Research at the Border: Politics PhD Alumna Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera

To celebrate her recently-published book, Los Zetas, Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, And Civil War in Mexico, Research Matters sat down with Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a recent doctoral alumna of the New School for Social Research Department of Politics, and current Associate Professor at the Shar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Born and raised in Mexico, Correa-Cabrera focuses on issues of border security, human trafficking and smuggling along the US-Mexico border. Straddling the line between political science and international security studies, her work probes the economic dimensions of organized crime in a transnational context, and other forms of unrest along the border.

Correa-Cabrera trained as an economist in Mexico. Interested in furthering her education, she chose to pursue a master’s degree in Politics at The New School for Social Research. After completing the program, she choose to stay at The New School to pursue a PhD under the supervision of Professor of Politics David Plotke and her dissertation concerned the relationship between politics and violence.

Having extended her stay in the US to complete her doctorate, Correa-Cabrera planned to return to Mexico upon graduation in 2010. As she put it, she wanted continue her research into “the institutional factors leading to violence and instability in my homeland,” which she had begun to explore more directly in her dissertation. These insights were later developed into Correa-Cabrera’s first book, Democracy in “Two Mexicos”: Political Institutions in Oaxaca and Nuevo León (Palgrave). Moreover, she felt a certain pull to continue teaching and writing in her native Spanish. Taking these factors together, a return to Mexico seemed like the most attractive option.

Before she could return, however, Professor Plotke suggested that Correa-Cabrera apply to a position at the University of Texas Brownsville (now The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). Located adjacent to the border itself, and serving a community of American and Mexican students, this post offered her a unique opportunity to expand upon her research while reconnecting with her Mexican roots.

“You could cross the street and you could see the bridge to Mexico,” Correa-Cabrera said. After securing and accepting the position, she moved from New York to the small Texan town.

Correa-Cabrera explained that she “had been studying the northern part of Mexico, particularly the border states, especially Nuevo Leon.” But she added that the border is, “a very tough place.” Around the time of her arrival, Mexican border states were going through a particularly difficult period, with high rates of violence concentrated in the very states Correa-Cabrera had been researching. “Border violence was a big deal exactly when I arrived,” she said, “A very violent war between two organized crime groups started just on the other side of the border.” It was precisely this climate, which had previously shaped her teaching and gave concreteness to her doctoral research, that would define her unfolding research program.

As it turns out, Matamoros—Brownsville’s twin city across the border—is home to one of the most prominent violent drug organizations in the region. Popularly known as the “Gulf Cartel,” the organization is known not just for its violence, but for how its ‘business innovations’ have transformed the way criminal enterprises operate in Mexico and throughout the western hemisphere. Correa-Cabrera found herself as a political scientist precisely at the right place and time to delve into how these organizations operated.

As a result, she said, “It was inevitable” that her research focus would grow to encompass the issues of crime and violence in this region. She recalled that many of her students lived across the border in Mexico, and would often cite criminal violence as their reason for being absent from class. “They came to me and told me that their parents were very frightened,” Cabrera-Correa said, “A couple of them had had their parents kidnapped.” Undeterred, she explained that she and her students, “continued to work, often while listening to the gunfire coming across from the other side of the border.”

Applying her social research skills to what was occurring around her, Correa-Cabrera obtained a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. The grant allowed her to conduct interviews on both sides of the border, and to review the way people discussed violence on social media. “At the time,” she added, “I didn’t have the consciousness of what was really happening, and it really shocked me […] it changed my life basically, and it gave some meaning to what I wanted to do. It gave me a project to pursue that was at the same time important, meaningful, relevant.”

Correa-Cabrera’s new book, Los Zetas, Inc., is the result of the research she conducted since that time. She explained: “It’s the product of personal experience in my own family, and other students who were suffering the same thing.” Despite the difficulties inherent in teaching and conducting research in such a precarious environment, she said, “It was the perfect laboratory for me.” Through this combination of research and life experience, Correa-Cabrera became an expert in border security, border relations, and organized crime, elaborating on the connections between a range of organized illicit activities. These extend not just to the transport of illegal drugs and weapons, but also to human smuggling and trafficking. Unlike smuggling, which consists of an agreement between two parties, in human trafficking one party is forced to work and is exploited, and the other party gains from that exploitation.

In other words, through the influence of the Gulf Cartel and others, Correa-Carbrera said, “drug trafficking organizations have consolidated and diversified to the point that they now involve all these illegal activities that were, at some point, controlled by different groups.”

Correa-Cabrera’s work was received positively, and she began to receive support from institutions like the Free University in Berlin, and UNAM in Mexico City. She also won a grant from the US State Department to study the connection between human smuggling, organized crime, and the trafficking of persons along migration routes. It was here that Correa-Cabrera pivoted, focusing on what she calls “the connection between the human elements and the criminal elements” associated with these international crime organizations. This connection led her beyond Mexico, to other countries in Central America’s “Northern Triangle”—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador— where these networks extended their reach.

This project reveals a new dimension to Correa-Cabrera’s research: her on-the-ground empirical work, in which she accompanies migrants on the long journey from Central America to the United States border. “It made a lot of sense for me to go to the countries of the Northern Triangle and to take the journey with the migrants from there,” she said. To Correa-Cabrera, this was the only way to see how these people were affected by international criminal groups, and how, in the end, smuggling could lead to human trafficking.

“Today because of immigration policies of the United States, it can be much more complicated for migrants to enter the United States so they [often] pay a fee to a smuggler,” Correa-Carbrera said, “And these smugglers are connected to the criminal organizations.” She explained that trafficking can involve many forms of forced labor: from sex work to coerced domestic labor, agricultural work, or forced participation in the criminal activities themselves. She emphasized that this project was about, “how these are connected and the vulnerability of the migrants […] The project was about doing the journey and interviewing individuals in the migrant shelters and in the trucks.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, according to Correa-Cabrera, this was an exceedingly complex process that entailed over 400 interviews. After its conclusion, she was awarded a Residential Fellowship at The Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum in Washington, DC. There, she is turning her research into articles, which in turn will inform concrete public policy proposals. This marks a new chapter in her work as a publicly-engaged scholar.

“I’m contributing to the design of public policy by presenting the results of my research,” she said, “It’s an amazing opportunity.”

Fieldwork photos credited to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera.

PhD Alumnus David Bond on the History of “The Environment” as a Political Category

In a matter of decades, political and scientific debates concerning the environment have generally moved from the margins to the center of public life. But our collective understanding of what constitutes “the environment” has changed significantly during that same period.

The notion of “the environment” has a specific and, in many ways, surprising history—despite the fact that it is a fairly recent conceptual invention. Bennington College Professor and New School for Social Research anthropology PhD alumnus David Bond studies this history of our present. Straddling the lines between anthropology, climate science, and critical theory, Bond’s work helps unpack not only what we know about the environment, but also how we came to know the environment. In this context, he pays particular attention to the role that environmental disasters bring the environment to the center of public debate.

Troubled by the injustice and racism he saw in the world, and moved by the desire to do something about it, Bond initially went to college to study sociology. He thought that sociology would be the best lens through which to grapple with the issues that motivated him. Bond was still on that path when he arrived at the New School for Social Research as a master’s student in sociology. Surprisingly, it was a course taught by Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Ann Stoler that most marked his experience.

“Whatever she was doing,” he said, “I wanted to be a part of it.” Bond explained: “Ann was grappling with things in a way I’d never seen before, pulling out the tensions that animate our present with an incisive critical focus and clear political implication. That’s what I wanted to be a part of.”

Attracted by the foment of new work unfolding in the Anthropology Department, Bond decided to pursue his Ph.D. there. For Bond, anthropology at The New School is not so much “a venerable discipline, as much as a really useful set of tools to examine the present and to write urgent histories of our present, in all that that implies and commits one to.” He added that he also appreciated the department’s insistence that students “take seriously the critical and creative capacities with which people lead their lives.”

Bond has just published a paper in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History concerning how the US empire of oil offshored crucial hydrocarbon infrastructure to the Caribbean to avoid rising labor and environmental concerns, and the unexpected role those leaky refineries had in bringing new attention to the ecology of mangroves. . In January, Bond also organized and edited an online forum at Cultural Anthropology, providing a space for anthropologists to respond to the rise of Trumpism “as a political present” in the United States and its implications for critical theory. He is expanding his introduction to the forum into a full-length essay while finishing a book manuscript based on his New School dissertation, which tracked the emergence of the category of “the environment” during the BP spill of 2010.

When it comes to the current state of the discipline of anthropology, and how his work contributes to it, Bond emphasized the importance of ethnography. “It’s a truism that ethnographic insights are lacking in our public discourse,” he said. For Bond, insights recovered from this kind of research represent insights into the most looming and complicated problems facing our world today. He added: “We really have to reorient and recommit ourselves to thinking about those problems with people. Ethnography promises a different kind of insight.” Bond’s focus on ethnography truly comes through in the work on the BP oil spill, during which he followed government officials to several town halls with local residents in the direct aftermath of the spill. Repeatedly, Bond witnessed residents raise concerns about their health, only to have these concerns waved away by the officials, who preferred to focus on damage to property and to wildlife. “The environment was defined, in the aftermath of the disaster, in a way that excluded public health concerns,” Bond explained. “It excluded a lot of voices that otherwise had very legitimate complaints that were very easily connected to the spilled oil.”

Continue reading “PhD Alumnus David Bond on the History of “The Environment” as a Political Category”

Defining Integrative Climate Change Research

This profile of The Integrative PhD Fellowship program and the work of Politics PhD candidate Katinka Wijsman originally appeared at newschool.edu. It is reproduced here as part of the Research Matters climate change series.

True to its commitment to innovative interdisciplinary scholarship, The New School for Social Research recently launched the Integrative PhD Fellowship, a program that crosses boundaries between disciplines and trains students to incorporate new analytic and expository techniques, like data visualization and graphic design, into their work.

