From weight loss interventions and parental decisions to the psychology of alien abduction, the latest issue of The New School Psychology Bulletin runs a gamut of recent graduate student research in psychology. Founded in 2003,…
Like many students in the Economics Department at The New School for Social Research, Ebba Boye and Ingrid Kvangraven want to widen the lens through which we examine economies. Their approach to economic issues inside…
Is history just a list with a story? This question underlies New School for Social Research Philosophy Professor Dmitri Nikulin’s latest book, The Concept of History (Bloomsbury). Nikulin, who will serve as Chair of the Department…
Debates about invisibility appear in the social sciences, literature, physics, and popular culture. Whether referring to camouflage, magical rings in the possession of hobbits, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, subatomic particles, or the social invisibility of…
“It’s unusual for sociologists to study events,” says Robin Wagner-Pacifici. When describing her new book What is an Event? (University of Chicago Press), she explains that historians more often think about the implications of eventful,…
Doctoral alumni from the Department of Economics at the New School for Social Research count as some of the most influential in the discipline, ranking highly on recent lists of leading economists published by Politico…
Ann Laura Stoler wants readers to push beyond established concepts about colonialism and its enduring effects. In her ninth book, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (Duke), Stoler asks “what sorts of rethinking and reformulations”…
Marianne LeNabat sat down earlier this year with Alice Crary, Chair of Philosophy and Founding Co-director of the Graduate Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies, to talk about her most recent book, Inside Ethics: On the…
From weight loss interventions and parental decisions to the psychology of alien abduction, the latest issue of The New School Psychology Bulletin runs a gamut of recent graduate student research in psychology.
Founded in 2003, this student-run and peer-reviewed publication at The New School for Social Research has become an important forum for psychological work produced by emerging scholars in the field. It also serves as a valuable training ground in the practice of writing, submitting, reviewing, and editing journal articles.
“This is a learning experience, not only for the people who submit, but also for the reviewers and for the editors,” said Jessica Engelbrecht, who served with students Mariah HallBilsback and Emily Maple on the current three-member editorial board. The board is comprised of doctoral students in the Department of Psychology, but The Bulletin’s contributors come from departments across the United States and around the world. Whereas other peer-reviewed journals similarly welcome the work of young scholars — these are often called “learning journals” in the field — the Bulletin is one of only two graduate psychology journals run entirely for and by students.
According to the editors, students drove the publication from the beginning. They identified a need to develop facility with the entire publication process, while also creating a space to test new ideas and showcase the best new research to broad audiences outside of The New School. “Within the Psychology Department, students just felt that there was a need for it,” said HallBilsback. This training helps students to develop ideas, while also building diverse professional and scholarly skills. These include not just teaching, writing, and conducting rigorous research, but also presenting one’s ideas in a compelling way, corresponding with academics across sub-fields, developing networks, and participating actively in the review and editorial process.
Reviewers are welcome to stay on for multiple years, though the editorial team changes yearly. The Bulletin has a faculty advisor, presently Department Chair Howard Steele, who provides guidance and mentorship for the editorial board, allowing the student editors autonomy to discharge the daily responsibilities of running the journal. The working relationship of the current board has been a productive one, according to Maple. She added, “The editors from the year before pick three people who work really well together and it just so happens that we all like doing our own things and that they complement one another.”
The Bulletin typically publishes semi-annual editions, varying in size depending on the number and quality of submissions. It gives students at The New School for Social Research a distinct and productive opportunity to work with students from other labs, creating links across units in the department. A particular advantage for NSSR Psychology students is that the Bulletin offers a collaborative environment in which to meet and collaborate with peers in the MA and PhD programs. This is especially true for the volunteer reviewers, who are brought together periodically to receive (or refresh) their training.
“The Bulletin offers a nice chance to meet people outside of one’s lab in a non-competitive setting,” said Engelbrecht, “It’s one of the few times you can interact in a communal way with your colleagues.” In this sense, like other student-run groups at The New School for Social Research, the Bulletin provides both a forum for both rigorous collaborative research and an opportunity to socialize.
