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Creighton philosophy professor earns recognition as one of 21 thinkers for the 21st century

Creighton philosophy professor Amy Wendling, PhD.Spend a good amount of time talking with Creighton University philosophy professor Amy Wendling, PhD, and two things are bound to happen: one, she’ll be mid-sentence in conversation and seamlessly jot an idea onto a pad of paper on her desk; and two, she’ll make you ponder what a good amount of time, spent well, really means.

“I think it’s an idea that we only came up with in the last 120 years or so,” she says. “Time wasn’t the concern then. Today, I think everyone knows what five minutes feels like. It wouldn’t have been a question people asked themselves in the 19th century or before.”

Wendling’s ideas around time — articulated in her second book, The Ruling Ideas: Bourgeois Political Concepts (Lexington Books, 2012) — and her expertise on the life and work of Karl Marx, have netted her a place in a newly published work from Verso Books, General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century. The book is authored by McKenzie Wark, a critical theorist and writer of A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard UP, 2004).

Though Wark focuses largely on the subjects found in Wendling’s first book, Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), a meditation on Marx’s theorizing on machines and their relationship to humans and nature, Wendling said the advent of Industrial Age technology spurred an emergent obsession with the clock and the relationship of labor and profit to time.

French philosopher Michel Foucault, who authored several groundbreaking studies on shifts in human consciousness during the 19th century — especially as it related to sexuality and law enforcement — did not pick up on this crucial transition in his work and thus, Wendling said she saw an opportunity.

“It was a big idea in the 19th century, how we perceive things and events in time,” she said. “We gradually started to become hyper-conscious of time and that persists through today. I think it’s one of the few things Foucault missed. But time is something we obsess about and that obsession is reinforced in so many ways, right down to the sports we watch. Football, basketball — they are governed by the clock and we are trained to watch that clock. Time is a system of control and over it is that veneer of the political.”

Taking her place in Wark’s book, among such writers and thinkers as Angela McRobbie, Slavoj Zizek and Timothy Morton, Wendling said she was bowled over not simply by the company, but also by the recognition of her work as having an appeal to a larger public. While her expertise in Marx has attracted attention in small circles in the U.S., and wider ones internationally — Chinese officials sought her out as that government undertakes an effort to retranslate Marx’s work from its original German — this suddenly broader scope on her philosophy is intriguing.

“Like a lot of scholars, I have this thing I know really well (Marx’s notebooks on technology from the 1850s and 1860s) and I never think of it as being of general interest,” Wendling said. “But looking at the book and the other people featured, it hit me that these are ideas worth exploring in that larger setting. This is thinking that will be important to the 21st century.”

In Wark’s analysis of Wendling’s work, he points to the Creighton philosopher’s critiques of Marx and working women, the disconnect between the technological and the natural, and the ongoing moral questions regarding technology’s role in late capitalist society. Wark extols Wendling’s exhaustive readings of Marx and her efforts at yoking parts of early Marx with his later writings.

“For her,” Wark writes, “the earlier, ‘humanist’ Marx is still deploying the residual category of a spirit or essence that separates the human from the natural. The later or ‘older’ Marx (must we call him mature or scientific?) uses sources for whom the human is part of the natural world, interchangeable with animals or machines. The humanist bits don’t go away altogether, however. They are occasionally deployed against the scientific material to dislodge it from its own implication in a more advanced stage of capital.”

Looking out from the promontory of the second decade of the 21st century, those ideas keep coming for Wendling, as fast as she can put them down in her desktop notepad. She remains particularly interested in what measures of our humanity we can still take, apart from the whirring of wheels and gears, be they in a clock or a machine, or the blips and bloops of our array of ever-new digital devices. A thickening political divide and the return of an affinity for unregulated capitalism are also hallmarks of the era.

“I think the time element is only going to get more intense,” she said. “I expect political polarization is going to worsen. Those little progressions that we saw happening in the 19th and 20th centuries — the 10-hour work day, the 8-hour work day, other workers’ rights — seem not to have the appeal they once did. The seep of work time into leisure time has always been a problem to solve. I think we’ll be seeing that continue to challenge us in the 21st century.”

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