Supported by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and led by University in Exile Professor of Sociology Robin Wagner-Pacifici and associate professor of art, media, and technology Daniel Sauter, the program teaches doctoral students to use emerging qualitative and quantitative methods in their analysis of some of the most pressing questions of our time. The program also invites faculty across the university to identify existing courses offered at The New School that can help PhD students develop new fields of integrative research and supports the creation of classes that are co-taught by faculty from across the university’s colleges.

Katinka Wijsman, a Politics doctoral candidate working on environmental issues, is one of the first four Integrative PhD fellows, having joined the program in part to learn more about visualizing landscape histories. Wijsman’s research, which she conducts in New York City’s Jamaica Bay, Suriname’s Weg naar Zee district, and the Netherlands’ Kijkduin, focuses on how coastal communities use nature-based or green infrastructure as means to adapt to climate change. In Wijsman’s words, such nature-based approaches “conceive of ‘nature’ as a climate change ally “rather than as “something in need of domination.”

Wijsman considers communities in a broad sense, thinking of them as not only human phenomena, but rather as entities that include other species and involve complex biophysical processes. Her participant observation in coastal communities entails what she calls “multispecies ethnographic encounters,”which she combines with document analysis and interviews to convey the politics of the changing landscape. In the Integrative PhD Fellowship program, she has acquired visual communication methods with which she makes her research accessible to new audiences.

In keeping with the intent of the program, Wijsman brings together analytic frameworks and methods from multiple disciplines into her work. She aims to understand better the effects of combining nature-based responses to climate change with traditional approaches. In her words, she investigates “the design, implementation, and evaluation of these nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation, and the politics of responsibility they emerge from and give rise to.”

Wijsman also works with a National Science Foundation–funded research network called Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network (URExSRN). At UREx SRN, university and government researchers and practitioners focus on climate change in ten cities in the United States and Latin America. Wijsman and her colleagues work on the ground, exploring natural environments, building new data resources, and presenting this information to the public and to government officials.

For Wijsman, the Integrative PhD Fellowship program is an ideal opportunity to discover new ways to conduct research and exchange ideas with academics and policymakers across fields. “I am excited about the intellectual mission and plan of action of the Integrative PhD,”she says. “This sort of exchange could be transformative to one’s own thinking and push intellectual creativity.”

Researching Subcultures, Inc.

Gregory Snyder is a PhD alumnus of the Department of Sociology and received his MA in Liberal Studies at The New School for Social Research. He is currently a Professor at Baruch College, where he dedicates his research to the scholarly study of subcultures. His book Skateboarding LA: Inside Professional Street Skateboarding will be published this December by New York University Press.

And he was also a clue on Jeopardy!

Snyder was born on a U.S. military base in Germany and grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Drawn by the interdisciplinary nature of NSSR’s Liberal Studies program, as well as the chance to live in New York City, Snyder enrolled at the New School for Social Research in 1992. Following the completion of his MA thesis, he was accepted to the PhD Program in Sociology at the NSSR.

Snyder remembers with fondness the New York City of the 90’s, a time when graffiti art was at its apogee and the Wu Tang Clan was ascendant. Despite having conducted research in the sociology of religion, Snyder had a “conversion” moment that altered his scholarly trajectory. While riding his bicycle across the Williamsburg Bridge to meet his dissertation advisor, Snyder was struck by a beautiful bit of graffiti. Dwelling on the art and reflecting on the dearth of scholarly engagement with graffiti, Snyder made a decision.

“By the time I arrived at the meeting,” he said, “I told my advisor: I’ve got to write about graffiti.”

Snyder had little idea of how to go about formally studying graffiti culture. “I started researching graffiti before I knew about subculture theory,” he said. He immersed himself in a growing milieu by interviewing artists, winning access to the painting process, and eventually producing some of his own work. Combining an amateur’s fascination with scholarly ethnographic practice, Snyder began to hang out regularly with some of the most prominent graffiti artists in the city. Given the importance of passion and motivation to his dissertation, Snyder’s advisor lent his support to the project of developing a sophisticated scholarly understanding of what was—in the mind of many—a crude form of vandalism.

At the time he was first studying it, graffiti had a reputation as more of an urban nuisance than a valuable object of study. “Combating simple binaries is really important,” Snyder suggested. For him, scholarship attains its value precisely acts that complicate—thereby weakening—binary ways of thinking, while at the same time exposing nuance and compelling gray areas. “When things are contradictory, there tends to be beauty involved,” he said. Such was the case with the underground culture of graffiti artists. “To me,” he continued, “graffiti was high art vandalism […] I liked my art vandalistic and my vandalism artistic.”

But what counts as a subculture, and how do sociologists and other social scientists go about studying them? Snyder explained that, in the more than twenty years since he first began studying graffiti, a new subfield has emerged to address precisely these issues, while codifying methods for researching and understanding subcultures. He said that subcultural groups, “are sophisticated enough to self-identify.” So despite the scholarly debate about what really counts as a subculture, he relies on self-identification. When a group describes itself as a subculture, Snyder suggests that we should take them at their word.

The subfield of subculture studies was originally developed at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England. More informally known as “the Birmingham School,” the Center pioneered cultural studies methodologies for understanding subcultures. The young scholars that made up the Birmingham school argued that working class subcultures, like Mods and Punks, were evidence of symbolic resistance to the mainstream consumption imperative of capitalism. They argued however that this resistance was fleeting, it was merely symbolic and did not alter the lives of working class kids, because there were in fact no subculture careers. It is on this final point that Snyder takes issue, and having spent years studying subcultures that have become self-sustaining, he argued that graffiti writers and skateboarders do indeed create subculture careers. While this brings up issues of co-optation, he shows that despite this economic incentive, skaters, writers and a host of other subcultures, profit from their activity while still self-identifying as members of a subcultures.

Snyder’s claim is precisely that, pressing back against this thought, subcultures can take on lives of their own that replicate the mainstream, and can even become a part of it while retaining their distinctive “subcultural” quality. Graffiti and skateboarding thus become ways of showing that subcultures can indeed become careers; indeed, they are industries, and nonetheless retain their subcultural status. In this way, Snyder seeks to contest some of the most influential theoretical approaches to understanding subcultures. In order to understand why the Birmingham framework may have missed the mark, Snyder argues that it is necessary to go to the subcultures themselves, and spend time with the people who participate and make them grow.

Reflecting on the theory and practice of studying subcultures, Snyder said: “When I committed to ethnography, I committed to graffiti.” However, graffiti was not his endpoint. Following his initial research on graffiti, which resulted in the book Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground, Snyder set his eyes on another emergent subculture: skateboarding.

He was inadvertently immersed in the skateboarding crowd through his brother, professional skateboarder Aaron Snyder. Relating skateboarding to his previous studies in graffiti, Snyder said, “Both practices are misunderstood, and conventional wisdom is that they’re dumb or deviant, which makes them sociologically interesting.” Snyder has long been interested in the way that graffiti artists and skateboarders professionalized and monetized their alleged deviance (skateboarding was, for a time, illegal in many places in the United States) in order to form legitimate industries and find ways to make a living.

“Skateboarders are very deft at recording and distributing their work along industry lines,” he explained. He added that, just like the graffiti artists of the previous generation, skateboarders demonstrate a great amount of “creativity, athleticism, and competition” among themselves. The work of both subcultures is marked by “artistry and dexterity” that has challenged the negative associations and characterizations of their early days. This has allowed them to scale, and, in a way, gain acceptance within the mainstream, even while retaining their spirit of rebellion and irreverence.

In this sense, Snyder tells me, “subcultures produce their own contexts.” More importantly, Snyder argues that the maturation graffiti artists and skateboarders, as well as their ability to promote their work commercially, “indicates a blind spot in how people have thought about subcultures.” We continue to miss the value of subcultures as they emerge, and are belated to accepting the value that they create. This is as true today, despite the increase in books and articles on the subject, as it was when Snyder first had his epiphany about graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge.

In his research, Snyder develops the theoretical and ethnographic tools to help guard against a tendency to miss the full breadth of creativity, know-how, and gradual development of a variety of subcultures. Armed with his insights, we are better equipped to appreciate the richness of these tendencies, which stand apart from our culture, but which can also teach us so much about it.

The Ethics of Climate Change: NSSR Alum Eric Godoy Asks Who Bears Responsibility

This is the second in a series of Research Matters articles profiling the interdisciplinary climate change work of students, faculty, and alumni at The New School for Social Research. Check back for more!

Who is truly responsible for the climate’s state of disrepair? Who should be responsible for preventing further deterioration of the environment? To help address these questions, Research Matters sat down with Eric Godoy, a recent doctoral alumnus of the Philosophy Department at The New School for Social Research and current Assistant Professor at Illinois State University. His research focuses on the ethics and politics of determining responsibility for the climate, and aims to articulate a frame for responding to it.

“I guess I’ve always been concerned with climate and climate change,” Godoy said. But his path to a PhD in philosophy was somewhat unexpected, given earlier interests in questions about climate from a scientific perspective. Having entered college as a chemistry major, he conducted research on waterways near his hometown in Central Florida. In the course of his fieldwork, he witnessed firsthand the disruption of delicate balances in the local waters, and began to consider ethical and political questions.

At The New School, Godoy wrote his MA thesis on the philosopher David Hume, examining how Hume’s ethical doctrines could be extended to envelop the concept of global justice—pressing on the typical boundaries of the scope of traditional philosophical inquiry of ethics. Godoy found the way ethics was typically framed to be much too restrictive, and went looking for an ethical and political framework that could address global challenges. Following his MA, Godoy began to work with Nancy Fraser, the Henry A. & Louise Loeb Professor of Political & Social Science at The New School. He both aimed to deepen and broaden his research, studying ethical and political frameworks that grappled with what he called, “the question of individual and collective responsibility.”