Ultimately, the editors enforce the same disciplinary and professional standards that characterize the review process at other journals. The Bulletin is also listed on Google Scholar and the standard scholarly psychology databases, meaning the journal positions research to the scholarly psychological community at large. To maximize exposure for students, the Bulletin makes available its current issue—as well as its entire back catalogue—online.
In some ways, the average experience of authors — in terms of individual attention and intensity of review — intends to go above and beyond what might be expected in other venues. For example, regardless of whether a submission goes on to publication, each author receives detailed editorial feedback, including engaged suggestions on how the work can be improved. In other words, there is no chance of receiving a boilerplate rejection when submitting to the Bulletin and every submission becomes a learning experience.
When asked about what recent articles they found most memorable, the editors offered two examples. The first is an article that maps the ways a certain kind of Buddhist meditation can alter the brain’s chemistry. The second, found in the current issue, is the aforementioned piece on the fascinating psychology of individuals who claim to have been abducted by aliens. Happy reading!
Like many students in the Economics Department at The New School for Social Research, Ebba Boye and Ingrid Kvangraven want to widen the lens through which we examine economies. Their approach to economic issues inside and outside the classroom not only offers a critique of our most established theories but also fosters alternative ways of thinking about economics, politics, and education.
“The field of economics used to be much broader than what it is now,” said Boye. She attributes its narrowing to the hardening of neoclassical economic theory into rigid doctrine. It can often seem as though this doctrine has become, “the singular way of understanding how the economy works.” In this context, the practice of economics becomes a question of learning and applying a single set of laws, rather than exploring alternative pictures of the economy.
“You don’t have the idea that academia is about learning about different theories in order to compare them and critique them,” Boye said.
The neoclassical approach to economics—sometimes referred to simply as mainstream economics—would likely sound familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory undergraduate course in the subject, as it still dominates the landscape of the discipline. It builds on assumptions that free market competition leads to the most efficient allocation of resources. To address economic problems such as unemployment, orthodox economists typically ask what imperfections might be preventing markets from achieving what they call a Pareto efficient equilibrium, and how these imperfections can be removed or remedied.
By contrast, heterodox economists—and heterodox economics departments at institutions like The New School for Social Research— ask whether perfect markets and general equilibrium might not be the best starting points for real-world analysis, and instead propose other theoretical frameworks. Whereas many of the neoclassical models aspire to the articulation of trans-historical and universal laws, many heterodox economists try instead to integrate historical and context-specific analysis into their picture of how economies work.
“For somebody who wants to study economics to try to better understand how the world works, the traditional economics education can be very disappointing,” Boye said, adding, “a lot of it feels very far away from the economic reality we live in.” After taking her undergraduate degree in Oslo, Norway, Boye decided to pursue further graduate work at The New School for Social Research, precisely because she wanted to close the gap between economic theory and the realities she observed in world economies.
Kvangraven expressed similar sentiments.
“I didn’t even realize there were different ways of doing economics,” she said, thinking back to her experience of taking economics classes during her undergraduate degree at the University of Oslo. It wasn’t until she studied for her Master’s at the London School of Economics that she first encountered heterodox perspectives, such as institutional, Marxian, and post-Keynesian economics. “One of my professors at LSE actually talked about The New School in his lecture […] I wanted to go into economics but into the different varieties of economics, and The New School was the only place I’d heard of that did this.”
As a doctoral student in the Economics Department, Kvangraven now works on structural explanations of underdevelopment in Africa, drawing from the work of Professor Anwar Shaikh. She explained, “I use a Classical-Keynesian theory of trade, apply it to the African context, and try to explain why exchange rates don’t automatically move to balance trade—which is an idea in neoclassical economics.” Kvangraven also conducts research on “dependency theory” in which “scholars argue that developing countries can’t develop in the same way as developed countries did because of structural barriers.” Her work recently brought her to the United Nations, where she and Assistant Professor of Economics Paulo Dos Santos discussed their research with the UN’s Capital Development Fund.
