The Inquisition of Mark Kingwell (Plus, Zombies, Bond villains, Timothy Olyphant, and Daddy Warbucks)

My favorite Canadian philosopher, Mark Kingwell, graciously agreed to submit himself to more of my questioning. Much to his chagrin, his answers have solidified my undying, innocent, nerdy devotion for life- or at least the duration of this post. I’m fickle that way. Marriage is off the table.  However, I am hoping I can convince Mark to adopt me. 🙂 (need I add, tongue firmly placed in cheek, it tends to stay there) My thanks to the Professor Kingwell for his candid, thought provoking, and witty answers. He’s been nothing but kind when it comes to dealing with my awkward and goofy sense of humor.

1. What makes you, you?
The philosophical answer is: not terribly much. Some replicable genetic coding, some badly recalled memories, a more or less consistent physical presence over time, and a few traces of extended mind in the form of books and articles and other people’s (badly recalled) memories of me. The first-person perspective demands, though, that we treasure some sense of uniqueness. And it’s true that we are all unique: no one human is ever entirely identical to another, even with twins or clones. But what of it? Snowflakes are unique and we don’t value them for it. Or do we?

2. Would you rather be James Bond or a Bond villain?
Villain, of course! But I want to be the villain that James Bond becomes when he breaks bad and goes totally, not just temporarily or charmingly, rogue. The anti-Bond, the bizarro Bond. Has to be the Sean Connery Bond, too (much as I love the Daniel Craig Bond). Same gorgeous suits, same sociopathic pleasure in killing and empty sex with random beautiful women; but new attitude, new program, new sardonic wit. I could tell you what the new Bond’s plan is but then, naturally, I’d have to kill you.

3. When does consciousness begin?
Come on, this is too easy. When? Right here, right now. What else? We find ourselves thrown into it. Nobody asked us if we wanted to be, but here we are. The human condition, at once utterly mysterious and utterly trivial. No wonder we tie ourselves in knots trying to figure out what it all means.

4. Could you survive a zombie apocalypse? How would you avoid being zombie meat?
First, never joke about the zomb-pocalypse! If it ever comes it will make every other pandemic in human history look like a teddy-bear picnic. I doubt anyone will survive. In fact, the more I think about it the more I think the very idea of ‘surviving’ it is one of those delusions that will allow the zombies to win. Every zombie movie or TV series ever made is actually all part of the zombie plan, to lure us into a false sense of our own superiority.

5. How can people believe in truths without evidence?
Beats hell out of me; seems like the very definition of insanity. But there are lots of kinds of evidence, and not all them answer to the demands of the senses. I believe a fair number of things that are so abstract they could not be described in language, let alone vouchsafed by some generally shared notion of proof.

6. If they made a movie about your life, who would play you (Psssst Timothy Olyphant). What would the film be titled?
I don’t think I look much like Timothy Olyphant anymore, but yeah, he could maybe play an idealized, super-handsome version. Then maybe Kiefer Sutherland? The Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic, if he were an actor? (I get these two now and then.) Title will have to be, with a nod to a previous list of questions, “Everyone Hates a Sad Professor.”
(Blogger’s note, Timothy Olyphant is D. R. E. A. M. Y. Yeah, that’s right, he’s so hot, all his letters deserve to be capitalized. My crush is so justified, my material… not as much. We now return you to the real star of this blog post)

7. Do we have free will?
I freely choose to think so. Kind of have to, no? How else are we going to go on holding people responsible for the things they do, judging them, talking to them, getting annoyed with them? If free will is an illusion, and it might be, then it is an essential illusion, like personal identity (question 1).

8. When you were single, did you ever use a cheesy pick up line? If so, what was it?
I was never much of a pick-up artist, but I did have some success just going up to people and asking if they wanted to go on a date. How about that, huh?
(Blogger’s note- I was hoping for some embarrassing lines, like “If you were a vegetable you’d be a cute-cumber.” or “Did you read Dr. Seuss as a kid? Because green eggs and… damn”

9. Would your life be better or worse if you knew the day, time, and place that you were going to die?
Neither better nor worse, I think; just sadder. It seems awful to know that we will all die, even more awful to know for sure when. But both things are functionally the same, and should force the same conclusion: be here now (as the man said); and live all you can, it’s a mistake not to (as the man said).

10. Favorite current song?
“Baby Blue” by Badfinger. Totally rocked the last minutes of “Breaking Bad” and I can’t get it out of my head since binge-watching the whole thing on old-school DVD not long ago.

11. If you could only look at one cityscape for the rest of your life, which would it be?
I have to say Manhattan because my favourite building in the whole world, the Empire State, anchors that particular scene. (Wrote a book about that!) But I am also partial to Shanghai and Toronto as evolving new-century skylines. After that, it all goes downhill pretty fast as far as I’m concerned.

12. Would you rather lose all of your old memories, or never be able to make new ones?
Two different kinds of hell or just the same hell by different names? I just decided which one I preferred but then I forgot what my decision was. Hey, did I already tell you that? Wait…

13. Why are you answering these questions?
Who can resist talking about themselves? But I also find questions as a linguistic/social form totally fascinating. I’m one of those people who get through cocktail parties, faculty gatherings, and airport layovers by asking people lots of questions. I am amazed how few they usually ask in return. No bounce-back at all. Sometimes this is routine mansplaining egotism, but it is sometimes also a kind of confession. There are people who just never get asked anything! Next time you are at a bar in O’Hare or Charlotte, or stuck at an art opening or departmental meet-and-greet, just start asking. If nothing else, it passes the time.