After serving as Assistant Chair of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute, Godoy recently accepted a position at Illinois State University, where as Assistant Professor he is currently contributing to an effort to expand the university’s environmental studies major and minor. Over the past few years, Godoy has deepened his investigation into how ethics (and ethicists) can cope with a challenge as complex and overwhelming as those presented by climate change.

Godoy sensed that urgent issues related to climate change and environmental degradation are best explored within the framework of social and economic justice, but that little existing scholarship considered the issues from this perspective. “The question of where moral value resides is really interesting to me when it comes to climate change,” Godoy said. “There’s a far more pressing question that climate change presents […] and it’s going to get much worse.” The relative absence of justice from considerations of climate change seems, to Godoy, especially the case in his discipline. As he explained, “Especially outside of philosophy where a lot of the work focuses on environmental justice, climate change [is treated] as fundamentally a justice issue,” he said. Godoy’s work digs deeper: if environmental issues are fundamentally about justice, then who is the injustice being done to, and who can be said to be responsible for taking action? How can individuals ever feel individually responsible for such a large-scale problem? And if the responsibility resides with institutions or entire ways of life, then whom should we urge to action?

Godoy emphasizes that the causes of global climate degradation are profound and structural in nature. In his perspective, this kind of phenomenon is best understood by focusing on fundamental structures of our society like the way we economize, the way we govern, and our relationship to power. However, Godoy explained that, “the average person does have a sense that there’s something they should be doing. They don’t know what it is because it is a very complex problem.” He explained that this way of framing the problem and motivating action has considerable drawbacks. In his words:

This is kind of dangerous because there are plenty of corporations that will give those individuals an answer for a low, low price—just buy this, and do that—and these things don’t make much of a difference. The challenges are structural, and the solutions are political. So when we atomize responsibility, when all I have to worry about is whether or not I recycle, whether I remember to bring my reusable tumbler to Starbucks, that’s dangerous because it diffuses all that energy and motivation that people have.

At the same time, Godoy argues that swinging too far in the other direction can leave people feeling helpless about being able to do anything to fight climate change directly. He suggested that the history of recycling helps to illuminate the point, pointing to the introduction of aluminum cans to the market for beverages in the 1960’s and 70’s. “When recycling came along, beverage companies that had been able to survive Prohibition needed a much wider distribution method, so they were attracted to aluminum, which is easier to transport than glass.” This was a coup for beverage companies since the cost of glass manufacturing glass required companies to reuse these containers. However, the general public did not share this excitement. Godoy continued: “In short measure, there was waste everywhere. After widespread outrage, and a collective effort to band together to stop companies from being able to sell disposable containers and return to reusable glass, the companies themselves banded together to sponsor the America Beautiful Act. And they promoted recycling.” The crucial point is that, as a result of this move, “recycling passes the responsibility onto the consumer and the municipalities rather than the companies that manufacture the disposable containers.”

In more recent work, Godoy has written about the case of university campaigns to divest from fossil fuel companies. These efforts complicate the distinction between individual and collective action, as the campaigns are often made up of students, faculty, staff, and even Board members. Asked what attracted him to this kind of activity, Godoy responded, “For one thing it’s interesting pedagogically. For another, the communicative force of saying ‘this is not something we should be doing, this is not something we should be profiting off of.’ So it sends a very public message, and it comes from knowledge producers, which I think carries a certain kind of authority.” In this case, the agent of the activism is a single entity—a specific college or university—but the action illuminates how intimately individual persons and institutions are related at the level of economics and politics to the actions of big business, and especially, to the fossil fuel industry.

As a philosopher managing research that moves between disciplines, Godoy said, “I’ve always admired people, like Nancy, who can navigate two worlds. I’ve tried to push myself to work on interdisciplinary teams and to build relationships with different kinds of people so I can write with them.” Asked how this had worked out, and what he had learned about the terminological and methodological differences that exist between disciplines, he responded, “I think there’s something to be said for using disciplinary boundaries.” He clarified that despite one’s best intentions, it’s often quite difficult to co-author research across discipline lines without sacrificing some of the precision gained through disciplinary specialization. “I do think that when you try to approach real problems, you do give up a bit of precision,” he said. “But in the end, you might have to bracket certain issues in order to be able to work together.” Given the global magnitude of the challenges presented by climate change, the need to think through issues of individual and collective responsibility—and beyond intellectual specialties—has never been greater.

Professor Willi Semmler Unpacks the Economics of Climate Change

This is the first in a series of Research Matters articles profiling the interdisciplinary climate change work of students, faculty, and alumni at The New School for Social Research. Check back for more!

Despite his contributions to scholarship in the economics of climate change, Willi Semmler—the Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development in the Economics Department at The New School for Social Research—considers himself a relative latecomer to the field.

“I stepped in just a few years ago,” he explained, reflecting on decades-long efforts to understand the implications of a warming world for global growth.

Semmler suggested that serious discussions about these issues began with the first meetings of The Club of Rome, an international group of scholars and practitioners from across fields and areas of expertise that first met in 1968. “They recognized that growth has limits,” he said, “It affects the environment. And it uses up resources that won’t be available for future generations.” If given the opportunity, Semmler can trace the highlights and lowlights of climate change policy throughout the half-century that followed the 1968 meeting—from Rome to Rio, Kyoto to Cancun, and Doha to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Semmler now serves as the Director of the Climate Change Project at The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, and was recently named Senior Researcher on climate change issues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria. With Lucas Bernard—PhD alumnus of The New School and Professor at NYC College of Technology—Semmler edited The Oxford Handbook of The Macroeconomics of Global Warming. In their introduction, they write, “The developed world can protect itself against climate change through infrastructure improvement and will use more energy to adapt to climate change effects. But it is in developing countries where some of the most dangerous consequences of climate change will be concentrated.”

In this sense, questions about the economics of climate change can rehash fundamental debates about the winners and losers of globalization, and the haves and have-nots within an interdependent global economy. “The losers of globalization were not compensated, and this has produced inequality,” Semmler said. As a result, the current political moment—in which climate change is already a hot-button issue—is made more complicated by debates about globalization itself. He explained, “We are seeing imbalances within individual countries and across borders [and] people are more skeptical about what type of globalization we really want.”

Semmler argued that this is especially the case in countries like the United States, where large swaths of the manufacturing labor force has been affected by globalization over the last three decades. He pointed out that the negative fallout for workers is particularly pronounced, “if you don’t have a proper social system where the victims or the losers of globalization and the free markets don’t have much in the way of unemployment benefits, welfare benefits, or opportunities to do re-schooling or reskilling.”

In this context of considerations about both climate change and the consequences of globalization, Semmler is examining whether financial markets can be used to help shift investment toward green technologies, nudging policy toward regulations that will promote sustainability and growth.

Semmler again returns to fundamental debates about the role of financial markets and regulation of industry to illuminate the stakes of his analysis. Breaking down the argument in his recent book Sustainable Asset Accumulation and Dynamic Portfolio Decisions, Semmler said, “There are basically two views on financial markets: the first is that you can’t constrain operations of the market and you can’t too much constrain investment choice.” In this approach, if social problems or unexpected needs emerge, then the markets should be free to allocate resources to address them. “You make your money freely and then you give it to social needs.”

But Semmler’s research suggests that, “There can be guidelines for more responsible investment: investment that takes into account environmental responsibilities, or that creates social impact.” Against the notion that such guidelines limit growth potential, Semmler has suggested that such strategies—which consider the responsibility to address social dilemmas like climate change—can produce better results for investors. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that you will lose money,” Semmler said, “Because you may be better off in the long run.”

If there is something that concerns Semmler most, it is the possibility that political uncertainty might be a drag on growth. “The global uncertainty comes from the global world order,” he said, “It’s now the global world disorder. Economies, corporations, people, and firms are affected by these macroeconomic phenomena.”

Potential solutions to these enormously complex challenges, in Semmler’s estimation, will continue to require nuanced and collaborative solutions that can better understand the often-hidden forces that are driving economic change. To celebrate Semmler’s contributions to the field of economics, several of his students and colleagues assembled a festschrift—13 essays on his work and career—in 2016. Of his work, New School for Social Research economics PhD alumnus Aleksandr Gevorkyan writes that, “Semmler’s macroeconomic analysis penetrates the most deeply hidden and convoluted aspects of the complex modern global economy.” Judging by the essays included in the collection, titled Dynamic Modeling, Empirical Macroeconomics, and Finance, climate change is less of a hidden aspect now than when Semmler began working on the issue.

And judging by the pace of news and persistence of uncertainty in the field, it seems that the economics of climate change will only continue to demand new research and insight.

Inaugural Activist-in-Residence Shanelle Matthews Engages at The New School this Fall

Shanelle Matthews and Assistant Professor of Politics Deva Woodly lectured in the Race in the US Course on October 2, 2017. View the video at livestream.com/thenewschool.

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Shanelle Matthews joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network in January 2016, having spent seven years in journalism and public interest communications. As the network’s Director of Communications, she crafts messages for the organization that she called, “a co-creator of the 21st-century Black Freedom Movement.”

In a recent conversation, Matthews talked about how her diverse training and experience as an organizer, researcher, journalist, and communicator for numerous political and non-profit organizations came together to equip her for the position. “I believed everything that I had done up until that point prepared me for this role,” Matthews said. “And then it became clear that no experience could really prepare you for a job like this.”

This fall, Matthews has also joined The New School as the university’s inaugural Activist-in-Residence, a pilot program jointly conceived by NSSR Assistant Professor of Politics Deva Woodly and two members of The New School’s Board of Trustees, Fred Dust and Susan Foote. They worked to recruit Matthews to The New School.

“It feels important for me and for people who are committed to this position to close the gap between the movement and the academy,” Matthews said. She suggested that it represents an opportunity to align resources among academics and activists, build mutual trust, and facilitate innovative collaborations to produce social change.

According to Matthews, partnerships of this kind have the potential to break down barriers that can often separate scholarship from activism. “If we continue to work in siloes, it will take us much longer to make progress,” she said.