Boye, who recently received a master’s degree from the department, similarly focused her research on the ways that international economies interact. “I have taken a lot of finance classes [at the NSSR], trying to understand how international systems work,” she said. She has been especially interested in what seem like unsustainable levels of household debt in Scandinavia, and has used a sectoral balances approach to look at connections between government surpluses, current account balances and private sector deficits. “For my thesis I used a theory about sectoral balances and applied it to Norway. In the US this method of analysis became relevant in the late 1990s as it helped us understand why President Bill Clinton´s effort to reduce the public sector deficit resulted in a huge increase in the amount of private household debt.” In response to this observation, Boye is curious to know, “What pushes growth? Is it the government, the private sector, or foreign trade? How does a change in one of these affect the others?”
In addition to their research, Boye and Kvangraven have found new outlets for promoting and discussing the trajectory of heterodox economics.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis—which challenged many orthodox economic models and rattled confidence in the expertise of neoclassical economists—Kvangraven discovered a new appetite for diverse perspectives on issues like economics education, development, and finance. She explored these, not only in her research, but also throughout her tenure at the student-run New SchoolEconomic Review.
When several of Kvangraven’s posts on New SchoolEconomic Review went viral, she decided to launch an online platform called Developing Economics dedicated exclusively to discussing development issues from a more critical and interdisciplinary perspective. “I started realizing that the topics that I was choosing were underrepresented in the blogosphere,” Kvangraven said.
Based on its success, Kvangraven feels confident that Developing Economics has struck a chord with readers who are hungry for alternatives to mainstream economics. The site has fostered discussion among students, younger academics and policymakers, as well as with their senior counterparts. Even when senior professors reply critically, Kvangraven said, “They think it’s a serious enough critique to warrant engagement.”
Kvangraven, who is preparing for the academic job market, noted that the most popular articles are the ones that isolate and criticize a given tenet of mainstream economic thought. Her wish, however, is to see Developing Economics develop in a more constructive direction, becoming a space where concrete alternatives to the status quo can be theorized and debated.
Meanwhile, Boye has focused her energies on a project called Rethinking Economics, a London-based networking and educational group founded in 2012-13. The initiative uses the internet to help likeminded economists connect and learn about each other’s work. As a student, Boye helped to found a Norwegian chapter and will return to Norway this summer to help facilitate its growth.
Rethinking Economics Norway champions changes to university economics curricula that will ensure students have access to a wider variety of theoretical perspectives much earlier in their academic journey. Boye’s economics columns regularly appear in Norwegian press, representing one part of her effort to raise public awareness of alternative ways of thinking about economic issues.
Rethinking Economics pushes academics to ease their reliance on jargon, which can often push people out of the field and unreasonably mystify the economy. “Democratization is a big part of the mandate,” says Boye. The organization organizes conferences, lectures, and debates that are open to the public and focus on issues of common economic concern—and just as importantly, it aims to increase the visibility of diverse perspectives on economics. As Boye put it, “The goal is that every economics student in Norway will learn that these other fields exist and know a little bit about them.”
This question underlies New School for Social Research Philosophy Professor Dmitri Nikulin’s latest book, The Concept of History(Bloomsbury). Nikulin, who will serve as Chair of the Department in 2017-18, asks what we even mean when we use the word history, returning to the discipline’s origins in Ancient Greece. He suggests that to get the clearest picture of what history meant to the ancients, we should push past even Herodotus, typically considered “the father of history.” Instead, we should look to Hecataeus and Hellanicus. The surviving 400 fragments of their work provide a key insight that has less to do with the truth of history than with the way our concept of history has evolved.
To get away from the common modern conception of history as universal and unilinear, Nikulin examines how these earliest historians conceived of their craft. “When I looked at the way in which people were narrating history at that time,” he said, “I started to realize that they looked at history very differently because they didn’t yet have the idea of a final destination for humankind.”