14. Do you dance in front of the mirror?

No, but I do sort of dance in my office sometimes. I crank the music (Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, Slowdive) and weave my way around the desk. It’s more like modified pacing than actual dancing. Potentially embarrassing, too, because the college’s mail guy has a key to my office for when he wants to drop stuff off. I figure if he ever comes upon me this way I will just pretend I am drunk: that seems more like the norm on my floor. (Kidding!)

15. If you could be the opposite sex for one day, what would you do?
Ha — the Tiresias thought experiment! I suppose his/her answer would have been “Have lots of sex, so you can see that women really do experience more physical joy than men.” Maybe, maybe not. But I think a lot of physical things would be in order. What does it mean to ‘throw like a girl’? (a good phenomenological question that inspired a great essay by the philosopher Iris Young). Personally I’d like to fly fish as a woman. Would I be more patient, more thoughtful, more sure-handed with the cast? Then I think I would be inclined to slap a few male friends of mine, just to see what they would do.

16. 3 items you always have on you.
A USB drive with essential files, my Nat Sherman Zippo lighter, and a Ka-Bar folding knife. Plus, you know, keys and cash and whatever else. But I always check these three pieces of hardware in my pockets before I leave the house.

17. If you made a documentary, what would it be about?
This may be the only question for which I have no easy answer! I guess my mind doesn’t work in documentary ways, though I have done interviews for lots of other people’s documentaries. How about a documentary about the literary and cultural significance of the cocktail? (I wrote a book about this, too, so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.)

18. Moonlight as another profession, what would it be?
Well, jet fighter pilot used to be my response to that question. These days, I wonder if maybe being a major league baseball manager would be more fun.

19. Any regrets? (aside from agreeing to answer these questions)
Non, je ne regrette rien! Actually, of course, not true. Like most people with more than a half-century of life behind them I have lots of regrets. I feel fortunate that they are mostly minor and mostly merely personal. Nobody died, nobody went to jail, nothing burned down or exploded. Some broken bones, some broken promises, some broken hearts. The usual, I guess. But regret as such, as a place for the mind to dwell, accomplishes nothing.

20. Favorite country to visit?
I really love Australia, China, and France, but I never get tired of the vast weird awesomeness of the U.S.A. After countless visits, and shared family and various residencies, I still feel like it is my undiscovered country. I should also mention countries I have not yet visited, quite alarmingly as time creeps on: Russia, Spain, Italy, and Greece. How is it possible I have never been to these places? I ask myself this all the time.

Bonus Question
Are you up for more questions? 😉

Always, always! But: must … visit … Italy … first!

(Blogger’s note. Please send me a postcard. In the meantime, I’ll be hanging out with Billy. drinking wine, and thinking up more questions.

About Mark Kingwell

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Mark Kingwell is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine in New York. He is the author or co-author of seventeen books of political, cultural and aesthetic theory, including the bestsellers Better Living (1998), The World We Want (2000), Concrete Reveries (2008), and Glenn Gould (2009). His articles on politics, architecture and art have appeared in many academic journals, including the Journal of Philosophy and the Harvard Design Magazine, and in more than 40 mainstream publications, among them Harper’s, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Utne Reader, BookForum, the Toronto Star, and Queen’s Quarterly; he is also a former columnist for Adbusters, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail.

Mr. Kingwell has lectured extensively in Canada, the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia on philosophical subjects and had held visiting posts at Cambridge University, the University of California at Berkeley, and at the City University of New York, where he was the Weissman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities in 2002. Mr. Kingwell is the recipient of the Spitz Prize in political theory, National Magazine Awards for both essays and columns, the Outstanding Teaching Award and President’s Teaching Award at the University of Toronto, a research fellowship at the Jackman Humanities Institute, and in 2000 was awarded an honorary DFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design for contributions to theory and criticism. His most recent book is a collection of political essays, Unruly Voices (2012); he has also recently published two illustrated pamphlets, Frank’s Motel (2013) and Democracy’s Gift (2014).


10 thoughts on “The Inquisition of Mark Kingwell (Plus, Zombies, Bond villains, Timothy Olyphant, and Daddy Warbucks)

  1. I absolutely loved this interview! Brilliant questions! I’ve noticed that you and our astute Professor Kingwell have the same delightful sense of humor. Is he considering your adoption request? 😉 Besides being quite good-looking and a deadringer for Timothy Olyphant, he has a way of making the study of philosophy the most exciting and fascinating thing to study. I envy his students. When next you speak with MK, please give him my regards and praise. Well done, my friend. ;)xxoo

    Ellie (Elena M)


    1. You suck up. You are just angling to steal my dad. Ha. Seriously, thank you kindly. Mark is a delight. He’s very gracious and accommodating. He’s also very accessible. I’m sure he would love to hear from you. Note, he might be busy getting my room ready. I hope they have cable and nice sheets. 😉 Much love. x


  2. I used to live in Toronto and I swear that is a little NYC. We can’t go enjoy New Years Day with out the news reporting a murder! So, I hauled arse to Newmarket. Not much crime here.


    1. One of my best friends hails from Toronto. She swears by it. I love big cities, the energy and activity. However, there is a lot to be said for small towns ,too. I grew up in a quaint little town at the foothills of the mountains It was a very serene setting. I don’t blame you for wanting to get away from the crime.


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