Just four weeks into her tenure as Activist-in-Residence, Matthews has big plans for her remaining time at The New School. She will deliver a lecture in the Race in the U.S. course alongside Professor Woodly. The class is a continuation of the “Post-Election America” series, and is Livestreamed on a weekly basis through The New School’s Facebook page. Matthews is contributing articles on race in America for Public Seminar and has made herself available to students across The New School for one-on-one discussions of activism and scholarship.

She will also continue to conduct research into the representation of under-represented voices in media. “I’m trying to deepen our understanding of how decision makers in media decide who to offer as experts,” she said. Matthews hypothesizes that to diversify the pool of individuals acting as experts would advance understanding. This dovetails with her work through Channel Black to provide training in improvisation, debate, and cognitive science to leaders in the movement, many of which identify as black, female, and LGBTQ. The goal is to share knowledge and communications best practices to empower a new generation of leaders to serve as experts and effective advocates in the media. “Increasing representation of black, LGBTQ, and female voices into the media will help us create more empathy and nuance, which we desperately need.” Matthews explained.

Having advocated on behalf of the black community, women, and LGBTQ individuals in several previous roles, Matthews was serving as Deputy Director of Communications at the Sierra Club—the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization—just before she joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Matthews talked candidly about her decision to join the Network staff. “I had to do a lot of personal digging to decide whether this was the right role for me, and whether I could serve the black community in the way that we needed,” she said. With nearly two years behind her, she adds, “I’ve had to learn how to be more tender and more gentle in a fast-paced environment that can feel lonely and hard to navigate.”

Matthews finds it is hard to pinpoint her most difficult month as Director of Communications for BLM, and instead pointed to the intellectual, professional, and emotional challenges of having to respond so frequently to acts of violence on behalf of a global organization that contains many perspectives. “When you become the person who’s responsible for concisely and accurately messaging for a network that shares the same name as a broad moniker, it can be unhinging,” she said. Speaking of a weeks-long stretch last year in which she was called upon to respond to events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, Matthews added, “You become, in some ways, slightly confused about what you believe versus what makes sense to message at that moment, and what’s true for most people. And you need to reconcile yourself to the fact that you’re not going to make everybody happy.”

The New School strikes Matthews as an institution with a responsibility to lead conversations about how activism and scholarship can advance social justice. “It’s very exciting to be here, and I’m proud to be here,” she said. Observing some of the structural imbalances of representation in higher education, she added, “For a university to have integrity on these issues means having more people of color as decision makers—in addition to diversifying students and faculty.” Matthews expressed that she is looking forward to working with colleagues at The New School “to offer perspectives on how to double down on the institution’s commitment to better understand our world and improve conditions for local and global communities.”

“Whether we are talking about issues that impact the Black community, White community or any community, we will not be able to move forward and become a more empathetic and pluralistic country until we hear from more diverse voices,” she added. “Through my work at The New School and beyond, I’m committed to making that a reality.”

The lecture delivered by Shanelle Matthews and Deva Woodly as part of the 2017 Race in the U.S. class, broadcast live on October 2, 2017, will be archived and available on The New School‘s Facebook page and at livestream.com/thenewschool.

Duncan Foley wins Guggenheim Prize in Economics

Duncan Foley, the Leo Model Professor of Economics at The New School for Social Research, has won the 2017 Guggenheim Prize in Economics. In the announcement of its decision, the Guggenheim Prize Committee at Ben Gurion University of the Negev cited Professor Foley’s “major contribution to the field.” Awarded bi-annually, The Guggenheim Prize recognizes lifetime achievement in the field of economics. Foley is the fourth winner of the Guggenheim Prize, joining Professors Bertram Schefold (2009), Sam Hollander (2011), and David Laidler (2015).

“Duncan’s work spans from modeling the contemporary economy to the history of ideas and how it forms our understanding of the present,” said Will Milberg, Dean and Professor of Economics at The New School for Social Research. Milberg added, “As one of the most creative and original thinkers in economics for decades, he is very deserving of this honor.”

Professor Foley joined The New School for Social Research in 1999. He was previously Professor of Economics at Columbia University, and Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Stanford University. Joining his numerous papers on topics as diverse as the economics of climate change, financialization and the information economy, and the labor theory of value, his most recent book Adam’s Fallacy (Harvard) presses back against a fundamental assumption at the heart of orthodox economics: that the “economic sphere […] in which the pursuit of self-interest is led by the invisible hand of the market to a socially beneficial outcome,” can be separated from the rest of social life.

In addition reading to his many books and articles, those interested in Professor Foley’s teaching can find video of his 2016 Advanced Microeconomics class at The New School is available on The New School’s YouTube page.

Uneasy Street: Sociology Professor Rachel Sherman’s New Book Tackles the “Anxieties of Affluence”

Sociologist Rachel Sherman quickly observed a common trait among the wealthy and affluent subjects of her latest book, Uneasy Street: the Anxieties of Affluence.

They hated getting specific about money. It is, in the words of one interviewee, “more private than sex.”

In part, Sherman—Associate Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research—attributes this reluctance to her subjects’ often-ambivalent relationship to wealth. The 50 New York parents she interviewed over the course of this multi-year study all belong to the top five percent of earners, meaning that they bring in more than $250,000 per year, and the majority are in the top one or two percent. Some benefited from substantial inheritances, which in several cases in excess of $10 million. Sherman chose to focus on people in their 40’s and 50’s who were embarking upon home renovation projects, given that such undertakings provide occasions for intentioned thinking about consumption and lifestyle choices.

The project has roots in Sherman’s longtime interest in structures of inequality in the United States and in the evolution of her thinking over the course of two previous ethnographic projects.

It was during her dissertation research on luxury hotels that Sherman identified a similar ambivalence about wealth among hotel guests, who were adamant that it was important to treat workers well. “I wouldn’t have talked about it this way then,” she said of the hotel guests she interviewed, “but I think they wanted to be morally worthy of their privilege.” That study—which Sherman developed into her 2007 book Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels—focused primarily on hotel workers rather than guests. Yet, Sherman recalls, “Even then, the larger question of what it means to have money in a socially acceptable way was interesting to me.”

Social Epistemology and “Orange is the New Black”

Philosopher Emmalon Davis Joins The New School for Social Research

When introducing her research to non-experts, Assistant Professor Emmalon Davis—who recently joined the Department of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research—turns to Orange is the New Black.

Inspired by the prison memoir of convicted white-collar criminal Piper Kerman, the hit Netflix series helpfully illuminates several of Davis’s overlapping interests in ethics, social epistemology, feminist philosophy, and the philosophy of race. In Davis’s words, Orange provides an entry point for examining, “the social processes through which knowledge and interpretive resources are developed within and disseminated across communities.” Specifically, in the show’s portrayal of its disenfranchised female characters, Davis finds a lens through which we can start to recognize how “social biases are a corrupting influence on these processes.”

Davis pointed out that Orange creator Jenji Kohan has referred to the show’s anti-heroine—the white, educated, middle class, blonde felon, Piper Chapman—as a “Trojan horse.” Though Kohan focuses attention on her protagonist, she also introduces (in what constitutes a kind of narrative smuggling) stories about Piper’s fellow prisoners, many of whom are multiply marginalized by virtue of their age, race, class, gender identification, and sexual orientation.

“This strategy has been somewhat successful at bringing marginalized stories into more mainstream visibility,” Davis explained, “but it does so without locating marginalized voices at the center of their own stories.” Even as the show gives voice to stories from the margins, Orange is the New Black risks “reducing these other stories, and the women at their center, to mere props or ornamentation.” It presents marginalized knowledge only in relation to a character whose identity comports with established conventions about who should belong at the center of a narrative.

To unpack this problem, Davis suggests we need to examine how social biases perpetuate such conventions, not just on television, but also in lived experience.

In her most recent scholarship, the concept of “epistemic injustice” has been especially influential. Defined by CUNY Graduate Center Professor Miranda Fricker, epistemic injustice serves as a framework for describing the effects of bias when individuals interact with one another as knowers and testifiers. The concept can be deployed to reveal the obstacles marginalized individuals face when attempting to share their knowledge with a prejudiced audience.

“Fricker’s account emphasizes the ways that prejudiced interlocutors dismiss marginalized knowers altogether,” Davis said. In these cases, bias prevents certain testifiers from serving as knowers, despite their possession of knowledge. Davis approaches epistemic injustice from the opposite direction, instead interrogating “the harms that arise when dominant audiences actually do engage with marginalized knowers.” Again, the case of Orange is the New Black proves instructive, as it provides an example of the appropriation of marginalized voices into dominant narratives.

“Marginal knowers are not seen as viable testifiers in their own right,” Davis said, “Their voices are mediated.”

Yet even as marginalized knowers are frequently pushed to the sidelines of discourse, so too do they find themselves called upon to serve as representatives of the communities they are seen to inhabit. As Davis put it, “They face the possibility of being over-taxed in certain environments by requests to describe, for the edification of dominant others, what it feels like to live under conditions of oppression.” She pointed to college campuses, classrooms, and activist communities as environments in which marginalized knowers find themselves in this double bind: silenced by conditions of structural oppression and yet expected to educate the privileged about the nature and impact of their oppression and the way that oppressive structures affect social living.” Davis clarified that, “this educative work plays an indispensable role in our collective ability to undermine oppressive social structures,” but at the same time, “we need to pay attention to this dual nature of epistemic harm—ignored on one hand and overburdened with requests to educate on the other.”

Creating more equitable spaces entails adequate recognition of and compensation for the labor that marginalized knowers contribute in social spaces.

Davis similarly calls attention to the reality of marginalized bodies, and to considerations of which bodies are acknowledged in the spaces of medicine and bioethics. “Particularly within reproductive medicine,” she said, “marginalized individuals are subjected to violence and fail to receive the medical resources they need to flourish.” Citing women, people of color, persons with disabilities, and LGBT individuals as having been especially subject to the “medical gaze” throughout history, Davis aims to expose instances in which social identity mediates our relationships to the very institutions upon which we often rely to make our bodies and lives habitable.