Without this clear destination in mind, history looks like an amalgam of genealogies and geographies; and instead of a single and all-encompassing version of history, we find thinkers narrating diverse simultaneous histories. They are the parallel stories of different peoples populating different places, told from multiple perspectives. Each of these perspectives is embodied by any single person: we all inhabit different streams of overlapping histories (individual, professional, familial, etc.).
“I take it that we inhabit multiple histories, not just one,” Nikulin said, describing one conclusion to take from this perspective. The absence of an overarching narrative among the early Greek historians challenges two touchstones of modern historical thought: the idea of an origin and that of a final end. It underscores the fact that these multiplicities only come together in a single overarching plot—history as a unified narrative—much later.
This perspective required Nikulin to come up with an alternative reading of how the concept history came into being.
In his view, history has always been partly a project of keeping records of details and minutiae like names, events, things, battles, and places. “By doing so, we bring in some order, [and] arrange details in many different ways,” Nikulin said. He emphasized the decision to avoid using the word facts, instead opting for the word details. In this, Nikulin is acknowledging that facts often come laden with narrative. For Nikulin, “The fabula of history,” that is, the story and the narrative that the list tells, “really refers to the narrated plot of what happened, which ties all these details together.” In other words, the combination of details and fabula becomes the real stuff of history.
Though Nikulin insists that the arrangements of any set of details and fabulae remain multiple, this combination of two ingredients—details and the narrative that stitches them together—produces the more familiar picture of history, which intends in part to preserve something like living memories. Such memories are crucial for what it means to be human. “I take it that our historical being consists in our having a place in a history […] in inhabiting a history. And we do that by being included in a narrative.” Like Hannah Arendt, Nikulin argues that a purpose of history is to save us from “the futility of oblivion.”
In the ancient genre of catalogue poetry, for example, we often see extraordinary efforts to preserve meticulously detailed lists and accounts of people and events. These efforts arise from the notion that the practice of history constitutes a preservationist act. According to
Nikulin, this idea pervades ancient histories. “You can find it all over the place from the Bible to Hecataeus to Hesiod,” he said, “It’s all about the genealogies of humans and of the gods.” Genealogies give both an order to history and a place to humans, who are either part of the history or involved in its transmission and significance. “If you want to save a people from the futility of oblivion,” he explained, “genealogy is important.”
At the same time, this conception of the purpose of genealogy and its relationship to the historical gives Nikulin space to think about the relationship of history to poetry in the ancient world. “We moderns have a very Romantic understanding of the figure of the poet,” he said, referring to the intellectual movement spanning the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, “according to which the poet is essentially a maniac […] He is inebriated, enthusiastic, and he empties himself in order to let something else, perhaps divinity, speak through him.” But when thinking more carefully about the figure of a poet like Homer, Nikulin argued, “[the poet] is not a maniac.” Rather, he carries out the sober task of preservation and transmission of knowledge. In this sense, Nikulin suggested, “History is probably the first prosaic genre,” which is to say, history was the first non-poetic genre.
This wedding between narrative and genealogy, argues Nikulin, marks a decisive moment in the evolution of history. History begins to look more familiar precisely when the catalogue or list joins with a fabula or narrative. These narratives are malleable, changing over the course of generations, and opening history itself to constant reinterpretation—even as history remains somewhat fixed by the events that the narratives build into a plot. In The Concept of History, Nikulin charts a judicious middle ground between seeing history as a closed, unified and unidirectional march, and seeing it as a jumble of infinitely competing narratives.
How might this influence the practice of history and our understanding of its relationship to other fields?
Nikulin points out that others have suggested that historians can only use the literary genres (comedy, tragedy, detailed lists, etc.) available in their own moment to interpret events. But he emphasizes the inventive possibilities of historical narrative. “We can use certain conventions, but we can invent many other interesting ways of reading histories,” he said. With recent critical understandings of gender, for instance, we might be able to construct novel historical narratives that might have been difficult to conceive up to now. This has significant implications for our understanding of politics as well, given the intimate inscription of the historical. Given the understanding of history as multiple and revisable, politics becomes equally subject to such reconsiderations.
