radio National, NPR, The Toronto Star, The Daily Herald, The Management Report, The L.A. Times, and several other newspapers and media outlets in North and South America.  

Drawing of the author as a cartoon afraid of encountering Martin Heidegger | by H. Peter Steeves

Steeves has also held several positions in the arts, including Visiting Installation Artist (Chicago Sculpture Works; 2008-10), Playwright in Residence (DePaul Humanities Center; 2009-10), and staff cartoonist (Oak Leaves newspaper, 1985-89).  His installation work has been featured in such venues as The Chicago Cultural Center’s annual juried “Site Unseen” installation art exhibit (2008), Zhou B Café and Gallery, and the DePaul Art Museum’s (DPAM) “Faculty Showcase.”  In 2017-18, he collaborated with artists Zachary Ostrowski and Greg Scott, performing the part of The Whisper in a live version of The Wild American Dog’s “Big Tent Revival” at DPAM.  The live performance was part of Ostrowski/Beverly Fre$h’s April-August 2018 solo exhibition at the museum, “Really Somethin’ Else” for which Steeves posed for still photos and starred in a short film, “Inside the Call” (4:54, HD video) featured in the exhibition.  Steeves continues to produce and perform “lecture-performances”—scholarly lectures that also include performative elements such as live music, dance, theatre, magic, general spectacle, and audience participation.  His lecture-performances have been commissioned by museums, cities, colleges, and universities worldwide. 

Card passed out at “The 1988 Show” | Photograph by H. Peter Steeves

Steeves has also been a member of an astrobiology research group at NASA Ames Research Center.  His current work focuses primarily on cosmology and astrobiology—on the origin events of both the universe and life.