In all of her scholarship, Davis suggested that she attempts to make philosophical concepts accessible to multiple communities of knowers—including those who find themselves underrepresented within the discipline of philosophy. Describing an interest in expanding what counts as philosophical discourse, Davis said that she takes “interesting philosophical questions and writes about them in a way that synthesizes lived social experiences and real-world everyday problems.”

This effort extends to the classroom, where Davis hopes that she can help, “remove some of the barriers that have prevented women and people of color from entering into philosophical spaces.” In a discipline where rigor and inaccessibility are often a euphemism for opacity, Davis aims to promote inquiry that activates student energy for grappling with philosophy, while creating spaces for genuine interdisciplinary conversation.

Citing The New School’s open curriculum, she expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of bringing together students and faculty from across the university. “The intellectual resources here at The New School are immense,” she said, “and I’m really excited to be a part of this community.”

On the Psychology of Collective Memory and Group Membership

The 2016 US Presidential campaign and its aftermath have energized international dialogue on the prominence and proliferation of ideological echo chambers, fake news, and so-called “alternative facts.” We are in a moment that is forcing us to face pressing questions about the social nature of facts: how they come about and who feels entitled to ratify or question them.

NSSR Alumnus Alin Coman (photo credit: Princeton University)

To address some of these questions, Research Matters spoke with Alin Coman, a doctoral alumnus of the Psychology Department at The New School for Social Research, and currently Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Coman’s research — initially developed as a graduate student in the lab of William Hirst (the Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology at NSSR) – focuses on the way that social contexts affect our ability to create and recall memories, both as individuals and as groups. Recent political events in the United States and around the world have brought new urgency to Coman’s investigation into how politics and group dynamics can shape and reshape our sense of the past.

Coman was first exposed to the field of collective memory as an undergraduate psychology student at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. At the same time, Professor Hirst was conducting research on collective memory while advising Romanian psychology departments through a rebuilding process that followed their abolition during the communist authoritarian rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu (1965-1989). After completing his undergraduate degree in Romania, Coman followed Hirst back to The New School for Social Research for graduate work.

Under Hirst’s supervision, Coman developed an empirical approach to the study of collective memory in communities of individuals, investigating how our social interactions influence the way that we create, retain, and recall memories. As Coman recently wrote: “Psychologists are now investigating the fundamental processes by which collective memories form, to understand what makes them vulnerable to distortion. They show that social networks powerfully shape memory, and that people need little prompting to conform to a majority recollection — even if it is wrong.”

It is this issue that Coman explores in his current work at Princeton.

Take a recent study completed in conjunction with Hirst and fellow NSSR Professor Emanuele Castano. The study asked American participants to confront two sets of stories about soldiers committing acts of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. One group of participants read that it was the American soldiers committing acts of violence and abuse, while another group — reading about the same acts — were told that they were committed by Iraqi soldiers. “It turns out there’s a huge difference in terms of the cognitive processes individuals undertake as they’re listening to somebody describing these atrocities,” Coman explained. The interpretation of this information is influenced by the group membership of the person exposed to the stories.

This phenomenon extends to the process of remembering and forgetting. According to Coman, when we hear information from people we perceive to be within our group, these sources are, “more likely to reinforce memories that are already encoded.” He adds that they can also “induce forgetting of memories that are related to those that they hear from an [outgroup] source.” Information relayed by people inside one’s own group will “be prioritized in the cognitive system.” This leads to a bias in terms of what gets remembered and what is left to wear away from our memories.

Professor Aaron Jakes is Awarded Fellowship at Yale University

Research Matters and The New School for Social Research congratulate Assistant Professor of History Aaron Jakes, who has been awarded a 2017-18 fellowship by the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies at the MacMillan Center. Professor Jakes will spend the 2017-18 academic year at Yale, where he will work on his book State of the Field: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism in Egypt, 1882-1922.

According to its website, The Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale constitutes an “interdisciplinary effort to reshape how a new generation of scholars understands rural life and society.” The program appoints three fellows annually who are chosen for the promise of their research.

“The scholarship that has come out of Yale’s Program in Agrarian Studies has been a major source of inspiration since I started working on this project over a decade ago,” said Jakes. He added, “I am tremendously excited about the opportunity to spend the year working with and learning from my new colleagues at Yale.”

Leveraging more than ten years of archival research in Egypt, England, India, Pakistan, and the United States, State of the Field reexamines the political economy of foreign rule and the role of political-economic thought in the struggles over the character and status of the British occupation of Egypt after 1882. During the period that Jakes researches, Egypt not only solidified its role as a global powerhouse in the production of cotton (exporting much of it to rapidly industrializing markets in Europe), but also became a center for investment and financial expansion.

Against Occidentalism: A Conversation with Alice Crary and Vishwa Adluri on “The Nay Science”

How should we read and interpret texts? And how might the modes through which we read be informed, enriched and revised by our understanding of our cultures of interpretation? These questions have driven the work of Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, doctoral alumni of the Department of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research.

This winter, Anthem Press will publish their second book, Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism. To mark the occasion, Research Matters presents excerpts of Adluri’s conversation with Philosophy Professor Alice Crary. They talk about Adluri and Bagchee’s first book, The Nay Science: A History of German Indology (Oxford University Press), the practice of reading and interpreting texts and a history of Indology.

Indology—the academic study of India—originated in Germany and served as a foundation for western academic interpretations of Indian texts and traditions. The Nay Science charts the history of German Indology to show how the nascent discipline was rooted in troubling philosophical assumptions that generated inaccurate readings of the culture it was studying. Against stubbornly persistent biases, Adluri and Bagchee write in favor of a more sincere reading of ancient and Eastern texts—a kind of “innocent reading” that goes beyond a postcolonial critique—that might enable us to meet texts outside the Western Christian tradition on their own terms.

Pressing beyond a critique of the specific history of Indology and its effects on our understanding and our modes of reading ancient texts, The Nay Science offers vital reflections on philosophical and social scientific methods. Adluri says that the book teaches us to, “read texts carefully but respectfully because, if you read them respectfully, they will talk to you.”

Adluri also reflects on his training at The New School. On the practice of philosophy, he says: “You have to read every single thing, struggle your whole life to claim the life of an intellectual. If they are competent—perhaps competent is not the right word—if they can hang on and do the work, there is no greater reward than philosophy.”

 

Alice Crary (AC): The occasion for this interview is your magnum opus, the 2014 monograph written with Joydeep Bagchee, The Nay Science: A History of German Indology. I want to sit with you and talk about its significance and implications. I thought we should get some background first—who you are and what you have done since your time at The New School for Social Research’s (NSSR) Philosophy Department. Can you tell us a bit about your life and your intellectual work at NSSR and afterwards?

Vishwa Adluri (VA): Thank you, Alice. I went to The New School where I got my first PhD for a dissertation on ancient Greek philosophy (since published as Parmenides, Plato and Mortal Philosophy). After that, I continued my work in ancient Greek philosophy (I published an edited volume titled Philosophy and Salvation in Greek Religion in 2013), but also branched out into Indian philosophy. My education at The New School sensitized me to the need to ponder the conditions of modernity. My teacher and mentor Reiner Schürmann had the greatest influence on me. In Broken Hegemonies, Reiner describes modernity as a project grounded in an inward turn toward self-consciousness as the primary referent for all knowledge. He calls self-consciousness “the modern hegemon,” and describes how it conditions our relationship to the world and ourselves. I began to see how, when we approach the ancients—ancient Greeks, for example—or other civilizations, we automatically subject them to our prejudices as moderns, as Europeans and as post-Enlightenment. I wanted to investigate this problem in a different field. I turned to “Indology” as a test case to study the influence of method on a non-Western episteme. About the same time I met a fellow NSSR student who was living and studying in Berlin. Working together, we mapped the emergence and decline of this field. The resulting book was published by Oxford University Press (OUP) in 2014. OUP India released a South Asian edition last month (August 2017). We were humbled by the enthusiasm among scholars whose work we read and in turn admired (Richard Wolin, Bryan W. Van Norden, Peter K. J. Park, Susannah Heschel, Arbogast Schmitt, Edward P. Butler and Robert Yelle). But we were simultaneously traumatized by the disciplinary force contained in academic disciplines, facing enormous resistance for talking about things as obvious as the link between Orientalism and anti-semitism.

AC: Can you talk about how you got started after the first monograph? What got you started on this project?

VA: I was working with Arbogast Schmitt on Greek philology at Marburg. I had contacted him because he had written a wonderful book, Die Moderne und Platon, that I wanted to translate into English (my translation appeared as Modernity and Plato in 2012). His ideas resonated with what I had learned from Reiner. Like Reiner, Arbogast had rethought the relationship of the ancients and moderns. He has this wonderful phrase, “Die ganze Arroganz der Moderne,” which defines our attitude not only to the past but also to cultures labeled “pre-modern.” Arbogast knew I was interested in the Sanskrit epic, The Mahābhārata, which I had been reading alongside my work on Homeric epics. Taking Nietzsche’s and Reiner’s cue, I had looked at the pre-Socratics and Plato in relation to Homer. Arbogast knew the Indology professor at Marburg and he introduced us quite casually over a glass of wine. The professor, Michael Hahn, suggested I turn my writings into a dissertation under his and Arbogast’s guidance; a pilot project for collaboration between their departments (classics and Indology). Back then—remember I was Seth Benardete’s student and came from classics—I could not have known the problems with so-called Indian philology or Indology. What they presented in the name of a “critical” philology was anti-semitic and anti-Brahmanic resentments, theological maxims and racial prejudices (about ancient Aryans, Indo-Germans, etc.).

AC: You say there are parallels between the way you were treated; parallels reflected in the attitudes you trace in part one of your book, where you argue that a partial and flawed positivism was a cover for the projection and imposition of different strains of Protestant theologizing, Eurocentrism and also various kinds of racialized and even racist thought.