In The Concept of History, Nikulin does not limit his claims to ancient histories, but there is significant value in learning what historians intended before more familiar contemporary conceptions of historical work hardened into tradition. Nikulin’s book opens up conversation about what history can aspire to be, precisely by learning about how the discipline came to be constituted as being invented.
Debates about invisibility appear in the social sciences, literature, physics, and popular culture. Whether referring to camouflage, magical rings in the possession of hobbits, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, subatomic particles, or the social invisibility of marginalized groups, questions about the unseen drive research.
On the conference’s opening night, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene and writer Marina Warner hosted a keynote conversation. Prior to their event, The New School’s Stephanie Leone had a chance to talk with Greene, who suggested that getting comfortable with the concept invisibility is essential for scientists. “Invisibility is in many ways at the heart of what science is about,” he said. “We try to look out into the world and illuminate the things that you can’t see with the naked eye.” Whether investigating the composition of matter or the forces that hold together the universe, science has the tricky task of staring at the invisible and trying to give an account for the unseen.
The issue of Social Research makes a compelling case that the invisible similarly lays at the heart of questions in the social sciences and humanities. It does so by showcasing richly diverse research and disciplinary perspectives on the invisible. In its opening essay, Arien Mack—the Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research and editor of Social Research—introduces the concept of “perceptual invisibility,” which arises as an effect of cognitive processes. “Perceptual invisibility entails a failure to see what is before our open eyes,” Mack writes, “and is a partner to seeing what is not there or seeing more than is actually there to be seen.”
Mack’s essay provides several examples that demonstrate gaps between the eye’s ability to take in visual information and the mind’s ability to process it cognitively. A standout experiment is the now-famous “invisible gorilla” video. Viewers watch a video clip and are asked to perform a complex counting task. Partway through the clip, a person in a gorilla costume dances across the frame.
As Mack explains, “Approximately half the viewers who do not know anything about this video prior to doing the task fail to see the gorilla even though eye movement records show that they may have been looking directly at it.” The experiment demonstrates the power of what Mack has called inattentional blindness. When the brain focuses on an assigned task, even the most glaringly visible of objects can disappear from perception. The mind’s capacity to filter information renders invisible what would otherwise be obvious to individuals.
But what about instances in which invisibility is precisely the desired end? What happens when it is individuals themselves who want to disappear? To address these questions, one can turn to some of the world’s longest-standing mythological traditions. As the University of Chicago’s Wendy Doniger explains, stories featuring characters that seek the ability to vanish are almost as old as literature itself.
“Being invisible is one of the great human fantasies,” said Doniger, a Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at UChicago’s Divinity School. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that stories about invisibility have a long and complicated history.
In a conversation about her essay for Social Research, Doniger pointed out that the trope of invisibility appears again and again across cultures. By examining a range of traditions, it becomes possible to identify variations and similarities in representations of invisibility’s uses and misuses.
Doniger first described the Western tradition of invisibility, beginning with Plato and ending with Claude Reins’s The Invisible Man. She suggested that in the context of this tradition, “People who make themselves invisible are doing it to become powerful and often to do evil.” Speaking generally, she added that the Western tradition is one in which “the fantasy of invisibility is one of power.”
But one of Doniger’s central assertions in the essay is that the portrayal of invisibility as a source of power is not universal. She emphasized that, in the Sanskrit tradition, invisibility often becomes a way for women to avoid the power and predation of men. Female characters wear masks, create doubles of themselves, and find other ways to use invisibility as a means to escape harm.
“Invisibility has different uses for different genders,” Doniger said, “it’s about power for men and it’s about the evasion of power for women.” In this account, which depends upon the weaving together of multiple cultural perspectives, a subtler and more varied picture of invisibility expands our understanding of the role it plays in the history of literature.
Invisibility’s importance in the area of mythology is matched by its importance in the realm of public policy. In several familiar cases, invisible laws and structures become the building blocks of entire ways of thinking. Laws of unintended consequences formulated equally by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, or notions of divine providence that preceded those laws, emerged from attempts to grapple with and understand invisible forces. Viewed from this perspective, the social sciences attempt to make visible the abstract forces that hold society together in order to observe, measure, and manipulate them.
