Professor and writer Mark Kingwell is well known as one of Canada's leading thinkers, and he is almost certainly our most fun one. Whether it's baseball or cocktails, philosophy or futurism, Kingwell's books (which number over a dozen) and countless articles are smart, highly readable, and unerringly engaging. He weaves politics, philosophy, history, and pop culture to make important and complex issues not only understandable but fascinating.
His newest, and highly timely, offering is On Risk (Biblioasis), which looks at how risk will be managed and processed in a world living with (and hopefully sometime soon, after) COVID-19. Will our emotional understanding of risk, as a concept, experience a seismic shift after a global pandemic, and if so, what could the fallout of such a change be, socially and politically? Risk has always been a part of life, whether you take a walk in your neighbourhood, drive a car, or go as far as to seek out thrills like bungee jumping and sky-diving. How though, will we understand risk going forward? This fascinating premise is perfectly fertile ground for Kingwell's signature thoughtfulness and On Risk is equal parts page turner and timely treatise.
We're excited to welcome Mark to Open Book today to talk about On Risk. He explains to us what luck egalitarianism is, why the slogan that "we're all in this together" isn't quite right, and how the pandemic has changed his own routine.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
Lucky Seven Interview! This is a nice consonance, since my new book is about risk, including luck, games of chance, and actuarial science as well as mortal issues of disease and disaster. I have been interested in risk for a long time, mostly because of fairly abstract arguments in political theory about what’s known as "luck egalitarianism."
Briefly, this is the field where philosophers argue about how lucky and unlucky factors – birthplace, parentage, life chances – become objects of theoretical interest. Is there a difference between a misfortune, which cannot be entirely controlled, and an injustice, which might be open to political intervention and correction.
I’m passionate about this in part because a lot of injustices are passed over as misfortunes, even as a lot of sheer luck is positioned as merit or deserved reward.
Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?
The basic question is: how do we think critically about risk? The immediate follow-up question is: How is risk distributed across populations? Even though I had been thinking and writing about the politics of risk before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, inevitably that influenced every word I wrote.
So, not so much a change in writing as a shift in focus. Nobody today can think about social risk the same way again. The pat slogan that "we’re all in this together" has been shown, in devastating detail, to be bogus. Risk is always unevenly spread across populations, and not even an indifferent, apparently random event like a pandemic is immune from social and political influence.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
My process was probably typical for me, combining theoretical investigation with proximate political and cultural references. Allusions to movies and novels, also the everyday news cycle, run throughout because that’s where most people encounter philosophical issues. You’re much more likely to see the relevance of theodicy, say – the question of whether a benevolent deity can allow the suffering of innocents – if you think about Syrian refugees than if you’re told about Leibniz’s theory of this being the best of all possible worlds.
One unexpected thing, though it’s now so obvious I should have seen it earlier, was how mask-wearing would become so heavily politicized. Like a lot of people, I just assumed that wearing masks was good public health, like not sneezing in someone’s face or driving while drunk. I underestimated the Trumpian calls to arms that mask-refusal would become, those baseless and frankly appalling appeals to "personal freedom" that confuse the issue of community responsibility.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
Nothing special: a quiet room, a good keyboard, some standard reference works, and a good internet connection. I am a collector of fountain pens – I have a dozen or so – but I don’t use them to write books or articles, just notes to myself.
I write in the morning, with just coffee or tea, and look forward to a good lunch. A walk in the afternoon, maybe errands or grading papers, then a glass of wine and cooking dinner. I like to have my cats, Juno and Iona, close by so I don’t feel like I’m losing touch with the world. I used to enjoy meeting friends for a drink in the evening, but that’s a small pleasure that has lately gone the way of many things.
On several days each week I’m teaching, so that limits my scheduling freedom. But I also used to travel a lot, for conferences and talks, and not having that in play has made my life far less hectic and more peaceful. I miss visiting far-flung places, but don’t at all miss airports and the grind of negotiating the body’s transit from place to place.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I don’t get discouraged by writing, just by the world. So much ignorance, bad faith, and willful blindness out there! If I ever feel overwhelmed by work, which is rarely, I just remind myself that I have bashed through far more difficult things in the past, including some that actually mattered. Writing is a privilege, not a hardship.
What defines a great work of nonfiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
That’s hard. I prefer nonfiction that combines the personal with the theoretical. So my feelings of admiration run to accessible history (John Lukacs, say) and acute socio-economics (Thorstein Veblen, John Kenneth Galbraith). When I was young, Marshall McLuhan’s Mechanical Bride knocked me sideways, as did (in an entirely different way) Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.
I’m fascinated, too, by architecture and urbanism: Lewis Mumford’s Sidewalk Critic and Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York are two of the best books I’ve ever read. I read a lot of philosophy, naturally, but most of it lacks literary value. Two exceptions that come to mind are Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum.
What are you working on now?
I’m just now working on the copy-edit of a new book, out from Oxford University Press early in 2021, called The Ethics of Architecture. And I’m in the first stages of a book about the ethics and politics of artificial intelligence for McGill-Queen’s University Press. They published my last book, about boredom and technology, called Wish I Were Here; I see this new book as a sort of companion volume.
Oh, and I’m collaborating again with writer Joshua Glenn and illustrator Seth on The Adventurer’s Glossary, also from MQUP. This will be the third in a trio of books that combine my theoretical introductions with a highly opinionated glossary of terms, all designed and decorated by Seth. The first two were The Idler’s Glossary and The Wage Slave’s Glossary, and they were published by Biblioasis, whose visionary publisher, Dan Wells, is responsible for the "Field Notes" pamphlet series of which my On Risk is the first installment.
After some years of graduate education in Britain and the United States, Mark Kingwell found he had inadvertently perfected a form of idling for which he could get paid. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, and has written for publications ranging from Adbusters and the New York Times to the Journal of Philosophy and Auto Racing Digest. Among his twelve books of political and cultural theory are the national best-sellers Better Living (1998), The World We Want (2000), and Concrete Reveries. In order to secure financing for their continued indulgence he has also written about his various hobbies, including fishing, baseball, cocktails, and contemporary art.