VA: Yes. The racism I encountered in Marburg was not the kind we see among the “alt-right” or the discrimination black and minority citizens face daily. That kind of racism is easier to spot and to call out. This was more insidious. It was scientific or scientized racism. The Indologists had for so long told themselves that Indians lacked access to the “true” meaning of their texts that they no longer considered it a prejudice but a methodological principle and a necessary one at that. The question was, “How do we approach these texts scientifically and critically?” The answer was, “Obviously not as Indians read them, for Indians never developed scientific, critical thinking.” Apart from the fact that, except by skin color, I am not Indian—I have lived and studied in the US most of my life, have a PhD in Western philosophy and know German intellectual history inside out—I was not approaching the Sanskrit epic in a “traditional” way. I was reading it alongside Homer and the tragedians. I knew the scholarly literature, had presented at the American Philological Association (now known as the SCS) and was offering a cogent interpretation. Yet, whenever I opened my mouth, the Marburg Indologists could only hear an Indian, and thus, whatever I said had to be negated to maintain Indology’s status as a science. And then I realized: scientism and racism are linked. Indologists enact this discrimination not because they are vulgar racists—obviously, they think they are cultured, enlightened and cosmopolitan—but because their authority depends on it.

AC: Can you explain a bit more?

VA: Certainly. Here is the situation. Someone proposes a reading of a text. You may disagree with him, but then you must give grounds. This was different: they were accusing me, qua Indian, of being incapable of methodological, scientific studies; of being incapable of reading texts without a dogmatic faith in gods and metaphysical entities. One professor wrote me:

“What I was arguing against in my assessment of your work was your peculiar method to use ‘theology,’ that is in this case an Indian religious view of the text, not as the object of research (which we do all the time), but as a key approach. While I have no problems with theologians, with whom I work here, I would not accept a work with a theological approach for our department of philology, but send him to my colleagues in theology. So, in fact, it is your method, which does not fit into the academic self-understanding of ‘Indologie.’”

The problem was that I was not proposing an “an Indian religious view.” I had not studied the text traditionally. I began with a reference to Jean-Luc Nancy, his idea of the flight of the Gods. NSSR students know this has been a pervasive theme in German thought since Hölderlin. Heidegger talks about it. I then used Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty and Plato to explore what this flight might mean. You know the theological turn in Continental philosophy (Levinas, Marion, Courtine, Derrida, etc.). The Mahābhārata likewise takes a theological turn in response to nihilism and materialism. But rather than seeing my work as Western to its core, the Indologists saw it as hopelessly naïve and backward. The same professor, Jürgen Hanneder, wrote:

“To an international discussion of methods appropriate for academic studies of Sanskrit texts I always look forward, but I have to disappoint you: this discussion is not really brand new. In Europe it is as old as the emancipation of the humanities from theology.”

This triggered my deconstructive project: whence these prejudices? Why this insecurity? Why this need to prove oneself “modern” by disparaging the ancients? The popular view of the Enlightenment is that it overcomes theology. But this is hardly accurate. The German Enlightenment, especially, was ambiguous about religion. There was a strong Pietist influence (think, for example, of Thomasius and Zinzendorf). Kant famously declared, “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” (CPR Bxxx) The Indologists’ own work emerged from Protestant debates over scripture (sola scriptura, the emphasis on the sensus litteralis sive historicus, Semler’s Kanonkritik). Do you see the problem with preaching to an NSSR graduate about having overcome theology? Whence this arrogance?

And then I realized that the supersessionism inherent to modernity itself underwrites the Indologists’ arrogance. The Indologists really believe it is their mission—as Europeans—to teach Indians to receive their own texts correctly and “critically.” There is now a narrative about history as a progression from the darkness of religious belief to the light of reason. Europe, having exited religious superstition first, has a privileged status. Other cultures must look to it for guidance, as they are—allegedly—on the same path. Husserl can now declare that “the spiritual telos of European Man [includes] the particular telos [sic] of individual nations.” Notice the provincialism, the reduction of other cultures to one’s own. Notice the negation and subsumption of ancient cultures. Everything they thought is only preliminary. And finally, notice the disparity instituted. Europeans are mündig (mature), whereas non-Europeans are unmündig, and hence candidates for (Um)erziehung ((re)education). I wish us to hear this word with all the disciplinary force inherent in it. At stake is an Umerziehung, rather than an Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (in the spirit of Lutheran theology and its specific Menschenbild).

AC: Heidegger just came up, but Gadamer plays a big role in the project also. It is a positive role and he is Heidegger’s heir. As I understand it, Heidegger plays an ambiguous role here. Is that right? Can you explain why Heidegger and Gadamer appear in different ways?

VA: Heidegger’s role is ambiguous because, while he has profound philosophical insights, he also buys into “Germanness.” In several passages, he declares that philosophy is uniquely Greek, European and German. The Germans are the true inheritors of this legacy and the German language is the philosophical language par excellence. Germany has a role to play in the destiny of the Occident by recapturing the true meaning of Being (Pauline, not Greek). Studying Indology opened my eyes to how Germany, after Kant and Goethe, laid exclusive claim to the idea of thought and scholarship. I saw how, through this ideology, people from rather humble backgrounds, first-generation school-goers, began to dominate the reception of ancient thought. I saw how, through the Humboldtian university, they injected Protestant prejudices into other textual cultures. I saw how, out of their provincialism—what Germans call Deutschtümelei—they arrogantly declared that those cultures had failed to grasp their own texts and only Germans, or German-trained scholars, could interpret them.

Gadamer is alert to the problem. In Truth and Method, he expands Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle to an a priori condition of interpretation. He shows that all understanding is historically mediated. The idea of “presuppositionlessness” (Voraussetzungslosigkeit) arises from the Enlightenment prejudice against all prejudices. But it is no less prejudicial. The genuine meaning of prejudice is not an unjustified prepossession but a pre-understanding (Vorverstehen). Without this pre-understanding, no understanding is possible. Every interpretation therefore must engage with past interpretations (that is, with the text’s Rezeptionsgeschichte). The Indologists systematically overlooked this fact. They modeled themselves on the natural sciences, forgetting Dilthey’s distinction—indeed, if they ever knew it—between Geisteswissenschaften, which aim at understanding (Verstehen), and Naturwissenschaften, whose goal is explanation (Erklären). This is why we ultimately took the critique of Indology towards a discussion of the methodology of the social sciences (the title of a lecture course by Reiner in the Schürmann Archives). Contrary to what the Indologists may think, the book is not just about them: it is a nuanced critique of “method” in the humanities.

AC: I want to talk about the reception to the book. A minute ago you said something that I had not detected earlier. As far as I know, the book was greeted as a huge accomplishment, but you suggested that, contrary to what the Indologists say, you are a nuanced thinker. Do you think that in some places, the book was received as a polemic? Has it gotten the reception you expected and hoped for?

VA: Outside Indological circles, the book received strong reviews. We had fantastic responses from classicists, who saw it as continuing Nietzsche’s legacy. We had fantastic responses from philosophers—including a fellow New School alum—who grasped its Foucauldian archaeological-genealogical project. A reviewer for History of Religions wrote that we had “hoist[ed] earlier Western scholars by their own petards.” I must confess, I had to look up the expression. A petard is a small bomb (from French peter, meaning “to break wind”; pet “the expulsion of intestinal gas”). And this is quite appropriate because, essentially, we just translated everything the Indologists had said into English. More exciting, the book created waves in fields we least expected; fields like German studies, history and even Jewish studies. I received an email from Susannah Heschel, who wrote, “I want to thank you and Joydeep Bagchee for your hard work and remarkable insights. The book is real gem.” Susannah is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter, whom I read as a religion undergraduate. It was very gratifying. In a way, I felt I had come full circle. The Nazi legacy tormented Reiner his whole life. By tracing what he calls those “distant and profound origins,” (Broken Hegemonies, 3) I felt I had repaid my debt to him.

AC: I want to talk a bit about larger morals we can draw from the book. I know you considered its relationship to postcolonial studies. We could start there. When I think about what you and Joydeep have done, there is a moral about the nature of interpretation. Interpretation has an ethical dimension, especially as making sense of people distant from us in time and place. At the same time, the book itself is an exercise in social criticism. It is a critique: writ large, its moral about the nature of interpretation is, simultaneously, a moral about what powerful critique is like.

VA: That is very perceptive. The book does not just present a critique. Through its backstory, it also enacts a critique. It illustrates how we must question established paradigms. Critique cannot be only historical, but must be directed against existing institutions. Remember that Foucault said, “Schools serve the same social functions as prisons and mental institutions—to define, classify, control and regulate people.” I would like to throw a challenge out to NSSR students: how does our institutional framework—the research university, the dissertation refereeing past research, the encyclopedic tome, the reverential relationship to German scholars, the Eurocentrism exhibited, for example, in Husserl’s Vienna Lecture—limit what we think? They should read not just the primary figures, but should also study their historical context: issues in German political and social life, how figures like Hegel were embedded in a specific religio-philosophic context. They should read critiques of the university (Nietzsche’s “Anti-Education” and Arrowsmith’s “The Shame of the Graduate Schools” are good starting points). The Nay Science let me emancipate myself from an idealized vision of Germany. Meeting Indologists was a wake-up call. I saw behind the façade and beheld racism, supremacism and chauvinism.

Everyone studies Hegel at The New School. But how many actually experience the systematic othering the Hegelian narrative effects? How many will perceive the absurdity of declaring that ideas that arose in Germany at a specific moment and have their historical reasons are the telos of world history? Indology was my second education. It forced me to rethink everything I knew about the Enlightenment and German philosophy. I returned to Herder, Schlegel and Hegel with new eyes, and saw they had betrayed Kant’s and Humboldt’s legacy. Positively, I learned about what you called the ethical dimension of interpretation. I saw that we must respect what others respect and not perform autopsies on the ethical spinal cord of living cultures. I saw that the university’s arrangement into area-specific disciplines reifies cultural boundaries, ethnicity and race. I saw that this structure was itself “disciplinary,” since it gathers every culture into the university and lays it bare to the viewing of a master gaze in the same way museums of natural history gather animal and human specimens. And I saw that my narrative could no longer fit this paradigm. I was neither eastern nor western, neither German nor Indian, neither modern nor traditional and neither religious nor a participant in modern iconoclasm. I had exploded the Indologists’ categories.