As Social Research contributor and the Harvard University Law School Professor Cass Sunstein put it, “It’s intriguing to think that many social practices are product of human interaction, but not human design.” In Social Research, Sunstein joins with Oxford University Said Business School’s Bent Flyvbjerg to reflect on one proposed invisible but felt forced: the hiding hand.
Initially proposed by economist Albert Hirschman, the notion of the hiding hand is based on the idea that when individuals plan large projects in advance, they have a tendency to underestimate the amount of difficulties and uncertainty involved. As a result, planners tend to be overly optimistic in their appraisals of cost and time. Hirschman’s idea is that there is an observable countertendency to this optimism: a hidden reservoir of spontaneous creativity that helps us overcome our overconfidence and resolve complications as they emerge.
As Sunstein explained via email, “The hiding hand idea is that people don’t see obstacles to the success of plans, and so they go forward, but they also don’t see their own creativity, which can overcome those obstacles.” For this reason, Sunstein and Flyvbjerg describe the hiding hand—as Hirschman’s renders it—as the benevolent hiding hand.
This hypothesis is quite different from previous conceptions of an imperceptible order quietly orchestrating society’s affairs, but it has a providential assurance that somehow, in the end, the best laid plans will turn out fine. Sunstein and Flyvbjerg’s article challenges this assertion.
This, they argue, is a matter of statistics and rules of inference. Hirschman’s proposal was based on a very small sample size, and as the authors explain, “he was in no position to establish whether this belief could be empirically substantiated.” Such a precarious method is very significant when it comes to forming and appraising estimates and proposals for large, expensive projects.
In their analysis of Hirschmann’s work, Sunstein and Flyvbjerg find little to corroborate his original hypothesis. In fact, they found compelling evidence of a contrary force: a malevolent hiding hand. “Thus the benevolent hiding hand, which is Hirschman’s topic, has an evil twin, the malevolent hiding hand, which also hides obstacles and difficulties, but in situations in which creativity does not emerge, or emerges too late, or cannot possibly save the day.”
Planners activate the malevolent hiding hand by “deliberately underestimat[ing] difficulties/costs and overestimate creativity/benefits.” In other words, they cook the books to the detriment of competing project proposals, often in order to secure funding. In doing so, they are counting on as-yet-unseen twists of good fortune to deliver them to desired outcomes.
As Sunstein and Flyvbjerg write in their conclusion, “The theoretical implications of our findings are clear. The idea of a benevolent hiding hand is a special case, and as an effort to capture reality it is misleading or even a distraction. The malevolent hiding hand is pervasive, and it is a case of the planning fallacy writ large.”
Yet Sunstein and Flyvbjerg remain optimistic: “This does not prove the uselessness of cost-benefit analysis as such […] The task is to improve it, not to abandon it.” Improvement involves making the invisible visible, by making forecasters and planners accountable when projects fail to meet the estimates that justified their funding, but also by subjecting estimates in general to external scrutiny before allocating funds.
Across disciplines, the essays in Social Research demonstrate the importance of engaging with comparative ideas about invisibility—not just to understand societies, but also to improve them.
“It’s unusual for sociologists to study events,” says Robin Wagner-Pacifici. When describing her new book What is an Event? (University of Chicago Press), she explains that historians more often think about the implications of eventful, momentous, idiosyncratic, one-off episodes that stand out in narratives about the past.
Events like 9/11, the Great Recession, or the Paris Commune of 1871—all of which Wagner-Pacifici examines in the book—don’t fit neatly into sociology’s attempts to articulate general laws about societies. Indeed, they may look like exceptions to these laws, and Wagner-Pacifici characterizes a resulting “skepticism about the ways in which events reflect something enduring about society.” From this disciplinary perspective, What is an Event? might read like a departure from typical sociological research.