AC: I am interested in how you started working with Joydeep. I knew you both independently, so I know he started at The New School after you. I also know that when he talks about you he talks, in the most glowing terms possible, about you as a great teacher and role model. How did you start working together, and how would you describe the collaboration?

VA: We reconnected in Berlin after many years. He had gone to Germany to study Heidegger in Berlin and Freiburg. And after three years, he became extremely frustrated with the German system—its cult of the God-professor, the endless posturing and the lack of dialogue. He was about to quit because he really cared about philosophy. I went to Berlin, and when I read his dissertation, I realized his was not an ordinary mind. He was wrestling with genuine philosophical questions. I later realized that Joydeep is very logical. In his dissertation, he was trying to reconstruct Heidegger’s grounding of Dasein in facticity, and he had this sense of circularity. I always say that he broke Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle. I see him as Reiner’s successor, so he has been my greatest conversational partner after Reiner.

AC: We were just talking about Hegel. I wanted to ask about the role Foucault plays in the book. I take it that when you talk about genealogical method, you have not just Nietzsche but also Foucault in mind.

VA: Foucault is important. Joydeep and I read, admired and learned from him. His writings on nineteenth-century institutions like Victorian sexuality, the prison and the madhouse anticipate our struggle with Indology: another nineteenth-century disciplinary institution. His writings on power/knowledge, disciplinary mechanisms (especially the panopticon) and, finally, modes of subjectivization, now assumed a new significance. We could, for the first time, see these principles at work. We saw how Indologists had constituted a knowledge domain, introduced verification techniques and distributed authority between those who could speak and those condemned to be silent observers, the subjects on whose bodies they played games of truth and power. I know to most people a history of Indology must sound banal. Who cares about these nineteenth-century figures? But if you read The Nay Science with Foucault in mind, you will see it is a journey into an institution like the nineteenth-century madhouse or prison, except its inhabitants are our contemporaries and we have yet to see it as the perverse and inhuman system it is.

AC: A related philosophical question, since you just described Foucault. I think it comes out really clearly that this is what the book really does: it provides the resources or methods to critically dismantle a discipline. Foucault is also brought to bear in many other people’s work, positively, to describe the kind of self-awareness and methods one needs to positively approach a text. Listening to the references to his writings on these topics and the things you just said, it strikes me as one of the most interesting things about your project is that you do not recommend a skeptical moral about our relationship to texts.

VA: The Nay Science argues for a new way of reading texts—call it innocent reading. I am thinking of Deleuze’s quote, “If you don’t admire something, if you don’t love it, you have no reason to write a word about it.” In their quest to prove Indian texts monstrous, false and debased, the Indologists forgot this basic qualification. They advocated a historicist approach, aware it would frustrate the texts’ ability to address the reader. From their perspective, this was essential. They wanted to insert themselves between the reader and the text. Having historicized the texts, they could claim the reader needed their expertise to decode the texts’ historical layers and lay them bare in their primitivity.

Deleuze again: “[I came] to see the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery… I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous. It was really important for it to be his own child, because the author had to actually say all I had him saying. But the child was bound to be monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions that I really enjoyed.”

Does this not apply to the Indologists? Did not their literary productions—the purified versions of the transmitted texts they proposed—result from their “buggery” of the ancients? The Nay Science opposed this perverted, self-serving reading to the texts in their immediate presence. You do not need the Indologists, or their degrees, or their permission, to read texts. Pick up a work of literature and read it.

AC: I heard you say that your book can be read as an argument for Indian philosophy. Can you clarify that?

VA: What has been the single greatest obstacle in reading Indian philosophy for the past two hundred years? The conviction that India did not develop philosophy, that everything we call philosophy is really only “religion.” This conviction is false and prejudicial. Indian philosophy is rigorously logical. It is based on the principle of noncontradiction. It developed sophisticated systems of debate and criteria for validity (including a critical epistemology). The separation of theology and philosophy did not happen in Europe itself until the Reformation. When we accuse Indian philosophy of being “religion,” we apply a post-Reformation prejudice (here religion, which is a matter of faith; there philosophy, which was hubristic with the Greeks and uncritical with the Scholastics, but is now limited to self-reflection or critique and, importantly, cannot say anything about God, the soul and the universe). The allegation serves to negate a potential challenge to Christianity. This prejudice can be traced to Hegel, who largely fashioned the Western image of India (India only developed an abstract Absolute, it lacks a historical sense, it does not know of concrete individuality, etc.). Hegel’s aim was to head off the challenge from Indian philosophy to his Lutheran faith. Remember, Hegel said, “I am a Lutheran, and through philosophy have been at once completely confirmed in Lutheranism.” And again, “We Lutherans (I am and will remain one) have a better faith.” Hegel’s entire philosophy thus serves to justify Protestantism and the Prussian state. The university is the link between them (Hegel knew this in saying, “Our universities… are our churches.”). Hegel’s Protestantism is now well known and the Prussian state has collapsed. Nietzsche has exposed the link between philosophy, Protestantism (“The Protestant pastor is the grandfather of German philosophy, Protestantism itself is its peccatum originale”) and how the humanities and philology, in particular, serve to neutralize the threat from ancient thought to Christianity (from Wir Philologen: “The philologists are… ardent slaves of the State, Christians in disguise [and] philistines”). When, then, have we not revised our judgment about Indian philosophy? One reason is the university’s inherent inertia. Once Hegel rejected Indian philosophy and parceled it out to departments of Religion and Indology, Philosophy never reclaimed it, partly because of its own Christian inheritance and partly because of its Eurocentrism. We would rather study Hegel, who needed the resources of the Prussian university system to preserve his fame (“Verein von Freunden des Verewigten”) than look at Indian thought afresh. Indology draws sustenance from this snobbery and contributes to it. By dismantling Indology, The Nay Science lets us reclaim Indian thought; to read it as contemporaneous rather than as a stage of thought that Spirit allegedly bypassed on its way to Germany.

AC: Is there anything further you want to say about the project’s wider consequences, including political ones?

VA: We have seen the problems that result when academics play politics. Consider, for example, Bernard Lewis’s role in the Neocon movement. American intervention in the Middle East was disastrous. Likewise, the Indologists, having failed at an epistemic justification, have turned to politics. It is their last hope for their chairs. The Nay Science did not address this because we are disinterested in politics. But we know the danger power-hungry sophists represent. Instead of sticking to grammar, the Indologists turned to policing and petitioning. They wish to ride a wave of self-righteousness without questioning what they do, whom they serve and how they use or misuse their authority. Why should taxpayers fund them if they do not serve society?

AC: I know you just finished another book, Philology and Criticism. Is that a continuation of this project? You suggested it was at the beginning of the interview. What aspects of The Nay Science are you still working on?

VA: We sometimes call Philology and Criticism The Nay Science: Part 2, even though it is a book of a different nature. The Nay Science presented a genealogy of German Indology. It returned to Indology’s roots to understand its emergence from neo-Protestant theology and its anti-clerical prejudices. The Indologists’ justification has been that Indology is neither theology nor religious studies. It is indebted to neither Romanticism nor Aryanism. It neither supported nor fed into German nationalism. We are simply editors and preservers of texts; we do for Indian texts what classicists did for Greek and Latin texts. We thus had to show that the Indologists did not know textual criticism. Philology and Criticism examines post-critical  Mahābhārata scholarship. It shows that on the pretext of respecting The Mahābhārata’s critical edition the Indologists reintroduced their anti-Brahmanic prejudices (found, for example, in the work of the anti-semite, Christian Lassen). The book contrasts V. S. Sukthankar’s careful philology with the Indologists’ pseudo criticism. It distinguishes between philology as a method, which is needed, and philology as a discipline or a slogan.

I am thinking of Sheldon Pollock, who has never produced a critical edition but argues that the textual practices of non-Western cultures must submit to the tests of “historical self-awareness,” “nonprovinciality” and “methodological and conceptual pluralism” before they can be admitted to the “temple of disciplinarity [sic].” Philology and Criticism shows that Pollock himself made unforced philological errors. One wonders, why make these statements in favor of philology, if you have not mastered the method? Are they not another form of Wissenschaftsideologie, the writing of manifestos for the future university? How much intelligence does it take to write pompous statements? University history is littered with those who made their careers writing them. Husserl’s Vienna Lecture is an example. How did that turn out for Husserl?

AC: Imagining either your younger self or students here at the New School right now, do your experiences as an intellectual post-PhD make you wish you could have told your younger self something?

VA: Do they stay up at night worried about philosophy? Even if there is no prospect of a job, will they still do it? A job is necessary and important but it is not the only thing. The other thing I would say is that the big dream they see as graduate students, the glorious dawning of truth, has a price. You have to read every single thing, struggle your whole life to claim the life of an intellectual. If they are competent—perhaps competent is not the right word—if they can hang on and do the work, there is no greater reward than philosophy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original text of this article has been revised and re-posted to reflect necessary changes made by Vishwa Adluri. Questions can be addressed to nssrcommunications@newschool.edu.

A History of Infrastructure in East Africa

Emma Park Joins The New School’s History Faculty

This June, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta celebrated the opening of a sleek Chinese-built railway that connects the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. The line replaces obsolete rails constructed by the British in 1901, and its $3.2 billion price tag makes it the most expensive infrastructure project in Kenya’s 53-year postcolonial history.

For historian Emma Park, who joins The New School as an Assistant Professor of History this summer after completing her doctoral work at The University of Michigan, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) serves as the most recent example in a long history of infrastructural development projects; and it brings into full relief the complex relationship between technology and politics—or technopolitics—in Kenya. Park’s dissertation examines the history of such large-scale infrastructure projects in East Africa, and she brings to The New School an integrative and interdisciplinary perspective on the region. Working at the intersection of African Studies, the history of technology, and science and technology studies, Park will also complement the department’s strength in capitalism studies.

In a conversation about her research, Park suggested that President Kenyatta has used the new railroad as proof of his effective leadership in the run-up to Kenya’s general election. Kenyatta “hopes to mobilize the ‘successful’ completion of the project as demonstrable evidence that he is, in fact, doing the work of governing by provisioning for his constituents,” she said. Referring to the president’s directive to hasten the railroad’s completion so that its grand opening would precede national elections, Park added, “The politics of infrastructure in Kenya are quite complicated, but they’re not always subtle.”

To help understand the intricacies of infrastructure projects in East Africa—and to consider what they reveal about the interdependence of technology, state power, and capitalism—Park has written about three distinct moments in the last 120 years of Kenyan history. At the core of her dissertation sits this question: “Why has access to infrastructures emerged a key metric or frame by which people understand their relationship to the state?”

To understand the dynamics among capital, state formation, and the politics of belonging, she analyzes British road construction at the turn of the twentieth century, the development of radio networks after World War II, and the recent launch of digital communications and financial services by communications giant, Safaricom.

For Park, these three projects represent specific moments in the history of development as an idea. In the first case, she said that the British East Africa Company was given a mandate to “bring commerce and civilization” to Kenya. In the Post-War Period, the British aimed to advance social welfare by providing access to information. And in the most recent case—in what Park called a “bottom of the pyramid” approach—developers claim that telecommunications and financial services will accelerate and generalize prosperity across Kenya. But Park argues that the long-angle view of development enabled by an exploration of its infrastructures demonstrates these three have much in common, as designers imagined how contact with new technological networks would generate internal transformations in users.

Park uses these case studies to test what she calls the “durability” of several prevailing claims. “Africa has long been positioned—up to the present—as a place without technological expertise,” she said, citing one enduring misconception. Despite the contributions of Kenyan knowledge workers and experts to the development of major technological projects, the state (British and Kenyan alike) has found ways to reclassify and diminish their contributions. “Irrespective of how centrally important these figures were to making infrastructures work,” Park explained, “their labor was constantly devalued.” She further suggested that an understanding of the processes by which corporate and state enterprises have extracted under-compensated but value-generating work in the past clarifies extractive processes in the contemporary moment.

In other words, Park suggested, historical research can help to contextualize what many refer to as uniquely “neoliberal” development interventions. “One of the labors of the project is to say that the devaluation of the everyday expertise of African workers is not unique to a neoliberal vision of development,” she said, “Contemporary projects operating under the banner of value at the bottom of the pyramid are building on a long genealogy.”

Park is excited to integrate these research interests into her pedagogy at The New School, where she will begin by teaching a course on Modern African History this fall. Asked about why she is looking forward to teaching at The New School, Park said, “The University’s commitment to social justice and active participation in politics and political discussion—as well as its encouragement of research that has political purchase or can gain traction in these domains—was very appealing.” She added that she looks forward to contributing to joining a collaborative department that places an emphasis on capitalism studies and interdisciplinary scholarship. “To feel as though my commitment to work between these fields is supported is wonderful,” she said.

“There was no Berlin Wall, and it Never Fell”

Sociologist Julia Sonnevend Joins The New School for Social Research

Media sociologist Julia Sonnevend begins her first book, Stories Without Borders (Oxford), with a provocative opening salvo.

“There was no Berlin Wall,” she writes, “and it never fell.”

Sonnevend, who joins the Department of Sociology at The New School for Social Research this summer, spends the remainder of the book elaborating on the significance of this assertion. In the process, Stories Without Borders contributes to our understanding of how the meaning of events evolves alongside their symbolic representation. Using the fall of the Berlin Wall as a case study, Sonnevend proposes aspects of what she calls “global iconic events.” From there, she analyzes the factors—many of them related to media reportage and representation—that contribute to the transformation of certain events into enduring and compelling stories.

“If you want an event to be remembered over time,” she explained, “you have to turn it into a simple, condensed, universalized myth.”

In the case of the Berlin Wall, mythology elides the complex bureaucratic processes, political maneuvering, tense meetings, and delicate deal-making involved in negotiating the opening of the East German border. As Sonnevend put it, we instead tell each other “a mythical story about the Wall: that it just magically came down. We remember a quick, split-second event, when ordinary people had the power and determination to overcome a seeming permanent division.”

This willingness to neglect the facts of an event’s complicated history in favor of an enchanting (though less accurate) story represents a non-rational element of human behavior that ties together multiple strands in Sonnevend’s research. “I’m interested in the idea that we might be far less rational—far less fact-oriented—than we might imagine ourselves to be,” she said.

Her latest work deals with the concept of charm, which she says has long proven an elusive topic despite its pervasiveness in social life, and which can produce similarly non-rational social responses. “We all know charming people,” she said, “It’s a quality that’s very important in everyday interactions. But it’s very hard to measure, and very hard to describe.”

According to Sonnevend, scholars in fields like international relations have previously asked what it means to have a charming leader, and have long used—alongside journalists—phrases like “charm offensive” to describe diplomatic interactions. Sonnevend explained that she is interested in examining media representations of charm in international relations contexts, but she also wants to understand charm’s everyday social manifestations. At the heart of her current work lie questions about how charm influences individuals, how it differs from charisma, and how it can convince individuals to act in non-rational ways.

Sonnevend arrives at The New School for Social Research from the University of Michigan. She received her doctorate in Communications from Columbia University and previously completed a Master of Laws (L.L.M.) degree at Yale Law School, as well as a J.D. and M.A. in German Studies and Aesthetics at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. Originally from Hungary, Sonnevend brings to the Sociology Department a breadth of research interests in the sociology of media, and a passion for working across disciplinary lines and in different genres of scholarly production. She has already contributed a piece on contemporary borders to Public Seminar.

“Contemporary academia is often very siloed in terms of departments and disciplines,” Sonnevend said, adding that the particular interdisciplinary quality of scholarship at The New School for Social Research was part of what attracted her. Similarly important was NSSR’s progressive history and its openness to active faculty participation in public debate. “I see myself as a combination of an academic and a public intellectual or essayist,” Sonnevend said, “And it seems to me that one can play those roles here at The New School. I am also very much looking forward to contributing to the Journalism & Design program at Eugene Lang College.”

In the 2017-18 academic year, Sonnevend will co-teach a graduate course on media and micropolitics with Jeffrey Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology. She will also offer an undergraduate course on “visual media and society.” She says that she is excited to teach students interested in media and communication across The New School’s divisions.

Photograph cred. István Huszti (Index)

 

Research Matters Turns Two

Believe it or not, Research Matters turns two full years old on July 2, 2017! Spend some time this summer reading stories from the 2016-17 academic year and send us your ideas about what to cover.

Whether you’re interested in radical feminism, heterodox economics, the psychology of voice, the enduring reach of colonialism, the sociology of events, or the philosophy of history (or want to see the latest in faculty publications at our bookshelf), Research Matters presents the best of faculty, student, and alumni work at The New School for Social Research.

Redefining Feminist Scholarship: Nancy Fraser’s Work Celebrated in Faculty-Edited Volume

To celebrate the occasion of Politics Professor Nancy Fraser’s 70th Birthday, Chiara Bottici and Banu Bargu—respectively, Associate Professors in the departments of Philosophy and Politics at The New School for Social Research—collaborated to edit Feminism, Capitalism, and Critique (Palgrave Macmillan). Bringing together scholars from across fields, Bottici and Bargu set out to curate a vital collection of reflections on the trajectory of Fraser’s thought across a career spanning nearly four decades.

The result is a collection of fifteen essays that brings together some of the most prominent names in critical theory. Among them are thinkers who share both a personal as well as a scholarly affinity to Fraser’s work, having been her major intellectual interlocutors. Beyond its personal value, the text offers a full course of philosophical reflection on the key themes governing Fraser’s scholarship—themes that continue to be as relevant as ever today.

As the editors suggest in the introduction, “this book creates a space of dialogue for scholars of diverse disciplines to explore the numerous ways in which a feminist perspective can be mobilized to understand capitalism.” They explain that they intend to integrate multiple voices to provide, “a thorough critique that has as its aim the goal of advancing social justice, and to study what political implications may follow.”

This string of ambitions could serve as a mission statement for Fraser’s scholarship itself, which has evolved considerably over time.

“If you look at her entire body of work, you can see an expansion of the question of feminism in its connection to capitalism, into all other spheres,” said Bottici. She explained that Fraser began as a Marxist feminist, but “broadened the scope of her analysis in order to include redistribution, participation, recognition, and—more recently—race and ecology.” Fraser’s ability to expand the scope of her work has become one source of her enduring influence, and one way to explain her capacity to have inspired multiple generations of feminists.

Promoting Psychological Research at The New School

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.”

Democratizing Economics: the Heterodox Approach of Two NSSR Graduate Students

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.

Histories against Oblivion: Reading Philosopher Dmitri Nikulin’s The Concept of History

Is history just a list with a story?

A fragment of Atlantis by Hellanicus

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

Hecataeus of Miletus Map

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.

 

 

Invisibility: The Heart of (Social) Science, The Hiding Hand

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.

The latest issue of Social Research, edited at The New School’s Center for Public Scholarship and published through a partnership with Johns Hopkins University Press, engages in a multi-disciplinary examination of what makes the concept of invisibility so enduringly compelling. To complement the issue, CPS hosted a two-day conference at The New School as part of the Nth Degree Series. The event invited issue contributors to join scholars, writers, and even an illusionist, to think together about invisibility.

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.”

What is an Event?” A New Book from Sociologist Robin-Wagner Pacifici

“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.