It does not, however, mark a departure from Wagner-Pacifici’s distinctive scholarship and longtime curiosity about how events help shape our understanding of societies more broadly. The University in Exile Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research says that she has always studied events, drawing from multiple disciplines in the process, precisely to discern what they might illuminate about social relations.
Wagner-Pacifici describes a growing realization about the usefulness of events during the process of writing her dissertation on the kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro, subsequently published by the University of Chicago Press as The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama. She says, “It struck me that I could usefully try to apply frameworks from other disciplines and other societies to contemporary events in large-scale modern societies.” In other words, a systematic study of the concept of events—the forms they take, why they feel exceptional, how they evolve, and how they weave themselves into ordinary life—can play a significant role in shaping how we think about the social world.
In Wagner-Pacifici’s account, we perceive events as breaks in what otherwise seems like the unremarkable continuity of everyday life, or what Wagner-Pacifici refers to as ground. “In order to better understand what makes a rupture feel so disorienting and disquieting, you have to understand how it is we navigate the everyday world that we consider the uneventful world.” Events become eventful when we perceive that they “emerge” from or “rupture” the ground we are used to navigating.
Wagner-Pacifici describes specific events, not just to examine individual ruptures and their respective effects on specific societies; rather, she mobilizes them as cases that help to articulate how the construction of events might be understood more generally. At the heart of this argument lies the assertion that events only exist in the forms of their representation. “Forms matter,” Wagner-Pacifici says, “In fact, they are the matter of events. [Events] don’t live anywhere else.” To put it differently, events exist in the ways that they are mediated: by news reports, paintings, novels and films, legal decisions, the creation of new categories of “enemy combatants,” social media feeds, and memorials.
What is an Event? makes a specific intervention when it comes to this last form: the case of memorials. Wagner-Pacifici argues that memorialization plays a central role in the creation of events. “A monument is about cauterizing the event,” she says. To erect a monument typically marks an effort to collectivize memory and suggest separateness from the event itself. But Wagner-Pacifici offers an alternate interpretation, suggesting “the memorial is as much a part of the event as anything that happened.” Memorials become, in her account, an essential form in the creation of an event. Viewed this way, the building of a 9/11 memorial or the decision to locate an Islamic Community Center near “Ground Zero” has as much to do with the event as the hijacking of planes and the destruction of buildings.
If events like the Great Recession seem trickier to define, Wagner-Pacifici points to the difficulty of pinpointing when events actually occur. “How do we know when we’ve reached that threshold?” she asks, “when it’s no longer just daily oscillations or some probabilistic series, but rather something that has taken form and launched itself as an event?” In her estimation, The Great Recession frustrates those trying to analyze it, partly because of its resistance to formalization, its failure to cohere, and the extent to which the forms and factors that caused it remain in place. “Millions of people lost their homes, their retirement savings,” Wagner-Pacifici grants, “but it was a non-event in a way […] Wall Street continues unabated, banks continue unabated, the accretion of finance in the hand of a few continues.” One interpretation of the Great Recession suggests that the elusiveness of substantive policy responses represents one outgrowth of the “abandonment of an attempt to concentrate that event into some kind of centralizing image.”
In this, Wagner-Pacifici drives home again the importance of understanding aesthetic depictions of events, and she regularly turns to the analysis of images to help build her structure for thinking through events. “It’s really important to do as adequate a job at analyzing images and symbols as it is to analyze discourse and textual materials,” she says. “That’s why, in trying to find various angles into events, I’m also trying to illuminate events through their pictorial apparitions.”
The integration of such humanistic readings into a sociological study marks one more way in which Wagner-Pacifici’s book opens up to diverse forms of interpretation. Running throughout the book is her assertion that our “blunt instrument of a vocabulary of cause and effects is not good enough, not sophisticated enough.” What is an Event? represents an attempt to build a more nuanced lexicon that helps us understand that no event is final, or should remain uncontested. With respect to the forms that comprise a single event, we may return to a sense of what Wagner-Pacifici calls “unremarkability” or “quiescence,” but any event “can always be resurrected.”
If an event is any one thing, then, it is always evolving.